An old man in a red tracksuit lorded over a tiny table just beyond the entrance of The Exit, one of Rocco’s favorite places among his old stomping grounds. The top of the man’s head nearly grazed the low ceiling as he perched on a peeling barstool. I could hear blaring music over a hoard of screaming, writhing drunks, but the bar appeared to be empty. Instead of taking our money or verifying our ages, the man shouted at me as a director would at his cast and crew.
“Set the scene. Give me people, give me movement! We need six jukeboxes and a pool table. Give me a cum stained, puke spattered leather couch and people drinking away their youth and ambition. Imagine your uncle’s rumpus room with the wood-paneled walls and basement smell, but with industrial flooring and a larger wet bar. ”
“What the hell is going on here?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” said Octavia, as the old man slapped a neon paper band around her wrist.
“Nothing,” I said, as patrons materialized and the jukeboxes crashed into place. The old man continued to stare at me. I stuck my hand out for a wrist band and trotted clumsily through a wave of chaos after Octavia.
The place was definitely overcapacity. I say definitely not because I was already being crushed by people on every side of me, but because there was a fire marshal wandering around the bar shouting, “This bar is overcapacity. Everyone must vacate.”
No one listened to the poor fire marshal and he eventually sat down at the bar, ordered a pickleback, and began crying.
“I know I complain about this every time we come here, but why do they have to have six jukeboxes?” Octavia yelled as she waved smoke from her face with no resolve.
“He asked for six,” I yelled back. She gave me a strange look, but I just pointed at the oddities covering the walls behind the bar. There was a massive relief above the mountain of liquor bottles and when I say relief, I don’t mean that it was a slab of stone with raised carvings. I just don’t know what else to call this thing. The relief was made of action figures, baby dolls, barbies, furbies, and many other types of figurines cut in half. And, when I say cut in half, I don’t mean cut vertically or horizontally in half. I mean their backs had been chopped off and then the figurines were glued to the wall, giving the impression it was a relief sculpture. It appeared to be the history of sunglasses, starting with a Ken doll dressed as a caveperson staring at the sun which was made of half a tennis ball.
“Ouch,” a cardboard speech bubble next to Ken said. “My fucking eyes.” His eyes were charred and melted from having various objects stuck into his eyes and lit on fire every time someone ordered a flaming shot of 151.
An evolution appears to take place and Ken morphs into a furby. The furby is also staring at the sun, but with a steak knife protruding from each eye socket. The next figurine, a barbie, shields her eyes with her hands. Next, a bratz doll had strapped two leaves to her face. The relief culminates with an Optimus Prime lounging on a beach chair, a ken doll face cut out and stretched across his mechanical face in true Texas Chainsaw style, wearing mini Ray Bans.
Octavia said, “That sculpture haunts me no matter how many times we come here.”
“Agreed,” I said. “At least the jukebox that looks like a vintage refrigerator has our all-time favorite album on it.”
I pulled the fridge handle, which flipped the selection pages. “This is the best machine in the house,” I said, patting the old music machine. “It’s got every Satanic Panic album.”
“Too bad you can’t hear any of the music you put on here,” said Octavia.
“I’ve always wondered,” I said. “Why don’t any of these machines have regular bar music? Even punk bars throw, like, Styx and Boston and shit into their machines.”
“The Exit is, I don’t know, imploding?”
“If it implodes I hope the first thing to go is that demented sculpture on the wall.” I said, shuddering as it loomed in my peripherals.
My gaze wandered to a mounted gator head above the stage, where instead of a performance, there was a crusty old couch with a man in an apron that said “Kiss the cook!” He slumped on one of the arms, clutching a seltzer beer and resisting sleep. So the crusty couch that old man tracksuit demanded had made it into the sequence after all. Degenerates danced and mingled around the couch, sloshing beer all over the tired looking man, who appeared unperturbed by the inclement weather onstage. Octavia followed my line of sight.
“No, Octavia,” I said. “I’m not in the mood for any trainwreck savants or characters tonight. I still don’t know why you insist on seeking them out.”
She gave me a devilish look and skittered to join the guy on the damp couch, dragging me along with her, hand clenched tight in mine.
“I’ve been awake for days,” he hiccupped to us. “Me and my Dad are smoking the most perfect brisket out back in our new smoker. We got it imported from Greece.”
“I didn’t know Greece was known for their smokers,” said Octavia.
Not paying attention and pointing toward the bar I asked, “Do you think that sad fire marshal is going to get naked?”
“Echo, this man has delicious smoked meats artisanally crafted in a grecian smoker and you’re thinking about a naked fire marshall?”
“I’m not as food-focused as you Octavia, I’m always lost in a world of wild possibility,” I said.
The guy snorted at us and his head fell onto the couch arm. Before falling back asleep he said, “That dude’s definitely going to show everyone his ass and dick and some ball too.” Seconds later he jerked awake and yelled, “Are you here to steal my meat?”
“No one wants your meat,” Newsom said. Octavia and I jumped at the sound of her voice, not knowing she and Bobby were there and had been standing behind us.
“Jesus, how long have you guys been standing there?” I asked the pair.
“Long enough,” said Bobby.
A spectre of a man emerged from the crowd below, his sunken eyes finding us onstage. Tony. I hadn’t seen him since we last rented out the Paris apartment. His tall, lanky form swayed in the smoke as he approached, like the gait of a ghostly traveler returning from another universe. His tight pants and cut-off Satanic Panic and the Very Special Episodes shirt exposed so much of his long torso that it looked like his upper body was wearing a hat.
“Ah,” he said, halting close enough to poke me in the eye with his pierced nipple. “The necromancer himself.”
Octavia cocked her head. “Who’s a necromancer?”
“The Hair,” Tony said, reaching over me with his armpit in my face to slap Bobby’s shoulder. “Went to necromancy school just like Rocco Atleby. Well, not exactly like Rocco. Rocco went to the necromancy school in Chicago.”
Newsom said, “And, Bobby graduated, unlike Mr. Atleby.”
“I didn’t know a xerox signed by a wet yoga instructor dressed in a robe in her studio’s attic made you a certified graduate of necromancy school,” I said. “Was the orgy before or after the graduation ceremony?”
“That class is legit, it cost him five hundred dollars,” snapped Newsom.
“Hey, do me a favor,” Tony said, ignoring us and addressing Bobby while continuing to slam his gangly hand on Bobby’s shoulder.
Bobby rolled his hands like tumbling oak leaves, indicating that he wanted Tony to go ahead with the obvious request and to not be shy about it.
Bobby said, “You need me to revive this dead version of you. Shit man, that’s obvious.” Bobby winked at Tony and reached over to slip something in Tony’s back pocket. He patted his butt and said, “This round’s on me.”
Tony smiled in thanks. He was already digging the small parcel out of his back pocket when two bikers bumped into him. They spilled their beers all over me as they passed through the traffic jam of my involuntary reunion with Bobby, Newsom, and Tony. I sat there, dripping with sour beer, willing myself to grab Octavia and get as far away from these people as we possibly could, but it felt as if every semblance of free will had left my body.
“Hey watch it, assholes, you coulda spilled that beer on me,” said Tony, protecting his precious bounty with cupped hands. He pushed past them and sauntered off the stage, no doubt in search of a dark corner where he could devour his drugs in peace.
Ruby’s head appeared in the haze of the Exit, face inches from his sketchbook as he scribbled and zig zagged through the crowd below toward us. He stumbled up the stage steps and meandered over to the couch, where he shoved his notebook in Octavia’s face.
“Do you think it’s apparent he’s covered in baby oil?” Ruby asked her. “Or does he just look wet?”
“What in the dysfunctional fuck am I looking at?” she asked him.
“It’s Slug Man,” Ruby chirped, “He’s the hero Chicago never wanted.”
“Why is he naked and dragging his ass juice all over the place?” I asked.
“No, it’s baby oil,” Ruby clarified. “See, he used it for his eczema for years. But after absorbing such large amounts of it for so long, he has this weird superhero phenomena reaction. One day he just snaps and rips all his clothes off and starts boot scooting around the city. He like permanently oozes the stuff and leaves baby oil snail trails all over town. It’s the only evidence he leaves behind of his vigilante presence.”
“How the hell does being naked and oozing excessive amounts of baby oil make him a hero?” Octavia asked.
“That’s the thing!” Ruby shouted, “He’s so disgusting he distracts criminals. Say, for instance, a mugging is happening, and Slug Man scooches by. While the criminal is staring in petrified disgust, a good samaritan can take advantage of the moment and punch the bad guy, thus preventing the mugging. And like Santa, he can accomplish quite a lot in a large area over a short period of time.”
“Like Santa…” Newsom stared at Ruby.
“Yeah!” said Ruby. “But see, he embarrasses everyone in the city so much that the media won’t even publish articles about him. Parents shield their children’s eyes if they even hear his squelching approach, so it becomes this coming of age event for the city’s youth to lay eyes on him and all his oozing glory. It gets so bad that Chicagoans forbid tourism and wall-in the city. We see Slug Man become the villain as the public’s disgust grows. He’s also got this random, purposeless ability to slide up the side of skyscrapers, but I haven’t really developed that plot point yet,” Ruby finished. “Welp, break’s about over. These shots won’t pour themselves. See ya guys.” He snapped his notebook shut and skittered back through the haze toward the bar.
“Hey, I’ll be right back,” I said to Octavia, giving her a quick kiss. “I’m going to get some of this beer off me.”
I weaved through the long line to the women’s room that was at the end of a dingy hallway lined with prints of Rocco’s books and black and white snapshots of Rocco in The Exit with his preternatural posse of intellectuals and pushed open the door to the men’s room.
I nodded to the bathroom’s maître d’ who wasn’t really the maître d’ but was a crust punk named Skipper pretending to be the maître d’. This was an improv game Skipper began several years ago and the regulars of The Exit found it so funny that Skipper kept doing it. I stood at the sink, washing the sticky grime off my arms. At that moment, a clattering that sounded like an off-kilter orchestra warming up pulsed through the bathroom door. As I scrubbed my hands, I whistled along with the warm up and added my own off-kilter instrument to the mix. The warm up quickly transitioned into tune that, no matter how many times I’ve heard it, pricks through my skin like a syringe full of pure fear adrenaline plunged into my bloodstream. I shut off the sink and crept to the door, heart pulsing in my throat.
Skipper reached into the garbage, pulled out a sopping wet paper towel, and held it out at me. “Hot towel, good sir?”
I waved his hand away. “Not now, Skipper.”
He shrugged and chucked the paper towel at the mirror. With a slap it stuck to the filthy surface, which was littered with dried sticky substances of every color in the rainbow plus some unidentifiable colors and dozens of other “hot towels.” Like a revolting Rorschach inkblot, it was enough to make the mind go hazy and the nose bleed when stared at too long.
I cracked open the door and peered down the hall into the bar, knowing damn well that a visual of Blanket Town chiming, clashing, and clanging into their Maypole Song For Atleby would do nothing but send more adrenaline into my bloodstream.
When I say I hate this song, I mean I truly hate this song. Not for its melody or lyrics, but what it represents. And for some reason, I forget about the song until the next time I hear it even though Blanket Town has played this song live every night for the past eighteen years. I think the song is a permanent fixture in the repressed corridors of my brain because of the raucous dance fans invented to accompany each performance. Every night they dance around the Rocco statue in the middle of the bar, and no matter how far I position my body from the dance I always end up pulled into the maypole dance. Even if I stand outside The Exit I still end up holding hands with a howling maypole enthusiast hell bent on making every patron in the bar dance the dance. The gravitational pull of the dance has such a violent grip on my being that one time, even as I fled to the other end of downtown Tampa, I somehow still ended up circling the maypole.
“See ya, Ec,” Skipper said and chucked another hot towel at the mirror. “Oh yeah and watch your step down the hall if you’re going to try to hide in the shadows to avoid getting pulled into the maypole dance because the room in the weast wing of the exit is acting up again. Ghost projections keep glitching on and off of the OOTC having a meeting about watching an episode of Deep Shadows, that British vampire soap opera from the sixties. ”
The out of tune violins of Maypole swelled and overpowered every other instrument signaling the end of the song’s lengthy introduction.
“Did you just say weast wing?” I asked as Skipper waved goodbye and the door swung shut in my face.