People root at the bar and drink until wallets are tapped and taps are empty. They spend in one afternoon what I might earn for the day if it rains. Sometimes a friend calls, an invitation, a temptation to spend an afternoon in a park. I used to criticize the customers who came in on a sunny Saturday to drink beer and sit and lie all afternoon, but I find myself now just feet away. And now Lieutenant Johnny needs another beer. He was drafted into this side-alley trench thirty years ago. He swallows fast and by the time I rest, maybe clean off the service area or wash glasses, he needs another; it drains me when he comes in.
I used to tend at a neighborhood bar where everyone knew everyone and no one wasn’t welcome. Before that I labored at a congressional bar filled with patrons who pointed to the top shelf and told me to pour. Polar experiences; those who came in for conversation and those embarrassed to talk to me except to order another drink. Now I work in a tavern where noise constantly filters from the kitchen, from the customers, from the glasses and ice. It all blends. I am part of the noise; I blend.
After happy hour the shy construction worker sneaks away from the single men and bids me so-long; he wants to get home to his family. The man in the silk suit buys another scotch for the blond near the popcorn machine then must get home to his wife “before she turns into a royal bitch.” I listen to all of this while I hold my hand on the patrons’ arteries. I control the flow; I control the volume of their urine. I distill their precious blood into ten-ounce Jimmy Jones’ Kool-Aid glasses, and they pay me for it. They pay me for it!
The governor once arrived at the congressional bar for a fund-raiser. He scoffed at a liberal-looking man at the bar eating lunch, then he found a donator to discuss the educational system, the dropout rate. He glanced at the top shelf, said “Beefeaters and tonic.” I handed it to him and offered my congratulations for winning the previous election. I don’t look like the type that votes, though. I am a server.
Johnny needs another beer. The third scotch the silk suit man bought worked and he won’t be going home to the bitch after all. Another old man is drinking to forget something distant and sour, and I see in him I might live long enough in spite of myself. He pushes a dime next to the glass and says he is going to enjoy the sun and I briefly remember “outside”; when I am behind bars it is easy to forget “outside.” There are no windows here save some stained glass in the door, and even that is thick with beer-stein art making the light dark, like it is filtered through Guinness. Johnny leaves and for a moment I get a chance to work the service bar. I spilled rum in the ice and have to empty the bin and fill it back up with fresh ice after washing it thoroughly with boiling water and scrubbing it with Borax. Outside I can hear the cars idle, and I can hear the music as it rips up Third Street, girls with their hair combed out. They are on their edge. They sit on the hood pushing toward night, and the guys spend hours impressed by the sensual ritual of it and find purpose.
I stopped drinking when I started to tend bar. Yet sometimes I am constricted, unable to breathe, ready to dart into the late-night cold air and run jobless toward some distant land, pick up my feet and find myself in other places. Breathe again. But one man is watching the football game and he and Johnny get into a conversation about the importance of the instant replay, and then others in the bar disagree and an argument begins; an afternoon is dedicated. Someone is talking to a co-worker about the need to infiltrate a competitor’s territory. They sell cleaning products. Now my boss is upset with me for fixing my second drink wrong after nine hours of non-stop distribution, and he hurts his throat letting me know exactly that and lets the rest of the bar know exactly that while it may only be a few ounces of liquor and mix to everyone else it is close to four bucks to him minus cost, and to take it lightly is to take the job lightly and “no one gets nowhere with a crappy attitude.” And for the first time since I was a child I want to cry. Mid-twenties, college-educated, well-traveled, once highly-motivated person-turned-bartender stands surrounded by nearly one hundred half-drunk “I’m absolutely fine” patrons and find myself completely, to the last ounce of my blood, lost.
This is what I’ve become.
The room spins and I sit at a stool while my boss’s voice shatters even the sounds from the music and televisions and the commotion of a table of drunk guys in the corner, and I want to look away but there is no “away,” there is only here, and even the stain-glassed windows reflect my pathetic face back into the bar. People here see me as a quiet, hard-working, doing-fine man. But I slip some each day, drowsy with my duties. Still, most here might tilt back their heads and smile if I told them I killed a man. “Come on!” they’d wince. “Nice guy, from a-good-family, did-well-in-school sort couldn’t kill.” But I did, slowly, without anyone noticing right in the middle of this tavern. I drained all the life out of this motionless soul.
I go out into the night air to find something familiar, something other than life behind bars. I bend my neck toward the cold, square sky just above the rooftops, void of celestial light, and feel nothing. Even in this late night-early morning vastness, traffic seems to flow and the air flinches at vibrations coming from apartments and stereos and restaurants. A group of teens stands outside a twenty-four-hour drug store and wait for something to happen. They fall silent when I walk by, and a small part of me wonders if they’re contemplating how much cash I might have on me after a double shift, but a larger part of me doesn’t give a rat’s ass what they do. So I find my car and drive out of the city.
A year passes. Same routine, same pathetic, barren year, only the next one, and I remain absolutely lost. Once again it is late winter and the street is more brown slush than white snow, and warm days battle with the cold nights making the season unruly, moody. After work one night I walk to a lake and wade into the water in the cold evening pitch. I wake the next morning on a nearby bench and know that in three more hours I have to get back to the city and do it again when a voice from somewhere else—not inside, exactly, but not ghostly either; more like a voice from a passing friend, but I’m alone, and it whispers “or not.”
I sit up. For what seems like the first time in longer than I can remember, I sit up. “Or not,” I repeat.
Suddenly, almost without warning, Africa.
I stand on the airport runway having departed the twelve-seat plane as the blazing sun starts its decline across the eastern plains. Passengers scatter for the few buses waiting to bring them to the city while taxi drivers barter for riders. I pick up my bag and toss it over my shoulder and walk toward town. A hazy still makes the African sky seem like stretched canvas; the sun impressionistic—closer. And I can hear the ocean very silently like a whisper.
I rise before dawn and buy space on a seven-seater van to make the long journey across the country to see a friend in a small village. Dust blows in the broken window, and we make motionless time, watching the countryside fade as the day progresses. It is mostly barren, a few trees. Villagers herd sheep and cattle, and a few camel cross the road looking for undiscovered vegetation. The road itself is somewhat paved, mostly not, almost twenty feet wide and chewed at the sides, swallowed by the desert. In some places entire pieces of pavement have been digested. The sun reaches higher, stretching the intensely blue sky to its extremes when the driver pulls off for a rest and I take in the silence, absorb the quiet.
We sit amidst the dust and ruins and after some time children serenade us, chanting the Koran. The sun sits directly above and I think for a moment it might drop. A lady stands before an open doorway, dry, dusty, her lips cracked. The river is dry. The well is dry. The sky is dry. The lady lets out a sigh. Has God died? I swear I hear her say as tears moist dust on her child’s lips.
We sit on the fingertips of the Sahara, eating rice, drinking hibiscus juice and listen to the children sing for money. A soft breeze chases away about thirty minutes before the engine roars to life and we eagerly load the van and continue. Young boys run alongside with open hands stretched, still singing. It is all they learn; it is their life. For the rest of the trip we load and unload passengers as the landscape becomes more desolate, thirsty. But first, after everyone else gets in the van for the final stretch, I wait. They call in French for me to come, and slowly I do.
I drink it all in; swallow the grace and history and raw, naked presence of my surroundings. I take a long, unhurried, advent breath, and feel my pulse slow to an equatorial pace and know, finally, that this is where it begins.
Bob Kunzinger is the author of nine collections, including the critically acclaimed The Iron Scar: A Father and Son in Siberia. His work has appeared in many publications, including the Washington Post, Kestrel, Southern Humanities Review and more, including several noted in Best American Essays. He lives in Virginia when he is there.