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This is What We Do

     I remember the first night George Cabal came to Bar D’état because it was the last night I saw Sheridan Gaffney. I was sitting at a table outside, sniffing a whiskey and watching the oak branches hang motionless in the cool February air, when this George Cabal comes around the corner and bolts past me through the door. I remember sneering at his thin, sinewy figure as he went inside and ordered a beer.

     Bar D’état was seven blocks from my shotgun duplex in Pigeon Town, on a corner across from an abandoned lot with weeds as high as sugar cane stalks. The outside was dim-lit and unassuming. Most people who passed by it, maybe because they didn’t know what it was, or maybe because they did, avoided it like gonorrhea. We used to sit outside and watch them cross the street just to keep from walking past the joint, and we’d laugh, take a drink, and deride their cowardice.

 

     Inside, the blinking lights of four poker machines guided you in like the enticing finger of a good drug. The scent of stale beer clung to every surface and cigarette smoke stained the walls ashen yellow. Along the wall opposite the poker machines stretched a wooden bar of questionable integrity. Its surface was faded to the color of a dead leaf and bore the maxims of D’état’s past prophets who sought eternal recognition in the art of woodcarving. At one end, engraved with a dull knife, jagged letters read: Here slept Servilius Casca. On the opposite end was drawn, in extraordinary detail for knifework, Dante’s nine circles.

 

     Bar D’état was where we came to fulfill our basest proclivities, a place to go after the mothers and fathers and children had all gone to bed and left the world free to the animals who weren’t quote-unquote raised right. We came for a lot of things—the booze, the talk, the possibility of getting laid—but more than anything we came for the fights. Not the choreographed bouts they show on television but the real fights that incite crowds and bloody sidewalks. They started late at night, or more accurately early in the morning—sometime around four a.m., however you want to define it, and you were guaranteed at least one a night.

 

     The late-night regulars were a menagerie of misfits. Some came after work, others because they knew it was the time to be there, and still more were leftovers who had been sitting at the bar all day and got too drunk to think about leaving. All enjoyed a self-appointed freedom.

 

     You had Terry Grace. He used to sit outside at the high-top tables and drink cheap beer in long gulps. It took him three sips to empty a bottle. And if he wasn’t at a table outside, he was inside playing pool or losing what little money he had on video poker. Though in his mid-forties, he looked to be pushing sixty, for experience had aged him more than time. Burly, broad-shouldered, with a horseshoe of gray hair, sinewy arms, and a face eroded by the sun, he exuded a rural virility that could not be faked, as though he’d hunted and killed every meal he’d ever eaten. He used to poke fun at me and call me city boy. “A city boy couldn’t catch a fish with a grenade,” he used to say. Then he’d brag that he could rebuild a car engine with one hand while unclogging a catch basin with the other—and I believed him. He was proud that he came from a small town north of the city, though he never disclosed the name of the town or its exact location. I suppose he was proud of the mystery, too.

 

     We had Matt LaRocca, a short, wide-framed man in his late twenties with a shaved head and six-inch goatee. He had a keen sense for when a fight had peaked and started to venture in a dangerous direction, which allowed him to serve as a kind of official tasked with keeping us out of jail or the hospital. But like the rest of us he had his triggers—a particularly egregious affront on him or his comrades, for instance, sent him into a rage in which he’d turn more vicious and unruly than anyone.

 

     Angela was another one. She was half-Puerto Rican, claimed no parents and no last name. Skinny, with black hair cut to the middle of her back, thick eyebrows and a face rounded along the jawline, she could with a single look, send a man’s nerves rumbling in fear and uncertainty. More importantly, her pointed-toed leather boots, which she was always eager to use, could break a rib with a single strike.

 

     The bartender, Jake, was a former tattoo artist who years earlier had been excommunicated from the ink industry for carving unwanted obscenities into customers’ skin. He then served as a bodyguard for various politicians and judges before tending bar. His appearance matched his professions. He had enough ink to rival a José Orozco mural, with massive biceps and forearms and a neck the size of my thigh, bulging with the rigid texture of his muscles. On those occasions when Matt LaRocca failed to end a fight, Jake took over and ensured no one got killed. Nobody questioned Jake’s authority. He was Supreme Court Justice of Bar D’état.

 

     Even I had my role. I was known as “The Quiet Man”, from a 1952 John Wayne movie about a reticent Irish boxer. I got the name because I said little; that was until a fight broke out and my voice inevitably tripled in volume. The first fight in which I was a significant participant occurred one week into my D’état patronage, four years before George Cabal’s arrival. No one expected to see such hostility in me until I wailed on some half-drunk imbecile who refused to pay his bill. From then on I was “The Quiet Man,” and became a sort of concealed shiv for the crew, minding my business until a fight broke out and excitement superseded my inhibitions.

 

     Then there was Sheridan Gaffney, who could almost make me forget a place like this and everything it meant. She was the kind of girl with whom you’d give up your freedom, move to the suburbs and raise a kid. Not that she was like that, but there were times I caught myself imagining such a life with her: simple, mundane, happy in some way, I suppose. She was two years younger than my thirty-three years, had blond hair terminating in heavy curls at her lower back. She wore dark-colored t-shirts and black jeans frayed along the boot laces. Her most striking feature, however, was her eyes. A hypnotist would’ve killed for those eyes.

 

     Matt, Angela, and Sheridan worked down the street from the bar at a music club called Satchmo’s. Every night the three of them walked down to D’état after the club closed.

 

     I’d worked at Satchmo’s for three years but was fired for showing up drunk one too many times. After that I landed a job driving a streetcar for the city. D’état was just the release I needed after pulling levers nine hours a day. My shift ended a little after midnight, and I’d be at the bar, already a few drinks in, when Matt, Angela, and Sheridan showed up.

*

 

     It was a Saturday around three in the morning when George Cabal made his appearance. The crowd was sporadic. Besides us regulars, a few people stood by the pool table and a couple groups drank outside. Inside, things followed their usual course. Matt and Angela, who had arrived a few minutes earlier, were sitting at the bar having a post-shift drink, informing Jake of their night’s anathemas—the drunks, the petty bar thieves, the entitled pricks who wanted free entry to Satchmo’s because their brother-in-law’s nephew was a distant cousin of the mayor. From a seat by a poker machine, I watched Matt and Angela glance in George Cabal’s direction, who was sitting two stools down from them. Matt fondled his goatee as Angela shifted back and forth on her stool, her eyes and body in constant motion.

 

     Sheridan was at the machine next to me with a tequila on the rocks in one hand and a cigarette burning in the ashtray beside her. Terry Grace sat on the opposite side of her, until he took a third gulp off his beer and went to the bar for another. When he walked away, I turned to Sheridan.

 

     “Crazy at Satchmo’s tonight?”

 

     “As always,” she muttered, hitting buttons to hold an Ace and a King and blowing a cloud of smoke over her head.

 

     “Any problems?”

     She poked the Deal button. “Are you kidding me, Bobby? Of course.”

 

     I said something about it always being the same kind of people, and she nodded and continued to push buttons on the machine.

 

     On most nights, like the rest of us, Sheridan used late nights at D’état to vent about who or what she had dealt with earlier in the night. But this night she did not come right out with it, and I had to press her a little to divulge what was on her mind.

 

     Whether she talked or not didn’t matter much to me, though. I was content to sit and watch her play the machines, hoping she won, but thinking her equally as poetic if she lost every dollar she owned. Many nights, if I wasn’t next to her, I would sit across the room and watch her, and when she turned her head in my direction, my eyes would jolt to some obscure corner of the room, and I’d tilt my head this way and that to feign aimlessness. I’m sure she knew I was watching her, but I didn’t care, couldn’t help it anyway. It was in moments such as these that I’d envision her and I together on a front porch ten years later, drinking wine and watching the sun set behind distant pine trees, and I’d have to force myself to expunge the thought. I didn’t want her to think I was some sap who wanted a picket fence or something.

         

     “What happened tonight?” I asked.

 

     She huffed, sighed, lost another dollar. Now she was ready to vent.

 

     “We had this guy start cursing at one of the bartenders. You know Michael. The guy threw a drink at him before we carried him out and forced him to the curb. Then get this.” She put her lips to the cup of tequila and sipped. “He started questioning why we were kicking him out. Lost it. Screamed at me. Spit on me. Called me a fascist. Thankfully Matt and Angela didn’t see it or this guy would’ve ended up in the hospital.”

 

     “He called you a fascist?” I gave a playful laugh to hide my anger at this buffoon I’d never met. “Call me stupid or pompous or a drunk, fine. But a fascist! Never a fascist.”

 

     Sheridan shook her head. The lights on the poker machine flashed her eyes various colors. I could hear the mutterings of a conversation at the bar behind me. But I couldn’t, nor did I try, pick up any words.

 

     “What did he look like?” I asked.

 

     “I don’t know,” she said. “Short, skinny, looked like an average guy.” She took a drag off her cigarette. “It’s no big deal, really.”

 

     My hands curled into fists and the veins in my arms swelled. If someone besides Sheridan had been victim to this drunk’s invective, I would’ve been upset; but because it was Sheridan my entire body tensed with rage, and I almost fell off my stool.

     “It is to me. Nobody says that to you if I have anything to do about it.” I tossed back the rest of my whiskey. “If you see him again, you let me know. I’ll deal with it.”

 

     I thought such a declaration would make me look gallant, but Sheridan only chuckled and said, “There’s no need. We handled it. I doubt he’ll be back anytime soon.”

*

     The best fights at D’état didn’t start till around four in the morning. By then people were numb to the blows and bystanders had lost the discretion—or the care—to break them up. Some ended within seconds; others went on for close to an hour or more. The shortest were bloodiest. They ended quickly out of necessity, when to prolong them might result in a murder charge. We had everything from traditional one-on-one bouts to all-out battles royal, with every man, woman, boor and brute for themselves. These were marked by a particularly gratuitous chaos, and an undeniable joy to go with it, something innate and primal. The more disorganized the fight, the more primal the satisfaction.

 

     It took a certain breed to enjoy this kind of thing, but for those who did, D’état was cheaper than Vegas or ordering a fight on television, and the bouts here were far more unpredictable than professional fights, without all the rules and sponsors. This was not the place for rules, nor laws for that matter. We encouraged the belligerence in nature. We lived for the outbursts, for the blood and the violence.

 

     I’m sure at times some of us experienced something akin to remorse a day after drawing blood or cracking a skull, but it never failed that we were right back here the next night, ready to repeat the pattern.  Sometimes we fought outsiders, other times we fought each other. I had on numerous occasions fought Matt and Jake—friendly bouts where blood substituted for points and the rest of the crew declared the winner. Angela one time clocked me on the head and gave me a bruise above my eye when I jokingly told her that her hair looked like it’d been cut by a blind schizophrenic. We laughed about it later. The only member of the crew I never fought was Sheridan. She jumped in with others now and then, but something prevented us going against one another, even for fun. It was more satisfying to gang up on unsuspecting strangers anyway.

*

     Sheridan was down to five dollars when she received a poor hand with an eight for its highest card. She pressed a few buttons and blew out a string of smoke.

 

     “I see you shaved your beard,” she said.

     “It was getting a bit long.”

     “Looks good. Brings out your eyes.” She pulled on her cigarette.

 

     “How’s driving a streetcar?”

     “I only do it for the money.”

     “Isn’t that the purpose of a job? Isn’t that why we all do it? Because we have to?”

     “Sure, though I suppose you can just beat it out of people. That’s how bankers make their money, isn’t it? Beat it out of people, one way or another.” A grin slid across my lips, hoping to elicit a laugh. “I need a place like this to come after work. Otherwise I’d go crazy. I wish I could make a living doing what we do here.”

     Sheridan turned and smiled. “I do like you better without the beard.”

     Her compliment brought a warm sensation to my face, and I wondered if I’d be caught blushing. Along with it was that vision again on the quiet street in the pretty neighborhood, secure as a fish in a bowl. This time I had to shut my eyes to make it disappear.

     Then Sheridan started to say something else: “Don’t you sometimes get the feeling that…?”

     “That what?” I looked at the side of her face. Her eyes were a sharp green with the colors of the lights dancing around them.

     “Do you ever wonder what’s the point of all of it?”

     “Of all what?”

     “This. What we do here every night.”

     I curled my fingers around my glass of whiskey, unsure where she was going with this.

     “What else is there?” I asked.

     “I don’t know.” Her tone indicated a reluctance to say anything more about it.

     “I know it’s not conventional. But who wants to be conventional?”

 

     “I don’t think it’s about being conventional, Bobby. The last few months, I don’t know, I just feel like things have changed. Something’s changed. Maybe I’ve changed.”

     Her head drifted to the side and she shrugged her shoulders, as if to imply she wasn’t sure what she was talking about, that it was useless to take any further, that it didn’t matter. But I wondered what she meant by “changed”. D’état had not changed. I had not changed. Matt, Angela, and Terry Grace were the same wonderful brutes they’d always been.

     “I don’t think you’ve changed at all,” I said, thinking it would ease her concern, and maybe at the same time trying to ease my own. I looked at her with what felt like a stupid expression I couldn’t control, as sounds of the poker machine and muffled conversations bounced off every wall, and the late-night smells strengthened. “Don’t think things have changed just because some cretin calls you a fascist,” I said.

 

     “I don’t care about that,” she said. “That’s not what I’m talking about. Maybe it’s not important.”

 

     I didn’t like this answer. It made me uncomfortable. So I continued with the only tactic I knew. “Maybe not. It’s only life, right?”

 

     “There’s some truth in that,” she said.

 

*

 

     It was nearing four o’clock. The noises and voices grew louder and more provocative, so that chatter from the bar now passed outside the door. Some drunkard put five dollars in the jukebox and selected a string of love songs—songs we hated and which were not welcome in a place like this—and the general annoyance in the room ballooned with each repetition of the word “love” or “heart”. Angela turned on her stool. “Turn that garbage off!” she hollered, and threw an ice cube at the spontaneous disc jockey who was too drunk to notice. A loud crash rang out near the back room and the entire bar turned. But disappointment followed when we saw someone had merely knocked over a chair. I got up and went to the bar and ordered another whiskey, and another tequila for Sheridan.

 

     At the bar, George Cabal had maneuvered his way into a conversation between Matt, Angela, Jake, and Terry Grace. They were discussing the recent election and the expectations following the Conservative victory. Matt and Terry expressed horror at the result. Jake and Angela bashed all parties as equally corrupt. George Cabal was alone in his positive outlook of the country’s future.

     “Things will finally start to change,” he was saying.

 

     “How do you figure that?” Matt said, calm and assertive. “This is just a more extreme case of what already exists.”

 

     “They’re all worthless,” Angela said.

 

     “We’ll see,” George Cabal said. “You will see. Can’t be worse than the last four years, with that communist in office.”

 

     “Communist?” Terry said. He slapped his open hand on top of the bar. “You think that was communism?”

 

     I cared little for politics and less for their discussion. In my view, we had all the democracy one could want right here at D’état. If someone got out of line, we corrected it with a shot to the jaw or kick to the ribs. That straightened them up real quick. Majority ruled in our system, and we owned the majority.

 

     As Jake handed me the drinks, Angela leaned forward to get a firmer look at George Cabal.

 

     “Who the hell are you anyway?” she asked.

 

     “Name’s George Cabal,” was the answer, and he rose on his stool and offered a hand.

     “Put that thing away,” Angela scoffed. “I don’t want your stupid rubbing off on me.”

     George followed Angela’s order and wiped his hand on his shirt.

 

     “Where are you from, George?” Matt asked.

 

     “Here.”

 

     “How come we’ve never seen you before?”

 

     “I just heard about this place, heard the drinks were cheap.”

 

     “That’s one thing you can say about it,” Jake said.

 

     “Are you cheap?” Terry asked, leaning against the bar, his fingers interlocked over the engraved words: In the midst of chaos, there is opportunity.

 

     “Aren’t we all?” George answered with a grin.

     I returned to the poker machines and handed Sheridan her drink. She had lost the twenty dollars she put in and was hitting buttons without purpose.

     Hoping in some way to impress her, or at least make her laugh, I told her a few stories of my own days working at Satchmo’s in the years before she was hired. How I once kicked out the club owner’s son. How one night one of the sound guys tried to walk out with a bottle of vodka in his pants, and how when the manager questioned him he claimed it was a simple erection. Sheridan smiled at that one and a spark of excitement shot up my backside.

     A little later, as the minute hand on the clock crawled up the left side and the hour hand pushed past four, there was another loud crash. Sheridan and I turned. This time was no deceit on our delight. The scattered remains of a beer bottle littered the floor and Terry Grace had George Cabal in a headlock. Both of George’s hands pushed against Terry’s back as he tried to free himself from the grip. They kicked over a stool and another bottle shattered at their feet.

     Jake yelled for them to take it outside. Angela tied her black hair in a bun—she could do this in under two seconds—and helped Matt push Terry and George out the door. The four of them stumbled outside and Sheridan and I followed. A small crowd gathered and began to shout a cacophony of support and urgings as my blood quickened its flow.

     When the two men regained their footing, Terry struck first with a solid jab to George Cabal’s chin. Spit flew out the side of George’s mouth and his head tossed like a wooden ship in a monsoon. He staggered for a second, but composed himself in time to duck a right cross and deliver an uppercut to Terry’s ribs. A heaving grunt belched from Terry’s core. George added a shot to Terry’s temple that sent Terry into the wall. Terry came off the wall and the two men faced each other. Their hands were clenched so tight they turned pale. The rest of us stood to the side, within reach, but far enough away to avoid errant fists. My hands and arms were shaking. My eyes refused to blink. Matt stood beside me, calm as an analyst, waiting for the right moment to break the thing up, while Angela rubbed her fingers against her thumbs in anticipation. Sheridan was behind me. I caught a glimpse of her face and saw her eyes widen. She leaned forward.

 

     “That’s him,” she said in my ear.

 

     “Who?”

     “The guy from Satchmo’s. That’s him. The one we had to kick out.”

     Had I not occupied her with my nonsense, she probably would’ve noticed him earlier, and I could’ve had the first shot at him. Instead, Terry Grace enjoyed that pleasure.

     I took a firm look at George, at the short little body I had sneered at when he first arrived, at the thin strands of hair atop his balding head, at the skinny arms with veins pumping above the skin. So this was him, the man who called Sheridan a fascist, who ruined her night and made her think she was changing.

     I felt a surge through my body as muscles I never knew existed tightened. A fire filled my head. I bolted forward and hit George Cabal dead in the jaw with a straight right. His chin touched his throat as it received the blow. Matt, in an attempt to keep the fight an even, one-on-one bout, grabbed the back of my neck and retaliated with a straight right to my nose, and Angela put a sharp boot in my back. They didn’t know why I had jumped in on the fight, and we were as a group adamant on keeping fights fair if the situation called for it.

     I lurched forward, pointed a finger and hollered, “This guy called Sheridan a fascist.”

     “What are you talking about?” Matt said.

     “He was at Satchmo’s earlier. Sheridan had to kick him out. He’s out of his damn mind.”

     Matt’s head took a slow turn toward George Cabal. He seemed to be considering the egregiousness of the affront, and how he despised anyone who disrespected our crew or our system of self-government. I knew then this was going to be one of those times Matt flipped into rage, rendering him incapable of breaking up the fight. He speared George Cabal to the ground and unleashed an array of punches—a left hook to the neck, a right cross to the jaw. The concept of an even fight was abandoned. Angela kicked George Cabal in the ribs while he covered his face against Matt’s onslaught. Terry Grace looked for an opening of his own. I approached, ready to drop my heel on George Cabal’s face as soon as he dropped his hands, until a different hand touched my shoulder. It was Sheridan. At first I thought she wanted to deliver her own shot, but looking into her eyes I realized she wanted me to move back. My head shifted for several seconds between her and the fight before I obeyed and moved beside her. She looked down at the pavement, her lips pursed and her eyes heavy. Matt and Angela continued to pound George Cabal into the sidewalk. She wasn’t stopping them, but she had stopped me. I wondered what that meant, whether she chose me for a specific reason or if I was just closest to her.

 

     The sound of Matt’s punches striking the side of George Cabal’s head thudded like sandbags dropped on dirt. The bystanders continued to shout— “That’s it! Come on!” —until the door flew open and Jake rumbled outside and decided it had been enough. Angela gave one final kick then stepped back, her chest rising and falling with short, hard breaths. Jake stomped toward the two men on the ground. He pulled Matt off George Cabal and held them apart. He told Matt to go back inside and George Cabal to walk down the street. We were disappointed it couldn’t go further. There was plenty blood, but the more blood you see the more you want to see.

 

     In the end, we all exhibited signs of minor injury and fatigue. George Cabal limped down the street with a busted lip and cheek, a trail of blood in his footsteps; Terry had a swollen eye and a bruised rib; blood dripped from my nose; Angela’s elbow had somehow been gouged as if by a tiger’s claw; Matt was breathing heavy and still pumping his fists. Sheridan had no physical injuries, but her eyes gave forth clear signs of distress.

Several bystanders remained outside to discuss the fight. Some saw one thing and others saw something else entirely; some said Terry won and others claimed it an unfair fight. They all agreed George Cabal got the worst of it. I could hear them as Sheridan and I moved back inside: “You saw that right cross?” “It was a left hook.” “Na, that one missed. The other landed.”

*

 

     As the night came to a close, dawn cracked in slivers of red flame through the shaded windows. Most of the spectators had retired to their beds or to someone else’s bed. Matt and Angela finished a final game of pool; after four games they broke even. Terry Grace departed without saying a word to anyone. Angela uncoiled her hair, took one final drink, and left alone. Matt followed a few minutes later.

 

     Sheridan and I were the last to leave. We went outside and met the strong rays of the morning sun. She put a hand against her forehead to shield her eyes. I looked down the block in the direction George Cabal had walked.

 

     “Do you want to come back to my house for a final drink?” I asked.

 

     “No,” she said. “It’s late.”

 

     “Can I walk you home?”

 

     “I’ll be fine. It’s just around the corner.”

 

     “You sure?

 

     “Yeah.”

 

     “I don’t mind.”

 

     She said okay and we walked along the sidewalk with our eyes to the pavement. Half-way down the block a fresh stream of blood started to drip from my nose.

 

     “Tilt your head up,” Sheridan said.

 

     We turned the corner and approached the front steps of her house. I followed her to the door. When she took out her key, I said, “Won’t be seeing that George Cabal anymore for sure now.”

 

     “Probably not,” she said.

 

     As we stood there on her front porch, I wanted to ask about the hand on my shoulder, about her motivation to stop me from disfiguring Georg Cabal’s face. But maybe I was afraid to know the answer, because instead all I said was, “See you tomorrow night?”

 

     “Maybe,” she said.

 

     She bowed her head and walked inside. I watched her until the door closed, then went my own way back up the street past D’état toward my duplex, seeing in my mind the two of us on our own front porch somewhere, looking out at a little garden on our little street lined with crab apple trees, our kids chasing a dog around the yard. But who would choose that life over the freedom of this one, I asked myself, and buried the images one last time.

 

     That was the last time I saw Sheridan Gaffney. She quit Satchmo’s the following night and never returned to Bar D’état. Several times over the next few months, after leaving the bar, I would walk by her house to see if a light was on or if I could see her moving through the window, but it was always dark inside.

 

     Three years later, while sitting at the bar, Matt said he saw her in Audubon Park walking a golden retriever puppy. She told him she married a graphic designer, had kids and moved to a quiet neighborhood outside the city. She had it given up, given up freedom, given up herself. What happened to her that night, I wondered, the night George Cabal came and left for the first and last time?

     I ordered a round of shots, and Matt, Angela, Terry Grace, and I raised our glasses with fond memories to toast the end of Sheridan Gaffney.

Published by The Plentitudes.  July 2021.