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.

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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 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 Truth Sets You Free

Despite my nostril-burning whiskey shot move, I held my own at Marlin’s InnSantiago wouldn’t bring drinks to Hank and Grace, so on occasion, Hank had to approach the bar to refill his pitcher.  And since I sat where he used to, right in front of the beer taps, he had to hand the plastic pouring device to our bartender and wait.

It’s nice to see you’ve manned up and stopped being a pussy.  Hank – the proprietor of pleasantries.

“Yeah, since I’ve gained some distance and perspective on the situation, I thought I’d head back up here.”

Santiago handed the holder of hops to HankIt’s not Ashleigh, he said.

“What?” I barely managed.  I said it so slightly, I might not have said it at all.  Armed with his supply of suds, he stepped away in silence.  I spun in my seat, but Hank was already striking conversation back up with Grace.

He said it’s not Ashleigh.  Ellis had to put his nonsense in.  Looking over his shoulder, he continued.  I didn’t think she was that old anyway.  Ashleigh, I mean.  I didn’t know you were into GILF’s.

I only smiled in response to what Hank said.  Ellis interpreted it as a conversation between us, and I let him keep talking.

Not that I’m knocking grandmothers and their ability to be, um,  sexual.  I would assume they’d know a lot of tricks from all their years, you know.  And they might even have more in their repertoire because they can’t move like they used to, due to brittle bones.  Like how when a person that can’t smell has heightened senses.  Or when a person doesn’t have great balance, they find ways to adjust.

I returned to facing the spouts before me, and the spouting beside me.  “What the fuck are you talking about, Ellis?”

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 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 Revelation

H.L.was busy at the MegaTouch, tapping away at word games and trivia, tossing penguins, and inebriating monkeys.  The remainder of us usuals were lost in the glow of the boobs on the tube.

God bless the UsKilgore stood saluted the Red, Green, and Blue lights that together broadcast the Miss America competitors.

“This is why you need HDTV in here.”  Everyone grumbled, including H.L. who wasn’t even paying attention.  “What?  I’m serious.  Imagine how clearly we could see–”

Hank interrupted me.  Their flaws.  The pimples covered with make-up.  The pasties covering their erect nipples.  The tape keeping the camel toes out of the desert.  I like it blotchy because I can see what I want to.

What’s the capital of North Dakota?  H.L. spouted from behind his interactive screen.

Pierre, Santiago replied.

He didn’t ask your boyfriend’s name.

This time I interrupted Hank.  “It’s Bismarck.  Pierre’s the capital of South Dakota.”

Hank lifted his hands up like a puppeteer and wiggled his fingers.  His eyes went cross and his tongue drooped out his mouth like a dead possum.  It’s a familiar pose he takes; I’m not sure of it’s meaning.

Kilgore pointed at the lady at center stage.  Ms. Missouri…

“Jefferson City.”

Ms. Maine?

“Augusta.”

Kilgore applauded; Hank sulked.  He could be just making them up.  We don’t know them, so he’s sure to be duping us.

“What can I say?  They’re still fresh in my noggin from a project I made in the eighth grade.  The capitals are forever burned in my corneas like years of cigarettes on the cushions.”

Jesus Harry Asshole!  Hank just about fell out of his chair.  That was merely seven years ago!

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.

The Mystery

Something has been bothering me since I couldn’t remember what H.L. swore I would never forget, and for a change it’s not You-Know-Who.  The guys at the bar were my last resort, since Steve was clueless about my inquiry. 

His reponse: What are you talking about?  We never went back outside the first day I showed up at your bar.  It was snowy as hell.

Snowy as hell.  Snowy as H.L.  He rides his bike up to Marlin’s Inn, no matter the weather.  What he wanted to show us might have had something to do with that.

When I arrived, I removed my winter garments and hung them on the coat rack, like we were apt to do.  I used to keep my jacket by my side in the early days because I didn’t know them from Jack Hanna.

Kilgore referenced the frequent guest of talk shows and host of Animal Adventures when I first met him.  Do you think Jack Hanna ever made love to a sheep?  You know, just to know what it was like?

I plopped down next to H.L. who was sitting at a table working on a jigsaw puzzle.  He was working on it upside-down because he considers using the picture to be cheating.

H.L., remember that day awhile back that you lead us outside to show us something we’d never forget?”

Sounds like something I might do.  He scraped through the pieces to find the remaining edges.  The frame was mostly complete.

“I think you were showing us something to do with your bike.”

Sounds like something that would be outside worth showing you.

“Could you refresh my memory about what it was that you showed us?”

He looked up from his gray cardboard shapes.  I’d have to build an entirely different machine to do that.

Defeated, I took my seat at the bar.  Santiago had my drink waiting.  Hank laughed.  I remember that day.  It was the first time you brought Snodgrass up here.

Snodgrass wasn’t an epithet Hank created for Steve.  It was his actual last name: Thomas Jefferson Snodgrass.  His mother remarried when she moved here.  That’s how I met T.JSteve.  For the record, Ryan Antolini is his older step-brother, and my mortal enemy.  I never thought I would have one.

Steve Snodgrass asked about Fat’s name that day.  He asked what the H and the L stood for.  You told him, Fat

HorseloverHis frame was complete.  Onto the middle.

…and the prick didn’t believe you.

I can’t say I believe for certain in the validity of H.L.’s claim, but who am I to argue?

“Hank, do you remember what he showed us?”

Hank paused.  He tilted his head at me and spoke.  It sure weren’t no pussy because if you ever seen one in person, you’d drop dead.  Your poor ticker would loose all the blood to your little hard-on-that-couldn’t.  And–

“Ha ha.  You’re so effin’ funny.”

Did you just curse?  Did he just fucking say effin’?

Santiago was getting a good chuckle out of Hank’s rant, so he prepared a stiff drink, on the house.  You can guess where the next jokes went.

Aiden, Kilgore called to me.  He was the only one that referred to me by my first name.  I think I may have doodled in the stall.

His response kept Hank and Santiago roaring.  They definitely had caught each other’s contagious laughs, and they were soon finding it hard to catch their breaths.

“Be careful, old men.  Your lungs aren’t up to snuff anymore.”

In between gasps: Don’t say another word pipsqueak.  You’re gonna kill us both.

Kilgore stood up.  Let’s go to the john.  I’ve got something to show you.  The barkeep and the drunk lost all composure they regained when Kilgore dropped that bomb.

In the bathroom, Kilgore recounted that night.  I do recall meeting Steve, and I thought H.L. might have passed on into the next world.  It does seem some memory fragment is missing.

We opened the stall door and checked the wall to find this:

stallwalldoodle

We could have scraped away Santiago’s paint, but by then it seemed like too much work.  Besides, we had drinking to do.  We rejoined the others and imbibed the remainder of the night away.  At one point, H.L. removed a small can from his coat pocket and headed to the restroom.  Upon one of my relieving sessions, the stall looked like this:

stallwall2

Weird.

The Initiates

Whenever I arrive at Marlin’s Inn, the crew is always there.  As if they’re always there.

Santiago’s cleaning dust out of unused glasses.  Kilgore’s on the bar’s short side, scribbling away in between sips.  Hank is right in front of the taps.  That way if Santiago’s taking a piss or dropping a deuce…

Reinventing the wheel is Kilgore’s version of what I like to say.

Rollin’ Cuban cigars is Hank’s.

…then Hank can reach over and help himself.

But the first day things went out of whack, it happened to be the day Steve decided to show up.  Actually, I walked in with my childhood friend T.J. and left with Steve.  More on that in a minute.

So this is the infamous Marlin’s Inn.  T.J. had asked how I was handling the whole Ashleigh thing, and I explained that this place was my escape.  So you’re kind of like Frasier on his old show before he was on Frasier.

I introduced him to Santiago, who gave him a two finger salute.  Then to Kilgore – he waved.  Then to Hank.  Guess how many fingers were included in his salute.

“Where’s H.L,” I asked the fellas.  Kilgore was the only one to speculate.

Dead.   He pondered the severity of his hypothesis.  Possibly dead.  He tilted his head to see if his marbles might roll differently.  No, probably dead.

What’s your name kid? Santiago asked as we took our seats at the bar, on the long side, between Kilgore’s corner and Hank.

T.J.  Short for Thomas Jefferson.

Hank roared.  We already have one initiate in here.  I can’t be having two.

Not realizing what he was directly talking about, I started to think he didn’t want two young guys disrupting his place.  His escape.

It’s enough I gotta call H.L. H.L.  I’m not calling some twat-minded snot T.J. too.

In defense of the lad, you call H.L. by his last name of Fat.

Fish, keep your nose out of this.  Hank finally turned his stool to look at us, instead of through the beer logo mirror behind the bar.  You’re Steve. 

T.J. now Steve gulped hard.  Hank then swiveled his seat forward and reached over to refill his mug while Santiago watched, leaning on the far end of the bar.

Not another word was uttered.  Not another exchange about it.  T.J. was now Steve.  He was always Steve.  He will always be Steve.

By this point, H.L. finally arrived, not dead, possibly dead, or probably dead.  You’ll never guess what I saw.  I’ll never forget it.  And probably neither will you, as it will be in our collective unconscious.

Crap, what was it?  I can’t remember right now, but I know it was good…