The Hippest Bar on Christmas

Fifteen years ago, I went to a Christmas Eve party that ended early. A couple of guys invited me to the only tavern open in Iowa City, and I joined them. They ordered beer and whiskey while I drank pop, my days of liquor long behind me. I was recently divorced. I’d never been much of a womanizer and now found myself at large and alone during the holidays.

My buddies were sad about sitting in a tavern on Christmas Eve. One left early. The other man hadn’t had a haircut in forty years. I knew him from the old days of shooting pool in bars like this dump. There was a fake foil tree, very small, on a shelf behind the bar. One wall had a plastic Santa with a single line of blinking lights that led from his pants to the floor as if he was urinating. The crowd was young. Many had shaved heads and multiple piercings of the face. One guy wore a flannel bathrobe and combat boots. The temperature outside was four degrees, but there wasn’t a glove, scarf, or hat in sight. Men and women entered, trying not to show how cold they were. Their ears looked brittle as crackers.

“You know,” I said, “this is the hippest bar in town.”

“Hell if it is,” my friend said. “This bar is proof that the sixties failed.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s the worst part of the sixties right here.”

“It’s still the hip place,” I said.

“That’s what’s wrong with it. Right here, man, back in ’69 I saw a guy bust a beer bottle and hold it to a man’s throat. Glass everywhere. You know what happened?”

I shook my head.

“The waitress came over. She said, ‘Oh, man, there’s people in here barefoot.’ That’s all she said. The guy put the bottle down. And, man, that was the sixties for you. These silly fuckers in here now aren’t even close.”

He finished his drink and left, suddenly angry in the way of lonely men during holidays. I thought about my own dumb past. I was too young to be a hippie like him. My era was the southern outlaw seventies, when country music was defiant and rural men grew long hair. We were rednecks with dope and eight-track stereos. We didn’t know any better, but we were very angry people.

At eighteen I lived in Morehead, Kentucky, and owned a red Maverick that I often slept in. Morehead was a small town, and time was marked by the availability of drugs. There was blue microdot month, crank week, and PCP Sunday. Each weekend someone hosted a party featuring the drug of the week. You found out how much it cost, you got directions, and you took cash. One day the word went out that mushrooms were in town. It was an exotic drug, like Thai stick or peyote, and it hadn’t been around before. The party was nine miles out of town. I got blasted on some Colombian and let a dope dealer named Beef drive my car to the party. His girlfriend had wrecked his truck the week before and was locked up the next county over. I felt great. One of the top dealers in town was driving my car to the mushroom party. Arriving with him would make people think I was cool.

Twenty or so people stood outside, shadowy figures with long hair. Music blasted from cheap speakers. Beef drove across the yard and parked beside the porch of the old farmhouse. I tried to be cool, seeing who noticed us without letting anyone know I cared. I flicked a cigarette away. I did it like a movie outlaw before stepping inside a church.

The host was fat and already going bald in his mid-twenties. His name was Joe Bob, but people called him Blow Job unless they wanted his drugs. Women liked him because he was generous and wasn’t too menacing. He had the habit of sweating all the time. We found him in the kitchen by a pot on the stove. Several people were crowding around it, trying to breathe the steam. Beef and I looked into a pot full of thin white worms with purple heads. I inhaled the steam dutifully.

Joe Bob ladled out two cups of water for Beef and me. “Here, boys,” Joe Bob said. “You all are good people.” He used a spoon to rescue several of the worms and gently placed them in our respective cups. They were mushroom stalks.

“Thanks, man,” Beef said. He passed Joe Bob a rolled-up baggie of pot. “This is for the crowd.”

“Just throw it on the table,” Joe Bob said.

He gave us each two more mushrooms. The cup was plastic, shaped like a china teacup, very tippy. I held it at an angle to keep the water from running out of a crack. I drank like Beef, as fast as possible, breathing through my mouth to cool it. I ate two mushrooms and put the other two in my shirt pocket. There followed what was always a strange period, waiting for the drugs to kick in, unsure of the signs, and wondering if they already had. Was I too fucked up to tell, or had I got burned? Apparently the mushrooms had plenty of kick because after a while I realized I was standing on the roof of my car, not sure how long I’d been there. Everyone was looking at me. I couldn’t understand why they weren’t as interested in the moon as I was. It was gorgeous. Human beings had walked on it. It was red and glowing. I could almost touch it, and I invited people to come up. A couple did. Guys I didn’t know. They helped me off the car and pointed out that it was still daylight and seeing the moon was a ways off yet.

Someone built a fire. It was October but warm, and it had somehow gotten dark on me. I went in the woods for firewood and could see perfectly. I dragged back huge felled trees. The logs were so big that people sat on them instead of burning them, which was flattering to me. Anybody could find kindling in the woods, but I brought back furniture. I gave a girl the two extra mushrooms, and we smoked a little pot. Our clothes seemed to open on their own. She had her back against a tree with her pelvis thrust forward. My pants were down. I was inside her and we were laughing and all the animals in the woods were watching us in awe and envy that we could have sex on our hind legs. I held her bottom gently so the bark wouldn’t scratch it and tore up the backs of my hands instead. Somebody later asked me if I passed out behind a car and got run over. The way we all lived back then, it was a reasonable question.

We returned to the party. Our arms were around each other, and her face was flushed. She was beautiful. Maybe I’d marry her. She had pot in every pocket, rolled and ready. We chain-smoked dope, but it had no effect on the mushrooms. Dogs were barking. The music went off then came back on. Twice more it happened. I thought it was my ears. I went in the house to see if it was the stereo or me. A guy in his underwear was aiming a pistol at the record player. It was a cheap stereo from Monkey Ward, and I wanted him to shoot it. I’d never seen anyone fire a gun indoors except my father, who once shot a dog from a window. He used a rifle, so it barely counted. Everyone was moving away from the guy in his underwear, yelling for him to put the gun down, while I was rooting for him to shoot. I didn’t like the song anyhow. It was one of ZZ Top’s worst.

He turned around, and I recognized Robbie, a guy I’d known since first grade. He lived across the creek from me, and we’d walked to school together every day for ten years until he quit. He was the youngest of eight, the only boy. He got off to a bad start, but then again, in the hills of eastern Kentucky, everyone did. Robbie was very drunk, swaying on his feet. He aimed the gun at me. It was the first of three times that I would face a loaded weapon. I didn’t know that then. It was still the first time and it was just a little .32 and I didn’t figure Robbie would shoot me.

“Chris?” he said. “You doing all right?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m on mushrooms. What kind of gun is that?”

“Fuck, I don’t know. Just a gun.” He turned it sideways and held it in better light to read the name on the barrel. I stepped beside him. “Harrington & Richardson,” he said.

“H&R’s a good brand. Used to have me a nine-shot .22.”

“A nine-shot?”

“Yeah. On a .38 frame. It was cool.”

“Wish this was a nine-shot.”

“Listen, Robbie. You going to shoot that stereo or what?”

“Why, you want to?”

He handed the gun to me. It felt good in my hand. I looked around for my new girlfriend, but she was gone. I didn’t want to shoot it unless she was watching. Robbie stood in his underwear and waited.

“I don’t know, man,” I said. “Let’s wait till the party’s over. I want to hear some Skynyrd.”

“No more fucking ZZ fucking Top,” he said. “I hate that shit.”

I nodded, put the gun in my pocket, and went outside. My new girlfriend was talking to a cool older guy. He was twenty-six, and I didn’t like him. He only drank wine. He’d burnt me on some weed once. I smoked an entire quarter ounce at one sitting and only got paranoid and a headache. I had to get her away from him. I had to find out what her name was. I walked up to them and showed them the gun, which made him nervous. She and I found my car. We got in and listened to the radio and told each other our life stories. We smoked pot for hours. We ran the car battery down and wound up sleeping in the house on the floor.

I woke up with smoke in my face. She had the lit end of a joint in her mouth and was blowing the smoke at me, what we called “a shotgun.” It was the second coolest way to come out of sleep. My favorite way was to eat a bunch of speed and take a nap. You woke up like a rocket, twitching everywhere. Still, that morning’s shotgun wasn’t bad either.

I remembered all this while sitting at the bar in Iowa. I was past forty at the time and had given up drugs altogether. I never really liked them. Pot made me paranoid. Speed left me depressed. Hallucinogens scared me. In later years, I tried cocaine, and while everyone else ran around laughing and flirting, I sat immobile in a corner, appalled by how fast my mind was racing. Drugs didn’t have the same effect on me that they did on everyone else. I wish they did. I’d have fit in better.

The bartender announced last call, and I looked around and tried to imagine this place in the sixties, full of bell-bottoms and peace-sign pendants. That era was gone.

But then, so was mine, the ragtag seventies with its terrorism, bad economy, and hijacking of airplanes. Like most people rolling into middle age, I still clung to the music of my era. Though I hated disco then, I listened to it now on occasion. In college, a few buddies and I protested a disco concert. We strode about outside, stoned to the gills, holding signs and placards that said, Rock and Roll will never die. It’s embarrassing to remember. The hippies at least had a war to protest.

Fifteen years passed, during which I remarried and moved to Oxford, Mississippi. Last year, a few days before Christmas, my mother called me. She was anxious and scared in a way I’d never heard before. My father was in the hospital. It was bad, and she asked me to come home. I packed rapidly. Just in case, I included a set of funeral clothes and drove all night. Dad was on oxygen from smoking. He’d been diagnosed with alcoholic cirrhosis. He was dying from the drugs of his era, the fifties, alcohol and nicotine.

At the hospital, I ran into a woman I knew from the old days who was a nurse. She told me Joe Bob had been murdered and Beef had turned narc. I asked about Robbie. She said he was thrown out of the navy for drug use, went to Florida for ten years and to prison once. The new era of drugs in Appalachia included OxyContin and meth. Robbie had gotten mixed up with both. Now he was in jail again, awaiting trial. I felt bad for him. We were the same age, and I tried to imagine being incarcerated in our home county. The nurse told me he’d be going to the pen for fifteen or twenty years. His health was bad, and he would probably die in prison.

On Christmas morning, I put on my dress clothes and headed for the jail. I polished the front of each boot on the back of the opposite calf. I knew Robbie didn’t have a lot of people to visit him and hoped the jailer would be kind since it was Christmas. Inside was a foyer with a locked steel door, a camera mounted on the wall, a speaker, and a push-button for talking. A woman’s voice asked if she could help me. I introduced myself, knowing my family name was still good in the county, and said I wanted to visit an inmate. When I told her who, she was silent for a long time then said it wasn’t visiting hours or even the right day. I explained that I was in town to see my folks and thought I’d visit my old friend. She apologized twice and said I needed to arrange a visit in advance and come on the proper day. I nodded and thanked her. As I left, she said, “Merry Christmas” in a sad and lonely tone.

I drove to the hospital. The nurse’s station had a forlorn tree, but I figured it was more than the jail had. Dad lay in his small room, sick from years of abusing alcohol and now on morphine for his pain. Down the street, Robbie occupied an equally small room due to his preference of drugs. I’d outlived my era, so to speak, and would outlive my father and Robbie. I didn’t drink or smoke or take drugs. I knew I wouldn’t ever again. It felt good knowing that.

In a lucid moment, Dad asked why I was late getting to the hospital. I explained about Robbie, and Dad got mad. He said he’d known forty years ago that Robbie was going to prison, and the wonder of it was it took this long. I didn’t say anything. I just nodded and listened, consoled my mother in the waiting room, talked to the doctors, and called my siblings. A week later, my brother arrived to take over. I drove back to Mississippi. I left a winter snowstorm in the hills and arrived to a sunny warm spell.

My father and I are very much alike. He’s a writer and a recluse. For the last ten years, he sat in a chair and drank himself nearly to death, his legs so swollen from fluid retention he couldn’t walk. Both ears were permanently crooked forward from the oxygen tubes. It was an awful end to a life, and it terrified me. No one should die that way, and I feared it for myself. But I’d remarried and had a good job and had stopped my bad habits. I was happy and healthy. As soon as I got back to Oxford, I went to the hippest bar in town. The Christmas lights were still up. A few red felt stockings hung on the wall. I bought a pack of cigarettes and ordered a shot of whiskey. I don’t know why. I knew it was a bad idea and that I’d regret it later. But I also knew that for a little while I wouldn’t think about my father or my friend or my past. I didn’t want to feel anything. I drank the shot and ordered a double. I carried it outside to a small balcony. I drank and smoked until the bar closed, and I loved every minute of

About the Author

Chris Offutt

Chris Offutt grew up in Haldeman, Kentucky, a former mining town of two hundred people. He has published five books about people from the hills of Kentucky—two memoirs, two collections of short fiction, and one novel.

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