The bartender’s going on and on: “So, this bus driver, he’s on a quest to hit every red light on the route, and I’m tugging at the strap of a handhold, barely holding on, as it were, as the jolts and barbs of sudden unheralded braking send me stomping off to the crammed pastures of the bus’s south end. And to top it all off, there’s this hooded woman kneeling on the back bench, carrying on in broken English with a German accent, ‘Who vants to tell me some ting personal, some tings embarrazzing about you? Santa Claus es dead. Bury alls of you yous-selves. Who vants to speak wit de lord all mighty and me about it?’ And this heavyset woman in a pink jumpsuit standing next to me is like, ‘Shit. I hate that lady,’ and then moseys off the through the backdoors at the next stop. I’m already annoyed at the day and I’m running way late, and this is what I get.”
“Well, cheers to you and yours.”
Cassie lifts her highball glass to her lips with a lit cigarette still stuck between her fingers, the thready smoke trailing the arc of her drink’s flight. There is something grand and seditious about this act, as if she’s flouting some chump’s idea about decorum while also creating her own luxurious way of being the person who she sometimes drinks to dream up that she is. Another pull from the lights of heaven’s bower, or maybe a recalcitrance buried deep beneath the streetlights. Cassie crams on liquor, quick and heavy, to summon her battered feelings out of the fertilizer and into the flowers. It works every time, and she’s beyond merely grateful for the simplicity of it.
“Don’t see why or why not.”
The bartender nabs her empty and sets up a fresh double Gin & Ginger in front of her.
“Awful combination, that. Don’t know how you stand it.”
“You can get to standing a lot of things with years of trying. This? This is nothing. Easy pickings. Goes down that way too.”
“Larger wonders. Name it and I’ll serve it. The option for each their own personal poison is their affair and privilege. Just like me letting you smoke that cigarette in here…this once. Well. Well. Happy imbibing, madam.”
Cassie winks with one eye and then the next at the bartender as he scoots away to wait on some more pertinent and less impecunious types. She draws out her drink this time, taking less dangerous sips as the gin starts to gush and leave its imprints on her customs and habits. It seems her worst habits flounder and fuss during the day only to get rejuvenated by nightfall; and epilepsy is a family custom, so she tends to stray as far as possible from the inbred fear of it: an elusive tic she on-and-off feels rumbling in her trapeziuses and even sometimes senses all the way down to her ankles. With a few snappy ashes of her cigarette into a repurposed empty beer bottle, she starts in on some real pondering, the warm first gleams of alcohol’s comforting lull upon her.
“We are seams in the pearly deliverance of now’s pleats…or so it seems as I step off this stool into the opulent peeled tones of daylight first streaming into the wake of life in general. Bouts of fortitude serve me well, and I draft a few thoughts up through the winds and runnels of whatever grace I’ve got left over from a bum past. A hypnosis of the heart, welled and undifferentiated, it undergoes, and malingering doubt stubbed with carelessness. Or something like that. Anything’d be better. I’ll never forget the way the light’s streaming through that open door, there, like my guardian angel’s itching to make an appearance, probably wishing she could retire after what I’ve been putting her through as of late. Shit. Getting pitchy in here already. Enough to be buried in.”
When her head gets this way there’s little she can or wants to do about it. It’ll just keep carrying on whether she likes it or not, and, for now, she’s enjoying the respite it offers from the scene in this shitty little bar that she comes to because, well, she just does. A few cockroaches go about their business of staying alive on the tiles below her, scampering off as she taps her shoes on the floor a few times.
“Wasting time. Just wasting more and more time. What a damn drag it’d be if I let myself care.”
She swings around on her stool to face the bar’s two tables and the framed pictures on the wall above them. Elbows now resting on the bar top, she leans back and ganders the scenery.
“I don’t mind old pictures, older memories I’ve never known, there, all them mugs spread out across the wall in cheap frames. All gussied up and sharp, plain and pristine in black-and-white daydreams. People who knew how to wear their clothes properly. Not like these saps nowadays…”
With longer eyes and shorter sight, her head floats lighter and lighter as she preens her attitude to a tilted stir. There goes her hands in her hair again, and soon she’s sucking on a few strands like a stalk of hay. She’s cracking her toes one by one. She’s manipulating her better judgement to just stop at a few strong ones and go. But where? Where does one go to?
It’s a strange question. More of an urging than a prompt.
“I wish I had more pockets for all this ephemera and shrapnel.”
Realty’s imminence cracks her back to it. The thoughts in her head go poof and implode with a sputtering whisper.
She thinks of all the disappearing places, people run out of town by greedy real-estate speculators, or left to fend for themselves living in tents below the freeway. There is no space left to just be yourself in, but you can spend 15 bucks on a free-range spatchcocked rotisserie chicken. The local bars are all being replaced with trendy mixologist social clubs that cater to the bridge-and-tunnel weekend crowds. That good old hobble and stomp of The City no longer follows wherever you go. It’s been replaced with the sound of cranes and jackhammers and bulldozers. All the safe havens have been turned into Idiot-Talk Zones where people say things like, “I’ll be inside you,” about a city they’ll soon be jetting off to between swiping images on their phone and sipping caramel macchiatos under umbrellas on parklets. There is no here left to be there in.
This is the place where she is. Nothing to be done about it. She turns back around on her stool to face the bar again. The grime and dourness of all those years soaked and yearning, now gone, split for other more caring parts. Nobody here left to check her pulse, or take in the garbage cans…or call her “Sweet Stuff,” and offer to buy her another, maybe light her next cigarette for her, and tell her, “The best gesture of my brain is less than your eyelids’ flutter,” or that, just this once, everything’s going to be okay.