Chalk & Soda

The Register was an old-school bar. Its trappings included heavy leather bar-stools and wood accents stained from decades of fingers and a cigar-smoked patina. Above the tables hung dark copper ceiling tiles made wise by decades of eaves-dropping. A long heavy bar lined the northern wall. On the east wall was a small stage. Skip worked his way through college behind the bar. He thought his next stop was law school and one of his regulars, Hank, had invited him to do an internship at the public defender’s office. Skip would meet Hank in the afternoons at his office. He’d listen quietly, take notes, run errands, and generally sit up straight and soak in the experience. He would go to court, sit down in back and watch as if at a tennis match. At five o-clock Skip would leave the office and make his way to the B.R. for the night shift. Hank would come in later and stay for happy hour from five-to-seven. Tall well drinks were half off, and call liquor was a dollar cheaper.

Hank always ordered Dewar’s and Soda with lemon. He was never consulted about the lemon. Skip just thought he might like it that way. If Hank complained it was only about something important and worldly. Nothing else was worth the time or effort. Hank stared at the world through thick eyes. His cheeks were red like Santa. Hank was a stocky man but his shirts were crispy white so it made him seem taller. He was not a neat man by any stretch of the imagination. If you put rugged in a tie you’d have Hank. His sleeves were rolled by a professional. His tie was pulled loose by the experts in the wardrobe department. His long wavy hair was wiry gray, deliberate, and cocky. His tan made you feel like you were sitting on a red plastic beer cooler.

Hank’s rise to fame came with the tiniest of fish, the snail darter. No bigger than a paper clip, this species could only be found in the Little Tennessee River and was threatened to extinction by the Tennessee Valley Authority’s plans to build the Tellico Dam. He brought suit against the organization and both the Snail Darter and Hank survive to this day. Years later Hank ended up in the public defender’s office. Hank was almost noble. He qualified, but Hank carried his nobility like an underutilized umbrella. It remained available but he seldom thought of it. Subconsciously, you knew it was there. All it took was a click of a button. The spring would trigger the slow slurping “kerchunk” and a nylon spider would unfurl it’s metal legs and face the weather.

This night Hank was drunk. He was never a smelly drunk, nor an obnoxious drunk. Hank was an honest drunk. His fatigue would slip out from behind him and take the wheel. It introduced itself in his orders. You could see it in the long, awkward pauses. Some innocent point in space would be selected at random and he would stare it down like a pregnant zebra. Sometimes, the stare would hit on women. Sometimes it would just say your name at the start of each sentence. Tonight, it would speak the truth. Tonight, Skip, was truth’s zebra. Skip usually tried not to speak of their day’s events at court but this was a slow Thursday and Hank’s usual crew hadn’t arrived yet. After a few drinks, Skip asked Hank a question. Skip was too naive to know it was an insult. In fact, Skip would never really know it was an insult. He was usually the last to know that sort of thing. Earlier that day, Skip had gone into the holding cell to take depositions for Hank. Skip was honored by the trust and felt his fingers reaching into the future. He spent the day in the trenches interviewing the innocent-till-proved guilty. Skip left the cell knowing full well some were having trouble fitting into the mold. Skip asked, “How can we go on defending him if we know he’s guilty?”. Hank’s answer was a deliberate, solemn chisel, “If you have to ask that, you’ve got no business being a lawyer”. If more words were came out of Hank’s mouth that night they hardly mattered. The entirety of the event was in that statement. Skip would no longer be interning for Hank. It was a mutual decision, not be agreement, but by the fact that neither wanted anything to do with the other from that point forward.

And so the night ended with the realization that Skip would not be turning into a lawyer. That hat would end up in the pile with the others. The pile was growing taller. It was unclear if this brimmed mountain would prove that he was diversely talented or just plainly fickle. He didn’t cared either way. This was important, he needed a hat. He likened himself to a chameleon. He could adapt to any situation, not by hiding in it, but by observing the surroundings and fitting in where he belonged. His satisfaction came from his utility. This would sometimes mean he was regarded as insincere. But he didn’t mind roles. He didn’t mind being judged. He hated being ignored. In seventh grade they called him Orca after gaining a lot of weight, they meant it as ridicule but secretly he was honored to finally have a title. He would have preferred “lefty” but “Orca” would do fine. He could be the clown in the lunch room, the hero at recess, and the scape-goat at the bus stop. His task was to find his spot. Growing up, the only time he felt jealous was when his spot was taken. It left him immensely uneasy. Hank’s words had erased Skip’s spot. He would need to find another.

If Skip would have quit the bar that night he’d be labeled a mystic. Skip was never labeled a mystic. He spent two more years at that bar. One day he thought they had promoted him but it was a trick. He ended up as night manager. He lost all of his tips and the staff grew against him. He was too sensitive for this kind of duty. His attempts at barking orders fell from his lips as pleas for acceptance. He was labeled a scab for staying on board when the new owner’s took over. One night ended up in the very same jail pleading innocent one night when his staff served a drink to an underage officer. Hank would pull out his umbrella and save Skip the next morning. The only thing Skip salvaged in those final two years was some tuition and an appreciation for Fleetwood Mac’s “Over my Head”. It played late into the night as he closed out the tickets. This was his favorite time of the day. A big empty bar where the quiet remained drinking.

Chattanooga was a congealed town then. It hadn’t quite gotten it’s legs yet. It was stuck in pre-discovery. The river was still dirty and the town was owned by a handful of men who liked to show it. One of these men was A Dr Gazalea. Dr Gazalea was a prince from some Greek island somewhere. No one knew the name of the island and no one really cared. People assumed he had been a great doctor at one point. He held a surgery residence at a local hospital. He looked like a very tall, gaunt gorilla. He bore no roundness at all except his shiny head. It popped out of a bird’s nest of rich black reeds. His shoulders seemed to be looking for cargo. You were always surprised to discover that he carried himself at all. His eyes were like bloodhounds. They hugged the ground and followed the room like a Hoover. His knuckles looked like knee caps and they hung heavy from the weight of gold around their fingers. His watch was as big as a dinner plate. He kept it lose so it could swagger. The Doctor bought the Register on a whim. He thought it gave him legitimacy. Every afternoon a forest green Ferrari would slide into the loading zone. The Doctor would emerge from the passenger seat. It seemed to take him forever. First to exit were his entourage of one knee cap followed by the other. Then the five fingers would pierce the roof for leverage. His driver was an ellegant female, early in her twenties. She was quiet and alone, embarrassed by the spectacle. Her red mini dress was dwarfed by her passenger.

The Dr was not allowed to drive a vehicle. That privilege was lost years ago and rumors were rampant. It seemed odd the world had decided he was fully capable to stick his hands inside your ribs but could not be trusted to operate a moving vehicle. From the moment the Doctor bought the place the restaurant started to crumble. It seemed to be allergic to its owner. It was an old building and had seen a lot over the years. At one point it was a holding cell for the courthouse next door. You could still see the bars in the cellar below. The building had always been popular and it was a testiment to the Doctor that merely his presence could cause the building to wince. The Dr was always under the influence. He considered the wait staff to be his personal harem. He brought a tequila shot belt in one night and started calling waitresses into the office one-by-one to model it. They refused him until he was finally told to leave his own establishment. One night he tumbled drunk drink-in-hand down the set of metal stairs leading to the basement. His face was bloddy but he felt no pain. After he went to the hospital, one of the waitresses made a chalk outline commemorating the event. She even included his drink and ice-cubes rendered in chalk a few feet away from the body. He was a hated man. This fact seemed to escape him or just not mean that much to him. He sold the bar at a loss a few years later.

Categorized in: ... January 16, 1992 4:16 pm Tags:

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