Riker's Mailbox

Friday, September 24, 2004

ILLUSORY

A duck walks into a bar and asks the bartender, "Got any grapes?" The bartender looks at the duck, disgusted, and says, "Of course not! This is a bar, not a grocery store! Get out of here!!!"
The next day, the same duck walks into the same bar, and asks the same bartender the same question: "Got any grapes?" Obviously, the answer to the question hasn't changed since the day before. The bartender responds thusly: "No, we don't! You stupid duck, if you come into this bar ever again and ask me for grapes, I'm going to grab you by the head and put a nail right through your bill and into the bar!" The duck leaves.
The next day, the duck walks back into the bar.
"Got any nails?"
"Um, no..."
"Got any grapes?"

"That has got to be the stupidest joke you've ever told here," said the bartender, Mac, who happened to be the owner of this particular establishment, the aptly named 'Mac's Shack', and he was dead right. The man he was speaking to simply nodded and grabbed a handful of beer nuts from a bowl, conveniently located next to the stool he'd claimed a half hour earlier, and sidled over to the front door. The man Mac was speaking to, whose proper name nobody ever bothered to learn, walked in and out of bars like his with a regularity that bordered on the ritualistic. In alone, out alone. Day One, Day One-Thousand. Who knew how many days he'd been doing this? Certainly not Mac, and he suspected, certainly not the man in question.

What he knew of the man, he'd learned from observation under the roof of his own establishment, coupled with the painfully embellished stories told to him by his patrons. They often claimed to see "Jokin' Joseph", as they liked to call him, acclimating himself to a stool at every bar for a twenty mile radius, which couldn't have been fewer than a dozen establishments, each and every day they defected to one of the other drinking holes Pennfield had to offer. By their accounts, the man was a veritable brew sponge, putting away near his body weight in cheap domestics, at a record pace, mind you, like it was spring water. All the while, he'd keep the bar or at least the bartender entertained by telling jokes of varying crudeness and wit. It was fair to say that most people liked the dirty ones best, which seemed to suit him well, as they were the ones he told with the most enthusiasm.

Such were the stories told of Jokin' Joseph, especially those told by Mac's patrons; these were the men who fed their addictions and anesthetized their angst most every night; they considered themselves lucky, at least subconsciously, to be fortunate enough to sit a mere forearm's length away from Mac himself, the unspoken yet undisputed deity of their particular brand of worship. He would stand there, facing them like a judge who never bothered to pass judgment upon them, which made him their closest friend. If only God had it so well with His believers.

These men paid for the life Mac lived. They paid for his bar, they paid for his mortgage, they paid for his childrens' education. They paid the price in money, and Mac paid the price in guilt, that he had such an easy time living off their pain. But Mac only got around to feeling that way in the wintertime anyway. The clouds crowded Pennfield's skies like kids in costumes crowded front porches this time of year. The darkness made people fluent in the language of their sadness, as Mac would admit. But it did something else too. The darkness provided a stage, a backdrop, against which Jokin' Joseph shined all the more brightly.

He wasn't a drifter; that much was rendered certain by casual observation of the man's ravenous appetite for alcohol. He was apparently wealthy enough to sustain his bizarre behavior, and evidently lonely enough to explain it. But he was funny. He was a practical attraction, the closest Mac ever came to getting entertainment at the Shack, and he didn't even have to pay for it. Granted, tonight's latest joke was a little on the weak side, honestly because it had nothing to do with tits or pedophiles or minorities, but usually the man was right on. Mac didn't mean to insult Jokin' Joseph; he'd simply made the mistake of thinking he was familiar enough with Joseph to razz him a little. Jokin' Joseph usually didn't let that sort of thing get to him, either. Evidenced primarily by his almost-too-happy-to-be-genuine disposition, everyone was sure that when Jokin' Joseph fell asleep, it was to the lullaby of his own sobs, the pitiful soundtrack of the man with nothing to live for anymore; they just hadn't witnessed it for themselves. Not that they'd want to. This was just the sort of discussion that substantiated the atmosphere at Mac's Shack.

"I said, I'd like a Bud, please! And just between you and me, tonight would be better than tomorrow..."

Swiftly escorted out of his ponderings by the loud guy at the end of the bar, Mac obliged and resumed his duties. That was enough thinking for one night, anyway. Jokin' Joseph was going to be fine, and Mac didn't need to worry about his potentially wounded pride. He continued to worry, regardless.

"Ya know," John Franklin said, "Ol' Joe's never left so quietly before... You ought'ta apologize to him next time he comes in, Mac. Maybe buy him a bunch of grapes or something." John Franklin was a character... Not any certain type of character, but a character nonetheless, and he had a talent for getting on Mac's nerves. How the hell does that man know to pick open a sore like that?, Mac couldn't help but think to himself.

"Maybe you could shut up." It was the best retort Mac could come up with at the moment. Despite John's ability to try Mac's patience, Mac didn't have much else negative to say about him. The man always paid his tab and he always brought friends with heavily-laden wallets. He was something of a wisecrack, not like Ol' Joseph, more the caustic type; John was the one who'd insult you for his own laughter rather than humor you for yours. In other words, Mac just didn't know what to think of him. But unfortunately, at this particular moment, John Franklin was far from being in Mac's good graces, and nothing irritated Mac more than knowing that John realized how badly Mac felt about shooing Jokin' Joseph out this evening. If only he had grapes to offer at his bar. Not that that would make any sense; the thought just emerged, as they do sometimes... Especially when last call drew near.

It was an hour later, and Mac found a few grapes on the countertop at his apartment that had not yet developed the telltale brown depressions that forewarned mild bitterness (the flavor), and mild penitance (the emotion),upon their consumption. He ate them, and chucked to himself, as he'd seemed to fall into a theme revolving around these, the fruit of kings. As he slipped into his bed, the only extravagant furnishing in his otherwise barren bedroom (sleep was something Mac cherished above most other forms of recreation, and he was very particular about his bed), a strange memory interrupted his train of thought: he was a child, and his father was lying on a couch, while he sat Indian style on the floor facing the television. He was eating grapes while Ed Sullivan was saying something or other about a movie star that promoted waves of laughter from either the audience or from a carefully cued laugh track, though he honestly didn't care, and at the time probably wasn't even aware, which it was. What he remembered was leaning up to give his father some of the grapes off his bunch. It was a docile gesture, entirely without significance except that it reminded him of a scene from a movie where some historical King Someone-Or-Other was fed grapes by a throng of beautiful slaves. Mac himself didn't feel beautiful, obvisouly, and he didn't feel like a slave, but boy, he sure remembered thinking of his father as a king. Not because of his father's benevolence or regal demeanor, since he lacked both, but because of his apparent omnipresence. It seemed that nothing good or bad that Mac was responsible for escaped his father's eye. The man was everywhere, between two jobs and a nasty gambling habit, he was just everywhere, or at least where he needed to be to catch wind of anything that significantly impacted Mac in his small childhood world.

Back in his bed, with the tang of natural juice still watering his mouth, Mac's last conscious thought before drifting off to sleep was, What my father had in his own way, I have in mine. I have my territory and I have my subjects. I am my own king today.

The next few nights at The Shack were bland. The crowd was typical and the money was consistent, but Jokin' Joseph was conspicuously absent. This went unnoticed by all but the regulars, and they wisely detected the impatience that would meet them if anyone brought it up to Mac. So the night went on, and blessedly, last call came and went without the intrusion of any unseemly worries or frustrating thoughts into Mac's mind. Mac drove home slowly, along the route he'd practiced driving drunk many times before (when a bartender mishears an order and pours the wrong drink for a patron, he customarily corrects the error and drinks the mistake; Mac made more mistakes tonight than usual), and pulled snugly into the compact parking space in the front of the apartment lot. He went to bed again after eating a couple crackers, as all his grapes had spoiled, and slept like a baby.

Breakfast was always a rushed experience, though not because he had to be up early; the bar opened at three in the afternoon, but Mac loved the morning as much as he hated being alone, and early morning quick breakfasts reminded him of a time when his children were still in school and his wife still lived with him. They'd always had breakfast together before running off to their respective obligations, his kids to the school and his wife to the newspaper office. They'd always read the paper together, always ending with Mommy's advice column, where she regularly comforted women who felt underappreciated by their husbands. Shocking that Mac hadn't seen the separation coming a mile away.

As much as it kept the painful memories dangerously present, this habit of reading the paper continued and to this day provided a bittersweet comfort that Mac learned to love. Picking up the newspaper this morning, Mac skimmed past the sports section, which didn't interest him, past the politics section, which disgusted him, and into the local section to see if any of his friends from the bar had gotten themselves into trouble. Instead, he found himself staring at a photograph of the wily and disheveled Jokin' Joseph. Skimming through the article, he distilled the following points of interest: Jokin' Joseph was actually named Montgomery Edins, he was a retired Army Colonel, and he was in the hospital with a broken leg. You have got to be shitting me found itself repeating in Mac's head as he read on about the details of the accident that caused the man's injury: He was walking down the road and decided to cross it at an inopportune moment, and was struck down by none other than a produce truck heading toward the grocery store with a fresh load of - ungoddamnbelievable - grapes.

Of all the ridiculous things to happen, this was a blue-ribbon winner. Mac swore to himself he'd never say a mean word to that poor man again. He didn't believe in karma, but he felt vaguely responsible just the same. But before the remorse set in too deeply, it was replaced by a fit of laughter. Mac was laughing at Jokin' Joseph one more time, the way he should have when he last visited The Shack. This laughter was not at a joke of Joseph's however; this one was of Mac's own devising. He had an idea, and it was too damn funny for him to bear.

He would visit Jokin' Joseph in the hospital that day, and he'd come bearing a particular gift. The irony was too perfect. And besides, if anyone would find the humor in it, it would be Jokin' Joseph. He decided to follow John's advice after all.



This blog entry was created because Joe Farnsworth suggsested that I write about grapes.

2 comments:

  1. "He was apparently wealthy enough to sustain his bizarre behavior, and evidently lonely enough to explain it."

    My favorite line I've read so far. When I read it, I thought of myself.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Anonymous6:05 AM

    I must say, a gripping read. You've got quite the imagination Riker.

    -rsp

    ReplyDelete