[This is the opening of a story that I've been trying to write for about eight years. I've been working on this particular excerpt on and off for several weeks. Not sure why this is taking so long, apart from perhaps a lack of faith on my part as to whether this story s worthwhile. None of the characters is based on you, whoever you are.]
Lurking near the men’s room door at Kip’s, Berkeley’s notoriously dingy southside bar, Carson paused to consider whether going up to Marie and telling her that her beauty was “Lovecraftian” would lead to anything resembling a favorable outcome for himself. The fact that he seriously considered it suggested that was on his way to having had too much to drink. The fact that he managed to talk himself out of it assured him that he wasn’t there yet, and he headed toward the bar for another beer.
Drinking responsibly, he often said, was a matter of marking the point at which you stopped talking yourself into things and started talking yourself out of things, and keeping track of your fading ability to do the latter.
Foolish though the Lovecraft line would be in its execution, he couldn’t deny that the concept itself was brilliant, and regretted not being able to share it with anyone, at least not before an evening’s drinking and a night’s sleep would likely wash it away from his mind. Picking his way through the under-dressed, under-aged girls and the sweaty, groping men that made up the bulk of the bar’s clientele he went over the explanation in his head and inserted her imaginary reactions. “Lovecraft’s genius was in not revealing too much,” he would explain to her suspicious glare. “You leave the door closed and let the reader imagine what’s behind it.” She still wouldn’t understand at this point. “You open the door and there’s a ten-foot mantis standing there, the reader’s going to think, ‘Ah, a hundred-foot mantis would have been scarier.’” At this point, of course, Marie would assume, not entirely incorrectly, that she was being compared to a giant insect.
“You’re one of the few women around here who understands that you don’t have to show all of your skin to be attractive. You don’t have to lay it all out there,” he’d go on to explain. “That, in fact, it’s more attractive not to. Not a lot of women around here would come to a place like this rocking jeans and a turtleneck, but you really pull it off. It’s refreshing, is all I’m saying.” The “is all I’m saying” would be important, because it would at least put him on the record as having denied that he was implicitly saying anything else, such as “I want to have sex with you,” and he would be able to steer the conversation elsewhere before she pieced together the fact that he may have been saying one thing, but he was imagining how big the mantis might be. All the same, his four years of often excruciating experience with nighttime small talk had taught him that this type of subtlety was appropriate only in certain narrowly prescribed settings, and the dark, smoky caverns of Kip’s was not among them.
Approaching the bar he ordered a bottled beer that was delivered with equal amounts of speed and surliness by the sweating meatball of a man tending the drinks. He stopped the barman from opening the bottle by going Apapapapap and holding up the small bottle opener attached to his keychain, a gesture that yielded a somewhat hurt frown from the bartender as his large, hairy arm thrust the sealed bottle across the bar. After popping the beer open with his approved opener and then wiping the mouth off with a napkin pulled from the middle of a nearby pile, Carson turned to a young man next to him wearing an ironic T-shirt and said, “Never let a woman think you’re comparing her to an other-worldly tentacle-faced monster, friend.” He tipped his beer to the boy’s shocked expression and headed back toward the main area of the bar, leaving the bottlecap on the bar for the bartender to deal with.
Marie was standing amid a loosely cobbled group of friends and acquaintances at one of the raised tables in the middle of the room, exchanging words with some of them but not seriously conversing with anyone judging from the way in which her dark eyes continuously darted around the room, meeting Carson’s for a split second here and there in their search for something more interesting. Carson approached her casually and immediately looked away.
“You again,” she said.
“I like to think that my visits to this bar are a kind of penance,” he said, idly examining the sole of his shoe and whatever sticky substance had just attached itself to it. “Every time I get burned with a cigarette by a nineteen-year-old girl brushing past me on her way to throw up in the restroom, one of my sins is absolved.”
Marie’s brow wrinkled. She had never quite gotten the hang of Carson’s odd sense of irony, but then hardly anyone had. Her reaction affirmed his decision to forgo the Lovecraft analogy.
“Interesting theory” was all she could manage.
“Of course, talking to hot girls is kind of counter-penitent.” As he wondered if he had just invented that term he took a sip of his beer and glanced away to avoid seeing her blush. Such directness, he knew, often made her uncomfortable.
“Can I ask you something?” she said.
“Why are you drinking Corona like a woman?” she asked abruptly.
Carson choked on his beer and played it off as a chuckle. After smirking to himself for a moment he asked, “Is there something about the way I’m drinking it that’s womanish, or does the very act of consuming Corona indicate woman-ness?”
“The second thing,” she said, taking a long sip of some dreadful-looking blend of alcohol and fruit juice that probably contained more corn syrup than either.
“Well first off, I must object to your retrogressive attitudes toward gender,” he said. “I’d expect a woman with short hair to know better. You disappoint me.” Marie’s eyes reflexively darted to one side, as if trying to look at the short blond curls that crowned her head. “But in response to your question, I drink Corona because it’s the only bottled beer they serve here. It’s the only drink that can’t possibly be contaminated by the general squalor of this place.” He then took an enthusiastic swig, overtly eying the greasy glass in her hand.
Marie gave her own drink a sour look. “They serve Budweiser in bottles.”
“That’s not beer. It’s beer-flavored water with enough alcohol in it to get rednecks and frat-boys drunk if they drink enough of it.”
“And Corona is better?”
He thrust the bottle toward her and pointed at the label where La cerveza mas fina was proudly and prominently inscribed. “It’s imported.”
“From Mexico. You think if you took a look at where that crap is bottled it would be any cleaner than this place? At least there’s a Health Code in California.”
“Now . . .”
“No, look, hey, you think Mexicans are dirty, that’s cool. I disagree. But you can be racist if you want to. We’re living in an open society here. You’re already sexist.”
“I’m not being racist!” she nearly shouted. “It’s a question of different regulations. It’s a legal thing.”
“Ah, see, that’s a common misconception. NAFTA imposes a uniform health code on all products traded between the member states. The Corona bottling plant is just as clean as the Coke bottling plant in Atlanta.”
“No. I don’t know, probably not. I just made that up. Sounds convincing enough, though.”
Marie laughed. “I’m not racist,” she said gently.
“Of course you’re not. I didn’t think you were. I’m just offering my reasoning for choosing a womanly beer. You can rest assured that were I in a bar that had any interest in providing quality goods and services to its customers I’d be drinking something with at least a suggestion of flavor and a more exotic birthplace. Perhaps Ireland or Germany. Or even Japan.”
“Do you come here just to complain?”
“Not just. As with any bar I also come here to drink. And I need another.”
Without asking her pardon he spun around and returned to the bar for another overpriced Mexican beer. He once again had to stop the bartender from opening it and once again left the bottlecap on the bar, a few inches away from the original cap that hadn’t been disturbed.
Turning back toward the table he was stopped dead by a woman who had seemed to materialize out of the shadows, glaring sternly at him through a pair of tragically hip glasses, wearing the proper uniform for a Kip’s patron that was essentially the opposite of the enticingly demure outfit that Marie had on. After a quick gasp and a few seconds to regain the power of speech Carson meekly offered the beer. “If I give you this will you get out of my way?”
“Who is that?” the woman asked.
“Who is who?” His eyes wide, he glanced dramatically around the room. “The guy behind the bar? That’s the bar-tender. In most bars he would be in charge of pouring drinks but here he’s also in charge of being a dick.”
“Who is that girl you’re talking to?”
Carson looked at her troubledly. “I’m . . . talking to you?”
“Carson,” the woman growled, clearly in no mood for his sauce. “You have complete control right now over what I tell Geneva tomorrow morning.”
Carson pretended to consider this, stroking his stubbled chin and grunting in thought. Snapping his fingers, he said, “How about ‘I ran into Carson last night. You weren’t kidding. The sex was amazing.’” The woman didn’t budge or change her oddly wolf-like expression. Carson sighed. “I don’t know. Her name is Marie. She thinks Corona is for women and she hates it when you call her a racist. That’s about where I’m at tonight.”
“Why are you at a seedy bar talking to other women?”
“‘You mean like right now? Does this mean we’re going to have sex? Oh God, you’re going to say yes. Look, I was just making a point –”
“All right, fine, you want to be a smartass, I’ll let Gen know what’s going on here.”
“Go ahead. Tell her I went out for drinks and chatted up the locals while she was out clubbing with other guys.”
“You were invited,” she said in a matronly sing-song that had appeared with increasing frequency over the course of his relationship with Geneva.
“Yeah, I’m sorry, I didn’t really relish the idea of spending twenty bucks to get into a warehouse and listen to awful music while strange men try to rub their genitals against my girlfriend.”
“That’s the whole point of inviting your boyfriend to go clubbing with you, Carson, so you – you – can handle those guys. So you can protect her. Show a single ounce of chivalry.”
“I have my own ways of fending off her suitors,” he told her grimly. “Sarcasm doesn’t work in clubs. The music is too loud. The best I can get out is ‘Stop groping my girlfriend you goddamned mook’ before it gets physical.”
“What about that Kung Fu crap you do?”
“It’s Aikido, not Kung Fu. And that doesn’t work in clubs, either. It’s part of the Aikido Code. You can’t use it when techno music is playing. Throws off the ki. You try to harmonize your opponent’s negative energy and the next thing you know you’re making out. It’s terrible.”
The woman glanced back at Marie, who strangely enough didn’t appear to be talking to anyone else. “What are you doing here, anyway? I thought you hated this place.”
“I do,” Carson said, throwing back a swig of beer. “But it’s my campaign kick-off party. This bar is full of my supporters.”
“Where?” the woman asked, glancing around.
“Everywhere. All of them. They just don’t know it yet. I figure this is as good a place as any to find stupid people to manipulate. And that’s the meat in the sandwich of American politics. Especially student politics.”
The woman’s face contorted into a grimace that was somehow made her demeanor even less attractive. “What campaign?”
“Didn’t Gen tell you? No, probably not. It’s embarrassing. I’m running for Student Advocate.”
“You’re running for student government?”
“I am. It’s official. Paid my ten bucks and everything. My name’s on the ballot. Baby.”
“But aren’t you graduating?”
“That’s the rumor.”
The woman raised an thin eyebrow, apparently expecting that she would get more words without having to ask for them. Carson took another sip, never breaking her gaze. “Are we done?”
“Why are you running for student government when you’re graduating?” Carson’s mixture of sarcasm and pedantry never failed to exasperate her.
Carson took a deep, wistful breath and gazed up toward the ceiling, caressing the half-empty bottle in his hands. “You see, Brooke, that’s the difference between you and me. You look at a dumb idea and ask ‘Why?’, I look at a dumb idea and say, ‘Eh, fuck it.’”
“Actually, you usually look at dumb ideas and say ‘Fuck yeah!’”
“So where does my relationship with Geneva fit in there?”
“A stroke of pure ass-headed luck on your part and a massive lapse of judgment on hers. It’s like the two of you switched brains the night you met.”
“I wrote that in her six-month anniversary card.”
“You didn’t give her a six-month anniversary card.”
“That’s right. I didn’t. Because six-month anniversaries are dumb. Maybe I’ll roll that into her one-year anniversary card.”
“God forbid.” Carson clammed up slightly. It wasn’t often that his banter with Brooke descended into a direct wish for the demise of his relationship.
“Okay, explain this to me,” Brooke said, putting her hands out palms-down as if bracing herself against an imaginary podium. “How are you even able to run? Don’t they limit the race to people who are going to be around the following year?”
“The rules say any registered student can run. They can’t place graduation limits on there because so many people stay on after four years. The word ‘senior’ has no meaning in Berkeley.”
“So what happens if you win? Do you have to stay on?”
“I won’t win.”
“You won’t win.”
“I won’t win.”
“So why are you running?”
Even Brooke couldn’t suppress a smirk, due mainly, perhaps, to the fact that Carson accompanied this exclamation with an odd little gesture involving the bottle and his index finger and arranged his body in a manner reminiscent of a jolly Irish leprechaun.
“The Student Advocate is an elected position but it’s never a competitive race,” he said. “It’s not as sexy as the other executive positions and it actually involves a lot of work. The outgoing Advocate just picks the successor, usually the chief of staff. It’s not a partisan position, so all the major political parties just endorse the Advocate’s pick. The election is perfunctory. A sham.”
“So all that is really stupid. I’m going to run a protest campaign to show how dumb that all is. I also want the media attention.”
“So after four years at Berkeley you decide to take it to the Man by launching an elaborate protest against an unnoticed student government office.”
“Inspiring.” Brook swallowed. “What’s wrong with a sharply-worded letter to the campus newspaper?”
“Not as fun,” he said simply. “Besides, the Op-Ed editor hates me. I couldn’t get a fucking classified ad published in that thing.”
“Why does he hate you?”
“Ah, that explains it.”
“Look at you with the quick wit all of a sudden,” Carson said with a friendly poke to her bare shoulder. He then rubbed the spot he had poked with the tip of his finger and leaned in to examine it. “You know, you should borrow some of Gen’s moisturizer. She gets this stuff from France and it makes her skin feel so—”
“Stop it,” Brooke said and punched him in the shoulder, a gesture that anyone but Carson would have interpreted as playful. Carson found himself momentarily impressed at her ability to strike him with genuine malice in a manner that avoided causing a scene by coming off to observers as friendly.
“Did you used to date her?” Brooke asked, still on the Op-Ed editor.
Carson blushed. “A little bit, but there’s more to it than that.”
“I’m sure,” Brooke said sourly. “Just hope Geneva never becomes the editor of a major media outlet or you could be blacked out completely.” Brooke glanced at her watch, a sparkly, dangling article laced around a pale, bony wrist. “Well, Carson, this has been illuminating but I think I’ll, uh, get on with my life. Have fun with your little political game here and good luck with goldilocks. If you can find time between drinking cheap Mexican beer and flirting with strange women you might consider giving your girlfriend a call to see if she made it home safely.”
“Or I could just ask you to call me when you get home if anything is wrong.”
Brooke smirked. “I don’t have your phone number.” She brushed past him, let a guy at the bar buy her a drink, and vanished into the shadows.
Carson glanced back at Marie, who was still sitting in the same place, her chin in her hand, gazing idly into the crowd. He looked down at his beer and decided he could make it to the table without ordering a new one. This he did.
“Who was that?” Marie asked immediately.
“I’m getting that question a lot this evening,” Carson said. “That was a Corona marketing representative. Someone told her that there was a woman here mean-mouthing her brand and she wanted to get to the bottom of it. You’re lucky I got rid of her. Her voice has a way of making you want to punch yourself in the face until you black out.”
Marie looked after Brooke, who had rejoined a large group of people across the room.
“Awfully blonde for a Corona employee.”
Carson swallowed the last of his beer. “That’s racist.”
After a few more beers and some more marginally confrontational chatter with Marie, Carson clumsily made is way down the bar’s exterior steps to the sidewalk, where he momentarily paused to breathe in the evening air. The night air had taken on the light, cool quality that it did every spring in Berkeley, a quality that Carson often identified as “pure” due to the fact that his life’s travels had never taken him very far from California's major metropolitan areas. All the same, after hours of breathing in the combination of cigarette smoke, alcohol breath, human sweat, and general filth that colored the air inside Kip’s the salty night air would have been refreshing to anyone.
Notwithstanding the persistent stories of marauding goons robbing, assaulting, and generally terrorizing the southside of campus, accounts of which tended to show up not infrequently in the pages of the campus newspaper accompanied by words like “wave” and “epidemic,” Carson never felt unsafe wandering the streets of Berkeley after hours, nor had his noctural adventures ever brought him any serious troubles. Because of this he had no second thoughts about making a detour to the late-night donut shop on the way home after his nominally successful campaign kick-off booze-fest at Kip’s. He may indeed have only spoken to one potential supporter, but he felt confident that he could shake a vote out of her through the continued application of good-natured psychological abuse.
His donut source of choice, and indeed the only donut outpost on the southside of campus operating at this hour that wasn’t attached to a gas station, was part of a dreary food court about a block away from the bar. The other establishments in the court – all restaurants proper – were closed, with only the dim yellow lights of the donut shop illuminating the empty square. The fact that only the donut shop was open was likely the result of a conclusion reached by the proprietors of the various restaurants that anyone looking for food at this hour probably lacked the mental capacity to handle the procedure of a full meal, and was much more likely to go for something they could simply point to, pay for, pick up, and eat.
The street was nearly deserted except for a few straggling students on their way home from the night’s drinking and the donut shop itself was empty except for the beleaguered chef/cashier manning the counter. “Here comes the man,” the clerk said when Carson staggered through the door and began greedily eyeing the glass-encased pastries. “Trying to stave off another hangover.”
“You know me so well,” Carson said. He glanced up at the clerk, a wiry Asian man with cigarette fingers whose greasy apron, similarly greasy forehead, and general cranky demeanor indicated that he was coming to the end of a long shift.
“Every time you eat donuts to prevent the hangover,” the clerk said. “So unhealthy. You want to get your blood sugar up you should drink orange juice.”
“You’re wrong about that,” Carson said, carefully examining the various trays behind the glass. “Orange juice is one of the worst things you can drink for a hangover. It’s too acidic. It throws off the stomach chemistry and makes you feel worse.”
“Gatorade, then,” the clerk replied as he disinterestedly watched Carson’s sagging head drift from one tray to the next.
“Nothing but chemicals,” Carson quickly retorted. “Your body can’t use all that. Gatorade is for athletes who’ve been fooled into thinking they should drink fruit punch instead of water. Besides, what’s so unhealthy about your donuts? What about your transfat-free vegetable oil? The stuff that makes the donuts taste like crap and cost more?”
“Oh, that sign is bullshit,” the clerk spat, waving a bony hand dismissively. “The owner buys some crap from some hippie farm in Ukiah and thinks he’s doing everyone a favor.” The clerk looked gloomily at the sign hanging in the window boastfully announcing the purported health benefits of the new and improved donuts. “Who the hell knows about transfats. You want to eat your donut, fine. Someday your body will slow down and the donuts will make you sicker.”
“That will be a sad day indeed.” Carson continued examining the available donuts. “What’s fresh?”
“Nothing’s fresh. It’s one fucking forty in the goddamn morning. I turned off the fryer hours ago.”
Carson felt a tinge of sadness that his beloved Berkeley community didn’t share his fetish for late-night donut runs to a large enough degree to keep the merchandise flying off the shelves past midnight. It didn’t occur to him that if the opposite were true he’d likely be waiting in line right now instead of carefully weighing his options.
“Let me have a glazed old fashioned,” Carson said lazily. “And one of those white ones with the chocolate chips.”
The clerk sprang into action, snapping open a paper bag and gingerly collecting the donuts with a small square of wax paper. “You should just buy a bag of day-olds,” he grumbled as he slid toward the register and plopped the bag on the counter. “You’re too drunk to tell the difference anyway.”
“I recognize the amazing deal that those day-old bags are,” Carson said, eyeing the lumpy pile of plastic bags sitting at the opposite end of the counter, each holding five or six donuts plus a bonus “specialty” pastry. “But even the deepest depths of my drunkenness I can’t bring myself to pick through those miserable bags. Maybe if you didn’t use garbage bags.”
“If I bought special bags for the day-olds it would kill the profit margin. A garbage bag is a perfectly good bag until you put garbage in it.”
“You should try calling them something else,” Carson continued as he inartfully tried to pull together the requisite amount of money from various pockets. “People who come in here looking for day-old donuts are going to buy them no matter what they’re called. It’s the other people - people like me - that you need to convince. Instead of ‘day-olds,’ call them something more charming, like ‘leftovers.’” He finally placed a few bills on the heavily fingerprinted counter, sliding them over the coffee stains and glaze smudges that the clerk would have to clean up at closing. “Or you could go vague and intriguing, like ‘carryovers.’ Or grandiose, like ‘legacies.’”
“This is why you go to college,” the clerk said as he performed what appeared to be a needless complex set of operations on the cash register. “You spend four years learning how to bullshit people into buying day-old donuts.”
“It’s all about creating demand,” Carson said quietly, talking more to himself now. “You don’t find holes to fill, you make holes and then fill them.” His head snapped toward the clerk, and he suddenly smiled broadly. “Heh. ‘Holes.’”
“Here,” the clerk said, handing Carson a few coins which Carson immediately dropped into a nearby tip jar. “Go home and get some sleep for God’s sake.”
Carson plucked the old fashioned out of the bag and held it up in triumph. “Priorites,” he said with a smirk and drifted out the door.
As he wandered through the now more deserted streets toward his apartment, munching on his donuts, trying to envision the glucose waging valiant battle against the lingering alcohol toxins in his system, the proper series of neurons in his brain managed to connect through the alcoholic miasma to call his attention to the fact that he had not, in fact, heard from Geneva, and he acknowledged a bit of concern as to whether she had made it home safely from the City’s wretched club scene. With a large degree of inelegance occasioned by a combination of the fact that one hand held a donut, one hand held a paper bag, and the operation of both hands was limited by the effects of several bottles of womanish beer, Carson fumbled his cell phone out of his pocket and saw with an odd combination of relief and dread that he had missed a call about a half hour earlier, in the throes of his conversational fencing with Marie. After a few attempts his wandering thumb executed the proper sequence of buttons and the voice of Geneva began speaking to him from the past:
“Hi love, it’s me. I just got home and I’m getting ready for bed. Hope you’re having fun at the bar. Give me a call if you get this before two o’clock.”
Carson checked his watch: Four minutes past two.