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THE BARTENDER

 

   Just like every other afternoon, I pulled up a stool at the end of the bar and braced for my daily dose of humility and rejection. Yes, there’d been that one summer night we spent together, but Christ, I was so drunk, about all I remember is that it was still 90° at midnight and we were both drenched in each other’s sweat — like wrestling naked in a sauna.
   The long walk home at four in the morning gave me a chance to dry off and brood over my deep disappointment at having not been asked to stay the night. Maybe it was simply a matter of it being my first time on the wrong end of a “hit and run” — what’s the name of that John Lee Hooker song: Serves You Right to Suffer? And did I suffer, beautifully, for months — still do I suppose, just a little bit every afternoon, as though that bar stool were upholstered in barbed-wire so that each day I might leave behind a few painful drops of penitential blood as a supplication.
   Of course, I guess it’s possible I was simply in love. Either way, other than those few hours that one night, it’s been a solitary experience — like Conrad said, “We live as we dream — alone.”
   Anyway, it wasn’t a particularly impressive shiner. I didn’t even notice it when I walked in, she had to point it out to me. She said she tried to stick up for a Muni driver a couple of girl gang-bangers were giving a hard time on the bus home from work; which, unfortunately, caused the bangers to turn their attention entirely on her.
   A day later, as she poured drinks and wiped the bar, each customer was treated to his own recounting of the event, complete with an up-close viewing of the black-eye, like a soldier showing off a Purple Heart. And each recounting ended the same way, with her proudly stating, “And I never went down, even with the two of them beating on me, I never went down,” — like a linebacker justifiably boasting that he hadn’t been knocked off his feet the whole game.
   That she didn’t go down is probably the only thing that kept the bangers from caving in that gorgeous face of hers. And as I sat listening to the story for the fourth or fifth time, for a moment, but just a moment, I thought, well, if she had gotten her face kicked in, I might’ve been the one to selflessly nurse her back to health; and should she have come out of it not quite as beautiful as before, she might’ve suddenly found me more attractive.

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