Observable Universe

Dollar beer night at The Cup. Curve of your cap’s bill gives you tunnel-vision. Blocks out a lot. You keep curving it more and more. Fuck these derelicts. Fuck all this loud pop music, too. Same goddamn beat over and over. Lyrics about drinking and having sex. Brainless kids little more than half your age dancing around stupidly. One dumb-smiled asshole up on his chair swiveling his hips around. Girls admiring themselves in the mirrored wall.

Wondering why you chose this place. Used to be called Billy’s Roadhouse. Used to be cool. Used to be able to smoke indoors. You remember the drifting fog. Bumming smokes from your friends. Always tried to mask the smell from your old girlfriend by dousing your fingertips in hand sanitizer and Lysol. Never worked, but she forgave you. She said, “All of us have weaknesses,” or something like that. Turned out her weakness was this douche with a wiry beard and a beanie and an acoustic guitar. Suspected it for like a month but then found his name tattooed on her ankle one day: Leo, with a rainbow-colored unicorn horn protruding from the L. Said, “What the fuck, Sarah?” because, wow, how long had it really been going on for her to get the tat. Said, “Get out of my house,” meaning your apartment, and it hit you that she only lived with you and let you love her because you’d quit college and got that decent job at the bread warehouse and she needed the health insurance for her diabetes, and she begged because she might die because diabetes is expensive as shit, but you grabbed her by the ponytail and yanked her out of your life. Heard she transferred to some liberal arts college in Minnesota or Montana or Miami.

Tuesday night at Billy’s was a thing. Used to have karaoke and this one bangin’ DJ. Older lady. Early forties. Linda or something. Maybe it was Drinda. Something weirder maybe? Doesn’t matter. You order a PBR. Dollar beer night is really two-dollar beer night because of the tips. Claustrophobic. Too many bodies. Place feels smaller. Remodeled, painted. Slurping while looking around for Drano.

He goes by James now. Margot told you yesterday when you said you were meeting up with him. You said, “Oh, I was Facebooking with Drano. We’re meeting up tomorrow night,” and Margot’s eyes shot up from the novel she was reading. “Oh, James?” she said. Looked at her like a bluegill might look at an un-wormed hook. He’ll always be Drano. Dude had a part-time job at the hardware store back in the day. Once sold you a toilet that was on clearance so you could leave it in the university president’s parking spot. Back when you were college roommates. Started calling him Drano when he poured a bottle of the shit into an ex-girlfriend’s gas tank. Someone named Kendra whom you’d met just once.

For some reason, you suddenly recall that time Drano dropped his cigarette in the dorm room. Almost set everything ablaze. Left a hard, waxy burn mark on the carpet. Been sixteen, seventeen years now. Probably still there. But you remember it so well.

One empty chair. Nowhere near a table. Just kinda floating there. Waiting a minute because it might be someone’s seat, but then fuck them, you need it and there’s no coat or purse on it, no sign saying This is ______’s seat. Fall in and think about the pain in your knee. Tore your meniscus playing volleyball on Cinco de Mayo seven years ago. Flares up when the weather gets cooler. October’s a bitch. Left shoulder sore tonight for some reason, too. Slept wrong, or an old sex injury from Sarah. That time you picked her up wrong and felt something slip.

Checking your phone. Checking it again. Eleven minutes late. No texts. Remembering that stupid fucking Nextel walkie-talkie thing you all had. You and Drano. Sarah and Margot. The obnoxious chirp. The staticky Hey, are you theres. All the drunks walkie-ing you at 4 am looking for a ride home: “Yo Eddie, you there? You there, dude? I’m so fucked up…”

Lost touch with Drano about five years ago. Finally got a Facebook a couple weeks back. Had it as “Eddie Swearingen” until Margot saw it and then it was all this I’m the one who told you to live in this millennium and all this talk about appreciation or whatever, so it became “Edward Swearingen,” and you got like forty-seven friend requests that first three days. Still no profile picture. Typed out one post or status or whatever they call it: “twitter is for twits.” Laughed for like nine minutes straight. No likes or comments. Not until Drano added you and he said, “tweeting is for the birds,” and you were at home drinking Old Milwaukee when you saw it, and you laughed until droplets of beer rolled out of your nose.

Fourteen minutes past ten. Never was on time. Should’ve known “ten” meant ten-forty-five. Deciding to wait. Ordering another Pabst. Gross. Wondering if it was 1844 when this beer won a blue ribbon. Texting Drano now: “Yo I’m here.” Waiting. Texting again: “Smells like Axe Body Spray in here.” Waiting. Working on your cap, curving that motherfucker into a perfect U. Almost a V by now.

A couple girls walk up to you. Can’t be twenty-one. Cleavage. Fucking glittered chests. All smiles. Stirring red drinks. Tall brunette says, “Hey, are you using that chair?” Staring at her. Blinking. Wondering if you should smile. Short brunette says, “I wanna sit down, I’m like so drunk, I drank like so much tonight,” and there’s giggles and you feel old and so fucking out of place, and you’re in the middle of the room and it’s like you’re the axis of the world and everyone is looking at the old guy. Wondering how to talk to young women. Long pull of beer and then saying, “I hurt my knee,” and you tap your knee, and the short brunette must mistake you because suddenly she falls into your lap and the tall brunette screeches with delight and there’s uproarious laughter from somewhere close by and then fauxhawks abound, and then cellphones snapping photos, flashes bursting in the dimness.

Short brunette holds her drink up in one hand, the way folks might hold up a freshly caught salmon. Wraps the other arm around your neck. Leans into you. Kisses you. Kissing back because why the fuck not, she’s pretty, and you’re bored as shit. Forgetting about Drano. Forgetting about Margot. Remembering Sarah for some reason. Her dark hair, long and straight. Dressed like some seventies vixen. Bell-bottoms and long dresses with strange designs on them. Smelled like strawberries and nicotine. Sometimes you’ll be at Meijer and you’ll walk past the fruits and vegetables and catch a familiar odor and it will take you back into the bed you shared, and you’ll sorta get stuck there like a spider in a drainpipe. Remembering how after the breakup you had a bonfire at Drano’s with that mattress and the fire lasted for days. One hell of a bender. Second night Margot was there and she was concerned and listened closely and nodded her head and furrowed her brow and held your fucking hand and swept bangs away from her eyes so you kissed her. Picked pointy bedsprings out of the ashy detritus together a couple weeks later and Margot said, “I’m thinking about grad school,” and so you decided to grow up with her and it was a strange feeling deciding to accept the long haul with Drano’s number-one ex but he seemed cool with it and they hadn’t been together in like a year. And, so, that was the end of Sarah’s role in your life.

Short brunette laughs and laughs, scissoring her legs up and down like a goddamn Rockette, full weight of her torso against your arm, and she’s pretty small but your shoulder is blaring, but she kisses you again and again so you don’t let go. Mouth getting dry, aware of your erection jammed against her thigh, a little self-conscious and suspicious, more cognizant of the laughter and cellphones, and it occurs to you that maybe it’s all a setup. Like, maybe they put the chair here just for you because you’re a thumb in a room full of fingers and it’s an elaborate conspiracy, maybe even Drano is the architect. Scanning the young, ecstatic faces, and then one guy with smooth cheeks and round biceps moves forward and says, “Stop hogging all the action,” and lifts the short brunette off your lap and starts sucking her face. More laughter. Wild voices. Crossing your legs to hide the lump in your pants. Drinking. Chugging that shit so you can get the fuck away from the zoo.

Escaping to the bar. Bearded bartender points at you, raises his eyebrows into a question, like Whatcha need. Hipster type. Impeccable man-bun. Shaking your empty PBR can, handing him two dollars. Thinking of growing your hair out so you can have a man-bun. Imagining Margot’s reaction, something like, “Edward, that’s a terrible idea,” or, “Edward, that’s a great idea.” Imagining your coworkers, their amused middle-aged faces, their snarky comments as you undo the bun and let your locks fall around your face like melted butter: “Hey, California Dreamin’, where’s your surfboard?” or, “Hope your butt-hair’s not that long!”

Wandering. Avoiding eye contact. A few amused shouts: “Hey, way to go, man!” and “Saw you making out with that dame up there, great work.” Discovering The Cup has a smoking room. Staring at the gray fog through the window. Faint, familiar aroma, a flood of memories: Drano plucking half-smoked butts off the pavement outside the bar, lighting up jubilantly; the disappointed glint housed in Sarah’s eyes every time you flicked your Bic; Margot puffing unfiltered Pall Malls at the mattress bonfire. Opening the door now, chuffing at the change in atmosphere.

Too many bodies crammed into a small room. Mostly dudes. Bros vaping. A group of five in the corner chattering away. And then, there he is, his clean-shaven face swimming into focus through the smoky haze.

Smiling, approaching quickly. “Drano!” you say, “You shaved!” and he looks at you as if you were just born fifteen minutes ago, as if he’d like to cradle you.

“Eddie!” he says. “Fellas, it’s Eddie!” Shaking hands, meeting people, all young dudes, instantly forgetting names, except for one of the black guys who’s named Julius. Accepting an offering: a black clove cigarette with a cherry-flavored butt. You stare at the other guys but their names are already dead bodies buried in the mountains in your brain.

“Eddie,” Drano says again, making a wide swath with his arms. Glancing at him and blinking. “Eddie,” he says, “welcome to my palace.”

#

Standing outside. Studying the cars in the parking lot. Trying to remember what the cars in this lot looked like ten, fifteen years ago. What kind did Sarah drive? Drano? A Geo Metro? Chevette? Something small and old and claustrophobic like that. Always felt like the cheese between two crackers in there.

Puffing a Newport. Menthol in, charcoal out. Breathy plumes twisting toward the moon.

Asking Drano what he’s doing here and why he didn’t tell you he got here early. Drano waves a hand, says, “Christ, dude, I practically live here.”

Thinking back, realizing you haven’t been here since it’s been called The Cup. Not for like five, six years. You want to say, “I would too but I don’t like what the place has turned into, look at all these fucksticks traipsing around like the world is their fucking oyster, with all their glitter and muscles and hair product.” You want to say, “Drano, how can you stomach this place?” You want to say, “It’s nothing like the good old days.”

You say, “Yeah.”

Drano squints at you in a jovial way, the corners of his eyes folding in on themselves. There’s no hint of the goatee he used to wear, and his hair is darker than before—pretty much jet black from what you can tell. He has a fucking fauxhawk. Or a pompadour. Or whatever. He says, “It’s so good to see you, my man.”

Sipping your watery beer. Warm. Indicating Drano’s hair. “When’d you dye your hair?”

Drano makes a razor of his hand and slides it over his do. Smiles. “I use that ‘Just for Men’ shit. Works wonders.”

Silence for a while. The smell of dry leaves on the wind. The two of you gazing at the three-quarter moon. Constellations. The smooth arc of a passing satellite. Then Drano says, “Was glad you found me on Facebook. Surprised you knew to type ‘James.’ Used to look you up on there all the time.”

“Yeah, never much cared for all that internet stuff. At least not since Myspace died.”

“Used to call you too.”

“Got this new cellphone a few years ago and the guy who sold it to me didn’t know what the fuck he was doing and didn’t transfer the numbers right.” Toeing at a splotch of old gum on the pavement. Hoping to hide your lie.

Truth is, you can’t remember why you let Drano slip out of your life. Maybe it’s just one of those things. Probably because of Margot since you’ve been busy with her and the life you have together and how she’s got a PhD now and everything is just so serious and formal these days even though you’re still loading trucks for a bread company. Pay not amazing, but good enough to support you for a while until Margot finds a tenure-track position somewhere. Good insurance, though.

“What you been up to all these years, Ed?”

“I don’t know. Same shit, really.” Shrugging and letting your secret slip, not intending to go there, not sure if it’s great news or even just kinda-okay news. “Margot wants to get engaged,” you say and the urge to hitchhike to Arizona or St. Louis or wherever swells up like a smashed toe, but it’s a weird sort of impulse because you kinda want Margot to go too and you can almost see the waves of hair stretching out behind her as the camera pans out from her convertible and the credits begin to roll. “That’s about it,” you say.

Drano laughs, slaps you on the bad shoulder. Hiding your wince as he says, “What! Seriously! That’s great news, man! The best! Look at you all grown up like a big man. Shit, I wish I could find a lady worth marrying.” Remembering how Drano and Margot used to hold hands on campus. Kiss each other goodbye before class. Meet you and Sarah in the woods behind the football stadium and puff joints and breathe the smoke into each other’s mouths. Remembering Drano talking about all the other girlfriends he’d had and how Margot just kind of had this special goddamn hold on him and it was this huge contrast to the way he saw the world and there was a lilt in his voice when he said, “I’ll either drive off a bridge or marry her.” Thinking about how at the time you didn’t understand what that meant, but how now you totally fucking get it.

Remembering, suddenly, the sight of Drano’s drooping eyelids when he saw you with Margot that first time. Realizing that, holy shit, he probably wasn’t okay with it one bit, but knowing you’ll never be able to ask him because how do you put that shit into words?

“Appreciate it,” you say, and you want to talk about life and love and all that shit you learned about the observable universe being 93-billion light years across, but how the rest of the universe is like 150-sextillion times bigger than the observable universe, and you want to ask Drano to do the math for you on how many light years that would be, but instead you just keep gazing up at the moon wondering about that short brunette inside and trying to remember what college Sarah went off to, regretting pulling her hair, hoping she’s okay wherever she is but also kinda hoping she gained a lot of weight.

Drano says, “Next beer’s on me,” and pushes the front entry open. Awful up-tempo music. He leans in, waves someone over. It’s Julius. Drano hands him some money, says, “For you, me, and Eddie.” Julius nods at you and says something you don’t catch and you start to think maybe he’s a great guy even though he’s fashionable and younger than you’ll ever be. Got his entire twenties in front of him. His whole life.

Drano lets the door close again and looks at you, and it’s like a mask has slid down his face, or maybe slid onto his face—it’s hard to tell which—and he says, “I’m gonna buy this place soon. Been saving up for a few years. Figure, hey, what the fuck. Right?”

You nod.

Drano says, “Would love to see you more often, man. Once I buy this place things’ll change. I just want it to be, I don’t know, like this old hole in the wall where people can come chat?” He chuffs humorlessly. “Christ, Ed, when they gonna put us in the old folks home?”

Letting out an enormous burp that burns your nosehairs. Three beers in. Onset of a buzz. Dropping the can, putting hands in pockets, lifting shoulders against a persistent midnight breeze. “Chilly,” you say. Yawning. Thinking of going home soon. Feeling like you need to say something important but then a car door slams and you forget what it might have been and probably didn’t even know what it was in the first place.

Drano slides to a seated position, wraps his arms around his knees. “Chilly is right, my man. It’s ice-fucking-cold.”


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