The only thing that's changed about The Alibi Bar in the last year is, nothing. Unless you count an extra layer of mottled dust haunting the corners, and a slight ratcheting up of the stale beer/urine bouquet. Even the handful of slouched drinkers appear to be still-life replicas of last year's models. Merry Christmas Eve to me.
Eliot watches me approach through the bar-back mirror. He throws down the shot in front of him, and guzzles from his draft beer chaser. He knows I'll be good to pick up the tab, so why not start with empty glasses? Eliot has spent his life sneering at opportunities to improve his lot, while jeering at me for making the most of mine. Brotherhood can be a twisty, treacherous road with two-way traffic. And Eliot and I always seem to meet head-on.
I straddle the stool to his right, wishing it came with a seat belt, and airbags. He nods via the mirror. All the greeting I expected. Yeah, I love you, too, Eliot.
The bartender delivers us both shots and beers, then limps to the far end of the bar to further a futile struggle with a crossword puzzle already worn thin with erasures. He's seen this annual passion play before, and it doesn't interest him a whit. I'm guessing 'interest' is a concept most bartenders gave up on back when sots still did their drinking in real caves. People who live like moles eventually become blind. And as long as I'm guessing, it's my supposition that Eliot has eyes only for me. Once a year, I let him capture me in his crosshairs. A familial obligation probably rooted in insanity. The rest of the year, I'm sure Eliot feels his way around by rote and rotgut.
"So?" he says. Three hundred and sixty-five days since he's seen his only living blood relative. So?
"Clever," I counter.
"Me? Nah, you were always the clever one. The one who made something of himself. Then made a crazy-ass fool of himself. How is what's-her-name and all her little beaners, anyway?"
"Beaners is an offensive term, Eliot. You're talking about my kids."
"Offensive? Nah. I'm not offended in the least. My big brother wants to adopt a tribe of cardboard-suitcase wetbacks, I say more power to him. Save the world, I say. But they ain't your kids, Stevie, and they never will be. Our blood don't smell like Mexican chili peppers. Leastwise, mine don't."
"Carmelita is from Venezuela." I regret it as soon as it's said.
He slaps his hand on the bar, to signal for another round. "Now you're just splitting greasy black hairs, brother. A greaser is a greaser, don't matter which pepper patch they popped out of."
"Whatever made you so narrow-minded and mean, Eliot?"
"You have to ask?"
"I felt the strap more than you ever did. I was older."
Eliot turns to look at me for the first time. "I know you did. That only made things worse. Why didn't you do something?"
"What was there to do? He was our father." I lower my voice. "Way he saw it, he had rights . . . and obligations."
"Rights and obligations. Yeah, he was rightly obliged to get drunk and come home mean." He drains his shot, and chases with half his beer. I refrain from asking him if drunk and mean reminds him of anyone else. Moles don't bother with mirrors.
"You only made things worse for yourself." I toss my shot. Hot. It stings, yet feels good at the same time. A familiar confusion from childhood I still can't quite reconcile.
"Maybe that's the difference between us, brother. I could never distinguish between better and worse. Worse was the best it ever got for me." He guzzles the rest of his beer back, slaps the bar again. "And nothing has ever changed. You found a way to make it all better--'til you went crazy and married that Chiquita banana. Me? Hell, I found my way here, and I ain't got nowhere else to go." I'm reminded of the symbiosis between self-pity and the bottle. No sympathy springs forth. I wonder if brotherhood has a statute of limitations. I feel nothing. Not even pity. Not even sadness.
"Are you blaming me for your . . . situation?"
"What good would that do? But you were the older one."
"By two years. Was I supposed to protect you? Hell, you wouldn't even protect yourself. You goaded him. And don't think I didn't suffer for your foolishness."
"So now you're blaming me, big brother?"
"Blame is a dead end, Eliot." Especially when it's a closed circle. "Why do we have this same conversation year and after year?"
"Oh, that's an easy one. Because we're strangers with the same last name and a miserable distant history. Hell, I'm not even allowed to set foot in my big brother's house." He slapped the bar again. If he hadn't, I would have.
"And you know why. If you can't treat my family with respect, you're not welcome in our home."
"What you're saying is a little Mexican hot sauce is thicker than blood? That's okay with me. I'm careful of the company I keep."
I looked around the stale bar, the silent, stagnant patrons, and laughed. "Right. I'm so sorry to have interrupted you and The Daughters of The American Revolution. Or is this a meeting of the local Mensa chapter? The conversation is certainly stimulating."
Eliot nodded. "So that why you come down here every year? To rub my nose in it?"
I felt my fists clench, but my voice remained loose. "You're rubbing your own nose in it, Eliot. Every day. Right up to the bridge. Right up to your self-deluding eyeballs. And once a year, I come down to this dank urinal and give you a chance to pretend it's not all your own freakin' fault. So, Merry Christmas, little brother, enjoy." I slapped the bar. Hard.
Eliot's prolonged silence gave me goose bumps. Especially when the drinks arrived and all he did was stare at them. I picked up my shot glass and offered it for a toast. He ignored me. I drank alone.
"Listen, Eliot, I haven't been completely forthcoming with you. You've been right about Carmelita all along. She left me about a month ago. Cleaned out our bank account and disappeared to who-knows-where."
He turned to me, a hint of a smile on his lips. "Didn't I tell you? Greasers are slippery. Why we call 'em greasers." He tossed back his shot, wiped his lips with the back of his hand. "What about all them little beaners?"
I wanted to slug him. "She took them."
He grinned. "Boy, you dodged a bullet on that one, Stevie. She could've run off and left you with a passel of taco-eaters and legal bills in the making. You're better off, brother. Don't know why you trawled third-world nookie in the first place."
I hadn't seen Eliot so energized in years. He slapped the bar and ordered a round for the house. Of course, it was going on my tab, but I guess it was worth it, to see the bar still-lifes animate. The atmosphere in the dingy bar suddenly verged on festive. I drank with the others, and ordered two more rounds.
I signaled the bartender for my tab. "Eliot, I have to go."
"Go where? To an empty house?" He searched my eyes. "Stick around, have some fun with your own kind."
"Can't, Eliot. I've had too much to drink already. I'm out of practice."
I paid the bill, tipped the bartender, and threw another twenty on the bar. Eliot stood when I did, and we hugged. Or maybe we wrestled.
The air outside was cold and bracing. As I walked, I dialed my home phone number. Six rings, then the answering machine. I hung up, and continued walking.
My cell phone rattled in my pocket.
. . .
"Yeah, that was me. Everything okay?"
. . .
"Figured it was something like that. Always so much to do this time of year."
. . .
"Yeah, I saw him, and I'm fine, honey. But I'm going to walk around the block a few times and throw down a couple cups of coffee before I get in the car."
. . .
“Yes, I'll be careful. And I love you, too, Carm. Tell the kids I'll be home soon."
. . .
"Carm, I told my brother the most dreadful lie. I don't know if you'll be able to forgive me."
. . .
"Yes, it did make him happy. But I'm not proud of myself."
. . .
"Oh, baby, you're one in a million. I'll tell you all about it later."
copyright © 2014
♦ Lee Allen Hill is just a leftover hippie with a penchant for word-slinging.
♦ This author's generous contributions help make P&S possible.