From “Street Life”
"Old friends, sat on their park bench like bookends..."
The place stank like a old man’s tavern, despite the purple neon sign in the window and the monkey-suited-valet jerks that had taken my Ford Pinto with a groan. Hops, alcohol, cigarette smoke and perfume. I had smelled it a thousand times in a thousand different places and it always offended me, always reminding me of how little progress I’d made from my years as a rock & roll roadie. The great American myth says you can escape your past. I knew better. Nobody did.
The clientele surprised me, a lot of preppy-looking, short-haired men in business suits with ties unslung, leaning wearily over their drinks as if they had unloaded trucks all day, or leaning lecherously over the cleavage of secretaries they'd talked into coming out for a drink. This crew lent the place a new flavor, creating a sense of smarmy trendiness despite the bad 1960s music playing on the jukebox, and the constant flow of watered-down drinks. For many of the loners clustered around the bar, the music was the only thing keeping them awake, jerking their heads up with each power chord.
Simon Dancey saluted me with a hard slap on my back, coming up unexpectedly though I had spotted him the moment I sat down. Spotted him, but hadn’t recognized his face under the heavy black beard. In the old days, he’d worn nothing except his masculine grin - but then, when we did the rock & roll thing together, he hadn’t needed to hide the scars. I’d heard about but never seen them, having abandoned that part of rock & roll before he got out of the hospital.
“Ed Shaeffer? Is that really you?” he boomed, his voice rousing a dozen stuperous men at the bar as his heavy hand nearly knocked me off the stool. The force of his greeting drew me up and I squinted at him, trying to find his face in a head full of hazy memories. Bar memories always fade fast. Names escape me within a week of meeting someone, faces fade within a month. And yet, looking at him, I detected something too ingrained for me to totally forget. Something about this bear-sized man was definitely familiar.
“It hasn’t been that long, you son of a bitch,” Dancey roared. His voice, unscarred by time or circumstance,finally gave him away.
“So you do remember me,” he said, and engulfed the stool beside mine, thick black brows rising over delighted black eyes. “I thought maybe you’d rather forget me and everything we went through.”
Dancey always did have an uncanny way of arriving at the truth. Still I shook my head.
“You’ve changed,” I said rubbing my shoulder.
“You’ve changed, too.”
I shrugged, and turned back to my melting drink on the bar.
“I heard you’d taken up songwriting.”
“Ha, then you’re behind on the gossip. I gave up songwriting almost as soon as I started - couldn't keep up with the latest fads. God, I thought our generation was strange. This one’s insane, and you have to be insane to write music for it. No, I work for a music agency. I evaluate talent.”
Dancey snorted. “Then you’ve come to the wrong place,” he said, glancing over his shoulder towards the archway into the far room. In the glint of the red EXIT light, I could see the stage and the microphone stands and lifts for the drums. “The band here stinks.”
“Most of them do,” I said, though kept my wider opinions
about Generation X to myself. I’d spent too much time in places like
“I wouldn’t say that,” Dancey said, staring down at his hands. “A few new bands hold up.”
“Tell me where they are, I’ll sign them to a long-term contract.”
Dancey glanced at me, seeming to read something from my tone of voice. “You sound like you need a drink.”
I grinned, and motioned for the bartender, some of the old air stirring around us.
“Jack Daniels?” I asked.
He grinned back. “A bit heavy for me these days, but I’ll go a round with you. As long as I’m buying.”
“You must have won the lottery,” I said.
“No, I’m still working for a living, part-time bouncer, part-time bartender.”
“Jesus Christ, Dancey. I thought you’d have your own place by now.”
“I did, but I lost it.”
“Really? What a damned shame,” I said lifting the drink to my mouth, smelling the past before I tasted it. The liquor was so tart I could have choked, but I swallowed it whole.
Dancey had always struck me as the kind of guy who’d find his bliss owning the corner tavern, serving the same tired faces day after day. They would become the family he never had, his little troupe of dispair and disrepair, and he would dispense words of wisdom and comfort with each refill. But in a place like this, on the so-called cutting edge, people were seeking things other than comfort, things he could neither dispense nor understand.
“What do you mean?”
“Look, Simon, I know you well enough even after this long to know when you’re holding something back. Out with it, man.”
Again, he snorted. “Still the same busybody you always were.”
“No, not a busybody, I simply pick up the pieces other people leave around at closing time.”
“That’s lame and you know it. You worked the sympathy angle better than anybody.”
I shrugged. “If you say so.”
Silence isn't always a bad thing - but between us, it had always carried a message of its own, a prickly text neither of us would acknowledge. Maybe that had been a big part of why we’d failed to keep in touch over the years - pretending it was the extended silence of an interrupted conversation, allowing us to never have to say the final good bye. I noticed Dancey’s anxious glances towards the end of the bar and I stiffened, catching sight of a blonde head bobbing among the patrons, the bar light flickering across her face.
“My God,” I said. “Isn’t that...”
“Of course it is,” Dancey said, studying his glass again, the ice tinkling around and around as he turned it, as if each new angle might provide some answer. “She comes here a lot.”
“Is she doing OK?”
“How the hell should I know, I don’t talk to her.”
“Why not, for God’s sake? You two were so... close.” Too late, I thought of my poor choice of words.
“So were you,” Dancey said, glancing at me, his dark eyes stirring with something that might have been pain.
I shook my head.
“We were never as close as people imagined,” I said, glancing over at the bright hair as it passed from patron to patron, as blond now as it had been then, a product of the same bottle of chemicals and the same desire for perpetual youth. She even wore the same leather gear that identified the 1970s punk scene, the way torn jeans and flannel shirts proclaimed Grunge today. She had kept her weight down, but not the lines in her face. When she glanced over, her eyes flashed with the same brilliance, but her stare had the urgency of a woman edging in on fifty, not twenty-five. At the height of our social involvement she’d had a decade on the rest of us - an aging rocker even then, who refused to let go of the scene. “We talked some. But never about anything that mattered.”
“She did that one time,” Dancey said with a sudden bitterness. “In fact, she cried on your shoulder as if you were a priest.”
“And all the time you wanted her to cry on yours,” I said.
“Bullshit,” Dancey said. “To tell you the truth, I was never that hot for her.”
“Maybe she’s changed.”
“Does she look changed?” Dancey asked.
In the dim light, her eyes remained a secret, but her posture bragged of the same defiance I remembered from the old clubs: lonely, but not lonely, hungry for something other than love - or even lust. I could see this version of Nina drawing out the chain the way she had that night, could hear her high voice screaming: “Bastard!” over the jukebox as the chain swung round and round over her head. Yes, this woman could still easily lash out at me, Dancey or anyone within reach if she chose.
“I wonder what she did with the chain?” I asked, not really expected an answer.
“Maybe you should go ask her,” Dancey said in the same dry tone. “I’m sure she’ll give you an earful.”
“I bet she’d talk to you, if you gave her a chance.”
“A chance for her to hit me again?” Dancey asked, without looking at me or Nina. “No thanks.”
An old Stones song came up on the jukebox, making talk between us unnecessary as we privately recalled those nights, calling up past images of drunken rages and pain. Our silence bubbled and brewed, fermenting in those memories.
“I wasn’t there when she hit you, Dancey.”
“No one’s blaming you for that,” he snapped. “You were good for talking people into things, but you rarely stuck your own neck out.”
I stared into my drink, rattling the last melting ice cube against the sides of the glass as my hands shook. When I spoke again, it was to ask a question.
“How often does she come here?”
“Whenever there’s a band.”
“Any more freakouts?”
“None that I’ve seen.”
“And all you do is sit and watch her.”
“Most of the time, yeah.”
“For how long?”
“Until she goes away. And then I get drunk.”
This time the silence lasted longer, like a moody third person seated between us. It dominated the space, its presence weighty in our heads full of chains, leather and rock & roll. The jukebox music shifted to something more modern, and Nina stirred out of the misty light, shoving herself back from a barstool where she had settled, like a leather butterly grown bored with the weed upon which it fed. Her sharp polished nails glinted red in the bar light as she shook off the man she’d been talking to. He seemed suprised, even hurt, but clung no more to her attention than a speck of pollen. Then, she began the all-too-familiar routine: inspecting the place, her slow, cruising step graceful as a dance, taking her easily around the bar. Drinking men stirred at her passing, their interest sparked by the way she carried herself. None looked away until she did - and then each man looked deflated. She paused frequently, gaze working up and down on the men she found interesting.
“What's she looking for?” I asked, after she drew away from each with a vague turn of her head.
“You?” I said, louder than I meant to.
Dancey cast a glance at me, eyes full of the twisted humor that had made an impression on so many innocent girls - bar-hopping teenage girls who had grooved up to him as the “older” man. Yet here he was now, really the “older” man, and the look held more pathos than humor, containing some warped wisdom I’d never be able to comprend.
“She's always been looking for me,” he said. “She just never realized it.”
“Oh,” I grunted and sucked at the empty glass for the remains of the melted ice. Nina paused three stools down to talk to some big guy with a Marine Corps tattoo.
“It might be wise to move,” Dancey said, thick fingers of his right hand wiping at the wet bartop.
“She won’t recognize you with the beard.”
“I was thinking about her recognizing you.”
I laughed. “I’m easy to forget.”
“I remembered you.”
Her dance of exploration stopped and started several times before she finally came near enough for me to see the details of her face, the fine lines sitting under the layers of makeup. She might have been wearing a mask, one carved into a permanent expression of disenchantment. Yet the eyes registered surprise when they looked up at me, her study brought to an abrupt halt.
“I know you,” she said slowly, her voice thin and tight as an over-extended elastic band. “I don't remember your name, but I know you.”
“His name is Ed Shaeffer,” Dancey said. “And he’s a goddamn busybody.”
Again, Dancey’s voice betrayed him. Nina turned so sharply away from me, I simply ceased to exist. Her eyes glared at the man and the beard as she shaved off each whisker with her memory, her lips finally quivering as she spoke.
“I work here,” Dancey said, huge finger pointing to the bar’s logo on his breast.
“Simon,” she said softly, remembering.”I'll be damned.”
“The one and only,” he said.
Then, her glare turn truly hard.
“Don’t you ever stop?” she hissed.
He paused only a split second. “Don’t you?”
The following silence crackled with electric memories - maybe only one, brutal memory of a flashing chain and a bleeding face. Then Nina shivered, threw back her blond hair, and laughed.
“I guess not,” she said, and fell silent again. The two of them seemed almost like former loves at a high school reunion - dancing together, but without anything in common to talk about. After another moment, Nina coughed and laid her hand briefly over Dancey’s on the bar.
“Well, it’s been nice seeing you,” she said, and moved on.
She did not rush towards the door.She passed men who motioned for her, men she might have sat with for a moment if not for her encounter with us. She angled towards the door, pausing to look back - and the purple light of the neon bar sign briefly illuminated the pain on her face. Then, she was gone.
“She won’t be back,” Dancey said.
“Maybe,” I mumbled. “How about another drink?”