"A Good Clean, A Harsh Clean"
by Brian Martinez
Between a factory which makes plastic things, odds and ends like dolls eyes and adult toys, and a slaughterhouse, a kosher one, meaning a man at peace with God comes there early each morning to approve of how the men are killing, I found a bar, a hole-in-the-wall. It didn't have a name, just weak neon tubes in the windows that spelled out words like "beer" and "cold", at least one of them a lie. So I went in. I figured that way when she asked me where I'd been, and I said "Nowhere", it would be the truth, and it would show on my face and the questions would stop.
It was the kind of place, you know it, where a lightbulb burns out and they figure, shit, one less drain on the electric bill. There were corners you couldn't even see into. Pushed up to the bar were four wooden stools, the first wet with something, so I took the second and when I did duct tape crinkled under my ass. In the jukebox there was a 45 spinning. Some guy crying about not knowing where his woman was sleeping that night, and all I could think was, Jesus, it's so much worse to know.
The bartender came to life and trickled over, a nice enough-looking guy with a lazy eye asking me what I wanted. "Gin," I told him, "and don't go sneaking top shelf shit on me."
As he went to find the bottle I took my hand off the bar, realizing it smelled like bleach. My hand, not the bar. I've always hated the way it dries me out, the skin puckers in like not just water but the life has been sucked out of me, leaving it cracked and throbbing. Though I have to admit the smell isn't bad. It's the smell of a clean slate, a clear conscience.
Someone to my left cleared his throat and you got the impression he had cancer; something nasty had woken up in his neck and was tearing it apart, putting blood in his spittle, which, by the way, is a word I hate. Probably why I use it so much. I turned to see an old man pulling himself out of the dark, shaking to his feet up from a chair at a table I couldn't see, yellow eyes pointed at me, worn down teeth propping up a mouth gravity was winning against.
"How do," he asked. I nodded to him because it was all I could think to say.
The bartender arrived with my gin just in time, spilling a little when he poured, which I tried not to hold against him. He noticed the old man and called out to be careful, not to fall in his establishment and break a hip or what have you. The way the lids tightened around his good eye made it sound like a joke.
"Shut your yapper and pour another, and I'll pay for the both," the old man said, his breath obvious.
I shook my head. "Thanks, though."
"Listen, friend, anyone who puts a foot in this sunuvabitch's hole obviously needs a drink bad enough, and I'd enjoy the opportunity to buy it for you."
The bartender poured a gin in reply. I shifted as the old man put two hands infested with blue and black veins on the stool to my left, preparing himself for the task of climbing up. He'd been a strong man once judging by his voice and his shoes, but now he was looking at that barstool like he was standing at base camp. "I'm not stopping at one is the problem," I tried. He laughed a little and it seemed like it hurt him. He looked up at me.
"I'll get the first. After that you're on your own. There's just no fightin' it, I'll have you know."
"Well then thanks, I guess."
"Don't bother, we're Even Steven if you just help me up this fucking thing. I'm telling you they're makin' them taller all the time, every year, taller, and for what? Hm?"
The bartender slid the second drink to the hilt and said, "Would you stop with that?" He threw me a look, sucking air between his teeth and dismissing the old man and everything he'd said, ever said, with a lazy wave of his rag. I leaned over and grabbed the old man's arm. Felt how cold it was.
"Not like that you ape, unless you're aiming to break it!" The jaundice in his eyes caught flame. He regarded me in loathing tones, a sudden snap of intent. I held it there, his arm, and my tongue, telling myself he deserved a free pass, just one, considering he'd bought me a drink just seconds before.
"I'd have to get to know you better before I decide what to break," I told him. He eyed the gin.
"Well, here's your chance then, isn't it."
The bartender chuckled to himself, busy dusting bottles. I let go and got to my feet.