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Black On Both Sides

The following piece can be read as either short fiction or non. Either way, it’s a piece of writing. If its minimalist nature annoys you, blame whomever I was reading at the time (Raymond Carver).

 

Saturday night at my hometown’s only bar and boys are acting like men, women are acting

like girls, and I’m acting. We all mingle under flood lights aimed at the lawn that manage to

catch us wooden figures in their residue. Underneath our feet are wooden boards. Under

the wooden boards is dark, sun-deprived soil. Under the soil, a history of decay. The figures

out in the lawn’s spotlight are active, not wooden. They throw things in their activity: bean

bags, weighted rope, fake punches, glances. All of this vitality is contained within a

rectangular, wooden plank fence. The grass is wet with late-night dew in the middle, with

urine in the corners. Those of us off the lawn but on the boards shift our feet in some kind

of dance, either to rhythm or restlessness. Neon emanates boldly from domestic beer

signs mounted on the building’s facade. Colored lights are strung above our heads. The

atmosphere would be festive if the ceremony didn’t take place every night.

 

Cash drink specials at the deck bar tonight, announces the bartender.

Cash rules everything around me, says someone.

Dollar dollar bills, y’all, says someone else.

 

Inside, a band plays rock. Rock layered on more rock. I’m outside. I hear rap music coming

from a lone speaker, muted by indoor vibrations and outdoor voices. If I listen hard

enough, I can barely pick up the chorus. Forget about the verses. I was just inside, fetching

a drink of water and whiskey from the bar. The band played Tom Petty or something

equally popular in southern college towns, where set lists are predictable and essentially a

live greatest hits compilation. These songs are familiar. People enjoy the familiarity. If they

don’t, they’ll never be part of the family. The band members are youngish and white. A few

have long hair. Instruments include guitars, drums, a bass, nothing else. In my five or six

years in and out of this wooden bar, I’ve never seen a black entertainer. Not even a DJ, for

karaoke night or dance night. One of the bouncers is black, beloved, witty, a kindred spirit,

accepted. A body best described as ‘muscularly rotund.’ A face best described as ‘smiling.’

He picks up bottles to toss in the trash can while he jests. He sings country and rap songs

on karaoke night. He annuls passing, cliched racial slurs with more inventive humor. This

makes him good people. He sings country and rap songs on karaoke night.

 

He’s the only black employee at a bar whose race ratio is 80:20 white:black on its most

diverse nights, with the majority of black patrons being males. Black women mostly just

stay away. Drinks won’t be bought for them by white men, and the role of ambassador

between races hasn’t really been offered to black women yet. Seems only recently that the

hand was extended to black men. The only wall art in the bar depicting black people is a

scattering of record album covers in the billiards room, which is kind of hidden in the back.

The bar’s main interior favors Clark Gable and George W. Bush. The picture frames are

wooden. The walls are wooden. The floorboards, too. No one’s dropped a match. Yet.

 

This is a regression.

 

The band was too loud to hold a conversation, so I’ve retired to the bar’s back deck. I’ll go

back inside when I’ve run out of things to say. People exit onto the deck, the door gapes for

a second, emits a dissonant cough of second-hand smoke, recovers. I sit on the wooden

railing nailed above the fringe benches, an anthropologist analyzing bar-goers as he suckles

a bottle of beer, an educated baby. At the moment I’m working out in my head some kind of

thesis involving hats and dating rituals. I watch a guy dressed plainly — a regular Bugle Boy

in jeans, golf shirt, loafers — with the lone eccentricity of a fedora. He talks to his buddies in

the corner, hovering back-to-back with a girl, waiting for the right moment to pivot. I

boorishly announced his arrival on the deck earlier to my friends. Have no fear, the Rat

Pack’s here, I said. I’ve got New York on my mind and head, I said.

 

Maybe I’ve had too much whiskey. Maybe not enough. I was the subject of a similar

observation only an hour or two earlier, when a friend analyzed my interaction with a

happenstance girl — you know the type, a girl, with a dress and slippers and headband and

curls that you disown your friends to talk to, to do your dance for, as those curls dangle

and bounce in their own cossack dance. Some other guy is doing his dance for her by the

tiki bar at the moment. I can’t stop myself from staring, to see if his is better than mine. The

friends I came with have filtered out of the bar, distilled themselves through doorways. I’ve

found my only remaining friends out here on the deck. One friend sits on the railing next to

me, the other stands in front, maintains similar height, drinks his beer. Both friends are

black. The beer’s a Natural Light. I mention race because race is a factor.

 

The friend sitting next to me wears a T-shirt with Jimi Hendrix’s countenance screen-printed

on the front. He explains how complimentary everyone has been about the shirt tonight.

People have endangered themselves at traffic lights, rolled down their car windows, just to

tell him they like his shirt. Others have exhaled onto their rolled-up windows, written Jimmy

rocks! backwards in their breath with a fingertip. People really want him to know how much

they love Jimi Hendrix.

 

The friend wearing a golf shirt confirms this. It’s as if wearing the shirt has turned Q into Jimi

Hendrix himself, he says, like he’s become a celeb…

 

Someone cuts him off. Another Bugle Boy, mid-twenties, standing a few feet away with his

corps. No fedora, but a torn baseball cap.

 

Hey!

 

He knows my friends, in the most liberal sense of the term, in the way a patient knows his

doctor. Maybe he met them at a frat party. Perhaps he was introduced at the bar and

makes a point of saying hi every time he sees them. In this way, they know him as well. He

shouts out a greeting to them: Hey coloreds!

 

He approaches with a big smile on his face. J smiles uncomfortably and fumbles through a

handshake. Q stares straight ahead and ignores the proffered hand.

 

What’s wrong Q?

Nothing.

What, are you offended?

That shit’s not funny man. It’s annoying.

I was just kidding around. I always say that.

And it’s always annoying.

 

He turns toward the face of sanity: J.

 

What’s wrong with Q?

Nothing man, he’s just being quiet tonight.

Q, it’s a joke man.

It’s not funny.

 

I don’t make an effort to introduce myself. The neck of my beer bottle hangs from my

shaking hand. I mumble something about a racist ass hole that’s only audible to me.

 

Well shit, I’ve offended him. You offended, Q?

No.

Then why won’t you shake my hand?

I don’t feel like it.

Q’s mad.

I’m not mad.

 

Q maintains eye contact with a SportsCenter anchor on the tiki bar’s miniature TV screen.

He isn’t shaking any hands. I tell him how proud of him I am. Fuck that guy, I say.

 

Q, let me buy you a beer.

No.

I’ll take a beer.

No, I want to buy Q a beer.

I don’t want a beer.

I’ll drink his beer for him, make it even that way.

If I buy a beer for him, Q, will that reconcile things?

Do whatever you want man.

 

The guy walks inside the bar. No words are exchanged in his absence, other then me —

suddenly brave — saying Fuck that guy, man, he’s a racist piece of shit. I’ve been reading a

lot of black literature for the past month — recently, Richard Wright’s Black Boy. There’s a

scene in the book where a plump, light-skinned elevator operator named Shorty takes a

kick in the ass from a white businessman for a quarter. Holds the guy ransom in the

elevator for the cost of 25 cents and his own self-deprecation to prove a point to the

narrator about how easy it is to obtain money from a white man. The man is initially angry

but eventually delights in lining up his laces with Shorty’s ass crack. Then he tosses him a

quarter.

 

I wonder if J would take a kick in the ass for a beer. I wonder if I would.

 

The Bugle Boy brings back the beer. A Natural Light. They’re on special. J thanks him for it

and takes a long sip from the stubby, short-necked bottle.

 

Are we cool now?

No, man.

 

He turns again toward the face of sanity.

 

J? I thought if I bought you a beer, this would all be settled?

It’s settled man. Don’t worry about it.

Just shake my hand, Q.

I’m really proud of you, man.

Are you gonna shake it?

So proud.

At least give me a fist bump.

Fuck that guy. Fuck off man, just walk away.

Not even a fist bump?

No dude, leave me alone.

Go away man. He doesn’t want to shake your hand.

Q’s mad. I better walk away. I can’t talk to him when he’s mad.

Just shake my hand, Q.

I’m really proud of you, man.

Shake my hand.

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