From the sidewalk, T.S. Bar gave a vibrant aura. Open casement windows let out the speaker cringes of jukebox anthems, while 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 letters; ‘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 blue suit.
He removed a grey trilby from his head and revealed scant and wild strands of loose white hair. His eyebrows were high and grey and bushy above wide eyes. A red varicose nose shadowed like a miniature gnomon over lips that stretched across shorn, liver spotted cheeks. He held his face, as if he were forcing a smile amidst a feeling of disgust. The curvature of his long spine and the rigidity of his hips and knees gave his expression great anguish, as he sat down on the bar stool. He had been a tall, lanky fellow in his youth; a body type that his own grandfather once told him, ‘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. Everything was gone and in its place something else. He made a short remonstrative sigh for the progress of time and put a single bony forefinger in the air for the order of a drink.
“Your grandpa is here,” the Linebacker-sized Male Bartender said mockingly to his female co-bartender. They stood together behind the bar in anticipatory and restful stances; for at the moment, not any guest needed a service from them. Business was steady and would only continue so and increase as the night progressed.
The Linebacker-sized Male Bartender looked over the guests like a middle linebacker accessing the offense’s formation. He was tall and stout; with heavy forearms half-covered in rolled sleeves. He carried himself with a jock-cockiness of a short lifetime, so far, spent conquering; an assuredness that resided in his shoulders and kept his standing posture up and forward. As he buried his hands in the wash sink and moved tumblers up and down the brushes, he made cocky, half-smoldered eyes at the woman seated in front of him. The Old Man kept his finger raised in the air; it shook like a hand with a tremor and as his face remained in a stretched distraught mien, the woman seated in front of the bartender, turned her three-vodka-drink-eyes toward him.
“What can I get you, sir?” The Linebacker-sized Male Bartender called over to the Old Man.
The Old Man eased his face down and struggled a crack of a smile.
“Why,” the Old Man said to him. “You look like something of a circus performer with that hair bun atop your head and those arms of yours.”
The Linebacker-sized Male Bartender wiped his hands on a towel tucked into his belt loop. In a low, husky voice, one that took delight in its usage like a baritone Soul singer, said; “I have been known to perform some death-defying acts in my prime. Lots of tight ropes.”
“Is that so?”
“No. What are you drinking?”
“Gin.” The Old Man replied.
The Linebacker-sized Male Bartender furrowed his eyebrows. 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.”
“Just gin.” The Linebacker-sized Male Bartender returned and walked away.
In the group of guests next to the Old Man, there sat a man in his mid-twenties. His hair was a light brown and uncombed, with a wave in front that fell naturally into place. He wore a yellow t-shirt with khaki shorts and worn 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?”
“I’m sorry? Were you talking to me?” The man-boy asked.
“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.”
The Old Man smiled and said, “Oh come 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 Linebacker-sized Male Bartender returned with a neat gin, dressed loosely with an hours-old lime wheel and stir straw, when he saw the confrontation.
“Gentlemen,” he said. “Cool it.”
“I’ve made men out of boys like him,” the Old Man said to him. “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 were translucent; his skin merely a sheen covering for frail bones and blood vessels.
The bartender turned his head slightly in regard of the Old Man. Perhaps in a look of pity. Perhaps in a look of fear. Perhaps in the Old Man he saw his own mortality, his own inevitable decline into elderliness and the societal disregard that may surround his presence as he awaits his own end.
“Are you going to be able to behave yourself?” He asked the Old Man.
The Old Man chortled a brief eruption and said, “Of course not. All the 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 my prime I could handle bottles of gin. This silly glass that holds my gin doesn’t stand a chance to stay full.”
“We’ll see about that,” the Linebacker-sized Male Bartender said as the drink ticket machine beeped and buzzed a paper curl of drink orders.
“Duty calls,” the Old Man said after him.
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 once. 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, he thought. 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. 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 Bartenders. The Linebacker-sized Male Bartender nodded and continued to over-shake a drink in a mixing tin.
The Old Man watched him say something to his co-bartender, a woman 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.
“Gin,” He declared.
“Good choice,” returned the Female Bartender with Bangs.
“Let me ask you something. What do you think of your generation?”
She paused as she poured his gin and looked to the ground before looking at him. “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 all are, all stuck looking at our phones. We all want to make it, but we don’t know how, or what ‘it’ really is.” She handed him his gin. “If you ask me, your generation and the generations before you were the last ones to really get anything out of life.”
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 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 for hours among them with their dogs. 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. Have you have had real Spanish custard? I’m sure you have. So much better than ice cream, isn’t it? Anyway, 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. 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 BS in Sociology, 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 gin here in this silly glass while his eardrums get bombarded with this absolute cacophony you call music.”
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 was drawn to the tall man’s youthful ambivalence. In ambivalence there is confidence, he believed. The Tall One 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 the Bartenders. He needed another drink before the Tall One 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 blurted.
The Tall One smiled broad and said to him, “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 nice gals you could’ve married so they wouldn’t need to be working like this one here.” The Old Man nodded to the Female Bartender with Bangs.
“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. The occasional butt grab from lecherous and plump retirees letting loose with frozen margaritas at vacation bars notwithstanding, 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 that the experience could 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. His mental discussion followed as; “This old man he plays one, he plays knick-knack on my bum? Christ, no. He would most likely need help removing his clothes; he would need help into the bed or couch or whatever structure we’d use to support ourselves, a wheelchair? He absolutely needs a Viagra. I wonder if the warning at the end of the commercials about making sure one’s heart is healthy enough for sexual activity is intended for this old guy? His frailty! Good god that would slow the process down. At this point, he undoubtedly is a bottom. If we even committed to penetration. He certainly is incontinent. The end result would be horrifying. Horrifyingly embarrassing. For both of us, more so for him. I’d have to spend time cleaning something up. And then we would spend the rest of the time talking about the past, which is, let’s be honest, all anyone the old man’s age may be good for.”
“I am not interested chicken hawk.” The Tall One said to the Old Man 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 as he walked between them.
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 quarter-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 blamed her 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 with Bangs 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’s 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?” he thought.
“No,” he said to her 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.”
The Old Man’s fingers trembled around the glass. He continued again without consideration of the bartender’s attention; “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 man walking by, 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 the 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. Words 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 had 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 went and hid in the men’s room across the hall. I listened to his footsteps approach in the hallway, pause, and then a fist make a couple raps on my office door. Oh those raps on my door! They were harmonious. Delightful. They called out to me, ‘here I am ready and willing to fuck you!’ like an eager Haiku. But I couldn’t do it. I listened to his feet shuffle, hesitate and leave the hallway. 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 goddamn summer sausage and, let me tell you, just as painful and throbbing as an open wound, and I just stood there listening to his footsteps. When I was sure he had left, I retreated to a stall and unleashed a furious bout of masturbation. I cried. Like a goddamn baby. What a pathetic sight I must’ve been to the ghosts. When I heard the men’s room door crack open, I’m sure I had a heart attack. I couldn’t breathe. I was paralyzed, absolutely paralyzed, by fear. It was the boy and he called out for me like I was his prey. It was disturbing. Vile. Rancid. 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 wanted to call out for help. Not for me, but for the man in looking at me in the mirror. The man whose face was frozen with fear. He looked wretched. Near death.” The Old Man mustered a couple hoarse laughs. “He looked like he was a fairly soft rabbit clenched in the blood and spittle drenched jaws of a wolf. That boy, the wolf, was not as lustfully-spirited as I had hoped when I made that stupid phone call, but as 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 much, 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.” The Old Man paused and grasped the glass. “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 felt 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 gave up. 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 with Bangs at the other end of the bar, smiling and laughing along with male guests as they cajoled her to take a whiskey shot with them. The Linebacker-sized Male Bartender shook two tins full of ice to a rhythm the old man could not follow. It was the Old Man’s time to leave, the bar was not for him. The youth were clamoring for another drink and to talk among 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 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 a simultaneous uproar of laughter.
The Old Man dropped a crumpled five dollar bill on the bar, smoothed it out and placed the empty glass on top. He returned his grey trilby to his head, stood in slow agony and left.
No one saw him leave.