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. 



Blogger Roy said...

Nice. Reminiscent of the bar scenes in The Right Stuff. Your bar should materialize in an iteration of reality in the next installment of The Busy Bee Cafe.

5:58 AM  
Blogger Harry said...

Thanks, Roy. Busy Bee Cafe? Installment? Tell me more. This is on Blogoramah, right? I think I didn't realize it had multiple appearances. Gotta read more carefully.

11:09 AM  
Blogger Don said...

Dude, this is great. Keep rolling.

9:52 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

Thanks! Gonna roll on and see what happens.

8:55 AM  
Blogger Roy said...

We-eeelll no, sorry, I think there are two installments from the last several months. But you, and Paula, made me want to start it up again. I write a hell of a first chapter, (or not, maybe, relatively speaking,) but I can't get anything off the ground.

2:24 PM  
Blogger Roy said...

Question for you; have you ever heard of an old character name of Parkey Sharkey, who wrote a small book about Whiskey Gulch, the old bar district at the end of University Ave, just as it intersected with Bayshore Freeway?

2:27 PM  
Blogger Roy said...

Hey I found it on Google! Never expected to!

2:28 PM  
Blogger Don said...

Wow, what a character. Wonder if my Stanford relatives knew him. (My great-aunt's brother taught there, I think, and had an orchid named after him; her son died in a car crash on the then-gravel bayshore highway in ~1948.)

1:11 PM  
Blogger Harry said...

This guy?

9:10 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home