Guy walks into a bar. It’s one of those bars with wood floors and brass rails. You get the feeling there should be peanuts on the bar, but lawyers from Charlotte or DC or Atlanta own the bar, and they don’t like peanut shells on the floor. There are ferns in the bar and chalkboards on which they advertise the specials in colored chalks.
The guy orders a bourbon. Then he says, “I’m looking for someone.”
The bartender says, “Lots of people are looking for someone.”
I know this guy—I’m just like him. But you can’t say that. When you talk to your shrink, it’s always a friend of a friend.
The guy who walked into a bar has walked into bars in Iowa and Indiana. He has walked into bars in Utah and Nevada, Arkansas and Louisiana and Texas. He says all the bars in Iowa have fake ferns on either side of the door, and all the bars in Indiana have college basketball on TV year-round. In Nevada, all the bars have slot machines, and you can order hookers along with your vodka-tonic. He says bars in Texas usually have steer horns over the bar and a Lone Star state flag. He says most of the bottles behind the bar have collected a fine layer of dust, except for the cheap bourbon, but I believe he is stereotyping. I don’t think you can tell the difference between bars in different states. They all have taps and high stools and men who drink before noon. These are the kind of men who sit hunched on their barstools and blink in the darkness of the bar when someone opens the doors and lets in the early afternoon sunlight.. They shade the light with one hand and stare at the person who opened the door, while one of them yells: “Shut the fucking door!” Then they turn their backs to the light.
People’s troubles look the same everywhere.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
The guy who walked into that bar really is looking for someone. Or something. After that bar, he went to another one, and another one after that. He had a drink at each one. He wanted to be polite. You don’t just walk into a bar, ask a question, and leave. That only happens in jokes.
He didn’t realize he was drunk until he was driving home. He drove watching the rearview mirror, hoping blue lights didn’t appear behind him. He was concentrating so hard on whether or not there were blue lights in his rearview mirror that he didn’t see the car in front of him until it was almost too late.
When he swerved, he missed the road he should have taken, the road that led to the place where whatever he was looking for was curled on a stool like a gargoyle on top of those buildings in European cities you’ve never been to.
A girl walks into a bar. She has high leather boots on and a leather jacket with fringe. She sets her purse on the bar and orders a Maker’s and ginger. I don’t really know what happens next because it’s usually only guys that walk into bars. Girls come in groups. They go to the bathroom together and light each other’s cigarettes and flirt with the bartender and talk behind the waitresses’ backs. If they are looking for someone, they never tell me.
Three girls walk into a bar. See previous paragraph.
Then there’s the one with the pope, the rabbi and the priest. What do you think they’re doing in a bar? Ordering tea? I don’t think so. You don’t ever notice them because they don’t wear their vestments. They wear regular clothes. They might be three guys who work at the bank. They might sell insurance. The point is you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from anyone else. They have troubles too.
You ever hear a former alcoholic or drug user speak? Sometimes they are preachers who have seen the light, sometimes just regular guys who have realized the errors of their ways and now want to help. They usually travel the country speaking at colleges. They tell kids about the dangers of alcohol. They always have dark stories—how they almost died of alcohol poisoning or drove off a bridge in January. How they lost their jobs, their wives, their kids, all because they couldn’t climb out of the bottle. They seem to have their shit squared away now, though. They leap and twist and kneel on the edge of the stage when they really want you to listen. Their voices quiver a little when they tell you all the things they’ve done, and you sit there and lap it up like a drunk at a bar.
What you don’t know is these guys have a bottle hidden in the toilet tank of the hotel room. Under the seat of their car or in the glove compartment. They’re three sheets to the wind when you are listening to them. That quiver in their voice is the scratch they get from going two hours without a drink. When they get back to the hotel, they pull the airplane bottles out of their suitcases and pace around the room saying, “No, no, no, don’t do this.” Then they say, “What the fuck am I doing?” as they raise the bottle to their lips. They say, “Fuck it” and “I’ll drink to that” and “Here’s mud in your eye.” When they wake up in the morning, they aren’t wearing pants, and they curse at the maid when she knocks on the door.
There’s a joke here somewhere.
Ever notice there aren’t Christmas sales at liquor stores? It’s because the store associates know you’re going to buy liquor anyway. They know how many drinks you need every day just to make it through the holidays. They know you’re going to stay up late sitting at the kitchen table with a bottle, talking with your brother-in-law about how old the kids are getting and investments you should have made ten years ago. They know you will walk outside at some point and stand side- by-side, breathing deeply and looking up at the stars.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” one of you will say. “I don’t either,” the other will respond. One of you will press the palm of your hand hard on your cheek, while the other one slaps you on the shoulder. You will stand there for a long time, only cold air passing between you, then you will walk inside and sit down at the kitchen table and pick up the bottle, both of you squinting to see how much is left.
Imagine being a bartender. You’d have to drink just to get through the day. Imagine having to listen to everyone’s troubles, and then having to stand there and say, “I understand” and “That’s terrible,” all the while thinking, “Maybe if you didn’t plop your fat ass down on a bar stool every night and swill liquor like a fish, you wouldn’t have so many troubles.” But you can’t say that.
The bartenders at my favorite bar are young girls with nice breasts and Southern accents. They get big tips. They fill the glass full, and they say “Honey” and “Sweetie” and most of the guys who go there are half in love with them, especially after they’ve had a few, when they hit that time of night when they know they have to go home. They have to work in the morning, or be home before their wife gets angry, and sitting in the warm bar swirling the last drink of their last drink, they start to see the young, nice-tittied bartender with the sweet accent as everything they don’t want to face at home, or work, or life in general. That’s when they fall half in love. That’s when they say things like, “Why we don’t run off somewhere, me and you? I’ll quit my job and we’ll work on a ranch in Cheyenne, Wyoming.” The bartenders always laugh it off. They say, “That’s sweet, Honey, but I better stay here,” and the guys walk out with their coats pulled up around their ears. They stand under the streetlights, and it’s the cold wind in their eyes that makes them tear up, makes them wipe hard at their cheeks before climbing in their car and sitting there breathing on their hands while the exhaust fumes run out behind them.
I suspect the guys who are half in love with bartenders, even the Southern-accented, big-tittied kind, have some misplaced feelings, but you can’t tell them that. They would never believe you.
There’s a bar I drive past on my way home from work, and sometimes in the winter, if I have a late class and the dark comes early, the lights in the windows that say “Beer” and “Sizzling Steaks” and “Open” make it look like Christmas. There’s a screen door and an old ice machine out front, and sometimes I see people standing at the doors of their cars, breathing on their hands. Sometimes they are looking at the stars while they reach in their front pockets for their keys.
The bar sits on a small highway that seems deserted at night. Smaller and smaller roads branch off from it. The houses in the distance look like spaceships, and I always imagine the guy who is standing at his car door breathing on his hands lives in one of them. I see him climbing in his truck, wiping the windshield with the sleeve of his coat, shivering as the truck warms. He backs out slowly, maybe waves once to the windows and the signs that remind him of Christmas.
He drives carefully, checking the road behind him through all three mirrors. He turns at the first smaller road, away from the main highway, but instead of going home he turns onto an even smaller road. He has a six-pack stashed in the floorboard, and once safely away from the main road, he fishes it out and twists one loose and opens it, watching in the rearview mirror each time he drinks. He drives past houses where faint light spills into the yards and where the rows of fields switch past in the moonlight. He crosses old, one-lane bridges, where kids in summer will dive right next to the No Diving sign, and sometimes he stops the truck and gets out and peers over the edge at the water running black and dark beneath him.
When he gets back in the truck, he opens another beer, checking to see how many are left. When he gets to the second to last beer, he starts drinking slower. When he gets to the last beer, he stops and looks in the ice chest in the back of the truck. He looks behind the seat and beneath it. He checks the glove compartment and slams it closed. He puts the truck in drive, but sits there for a moment with the lights off, leaning forward to look through the windshield at the sky. It is clearer out here, away from the lights along the highway. After a while, he aims the truck toward home, where it will be dark and quiet and he will sit on the couch in the living room watching headlights sweep the wall.
I get the feeling sometimes the guy who walked into a bar isn’t really looking for anyone. I get the feeling this is a story he made up—that the guy who walked into a bar claims he is looking for someone, but really he is just sitting in the corner, stirring his drink with one of those tiny straws. People don’t bother you as much if they think you are waiting on someone. This is because we’ve been conditioned to think that drinking alone is somehow worse than drinking with others.
The guy who walked into a bar is always telling stories about looking for someone. He walks into a bar in North Carolina. The bar is dark, shuttered light peering through the blinds. It is late afternoon. Behind the bar is a bartender named Katie, who has long black hair that shimmers in the shuttered sunlight. She is moving West soon and won’t be here much longer, but on this day, she pours the guy that walks into the bar a bourbon. There are a number of old men crowded close to their drinks, but none of them are the person he is looking for. We’re not even sure there is someone he is looking for at this point. That someone might be some thing, some metaphor for a part of his life that is missing.
These may not be stories at all.
There are roughly 12 million alcoholics in the United States. But who cares? Statistics don’t tell you anything. How many of them, for instance, drink on Tuesday mornings to get rid of Monday night’s hangover? How many of them drink cough syrup if they run out of liquor and are too drunk to drive to the store? How many pop three or four Xanax tablets, so they can pass out once they have run out of cough syrup? Or wake up beside someone whose name they cannot remember? Or open their eyes to see the gray morning leaking in around the window blinds and almost cry knowing what kind of day it’s going to be? Their mouths taste like shit and their heads hurt and the smell of alcohol rises from their pores. They can taste the bile in the back of their throat and their head is swollen, even the muscles behind their eyes hurt. They know, from long experience, that they will spend the entire day in the dark room, hoping the phone won’t ring or that no one will knock on the door, wishing the whole world would go away.
I’m surprised there aren’t more raging drunks in our country. Justin Bieber and the cast of Jersey Shore are famous. That’s enough to make anyone drink.
Speaking of famous people, I bet you knew Faulkner was a drunk. And Hemingway. Half of those guys they make you read in college were slobbering alcoholics. Some people wonder what they could have accomplished if they hadn’t been enslaved by the bottle. My answer to that question is nothing. I think they needed a snort or two to come up with any of that stuff they wrote. Tell me Hemingway didn’t piss in the closet once or twice when he couldn’t get the words right.
Alexander the Great conquered the world drunk. Some historians believe it was his drinking that built his need to destroy. You probably also know about Winston Churchill and his drunken quips. Nixon was reportedly too drunk to answer the red phone one night. Before he was president, Ulysses S. Grant was removed from army command for drinking too much.
I bet what you don’t know is that my uncle used to pass out on our living room floor. Anonymous cars would drop him off, headlights cut as they pulled quietly into the driveway. We’d hear a car door slam, and look out the window to see him passed out in the front yard, or struggling up the steps, balance gone, arms wind-milling as he teetered back and forth. My mother, barely controlling her fury, would let him in, and for the rest of the evening we’d watch TV, pretending to ignore my uncle laid out in the middle of the floor, as the sour reek of whisky and body odor rose off him. Sometimes, he’d mumble in his sleep or wake up long enough to offer us sage advice through slurred words.
“Don’t ever drink,” he’d tell my brother and me, and “We won’t,” we would say.
The guy who walked into a bar didn’t start by walking into a bar. He started the way the rest of us did—a beer stolen from the refrigerator, a shot of whiskey pilfered from the kitchen cabinet. He went to a party when he was sixteen, where someone had gotten an older brother to buy a bottle and there were no adults to supervise.
When he was older, he would stand outside the liquor store asking random people to buy him beer. Or go to every liquor store in town until he found one that didn’t ask for an ID. He’d call an older sister to buy liquor for him, who would say: “This is the last time—you’re doing this too often.”
In college, he drank every weekend. Sometimes on Wednesdays, just to liven up the middle part of the week. He’d lie in bed Thursday mornings, wondering if he had the strength to make it to class. One day he did go —let’s say it was an American History Before 1865 class—and had to leave in the middle of the lecture to go outside and puke. He leaned against the building and thought “Dear God, this has to stop,” but later that evening his roommate brought home a bottle and he was feeling better by then. Even later, the two of them ran out of whisky and would have gotten more, but they couldn’t get the keys in the ignition. It was snowing and the stars were out, and they stood in the snow thinking, “If we can just get the keys in, we’re good. It’s only seventeen miles to the liquor store.”
After an hour, they went inside. There were beer cans and cigarette butts on the table. They poured all the almost-empty cans into a gallon-sized milk jug and splashed a little cough syrup in it for taste. Then they passed it back and forth and smoked the butts in the ashtray. When it was gone they went upstairs to look in the medicine cabinet and see what they could find. Mouthwash doesn’t taste as bad as you think.
Some nights there were parties on the block. They lived in a little cul-de-sac, and all the apartments all around them were filled with other college students. Any given night, they could walk down the street and find a party. They could walk into the apartment of some person they’d never seen before, and would never see again, and get a beer out of the refrigerator and stand against the wall looking around the room, where someone would be passed out on the couch or throwing up in the sink, her friends holding her hair out of the puke.
After college, the guy that walked into a bar got married. He had two children, a girl and a boy, and a collie dog named Shadow. Throw in a white picket fence if you need to—whatever makes the story believable. Make him a drink after work, just one at first, then three or four, until he is up at four in the morning, banging on the walls, or crying in his open palms. Or make him an occasional drinker at first, the guy who goes to the dinner party and ends up with a lampshade on his head and an embarrassed wife, the guy who later moves into the basement so no one will see him drink. Make it the wife who drinks to find her shadow, the son who steals from the liquor cabinet, the daughter who crashes her car.
It could be anyone. It could be that guy who lives down the street and walks out to get the paper every morning, his hands slightly shaking. It could be the carpenter, the postman, the jogger who sweats too much. The woman who drives the maroon mini-van and wears sunglasses every morning, even when it’s overcast.
This is what the guy who walked into a bar is looking for: pools of light to sit in, while snow falls through the streetlights outside. A clean, well-lighted place. The world moving around him, and him at the center.
But even with these things, the guy who walked into a bar is alone. People like him are on the verge of thinning out, leaking air that escapes through the holes they have put into themselves. They are like those cartoons, where someone is shot, and then drinks water, and the water runs out all the holes.
We’re not sure how the holes got there. Some people want to eat the world, to drink everything in. Some people are just bored like you and me. Lost, wondering about the stars that spin above us.
The guy who walked into a bar told me all this one night.
We are not strong creatures. He said that we are devastated by what we can’t understand, and would pay anything for what we already own. We were sitting in the back corner. The drink specials were written in blue chalk. They were fuzzy, growing indistinct. He said that we are hurt by the passing of days. We get to the end of the bottle and begin counting how many drinks are left, how much longer before we run out.
When the door opened, a cold blast of air came in, and we could feel it through our clothes. There’s quiet, he told me, and then the quiet is too loud, and you have to do something to stop the sound of your own voice inside your head. Most of the time we are good, but sometimes it hurts. It hurts in places you didn’t even know could hurt.
We were still sitting there when a woman who had been eating dinner with her husband walked over to us.
“Are you waiting on someone?” she said.
It was one of those bars that serve cheeseburgers and onion rings and black bean burritos, but after ten they shut the kitchen down so people can settle in for the night. You used to be able to smoke in there, but now you can’t. The man and woman were paying. They both had iced tea and the ice cubes had melted so it looked like weak scotch.
The guy that walked into the bar said yes, he was waiting on something.
“Why don’t you go home?” the woman said. “Stop waiting. You’re wasting your life in here.” She said this like prophecy, like it was written on a scroll somewhere. She patted his hand and told him he reminded her of herself a few years ago. She told him that she had spent most of her life in a bar. She said she grew curved as a question mark from sitting on bar stools, that she used to stay awake at night listening to the ringing in her own head. She couldn’t stand to be alone, so she surrounded herself with light. Even the faint bar light would work, she told him, anything that held back the darkness.
When she left, the guy who walked into a bar thought of things he should have said. This took up a lot of his time. I’m like the guy who walked into a bar in this way—sometimes I don’t even notice how many drinks I’ve had when I am thinking of things I should have said, things I should have done, things I’d like to do when I get out of the bar. But then I think: fuck that woman, right? What does she know?