Jack Hendriksen's The Bar, set in the Midwest in the early nineteen seventies, traces one year in the life of 26 year old Gideon. Gideon, Joe and Charlie were best friends in college. As the novel opens Gideon and Joe have just bought a small blue collar tavern they name the "Handle Bar". Gideon lives in the tiny apartment behind the tavern and shares the bartending with Joe. He also paints, quotes great literature, plays chess, and drinks too much. Gideon, who hasn't had any lovers in almost three years, is envious of his married friends Joe and Charlie. Although as a bartender he meets a lot of women and has a couple of affairs, he feels himself falling in love with Charlie's beautiful wife Melody. As the story follows his growing obsession with Melody to its ultimate end, the low-key, unadorned narration inexorably builds, pulling the reader right inside the Handle Bar with its cast of hard-drinking, rough-talking characters, into their antics and banter, parties and spats. The Bar is a coming of age story, a love story, and a slice of life that grows by degrees towards its passion-filled climax.
Excerpts from THE BAR
All excerpts copyright©1999 by Jack Hendriksen
Charlie and Melody lived in an old neighborhood on the north side of town, just a mile or two from the Handle: a small, one story, two bedroom, rectangular wood frame with just a patch of yard front and back that Charlie had gotten through the VA after Nam.
His big cloth bag slung over his shoulder, Gideon rang the bell. Melody appeared, casually dressed in jeans and sweatshirt--clean jeans and a fresh, fluffy university sweatshirt. A casual appearance, but her dark, luxurious, shoulder length hair was neatly done and her make-up--red lips, smooth, creamy skin, eye shadow enhancing her amazing green eyes--seemed impeccable, and so fresh, as if just recently applied.
The washer and dryer stood to the left in the kitchen as you entered the side door. Melody watched as Gideon nervously loaded his shirts. "It's good you're doing this," she said. "It made me finish my own laundry today."
"Oh, I almost forgot," he ran back out. "Here's your stuff." He set the bag down on the dryer, handed her the wine and cigarettes, and took out the soap and dryer sheets he had bought.
"Oh, you didn't need to get that; you can use my things any time you want."
"Well, I'll let you finish." She put the wine in the refrigerator and Gideon stole a glance as she moved into the living room. Her jeans were quite snug, leaving light in that luscious location high up between the thighs, and the roundness of her . . . He filled the washer and turned the knob. He could not allow himself to fantasize that way.
Sarah had stayed Saturday night. And Sunday morning they romped naked, first in back, then (with the curtain securely closed) in the bar. He served her coffee from behind the bar as she sat on a bar stool--both naked as jay birds. It was so odd, her full bare breasts leaning on the bar and him with an erection at the beer tapper. He told her that the image of her sitting there would be difficult to avoid when he was serving the customers. Indeed, she had said, leaning forward to look at him. Her luscious flesh, though, attractive enough for itself, did not make him feel the way he felt for Melody. Sarah was fun; they enjoyed each other; but Gideon found himself already pulling back, knowing he shouldn't, knowing he had gone way too far with her, not knowing how he would end it with her, dreading the impending break up.
For an instant, Gideon put Melody in Sarah's place--naked at the bar--and his heart beat inordinately. He wondered if Melody could hear it. This was impossible. He didn't want to make love to her--she was beyond that. Just to touch her would turn him to silly putty.
"Sarah's nice," Melody said.
The last thing he wanted was Sarah in the room with them. "Yes, she is," he had to say something. "What's the movie?"
"I don't know. I haven't really been watching it."
"Oh, this is Bette Davis and James Cagney--The Bride Came C.O.D. It's a great one!"
"I know how you like old movies. Remember when Charlie was in Viet Nam?"
Charlie. First Sarah, then Charlie. Gideon came down to earth a little and actually looked at her now. She fingered the glass of wine and nervously tapped ashes off her cigarette. She looked edgy, as though she wanted to tell him something.
"It must have been horrible for you," Gideon said.
"Every day I checked the mail box eight times . . . and when I got a letter, it was a week old, so I didn't know if anything might have happened to him. If it hadn't been for you . . . I don't know if I ever thanked you," she said. "You were a great help." And she meant this, but as a friend, nothing else.
They escaped each other through the movie, Melody sipping wine, Gideon nursing a coke and watching as she loosened up from the alcohol, just like the people at the bar. She began talking about herself.
"It's so dull around here," she finally said. "But I have a secret. And I'll tell you if you promise not to let anyone else know."
She had built up to this, Gideon then realized, but he now doubted it had anything to do with him. "Well, tell me!" he said.
"I've been thinking about going back to school," she said, waiting for a reaction.
"That's great! Have you told Charlie yet?" Gideon said, sorry at once for saying it.
"No," she said, with a touch of fear in her voice. "I will, though--but don't tell him, will you? Let me do it."
"Oh, my lips are sealed." God, first don't tell Melody now don't tell Charlie. Secrets.
"I finished two years. I've got most of the basics done, and I can't wait. I've been thinking about this all winter, trying to decide--though Charlie wants me to stay home and have babies."
"Are you pregnant!?" Gideon blurted out. He couldn't imagine her as a mother.
"Oh no, no. We've been trying, but nothing yet. Besides, even if I do get pregnant, I can still go to school.
The image of them "trying" annoyed Gideon, but brought him closer to reality--they've been married for four years, for heaven's sake, he told himself. Grow up.
"Besides," she continued, "He's got a good job now. We certainly can afford it. What do you think?"
Lay off the wine, he wanted to say. "I think it's great. What are you going to major in?"
"Finance or accounting."
"Finance? How dreadful."
"Well, I'm not an artist like you," she smiled. "I like finance--I want to make a lot of money too--what do you think?"
"I think you should do it. I think you should tell Charlie, and then do it. Pick your classes for the fall--get some of the books, and then spend the summer reading them and getting ready."
"That's a good idea. I never thought of that. It does make me a little nervous--I've been out of school for three years."
"I was always surprised that you didn't just continue when Charlie went in the army."
"I did--one semester--and when he went to Nam I tried, but I couldn't concentrate so I dropped the classes and got a job. Besides, we needed the money." She paused. "So you really think I should do it?"
"Without a doubt."
"Thanks. It scares me, really. It was so nice when I quit that semester. I got that job and didn't have to worry about studying or grades or any of that. But it's so dull now. Charlie works all the time and all we do anymore is go to the Handle once in a while--oh, not that the bar is bad."
Gideon laughed. "It's really just a shot and a beer joint," he said. "Hell, it's not the kind of place I'd go into if I didn't own it."
"You're so nice," her hand reached across the small table between them and touched his own. It was electric; all of the power and force of her goodness, naiveté, charm, sensuality, and beauty surging up . . . "I think the dryer's done," Gideon said, slowly getting up, plodding dazedly into the kitchen.
He folded quickly and said good night.
Victor Laska was banging his glass at the other end of the bar and Gideon ran down there. "Keep your shirt on, " Gideon snapped, tightening up.
Vic stood--he never sat on a stool--shifting his weight from one leg to the other, puffing on a cheap smelly cigar. "I must speak to the management about this slow service," he rasped, taking the odious black wet slug from under his unkempt, nicotine-stained mustache. His beady little eyes sat in a fat, round, florid face. His thin wispy black hair stuck straight up about an inch. He was in his fifties, short, stocky, with spindly legs that grotesquely reached to the floor.
Gideon slammed the glass of beer down in front of him, nearly spilling it, and instantly regretting his anger.
"Why, you Norwegian fish packer . . . " Vic said. Somehow, he thought Gideon was a Norwegian; indeed, he characterized everyone by their heritage.
Gideon was quickly busy in the middle of the bar, ignoring Vic. Just a little over an hour to go. The only empty stool was in the corner under the TV by the window.
Some teachers came in. Sarah was with them. No laundry tonight.
"Hi," he said over the din.
"You're pretty busy," she smiled, aglow at seeing him.
"What are you all doing here on Monday?"
"The kids were off today; we had meetings--we're continuing them here."
"Give us a couple of pitchers," Art, another teacher, said. "And eight glasses--we've got more coming in."
While the beer gushed from the tapper, Gideon made other drinks. Someone by the tap would invariably turn it off before it overflowed, but then he liked to let it go as long as he could to see if someone would reach over.
"You going to be here for a while?" he asked Sarah, handing Art the pitcher.
"Got nothing else to do," she said.
"I'm off at six; I'll join you."
"I'll be here," she grinned.
He had seen her a week ago yesterday when they had gone to an afternoon movie, then, back at her apartment had again made love. It was so stupid, too; he was doing it without protection and she was letting him do it without protection. He had to stop that, but, my God, after three years without, he felt little control. If she got pregnant . . . well, if she got pregnant, he would marry her. He had to get out of this. But as he watched her walk to the table, he stiffened embarrassingly, remembering that Sunday when she had sat on the bar stool naked. He turned his head and washed some glasses.
And now, at this moment, as Joe, Bonnie, Charlie, Melody, Sam, and Terry sat down, beauty meant only one thing - Melody. Could he look beyond that? The eyes; it was in the eyes. Bonnie's were round and deep and blue, her happy soul veritably flowing out of them. Joe's were open and bright. Charlie had clipped brown eyes, the expression a front, like something was hidden behind them that you would never get at. Sam's were tired, yet piercing when animated; Terry's tired too, but plain and open. Melody's were radiant green, with untold depths, humor, guilelessness, fabulous secrets.
Gideon watched them become more animated with the first few drinks. The girls talked and Gideon started a game of ship, captain, and crew with Sam, Joe, and Charlie. The urge to become incredibly drunk was practically overwhelming. To be blind. Was there nothing in-between? He felt that one beer would put him away. He had stayed in this week (Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday), playing chess at the bar with Joe, shooting pool with Eddie, playing dice with Sam, and getting drunk - not painting. He hadn't seen Mary since that Saturday night some three weeks ago; Sarah he hadn't seen for a month - she had not come in that Monday to talk to him, and of course, he hadn't called her, so it was still all up in the air.
He poured himself a beer anyway. Maybe he'd stop drinking for a while - for a month, say, and not have anything - then he could paint and play chess more, like that one week . . . Maybe, but not tonight. Tomorrow. He laughed to himself. So easy to say tomorrow. There was nothing to stop him but himself. Drinking created the potential for that great escape, every night. We live in "reality," (was it Nabokov who said that "reality" was the only word that always had to be put in quotes?), use our little escapes as best we can, then return to reality with a different perspective, hopefully renewed, but Gideon scarcely realized there was little reality to come back to, except the bar. Sober, drunk, it didn't seem to matter.
Adolph and Ted came in and sat near the TV. They owned a business down the street, and it was odd to see them here so late. Indeed, they rarely came in at all except for lunch now and then. Adolph was in his fifties: thin, neat, tightly wound, he tended to be snobbish, opinionated obnoxious. Ted, in his thirties, was heavy and sloppy. His weight made him look older than he was. He talked loudly but never seemed to look you in the eye. Instead, he looked towards the ceiling, his eyes rolling oddly, a nervous, raucous laugh after every utterance.
"Hey, Gideon," Adolph said. "Give us one here. I'll have a martini. You know how I like it."
"I'll, I'll, I'll have a vodka and squirt," Ted said laughing.
"We just finished a marathon poker game," Adolph said, talking out of the side of his mouth, turning his head and lowering his voice as if he were letting you in on a secret.
"Did you win?" Gideon asked.
"Not bad, not bad," he said.
"He, he, he took us all," Ted said. "I never saw such luck."
Adolph almost smiled. "I've done better," he said. "But take the drinks out of here - Ted lost big."
Down the bar a stool from Adolph sat Gene and Big Mac, another odd couple to be in here Saturday night. Gene always stood at the bar, leaning over, talking softly - usually with Mac. He was a dark, strong looking man with bulky arms and chest, while Mac was whiter, thinner, rather nervous and weary most of the time, sipping his shorty bottle of beer.
Next were Steve, Fae, Howie and Karen, two young couples who had been in numerous times and seemed to like the place, the guys always playing shuffleboard or pool while their wives chatted. Steve was in his mid twenties and dressed faddishly, though always a few years behind the times. Tonight he wore a bell bottomed leisure suit with a paisley shirt. The effect was grotesque. He was friendly and talkative though, and usually spent an hour on one beer. Fae was a slightly hard but sexy looking thin blond girl, reserved with Steve around.
Short and stocky, Howie had long scruffy hair and a bushy reddish beard. He was about Steve's age, and he ordered drinks as though he were the only one in the place. After just a few he usually became loud and obnoxious. His wife Karen had long brown hair and huge breasts pushing through her tight dress. Like Fae, though, she always seemed rather reserved.
They didn't mix easily with others, and Gideon wondered what they did, what their last names were. He knew that they all had lives beyond the bar, but it was hard to imagine them, especially with the regulars. Hell, he was a regular himself, he realized.
Joe packed the papers in his briefcase and wished Gideon good night. When the regulars slipped out, Gideon sat alone in the warm, early August evening emptiness. Summer sliding away, he thought. July had been a drunken blur. Not much chess, and less painting. His plan! Had to get back to his plan. He chuckled to himself. Well, he still had time; they had only been at the bar five months, though it seemed like years. He remembered the first few Saturdays when he sat nervous, expectant, practically frozen to his stool, dreading the unknown - fear from not knowing what might happen. He was more relaxed now, but he still felt dread - only now for what he knew might happen.
Five months. How many burgers was that? Well, 150 days, roughly 20 hamburgers a day, oh at least that many, that's 3000 hamburgers. Three thousand patties he had personally weighed and pounded out! Don't they make forms or patty makers or something? Hamburgers. He laughed, and paced behind the bar. Mary. He had to call Mary. He froze at the thought. Call her, just call her. Right, and get dumped! No thanks. Call her, hear her voice. But what can I say, how can I convince her? If she wants me, she wants me - there's nothing I can do if she doesn't want me - find out - suddenly he realized, fearful as he was, that he hadn't had a problem like this in years and smiled. He had changed. So much in five months, and god, the drinking, and Eddie gone - call her, you idiot!
He had done it; he had actually done it - twenty-four days without a beer. So often, when drinking, he had longed to be sober. So often, while compulsively gulping down beer after beer, he had wondered why he was doing it - and, more importantly, how he could stop. So how did he stop? He didn't know; he just stopped, and it was almost habit now - not drinking - almost, but not quite - like tending bar. When he forgot himself and enjoyed the moment, it was good. When he thought about it, he would much rather be doing something else. He had worked last Saturday night knowing he would not drink and relaxed with that knowledge. Sobriety was such a different world - and that's what it was, a world, a way of life, a mindset, an attitude, a perspective encompassing all aspects of life. It wasn't like drinking seven-up instead of coke. And there didn't seem to be any in-between; you either drank or you didn't.
He jogged two miles almost every day, usually skipping only Wednesday and Saturday in favor of a nap, and smoking well under a pack now, down from the two packs when drinking. Most amazingly, he had done his laundry at Melody's twice, without cigarette or drink the whole time. Those were painful, nervous, but rewarding hours, as his abstinence seemed to impress her.
This all impressed Joe too, who had been concerned after Vinnie told him what Gideon had said to O'Connor, though of course he did not know about breaking the glasses. Joe's first response was that O'Connor probably had it coming, still, that was no way to deal with customers.
Gideon had tossed and turned the first few nights, but it wasn't as bad as he had thought it would be. And then he remembered an old college habit of reading at night. He'd read in bed until the eyelids drooped, then flip the light off, and quickly pass into the night. And as he ran more, he slept sounder, waking up fresher - with no hangover! The morning routine became pleasurable as he listened to the Stones on his stereo while pounding out hamburgers.
He still wanted to drink. He had not quit forever; nor was his goal six months or a year. He had only wanted thirty days. The image was that of resuming with less ferociousness, more ease, less compulsiveness, more control. When he drank, he wanted to be sober. When sober, he wanted to drink. It was like wanting people around when he was alone and wanting to be alone when people were around. Two choices and you can enjoy neither, so you can decide on neither. And a life without decision was the worst. No perspective - decide on one, no matter what, and be happy with it. When he jogged, he fantasized about quitting smoking, but two hours after the run the nicotine craving overpowered all else. (He had often thought it wasn't the drink - it was the cigarettes that was the true addiction and alcohol made smoking almost spiritual. There were, in fact, two reasons to drink - smoking and sex.) And now, Wednesday night, the urge to drink began to be all consuming. He could no longer remain dry than he could remain celibate the rest of his life.
Gideon had kept the bar immaculate during his month of sobriety, so at twelve-thirty he didn't have much to do. He turned out the lights, locked the door, checked everything over, and put the money in the back. He then went to the tap, and, slowly, almost ceremoniously poured a pitcher of beer, watching the golden liquid fill the glass container. He turned on the TV in his kitchen, sat down with the pitcher and filled his glass. It was time.
He hesitated, then put the glass to his lips. Golden cold and delicious, and exactly as though no time had passed at all whatsoever since his last drink. His twenty-four days of sobriety were obliterated in a flash; in an instant they became part of a distant, unrememberable past. The glass was quickly empty and he poured another. His head swam for a few seconds, and he sat back in a daze, selfish and confused. So much crowded in upon him at once. He had been sober for nearly a month, but that sobriety already was hard to grasp in memory. If only he could just have a few, then coast, as Joe seemed to do.
The relief was incredible. He thought of nothing else - not Sarah, nor Mary, nor Melody - just of the beer. Even knowing that the urge did not live up to its billing - he had anticipated far too much; all he was doing, for heaven's sake, was having a fucking glass of beer - even knowing this, knowing he would still have to go to bed tonight and get up tomorrow, time still stopped for one sweet moment. All the pressure of that month was gone; the alcohol put him again in the moment and only the moment. He watched the late show for a few minutes, and then poured his fourth glass.
He had painted, he had run, he had read, he had played some good chess. But now, with four glasses of beer in him, he felt he would do all those things with a vengeance - especially paint and play chess. He would paint the greatest paintings, he would play the best chess. The alcohol made it seem as though he were doing those things right then. But he would do them. He didn't need to get drunk every night. He would do them.
Suddenly he remembered Tim leaving, driving, and it shook him. He really didn't care, once they were out the door. He really didn't care. And he remembered that day he cried. He was harder now, more inured to it. A voluptuous actress on the TV screen distracted him. No Mary, no Sarah, no Melody. But the beer; he had the beer, and it was unimaginably delicious.
Gideon laughed--it was fun to see Sam squirm a bit--then toasted with them again, looking hazily down at Melody, who was staring at him. The tops of her breasts were exposed in the Genie outfit and the booze brought her closer and closer to him in his fantasies. "Cheers," he said to Charlie and Sam. "Ah, that's good." But he didn't want shots; he didn't want shots--that was oblivion.
It neared twelve-thirty. The lights were low, and Joe had turned up the juke box. Already couples had been dancing in the back where they had moved the pool table to a corner. With the last shot Gideon had gone beyond fatigue, passing a point he knew well, entering that area of complete drunkenness he feared yet desired. He ached to dance with Melody, Charlie or no Charlie.
He stood up, the booze swimming in his brain. "Want to dance?" he asked Sam.
"Terry?" (He would work his way to Melody.)
"Sure. But what would it look like, a general dancing with another man?"
"I'll risk it," Gideon said. "All those lifers are faggots anyway," he mumbled.
"Do I detect a little bitterness?" Terry asked.
"Only for two wasted years." Gideon bounced around with Terry to a rock song and then removed his sword, jacket, hat, and glasses. A slow song came on as Terry sat back down at the bar and Gideon came up behind Melody. "Want to dance?" he asked.
"I'd love to," she said softly.
As they moved toward the darkened back room, Gideon noticed that Charlie was facing the other way with his elbows on the bar talking to Joe and Bonnie. Sam was beginning to dance with Terry, and other couples joined them. Slowly they moved to the music, Gideon ecstatic with his hand on Melody's bare back, cautiously pressing her close until he felt the warmth of her breasts through his shirt. They were warm, almost hot. He had never felt that dancing with a girl before, the very heat from her body coming through her breasts, while his chest transmitted their shapes to his brain like a seismograph registering movement in the earth. They swayed and swiveled, closer and closer until, almost without his knowing it, his lips were on her neck, where he cautiously pressed them, once, twice, as in a dream, while she pulled him tightly to her. He quickly looked up--no one, least of all Charlie, was paying them any attention. The song ended and they slid apart, the warmth of Melody's breasts pulling away from him, his hand falling off her back. Speechless, they returned to the bar.
She wanted him, he thought. God, she wanted him, but what the hell was he doing? She wanted him, she really wanted him. God, what was he doing? His feelings for Mary at their most intense were a poor second-rate painting compared with this Renoir.