I sit in a bar with Horace Abbas, listening to some Johnny Cash wannabe and his harmonica pal sing the blues while we down over-priced Indian Pale Ale after Indian Pale Ale. I've driven to
meet with him in this place, and the hour is getting late, but there's no real
reason to turn back, so we swallow more beer and continue to chat. I lecture
about the declining fortunes of America
literature; he humors me and talks baseball, fretting about the Reds. We smoke
in-between drinks; I feel like a new person, one fit for this world of instant
information. Billie Holiday plays after the set, setting the mood. I look
around at the young children with their messy hair and skinny builds and mumble
strange things into my glass as Abbas tells me that '95 is the year for the
Reds, that Cincinnati
will come out on top. The barman has a Ramones T-shirt on that is distended by
his fat belly. He gave me a snarky reply when I asked if he had any good beers.
"No, they all suck," he said, large framed glasses sitting on the
edge of his beak-like nose. Of course, it was a stupid question—I have a habit
of asking stupid questions—but foolish queries do not necessarily demand
sarcastic replies. "We are all stupid," says Horace, sneering like he
always does, like someone who knows a dirty secret about everyone in the world,
"We have stupid passions. We have stupid professions. We occupy ourselves
by drinking and fornicating and talking about professional sports. I'm dumb,
you're dumb, that bartender is fat and stupid. This isn't news to anyone,
William." On his glass, I can see the smears left by his lips. Horace has
a mustache like a cowboy or a homosexual porn star, and when he moves his lips,
it slithers up and down, a furry black caterpillar. Our world views are very
different, and as he says, we have little to discuss but stupid things.
"We're all moving deathward, you know," continues Horace, his curly hair falling into his black eyes. "That's why there is sarcasm in the world. That's why we busy ourselves with inconsequential distractions. Too much focus on the preciousness of our time only depresses us. We think about how we've failed our nascent dreams, our adolescent hopes, surrendered our presidential ambitions. We think about how little time there could possibly be left. A passing car veers off the road. A water-heater explodes. Somebody drops a piano and you're a spot on the concrete, distilled into your essence, revealed to be only torn meat and cracked bone. It's all too much for the death-fearing animal, so we feign ignorance, we pretend to have no knowledge of our impending death. That's why we're assholes and idiots. There's a bitterness we are only vaguely aware of that clouds all of our actions."
"I think the bartender may have heard you call him fat and stupid. He's not coming in our direction."
"Someone has to tell him, make him aware of it. He acts as though that Ramones T-shirt fits him. Why would you wear a shirt like that? It looks like he's on the third trimester."
"Maybe it's not a spare tire. Maybe he actually is pregnant. With an alien."
"I hope it bursts out and does a man about town right here on the bar surface."
Horace is always in-between jobs. Half-Arab, half-American, he was my college roommate. Although he spent three years working toward a degree in electrical engineering, he dropped out halfway during his fourth year, estranging himself from his family. He's been a carpenter, a construction worker, a bookstore owner, a jazz critic for the Cincinnati Enquirer. I don't ask what he's doing now; the jobs have been getting seedier and Horace has been less willing to discuss his work. He is tall and handsome, speaks without an accent, and makes friends easily despite his penchant for speaking his mind.
A group of girls enters and Horace calls out to them, and two of them walk over and embrace my friend. They are younger than us, pretty, full of youth and the desire to get wasted. Horace introduces me to Jennifer, a blonde with a long face, and Adeline, who looks Vietnamese or something similar, and they sit down with us while their friends head for the bar. Horace has a roaring grin now; he comes alive in the presence of women. He toasts them, raising his beer, singing a drunken ditty that would be filthy if one could understand the lyrics emitting from his slurred, booming speech. Adeline has his arm and is leaning into him, laughing. Horace has spent time in
Spain and is full of stories and
songs and curse words. I sink back into myself as the girls return with shots
of a sweet liqueur that goes down easily. I don't know any of these people and
consequentially have a hard time finding words to speak. Horace speaks enough
for the both of us, and the girls chatter around him like birds, interrupting
one another in their high-pitched voices. An image of a peacock surrounded by
songbirds comes to me, and this bright fowl in the middle has a bushy mustache.
I laugh to myself like a crazy person. Cold air comes out of the vent beneath
my feet. Through the glass outside, figures move without shape like black
billowing clouds, transient wisps of beings.
"They're a cult!" Horace yells suddenly, banging his fist onto the table. "Any couple that drives the same make and model of vehicle is part of some secret society devoted to erasing any trace of the individual. It's not normal behavior. I bet their children have the same haircut, wear the same t-shirt. Their dog probably looks like them. Dogs are reflections of their owners. Watch the dog. See what it's burying under the flowerbed."
I don't know what he's talking about, but the girls do. It is easy to forget the presence of a short, stocky man of mild manners when distracted by the charms of one who is tall, dark, and good-looking. Unlike Horace, I have no stories to tell. The night before, I spent an hour probing my testicles, trying to reassure myself that what I was feeling on my right ball was not, in fact, a tumor, but a normal part of my anatomy. Do I tell them this story? Do I tell them of my unrequited love for Miss Mendez? Do I tell them about the dumpster and the graveyard and the thing that comes slithering out of the ground? I nod and laugh and sip my drink. Horace has the stage, and he is a great entertainer. There is no need to speak.
"Tell them, tell them, Will, that this is true! Did I not used to roam the dorms clad only in a pair of leopard skin briefs? I would walk past the rooms, giving my best impression of Pavarotti, stopping in the doorways of the prettiest girls, asking for requests. It was a mistake to let me into a co-ed dormitory. I had a machine libido then; some say that I still do."
They all look at me, so I raise my eyebrows and my glass, confirming the story without speaking. There is no part for me to play in this drama other than that of the silent spectator. I get up and head toward the restroom, wondering how to make my exit without inciting a wave of protestations from Horace. The restroom smells like bar restrooms do, a stickiness emitting from the all services. On the stall door, I examine the artistry, comparing the drawings of crude copulation with those that litter the stall doors of my high school, and conclude that the children generally display more proficiency and a better eye for realism, despite their unfamiliarity with the subject of representation. I flush the toilet with the edge of my sleeve, pausing to watch my waste swirl down into a netherworld of slime and sewage. Who knows what it is like down there—I can see Horace lecturing about how we take too much for granted—because I have never seen a sewer system. I don't know that such systems actually exist.
I walk out and pass our table, patting Horace on the left shoulder as I make for the doorway, not giving him enough time to speak.