When Mary cracked her skull open on the kitchen floor I developed a slight nervous condition. She had the great good fortune of being unconscious throughout most of the freakshow so she came away with little in the way of lingering trauma. I was a basket case for awhile. The frail human condition hit me right between the eyes and I noticed, for the first time, the full range of dangers that awaited us around every corner.

Mary's doctor suggested I get a hobby to distract me from my paranoid obsession so I started drinking. I had been a bartender for nearly twenty years and it had never occurred to me to use the stuff myself. When I discovered that sufficient quantities provided total distraction, I was hooked.

The bottle of Budweiser I took at the end of the night as a shift drink became two, then three. The suds distracted me from my worry for awhile but I discovered, to my chagrin, that I was a melancholy drunk. If I ventured into that fourth bottle of Budweiser and John Prine happened to be playing on the jukebox, it was all over but the crying. I had increasing difficulty finishing the paperwork and closing the bar through my weeping fits so I decided to take a leave of absence and start drinking full-time.

I whacked the 401(k) and started spending my retirement at a working man's tavern down the street from the hotel. By way of odd symmetry the joint was a fixture of my youth and was, in fact, the first place I had ever bought a bottle of beer. My brother Billy had an apartment near The Country House when I was fourteen years old and he sneaked me through the back door when nobody was looking. The place hadn't changed a bit in twenty years and the minute I walked through the door I was surrounded by the ghosts of my misspent youth.

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I was born with a gift. I'm a scary good pool player. I can beat just about anybody using only one hand and with two I can clear the balls so quickly most people are still chalking their stick when I bury the money ball. My best time on clearing a fifteen ball rack, with called shots, is twenty-two seconds. I'm not bragging because it's not because of anything I did, I've never practiced or made an effort to improve my game; I was born with the geometry. I was fourteen, going on forty-five when I first discovered my special purpose.

I started haunting the Country House every week when I found I could sneak in through the screen door in the basement. By the time I was sixteen they had become so accustomed to my presence that I was never bothered to prove my age. I scared the hell out of grown-ups who spent decades trying to master the game and always left richer for the effort. Skinny and unarmed, save my pool stick, I specialized in the gentle separation of men from their money. Having seen the film "The Hustler" a dozen times, I would always forestall collection of a wager in the face of hostility.

"That sucks man, you'd have kicked my ass if you hadn't scratched, let me buy you a drink."

The bar held an eight ball tournament every Thursday night and I was always the favorite. The prize money was something like a hundred bucks and I made it a point to spend the whole damn thing buying people drinks before I even won, as a show of good faith and to keep from getting banned or beat up. The real action was on the side games anyway; the tournament itself was purely public relations.

I soon discovered that buying people drinks was a win/win deal. Adult beverages were spendy so they saw it as no small favor and showed kindness in return but the stuff dulled their senses and rendered them ripe for the slaughter. I sipped my Coca-Cola and marveled at the potential.

The downside became obvious the night I lost the tournament. I don't know if there was a full moon or what but it was one of those nights that the universe is slightly askew and I felt a strange uneasiness from the minute that I walked into the bar. There were many new faces that night and among them was a young Native American woman named Annie, who had come to the Country House with the sole aim of kicking my ass on the pool table. Annie was the best pool player on the Rez since the age of twelve and when I ran into her at twenty-one she was nothing short of world class.

Annie routed her first six opponents without stopping to chalk her stick and stole glances at me between every match. She was quiet and respectful of her opponents and was the only other sober soul in the room. When she met me in the last bracket of the tournament she introduced herself in a polite tone and told me she had hoped to play against me in the final. Annie was the picture of sportsmanship when she looked me in the eye and wished me good luck on the game.

One of the victims for whom I had been buying drinks had crossed the line from boisterous to obnoxious and began making distracting noises and comments every time Annie took aim. I had unwittingly created a monster by getting the stranger liquored up and Annie was paying the price. She wasn't fazed by his bad behavior and to her credit she made quick work of me and won the first two games of the best of five series.

His taunting increased in volume and venom until he was appending every comment with "Squaw Bitch." I'm not a specialist in Native languages but I'm pretty sure those are fighting words on the Rez and I felt Annie had every right to smash the idiot's melon with the end of her pool stick. Annie ignored him with a stern serenity and continued to out class me on the pool table, seemingly unperturbed.

I felt responsible for the spectacle since I helped lubricate the stupid monkey so when he started in with the "Squaw Bitch" thing, I intervened on Annie's behalf. When I confronted him he focused his rage on me instead. When I asked his buddy if he could do anything to control the guy they both stood and wielding pool cues like clubs they menaced me into the back corner of the bar. There was no reason behind their drunken glare and without my guardian Angel I would certainly have taken a brutal beating that night.

A crusty old bartender once told me that there is a special place in Heaven for people who pick up the tab. He felt that buying a drink for a stranger, expecting nothing in return, was the height of human nobility and that it bestowed a sort of pedestrian sainthood. The crowd of people who watched the growing spectacle weren't moved to action by the racial slurs and bad sportsmanship but the prospect of me being subdued before I could pay the bar tab was unacceptable. The entire population of the bar rose as one to my defense and made it clear to the scoundrels that they should reconsider beating me to death.

I steered clear of the Country House for about twenty years after that.

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The cops waited at the end of a street that led away from a tavern at closing time so they didn't have to wait long. They said that they stopped me for rolling through the stop sign at the end of the street. The legal limit for alcohol in your bloodstream while driving in Minnesota is .10 and I blew .10 exactly. The debater in me longed to point out the fact that I had apparently gotten to the legal limit and stopped, as the law demanded. I wanted to discuss their reason for pulling me over because I was sure that I made a full and complete stop at the intersection in question.

I had, by this time, graduated to the use of Long Island iced tea for its general efficiency and tastiness. It's a drink that keeps on giving long after closing time and is a certain cure for sobriety. I can be damned articulate at .07 but at .10 with a belly full of tea, forget about it. At around .084 I begin to lose the ability to control my lips and tongue and at .097 I sound exactly like Mush Mouth from the Fat Albert Show. The Long Island iced tea inspires grand oratory that crosses my mind with stunning celerity but the words gurgle out of my pie hole like an infant dribbling oatmeal.

I called my Mary from jail.

At the police station they told me that I was their most cooperative DWI suspect ever and that in the future, silence might be a useful ally. The cops were charmed by the fact that a lifelong bartender would be so unaccustomed to strong drink and were hugely impressed with my Mush Mouth impersonation. They gave me the Breathalyzer test three times in the hopes it would drop to .099 but it seemed to be going the other direction. They generously submitted only the lower test results.

The arresting officer whispered to me that I shouldn't go to the expense of hiring a lawyer. He said that if you were right on the line they would plead it down to a careless driving instead of the dreaded DWI. The kindly cop went on to tell me that I was a hilarious drunk but that I wasn't very good at the mechanics of drinking.

He suggested I consider a new hobby.


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