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Cash and Hal get into a fistfight

A curious event occurs in the bars of New York City around one a.m.  It’s the last rush that bartenders have, and generally the most lucrative.  Mobs of working stiffs descend again, but this crowd isn’t white-collar regulars stopping for a beer on their way home from the office or bar-hopping personal trainers.  The final group is restaurant workers, people whose profession is defined by the same parameters as the bartenders themselves.  They are the most sympathetic on a busy night and the most generous tippers.  At a quarter past one on Valentine’s Day, the heavy door swung open at Disrepair, corner of 5th and 2nd in the heart of the East Village, and the long, guillotine-ready neck of Hal Carroll extended into the putrid room.  He was followed, as per usual, by squat, bespectacled, stylishly-dressed Cassius Luna, the manager of Hudson Grill.  Bringing up the rear were the two women that Hal and Cash most enjoyed spending their drinking nights with.  Tara Farmer and Harvard McAllister looked like good and evil sisters in a Dickens novel: Harvard petite and dancer-thin, her limbs long and graceful, her hair blond and neck-length; Tara tall, curving with hair of such deep brown that it could be mistaken for black and grey eyes that were already growing foggy with drink (she hadn’t worked that night, just met up with the three at Cash’s invitation).  This quartet, accompanied occasionally by other members of the staff of Hudson Grill, came to Disrepair two or three times a week and had been doing so for about two years.  The foursome sat at the table nearest the door and got down to the business of re-distributing the wealth they’d taken from the well-moneyed customers of the restaurant via a relaxing beer or ten.  

Disrepair wasn’t quite classy enough to qualify as a dive.  It looked like a dorm room that had had a bar erected in it.  Everything stank of spilled beer, spilled ashtrays, spilled stomach contents and spilled secrets.  From the cracked booths, their Styrofoam insides bursting from the stained Nogohyde, to the jukebox lacking any music post-1979, Disrepair more than lived up to its name.  Cash Luna loved it not in spite, but because of its hideousness.

“What’s wrong, T,” Harvard asked her bereft drinking partner.

Tara Farmer brushed her long brown hair behind her ears and leaned down for a long pull on her vodka-tonic.  “I had bad tables all this week is all, so I haven’t made any money.  Plus I’ve got a fifteen page paper due Wednesday and I can’t make up my mind on the thesis.  I shouldn’t be here tonight.”

“Nonsense,” Cash proclaimed, draping his arm supportively across the back of Tara’s battered chair.  “It’s important to relax your brain before you go diving into a paper.”

Tara looked sardonically at Cash, her grey eyes exhausted by too many pressures with too little payoff.  “All I’ve done is relax my brain for the last week.  I need to research educational policy in the Reagan administration, not bars’ bathrooms,” she deadpanned.

“Lot of bars’ bathrooms are inhabited by products of Reagan’s educational policies, I find.  Maybe kill two birds with one stone, huh.”  Hal Carroll lifted what remained of his left eyebrow (burned in half in a failed attempt to light a cigarette using his kitchen stove) to punctuate the point.

“I’m serious, Hal.”

“So am I.”

Cash Luna smacked Hal upside the head.  “Boy, you’ve never been serious a day in your life.  Sarcastic, yes.  Serious, Hell no.”

“Well, what is sarcasm but the coward’s tone for delivering truths?  I’m going for a smoke.”  One of the best indicators of drunkenness in Hal was how creakily he stood for his smoke breaks.  Wobbliness had descended upon him, but a full-blown case of the stumbly-wumblys was a ways off yet.

“So, bad tables…” Harvard prompted.

“Oh, like last night, there was just a demanding seven-top that didn’t have much of a bill.  ‘Excuse me, but I asked for lemon with my tap water,’ ‘this Diet Coke was supposed to be no ice,’ and then they left me fourteen on one-oh-one, plus I had a deuce that thought the sea bass was too spicy and then didn’t want a replacement, so I had to split it off their check, and they ended up with only like a forty dollar tab.  Nothing unusual.  I wanted to try and pick up tonight, since I’m fucking Brokey McBrokester, but I think it’s better I didn’t.  I would’ve brained the first person who asked me if they could have the sushi without rice.”

“I hate people,” Harvard said consolingly.

“I don’t know how to break this to you, but you may be in the wrong business,” Cash said, sipping at his Heinekin.

“We’re all in the wrong business.  The existence of this business is wrong.  We might as well be homeless people window-washing; it’s all begging.”  Harvard’s statements against her profession came often once a few beers lay in her belly.

“Listen, can we talk about something other than work,” Tara pled, hoping to avert the argument that always arose between workaholic Cash and work-hating Harvard.

“Fine by me,” Cash said, moving his arm up the chair until his hand rested on Tara’s shoulder.

The group sat silently sipping at their drinks.

Hal bit into the small sandwich with great vigor.  He was passionate about egg-salad sandwiches, and it really was fitting.  With his gray hair, ill-fitting clothes and penchant for incoherent mumbling, he was already a reasonable facsimile of an old man, and egg-salad sandwiches just made the portrait more convincing.

“Bastards didn’t toast this very well,” he grumbled.

“You buy a sandwich at three in the morning, there’s only so much you can expect,” Harvard chided.

“How hard is it to toast bread properly, no matter the time,” Hal shot back.  He spoke with his mouth full and Cash reflected how much it looked like Hal was eating his own teeth.

“Wait a sec,” Tara half-yelled.  “I thought you went to smoke,” she said, pointing an accusing finger at Hal, who continued stuffing his face.

“Mmm,” he began, pausing a moment to swallow the last of the sandwich.  “I did smoke, and while I was smoking I noticed that I wasn’t able to focus very well, and so I decided to get something to eat before I got too drunk.”

Harvard looked Hal straight in the eye.  “You know, when I don’t want to get too drunk, I don’t eat, I just don’t drink everything in sight,” she said.

Stung, but not betraying himself, Hal nonchalantly made to lean his elbow on the table.  He failed spectacularly, missing the table and leaning instead on thin air, which surprised him so thoroughly that he lost all equilibrium and tumbled over, hauling his chair and the table along with him.

“Holy shit,” Cash exclaimed as his fresh glass of beer spilled onto Hal’s defeated face.  He then leaned over and helped Hal back up onto his feet while Tara dug around in her pockets for her pack and Harvard giggled, hiding her face in her hands.  Hal sheepishly righted the chair and the table and, without a word, walked to the bar to replace all the spilled drinks.

“Smoke,” Tara asked Cash, holding a second cigarette out for him.  He nodded eagerly and the two of them headed for the exit.  Hal returned, bearing the new glasses with surprising coordination.  He set the glasses down gently and sat with utmost deliberation in his defiled chair.  Harvard watched the thoughts flicker in his eyes as he tried to compose whatever it was he meant to say to her.  After a long exhale, he leaned towards her, penitent, and hiked his thumb in the direction of Tara and Cash.

“They don’t know, y’know.  But there’s a real reason for all this.  Ideals and shit like that.  Like, there’s power you get when you’re as weak and fucked up as me.  You don’t judge people anymore.  You can’t, that impulse is just beaten or burned or just plain drunk out.  And you get to see people the way they are, and why, and how they’re like you and vice versa.  You start taking everyone you come across exactly as they represent themselves.  You may know that they’re lying, but you don’t judge, you just think, ‘oh, the way this person just presented themselves to me is totally false, how odd,’ and go about your day.  But there is a point to this, I swear, and the point is this.  I may not be judging people, but that doesn’t really mean I’m liking any more of ‘em.  You’re like the only person I like.”

As he spoke, he leaned closer and closer to Harvard, and by the time he arrived at his point, their faces were separated by next to nothing.

Harvard closed her eyes and felt the warmth emanating from his face, so near.  She could smell the stale sweat of the night’s work commingling with the foul remnants of those blasted cigarettes.  She could kiss him now, as she wanted.  As he wanted.  She could kiss him and then tell him to ignore it, to write it off as drunken foolishness, and know that he would do just that.  She could kiss him.

Unlike Hal, Cash and Tara, however, Harvard had brakes, and she slammed down hard on them now.  She drew herself upright and opened her eyes.

“All you do is tell the truth, and still I can’t trust you,” she said, shaking her head ruefully.

Tara, noticeably blushing, stalked back into Disrepair.  She beelined for Harvard, bent down and audibly whispered “bathroom” into her ear.

The Ladies’ Room at Disrepair was not aesthetically dissimilar to the main bar area.  Stickers for garage bands extinct since the 1980s still adorned the walls, along with loopy writing proclaiming that “Scott is a drunk stud” or advising “don’t fuck in the bathroom – very bad choice.”  No matter what the trash was overflowing with used paper towels and tampon wrappers.  

Once Harvard had entered the bathroom, Tara drew the brass bolt and balanced herself on the sink.

“I just got kissed.”  Tara breathed the words out slowly, uncertain of not only her friend’s reaction, but of her own.

Harvard covered her small mouth with her right hand and gently stroked Tara’s hair with her left.  “By Cash?”  Her question was confirmed by an enthusiastic nodding of Tara’s head.

“And you have to come home with me, to get me home,” Tara pled.  “I mean, he’s my friend and my boss and what if something does happen and I do go home with him or, y’know, the other way around,” she drew a circle in the air to clarify, “because then there’s tomorrow and I don’t know what to do with that.”  

“Don’t worry.  I’ll make sure it’s all right.”

Tara’s head bobbed up and down a few more times as she nodded her gratitude.

“Come on,” Harvard prodded, wrapping her arm over Tara’s shoulder, “we’d better have another beer.  Don’t wanna be suspicious, after all.”  She forced a smile and Tara responded.  A boom echoed through the women’s room as Tara struggled with the lock.  Both girls jumped.

“It’s okay, just some boy banging his head against the wall.”  Tara let go of the lock and put her hand over her heart, allowing Harvard to slide the little brass rod out of its housing and escape the toilet/confessional before any more could be demanded of her.  She walked back out and found Hal alone at the table, his sneakers propped on the edge of the table.  He possessed enough good sense to not lean back on his chair legs, she was thankful to see.  She was not thankful to see that he’d taken the liberty of ordering yet another round of shots.

“Are you trying to forget your way home,” she asked, her long fingers plowing through her short hair.

“No, more just what I said just now,” he responded.  Chewing his cuticles, he was a bit muffled.  Harvard had heard what he said, but she made him repeat it anyway.

“Well, I’ll remember that you just said that.”

“Yeah, me, too.”  He broke into a big smile and shrugged.  “Basically I just wanted another shot, and I figured since y’all were in the bathroom, I’d play it safe and just go a whole round.”

“Hal, you’re the only person I know for whom ‘playing it safe’ means buying it anyway.”  She sat down and pushed her glass towards him.  “I’m going to finish my beer and then I’m going to get Tara home.”  She looked out the window and saw no sign of Cash.  “Where’s Cash?”

“Bathroom.”  Harvard turned back towards the bathroom and watched as Tara attempted to navigate the tables and sprawled chairs of the remaining customers.  It was definitely time to get going.

“Cash seemed pissed when…”  Hal made a hand gesture that weakly approximated Cash standing at the table.  “’Sat ‘bout?”

“Just banged his head against a wall.”  Tara slouched down in her chair in time to catch Harvard’s last remark.  She looked at Hal with utmost seriousness.

“That scared the shit out of me, too.  It was sooo loud.”  She downed her shot without showing the least surprise at its appearance and made a grotesque face as it disappeared with a burn down her gullet.

Hal was now thoroughly confused but couldn’t put together the words to express this confusion, so he continued alternating which eye he looked through in a hopeless effort to discover which was making the world spin.  Harvard drained her beer and looked intently at Tara to follow suit as Cash appeared at the table, steadying himself on the edge of the Formica.

He shot Hal an accusatory look.  “You got more shots, sicko.”

Hal nodded as he swigged his Miller, resulting in a foam-over that trickled in multiple streams down his shirtfront.  He didn’t seem fazed and continued gulping until the bottle was drained.

“Fuck it,” Cash announced with a tight-lipped glance at Tara.  He put down the whiskey in one gulp.  “Thanks,” he said, tapping Hal’s old skater shoes.  Hal nodded once more, now looking distinctly incapable of speech.

Harvard spoke first.  “Why do you always do this?”

Hal gave her a shrug.  “I mean, fuck else’m I’onna do with money,” he sighed.

“Get a haircut,” Cash said.

“Buy new shoes,” Harvard proposed.

“Find clothes that fit,” Tara threw in.

Hal nodded deliberately and then began laughing maniacally.

“Okay, I’m done,” Harvard said with an eyeroll.

“Yeah, me, too,” Tara added.

Cash made to stand, but Tara waved him down.  “I’m fine, I’ll be fine.”

“I’ll get her home, Cash,” Harvard said gamely, as though the idea were just now occurring to her, “you get him in a cab, okay?  I don’t want him on a bridge tonight.”  Hal had an inexplicable predilection for walking back to Brooklyn over the bridges, whether drunk or sober.

The girls gathered their coats and left after an awkward twenty or so seconds of pushing the inward swinging exit door.  Cash and Hal stared despondently after them, then Cash rose and fetched two beers.

A wolf’s tooth moon greeted Hal and Cash as they stumbled from Despair onto the barren waste of the East Village at closing time.  Grunting and moaning, they spoke a primeval language lost to the civilized world.

“I needa see ‘er,” Cash mumbled, stumbling and subsequently tumbling into the oncoming traffic along Second.

“Whoa, Pops,” Hal said as he attempted to help Cash onto his feet.  Both ended up crashing into a newsstand.  Ever vigilant for a bargain, Hal snatched up the New York Times that tumbled from the busted box.

“You’re no fuckin’ good,” Cash exclaimed, wiping the sweat that had accumulated at the edge of his wool cap.  “Women… they don’t just…”

“I am,” Hal gulped, hoping that Cash wasn’t witness to his newspaper thievery.  Hal Carroll never could stand appearing less than princely before his friends.  Unless he was drunk.  Drunk he could explain.  Except when he was drunk, of course.  Then the humiliation was unbearable.

“You are what,” Cash queried as he made his second attempt to navigate Second.

“I am a good man,” Hal called, jogging across Second to an empty storefront where he pissed profusely.

For a few seconds more, peace prevailed along Second.  And then the furious Cash caught up with the urinating Hal.  Steadying himself against the brick wall and straddling the river of piss that was running down the cracks towards the curb, Cash blinked.  “Nice and good arrn the same,” he growled to Hal’s back.  “I’monna see ‘er.”  Bobbleheaded, he turned into the cold wind and staggered towards Tara’s place.

Stunned that Cash would abandon the discussion without allowing further rebuttal, Hal turned, spraying across the heels of Cash’s black Pumas.  “Wait,” Hal yelled, but Cash had already turned.  Horrified, he watched Hal, still directing his dick with one hand, lunge forward, his other arm extended like a cop’s.  Rather than jump out of the way, however, Cash released all the pent-up aggression – his anger at Tara for not getting it; his fury at Hal for all the wry, truthful comments; most of all the rage of being an individual consciousness without the slightest input about the workings of the universe, of being stranded at the end of history with no control over the past and little regarding the future – and let fly with both fists.

There was a satisfying thud as his knuckles smashed into Hal’s cheekbone followed by an extremely rewarding smack when the young man fell face-first on the sidewalk.

Hal Carroll was scrappy by nature, though, and didn’t lose what remained of his wits for an instant.  He kicked out with both legs and felt his attacker’s knee snap back from the impact.  Flipping over and hauling himself up, he put his penis back in his boxers and socked Cash good and hard in the chest, sending the boss reeling back until he hit the urine-soaked storefront.  He rushed at Cash, momentarily stunned, and aimed his next blow at the skewed glasses, shining from the shadows.

Cash ducked out of the way, but Hal still managed to find Cash’s shoulder blade in the darkness, eliciting a welcome “oomph.”

But Cash was far from done.  He landed hard on the ground, tearing the knee of his jeans, quickly righted himself and began throttling his employee with every ounce of strength left in his hands.  Hal smacked and tore at Cash’s fingers, to no avail.  Cash’s vengeance was swiftly nearing its end.  Gasping, his legs beginning to buckle, Hal focused all his energy and jerked his foot at Cash’s wounded knee.  Howling in pain, Cash released and Hal collapsed onto his chest, causing both to plummet hopelessly onto a pile of filthy trash bags.

Silence blanketed the avenue once more.

Cash Luna stared dumbly at the clouds, bruised and bloated with the weight of soon-to-fall snow.

The older man gathered up what dignity he could and began the arduous process of standing up.  Back on his feet, he turned and held out his hand, which Hal took without hesitation.

The two men stood, bracing themselves one on the other.  Their eyes met and the look they exchanged was of deep understanding.  Hal had mastery over nothing, save his feelings.  Cash was his opposite.  Equally powerful, they counter-balanced the small corner of existence they inhabited.

“Coffee,” Cash said.

“Fuckin’ A,” Hal nodded.

Each draped an arm over his fellow’s shoulder.  With great caution and ginger movement, the warriors stalked from the battlefield, seeking sobriety and sanity somewhere off in the pre-dawn chill.

Dawn came quickly as the two sat over coffee, nursing their wounds.

“How’s the knee,” Hal asked with a smile.

“Better than your face,” Cash responded, not smiling.

Hal dabbed his cut with a napkin and ate a spoonful of oatmeal.  

“So do we tell anyone about this,” he croaked.

“I don’t really think we can hide it.”

“I guess the truth’s always best, huh?”  Hal ate another spoonful of oatmeal.  Cash rubbed at his weary eyes and smiled as Hal winced from the heat of his breakfast.

“The truth of what happened, sure.  Why, maybe not.”

“Me pissing on your shoes?  I think that makes it even funnier,” Hal said, as ever failing to grasp the point.  

“No, Hal, the why that could fuck things up between me and someone else.”  Cash looked at Hal over his glasses, making absolutely sure the boy grasped the point.  

Cash threw down a twenty on the stained Formica table.  “Breakfast’s on me.”  Brave but unsteady, Cash walked out into the harsh morning wind.  His shoulder really hurt.

“See you in a couple hours,” Hal called, to no response.

A moment later, the poor waiter stuck on the end of the late night shift dropped by Hal Carroll’s lonesome table.

“More coffee,” he asked of the stinking, bleeding young man who would be his only customer until the suits dropped in on their way to the office.

Hal nodded and forgot to say “thank you” after his cup was refilled.  He realized that there wouldn’t be enough change from the twenty to pay for a cab.  No matter, bridgewalking is the city’s version of nightswimming, a simple, careless act that renews a battered soul.


Robert Voris’ writing has appeared in Slow Trains, JMWW, New York  Collective and New York Resident. He lives and works in Brooklyn.




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