Warped Reflections From The Bottom Of A Glass Of Bourbon
It had not taken me long at all to find all of the worst pubs in Ten City. The kind where I wouldn’t bump into any co-workers or parents from school, and if I did, shame on them for being there as well.
The smell always hit me when I first walked in. A mixture of sadness, desperation and swallowed vomit. I was amused that the smell would quickly dissipate as I added my own funk to the mix; a heady blend of uncertainty, surrender and bourbon-pickled pride.
It didn’t matter when you turned up, there was always a spot at the bar where you could set up for a period. I tried my hardest to pick places not next to anyone. I wasn’t the sort of loser who liked to share his loser story with other losers. I was the brooding, silent loser-type. It made me feel a slight elevation above the rest of the loser herd.
I pulled out my wallet, the one my wife had bought for me back when she was my girlfriend. Back when she loved me. Back when I loved myself. I hunted out a rogue red note and let it fall to the bar top. The bartender was already pouring me a bourbon. It was time to find a new pub.
“Here you go, digger” the bartender said as he pinched my twenty dollar bill. He was a large man, more stomach than body. I had never seen him in a shirt that actually covered the underside of his distended belly. The flash of that white and hairy skin was a constant in the pub. He had no name to me, I always thought of him as the bartender. No one had a name to him, he called us all the one thing. Anonymity must have helped him sleep at night, not having to know which families specifically he was helping to financially cripple and poison with his alcoholic and gambling services.
I put the bourbon to my lips, tasting my blood intermingling with the brown liquid on the rim. The drink hit my tongue and I held it there. I closed my eyes, wondering what to do. No answers flashed by my mind’s eye. I had dug a hole, been aware I was in a hole, made arrangements to make the hole deeper, and then finally begun to think about how to go about getting out of the hole.
The sad truth was, I didn’t think I really wanted to get out of the hole. I just didn’t want anyone else to fill it with water. It was a minimalist survivor’s attitude.
I hadn’t been the one to pursue Elina. That was one thing that I could say. Hold it to my chest like a badge of honour. Show it to others as a point of pride, a battle scar of victory.
I had been sitting at my desk, in the room that I used to teach English, marking papers in front of the assembly of empty tables and chairs. I loved my class when it was empty, hated it when it was full. It used to be the opposite. I would crave the attention of a full class of students but hate to be left with the paperwork. It was amazing how quickly convictions and ideals could change. How a man could turn from black to white in a matter of eighteen months. How a heart could beat strongly and then suddenly work against a body. It was the changes that you never thought would happen that occurred the easiest.
The emptiness of the room had been invaded, and I hadn’t even noticed. I was busily getting stuck into a student’s paper. He had confused Antigone with Elektra. It was almost amusing. My red pen hung over his words like a pendulum slowly lowering into the pit. The old me would have been nice in my comments. Instead I was just annoyed that this student had made it to Year 11 and still didn’t know the different characters from separate plays.
Elina had walked up to my desk and sat down on the edge, her porcelain thigh pushing aside some Year 9 Animal Farm papers I had already marked.
“Mr Macbeth,” she softly said. I looked up and it was as if I had never looked upon her face before, when in fact I knew just who she was, and knew that I had her in my classroom three times a week. It was the fact that we had never shared eye contact before that made such a great difference. I knew I was lost, and I enjoyed it. An astronaut adrift above the earth with his tether lines broken but enjoying the majestic view, while he could. “Could you help me with something?”
There was only ever going to be one answer.
I looked at her hair, the slight curls that cascaded down and around her face were like little swimming pool slides. Her face an amusement park of unimaginable joy, even when she wasn’t smiling. The red of her hair was indescribable, it had never existed on a person’s head, or artist’s palette, before.
“Yes,” I answered, I didn’t care what the something would be. The intensity in her eyes lit up like fireworks when she heard my reply. She was a fisherman looking down into the calm depths and preparing her net.
Did I know it was wrong? Sure.
There are rules in place about teachers fraternising with students; even if I had never actually read what those rules explicitly said. It pretty much went as unspoken that it wasn’t done. Did I particularly care by that point? Well, that answer should be obvious.
“I’m having exquisite trouble with my paper on the Donne poem you set last week,” she said through full lips that would have mesmerised me if they continued their movement. There should have been a warning on this girl’s lips; only listen to her for three seconds at a time, during intervals grab a glass of water and pat face down with a cool cloth, then return.
“You mean The Sunne Rising?” I asked, genuinely needing the clarification. I was my own worse student, always inattentive. I shuffled in my chair, a perfect excuse to look down at her legs. The school skirt was not even short, but it was short enough for those legs.
I didn’t think of it at the time, but I never looked at the students in that way. It just wasn’t what I did. I couldn’t pin down what made Elina different. I told myself it was her age, she was a full year older than her contemporaries, eighteen going on nineteen. I told myself it was one of those cosmic things that simply happens without explanation, like a new star forming. But I knew that was not the truth.
It happened because she wanted it to; it was that simple.
I was the hapless insect, she was the crafter of the web. For a way to go, it had to be one of the more pleasant ways for it all to happen.
“Yes, got it in one,” she congratulated me. Her spreading smile was easy, like watching a casual change in nature take place; a melting snow cap, an eddying mist, a ravaging tsunami. She was the change to a simple landscape that could either make it flourish, or leave it desolate. “I’m not certain how to end it all.”
“You want me to write the end of your paper for you?” I asked as I brought my eyes back onto hers. She flicked her hair slightly out of her face, red curls shimmied like blood orange waterfalls floating down a shifting tectonic plate in zero gravity.
“Not exactly, just explain to me how to tie it all together,” she said.
“Simple enough, it’s about two lovers feeling like their world is enough. It has all they want and they don’t want to be disturbed from it because of what society wants or demands. It’s obsessive want in the face of perpetual duty,” I spoke like any good English teacher, in elliptical intellectual parallels. “Is that clear enough?”
She bit her lip, and be damned if I didn’t need to cross my legs. I was the poor wolf with his foot in the trap and no desire to chew through its own leg. I’d happily wait for the trapper to come with liberation.
“You’re saying, this old school poem is telling me that even if society has standards, ideals and duties that lust can overcome all of them? It’s enough to trap two people in their own sphere of pleasure and make them hope to never leave, no matter what might come?”
I felt that she understood the poem a lot more than she let on.
“That’s sounds pretty good, you should use that.”
I lasted two more days after that. Her next visit would be a lot less subtle.
The noise of cracking pool cues roused me from my vivid thoughts of Elina. I turned to find that it wasn’t a game of pool making the cracking sounds, though a pool cue was involved.
The man who was holding the pool cue was big. Big enough that not even I would have made a smart comment to him. Not like the man on the floor must have. The blood was seeping down the man’s slumped neck, starting at the back and slowly creeping into the neckband of his shirt at the front. It looked like a red vine was very delicately trying to strangle him.
“He shouldn’t have said it,” Big Guy said towards the bar, he accentuated his words with the pool cue still in his hands.
“Digger, you know that’s not right.”
“You hear what he said about my girl?” Big Guy asked, not stressing his words insanely, but he made their force felt across the room.
“That’s not what I mean, I mean not in here. You know you don’t do that in here,” Bartender explained as he picked up a beer to sip on. “You take your shit outside, even if it’s only two feet.”
Big Guy settled down, the pool cue lowered slightly. He knew he had done wrong.
“You’ve gotta go now. But, I’ll get someone to take this idiot out the back,” Bartender offered. It was a small gesture, but one that meant that Big Guy would keep bringing his business through the door. What looked to be some substantial business.
“Thanks,’ Big Guy said as he filled the doorway on exit.
I looked down at the poor schlub who had bitten off more than he could chew. Guess he didn’t know the rule that covered talking about Big Guy’s girl. Hopefully he’d learn from one lesson.
Being a teacher, I knew that no one ever learnt from one lesson.
Bartender must have given someone a look, because the schlub was escorted out of the pub, comatose head lolled forward then back, red vine tightened its hold around his airway.
We all heard the body clang into the dumpster. I could picture him being tossed away like a marionette who wouldn’t make the audience laugh anymore. Unceremoniously dumped without a care. Be lucky if the landing didn’t break his neck.
Another reason to love the worst pubs in Ten City.