In Barney’s Pub
Jim Bright was the last
person in the world Alex expected to see sashaying up to
the bar in Barney’s Pub, the most notorious gay bar in
Wetside, Washington. Jim had been Mister Everything in
high school almost fifty years ago—all-conference
quarterback for the Jefferson High School Golden Wave,
track star (holder of the state record in the mile. 4:28),
class president (unopposed), voted most handsome and most
likely to succeed (both in and out of bed was the popular
quip at the time).
If a murder mystery were to be set
in Wetside the murder would have to take place under the
bare red bulb in the well at the entrance to Barney’s. On
a rainy night. Picture a black body as two-dimensional as
a paper doll face down in black black water, the blood
like an oil slick as bright as neon.
plush leather booths and an antique redwood bar salvaged
from a nineteenth century saloon in San Francisco and
hauled north on a flatbed trailer. Behind the bar hangs a
huge, ornately framed mirror, pitted and distorted. A
profusion of flower pots hangs from heavy wooden beams
above the bar, doubled by the mirror. Music comes from a
1950s-style jukebox loaded with 45-rpm singles from that
era—rockabilly from the old Sun studios, Carl Perkins,
Elvis, Jerry Lee—plus lots of Broadway show tunes and a
smattering of Fats Domino and Little Richard, and the
undisputable local favorite, “Louie Louie” by the
Kingsmen. Lounging against the back wall are cardboard
figures of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Elvis in a gold
lamé suit, Rock Hudson and Doris Day. There are no beer
ads or commercial messages of any kind, but on the night
when Jim Bright showed up there was a single political
poster featuring a pop art portrait of Barack Obama. It
hung over the booth where Alex was seated.
Barney’s a gay bar is something of a stretch, even if they
do have drag shows once a week. It would be more accurate
to call it a bohemian bar, a hangout for artsy types. Alex
Martin was not a lesbian and never had been, unless you
count a bit of experimenting back in college and that one
summer when she and Mary Elizabeth Lucious shared a cabin
at Camp Butterfly, which if you asked Mary Elizabeth
about, she’d deny on a stack of bibles. Sometimes Alex
wished she was a lesbian. Or black, or Native; anything
but white. She liked her self: her looks and her mind, but
she was not proud of being a member of the privileged and
exploitive class. She frequented Barney’s because that’s
where the most interesting people hung out.
a week before the 2008 presidential election when she
first spotted Jim Bright in Barney’s. He was wearing a Ron
Paul button and she was wearing a Barack Obama button. He
was drinking Budweiser and she was drinking a Black Butte
Porter. She thought she recognized him as her old school
chum, but she wasn’t sure it was really him.
would have been mortified if she’d spoken to him and he’d
turned out to be someone else.
She screwed up her
courage and approached him.
“Hi. Mind if I join
Her voice trembled ever so slightly, but he
didn’t seem to notice. He said, “Not at all. My name’s
“Hi, Jim. I’m Alex.”
“I love that name.
The first girl I ever loved was named Alex.”
tried her best to keep from audibly gasping. If this guy
was, indeed, Jim Bright, he had certainly never told her
she was the first girl he ever loved. She slithered onto
the stool next to him in what she intended to be a rather
provocative manner, crossing her long legs so that a lot
of thigh showed. She had always been proud of her legs.
Muscular calves and thighs, lengthy but not too thin.
Definitely her best feature. At five-foot-eleven she was
pretty damn tall for a woman. Gargantuan and terribly
sensitive about it in her youth, but comfortable with her
size now that taller women are more common and are looked
up to (figuratively and literally). Look at how tall the
hot super models are. And if she was not as thin as she
once was she was no fatty either. Solid, that’s the word,
with ample hips and small breasts that were still fairly
firm. Her hair was short. She had high cheek bones and a
strong jaw. She wore glasses and tasteful but moderate
jewelry. That night she was wearing coral colored lipstick
and just a touch of eye liner.
Jim said, “I grew up
in Wetside, but I’ve been gone for over thirty years. I
retired a few years back, and then my wife died.”
was becoming clear that he didn’t know her and hadn’t an
inkling that she knew him.
Insulted, she thought,
how could he not remember me? Could Batman forget Robin?
They had been that close at one time, not lovers but best
She told him she was sorry to hear about
“Yeah, thank you. After Nancy passed I
kind of got homesick. So here I am starting life all over
again back where I came from.”
“Starting over must be
“It is. I loved her till the day she died,
but I don’t think she ever loved me. Oh, she pretended for
a while, but I could tell. She ripped my heart apart, but
I’m coping OK now. Besides, I understand. She fell in love
with a chimp, and how do you compete with that?
That had to be a slip of the tongue.
“A chimp? Do
you mean a like a chump or . . . or a jerk?”
mean a chimp. A chimpanzee, a big, ugly hairy chimpanzee
named Manlow. You see . . .”
He stopped to take a
deep breath and for just a second she thought she detected
a glint of something mad in his eye. Was he mad? This
gorgeous hunk of man? Could it be he was completely
bonkers? He let out a big, melodramatic sigh and then
said, “This may be a little shocking, but I might as well
just come right out with it. My wife was a sex performer.
A stripper, a porn star, a really high class exotic
dancer. And when I say high class, I mean it. She didn’t
dance in sleazy strip joints. Oh no. She danced in places
where the cover charge was a week’s pay for me and the
cheapest drinks were twenty or thirty bucks. She performed
her very unique act in very private clubs where the wine
started at $500 a bottle and the exclusive clientele were
flown in on private jets. And what was her very unique
act? You guessed it. Sex with a chimp. And she liked it. I
swear she did. Hellfire, she loved it. Manlow had what I
didn’t have. To be more accurate, he had a lot more of
what I had just a little of, if you know what I mean. Oh
sure, she said I was out of my mind when I accused her of
being in love with the damn animal, but she was.”
Alex was flabbergasted. How could she possibly, possibly
respond? She turned to stone right there on her barstool.
Lot’s wife in Barney’s Pub. She felt as if she couldn’t
even lift her drink to take a swig or make a move toward
getting away from him, which she felt like she ought to
do. Fast. Like a trapped animal she stared at him. She
could not have been more astounded if his face had just
metamorphosed into that of some kind of monster primate.
It was too much for Alex. Way, way too much. She
stammered, “I’m sorry. I can’t, uh, I can’t do this. I got
to go.” And she quickly stood up, and leaving a full beer
stein on the bar she spun around and headed to the door as
quickly as those long legs of hers would carry her, and
that was when he shouted: “Hey Slugger, come back here.
God! You’re just as gullible as ever. You were always
quick to believe any cockamamie story I told you.”
That stopped her in her tracks! Slugger! No one had called
her that since eighth grade when she outshone most of the
boys at baseball.
She said, “I wasn’t really going
to leave. Heck, I knew it was you all along. God, it’s
good to see you after all this time,” and she settled back
on her barstool and they talked for hours, reminiscing
over old times and arguing politics. She couldn’t believe
he was actually going to vote for Ron Paul.