The Gambit

Hank’s still been a no show at Marlin’s Inn, and it’s been a no go for me to hit the bingo hall.

Fuck it.  There, I said it.  I don’t know why I care so much that Henry Chinaski has parted ways with the bar he’s frequented for at least fifteen years by my summation.  I don’t know why I give a damn about his opinion of me.  I couldn’t care less that he’s staying away because of something I did.

Okay, I feel completely the opposite of all that.  What’s wrong with my brain’s wiring?

Jump.  That’s the first word Hank ever said to me.  Shit or get off the pot, so to speak.

I was standing on a freeway overpass where a stretch of chain link had been stripped away.  I was positioned on the railing, my hand clasping the aluminum pole so tight my knuckles went numb.  Cars below were honking their horns.

“What?” was all I could muster.

Hank had been riding his bike.  I never turned to see him while I stood at the brink of my demise, but once I faced him I realized I had noticed him down below on the shoulder of the highway, racing to get to me.

I’ve seen a lot of stupid people do a lot of stupid things.  And most of the stupid things those stupid folks do transcend their levels of stupidity.  You look like a smart guy, and jumping into traffic is fucking idiotic.  I’ve never seen such a fucking distance between bright and foolish as this.  So like I said.  Shit or get off the pot.  But know this – whatever she did to you, you’re going to do a hell of a lot worse to somebody down there.  As pretty as she may have been, what you’re aiming to do ain’t.

At the time, I didn’t know how he knew.  As soon as I wavered back toward the bridge’s concrete, he grabbed me to help me down.  This septuagenarian asshole was telling me to jump.  As I thanked him, he hit me in the back of the head.

What the fuck were you thinking?  He was visibly shaken, and when the reality of what almost happened set in for me, I was shaking.  Why don’t you come with me to this little place I hang out and get a drink? 

It’s funny, though.  Since Hank left, I haven’t much thought about Ashleigh.

At least until that night she called.

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…The Words Right Outta My Mouth

I had been thinking about going for awhile now.  When at work.  When at home.  When up at Marlin’s Inn.  But in reality, actions speak louder than words, and words speak louder than intentions.  So in reality – I was still on the “words” part of whether I’d go find and talk to Hank.

For the past week, Hank has been basically acting like a baby.  Those are Santiago’s words – not mine.

Also Santiago’s words:

Besides, if he’s finished with here, he has a tab to close!

I never understood the concept of a running tab at a place as dinky as this.  I’m sorry.  I love the Inn, but it’s a shit-hole.  And I’m just one of the turds swimming in it as long as it lasts.  Those are Kilgore’s words – not mine.

Also Kilgore’s words:

When the powers-that-be decide to flush, I’ll see where the pipes take me.

I mean, what if Hank had died instead of taking up bingo, seemingly full time?  I’m sure if he even has a will, paying off his debt at the local hangout is nowhere to be seen, signed, and carried out.  Who has time for foolish games like bingo anyway?  Those are H.L.’s words – not mine.

More of H.L.’s words:

I haven’t even told you guys about the pink light yet… right?

Someone once told me this: 

It takes two people to forge a bond.  It only takes one to break it. 

Those are Hank’s words – not mine.

The Zinger

The little hand on the beer-logo clock were making their second round for the day.  Hank had not shown up for the second day in a row.  And I was starting to second guess my actions.

When Ashleigh and I “hooked up” on Valentine’s Day, I hadn’t thought about the fact that I was helping her cheat on the man she cheated on me with.  And to Hank – that’s a major no-no.  But so much so that he refused to return to Marlin’s Inn?

H.L. had taken Hank’s seat next to me and he tried to pull our absent comrade’s ol’ tap pull trick.  But Santiagowould have none of it.  Every time H.L.’s short arms reached over for a self-served refill, Santiago would actually slap the top of his hand.

Kilgore sighed heavily apropos of nothing, and he engaged me apropos of something.  You want to know where Hank is, don’t you kid?

I shifted in my seat.  The silence over the last two days was deafening.  I didn’t realize how much that walking pile of negativity lit up the place.

Remember when your old teacher stopped up here to speak with Hank?

Of course, I remembered.  It was that night I became no different than Ryan.  He stole Ashleigh away from me; I borrowed her back.

I’ve been meaning to save this bit of info to rub it in one day.  Give him the old Caribbean jerk ribbing he gives all of us.

“What is it that they talked about, Kilgore?”

He shook his head.  He really wanted to save this savory fact for later: He plays bingo.  Ryan does, too.

The rock that was Santiago cracked first.  H.L. took his distraction as an opportunity to refill his own mug.

“You’re telling me the pair of them go to crowded halls full of smoking seniors, pull out their fuzzy troll dolls, and dot their liquid dabbers, all in the name of small cash prizes?”

I trailed him there once.  I think they both agreed to keep each other’s secret.

I couldn’t believe it.  None of us could.  Bingo seemed like something H.L. would do.  Maybe even Kilgore, or Santiago.  But Hank?

Santiago actually made a joke.  It wasn’t accurate, but it surprised us:

Do people moan when they call O-69?

The Parting Words

Since my recent hook-up with Ashleigh, I’ve been dreaming about her more frequently.  I’ve called her from random phone lines once or twice.  Okay, three times, but I’ve hung up before either she could answer or her voice mail would pick up.

Calling her is like sticking your face in a frying pan to see if the bacon’s done.  You’re supposed to stand still and watch and wait and see.  Kilgore had been giving the best advice since the entire affair, meaning the fling thing, occurred.  Hank’s remained uncharacteristically silent.  He hasn’t even been telling me to shut the fuck up much, or calling me a pussy.

You could get trichinosis if you don’t.  H.L.’s words sent a shiver through me.  We hadn’t used protection.

I stood up, worried.  “How would I know if I had an STD?”

Hank guffawed.  Well, first you would have had to fucked someone, or something.

“But I did.”

He chortled this time and then faced me.  When?

“On Valentine’s Day.  Where the hell have you been?”

Hank stopped to process the last weeks worth of conversations and occurrences.  You mean to tell me you weren’t just whining again because she showed up at our home base?  He called Marlin’s Inn our home base.

Santiago stepped forward and pointed around the corner to where the ladies restroom exists like temple to our–

Hank slapped me in the back of my head.  You don’t go fooling around with another man’s woman.  Even if that other man fooled around with her when she was your woman.  Hank dug in his pocket and pulled out a twenty.  Here ya go, Cuban.  He called Santiago that whenever he tipped well, because Santiago basically said he could.  He placed it on the counter as he removed his coat from the cushioned seat beneath him.

We all watched in wonder as he made his way toward the exit.  He looked back at me and said:

You don’t shit in a man’s shoes, and then tell him to walk a mile in ’em.

After he was gone, and we realized he most likely wasn’t coming back, Kilgore asked us, Did anybody get that?

Unfortunately, I did.

The Right Buttons

A week had passed and despite the weak moment in my recent past, I was doing great.

That’s me practicing lying to myself, and I’m doing great.

That’s me lying to myself and not believing a word of it, much less what Ashleigh did to me, or with me, I guess.

You got to man up about it, son.  I managed to pull Kilgore aside as he was the most approachable of the guys.  I had promised my whining was over, and then I had to eat my words and promise again, to which I… well, you get the drift.  The last time I promised to stop bringing up the girl I was set to wed, I actually kind of meant it.  Then she literally walked back into my life.  She didn’t use you.  You didn’t use her.  These kinds of things happen.  Normally they happen when you’ve been dating for five years–

“–Six.”  We both realized I shouldn’t have corrected him.

My opinion… consider what happened as closure.  She wanted to know what it would be like to be with you, and her chance foolishly followed her into the ladies room.  The same goes for you.  My face must have given too much away, because Kilgore’s expression responded in kind.  You didn’t have sex with her.

“I did.  But it… it didn’t… last…”

It happens.  Forget about it.  At least you guys…

Kilgore and I had lingered at the jukebox long enough to spurn Hank from his stoic misery.  You two done fooling around over there?

After signaling “what Hank said” with a doubled-handed gesture, Kilgore made a few quick button selections as my pride, already past my gullet and through my stomach, was entering my small intestines.  I shook my head no.  “She was too busy crying to make out, or anything.  She just kind of sat in my lap… and took over.”

He wrapped his lower lip over his moustache, then popped his lips.  You’re not thinking about… ending things, are you?

“No.”

You’re still not thinking about doing anything crazy since I asked about it, right?

“No…”

So he slow-punched me in the arm and returned to his seat at the bar, leaving me to stew in my thoughts another night, as this song started to play:

Sure, I picked it before Kilgore made his choices, but still…

The Stunner

The spirits were high at the ol’ Inn.  It was almost as if some kind of happy gas had been let loose on us unsuspecting patrons.  Considering the way H.L. was acting extra nonchalant, he might have actually released some variant of nitrous oxide into the air.

Any of you guys ever pull “The Stunner?” Hank asked of everyone.  I’ve seen the man as drunk as a Hasselhoff, but his demeanor was less mean than usual.

“I’m afraid to ask what that is,” I said because I didn’t want to ask.

Oh Hankerchief, please tell me you’re not about to go on another one of your kinky diatribes.  Kilgore shared the same fear I did.  And man, there really must have been something in the air, because even Santiago was smiling ear-to-ear, and I didn’t think his face could do that.

This one’s clean.  This one’s clean.  I swear it.  Hank started laughing.  Nervously, Kilgore and I joined in his distraction.  I wanted to check on H.L. and Santiago, but tears were filling my eyes for no real reason.  Unless there were fumes that I was reacting to.

Hank explained:

“The Stunner” is as simple and as brilliant as this.  When you’re driving, and another car wants to merge, or turn, or cut you off in some fashion or manner, but they’re being polite about it.  You know, they’re looking back, turn signal’s flashing.  So what you do is this – wave ’em ahead.  Be polite right back and offer to let them pass.  Then just as they wave to thank you, flip them the biggest, fattest, meanest bird you can.  One that doesn’t require a horn for emphasis.  You’ll freeze ’em right in their tracks.  “The Stunner.”

Proud, Hank leaned back as far as one could in a stool, shifted his spine upright, and then slouched back over the counter.

“I might actually try that.”

Let it be known, the Stunned One is likely to give chase.  They’ll follow you for miles and miles.  Then when you stop and get out of your car, they’ll beat the living turd out of you.

“Did  you get beat up, Hank?”

No!  That’s how I met H.L.  He invented it.

I looked at H.L.behind his MegaTouch for confirmation.  His explanation: I was having one of those days.  Then he disappeared from his usual spot and headed over toward the bar’s HVAC room.  He emerged a few minutes later with a small canister which he tucked swiftly into his overcoat pocket.

The Threat

After Hank stopped me from leaving Marlin’s Inn that fateful Valentine’s Night, no one had much more to say to me.  It was closing in on closing time, and Santiago already shut off the neon bar signs and was moving onto the TV’s.  The cabs outside were honking, but they’d wait – we all tipped well.

H.L.won a free game on the MegaTouch system and was milking it for all he could.

Kilgore crumbled up a couple of his drawings and slipped them into his pocket as he stood to approach Hank, who was sitting beside me.

So what’d you and the pooper scooper have to say to each other?  Wait, the pooper scooper’s the other one.  What’d we call the slimebag? Kilgore asked him, speaking first of Ellis, then of Ryan.

Nothing of importance. 

Hank’s response caused Kilgore to pat my back.  He doesn’t mean you’re not important, Aiden.

Shit, Hank said, coming alive as he spun around.  If we’d talked about him, I’d have said we shot the shit!  Meaning he – a gracious thumb pointed at me to clarify – was the shit we were shooting.

That’d be a fun game, H.L. muttered.  Shooting shit.  On the MegaTouch or in real life.

Are you done yet? Santiago wondered.

I just won another game.

Kilgore put up his hands.  Why so defensive, old friend?  It’s almost as if you’re… hiding something.  I faced Kilgore as he backed away toward the exit and the awaiting taxi.  He held his hands in the air and wore the biggest grin I’ve ever seen on him.

Hank harrumphed and spiraled back toward the beer tap.  Santiago grabbed the spigot before he could.  Their mutual stare-down was a short-lived showdown.

H.L. and Hank split the next taxi, and instead of letting me walk home, Santiago offered me a ride.  He drove a noble Cadillac Brougham, as mint as it was in ’85, just like he said.  It was the same color burgundy as the couch in the ladies restroom where Asheigh and I had our “fling” I need to decipher.

We didn’t really talk much as we drove down the road, but we hardly spoke at the bar either.

I had him drop me off in front of my apartment complex.  As I got out, he had this to say to me:

If you made a mess that you did not clean in “there,” understand that I will kill you.

The Suck

After my – would it be called a tryst? – with Ashleigh, I gathered my coat and said not a word to any of the old men I’d come to call my friends.  They had been there for me through my breakup, whether by choice or proximity, and I betrayed every hard-nosed truth they taught me.  I…

Wait.  A tryst is a pre-arranged meeting.  It wasn’t a tryst, because it wasn’t planned.  It was an affair.

So anyway, I felt deplorable, because here I thought I was over Ashleigh

Wait another second.  An affair sounds like it’s a continuing, well, affair.  I don’t know what any of anything means now or then.  What’s the word I’m thinking of?

A fling.  We had a fling.  While I was gathering my coat and these thoughts, I hadn’t heard Hank yelling from the squeaking, rocking ceiling fan.  Figuratively, of course.  If you even tried dusting that fan, I’m sure it’d fall.

Hey Aiden, Hank called to me when I finally heard him.  He might have spit a hundred-and-one versions of the word pussy out of his mouth, or he might have shouted my name once.  My thoughts were in a void, like in one of those chemical goop balloons you stick a straw in to blow them up.

“Yeah, Hank,” I responded. 

I never heard Hank quite so eloquent:

Sit your ass down and forget about her.  I know it feels like your world’s collapsing, but you can’t rebuild it while it’s falling apart.  You just got to let it fall to pieces before you get back to putting up that roof.

The Party’s Over

It all happened so fast.

It’s funny, but athletes and spectators of tragedies will often report how time slows down in the midst of magnificence.  Details pop and movement becomes unreal.  Senses are heightened to the levels of our cave dwelling ancestors.  The mind records and processes and reacts simultaneously.  Whatever it is that causes that – I wish you could choose when it’s enabled.

Walking in on Ryan and Ashleigh those many months ago, catching them in the throes of betrayal.  I’ve mentioned Ryan’s half brother to my best friend, but have I made it known he was also my teacher?  But that’s neither now nor then.  What I want to say is that moment lasted too long.  I remember too much without trying.

Then flashback to that moment on Valentine’s Day when she showed up with him.  I felt like a car battery was strapped to my nuts, and my hands were covered in cardboard cuts getting dunked in pickle juice.  For whatever reason, Ryan wanted to make amends with Hank.  And I needed to bring closure with Ashleigh.  So I followed her into the ladies restroom at Marlin’s Inn.

I burst through the door without a knock.  “What are you doing here?”

And there she sat, on the faux leather couch, crying.  I’ve made a mistake.

I sat beside her to console her.  The wreckage and melted steel pacified the bomb.  And she planted her nuclear lips on mine.  The remainder of my weakened frame collapsed and folded upon her.  Yada yada.  As I mentioned before… we did it.

She reassembled herself much quickly than I ever could have, and she slipped out of the bathroom.  Like I said at the start, it all happened so fast.

As I remained on the burgundy travesty from the late 60’s, maybe early 70’s, one half of the Lovebirds entered.  You can guess which half.

Don’t mind me, the Princess blurted, not minding me as she hurried into a stall.  I held my head in my hands – and get your mind out of the gutter – while she unabashedly relieved her bladder.  You know you’re the talk of the Inn, right?

The level of “uncomfortable” was rising within me, and I decided to stand and leave without making a sound.

You can’t stay while I tinkle and expect a free pass to leave when I’m done.  Hold on.

“I’m sorry, but I didn’t mean to stay.”

The roller squeaked and the toilet flushed and the Princess emerged and approached the sink, smiling at me all the while.  You two…?  And she whistled her insinuation.  I didn’t answer.  I had a feeling.  She grabbed a healthy dose of paper towels and dried her hands.

I must have seemed like an idiot to her, hiding in the ladies restroom, hiding from Ashleigh, from Ryan, and the gang.  I was even trying to hide from this woman before me.

Hey listen, she demanded, and I looked at her.  Whereas the first time I met her, I thought she might have been five to ten years older than me.  But at this second glance… two years tops.  You’re not going to get a lot of women’s opinions if you hang out in a place like this, but let me fill you in on a secret.  We’re just as confused as you.

I finally was able to stand and face the Princess.  I don’t know why I said this: “You wear too much makeup.”

She laughed and tilted her head signalling beyond the confines of the water closet.  He likes it.  And so do I for now.

“But you’re getting married.”

She grinned one last time before leaving.  You don’t listen very well.

I lingered another moment or so, letting the food digest before diving back in the water with the marlins.  By the time I returned to my place at the bar, the party had ended.  No more Ellis and his date.  The Lovebirds flew the coop.

I joined Hank back at the bar, where Kilgore and H.L. also sat in wait.

So… the usually silent Santiago began… did you fall in?

The Valentine’s Day Massacre

It was Valentine’s Day, and this was how the universe chose to wish me a well one.  Perhaps I shouldn’t inflate Ryan Antolini’s hot air balloon-sized ego and put him in the same company as the powers that be… so it’s exclusively Ryan’s fault he showed up at Marlin’s Inn with Ashleigh Hayes, the woman I was supposed to marry.

Ryan, let’s leave.  Ashleigh tugged on his coat sleeve with a weak grasp.  If she truly wanted to leave, she would have grabbed his hand.  I know.

Hold on.  I need to make nice with some new friends I crossed the last time I was here.  She pouted as she threw her arms down, then quickly tucked them into a fold.  Ryan faced her.  All I need is a second, Ashleigh.

I had my back to the bar since their unexpected arrival, facing the expanse of the joint.  At the mere mention of the name, Ashleigh, Kilgore and H.L. emerged from the billiard’s closet, and Hank perked up from his slouch beside me.

Did that sunuvabitch just say what I thought?  Hank turned around as Ryan approached him, and not me.

Old man, I think we got off on the wrong foot.  Ryan extended his hand to shake Hank’s.

Hank wanted nothing to do with it.  That ain’t your foot.

Distraught, Ashleigh rushed toward the restroom sign.  She was crying, and Ryan didn’t seem to notice.  I stood up and slipped away from the pair of stubborn pompous fools.  They continued to ignore me as I headed also toward the restroom sign.

I’m trying to make a peace offering, Ryan explained, open palm still out and up.

You’re lucky, Hank began.  I no longer smoke.  He imitated putting out a cigarette in Ryan’s hand, and I darted around the corner.

The remainder of what happened between those two I’d have to hear second hand, so to speak.  And what happened between Ashleigh and I?  Well, I haven’t quite figured that out myself.

What I can tell you is this:

  • The ladies room in the Marlin’s Inn is way nicer and cleaner that I ever would have guessed.
  • They actually have a couch in there.
  • Ashleigh kept saying she made a big mistake…
  • …but I don’t know if that’s because she left me for Ryan
  • …or because, how can I put this eloquently?

We did it.