The Emanon Lounge had three doors in the front of the building. One labeled ENTRANCE, the second EXIT, the third AMBIVALENT. It was the third door that was worn from use.
At around 4 o’clock, the old boys who combed their thinning hair with human bones were taking the same seats at the bar that they’d had for years. They had all grown up on the wrong side of the tracks, tried to leave, but the damn train had brought them right back here. From left to right, the unemployed house painter and Gulf War vet who won’t talk about it, Mike Ackroyd. Retired state highway worker Ding Dong Daddy Ray Johnson, an elderly fellow who says a few years ago he saw Bigfoot out back, foraging in the dumpster. Trucker without a truck Diesel Debbs, who lost his license after he drove his rig over his ex-wife’s car in a drunken frenzy. Large-appliance salesman Ray Neelon, on disability and heavily medicated for depression, wearing a denim jacket and American-flag headband.
And a fifth guy who no one had seen before, separated from the others by a few bar stools, with a shot of tequila and a glass of red wine in front of him. Tall and broad shouldered, dark suit, white shirt and narrow tie, much younger and far better groomed than anyone who generally walked in the door here. His demeanor was of someone who shouldn’t be messed with, eyes hidden behind a nice pair of imported sunglasses. Even in the gloom of the Emanon, a bar so dark that the introduction of the light bulb appeared to be a few decades away.
He flipped open his device, examined the screen. Nothing. Totally blank.
“What’s yer name, young fella?” Ding Dong Daddy Ray Johnson shouted over to him, thinking the guy might want to feel welcome.
“Dada,” he said, darkly, not sounding welcomed.
Neelon pointed at the dark case at Dada’s feet. “Is that a gun?”
“Careful when you leave here with that, then. This ain’t the best neighborhood. There’s predators outside.”
“Ray, what do you make of this?’’ Ackroyd said, gesturing at the TV screen over the bar, where a newscast was showing a picture of an Iraqi man wearing women’s panties on his head. They were watching a documentary on the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq some years ago, yet one more sign that the moral compass had been pawned. Neelon shook his gray head and sipped his beer. “I woke up like that one morning.’’
Liquor had been served here since Prohibition — ice-cream parlor in front, gin hidden in the back. “This used to be a big manufacturing neighborhood,’’ Ackroyd said. “There was a time this was the tool-and-die capital of the world. In the early ’80s, they used to stand five deep at the bar at any given lunch hour. This place was the place at one time.’’
It was no longer. Their philosopher is Merle Haggard. Heartbreak is a way of life. Debbs set down two quarters. The bartender handed him a set of dice, Debbs rolled them across the bar and won a free drink. “Good,” he said. “I had my ‘Goin’ Out of Marriage’ sale today. I even lost the beagle.’’
Now the story on the TV news was about the woman’s body found in an abandoned car about 900 miles from here, following the gentle curve of the gulf coast, on one of the unnamed Florida keys. “Whoever done it cut her legs off and put ’em in the trunk, and ripped her open like a pig and laid all of the internal organs out on the dashboard,” Ackroyd said. “Sorted alphabetically! Don’t tell me that guy wasn’t a doctor. Just like Jack the Ripper.”
Neelon sipped his beer and cleared his throat. No one said anything for a few moments. “It’s a sick world,” Neelon said.
Dada set down his wine glass. “The world’s full of predators. You said so yourself.”
“Barry!” a women’s voice boomed from deep in the kitchen. This was Betsy Meyer, the Emanon’s owner, shouting to her bartender. “It’s Happy Hour!”
In seconds, the Emanon shifted as effortlessly as stagehands moving backdrops for the next act of a play. Debbs slipped a handful of quarters into the juke box and punched in the numbers of songs that he’d long memorized. A moose head on the wall, its massive dusty antlers strung with white Christmas lights, stared balefully at the humans. If that moose could talk – and the later in the evening it was, the more likely that seemed – he’d start harmonizing “Inka Dinka Doo” with Ding Dong Daddy Ray Johnson, who made his way to the stage with the help of a walker. Someone found an outlet on the wall and plugged in his sports jacket, and Johnson erupted into a twinkling display of Christmas bulbs as he broke into another old standard, this time accompanied by the waitress Helen McCaffrey on wooden spoons while she theatrically shouted, over and over, “They’re calling me the knocker girl now!”
More regulars were strolling and staggering through the door, the surrealistic scene soon accompanied by Jerry Fingers on piano and Neelon, looking like a blend of James Cagney and Raymond Burr, summoned to the stage with chants of “Ray! Ray! Ray!” for his enthusiastic version of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.”
Betty Meyer herself emerged from the kitchen in her billowing blonde wig, pumping away on an accordion and pumping up the audience like a cheerleader. Legend has it that she studied classical music at the Eastman School of Music. But that was many years ago – how many, she’d never say. Now she banged away on percussion instruments made from toilet seats.
Mikhail Baryshnikov, passing through town, came in one night after a performance many years ago and witnessed exactly this same scene, exactly the same people, among the same eclectic clutter of ornate old chandeliers, a painting of fairly recent vintage showing a reclining, big-thighed female nude, old dolls that looked eerily human and retirees wearing strange hats and singing mossy old songs. “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” “And the Band Played On.” “You Are My Sunshine.” “Who’s Sorry Now?”
Johnson, breathing heavily, sat down on the stool next to Dada.
“If you’re a musician,” he said, “you must be loving this.”
Dada shrugged. He’d been trying to define the musty-attic aroma of the place. It was the smell of age, most likely. Or perhaps the Ferris wheel hot-dog warmer on the bar, an endlessly revolving wiener of fortune that was metaphor for this evening: the sizzling Coney Islander skins popping and screaming silently behind glass like midway riders trapped for 33 years in the carnival. The juke box shifted to Merle Haggard’s “Silver Wings.” A hush came over the bar, and then the dancing resumed.
“I create avant-garde jazz,” Dada said. “Music of reflective melancholy. I turn accidents to just the right angle, so they catch the best light. Art should be dangerous, subversive. Music should rouse the masses, steer them to the doorsteps of the impotent leaders hiding beneath their bedcovers, trapped, waiting for us to climb the staircase, step by step, to their bedrooms, where we’ll slit their throats. Change only comes from the bottom. The powerful won’t turn it over voluntarily. You have to take it from them.”
Johnson and Ackroyd nodded.
“I’m speaking to the wrong crowd, aren’t I?”
Johnson and Ackroyd nodded.
“If I could bottle this night, I’d throw it in the river,” Dada said. “We are trapped on this world, yet free to go through the motions, and be happy as we dare, or hope.” He pointed to the strolling and staggering dancers. “Oblivious is one way to get through the years, I suppose. When the Internet goes dark, everyone stumbles like they’ve been hit by a 2×4. Except people like them. They’re the roaches that will survive the nuclear winter.” He swirled the wine in his glass, sniffed its bouquet and took a long drink. “I detect oak, and forest leaves, with hints of cadaver.”
Dada set the glass on the bar. “Those predators who you fear outside the door, they can be dealt with. Life can be taken away in seconds.” He snapped his fingers, turned toward Johnson and, with a long index finger, edged his sunglasses down his nose a bit, as though he were examining an insect on the sidewalk. “Don’t you think,” he said slowly and slyly, “that the world would be a better place if everyone were dead?”
“Them sunglasses keep you in the dark,” Johnson said. He was old, and no longer afraid of getting his ass whipped.
“Yes, I am tuned to frequencies best left to serious students of cultural eccentricity,” Dada said, standing. He was 6 feet, 6 inches tall. He drank his shot of tequila and picked up his saxophone case. “Silver Wings” was over. “Which way to Laredo?” he said quietly.
Everyone sitting at the bar turned and pointed to the door. Dada chose AMBIVALENT. Most do.