A Faithful Narrative of …
Faithful Narrative of the Surprising Work of Fate in the Conversion of Two Lost Souls in South Seattle, Washington, United States of America
by Mark Driver
I am frequently accused of narrowly focusing on the negative aspects of life. I am accused of many things, of course, from being a traitorous accomplice to terrorism (hey, as soon as they load my Apache helicopter with missiles, I’ll start strafing praying sheepherders and do my part for the federation) to walking out on my tab at the new Fox Sports Bar downtown (all the charm of an airport bar at twice the price. Is it my fault that the physically superior/mentally deficient waitress accepted my Taco Del Mar punchcard as payment?). But constant negativity is one accusation that I cannot dispute. I cannot help myself. This is my wiring. Obviously, it’s the psychological defense of someone used to having things taken from him. Don’t smile or someone’s gonna knock out your teeth. Don’t take pride in a job well done, cos yer getting downsized in the morning. All is temporary, pleasure is fleeting, and whatever you do…don’t fall in love. That’s when they really get you. Arf! From a beautiful roadtrip down to San Francisco last weekend, the only images that stand out in my mind are the prosthetic leg—brown loafer intact—lying in the middle of Market Street as we rolled into town, and being down at the wharf mowing calamari and seeing some fat family man in a Michigan sweatshirt purposefully dump out his little paper basket of uneaten fries in front of a bag lady who asked for them politely. Perhaps he didn’t want to damage her own sense of self worth with a handout.
Or maybe he was just late for church.
Okay, the pigs’ feet in black vinegar served at Seafood Claypot were as flavorful as they were creepy; the regulars at the Buddha bar across the street sure do know how to entertain traveling drinkers; when you’re friends with the servers at the Union Square Sports Bar, free shots show up at your table with alarming regularity; damn if those Port-a-Potties at Zeitgeist aren’t a perfect place to puke after overdoing it on sushi, sake, and Sapporo in Noe Valley; driving through the Redwood Forest is like getting a blood transfusion, and those sleepy towns on the Northern California coast, tiny diners in the fog, so warm, so inviting, glowing orange windows humming in the haze…
But I digress. Good, bad, suffering ecstasy. Negativity be damned, I’m gonna try and tell a story.
My shift started at 4:30 pm. I was bartender in the most depressing tavern this side of Rwanda. My personal damnation to the writhing serpents, demonic whippings, and the deafening din of screaming sinners of the Malebolge within the Eight Level of Hell—and the pathetic whining it inspired—is well documented elsewhere. It’s merely a backdrop for a story.
Everyday at 5:45 this guy in a Desert Storm army jacket would show up and sit at the same barstool. He was in his late thirties, patchy beard, thin. Balding. Sweatpants. Watched the silent TVs, didn’t talk. Occasionally, he’d bum a smoke—quite a feat in this cruel and stingy bar. Each day, he would put a $5 on the counter for two rounds of Bud ($2.25 each) and a pulltab ($.25 each).
If you’re not familiar with pulltabs, they’re like instant-win lottery tickets, except you pull off a little cardboard pill to find out that you’ve lost instead of scratching with a penny to find out that you’ve lost. At this bar, tickets cost $.25, the biggest payouts were $250, and each container of tickets usually got pulled and taken home by the owner before any of the big payouts were hit. It’s a pure sucka’s bet that’s quite popular in the Northwest, partly because it ads a bit of excitement to the dreariness of existence, but mostly because it makes a shitload of moola for the drinkin’ establishment at very little risk.
We had twenty plastic containers of the evil little chits behind the bar, hung high for visibility and sporting cheap neon graphics with names like “KA-BOOM” and “LUCKY LOVER 13.” I was physically unable to withhold a groan whenever someone bought a pile. Those fools with their shitty plastic hotdog baskets. Losing tabs were thrown by the hundreds behind the bar, sure to soak up spilled beer and boot scum and add painful hours to my clean up. Perhaps, I would periodically suggest, you all would prefer to gather in the kitchen around the deep fryer where we could batter, fry, and destroy your money that way. Dudes would come in and throw down $100 to win $10, getting angrier and angrier as I handed them loser after loser. Most scraps of leftover cash that would normally be my tip would be slid into those plastic trays above my head—bypassing me and directly lining the owner’s pockets. They knew it was a losing bet, but they couldn’t help themselves. There’s no immediate cash payoff in being decent.
Guys just like this guy. He never won, he never tipped—but he wasn’t any trouble either. Another sad face locked into a routine.
“Well,” I told him after seeing him for two weeks straight, “you’re certainly good at keeping a schedule.”
“Yeah. I guess so.”
I eventually learned from some big-mouthed barfly that this guy came in at 5:45 everyday because it was long enough into my shift for the other bartender to be gone. The guy was on parole and not allowed to be out drinking. The other dives in the neighborhood wouldn’t let him in. I was the only person who’d serve him.
I asked him and he shrugged it off.
“Well, you fuck up once and you can’t get back in,” he said, picking at his beard.
“What did you do?”
“I thought everyone was innocent.”
“Not me. I fucked up. Got caught.”
“Well, I won’t turn away a vet. Enjoy the game.”
And so it went like that. He was a Gulf War veteran. He spent five years in prison for doing something bad. He couldn’t get work. He lived a few blocks up the street with his elderly mom, who gave him an allowance of five dollars every day—which he’d come and spend at the bar. To get out of the house. He was pushing 40, looking bad, obviously lost. It was pretty bleak. Not that angry bleakness when you’re young, not getting laid regularly, and your job sorta sucks. You still have a future when you’re young. With this guy, it was a “this is probably your life until you die” bleakness—the passive acceptance of permanent bleakness, and you have to be old to truly understand the terrifying implications of that. As my copy of Nihilism for Dummies says, “Once a man establishes his routine, the only remaining question of any importance is whether or not to kill himself after waking each morning.”
But he was by no means the only bleak person in the bar.
From the looks of her she had been working on her hangover for a few hours before my shift started. I had seen her in a few times before. Lots of makeup. Gaudy rings. Glasses on a chain. Purple-and-red windbreaker she never took off. Probably in her late 30s—but looking older. Sagging face, thinning hair. Probably had German grandparents. Chainsmoked. She usually came in with a bunch of women who did quality control at some factory that made airplane parts for Boeing. The group got all fancied up and hit happy hour a couple times a month—Tired Ladies’ Boring Afternoon Out. Mostly it was Bud Lights, endless cigarettes, and giggling away the advances of young-pup Mexican construction workers.
But she was alone on this day. Probably her big day off. Sleep in until 9:30, watch some Price is Right, hop on the bus, buy some new shoes at Payless, get wasted, arrive home in time for Survivor, eat a frozen Lean Cuisine while soaking feet and killing off the rest of the leftover 4th of July vodka. She had a bag from Target on the stool next to her.
“Been shopping?” I asked. She just grunted and gulped her drink.
She was sitting on a stool next to where our Gulf War buddy usually sat. 5:45 rolled around. When he walked in he paused, looking slightly stressed. There were plenty of open seats. He looked around the bar. With over eighty places to sit, it would be obvious and awkward to sit next to this woman. But it was his seat. Routine beat out stranger anxiety and he sat next to her. Her only acknowledgement of his presence was shifting slightly away and moving her glazed stare from her hands to the television.
He got his beers and his pulltabs and she sipped on a vodka and diet Coke. I wandered off into the cooler for limes, brought them out onto the bar, and started prepping for the night.
Eventually, he finished up and wandered out the front door.
“Whatsh that guysh schtory?” she asked once he was safely away. She raised a jutting thumb towards the door, speaking with fake disgust overdramaticized by the drink.
“The guy that just left? Don’t know really. Comes in every day around 5:45. Nice enough guy.”
That seemed to satisfy her curiosity. She had another drink. Asked me what time it was. Gathered her stuff and eased herself off the barstool, slowly walking out the back door like she didn’t trust her own legs.
I had boringly terrifying night sorting out the drunken familial issues of theatrical Samoan cousins.
But she came in the next day. She walked in about fifteen minutes after my shift started and sat on the same stool. She was there when he walked in. He grimaced a little and sat next to her again.
“Hey…you were in here yesterday, right?” he finally asked after five minutes of fidgeting. He had already finished his beer.
“Yeah,” she said, a little too loudly. “I was.”
He sits for about five more minutes before he attempting to start a conversation. She says a few things back, noncommittally. He gets his second beer and his pulltabs. She gets another vodka. They stop talking. They look up at the screens with parallel faces and watch some TV. Both of their foreheads show the painful racking of brains desperately trying to come up with more to say. He runs out of beer (and money), she drinks slowly.
“So,” he said after taking pulls of air off his empty beer for fifteen minutes, “um…you gonna be around tomorrow?”
“Maybe. I get off work at five.”
“OK then, maybe I’ll see you tomorrow?”
He put a tentative hand on her shoulder and she did not brush it off. She left about five minutes after he did.
So the two start meeting every day for drinks. For a weeks. Where before he’d chug his two beers and silently curse his lack of luck with the pulltabs, now he’d buy one beer for himself and a drink for her ($2.75). It was a point of pride for him. He could provide a drink for this woman. Sacrifice for her in the only way he was able to. On a budget of five bucks a day, and more than half spent on someone else. With his money gone, he’d nurse one bottle for over an hour. She’d offer to buy him another but he’d give a good-natured refusal, a “sorry ma’am that’s just not the way I was raised” in a fake Texas accent. He stopped wearing his army jacket and trimmed his beard. He came in with a homemade haircut, clean jeans, a shirt so new it still had pins in the collar. She started wearing perfume and puffing her hair up. Dumped the windbreaker. Bought some huge earrings that he complemented her on.
They laughed a lot. They had me turn up bad sitcoms if there weren’t too many other folks in the bar. They’d each have one drink and stretch it into hours before saying goodbye until the next day. Under the guise of making some point, he’d put a hand on her knee. She’d put a hand on top of his hand, lean in, and smile.
And then, she stopped coming in.
The first day it happened, he shrugged it off. He ordered her drink. Left it in front of the stool where she normally sat, continually readjusting the drink’s position on the coaster, flipping the coaster over when condensation started sweating rings into the cardboard. He kept leaning forward, casually glancing over his shoulder, keeping a lookout on the back door. Sad. Irritated. Trying not to show it.
“She been in here?” he asked.
“Haven’t seen her since you have.”
He gave her two hours before he took off.
The second day he did the same thing. Ordered her drink. Waited for her. She didn’t show. He left without touching her drink. “Keep this behind the bar just in case she comes in, OK?”
Yeah…sure, right next to that lost $20 I’m waiting for someone to claim.
Three days in a row he did this. Then he stopped watching the back door. Went back to the TV. Slouching. Grimacing. Slowly rubbing his jaw and shaking his head.
The next week he went back to two beers and two pulltabs. Back on went the army jacket. Back on went the sweatpants. A strange dynamic evolved between us. I saw him lose the girl. Saw the whole thing. He wouldn’t look at me.
So another week passes. She doesn’t come back in. He starts looking like shit. He stopped shaving, his hair became a tangle of matted grease, he bravely maintained the same gray sweatpants daily—which he probably slept in as well. Life was bleak before, but life was twice as bleak now. If he’d had just gone on with his routine, it woulda been fine. But to have met this woman, to have something real to look forward to in the midst of nothing, and then to have that taken away…it’s a lot to ask of anyone, much less someone who’s barely patched up enough to get through the day.
I was my usual unhelpful self.
“You should’ve gotten her phone number, man.”
“Then she might’ve asked for mine. No woman wants to date a grown man who still lives with his mommy.”
“You gotta turn it around, man. Your mom lives with you. You take care of her. You’re nurturing! Women love that shit.”
“Whatever. It doesn’t matter now.”
And the cycle continues.
So, it’s a Thursday. I remember it’s a Thursday because later that night, I had to give a statement to the police. Some fuck belted his wife in front of twenty people. Not a shove or a tempered backhand as one is apt to see on the TV, but two full, brutal punches to her jaw—which more or less splintered on the spot. The irony was not lost on me. One guy can’t get a first date with a woman he yearns for, another guy’s doing his best to destroy his wife. But the beating was later in the night. My shift was still fresh and new.
Our Gulf War guy came in and ordered a beer and a pulltab. Ripped open the pulltab right away. Loser, of course. He ordered another beer and a pulltab, chugged half the beer in one swallow. Put his face in a hand. Stated straight ahead.
And then she walked in through the back door. Her eyes went immediately to him and she walked over as quickly as her crooked leg would take her.
“Hey, you’re still here!” she shouted, throwing her purse on the bar and sitting beside him.
“Hey!” he shouted, instinctively hugging her and then pulling away after realizing he might be going too far. He smoothed down his hair, halfway glancing at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar.
“I’ve been in the hospital. I don’t have your phone number or I woulda called.”
“Oh no, that’s fine. That’s fine,” he said, trying not to flash an inappropriate smile in the wake of her hospital visit. “Are you alright?”
“I am now. The doctor thinks I’ll be okay. I sent my brother in here to tell you about it, but Paul said he didn’t see you.”
“Well, I been here.”
“I coulda used some company in the hospital. Being sick is lonely.”
“Yeah. Can you drink? Do you want a drink?”
I moved over to see if she wanted anything—and I saw the look on his face. He had already spent his five bucks! Now that she was back, he only had half a beer to nurse and no money to spend on her. This was serious.
“Hey, Mark,” he said, obviously stressed. No one likes to ask for charity. “You think you could…put a drink on my tab?”
Everybody knows that there is no such thing as a tab at this bar. Everybody.
“No, that’s okay,” she said, fishing for her purse. “I can get my own drink.”
I saw what was going down and quickly slapped another round in front of them. “This one’s on me. Glad you’re feeling better.”
They thanked me and hunched up next to each other and started talking really closely. I went back to washing pint glasses. Knowing they probably wouldn’t be getting anything else, I forgot about them.
And then, about twenty minutes later, I hear him scream.
“Holy shit! Holy shit! I think I—oh my god. Mark!”
I took three quick steps over to these two tired people. They were looking up at me like five-year-old kids. He handed me a pulltab. A red line across three bells. I took it from him and matched his ticket to the prize key on the front of the pulltab container.
“My brother,” I told him, “you just won $125.”
“Oh my god! I’ve never won ANYTHING before!”
I counted out the money and he immediately gave me $25 back.
“Twenty percent on a pulltab. That’s standard, right? That’s fair, right?”
“Don’t worry about it man.”
“Don’t insult me. You picked the pulltab. Take the money.”
So I pocked $25 and they sat there and stared at the remaining $100.00. He counted it three times, put it in his wallet, pulled it out again, counted it again, laughed. Looked at me, looked at her, put it back in his wallet, got it out again, laughed some more. I swear, if he didn’t have a woman sitting next to him he would’ve cried.
“Hey Mark, we’re moving to a table. OK? Can we get a menu?”
Let me interject here that to almost everybody at the bar, I was the biggest asshole to ever walk the Earth. This is for many different reasons that I really don’t care to discuss at this point, but mostly because I refused to even spit in the general direction of “customer service.” The way I saw it, at that dive I had three jobs. One: I was a bartender; I poured drinks. I did this quickly and I did this well. Two: I was a bouncer. I threw out the people who needed to be thrown out. Three: I was a janitor, albeit a reluctant one. Wipe up puke enough nights in a row, and you’d become the world’s biggest asshole, too. That was the extent of my responsibility. I wasn’t a valet, a message service, a personal assistant, or a telephone operator. Last person I let use the phone stole it (Wow, now I only have to steal a base unit!). And above all, I’m not a waitress. I don’t go near the tables. If you were brave enough to order dinner or drinks in the shadows of this shithole, you could certainly march your ass up to the bar and order them yourself. When your food is up, I will be gracious enough to turn down the jukebox and scream “Order Up!” No one tipped worth shit and I definitely felt better with a large hunk of wood separating me from my clientele. I didn’t care if the other bartenders went out to the tables. They get run like little dogs. They’re too busy taking orders to get back behind the bar, then the people at the bar start getting huffy, and all of a sudden you’ve got fifteen drinks that need to go out. You’re stuck in a loop of shouted orders and sloppy deliveries—and then there was bringing back change and running credit cards and picking up the slips and—screw that. Perambulate yer huge gut up to my barmat and order. I’m completely deaf once I walk onto the floor. Don’t bother to talk to me. Ever. I don’t care if you turn red, if smoke shoots from all yer orifices, if you loudly announce that you are going to use your consumer superpowers to get me fired. You will not get me fired because I am the only person who has lasted for more than two months at the job and the big, lazy dickhead of an owner ain’t gonna chop down his sturdiest whipping post unless the cash register starts coming up short—and that’s why God invented video cameras.
If you want a nice dinner, head on up to Sizzler. Sizzler doesn’t make you pay as you order. Sizzler doesn’t charge $.50 for a pack ketchup. Sizzler probably doesn’t have dead rats rotting behind the food coolers. The chef at Sizzler probably isn’t kicking a huffing addiction and may not routinely lose band-aids in the chili. I know all this about Sizzler not because I’ve ever eaten at one, but because it seemed to be the yardstick that all complaining customers held up as the pinnacle of dining excellence. “I don’t get treated like this at Sizzler,” will be, in all likelihood, the most humorous sentence spoken to me all night. Please, I will tell you, please go to Sizzler then. This is a piece of shit dive bar and I am an asshole who hates my life and does not give one fuck if you live or die. Consider yourself lucky I’m not dragging my balls through your tartar sauce. (NOTE TO SELF: Try to get through an entire column without mentioning “balls” or “tartar sauce.”)
But, eh. This guy had just given me $25. Plus, I felt pretty happy for him that his girl came back.
“You guys sit down, I’ll bring out your drinks.”
And I went into waiter mode. They both ordered steak dinners—baked potato, salad with ranch, buttered rolls, the whole deal. I snuck a few shots of rum to Joan the Zombie Cook, trading booze favors for some generosity on the plates. Jesus Christ—don’t just flop those taters down, Joan! Make ’em look nice! And let’s give the lovely couple free ice cream for dessert. After weeks of breaking up fights, throwing out drunks, pretending to call the police three times a night, and generally watching civilization melt, crumble, and collapse upon itself, a little humanity felt good.
At this lovely bar, you were supposed to pay when you received your food. Even when sitting down for dinner. Classy, huh? (A note left by the owner after I questioned this uncomfortable practice: “Once they stop acting like animals, we’ll stop treating them like animals.”) He went for his wallet as I brought out the food, but I waved him off. It’s a shitty way to treat people. They eat. I go back a few times to check on them.
“Would you like some more water?” he kept asking her. She clued in. He wasn’t comfortable spending this dough. She was polite and didn’t ask for anything he didn’t offer. I dug out a carafe from some back storage room and filled it full of ice water and put it on the table with a couple of wine glasses. He kept refilling her glass, twisting his wrist at the end of the pour.
They sat at that table for hours. Drinking water and talking. They came up to the bar together to pay. He tried to tip me again. I told him that it’s bad luck to tip on the same money twice. That was good enough for him.
“I want you to meet my mom,” he said as they walked towards the front door of the bar. “I think you’d like her.”
They stopped their daily drinks and started coming in once a week for the Thursday steak-night special. They looked good together. They cleaned each other up. Maybe he took his new confidence and parlayed it into a job. Maybe moved in with her. Amazing what slapping another person into your life can do. Add a little luck, and shit could get downright tolerable. Rugged individualism? A boring myth best left in the last century. Gimme a warm body to sleep next to any day.
I mean, he probably ended up killing her, but ain’t life sweet sometimes?
12/12 Book Update: I just got off the phone with Steve Harringer, my personal service representative at the Minnesota printing plant, and my books are gonna be ready for pickup Tuesday morning. I’ve arranged the truck. Four days of transit and the books will be hitting the Seattle shipping center Friday 12/19. And then I will unsheathe the mighty handtruck Sexcalibur and LET THE EAT ATTACK BEGIN!
You know how UHAUL has those trucks that have “$19.99 Special!” printed on the side, and then you read the small print and it says “for the first hour” and then your bill always ends up being like $60? GOD AS MY WITNESS, I WILL SUCCESSFULLY RENT A UHAUL TRUCK AND PAY $19.99! And then, as a secondary mission, I will bring the books back to my apartment and stuff them into waiting envelopes. Hey, Mr. Postman. Get ready. I got 200 packages of unadulterated filth, and I’m dropping them off on yer watch!
If you haven’t yet bought a copy of my novel, Just Another Empire, you’d best go here and buy one before I run out and you look like a big, dumb, hairy chumpmonster.