[Ed.: Charlie Huston's latest book, The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death (Amazon's pick as Best Book of the Month for January), descends into the grisly underworld of crime scene clean-up, appropriately inscribed with his indelible signatures: hilarious, inappropriate dialogue; outrageous supporting characters; and another bloody wreck at the intersection of Money and Violence. Honoring the theme of the novel, Charlie has been posting on Omnivoracious all week, sharing "true stories about messes I've seen, helped clean up, and made." See more posts, and get more at his blog, pulpnoir.com.]
The worst messes don't clean up.
Bartending is also an education in intimacy with strangers.
I know things about people I barely know, secrets I'd be uncomfortable to know about anyone I am friends with. It happens. It doesn't have to be a barroom confidence, although there are those, it's just what happens in front of your eyes when people are drinking. You don't have to eavesdrop, it just happens. You can try not to know, but it just happens.
The spills you want most to wipe up, the ones that don't make for dramatic or comic storytelling, those are the human messes at the bar.
The fluid on most copious display is heart's blood.
They spill it every night.
That sounds maudlin? Like a bad song on a juke box? A country and western cliche?
It's just how it is. Alcohol is a depressant. And it loosens inhibitions. People do and say things. Wallow in their misery. I've not just been a spectator at this sport, I've played. And it may not make you feel any better, but it's a good enough substitute most nights.
There's no SOP for these messes. Each one is unique, without precedent, and comes with no instructions. You learn as you go, hope you don't make the mess worse.
Mostly that means staying out of the way.
Which is not always an option.
LJ was a mess. Drunk. Recovering junkie. Then a relapsed junkie. Recovering. Relapsed. Recovering again. Shots of Scotch and bottles of Bud. In and out of the bar all night long. He had a job that suited his lifestyle, and a wife. He loved both.
I don't know why he took on a mistress.
The quiet one at the end of the bar, well dressed, a little too young and pretty for the place, white wine instead of beer or booze, nearly prim in style. There is a barfly like this in every bar. Rarely what they seem. But not what you might think, either. Just people.
I kept my distance. To me she screamed, "CAR CRASH!" I knew her name, what she liked to drink, who she socialized with at the bar. Little else.
There were others at the bar who's outward appearance suggested imminent physical danger, people with whom I had warm business relations. You learn to feel the crazy, and give it a wide berth. It will sink you.
I have no idea how it started. No idea how long it was going on before I became aware of it. From my point of view it was suddenly happening, LJ and the Prim One were f---ing.
I buttoned up and gave her more distance. Gave LJ more of a buffer than I had before. There was going to be a huge mess, one that couldn't be cleaned. I didn't want to slip and fall down and get covered in it.
You cannot clean some messes. You cannot clean certain messes.
You can only get dirty yourself if you try.
I don't know what happened. There was sudden tension between LJ and Prim One. He relapsed again. They were together at the bar some nights. Not together other nights.
One of the customers dealt in unset stones and jewels.
One night he came in with a package for LJ. A pearl choker. LJ showed it to me, beaming. A birthday gift for his wife. Her birthday was the next day.
I think it was the pearls that did it.
I was out of the place for a few days, something had happened. The pearls had sparked something. I believe there had been a confession. Promises maybe. Something.
LJ was in the bar. Prim One was in the bar. Separate from one another. Tension.
The wife came in.
I'd only met her once before. She never came around. Out of preference, or to give LJ his space. She never came around.
Everyone knew who she was. She knew who everyone was.
She ordered a drink. A beer? I don't remember. I wish I could remember what she was drinking. I brought it to her. She offered me money. I shook my head.
I heard the word bitch muttered with intentional volume from down the bar. It was Prim One.
There are messes that cannot be cleaned up. They can only be avoided.
There was about to be a huge mess.
I leaned toward LJ's wife. We'd gotten along the one time we'd met before. She remembered my name, used it when she sat at the bar.
I put my hand near hers.
"I need to ask a favor. It isn't fair, and it isn't right. I'm not asking it because of one person or another. I'm not asking it for anyone here except me. As a favor to me, to make my job a little easier tonight, will you please leave?"
There are messes you cannot clean up.
She said she would not. She said she had a right to be there. She said she'd pay for her drink. And I agreed with her. I told her I was not kicking her out. I told her I was asking a favor. I told her that if she stayed there would be trouble and I didn't want it in the bar. She said she wasn't there to cause trouble. She was just there to have a drink.
I looked at her.
"Yes, you are here to cause trouble. You never come here. You came here to provoke something. And I won't kick you out, but you are the one who came in looking for trouble. Everyone else here, whatever else they do, tonight they were just sitting where they always sit. You never come in, but you're here now. And I need you to do me a favor and leave."
And she left.
I never thought she would, but she did. And I was so grateful. She'd been honest with herself, and compassionate toward me. And she'd left.
Soon after, within minutes, the word bitch was again being heard from Prim One's end of the bar. LJ decided it was time to defend is wife's honor. They engaged verbally. People moved to keep space between them, I moved to eject them from the bar, and before I could LJ shook his head, turned, and left.
Walked out. Just flat left. Surrendered the field and blew.
And Prim One picked up a full pint of beer from the bar, walked to the open front window, and threw the contents into his face as he walked past.
He came back in, went at her. I remember people were holding her, keeping her from clawing his face, but unable to stop her from kicking. Someone had hold of his arm, to prevent him from jerking out the fistful of her hair in his hand. I remember forcing his fingers open one by one, untangling them from her hair. Both of them screaming at one another the whole time.
Separated, I got LJ to the door. He didn't need much urging. He was gone.
Prim One wanted to stay. She was crying. When I told her to get out, regulars started objecting. I told them to shut the f--- up and mind their own f---ing business. I'd never talked like that to them before. I told them it had been over. Prim One had thrown a drink out the window at LJ when he was leaving, the mess had been cleaning itself up and she'd kicked over the bucket. She was not a wounded party. She had to go.
Fight in a bar, get kicked out. It's not negotiable. It's how civilization is maintained.
I got her out. I don't remember how. I remember her calling me a cold son of a bitch, and thinking how unlike me that sounded. But we don't know ourselves.
LJ came back around that night. He'd fixed and was blissful and mellow. When I told him he was 86ed, could never come back in the bar, he looked so sad. Regretful.
I gave notice the next day. Those were messes I was unequipped to clean. Puke, piss, spit and blood, I could handle those. Not this.
My own life was upended before I could work my final shifts. The night I 86ed LJ was my last. I became a human mess in my own right for awhile. Learned to clean puke and piss and spit and blood from my clothes and bedding.
A couple years later I ran into one of the regulars from that place. I asked after a few people. I asked after LJ.
She was still for a moment.
"You didn't hear. Yeah, we lost him. He's gone."
I asked if it was junk.
"Yeah, OD. Yeah. He wasn't doing good. Yeah."
Some messes you cannot clean up.
I'm Charlie Huston, I wrote a book about messes that can be cleaned up, called The Mystic Arts of Erasing All Signs of Death. This week I've been telling true stories about messes I've seen, cleaned up, and made. I kept some names to myself, embellished a bit for a laugh where I could, but it all happened pretty much like I said.