A sad cigarette droops from my cracked mouth like a fuse attached to a dud bomb. I can’t even blow up anymore. Fortunately, on this particular Lenten Wednesday, misery has company.
“There’s something on your head,” I poke at Savannah’s vanity.
“There,” I smudge some black ash from my futility smoking tray across her forehead.
It’s Ash Wednesday – a holiday that bears little significance to my agnostic ass beyond the hilarity of dirty, guilt-tripped heads assembled in municipal spaces – and we’re both appropriately burnt out. We were supposed to trip out last night for Fat Tuesday and make fun of fat people, but a surprise bout with Britney Spears and text-messaged parenthood Baker Acted those plans. Instead, we’re two ash-faces stuck with scorched tobacco smudges on our heads, stationary on hump day with very little projectile promise to straddle. I’m humping my couch.
“I know!” outs Savannah. “You can be Down and I can be Out.”
And where do Down and Out go? Wally’s. I suggest that this could be just the ticket away from our own miserable lives of lost friends (mine) and lost jobs (hers), vanitizing the whole scenario with a “we’ll be so much better than everyone else” mantra, one that will easily ricochet us back up from the dumper and into suspended disbelief. You know, like Britney would.
“OK, but we have to stop by the CVS so that I can get nail polish,” Savannah Spears. “I’m painting my nails at Wally’s, y’all.”
And within about 10 minutes she is, splashing a swirl of “Blackout” and “Flirt” across the tips of her nervous fingers, because that’s what you do when you black out, you flirt. Wally’s is of its standard early-night vintage, with presumably sad sacks arching into their eventual alcoholic crossovers, while at least one television overhead is beaming the Trinity Broadcasting Network. What would Jesus do? Drink.
“You should try to make me drink,” Savannah blows her nails. “And I should try to make you do drugs.”
That won’t be necessary, because at Wally’s a drink has the quantitative effect of a speedball laced with castor oil. One sip of my tiny potent potable and I’m halfway to River Phoenix (or a river in Phoenix), choking on my own saliva which must be pouring forth from secret glands I never knew about, and my eyes have welled up with something that resembles emotion, but clearly isn’t. My liver just bitchslapped my rib cage, and my face has gone a different kind of ashen.
“Are you OK?” Savannah speaks between wet-nail texts. “I mean, are you going to die? Or worse, throw up?”
“Glub. No. Glub. I’ll be fine. Glub. Drowning.”
At about this time our whole negative projection scheme – the one where we try to read more misery into the pickled lives on bar stools than is fair, and then use it to our advantage – has dribbled down our collective leg and onto the dusty floor. In its place, solidarity and stupidity.
“Y’all Catholic?” goats a cow farmer named Jackson from across the bar.
“No, just dirty,” I ash back. “You should try it.”
And at this point, at least three people in the bar root their fingers around their ashtrays and mark their own foreheads. “If it’s for solidarity,” Jackson is beguilingly attractive in a hot redneck kind of way, “then I don’t see how I can’t.”
“I think I just found my Alan,” Savannah dreams of dirty fingernails and slapped asses, the kind I sleep with.
We make one trip to the surprisingly digital jukebox that results in Savannah’s engaging a Skynyrd “Simple Man” fantasy (one she’ll later share, in an across-the-bar-howling fashion with Jackson) and an accidental double play of Reba’s “Fancy” by me, just because I am. After our trashy repertoire runs out, Savannah makes a return visit on her own, only to be backed into Jackson, who’s holding a dollar that he has no intention of sliding into a jukebox slot.
“Omigod,” I play choppy-haired friend upon her return. “If there were a pinball machine in here you would so be Jodie Foster, Accused.”
“That would be so hot,” she mudflaps. And then Meat Loaf plays.
As the evening progresses we become less like spiteful observers and more like attention-craving idiots craving observation. You know, like Britney. A man named Mark waddles over and stays too long talking about some festival coming up in New Orleans that we have to attend … and the fact that he really likes meeting people. As he walks away, or rather stumbles, he pulls a double take and burps, “No you’re not. You’re not Billy Manes, are you?”
“You’re baaaad. I love your stuff,” he fan-mans before uttering what I think I can fairly say sounds an awful lot like a Tourette’s rendition of “faggot.” Wow.
By the time a trucker named Paul crops himself into the scene, predictably staring at Savannah’s “twins,” we can tell the drunk-guy crossover is starting to bubble up. “I’ve got a roach if you wanna go out back and smoke it,” he grins and glazes before opening his hand to reveal a plastic cockroach. Wow again.
“We should go,” I grab Savannah’s nearly dry nails. “This joke is over. I’d rather be down and out alone.”
Scurrying out the door – making sure to grab Jackson’s number for future husband potential – we’re stopped by New Orleans Mark, who can’t seem to form consonants anymore, but looks mad at me for it. He’s making motions with his hand and grunting, but my charity in this situation has burnt up and blown away.
“I can’t understand you,” I scowl. Ash face.