Back With The Old Men

It was my first day back to Marlin’s Inn

Yeah, there was that whole bit about me being in prison for lighting the bar on fire to prevent my mother from stabbing Hank with a busted catsup bottle, but that was all behind me.

It was around noon on a Tuesday like that one song by that one California singer that dated that bicycle guy, and I entered ever so casually.

The guys were having this conversation:

Kilgore: Sedentary is how you live your life.

Hank: It’s sedimentary!  Like how rocks are collected bits of sediment!  If your ass don’t move off your couch, you become a stalactite!

H.L.: How do you guys spell “cemetery”?

Kilgore: A stalagmite would grow out of a couch.  G for ground.  C for ceiling.

Santiago: I spell cemetery as S-E-M-A-T-A-R-Y.  No, no.  It starts with a C.

Hank: What the fuck are you talking about, Fish?  C is for couch.

Kilgore: Stalactites and stalagmites!

H.L.: I think you’re right.

Hank: I know I’m right.

H.L.: No, Santiago’s right.

Kilgore: No, he’s not.  None of you are.

I stood behind them as the battle reached an apex consisting of silence.  Santiago turned to the speaker controls behind him.  Unbeknownst to me, the jukebox had been playing this:

Kilgore angled t0 face me from his side of the bar.  We dropped about ten bucks in there waiting for you.

Hank didn’t face me and grumbled.  Not counting the twenty yesterday.

I didn’t realize I missed the place as much as I did. 

And vice versa.

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Pass Me The Donut Cushion

After two weeks behind bars, you forget about the woes waiting for you outside.  You spend all your time focusing on the good times, because your bad times are front and center. 

So what?  You lit Marlin’s Inn on fire

So what?  You found out your dad left your home because your alcoholic mother stabbed him.

So what?  I can’t really top those two so whats.

So those were my woes.  But also I forgot about my whoa’s.

Ah, young Aiden.  I hope they treated you well.

I exited the police station expecting to be excited, but instead I felt exacerbated.  My emancipator was none other than: “Hi Grace.  How did you–?”

I’m a judge.  Well, I used to be.  Didn’t Hank ever tell you?  Or my grandsons?

Her grandsons being my childhood friend that we now call Steve, and his douchebag brother, Ryan.  I don’t even feel like getting into it.

Oh, I guess it never came up.

“But how did you–?”

How did I know?  Let’s just say a little birdie called me up, out of the blue, and asked me if I could help.

Hank.  That lovable bastard. 

Kilgore once described him best: Henry “Hank” Chinaski might come across as dire case of torching hemorrhoids.  But his kit still includes the ointment and that blow up donut cushion.

“Well, I’m going to have make sure to thank that little birdie.”

Don’t just thank him, Grace started, like a steamroller of enthusiasm.  She raised up her left hand and revealed a diamond-encrusted band around her ring finger.  Congratulate him, too!

She did get me out of jail, so I let her hug me.

But I sure fought the urge to flip my little birdie.

The Surprise Visitor

Prior to getting sprung from the coop, a group of my friends was supposed to visit me.  

It ended up being only Kilgore Trout.

Don’t act so excited to see me, kiddo. 

I had been locked up for almost two weeks, and I didn’t know when I’d see the light of day… other than through the bars of my very small cell window.  And on the way to, and while in, the meeting room.

“It’s not that I’m not happy to see you, Kilgore.  I thought, you know, it’d be everybody.  The guard mentioned I had people that wanted to see me.”

Yeah, that’s the thing about the thing.  Santiago, Hank, and H.L. were all set on heading up here.  But then I found out Santiago wanted to do you physical harm…

I watched for a smile to pass across his lips.  It did not.  Gulp.

…Hank decided he had to see a man about a horse…

This was Hank’s way of saying mind your business, I’m busy.

And H.L. made it as far as the doorway, but he opted out when he saw there was a metal detector.

It didn’t matter.  I was glad someone was there.  Anyone.  Whether my ex, Ashleigh, came back, or my mom.  It could have been Steve, or his good for naught brother Ryan.  I mean, of course, my great friend Ryan, for whom I will be standing up in his wedding to Ashleigh.  How stupid am I?

And I don’t mean to discount Kilgore’s appearance.  It was just, up to that point, we really hadn’t had any extra bonding time.  There was no bonus personal link.  Hank saved my life.  H.L. tries to invent things to make me forget about the woes in my life.

That’s when my next door neighbor and fellow inmate walked in – Eddie Dantes.

The guards told me you were here, but I knew in my gut it wasn’t to see me.

I stared at Eddie in mild confusion, and then faced Kilgore.  We were the only two people in the suffocating room.

Hello… son.

Guards Of Many Kinds

While I was spending a bit of time doing time for basically what amounts to overreacting, I was visited by a few people in my life.  Most were expected, though they appeared later than expected.  And one was completely unexpected.  Wait, completely is not quite right.  Utterly unexpected works better.  No.  Absolutely.

Hi, Aiden. 

There was a point in my life when those words from that voice would bring my world crashing down around me.  I think I’m still in that point.  “Hi, Ashleigh.  What brings you to these parts?” 

We were seated across from each other at a folding table in, I guess you’d call it the meeting room.  There was no plate glass between us – but there were armed guards which might as well have been plate glass between us.  And then there’s always the awkwardness that might as well be plate glass…

I heard through the grapevine about what you did.  I used to know well the grapevine on which we hung.  It was comprised of her parents, my mom, and us.  These days – I’m not so sure what the grapevine consists of.

“It’s a technicality, me being here.  The guys told me I didn’t have much to worry about.”

So they’ve been here to see you?

They hadn’t.  “Of course they have.  Us Marlin’s Inn guys stick together.”  I hoped.  When I was being taken away in the squad car, Hank promised he’d get me out of here.  At the time, I wondered how he was doing with that…

So the plans are going great for the wedding, in case you were wondering…

I wasn’t.  “Oh yeah, that’s wonderful.  I should be out of here well before, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

No, no, no.  That’s not it at all.  I just wanted to see you, I guess.

“And you figured I couldn’t go anywhere…”

She laughed.  Oh that laugh.  So I changed the subject.  “How’s Ryan?”  Or at least I tried to.

So, Aiden… does your mom still think we’re engaged?

She did.  “No, I’ve told her.  She’s known since you left me.”

Ashleigh sighed and covered her chest, nodding as if she misinterpreted my lie for something more.  That’s good.  The way she sounded on the phone…

“She-she just probably called everybody she knows.  Which consists of you.  And of course, me.”  For the record, my mom hadn’t visited me by that point.  I remember hoping she didn’t complete her attack against Hank.

Ashleigh nodded, and she bid her farewell.  She put her hand out to touch mine, and I retracted mine away.

I blamed it on the guards.

The Count Of Bologna Sandwiches

I’m not sure what the real difference between a jail and a prison is, but I always pictured a jail to be like the one in that old black and white show where the sheriff whistles, and a prison to be like in that one cable show where guys – well, they do horrible things to each other, even if they’re in wheelchairs!

Lucky for me, after I lit a small fire in Marlin’s Inn, I was sent to jail.

As Kilgore sometimes says:

Thank J.O.D!  That stands for Jack Oliver Daniels.  I don’t know if Oliver’s his middle name, or if it’s just Ollie for that matter, but I’m thankful nonetheless.

While I was there, the guards brought me bologna on bread and bottled water.  I forgot how much I loved bologna on bread!  My mom used to make it for me all the time as a kid. 

And it wasn’t as if I was totally alone.  The guy in the cell next to me was pretty angry at the world, but we had nothing but pleasant conversations… for the most part.

His name was Eddie Dantes, and after a couple days of just eating bologna sandwiches and drinking bottled water, we got to talking.

I was in love once upon a time too, he told me.  It was so true that it felt like we were married.  My beloved Mercedes meant the world to me, and she was stolen so harshly by someone I trusted.

He would go on and on about his true love this and his true love that, so having a fresh perspective to bounce my story off of, I told him all about Ashleigh.  Our ups and downs.  Our ins and outs.  Take that whatever way you may.

His response: See what love brings?  Nothing but despair.  But let it be known… one day, I shall have my revenge.

Yeah, he kind of went on a little bit too much about avenging his lost love, but I couldn’t say I felt much different at times.

Eddie, I’m not saying I’ve achieved any closure on the matter, but couldn’t you find a more constructive way of dealing with your pain?”

What could be more pain-numbing that reciprocity?

Here’s where things got really strange, and my desire to get home increased tenfold.  I started counting down the bologna sandwiches until I got home.

“What are you planning to do, Eddie?  Well, maybe I shouldn’t know.”

It’s okay, Aiden.  You can know.  I’m going to steal my cousin’s Ferrari and smash it up just like he did.

“Um, what?”

That’s why I’m in here.  Attempted grand theft.  My cousin stole my Mercedes and flipped her over.  He totalled her, man.  I was going to the same to his car.

At that point, the guards brought us our next meal.  I really had to re-evaluate how much I loved bologna sandwiches…

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.”

The Gross, Bloody Anchor Analogy

It was a Saturday afternoon, and I only planned on stopping by Marlin’s Inn for a brief visit.  It was my mother’s birthday, and I was taking her out for dinner to celebrate in the evening.  Didn’t want to get too tipsy, or even tip a little bit, so I didn’t even start at all.

Then why go to a bar on a Saturday afternoon?  What else am I supposed to do?  Or maybe I should have answered, “to visit my friends.”

Aiden, it’s beginning to seem to me that you spend an awful amount of time at that establishment.  Because it’s close to your home is no excuse.  Mom, always looking out for my best interests.  And what does Ashleigh think about all this?  She can’t approve of her future husband’s visits to a bar on a Saturday afternoon.

Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention that I’ve yet to mention recent events to her.  Like the fact Ashleigh and I are broken up.  And the fact that Ashleigh is already engaged to another guy… our old high school teacher, as a matter of fact.  That’s a lot of facts for her to factor in.

Dare even I mention the pregnancy scare I went through, albeit alone?  Dumb me thought Ashleigh was, well, and it was, well, maybe mine.

In truth, that’s why I went to Marlin’s Inn.  That’s why I wanted to drink.  And good ol’ Mom was why I wouldn’t.

But because I didn’t, Santiago did.

None of the other guys were up there.  The bartender we knew and loved and feared was watching golf, leaning against the counter.  The daylight spilled inside as I entered, and exited quicker than I ever could.

I nodded as I approached Santiago, and he readied a beer.  “A cola, please.”  It was as much an order as a plea.

So from the fountain he readied me another glass, low on ice.  He kept the beer for himself.  I wanted to ask him if he was supposed to do that, but as I’ve already hinted… it’s kind of scary to ask him things like that.

How do you do it? he asked softly, as if he was standing on the golf course televised behind him.

I wasn’t sure what he was asking exactly, so I took a sip of my soda to by me more time.  Maybe he’d add more to the question…

When someone submerges their anchor into your soul, how can you allow them to leave without taking a bleeding chunk of still-beating heart?  He slammed the full mug he held in hand, and immediately filled it again. 

How could you release that chain, and permit it to permeate your lungs, your ribcage, your muscle, and your sinew?  How can you survive with a gaping hole in your chest cavity, dripping all that remains of you, all of your remains, onto the once already stained linoleum floor?  Bleach only cleans so much.

Ms. Kat Barkley That’s who he had to be talking about.  In the time it took me to ponder an explanation, Santiago pounded another mug of social lubrication.

It was then Santiago made his request: She cannot leave me again.  Will you watch the bar tonight?

For some reason, I replied, “Yes.”  It probably had something to do with the blood and guts analogy he described, or because he was so eloquent and heartfelt, it freaked me out.  Either way, it wasn’t like I hadn’t watched the Inn before, however short a period of time.

I pulled out my cell phone, and hit redial.

Mom,” I started in that questioning tone…

Santiago dropped the keys on the counter in front of me and pointed.  It will be better if you stand back there.

…I continued into the phone, “Do you mind if we adjust our plans?”

The Origin Of Pizza Night

At work, I received a call before quitting time.

Aiden, the voice on the other end said.

“Yeaaaahhh,” I responded taking as long as I could.  It was almost 5 o’clock.

It’s Kilgore.  Pick up a pizza on the way in.

“Why don’t you have it delivered?”

Not missing a beat:

We are.

And that’s how pizza night at Marlin’s Inn began.

By 5:05pm I was in my car. 

At 5:07, Ellis was waving at me from his car, trying to get me to roll down my window.  He even honked for my attention.  Gregory, another coworker of ours, probably thought it was because Ellis likes boobies.  That’s what the bumper sticker on Gregory’s car says to do if you like them.  But I figured, why bother?  All he was going to say was I’ll meet you at the Inn.

When the numbers 5:22 blazed from my dashboard, I was pulling into the parking lot of Moveable Feast Pizzeria.  And you’ll never guess who I ran into there…

Esme.

The Princess.  The better looking half of the couple we call the Lovebirds.  I almost didn’t recognize her sober.  I mean, me being sober.  Nothing against her.  I hadn’t seen her since St. Patrick’s Day.

She noticed me first.  Aideeennnn, she responded taking as long as she could.

“Hey Esme.  How are you?”

Hungry.  Hence waiting for some pie.  And you?

“I wouldn’t say I’m hungry.  But I’m sure I will be eventually.”  Well that was dumb.

That’s cool.  So, you heading up to the bar?

“You know it.  I live there.”

You actually live there?

“No!  No.  I meant it feels like I do.”

She laughed and pressed on.  Oh, because you know, there are some people that live in bars.  Like in the back, or upstairs.

“There’s no upstairs.”

I know.  She paused to nod.  It’s too short.

The cashier finally called her name and an end to my miserable attempt at small talk.

She pointed toward the counter.  That’s me.

Why I did what I did next I do not know.  I extended my hand.  To shake hers.  It’s weird right?

She laughed again.  I’m still not sure if it was at me or at the situation, but I was beginning to grow fond of it.  She shook my hand.  It was nice seeing you again, Aiden.

“Likewise.”

Back at Marlin’s Inn, the brood swarmed the pizza box like they hadn’t eaten for days. 

I never really got hungry, but Ellis made sure to inform me, I was trying to get your attention to say I’ll meet you here.

The Obvious And The Oblivious

As quickly as Hank had stopped frequenting the Marlin’s Inn – and as quickly as he had started again – he suddenly stopped again. 

But I was going to take it in stride; he set my worrying free.  Ashleigh wasn’t expecting, so no longer was I expecting that call: Hey, you might be the dad.

My guess is that outside of what family I know (that being Ryan and Steve), Grace has another granddaughter whose gas tank is full… that’s how Kilgore put it one time.

He said:

“Knocked up” is such a violent sounding term.  It’s like a boxer’s move, or the way to explain a failing automotive engine.  Why don’t we say a woman’s “gas tank is full?”  Or she’s “getting a new car seat?”  Heck, let’s stick with the car thing and go with “her brake lights are on.” 

Hank was still around at this point, and he had his own idea:

You could say “her headlights are getting bigger.”

He was always good for a line like that. 

As I recounted the story to Ellis, who I guess was becoming a regular at the Inn, H.L. started on about his car stool, and the way its engine knocked up sometimes.  That’s when I give it a shot of whiskey.  Cleans the works right out.

Kilgore was sure not to miss a beat: Sounds like Horselover’s car stool can handle its liquor better than you, Aiden.

I used to be able to drink the hard liquor, but until recently the my innards aren’t too into it.

Ellis tried to get in on the humor.  Yeah, Aiden, I bet the car stool could drink you under the table.

No one laughed.  I was about to insult him in the same way that Hank used to rip into me, until Santiago snorted.  He actually snorted.  Then he couldn’t breathe.  Tears filled his eyes as he tried to regain composure.  His browned leather skin turned a red I didn’t know it could. 

Ellis looked worried for Santiago, but us others were simply perplexed.  We knew his laughing was uncontrolled, but we simply did not get the joke.  And the more confused we appeared, the further he descended into hysterics. 

He gasped to explain.  We couldn’t understand.  I firmly believe Ellis didn’t even get his own joke.

What it is, Santiago?  What the hell is so damn funny? Kilgore demanded.

Santiago grasped the counter and wiped his face with the bar rag.  He inhaled deeply:

A stool goes under the table!

It was so ridiculous that it spread to us all.

Except Ellis.

Of course.

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.