Pete, the bartender, is a friendly, talkative sort. He’s about sixty-five and he’s been around. Back in the Sixties, Pete spent some time in South-East Asia, doing unspecified service for an unspecified government agency, but he didn’t like the work, and when war broke out he decided he wanted something more congenial, so he took a job on the Alaska pipeline.
He spots instantly that I’m Irish, so he tells me about his relatives in Kerry. He once tried to visit them, Pete says, but never got outside the Gresham Hotel in Dublin because, when he opened his suitcase, he found a forgotten half ounce of coke. Pete’s led a varied life.
There’s a huge crane at a building site across the road. I noticed it on the way up, an enormous tracked thing on a timber ramp. Three guys come in, obviously builders, and the one with the baseball cap is loud, obnoxious, aggressive, drunk. He’s a Bruce Dern lookalike, and he’s got a filthy mouth.
Pete the bartender is a model of urbane diplomacy.
Gentlemen, he says, please, I beg you. There are ladies present. Moderate your language.
The guys get the message and shut up. Even Bruce Dern knows what Pete is telling him: I could kill you if I wanted. He goes away, to everyone’s relief.
His two pals, Richie and Tom, are a bit rough, but they’re friendly and they want to talk to the half-drunk Irish tourist. The heavier one, Richie, is from a New York Irish family. Long Island. We fall into conversation, and after a few drinks, Richie reveals that he did time for doing a bad thing. I don’t want to push him on this, so I just listen.
Yeah, he says, I was a bad man when I was younger. He’s about 40.
Tom looks like a beaten-up Robert Redford. He’s a lean and fit-looking forty-something from California, and he surfs. All Tom talks about is surfing and how he got on the cover of every major magazine in the business. I’m inclined to believe him. Tom has The Look.
What are you doing on a construction site? I ask him.
Aw, he says, it’s winter time. Evenings, I make surfboards, and all summer I just surf.
I believe him.
Richie says, I was a real bad man.
Really bad? I say.
Surfin’ and women, Tom says.
He’s a pussy-magnet, Richie says.
No I’m not, says Tom, brushing back his blond hair.
I don’t know which of them to look at. Tom’s here and Richie’s at the other side of me. I’m in the middle, half drunk. They’re smoking my cigarettes. These things European?
I killed five people, says Richie.
Did you, says Tom, more interested in the young woman at the other end of the bar. I never knew that.
That’s cos I didn’t fuckin’ tell you, spits Richie. He sips his beer and nods at me. These days, I don’t even jaywalk.
Pete, the bartender, is going off duty and now I’m frightened. At least when he was here, Richie might have been too scared to murder me, but now Pete is going home.
A new bartender appears. A young-looking Clark Kent double with a sardonic but open smile.
I bet he’s a fucking queer, says Richie.
Yeah, Tom agrees.
Hey, Buddy, you a fucking queer? Richie shouts at the new bartender. Hey, you. What’s your fucking name, faggot?
The bartender ambles over.
Alden, he says. He’s not bothered by this kind of talk.
Kind of a fuckin name is that? Richie demands, but then there’s a scream and suddenly Tom is standing on the counter top.
Alden!!! he shouts.
How did he do that? How did he jump on the counter like that?
I only ever knew one Alden in my fucking life! Jesus Christ, Alden!
The bartender examines him with a friendly, quizzical grin, and recognition dawns.
Tom? Is that you, Tom? Jeez man, you cut your hair.
The fuck is this? says Richie, but the other two have forgotten him.
Tom is dancing on the counter, screaming at the patrons.
I didn’t see this guy since High School. Christ, this man is my fuckin hero! Alden! Jesus Christ, man, what the fuck you doin’ in New York? Christ, we used to, we used to … remember the time we — Jesus Christ, man!
I think he’s going to cry.
Richie isn’t impressed. He wants to unburden himself and it looks like I’m about to receive his lifetime’s angst. All I wanted was a drink, but what can I do? I can’t tell him to go to hell, because, apart from anything else, he might kill me.
What did you do? I ask.
Knocking over drugstores he says. They hand out the pills, they’re OK. Otherwise, it’s the knife.
I cut ’em. Five of them.
But we did fourteen stores, he adds, quickly, as if that makes it all right. I’m glad to be so drunk or I might make a sudden move, and in this man’s company, such a thing could be fatal.
Drugs for yourself?
Nah! For the money.
Alden and Tom are onto their second year at High School, and they don’t give a shit about killers or drunken Irish tourists. They’re away in a far better place and nothing will make them give it up for now, if they can help it. Can’t say I blame them. Richie is still going on about what he did, what his father thought of him, his time in prison, his kids, his divorce. I listen, but he’s saying nothing at all about five dead people or their families.
Without warning, he grabs his coat. Gotta go.
As he moves past me, he grabs at his wrist and pulls off his watch.
Take it, he says.
I don’t want it.
Give it to someone who needs it. And he’s gone.
Alden detaches himself from Tom and looks at me with concern. He says nothing, but he smiles and shakes his head.
Here, he says, and places a beer on the counter. It’s on me.