William John Bert
“It’s cool,” I said, offering a twenty for the round. Primo’s hands flashed out and yanked my nipples—a double titty twister. I cursed and dropped the bill.
“You’ll still be feeling that when you get to wherever the fuck,” he said.
“El Paso,” I said, rubbing under my shirt, where the skin was already itchy and raw from wearing long johns under two sweaters.
“El Peno,” he said. “That’s Spanish for ‘the penis.’”
The bartender—let me just say I love bartender’s butts, how smooth they get from all the eyes that follow them night after night as their mistresses reach for bottles on the shelf—placed two glasses in front of us. I was doing OK. National 40 Day does that to people. And after your forty ounces of malt liquor run out, going to a bar makes things even more OK. Just me and Primo in a bar on a Monday night with a beautiful bartender pouring us drinks.
“One for me and I’ll get the round,” said the only other person in the place, a guy at the end of the bar. When random companionless male dive bar patrons buy you a drink, it’s a recipe for—even more than getting cruised—being ranted at. Once a man claiming to be the ex-bassist of a downtown punk band I’d heard of but never heard buttonholed me for forty-five minutes to curse another obscurely famous musician for stealing his ideas. That was by far the best buttonholer I’ve encountered—talk about damning with faint praise. The only way out, like many sticky situations, was to fake interest at first, then slowly tune him out until he went away.
But tonight—tonight, gracious was the word I wanted. The snow had finally stopped falling, and even the low grey sky puking the city’s light pollution back at her couldn’t touch my inner Texan. No one perhaps has ever been happier to move to El Paso. It didn’t matter that it was El Paso, really. What mattered was I was moving.
“Thanks for the generous offer,” I said. “But that’s OK.” Primo stared straight ahead. He was a stout knight, thick-chested and solicitous to even recent acquaintances, but with a stubborn fighting streak, as if avenging for some buried sin. He’d been a couple years ahead of me at school, a captain of the rugby team when I joined as a freshman. He was always up for drinking, having a good time. I wasn’t big or strong enough to get much play when the team traveled, but every Wednesday we’d scrimmage on the quad lawn at midnight. Primo was always there with a tall drink, kidding around, siding with whichever team needed bodies, tackling and talking shit. I quit halfway through my second year, but I stayed friends with Primo. One year we even lived together. Then he graduated and took a job in some midtown finance firm.
“Why not?” said the guy.
“Yeah,” said Primo. “Why not?” He hated the job in the finance firm.
“OK,” I said. “Why not?” What was I going to say—because you’ll rant at us?
Primo smiled, maybe for the first time tonight. He was pissed because of the blizzard. National 40 Day is February 9th, the fortieth day of the year. We invented it in college, when your two dollars got you a tall bottle of manly girth brimming with liquid that left you dazed and giggling. Truth be told, I’d forgotten about it. There was a period of several months when I didn’t see much of Primo, or anyone else, really. I’d been busy with grad school applications, that’s what I told everyone, and it was true—I didn’t even drink, except a few beers each night—but it was also not true. My busy-ness was an immersion of my own making. It helped me get into grad school, sure, but at the time I stopped hanging out, I hadn’t really been thinking about grad school. I just needed a break. A change.
In January an email appeared in my inbox. National 40 Day is for real this year, wrote Primo. Major plans in the works. OK, I thought, my apps are in the mail, I’m done here—why not? Then the snow fell. I like snow, but this kind, the moment it hit the pavement, it turned. And not a little snow, but enough to suffocate a city that gets all puffed up about how go-go-go it is. Another reason to look forward to El Paso.
The bar was named The Library, and it delivered on that. Across long shelves dusty books tipped into each other like drunks, and if you could make out one of the titles, some forgotten volume no one’d ever heard of, it just made you sad that people wrote. Everywhere good had closed early.
“You students?” this guy asked.
“No,” I said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I used to work,” he said. “Two days ago I worked.”
He was sitting on the stool next to the wall. A beaten speaker chugged punk rock from a shelf above his head. The shelf rattled to the beat. He leaned back, and the lapel of his jacket—he was wearing a suit—bunched up. The suit, dirty and wrinkled and spotted with snowmelt, seemed less out of place than if it had been clean, but still.
The guy smiled and looked right at me, then at Primo, then me. I sipped whiskey and waited for some ranting.
He said, “I won the lottery.”
“Cool,” I said.
“Congratulations,” said Primo.
I raised my glass, and Primo did the same. The guy watched us, then raised his too.
“I wouldn’t believe me either,” he said. “But I’m putting it out there anyway. I couldn’t care less.”
I almost said, Neither could I, but I didn’t. We were just two guys doing OK on a Monday night. We didn’t even have to get up in the morning—the blizzard.
He went on, how he bought the ticket in Florida, his buddy’s bachelor party in Miami. “A bunch of us bought them. Mine matched nine of eleven.” He sipped from his beer, slowly. “You don’t have to believe me.”
“Who said they don’t believe you?” I asked.
“I believe you,” said Primo.
“I’m flying to Tallahassee first thing in the morning once the runways are clear. But there’s no way,” he said, lighting a cigarette, “no way I’m sleeping tonight. More, more, more,” he said to the bartender, pointing at each of us and himself in turn. “I’ll just buy drinks until everybody’s happy as I am.”
“I’m happy,” I said.
“Then we,” he said, “are in agreement.”
What a great line he’d hit on. I couldn’t see how he stood to gain anything, but then, the people who start chain emails don’t gain anything either—except maybe the warped satisfaction of planting thoughts in people’s minds, burrowing in and leaving something behind, unbound by facts and truth and reality.
“You could show us the ticket,” I said, trying to puzzle it out. “But we don’t know the winning numbers.”
He nodded. “But as long as I’m buying rounds, why wonder? Why not just believe?”
“Look, man, I believe you,” said Primo.
“Me too,” I said.
Winner signaled for another round.
“You know this guy?” I asked the bartender.
“Nope,” she said. We watched her disappear into the storage room behind the bar.
“If you believed me, you’d ask,” Winner said. “You want to ask,” he said, “you can ask. It’s cool.”
“Ask what,” I said.
“Four-point-seven,” he said. “Four-point-seven.”
He drained his beer, stood, and did a little dance over to the jukebox.
Primo was glaring into his drink. Somehow, for National 40 Day, he’d arranged a big party at a bar on 14th Street, to be sponsored by Colt 45. A couple hot bands would play. A photographer was coming, and some reporters. First the photographer canceled. Then the bar called and said they weren’t opening, not that anyone would have showed anyway. Even the subway was operating intermittently. He called me, seriously bummed, to say don’t bother coming, and I figured what the hell, I’m leaving in a few days anyway. I threw on boots and trudged ten blocks to his apartment, first stopping at the only open bodega I could find. They dropped the two forties in individual paper bags, which they put inside another bag, one of those nasty black plastic ones bodegas put everything in, and as I walked the blanketed streets the clanking of the bottles was the only sound in the world, that and the stoplights ticking when I got near a corner.
Now the night had soured again. There was a time when I could find consolation for anything by saying to myself, He sat drinking whiskey in a bar at Avenue A and East 2nd Street, or wherever I was. The simple thread of my existence in New York mended any rips in my opinion of myself. The street signs at every corner might as well have said Important Place, East Hot Shit Street, You Count Avenue.
That didn’t work anymore.
Some thumping hard-rock eighties song came on, the kind people always feel the need to head bang to.
“That guy’s pissing me off,” said Primo.
“At least he’s not ranting,” I said.
“He’s really pissing me off,” said Primo.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m getting pissed, too.”
“You’re getting pissed,” Primo said. “I’ve never seen you angry in my life.”
That made me a little mad, even though it was true—how much sense does this make? It made me a little mad to hear I never get mad. Not that I cared that much.
Winner slid back onto his stool and smacked his palm against the bar to the beat. “Rich dude,” I said. “Spare me one lonely cigarette.”
He slid me the pack. “Gentlemen,” he said. “What are you going to do with your lives?”
I saw us chasing him out into the slush, him skidding around a corner, taking a spill. I’d be the lookout since I had at least a head on Primo, while he’d throw a punch and grab the ticket, torn and wet, from the man’s pocket, and then we’d run to the avenue and jump in a miraculous cab. Neither of us would speak, both breathing hard, fogging the already damp leather even more. We’d rush home to his place or mine and celebrate with yet more beers, after looking up the winning numbers and learning whether truth lived or died, either way gaining for ourselves a new good story or a new unbelievable story.
Primo said, “I’m going to lie to strangers in bars.”
Winner took back his pack of cigarettes. He lit one. “I’m going to help people,” he said. “I just want everyone to be happy as I am.”
“Give them money,” said Primo. “That’s how you make people happy.” He pounded his drink. “That or lovin’.”
The headbanging song had finished. Punk rock was back on. No one was saying anything. Even Winner was just humming quietly to himself. I finished my cigarette, the one he’d given me, and my drink, the one he’d bought me.
“I’m going to grad school,” I said.
“Grad school,” Winner said. “Fair enough. I thought of that myself. You need any help?”
“I got it covered,” I said.
“Fair enough,” said Winner. “And you, my man?”
Primo said, “There must be another place open.”
“Who says I’m doing anything?” said Primo. I’d lost track of how many drinks the bartender had emerged just long enough to serve us. “I’m living,” said Primo. “That’s what I’m doing.”
The speaker was still thumping on its shelf and I was kind of wondering at what point the nails would shake loose and bring the whole thing down when Primo spoke once more. “Today is National 40 Day,” he said.
Winner looked up. “What?”
“Today is National 40 Day.”
“Forty like the drink? You just make that up?”
“Yeah I made it up,” said Primo. “Me.” He belched.
“I’ll bite,” said Winner, lighting another cigarette. “Tell me about National 40 Day.”
I thought Primo would just laugh and tell him to fuck off, but he didn’t. He started talking about the plans, the party, the concert, the giveaways. “People are interested,” he said. “Colt 45 is interested. Anheiser-Busch is interested. The Village Voice is interested.”
“Sounds like a great holiday, friend.”
“Forties are it. Forties are the new flavored vodka.”
“OK,” Winner said. He scratched at his nose. “I like a forty as much as the next man, but they aren’t the new anything.”
“I think I saw a place open on Seventh,” I said.
“You’re fucking with me,” said Winner sadly. “I’m just out to spread the happiness, friend. And you’re fucking with me.”
“You hear this?” said Primo. “I’m fucking with him.”
“National 40 Day?” said Winner. “I mean—really?”
“The lights were on, and I thought I saw someone in the back,” I said.
“Where is that bartender?” said Winner.
Primo said, “The Voice interviewed me. Would they interview me if it wasn’t real?”
“The Voice interviewed you,” said Winner.
“That’s called proof.” Primo was staring straight ahead. “You know the concept of proof.”
Winner drained his drink. “I’m going to find that bartender,” he said. “Then let’s read your interview.”
Primo took a long pull on his beer. A little dribbled down and his chin glistened. He wiped it with his sleeve, and I thought of something I didn’t think about often. A couple years ago, right before I graduated, I went to a birthday party for a rich kid I knew (really, it was his boyfriend I knew—he was a partier, he got drugs for us). This rich kid had rented a suite at the W hotel (he wouldn’t even have known what the W was if not for his boyfriend). I arrived late and staggered down the twelfth floor hallway and threw open the door. Out of the crowd—people I recognized and people I didn’t, sluts, stoners, even squares, a testament to the boyfriend’s power at partying—Primo came toward me, and when he reached me he pulled my face to his and laid one right on my lips. That surprised me, you can be sure—but the thing is, I didn’t even think about it. I just played it like this: took it in stride, no big thing, kept moving into the suite, grabbed a beer, saw the coke lined out on glass tables in each room and the TVs throughout tuned to the in-house porn channel. If anything, to be honest, I felt proud. I’d kissed, or at least been kissed, by a man. I lived in New York, had been around the block, knew what was what, yeah.
The rest of the night unfolded like you’d think, one rushed parched competitive conversation after another. Later, much later, Primo and I were in the hallway again. His eyes were red and he held a nearly-empty beer bottle in his hand, dripping onto the floor. I probably looked the same.
“Cab it,” he said. “Ride together.”
“You live downtown, dude,” I said.
“Dude,” he said. He was staring at me. “Come on.” He punched my arm, not hard, and he kept his fist on it and pushed me toward the door.
“It’s way out of the way,” I said, stepping aside. I remember wondering where everyone else was.
He blinked. He started to shake his head. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s stupid.” He lurched down the hallway like we were rolling on high seas, still shaking his head. “Stupid! Stupid!”
All this flashed through my mind as we sat there at the bar, and Primo spoke, slowly, as if we had all the time in the world: he didn’t have a copy of the Voice. The issue never hit the streets. The blizzard had delayed it. This was what he told me.
“Hey,” he said. “Tell him you saw it.” His eyes, brown, shallow, touched mine for a moment, then flicked away. “Tell him, OK?”
That night in the fresh, cool air outside the hotel, I saw Primo across the street, staring dumbly in my direction. Very slowly, he wiped his mouth with his sleeve. I drew myself up and saluted. I couldn’t tell if he really saw me or not. Hell, I was so fucked up at that point I wasn’t even sure it was him. I remember feeling like I should have paid for his cab. I felt like the least I could do was offer.
Winner reappeared, the bartender herding him like a bird scaring a chipmunk from its nest. “Darling,” he said. “You’ve got paying customers.”
“Last call’s coming up verrry soon,” she said.
“I admire you for staying open to the end.”
“That means a lot,” she said.
A big, bearded guy in a parka and boots came in just then, stomping snow. He put his arm around the bartender. This bar was just full of other people with prizes. “Last call,” the bartender said. They walked together into the storage room. Primo slid off his stool and headed for the john.
“Friend,” said Winner. “I won’t see you again. But I wish you well.” He was swaying. He offered his hand, and I shook it.
In the mirror I noticed a cab idling at the corner. “Look,” I said. “There’s your cab. First one all night. Take that to the airport and get your ass to Florida.”
“I wish your friend well, too,” he said. “But I wish you well.”
“Same to you,” I said. “Don’t spend it all at once.”
And you know what? I did wish him well. I wanted him to have won that lottery. It wasn’t like there was less cool shit in the world for me if some random guy became rich all of a sudden.
“Get that cab, man,” I said.
“One more round,” he called to the bartender in the back room. I saw the bill he laid on the counter. One hundred dollars. The light changed and the cab drove away. “One more round. On me.”
“We gotta get out of here,” said Primo, back from the bathroom. “Before I suffocate in bullshit.”
Winner smiled. “What’s money, when one has fame? Read to me, friend,” he said. “Read me your interview.”
Primo snorted. “It’s not like I carry it around with me,” he said.
“No,” said Winner. “Of course not.”
“But I saw it,” I said, lifting my glass to my mouth. “I saw it before.” The words sounded strange, echoing off the glass. Only a wash of liquor was left.
Winner watched me put down my empty glass. He ashed into it. “Well then,” he said. “Well then.”
“Won’t be like this in El Paso,” said Primo. Outside the city felt deserted and, with the sidewalks fenced in by drifts and a plow rumbling a few blocks away, it seemed like we were trapped in a labyrinth. Everything was off-yellow, like the entire world had been peed on.
“Four-point-seven million,” I said. “That’s not even that much. I mean, you could buy a pretty nice house with that, and a bunch of other stuff. But realistically?”
“I’m hungry,” Primo said. “That kebab place is around here.”
“I’m not really feeling a kebab,” I said. “They won’t be open, anyway.” He started down the block. I slipped on some ice when I followed. In the cold my nipples had started to ache again. They were scraping against my long underwear. “It isn’t private jet money, anyway.”
“Would you shut the fuck up?” he said. “That guy was full of shit. Full of shit. Like moving-to-El Paso full of shit. What the fuck.” He looked back at me. “What’s the point? You never get mad. Do you ever feel anything?”
I thought, He pulled his hat tight and headed down 1st Avenue, knowing he would soon be far across the country.
A white van rumbled through the slop and shuddered to a stop at the corner. The driver got out and threw open the back doors, pulled out a stack of papers, and tossed them into a red vending box that said The Village Voice.
“Thanks, buddy!” called Primo. “Neither rain nor snow, right?” The paper guy gave us the finger and drove off. Primo pulled open the vending box and grabbed a paper. He stumbled over to The Library. The door was locked. He thrust the paper against the window. “You can’t buy publicity like this!” he shouted. “Cocksucker!” He pounded his fist on the glass. One time in college he went to a party that I didn’t go to and came home speechless drunk. He slammed his head into the wall over and over again. I didn’t stop him. He did it right in front of me, watching TV in the common room, and I let him. It seemed like he was taking care of something he needed to do. Eventually he went into his room. When I walked by on my way to bed, I saw him passed out, spread across his mattress. He’d left his door open.
Primo kept pounding on the window. The whole plate of glass shook. Slush fell from the sill. I could see Winner popping out of the bar, and Primo taking a swing at him, and them going down, rolling in the muck, arms and legs entwined, one on top and then the other, until they were both spent.
But the door stayed shut. After pounding on the window for several minutes, Primo stopped. He tried to rip the paper apart but it was too thick and he just got shreds of the first and last pages. He threw it at a trashcan. The wind caught it and whipped it along the street. He saw me watching. “The lottery,” he said. “Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Forget him,” I said.
“‘I saw it,’” he said, mushing the words. “‘I saw it, big rich man. I saw it.’” He stomped across the street. Halfway to the other side he tripped and went down. When he rose, his hat had ridden up, the material bunching loosely, some matted strands of hair hanging over his wet forehead. I’d known this guy the entire time I lived in New York. We’d hung out, played rugby, gotten drunk, gotten high, gone to Mets games, explored City Island, Red Hook, Arthur Avenue, once even the dank tunnels under campus. His rugby nickname was Buffalo. He’d taken it after he heard some guys calling him that—except they’d been calling him buffoon. I know. I was one of them. I was doing OK on a weeknight with buffoon.
In the middle of the street. In New York City. Nowhere else.
Primo stared at his hand. The raw purple skin was smeared with blood and frozen gray grime. “It’ll be OK,” I said. A few scraps of the paper had landed nearby, soaked and darkened until they were indistinguishable from the slush. I took his hand. I brought it up to my mouth, and I gave it a kiss where it was bleeding.
William John Bert lives in Washington, DC.