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TODAY

Saturday, June 15

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Airbags

As night approached, shadows ran down Sunset Boulevard to the corner of Alverado, near the library and the car wash. They disappeared at the front counter of the Burrito King and the adjacent smoke shop. Punks were lined up outside the Echo Lounge, waiting for the three dollar show and seven dollar beers. A couple of men stood guard at the elotes stand, scratching their faces as they talked. Up the block, outside the Little Joy bar, a gang of noisy hipsters stood filling the evening with cigarette smoke and sarcastic remarks.

I parked up near the abandoned furniture outlet at the top of the hill. After locking the car, I stood outside, noting the dirt and birdshit on the hood. I unlocked the door, stuck a few spare dollars for a car wash into the glove box and then headed down to the Shortstop.

Damien sat on his chair near the main door of the bar.

"Hey, what's happening?" he asked. We shook hands. "You know there's dancing tonight."

"That's why I came out," I said. We both looked down the dark block as the crowd outside Little Joy chirped and grew larger. "Many people from down the street here?"

"Naw, those guys ain't made it up here yet," he said, nodding in the direction of the other bar.

"How long since there was dancing? I mean, when did the bar get the noise violation and everything?" I asked. Damien rubbed his enormous bald head.

"Shit, been — been about a year and a month. We hoping to start tonight and then do this once a week."

"Well, it better be good," I warned, pointing a toe in the air. "I'm wearing my best shoes, special for tonight. Only pair I ever bought in a resale shop that fit me."

"That right?" Damien nodded, impressed. "Look alright on you."

"Thanks, man. Don't got much to work with here, every little bit helps."

~*~

"They make your feet look huge," said Liz, annoyed. She and I had been poking along the stores on Milwaukee Avenue all afternoon. Now we stood in Back Seat Betty's, a thrift store down near Reckless Records. Not long before, we'd moved into a small apartment up in the Bucktown area. Once or twice a month, we'd head down to hang out around the shops and stores at the six corners. Today we had spent the day in the resale stores.

I stepped toward the mirror, pointing my toe in the air. "Yeah, my feet look enormous," I said. The laces were thin and the leather was in good shape. She stood behind me, watching. "It just means I've got a big dick," I said, grinning. I reached around and grabbed her ass. "Oh, stop it," she said, slapping me, laughing but nervous.

When I got home, I put the shoes away in the closet. Liz padded around the kitchen in her slippers as Prairie Home Companion invaded the summer evening. I mixed a martini and retired to my study. I probably spent the rest of the night alternating between writing in my journal and frustratedly beating off. I went to bed long after Liz had put her book away. Moonlight reached into the bedroom window and sent its pale glow to the room, casting shadows in the dark as I lay awake in the unearthly light, listening to her sleep, listening to the clock.

~*~

A half-moon hung between the Citibank building and the diner at the bottom of the hill. As Damien and I stood chewing the fat, a stardusted young couple approached the bar. They looked like a Hot Topic firesale, cheap sunglasses for him and gold lame purse and a "Milton Summer Camp 1987" t-shirt for her. When Damien asked for their IDs, she spent a few minutes digging through the gold, scraping around. When she produced a driver's license, I caught a glimpse of a normal, plain-looking woman. Nothing like the brown-on-blonde person with the purse and the fancy boyfriend. The man handed his license over between two fingers. Damien sent them in and returned to his chair.

"I guess I'll get on inside," I said.

"Your buddies showing up tonight?" he asked. A sharp cry from down the block made us both look again.

"No, I came out alone to dance." Damien nodded.

"Show the ladies your fine moves? You looking good, better watch out." he said.

"Hey, I go home by myself. Probably drunk but whatever."

"Right, right," he said. "I see you talking to someone, I'll have to say something."

"Say, 'Go home, idiot.'"

"I'll just point you to the exit sign and slap you in the ass. Kinda like you'll be driving somewhere, you're not sure if it's going in the right direction? My personal rule is — don't even think about it; take the first exit you see, get out a map. A lot better than keeping driving and find out you're way out fucking Mount Washington or something," he said, rubbing his head again.

"Getting all philosophical in your old age. You get lost today?"

"Shit, I been lost for, maybe, last three years." The front door opened and a small man poked his baseball cap out. "Yo, Damien," he muttered, "that guy's trying to come in the back again."

Damien disappeared into the bar, moving fast for a man of 300 pounds. I entered after him and, when my eyes adjusted to the dim red lights, found an empty stool and ordered a drink.

~*~

We sat in the Rainbo, on two stools near the pay phone. It was the first night I'd been out for drinks with the guy who'd introduced himself at Atomix a few weeks before. He'd agreed to design a website for a film festival I was involved with and I'd offered him free booze in exchange for the service.

"You ever say anything to him?" Daniel asked as he raised his glass. "The guy in the black hair?"

"Yeah, he's sitting pretty close. Let's not shout," I mumbled around my straw. I sucked the last of another gin and tonic out of my glass.

"Man, how did I get so drunk?" said Daniel. He reached up and reinforced his tiny fauxhawk. "You know what you should do, you should call him on that shit. No reason to let that sort of thing go on. It doesn't sound like he's got a reason to be such a dick." He mumbled the last few words and returned to pointing his hair to the ceiling.

"I started hanging around his girlfriend when he was being kind of a jerk to her and we just, I don't know, sort of got close."

"You sleep with her?" he asked.

"No, just friends. Their relationship was sort of messed up, pretty much ended all by itself. Now he bad-mouths me to everyone. I started dating someone he knew and he gave her all kinds of shit about it."

"Still hanging around with his ex?"

"No, she turned out to be crazy. Kind of like him. I got away from both of them. Or I got away from her, at least." Daniel tapped a rhythm on the bar with his knuckles.

"Sounds like you did the right thing, man. Mang," he said, leaning back on his barstool.

"He and a bunch of his friends were going to beat me up. Lucky that didn't happen."

"That's good, although you don't seem like a particularly lucky guy. I'm lucky, pretty much always been that way. You should hang around me more, things will im-prove, I ass-hure you." He coughed, drained his glass and stared at the black-haired guy through it. "You should go hit on the girl he's talking to. I'll bet he'd cry like a lit-tle ba-by." Dan made a funny, gurgling noise and I laughed out loud. The bartender looked up at the sound and came over to ask what we were drinking.

~*~

Somewhere in the dark of the Shortstop, I watched the crowd and held up the wall. I wanted to dance but dancing alone makes me feel uncomfortable. It helps to have a partner and I didn't have one here. If a certain song demands that I absolutely must dance, I can usually find a space between two groups of people and move around in a non-committal sort of way.

The soul music crashed out of the speakers as the DJ juggled a record, a cigarette and a drink. I shook the liquid out of my glass and went back up to get another. A second bartender had arrived and was working behind the bar. The woman recognized me and shouted hello. I shouted hi. She shouted what are you drinking. I shouted gin tonic. She nodded and set up the drink. As she handed it to me, she shouted that if I wanted to, I could come out with them later. I shouted what did you say? She shouted later, I should stick around afterwards. I recognized the word afterwards and nodded yes.

With a new glass in my hand, I stared at the mob on the floor and wondered what my roommate was doing. He and I were fighting openly and our small house had become completely uncomfortable. I wasn't just out tonight for the music, I was trying to avoid the cramped quarters. Neither of us had foreseen such a turn of events when we first moved in together. Metaphorically speaking, we had overshot Mount Washington by about four hours.

I resumed my place near the dance floor and looked on as the crowd flowed around the swell of the music. Last call came and disappeared as I found my courage and danced near a group of short women, making small pains to appear innocuous. When the doorman shouted and the sharp lights made everyone ugly again, I stumbled up through the noisy mess and waited at the bar.

I asked for the tab, spent a few minutes trying to sign my name legibly. The lights above the bar were almost blinding as the doorman sent everyone out through the front. "It's cool," I told him, "I'm coming out afterward." The turntable popped off. Giving his bar a once-over, the owner walked past and stared at me for a long minute, trying to determine if I belonged there or not.

I rocked back and forth in my hard-soled shoes, watched the bartenders count out the till. The bartender I was friendly with turned to look at me with a scowl. She coughed, lost her count, lost her balance a little and slowly started over. The other bartender whispered what is he doing here? I don't know, the friendly bartender whispered back. I think he's going to try to take you home, said the other bartender. What the fuck is this all about, I whispered to myself.

Neither of them noticed me stepping back from the room as chairs along the bar were being flipped over. I saw the young woman who collected glasses coming toward me. I leaned toward her to ask, "Is it alright to let me out the back?" "Mmm-hmm!" she said and lead me to the emergency exit.

When I reached the rear doorway, I considered shouting goodbye, then simply said good night to the woman. "Have a good one!" she said, locking me out. I went around the front and saw Damien talking to the other bouncer.

"See you later," I told him.

"Take it easy. I'm working all week till Sunday," he said.

"I'll be back before then." I waved and walked up the hill.

When I reached my car, I saw that I'd missed three calls. All were from friends in Chicago. I sat in my car, thumbing through the familiar numbers as the sharp whine of a siren raced past. Red and blue lights streaked along the buildings. I craned my neck to watch the squad car speed down Sunset. My phone rang unexpectedly as I saw the cop disappear somewhere at the bottom of the empty street.

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About the Author(s)

Sean U'Ren is a video editor who recently moved from Chicago to Los Angeles. In this occasional column, he shares his experiences transitioning from one city to another.

Fork It Over will return next week.

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