Nels Johnson is an lawyer, lobbyist writer living in Portland, Oregon with his wife and dog. His work has been published in local and regional publications. You can usually find him writing in darkly lit bars and coffee shops around Portland. Follow him on Twitter @mnelsjohnson.
Sitting in a bar
The guy sits there, staring at his blank phone screen. The dim lights above the row of shabby bar stools reveal an outline of his hulking frame. He periodically looks up and takes a swig of beer and looks around the room, like he’s waiting for someone. He knows no one is coming, but that doesn’t stop him from pretending. He restlessly continues checking his phone: picking it up from the bar, flicking it on and off to check for messages that aren’t there. Finally, he sets the phone down. He is both unsettled and alone.
The periodic pale hue of the phone’s backlighting interrupts the anonymity of the bar’s dull hue. Every time he checks for messages the florescence illuminates his drawn and tired face. The bags under his eyes, along with the messy, unkempt salt-and-pepper mane underneath his old beat-up white Titleist baseball cap, expose a deep tiredness that simply can’t be alleviated with a good night’s sleep. The exhaustion has burrowed a cavernous hole inside of him. Years have etched the wrinkles and lines across his haggard face and sagging brow. It’s unlikely that he’s had a peaceful night of sleep in over a decade. The extra pounds cling to various places on his large frame, betraying what years ago must have been an in-shape, sharp, and athletic frame. His faded blue polo shirt can’t hide a body that has fallen apart through years of hard living.
As he quaffs his first two beers, his shoulder and back muscles relax. Beer seems to take away the stress and anxiety of life better than a massage or any form of exercise could. Every sip is like a baptism—slowly washing his sins away, one at a time from the inside on out.
The guy is watching the ballgame on the old television above the bar. The picture isn’t great, but he can tell the game is still in the second inning. His mind is in another place anyhow, as it is most nights. Looking away from the television, he stares at his phone again. The screen is still blank, no matter how powerful his gaze. Eventually, his attention drifts from the phone and moves to his hands; his gaze follows the deep lines and calluses crisscrossing his big, meaty palms, leading him nowhere. He’s spent years living a life not as he’d imagined it. His eyes trace every indentation and tributary from where his wrists give way into the fleshy part of his hands, all the way to the tips of his thumbs and pinky fingers. Still nothing, still the same.
Without an answer, or even a resting place, his mind and eyes wander from the contours of his hands upward to the stained and fading ceiling tiles, soon descending all the way down to the dingy, soiled carpet. An ordinary bar—there must be thousands like it all across the country.
Here, most everyone knows each other, but folks keep to themselves; this is a place for contemplation, a cathedral memorializing long-forgotten dreams. It’s the sort of place where the lights only get turned up full once in a while, maybe a couple of times of year. The faded wood paneling has seen scores of parishioners pass through the clunky old doors, each seeking individual salvation but instead finding collective worship, night after night, repentance and preservation. When it’s closing time, the bartender dims the lights, chases out the drunks, and then locks up. Every morning the bartender approaches her pre-opening chores with the same somber, repetitive, and serious nature as a priest preparing for daily morning mass. She’s run this humble and decaying parish for many years now, hearing thousands of confessions and always dispensing liquid penance in turn.
The guy holds up his empty glass and says to the bartender, her back to him, “I’m empty. Can I have another?” His voice always sounds hollow to him—muted and sterile, like rapping your knuckles on a wall.
“Sure, sugar, no problem.”
He looks at her with a rueful smile. “Thank you, darlin’. You’re sweeter’n my own mother and even better looking.” His mind fixated on an old memory.
“Oh, stop! I’m old enough to be your mother. You know flattery won’t get you anywhere ’round this place.”
It’s a call to worship; it’s a call and response that will continue for the rest of the night, as it does most nights.
There’s a young couple sitting two tables over from the bar, just to the left of the guy’s line of sight. She looks to be in her late twenties, long brown hair, beautiful curves, clean and bright skin, dressed in tight pants and a loose top that accentuate her figure in all the right places. When she laughs, she throws her head back, with the most beautiful look of ecstasy across her face, almost orgasmic. He looks like a dipshit with his backward baseball cap, big muscles, and a face that looks so fresh there’s no way he’s ever done a real hard day’s work before. We used to call guys like this “Kappas,” after those goddamned fraternity brothers you see in the stupid comedies. Kappa is probably a total asshole and destined to run a company someday, or at least be in a position to fire people.
Judging by their constant state of flirtation, they must be on a date. Every so often she drops her head slightly and tucks her chin, letting down her defense system and inviting Kappa in. Kappa is too stupid to see her innocence and virtue and instead acts confidently, focusing on her plunging neckline, like he’s going to score tonight anyway.
The guy hears her joyous laughter and turns left in her direction. He looks at the gorgeous young woman with a familiar longing; years ago he knew a girl like her. She was tender and alluring, but the sixty pounds of despair that he’s put on over the years is a major reason why he’s spent the last fifteen alone. He lost a couple of jobs in a row, after that simply living each day had made him tired and hard to be around. The stress and exhaustion of unpaid bills, feeling useless and watching the world leave him behind was more than he could handle. His marriage crumbled after a solid decade together. Even for someone so wholesome and understanding, ten years together was too much. All that remains is a hollowed-out soul in a decomposing body.
His fingers shuffle timidly across the screen of his phone, clumsily searching for the right profession. Finally:
The woman doesn’t see his increasingly lengthy glances in her direction; she’s too busy flirting with Kappa. The guy looks at her from the bar with an intimate and carnal longing, and one that says he knows he can’t ever find or touch what he’s after. He looks at her like someone on the other side of a lych-gate, longing to get to the beauty inside. He knows it’s there, but the barrier too much. The lock can’t be picked; the walls are too high to scale. All he can do is hope that his longing somehow connects with the young woman and she comes over and lets him in.
Just wanted to say hi. Hope you’re doing ok.
The screen goes dark again from inactivity, no response.
A little while later an old gentleman wearing khaki shorts and a crisp new polo pulls up a stool next to the guy. The guy looks relieved to finally have someone to talk with. He momentarily forgets about the young woman and instead focuses his attention on the older gentleman. They start talking loudly about baseball, both wanting to get past the small talk but unable to do so. Instead, they unintentionally talk past each other, remaining unfulfilled and unconnected.
The old gentleman looks to be in his seventies; his white hair—just a little thinner than it was thirty years ago—is perfectly parted. The old gentleman’s hands are tan, leathery, and strong. His Yale class ring adorns his right ring finger. The focus of the ornament is a bright-blue aquamarine in the center surrounded by diamonds all around it. Lux et Veritas. The old gentleman carries himself with an air of old aristocracy, power and privilege. When he speaks to the guy, he leans in close, squaring his shoulders and taking control of the conversation.
The old gentleman is in surprising shape for someone who is roughly the same age as the guy’s father. His arms are firm under his sleeves; his stomach is flat and toned; his calves are the size of grapefruits. He looks like he could run a marathon tomorrow.
The guy slowly starts to disengage as the conversation drags on. The old gentleman’s way of leaning in and punctuating his point by wagging his finger in the guy’s face is starting to get on his nerves. He reminds him too much of his own father in the need to always be right, even if it’s just a stupid and meaningless conversation about the Padres. Every time he makes a point, it’s like he’s directing his argument right past the guy’s head. The old gentleman doesn’t even seem to notice.
While the guy and the old gentleman are talking, Kappa leans over and kisses the young woman; she tilts her head back and lets out a small flirty laugh and kisses him back. She gently reaches across the table and ever so lightly strokes the top of his hand. The guy glances over and sees Kappa lean in closer to the woman. The guy quickly drains another beer to douse the flaming wound inside.
He checks his phone again.
The old gentleman is beginning to morph from his father into the man who put him on the unemployment line. The guy used to make eighteen dollars an hour packing cans of tuna at one of the local fish canneries. But some old prick from La Jolla brought in a machine that did the work of twenty people and then cut the entire night shift. A couple years later, the old prick closed down the fishing cannery for good, claiming that new environmental regulations forced him to.
Now, who knows? The guy does what he has to in order to get by. Construction, working on fishing boat, it doesn’t matter—it really doesn’t. He knows he’ll never earn eighteen dollars again at his age. That old prick from La Jolla was a real asshole, in a world increasingly filling with assholes.
The old gentleman is adamant that the Padres are going to miss the playoffs, even though it’s only July. It doesn’t matter what the guy says, like that the Padres have the best starting pitching in the league and play in the weakest division in baseball. The old gentleman just keeps on talking at the guy, acknowledging but simultaneously dismissing what the guys says.
The guy wonders why the old gentleman picked this bland bethel to frequent when he could have gone to any one of hundreds of others in a city this big. The old gentleman probably drives a nice car, maybe a sports car, a convertible. Maybe he’s one of those rich pricks who races along the Pacific Coast Highway on the weekends with the top down. Rich pricks are always overcompensating for something.
After three shots of whiskey and four pints, the guy’s most recent glass sits empty on the cracked and water-stained Formica bar. The tension in his face and back that eased after the first couple of beers is starting to crop up again. He looks restlessly toward the bartender, hoping to get her attention. He finally makes eye contact with her and holds up his empty glass again.
She nods and pours him another beer. As she sets it down, she softy pets his hand before turning her attention to another patron.
Again he glances to his left at the young woman. He pulls away with a painful jerk, like he’s been looking at the sun too long. The woman carries herself with a virginal beauty and a refined fire. Despite her stunning figure and perfectly tight-fitting clothes, she looks longingly at Kappa with a pure and simple exuberance. In the last fifteen years, he’s only received looks like that from his dutiful and decent dog, Benjy. It’s unclear if the woman will remain innocent after tonight. Innocence is beautiful after all, but never lasts forever.
As the bartender slides another beer over to the guy, Kappa and the young woman get up to leave. The guy notices that her breasts are much bigger when she is standing up than when she’s sitting down. Kappa gently leads her out the door. She glances at him with her mix of purity and longing; he looks her full figure up and down, his gaze stopping at her bust for an uncomfortably long time. The guy just stares at the floor after watching them leave through the clunky old doors. He hopes she’s happy.
The man picks up his phone while the old gentleman intently watches the sixth inning of the ballgame on the television. The booze serves as a conduit between the guy’s fingers and emotions.
How are you?
I miss you.
Can I see you?
Finally, one of the old gentleman’s friends arrives and joins him and the guy at the bar. The new person is also dressed like a golfer, and he and the old gentleman start talking about the Masters. The new person has a beer belly, flabby arms, and a penchant for raising his voice and accentuating his point by emphatically waving his hands, as if doing so somehow makes the story about how he birdied five holes earlier in the afternoon truer. The new person reminds him of a sales executive—a man who is so confident in what he’s saying that he’s unable to comprehend the fact that he’s utterly full of shit. The guy nods along, his smile forced, just another anonymous rich asshole. Oh well, he just bought everyone another round so the guy doesn’t take too much offense to the boasting. Besides, this newest round has allowed him to already forget about the young woman and the buried memories of purity and virtue exhumed from deep inside.
The table where Kappa and the young woman were sitting has been overtaken by a group of three young women, all blond, slender, curvy, and dressed to the nines. They must be going to party or something later. The women are all smiling and excited to see each other; they all lean in to listen when one of them talks and then all appropriately laugh in time when one of them tells a joke. Their gorgeous bodies and expensive clothes power them with confidence. The guy glances over from the ballgame on television long enough to see the outline of a black thong pushing tight against the white dress of one of the women as she leans into the conversation. Women like these are everywhere, and the guy doesn’t mind. Where he grew up, women didn’t dress or act like this, and they certainly never projected so much confidence. But that’s OK—he doesn’t mind—and he’s stored the image of the woman’s thong in his head for future fantasies.
The night is getting on. Soon the old gentleman drains the last of his beer, says his goodbyes, and noisily files out of the bar, making sure his exit is apparent to all. The new person shortly follows suit but not before handing the guy his business card and making the obligatory promise that they “need to get together soon” and that the new person “will call” him. It’s the most blatant of lies. They both know that the new person has no intention of calling him and that it is unlikely that they will ever see each other again.
Pretty soon the guy goes back to mindlessly playing with his phone. His mind has wandered off again, though by this point the booze has obscured the destination. The ballgame is over, the late broadcast of SportsCenter is gently murmuring in the background. Willie Nelson’s mournful croon emanates from the old jukebox in the corner, gently drifting in between the few remaining souls in the bar.
“If I made you feel second best…girl, I’m sorry I was blind…Little things I should have said and done…I just never took the time…”
He did the best he could. He hopes that someday she’ll realize that.
It’s getting really late—the bartender yells out to the few stragglers for last call. Most are looking around for anyone to latch on to, anything to prolong the protection the bar offers from the changing outside world.
The guy slowly slides himself off of the bar stool where he’s been perched for the last four hours. He slowly makes his way to the door, dragging his feet in an attempt to savor the safe universe that he’s built inside. Here, he can forget and embrace his own futility, if only for a few hours.
He stumbles outside and decides to walk to the beach and watch the moon slowly crouch down to the other side of the world, eventually to be hidden from his sight by the ocean. No matter how many nights over the years he’s gone down to the beach to watch the moon, it never changes—it always disappears and gives way to the sun.