He sat at the end of the bar, his back to the video game machine, sulking eyes averting our glances. He had this annoying, boyish tendency of running fingers through his hair ceaselessly like a pitchfork gouging a hay pile. His face was greasy, especially around the nose and upper lip. When someone dropped quarters into the jukebox, he turned briefly to see who it was. A bland dance-pop tune about love oozed out of the machine. He scowled, staring into his beer glass. None of us regulars thought much of him.
I leaned to my drinking buddy Jack and whispered “he looks like the guy in that painting. That one with the old guy and his wife in front of the barn. American something, it’s called.”
“American Something. It’s famous. You’ve seen it before.”
“I have?” Jack wore a Harley Davidson t-shirt emblazoned with an American eagle, its wings outstretched. His arms were crowded with tattoos: an American flag, a skull and dagger poised above a broken heart. He was not an expert on the art world. To be honest, neither was I. I remembered a few pictures from art appreciation class in community college and that was it.
“Everybody’s seen it. The guy has a pitchfork. He and his wife are staring at you. They’re not happy. He’s not getting any from the wife.”
He shook his head, which was bent over his beer glass. “Maybe it’s him. Maybe he needs to take the little blue pill, spice his hoe up.”
“This dude looks just like that guy, except for the hair and he’s thirty years younger and doesn’t wear glasses.”
“Who painted it?”
“Wood something…” said Shirley, who was tending bar that afternoon.
“That’s the Cheers bartender.”
“The Cheers guy is an artist too?”
I let the conversation drop. I thought, I need to stop day drinking.
Behind us a couple was seated at a table. A man in his twenties and an older woman, who was better dressed, an attaché case at her feet leaning against the chair leg. The woman was in a pressed maroon pantsuit with wide disco-era lapels. It looked like she’d been saving the suit in her closet with the mothballs for decades. Times were better then. The mill was still open. I was just out of high school and worked late shift. The bars were livelier. There were open stores downtown and the street lights worked. Now it was just Dollar General and King Pawn, and the Wal-Mart over in Thorndale.
The woman’s companion was dressed more casually than her. He had leather loafers, ironed jeans and a soft ragweed sweater. They held hands over the table, and their welded fists were spotlighted by the ceiling fan lamp, so much so that their hands seemed to glow, exposing the bones and veins on their fingers. They stared at each other as if afraid to look away. It was pretty clear to me that she was married and he wasn’t. I’d seen them only once or twice before in the bar.
When another bland love song piped from the jukebox, he nodded and they walked to the dance floor, where they kind of sank into each other, a large standing heap, swaying out of time to the up-tempo music with its squishy digital backbeat, so slowly that they were just barely stationary.
The stranger at the end of the bar stared at them, then jerked his head towards the lip of his beer glass, muttering something profane.
Shirley was wiping off glasses, placing them on a tray under the bar. She was keeping her eye, as we all were, on the dance floor and the guy at the bar. It was our afternoon entertainment. The stranger kept raking his hair. Shirley had a long thin neck and a prominent Adam’s apple, which she pinched a lot out of habit. She walked to the end of the bar and asked the lonesome stranger if he needed another beer. The man was staring at the dance floor couple again; he made a motion with a crooked finger.
He looked at her. “Do you know the macarena?”
“It’s a dance,” Shirley said. “It’s been years since anybody did those steps.” She asked Mitch, one of the regulars, if he knew the macarena.
No, he said, but if she was willing to teach him, he was game. She laughed and looked at his watch. “Better call Judy first to get permission!” We were all first name basis, here. It was that kind of place.
The man sipped his beer, simultaneously raking his hair with the free hand and carrying on a conversation with himself. I tried to catch what he was saying. I heard the words “dolt,” “bolts,” and “revolts.” But the in-between words didn’t make any sense. He was spitting them out. It looked like it was a struggle for him to form complete sentences, like he was trapped in a time-loop and couldn’t kick himself free.
Then he snapped back into the flow of the conversation, “I’m not a dancer. Do I look like a dancer? I’m not a dancer. That’s not the way of our people.”
Shirley sallied back to the man, a white rag in her hand, which she automatically wiped on the bar.
“Not a dancer, eh?”
“Nope. No time for dancing. Especialy the mach-ahh-reena….”
The jukebox song had finished, finally. None of us really liked the new songs, anymore, even the ballads. Even though the music was done, the couple swayed to a rhythm no one else could hear. From across the room, you could smell their perfume and cologne, a mix that curled my nostrils. I stared at the lonely guy and found myself playing with my hair, and thought, now he’s got me doing it too.
Jack raised his voice. “Hey mac, where you from? You from Iowa? Don’t they like to dance in Iowa?”
The guy looked up from his beer at me, thinking I had asked the question.
“Only dolts come from Iowa,” he said. “What’s it to you anyway? I aint from Iowa. I aint never been to Iowa.”
“My pal says you look like a farmer. Aint they got farmers in Iowa?”
He looked at us. “Don’t you understand anything? Nothin’s gonna start in Iowa. Iowa’s got nothing to do with it. They’re cornball in Iowa. Maybe gonna go down in Oklahoma? Maybe Arkansas? No way. Kansas aint nothing but wheat fields and dust. Iowa? No way. They love ya and leave ya in Iowa. I been to Iowa and been back from Iowa. I aint ever come back there. There’s no way out of anywhere. Nowhere.”
We looked at each other. What had we started here?
“Where ARE you from, bud?” Shirley asked.
“I aint from Iowa, I’ll tell you that.” he said. He burped. “You think all people who can’t dance the Macarena come from Iowa? That’s B.S. man. You all think you’re kings here? Kings of what? What’s left here?”
The couple on the dance floor were groping. He had his hands on her ass. She was rubbing his chest. Another song nobody knew was pumping from the jukebox. A little more beat to it, but just as bland. I wondered whether the music I liked would ever come back in a big way. I was thinking about how bone-cold it was getting outside, a few weeks away from Thanksgiving. I was glad that this bar hadn’t closed down like the rest after the layoffs at Lukens. Nothing much was making sense, but at least it was warm in here. You had your friends, someplace to go.
The stranger kept picking his scalp. He had upset the usual feel of the place. He was making us feel wobbly, like a spinning top losing its momentum.
I stared at him and he started noticing it. This was OUR place, not his. A little lupo, as the nightshift Mexican coworkers used to say. Then the guy got up, and I watched the beer glass tipping over in his shaky hand, the other hand running constantly through his hair. He walked over towards the couple, knocking over the lady’s briefcase as he brushed by their table. He stood three feet away.
“You don’t know the macarena, do you?” he said in a raised voice. It was like he was talking to someone else and they were in his way. “You better be ready. They’re coming for us all. They’re going to shut us down and put us away. You people better get ready. It’s the last judgment. The final call. Don’t think I don’t know you. I remember. Never forget a face. I know everybody in here more than you know yourselves. A lot of screws loose everywhere.” He was pointing with that crooked finger again.
She had tried to ignore him, but was finally forced to turn away from her lover’s face.
“I never met you in my life.”
“I know you and I know me and I know him and him too.”
Shirley signaled to the bouncer Vince, who had just come through the door. He nodded and stood up from his stool.
“Anybody know this jagg-ass?” I said.
Mitch said come to think of it, he looked a little familiar. He might have worked at Lukens around the time the Brits bought them out and closed it completely. Besides the corrugated steel walls, rusting cranes, old tires, and chunks of asphalt, everything had been sold and trucked away many years ago.
“It might be the same guy, but a lot of guys look like him,” Mitch said.
The stranger didn’t move. He just kept staring at the couple sadly, his dizzy glass piddling beer on his shoes. Shirley nodded over at Vince. Vince came over and told him it was time to move along.
“Don’t you see? I remember all the names and never forget a face. I know the dance moves and choose not to make them. That’s what I’m sayin’. We gotta start from scratch. Unscrew the bolts and start over. I’m talking revolution, p-p-p-people!”
“Whatever, man. It’s time to pack up and go. The revolution can start tomorrow after you dry out and get some sleep.” He steered him back to the bar stool and handed him his coat. There was no need to rough him up. He was harmless, like a weed in a field that’s not been farmed in years.
“I aint lookin’ for nothin’ in here. You got that? I don’t need any of you anymore. I’m the revolution!!”
We heard him say it, screaming like that, as he was ushered out the door. When the door opened, you could feel a cold draft twirl and brush against your legs.
Mitch and Jack chuckled and shook their heads. Shirley had already washed his beer glass and wiped the bar clean. The pantsuit lady dropped more coins in the jukebox. I swilled the beer in my glass, not knowing what to say. The place felt small, cramped, but the distance between us now seemed wider. I looked around. Every head was a satellite moving in its own orbit. The song started, another tune I couldn’t connect with. Nothing was connecting for me lately. I was stuck in a cycle of forgetting and coming close to remembering, then forgetting again. The ceiling fan above the dance floor rotated slowly, almost reluctantly. It was just going on with its own worn down routine.
The cold outside was filtering in and I put my jacket on. Where you going, Jack asked, and I said, nowhere yet.
Winter was almost here. I wondered why no one had remembered to turn off the ceiling fan.