Friday, November 15, 2013

Overheard in a Bar - Chapter 2

I got a swallow of my drink and managed to smoke half my cigarette before either one of them said any more.  

"Fred?  Look at me, Fred."

No response.  No sound.  The rest of the crowd faded away, and I could hear nothing.  I could only feel the rising tension, as though I were about to be clobbered from behind.  The urge to turn around to protect myself was overwhelming.  I took another nervous swallow but couldn't taste the drink, couldn't feel it burn.

"Fred?  No.  No you can't!  Fred, don't do this to me!  Don't you dare!"  She slammed her glass on the table top.

"Jenny, I can't just sit here at home like this waiting to be called up.  It isn't right!"

More nervous smoking sounds from her. He shifted his chair loudly. 

"You can't just go get yourself killed like-!"


"Get me another drink.  Now!"  He did.  I would have too.  She was furious.  I glanced over as he laid two empty glasses on the bar to my right and signaled for refills.  He was a good looking kid with a slender face; maybe 22 or 23.  Blue eyes.  His fedora back on his head.  Needed a shave.  We exchanged nods, but he must've seen my tension because he looked at me for a moment longer than if we'd just been exchanging nods.  I squinted back through a cloud of smoke as he retrieved their drinks.

"Jenny, look-"

"I don't wanna hear it.  I don't!  Just shut-"  Her voice revealed despair taking over from the fury .

"-it's like this.  My brother just got his commission and he's heading to the fleet.  My cousin enlisted two days ago.  I'm sitting here in Oakland, selling cars and twiddling my thumbs wondering why the hell I went to college.  Meantime I collect scrap for the war effort after church and I swear people're starting to give me that look.  I know what they're saying.  What's Fred Freeman doing here still?  How come he's not out there where able-bodied men oughta be?  I can't have that Jenny.  I can't!"

He paused for a drink.  Her fury had vanished. 

"Fred, please.  You're all I've got left.  I'm-, I-.  Oh hell...." but she just sighed and said nothing more.  She just seemed to be giving up.  I didn't want her to give up.  I wanted her to fight.  Hard.  I wanted her to keep him here in Oakland; to do whatever it would take.  Order him to stay the way she ordered him to fetch her another.  Her wound was too fresh, too recent.  She didn't have it in her. 

"I can't let anyone think that Fred Freeman didn't do his part."

"Can't you at least wait for your number to come up?" she pleaded.  Good girl, I thought as I got a refill and lit another.  Try reason, even though I knew it wouldn't go far with this one.  There were lots of kids like him out there in combat units; young fire eaters who never listened to reason. I remembered that feeling.  I remembered it was gone after the first few Japanese mortar rounds thumped down around our fighting holes.

"That's the coward's way out, Jenny."  I could see him staring down into his drink, his face a mixture of guilt and nobility.  And doubt.

Nothing was said for what seemed like hours.  The crowd was evident again. Glasses clinked, the jukebox swung away and intermittent laughter punctuated the cloud of conversation.  Something had changed behind me.  After another long silence he spoke quietly.  All that nobility was gone.  He was back to being a college kid with no idea.   

"Jenny?  Did you say I'm all you have left?"

"Yeah." she quietly sobbed.  Her voice came from a far, dark place.  "Please don't go.  Let them come get you.  Stay here as long as you can.  Why does everyone have to die?"  I heard her get to her feet.

"Jenny, don't leave yet-"

"Just need the powder room.  Let me go." and she walked away.  I couldn't take it anymore.  When she wondered aloud if everyone had to die, I wondered the same thing.  I realized I had been wondering since I was loaded on the troopship home.  Why did every able bodied young man from everywhere have to go into the meat grinder and become a collection of tiny red pieces of flesh scattered around some goddamned jungle?  Why did I have to leave pieces of myself along the ridge?  Why did my brothers get snuffed out?  Maybe I could do my small bit to deprive the butcher, since I'd already done my large bit to keep him busy. 

I turned around and stared at Fred.  He didn't notice me at first.  He was sitting back, his legs stretched out with one ankle propped on top of the other, and his left hand in his pocket.  With his right he rotated the bottom of his empty glass on the small table top and stared morosely at the lipstick-stained cigarette butts in the ashtray.  He looked up after a moment.  He frowned at me quizzically.

"Can I help you, Mister?"

Good.  He wasn't afraid of me.  He was suspicious.  I looked into his eyes and thought I saw something like sense lurking in there. 


Saturday, November 09, 2013

Overheard in a Bar

It was the sound of a Zippo being struck, then a sharp inhale ending in "pupf!" of two lips separating.

"Well, that's one I've needed for a while." said a woman.

"Oh yeah, you quit for a while?" asked a man.

I could've turned around to look, but why?  Something told me I didn't need to see their faces.  It was like they were both speaking into my ear.  They were young, out for a drink on a Friday night.  What did I need to see?  I could smell the smoke from her Camel. They were right behind me as I sat at one corner of the rectangular bar.  The place was beginning to jump, but they came through loud and clear even over Harry James on the juke box.

"Yes, right after Tim was killed I kinda gave up everything.  Eating, drinking.  Smoking.  I even told Sam to beat it."


"Didn't I tell you about him?  You sure?   Mmm- (puff) he was my supervisor on the line up in Richmond.  Movie star handsome!  Kind of looked like that guy who played the French doctor?  He had a limp but all the girls thought he was faking it so he could stay stateside and not get shipped overseas.  They all still wanted to get with him.  He must of known someone at Kaiser 'cause he got away with murder."

"Really.  Whaddya mean?  What'd he do?"

"Late everyday.  Use to chase after a couple of the Negro girls.  Use to goose Miranda Crosetti but no one did a damned thing about it.  She'd tell the division chief about it, who did it, you know?"


"So nothing!  He just told her to take one for the war effort.  Small price to pay for building Liberty ships to take our brave boys overseas to beat the Japs, and on and on.  Geez."

"Now, Miranda's the one with the nice-"

"Yeah, yeah yeah.  You men're ALL the same.  You ever think about anything else?

"Well, not since you and I-"

Laughter then a gentle slap.

"Keep your hands to yourself Buster Brown!"  She clearly said it with a smile.

"So he used to goose Miranda?  What stopped him?"

"She fired a rivetgun at his, you know, his-"

"Oh!  Oh no!  Oh, that musta hurt!  I almost feel sorry for him."

"Yeah, he spent a few days off after that.  We all cheered, even the division chief laughed at him."

"That's what I call taking one for the boys overseas."

Laughter.  Even I laughed.  Sam sounded like a real shitheel who deserved a rivetgun in his courting tackle.  Miranda sounded like a tough one.  I might like her.  Silence ensued, as I guessed they sipped their drinks.  I could imagine one looking at the other with a question in the eyes.

"Sam ask you out after that?"

"Yeah.  He called me a couple days after I got the news about Tim.  I feel a little sorry for him now.  How could he know?  Still, I told him to forget it."

"You tell him why?"

"No.  I couldn't speak much at all, nevermind actually talk about Tim.  Oh Fred, we shoulda got married before he shipped out."  Silence again.  I could feel the agony behind me, and I wanted to turn around but I didn't.  What could I tell her she hadn't already heard a hundred times from well-meaning busybodies?  She pulled herself together, though.  She was strong.

"I used to look at Daddy's atlas every time I went over for dinner.  Used to trace my finger from San Francisco out to Samoa, then out to Guadalcanal, then Cape Gloucester.  Daddy used to tell me stories about his voyages out there before the war, and how pretty the South seas are.  (puff!) I don't care if I never hear or see those names again."  Her voice shook as she said those last few words.   

More sniffling.  This was hard to hear.  Somehow, it was even harder to hear than the sound of Japanese bullets slamming into my squad mates at Alligator Creek.  This gal's anguish might be forever, whereas those poor kids were well away in a world without pain. 

"I'm so sorry-!  I just ca-, c-can't keep it in..." She gulped once then really let loose.  I could hear her muffled gasping and sobbing.  Poor kid.  I felt sick. 

"It's OK, Jenny.  Just let it go.  I'm here."  She was with the right guy.  He didn't say another word.  Somehow, as young as he was he knew he couldn't say a thing that would make it easier.   

Silence again, but tension too.  She'd stopped crying, but they hadn't moved.  I felt myself tense on my barstool, my hand wrapped tightly around my whisky glass.  I lit a Lucky Strike with a shaky hand.  That hand never shook when I held my '03 up to my cheek to draw a bead.  It was steady enough to shave the eyebrow off a fly at 500 yards with all hell breaking loose around me.  Now I couldn't hold it still to light my smoke.  I'd told myself I would quit when I got Stateside, but now I needed it.  Badly.  Something was coming. 

Sunday, November 03, 2013

I REALLY Love Beer!

It also really loves me.  It sticks around for a while.

I recently picked up a mild enterococcus infection that treated me like an occasional punching bag.  I began to feel that odd soreness of muscles that is not the soreness of a hard workout.  It's abnormal and I knew immediately that something was ramping up.  Then my legs got weak.  That's the sure sign, when my thighs feel fatigued for no reason.  Then I developed a low grade fever of about 99 degrees.  Nothing disabling but just enough to feel mildly crappy.  It was as if I'd been tossed into a vat of some vile, vaguely smelly, slightly warm and indescribable liquid and forced to wade around in it.  All the good ol' symptoms were there: sore skin, slight muscle fatigue, night sweats, and a general feeling that something ain't right.  I kept thinking the fever would really whack me out one day and go up over 100 then break at night and I'd be done with it in a day or two which is what generally happens.

But no!  It would go away, then come back for a day, and the vague creepiness remained even when the fever was gone.  Urinalysis showed the enterococcus.  I kept wondering if it would develop into a case of prostatitis.  In fact, I was hoping for it because then I could get some serious drugs and knock it out.  I didn't want to take drugs unless it really started in on me in earnest.  It never went there.  It never got worse.  I just felt vaguely shitty for a week but never shitty enough to be able to just take to me bed.

Then it left.  My immune system functioned well and did it in.  I think. 

The odd after effect is that I actually feel remarkable good now that it's gone.  Much better than I did before it got me.  Since I had less appetite I ate no snacks during the week.  Since I felt like shit I didn't drink any alcohol because that makes me feel worse when I'm under the weather.  Whoever prescribed hot toddies for a cold was nuts.

I also lost a bunch of weight.  I can get my kilt on now without saying a prayer.  I can bend over and tie my shoes without letting out a weird guttural noise that starts around my belt line and ends in "-CK!"  I also am waking up with no headaches from muscle strain during sleep.  Yes neighbors!  It's the new slimmer, trimmer me!  Gonna jump back and kiss myself! 

So, enjoying being lighter on my feet and sleeping better, I thought I would continue on this way for a while.  It isn't really hard to do when I think of the headaches.  There's nothing worse than waking up feeling exhausted and as though you have hunched your shoulders tightly all night.  That's the effect of sleep apnea, y'all, and any alcohol after about 6PM usually lays that on me to some degree.  I've had a moment or two lately when I had time to imbibe before dinner, but the memory of a headache that seems to come from deep within the brain and grips my head like a huge iron hand all day long kept me from that bottle of bock.

I weakened, however.  I started to remember the visceral pleasure of the first taste of a large malty ale after a long week at the job.  Mmmmmhmmmmm.  It's a thing that runs completely through me from the tip of my tongue to the tips of my toes.  We've all had that experience with some kind of consumable thing, whether it's beer, or wine, or coffee, or hot fudge, or a good beef stew.  It's a moment that can't be duplicated.  The second mouthful isn't as good, by just a weeeee smidgen.  It's close, but the impact of that first taste is enough to have me considering just having that, and pouring out the rest.  It's a little perverted, but the thought does cross my mind. 

So this last Friday, feeling most excellent at the thought of not being at work for two days, and feeling generally swell, I gave in to the bottle of bock in reefer. Remember when they used to call a refrigerator a reefer?  It morphed into "the fridge" in our house when I was a lad in the late Sixties in Berkeley.  I wonder why?  Hmmm.  Phhhhfffft!

That cold beer was everything it could be!  It was so good I wished I could just put my whole face in it.  I once again envisioned the eternal fantasy of being able to drink beer whenever I wanted without getting drunk, or fat, or cirrhosis.  I had visions of beer in all its glorious manifestations lined up in glasses awaiting my attention.  I'd drink it all slowwwwwwly, with every swallow tasting as viscerally fulfilling as the first. 

But no!  The Great Tragedy of Beer is the impossibility of such a dream ever coming true.  In order for the perfect balance of malted barley, hops and water to be fully absorbed to the point where your emotions become involved, you have to avoid it for days on end.  Like all pleasures, it must be constantly delayed for it to have any meaning at all.  It all works out in the end.  If you delay such gratification, you'll lose weight and feel better.  In my case, that's when beer tastes the best.  When I feel trashed, it's just another bubbly thing that makes me feel bloated and older than ancient camel shit.  When I feel good and vital, good beer surrounds me with an amber cloud of happiness and contentment.

Now, having had my long-delayed treat, I have to close that door and go back to the world of water and pineapple juice and coffee.  Water is the best of course.  No less an authority than Cy Young said it in his Rule #2 for pitching success:

"Cultivate good habits: Let liquor severely alone, fight shy of cigarettes, and be moderate in indulgence of tobacco, coffee, and tea... A player should try to get along without any stimulants at all: Water, pure cool water is good enough for any man."

Well, who am I to argue with someone who won 511 games in his career?