I had done a lot of ostensible reconnaissance out of bars since I left Boston, but none of them were as agreeable as the Nickerson Street Saloon. It was perfectly situated where I could watch Jesse's Self Storage across the street, and the menu was inspired within the limits of pub fare. The Southwestern potstickers and the hummus plate were superb. The customers were a mix of low-key bar trash, alternayuppies, and the occasional band of fratsters, guys with curled-brim baseball caps all seemingly named Kyle.
Sure, in trying to be all things to all people, the bar had the distinct air of trying too hard (the word "saloon" in its name another indication of pretension), but it was clean and well lit, and I gave thanks to be drinking in a joint where the bathroom did not have a urinal trough and appeared to be cleaned daily. I'm a sucker for the charm of dinginess as much as the next drunk, but I was trying not to lose myself bar culture this time around. I was just trying to use the place for the purposes which God had intended: food, drink, and surveillance.
It didn't hurt that the waitresses were pretty, flirtatious and spoken for, their engagement and promise rings dampening my flirtation to the level of reflexive. Trudy, Jenny, and Sheila were the ones I had met thus far, and Sheila the one I had spoken with the most, since she usually covered the tables outside, where I was once again sitting with a pad and paper, taking as many notes about Jesse's as I could think of. I made a rough map of the layout, noted where all of the doors were: there was a garage entrance on the east side, an office entrance on the north, and I made a little rectangle bordered in black ink with a heading, "Sightings," and I stood prepared to record any and all movement in and out.
But there was none. I hadn't seen a single light, a single scrap of human activity. I had called the number on the sign from the pay phone next to the pool table. A woman's voice, the jagged electronic sound of a standardized greeting, said "Please leave a message at the tone," not even providing verification of the number or the name of the business. I talked nasally through a coffee filter and said I was looking for a ten-by-ten unit but would be willing to do something bigger or smaller. That had been late the night before, and so an entire workday had gone by with no callback.
I took a break around six, played a game of pool by myself while I waited for my food. A couple of guys I saw every day in the bar challenged me, taking a break from their usual practice of cheering for opposing sports teams on television for the express purpose of insulting each other. I admitted that their insults were witty and they seemed like good company, but I just gave up the table and returned to my vantage point outside.
"You working on a book or something?" Sheila asked me when she stopped to check on me, nodding towards my notes.
"I am," I said, holding up the notebook and flipping through the empty pages. "All the exciting parts of my life."
"I'm sure it's been more exciting than that," she said and laughed in that way that waitresses do to indicate that what you said wasn't funny, but that it sure was fun talking to you but she has to go away now... I stared at her backside as she moved away with a pang of lust and longing. Sheila had one of those asses that was hard to fault. Her face which was wide and a little flat, her hair a little limp and lifeless, but she was blessed with a rump like two perfectly shaped loaves of bread, pert and meaty, which produced in her gait a sway that was hard to turn away from.
And I wasn't alone. Two tables down was a couple of Kyles, beefy college guys drinking golden lagers out of pint glasses and talking loudly about the game they had just watched in the bar. I was able to visualize the game in its play-by-play entirety through their passionate conversation, which was full of superlatives about this player, dismissals of the efforts of that, as if by vehemently stating their opinions they could somehow influence games to come, as if the coaches and owners of the NFL were sitting in their offices white-knuckled going "Well? What do Kyle and Kyle think?"
When Sheila checked on them, they barked that they needed two more beers, even though they weren't half done with the ones they were drinking. They eyed her from behind as she walked away, and Kyle said in a frog-like voice "wide load," and the other erupted in laughter. My throat went tight with irritation: For one thing, Sheila's ass was an architectural marvel, even if their experience with anorexic slips of college girls hadn't given them the perspective needed to appreciate it; for another, the joke wasn't even funny, and they weren't drunk enough where such giggling should be readily forgiven. Unable to appreciate a quality rear end or assess the quality of a joke, for these two sins I was ready to up-end their table onto them, but I calmed myself and returned my attention to my notebook.
Sheila returned with two pints and set them down in front of the two cap-wearing clowns. "You should get a TV out here," the bigger Kyle said. I personally couldn't imagine anything worse, and although I had spent many hours at bars staring vacantly at TVs, in general I preferred places without them, or where at least they were muted.
"Well, there's an idea," she said, her usual melodic voice replaced with a thick coating of sarcasm. Maybe she heard the earlier comment, or maybe she just pegged them early on as difficult. It was then that the final straw came. They asked for some napkins, having spilled some beer through their previous antics, and she turned to the serving station they'd set up for the outdoor tables. Realizing there were no napkins on top, she bent down to grab one of the paper-wrapped packages and open it. When she bent over, a move I had time to enjoy despite my anticipation of their reaction, one of them said, not even sotto voce, "Watch out, she's gonna blow!"
Sheila stopped cold, her body going rigid, but after a second kept doing what she was doing, opened the napkins and grabbed two of them. I suppose she had just chosen to accept it as the price of the profession, but by the time she turned around I was already at their table standing over them. Their faces turned towards me with the most blase expressions imaginable, expressions I imagine they practiced daily with parents, teachers, girlfriends. It enraged me even more, but something I'd been getting better at was maintaining a cool exterior. I mean, after you've slid around in the blood of the woman you were with the night before, Kyle and Kyle were hardly anything to get worked up about.
"You boys are both ignorant and rude," I said.
"What's it to you?" one said, a canned response that I imagine he would have said no matter what I had led with.
Sheila had the napkins and was facing us. I saw her move as if to say something to me, maybe to intervene, tell me not to bother, but she stayed put and watched.
"Beautiful hard-working women deserve your respect, and I don't need your company. If you apologize, you can leave now and I'll pay for your drinks. If not, you'll leave now and you'll wake up tomorrow with some bruises, you can bet on that," I said, not sure what I was going to say until I was saying it. It wasn't elegant but it conveyed what I needed it to.
The bigger Kyle got up out of his chair slowly. He was tall, a head taller than me, and broad, but I had expected that, and even though he clearly got up to intimidate me I pretended that he was going along.
"Good. Now you," I said to the other one.
When I turned to the sitting one, the standing one reached out and grabbed my shoulder, which is a stupid move. Very stupid. If you want to fight someone, hit them, don't console them. I grabbed his hand and pulled him towards me while my other hand slammed into his solar plexus. Being big can help in a fight, but it's also a hindrance: all of your tender spots are also bigger and easier to target. I must have nailed it, because he fell like a sack of flour, and I pretended that my fist was not about to burst open as he landed and I turned to the other, who was on his feet.
"You fucking killed him!" he said, his voice trying hard to sound tough but he knew as well as I did that this was over. I had pegged him as second in command and I was right.
Sheila said nothing through this, although I saw movement in one of the doorways back into the bar and I assumed it was someone coming to watch or intervene, and since they didn't say anything or come any closer I forced out a casual laugh. "Naw," I said. "Here, help me stand him up." The two of us bent down and lifted the downed fratboy to his feet. His eyes were thrown wide with fear, and he breathed in shallow gasps. "Support him or he'll fall," I said as I took my hands off him, and the acolyte got his arm up under his buddy.
"I can't breathe," the big Kyle squeaked, and for a second I felt bad for him and started to wonder if I'd done him real damage, but I figure I would have felt something give way in his chest if I had, and that he wouldn't be standing at all.
"You'll be all right in a little while," I said. "Next time you'll think twice before you insult a lady, do you understand me?"
The one I'd hit nodded mutely, but the other one glared at me. "What's your problem, man?" he asked, but he had already started to turn his friend around to lead him out to the parking lot. "Your drinks are on me, fellas," I said as they limped away. The adrenaline in me started to ebb, and by the time they got in the car I could have taken a nap or performed surgery. I was reminded of Inspector Clouseau, who hired his servant to attack him unexpectedly. I suppose one can train the body to respond to stress just like anything else. It was a skill I wasn't happy to have until now.
"No, they're on me," I heard a voice say, and I turned to see a group of people standing in the doorway. In front was the bartender, a young guy with whom I'd had a quick chat or two. He looked at Sheila and in an instant I realized that they were lovers. "You okay, Sheila?"
She nodded. "You didn't have to do that," she said, but she said it warmly, and I heard in it the trace of gratitude.
"Kids have no respect these days," I said, bending down to the pick up the chair that had tipped as he went down, the only other casualty of our encounter.
The whole thing seemed to take only sixty seconds or so, but that was enough time for quite a crowd to assemble in the doorway: the bartender, both of the other waitresses, the kitchen staff, and the two guys I'd given up the pool table to. There were a handful of people in the restaurant area but they hadn't seemed to see or hear anything that had happened. As the Kyles drove away, they all dispersed, quickly reverting back to whatever they had been doing before the atypical interruption. The bartender, whose name was Randall, told me that my drinks were on the house that night, a gesture I was charmed by. Boyfriends often don't want the job of defending their girlfriend's honor to fall into stranger's hands, and I admired his class in playing it the way he did. Unfortunately, the prospect of free booze for the night called out to my inner Midwestern frugality, and I decided I should have a bender to maximize the value of my gift. Oh, I watched Jesse's part of the time, but I was a newfound celebrity, and it was attention I was happy to get, since my only real human interaction for the past few days had been Henry with his sunburn and toenails. I didn't know just how eager I was to be distracted from my stated mission until I was distracted from it.
I closed the place down and then some, hanging out with Carlos and Jose, the two cooks, Randall, Sheila and then Kristin, a stubby, brash and cute brunette who I had seen but never talked to before. After we had shut the place down, we all went outside by the dumpster and fired up Kristin's pipe. I was carrying a little and brought it out to be polite, but my Texas ditch couldn't compete with Northwest bud.
Kristin was taken by my chivalry and gravitated towards me the whole night, and I realized that the ring I thought I had seen on her ring finger was actually on her middle finger. Jose seemed to have a thing for her, but after a while it seemed more to be just a natural flirtatiousness towards any woman not accompanied by a boyfriend as Sheila was.
Randall and Sheila took off soon after the toking party wrapped up, Randall giving me a masculine arm squeeze and Sheila a peck on the cheek that shot a warm jolt through my body. She was much too respectable for me and so I had developed an instant crush on her, amplified by the deed I had ostensibly committed for her honor.
Kristin and Carlos went back inside to get their coats, Kristin first making me promise that I wouldn't leave without saying goodbye. Jose and I walked around to the sidewalk to look out at the waters of Lake Union. I nodded towards Jesse's.
"Let me ask you something. Is that place in business that you know of?"
He laughed. "It's a joke around here, man. No one has seen anyone come in or out of there since I started working here, almost a year now. I tell you, though, a cousin of mine was hired one time from a day labor camp to come out here at three o'clock in the morning to pick up and load a stack of identical cardboard boxes, about this big," he said, making a cube about three feet to a side with his hands. "They all seemed brand new and weighed the same. They loaded about fifty of these into a truck, then rode with it down to the Ship Canal and loaded it on a boat. They were paid in cash; paid very well. He was the life of the party for the next week, and saved a pile, too."
"Did they load out of one of the storage lockers?" I asked.
Jose shrugged. "Didn't sound like it. Sounded like it was just there inside the loading doors or somewhere. Anyway, the whole thing was very hush-hush, you know, but you never know what you're getting into with that day labor stuff, and you figure it's not your place to ask. If they was up to something illegal, they know they can bring the INS down on you or someone you care about, and if push came to shove they wouldn't think twice about knocking off some greaser." The word "greaser" came out angry but resigned; he knew how the white world saw him and was through fighting. I felt angry the same way I had earlier, only this time there were no obnoxious college kids to threaten. I wanted to get more details about Jesse's, this new detail putting my drunken brain back on the scent, but Kristin and Carlos emerged from the restaurant.
"See you soon, maybe, eh," Jose said to me and extended a hand. I took it, and no sooner did I grab his hand then my body pitched to one side, and I had to use him to keep myself upright. The three of them laughed at me, and I joined in.
"For sure," I said, and Carlos waved as he and Jose headed towards a pale red Honda Civic hatchback. I refocused to near distance and saw Kristin looking up at me with a sly, determined look that I recognized, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't happy to see it.
"You probably shouldn't be driving," she said. True enough. Nor should I be getting wasted and taking waitresses back to my hotel room, but life is only what it is, not what it should be. The whole idea of "should" is peculiar to humans, I think, springing from this capacity we have to imagine. For the last couple of hours I had been examining the plunge of Kristin's V-neck and imagining the contours that lay to either side. Unless I was deluding myself through liquor, that imagination would in a few hours give way to reality. Perhaps my imagination would be right about a few aspects, but more likely I would be wrong. The world takes no notice of our conception of it, a lesson that I knew had implications beyond the interior of Kristin's clothes, but tonight I would limit my focus, leaving the rest for tomorrow.