I’d gotten a call one day from Lauren asking if I’d like to help her tend bar at a fundraising dinner for hunters. She’d known I was always need of some easy cash, and after worked plenty of extravagant weddings pouring overpriced wine to plastic trophy wives in Santa Barbara, she figured I’d have no trouble cracking open dozens of Coors for old hillbillies.
Walking up to a faded old meeting hall at some fairground, Lauren waved to a leathery woman in leather and turquoise jewelery and a husky bearded gentleman with a long-sleeve camouflage shirt tucked into worn jeans. Both had the thick, stubby cigarettes a friend who smoked them used to call the working man’s choice.
On the other hand I, heeding the advice that it’s always better to be overdressed given to me before a seventh grade dance by a very flamboyant GAP salesman pushing a satin gold shirt onto my chubby frame, was wearing slacks. Perhaps I’ve just been overly influenced by Jesse Ventura in Predator, but in these situations I’m always worried about being called some “big city homo” or something along those lines.
My own anxious prejudice aside, Tom and Lana were thoroughly friendly. “Thanks for helping us tonight, it’s probably going to be pretty busy,” he said pausing for a drag of what I remembered were Marlboro 72s. “These here are bear hunters coming in tonight. Serious mountain folk, real living-off-the-land type of people.” Knowing that Tom himself ran a rowdy bar up in the sticks, I had to raise my eyebrows. “Yeah, these folk don’t make it down the hill much. Don’t see people too much either. They’re all good people, don’t get me wrong, but they’re all pretty weird.” He shrugged. “Drink a whole shitload of Coors Light, I can tell you that.”
One whole wall of the big hall was dedicated to racks and racks of rifles ranging in menace from classic lever-action ranch rifles to fully kitted-out assault rifles that I’d have a hard time imagining hunting animals with. All of them were to be either auctioned or raffled off, including a couple tiny little neon pink .22s for the girls. Tom himself had an old .45 and a worn bolt-action rifle up for raffle; five bucks bought a spin on a wheel which paid out anywhere from 5 to 100 tickets. The main raffle had a similar scheme, with various progressive payouts and all kinds of price tiers and other tomfoolery. Judging by the number of gritty attendees walking around with yards of tickets in their fists like kids at a carnival, I was the only one who didn’t have a strategy. They’d all had more practice; it was the same set up at every other fundraiser they went to.
I’d say about half of those there were the young country with money type: men with crisp shirts tucked into fresh Wranglers and expensive watches with loud drunk entitled blondes in cheap heels and expensive jeans on their arms. The type to get worked up over taxes and immigration while cashing subsidy checks and hiring Latino laborers under the table. The rest were more of what I’d expected from Tom: same uniform as the others but more worn, bigger plugs of chaw in their mouths, and complete unintelligible. The majority weren’t particularly friendly – at least not to me, Lauren seemed to have a better go of it – nor great tippers, but they did mow through the Coors and whiskey at an impressive clip. And aside from one from one former small town prom queen who, after haughtily asking for her ninth vodka tonic just to dump it in a thermos with Crystal Light, reminded me why I rarely say ‘cunt’ (so as to preserve its weight), the pace seemed to loosen everybody up in both regards.
A huge dude with a scarred face and a lopsided grin came sidling up to me. “Ey burdgr cnnnnie gebum frither cullate?” he nearly shouted, hiking up his jeans with authority.
“I’m sorry, what was that?”
“Surmy burdgr, ayd look mem cuelate.” He sounded like a caricature of a Mike Judge character.
“Sorry, man, it’s loud in here. Can you say that again?”
“Ah cullet! Cullet!” he said, pointing over towards a cooler of Coors Light. He talked like he’d managed to shove a bunch of rocks in his mouth despite his lips being sewn shut. Every noise he made was squeezed out of his expansive belly.
“Oh, a bullet? As in a Silver Bullet?”
“Well damn ner tum ya her ma! Tenks burdgr!” he said.
He came back for the same exchange every ten minutes on the dot. He’d just finished his nineteenth or twentieth beer as he strolled up with an almost sad look on his face. “Ay tekken dum ner twennee cullets an ay haint bun stupped yet.” He pulled out five more of the drink tickets he’d been paying with. “Ay gawt fiv mahr an ay taint shore ay gun finsh.”
“Shit, man, I’ve never seen a man take twenty bullets and still stand! You should be proud to be where you are. And hell, if you finish, can’t hurt can it?”
He leaned back and squinted, to get a better look at me. “Burdgr, yer good pepple!”
Once the last gun was handed out and drunken speech made, Lauren and I left Tom packing things up while the hooting crowd tried to get him to keep giving out beer. I told her about the friend I’d made. She just laughed. “Yeah, I know about that guy. I’ve seen him around Tom’s place a few times. I think twenty-five beers is a pretty standard night for him. I’m not sure how he’ll fare on the drive home though. He’s got about two hours ahead of him.” She paused. “Shit, we better get on the road before all of them do.”
Lauren hauled ass out of there. We went to pick up her boyfriend Jerome and drag him with us to The Longhorn, a local dive. It was the only place around to get good and smashed, which reflected in the prices. It was a worn out old place with warped wood siding inside and out, with an equally wooden and worn clientele. Random pelts shared wall space with ditto copies of John Wayne portraits. We eased our way past the pair of tweakers chain-smoking and jabbering at each other from either side of the door and went on in.
A balding dude in his late thirties, wearing a sweatstained Keystone Light visor and Crocs, was belting out a curious rendition of “Cherry Pie” on a small stage with the help of what looked to be a seventy year old transvestite. The regulars were getting a kick out of it, as were two hooting guys that looked to be friends with the singer.
We settled in for some whiskey and quart mugs of beer. Lauren was closest to the admiring friends, and one of them leaned over to her. “Pretty awesome singer, right?” he said, gesturing towards the stage, where Visor was thrusting away sweatily. “This guy’s ridiculous. I’m Dan by the way.” Dan was short, lifted too many weights and was already gray. He couldn’t have been more than 40 but decades of partying had taken its toll.
“Nice to meet you,” she said, gesturing towards Jerome and I. “We’re all definitely admiring his performance.”
“Oh, hi guys!” Dan had a super cheery, raspy voice. He pulled over his buddy, a long-haired dude steadfastly trying to cultivate the surf look in the middle of farm country. “Look, Mark, another threesome.” After everyone, including Mark, finished exchanging looks, Dan laughed. “Okay, okay, bad joke. What’s everybody drinking?”
It was already pretty late, and with the rest of the patrons under the table or nearly there, the young bespectacled bartendress was itching to shut the place down. With no one else interested in karaoke, Visor and his partner screeched through four or five more glam rock tunes before last call was shouted. The bartendress ejected everyone with an impressively heavy hand, leaving the six of us standing on the sidewalk wondering what to do.
Dan, Mark and Rick the singer huddled up briefly. “Well, guys,” Dan said after they finished their discussion. “We know it’s kinda late, but we weren’t sure what your plans were and Mark here’s got a handle of rum over at his place. He’s got a little man shack over at his place, it’s just a few blocks away. Want to come hang out for awhile?”
Jerome and I both looked at Lauren. “Why not? I’ve got nothing to do tomorrow.”
The boys seemed pretty excited about having company over, and were chattering like schoolmarms as they led us through the quiet, dark streets of old houses. Stopping in front of one anonymous little place, Mark stopped us. “Try to be quiet until we’re in the back, my kids are sleeping.”
“We’re all single dads here,” Dan said by way of cheery explanation. Mark led us through a side gate and toward an old whitewashed shed that may originally have been built for a smaller tractor. The walls were covered in bikini beer signs and porn from the ’90s. A poker table was set up in one half, with a dartboard in the other.
“Well here we are,” Mark said with a wave. “Welcome. Make yourselves at home. It’s not big, but in here we can do whatever we want.”
“Exactly,” Rick said, kicking back into a chair while wiping some sweat from his face. “Who could go for a drink?”
“I think the answer’s going to be yes all around,” Dan piped in around a wad of chew in his lip. “Only problem is we’ve only got rum and coconut milk. Not that it’s a problem, it still does the trick.”
“Yeah, it’s something we picked up when we were all stationed together in the Philippines.” Rick kicked his feet up. “We were all in the Marines, not that you could much tell any more. But damn, those islands were one hell of a fucking party.”
“You guys ever check out Smileys?” I asked, referring to a hooker bar apparently popular with Marines a high school coach had told me about. The draw of the place was a drinking game where five or six guys sat at a round table with a floor length table cloth, and a girl came up through a hole in the floor to fiddle with their junk. Anyone who made a face while she was doing her thing had to take a shot.
“Fuck, how’d you know about that place? We fuckin’ lived there man, back in the old days. Good times man.” He tipped his glass at the room. “Course, now we’re just a bunch of old assholes with kids and jobs and divorces. But that’s how it goes man. Can’t complain, really.”
And that was how it went. Mark was pretty quiet, but Rick and Dan spent the rest of the evening reminiscing about their rowdy days while alternately reminding Lauren, Jerome and I to enjoy what time we had left. It wasn’t sad or anything, just conversation to pass the time until we’d finished the rum. It was after four when the jug finally ran dry and it seemed everyone had more or less gotten to where they wanted to be. Mark said his goodbye and headed inside, with Rick following along to crash on the couch. I wonder what the kids thought of finding him passed out in the morning while they watched cartoons.
Dan walked us out. “Hey, that was an awesome time tonight. You guys are good people. We’ll have to do it again. We’re at the Longhorn pretty often, maybe we can make it a regular thing.”
I didn’t know what to say, but Lauren answered anyway. “Yeah, it was fun. We’re not around the bar too much, but next time we’re there we’ll look for ya!”