The Bar Scene

By Mark Alpert

Ink and alcohol don’t mix so well. I’ve heard a few authors say they write more freely after downing a drink or two, but for me it has the opposite effect: it kills my concentration and makes me sound stupid. Once I’ve had a drink, my writing for the day is over.

But writing about drinking — ah, that’s a different story. It’s always interesting to imagine what your characters will do and say when they’re under the influence. I think that’s why the bar scene is such a popular setting in novels, particularly in suspense novels that feature hard-drinking cops or private detectives. Also, the bar or tavern or pub is an excellent setting for shady deals and rowdy brawls and sexual assignations, all the juicy fundamentals of thriller fiction.

But how do you write a good bar scene? In my personal experience, the particular appeal of a bar has nothing to do with the drinks it serves — Budweiser tastes pretty much the same no matter where you drink it, and the same goes for Grey Goose and Jack Daniel’s. What makes a bar memorable are the personalities of the characters you meet there. With their tongues greased by liberal amounts of alcohol, barflies will let loose all kinds of entertaining bull, as well as the occasional nugget of truth. The Irish have a word for it — craic — which is actually (according to Wikipedia, at least) an adaptation of the Middle English word crak, meaning “loud conversation, bragging talk.” The best pubs in Dublin have a lot of good craic.

Another appealing thing about the bar scene is that it gives a writer the opportunity to warp the perspective of the point-of-view character. If your hero or heroine is getting soused, he or she will see the world differently — sometimes in a better light, sometimes much worse. You can change the pace or diction of the narrative to reflect the altered mental state of the narrator.

I tried to do this in the opening paragraphs of the bar scene presented below. It’s the second chapter of my novel about Southern politics, set in Montgomery, Alabama, in the mid-1980s. (If you’d like to see the very beginning of the book, the first installments are here, here and here.) Please excuse the scurrilous language; because the scene is set in a bar, the dialogue follows the norms of barroom banter (as President Trump might call it).

—————–

Teetering on my stool at the Jubilee Bar, I peered through the fog of cigarette smoke at the loud, manic, overdressed crowd. More than two hundred politicians and plutocrats had crammed into the humid room for Congressman Bledsoe’s campaign kickoff party. It was 10 p.m. on a Friday night, and the ruling class of Alabama was hard at work.

I shook my woozy head, marveling at the hubbub. How many lies were being told right this very minute? How many rumors started, slanders insinuated, bets wagered and reputations assassinated? Just look at all the legislators and lobbyists and fat cats, from every podunk town in the whole damn state, guffawing at their country-dumb jokes and getting drunk off their asses. And look at all the young women navigating through the crowd, making their way toward the bar and climbing onto the leather stools like Aphrodite rising from the wine-dark sea. See them bathed in the tangential yellow light reflected off the neat rows of bottles behind the bartender. How can they keep laughing and drinking for so many hours, raising their glasses to their ever-ready mouths? How in the world can they do it?

They do it because they’re part of God’s dream, just like everything else in the world, past, present and future. The folks at the Jubilee act out God’s dream in great detail, each perfectly ignorant of his role in the drama. Would you approach that young woman at the bar with lust in your heart if you knew that you were merely acting out God’s dream? Would you calmly stroke the soft skin of her forearm if you knew that God was dreaming you and your lust, for His own enjoyment? Or would you stand stock-still, determined to give no more pleasure to a God who dreams of women as beautiful as hand grenades, round-shouldered and smooth and conveying no hint of the violence within?

I was going to be sick. Not now, not right away, but sometime before the night was over, and there was nothing I could do about it. The inevitability of it depressed me. I shouldn’t have had that last shot of tequila.

Evan Pearson had forced it on me. He sat next to me at the bar, bantering mindlessly with two women from Birmingham who seemed to be loosely connected to Bledsoe’s campaign. It amazed me how Evan could pull clusters of women into conversation as soon as they walked through the door of the Jubilee. It also amazed me how quickly those conversations deteriorated. The subjects Evan chose to talk about were so carelessly random and his voice was so idiotically enthusiastic that it immediately put him, and me by association, into the category of circus oddities. The women laughed at Evan’s jokes and flirted with us briefly, but they were gone as soon as they recognized a friend, any friend, in the crowd. Evan was the bar’s unofficial greeter. He performed the verbal equivalent of helping the women take off their coats. But the Jubilee wasn’t paying him anything for this service, so the whole thing seemed a little pointless to me.

“My, my, you two look good enough to eat,” Evan said to the women from Birmingham. “You look so good, I could put you on a plate and sop you up with a biscuit. So how well do y’all know the honorable Congressman Bledsoe?”

The women wore matching black slacks and gold lamé jackets. Each one had a crisp white bow in her hair.

“Not nearly well enough,” said the taller and homelier of the two. I hadn’t caught her name when we were introduced. It sounded like “mail room” or something like that.

“He’s gorgeous,” said the shorter and prettier woman. “I wish I could do something more than just vote for him.”

“Keep back, Suzanne,” Mail Room said. “That boy is mine.”

“I suppose he is somewhat appealing,” Evan allowed. “Tall, dark and handsome and all that. But if you look real close at that Bubba, you’ll see that his arms are too long. They hang down to his knees almost. It’s a sign of a vitamin deficiency, a very serious vitamin deficiency. Besides, that Bubba is happily married.”

“I don’t care if he is,” Mail Room said. “I’ll be his mistress.”

“Yeah, I bet he’s tired of his wife,” Suzanne noted. “I bet he wants some strange.”

“Well, being a kept woman is a very interesting lifestyle, from what I hear,” Evan said. “But it might pose some problems for his campaign. It’s hard to run for governor and sneak around at the same time. Not impossible, mind you, but pretty damn challenging.”

“There he is, Suzanne!” Mail Room suddenly cried, her face becoming almost pretty as it broke into a smile.

Bledsoe was working the crowd on the other side of the room. He went from table to table, shaking hands and asking friendly questions. His jacket was thrown roguishly over his shoulder, as if he were posing for one of his television ads. The women from Birmingham were right; he was a handsome man. He had a full head of thick black hair, sculpted with so much mousse and gel that it looked, and probably felt, like black marble. He wore a white shirt and a gray tie and a gold class ring on his right hand. He looked like an Olympic athlete, like Mark Spitz in Munich in 1972, except Bledsoe was even taller and sturdier and a hell of a lot more earnest. Earnestness ran through his blood like oxygen, reddening his face and quickening his gestures.

“Let’s go see if we can talk to him for a minute,” Mail Room said.

The women picked up the rum-and-cokes that Evan had bought them and headed for the other side of the room.

“It was nice talking to y’all,” Suzanne said over her shoulder.

The same thing had happened to Evan so many times before on so many other nights that it was hard for me to feel very sorry for him. I tried to stay absolutely silent and still, partly because I was tired of entertaining God and partly because I knew that any unnecessary motion would only hasten the inevitable.

“You’re awful quiet tonight, Bubba,” Evan said. “Maybe if you’d talked some more, we might’ve done a little better with those girls.”

“I’m tired of entertaining God,” I muttered.

“What the hell are you talking about, Bubba? I think you need another shot of that Mexican.”

At this point, I figured, it couldn’t make things any worse. Evan ordered another shot of tequila, then grabbed the salt shaker and what was left of a lime. “Now come on, Bubba, I ain’t gonna lick your hand for you. Go ahead and lick it. There you go. Now I’ll shake some salt on it for you. You really are a mess, Bubba. It’s hard for me to believe that this is the same Bubba who writes such trenchant prose for the Advertiser. Think of your readers, Bubba! The millions who love and respect you! Now go ahead and lick the salt off your thumb. That’s it. Now take this little glass in your other hand and pour it down your throat. The whole thing, Bubba. Okay, we’re almost through. Just stick this lime in your mouth and suck on it. There, that wasn’t so bad now, was it?”

The shot made me feel somewhat better. It lay like a coating of oil over the roiling acidic mass in my stomach that would sooner or later send me rushing off to the men’s room.

“There’s a lot of rich Bubbas here tonight,” Evan noted. “If old Bill Bledsoe doesn’t get any big contributions, it won’t be for lack of trying.”

“I hate those rich fuckers,” I slurred.

“Don’t be vulgar, Bubba. It ain’t their fault that they’re rich. If you want my opinion, I’d say that Bledsoe won’t be getting any big checks tonight. Rich Bubbas don’t like uncertainty. Until Fowler says whether he’s going to run for reelection or not, they’ll just sit on their hands and wait. What do you think, Bubba?”

I stared guiltily at my empty shot glass. I hadn’t told Evan about my meeting with Fowler. “What do I think? I think you’re a fucking genius.”

“Thank you, Bubba. I can tell you mean that with all sincerity. I feel exactly the same way about you. We both have some very good qualities, you know. We’re both young, we’re both good-looking, we’re both intelligent, although right now, Bubba, you don’t look very intelligent with your mouth hanging open like that. We both have bright futures ahead of us in the wonderful world of journalism.”

“That’s a fucking joke.”

“All right, I’ll concede that our jobs are more of the dead-end variety. But that doesn’t change my main point. We both have some very good qualities, but none of the women in this bar seem to appreciate them. Now why is that, Bubba? Have you ever considered why that is?”

“Because that’s the way God dreamed it.”

“No, God has nothing to do with it. It’s because of Darwin’s theory of evolution. Not the whole theory, just an itty-bitty part of it which I call the Theory of the Long-tailed Parrots of South America.”

“I think I’m gonna be sick.”

“Try to control yourself, Bubba. You see, there are these parrots in South America that have incredibly long tails. Actually, it’s just the male parrots that have the long tails. The female parrots have short tails, but they’ll do just about anything to have sex with a male parrot who has a really long tail. The longer his tail, the more the lady parrot wants him. Sounds familiar, don’t it? But the strange thing, the really crazy thing, is this: it’s not so smart for a parrot to carry around such a long tail in the South American jungle. It gets in the way when you’re flying between the trees and all the jungle cats try to swipe at it while you’re flying by or just resting on your perch. In fact, a long tail can be a very dangerous thing to have. So why do you think the female parrots find it so attractive?”

“This is fucked up,” I muttered. “You’re talking about a bunch of fucking birds.”

“No, Bubba, I’m giving you some insight into the female mind. The female parrots like the long tail precisely because it’s so dangerous to have. A male parrot with a really long tail is obviously such a phenomenal flyer and such an all-around great bird that he can survive in the jungle despite his big handicap. You see what I’m saying, Bubba? The female parrot wants those same intangible qualities in her own chicks. So she fucks the parrot with the longest tail.”

“So you’re saying that I’m not getting laid because my tail isn’t long enough?”

“Come on, Bubba, use your head. If a dumb old parrot can sense intangible qualities, don’t you think a woman can? Here are the two of us, young, good-looking and intelligent, but when a woman starts talking to you or me, the first question that pops into her head is, ‘If he’s so goddamn great, how come he doesn’t have a wife or girlfriend?’ Then she thinks, ‘There must be some bad intangible thing about this guy, something he keeps hidden, something so terrible that it outweighs all his good looks and jokes.’ And then all your good qualities start working against you, because the handsomer and smarter you are, the more terrible that hidden intangible thing must be. Women get scared shitless when they see all our good qualities, Bubba. So they run to the bathroom or they say, ‘There’s Bill Bledsoe, let’s go talk to fucking Bill Bledsoe.’ ”

Evan shook his head. For a moment he looked truly distressed. But then the bar’s front door whooshed open and he automatically turned to check out the new arrival. “Uh-oh, Bubba. Look over there. I see a fine piece of womanhood heading our way.”

A petite woman in a black dress stepped uncertainly into the miasma of the Jubilee, scanning the bar for familiar faces. She had pretty gray eyes and jet-black hair. The dress was a vampy, strapless number that cupped her breasts and made a smooth black curve running down to her knees.

“She’s looking to see who’s got the biggest tail,” I said.

“Okay, Bubba, follow my lead. We’re gonna tell her that we both have girlfriends and that our intangible qualities are much better than our tangible ones. If we play our cards right, she’ll party with us and get nekkid!”

Evan jumped off his barstool and took two steps toward her. “Excuse me, I was just wondering if you’d like to meet two Bubbas who have some very good intangible qualities.”

“Evan Pearson, what the hell are you blabbering about?”

Her voice rang across the bar, joyously familiar. It was like the opening chord of a song that was popular when I was a child, a song that was playing on my mother’s radio when an incredible ecstasy flooded my five-year-old mind, and now the song is unbearably sad because I can’t remember what caused the ecstasy, or even what the ecstasy felt like exactly, but I know that nothing so powerful will ever hit me again. Then I recognized the intelligence behind the voice, which linked the words to a cadence as unique as a fingerprint, a combination of country drawl and sweet sorority-house purr and the commonsensible amusement you sometimes hear in the voices of truck drivers — hey buddy, where the hell did you learn to drive? Then the anonymous petite woman melted away under the hot glare of memory and became something recognizable, a rather good approximation of what I should’ve expected Cathy Hobbs to look like after seven years.

“Well, what do you know,” Evan said. “It’s the congressman’s wife. I didn’t even recognize you. I was about to hit on you like you were some common tramp.”

Cathy hugged him. Then she spotted me over Evan’s shoulder. “Is that Jack Blanchard?” She disentangled herself from Evan and came toward me. “Bless your heart, I haven’t seen you in ages!”

She felt warm and light in my arms. I held her gingerly, the same way you’d hold a fluted wineglass filled with kerosene.

“Looking good, Cathy,” I said. The room came unglued for a second, spun a nauseous quarter-turn, and then swung back into place. It wouldn’t be long before I’d have to excuse myself. I threw all my will into concentrating on Cathy’s face, specifically the heartbreaking arch of her upper lip.

“Why, you poor thing! You’re as drunk as Cooter Brown!” That was a favorite expression of hers. I hadn’t heard it in seven years.

“Aw, Bubba’s all right.” Evan patted my head. “He’s just a little confused. He’s been raving about God again. He does more raving about God than a Baptist preacher.”

“What are you saying about God?” Cathy asked sternly. “You better not be saying anything bad.”

“No, no, I’m just drunk, that’s all,” I managed to say. “When did you get into town?”

“About half an hour ago. The plane was two hours late getting out of Washington and I missed my connection in Atlanta, so I told Bill I’d meet him at the party. I was so short on time, I had to change into this dress on the plane. You know how hard it is to change clothes in one of those tiny bathrooms? I thought I was going to fall into the john.”

“That would’ve been a story!” Evan crowed. “Congressman’s wife stuck in the toilet at ten thousand feet!”

“Oh, hush, you! I need a drink.” Cathy climbed onto the barstool next to mine and studied the laminated card that listed the Jubilee Bar Specials. “I wonder if they still have those X-rated drinks we used to get here. Jack, remember that time we all had sex on the beach?”

Unfortunately, all the tequila in my stomach was making it hard to concentrate on what Cathy was saying. The only thing I heard clearly was the last sentence, which came as something of a shock. Cathy and I had never gone to the beach together, much less had sex there. Back in the summer when we’d lived together, seven years before, the only place where we’d made love was in my cramped apartment on Eastdale Road. I didn’t have enough money to take her anywhere else. Of course, I couldn’t say all this in front of Evan, so I just gave Cathy a blank look.

“Come on, Jack, you were there! It was my 21st birthday, remember? We’d all just turned legal.”

I was still clueless. But Cathy was staring at me so imploringly that I felt I had to say something. “We never went to the beach.”

“Bubba, you lunatic!” Evan yelled. “She’s talking about a drink! Sex on the Beach! It’s got triple sec in it.”

Cathy laughed. Her laughter was beautiful, even when it was at my expense. It started out low, as low a pitch as her voice could manage, and then it arced upward like a flock of frightened birds. She tilted her head back as if to watch her own laughter rise to the ceiling and she clutched my arm, half to steady herself and half to apologize for laughing at me. “Don’t feel bad, Jack,” she said once she’d caught her breath. “I’ve never had sex on the beach either.”

To cover my embarrassment, I got the bartender’s attention and ordered Cathy’s drink, wording the request very carefully.

“So, Cathy, where are you and Bill gonna stay during the campaign?” Evan asked.

“We’re gonna be living out of hotel rooms for the next few months. Bill is gonna be traveling across the state so much, it didn’t make sense for us to set up house in one spot. Mother and Daddy said I can stay at their place whenever I’m in town.”

“But where’s Bill gonna stay?” Evan persisted. “Your daddy ain’t about to allow Congressman Bledsoe under his roof, is he?”

“How do you like this, Jack? I come into this bar with the simple intention of getting a drink, and as soon as I walk through the door some nosy reporter starts asking pointed questions about my personal life. Where’s your sense of Southern courtesy, Evan Pearson?”

Cathy laughed again, and once more I thought of frightened birds, all of them soaring upward at once. Evan was right about Cathy’s father, though. Alden Hobbs was an old friend of the governor’s. They’d gone to the state university together, and one of Fowler’s first acts as governor was to make Alden adjutant general of the Alabama National Guard. General Hobbs hated Bill Bledsoe worse than he hated Jane Fonda.

The bartender brought Cathy’s drink. She took a sip, a very ladylike sip, and turned back to Evan. “To answer your question, I don’t expect any family squabbles. Bill is gonna be too busy for all that. Even when he’s asleep he’s gonna be running for governor. Before he left Washington he took me out to the fanciest restaurant in town and ordered a two-hundred-dollar bottle of wine. And he said, ‘Cathy, I want us to have a nice romantic evening, because we ain’t gonna see much of each other from now until Election Day.’ ”

“Oh, I think we’ll run into each other every now and then.”

Cathy spun around when she heard Bledsoe’s voice. He’d maneuvered across the room, shaking hands with everyone in his path, and now stood directly behind his wife. He was flanked by two beefy state troopers, his assigned bodyguards for the evening.

“Why, Bill, you scared the hell out of me!” Cathy stood up to kiss her husband on the cheek.

“You started drinking without me, sugar.” Bledsoe’s voice was intolerably cheerful. Beaming, he snaked one of his long arms around Cathy. “That’s not exactly polite.” He glanced at the troopers standing next to him. “What do you say, boys? Is that a polite thing for a lady to do?”

The troopers smiled but didn’t say anything.

“Don’t fuss with me, Bill, I had a hell of a flight.” Cathy grimaced. “Besides, you were too busy electioneering the fat cats. I sure hope you got some compensation for your efforts.”

“Let me worry about that, all right?” Bledsoe’s cheeriness faded for a moment, and he let go of his wife. But he was beaming again by the time he turned to Evan and me. “In the meantime, you better not get too friendly with these reporters. It’s Jack Blanchard, right? From the Advertiser? And Evan Pearson from the Associated Press? I believe I saw both of you boys at my press conference this morning.”

“That’s right,” Evan said, shaking Bledsoe’s hand. “You’ve got a good memory.”

“You need it in this business.” Bledsoe held his hand out to me. “Mr. Blanchard, I’ve been meaning to talk with you for quite some time. We get the Advertiser up in Washington, you know, and I’ve read some of your stories. You’re a damn good reporter.”

“Thank you,” I said as I shook Bledsoe’s hand. Given my inebriated state, I didn’t dare say anything too long-winded.

“Don’t be giving Jack a big head now,” Cathy interjected. “I’ve known him and Evan since high school. He was a miscreant then and he’s even worse now.”

“How long have you been working for the Advertiser, Jack?” Bledsoe asked.

“Seven years,” I said, sticking with my strategy of minimal utterance. I was pretty sure that Bledsoe didn’t want to hear the details anyway. As it so happened, my first months at the Advertiser coincided with the period when Cathy lived with me. We’d slept on an old mattress that lay on the floor because I hadn’t saved enough to buy a real bed yet. Staring at Bledsoe’s earnest face now, I wondered if Cathy had ever told him any of this.

“Seven years? Well, goddamn, that’s a long time. I was still in the D.A.’s office up in Cullman County back then. Did you cover my first campaign for Congress, Jack?”

“No, I was on the police beat then.”

“That was a dirty campaign. I went through hell during that race. Got bomb threats almost every night. My little nephew Jake, he was only six years old then, he came up to me one day and said, ‘Uncle Bill, what’s a homosexual?’ And I said, ‘Why are you asking me a question like that, Jake?’ And he said, ‘Because my friends in school said you were a homosexual and it sounded like a bad thing.’ No one should have to go through that kind of hell, Jack. I just hope this campaign doesn’t get that bad. You need another drink?”

Bledsoe gave my shoulder a companionable slap. I decided then that he knew nothing about me and Cathy. He was acting too much like a typical politician. He’d sized me up in the first few seconds and then selected an appropriate anecdote out of the repertoire of thousands he stored in the back of his head. When a politician is trying to butter up a reporter, the anecdotes flow like water and there’s nothing you can do to shut him up.

“No thanks, Mr. Bledsoe,” I said. “I think I’m drunk enough already.”

“Now listen here, Jack. I want to make one thing absolutely clear. If you’re gonna be covering my campaign for the Advertiser, you’re gonna have to start calling me Bill. You are gonna be covering my campaign, aren’t you?”

I panicked for a moment, thinking that Bledsoe had somehow heard of Fowler’s job offer. “Oh yeah, I’m covering the race.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear it. Even though we’ve talked for only a few minutes, I can already tell that you’re my kind of person. A New South person. You’d rather look ahead than look behind. Am I right?”

“Uh, I guess so.”

“The New South is rising and it needs people like you, Jack. We’ve been asleep for too long, for the past 25 years. The people of Alabama have been living in a deep freeze ever since Jimmy Fowler became governor. That man has been the worst thing to hit this state since the boll weevil. The rest of the country has gone through a whole world of changes since 1962, but in some ways Alabama hasn’t changed a bit. In fact, this state is starting to look like a third-world country. Do you realize that we’re ranked 49th in the country in the amount of money we spend on education? We’re also ranked 49th in literacy and 49th in health care. All I can say is, thank God for Mississippi. If it wasn’t for Mississippi, we’d be 50th in everything!”

Bledsoe laughed at his joke and slapped me on the shoulder again. I think it was the slap that did it. All of a sudden I knew I was going to vomit. God’s dream quickly shifted into nightmare and I had barely enough time to slide off the barstool and mutter “excuse me” to Bledsoe before I stumbled toward the tiled bathroom and the piped-in easy-listening music and the swinging stall door.

It seemed like I was gone for just five minutes, but it must’ve been much longer, because Cathy was the only person sitting at the bar when I returned. I saw her in profile, sipping another Sex on the Beach. There were two empty glasses on the bar in front of her. I felt a momentary urge to sneak up behind her and kiss the taut skin between her neck and shoulder. But there was something wrong with my picture of her, it seemed both clear and fuzzy all at once, and I realized with some dismay that I’d lost one of my contact lenses while I was bent over the john.

Cathy saw me walking toward her. “You all right, Jack?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. At least for the moment.” I reclaimed my seat at the bar.

She smiled. “You sure left in a hurry.”

“I hope I didn’t insult your husband too much.”

“Because you threw up in the middle of his speech? Don’t be silly, Jack. It happens to him all the time.”

“Is he still around?”

“No. After you made your sudden exit, he set his sights on Evan. The two of them went back to the Jefferson Hotel to do some serious drinking.”

“How come you didn’t go with them?”

“Me? No thank you. I’ve heard enough about the New South for one evening.” She raised her glass in a mock toast, then tilted her head back and took a long swallow. No more ladylike sipping for her. “So what about you, Jack? You haven’t said a word about yourself all night. You still like working at the newspaper?”

“It pays the bills.”

“But just barely, as I recall.” Cathy smiled again.

“Yeah, but there are so many other satisfactions to the job. Like getting invited to campaign fundraisers.”

“And what about your love life? Still looking for a girl you can take down to the beach?”

I shivered slightly. Cathy was flirting with me. It was a pleasure just to hear that sly note in her voice again. “You know how it is,” I said, trying to match her tone. “I got a bad reputation. That can kill you in this town.”

“Listen, Jack, you should come over to my folks’ house for supper next week. Mother is planning a family dinner for Thursday night, and a lot of food’s gonna go to waste if we don’t get some company.”

“Will Bill be there?”

Cathy made a face. “Of course he’ll be there. He and Daddy are gonna sit down together and behave like gentlemen. And if they don’t, I’ll horsewhip both of them.”

“Well, I wouldn’t want to miss that.”

“Daddy would get a kick out of seeing you, I bet. Of all the boys I ever dated, you were the only one he could stand.”

“Is that good or bad?”

“It’s neither.” She finished off her drink, then reached for her purse and took out a pack of Kool Lights. I watched her carefully as she lit her cigarette using a Jubilee matchbook. Up close, her face looked a bit older than it did seven years ago — a few more creases in her brow, a few more lines fanning out from the corners of her eyes. But it was hardly noticeable. She shook out the match and blew a long plume of smoke.

“And what about yourself?” I asked. “You like being a congressman’s wife?”

She shrugged. “It’s got its ups and downs. Today was more of a down than an up.”

“How come?”

“Bill found out today that the governor is planning to run for reelection. That man has a death wish, no doubt about it. He doesn’t have a chance of winning, but he’s gonna run anyway and probably kill himself in the process.”

“No kidding,” I said.

Cathy looked at me hard. “Don’t bullshit me, Jack. You must’ve known something about it.”

It was pathetic. I’d never been able to hide anything from her. “Yeah, I knew. I found out this afternoon. The governor offered me a job.”

“What kind of job?” She didn’t miss a beat.

“Assistant press secretary. Booth Taylor’s right-hand man.”

“So when do you start?”

“I said the governor offered me a job. I didn’t say I was taking it.”

“You’d be a fool not to.” She blew out another plume of smoke.

“Are you speaking now as a representative of the Bledsoe campaign or as a disinterested observer?”

“I’m speaking as an old friend. This is a good opportunity for you. There’s no way in hell that Fowler’s gonna get reelected, but that doesn’t matter. Once you’ve worked for the governor, you can write your own ticket. He’s got friends at every business in the state. After he loses the election — assuming he survives it — he’ll get himself a cushy no-show job somewhere, probably at the state university. And he’ll make sure you get a nice job too.”

I shook my head. “That’s not the point.”

“What’s stopping you? The fact that Fowler is an unscrupulous son of a bitch?”

“No, it’s the fact that I used to see him yelling into a bullhorn in front of my elementary school, trying to stop the black kids from getting off the school buses. It’s enough to give you pause, don’t you think?”

“I hear you, Jack. And if it were up to me, I’d hire you to work for our campaign instead. But Bill’s staff is all consultants and communications experts from Washington. He likes the high-priced professionals, even if they aren’t worth a damn.” She gave me an apologetic smile. “But you can become a professional too, if that’s what you want. If you work for Fowler, even for just a few months, it’ll be easy for you to get campaign jobs for other candidates in the future. All you need in this business is a little experience.”

I frowned. Although Cathy’s advice sounded reasonable, I couldn’t stomach it. “No, I can’t work for Fowler. No matter how much experience I’d get. Or how much he’d pay me.”

She shrugged and took a puff on her cigarette. “It’s true, he was a mean old dog twenty years ago. But now he’s a toothless mangy thing, and Bill’s gonna put him to sleep on Election Day. Fowler’s only got a few months left in office, so I don’t see any harm in you working for him. It’ll be like a silver lining in a really dark cloud, you know?”

I shook my head again. Cathy didn’t know the whole story. She hadn’t seen the new version of Fowler, his latest reinvention. “He’s planning a surprise. He’s gonna try to turn things around this time. He thinks he can fix all the bad things he did.”

Cathy’s hand stopped just as she was bringing the cigarette to her lips. “What are you talking about?”

“Fowler’s gonna apologize for what he did in his first years in office. He’s gonna say he was wrong to oppose integration. And he’s gonna promise to make amends.”

For the first time that evening, Cathy looked surprised. “Well, whatever he’s planning, it won’t work.” Her voice was adamant, definitive. “He’ll never get the black vote from Bill.”

“It looks like he’s gonna try.”

“I’m sorry, but it just won’t happen. You think folks are gonna forget about Glen Stubbs?”

Glen Stubbs was the man who’d single-handedly made Bledsoe’s political career. Back in ’79, Stubbs and a few of his buddies in the Ku Klux Klan lynched an 18-year-old black kid in Cullman County. Bledsoe was the attorney in the county D.A.’s office who prosecuted the case. Nobody thought he would get a conviction, because Cullman County is probably the most racist part of the whole state. But through a combination of luck and gumption, Bledsoe managed to put Stubbs and his Klan buddies on Death Row. The next year, the NAACP and the Alabama Teachers Association endorsed Bledsoe for Congress, and he won in a landslide.

Cathy stabbed her cigarette in the glass ashtray on the bar. She seemed agitated now. “Listen, Jack, you do what your conscience tells you to do. But you’re making a mistake if you stay at the Advertiser. You can do better than that.” She put her purse under her arm and climbed off the barstool. “I got a car waiting for me outside. Would you be a gentleman and walk me out the door?”

I was far from a gentleman on that particular evening, but I nodded anyway. “Anything for an old friend.”

We stepped out of the bar. It was drizzling outside, but you could barely feel it. The air was warm and smelled like wet lawns. I escorted Cathy to the Ford LTD that was idling in the far corner of the parking lot. There was a state trooper in the driver’s seat, one of Bledsoe’s bodyguards, but he was facing the street, away from us.

“It’s been a long time, Cathy,” I said as we crossed the lot.

She kept her eyes on the ground. “Yeah, it sure has.”

“You look good. You look like you’re real happy.”

“Well, looks can be deceiving.”

I stopped about twenty feet from the car. “You want to talk about it?”

“Not right here in the parking lot, no.”

I took hold of Cathy’s hand. I meant it as just a friendly gesture, but I guess she got the wrong idea. She pulled her hand back fast. “What the hell are you doing, Jack Blanchard?”

“Nothing.”

“Nothing, hell. I can see you looking at me. I know what’s on your mind when you give me that look.”

“Well, excuse me for looking. You know, Cathy, you never told me why you left.”

“Oh, Jack, please…”

“It’s something I wondered about for a long time. It was this big baffling question in my head, like ‘Is there a God?’ or ‘What are we here for?’ One of those questions you can’t answer, but you keep turning it around in your mind anyway. ‘Why did she leave me?’ I couldn’t answer it.”

Cathy gave me an exasperated look, and for a second I thought she was going to ignore my question and just walk away. But instead she stepped closer and placed her hand on my cheek. “The truth is, I don’t know why myself.” Her voice went quiet, as soft as the rain. “Maybe I made a mistake.”

I stood absolutely still. I didn’t move a muscle. I felt her touch in every nerve in my body. “Cathy, I—”

“I have to go now.” She lowered her hand but kept her eyes on me. They were sad and kind and a little glassy. “It’s wonderful to see you again, Jack. I really mean it.”

She turned around and walked the rest of the way to the car. As soon as the state trooper saw her, he jumped out of the driver’s seat and opened the rear door for her. Then she slid into the backseat, and the LTD took off down Cloverdale Road.

————–

Footnote: The Jubilee is based on a real bar in the Cloverdale section of Montgomery, and Evan Pearson is based on a real raconteur I met at that bar thirty years ago when I worked as a newspaper reporter in Alabama. His actual name, I think, was Dennis Pearson. (Clearly, I didn’t try very hard to protect his identity.) Dennis, if you’re reading this right now, I apologize. You never said any of the things the character says in this scene. But you inspired them.

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About Mark Alpert

Contributing editor at Scientific American and author of science thrillers: Final Theory (2008), The Omega Theory (2011), Extinction (2013), The Furies (2014), The Six (2015), The Orion Plan (2016), The Siege (2016), and The Silence (2017). His latest thriller, The Coming Storm (St. Martin's Press, 2019), is a cautionary tale about climate change, genetic engineering, and Donald Trump. His website: www.markalpert.com

4 thoughts on “The Bar Scene

  1. CLARIFICATION: The real bar in Montgomery that attracted all the state legislators and lobbyists was called Kat ‘n Harry’s, but I always thought that was a terrible name, so I named the fictional bar after a smaller place next door called Jubilee Seafood. They had terrific oysters.

    • Thanks! I wrote the first draft of this novel in 1989 and I’ve been revising it ever since.

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