Monday, January 11, 2010

People I meet in bars #8: Jeff

"Damn shame you can't smoke in places like this anymore," he mentions, like he's regarding an old friend. He's restless beneath his ill-fitting black suit, his shoulders refusing to fill out the jacket and his legs hiding between the sides of the pants like they're playing Operation with the polyster. "Doesn't make no sense to me."

Jeff is hunched over the bar in that stereotypical way: left arm barred across the edge of the counter, right arm resting on its elbow, supporting his tilted head. He's got three empty glasses in front of him, and every five minutes or so, the bartender comes over and tries to clear them away, but Jeff wants them.

"I need them to keep track of how much I've had to drink," he tells me. "I quit hard drinking a few years ago and it was a good thing for me. I was in bad fucking shape. I lost my job, was broke, had to move back in with my mom." His eyes drift a bit into the bottom of his glass, like he's seeing his past in the medium amber of his bourbon. "So it just had to stop. I took a big step forward. But some days," he says, bringing the glass to his lips, "you just need to take a step back."

Whenever the door to this bar opens, Jeff looks up from his drink to see who's arrived. I start counting after he's done it about six times, and in the next ten minutes, he does it 28 times. I'm surprised that this place is seeing so much traffic, but I'm a lot curious about who he's looking for.

"No, I'm not waiting for anyone," he clarifies. "I'm just nervous my dad's gonna come in here and yell at me. He worries. He's got reason to, I guess, but I'm 34 years old and after a day like today, I think I'm entitled to a little regression."

"What happened today?" I ask.

This was a mistake.

His shoulders drop even further, like he's about to climb to the top of a cathedral and ring the bell. A nearly visible pall comes over him. He's obviously diving for words and coming up empty-handed.

"Does it have to do with why you're wearing a suit?" I wonder aloud. He inhales deeply, like he's taking a drag from a phantom cigarette.

"Mom's funeral," he says. "She died last week. Hit by a drunk driver, if you can imagine."

"Goddamn, Jeff. I'm so sorry."

"Thanks."

He stares at the wall and his eyes float to the surface of the roughly six ounces of bourbon sloshing behind his eyes.

"She was dead by the time they got her to the hospital. I had to fucking identify her body. And it's just like it is in movies. They pull the little tarp thing back and you see their face, but it's not them. It's a sick joke of them. Bizarro them. She was missing hair, her mouth was all cut up, and there was a massive bruise bulging on the side of her temple, like she'd gotten a racquetball implant. And they say, 'Is this your mother?' and I think, 'Fuck no, that's not my mom. I don't know what that is, but it never gave me applesauce when I was sick, it never picked me up from school when I was too scared to take the wrong bus home in first grade, it never paid my bail, it never took me to the hospital. That's just some twisted perversion of my mom.'"

He opens up his right palm and stares at the lines on the inside of it.

"I don't look anything like her. I look just like my dad. Not a single similarity between my mom and me except for our hands. They're identical. A little small, but with extra-long fingers." He extends them all out, like he's teaching a child to count to five. "This is all I've got of her now. She bled to death internally because people can't fucking control themselves and her face was covered with cuts and scars that she didn't deserve."

He puts his hand back on the bar. His foot begins to tap to the rhythm of the Iggy Pop song hovering below the ceiling.

"Do you ever feel like you're just living like you're in the passenger's seat?" he asks. "Like, I don't know...like someone else is in control of everything else and you're just staring out the window, hoping that something interesting will pop up on the landscape?"

"Yeah, I think I know what you mean. Like, you're out of control?"

"Kind of. Not even in a bad way. Just in that way that someone's taking you where you need to go and they're going to make sure you get there safe."

"I think so. I had a girlfriend like that once," I say. "About--shit, that was a while ago--maybe four years ago? It was this really weird time where I didn't know anything about anything--no convictions, no idea what I wanted, nothing--and this person came along that made everything sort of settle in my brain, you know? Like she was this destination, this weird kind of road map to happiness, and if I could just be the man she wanted, then I'd be exactly what I wanted to be."

Jeff nods his head understandingly, bobbing up and down in drunken agreement. I don't think he's listening. And I don't blame him.

"It's tough when people are there and then they're just...gone," I say, trying to veer the conversation back to him.

"Yeah."

And then there isn't much of anything to say. We sit in silence for ten minutes, both of us taking long drags from our respective glasses. I go through two refills, he goes through one more, bringing him to a total of six.

"It's weird," Jeff says, fighting off the silence, "how some things get better with time and some things get worse."

"What do you mean?"

"You pay way more for old liquor than you do new liquor. Good bourbon is old bourbon. But what about, like, milk? Expires in two weeks. Fruit shrivels up. Soda goes flat."

"What about wine?" I ask. "Wine peaks. It's like a bell curve, almost, how it's good when it's young, then gets really good until it gets perfect, and then waiting any longer makes it turn to vinegar. Not everything's a straight path."

"I don't drink wine." He looks at the base of his newly-emptied glass and sighs. "'Not everything's a straight path.' I like that."

"Thanks."

"This stuff with my mom made me think a lot about what I want for my funeral," he says.

"What're you thinking?"

"I want them to play this one Iggy Pop album. Lust for Life. Just have it on in the background. No religious talk. It just makes people sort of sad. And nobody is allowed to wear a fucking suit because suits are bullshit."

"Why Iggy Pop?" I wonder.

"Because it'll throw people off. They won't know what to do with it. It's not spiritual or pretty or nice. It's kinda mean and aggressive and it'll smack the attendees in the face. Which is what I would do if I was still alive, because funerals are bullshit, too. Anyone dumb enough to go to a funeral, anyone dumb enough to think that it has any real point deserves to have some Iggy Pop thrown in their faces. Give 'em the wake-up call in death that I didn't in life. Make them sit up in their fucking chairs."

"But you went to your mom's funeral today."

"Yeah," he says, "I did. And it was bullshit. It's not like I didn't know she was dead. I didn't need all of her friends touching my elbow and asking how I'm doing. They didn't care while she was alive, and now their only connection to me is in a pine box underground. I'm not going to let them clear their consciences on me. Like I'm some backwards-ass donkey that they can pin their decency to. I'm not their validation."

I suspect that he's no longer talking about funerals. He stops mid-rant and sits silent until the substantial amount of aggressive energy dissipates from the conversation.

"I need a cigarette," he confesses. "In fact, I need a bunch of 'em. So I'm gonna go."

"You really shouldn't smoke, man."

"It keeps people away. People don't ask how you're doing if they can't breathe around you." He pulls out a crumpled wad of old bills and drops them on the bar.

"You okay to drive?" I ask.

"Taking a cab." He walks out without looking back or a goodbye. As soon as he gets through the door, he lights a cigarette and starts walking. Watching him take that first inhale is the brightest I saw him all night. The cloud of smoke surrounds his face and leaves a trail with each step, hanging in the air like a revealed secret.

I sit there, thinking about life and death and funerals and recoveries and men broken beyond repair, and I wonder if a straight path would be comforting change of pace.

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