He stopped before he opened the door. I need a new bar, Joe thought. It wasn’t that he worried the office girl would come back; she had, two weeks after their date. She ignored him. He didn’t mind. But he knew they were talking about him, shooting him daggers, and even though they never came back it spoiled the place, somehow. Fine by him. Sometimes you stick around a place just because it’s familiar, and they know who you are. It’s your watering hole. Your regular place where you have the regular belt with the regular guys. Then one day you realize the bartender nods at everyone the same, half the regulars are there when you enter and there when you leave, and the famous chili’s lousy and the jukebox never changes. You turn around on your stool, look up and down the narrow room, and figure it’s time to find another place to get tired of.
He hadn’t made any friends here anyway.
Hadn’t tried, either.
What was the advantages of this joint? It was across the street. Maybe he could stretch his legs and see what was around the corner. Live dangerously. All he wanted was a beer after work, a place to be around people before he went home and ended the day looking at people on the TV or reading about them in a book.
He walked inside. The bartender nodded. He smelled the chili. He turned around and went back outside and took a right. That was close. That’s how it starts. That’s how every rut gets made. Of course, having a beer after work downtown was a rut all by itself. He’d have to change that. He usually invited Latimer if he was around, but Clarence always had plans. “I have plans,” he said. Joe never doubted that. Clarence never ate a meal without pencilling in a bowel movement for the immediate future. Something to put on the “Things To Do” list. Something to check off.
He walked two blocks without seeing a bar. He stopped at the drug store to get a newspaper and some smokes. The clerk didn’t give him any matches. He had to ask. The clerk looked at him as if to say “you want I should light it for you too?” but he slapped a book on the counter.
“Thanks,” Joe said. “I could us a magnifying glass but the sun’s going down.”
The clerk didn’t know what he meant and didn’t care.
Joe smelled burgers from the grill in the back. They smelled all right. Better than he’d get at the new, hypothetical bar, and better than he’d make at home. Not as good as the ones he might pick up at Kenny King’s or Manner’s, but they were here, right now, and he was hungry. He walked to the back and took a stool. There was no one else seated.
A waitress in a pickle-colored uniform got up from a chair by the register. She looked about 50. Grey hair, silver cat-eyed glasses, a mouth she could have lent to a turtle. “You want a menu,” she said?
That wasn’t what she wanted to hear, apparently. She sighed and stood and tottered over, dropped it on the counter. “There’s no soup left,” she said.
“Dinner rush must have been in a soup mood,” Joe said.
“There wasn’t any soup for dinner. I tell him to make more but he doesn’t make more because he had to threw it out at the end of one day, and blamed me. You want the soup, I’ll tell him, but it won’t make any difference.”
“I don’t want the soup.”
“It’s from a can anyway,” she said.
“The hamburgers smell good.”
She shrugged with one shoulder. “I can’t tell anymore.”
“I’ll have one with raw onions.”
She picked up the menu, tucked it under her left arm, scrawled something on the order pad, ripped it off and put it on the wheel. She hit the bell, went back to her chair, and picked up a copy of Newsweek.
Joe lit a match. He looked at the shaving cream and wondered why he’d never heard of this brand. Shav-va-me? Shay-vam-ee? What sort of man wanted a French word in his shaving cream? Smart lettering, though. He felt his chin, and realized how much stubble he was sporting by six PM. Maybe try this stuff.
A florid face appeared behind the grill, scowling like Bluto in the Popeye cartoons. He picked up the ticket and looked at it, as though it was in code, then leaned towards the waitress. He looked up and down the counter and fixed his eyes on Joe, the only customer.
“We don’t have any soup,” he said. “She should have told you that.”
“She did,” Joe said.
“Why’s you going and ordering it then?”
Joe got up and walked back to the front checkout. He tossed the matches to the pimply clerk.
“In case anyone wants to burn the joint down,” he said. “I used one. Put it on my tab.”
He had the chili for dinner. Tomorrow.