The Man in the Black Hat

I pulled into Denver after 16 hours on the road.  My eyes were sunken, my face rough with stubble.  An artery bulged on one side of my neck, pulsing visibly as my heart pushed heroic amounts of caffeine through my head, plus a side of ephedrine.  I desperately needed a place to rest.

Rolling down Colfax, I passed motel after rat-fucked motel.  Crack dens.  Fuck huts.  I drove straight into the heart of the city.  My exhaust echoed off the steel and glass as my engine roared, towing my trailer without a hiccup.  Pedestrians stopped to look at the obnoxious man making the awful noise.

I turned up my stereo and sunk back in my seat.

I drove in circles for an hour, up and down one-way streets, weaving through downtown, trying to find somewhere to wedge my truck and trailer.  When nothing materialized, I gave up and headed back up Colfax.  I swung into the first motel parking lot with enough empty spaces to stretch my truck out sideways.  I slid out of the seat and headed for the front office.  A black man in a white t-shirt appeared out of nowhere, nodded to me, and headed up a flight of stairs to the second level of the motel.  I noticed an area roped off with caution tape, filled with weeds and dilapidated appliances.  I hesitated, taking in my surroundings.  Peering through the office window, I saw no one was working anyway.

I fired up my truck and pulled back out onto the boulevard.

Just up the street I found another place.  As I walked stiffly through the parking lot doors opened and closed.  A young black toddler ran through the parking lot.  People peered out of their rooms.  A window curtain ruffled.  I pinched my lips and headed for the front office.

I was greeted by a friendly little Asian man.  He asked for my ID and credit card.  I slid them through the slot in the bullet proof glass and waited while he made a photo copy.  He was an older gentleman, and very pleasant.  He handed me a key and walked me to my room.

“You can pahk dea . . . das ok!” he said, pointing at my truck.

He gave the room a quick walk-through, turned on the AC, and wished me a good night.

What a shithole.

There was an aging fabric couch and a TV with a UHF dial.  The smell of smoke – mostly cigarettes – permeated everything.  I went back out to my truck and retrieved my guns.  I loaded my pistols and stashed them around the room.  I sat on the edge of the bed and simmered in the stench.

“Fuck me . . . I can’t fucking sleep like this . . . ” I muttered.

I turned the TV on and cranked the volume.  Then I locked the door behind me and hit the boulevard.  It was after 11 PM.  Up ahead I could see a pair of young black kids disappear around the corner, out of the glare of a street lamp.  I crossed the street, strolling purposefully past two meth’d out transients at a bus stop.  My face was a stony mask of exhaustion and muted frustration.  The street urchins turned to avoid making eye contact.

I need food and drink.  Anything to calm the twisting in my gut.  Anything to knock the edge off enough to let me sleep.  My nerves crackled, hot-wired together by the drive.  A block later I noticed a lone silhouette turn toward me before it disappeared around the edge of a building.  I slowed my stroll, squinting in the penumbra of the street lamps, twisting my neck to see ahead.

“Oh, Jesus!” came a voice.

A squirrelly little man stood in the middle of the cross street, back from the intersection.  His wild mane of hair was pulled back into a pony tail.  He had a magnificent, mangy beard.  He was carrying a pair of plastic bags in one arm, and he snapped to attention as I approached.  His voice sounded like 40 years of Pall Malls and throat cancer.

“Sir, yes sir!” he barked.

He was missing two of his front teeth.

I furrowed my brow and ran my hand through my hair.  I had lost my hat again.  I felt naked without it.  People could see my eyes, and it unnerved me.  I saluted him back disingenuously and he relaxed, sauntering up alongside me as I walked.  I waited for the inevitable solicitation for money.

It didn’t come.

He introduced himself as Mark, but he called himself The Preacher.

“Max,” I said.  I shook his hand.

“I see this big shadow walking up behind me and I said to myself, ‘Who the Hell is this!?’  But it’s ok!  I was military too!  What are you?  Marine!?  Airborne?  You got that look . . . “

“Somethin’ like that . . . ” I replied, dryly.

“I was Navy . . . SEAL.”

I nodded weakly, my face wrinkling incredulously.  I have learned, over time, not to argue with street people.  I let him go on.  He began unfolding a tale taller than both of us, gesticulating in excitation.

“Here, hold this!  You want some cake?”  he thrust his grocery bags into my hands.

I turned down the cake offer and he twisted under the street lamp, pulling the back of his t-shirt over his head.  To the right of his spine, two thirds of the way up his back, was a gnarly scar.

“Fucking VC!  I took a bayonet in the back!  That’s alright . . . I got twenty one of them motherfuckers!  Twenty one . . . “

I didn’t care about the authenticity of his story.  It was an impressive wound.  An old wound.  It was no surgery scar.  Someone had shanked him.  Regardless of the circumstances, he was lucky to be walking.  I don’t know that I would call him lucky to be alive.

I handed back his bags and we walked down Colfax together.  Mark chattered on to my great amusement.  We lingered momentarily by a strip club.

“This place any good?” I asked.

“Yeah . . . The girls are ok.  Mostly white.  I mean, the black girls are pretty too . . . if that’s your thing . . . They don’t serve alcohol.”

“Fuck that . . . ” I muttered, and kept walking.

Mark picked up again, buzzing around me impishly.  He told me he would introduce me to the bartender down the street.  They take care of vets down there, he confided.

“Sure . . . ” I said.

The sign read Hanger Bar.  I’d seen the place while driving past, and thought it had potential.  Perhaps, subconsciously, I had been going there all along.  Mark grabbed my wrist and pulled me up the steps, into the open door.  The other patrons turned as he burst into the bar.

“Hey everyone!  Hey!  This is Max!”

They could see the thinly veiled discomfort on my face.  The whole moment was fucking surreal.  Everyone stared at me, standing in the doorway, expectant.

“Hi, Max . . . ” came the communal reply, after a brief pause.

Mark let go of my wrist and turned to the bartender, a blonde.  She looked like she had spent half of her life behind a counter.  She belonged behind the bar as much as every dusty bottle.

“He’s military!”  Mark growled.  ”So take care of him, alright?”

“Yeah . . . I can see that . . . ” she said, smiling tersely.

I sauntered slowly across the bar and posted up on a stool.  The bartender’s smile turned genuine.  She had been a Military wife.  She wore it all over her.

“What can I get you, hon?”

“Shot of Jack and a PBR?”

“Sure thing . . . “

She disappeared down the bar and was promptly distracted another customer.  Mark ran back and forth between the bar and the door, settling his bags out on the stoop.  The bartender came back with my drinks – a shot and a Schlitz tall-boy.  I lifted a brow, shrugged, and toasted my shot against the side of the can.

“Oh . . . fuck.  You ordered a PBR?”

“Doesn’t matter, darlin’.”

I knocked the drink back and fingered my beer, settling my elbows on the bar.

“You sure?”  she asked.

“Yeah, I don’t give a fuck . . . “

She smiled.

“You’re better off anyway.  I just put the PBR in there.  Schlitz is probably colder.”

I looked back over my shoulder.  Mark was still buzzing back and forth.  I could tell from his mannerisms that he wasn’t even high – he was just manic.  I smiled to myself and leaned across to the bartender, holding out a twenty.

“Hey, darlin’, can I get a shot for Preacher and change for the juke-box?”

“Yeah, sure . . . how much you putting in?”

“Couple bucks.”

“I’ll match you . . . “

She came back with my change and the drink.  I had to shout to get Mark’s attention and motioned him over.  I slid the drink over in front of him and held out my beer to toast.  He looked surprised, and pleased, and we took communion together.

Mark asked the bartender for a cigarette and she cursed.  She had none herself.  High and dry for the whole shift.  She worked out a drug deal with him for a drink if he would go fetch her two packs of smokes.  She stashed his bags behind the bar and he disappeared out the door.  She looked doubtful she would ever see the money again.

He returned with her smokes and exact change.  She comped him a drink and he thanked her.  He shook my hand and scuttled off into the night.

I made my way over to the juke box and ran a few singles through it.  I queued up a perfect set-list.  Clap Hands.  Sea of Love.  Jockey Full of Bourbon.  All of my favorites.  The first song came on and the bartender glanced down the counter at me in shock.

Nice choice . . . ” she said.

“Who knew I had taste?” I muttered.  I sipped my Schlitz.

The mood settled.  She dimmed the lights some.  A couple behind me was playing pool.  Everyone in the bar was talking to everyone else.  It felt like home.

The bartender brought me a shot on the house.

All my luck happens in dive bars.  Everywhere else, my life is a fucking disaster.  Somehow, in the wrong part of town, under the right bad lighting, I cast no shadow.

I sat there the rest of the night, mellowing, sipping on the Devil’s cut.  I didn’t pay for anything else but tips.  A greasy looking man with a gin blossom saw my tattoos.  We had a three-way debate with the bartender about old muscle cars.  He told me about an old Cobra Jet he built.

A big black woman with enormous tits came down to complain about the music.  She sat next to me, struck up conversation, and bought me alcohol.  I had to beg off her advances, despite her pouting.  I put off even morbid curiosity and ignored her innuendos.

The bar closed at some foolish early hour.  The bartender asked if I was staying, and kept serving.