You'll find three things in bars: alcoholics, pool sharks and chefs, sometimes rolled into one person. The amiable drunk next to you at the bar one minute discussing the shitty deal he's getting at the place he's cooking is the granite-handed master fleecing you at the table the next. While losses are considerable, you'll often end the evening eating a very nice duck breast with pomegranate sauce, creme brulee and a more-than-adequate scotch sometime around mid-morning. Sometimes, if drunk enough, they'll show you their knives and ruminate on the kinds of things that each of them could do to a human's throat, for example, although you would like to presume that these knives never take on much in excess of perhaps an underripe eggplant or shank of something-or-other.
In Eugene on this night it was Kyle, who apparently cooked at this place called the Turtle Shell, his specialty being overly precious appetizers, and after slurring his way through the description of some items he had developed, I could hardly envision the dish being described, much less imagine how it could be found appetizing. But perhaps in Eugene black bean chips with lemon-curry compote is exactly the kind of thing that hits the spot after a long night of tie-dying your shirts and harvesting your homegrow.
The bar was called the Black Forest, and I approved. Located at the ass end of an anemic strip mall, it was cramped and narrow, with a bar at the far end from the entrance and the intervening distance filled with a couple of pool tables which were in constant use and a decent state of repair.
Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I am not a good pool player, despite my time spent at the table. My only real window of semi-competence at the game is between the second drink and the third, which is a perhaps pathetically short window most evenings. Sometimes that's accidental, sometimes by design; tonight, it was just timing. The Black Forest was the fourth bar I'd been to that night, and even with a modest two-beer maximum at each place over a handful of hours, I was still beyond my pool-playing zone for the evening.
Which wasn't preventing me from letting Kyle take a larger portion of my cash reserves than I should have. I couldn't tell if he was a hustler or just took a while to get his stride; for a couple games we traded victories, but it had been an hour since I had taken a shot at the eight. But he kept wanting to play, and it despite the cost, it seemed as good a way as any of passing the time.
"Tell you what, I'll let you break," Kyle told me after dropping the eight-ball amidst a sea of my solids as if it were as effortless as scratching a convenient spot. "You want to double up?" "Do they pay you at your job?"
Kyle laughed, showing off teeth that had seen many slugs of house red go past. "I'm getting some brake work done."
"My heart goes out to you, but I'm in for ten, just like last game."
"Well, hurry up and shoot, then, so we can get in some more games before they close."
So I shot, but out of self-respect I won't describe what happened or the loud peals of laughter that followed.
I can drink a whole night through, but I've never been one for hanging at a bar until closing. Cheerful bartenders turn surly, there's a line to take a leak, and then that pinnacle of bar ignominy: the snapping-on of the overhead lights. My mom woke me up that way when I was a kid, and to be frank, I think it made me a little jumpy. And so, at closing time, when the lights come up and penetrates through my haze, it's like my adult life was just a dream of Dallas-like (the TV show, not the city) proportions. Some nights this is a pleasant feeling; most nights it isn't, and so I prefer to say my goodbyes around midnight, when there's still time to pick up something to eat and head to whatever is qualifying as home at the moment.
Tonight I was in for the duration, although in Oregon that's only one o'clock. I had my eye on the bartender. My methodology for finding a connection with Kay had been to do what I know, which is walk into bars and talk to bartenders and drunks. Elaborate cover stories had floated through my head on the highway, aided by uppers and pot, but in the end I settled for a facsimile of the truth. I said she was a friend, used to work in this town, and asked if any of them knew her. Eugene is big enough to have a lot of bartenders, but I intuited that Kay would work someplace similar to the dive where we'd met, and so I'd targeted those. At the last bar before the Forest, I'd talked to a bartender who told me he'd started out at the Black Forest and knew that Kay had worked there.
That was enough for me, and I would have been back at the relative comfort of the crappier-than-it-sounds University Inn had that bartender not also told me that Kay had quit the job over a dispute that arose about some money that had disappeared from the till. Just small amounts over a couple of weeks caught at the end of the month, but the likely culprits turned out to be Kay and this woman Gwen, each of which pointed the finger squarely at the other. Gwen was newer, and younger, and cuter, and on her shifts brought in a lively fratboy crowd that the owner wanted to retain. Kay saw the writing on the wall and left.
And this night at the Black Forest, the bartender was a blonde, and I'd overheard someone call her Gwen. The fratboys were all gone, though, and so was the cuteness. Some faces sucessfully make the transition from youth's cuteness to whatever adulthood has to offer. We have some control over this, what we put in ourselves, how we view the world, but mostly we just watch in the mirror as our faces turn into earnest arguments for things we never thought we would endorse. Gwen still retained that glow of attractiveness, even unfiltered by the low lights and alcohol, but she was perky no more. Her hips had birthed and stayed hourglassy; her face had felt the smoke of hers and her patrons' cigarettes. But she looked like she had a story to tell beyond just the one I was looking for, and I was in a mood to listen.