Scoundrel Time

Any Humans Here?

Earlier, in a bar on La Brea, some kid had stared him down. Six-thirty on a Wednesday, not quite (not yet) the dinner hour, and rain flecked the small square windows of the place in dots of light. He’d been with an old friend, small mercy of the season, time for all the social life pushed back from earlier in the year. And yet, if that sounded mundane or normal, what did any of it mean anymore? No sooner had he stepped inside from the late December drizzle than the conversation started — or, more accurately, started again. First, the niceties: So glad were doing this, how are the kids? Then, the torrent of dismay. Did you see what he tweeted today, and they were in it, Russian hacking, cabinet appointments, as if this were an ongoing discussion and they had picked up where they’d left off. Discussion? Litany of plaints was more like it: the desperation of the confessional. But then, who was the confessor, and what was the sin? Maybe only the desire to believe that consolation remained a possibility, that all was not so well and truly lost.

This place was just the right mix of dive and not-dive, old leather banquettes and a worn mahogany bar that curved across the room like a piece of track. None of it was retro, no vintage fixtures, just original mid-century stock. He had sought such corners in every city where he’d ever lived, a comfortable room that served good booze, where the bartender left you alone. The woman behind the bar tonight had it down, hanging back, asking softly if he’d like another each time the level in his glass grew low. He’d been drinking a lot lately, or a lot for him; although he had long ago developed a taste for alcohol and its effects, for the first time he was understanding how it could become a strategy.

The kid was wearing a bomber jacket, black, and a black tee shirt; he hadn’t shaved in days. His eyes were dark, and they looked angry, cut into his face in an aggressive squint. His eyes? His face, his bearing, his body language: pushing forward into the space they occupied, as if this were a skirmish in the civil war he did not think was coming, perhaps because it had already arrived. Not in the sense of state against state, region against region, but in the misunderstandings and provocations he now intuited everywhere. In his neighborhood, life went on as it always had: kids riding bikes on the sidewalks, neighbors walking dogs. But as to what occurred behind closed doors, he no longer felt he understood. He’d taken to peering at people, trying to see inside them, to suss from the way they spoke or moved or gazed back exactly what their positions might have been. It was like a fight without definition, in which the adversaries didn’t even know that they were adversaries, until someone said the wrong thing and it was as if a bomb had exploded, all the more dangerous for the assumptions it destroyed.

The kid said nothing, just kept staring, up against the bar in a tight slouch. What did he want? He was too close, too glowering; he appeared to be enraged. His face looked familiar, vaguely, or maybe it was simply nondescript. Briefly, he made eye contact with the kid, but he couldn’t, didn’t want to hold it; he began talking to his friend again. At first, he kept his voice down, an uneasy flutter rising though his torso, a sensation that had grown increasingly familiar to him. The kid seemed to want something, or to have reacted to something, maybe, one of them had said. He didn’t seem to want to move away. Two months ago, he would have ignored it, but that was then and this was now. He looked at the kid again. Fuck it, he decided. Let’s see what he is doing here. Then he spoke again, raising his voice slightly, not too loud but enough to be heard.

This fucker, he began, and he wasn’t sure if he was talking about the kid or the incoming president. What galls me is that it proves what hes been saying, that he was right and we were wrong. His friend shook his head, murmured about the popular vote, but his friend was oblivious. Come on, he thought, looking at the kid, say something — although, really, where was that likely to lead? The kid was twenty-five, thirty years younger than he was, and beneath the tee shirt, he could see the definition of the muscles in his chest. Was that what he wanted, to get beat up in a bar fight? The answer, he realized not without surprise, was that he didn’t care. He wanted to lash out, to expel all this … helplessness. It was worse than anger because he couldn’t get rid of it, could find no outlet other than the one at the bottom of his glass. He drained his drink and signaled for another, but the bartender didn’t notice; she was talking to the kid.

And maybe that was it, that failure to be noticed or observed. Helplessness again, sensation of the season, as the calendar moved toward inauguration day. He had made the phone calls, signed the petitions, tried to believe reason might prevail. But that was a lie, wasn’t it? There was no reason, it was just how things were. Same thing with the kid, who was staring again. He took a breath and glared back; then, as if his friend had vaporized in the narrow space between them, he spoke in the younger man’s direction, looking him directly in the eye. How, he asked, do people act like this? Where are the humans? Are there any humans here?

The bartender brought the kid his drink and he paid with a crumpled clutch of bills. He found himself standing as the kid took a sip and pushed back from the bar, and then they were brushing against each other, the kid trying to pass — or was that what he was doing? — and him trying to block his way. The contact was vestigial, sleeve against sleeve, jacket against jacket, but it made them both stop. A foot away, six inches, close enough to hear each other breathing … and then the kid was saying something that sounded a lot like the syllables of his name.

What? he wondered. How does he know me? He felt his hands ball into fists within his jacket sleeves. Have we met? he asked, his tone a challenge. The room around them seemed to recede, but maybe that was just in his own head.

The kid said nothing for a moment. Then he spoke his name. It took a bit of mental scrolling to make the connection: son of an acquaintance, college-age, someone he had seen around. A kid, he was recalling now, not unlike the kid he once had been, full of opinions, a little short on social graces, the kind of kid who would get too close and stare at you in a bar, expecting you might recognize him. How are you? he said, shifting into parent mode, reaching over to shake hands. But his pulse was still up, not quite racing yet unsettled, as if he remained in fight or flight. What the fuck? Was this what it had come to? Imagining confrontations in the dark light of a bar? Even as they made a minute’s worth small talk — still at school? When do you go back? — he felt the weight of ashes in his sternum, the weight of everything he had once believed. Who was he? Had he really been so eager for a provocation? What had happened, what might have happened … another reminder that, not only underneath the skin of the divided country but also within his own disrupted heart, some line, some boundary, had been crossed.

Later, after one more round and a promise to see one another more often, he and his friend parted company. He drove slowly home though the rain-swept city, parking on his street. At his house, the lights were off and he tried to recall what his wife had said to him before he left. There was something, he couldn’t put a finger on it, some errand she might do with one of the kids. Even this seemed fraught, like a mission from another era; he was not sure anything felt that safe anymore. No, nothing, not even his intentions, his posture, his position in the world. How could it when he did not know where he stood any longer, when he could not see the ground beneath his feet? He fit his key into the lock and opened the door, then shut it again behind him and for a moment held his breath in the darkness, letting the night settle around him before calling out to the empty house, in a voice striated with both hope and trepidation: Are there any humans here?

copyright © 2017 by David L. Ulin