My One Bar Fight Story
By eight o'clock the regulars were rolling in. Ronald grimaced at me as he came in to claim his bar stool. A public school teacher, his mouth was an urgent sneer under his fearful bulging eyes. Tall and sharp-nosed, he carried a big belly and a fringe of white fluff around his mottled bald skull. He looked like a disturbed chicken. He sat down next to a stranger to the bar and launched into his one bar story of how he got passed over for tenure and promotion "because of politics" and his being "unwilling to play the game."
Over in the corner, Rita rooted in her satchel for a lighter. A second-generation section 8, she amplified the disturbance passed down from her mom. She spent her time in the bar fumbling through her gigantic purse and mumbling to no one in particular.
Meanwhile, at the pool table, someone called out, "Whose quarter is this, who's up next?"
Rita opened her eyes wide, twisted her lips into a horrid O and looked at me.
"Beats me, I don't know, what the fuck?" she seemed to be saying.
My game was to show up in the afternoon and drink 'til closing time. I spent entire days drinking at this particular bar, named "Taps" in honor of the seventeen draft spigots planted into the wall behind the bar. A dictionary dive bar, it was like the inside of a cave with a carpet tacked to the floor. Two pool table lamps supplied its only lighting. The décor was a jumble of cheap posters of sports heroes pasted between blinking beer signs. The mandatory "Tipping is not a city in China" plaque hung on the wall behind the bar.
Passing through the open front door, patrons had to walk through a cloud of human scuzz smell which came from the walk in cooler. It was actually the smell of fermented hops, but it smelled just like a well-used mattress left inside a flooded basement that had not been properly aired out.
The bar sat beside a four-lane boulevard that snaked from the inner city, through the state college area and out to the fringes of two eastern cow towns. Being in Taps was like being in an outpost on some perverted trade route. And yet, it was a neighborhood bar located in a neighborhood of meth heads and disability cases. An apartment complex infested with meth dealers and users sat directly around the corner from the bar. Everybody called the complex "The Yellows" because of its color, the same dirty yellow color of pure methamphetamine. Its residents visited the bar regularly, usually rolling their bikes in at 12:30 a.m. and ordering cokes. Once their drinks arrived, they emptied the trinkets and personal electronics from the pockets of their army jackets and tinkered with them intently 'til closing time.
When I walked in earlier that afternoon, I found Heidi tending bar for two bulky roughnecks and nobody else in the place. Heidi was trailer trash from Colorado. She and her boyfriend Bill moved to San Diego from Denver, and they both settled in at Taps. The roughnecks wore trucker hats and torn shirts stained with sweat from their day of concrete work. An informal farting contest was in progress.
"God, that was a killer!" they said, again and again as they tore them off like butcher wrap.
"Oh, Bawwb," Heidi said in the scolding voice of an embarrassed yet still doting mother.
She could've been Fish Queen at some festival, but her face was too long and her two top front teeth bucked out over her lip and one was chipped. She spent 12 hours every day at the bar till she was promoted to bartender manager, then she turned into a Den Mother. When one of her crew named Karen had a baby after tending bar showing 'til the end of term, Heidi gave an anatomically correct account of the delivery to all bar visitors the following week.
"She told everybody how high my pussy was and how far open my legs were," Karen later told me over a beer. Karen was stunning brunette beauty with laughing eyes who reminded me of my high school fixation on Jaclyn Smith, 'til she started wearing stirrup pants over her growing belly. She lived in The Yellows with her boyfriend, who looked just like a meth dealer.
Jake Biggs came in at 9, which meant Shawna was tending bar later. Biggs was Irish and damn proud of it. He was red haired, with a huge pot belly that jutted out of the black leather jacket he wore all the time. He liked to affect the English accent of his hero, Johnny Rotten. He said "Piss Off!" a lot and stuck his two fingers in the air like the English do. He attended cooking school over in the industrial district.
"Dano, you fucking tortured artist," Biggs shouted, moving his belly up to the bar like a tank bumping up against a sea wall. He ordered a glass of Harp and took a pull.
Dave and Judy came in for a round of their bizarre and dangerous foreplay ritual. He was a huge ex-con whose shoulders loomed over his beer. She had Faye Dunaway cheekbones; a twilight beauty. Dave hooked his lower lip over his top lip while he pondered every bit of the simplest conversations, and watched his wife flit down the bar to land on the stool next to me.
"You're cute, in a Wallace Beery kind of way" she cooed into my ear. Dave watched me like I was a fish he aimed to hook. I looked into his bride's face. Her lips looked like strawberries at the bottom of the basket, bloated with pulpy redness. Her eyes were wasted and rolling back after every sentence. She came closer, grinding her belt buckle against my hip and stroking my back.
"Woo, you sure got some strong shoulders, don't you," she purred.
Dave got up off his bar stool. I looked straight at him.
"You're almost worth getting beat up for," I said to her, still looking at Dave.
He grinned and walked back to his stool.
"To Hell with you," she spat and staggered back to her husband.
I walked over to Biggs, and asked him how the wedding went. He'd finally asked Shawna to escort him to his brother's wedding. Shawna was a college student bartender. A black-haired Irish lass with snappy eyes and a cute smile pillowed on her chubby freckled face, she spent months telling Biggs how she just liked being friends.
Biggs pursed his lips like a fish and wiped them with his thumb and index finger.
"I nailed Shawna," he told me.
So I asked him how it was. He cocked his head back to look at me through narrowed eye slits. I knew he was moving to Texas in a month.
"Promise you won't tell anyone? Big tits, tight puss. She moans a lot."
It was an unsatisfying lie. I couldn't picture it, and he never did it.
Shawna came in and took over the bar. She smiled at Jake but generally kept away. Heidi walked around to the other end of the bar and became a customer. I went to the bathroom for the first time in three hours. The inside of the men's room smelled like armpits soaked in locker room urine. I held my breath 'til I was finished and shaking it, then I had to mouth breathe. The air still felt foul coming in through my mouth. Coming out, I heard a loud noise at the other end of the bar. A man was yelling.
"Fuck you, you fuckin' bitch!" he yelled.
A tall, bearded dude in a denim jacket who looked like a biker was yelling at Heidi. They both held pool cues; it looked like the pool game had gone sour. Heidi looked stunned and hurt.
"Hey, now," she whined. Suddenly she looked more vulnerable than that mouthy broad threatening not to pour you a beer. Everybody in the bar watched the scene.
"Fuck you, you fuckin' cunt!" the biker dude yelled.
Still coming out of the bathroom, I just kept moving. I didn't think about it, I just couldn't stand it any more than watching someone beat a whimpering dog. It felt like I was floating really fast down toward that coward. He turned his head and I saw his eyes widen two steps before I ran into him. He looked scared; my face must've been a mask. I grabbed his faded denim jacket and lifted him up to push him against the swinging glass door. He was a lot lighter than I expected. I moved him so easily that I fell forward and we tumbled out the front door onto the sidewalk. He tried to get up, but I got up first and threw him down again. I flipped him over and pinned him with my knee.
Suddenly, Biggs was beside me. He knelt on the scumbag's back. The scumbag howled in pain.
"Shawna called the police," Biggs told me, "they should be here pretty soon."
"Let me up!" Scumbag growled.
"NO," Biggs and I both said.
The trouble with grabbing a snake is you need to know what to do when you catch it.
"This is against the law, I haven't done nothing," Scumbag said, "I'm gonna get a lawyer and take everything you got."
"Go ahead, it won't be much," I told him.
"Don't worry, Dano," Biggs said, "I saw everything, it was self-defense, he punched you first."
Finally we let him up.
"You ever come back here, you're dead," I blustered.
He limped across the boulevard. I felt the beer buzz wearing off, and the adrenalin rush drained out through my system. Scumbag reached the other side and turned to shake his fist at me. Just then the police cruiser pulled up and over to his side of the road. Two officers got out and began bundling Scumbag up for transport.
Back inside, I was a hero.
"Dano, you're a fuckin' hero," Biggs told me.
Shawna poured me a free beer with a smirk on her face. I heard her later telling Karen that I'd defended Heidi's honor with the same smirk. I didn't care. I sat and drank free beer, with my t-shirt torn and hanging off my shoulder. I was a cheap hero for a cheap dive bar.
Ronald pumped a dollar into the jukebox and the night rolled on.
Published September 2005