With a combination of relief and dread, Sling greets the familiar noises of further customers opening the heavy steel-plated front door of the Pillbox Tavern. Sling nods at the guys from the house called High Style, all squinty as they adjust to the dim lighting. The 'Box is entirely lit by neon beer signs, a regular light bulb nowhere to be seen. The squints give way to movements floaty and lazy, the first steps of a well-practiced and beloved dance.
Sling reaches for the fridge door, starts pulling out four cans of beer. Sling's arms are long. They come down just past his knees. Ideal arms for a bartender, he can pass a beer to a customer over another customer's head like a crane loading a cargo ship. Most regulars get used to it. El Humidor always gawks in joyful fascination.
Sling nods hello at Mudman, who thumbs at Aecca/Decca since he's holding Mud's money tonight (stays cleaner that way). Mudman and Sling get along grand, probably because both are visually freakish, Sling with his unnatural wingspan, Mudman with his covered in sweat-soaked dirt skin. They also both speak only when they have something to say. Mudman grabs his beer and takes first sip and idles his way to an available booth back by the dart board.
The remaining beers distributed and dollars collected, Aecca meanders to the jukebox and feeds it a crinkled dollar. He reads the machine's catalog with the concentration of a medieval scholar. Humidor and Rig settle down at the booth with Mudman but after a sip or two Rig gets back up and has a go at the pinball machine. Humidor talks. Mudman nods occasionally. Aecca joins them as the chords of the seventies spill out of the jukebox's speakers. Rig curses as the pinball gutters his third and final ball and slides into the booth as Humidor's lecture winds down.
Conspiratorial glances and asides. El Humidor gets up, heads back to the restroom, taking another swig from his beer.
Awkwardly, the remaining housemates continue the previous dialog. Mudman gets up and heads to the bathroom, beer dangling in hand at his side. Seconds after, the door closes, Humidor exits and returns to his seat, and launches into an anecdote about a Steven Seagal movie and a bag of Arby's. Aecca chuckles unnaturally at the anecdote, rises, takes a drink from his beer with a forced casualness, and heads for the toilets.
Oddly, as before, Mudman exits mere moments after Aecca enters the bathroom. Mudman sits down and resumes drinking. Humidor restarts his story to bring Mudman up to speed. Mudman nods in acknowledgement. Jerry Rig excuses himself and beelines for the bathroom, beer in hand.
Pushing the door open, Rig steps in far enough to let it close behind him. Aecca peers over his shoulder from the stall, then turns to face Rig. "C'mon, hurry up," he hisses, and holds out an open thirty-six ounce can of malt liquor. In his other hand, Aecca's beer can is topped with the frothy foamy head of a refill.
Rig takes the malt liquor and turns sideways so Aecca can sidestep past him. Rig does his best to pour the malt liquor contents into his empty twelve ounce can. "Jesus Christ, Jerry, go in the stall!" Aecca whispers through a snarl. Still pouring, Rig tries to slip into the stall in a smooth motion, but jostles his twelve-ounce can. Foam quickly begins to rise out of the twelve-ouncer. Half-way through the stall-door, Rig stops pouring and quickly sips at the top of his over-foaming can.
The door squeaks open, held open by Sling's long arm. The arm begins to bend and seems to almost draw Sling into the doorway. Sling appraises the scene before him, Rig frozen mid-sip, halfway into the stall, Aecca pressed up against the wall to let Rig past. Rig and Aecca, children caught at mischief, await the sure-to-come reprimand.
Sling's mouth crinkles in disapproval, "geez, guys, here I was thinking you were doing drugs in here or something." Rig and Aecca exhale a little. Sling reaches out, takes the can of malt liquor from Rig, starts pouring it into the sink. Sling angles his elbow up to form a sort of bridge that Rig and Aecca can pass under. They shuffle out of the bathroom with guilty gaits, make their way back to the booth. Mud and Humidor give them exasperated looks.
Sling finishes dumping the malt liquor and tosses the can out the open back door into the parking lot. He walks up the booth and picks up the two ashtrays on the table. He empties one into the other and places the empty one in front of El Humidor. "Seriously, if you guys want to do shit like that just drink in the bushes out back like everyone else." One of the Liverspot Gang, seated in earshot at a video slots machine, gruffaws loudly. The housemates gaze at their beercans, eyes downcast in shame. Sling turns, swaps the full ashtray with a clean one sitting on the bar, sets it down with a slight clatter, and strolls back to his post behind the bar.
"Jerald Rig. You are about as subtle as a hand grenade," Humidor says, pulling a fresh cigarette out of its pack.
"Real subtle," Mudman says, a slight nod in agreement.
"I knew you'd fuck it up, axelrod," Aecca lightly backhands Rig on the upperarm.
"It was your stupid fucking idea," growls Rig.
They finish their tainted beers, sharing only grumpy expressions and killjoy attitudes. Sling stares at them from behind the bar, his arms folded across his chest in disapproval. The cans before them empty, cash is ponied up and Mudman buys another round with a healthy tip as penance. Sling forgives them by ceasing to stare at them.
The mood lightens slightly. Aecca recounts the time him and Humidor set off little firecrackers behind the bar. They'd light them individually and throw them away quickly before they went off. They giggled and swore when they wouldn't throw fast enough and burnt their finger tips. Then Sling had come out back and yelled at them to knock it off.
The jukebox finishes Aecca original four-song selection and goes mute. Rig gets up and heads over to reload it. Something grabs Humidor's attention. He rises from his slouch and peers around the bar like a meerkat. "Where IS everyone?"
Aecca looks around, says, "I don't know if I've EVER seen it this empty?"
Rig returns from the Jukebox, looks up at the wall clock. "Yeah, its after 10. On a Friday. But no Pocketeer."
"No Jukeboxer," says Mudman.
"Hey, Sling!" Aecca hollers, the night's previous transgression forgotten, "where is everybody?"
Sling looks up, then reaches behind the bar, snags a small piece of paper, holds it up between two fingers and shakes it twice, then slides it onto the bar facing towards the housemates.
Rig waddles over and picks up the paper. Reads it as he slowly walks back to the booth. Rig loves a mystery.
"Well, what is it?" Aecca's eyes begin to glaze into a rage. Rig also loves to make dramatic expositions, usually by withholding information to build suspense. Aecca hate this habit. Rig's mouth hangs open slackjawed. He plops into his seat and faces the front of the paper towards his roomies. It’s a party flyer.
"Christ!" Aecca throws his hands in the air, "How did we not know about this?"
"There's a Punk Hotel party tonight? For real?" Humidor examines the flyer, glimpses at the wall clock. "It starts in, like, now."
"We have to leave," Mudman's can, freshly emptied, rattles out of his hand onto the table, his other hand wiping beer from his lips. He stands up, looks at the others expectantly.
Three chugged beers later, the flatmates burst out the Pillbox's entrance onto the street.
"I can't believe we didn't find out about this 'til now!"
"Must have been planned that way, keep it secret 'til the last minute."
"That's Wastrel's style, for sure!"
"Or it was a last minute thing anyways."
"How we getting there?"
"Uh, the van, I suppose."
El Humidor stops walking. "It is out. On loan."
"How could you do this? In our hour of need?"
"El Humidor has favors to pay, favors to earn." He stands in silence.
"Bikes?" Mudman addresses Aecca, the house's resident bike engineer, their ride captain.
"Pump's fucked. Flat tire on each and every one. We ain't got no wheels, man!" Aecca's pacing in a tight loop, the crisis escalating.
"Well, there's the bus…" offers Rig weakly.
"I have not that kind of money!" Humidor is almost insulted.
"Jesus, Rig, pay the two buck fare?"
"Well, fuck, guys" Rig, getting defensive, getting panicky, "how else the fuck do you propose we get there? We're running late already!"
"Walk," Mudman stares at the sidewalk, at his feet, really, "we'll have to walk it." He looks up, eyes flinty determination.
The others' resolve hardens. Jaws go grim.
Rig's science-brain kicks in. "Right. Its, like, thirty-two blocks due west and about, uh, 20 blocks or so north from there, so…" he thrums his chin with his fingers. The others wait for the pending judgment. "…so… its gotta be like 5 miles, tops, about an hour or so walk."
"An hour! Five miles!" Humidor, interminably lazy.
"Can it, Humey," Aecca says, "we'll be there a little after midnight, then. There'll be plenty of partying left to do."
"A long walk home, too, maybe…" muses Rig with a shrug, picking absently at a fingernail.
A spate of silence, the brink of decision. This is no leisurely stroll. Almost all the way to the river. And a long drunk, tired death march back, most likely. But a Punk Hotel party! One does not miss one of those.
Without saying a word, their minds are made up. They begin to walk. The exact route is decided as they go. That way too steep. Too much traffic here. Dead ends there. A convenience store on the way that way, for Humidor to get smokes.
As is the character of their loose friendship, the conversation rambles in and out of topics, starts and stops with fits and nonsequitors. Verbal abuse is carefully doled out, but never to the point of true hurt feelings. El Humidor relates a tale about a guy he met whose chosen fashion styling was "soviet cowboy."
Walking briskly, moving away from the main roads to quiet streets of small houses, the sidewalks crowded by mossy fences and overgrown rosebushes and trees whose roots push up and crack the concrete, the conversation turns to the subject of Deadbeat and Creep. Deadbeat was an ex-housemate of Mudman's and a subject of unabiding spite for Aecca. Creep is affluent and give everyone the heebie-jeebies. In Aecca's opinion they represent the ying and yang of everything dispisicable in his social universe: a go-nowhere do-nothing hipster derelict and his everpresent rich slumming-it-around friend who will split town the second there's more money to be made working for the family business.
"Gawd I can't stand those guys," Aecca angrily cracks his walking beer aquired at the last convenience store.
"Creep's such a snake in the grass, I swear!" Rig grimaces at the heavens, if he could see them through the thick foliage from all the trees lining the streets – the occasional street light is invariably obscured by crowding branches. "You can just tell the guy's up to something, whatever, whenever it is."
"Exactly," Aecca nods, high on hate, "he asks for a pack of matches and it feels like he just stole your tombstone!"
"Oh, El Humidor gets along with him just fine! Just the other night we…"
"Yeah, Humey, we know," Rig cuts short the anecdote.
"You just like hanging out with him because he picks up your tab at fancy bars downtown," Aecca sneers. Humidor slows his pace, falls behind the rest. In the dark shadows, murderous miniature daggers of hurt feelings stab out of Humidor's eyes at Rig and Aecca.
"Don’t act surprised. It’s the only reason Deadbeat hangs out with him all the time, that guy pays for nothing!" Rig's hands swipe outwards palm-down in clean sweep motion.
"Gawd I hate that guy." Aecca stews in his rage, his anger, his spite.
Then he trips on an edge of malformed concrete and falls on his face.
His roommates swear variously and vigorously. Rising to his knees, Aecca grabs at the wet stuff on his upperlip, curses as he realizes its blood. The laughs subside and Rig instructs him to stand up and fishes a penlight out of a pocket, assesses his patient.
"Ah, dude, you cut your upper lip something fierce," Rig crinkles the side of his mouth. Aecca, still cupping a hand to his mouth, in which a puddle of blood periodically overflows, steps out onto the street and finds a parked car. He brings his face up to its side-view mirror.
"Ah shit, you gotta be fucking kidding me!" Aecca's speech is pickled with spatters and sputters of blood and saliva. "Fuck! Shit! Fuck! Fucking shit!"
Aecca rages a few car lengths down the street, cuts back up onto the sidewalk. "Shitting fuck! Fucking sidewalk! Fucking tree! All broken up! Shit! Goddamn it! God fucking damn it all to fucking hell!"
Aecca continues his blitzkrieg of profanity, at which Rig sniggers. Humidor laughs out loud.
Not satisfied with making his displeasure verbally present, Aecca snatches an orange road safety pillar – a bright orange plastic tube 4 inches in diameter and a good four feet long threaded through a heavy recycled tire black octagonal base - and begins to physically assault the very sidewalk itself.
"Piece of shit sidewalk! Motherfucking fucker! Fuck! Shit! Aaaaaaaaarghh shit!” the plastic tube thwacks loudly on each impact, “goddamn it! Goddamn it to fucking hell! Fucking shit sidewalk!"
Humidor can barely keep his balance he's laughing so hard, and Rig is dangerously close to hyperventilating. Mudman, wary of local residents who might be a bit nervous about a profanity-spewing safety-pylon wielding psycho lurching around their neighborhood and might call the cops, attempts to approach Aecca and talk him down. "Aecca. Hey. Try to keep—"
Mudman's head snaps back, hands grasping up at his face, then his whole body doubles over in smarting gasps as an errant backswing by Aecca catches Mudman in the vicinity of his left eye.
Aecca freezes, his pylon slack, nostrils still flaring, chest heaving, still-wild eyes gazing at Mud. "Shit, Mud', you okay?"
Mudman straightens, uncovers his hands from his face. His fingers play over the area around his left eye. "Jesus, Aecca, calm the fuck down, huh?" In the shadows and through the perma-dirt one can make out a rapidly forming bumpy bruise under Mudman's left eye.
Humidor looks from Aecca to Mudman and back, grins, "don't you two make a pretty couple?"
"Get bent," Mudman examines his fingers, "I'm bleeding a bit."
"I think I've stopped," Aecca dabs at his nose, takes note of the mess on his shirt.
"I was just going to say, with the noise you were making, a neighbor's gonna call the cops on us," Mudman glances at the small bungalows nestled back from the street in overgrown shrubbery. As if on cue, the curtain in the front window of the house before them flutters, as if someone had been watching them. They peer up and down the street nervously, awaiting the inevitable silhouette of a police cruiser.
"Me thinks it might be prudent to beat a stealthy retreat,” says Rig, but Humidor's already gone. Feet on heat, they near-sprint through the dark, cutting irregularly west and north and west.
"The trainyard's up ahead, we can cut through there!"
They run awkwardly down a street penned in by the high walls of warehouses and machine shops which doensn’t dead-ending so much as disappear under the gravel track beds of the train yards. From here they can just follow the tracks north and end up a few blocks from Punk Hotel. Their headlong sprint gives way to a light jog and errant wary glances over shoulders for signs of pursuit. Humidor pauses at the base of the track bed, waits for the others to catch up. The four stand, catching their breath.
"I think we're okay."
Humidor grins at their escape, a grin returned met with smiles high on adrenaline. Humidor turns on a heel, "lets go," and bounds flamoboyantly up the trackbed. On his second leaping step he loses his footing on the sliding gravel and falls forward heavily, catches himself on his hands.
As the others climb up to the tracks, Humidor gets back up to his feet. "Shit. Look at my pants." The knees and shins of his trouser legs are torn, revealing scraped and cut skin, blood mixed with dirt and grit. By the light of distant streetlights, Rig glances from Humidor's thrashed pants to the puffy bruise under Mudman's eye to the mess of blood on Aecca's face and shirt. Rig smirks, chuckles, "what? You guys fall down getting the fucking mail?" Rig turns and starts walking down the tracks due north.
Tired, weary, bloodied, the expedition moves along the tracks, across empty lots, through shadows cast by cyclopean industrial machine surplus. Old cranes and railroad trucks rust in waiting for purposes unknown or forgotten. They tread lightly more than once as they come across makeshift shacks and hamlets fabricated of discarded pallets, cardboard and plastic sheeting. At one point they hug the rough ground beneath them when Humidor catches glimpse of a prowling police car, seeking troublemakers, vagrants, vandals, and trespassers. The gravel of the track bed leaves their hands and clothes covered in a fine, black dust which smudges when they attempt to wipe it off.
At last, they climb clumsily up an embankment by a viaduct and over a guardrail. They blink at the increased light from close-by streetlights and smile, because on top of the distant sounds of a streetcar pulling away from its stop, and the background industrial noises of nighttime manufacturing, they can hear the distinct sounds a party – a big party! – in progress. Laughter, cheers, muted music. Crossing the street, they make their way to Punk Hotel.
Words & drawings by D.D. Tinzeroes