The Birthday Surprise

I was standing behind the bar a full half hour before anyone stepped foot into Marlin’s Inn.

H.L. was first.  He dropped a five on the counter in front of me and dug in his pocket for change to use in the jukebox.  Of course, he selected some Warren Zevon and proceeded to the MegaTouch.  He paid no mind to me; he was lost in a myriad of puzzles and games.  I filled a clean ashtray with quarters and put it next to him.  Eventually I remembered to fix him a drink.

Within another half hour, Kilgore arrived.  He hung his coat on the rack, whistling all the way to his bar stool.  I made sure he had enough napkins earlier, and sure enough, out came his pen and after a click, scribbling ensued.  I also poured him some spirits without being prompted.

Another half hour passed, and someone unexpected dropped in.  He took his place in front of the spigots, and without hesitation I held out an empty mug.

Thanks, Hank said, and he poured himself a beer.

I leaned against the back of the counter and smiled. 

Everything was smooth. 

Everything was cool.

Everything was how it should be.

Holy shit!  What the hell are you doing here?  Hank shouted in reference to me, as if I had been invisible, or– I thought you were Santiago.

Kilgore and H.L. pried themselves from their distractions to acknowledge me.

I wondered why there were so many napkins, Kilgore said.

And I didn’t have to pick up my coins off the floor, H.L. added.

Where is that refugee anyway?  Hank would never have said that to Santiago’s face.  Nor his back.  To Santiago’s fist?  Definitely.

“He went out to find Ms. Barkley.”

They all howled at that response.

I clarified, “Well, that’s just my guess, anyway.”

With great authority, Hank had this to say:

If anyone’s learned anything in this joint, it’s that a woman ain’t worth the trouble.

I foolishly responded: “Why?  Did Grace leave you?”

Hank stood up on the rungs of his stool to tower over me.  If it weren’t for these other pair of fools needing service – cuz I sure as hell don’t – grace would be leaving me, and you’d be leaving in a trash can.  You understand me, Puss N’ Boots?

I had gotten so used to Hank, that my fear of him had left me.  Guess what came back in a hurry.

Oh, and guess who walked into Marlin’s Inn at the exact moment to hear that.

If you ever threaten my son again, you’ll be leaving in coffee cans.

Hank returned to his seat and turned around.  The other guys faced the fragile woman in the doorway.

All I could think to say was, “Happy Birthday, Mom.”

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The Warm Whiskey Shot

I returned to Marlin’s Inn feeling like a new man.  If time can mend a broken… who am I kidding?  I was still a mess, but I wasn’t going to show it.

The day’s were longer now, so it felt strange to enter the bar and have my eyes adjust from leaving the sunlight.  I blinked at the coat rack, and looked at it twice before remembering I wasn’t wearing one.  Spring was finally here, or at least it was close enough.

Hank and Grace were seated at the same table.  I wondered if it was “their table,” but instead of making a meaningful exchange, I nodded as I passed them.  Grace raised her glass; Hank just looked at me.  Whatever that meant.

My eyes weren’t fully adjusted until I reached the bar and discovered Ellis was sitting in my spot.  I could have asked him to move, but I was in good enough spirits not to let it grate on me.  So I sat in Hank’s old spot.

Thank goodness you’re here, my co-worker began.  There’s so much I need to chat about that we can’t chat about at work.

There was probably more of a reason that I didn’t chat with Ellis than simply being at work.

My girl’s left me.  Again, Aiden.

Instantly, I’d had it.  New Aiden wasn’t going to put up with this.  “Which girl, Ellis?  Huh?  Which girl left you?”

The love… the love of my life.

“Did I ever meet her?”

I never brought her in here.

“Then pardon me when I don’t give a damn.”  I threw a look at Santiago, and he handed me a shot of whiskey.  It was warm, and while I was hoping for a beer, I slammed it anyway, down the gullet, over and onto the counter.

Ellis nodded beside me.  Understanding?  Perhaps.

I barely looked over at Kilgore.  He waved his pen.

I barely looked over at H.L.  He was lost in his game on the MegaTouch.

I didn’t look back at Hank.  But I’d like to think he would have gestured, too.

As I sat in my self-congratulation, the warm whiskey chilling in my throat decided it didn’t like being there, and it shot back out through my nose.

The Escapists

H.L. and I are not cut of the same cloth.  I, on one hand, strive to fit into the machine, or at least find my place in it.  At least that’s what I tell myself when I’m trying to make sense of everything.  He, on the other hand, absolutely does not fit.

In fact, I always thought that if he could find a way to disable the machine, he would.  But he – like life – is full of surprises.

The last time I had any kind of social exchange with Horselover Fat, it didn’t go too well, in my opinion.  Since then, he’s offered to erase my memory possibly, and he’s rocked the mic on St. Paddy’s Day, so has my opinion of him changed much?  I’d say yes.  Bringing beer to my home just as I’m running out helps, too.

“I didn’t expect to see anybody, let alone you,” I told H.L. upon his arrival.  I had stayed away from Marlin’s Inn for a week.  I had my reasons.  And I had my reasons to turn him away, too, but he had twenty-four reasons to stay.  I invited him indoors and lead him into the kitchen.  There was no way that beer was getting warm.

I told you, those guys have been bumming me out lately.  Hank has his GraceSantiago has his Kat.

“So they are an item!”

An item is singular, so yes… they are singular.  Everyone’s mind is preoccupied.

“Don’t you usually occupy yourself,” I said, emptying the case into the fridge, making sure to hand H.L. a can and put one on the side for myself.

The MegaTouch runs on energy.

I waited for him to say more, but he didn’t.  He simply cracked open his brew and wandered back into my living room.

Is this that video game system where you can bowl and play tennis and box?

Having finished the aluminum transfer, I answered by handing a wireless controller to H.L.  “You bet your Wii it is.”

He had a ball.  And his glee was contagious.  I hadn’t touched the system for awhile now, but the absence in deed made the heart grow fonder.  We played every sport and every competition and every co-play on every disc that I had.  But I started getting sleepy, and I turned the regular game play over to him.

The last thing I remember him saying as I dozed off was:

What does it mean when your Wii glows blue?

It made me chuckle on my way to dream land.  The next morning I awakened on time for work, and early enough to the puttering of a go-cart engine outside.  H.L. was nowhere in sight in my living room, so I rushed to the window to see him riding one of these away:

barstool

I was surprised… but I equally wasn’t.

The Bomb

To begin, I don’t know how I made it to work the morning after St. Paddy’s Day.  I awoke, feeling new and stone sober, and even at an earlier time than I do on any other given day of the week.  All without feeling sick.

Then lunchtime came.  And so did my hangover, but it was more in my head than my stomach.  I muscled through the remainder of the day, and I promised myself I’d go home and get a good night’s sleep, but curiosity was getting the best of me.  I wanted to know more about Ms. Kat Barkley, the proprietor of Marlin’s Inn, and possible paramour of Santiago.

I’d only go in for a drink, I told myself.  Or two.  Then I’d leave.

Upon arriving at the Inn after work, a surprise awaited.  There once was a time where I enjoyed surprises, but that time has long passed.

How’s it going, kid.  Hank had returned.  He was at least back at the bar, but instead of his seat in front of the taps, he now resided at the table where the Lovebirds usually nested.  And he wasn’t alone.

Hiya, Aiden He was with his possible paramour, Grace.  I still couldn’t believe he was spending time with my ex’s future grandmother-in-law, in any capacity.

I merely nodded at the pair and headed to my stretch of lacquered wood between liquored friends.  Santiago handed me a beer, but I couldn’t take it.  I couldn’t take any of it.  I mean, I no longer felt sick.  It was the situation that was wearing me down.

Hank abandoned this place.  He ditched us to play bingo and drink at some other dive.  And he was going to just come back in here without consequence? 

I looked at H.L.  His eyes were glued to what else but MegaTouch.

I looked at Kilgore.  He scribbled away without incident.

I took a swig of my beer as I looked at Santiago.  He merely raised his eyebrows.

So I slammed my mug down and walked back over to Hank and GraceGrace’s arms were flailing about, animating her most likely boring story.

“Excuse me,” I said.  I guess I’m even polite when I’m angry.

Oh, honey, I was just about to tell Hanky here my big news, so you can hear it too. 

Goodness, I thought, could this woman be anymore annoying?  Well, the answer was yes, because she grabbed one of Hank’s hands and took one of mine.  Shaking both of them firmly, she said:

I’m gonna be a great-grandma!

That’s when it all hit me.  “I’m going to throw up now.”

The Next Round

This is where I’m supposed to be.  At Marlin’s Inn.  Drinking some beer.  Watching TV and shooting the turd, as Kilgore likes to say.

I was going to confront the others about the bingo hall bait-and-switch they pulled on me, but the first thing said upon my return.

We went to a different bingo hall to get your mind off of things.  Santiago said it.  I believed him.

Unsure of whether I would make it back or not, Kilgore doodled this:

napkinwheresaiden

I was going to tease him and say I wasn’t Santiago, so why the upside-down question mark?  Cubans use upside down question marks, don’t they?

But the truth and the fact of the matter was that the diagram fit me to a T.  I felt like an upside-down question mark.  My life has been in a constant state of flux, and I don’t have the capacitor to deal with it.  Sorry.  We were just watching that time travel movie from the 80’s at the bar.

I didn’t know if that’s what inspired H.L. to approach me, but he came up and asked, What if I told you I was working on a device that could erase your memories so you wouldn’t have to keep dealing with them?

And I told him, “I’d tell you that if it worked, I might be interested in it.”

And he told me, What if I told you I already tested it on you guys, and it kinda sorta worked?  I’m just getting some kinks out.

And I said, “What?”

H.L.simply grinned and returned to his MegaTouch.  I’ll keep you posted.

Hmm… I wonder.  Was he talking about that day of the mystery?

The Din

After my lunch at Pencey Cafe, you know, the one where I agreed to stand up in Ashleigh and Ryan’s impending wedding and ending up hiding in the restroom until the pair left, I headed to the only place I could find solace and advice, comfort and whiskey sours.  “I must be an idiot.  Scratch that.  I’m the king of all idiots.” 

Yup.  You’re a human being.  That was Kilgore’s attempt at a pep talk.  Same can’t be said for Horselover over there.

As if on cue, H.L. was balancing peanuts on the end of his nose and trying to catch them in his mouth.  He had returned to his old position at Marlin’s Inn, on the short side opposite Kilgore’s, smack dab in front of the MegaTouch.  And speaking of smack dab…

You know what I was thinking, fellas, Santiago began.

I didn’t know you thought, Kilgore finished.  He was in a rare mood tonight.

I might be up for a little bit of bingo tonight.  What do you say?

I knew the guys were trying to distract me from the day’s events, but heading to the place a moonlighting Ryan was prone to be hardly qualified it as a good idea.

That sounds like a good idea, Kilgore said.  Grab your coats.

“I think I’m staying,” I said, knowing I was staying.

Santiago grabbed his coat and handed me the keys.  Don’t forget to turn off all the beer signs.

And with those words, the trio abandoned me.  Like Ashleigh.  Like Hank.  Like my father.

The din of the old boob tube and the buzz of the neon tubes and the rush of the beer through the rubber tubes were the only sounds I needed.  Or so I thought.

I started patting my coat and pants pockets, searching for a crumbled napkin containing a doodle.  Finally, from inside my jacket, I dug out the map that Kilgore had drawn me one day earlier.  Upon locating it, only one word escaped my lips:

“Bingo.”

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 Aftermath

After Ryan’s appearance, I thought the proverbial cat was out of the bag.  But not a purr, meow, or roar was heard about this pussy’s lack of, well, you figure it out.

Santiago made a rare guest appearance out from behind his bar.  He started mopping and cleaning up the mess Hank had made on my behalf.

“I’ll clean up the beer,” I said.  Santiago handed me the mop and wet rag.

Hank returned to his stool and leaned over the counter to refill his mug under the spouts.  Remember to put this one on the kid’s tab.

Kilgore kept to his doodling; H.L.to his MegaTouch.  It was as if nothing ever happened.  Almost.  Meow.

Please tell me you at least got your straw sucked on.  I kept on scrubbing.  Hank audibly sighed.

I didn’t sleep with my wife until we were married.  Kilgore rarely brought up his beloved ShelleyAt least that’s what we told her parents.  My father caught us once in our youth.  We were embarrassed and were quick to cover up.  My old man turned right around and never mentioned it until on his death bed.  He told me, “Son, I didn’t know folks could have sex like that.”

H.L. slapped his hands together and cheered at his game.  His game: a spot-the-difference picture puzzle that takes its cue from strip poker.  I finally got to see her naked.

Hank, taking his cue from H.L.Tell me you saw her naked.  You were engaged to be ball-and-chain, weren’t ya?

“I once snuck a peek when she was changing into her bathing suit up at her family cabin.”

Everyone sighed and threw up their arms.  Santiago came back out from behind the bar and took away my mop and wash rag, shaking his head.  Hank rose from his seat like a hawk ready to eat its prey:

Boys, I think it’s time for a road trip.

The Punchline

One night at the bar, a discussion had arose prior to my arrival.  I know that this happens often.  In fact, it has happened for all time.  Conversations occurred before I found the gang, and they’ll continue should I outgrow the gang.  This one such chat I was made privy to only because it was revealed that I was the butt of the joke.

The exchange went a little something like this:

No doubt, it was Kilgore that started it.  Hank, what’s it like when it’s just you and Santiago in here?

Judging from the succinctness of his reported response, Hank might have followed it by slamming his drink.  Sane.

Santiago stepped away from breaking up ice.  What are you getting at Kilgore?

It’s just that I was thinking it seems a little… queer… when two guys are alone, doing something.

I would assume the barkeep and the drunk stiffened up their shoulders.  Actually, maybe just the barkeep.  Hank rolls with the punches on things like that.  H.L. was involved in his MegaTouch game, but he had his interjection: MegaTouchy subject.

Kilgore had to clarify his observation:

I wondered if there was any tension prior to H.L. and I arriving here.  Because I was thinking it’s strange that it might seem queer for two grown men to drink alone together, drive around together, or go shopping together, but if you throw in another man… it’s not.

At that point, Steve and I burst through the door and I exclaimed, “Sorry we’re late, but we had to drive around town and do some shopping.”

They lost it.  They beyond lost it.  It was almost like they never had it in the first place.

It didn’t matter that this happened before Christmas.