Monday for Saddies, Ann-Margaret and the Universe
I walk into the bar, a real dive, just like I need. The place smells like a mixture of pine cleaner and spilled beer; the walls are covered in a dark paneling from the 60s or earlier, the kind our parents had in their basements. This paneling, however, looks like it's seen its share of shame, fights, sex, maybe murders. There are pictures on the walls, but they are in those dime store frames where the flimsy metal corners don't really line up, and the pictures within are edging out, but they’ll never fall out. Probably been like that for 30 years. They are pictures cut from magazines, it looks like. Ann-Margaret has a space all her own above the only booth in the small place.
I eye the empty booth for myself. I know how it feels with its slashed, fake leather seats, scarred table top, a patch of stuffing bulging out along the crest of its lumpy back. Yeah, that’s my booth, all right; that should be my picture above it, not Ann-Margaret’s, like it’s been waiting for me to find it. I look at it and then the bar, which is wide and wraps toward the back. Twelve stools, maybe ten. Only four are taken.
I look at the booth again. My booth. Then the bar. I’m stuck in place. Ann-Margaret calls to me.
Sit here, sweetheart, she says to me, a giggle in her voice. The picture, though askew, is from the opening scene of Bye Bye Birdie. I can’t tell if the dress is gold or yellow from the faded magazine cut-out, but her arms are down, palms open in supplication; even at a crooked angle, Ann-Margaret’s eyes are speaking to me.
Come on over here, sweetheart. Come sit with me.
I turn my head from her. I choose the bar and I leave one stool between me and this guy wearing an expression like someone shot his mother a year ago and he hasn't gotten over it. Long hair, hanging down in sweaty strands, face low, his hand wrapped around a Corona like someone might steal it. I try not to catch his eyes. He might look back, and I’m not here for conversation, even if I'm curious as hell what the eyes of a man who looks this sad from the profile would look like from the front. Instead, I order a Jack and Coke from the bartender.
"Soda and ice?" he asks me.
"Yes. Soda. And ice," I say.
"Lots just want the Jack,” he tells me. “They just say Coke 'cause they think they should, like it's code.”
"No," I tell him. "I'll take ice and Coke in my Jack."
He doesn't smile as he makes my drink and slides it to me. I put a twenty on the bar and notice the surface is nearly covered in carved names and initials. Right in front of where I'm sitting someone took the time to carve out a large heart with the epitaph R.I.P MAMA inside of it. I wonder if the guy next to me scratched it. I steal a glance at him and think he would have been more of a Ma or a Mom than a Mama kind of guy.
I sip my drink. It’s perfect. After the day, hell the week, I've had, this crappy bar is more than perfect.
Surprisingly, I’m pleased by the complete absence of music in the place. The other four people at the bar are not speaking to each other and the bartender is looking at his phone.
“Quiet today," I say. The bartender looks up at me.
"Sucks," is his only answer. "I'm down to two nights a week here and these few afternoons. I couldn't get a tip in here today if you were a rabbi."
I laugh. He laughs with me. "Never been here before. Is this usual?"
"Tuesday nights we do trivia. That’s busier. Fridays are good for a happy hour, but it always ends by 8:30ish. The best night here is Sunday, believe it or not."
"Why Sunday?" I don't know why I'm engaging him in conversation. I came in here to drink and sulk, and yet here I am, unable to help myself. It's like even I can't stand the deep quiet.
Before the bartender can answer me, Mr. Ma or Mom answers. "Sunday's karaoke. And two-dollar Pabst."
I look at him. Sad as he looked from the back, he's quite handsome from the front. The eyes have a darkness to them, but not an angry darkness— a sort of ho-hum, stuck in the doldrums darkness— like the difference between a brown-out and a blackout.
"Sounds fun," I say.
"It is. I usually come," he says.
"What's your go-to karaoke?"
"Like there's another," he answers, and sips his Corona.
"This is Jayce. He does drag at Mira-Mira over on 36th Street."
Explains the hair, maybe.
“Never been to Mira-Mira. Any good?" I just sort of throw that one out there for whoever wants to answer because I'm not sure who I'm really talking. Honestly, I don’t even know why I’m talking, but it suddenly feels better than the alternative. I glance back at my booth and see the white tuft of stuffing in the dimness of the bar like a surrender flag. Ann-Margaret’s outstretched hands seem to be pointing at it.
The bartender puts his phone down and pulls three shot glasses out from a shelf below. He fills them with something red.
“It’s fun. And Jayce is very good when he's not all Eeyore,” he says, pointing to Jayce with the top of the bottle.
I like this bartender.
"I'm Vince," I say. I shake the bartender's hand. He tells me his name is Phil. I like that he's not Philip.
I turn to Jayce. "Hi, Jayce. Nice to meet you."
Jayce raises his Corona instead of shaking my hand. "You, too. I guess."
Phil laughs. "Jayce is having a rough couple of days, aren't you Jayce?"
Jayce looks up at him, slides the empty bottle forward and points at it, then at himself, as if he had to gesture across a crowded room rather than just ask for another across the two-foot distance from his face to Phil's.
"Yeah. But isn't that why you came in here, too, on a Monday, Vince? Isn't that why anyone would sit in this shithole on a Monday at 2..." he taps the top of his phone..."2:23 on a Monday afternoon?" Jayce says, taking the new beer.
"Hey!" Phil says.
"Oh, it's not a shithole?"
Phil just shrugs.
Jayce slugs his beer and turns to me. He really is good looking. Almost pretty. I watch as Phil places the shots before us and then pours one for himself.
"To shitholes," he says, and we all shoot down the awfully sweet red liquor. It burns both my throat and my eyes. Then, like it was a syrupy elixir, Jayce opens up.
"Yeah, it's been a rough few days. My boyfriend left me. I was working two jobs to put his ass through grad school, doing drag for shit money and tips, and then, out of nowhere, bye. Bye. That was it. Came home to find him packing and telling me he took a fucking job in Atlanta. Dream job. We weren't really going to work out anyway, didn't I think? Yeah. Pretty fucking shitty few days.”
I feel bad for him, but I'm glad his mother is okay. I don't know what to say.
"Wow," is the best I can muster.
"Yeah. Fucking wow."
"'nother?" Phil asks, but doesn't really wait, the red shit is sliding toward Jayce and then toward me. Phil doesn't join us on this one. Instead, he walks to where the other Eeyores are seated and gets them their next drinks. Two beers and a vodka tonic. He's back quickly.
"So, what are you going to do?" I ask. Shit. There I go. Talking again. Dammit.
"What can I do? He wants to go, he goes. Didn’t ask me to go with him. Didn’t ask what I wanted. He just left."
"But he has to pay you back," I tell him.
"Yeah, like that's going to happen."
"Sue him. This is America. People sue for getting paper cuts on McDonald's napkins, for Christ’s sake."
Jayce looks at me. "Sue him for the tuition?"
"You didn't get the degree. He did. He owes you the money."
Jayce’s eyes lock onto mine. The darkness slides from them a bit, and, with that lightness I notice for the first time that they are a stunning shade of green. He is very pretty, but I want to cut his hair.
"You think I have a case?”
Phil chimes in. "Sue his skinny ass."
"That ass has gotten bigger in the last two years," Jayce comments with a spitting sound in his voice. "On food and drink I bought."
"Are you telling me he was a full-time student? Didn’t even contribute to your home?" I ask.
"Sue his ass, then beat it," I say. "Has he moved yet?"
"Next week. He's still packing. He's staying at his mother's apartment on the west side."
"Went home to mommy. Aww," Phil says.
"Nah, she doesn't live there. It's empty. Been empty for three years. She just holds onto it in case she comes to visit. It's a crappy little studio."
"Serve him with papers before he leaves. That'll rock his world."
"Do you really think I have a case? I mean, we lived together."
"So, maybe. Talk to a lawyer. See. Maybe even just the legal fees will be enough.”
"Do it!" Phil shouts.
Jayce looks like he's actually considering it, but then the darkness slides in again and he's thinking about the fact that he probably still loves the guy and I know exactly what's going on inside of him. His heart is fighting with itself. One part is devoted; the other part is broken and he's all Eeyore.
Same fucking reason I'm sitting in this shithole on a Monday afternoon.
"I say give it a shot. I'm going through the same shit, but there's no case for me. No lawyer. No nothing. You can't sue a boyfriend for cheating on you."
Jayce looks at me. "Sorry."
"Yeah, sorry for you, too," I say. "I should have gone to work today. I should have done a lot of things, but instead I called in, slept late, ate a crappy breakfast, then came here. I wanted to sit somewhere dark and quiet. I just wanted to drink and not be home."
I look back at my lonely booth, but Phil’s words pull me back.
"Well, I'm glad that this place opens at noon. Seems all the saddies needed a place today. Those three over there," he says, leaning in conspiratorially, "have not said a word since they walked in. The guy in the black shirt hasn't stopped texting since he sat down. I think that battery is about to die. The guy in the Superman t-shirt has been writing on the napkins for about thirty minutes. That pen has been non-stop. He's used a thousand of my fucking napkins, like they grow on trees," he says.
"They do," Jayce reminds him.
“Shut up, asshole. Guy should buy a fucking journal! And that other guy, with the dark glasses, he's the reason the music is off. He told me if I couldn't make it lower could I turn it off because he swears if he hears even one thing other than silence for the next hour or so, he's going to go crazy. It's too damn quiet in here."
All I can think to say is, "Saddies. I like that word."
"Just made it up this minute," Phil says, and laughs. I guess we were all just talking and laughing a little too much because Mr. Dark Glasses gets up, tosses one single dollar bill on the bar and leaves. The moment the door closes, Phil turns the music on. It's Tina Turner's Private Dancer.
The other two guys at the bar, Black shirt and Napkin Writer sort of perk up a bit. Phil walks down to their side of the bar and says, loudly: "Come on down here, boys. Sit with us. Making me walk back and forth is bullshit.”
Silently, they do as they are told. Napkin Writer sits next to me. Black shirt sits next to Jayce. There is still the one stool between us. Phil lines up five shot glasses.
"The place is a dead today. I don't care if I give this shit away. Everyone's so goddamn morose, these are on me."
It's the first time I really look at Phil. He's easily older than I am, and looks like he weighs no more than 140 pounds after a trip to the buffet. He's also short and balding and he blinks a lot. I mean a lot. But there is something so kind about his face that you just have to smile along with him. As he continues talking about the still unknown red shit we're drinking, I think that he seems like someone I'd love to be friends with.
Black Shirt says, "Thanks, man."
Napkin Writer slides his pen into the pocket of his cargo shorts, then wipes a hand on his Superman shirt. I see smudges of ink on his fingertips.
"Jesus, the four of us are a friggin' bunch of sad-ass idiots, aren't we?" I say. "Middle of the day and our mopey asses are in a bar. Bars are supposed to be fun. Yeah, I just found out two days ago that my boyfriend of four years has been cheating on me for three months. Yeah, it sucks and I'm not going to forgive him any time soon, if ever. I broke up with him and that’s really shitty because I love him and he broke my fucking heart. And this one...." I point to Jayce. "Same old story there, but he more or less robbed him for two years."
"Damn right he robbed me."
"So what're your tales of woe?" I ask the other two.
Black Shirt goes first. "Lost my job yesterday. I've got no savings and rent is due. It wasn't a great job, but it paid my bills.”
"Sucks," he agrees.
Napkin Writer looks up at us. "One more shot and I'll tell my tale." Phil obliges.
"So," he begins, "I'm getting drunk on a Monday afternoon because I'm 41 years old and I just came out to my mother and she told me not to bother calling her again. Told me to go pray and when God answers, I can call her."
"You win," I say. "Damn. You win, Superman. Okay, this round's on me, Phil. Line those bitches up."
"And turn up this music," Jayce says. “That fuckface is gone."
"You guys got any friends you can call?" Phil asks. "Get this place packed?" He laughs at his own joke, knowing the four of us sitting here don't have that many friends, otherwise we wouldn't be sitting in the Shithole on a Monday with broken hearts and wallets.
Tina turns into ABBA. Phil turns it up. He sets the drinks before the four saddies and then reaches behind the bar again and pulls out a large empty bowl. He fills it with the contents of a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips, my favorite.
"Okay, Superman. What's your name?" I say.
"Funny enough, it's Clark," he says.
All five of us laugh. Even Jayce smiles, but I'm not sure if it's because of Clark or ABBA.
"And you, Mr. Unemployed?"
"So here we are," I say. "Vince, Billy, Jayce, Clark and Phil. I walked in here to brood and cry and get drunk. But I meet Jayce who has it worse than me, then Billy who has it worse than both of us, then Clark who has it worst of all. Maybe this is the universe telling us something," I offer.
"Oh shit," Jayce says. "I hate when the fucking universe talks to me. It never works out the way you think it should."
I laugh. "Maybe it’s serendipity. Mr. Dark-Glasses-No-Music was not supposed to be part of this little gathering. He had to leave to make room for the universe to do its job."
"Are you drunk?" Phil asks me.
“Not yet, but here’s hoping,” I laugh. “I'm wondering why the hell, of all the places...."
"Don't go all Casablanca," Billy says. "Don't even," he laughs and in front of Jayce and slaps a hand down in front of me on the bar.
"I won't. But, doesn't it seem weird to that we walked in here on the same day to drown our sorrows, and end up drinking and laughing together?”
"And listening to ABBA," Jayce says.
Clark says, "Fuck my mother and her church," and raises his glass.
"Let's all fuck Clark's mother!" Billy says, and even Clark laughs.
"Wait, let me get a drink," Phil says. "I'm not missing this toast!"
We all laugh, clink glasses and laugh some more.
"Fuck rent!" Billy says.
"Fuck boyfriends!" I say and Jayce seconds it.
"Fuck ABBA," Phil says.
* * *
I reach up and touch the picture of Ann-Margaret. The frame shutters a bit under my fingers, but stays on the wall. It’s greasy, probably years of smoke left from all the decades before, but Ann-Margaret doesn’t move at all inside the cheap frame; she’s as young and beautiful as ever. The table is scarred and filled with names and dates and curse words, carved through the years, lost and found loves etched forever. I run my finger over some of the engravings. My glass of Jack and Coke is sweating and some of the condensation has inched toward the edge of my journal. I look down at the page. I wrote far more than I seem to remember writing. I look at the names on the table and up at Ann-Margaret again. Some of the names on the table: J.C. + Phil. Billy/Vince is written in a heart. There's a Superman logo carved deeply at the far end of the table. Kilroy is carved near the edge, but it’s the first time I’ve ever seen him with glasses.
I look at the bartender. He's swiping right and left on his phone. The four people sitting there are still apart from one another. I look at my glass. I look at the bartender.
He doesn't look my way, so I suppose if I need another, I have to get up. I do.
"One more," I say, sliding the wet glass across the bar.
He doesn't say anything at all. He just slides a new one at me and I slide him $5. It's happy hour. The drink is four and I let him keep the change. As I head back to my booth, I look at my characters at the bar. Jayce's hair is still down and hiding his pretty face. Mr. No-Music is still here. Clark and Billy are still busy ignoring each other, but both have their phones out. I get to my table. I read through what's in my journal.
I quietly sip my drink with Ann-Margaret. I pick up my pen.
"No matter what, guys, even if we never see each other again," I write, "we are friends now and we are going to...."
I cross it out. I look at all I've written again, flipping through the pages and turn to see my story sitting at the bar. I close my journal. It's one of those small books with a clasp and it fits neatly into the pocket of my cargo shorts. I slide the pen down beside it, hoping it doesn't leak. I always buy shit pens that leak. I need to rethink my pen purchases.
Looking at the bar, my new drink in my hand, I think about the five other people here. Who are they really? Why are they here? If I go over there will I only be the next silent guy at the bar? It’s an active choice to leave Ann-Margaret, who has been smiling down at me with that cute kitten-ish smile, that red hair that inspired imagination. It’s a nearly disabling choice to walk away from the only booth in the bar, to go and try to be a Vince for a change.
I sip my drink and feel the weight of my journal against my leg. It's lighter than the weight of so many other things I carry that I almost don't notice it anymore, and maybe because once they go in the journal, they leave me. But they come back again and wait to become my next story or that play I won’t finish or the poem I will ultimately hate. Poetry is the absolutely the worst fucking thing in the universe to create when all you want to do is write everything out of your head. It’s structured. It’s demanding. I wonder if Ann-Margaret likes poetry.
Now, I’m standing, stuck between the booth and the bar. I’m not moving, just standing in the middle of a this damp, dark bar where no one else is standing, except the bartender. I know I look weird. I understand that because I’m used to it. I could finish my drink and go home and write this ending. I like this story. I like the people I found here.
Out of habit, my hand reaches toward the pocket of my shorts, but I stop myself at the pocket flap. I feel the tension of the twist in my torso, my body leaning to the bar, my feet pointing toward the door.
I choose the bar. It’s difficult to make my legs move.
The bartender looks at me. "Why don't you sit here at the whore's table?" he asks me.
"Whore's table? Did you just say whore's table?"
The bartender laughs. "Jesus, no. I said horse stable. You know, the old joke, right? A horse walks into a bar...."
"...And the bartender says..." I say.
"Why the long face?" we both say at the same time. I laugh, and notice he's laughing, too.
Real world Jayce laughs as well, and mumbles, "Whore's table," and lets out a chortle.
"Sit, I'll get you a fresh one," the bartender says. He repeats the two words again, laughing to himself, shaking his head as he turns to grab the bottle of Jack.
"It does sound like that," Real world Jayce says. "That's funny. Never thought of it before."
"Never had a reason to," I say.
"And I guess we all do have long faces in here.”
"Well, we are drinking on a Monday afternoon," I add.
The bartender slides the drink toward me. He resumes his business on his phone.
"I'm Alex," I say to Jayce, though I don’t know how I did that. I usually don’t know how to start conversations. I can write them, create them, talk a shit-storm on paper, but, in person, I stammer, choke, hide. I’m sick with social ineptitude.
"Michael." He just nods, but rethinks that and raises his beer bottle.
"Nice to meet you, Michael.”.
"Welcome to the Whore's Table," he says.
I press my leg against the side of the barstool until the shapes of my journal and pen are impressed into my thigh. I hold my leg tightly in that position as Michael asks me a question, but I don’t understand the words through the pressure I’m purposely inflicting. I have to filter them through my brain and process them one by one: SO. ARE. YOU. A. WRITER?
Liquid courage is required. I sip twice.
“I like to think I’m a writer,” I answer him.
“Saw you scribbling your hand off over there.”
“I guess Ann-Margaret is my muse,” I say, and Michael smiles.
“Do you know why that’s the Ann-Margaret booth?” he asks me.
“Well, according to the stories, when they filmed Bye Bye Birdie in New York, she and Dick Van Dyke came here and sat at that booth. Wasn’t a gay bar then, I don’t think, but that’s why it’s the only one left here. They got rid of the rest of them a long time ago. They couldn’t part with the Ann-Margaret booth.”
I now press both of my leg against the bar stool. I almost choke on my own spit, but hold off the cough. I feel my eyes water.
“You okay?” Michael says, leaning in.
“…uh…uh…yeah,” I sputter. “My mother would love to sit in that booth,” I say. “She loves Ann-Margaret.”
“Bring her in.”
“We haven’t spoken in years.” I feel my hand going toward my pocket, but instead, I pull my leg away from the metal of the stool, let the journal slide. I sip my drink. I put both hands up on the bar and rub at the ink on my fingers. I turn my head. Ann-Margaret is beseeching me from her crooked frame, her faded dress:
Oh, Alex, pick your universe already, sweetheart, she implores.
“Sorry,” he says, and I just nod at first, because I’m not sure if he said sorry or called me a saddie. My hand itches to want to write that down because I can’t disagree.
“Can I buy the next?” Michael asks me.
I want to say so much. I want this moment to be much more than it is, but I say the only words I feel are real.