The highway rolled up and down in all these hills, one right after another like a roller coaster headed into the past before cell phones or i-pads or cars or indoor plumbing even. How did I even get on it? My bladder swelled to the size of a tether ball. So I pulled into the first dive I found- a real rundown joint with a sign that read “The Barrel” over the door.
Hell, I could take a leak beside my car.
No one’s going to notice.
Then again, there might be a rough crowd in there that “don’t take too kindly” to a stranger soiling their parking lot with his foreign waste. Besides, a man should carry himself with class, anywhere. I headed inside.
A thick guy wore a scowl behind the bar. Through the haze, I couldn’t make out any kind of white matter in his eyes around those black pupils. I snapped my fingers and said, “Restroom?”
He looked at me. A row of guys sat at the bar while a couple of folks hovered around the pool table on the right side of the place. I grimaced at the bartender. He pulled a white towel off the bar and stretched it like he would strangle me with it. The bicep on the beast reminded me of a Thanksgiving turkey in the oven that’s cooking on high that you know will burst any moment. I swallowed. Just to the left, a sign read “Men or whatever”. I darted into the room.
I must have emptied two pots of cappuccino into the dingy bowl. I washed my hands in the sink with cold water since hot water didn’t come as an option. Hhmm. I slipped a moist towelette from my pocket and wiped my hands, neck and face.
Some ruffian out front yelled with one of those voices that travel. I smeared some chap stick across my lips and winked at the mirror. Of course, there’d be no ladies in this dive to impress but a man must carry himself with class.
I walked toward the front door when the bartender whistled behind me. So I turned toward him. He pointed to a mug of beer on the bar. I smiled. “No thank you. I must be getting back to my business.”
He said, “On the house, stranger.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well…um…”
The other guys at the bar watched a football game on the TV above the bar. It actually looked like it came from five years ago maybe. I shrugged and sat on a bar stool. I took a sip. Ugh. Better beer came out of kegs at college mixers. Still, the gentleman did give it for free and that has to mean something. I grinned at him and raised my glass to him. He gave me a long stare as if he were an ox. I looked away and took another sip. When I turned back toward him, he gave me a nod. Ah, that’s a good man.
I saw the source of the boisterous voice. The man sat in between the other two men at the bar a few stools down from me. He wore a baseball cap but he kept it tilted back with his dark locks sticking out everywhere from underneath it like a wild animal. After he yelled the other two nodded and sipped their bottled beers. I took a drink from my mug but I stopped when someone elbowed my arm.
The guy stood around six feet tall, but leaning on the bar the way he did, he looked small and young, almost like a teenager. His blonde hair stuck up like it had been styled by Einstein. “Say,” he said, “you looking to impress any of the ladies down there?”
I glanced at the pool table crowd. Then I said, “Heavens no.”
“You sure? You have a girl out in the car with you? Maybe she doesn’t think you’re such a man? Maybe you need to prove yourself to her a bit?”
I shook my head. “No, I don’t think so, Mister?”
He sighed and took a seat beside me. “Ah, that’s okay. I think I’ve taken enough lumps today. Just a little broke is all. Softie. They call me Softie.”
“Oh. Good to meet you, Softie. I’m Drake.”
He shook my hand, giving an even grip. “You got it. What kind of business you in, Drake?”
I said, “I’m in…um…say, bartender.”
Softie leaned toward my ear. “His name’s Beef.”
I cleared my throat. “Oh, all right. Beef, let my friend have a round here and I’ll have a Fat Tire.”
Beef set our beers down. “Tab?”
“Sure,” I said.
Softie got a house beer, half of which he downed in one gulp. I poured the rest of the free beer I’d gotten into his glass. Softie patted me on the back. “You’re one hell of a guy, Drake.”
I took a pull from my Fat Tire. “Ah, yes. So, Softie, I work in the-”
I turned toward the loud one down there. Softie nudged me. “That’s Redbone. Man, he sure can yell. Can’t he?”
I dug in my ear. “Does he have to do that?”
Softie stared into his mug. “I ain’t sure.”
I rubbed my jaw. “Anyway, I work in the insurance industry.”
Softie said, “Aw, man. I ain’t never had insurance. I figure a real man don’t need any. Take life as it comes and buck up!”
I shook my head. “A real man? I understand you may have some stereotypical ideas in your head about manhood, my friend, but-”
Softie chuckled and slapped my shoulder. “You talk funny.”
I said, “No, you see, manhood isn’t defined by-
Softie looked at Beef. “Hey. Don’t he talk funny, Beef?”
Beef paid him no attention, still giving me the ox stare.
That tore it for me. That Beef guy had coerced me into wasting a half an hour with these cretins. No more. I snapped my fingers. “Tab please!”
The guy Softie called “Redbone” yelled, “Keep it down, down there!”
His cohorts chuckled around him. Softie raised his mug into the air. “Here! Here! Peace and quiet!”
I stood and slammed my twenty down on the bar. “You can all get stuffed!”
I took two steps toward the door when Redbone and his two minions surrounded me. I looked them up and down. “Well? What is this?”
Redbone pursed his lips. The other two looked between me and their own filthy boots. Finally, Redbone said, “Now, you a stranger and you talk to us that way. Man, that’s just not courteous, cousin.”
Softie placed a hand on my shoulder. His beer breath crawled into my nostrils. I rubbed my gut. “You people don’t deserve any courtesy. Yelling like crazy and then telling me to be quiet. Such hypocrisy. You would never make it in the insurance business.”
Redbone leaned toward me. “Insurance huh? You got any life insurance?”
“Well, of course-”
“Because you know,” Redbone went on, “insurance is supposed to be about guarantees. Life has no guarantees outside of death, taxes and more taxes. But insurance tells us that we and our loved ones will get a check if we expire. Now you might have a policy all right. But what if we make it so that you can’t be found? Would your loved ones get a check then?”
The two cohorts stepped on the sides of me while Softie stood beside Redbone who stood real close in front of me. I took a step back. Beef stood back there, blocking me. He grumbled, “Easy, little man.”
I closed my eyes, reared back and struck Redbone in the cheek with my finest right-handed punch. Ah, now he’ll know. Now they realize who they’re dealing with. For there is a price to pay for incivility.
The four surrounding men grab my arms. I struggle. Oh God. Redbone holds his cheek while looking at the floor, surely at his cap. He knows my power now. This is why the rascal must depend on his partners in crime. I struggle against them but they are too much. With his unwashed hair hanging in his eyes, Redbone takes a hold of my collar and draws his own fist back. I close my eyes. Beef sealed my fate before I took my first drink. The wretches. Oh, this shouldn’t be happening. I knew better than to risk entering this hovel of a bar. Here it comes.
A hand tapped me lightly on both cheeks. I open my eyes. The ruffians let me go. Redbone sets his cap back on his head, still rubbing his cheek. “You ought to learn how to take it easy.”
The men resume their seats at the bar while Beef gives me his sour glare over his shoulder on his way back around the bar. I rub my cheek. Then I check the mirror behind the bar. I can’t see any blood or bruising. I am free to leave. I walk out the door.
I step back inside. With my finger aimed like a pistol of some sort, I say, “This is what’s wrong with the world. Indecency! You are a bunch of lice upon civilized man! You rile me up and then tap me on the jaw? To be insulting no doubt. You want to insult me. I work harder than any of you lowly types and you choose to offend me. Well, I have taken offense, I’ll have you know. I’ve taken offense at your very appearance. You are what keeps the ugly world ugly! I’ll have you know that you are what is wrong. You are the problem and I intend to tell every soul from here to my much more modern city that this place…this barrel…should be fined for…for indecency itself! You’ll be hearing it from me! You can count on that!”
Now that I’d torn them to shreds, I walked back through the door. When I made it back outside, I drew in a long, cleansing breath. As the door closed, I heard Redbone.