By John Van Dreal
At a divey place just off the sound, between Bellingham and Ferndale. A rich palette of neon lighting, booze advertisements, dozens of small TVs featuring sports and sitcom reruns filling the den—the bar owners have made the interior their canvas. A sign reads, Fancy Beer Not Found Here. The tap is limited to Coors, PBR, Miller. Yellow ochre and black tinted cigarette burns and contoured bottle rings have etched the archaic Formica bartop to the backing board, creating architectural shadows of the past. Patrons’ arms are adorned with nicotine patches and poorly rendered, faded tattoos. No hopheads, no hipsters. The bartender knows everyone. I don’t know anyone. I feel gawky, awkward—I ease my social discomfort with an overcooked cheeseburger and a third beer. A lady enters from the smoker’s porch, her body long and calligraphically flowing from the restrictions of her skin-tight denim, tailed by the robust smell of stale, smoke-drenched aura. Taking it in, I fondly recall my grandparents, their home, their car and everything else they touched with their nicotine-covered fingers. I think of you and the keenness you had for unfiltered cigarettes. I miss you— how you would flash an earnest smile at my awkward moments. You called it your rodeo clown smile because of your jagged canines that framed the vacant spaces once occupied by a few lost incisors. I imagine your ghost. Smiling, the teeth still snaggy and missing. This is your kind of place.
Five feet, eleven inches under
the surface. Stretched and on tiptoe, a desperate gasp for air. Resisting the certainty of malignant malady tugging him down and back into the earth. Reaching out with waxen hands etched deep with wrinkles realized from six decades of toil and farmer’s grind for something—beyond me, beyond the ceiling— something I can’t see. I can’t sense. Wild eyed—he calls a name I do not recognize. A deity, a guardian? Pushes, then pulls at the catheter—I gently, but assertively, hold his hands away. Where is God’s love, God’s comfort, when pain turns seconds to minutes, minutes to hours? If my anemic efforts are to be that comfort by proxy, then God is lower case g at best. At the end, five feet, eleven inches under the surface, something— delicate, tentative, but something— holding him up. Holding me up . . . so we can anxiously reach to the heavens and gasp for one more breath.
Standing a few feet from the edge of the counter, I watch the barista, cautiously eyeing his style and tattoos. I don’t want him to be aware of my study, but I am intrigued by his clothing choices, given his endomorphic build—baggy, gray denim trousers and generic white deck shoes, emphasizing his short legs; tightly fitting orange T-shirt with short sleeves that gather at his thick, yet barely defined deltoid muscles. From under the cotton material cinched at his shoulder, flows an inked image of a brilliantly colored hummingbird suspended upside down below a golden-red sunflower. A yellowish-gray spiderweb projects from beneath the bird, runs down his biceps, and transitions into an olive-green snake coiled around his elbow. Below the snake, just above his inner wrist, is an image of a mouse, rendered in cerulean blue and surrounded by a larger, faintly outlined ghostly image of a mongoose. I study the image for a few seconds. I think, The mongoose appears unfinished. The barista appears unfinished, or some might think so, yet he projects a confidence and comfort with his own physical traits—traits that others might consider flaws. Perhaps the mouse becomes the mongoose. Perhaps the mongoose protects the mouse. I feel myself smile as I eye him from head to toe. I spent the early years of my adult life learning about what others thought of as imperfect—now I celebrate the idea of eliminating the distinction from my mind. He notices my attention and nods, then hands me a ceramic cup filled with coffee and a dusting of cinnamon, tipping his arm outward to expose the ink and his purplish-blue arteries, visibly entwined.
He smells like dirt, leather, sweat, and old tires. Skin blackened by the sun, teeth naturally bright. His eyes wrinkle into a smile that projects the wisdom of age mixed with the innocence of youth in anticipation of a holiday gift. An accidental minimalist, he is too distracted by his day to care about tangible possessions. Has only a few trappings—aged leather bands and tarnished silver at his wrists, shells assembled into twine hanging from his neck, two ten-gauge wooden plugs in his earlobes, a few items of distressed clothing, and a sketchbook, filled with ink drawings, poems, and essays. Unattached, he focuses his love on friends—The Greek term, he says, is philia, but he strives for agape. Still, within this simplicity, he’s conflicted. At times, as uncomfortable in the open desert as he is inside a home, he searches for permanence but struggles with the expectations it brings. He cloaks his angst with impeccable manners, a deep interest in others, and a vivid presence when he is with another. People meeting him for the first time say, I swear, I’ve known him for ages.
At The Cup, sipping a breve down to the foam. Poking at a laptop—returning an email to a friend who is struggling in a failing relationship. My note, weighted by telling reflections of my own botched couplings, causes me discomfort, so I turn to the shop’s interior for a change of texture and focus. My search finds my image, mirrored in the stainless casing of the espresso machine. Behind it, a lanky, elegant barista piloting the valves, knobs, levers, and caps. She glances my way and smiles. I quickly, awkwardly, look away, outside through the lobby window— I see a raven-haired, olive-toned woman with body exaggerating from hip-hugger jeans. Her warm skin is decorated with a variety of tats. Three are colorful monikers to her heritage: “Ixtapa,” in deep blue and purple. “Chicana,” in green and red. “Viva Mi Raza,” in green and gray. She snaps at a Zippo, lights a hand-rolled cigarette, settles in at the sidewalk table. My thoughts return to the interior when the barista spins up a new playlist and bumps the volume, popping the speakers with Jamie Cullum’s sorrowful cover of “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over.” The notion of failed romance returns my musing to the woman smoking shag outside, now joined by a young man in full dress with just a hint of ink flowing from under his collar. They appear connected, familiar, intimate. She affects a slow, French inhale, puffing the smoke in his face while shifting her seat to his lap. He gulps at the air, attempting to capture the remnants of her breath. Then, with four extended fingers, he swipes down her lower spine, imitating a credit card charge. She fidgets as if tickled and glances back into the window, a reflex to see if their provocative moves were witnessed. She catches my study and beams a smirk, then nods. My optimism refreshed, I return to the email and consider infusing a fragment of hope into my correspondence.
I’m in Spokane. Four hundred miles away from you. It’s hot, and I drift in and out of sleep. My dreams turn to half-awake imaginings. This one sticks with me: We’re new to our relationship, and I’ve risked writing a poem about you. You smile and ask, “After you read me the poem, can we play that Twister game?” I sustain a sigh until my lungs are empty. Follow it with a quick breath. “It’s just a draft. Remember that.” You nod. I fully inhale and recite: Fingers interlocked in a fleshy zipper, ankles twined, she reclines. Eyelids cover cerulean pools as she blinks in slight exaggeration to express her point. All while she turns and tips her brow my way . . . a quick stare. Sometimes a turned-up corner of her otherwise temperate mouth . . . a grin. Sometimes not. Always a slight blush. I pause, adjusting the effect. And drinking in I steal the glance . . . just to save it for later. Again. Leaning back, I cock my head to the side. I’m embarrassed. I question, “Maybe a little sentimental?” You stare. I can hear your deep breaths. You place my hand on your chest and rhetorically ask, “Too sentimental? My dear it’s perfect. And, Johnny, you already had me in the bag. Now . . . well, I’m way in the bag!” You shake your head to clear emotion, or awkwardness, or maybe pause the impending kiss. “Break out the Twister. I wanna try ‘right hand green, left foot red.’” I walk to the closet to dust off the goods and look back to catch you smelling each of your armpits in turn. You shrug and say something to yourself that I cannot hear. I return and splay the mat on the floor. You slide the shoulder straps of your sundress down, slightly restraining your arms, and slip your sandals off, kicking them to the side.
A third-generation artist, John Van Dreal began painting and writing at age seven. He earned his formal education in Fine Arts at Humboldt State University and Brigham Young University and educational psychology at Brigham Young University, maintaining careers in both fields while writing. A musician and award-winning artist with work featured in collections throughout the Pacific Northwest, Van Dreal uses his creative vision and accessible writing style to explore both the darker and quirkier sides of human behavior. He resides in Salem, Oregon and is currently composing his first novel.