Well, I’m glad you’re leaving!
The rebuke still stung him as he slammed the door, turning up the collar of his jacket against the light, misting rain. Who was she to be angry with him after what she’d done? As if a fellow wasn’t allowed to have an honest, emotional reaction to a piece of news like that. Why, when he thought about what some men might have done, the kind of men he’d grown up with, he thought she should consider herself lucky. Clenching his fist, Tiny walked toward the bar on the corner.
He lingered outside the door, looking back toward their window. He wanted to go home; of course he did. But how could he go back, after a scene like that? It would have seemed tantamount to rewarding her bad behavior.
He pushed the door open and went into the smoky, poorly lit room. There was Devon, serving up drinks behind the bar. And there was Lucy at the end of the bar, sipping a cocktail. Tiny wiped rain from his face, thinking absurdly, I’m crying.
They called him Tiny not because he wasn’t but because he was: a little man, five foot five, with a lazy eye and a sloping countenance that all his life had inspired distrust in people, even in those closest to him, so that over the years he’d grown to fit the mold, the name, everything that had been imposed on him from the outside since he’d been born forty-one years ago and raised socked in by the fog six and a half blocks from the beach in a neighborhood he didn’t recognize anymore.
“What’ll it be, hoss?” Devon leaned toward him across the bar, bracing himself with a pair of big pink forearms that looked like hams. When Tiny didn’t answer, Devon leaned closer. It struck Tiny suddenly that Devon wasn’t happy to see him.
“Give me a whiskey,” Tiny said, startled by the sound of his own voice. It sounded scratchy, as though he’d been shouting, the way it used to sound after he substitute taught for a day or two. Well, he had been shouting, hadn’t he? “A double,” he added. “Please.” Devon was still looking at him, as though he wasn’t certain whether he was going to serve Tiny or not.
“You got money?” Devon asked him, leaning closer.
Tiny scratched at the pocket of his jacket. Had he forgotten his wallet on the way out the door? No, here it was—and he produced a crisp, clean twenty-dollar bill, his last, which Devon held up to the light.
“All right,” Devon shrugged, looking up and down the bar, as though some objection might be mounted by the rabble, but no one objected; no one spoke up; no one said anything. “Well okay?” Devon sneered, and before Tiny could answer, Devon walked away.
He came back with a rocks glass of whiskey, a heavy pour, even for a double, and set it on the bar with a thwack. Tiny jumped, lest some of the liquid spill.
“If you behave yourself,” Devon said, wagging a finger at him, “I might let you have another.” And he set Tiny’s change on the bar.
Tiny bellied up to the bar and climbed onto a stool, curling his hand around that glass of whiskey but delaying the gratification of the first sip. He looked to the left and to the right of him, hoping to cadge a cigarette from one of his fellow patrons, but the elderly man with the oxygen tank to his left and the younger man with the tattoo of a blue star on his neck to Tiny’s right both seemed to be staring at their reflections in the mirror behind the bar, and he couldn’t get either of them to notice him. On the jukebox, Clapton was singing “San Francisco Bay Blues,” that old Jessie Fuller tune, and without thinking about what he was doing, Tiny began fretting chords under the bar, his fingers forming the familiar shapes, a C chord and an F chord, on an imaginary fret board on an imaginary instrument. He might once have been a musician, too.
Walking with my baby, down by San Francisco Bay …
He’d just raised his glass to his lips and taken a first tentative sip when the door of the bar opened, and an angel flew in. Tiny felt his heart turn over in his chest. She fluttered across the room on tinsel wings, bearing a tray of cigarettes: Camels, Camel Lights, and Kamel Reds, in assorted shapes, colors, and sizes.
In the back of the room, a group of men were playing pool. They looked like the kind of men who’d been moving to the neighborhood since the city had taken the overpass down and turned this street back into a commercial corridor: stylish and masculine, with groomed stubble and gelled hair. They looked brash and confident, flush with money.
The cigarette girl seemed to make a beeline for Tiny.
Then she changed her mind, and she flitted off toward the back of the room.
As a bus rumbled past the bar—Tiny could just hear it over the jukebox—he watched out of the corner of his eye while she started talking to the men around the pool table.
When he looked down, the whiskey in his glass was gone, which was odd, because he couldn’t remember drinking it.
He banged on the bar, perhaps more loudly than he’d intended.
The lights on Hayes Street glittered through the window in the rain. Twenty-five years ago, he’d ridden the Hayes Street bus with Kenny Tee, purchasing cocaine and heroin in the housing project, the Pink Palace, around the corner from this bar, so they could shoot speedballs into their ankles before a gig. He couldn’t remember which had happened first, whether Kenny Tee had overdosed, or whether they’d torn the Pink Palace down, but he knew none of the boutiques and art galleries along this strip had been there then.
Tiny banged on the bar again.
He turned to find Devon’s white teeth, his pink, pudgy face, his lips mouthing words at him across the bar.
“If you smack the bar like that again, my friend, I’ll pick you up and throw you out of here like the midget you are,” Devon said. He refilled Tiny’s glass and set it back on the bar. “Last one,” he said. “This one’s on me. But after this, you leave.”
Tiny felt a burst of rage, a quiet wave of indignation bordering on pride, and he opened his mouth, for he could feel the faces turning from up and down the bar, and he felt certain if he looked, he would find the cigarette girl and the men in the back of the room watching him, too. Devon shoved the pile of money in front of Tiny back across the bar, and Devon stood behind the bar with his arms folded across his chest, his jaw set, as though he were waiting for Tiny to give him an excuse to make good on his threat.
“I’ve got no place to go,” Tiny said, and he spread his hands, as though none of it was his fault.
“You can’t stay here,” Devon told him, and he shook his head.
Tiny tapped his glass, nodded.
And inevitably, as they always did midway through his second drink, Tiny’s thoughts turned to home, to that lighted window, and he wondered where else he could go in that rain.