From the sidewalk, T.S. Bar gave a vibrant aura. Open casement windows let out the speaker cringes of hip bands crafting jukebox anthems for a generation of sing-a-longs; bar chatter and laughter and shrieks of greetings mingled with the clink and crash of empty bottles into trash cans. The chalk board sign by the door read in colorful, loopy writing; ‘Jack & Johnny & Jim $4.’ The Old Man ambled slowly by and stopped. He read the sign and looked into the bar. He remembered the space as the former location of a malt shop diner he frequented in his youth. He went inside.
Nobody concerned themselves with his presence. He was old enough to be their grandfather. And for some, their great-grandfather. Just an old man wearing a faded green tweed suit.
He removed a grey and worn trilby from his head and revealed scant and wild strands of stark white hair. His hair played in accent to the expression that wrought across his face; an expression of subdued shock. His eyebrows were high and bushy above wide eyes. A red varicose nose that shadowed like a miniature gnomon over lips that stretched across shorn, liver spotted cheeks as if he were forcing a smile amidst a feeling of disgust. He sat down in an open bar stool, while the curvature of his long spine and the rigidity of his hips and knees gave his expression great anguish. He had been a tall, lanky fellow in his youth, a body type that will fell a man at the joints. He nodded toward the group next to him; they were young and engaged amongst themselves in conversation. It was too important to stop and acknowledge a stranger.
The Old Man observed the space, greatly changed since its time as a malt shop diner. The walls, once white and decorated with framed photographs of smiling faces of the owner’s friends and family, were now drenched in a flat black paint to the high ceiling, also black. Dimly lit light fixtures gave the space an evening feel day round. Vinyl booth tables were replaced with high top polished metal tables. What was once the area for the colorful Wurlitzer jukebox, for years hugged by eager hands as the coins let fall into the clinking chasm depository, allowing for the excited push of a button and then the entering into an euphonic world of horns and piano accompaniment for a singer spinning lyrics of love and romance, was now an area of service to facilitate the preparation and delivery of beverages to the thirsty crowd. The bar top remained were the counter had been, though what was once an off-white laminate counter, topped with tin napkin dispensers and glass vinegar and ketchup bottles was now a lacquered slate bar-top and bare save for the crumpled and disintegrating cocktail napkins below the raised and lowered glasses and bottles of the seated guests. As well, the mechanisms of diner cookery, griddle and deep fryer and broiler and all, removed and replaced with back-lit black mirrored shelves to hold troves of liquor bottles and custom glassware. The Old Man made a quiet and short sigh out of remonstration with the progress of time and put a single bony forefinger in the air for the order of a drink.
“Your grandpa is here,” the male bartender said mockingly to his female co-worker. They stood together behind the bar in anticipatory and restful stances, for at the moment, not any one guest needed a service from them. Business was steady and would only continue so and increase as the night progressed.
The male bartender over-looked the crowd of guests like a middle linebacker accessing the offense’s formation. He was once a linebacker as well, injuring out his sophomore year at a local small division college. He was tall and stout, with heavy forearms he always wore half-covered in rolled sleeves and carried himself with a jock-cockiness that guided his life. He was self-sure in a way that gave him confidence with any task outlaid before him. He was sure he could do it; if he made a decision he was sure it was the correct one. The assuredness emitted from him in such a way, sensually, that women and men uncontrollably yearned themselves toward him, like a scent of fresh baked pie on a windowsill to the olfactory senses of the wandering starved. He turned down all men, finding their come-ons an endless source of humor, while denying few women except than the obscenely drunk or obscenely unattractive. He made a mental goal years ago when he first began bartending, to exist as a lay man, as he called it, somewhere in the realm of Wilt Chamberlain’s supposed tally.
“What can I get you, sir?” he called over to the Old Man.
The Old Man relished in the veiled prestige the bartender showed him. He found the bartender’s ducktail beard and long slick hair pulled into a knotted bun atop his head to look something of a European circus performer he’d seen as a child. If he wasn’t performing those death-defying trapeze routines, then he looked ridiculous. Nevertheless, the Old Man yearned for the bartender’s approval.“Gin.” The Old Man replied.
The bartender seemed rattled. As if no one that frequented the bar ever ordered just a gin.
“London Dry? Plymouth? Navy Strength? In a Collins or gimlet or with tonic, perhaps?”
“No.” The Old Man replied. “Just gin and some water.”
In the group that sat next to the Old Man, there was a man in his mid-twenties. His hair was a light brown and uncombed, with a wave in front that fell naturally in place. He wore a yellow t-shirt with shorts and worn, brown leather top-siders. The man appeared stuck in a perennial stage of boyhood. The Old Man gave the man-boy a look of appreciation. He leaned over a little to him and said, “Are you even old enough to be in here?”
The man-boy looked to the Old Man as if he did not hear him, but clearly he did.
“I’m sorry? Were you talking to me?”
“Indeed,” the old man said. “I said, are you old enough to be in here.”
The man-boy bristled at the question.
“Yeah.” He said sharply. “But I’m not so sure you are young enough to be in here.”
Smiling, the Old Man said, “Oh now, there’s no need for the attitude,” and reached over to pat him on the inner thigh.
He stood quickly from his stool and pushed the Old Man’s hand away.
“Excuse me, old man. Watch yourself.”
The bartender returned with a neat gin and water when he saw the confrontation.
“Gentlemen,” he said. “Cool it.”
“I’ve made men outta boys like him,” the Old Man said to the bartender. “He should know when to respect his elders.”
“He’s a touchy old weirdo.” The man-boy said, as he walked away.
The Old Man’s dry lips closed firmly as he reached a shaking hand toward the gin. The dark spots on his hand seemed translucent to the bartender; his skin merely a sheen covering for frail bones and blood vessels.
The bartender took pity upon the old man, as he realized death is as nearer to him as anyone in the bar. All the more reason he did not want to serve him another round.
“Are you going to be able to behave yourself?” The bartender asked the Old Man, thinking, as well, that he may have wandered away from an assisted living facility.
The Old Man laughed to himself. The question gave him a sense of pride. He chortled a brief eruption and said, “Of course not. All you young fellers in here. How else will I keep up?” The bartender stood in a mild defensive stance with one eye on the rest of the bar. He didn’t hear much of the Old Man’s response.
“That’s your only one, until I think you can handle another.”
The Old Man laughed again. In his prime he could handle bottles of gin. The silly old-fashioned glass that held his current gin didn’t stand a chance to stay full.
“We’ll see about that,” he said to himself mostly.
With the drink tickets curling in a flurry of buzzing, the bartender left the Old Man alone.
“Duty calls,” the Old Man said after him, as if they had been engaged in purposeful banter.
In his seat at the corner of the bar nearest the door, the Old Man observed the narrow expanse. The young adults he watched had been kids not too long ago. While he felt at their age he and his generation had been carefree, he regarded these boys and girls to be careless; a dangerous way of going about life. To be carefree was to be selfless and positive with an eye toward the future; to be careless was to be self-centric and entitled. He felt sorry for them. They are going to have a hard time of it, if they never understand the value of forging a future for others. If the lives they live are but as boys and girls seeking pleasure and fun on a playground built by others.
“Your heroes are weak,” the Old Man blurted. The bartender glanced at him. A jukebox song fired up and startled the Old Man. It was something new and loud. Electric throughout. Bass pulses mixed with a high pitched singer. His thoughts dissipated into the need for another gin. He raised his silly glass and shook it toward the bartender. The bartender nodded and continued to over-shake a Mescal and basil drink.
The Old Man watched the bartender say something to his co-worker, a girl with dark bangs, then nod in his direction. He felt an urge to tell her that she should be keeping a house for her man. She looked much too nubile to be a bartender.
She walked over to him. She wore black. Her t-shirt sleeves were cropped to display an upper left arm tattoo of vines and revolvers and lions’ paws. Tattoo words and arrows dotted both forearms. She wore a thin leather corset on the outside of her t-shirt. Her lips were drenched in a shade of cherry-red. It was a contrast to him, to be a woman with tattoos and in red lipstick. He reserved lipstick as an additive to aid in a woman’s beauty.
“What’cha drinkin?” She asked. Casually. Cool. Like he was a friend. Formality is dead, he thought. He wanted to smack her, let her know his name and that he was to be addressed as ‘sir.’ But he needed another gin.
As she poured, he asked her what she thought of her generation.
“We got the shaft,” she said. “We’re in the middle of a future that can’t figure out where it wants to go. Everything keeps expanding, the population, debt, natural disasters and here we are, all stuck looking at our phones and pointless video clips. We all want to make it, but we don’t know how, or what ‘it’ really is.” She handed him his gin in the silly glass. “If you ask me, your generation and the generations before you did the most good.”
She poured herself a little shot of gin and clinked his glass and said, “Salud.”
The Old Man nodded.
“My mother’s Spanish,” she said to the Old Man. His seemingly frozen look of surprise eased a little as she engaged him. “Most expect me to drink tequila, which isn’t Spanish at all, but Mexican, which also makes me wonder if most people assume being half Spanish just means I am half the language and they don’t have any idea where Spain is. I’ve been there, once. When I was a child. My mother’s family had a place in the country. I remember long rolling hills lined with grapes. I ran breathlessly among them with their dog. And at dusk I smelled the sweet custards baking in the oven. I was so giddy in anticipation of cracking the custard’s crust with my spoon and the warm sweet smoothness was like nothing I’d ever tried. I cried and cried so much when we returned home, that my parents took me to get an ice cream cone. I threw it on the ground because it wasn’t custard. Oh I was such a little brat. I’d love to live there someday. On the Mediterranean side. Valencia maybe.” She looked down, kept her gaze at nothing specific, lost in thought of her memory of Spain. She raised her head and looked around the bar again. “You asked me what I thought of my generation, well take a look around. This is it.” She poured herself another half shot of gin. “I have a Sociology degree, so I’m prone to observing groups of people. I’m just over Americans, you know?” The Old Man perked his eyebrows up as if he had recognized an aghast statement. But he could hardly hear her. “I just want to live somewhere else for a while. Meet new people, new customs, new food.” She gazed off again to other guests around the bar. “And I’m not getting lucky with any of these kids, that’s for sure.” She clinked his glass again, said, “Salud,” and downed her half shot. “From one gin drinker to another. That one’s on me. Across the generational divide.”
The Old Man stared at her with his eyes wide, he didn’t know if she anticipated a response from him as he had hardly heard what she had said.
“My generation and the generations before me, we built this country. We worked toward a future America we could never imagine, but we knew had to exist. A future where an old man like me can get a neat gin here in this silly ass glass and his eardrums can get bombarded with this racket music you have going on in here.”
Her eyes drifted away from him, as a pack of happy hour start-ups crowded to the bar behind him. He wanted to chide her again, for her attentive-less service, when he was drawn to the man leading the pack for drink orders. The leader was tall and modern-looking. The Old Man saw a younger version of himself in him; in a youthful ambivalence that allowed for confidence in decisions for his future. He wore a fresh hair matte combed left from a sharp part line, a tight pastel gingham button-up tucked into slim-fit slacks that cuffed just before the tops of tan wing tips. He envied him.
The Old Man shook his glass again at her. He needed another drink before the tall leader came near him.
The Tall One leaned into the bar, placing an elbow on the bar-top in an effort to be the next to order.
“I love coming in here and looking at all the pretty ones.” The Old Man said aloud.
The Tall One, smiled broad and said to the old man, “You come in here often?”
“Well when I was your age, this was Fred Zany’s. Best malt and jukebox on the block.” The Old Man’s speech became hurried; like he was a child telling the teacher about what he did during summer break.
“Yes. You could walk in here with a dollar and have a real nice day. Listen to Frankie and Perry. You boys would have met some real nice gals you coulda married so they wouldn’t need to be working like this one here.” The Old Man nodded to the bartender.
“Is that so?” said the Tall One; now indulging the Old Man out of sheer nicety and an aim for a quick conversational exit.
“Oh yeah, I picked up my fair share of dames, that’s for sure. But, of course, I didn’t want any of them.”
“Whys that?” asked the Tall One after he made an order for his co-worker clan of chilled Gold Cuervo shots and domestic bottles.
“Because they didn’t do it for me. Now a boy like you, that’ll turn my head around.”
The Tall One curiously smiled. He had encountered numerous advances from both sexes in his life; typically ones within his age group. But notwithstanding, the occasional butt grab from lecherous and plump retirees letting loose with frozen margaritas at vacation bars, he had never been set upon and vaguely flirted with by an elderly man. The Tall One considered himself something of an experimental libertine; as he did not shy away from experiences of the body if it meant the experience were to be something new, different, and otherwise an experience that can be built upon in the same way a scientist may conduct multiple experiments to achieve a deeper understanding of a thing or an event. The Tall One briefly considered the Old Man in bed. The Old Man would most likely need help removing his clothes; help into the bed or couch or whatever structure they’d use to support themselves; a Viagra (this was the glaring obviousness and he wondered if the warning at the end of commercials about making sure one’s heart is healthy enough for sexual activity was intended for the Old Man); his frailty would slow the process down, and he undoubtedly would be the bottom and his ability to do so would be greatly hindered by age, let alone any incontinence issues which surely plague him and the end result would lead to a horrifyingly embarrassing situation for both, more so the old man, and they would spend the rest of the experience talking about the past, which is, as the Tall One thought through the potential experience, all anyone the Old Man’s age may be good for.
“I am not interested chicken queen.” The Tall One said to him as he handed the tequila shots to his co-workers.
“This guy felt up my inner thigh when he walked in,” said the man-boy from earlier as he returned from the bathroom and behind the Old Man and around the Tall One, as the bar crowded with more people.
The Tall One looked at the Old Man. He made his long arms into crude wings, flapped them and crowed, “Ca-Caw! Ca-caw!” The Old Man had no idea what he meant by it.
The man-boy returned to his place at the bar, and moved his stool a few inches further away from the Old Man. In the bathroom, the man-boy used the stall to sit down and urinate so he could privately look over a series of break-up texts he’d been engaged in for the better part of a week. He was twenty-six, an age that reminded him of a John Mayer lyric about being in a mid-life crisis, which he felt was in his midst. The girl who had dumped him was the third in as many years. She, like the others, could not get past his desire to wake up late and dress himself with the first t-shirt pulled from the floor. How he began his day with a bowl of Fruity Pebbles and an hour of playing video games. Each girlfriend had asked him what he desired from his future, each response he gave was the same shoulder shrug. To them, he seemed content with existing. “Boys without ambition,” read a text from the last girlfriend, a creative for an ad agency, “fill the basements of America. Women want a man with a drivetrain like a Corvette. They don’t need to be started to know what it is capable of doing.” The man-boy’s response was, “Corvettes are for douchebags with little dicks. And you don’t want a man with ambition you want a man that can understand your bad metaphors.” Among conversation at the bar, the man-boy blames her faults for the break-up; she was shallow, petty, and seeking a man of established wealth. “Typical,” he said as he downed a shot of Jameson and followed it with a swig from a can of Pabst. “I’m just not into all that. I am laid back. I’m not in this rat race to win something. She had this, serious look on her face all the time. It was annoying. I just want a woman with a happy face.”
The female bartender caught the Old Man staring at the man-boy.
“You’re not in the right place for your kind of action.” She said to him as she set freshly washed pint glasses into the bar back shelf.
“Is that so?” The Old Man bristled.
“You need a different scene.”
The Old Man shook the empty gin glass and pushed it on the bar toward her. “What can I do? Where do I go to get what I need? Far easier for me to come into a place like this, grab a couple thighs, see what I get, than it is hanging around the funny bars. I’m too old for that. These boys in bars make me feel young again.”
She pulled a bottle of well gin from the rack at her waist and filled his glass to the mid-line.
“I could give you a list of places you can check out young men, if that’s what you’re into.” She spoke without looking at him, as the crowd of guests increased upon the bar like a wave of clumsy soldiers pressing onward around a castle’s moat. The clamor of conversations grew to a near roar, as another song hit the speakers in a calamitous flurry of fuzzy bass tones and squeaking reverb. The Old Man saw the bar crowd react to the song in head nods and bobs and raised eyebrows as if it were a trained response like Pavlov’s dogs. “Hear this noise, react this way.” He thought. To his surprise he saw no one dance. In his time, the right song got boys and girls out of their seats for a quick hop around the room. What good is a song if it doesn’t make you dance?
“No,” he said to the female bartender while she took orders from standing guests. She could not hear him, as he spoke as if they were in a quiet room together. He failed to see her also, to know that she was not paying him attention, as he kept his gaze into the neat gin.
“I don’t think I’ll need your help, sweetie. I can get along just fine on my own. I’ve been doing it now for years. I can tell you though, if I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t hide. It’s too much of a dark place when you hide. I’m not sure if the shame is from hiding myself from the world or from who I am and what I’ve done. Probably a little bit of both, I imagine. When I was at university, I used to sit up in my office at night and look down on a payphone there by the sidewalk. If I saw a young guy walking through I’d ring down to the payphone and tell him how hot he made me feel. I’d tell them all sorts of things and what I wanted them to do to me and want I wanted to do to them. Sometimes I’d ring the girls too. Just to see if it made me feel any sort of way. It never did. Those girls though, they played along far better than the boys did, that’s for sure. If only those fathers knew how naughty their little daughters could be when they send them off to college. I only ever had one of those boys convinced to come up and see me. He made me stop what I was saying and said, “Man, are you serious?” And I didn’t know what to say, so I laid it on thicker than I ever had. Just things I’d never said before. Cock and ass and fuck. I had never said fuck before, can you believe it? Here I was a grown man calling down to a payphone asking boys if I can touch them and I never said, ‘fuck.’ When he repeated it back to me, that word and that he would do it, I told him where he could find me. I got so nervous when I saw him head for the door, I hid in the men’s room. I listened to his steps in the hallway approach, pause, make a couple knocks on my office door and then walk back to the stairwell. I couldn’t do it. It was the most lecherous moment of my life, as I stood there, heart pounding, ear to the men’s room door, an erection the size of a saucisson and as painful and throbbing as an open wound, and I just stood there waiting. When I was sure he had left, I retreated to a stall and unleashed a furious bout of masturbation. I cried. Sobbed so terribly down my face and my shirt. When I heard the men’s room door crack open, I nearly had a heart attack. I couldn’t breathe. The boy called out for me like I was his prey. It was quite disturbing. He called me every foul named curse he could. I hadn’t latched the stall door in time as he swung it open and caught me with my scorched red pecker in my hand. I could see my face across the men’s room in the mirror above the sinks as he yanked me from the stall. I looked dreadfully afraid. My face was contorted so wretchedly I wanted to call out for help, not for myself but for the person in the mirror. I pitied him. God’s son returning home too soon. He looked like he was a fairly soft rabbit in the spittle and blood dripping jaws of a wolf. That boy, the wolf, was not as lustfully-spirited as I had hoped, but maliciously callous as I had feared. As I had always feared. The results and reactions of my exposition of who I am to the world. The censure, the violence, the degradation. I feared it more than death, actually. That boy, that Wolf exposed it all to me in one grand swing of his fists, kicks of his boot. Spitting curses of his mouth. When he left me half nude and bloody on the floor, I cursed God for all of it. The way I was, the choices I made, the vengeful, evil boy he put in the path of the payphone. I cursed him so, I thought I was bound to see him soon; or a version of him anyway. I had a brief image, while lying on that cold tile of the men’s room floor, that when I arrived to the eternal, I’d sit and wait as if anticipating a job interview or a bank loan approval, but God would chose to not take a meeting with me, rather send an associate to regretfully inform me of my eternity. These moments of chaos provide the silliest of dreams. Truly, I only had myself to blame. Making phone calls like that. Inviting a stranger to my office. When the boy returned with a mop, I screamed and squirmed around like a wind-ravaged lust-monger of the Second Circle. I felt then there was nothing I could do, but receive the punishment. The boy was an extension of Minos and the punishment just. I deserved the fury of the Wolf and I wanted it to happen. I apologized out loud during the course of it. I repeated ‘I’m sorry, Lord.’ Over and over again. Such a pitiful site I must’ve been to the ghosts.”
The Old Man picked up the gin with a shaking hand and drank it down in one movement. He looked up to see the female bartender at the other end of the bar, smiling and laughing along with male guests cajoling her to take a whiskey shot with them. The male bartender shook two tins full of ice to a rhythm the old man could not follow. The bartender looked at him and the empty glass. He could sense the man’s scorn in pouring him another gin. It was his time to leave, the bar was not for him. The youth were clamoring for another drink and to talk amongst themselves and to listen to their music. The Old Man would suppress his urges and leave. The man-boy talked loudly to his friends, his drunkenness slurred his speech; he was going to send his ex-girlfriend another mean text. Out in the crowd of people, the Old Man could see the top of the Tall One’s head, as it moved to emphasize the anecdote to which the co-workers reacted in simultaneous laughter.
The Old Man dropped a crumpled five dollar bill on the bar, smoothed it out just slightly and placed the empty glass on top and left.
No one saw him leave.