by Tom Ingram
The important thing to do is listen. Of course you must first venture inside. You must decide that the squat redbrick and woodsided building with low hanging eaves seems as good a place as any. You should have a drink. You should try to eat something.
You must enter the restaurant, decide against a booth in the bright dinning room—for you are alone, and eating in a room full of families and t-ball teams seems too disconsoling. You appreciate the offer of a place in what she calls the lounge, and you follow the hostess to the back of the open dinning room and through a glass door. She hands you a menu and leaves you to the thickly varnished dark wood bar. Your companions are as follows: a couple, just beyond middle age, with cocktails and a shared plate of nachos; two young men huddled over beers and discussing something serious; a lone man, same age as the couple, who seems to know everyone, and who speaks to everyone simultaneously, which gives the room a sense of unity even as other bar patrons come and waver between the bar and wooden tables with pints of beer and glasses of white zinfandel.
With your menu, you sit at a free stool between the young men and the extemporizing host. The woman behind the bar calls you “honey” and says, “I’m Renée. What’re’ya drinking this afternoon?” You ask for a beer and cheese dip. The television shows baseball on mute. The jukebox silently glows between tall windows on the wall behind you. The important thing to do is listen.
“Sounds kinda convenient,” Matt says as he sets his beer glass on the bar. Every half-inch from the top of the glass to the bottom has a ring of foam.
“It’s the opposite of convenient,” Tom says.
“You’re telling me that you can sin—that you can commit any kind of sin, over and over—and you’ll be forgiven?” Matt asks.
“You can be forgiven, yes.”
“That’s the most convenient fucking thing I’ve ever heard. Lemme go kill this dude,” Matt folds his hand into a gun and shoots the bartender, who shakes her head.
“I’m staying out of this shit, Tom,” Renée You and your friend are somewhere else.”
“Lemme just kill this dude, and say what?” Matt asks.
“You say the truth,” Tom says.
“I say whoever does that is a fucking murderer and that they need a fucking firing squad.”
“I’m not interested in all that. If you get arrested, tried, convicted, fine. There’s a justice system for all that. But even the murderer can ask for forgiveness. If you ask sincerely, you’re forgiven. Sincerity isn’t easy or convenient.”
“You boys ready for another beer?” Renée asks.
“Yeah, we’re going to need them,” Matt says. “What is your name again?”
“Renée, tell Tom that he’s full of shit. That a murderer is a murderer, and that’s that. Tell him all this religious bullshit is just a way for bad people to think of themselves as good.”
“What was your name again, honey?”
“Matt. I went to college with Tom.”
“Well, Matt,” Renée says, “I know a lot of people who’ve done some pretty bad things. Some of them kept doing bad things. Some of them stopped doing really bad things and only do the kind of bad things that we all do. I don’t know if it was religion that done it, and I don’t care. As long as they stop doing the really bad things, I guess they end up being good people.”
Your beer is lukewarm and the cheese dip is scalding hot. The chips are from a bag and on the verge of stale. But the room is airy for the high ceilings and late-afternoon sun streaming through the south-facing windows. Smokers move in small groups outside through back door, and through that door disappear the two young men, still serious. A woman from one of the tables slides a five into the jukebox and plays sad classic rock, the kind that once might have seemed lively but now seems staler than the corn chips you nibble with the dip.
Yet Renée smiles at you, the couple sharing nachos and drinking cocktails smile lovingly at one another, and the old man shakes hands with everyone who walks past and always asks an intimate question, the kind of question only a friend would know to ask. How’s your mother like the new home? Your boy get his license back? Hope those neighbors stopped quarreling, you know I knew her mother in high school and she was always real sweet? The man wears a teal fishing shirt and paint-splattered jeans. His watch is stainless steel and his wedding band embeds itself into the fat of his thick fingers. His blue eyes look sharply around the lounge.
On the wall behind the man, who stands at the bend of the bar, are posters. One features Duke Ellington and the other a jukebox, not unlike the one now cranking The Marshall Tucker Band, above which is the inscription, “Magic Music Machine.” Between these two posters is space for another, and here on the mustard-colored wall is a light spot where some other decoration must have been on display for at least as long as the man in the fishing shirt has made this bar his regular watering hole. The young men have returned from their cigarettes and the debate seems to have subsided.
“Well, listen,” says the man in the fishing shirt. “Matt, it’s good to meet you, sir, I’m George. I want to tell you and Tom something, it’s the damnedest fuckin’ thing I ever seen. Ya’ll gotta hear this shit.”
Matt and Tom make no objection.
“I was out with one of my son’s crews—see, Matt, I work for my son; not that I need to, I just do it to help him, you know—so I’m out with his crew, a bunch of Guatemaylans—”
“—Guatemalans,” Matt corrects.
“Shit, am I sayin’ that wrong? Anyway, a bunch of Guatemalans, and they’re about the hardest damn workers I ever saw. Anyway, so we’ve been workin’ all morning, and I’m gettin’ hungry, so I’m about ready to break for lunch anyway when suddenly I hear a few of ‘em hollerin’ and yellin’ behind the next line of trees. And I’m thinkin’, fuck me, one’s got hurt. So I drop my shovel and I’m runnin’ over there. And you’ll never fucking guess what these Guatemaylans have.”
Renée points to the empty beer glasses. The three all nod for another.
“These motherfuckers have a god damned armadillo. They’d clubbed this armadillo over the head with a shovel. So I ask, what the hell did you kill it for? And you know what they said? I swear to God, I shit you not, they said they were gonna eat the somnabitch. Now, Tom knows this, I’ll try just about anything. And sure enough, they started up a good fire, got some hot coals, put a metal grate over the coals and cooked that armadillo. And I tried it. And it was fuckin’ good as hell. Tasted kinda like pork.”
So you’ve listened. You probably haven’t noticed that the music has stopped or that the light streaming through the windows streams also through stain-glass reproductions of Magritte portraits. You may not even know yet that these hanging frames of stained-glass are Magritte reproductions at all, for you’ve not yet met the painter. The painter, sometime in the next few months, will come to this pub with Tom. Tom will introduce the two of you. The painter will tell you and Tom all about the Magritte’s. It will be the painter’s first time in the pub, but not his last.
Nor will this be your last time in the pub. George, the man in the fishing shirt who wears a wedding band, will ask you, “what do ya think of that?” He means the armadillo.
And you’ll say through a forced smile, “never woulda thought to eat armadillo meat.”
And then you’ll fall self-consciously silent. You’ll sip your beer because you can’t think of anything else to say. And then George will ask if you’re from Columbus. You’ll explain that you’re from Texas and have just moved here. George will ask what brings you. You’ll try not to answer. You’ll say it’s a shitty, sad story. George won’t press the issue, though he will welcome you to town and buy you another beer. No, you won’t tell them this time.
Next time, though, after a few drinks, you’ll let slip that your daughter shot herself. You’ll admit that you can’t sleep, that food is hard to keep down. You will thank Tom for looking up a suicide survivor’s support group in town, and you will go to the group’s next meeting. You’ll also keep coming to this bar. You’ll meet the happy couple that shared nachos and drank cocktails, and they’ll invite you to church and garden parties. George will bring you garlic and squash and watermelons from his farm in Alabama. Tom will listen, Matt will listen, the painter will listen. A lot of people will listen.
Better than any of them, Renée will listen. She will listen and suggest items from the menu when your stomach feels empty, as if it were collapsing into a singularity which might at any moment burst and destroy the universe. Renée will say something funny about one of her coworkers, and then she’ll say, “honey, you know you can always just order a Pepsi.” And you will order a Pepsi, because, oddly enough in Columbus, Georgia, the Speakeasy does not serve Coca-Cola.