The 7-Year-Old Lush
First Place, Fiction
A couple stools to his right, a man wrestled with a newspaper, controlling it into a fold, and saying with a good degree of finality, “God was really cleaning house this week.”
The boy was 7 years old. It was 12:50 in the afternoon. Thursday. He was drunk, and even though it was getting close to nap time, he wasn’t all that tired. His father opened the bar around 11 a.m. and closed up at 2 a.m. The boy had never lasted an entire shift. Usually, his mother would come down from their apartment above the bar and find the boy asleep behind the bar, his head resting on a pile of dirty towels. Leering at her husband, but without saying a word, she’d carry him upstairs and put him to bed, sometimes reading him science-fiction stories or making him repeat endless alphabet drills. This usually bored him to sleep.
But not today, thought the boy. He was determined to stay up until his father called it a night. He sat on the bar and sucked some beer out of his glass from a red coffee straw.
Somebody said, “It rides like a dirt bike but saddles like a pony.”
He sat on the bar, stubby knee-scabbed legs kicking, swinging free, hands cupped possessively around his shot glass of beer.
“People who take the bus to the mall,” said someone, “are not fooling anybody.”
Staring across the busy bar, the child’s eyes focused past all the yammering, putty-packed faces into the rich yellow glow from the mural on the opposite wall—a bright sunshine beach with green coconut palms and a shaggy blond surfer carving into the gleaming white-blue of a wave. There was movement in the mural. Whether it was the water or the surfer or the rays of the sun, something was moving. The child downed the rest of his beer. Then he sat there spinning the blunted contents of an ashtray that looked like the rampart of a brown plastic castle.
He banged his glass down on the bar. Dutifully, Mr. Strum, the old gray assistant bartender hurried over and ran the kid’s shot glass under the tap.
He placed the glass in front of the child and made one of the same stupid jokes he always did.
“You’re not driving, right?” he said. This raised a bland chuckle among some of the guys.
The child was not amused. He took the glass and possessively swiped it toward him and took a gulp, wiping the foam off with his sleeve. “Grow some of your own before you start breaking mine,” he said.
This got heads moving and an even louder chuckle from the patrons, and Mr. Strum, who had actually been the one who had taught the kid the retort, feigned astonishment and defeat and used the whole distraction to sneak himself a shot of the good scotch.
The kid always got a laugh, no matter what he said. Even the old guys thought he was funny.
The kid went back to check on the mural, to see if it had moved. The mural of the surfer was by far his favorite. There was another mural near the jukebox that had a cowboy standing in the fading reds of a Western sun. That one was OK, but the horse had long chipped away into exposed concrete where somebody with a heavy black pen, waiting to use the men’s room had written hi, ho thunderturd!
Somebody said, “It looked like a spongy walnut.”
“How did it taste?”
“Actually it was pretty clean.”
The child’s face was round as innocence, clean bright cheeks; the hair was blond and made little curls and snags just wherever it wanted. Sad eyes green and shy, always darting away and back. Little upturned nose. Perfect fingers of a child. Tiny perfect fingernails. He looked around, up at the tin ceiling, down the length of the lacquered water-stained wood of the bar. Smoke and grit carried throughout the flashy dark. Colored beams of light behind the bar lit up the liquor bottles into a dreamy candylike cityscape, stocked with glowing colors. Outside, the brooding but determined diesel of a fire truck hurried by, rattling him inside as the siren swirled past. He was swimming headless in the beer.
A heavy-bottomed glass thudded on top of the thick oak of the bar. The kid turned around. It was his father. He liked watching his father work. Every drink started with the ice. In drove the scoop, the ice shrieking and then chuckling as it tumbled, dinging squarely into the glass. He smiled at the kid and demanded, “What’s it?”
“Gin and tonic,” said the kid.
The father downed the drink in a single gulp. “Right-o,” he said, walking away to make another.
His father stood like a fountain, pouring gin with one hand, tonic water with the other. Two clear liquids making one, if possible, clearer one. His big shoulder bones stooped. Posture was impossible with those shoulders. Those shoulders were meant to carry loads in some other century. The hands weren’t his. They were tools. But the skin showing from sleeve to wrist was delicate, plussed with orange and white freckles. His lips were the thin blown-out rubber from a life of small talk. Setting a lime wedge over the rim of a tumbler, he handed the drink over to a small man in a small brown suit and a large, open mouth. The man had long needlelike sideburns and gaps between his teeth when he smiled. He looked familiar.
The man sang, “It’s a mighty hard row that my poor hands have hoed . . . ”
He smiled at the kid, peering over the rim of his glass. “And your deserts were hot and your mountains were cold . . . ”
Then somebody said, “I dialed the number just like you said.”
“Horse dick. You’re buying the next two rounds.”
The man sighed. “Horse dick.”
The child held his glass with both hands, moving his mouth down to the rim. He spun around and looked at himself through the water stains and rust marks in one of the long mirrors that lined the back of the bar. He scooted closer until his nose sensed the cool of the glass. His mind started traveling in new speeds, some fast, some slow. There was a general opening up. He heard his name several times. He was dizzy. The room spun. The building seemed to creak, the moorings coming loose. He heard his own thoughts as though they were coming from the kid in the mirror.
He kept hearing his name. Peter. Peter. Peter. Peter. Peter. He heard his name until it sounded like nonsense, then drowned out into the clamor of the bar. He found that he could audibly go in and out of consciousness staring into the dreamy reflective light, watching his eyes with his eyes. Again he heard his name. He mouthed the name and watched mystified as it all clicked. The kid in the mirror is me. Me. He said it out loud, “Pee-ter,” and for the first time he made a real connection between his name and himself.
I’m a Peter. Peter. Peter. Peter.
The weight of a large man moved through the stressed leg of a wooden chair. “Ravish and polish are what I’m aiming for,” he said.
It was the first real moment of his life. So much time he spent at the bar with his father. He watched the others drink and he drank. He let the liquid sit in his mouth for a moment. He tasted it. He wanted to taste what the men tasted that made them grunt out the stupid secret joys of their lives.
“Henry Kissinger,” said someone, “was a sex symbol.”
He woke up in his mother’s arms. He hadn’t made it to closing as usual. He promised himself he would do it next time. It was light outside; a Saturday, which meant they were going grocery shopping. Peter was excited.
The first thing he was really intrigued by, the first thing he ever gave thought to when it was not around, was a “Mean” Joe Green poster he had seen at the Safeway, right there in front of the doors that opened by themselves and made his mother marvel at technology and what the future would bring. He could spend hours thinking about that poster. It was an advertisement of some kind, a point-of-sale thing. It was a life-size color cutout of “Mean” Joe Green holding a poster of the very same cardboard cutout, which, when you looked close, was also holding a poster of the life-sized poster of “Mean” Joe Green holding the poster—and it went on until Peter’s face was right up to the cardboard and there were just a couple printed dots where the next poster of the poster would be. He tried to figure it out, how it was possible. It made him dizzy. “Why is that black man so angry?” he asked his mother.
But his mother was busy weaving back and forth through the “out” and back through the “in” of the new automatic doors. She pushed people aside to make two complete loops before the doors started closing. “The secret,” she said, “is that you’ve got to be stepping on the black part. See?” She demonstrated. On and off. On and off. On and off. The doors whirred back and forth like pinball flippers. The manager started to walk over. Peter’s mom grabbed him by the hand, took a basket, and headed for the produce aisle. As she shook open a plastic bag and started inspecting some vegetables, she whispered, “By the year 2000, we’ll all be zooming around in flying cars.”
He stood and looked at his mom. He wondered not about the flying cars. He didn’t care about the flying cars. He wondered if his mom was pretty. She was 20 years younger than his father. His father was a butcher. His mother was like a lamb. That’s what he thought.
Back in the bar, Peter was facing the mirror again, crossing his eyes. His lungs drank the stuffy air, spiced with cigarette smoke. He watched the smoke rise from the cooling butts in an ashtray on the ledge behind the bar, enchanted by the gray-white calligraphy lazily rising in the air, then unraveling into a blurry light-blue haze near the ceiling. He felt dizzy again as he thought about the “Mean” Joe Green poster. How did that work? He leaned his head against the mirror, feeling the coolness on his forehead.
Mr. Strum came over and said, “Rough day at the office?”
There again were some chuckles. Peter didn’t feel like participating in the routine. He looked at Mr. Strum, his eyes demanding to be left alone. And a beer.
“OK, kid,” said Mr. Strum. “You look like you really need one.”
Strum poured and Peter downed. He had six shot glasses full of beer in a matter of minutes. Things were looking better. He felt better. Lighter.
Somebody said, “The whole place is covered with dust bunnies.” They were talking about the back storage room.
Dust bunnies, thought Peter. Now that’s something I’d like to see. He slid off the counter onto the humped leather pad of a stool, his soft landing blown as the stool spun around and sent him flying over the side. He landed on his chin. It hurt, but not really. He lay there, arms spread out. He pretended to swim. He swam through the trapdoor at the center of the bar and into a cabinet full of paper and linens, his head resting on a dirty towel. He swam asleep.
This time he woke up in the bar. He was surprised. Where was his mom? The bar was louder than he had ever heard it. Lots of laughter.
The laughs flamed a bit, then quieted as he got up, grabbed a glass, and climbed on top of the bar and waited for Mr. Strum. He didn’t see him anywhere. In fact, he only saw a couple of the usual dozen or so midday customers. There were a lot of couples. Lots of men wearing loosened ties.
The father came over and took away the kid’s glass and wiped the counter with one sweeping reach of his arm. He looked angry. “Where’s your mother?” he said. Peter shrugged.
His father was mad. “Get down there and go to sleep,” he said, picking Peter up and over the bar.
“I want a drink,” said Peter.
The guys at the bar laughed even though they didn’t know the routine. But his father wasn’t laughing. And he wasn’t pouring, either. Something was different.
“This kid,” he heard his father say incredulously.
There was more laughing. Two guys were talking. They waited until his father was off serving a customer.
“That kid doesn’t even know he’s retarded,” one man said.
“He’s not retarded,” said the other man. “He’s got some mental thing. I don’t know what the hell it is.”
“He sits on the damn bar and drinks tonic water all day until he thinks he’s drunk.”
“Well, I don’t think he’s retarded. He must have autism or Alzheimer’s or something.”
“Alzheimer’s?” The man laughed. “Maybe you’re retarded. That’s what you get from licking foil.”
“Well, I can’t understand a damn word that kid says. He’s gotta be some kind of retarded. You ever ask his pop?”
“He doesn’t talk about it.”
There was a pause. “His mother’s a nice piece,” said the second man.
They clinked glasses. “Sure as shit,” said the first.
Peter lied down on the bar towel and listened to the crowd. It was all just one big jungle of noise and it was getting to him.
He heard a kicking sound near his head and the scooting of wooden stools on the floor.
“The first thing you have to realize in this universe,” said a voice, taking a pause to swallow, “is that you are alone.”
Peter knocked his head against the wood of the bar. There were a lot of things he wanted to say. He felt the blood flush his face, but he didn’t understand what it meant, other than it made him squirm and he wanted to get out of there. He never wanted to come back to the bar. He just wanted a beer.
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