“There’s a bar around the corner. Lemme buy you a drink before the war.”
The bar was small, cramped, and the black rubber tile on the floor smelled of stale beer and wet soot and sweat. It was one of those paradoxes that are common in this city a white Irish bar in a black neighborhood. The men who drank here had been drinking here for decades. They walled themselves up inside with their dollar drafts and their pickled eggs and their frozen attitudes and pretended the world outside hadn’t changed. They were construction workers who’d been working within the same five-mile radius since they got their union cards because something’s always being built in Boston; they were foremen from the docks, from the General Electric plant, from Sears and Roebuck. They chased cut-rate whiskey with impossibly cold beer at eleven o’clock in the morning and watched a videotape of the Notre Dame Colorado Orange Bowl from last New Year’s.
When we entered, they glanced at us long enough to assess our color, then resumed their argument. One of them was up on his knees atop the bar, pointing at the screen, counting some of the players. He said, “There, they got eight on the defense alone. Fucking eight. You tell me again about Notre Dame.”
The bartender was an old-timer with slightly fewer scars on his face than Devin. He had the bored, opaque face of someone who’s definitely heard it all and made up his mind about most of it years ago. He raised a tired eyebrow at Devin. “Hey, Sarge, what can I get you?”
“Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit,” someone by the TV said. “Count ‘em again.”
“Fuck you count ‘em again. You count ‘em.”
Devin said, “What’s the thrust of the intellectual discourse at the other end of the bar?”
The bartender wiped the bar in front of us as we sat down. “Roy the guy on the bar he claims Notre Dame’s the better team because they got less niggers. They’re counting to decide.”
“Hey, Roy,” someone yelled, “the fucking quarterback’s a nigger. How white can the Fighting Irish be?”
Angie said, “If I wasn’t used to this, I’d be embarrassed.”
Devin said, “We could shoot ‘em all, maybe get a medal for it.”
I said, “Why waste the bullets?”
The bartender was waiting. Devin said, “Oh, sorry, Tommy. Three drafts and a shot.”
Someone less familiar with him might have assumed he’d ordered for the three of us. I wasn’t fooled. “A draft,” I said.
Angie said, “Me too.”
Devin hammered a box of unopened cigarettes against his wrist, then removed the wrapping. He took one, offered the pack. Angie took another. I resisted. With pain, as always.
At the other end of the bar, Roy his pale, hairy belly spilling out of a sweaty blue softball shirt was banging his finger off the TV faster than tapped Morse code on a sinking ship. “One nigger, two, three, four, five... six, another makes seven, eight, nine. Nine and that’s just the offense. Buffaloes my ass. Colorado Spearchuckers.”
Someone laughed. Someone always does.
I said, “How do these fucks stay alive in this neighborhood?”
Devin considered the jar of pickled eggs. “I have a theory about that.” Tommy set the three beers in front of him, placed the shot beside them, went back for ours. The shot disappeared down Devin’s throat before I saw him pick it up. He wrapped a hand around one of the frosted mugs, downed half a pint before he spoke again. “Cold,” he said. “My theory is this people like that, you got two choices: you either kill ‘em or you let ‘em be, because you’ll never change their minds. I figure the folks in this neighborhood are just too tired to kill ‘em.” He polished off the rest of his first beer. He still had half a cigarette and two of his drinks were gone.
I always feel like a Chevette with a bad tire chasing a Porsche when I try to keep up with Devin at a bar.
Tommy placed two beers in front of Angie and me, poured another shot into Devin’s shot glass.
Angie said, “My father used to come to this bar.”
Devin inhaled the second shot sometime while I blinked. “Why’d he stop?”
Devin nodded. “That’d do it, sure.” He started on his second pint. “Your old man, Kenzie, the hero fireman, he come to places like this?”
I shook my head. “He drank at Vaughn’s on Dot Avenue. Only place he went. Used to say, A man who ain’t faithful to his bar ain’t much better than a woman.’“
“A real prince, his father,” Angie said.
“Never met the man,” Devin said. “Saw that picture though. Two kids from a burning tenth floor.” He whistled and drank the rest of his second pint. “Tell you what, Kenzie you got half the balls your old man had, you might live through this.”
A burst of laughter blew across from the other side of the bar. Roy was pointing at the screen, saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger” doing a little drunken dance on his knees. Soon, they’d start telling AIDS jokes, really bust a gut.
I thought about what Devin said. “Your concern is touching,” I told him.
He grimaced, his eyebrows furrowed, the third pint washing down his throat. He put it down, wiped his mouth with a cocktail napkin. He said, “Tommy,” and waved his arm like a third-base coach sending the runner home. Tommy came down with two more pints and poured him another shot. Devin held up his hand, downed the shot, and Tommy poured another one. Devin nodded, and he left.
Devin turned on the stool, looked at me. “Concern?” he said. He chuckled, a graveyard chuckle. “Tell you what concern changes nothing. I’m concerned that this city’s going to rip itself apart this summer. Won’t stop it from happening. I’m concerned too many kids are dying too young over sneakers and hats and five bucks worth of Grade Z cocaine. Guess what though? They’re still dying. I’m concerned that shitheads like that” he jerked a thumb down the bar ”are actually allowed to reproduce and raise new shitheads just as stupid as they are, but it doesn’t stop them from mating like rabbits.” He threw back the shot, and I had the feeling I’d be driving him home. He was favoring the right elbow on the bar over the left, taking deeper drags on his cigarette. “I’m forty-three years old,” he said and Angie sighed quietly. “I’m forty-three,” he repeated, “and I got a gun and a badge and I go into gang zones every night and pretend I’m actually doing something, and my concern doesn’t change the fact that I’m not. I slam sledgehammers into doors in projects that smell of things you couldn’t even begin to identify. I go through doors and people shoot at me and children cry and mothers scream and someone gets busted or someone gets killed. And then, then I go home to my shitty little apartment and eat microwave food and sleep until I have to get up and do it again. This,” he said, “is my life.”