Forget what the silly physics books say. The astrophysicists are all wrong. There is a center of the universe, and the location of this center is sitting on a coaster directly in front of me. And it is called Scotch.
Good single malt scotch.
It’s three in the afternoon. My books are spread out on the perfectly polished cherry bar and my feet are propped up on the perfectly polished brass rail. Everything is clean and dark and silent and pristine. The bartender (Dave, I think. Is it Dave on Tuesdays?) eyes the glass I’ve been nursing for the last hour or so. After examining my glass, Dave pretends as if he were really looking at my books. He doesn't want to appear pushy. He wants me to feel welcome and appreciated. He wants to make sure I feel comfortable and happy.
He wants my money.
And as Davey-boy eyes my books, I know he’s going to do it. I know he will, but I still have a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, Dave’s not a dumb ass. Don’t do it, Dave. Just turn around and walk away. Come on, I’m pulling for you, man. I believe in you. I know you’re not going to--
“So, what are you reading?” Dave blinks blankly.
I cringe. I hope he doesn’t see me cringe because there are only two things left holding the universe together--scotch and courtesy. But I’m afraid my glass of scotch is nearly empty, and I’m further afraid that this idiot just spoke to me. Get ready for the apocalypse.
I swallow. Hard. “Uh, a book on Quantum Mechanics,” I mumble. Dave blinks blankly.
Now this is the part where Dave pretends he understands what I’m talking about. Then I pretend I believe that Dave understands what I’m talking about. But Dave knows that I know that he doesn’t understand what I’m talking about, and I know that Dave knows that I know that Dave doesn’t understand what I’m talking about. But we both further know that neither Dave nor myself are going to mention the fact that Dave doesn’t understand what I’m talking about. He nods and smiles. I nod and smile. He pours me my second glass of scotch. I take a sip from my second glass of scotch.
An apocalypse is avoided.
I hear the door jingle, and Bartender Dave and I look up as Mike rolls into the bar. And I mean roll in the non-gangster sense. When a man says Mike rolls into a bar, he means it.
“Hey, Mike,” says Dave as he sets an unopened bottle of Bud on the bar.
Mike wheels his black ass over to me, and I hand him the bottle. He then smacks the top of the Bud on the side of his wheelchair sending the cap flying under my seat. Mike likes to open his own beer this way. He says it’s the only practical use for his wheelchair.
Now I can forgive Mike his love for Bud because he’s a supreme bad ass at pool. He’s parted me and my money more than once. He’s parted Bartender Dave and his money more than once. This black, crippled motherfucker can play. The man is a master of physics. Mike's knowledge, unspoken and subconscious, can be used to obtain both chicks and money. While my knowledge of physics, preened and groomed, only earns stupid questions from Bartender Dave.
“What’s up, cracker,” Mike yells as if I weren’t sitting right next to him. He sips from his beer. “God, look at you, you smart mother fucker. That’s a lot of fucking books.”
"A man’s got to keep his wits about him,” I reply.
"That he do,” he yells again slapping me on my left leg. Mike and I understand each other. We're both physics men. “Wanna’ play some nine-ball, college man? I’ll let you have a chance at the final shot. No matter what. Sound good?”
“Are we betting?”
Mike smiles broad and deep. “Course we betting. Always betting, my man. I’ll give you fifty if you win, and you give me ten if--“
"I’m tired of losing my money, asshole.” I laugh. “Why don’t you roll your black ass over there and wait for some chode to walk in the door. Then you can take him for at least a bill.”
"Yeah, all right then,” Mike concedes. “A man got to keep his wits about him, don’t he.”
"That he do,” I reply smugly.
And so is the ritual of the mid-afternoon men. The non-people. We have the same conversations everyday. We smolder in the same smoke. We drown in the same liquor. We come as soon as the lunch crowd flitters back to work and leave before rush hour weighs down. We are happy in our little, black boxes.
Mike rolls over to the pool table and sets an old gym sock filled with quarters on its cherry-finished edge. He then pulls a perfectly polished leather case from the special holder on the back of his chair, opens it, and produces the fabled Balabushka--one of the greatest pool cues made by the greatest cue maker of all time. It is blue like Lucille. It brings a prophecy of a clear table.
Settlement money can buy a man a lot. It can buy him a Balabushka, or a lot of Bud, or a lot of Scotch. Yes, indeed. It can buy a man a lot.
I watch Mike rack up the pool balls in preparation to rack some poor shmuck's balls out of a hundred bucks. When I look back, I see Dave smiling dumbly at me, his perfectly polished teeth twinkling. The door jingles again and his eyes wander. Dave’s smile becomes smaller but more genuine. I hear footsteps behind me.
"Hey Dave,” says a woman’s voice from behind me. No, I correct myself. Not a woman’s voice. The voice of a girl not yet a woman. It was musical. Musical like a Britney Spears song. It was something I hadn’t heard in a very long time and wasn’t sure if I wanted to.
"Hey Cindy,” Dave replies. “What are you doing here? You’re not on the floor until six.”
"Yeah, I know,” she says as she approaches the bar on my left side (thank God, my left side), “but I was hoping that the new waitress could fill in for me tonight. My sister is in town, and I haven’t seen her in like six months.”
She was lying. I could tell. She’s got a date or a party or an orgy or something. “Is the boss-man around?”
Dave says, “Uh, I think Fred went to the bank. Let me go back and check, though,” and then disappears behind the swinging metal doors.
Okay. I can do this. I can glance to my left and casually look at her. There’s nothing wrong with that, right? People do it everyday. She’s standing there, so I’m allowed to look over. So I will. I will look over.
I look over.
Yep. It’s a girl all right. Her dress is yellow--bright, obnoxious yellow. Her hair is nearly the same shade. Her breasts are big and soft, and her skin looks perfect under the amber glow of the bar porno lights. She’s the kind of girl I would have spun around on my dick without a second thought four years ago. She was pretty, but not beautiful. She was cute, but not stunning. She was witty, but not intelligent. She was definitely fuckable.
She gives me a big smile and sits down. I do something back at her that feels like maybe it was a smile. It was close to a smile. Well, it was as close as I can get to a smile.
And, boom, she smiles even bigger. God, I still got it, don’t I? Maybe this black box isn’t so small after all. Maybe there’s room in here for two.
"How are you doing today?” she asks with the cordial tone of a waitress. I nod, because there’s no way in hell I’m opening my mouth. That could really fuck everything up. I've got that weird talking thing. “God, that’s a lot of books you got there. Are you going to be a doctor or something?”
Oh shit. A non-yes-or-no question. This is not good. Okay, come on. You can do this. Say something, you stupid bastard. “Well, not a medical doctor,” I muster softly. I look at her ear so I don’t have to look at her eyes or her breasts. She’ll think I’m looking at her eyes, and then I won’t fuck-up so badly. “I’m a physicist. Or, I want to be a physicist.”
"Oh, neat. God, I bet you’re really smart then, huh? Yeah, well, I go to school, too. I’m a psychology major, but I don’t really want to go to grad school or anything. I just want to get paid five times more to listen to people’s problems.”
She laughs, and God it sounds good. I can imagine her giggling naked, rolling around in white cotton sheets in a white cotton thong while I just sit there and think how wonderful it is to have a naked girl in my bed. Sure, there isn’t a thought in her dyed blonde head, but she’d be naked and she’d be in my bed. I wasn’t even thinking about the sex (well, not that much), I was just thinking how nice it would be to have her soft, delicate scent all over my bedroom.
She spins her chair around a little bit. “I’m not supposed to sit at the bar, but I’m going to anyhow. Promise not to tell on me?” She giggles again. She must discontinue the whole giggling routine, or I’m going to shine the bar with my own special white polish. “It’s such a silly rule. I mean, if I’m not working, I don’t think there’s any reason I shouldn’t be able to sit at the bar. I’m a paying customer just like everybody else, right?”
Sure, of course I think it’s okay if she sits next to me. She could have two nuclear warheads planted in her tits, and I’d still be okay with her sitting next to me. I’m not going to disagree. I’m going to nod. I’m going to do lots and lots of nodding.
She smiles and says, “Don’t you find it hard studying at the bar?” She reaches over to finger my books, and her breasts press together. Her cleavage is the Red Sea, and I, like Moses, will ask God’s help to part it. “I mean, I can barely study at the library.”
I can’t believe she’s still talking to me. I told her I’m going to be a physicist, and she’s still talking to me. Plus, she’s on my left side. I may be wearing shorts, but she’s on my left side, by God.
My tongue wags, “Studying is easy as long as Dave doesn’t speak to me.”
I bite down hard on the foot I just stuck in my mouth. I can feel the universe falling apart. Well, since I’ve thrown courtesy out the window, I might as well drink the rest of my fucking scotch. The magic number just flipped past one, and I’m waiting on the universe to implode.
“Yeah, he’s a trip, isn’t he? He always tries to get me to go home with him. He just doesn’t understand that I’m not that kind of girl. I hope I don’t have to work tonight. Then I won’t have to put up with his bullshit.”
She looks at me waiting on a response, but I have nothing this time. My mind is blank. I just desperately want to touch her, to feel her, to feel that soft skin under my fingers. I don’t care about the sex. I just want to touch a woman like I used to. I want to touch her lips and feel her quiver. Quiver not from disgust, but in awe. I want to kiss her and tremble in longing and warmth and passion. But all she wants from my lips is words. Words I don’t have.
Her gaze darts around the room awkwardly in the silence. "Well, what kind of music do you like?” she asks as the magic number decreases. “There’s this really great band playing tonight near campus. You should check them out.” She pokes my book. “Well, if you’re not studying or something.”
"What kind of music is it?” I can see some light seeping in from a pinhole in my box.
"Oh, it’s indy rock. The name of the band is Puddle. Have you ever heard of them? Well, probably not. I’m a mild groupie. ”
I smile gently. God, she’s trying hard. She’s not even giving me a chance to speak. I like that quality in a woman. Maybe I’m the first bar guy who has refrained from grabbing her ass or calling her sexy-pants. Maybe she likes men who read. Maybe she thinks I’m handsome.
Softly, “Maybe I’ll drop by. Are you going?”
Her voice lowers, “Well, my sister isn't really in town. I lied. I just wanted to go see the band with my friends. The band isn't in town very often, and I didn’t want to miss my opportunity.”
She looks around to make sure no one heard her admission to grounds for immediate termination. I crane my neck around. With a shit-eating grin spread wide across his face, I see Mike looking at us with both elbows propped up on the pool table. Mike knows how badly I need a woman. He always says I’m not too ugly for a white guy, but he’s currently making me look like the poster boy for dumb ass of any race.
When I look back at her, I can see she, too, had spotted Mike’s pearly whites gleaming at us. The smile on her face drops. Oh God. Did Mike give me away? Did the look on Mike’s face make her realize how pathetic I am? Is she going to run away? I don’t want to be left here alone.
She lowers her head behind mine so Mike can’t see her lips move. “Oh poor, Mike. He’s such a sweetheart. I worry about him sometimes. He’s in here all the time.”
Shit, I’m in here all the time. Mike just picks up my shift when I leave.
"I mean,” she continues, “at night all these hussies come in here and rub themselves all over him while he plays pool. I’ll maybe give him a kiss on the head or something, but the way those girls act is just sick. How mean is it to taunt a man like that?”
My heart drops. The perfectly polished world begins to dull so quickly after we stop looking at it and start trying to live in it.
My throat hurts. I can feel a lump in it, but I swallow it down. “So, you wouldn’t date a man in a wheelchair?”
Her face wrinkles slightly. “Oh God, no. I mean, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just think I wouldn’t have anything in common with someone in a wheelchair. It would be sort of awkward.”
My knuckles tighten, and their white skin shines as a warning to stop. I am not a part of this world, and I should have never played this game. How mean is it to taunt a man like me? I swallow the lump down again and say, “How about a man with one leg?”
“One leg? Well, uh--" She pauses and smiles. "God, I must sound horrid, but I swear I’m not shallow. I just think it would be sort of weird, you know? And I know this sounds terrible, but I just don’t know how the sex would work. When he takes off his clothes, does he take off the fake leg, too?” She giggles again, but this time the sound is shrill and piercing. I imagine her not rolling around in cotton sheets but rolling around in her own blood.
I do something that feels like a smile. It was close to a smile. It was as close as I can get to a smile. My face just stays static. I want to stop smiling, but I’m too busy trying to unclinch my fists. I reach down, touch my right leg, and wish to God that I weren’t wearing shorts.
She, too, keeps smiling, but is growing nervous. She sees the crazy look of man whose lips are curved up, but whose eyes show no emotion. I know how terrible this looks. I just want to run away. But I can't. The one thing I can never do is run away.
My mouth opens, but nothing comes out. Turning to my books, I place each piece of my sanctuary back into my black book bag. I gather my things from the perfectly polished cherry bar, lower my feet from the perfectly polished brass rail, and stand as the perfectly polished metal of my prosthetic leg glints in the glow of the amber lights. Then, I close my little, black box.
And this one-legged man walks out of a bar.