SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
November 15, 2009

Returning to the Scene of the Crime

 

The phone rang a little after four on Saturday afternoon. I was in the other room, and it took me a while to get to my feet. I heard someone leaving a message, but couldn’t identify the voice. He just kept repeating my name. By the time I reached the phone, he’d hung up.

            A few short minutes later, an email arrived from an address I’d never seen before. I thought I might know who it was, but couldn’t be absolutely certain. In recent days I’d been drawn into a noirish web of intrigue involving hidden identities and multiple aliases, so I wasn’t ready to make any hasty assumptions about anything. I had reasons to be suspicious of anything that wasn’t familiar.

            The note consisted of a single word: “Beers?”

            Instead of responding to a note whose author was hiding behind a veil, or dialing the number of whoever had left the message, I looked up the number of the man I thought might be behind it all, thus circumventing the possibility of any more mistaken identities. When I dialed the number, I got an answering machine, and left a message of my own, asking that he confirm my suspicions.

            A moment after I hung up the phone it rang again, and I reflexively picked up the receiver, my heart sinking as I did so. Picking up the phone is always a mistake.

            “Hello?’ I asked slowly and carefully, ready for the worst.

            “You actually picked up your phone,” the voice said, and I relaxed. It was my friend Erik, for whom I’d just left the message. He quickly confirmed that yes, he’d called earlier and yes, he’d sent the note from a new email address.

            “So you wanna grab a couple beers?” he asked.

            Outside my window, night was falling fast. I generally don’t care much for leaving my apartment after dark. It meant I’d have to change pants.

            “Sure,” I said. I could change my pants, and it wasn’t that dark yet. Plus I hadn’t opened my first beer yet. Once I do that, I don’t move. “Where did you want to meet?”

            He named the bar. “We’re here now,” he said. “Just walked in.”

            A small stab of fear sliced through the back of my brain. It was a place in the neighborhood, just a couple of blocks away. Closer than my usual bar, even. But I hadn’t been there in years, and I wasn’t completely sure I wanted to go back now, not knowing what kind of reaction I would receive.

            See, for a good long time—three or four years—I barely left that bar. The place had an insidious hold on me. Every day I’d head there straight after work (I got out of work at three) and stay until I couldn’t walk. Then go home, try and figure out something to eat, pass out, get up, go to work hung over, and be waiting at the bar’s front door when it opened.

            I think of those as the Bad Years now. Not much got done. Except for the drinking. But it wasn’t a pleasant drinking. Over time it had taken on an air of angry desperation and hopelessness. I had enough of that in my life as it was, and usually counted on the bars to get me away from it for a few hours. At that particular bar, it was all I knew.

            I talked about stepping away, how it was destroying me, but even as I talked about it I kept going back every day. I was like the most useless and pathetic of junkies. I was hooked bad.

I mean, I liked all the bartenders, and they were nice to me (often too nice). I became friends with the owner. But the other regulars all left me alone. It was a decent set-up. Nice old bar, with wooden benches, a creaky floor, and old light fixtures dangling overhead. But it was a bar full of demons.

            Finally one day I quit like that. Cold turkey. (Not drinking, just the bar.) Helping me make the decision was the fact that the bar was becoming a little too popular for my taste. It had started to attract a young, loud crowd. It was harder to secure seats at the end of the bar—or even get a seat at the bar, period. Plus it was one of those bars that welcomed dogs and strollers. The dogs I didn’t mind so much, but the stroller situation was getting pretty bad. I just grew tired of the whole goddamn thing, so I left. And the longer I stayed away, the easier it was to stay away. After a certain stretch of time, going back again would’ve been a humiliatingly clear admission of failure. I didn’t even like walking past that place anymore. What if they saw me and tried to lure me back in? Or worse—what if they saw me and didn’t try to lure me back in? These were people, after all, who’d seen me at my worst.

            I hadn’t been back there in several years, like I said. I knew I had nothing to worry about, really. Not for one night. They probably wouldn’t even recognize me at this point (even though I was still wearing the same coat and hat I’d been wearing back then and using the same cane.) But all my memories of that place had turned ugly—not for what the bar itself was, but for what I had been when I was sitting there.

            Jesus, and now to go back on a Saturday night?

            “Is it packed?” I asked Erik. I was half-looking for an excuse.

            “No,” he said. “In fact it’s surprisingly dead.”

            “Oh.” I had to keep in mind that he was much younger than I was, and so his definition of “dead” as far as crowds are concerned was, in all likelihood, vastly different from my own.

I took a deep breath knowing I was doomed. It was the next step, in this noirish web of intrigue I’d been sucked into. Whatever happened at the bar, it wasn’t going to be good. I glanced out the kitchen window again. It was darker outside. The walk over there might be a tricky one.

            “All right,” I said. “See you in about fifteen minutes.”

            I hung up the phone and went to change my pants.

 

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