The Real Bar
When Raymond was a boy, his father would go to the neighborhood bar once or twice a week and have drinks with men named Red, Mitch or Whitey. He’d have a shot or a couple of drafts at most and go home to a good hot meal.
“Had a drink with the boys, Martha,” he’d say. “Do I smell pot roast?”
Then he’d rub Raymond’s head and say, “Hello, old timer.” Raymond would hug him and take in the aroma of cigars, whisky and beer.
Raymond always thought it would be nice to go to a bar after a hard day at the office, just like his old man had. Except there weren’t any real bars in the city or anywhere near it. Only sports bars and theme bars and bars in restaurants or hotels.
And there would be no pot roast or hugs for him either. His wife had sent him packing and for no good reason other than she didn’t love him. It wasn’t his fault. So why did he get the raw deal?
On his way home from work one day, Raymond stopped at Slugger’s for a drink. Slugger’s was a sports bar. He hated sports bars, with their big screen televisions, phony memorabilia and waitresses dressed like referees.
“Bud draft,” he said to the bartender. She was wearing a whistle and a tank top that said: Slugger’s—Food, Sports, Fun and More!
More what? That’s what Raymond wanted to know.
He saw a man with a loose tie and an open collar at the end of the bar. Raymond nodded, and the man introduced himself as Arnold. Why didn’t men have nicknames any more? His hair was red. He could have called himself Red if he'd wanted to.
“I like the Braves chances,” Arnold said, pointing at the TV.
“Yep.” Raymond said. “I do too.”
Raymond was nearly six-three and thought for a moment that he might introduce himself as Stretch. Then he thought better of it. After his first beer he was more talkative.
“Did you ever think Chipper would play after that last knee injury? I never did. Not in a million years.”
“Nope. Me either,” Arnold said. “I do like the Braves chances this year.”
After an inning or so, Raymond’s second beer took effect.
“You know,” he said, "there are no real bars around here. Not honest to God bars. Just places like this or worse.”
“You know, you're right,” Arnold said. “They have’em up North. Midwest too. All kinds of ’em. But not down here. Everywhere’s got 'em but Atlanta—seems like that anyhow.”
“You’d think there would be one in the whole damned city,” Raymond said. “Everything’s fake and new. You’d think Sherman marched through ten years ago.”
Raymond ordered a shot of bourbon. Before he knocked it back, he thought it would be good to say something like, “Here’s mud in your eye!” or “Down the hatch!” But he didn’t.
“Actually, I can think of one place,” Arnold said. “Bosco’s—if it's still there. Now there’s a bar. I had a customer once—a printing plant off North Avenue. It was down past the old water works. They’d go there after shifts. Pickled eggs, pool table, peanut shells on the floor— the whole nine yards.”
“I’ll remember that. A bit out of my way, though,” Raymond said. “Tab please, bartender—and put one of whatever he’s drinking on there.”
Now that’s something you’d say in a real bar.
The following afternoon, Raymond sat in his cubicle and played hearts on the computer. It was a beautiful spring day and he dreaded going home to the crushing solitude of his dark little apartment. He hated everything about the place—the futon, the end tables from Walmart, the empty refrigerator and the tiny TV. He guessed his ex-wife was watching General Hospital at that very moment on his fifty-two inch flat screen.
“Bosco’s,” Raymond said.
He heard a voice from the adjoining cubicle. “What’d you say, Raymond?”
“Nothing, Judy. I’m going to head out. I worked late last night.”
He’d done no such thing.
He liked Judy and wished she was single. None of the women at the office were single—at least none that he’d look at twice. But perhaps he was too picky. After all, who was he?
Instead of heading north to the suburbs, Raymond drove downtown. There was no traffic on the connector and it was smooth sailing down North Avenue all the way to the old waterworks.
He spotted the printing plant, but it was plain the plant had closed long ago. There were weeds growing through large cracks in the pavement and the walls were covered with graffiti. And there didn’t seem to be much of anything else around that looked open or functioning. Then Raymond saw a woman at a bus stop talking to a man in blue coveralls.
“Excuse me,” Raymond said. “Would you happen to know where Bosco’s is?”
“Bosco’s?” the woman said. “Yeah, I know. My sorry-ass husband drank himself to death at Bosco’s.” He expected her to punctuate the reply by spitting.
“Go on over to the other side of the old plant there. You’ll find it,” the man said.
“Thanks, buddy.” Raymond said.
Drank himself to death? That sounded promising.
Raymond drove around to the opposite side of the plant. Then he saw it—a red neon sign that said, BAR, just as he’d imagined it. The sign was in the blacked-out window of a small red brick building just a few feet from the curb. He parked his car in a gravel lot next to the building and took off his tie.
As he walked through the door, patrons turned their heads and squinted or shrank away like vampires in the afternoon sun. Bosco’s was just as Arnold had described it. Raymond felt the peanut shells crunch beneath his feet. He sat on a stool and glanced expectantly around the room. Not a photon of sunlight remained.
“What’ll ya have?” the bartender said.
What’ll ya have!
Raymond was beside himself.
“A Bud draft, please.”
“The name’s Gus,” the bartender said.
It just kept getting better.
“My friends call me Stretch,” Raymond mumbled.
“Whassat?” Gus said.
“Uh, the name’s Raymond.”
Raymond nodded politely at the others seated at the bar. The man in the blue coveralls came in and sat next to him.
“I see you found it OK.” He had an oval patch on his pocket that said Tommy.
“Yes, thank you,” Raymond said. “I’ll buy you one for your trouble.”
“No trouble, but thanks.”
“Tommy, how’s your wife doing?” Gus said.
Raymond took care not to rock the boat or draw attention. He sat quietly and drank his beer. He’d say something to someone soon, he figured. But someone else spoke first.
“So there—ah—what’d you say your name was?” Tommy said.
“I didn’t.” He’d heard someone say that in a movie. “But the name’s Raymond.”
“Nice car you got. If you need new tires, I can fix you up.”
“The car’s the only thing the ex didn’t get her mitts on.”
That was a good thing to say, he thought. Especially the “mitts” part. The comment was met with general approval: “I heard that” and “You can say that again.”
A drunk at the end of the bar waved his hand in a gesture of dismissal and slurred, “Aaah, what’s it to you?”
Raymond expected that there might be a few bar flies at Bosco's, but he wasn’t there to judge them. And it wouldn’t have been a real bar if there wasn’t a drunk or two hunched over it.
He finished his second beer. That was enough for his first time. He paid his tab and left Gus a good tip—but not too much. He didn’t want to look like a show-off.
The next night was Cub Scout night; the one weeknight he was allowed to see his son. So Raymond didn’t go to Bosco’s. But he went there the following night. When he walked into the bar, Gus remembered him.
“Bud Draft?” Gus said.
“Just what the Doctor ordered.”
One day, he’d tell Gus to “Keep’em coming.” He’d always wanted say that. But today was not the day.
He caught a woman’s eye and she sat down a seat away from his. He certainly hadn’t expected to meet women at Bosco’s. It was hard to tell what she looked like at first. It was dark and everyone and everything at Bosco’s looked red. The neon beer signs were mostly red and so were the booths and the cushions on the bar stools. But from what he could see, she looked OK.
“Gin and tonic?” Gus asked the woman.
“Yes, thank you, Gus.”
Then it seemed like Gus was playing matchmaker. “Sally’s a teacher over at Central High,” he said.
“Oh that’s nice,” Raymond said. Sally gave him a tight lipped smile that said, not in the mood for small talk. But she's the one who sat near him—so what was her deal?
Raymond had two beers that night, plus a shot of bourbon.
“You’re supposed to drink the bourbon first and then the beer,” Tommy said.
“Aaah, what’s it to you?” the bar fly said.
“That’s just Old Bill. Never mind him,” Tommy said.
Raymond issued the old drunk a two-fingered salute off his temple.
At first, Raymond had reservations about becoming a regular at a bar. But Bosco’s was different. Sure, there were a few hopeless drunks. But he could see nurses from the County Hospital, mechanics from Tommy’s and some folks from the offices in Midtown. And he’d spotted a couple of black-clad, pseudo-bohemians he guessed were from the lofts on Marietta Street. They probably came just to soak up the atmosphere. But they were all regular folks—not too different than him.
Two nights a week at Bosco’s was enough, he reckoned—Tuesdays and Thursdays. He couldn’t miss poker night. It was the only time he could see his married friends. As a rule, couples just don’t socialize with divorced men. And of course there was Cub Scout night. At one meeting, they made Native American necklaces out of spray painted macaroni. You just can't miss something like that.
Through most of the summer, Raymond stuck to his schedule—Tuesdays and Thursdays. And Saturdays—but only if the Braves were playing. That turned out to be every Saturday. And most Sundays. Then one Friday night, sitting alone in his apartment, Raymond felt so lonely it made him nauseous, so he made an exception. Just this once.
Sally the teacher was at Bosco's when he arrived. Before he could take a seat at the end of the bar, she waved him over.
“I guess I wasn’t very polite the night we met. Had a bad day. The principal had the nerve to tell me my performance is slipping. How’s about I buy you a shooter, Ronald?
“What’s a shooter?”
“A drink, honey. It’ll get you where you want to go. And fast.”
Raymond guessed that Sally was already there.
They talked about their divorces and Raymond told her what a raw deal he’d gotten. The beer flowed and Gus kept laying down the gin and tonics. They took a cab to her place. When Raymond woke up, he wanted to leave without saying anything. But it’s impossible to get out of a woman’s bed, get dressed and walk out without waking her. That only works in the movies. When Sally finally came to, they had coffee, and Raymond had a piece of burnt toast with I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!
on it. He didn’t think it tasted anything like butter.
One night in early September, Raymond sat at the bar drinking a vodka martini. He thought he would try one to mix it up a bit. You know—James Bond or Frank Sinatra and Ring-A-Ding-Ding. Then his cell phone rang.
“Jesus Christ, I missed Cub Scouts.” Raymond said.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” Tommy said.
“I’ll have another one of those vodka martinis, Gus. Only this time, go easy on the vermouth. On second thought, forget the vermouth. And the olive.”
But Tommy was right. He’d see his son next week.
Raymond’s brother invited him for Thanksgiving that year. He was excited about leaving town and seeing family. But he put off buying his ticket and the only flight he could get was a redeye Thanksgiving morning. It cost him a fortune, but he couldn't stand the idea of spending the day all alone.
He was crushed when he discovered there was a freak snowstorm in Charlotte and the airport was closed. The next flight wouldn’t be for another six hours and he’d miss Thanksgiving dinner altogether. His brother was flying out to ski in Utah the next day, so there was no point in going. Besides, his brother's kids were first class brats. He wouldn't miss seeing them all that much.
Later that day, Raymond was feeling lonely, so he drove to Bosco’s on the off chance it was open Thanksgiving.
The neon sign was on. Gus had set up a couple of card tables and laid out a sorry looking spread of pressed turkey roll and cut-rate versions of the usual Thanksgiving fair—stuffing, green beans, gelatin desserts and those little square rolls that come all stuck together in an aluminum foil tray. There were a few people milling about the tables with paper plates and drinks in hand. No one was going for the gelatin desserts.
Despite his lack of enthusiasm, Raymond said, “What the fuck.” He filled his plate and decided to get good and drunk. And after a couple of vodka rocks, he felt better. He really perked up when Sally came in. He hadn’t seen her since the night she gave him a blowjob in the parking lot.
“Happy Turkey Day,” Raymond said.
“Glad to see you, honey. I sure could use a little stuffing,”
Raymond didn’t get it. At least not right away.
At noon the following day, he woke up face-down and naked on the floor. Sally was passed out in his plaid La-Z-Boy with nothing on but a pair of high heels and a Yankees batting helmet. Where the hell did the helmet come from? Raymond hated the fucking Yankees.
“How about a little hair of the dog, baby?” Sally asked
She wobbled over to the fridge in her high-heels and took out a couple of beers.
“But we just woke up,” Raymond said.
“It’ll make you feel good as new.”
Raymond had a strict rule. No drinking before noon. But Sally held the beer to his lips and he sucked it down like like it was cool spring water. The better part of a twelve-pack later, Sally said she’d like to drive to Chamblee and go antiquing. Women.
Later that day, heads turned on Peachtree Street as they drove downtown to Bosco’s with a brass chandelier and a moose head strapped to the back of Sally’s Miata.
St. Patrick’s Day fell on a weekend that year and Raymond drank his share of green beer. Monday morning, he sat in his cubicle, head in hands, with blurred images of the weekend flashing and flickering in his brain like the last frames of an old movie. He’d been at Bosco’s Saturday afternoon and all evening. And Gus had let him crash on a cot in the back. But Sunday was black, except for a blurred image of Sally sitting on the edge of her bed crying. He had no idea why, and hoped he hadn’t done anything to hurt her feelings. He really liked Sally. After all, they had a lot in common.
“Raymond, do you feel all right?” Judy asked him, peering over the cubicle wall. “You look like you’re coming down with something.”
“Oh, I’m all right,” he said.
But he wasn’t all right. He had the worst hangover of his life and he knew the only way to cure it was a little hair-of-the-dog. At lunch time, he drove to Bosco’s and had a shot and a beer.
“I see ya had your shot before your beer this time,” Old Bill said. Old Bill sounded somewhat lucid, given it was only noon. “Say, I don’t believe I know your name. I’m Bill. Bill Zakowski. Around here, they just call me Old Bill.
He’d told the old fool his name a hundred times. And he tried to remember if he’d ever been to Bosco’s and not seen Old Bill, perched on the same stool, squawking periodically like a drunken parrot.
Raymond stood up and told Gus he had to take a leak. He walked into the men’s room and wiped his forehead with a brown paper towel that felt like sandpaper. Then he put his hand on the condom machine—Ribbed for her pleasure
—and leaned forward over the urinal. Overwhelmed by the smell of pine cleaner and old urine, he ran to the stall and puked up his drinks. A waste of perfectly good alcohol.
“Jesus Christ,” Raymond said. He stumbled over to the sink and threw cold water on his face. Then Raymond took his place at the bar and said, “Keep ‘em coming, Gus.”
“Hey Raymond, you don’t look too hot.”
“I said keep ‘em coming, Gus.”
Old Bill got up and dealt his one dollar bills onto the bar. “I went to the doc yesterday and he said if I kept drinking it’d kill me. But they’ve been saying that for ten years.”
Raymond looked over his shoulder and watched the old man walk out into the bright sunshine, laughing and wheezing all the way. Then he realized he was the only person there—except for Gus and he didn’t really count.
When Raymond heard the brakes squeal and a sickening thud, he knew what had happened. He ran out the door with Gus behind him and saw Old Bill lying in the street. Blood was running from his nose and his limbs were askew. His old fedora was at least twenty feet down the street, lying in a puddle. Raymond knelt and put two fingers on the side of Old Bill’s neck. He’d seen that plenty of times on TV.
“I think he’s dead.” Raymond said. A young woman was running back and forth between her car and Old Bill's lifeless body screaming over and over, “I didn’t see him!”
When the police arrived, they took a statement from Raymond. The paramedics drove off with no siren. The doctor said if Old Bill kept drinking it would kill him. If that doctor knew what had happened, Old Bill would sure have had the last laugh.
Raymond went home, called in sick for the afternoon and took a long nap. When he woke up, he stumbled to the sofa, high-stepping over stacks of newspapers and dirty laundry. He looked at a picture on the end table, a photo of his son in his little league uniform. When had he seen him last? It couldn’t have been more than three weeks. Four weeks—tops. He’d cut his wife out of the photo, but could still see her shadow in the foreground, falling across his carefully nurtured lawn. The bitch.
Why had she stopped loving him anyway? So he made a few mistakes. He was only human. She’d made them too. And plenty. Sure, he shouldn’t have worked through his son’s fifth birthday party. And he should have folded his hand before losing the twenty-five hundred bucks they’d saved for their second honeymoon. And he probably shouldn’t have...
He grabbed the remote and turned on the Wheel of Fortune
before the litany of his mistakes could unfurl like a runaway roll of toilet paper. After watching for a moment, he hit the remote. That dumb cunt should have just bought another vowel.
He poked at his phone and noticed he had messages.
“Raymond, it’s Sally. After this weekend—I’ve been thinking. I just can’t take it anymore. I could come by and we could go to a meeting together. We could quit together Raymond. Why don’t I...”
“Dear, it’s your mother. Your father says he can’t get in touch with you. And I’ve been trying...”
Raymond felt the pain in the back of his throat that sometimes comes before tears, but fought them back. Why was he so shaken up? He didn’t give two shits about Old Bill.
A drink or two would help him put things in perspective. He went to the freezer and took out a plastic liter bottle of vodka. But there were only fumes in it. Why put the goddamn empty bottle back in the freezer?
“Just go on down to Bosco’s, Raymond.”
Raymond gasped and said, “What the fuck?”
“I said, just go on down to Bosco’s.”
He turned to see Old Bill leaning over the kitchen counter, cradling a drink. Raymond threw the empty vodka bottle at Old Bill, but it went right through him and bounced off the wall. Old Bill laughed and disappeared like the head on a warm beer.
Raymond was just tired. And traumatized. He’d been through a lot that day. Saw a dead man lying mangled on the street. That’s why he was seeing things. He just needed something to eat. And that drink. Then things would be fine.
The refrigerator was empty as usual, except for a jar of pickle relish and some Tupperware he’d been afraid to open. And a trip to the liquor store was in order. So he showered, shaved and scrawled a shopping list on the back of an envelope. Maybe he’d catch a movie—buy a pint and smuggle it into the theater. While locking his deadbolt, a pretty young woman appeared in the hallway.
“Hello there,” she said. “I’m Katie. I just said to my roommate, we haven’t even met the man next door. We’re having friends over—come in for a drink.”
Jesus Christ. Too perky. The sorority girl type. Raymond hesitated. Considering the events of the day, he wasn’t in much of a mood for small talk, but he certainly didn’t want to be alone either. At the least, he’d get that drink or two he needed—and right away.
“Uh, sure,” he said. “I guess I could—yes that would be nice.”
The woman took his arm and led him through the door. “This is my neighbor. I’m sorry—your name...”
“Raymond,” he said. She led him through the room while people nodded and smiled at him. There were people of all ages: children, teenagers, people his own age and even a couple of blue-hairs, all crammed into an apartment no bigger than his. And they all seemed to be having a fine time.
“What would you like to drink?” Katie asked.
“A beer, please.”
A boy about his son’s age bumped into him and said, “Sorry mister.”
Raymond smiled and said, “That’s okay, son.”
“See my new baseball glove?” the boy said. It’s a Mazuno, Chipper Jones autograph.”
The boy backed up and caught an imaginary pop fly. “He’s out!” Raymond said. The boy smiled, and Raymond could feel that pain in the back of his throat. Chipper Jones was his son’s favorite player.
Katie emerged from the kitchen and gave Raymond his beer. He scanned the room as he drank, and wondered when he had last been around people other than at work or Bosco’s. Watching the boy move through the crowd, receiving pats and hugs, he was suddenly hit by a wave of loneliness and remorse. The boy, the laughter, friendly faces, his neighbor’s hospitality—it all reminded him of what he’d lost. What he’d been missing. He realized he needed to do something. Take some action. Maybe he should call Sally and check out one of those meetings.
But not tonight. After all, he'd started drinking and how would that look? Plus, he was still was feeling sick, and it was now clear he needed more booze than he could drink at a party with a bunch of strangers. Vodka was what he really needed, and plenty of it. He glanced at his watch before pushing his way through the room and out the door. The beer took effect and he felt a little better. But on the way to the liquor store he imagined himself alone in his apartment, drinking cheap vodka from a plastic jug and watching the History Channel.
Fuck that. It would be just as easy to hop on the downtown connector and go to Bosco’s. His real friends would be there, and the night was young. As he drove onto the highway, he could see the lights of the Atlanta skyline, beckoning like the Emerald City.
On arriving at Bosco’s, Raymond inhaled the smoky, stale air like it was pure oxygen. He basked in the recognition as familiar patrons nodded or said his name—even though some turned away as he passed.
Every seat at the bar was taken, except for Old Bill’s—perhaps out of reverence for the old lush. But he didn’t think much of that idea. Before sitting, he walked up to the stool and gave it a spin with his index finger. Gus nodded and smiled, then put a vodka rocks on the bar in front of Raymond.
“Here’s to Old Bill,” Raymond said. “And keep ‘em comin.'”