Story published in July edition of the journal Down in the Dirt.
TWO OLD MEN
It was a quiet afternoon at the Dank Den. At the bar were two old men talking quietly and at one of the tables four Mexicans, two men, two women, sat drinking and talking loudly. The men drank Bud and the women drank what looked like vodka or gin. Bill, the bartender, sat on a stool off by himself reading the local newspaper. Once inside the Dank Den the outside world disappeared. The windows were covered so you couldn’t see out and no light from the outside was allowed in. The floor was bare formica tile, the walls cheap fake-wood wallboard, and a facade of fake-brick outlined the backbar. In a back room there were two pool tables. The usual glowing beer ads adorned the walls.
“I was a hell of a man in those days.” Charles was saying.
“Uh huh.” answered Henry.
“I had more women than I knew what to do with. They used to buy me presents. Buy me presents! I didn’t buy them anything! They’d take me out to dinner!”
“Yes, that’s the way.”
“I was married once. It was a mistake I vowed never to repeat.”
Charles was in his early seventies. He was a dapper little man, always dressed impeccably; a pressed suit, tie, his shoes shined, and a tweed hat cocked just a bit to the side. He always carried a leather portfolio with him. He was an artist. He spent his days and nights commuting back and forth between the three bars in the little tourist town that the Home was situated in. He’d show his sketches to anyone he could interest and do a charcoal portrait for a couple of drinks. He’d walk slowly from one bar to the next, his cane leading the way in a jerky sort of strut that made him look like he was being guided by marionette strings.
“My wife died ten years ago. A long time now.” Henry took a gulp from his beer. He was a short stocky man of obscure Mexican descent. He was a quiet man who kept to himself at the Home, waiting through the days watching TV and reading magazines till the night when they let him go down to the Dank Den for a couple of hours. He had to be back by lights out however, .
“Well, you’re better off Henry, believe me. I keep trying to tell the young men never to get married but they won’t listen. They just keep getting married, having babies. Pretty soon there’s going to be so many people we’ll be stacked on top of each other like sardines in a can.”
“You can’t even breathe the air anymore in Los Angeles. There’s so many cars and highways and factories. They don’t even know where they’re going. They just go. They don’t even know what they’re building. They just do it. Progress, they call it.”
“Doesn’t seem like progress, does it.”
“No, it doesn’t Henry. Believe me, when you get as old as I am you can see what a waste of time it all is. Young people think they’re immortal.” Charles turned stiffly in the bartender’s direction. “Bill, two more, please.”
“That’s right. They think they’ll always be young.”
“They scratch and work trying to get ahead, trying to get all sorts of things for themselves, bigger and better houses, better and better cars, more of this and more of that and pretty soon here you are. Old and ready to die.”
From the table the four Mexicans were at came a curse. Carmen Mendez picked up her drink and threw it in her brother-in-law Herman’s face.
“You bitch.” hissed Herman.
Herman’s brother Pedro pushed Herman back from the table.
“Don’t call my wife no bitch Herman.”
“The bitch just threw her drink in my face!”
“Don’t call her no bitch, Herman.”
“She is a bitch!”
Pedro pulled back and threw a right which glanced off Herman’s jaw, hitting him in the chest and knocking off his chair.
“Goddamn you, Pedro!” Herman was up in a flash and at Pedro’s throat.
“That’s what it is,” Charles was saying, “greed, plain and simple. More, more, more. People don’t know when to stop. Everyone wants to get rich, everyone wants more, no one is ever satisfied. No one ever stops to think. They just keep on going along thinking what they’re doing is very important. And making more babies.”
“That’s right.” answered Henry.
Pedro and Herman, locked together in a stranglehold, careened across the room, smashing into the wall and bouncing back. They knocked over chairs, then tripped up on a table. The table went over, landing on top of them as they rolled on the beer-sticky floor, sweating and cursing.
“And you can’t tell young people anything. We were the same way”
“You get old, you learn, and then it’s too late. The trouble is, it’s too late for the whole planet. It’s gotten so big, so out of control. We could never have imagined it would get to be like this when we were young.”
“Uh huh.” Henry sucked at his beer.
The bartender was pacing back and forth behind the bar, raising his arms in futility, his eyes beads of fear as Herman and Pedro fought.
Herman’s wife, Carlita, picked up an empty beer bottle.
“Carmen! You good-for-nothing slut!” She threw the bottle. Carmen ducked and the bottle sailed on passing within two inches of Charles’ jaunty tweed hat and crashed into the mirror behind the bar.
“No! No!” cried Bill. Bits of mirror fell clinking onto the line of bottles beneath.
Carmen was at Carlita, going for the hair, grabbing a big handful and tugging and yanking at it. Carlita’s head bobbed and flapped like a ragdoll’s.
“The human race is like that.” Charles continued. “Like the young. It thinks its time will go on forever, thinks the whole world was made just for it and will never stop giving.We’re a young species Henry and we may never get a chance to be an old species.”
“You and I will be long gone anyway.”
“You’re right Henry, we’re almost gone already.”
The door of the bar opened and a young man poked his head inside.
“Hey! What’s going on in here?” He was the town taxi-driver. His main fares were the old gents from the Home coming down to the bars and back again. He looked around and saw the overturned tables and chairs, bottles and glasses strewn over the floor. Herman and Pedro still tussled together on the floor.
“Hey! Bill! Call the cops! Don’t just stand there!”
The bartender seemed to be in some sort of shock, standing with a mortified stare at the brawl before him. Carlita lunged at Carmen and the two of them went down knocking Charles’ arm as they fell. His drink sloshed onto the bar top. He calmly grabbed a bar rag and wiped it clean.
“Maybe a better species will evolve out of it all,” he went on to Henry.
“Maybe...maybe.” said Henry.
“We’ve had so many chances to learn and we just haven’t got it. It’s obvious for anyone to see that the way we go on is no good, that we’re destroying the things that make life worth living. Either people are just too stupid or they just don’t care. They ignore it and hope they can get away with it. Dumb shits deserve whatever they get, really. Still, it’s a damn shame that they have to take so much of the good stuff with them.”
“It is a shame. A shame.”
The taxi-driver called across the room.
“Hey! Charles! Henry! C’mon! I’ll give you a ride!”
Pedro lifted his head from the floor where Herman had him pinned.
“You better get outta here punk, before you get hurt!” Herman slammed Pedro’s head to the floor.
“Hey! Charles! Henry! C’mon!”
Charles lifted his arm and waved the cabbie off. Go away, he mouthed.
Back out on the sidewalk the cab-driver took a deep breath of the spring air. Jesus, what next? What a job. I’m not making peanuts doing this, he thought. Maybe I’ll cruise around up at the Home, six in the afternoon, some old guy probably wants to come down for Happy Hour. He hopped into his cab and gunned it out of the parking lot of the Dank Den.