Sunday, February 15, 2009
For three years I was a kidney hemodialysis patient, before thankfully receiving a transplant. It is a period of my life that I remember and can speak about in emotionless terms, because I have moved on. It is best not to think of how terrible it was, or how close I came to not surviving it. The memories of that time rarely haunt me at all. Last night was an exception. I have always had vivid dreams. A few years ago, during a sleep study, I found out that I never came close to entering the deepest stages of sleep, which means that my mind is active through the night. I generally wake easily and often during the night, and in the morning find myself more exhausted than when I went to bed. It's cool to have an exciting and memorable dream life (mostly), but sometimes it really wears me out. Last night, is one of those times. I spent much of the night dreaming about my experiences with dialysis; reliving the pain and the sickness. I decided to get up and confront these moments. I pulled out some writing I did during those years and read through my thoughts as it was happening. Much of it was surprisingly funny and focused on my singular focus of trying to get myself a transplant and my paranoia of missing the call, once I made the transplant list. Very little was about dialysis itself. Here is an excerpt of something I did write during a day off:
It was one of those days at dialysis yesterday afternoon. Luckily, I was spared all of the tragedy, save for having to witness the disasters that were going on around me. The old woman in the corner with the bald spot took a spill last week. She literally missed the chair when sitting down. She mumbled to me a few days later, as she gimped by, that she had broken her pelvic bone from the fall. I felt bad for her; however, if she didn’t always act like such a tortured soul, I would feel worse for her. When she talks to me, she talks with some sort of failing voice and a look of pain. It is misery being at dialysis. Everyone there has to deal with it. I don’t know why she talks to me anyway, because she cannot hear a thing. If I even bother to respond, she won’t hear or understand what I’m saying. I just resort to shrugs and nods while contorting my face in various ways. Today it was time for her to lose a needle. If you don’t know anything about dialysis, all you need to know for this story is that the technicians stick two large needles into the patient’s arm or leg (repeated approximately 312 times a year). They stick these needles into either a fistula (a surgically combined artery and vein) or a graft (an artificially lined vein and artery), in order to remove blood from your body and, after the dialysis machine performs its secret magic, it pumps the blood back into your arm all fresh and clean (“so fresh and so clean clean”). When a needle comes out, pressure needs to be held against the fistula or graft in order to clot the blood, otherwise blood will literally spray across the room like a pump action squirt gun, or like one of those sprinklers that is a flat strip full of holes. Her needle came out accidentally. Blood was soon everywhere and the nurse and the techs had to rush to stop the bleeding and to clean up the mess. The old woman is so tiny, that any loss of blood must drop her blood pressure to unreadable levels. Her little white sweater, which she wears even when the summer temperatures reach 100 degrees, was saturated and she had spatter all over her face. She will blame the staff for this disaster as she did when she whiffed on the chair the week prior. She will show me her sad face next session.
Meanwhile, during the blood incident, the old man next to me, who sits hunched in his chair shaking, yet never uttering a sound or changing his completely blank expression suddenly blurted out a cry for help. This shriveled old man wears a giant baseball hat - the kind with the huge bill and the foam stuffed bridge like The Clash’s Mick Jones used to wear - was cramping. You see, the dialysis process removes fluid from your body, since failed or missing kids take away a person’s ability to piss. Because this process is done over a three to four hour period three days a week, too much fluid taken off too quickly can cause severe cramping in all parts of the body’s muscles. The old blank man lost his hat from the violence of the cramping. Then a patient across the way joined in with the cramping, and then another. The nurse and techs were running around trying to take care of everyone at the same time. It was near total chaos. I was fine. I was listening to music on my disc-man trying to ignore the suffering. I couldn’t ignore it. It is everywhere in that place. Suffering is in the air that you breathe.
No one ever talks about missing patients. You spend three days a week, every week, with the same people, until someone simply stops showing up. It could be that they received a much sought after transplant. It could be that they moved away, or are on a trip, or it could be that they’ve died. The patients have no memory. It is the only way to survive the ordeal of each session. If last session ended in a blood bath, as the old bald woman’s did, next time, she’d better not remember that incident. She will though, and that is why she suffers so badly.
There is another piece that I wrote while going through a session. It was a letter that I never sent, because it was so bitter and so angry. Having been forced into dialysis because of a genetic syndrome that ravaged my kidneys with cancerous tumors, I was there because I had my kidneys removed to survive. Otherwise, the cancer would have spread up the renal vein and into my lungs and spine and then, well, it would not have been good. So many of my fellow patients were there, because of adult onset, rampant diabetes, brought about by horrible diets and extreme obesity. In most of those cases, they could have avoided dialysis simply by living a healthier lifestyle, but what ate at my gut during those days was the fact that they continued to eat a normal diet and drink fluids excessively (a dialysis diet essentially means you need to avoid any food rich in nutrients, as well as the normal unhealthy stuff and pretty much any fluid). They were killing themselves, while the rest of us were fighting to survive and make the best of our horrific situation. Here is an example of how resentful I would sometimes get:
Every other day it's the same shit. Surrounded by suffering. Surrounded by pain. The air smells like vinegar. Most people suffer in quiet - putting on a brave face - maybe genuinely believing that there is hope - that one day this routine will change. For most of them, the only change will be further disintegration and death. The rest of them are the ones who put themselves here through their rampant consumerism. They all have the same chances, but they don't deserve the hope. They cruise in on their rascals loaded with snacks and gallon sized plastic cups from some mini mart. They bring boxes of donuts and bags of chipsssss. Sometimes they bring steaming shit in microwavable containers, so they can shovel the contents into their fat pale faces with their bare hands. They are here for only one reason. They are not justified for sympathy. I hate them all. I hate having to see their puke and hear their complaints as they receive all of the attention of those caring for us.
Okay, I think it's now out of my system. Time to move on again. Thank you for the indulgence.
Thursday, February 12, 2009
a rough draft
I stared at the colored square in my hand. It was some sort of tiny folded pair of bright pink shorts folded into a clear plastic bag. I absentmindedly tossed the square into an empty box sitting atop my orange cart decorated by graffiti and slander, while listening intently to the conversation taking place an aisle full of bins jammed with other colored squares over.
“You know ya dun it, buddy!” echoed Tim’s voice throughout the dusty spaciousness of the warehouse. Tim was the warehouse manager and he was urging Gary to answer his inquiry honestly. My problem was that I didn’t know what my good friend Gary was supposed to have “dun.” I quietly wheeled my cart closer, while remaining out of sight of this discussion. An unnatural day-glow green shimmered onto my haphazard neck beard from a bin of tank top squares below that somehow illuminated themselves, despite sitting in the shadows far from the fluorescents 30 feet up. The shorts, tanks, tees, and other paraphernalia which we had been commissioned to pack and to ship from this warehouse had been manufactured by my current employer TriLete, the unfortunately named, yet apparently renowned supplier of highly technical tri-athletic apparel. All of the fabrics were synthetic and smelled like the garden department at a home center. I often fantasized what would happen if I started a fire in the cement confines of the warehouse. I wondered if the inventory would smolder slowly like a huge pile of burning tires, or explode like a nuclear blast due to the possible instability of the toxic synthetics involved with the apparel. Would the massive smoke cloud be a colorful one as it rose above the city of Portland before being carried off by prevailing winds to pollute the stunning vistas of the Columbia River Gorge due east of town?
“No, Tim, I have never done that.” Gary’s voice answered with a determined certainty that I had not heard in his voice for a long time. He was trying to end this questioning as efficiently as possible. Working under the tutelage of Tim was an interesting prospect. He was about ten years older than either of us and his size was somewhat imposing, yet he was as dim as anyone either of us had ever encountered. Tim’s daily uniform was generally composed of a tight yellow or pink T-shirt with the short sleeves rolled up, plastic black pants (that thankfully provided a swishing sound in order to alert any of us of his impending presence), a key chain dangling from his waist and a fanny pack in order to keep his lip balm and giant bottle of nasty smelling cheap cologne handy at all times. He drove a white Trans Am and his hair style might be considered a mullet in some circles, but I always likened it more to the depictions I had seen of the ancient Roman heroes and their curly locks. This wasn’t quite accurate either, because the hair seemed more inspired by the shape of a Roman warrior’s helmet. Maybe that was the reasoning behind the affectionate nickname we had for him: The Roman Meal Man. Sometimes it was awful to work for such a buffoon. It was humiliating knowing that he was our leader. Most times however, it was an extremely entertaining prospect. After all, we could do pretty much anything we wanted.
“Aw, buddy, even after you’ve had a whole mess to drink?! Ya know that sometimes ya just can’t hold it! Ya know ya dun it. Everybody’s dun it,” boomed Tim proudly. For Gary this was not one of those fun times. I had to fight back a sudden surge of mixed emotions that flooded into my face, but I did not want to alert Tim of my proximity and be drawn into his line of interrogation. I could hear Gary clear his throat.
“No, Tim, I am honestly telling you that I do not wet my bed,” Gary’s response came, along with the squeak of the wheels of his cart turning away from Tim in the aisle next to where I was leaning transfixed. “I need to finish picking this order, so, uh…” he drifted off.
“Whatever, buddy, I bet some of the other buddies’ll own up!”
I jumped up immediately and turned my cart and sped to another aisle further away from the front of the warehouse, where Tim’s office was. I didn’t want to find myself involved in a potential census survey regarding bedwetting.
A few moments later I approached Gary in the back of the warehouse, mimicking Tim’s groaning style of breathing. Gary leaned against his cart, shaking his head in disbelief.
“Did you hear that?” he inquired, exasperated.
Gary and I had known each other for most of our lives. We first met as little kids at a mutual friend’s birthday party. The events of that now legendary night had become obscured by our revisionist memories. We had both become convinced that the birthday party had been a crazy assortment of dangerous hard drinking eight year olds, hell bent on trouble. The events of the sleepover over the years had gone from an outdoor pizza party with games and a variety of flavored sodas to knife fights, drugs, a brutal beating, mass property destruction and graffiti around the neighborhood. No matter how my mind fights against believing it, I cannot shake the invented vivid memory I have of Gary shot-gunning a can of beer while standing on the hood of a convertible pissing onto its empty seats at three in the morning. Whatever the case was, we had become friends and remained friends for the next fifteen or so years. I had witnessed Gary go through a lot of bad times over those years, but I had never seen him struck with such a confused fear as he was after this encounter with our boss.
“Yeah man,” I replied laughing, “that was awesome!”
“Chuck, you are a sick freak,” he said as he removed his glasses and attempted to wipe away the idea of a smug smile appearing upon Tim’s sleeping face just as he leaks a wet and warm present for his startled young girlfriend in their bed. My laughter died as I inexplicably began to join in on the visualization. We both stood in silence for a while trying to comprehend where we had gone wrong. I was blaming Gary for getting this job for me. Gary continued to try and pry his recent memory out through his eyes.
“Ya know ya dun it, buddy,” I quietly mumbled an impersonation, exaggerating the heavy breathing, before bursting out with more laughter. Gary continued rubbing his face, then replaced his glasses and made direct eye contact. I returned his gaze expectantly, trying to encourage my intention of humor with my eyes. After a couple of beats, he jumped towards me reaching out to grab my t-shirt with one hand while swinging wildly with the other. I dove to one side, barely avoiding his grasp before spinning around and running away. Gary pursued me for about thirty seconds until I ran behind Slack for protection.
Slack was the assistant warehouse manager. Slack was known as Slack for a reason. The prior day, he and I had spent the entirety of our eight hour workday standing around talking about our histories. He almost never worked and he had moved beyond the point of trying to trick people into believing that he worked. In this environment, however, this only brought him the useless title of assistant warehouse manager. The reality was that none of us worked much at all. We were over-staffed and not paid enough to be motivated. Most importantly, our boss could be out-witted by a first grader. The conditions were not conducive for a long-term productive career opportunity, but they were very helpful for a lifestyle filled with alcohol fueled late nights.
The idea for doing this job was not due to lack of motivation, I liked to believe, but to not have to take the job home with me. I had big dreams of someday owning a record label and a companion fanzine that would become a legendary starting point for many incredible bands. In other words, this job was just something to tide me over until the success starting rolling in. Gary’s dream was not so dissimilar. He was a co-conspirator for the fanzine, which we had begun photocopying every so often for the prior couple of years. He also was focused on starting a band. Neither of us had any musical talent, but that never stopped most of our musical heroes of the late 70’s punk and post-punk era. Most of our actual work towards achieving these goals was spent sitting around drinking beer and discussing the awesomeness of our ideas rather than producing results.
At that particular moment, I was crouching behind Slack’s squared, Fred Flintstone shaped frame, in order to avoid Gary. Slack was humming “Brick House” to himself, unfazed by this sudden interruption. His non-response immediately diffused the situation and Gary and I began recreating the drunken Tim-bed-wetting story for him, both over playing the groaning speech patterns of our leader. Slack’s eyes widened in wonder as his mind tried to grasp this bizarre reenactment. We could see the wheels of his mind turning from disbelief to the realization that this actually did occur. He began to sing “She’s the one, the only one, built like an Amazon” rapidly to drown out the nightmarish environment we had thrust upon him. He bounced into a jerky dance causing his erratic sprawling hair to bounce back and forth on top of his head in the opposite direction as his body as he moved away from us, using the Commodores’ lyrics as his response to our attack. Gary and I looked on with bemusement as Slack disappeared from view.
At that same moment, Jovin slipped by the aisle on the opposite end, tip-toeing like Elmer Fudd hunting “wabbits,” trying to sneak in to work a few hours late. Jovin was late nearly every day, but generally managed to go unnoticed by Tim and our more uptight co-workers, the ones who take the job seriously and one day hoped to take Tim’s place at the top of the pecking order. This time, Jovin was too late. Talk of his absence had already made the rounds. Slack had tried to cover for him fruitlessly by inventing a Jovin sighting, when Tim had confronted him.
Gary and I had remained standing dumbfounded a moment after we saw Jovin move by, before jetting off after him. He was a tall and skinny guy who had an unreasonably deep voice and jet black hair. He had just turned nineteen and had the odd habit, when he finally showed up to work, of disappearing again immediately without leaving. Gary theorized that Jovin had built a shelter out of empty boxes that he could hide under unnoticed by the rest of us. It seemed probable to me, but wondered how none of us had ever discovered it.
Convening again in the back of the warehouse, as far from Tim’s office as possible, the three of us huddled secretively like junior high students who were cutting classes for the first time.
“Where have you been?” I asked in a tone, letting Jovin know that I was expecting something funny.
“Slept in,” he responded flatly, while staring at something that apparently was behind Gary and me. Jovin often did this. He would stare intently at something other than who he was addressing. Not only did his stares have the ability to create confusion in whoever he was speaking to, he created an unsettling feeling as well. I’m pretty sure he was from the hills outside the suburbs.
“They’re onto to you today dude,” Gary told him conspiratorially. “Maybe you should get out before anyone else sees you and then call in sick.”
The three of us contemplated this idea and glanced around for a quick escape route.
“Buddies, I need you all to come up to my office for a meetin’,” Tim’s serious voice boomed from the speakers overhead.
“I wish he never discovered how to use the interco-,” I began to say before being cut off by Tim’s heavy breathing.
“Let’s go guys.”
Gary led the way, as the three of us entered Tim’s small dark office. Tim was sitting at his desk with his arms crossed on top of the desk calendar in front of him. Christ, Helmet and Sandy took up all of the chairs available on the opposite side of Tim’s desk, all glaring at Jovin as though he was about to be executed. Slack stood behind Tim looking intently at the floor, being careful not to make eye contact with any of us.
“Come in buddies,” Tim invited with his most authoritative tone, trying to emulate the “Major League”-era tough guy Tom Berenger - most-likely his idol. “Something has been brought to my attention. We’re all buddies here, buddies, but when I hear that some of us are showing up late, I get concerned. I won’t name names, buddies,” Tim continued, while pursing his lips, “but we don’t want to start any Semitism around here.”
I stared at Slack’s down turned head, which slowly began to vibrate. The long cables of hair that spiked accidentally from his head waved about in reaction to what he’d heard. His right hand was completely white as he held it firmly to his mouth, trying to press the burgeoning laughter forcing its way out. I looked away from Slack to keep myself from laughing along. Jovin stared empty-eyed ahead, knowing that this discipline meeting was for his sake, but clearly not caring. Gary’s head was slumped over as far as his neck would allow, focused on the floor at his feet. His neck and forehead were bright red and he looked as if he was about to cry.
“When buddies start showing up late, it can create some anti-Semitism and we don’t want that here,” Tim added for emphasis, making sure that none of us had misheard him.
Helmet held his head high, proud that his complaints had led to this scene. My eyes continued to scan the room for somewhere to focus.
“When we start getting Semitism around here, buddies, then we can’t get things dun. So we need to all show up on time, so we don’t have these Semitism issues. Okay, buddies?”
Everyone but Gary and Slack looked at Jovin, who nodded slightly with his eyes focused on the window behind Slack. Sweat had formed on Gary’s forehead. Slack’s legs were twitching as his oxygen was running out. I clenched my eyes and grabbed the bridge of my nose in disgust.
“Okay, buddies,” Tim concluded with certainty, “Let’s go take a break.”
With that conclusion for the completely pointless meeting, all of us burst from the confines of the office into the open space of the warehouse. Immediately, Slack and Gary began to gasp for air as they both howled uncontrollably. Slack put his arm around Gary and began to cry into his shoulder. I looked on in disbelief at what was just spoken with deep sincerity. Helmet approached me, asking what all the laughter was about.
Though Helmet and I didn’t like each other, we managed to get along. His tiny red moustache twitched with irritation as he looked on at the hysterical twins that had now dropped to the floor. Helmet had begun working long before Gary and I had started our employment at TriLete, so we weren’t certain what his name really was. We had begun calling him Helmet upon our first sighting of his tightly bunched red-headed afro, which floated just above his scalp and hovered in a frozen waterfall down the back of his neck. Slack referred to him as The Sheik, which was the superior name, but too good to spoil with every day usage.
“What’s wrong with them?” he asked in a very serious tone.
“Um, I suppose they uh…I don’t know,” I gave up, wanting to avoid continuance of this garbage.
“You guys make me sick,” Helmet blurted before turning around abruptly and storming off to his desk pressed against the outside of Tim’s office. Helmet, Christ, and Sandy were all long time friends, brothers, or cousins, or in-laws - no one knew for sure – who had belonged to an unusual religious cult, which was loosely related to Christianity. From what we could gather, the cult was an offshoot similar to Mormonism, except this nonsense was preached by some farmer from the rolling fields just off of I-5 south of Salem during the mid 70’s. I think his name was Ed: founder of the Church of Ed. We didn’t know much else, except that they didn’t celebrate things like birthdays or national holidays; instead they had their own list of Holy Days, which meant they were not allowed to come in to work at all.
Helmet wanted to be in Slack’s managerial position and took everything very seriously. Christ was sitting on Helmet’s desk reading from his Bible. His book was stuffed with markers and sheets of paper, which were presumably notes from intense studying, but I happened to know otherwise. Those random pieces of paper were scribbled with NFL stats and the lines of the upcoming weekend’s games. He was on the verge of a complete breakdown. He had just turned 22, had been married for four years and had two kids with another on the way. We called him Christ, because he was the only one of his clan to advertise his beliefs sanctimoniously and he had a severe persecution complex. Sandy, on the other hand, was completely comfortable with his life in the Cult of Ed, which made him the most tolerable. He was a giant man with a friendly disposition, who rarely spoke except to inject the occasional quip. Gary was always wary of Sandy, feeling that he was the dangerous one.
Jovin was nowhere to be seen.
Slack and Gary had managed to untangle themselves from the floor and wipe the tears from their eyes.
“Let’s go smoke,” Gary commanded after a long exhale. He and I walked to the back door of the warehouse and stepped outside. Slack headed off to the snack machine to buy his daily dose of Plantation Brownies.
The weather outside was cool and eerily hushed by a heavy white haze, isolating us from the views of the city that we normally enjoyed. Jovin was already out back holding a cigarette.
“What will you guys give me if I smoke an entire pack at once?” he queried under his breath.
“Huh? Are you serious?” Gary returned exasperated.
“I’ve always thought about trying it,” he replied, smoke spurting out of his nose with each word.
Gary lit his cigarette and then mine. He generally lit my cigarettes, because I was incapable of doing so. Matches, lighters: the conditions didn’t matter.
“I’m not giving you anything,” I uttered blankly, while still trying to comprehend Tim’s speech.
“I’ll give you a heapin’ pile of Semitism buddy,” Gary groaned using our boss’s voice. “Besides, that cigarette you’re smoking is one of mine,” he added, as himself, while pointing a finger at Jovin. “Where are you gonna get a full pack?”
Jovin looked back directly at Gary for several seconds as he sucked down the last few drags of his cigarette. Gary laughed, but I turned my head away and stared at the parking lot surrounding the building. Jovin’s staring made me extremely uncomfortable. He was like a crossbreed of Dangerous Redneck and Deadly Ninja dusted with a pinch of instability.
“Hey, so I was thinking that we should hang out tomorrow night,” Gary’s voice interrupted my fear.
“Huh?” I looked back at Gary; Jovin was gone. “Why? What’s up?”
“Rose is having a girl’s night, so I’m supposed to stay away from the apartment.”
“When did she find friends?” I smirked.
“Didn’t I tell you?” Gary began, taking my joke as straight. “She got a job last week. Some sort of holiday temp thing.”
“Some crime shit at the Mall,” he paused for effect. “Um, yeah, anyway, she brought back one of her little co-workers the other night. She’s a cutie. You should tap that.”
“What are you talking about?” I exclaimed, irritated in advance at his oncoming sales pitch.
“Dude, I’m telling you, she’s totally your type! Rose agrees! She’s got that short dark hair you like so much and she’s a dwarf.” Gary was always using the “dwarf” line, because I once mentioned, a long time ago, a non aversion to a particular shorter than average woman.
“Where do you get that?! One stupid comment, ‘cuz of one hot short chick I pointed out! One time!”
“I’m serious man!” he shouted me down. “You’d like her.”
“Like Nancy from high school? She was a short brunette,” I added sarcastically.
“Yeah, and she could chew tobaccy and spit like a real man,” Gary finished for me. “I know that you were all about her. Whatever happened to her anyway?”
“How the hell would I know?”
“No, I’m dead serious. She’s a cutie. You’ll dig her,” I nodded, showing him that I was listening. “So, I’m thinking this: she’s supposed to come hang with Rose at seven, so we can go grab some Dino and wander, or hit the Commodore Bar. Then, at some point, we’ll slip back to the pad and we’ll introduce you to…uh…to the chick.”
“You don’t remember her name?” I asked quietly, finishing the smoke.
“Suki, Sandra, Cindy, Susan, Sassafras something like that,” he paused, “you know I don’t remember names! What do you think? Rose is down with you meeting her too. She’s on your side.”
“Yeah, well, that’s one person then. I figured we’d hang out anyway. It’s Friday, isn’t it?” I asked as I held the back door open for Gary. “Sassafras? What is that?”
Monday, February 2, 2009
The fluorescent lights seem to be burning through my clenched eyes. I fold my arms around myself and lean over to one side. My head is pounding and my stomach is filled with an angry sea of booze. I think it’s a Thursday (or was), but I cannot be too sure, save for the realization that I am scheduled to be at work at 7:30 am later this morning. I do not know exactly what time it is. I do know that I am on the last eastbound Max train for the evening. It’s sometime before last call, where a few manage to reach the public transit stumbling just in time to a wobbly, shaky and bumpy ride home. Riding a bus or train home after a feverish night of drinking is a good way to accelerate the buzz to the hangover. I suppose it’s better than driving home drunk, but it is certainly not fun. The only hope is to just pass out and hope you wake up near your stop, or hope you wake up at all. I have to avoid passing out despite the urge, because my home is only a handful of stops away. I do not know where I am. It’s dark outside the Max, and blinding inside. I struggle to open my eyes.
What the hell happened? I remember going over to Jeff’s. We haven’t hung out since he went to Chicago for Christmas. Wait, I remember going to the 1201 first. I had some time to kill before Jeff would be home from work. I checked my mail, and then hit the 1201. I had a few whiskey sours while I read the latest Willamette Week. Then what? I remember heading to Jeff’s, with the cold breeze whipping my overcoat around. I should’ve worn more than my Husker Du T-shirt underneath the coat, but I am never prepared for being cold. I remember buying a sixer of Henry’s Ale. I also remember Jeff with a twelver of Milwaukee’s Best Light already broken into at his place. What I do not remember is what happened to the contents those cans and bottles. The cans and bottles were strewn about his studio, but the beer had vanished in a short span of time. We chatted excitedly about how we finally had hope that 1998 was going to be our year. To celebrate, we decided that we had better head down to the Marathon for a little dinner and some drinks.
The Marathon is an odd bar. They have essentially two sections. Where the bar actually sits, near the entrance, there is a clientele of old, hardcore barflies who waste away their time watching several televisions portraying many sporting events. Around the bar to the right and down the ramp, sits a section with pool tables dominated by the 20-something crowd and a loud mix of heavy metal and classic rock songs pumping from the jukebox. The consumer dichotomy is great as well as the certainty of separation between the two camps. Jeff and I showed our ID’s and confidently strode to the back section housing the pool tables. We were in the mood to celebrate and maybe play some pool. My game stinks. Jeff, on the other hand, plays all the time, has his own stick and can run me into the ground. We found a free table and sat and chatted awhile, ordered a large pitcher of Widmer Hefeweizen and pondered the bar menu. Being a weeknight, the bar was not packed, but fairly busy. A pool table in the middle of the section became available, so we decided to move our pitcher and belongings over there and play a game. A “game” of eight-ball between Jeff and I goes something like this: I rack the balls loosely, in what we refer to as a swamp or amoeba rack, so any attack on the break is met with little or no movement by the triangle of balls at the other end of the table. This is completely unintentional, but it is almost a talent, because I rack them so badly. From there, Jeff sank a few shots. I missed one badly. He dropped a few more in. I missed a shot embarrassingly. He sank a few more and talked smack, while I missed another. Then Jeff toyed with me, missing the eight-ball on purpose over and over, while I struggled over several turns to sink the stripes or solids that I had remaining. Eventually, and I mean eventually, I got down to the final chance, and even then Jeff gave me stellar opportunities to win, but I couldn’t pull it off. Finally, he slammed the eight-ball into a pocket with authority and it mercifully ended. The sad part is that there is always a stash of quarters at the ready for another game, which will follow the same M.O.. I ordered a second pitcher.
These games are always painful for me, but still entertaining, because Jeff and I have a good time as we play. The scenarios that kill me are when we get challenged. As we eased into our second pitcher, Jeff was looking around the room, wondering if we would be challenged by any “chickies.” This is essentially the goal right? A little fun competition, along with an easy introduction, and a common ground to chat casually, makes the pool scenario a bit more natural than the usual lame line and a slap in the face. Aren’t we there to meet the “chickies” after-all? I don’t know. I was really hungry for food at that point.
As the Max squeals around a corner downtown and flops me upright for a moment, I begin to flashback to the night of the “chickies.” Using “chicks” as a term for the ladies wasn’t even in my vocabulary until recently, and now I use “chickies.” What happened? That was another drunken night hanging with Jeff, back when I had a car. We were creeping around in the car amongst the warehouses and lofts in Northwest Portland - the Pearl District. We were drinking 40 ounce PBR’s and talking about our past flummoxes with women, when we spotted two couples wandering around a corner heading in our direction. I had pulled to a stop on the once abandoned street and drained the rest of my 40. As the couple passed by my open window, I suddenly blurted out, as I tossed the 40 haphazardly in their direction, “We’re gonna kick your ass and steal your chickies!” I drove to the corner and we headed off towards the Caribou for some $1 drinks, as Jeff, who had been in mid-swill during my outburst, tried frantically to keep from spitting up, because he was laughing so hard. From then on, we have been in search of “chickies.”
A challenge arose at the Marathon from two short middle-aged guys wearing the type of leather jackets that inexplicably has denim sleeves and collars lined with sheep fur. These guys were greasy and clearly serious. Once the challenge was set, however, Jeff accepted. This was bad. They were not female and it took me close to an hour to knock down 7 shots with intentionally nice set-ups from Jeff in the prior game. This was where my complete ineptitude had lost its humor. Seeing these two across the table setting up the balls and strutting about with their cues, I felt that I had to play well. We couldn’t lose to these fools! I knew Jeff was thinking the same thing, but probably more so, knowing that he would have to carry us. The scene was cordial, we all shook hands, but the extended eye contact between us all proved that nothing but victory would be accepted. Jeff broke and nothing dropped. One of the dwarves stretched across the table and sank a tough shot, but couldn’t sustain a run. My turn left a short easy shot to the corner pocket. Wasted. I laughed, to show that I was not serious about the game, but mostly out of complete humiliation. The other guy sank a couple of balls. Jeff got one down. They missed a tough one. I had too much green and completely missed the target. I told Jeff how pathetic I am. He encouraged me and told me to do it for the two “chickies” who had taken to watching the game nearby. We were still alive, when Jeff stepped up. They had one stripe and the eight remaining, while we had six balls and the eight. Jeff slammed each solid into a pocket one by one. Then he eased into the eight-ball and turned away as it plopped into the corner for the win.
Jeff leaned over to me and said, “The chickies want you!” He giggled and ordered another pitcher of beer. The chicks he was referring to were the ones watching our game. Since we had won, we held the table, and were challenged by the two girls. I knew that Jeff’s enthusiasm was both sarcastic, because the girls were not all that enticing at first glance. They looked like they had a good collection of Phish memorabilia and maybe autographed tits by the harmonica wielding wheelchair warrior John Popper. Their natty carefully careless hair, their dirty earth tone jeans that didn’t accentuate their curves, and the fact that they may have been moving in to get to know us better, made them somehow a potpourri of wrong. Yes, I’m judgmental, and I chose to avoid Lilith Fair as well. Also, Jeff’s enthusiasm stemmed from the simple fact that chicks rarely move towards us in a bar or anywhere, and if they did, we would rarely realize it.
The dirty blond girl, wearing some sort of drab colored hempwear, and looking like Jewel if she were 30 pounds heavier and had been beaten, began to rack the balls, while the brunette wandered around the bar looking for some cues. The introductory speak had already taken place to set the game, during which Jeff stroked his red-haired beard and intoned in an exaggerated deep voice, cracking me up and him as well. The brunette complimented the painted figure on Jeff’s jacket that was draped over a stool near the table. I nudged Jeff’s side with my forearm firmly, and asked him if that was Meatloaf painted on the jacket. This was maybe Ryan’s best line ever being repeated once again, and it clearly still left Jeff speechless in exasperation.
The game began and really was nothing memorable. Jeff, maybe due to the Meatloaf line, was trying to play me up for these girls, knowing my lack of interest. He somehow tried to use my ineptitude on the table as an overall sign that it was me who needed loving, while, he, master of the table, needed no part of these chunky pseudo hippies. It was a bold move and I was defenseless. The sad truth is that I was the one who needed loving, but I just wasn’t really interested looking for it here with Paula Cole and her dirty blond pal who likes to show her excessive mid-rif. We ended up playing more than one game. I don’t know who won what, I just know that I ordered more pitchers of beer throughout and felt more and more disoriented. This was war now and Jeff was winning. He wasn’t winning in the sense that he almost had me in with one of (or both?) these two ladies. Instead he had me running scared, and that damn shit-eating grin on his face proved that he was completely aware of his success.
It was around this point that I started watching the clock. I had to catch the Max home, because I had to work tomorrow. I decided to act immediately as I stood up from the stool I was on. We were done with pool, and don’t ask me how the games with the girls ended, because I don’t know. I think we finally lost and gave up the table, opening the door for the leather/jean jacket gang to challenge. I hope they all live happily ever after.
I turned to Jeff and told him that I had to go catch the Max. At that point another pitcher of beer arrived.
“Just have one more beer first,” Jeff said as he filled my glass and his. I sat down again and we drained the pitcher. This wasn’t going to end yet.
Instead of conversation, Jeff and I sat at stools and scanned the room. Jeff was clearly trying to find me more chicks, since I didn’t take up with the last ones. I was just thinking about not having to walk all the way home from the Marathon. Not an impossible task, but I do live across the river and it was late, and I was starting to feel the buzz. Maybe one more pitcher wouldn’t be too bad. I waved down our loyal waitress. I told Jeff my plan. I told him that I had to leave by 1:15, or else I’d miss the last Max across the river. He nodded in agreement. I could see that his eyes were starting to get distant and that his blinks were awfully slow. We determinedly drank our way through this last pitcher. Just drinking that much liquid takes some effort, but we couldn’t leave any beer. Our entire surroundings seemed to shut off. My mind was completely focused on finishing that pitcher of Hefeweizen and finding the energy to walk down to the Max stop.
The Max shakes and jerks from side to side as it curls itself around a corner downtown. My stomach sloshes in response and I groan. I am still leaning over to one side and keeping my eyes shut. I’m trying to steady myself. I don’t want anything bad to happen. I’ve made it this far.
Suddenly, the Max comes to a halt. Every once in a while this happens. Even though the train creeps through downtown, sometimes it’ll glide into position and just stop on a dime, throwing everyone inside off balance. In this case, it threw me around and my head ends up banging against the hollow metal tubing that outlines the seats and acts as a handle. I begin to chuckle, because my head is in no position to take such a blow and because it reminds me of what just occurred outside the Marathon.
Jeff and I had managed to stumble outside of the bar, and I offered him a high right hand for a handshake goodbye.
“I need to get some smokes,” Jeff shouted out and began walking across the street towards the little store a couple of blocks west up Burnside. I followed across the street to where McDonalds sits menacingly.
“I gotta catch the Max man, so I’m outta here,” I shouted just as I saw Jeff’s fist flying in a slow uppercut into the heart of my gut. He hit me soft enough and slow enough that I knew it wasn’t a serious blow. This had happened in our past before, drunken brawls that act as a closer for a drunken night. Being that I was drunk, the hit didn’t hurt. However, it did make me stumble nearly into the street as a car sped by honking its horn. Jeff began to laugh. I charged at him with a wild right hand into the shoulder. He fell back a bit and fell into me with his right. It was a stand off. We were now leaning against each other.
“You bitch! That hurt!” Jeff yelled as he shoved me away from him. “I need some cash for the smokes.”
“So, that’s why you socked me? Why didn’t you say so?” I asked as I pulled some wadded bills that had, at some point during the night, been stuffed into my front pocket. Without counting the bills, I slapped them into Jeff’s extended hand. I reiterated that I needed to go, and we made off in our separate directions.
A cold wind bursts through the open door of the train. I cringe as the icy air slaps my cold sweat covered face. A girl wanders in through the nearest door and sits directly across the walkway from me. She has short black hair and black eyeliner. She reminds me immediately of the singer from Curve, that amazing band from the early 90’s so-called British shoe-gaze scene. She’s wearing a stylized black cowboy hat, a white faux furry coat, which is open revealing a tight t-shirt with the Marlboro Man lighting up a smoke. Immediately, I am entranced. A type of deep, rumbling and groovy bass tone reminiscent of many Curve songs begins to swirl its way into my head.
“How are you doing there soldier?” she asks me playfully. She must be mistaking me for someone else. Maybe the allure of the smells I am emitting is just too much for her to hold herself back. What could be finer than the smell of ashtray and recycled beer, mixed with a touch of dry sweat?
“Uh, I’ve been better,” I groan, not realizing that my body isn’t ready to react to things that my mind tells it to.
“You look like you’ve had quite a night. I’m just hoping that you’re okay,” she smiles shyly and looks away. Her eyelashes are so dark and so long that cannot help but stare at them. They must be fake. No one has eyelashes like that!
“Are your eyelashes fake?” I stammer without warning.
She doesn’t reply. She just locks her eyes onto my wandering drunken eyes. The grip of her stare feels like a vice pinching my already pulsating head.
“What do you think?” she says in disgust.
I sure handled that one like a champion. This cooler than cool girl shows concern for my slovenly ass and all I can come back with is a potentially insulting question.
“Well, yeah, they look phony. But, that’s cool!” I have to hang on for a second as the train jolts to and fro as it turns in toward the Rose Garden. “I like it. I like the look,” I finish after the intermission.
“Yeah, well, thanks.”
“No problem.” I am clearly too drunk to handle this. I’m amazed that this beautiful young woman, who again reminds me of the singer from Curve who is not only hot, but has the best voice around, and I won’t even mention how Garbage stole their sound. I must be having some sort of half-passed out fantasy as I fly out towards Gresham on the last Max of the night. This horror in my head from too much to drink and nothing to eat has me uncertain and unstable.
I close my eyes and then slowly reopen them. The girl is still sitting there across from me. She smells like bubblegum, or maybe I have some gum stuck to my coat. I look around at both my sides to investigate. No gum.
“You said that your stop is at Lloyd Center,” she says to me flatly.
“What?” I shout back.
“Your stop! You wanted me to make sure that you didn’t miss your stop. Well, your stop is next!” she shouts with emphasis, as if yelling at a nearly deaf person.
“Oh, right, thanks. Hey, listen,” I pause as I try and stand up, while using both arms to grapple all of the available handrails, “what’s your name?”
“Hey, that’s my name.” I respond immediately.
“Your name is Christine?” she queries with a smirk on her face.
“No. No, it isn’t,” I drift off as the Max stops, nearly throwing me to the floor and the doors swing open. “I gotta go,” I say and point as I stumble out into the frigid night air. I hear the doors slam behind me and I sit down on the bench awaiting me outside to catch my breath. I think I’m going to puke.
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