The first warning I should have heeded was the song on the jukebox. Anytime someone comes into the Washington and plays music released after 2003, that means someone wandered in here who shouldnt have.
It was easy to see who it was that bothered putting on Kei$ha, the booth near the pool table. Five of them, four guys wearing the same team jacket and a girl trying her best to offer some class to that crew. Red and yellow; knew the school right off, and remembered one of the alum telling me this was a good year. Really good, if the kids wandered in this late after a lot of glad-handing from team supporters.
Early or late? Mike asked after I got his eye and had my first pint in hand.
Both and neither. Sour cream chips with this one, I replied as I looked over at the team.
Mike put the potato chips down before dealing with another drink order, and not having anything better to do like I should have, I watched the team try and sing along.
The second warning was the two bigger guys, one with a crew cut and a chipped tooth, the other with more hair but less brains. As I watched them, all the signs of an alpha male fight for the pack kept coming up, the way they both kept looking over at each other through half-slits over an eye, the way they gestured with their hands while talking, to disguise pointing fingers at each other. I watched them lord over all the talk at the table, only letting the girl get in a word here and there before each one discoursed loudly. They punched in some rap act to follow up Jay-Z with, so I couldnt hear actual words; the way these two gesticulated and motioned, I considered it a blessing at the time.
The other two guys who made up the pack got out by the time I was starting the third pint and munching now on a bag of pretzels and tried to get Mike over near where I was sitting.
Goddamn, said one to his friend, but the way Mark and Lou are going on over Gretchen, youd think theyd want to get started right here.
Tell me, said the other. Its like they both want her like she was a prize.
Yeah, like some prize. Its getting pretty heavy between them for her.
This kind of game just sucks if shes the prize.
Yeah, some prize she is.
And the way they keep at it, this prize
Trophy, I said, not wanting to hear prize uttered yet again.
They looked at me. The smart thing would have been to just keep my mouth shut. I didnt. A trophy wife, or girlfriend or whatever, I said.
Yeah, said the first one, not as unreasonable as he could have been. A trophy, like a trophy wife. I heard that word before, trophy wife, but I didnt really understand it until now.
I could have stopped right there, but I couldnt. So how good a trophy is Gretchen? I asked.
The other one looked over and said, Shes OK. I mean, she looks hot, and shes sweet.
But? I asked.
Shes a friend, said the first. I dont think shes seeing anyone, but Mark and Lou are just going at it here. They expect her to go down, and they each want her to do him first.
Sounds like a bad scene, I suggested. Dont suppose you could get her out of here and give them time to cool down.
I dunno, man, said the second. She doesnt have to worry about them, I mean.
Theyre both pretty cool, said the first.
But if the game sucks even worse? I asked.
The first one thought about it and said to the other, Maybe we can get her a ride home, before it starts to get out of hand.
Yeah, the second sighed, and they left before Mike even spotted them.
I watched these two try to be gallant as they went to the booth and stood there offering to call it a night and get Gretchen home. I couldnt see that well over these two guys backs, but by the time they moved away from the booth one of competitors was livid at the suggestion and was getting up with an angry look on his face. The two I spoke two were on their way to the door, leaving Gretchen behind at the mercy of the other guys.
Yep, I noted to myself, chivalry is still dead.
Then one would-be suitor got up and tried to lighten the mood of the whole thing by making for the pool table and challenging the other and the lady to a game. Gretchen declined, which made it a maño-a-maño over the table. Like a damsel watching two knights joust, she racked and held chalk as the other two carried their competition into a game of eight ball. It had gotten so bad they were even calling shots for the other balls, and taking pain when the other one failed to note the muff.
Two-thirds of the way through the game, the jukebox got quiet, but one of them took out a five and put the same rotation in. By my fourth pint, I was starting to get a headache from the blaring noise, which went in hand really well with the tension the rising level of taunts was getting to.
Mike was busy with cleaning up where someone who shouldnt have mixed a daiquiri and a Manhattan had been sitting, so when the game ended and the three of them came over to the bar the louts did not get the service they felt they were anointed to receive. After one of them started slapping the bar, Gretchen said in a sweet voice, I dont think thats going to get them to come any faster.
I want SER-vice! one of them bellowed.
Cant you see hes busy Gretchen started to point out where Mike was wiping down the bar and sliding vomit into a pail.
The other one reached over the bar and under it for something, anything. When all he got was a bag of BBQ chips, he smashed it on the bar. It would have made a more impressive sound if he hadnt chosen that crap for the jukebox earlier.
The customer that had been between these three and me got up then and started to head for the door. I sighed and tried to concentrate on my pint.
What the fucks this guys prob? the bellowing one said.
Whyd we end up in this shit joint anyway? said the other.
Think hed mind if we helped ourselves? said the bellower.
Yeah, I said, he would. By now, I was getting tired of these two, and probably should have kept my mouth shut.
The other one who left a potato chip blast pattern looked at me and said, Shut the fuck up.
Yeah, said the bellower, mind your own fucking business.
I just looked back at them, unmoved.
Sorry, said Gretchen to fill the dead air.
Dont you dare apologize to this prick, said the bellower.
Bet this fucking cocksucker goes down in one punch, said the other.
I was trying not to lose it. These two were making a bad night even worse with every second, and it was taking a toll on my good nature just knowing these two shared this universe, let alone my local.
Dont start a fight here, said Gretchen. We can go somewhere else.
Not till Im ready, said the bellower, staring her down like she was on the opposing team.
Hey asshole! screamed the other one as he picked up the chip bag he burst and threw it over where Mike had been.
Maybe it was seeing Gretchen getting yelled at. Maybe it was watching him throw the bag. Maybe it was the pieces of BBQ chips from the bag that were hurled out and now floating in my pint.
Right there and then, I decided to get Vulgar.
Alright, kids, I said with a growl. Pack it in while you two still have a chance.
The challenge took them all by surprise. Gretchen backed away a little as the two of them stared at me.
What are you, fucking nuts? the bellower asked me.
What kind of shit are you pulling? asked the other.
I just stared at them.
So what the fuck are you, huh?
How long it took them to realize everything had frozen around them means nothing when time has stopped. Just the three us were conscious of the fact that all noise and motion had ceased. I didnt time it for when someone across the bar had slipped on a spilled drink and was now half way through sending their ass to the floor, but that helped make the point.
Before they could say anything next, the music blared around them, the opening notes Kashmir by Led Zeppelin thundering out. A soft icy blue spot from over the right hit me as I had a good, solid, long sip of my pint while the first verse of the song offered a few clues as it filled the bar. To add to the effect, the musical bridge at the end of the verse kept repeating, over and over, each time getting louder and threatening to shatter the planet.
(I made a note to myself then, to write in a suggestion that when the Apocalypse does actually occur, that the soundtrack be provided by Bonzo smashing away at his kit.)
I expected them to charge me, which would have given me a few options: A painful transmutation into a Drugurer, a one-way trip to a more simple time such as the Pliocene, an intense interaction with a golem made up of razor blades
They chose to run out the door screaming into the night.
I didnt think they had that many brain cells between them. I was disappointed that I was all dressed up with nowhere to go. But, I did get them to leave the Washington in a hurry
I looked around after I turned off the music but before I could do the rest of the clean up, and saw her there, suspended in time in just the right pose. Maybe it was the expression or body position she was in, but I could suddenly see what those two saw in her. I had a brief flash of the upper deck of the Eiffel Tower being closed off with the city of Paris alit below us, escargot made from the finest Yangtze snails with ginger, and enough Dom Perignon 87 for a joint sponge bath before we roll over onto a bed stuffed with fine
First things first. I moved her next to my stool and cleaned everything else all up. She looked around as the ass on the other side of the bar made contact with floor and asked, Wh-where are Mark and Lou?
I think they heard about this new invention they wanted to check out, I said as I had another sip. Wonderful stuff. They call it fire.
She blinked; must be the first guy interested in her all night who didnt scream. Oh, she said. Thats weird, theyd just go like that.
Weird sometimes happens, I said as I got Mikes eye. He had another pint at the ready as I asked her, What are you having tonight?
I dont know. I was just having cola, really.
I just didnt feel comfortable drinking with them.
Ah. Can I recommend something, if youre not too uncomfortable now?
She looked at my pint. That looks good, she said.
A woman after my heart. One for the lady on me, I said to Mike. So how did you get here tonight?
Mark was driving. He was my ride.
It was just to hang out, but it got crazy. Mark and Lou were really acting like jerks, the way they were getting on each other. The two of them are normally pretty good, but they started in on each other every time we got together lately.
Just you three?
Yeah. The way her eyes opened as a thought hit her was very cute. Oh God, did I do that to them?
Probably without intending to. It happens, we walk into someones life and they start looking at things differently.
You mean like in Heisenbergs theories.
Yes, the Observer Effect.
You know, she said with a smile, I thought for the longest time that I was the only one whod heard of it.
Somehow, I dont think Mark and Lou read a lot.
No, they dont, youre right. You know them?
They introduced themselves earlier, I lied.
Oh. My names Gretchen.
Pleased to meet you. Im
I never finished. She stiffened her face as though I shot a kitten in front of her and got up suddenly, not even touching her drink.
As she walked to the door, I felt the presence of another, stronger force in Gretchens wake, cold otherworldly fingers manipulating her as though Gretchen were a mere puppet.
I didnt even turn around from watching Gretchen walk away as the presence came closer and I acknowledged it by saying, Hey, Nataly.
I thought so, Nataly said from behind the bar. I told everyone, no getting Vulgar in my place, and it doesnt surprise me itd be you whod screw up.
Look whos talking. I bet Gretchen there ends up not remembering her name, let alone any of this night the way you marched her home.
Nataly sighed. You surprise me; she doesnt seem your type.
It just happened I met her. I got Vulgar because of the two goons she was with threatening to bust up your bar.
For guys like that, thats why Mike has a baseball bat and a cell phone to call the cops.
I looked her in the eyes. Youre serious about playing this gig straight, arent you?
You should try keeping your word sometime. You might like being able to look at yourself in the mirror.
Funny hearing you say that.
Ive almost half a mind to bounce you out of here, the way your Vulging warped things around this place.
Finally found a reason to get rid of me for good, did I? I smiled.
She smiled back. I told you then, no hard feelings, no matter how much you deserve it.
I thought you said that was all over.
Not even one.
I looked down at my drink. Ever think, sometimes, that...?
Sorry, I dont believe in history repeating itself.
It does all the time.
Only if youre stupid, she said.
I never said I wasnt.
I know. She gave a withering smile.
And as she turned her head, with a glance I knew both why I fell so hard for her back then, and why with even a billion lives to work on it itd never be said of us And they lived happily ever after.
I did the only thing a man could do in the face of such realizations: I ordered another round.
James Ryan won the Beatles Embassy Imagination Award: Best Fan Fic for his story "I Read the News Today." Yes, believe it or not, you can still hold a vote with a surprise winner without a media circus ensuing or legions of lawyers running around your capitol.... For his birthday, he has hopes of actually being recognized as a writer; hey, weirder things have happened.... His work has appeared in such places as Dragon magazine, Lacunae, the Urbanite, the New York Times, and some of the better men's room walls across the state of New York. Until he gets the chance to follow the program for disenfranchised neurotic writers, he's doing the regular job and grad school schtick. His wife Susan and son Jamie just nod and smile when he starts to rant, which, all said, makes things that much easier.