The man in the pink shirt, let’s call him Al, was the commander of the jukebox. He’d been cranking out eighties songs for about forty-five minutes. To make it worse, he had these little acts too. One minute he’d be acting all shy and innocent like a virgin, and the next he’d be strutting around like an Egyptian. But he had the respect of the crowd, for no matter what song came on or what act he performed, he always kept a tight radius to the jukebox, a territory nobody threatened. On the other hand, I was hopeful it would soon end. I thought about leaving, but this place had the best drinks in town, and for me, they were free.
Then the man in the black shirt showed up. Let’s call him Curt. He came in off the street like a bull on parade, sat at our table, said no words. His eyebrows arrowed downward angrily, his eyes brown and narrow fixated on Al as if the men had some score to settle, some historic vendetta. He ordered two shots, two Cuervos, then looked at me, his face tight, solemn, and in some strange way captivating.
He spoke fiercely. “If this guy plays one more eighties song, you know what I’m gonna do?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Probably nothing.”
“Wrong. I’m gonna go put five bucks in that thing and override this crap he’s playin’ with a nineties song.”
“I’d bet he’s got twenty bucks in it already,” I said. “He’ll just override you right back.”
“Well, if it comes to that, I’ll punch him in the face.”
“Prove it,” I said, and sipped my martini.
Curt stood and sized up Al. They were both over six feet, with Curt holding the slight advantage. Al had him in weight, my guess by fifteen or twenty pounds. But Curt was a knuckle-dragger and had a longer reach, quite evident as he lumbered across the floor, his long arms swaying in rhythm to “Mr. Roboto”. Al, who was doing a stiff-jointed rendition of the robot dance, was pushed out of Curt’s path. It was the man in the black shirt’s turn.
A song from the nineties came on, a simple-sounding blast from Green Day. The small group dancing around Al gasped.
“Green Day!” Al scoffed. “Are you kidding me? They suck!”
Curt ignored the words while forcefully stroking his air guitar.
Al stepped to the jukebox, his face trembling with spite. I sat up in my chair as a more turbulent song burst forth, one with drumming that rattled my brain. I’ve known Al for a few years, and I knew he’d been hot for teacher—he once admitted that to me. But what I didn’t know was that he’d been cheating on his wife with some teacher from Lynnwood High.
More patrons turned from the bar to watch as Al rocketed through the drum solo and the first verse of vocals. But Curt countered with the great grunge anthem that sparked a cultural revolution, a song about the spirit of smelly teenagers.
Al went to his group, and formed a huddle. Curt continued his sonic assault, singing the words with force as he slapped high fives with those at the bar. Just before the bridge, the song was abruptly cut. He swung to face the jukebox. Al’s friends had formed a line in front of the jukebox, and Al stood behind them as if he was their quarterback. A synthesized sound vibrated across the room, and Al emerged from behind the line and regained center stage. His choreography was exact as he snapped fingers, shrugged shoulders, and flamboyantly bobbed his head. As the chorus ignited, Al jumped as high as he could, maybe for love, or touch, or taste, maybe for the sisters who sang the song—last name Pointer. Al cruised toward Curt with his lips puckered. Curt bent the brim of his Chicago Bulls cap then spun it backward. The line of guards behind Al smiled smugly as Curt stuck his face forward to accept the kiss. They should have been more vigilant.
At the last instant Curt withdrew his face and sent a fist into Al’s neatly manicured goatee.
It was a hard knuckle shot, but Al took it well, stammering backward into one of his jukebox guards. A couple others stepped forward, ready to brawl. But they stopped when Al screamed, “Halt!”
Curt unbuttoned his black shirt and let it slide from his torso. He was sweaty, muscular, and covered in tattoos. Al touched his mouth then looked at his hand. Like his shirt, his blood looked pink under the glow of the neon bar decor. A bouncer the size of Charles Barkley stepped in and took hold of Curt. “You want me to take him outta here, boss? Destroy him out back?”
Al shook his head. “No, no, no, Vance. Just let him go. I’m happy to fight him right now.”
“Right now?” Vance asked, letting go of Curt. “Like the Van Halen song? Should I play that one?”
“No. That song’s from ’91. Trust me.”
“You got it, boss. It’s your bar. You call the shots.”
“Damn right it’s my bar. And tonight’s eighties night!”
A round of cheers cycloned around the bar.
“You’re dead meat, black shirt,” Vance said, stepping away.
Curt looked his way while pointing at a tattoo. It was hard to see from where I sat, but now I know it was his Golden Gloves tattoo, some ink he got done after winning the city championship. Al shot aggressively forward like Mike Tyson in his prime. His chin was tucked behind his fists, and just as Curt turned, he let one fly. It was a body shot, a punishing blow to Curt’s liver. He cut loose the other fist, hooking it high toward Curt’s temple. But the invader ducked his head, and the vicious hook glanced off. Al was thrown slightly off balance, and Curt countered with his own hook, sinking it deep into Al’s kidney. He winced and dropped his left arm to protect it. Curt dropped low and launched an uppercut that Al couldn’t dodge. It landed squarely to the underside of his chin and lifted him from the beer-soaked floor. The crowd began to chant as Al floundered at the base of the jukebox. “One-two-three-four…”
Al popped to his feet, his chest heaving, his mouth open and gulping for air. The two men met again, trading furious fists for another two minutes until somebody dinged a bell by the bar. They retreated to opposite tables. Curt sat down beside me, a small cut on his cheek leaking blood. Two shot glasses sat there full of Cuervo. He slid one my way.
“Cheers,” I said as the glasses clinked and the warm tequila permeated my throat. “You won that round but were fading pretty fast at the end. You sure tequila is gonna revive you?”
“Most certainly,” he said, looking me straight in the eyes. “Now I’m gonna change the subject and talk about you. You’re a gorgeous woman. You must have a man.”
“No,” I said, leaning in and batting my eyes. “I’m a single girl without any kids. Been married once and divorced once, about six months ago.”
“Really? What’d the dumbass do?”
“He cheated on me. Too many times to count were his words.”
“Sounds like one of the stupidest men alive.”
“He’s very stupid, considering he once owned this bar in full. But now half the money comes to me.”
Curt’s eyes widened, and he looked at Al. “Him?”
“You got it. That’s my stupid ex,” I said.
“He was bangin’ my wife!”
“Was she a teacher?”
“Damn right she was! Lynnwood High!”
I sat back and crossed my arms. “There you have it.”
“Well, shit, Miss Gorgeous. Looks like we’re both on the wrong end of that deal.”
“The way I see it now,” I said, “it was the right end.”
“You know what? You’re absolutely right. But I’m still gonna knock his ass out.”
“Good. The faster you do it, the faster we can get outta here.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then you’ll go home by yourself.”
April, the bartender, rang the tip bell again. “Round two!” she shouted.
Curt pulled a money clip from the pocket of his jeans and slammed a twenty down on the table. “That’s for the shots,” he said, standing and shaking out his arms. “The Final Countdown,” an eighties mega-hit, blared from the speakers as he strolled toward the ring, more or less a circle of bystanders. I took the money over to April and told her to keep the change. Al, who was now about fifteen feet in front of me, looked furiously at me, the way he used to when he didn’t get his way. He shook his head and focused on Curt, who was waving him in and yelling, “C’mon, cheater!”
With most of the patrons in his corner, Al charged forward and slammed into Curt. He clutched him around the waist as Curt struggled to drive him back. Vance jumped in and separated them, then quickly hopped away. Somebody shoved Curt from behind, and he stumbled with hands down toward Al. The opportunity was there, and the haymaker followed. It rocked Curt and sent him toward the jukebox and down to one knee. The crowd began to chant, “One … two…”
Al hollered, “Stay down, boy, and everyone drinks on my tab!”
The crowd loved this and roared in approval.
Curt stood after a count of four.
“If Al loses,” I yelled, “everybody drinks on my tab!”
This seemed to split the crowd in half. Curt moved ahead cautiously and threw a left jab and a straight right. Al took them both in the forehead then dropped lower. He took a wild swing at Curt’s genitals—a low blow fitting of Al—but missed. He was suddenly very vulnerable, and he scurried like a rat to get away. He ran right toward me, but I raised my boot and kicked him back into the fray. He turned, caught a powerful fist to his wretched face, and fell hard like a waitress dropping a tray of dishes. “Close me out when it hits five hundred. I’ll be in tomorrow to pay it.”
“You got it, sis. And by the way, it’s not like Al would’ve actually paid up.”
“That’s right. I woulda been paying either way.”
The group that had been on Al’s side disbanded and came to the bar to retrieve their free drinks. I coasted past them and walked toward Curt, who was near the door, buttoning his black shirt. Halfway there I stopped beside Al, who looked up in a stupefied daze.
“Thanks, Vance,” I said as the big bouncer dabbed Al’s bloody lips with a towel. “You know he needs help. You may love him. I once did. But truly we know he needs more help than we can give.”
“You right, Iris. I know y’alls backstory. I know you tried.”
“I’m through with Al,” I said. “I’m through with everything he stands for. I’ll be selling my share in the bar. But listen … please get him some help. He needs professionals, not parasites.”
I joined Curt, and we walked outside into the heart of the city. Hand in hand, he led me to his motorcycle. I sat behind him as we rode through the wind to his house in another district. He cooked a frozen pizza, and as we ate, I tended his wounds. It was then that his adrenaline dissolved, in his own space where his depth emerged. He sat on his sofa and cried, and I sympathized with his outpouring of pain. I’d been cut deeply by the same man, though I took different measures to claim my own peace. Curt did not, I could distinctly say, having just witnessed his vengeance. There was still some void within, and the violent act did nothing to fill it with virtue.
We gave up the boozing for the night and talked human to human. There was no sexual favors, no funny business, not even a kiss. There was no weariness at all, and thus no sleep. Just two people shedding the dead leaves from our lives, two people letting go.