The Oasis Grill was the most god-awful depressing place he had ever been, and he’d been in a lot of god-awful depressing places.
It was his fourth night straight. The bartender knew his name now and used it when greeting him upon arrival.
This casual pleasantry along with “another?” made up the whole of conversation that would be exchanged between the two and it was enough. He lit a Camel and took a drink of beer. And then another. It had been a long day.
It was Thursday and he had been working for Labor Ready since Monday. He’d spent nine torturous hours balanced on an eleventh story scaffolding scraping caulk from the side of an apartment building. He was partnered with a raving lunatic from Arizona who had nearly driven him to murder with incessant talk of his ex-wife and gun collection. There is a type of person who will talk to a goddamn tree stump. Seconds before throwing the man over the side of that rickety eleventh story deathtrap, Jim felt a drop of rain. A gift from God. The lunatic’s life had been spared and the foreman begrudgingly called it a day.
He walked, soaking, through the rain and waited for the 3:25 bus back to Labor Ready. He received a check for each day’s services at the end of every shift. The Oasis was the only place that would cash his check. The charge was two drinks. This is how the Oasis made its money. It was the same ragged crew every night. Men who had lost the will to live a long time ago. Jim watched the bartender patiently listening to an old fart that Jim had spent the better part of Tuesday shoveling dirt with. Jim offered a wave and bought the old fart a beer. He always thought generosity the best policy during grim times like these. He ordered one for himself. He didn’t have much money, but he couldn’t stand the thought of going back to that room.
He was sharing a room with a fisherman from Nova Scotia. The night before, Jim awoke to see the fisherman pacing across the room, mumbling and punching the wall.
“What the hell is going on!?” Jim asked.
The fisherman was sweating, still pacing. He had his shirt off and he was holding his left biceps. He didn’t answer Jim.
“For fuck’s sake man! What’s wrong with you?”
“Crazy fuckin’ hobo stuck me over behind the 7-11!” He continued pacing. He wasn’t looking at Jim. “He should have got me in the heart though, eh? I knocked him down. Kicked the shit out’ve ’em!”
He showed Jim a fresh wound. Jim agreed that he should have got him in the heart.
Jim had been awoken in this manner on a few occasions. Once Jim awoke to find the fisherman standing over his bed looking at him with this cool, maniacal silence. He turned over and the fisherman walked away. Jim had hoped he had only dreamt it. Regardless, he was having a helluva time sleeping.
He had downed his fourth when a woman came in and sat down. She ordered a double vodka, straight, with a glass of water. She lit the first of fifty cigarettes. The face was a little worn, but she had a nice little body. Her hair was teased the way they did it about ten years ago. Jim looked at his beer and listened as she flirted with the bartender. The bartender seemed mildly interested until she tried to sell him some coupons for an oil change. She was in sales. Only temporary, of course, until she was able to find something better. The bartender walked to the other end of the bar to pour a drink.
She looked at Jim and mumbled something and smiled a bit when this subnormal vulture type walked up and sat next to her. The guy had the type of face that made you hate him immediately. Jim heard the girl introduce herself as Stevie. He got to talking about wine. He wouldn’t stop talking. He was a wine expert. He would soon be a sommelier. Jim thought back to his partner on the scaffolding. It really mystified him. That ability to talk. To fill the atmosphere with that much bullshit. A guy could choke on it.
Stevie was accommodating the retard with polite smiles and the appropriate responses and she had managed to get two double vodkas off of the poor bastard. The sommelier was getting drunk now and confessing his love for Stevie. She was ignoring him. It was truly painful. He was really laying it on thick and Jim thought he wouldn’t be able to stand it any more when the sommelier got up to take a piss. Stevie picked up her drink and took the stool on the other side of Jim.
“Jesus, someone should cut that guy’s dick off,” she said
She pulled out another cigarette and Jim lit it. Then he pulled out one for himself and lit that too. He was starting to feel the drunk and thought some company would be alright. They moved to a booth in the corner. She was right after that vodka. Holding up the liquor and the water, one in each hand, drinking the vodka and immediately chasing it with the water. Jim thought this a little peculiar but he didn’t question it.
“Nothing but fuckin’ vultures in this place man!” Stevie said. “In every fucking place!”
Jim couldn’t help but agree with that one. She started to talk about her problems. Divorce, stolen car, various stalkers. She seemed a little coked up. Jim didn’t question that either.
“I’m sorry. It’s just all these men. They all want something. It’s like they’re just trying to fuck me, or possess me, or be possessed by me.” She was drunk now.
“I don’t know. You’re probably trying to fuck me.” She lit another cigarette.
“Would you relax. What’s wrong with you? I’m not trying to fuck you.” He was trying to fuck her. “Let’s just sit here, have a drink, smoke a cigarette, and try to act like decent human beings for a few minutes.” He knew that was a tall order. “I’m going to put something on the jukebox. Watch my drink.”
He put a couple of bucks into the box and selected a few of the old favorites. He walked in to the john. He was washing up and checking himself in the mirror. He looked like hell. He blamed the lighting and went to dry his hands. The four most deceitful words in the English language, he thought: PULL FOR CLEAN TOWEL.
He headed for the bar. The neon lights, the cigarette smoke and the booze in Jim’s system had combined to give the place a nice warm glow. The Oasis was starting to seem almost tolerable. He ordered another round. Whiskey for him, double vodka for her. He was feeling it now. The place was filling up. There was one seat at the bar. He took it and started talking. He could really talk when he was feeling it. He had everyone laughing. He owned the place. All the broken souls around that bar. They were all loving each other in that minute. He thought about staying right there, the king in his castle. But he knew these moments were fleeting and it’s always good to go out on top. Right straight down to the bottom.
He moved toward the booth in the corner and saw a pair of crutches leaning against the wall. There were two others sitting with Stevie now. The owner of the crutches wore a white tank top and jean shorts. He was sitting next to Stevie and he introduced himself as Randy. Across from Randy sat a plump Mexican girl with too much makeup on. Jim put down the drinks and sat down next to the plump Mexican. As he settled in he saw a stump protruding from under the table.
Randy had been around the Oasis the last couple of nights. From what Jim could gather, he pimped out a few of the local girls and dealt a little speed on the side. He was clearly hopped up tonight and he was going on about his fledgling recording studio. Jim was ignoring Randy and telling jokes to the plump Mexican. She couldn’t speak much English but she would laugh and put her hand on Jim’s thigh. He liked it. Stevie was going back and forth to the ladies room, snorting coke that Randy had given her. She and Randy clearly had some kind of history, but Jim had not quite pieced it out. She was talking about the evils of capitalism and contorting her jaw in an odd way. She and Randy were both talking at once, and the Mexican kept giggling and stroking Jim’s leg and Jim kept drinking. It was all one big brilliant racket and Jim wondered how he kept finding himself in these situations. He remembered some people he used to know and wondered if they still existed, or if they ever existed at all.
The drinks kept coming. Stevie had come back from the bathroom and sat next to Jim. She was getting more and more friendly with him. This seemed to really upset Randy. Randy was really twisted now and he was acting possessive. Randy thought Jim was trying to steal Stevie. There were some strange vibes around that table and Jim was struck with the overwhelming urge to leave and take Stevie with him.
“Let’s get out of here, Baby. I’ve got some whiskey back at my place. We’ll have a few laughs.” Jim was attempting to be persuasive. Stevie wanted to wait. Randy was going to score some weed and she wanted to get high.
Randy was at the bar talking to a friend. He came back and asked Jim and Stevie if they wanted to smoke a bowl in the alley. Jim reluctantly said yes. Randy told the Mexican girl to watch their drinks and the three of them walked out back. Jim brought a can of beer with him. He put his hand on Stevie’s lower back. She smiled and Jim thought he had her.
It was still early in the evening and the fading sunlight briefly blinded Jim. Randy introduced them to a fat kid who was standing in the alley. The fat kid pulled out a cheap little pot pipe and offered the first hit to Jim. ( a true gentleman) Jim took a big lungful and handed it back to the fat kid. He felt a bit of paranoia creeping in. Stevie had excused herself to piss. Randy was tensing up, talking fast and aggressively. The pipe went around and Jim took a second hit. He turned to cough. He felt a sharp pain in the back of his skull and he saw a bright flash of light. He fell to his knees and looked up. The fat kid kicked him in the face and Randy was kicking him in the gut.
“Imagine that,” Jim thought, “Being kicked by a one-legged pimp.”
“GIVE ME ALL YOUR FUCKIN’ CASH MAN!” He had his shirt off now. “NOBODY FUCKS WITH RANDY, OR HIS BITCHES!”
Jim made like he was reaching for his wallet and then lunged at Randy. He wrapped his arms around his stump and pulled him to the pavement. They were wrestling in some broken glass when Jim felt another blow to the skull. He looked up and saw the fat kid hightailing it down the alley. The blunt object beating him presently belonged not to the fat kid, but to a police officer. He wasn’t alone. They were surrounded by four screws and two cruisers and Jim quickly found himself face down in the alley in handcuffs. It was at this moment that Jim decided to call in sick tomorrow. He felt quite relieved. After asking him a few questions a cop uncuffed Jim and shoved Randy into the cruiser. He had two outstanding warrants and Jim wasn’t worth the hassle.
They took Randy away and Jim stood up and took a drink from the can of beer. He had ten dollars left in his pocket and he walked back into the Oasis. He saw the Mexican girl sitting alone at the booth with an empty drink. He went to the bar and ordered a whiskey for him and a screwdriver for her. He sat down next to her and gave her the drink.
“Here you are, my angel.”
She smiled. She touched the cut on his face and he winced. He downed his drink and sat with her in silence. Then he downed her drink and stood up. He took her hand and they walked out. They walked the five blocks back to his room, him stumbling a bit. She put her arm around his waist. He put his arm around her shoulder. He found the key under the flower pot. He unlocked the door and they walked in. The fisherman was asleep. Jim wondered aloud what that crazy bastard dreamt about. There was nowhere to sit, only the bed. Jim took off his shoes and pants and got into his bed. She slid under the sheets next to him. She was warm and soft and Jim kissed her and they made it quietly so as not to disturb his roommate. Afterwards, she stroked his chest and they went to sleep. The fisherman snored peacefully.