The only thing that's changed about The Alibi Bar in the last year is, nothing. Unless you count an extra layer of mottled dust haunting the corners, and a slight ratcheting up of the stale beer/urine bouquet. Even the handful of slouched drinkers appear to be still-life replicas of last year's models. Merry Christmas Eve to me.
Eliot watches me approach through the bar-back mirror. He throws down the shot in front of him, and guzzles from his draft beer chaser. He knows I'll be good to pick up the tab, so why not start with empty glasses? Eliot has spent his life sneering at opportunities to improve his lot, while jeering at me for making the most of mine. Brotherhood can be a twisty, treacherous road with two-way traffic. And Eliot and I always seem to meet head-on.
I straddle the stool to his right, wishing it came with a seat belt, and airbags. He nods via the mirror. All the greeting I expected. Yeah, I love you, too, Eliot.
The bartender delivers us both shots and beers, then limps to the far end of the bar to further a futile struggle with a crossword puzzle already worn thin with erasures. He's seen this annual passion play before, and it doesn't interest him a whit. I'm guessing 'interest' is a concept most bartenders gave up on back when sots still did their drinking in real caves. People who live like moles eventually become blind. And as long as I'm guessing, it's my supposition that Eliot has eyes only for me. Once a year, I let him capture me in his crosshairs. A familial obligation probably rooted in insanity. The rest of the year, I'm sure Eliot feels his way around by rote and rotgut.
"So?" he says. Three hundred and sixty-five days since he's seen his only living blood relative. So?
"Clever," I counter.
"Me? Nah, you were always the clever one. The one who made something of himself. Then made a crazy-ass fool of himself. How is what's-her-name and all her little beaners, anyway?"
"Beaners is an offensive term, Eliot. You're talking about my kids."
"Offensive? Nah. I'm not offended in the least. My big brother wants to adopt a tribe of cardboard-suitcase wetbacks, I say more power to him. Save the world, I say. But they ain't your kids, Stevie, and they never will be. Our blood don't smell like Mexican chili peppers. Leastwise, mine don't."
"Carmelita is from Venezuela." I regret it as soon as it's said.
He slaps his hand on the bar, to signal for another round. "Now you're just splitting greasy black hairs, brother. A greaser is a greaser, don't matter which pepper patch they popped out of."
"Whatever made you so narrow-minded and mean, Eliot?"
"You have to ask?"
"I felt the strap more than you ever did. I was older."
Eliot turns to look at me for the first time. "I know you did. That only made things worse. Why didn't you do something?"
"What was there to do? He was our father." I lower my voice. "Way he saw it, he had rights . . . and obligations."
"Rights and obligations. Yeah, he was rightly obliged to get drunk and come home mean." He drains his shot, and chases with half his beer. I refrain from asking him if drunk and mean reminds him of anyone else. Moles don't bother with mirrors.
"You only made things worse for yourself." I toss my shot. Hot. It stings, yet feels good at the same time. A familiar confusion from childhood I still can't quite reconcile.
"Maybe that's the difference between us, brother. I could never distinguish between better and worse. Worse was the best it ever got for me." He guzzles the rest of his beer back, slaps the bar again. "And nothing has ever changed. You found a way to make it all better--'til you went crazy and married that Chiquita banana. Me? Hell, I found my way here, and I ain't got nowhere else to go." I'm reminded of the symbiosis between self-pity and the bottle. No sympathy springs forth. I wonder if brotherhood has a statute of limitations. I feel nothing. Not even pity. Not even sadness.
"Are you blaming me for your . . . situation?"
"What good would that do? But you were the older one."
"By two years. Was I supposed to protect you? Hell, you wouldn't even protect yourself. You goaded him. And don't think I didn't suffer for your foolishness."
"So now you're blaming me, big brother?"
"Blame is a dead end, Eliot." Especially when it's a closed circle. "Why do we have this same conversation year and after year?"
"Oh, that's an easy one. Because we're strangers with the same last name and a miserable distant history. Hell, I'm not even allowed to set foot in my big brother's house." He slapped the bar again. If he hadn't, I would have.
"And you know why. If you can't treat my family with respect, you're not welcome in our home."
"What you're saying is a little Mexican hot sauce is thicker than blood? That's okay with me. I'm careful of the company I keep."
I looked around the stale bar, the silent, stagnant patrons, and laughed. "Right. I'm so sorry to have interrupted you and The Daughters of The American Revolution. Or is this a meeting of the local Mensa chapter? The conversation is certainly stimulating."
Eliot nodded. "So that why you come down here every year? To rub my nose in it?"
I felt my fists clench, but my voice remained loose. "You're rubbing your own nose in it, Eliot. Every day. Right up to the bridge. Right up to your self-deluding eyeballs. And once a year, I come down to this dank urinal and give you a chance to pretend it's not all your own freakin' fault. So, Merry Christmas, little brother, enjoy." I slapped the bar. Hard.
Eliot's prolonged silence gave me goose bumps. Especially when the drinks arrived and all he did was stare at them. I picked up my shot glass and offered it for a toast. He ignored me. I drank alone.
"Listen, Eliot, I haven't been completely forthcoming with you. You've been right about Carmelita all along. She left me about a month ago. Cleaned out our bank account and disappeared to who-knows-where."
He turned to me, a hint of a smile on his lips. "Didn't I tell you? Greasers are slippery. Why we call 'em greasers." He tossed back his shot, wiped his lips with the back of his hand. "What about all them little beaners?"
I wanted to slug him. "She took them."
He grinned. "Boy, you dodged a bullet on that one, Stevie. She could've run off and left you with a passel of taco-eaters and legal bills in the making. You're better off, brother. Don't know why you trawled third-world nookie in the first place."
I hadn't seen Eliot so energized in years. He slapped the bar and ordered a round for the house. Of course, it was going on my tab, but I guess it was worth it, to see the bar still-lifes animate. The atmosphere in the dingy bar suddenly verged on festive. I drank with the others, and ordered two more rounds.
I signaled the bartender for my tab. "Eliot, I have to go."
"Go where? To an empty house?" He searched my eyes. "Stick around, have some fun with your own kind."
"Can't, Eliot. I've had too much to drink already. I'm out of practice."
I paid the bill, tipped the bartender, and threw another twenty on the bar. Eliot stood when I did, and we hugged. Or maybe we wrestled.
The air outside was cold and bracing. As I walked, I dialed my home phone number. Six rings, then the answering machine. I hung up, and continued walking.
My cell phone rattled in my pocket.
. . .
"Yeah, that was me. Everything okay?"
. . .
"Figured it was something like that. Always so much to do this time of year."
. . .
"Yeah, I saw him, and I'm fine, honey. But I'm going to walk around the block a few times and throw down a couple cups of coffee before I get in the car."
. . .
“Yes, I'll be careful. And I love you, too, Carm. Tell the kids I'll be home soon."
. . .
"Carm, I told my brother the most dreadful lie. I don't know if you'll be able to forgive me."
. . .
"Yes, it did make him happy. But I'm not proud of myself."
. . .
"Oh, baby, you're one in a million. I'll tell you all about it later."
copyright © 2014
♦ Lee Allen Hill is just a leftover hippie with a penchant for word-slinging.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.
Erick Mertz is a writer/filmmaker/poet from Portland, Oregon working toward his lifelong ambition of always staying in love with the process.
A true baby-boomer, Steve Herbert grew up in rural New Zealand before pursuing a teaching career which took him from Singapore to Australia; he recently eased into semi-retirement amongst the dairy farms in the beautiful north of the country of his birth, but you can find him on his new website Poet For Hire where he entertains, educates and offers his talents to the public.
"I'm wearing purple underpants," Vonny announced. "And nothing else. And I am perfectly comfortable with myself."
"Good for you!" I stirred cake batter, cradling the phone against my shoulder. "Nothing else at all?"
"Well, okay. Purple underpants and a very light layer of foundation."
"That's okay. That's huge for you, honey. Only one makeup item? That's--"
"Fine," she interrupted grumpily. "I put a little blush over the foundation. You can't not."
"You can't not," I agreed. Jon drifted into the kitchen, and poured coffee into a travel mug.
"You'd look washed out," said Vonny.
"Unnatural." I brandished the batter-coated spoon. "We are making great strides!" I chirped into the phone. "Chin up!"
There was a long pause. "Clara," she said, in that slow, hesitating way that let me know she was about to break our agreement. "My thighs are so--"
I hung up on her.
Jon leaned across the kitchen island and swiped a dribble of pale batter from the edge of my mixing bowl. "How's the sisterhood of the traveling insecurities this morning?"
I rolled my eyes.
"Making great strides, is what I heard."
"She's lonely," I told him. "She's my best friend." Personally, I couldn't imagine sitting around in my underwear and not critiquing my thighs. But that was what we agreed on, and I was going to hold her to it.
The phone rang again, and Jon kissed me and headed out the door.
I picked up. "I have to get this cake in the oven."
"My body is not a problem," Vonny recited penitently. Then she seemed to perk up. "And it was about time for me to get dressed anyway. You have to see my new pants. They make my ass look like a--like the beautiful, valued part of me that it is," she amended on the fly.
Inside the studio, I set the cake on the little card table with the paper plates and someone's veggies and dip. I probably should have brought something healthy, too.
Vonny already had a seat, but when she caught sight of me she stood up and wiggled her butt in my direction. I gave her a thumbs-up sign.
"All right, class." Lita, our teacher, basically flowed out onto the open stage space. She was young, small, wearing all black as always. "Does anyone have any new material they'd like to share?"
Vonny bounced out of her chair. I sat down to watch.
"As you all know, Clara and I have been working on our self-esteem and body acceptance," she said. Another denizen of the back row smiled at me, and I nodded, feeling more embarrassed than gracious. “So, I'd like to share that we are making great strides. This morning I sat around practically naked and just accepted my mature body."
Lita pursed her lips. "Mmhm. That's phenomenal, Vonny. How are you going to share that with us?"
Vonny looked toward me, and I shrugged. She was the one who chose a creative expressions class, instead of regular old Weight Watchers. She told me her daughter, Olivia, said that Weight Watchers sounded too fat-shaming. "In dance," she said, locking eyes with me. "In duet--"
I shook my head fiercely.
"In solo dance," Vonny finished.
"That's fabulous," said Lita. "Do you have music?"
"No." Vonny was starting to look a bit lost. Some unfriendly person tittered in the audience.
"That's wonderful," Lita said firmly. "Some of the most profound movement is done without accompaniment. Whenever you're ready."
So Vonny danced. She did some arm movements, and then mimed looking at various body parts. She smiled widely at her arms, her legs, her hands, and down at her torso. She finished up with a butt shake that I figured was more about the pants than anything else.
A few other ladies shared monologues they'd been working on, and one brought in a poem she'd written. Then Lita had us all get up together. We flooded the stage, and she put on music and led us in a little light stretching and artistic aerobics.
After that we had our birthday celebration for Maggie, one of the other girls. A blonde I didn't know congratulated Vonny on her dance. "So freeing," she said, "to see a lady our age appreciate herself."
Vonny beamed. "I couldn't do it without my girl Clara here." She put an arm around me and tugged me in to her side. "She's just the best."
At home, I washed the kitchen floor and vacuumed the stairs and the upstairs hallway. Kevin had football practice after school, so I didn't have anything to do until dinner. I sat down to read.
"I threw up," she announced. "I ate so much at class, I was just so excited about how well my dance went. It was a triumph, don't you think? I think it was a breakthrough."
"It was lovely, Von."
"Yes. Well. Then I came home and threw up." Her voice cracked. "Do you think I'm going to get a disorder?"
I put the book aside. "I think you're lonely, with Olivia off at school."
There was a long pause. "And with Nick gone," she said. "Maybe I just need a new man. I should start looking again. This acceptance thing, this isn't going to help me find somebody. Maybe we should just go to Weight Watchers."
I sighed. "Yeah. Maybe."
"I'll find us a good group." She sounded cheerful again, purposeful. "I'll call you back."
I sat for a few moments, with the phone in one hand and the book in the other. Then I got up, put them both down, and closed the curtains in our bedroom.
I looked at my arms. I looked at my legs. I smiled at them, mimicking Vonny's performance. I wiggled out of my sweater, and dropped my pants to the floor. I went into the master bathroom, shaking my rear, and washed the makeup from my face. I left my bra and even my underpants on the bathroom floor. And in the dim, carpeted, oddly shaped open spaces of my bedroom, I started to dance.
copyright © 2014
Brynn MacNab spends most of her spare time on short fiction, although she also occasionally goes out swing dancing; you can find more of her stories at brynnmacnab.blogspot.com.