“Every time I puff on this damn thing it boils up in my face. I just don’t get how people do it you know? Like, on the regular. Even if you don’t inhale you end up with all the smoke in your lungs anyway.”
“Well, don’t smoke them anymore.” Graham only gives me a cursory look while saying this, immediately shoving his face back down into his computer’s screen. I never get the sense that he likes me, but he never turns me down when I ask to accompany him to wherever he is going. I guess I strike him mostly as a curiosity, a little bird of sorts that hops around him chirping incessantly.
“I don’t know.” I hold my cigar up close to my face and inspect the burning end, immediately getting smoke in my eye. “Fuck! You see what I mean? It’s just inevitable. No matter what I do I end up with smoke in my face!”
“As I said, maybe you should stop smoking them.” He looks up at me with consternation. “That, or try not to put the burning end in your eye.” He chuckles and looks back down.
I admire Graham. He isn’t particularly successful in what he does. In fact his life is as ordinary as they come. But he has an air of confidence that I crave, a complicity with the world, as if it somehow is an inextricable part of his being. At times it even seems as if he rules it, as if its every movement is governed by his quiet indifference, bending backwards in an attempt to please him.
I carefully place my cigar down on the edge of the table and look at him, studying his focused face as it examines the glowing screen of his computer.
“What are you doing?” I ask, leaning forward to try and catch a glimpse.
“Just reading the news, buddy.”
I manage to see the headline of the article. More turmoil in the Middle East, more vitriol from opposing parties here in the States. It is uninteresting to me but he is totally engaged.
“So, what do you think?”
“Of what?” he says without looking up.
“Of the war!”
“Which war. Be more specific. Are you referring to this article?”
“Yeah. What do you think. Do you think it’ll affect us?”
He stops momentarily and gives me that same look of consternation.
“Of course it will, buddy. Maybe not directly, but it’s our money that will probably be thrown into the conflict. Our government likes to meddle.” He leans back and gazes past me at the walking pedestrians. “We always end up having to foot the bill.”
“Yeah. It sucks no? I mean, I don’t even care about their problems. Shit, I’ve got enough problems here to worry about. Why should my money go to them, you know?”
Graham shakes his head and settles into reading again.
“Hey, what do you want to do after this?” I say, suddenly aware that we will probably be leaving soon. “Want to go see a movie or something. How about a gallery?”
“I’ve got work to do tonight so I’m going to have to say no. Listen buddy, can you get me another beer? Grab one for yourself, my treat.”
I sigh and grab my cigar again, puffing on it carefully to not get any smoke over myself.
“Ok, what do you want?”
“Same thing. Get yourself something good, too. Don’t worry about the cost.”
I never do worry about the cost when he offers to buy me something, he knows that. Maybe it’s my presence that he likes. He hardly pays attention to me, mostly acknowledging my remarks with curt responses of agreement or disagreement. Usually his responses seem indifferent. But whenever I call him he picks me up and lets me ride around to wherever he goes. I view him as my buddy.
I set my cigar down again, balancing it carefully on the edge of the table.
“Can you make sure this doesn’t roll away? I’ll be quick.”
He mumbles an acknowledgment without glancing up.
“Thanks man. I think I’ll get myself one of those Belgian beers, those really good ones. Everyone says they have more flavor. Like, drinking one is more authentic than drinking a lager or something.”
Graham just nods. I get up and straighten my shirt out, look at him briefly and then twist around and head indoors to the bar.
Stepping inside a blast of cool air hits me, making the accumulated sweat on the back of my shirt more noticeable. Fidgeting slightly I let my eyes adjust and then beeline to the bar. There are a few guys and a couple of girls sitting around chatting and I inspect them curiously. None of them care to notice my presence as I slip by them. They’re all engaged in their private conversations, discussing this and that, idle chatter that is as uninteresting to me as the article Graham is reading outside.
“What can I get you?” The bartender is looking at me casually and wiping away unseen grime from the countertop. He looks mildly bored, which is understandable considering that not many people are out ordering drinks mid-afternoon. The few that are present seem content with having one or two beers and then calling it a day, slipping back into the concrete currents of the city. I wonder to myself what they do, how successful they are, how content they might be. I don’t really care, though. I just wonder.
“What do you, uh, recommend for a Belgian beer?”
The bartender has stopped wiping now and shrugs.
“It’s mostly a matter of personal taste. You like ’em heavy?”
“Whatever I’ll take one of those.”
The bartender gives me a dumb look, then looks behind himself despite the fact that I did not motion.
“Uh, which one?”
“The heavy one you just mentioned, man. I’ll take that one.”
He blinks, then shrugging again reaches for a glass and pours what looks like motor oil.
“Let me know if you can stomach it,” he says with a grin as he hands me the full glass. “Putting it on your friends tab?”
This stops me momentarily. It’s probably not a good sign when the bartender knows your monetary arrangements with your friends.
“Yeah, that’ll work.”
As I get outside Graham looks up at me and laughs.
“You forgot about my beer, didn’t you?”
“What? Oh shit my bad. The bartender distracted me, you know how it is. Want me to go back and get one for you?”
Graham looks at the beer in my hand and slowly draws a devilish grin.
“No, don’t worry about it. Just down that and we’ll take off.”
“Sure? I really don’t mind.”
“Don’t worry bud, just chug it.” He’s eyeballing me intently, expectantly. I look down at my beer and observe how it looks murky, almost putrid. It makes my stomach curdle a bit. Graham leans forward and closes his laptop, pushing it aside and resting his arms on the table.
“Chug it. In one go. Tell you what, if you can do it I’ll stay out a bit longer. We can go somewhere and shoot the breeze.”
“No shit? Alright your on.” I feel a surge of excitement with the promise of a longer day. However every time I raise the beer to my nose it blows my olfactory buds straight to hell. It’s a heavy smell, full of dirt and swamp and whatever else one can imagine as being dark, viscous, and dirty. I really don’t want to drink it anymore.
“Shit, I should’ve got a lager.”
Graham laughs at me. “Well, you didn’t. Now drink it or I’ll take you home.”
I take one last good look at it and then close my eyes, letting the beer fill my mouth and then run down the back of my throat. Except it doesn’t. It clogs up like a dorm room sewage pipe, lining my throat with whatever is in the god awful concoction. I open my eyes and realize I’m looking up in a desperate attempt to allow the beer passage down my throat, but it won’t move. Then doubling over I let out a loud gag only to hear Graham burst into laughter in front of me.
“Swallow! Swallow!” he’s yelling as best he can amidst his laughter. “You have to finish it or I’m calling it a day!” I can only gurgle in response.
After what feels like minutes of strenuous swallowing, although it’s only a few seconds, my throat begins to clear up. I can still feel the gunk traveling slowly down through my esophagus into my stomach but the ordeal is over. I take a deep breath and wipe away tears from my eyes, coughing a little bit with each exhalation. Graham is also wiping tears from his face as he calms down.
“Thanks for the sympathy. I just about died.”
“Yeah yeah I know, you’re fine. How’d it taste?”
“Hell if I know.” I’m still wiping tears. “Goddamn, that was torture.”
“Well you did it, so I guess I’m bound to my word. Let me get the tab and we can go. Anywhere in particular?” he asks, whipping up his laptop under his arm. I can still hardly think, what with the acrid taste of the beer now hitting me in full force.
“I don’t know, fuck, I don’t know. I need a soda or something.” I lurch a bit as I say this.
“I’ll get you one. Just think about where we should go in the meantime,” and he disappears indoors.
When Graham comes back out he has a massive smile on his face.
“The bartender saw the entire show and comped the beer. Hive five man! I’ve never managed that before.”
I meet his extended hand with a meager slap and a scowl.
“He also said to convey his congratulations,” Graham continues.
“Fuck him. He’s the one who made me suffer.”
“Whatever you say, bud. Don’t forget your cigar.”
“Screw it. I don’t even want to think about smoking right now. And where’s my soda man?”
“Oh, I forgot. Saw-ry,” he says as he leers at me.
We drive around a bit after leaving the bar, trying to decide what to do. Things are hard to find in this city and require a certain amount of detective work to locate. Graham is growing visibly annoyed, which I understand since he needs to get back and is wasting gas. But it’s my turn now to make him suffer, so I bide my time. Sometimes I really wonder why he tolerates me.
I finally remember a museum of natural history that I had been wanting to go to. The last time I went I was a kid being towed around by my parents. I hadn’t gone voluntarily that time, but once there I had greatly enjoyed it. So I tell Graham and we make our way to it.
“It’s a wooly mammoth, man! A wooly fucking mammoth!”
We have arrived at the museum now. The main foyer is dominated by this massive wooly mammoth, its trunk held high as if trumpeting to posterity. There are a few kids standing around it, futilely reaching out in an attempt to caress what looks like downy fur.
“I see that, Drew.”
“But look how big that thing is! Can you imagine bumping into a live one? I think I’d shit myself! Better buy gun!” I laugh at my own jocosity but Graham is already moving on to the next exhibit.
“Hold up man, chill for a moment and look at it.”
“It’s a mock-up, ok? It’s amusing, intriguing even, but it’s just a model.”
“Well no shit! But give it a second and let yourself be transported. Imagine yourself back in the Ice Age trying to kill one of these things. It must have been a crazy experience, throwing rocks and sticks and shit while it reared back at you like a monstrous mountain.”
Graham stops and stares me down as if I’m some preschool moron nagging his mom.
“Alright.” He says, moving to me and squaring his body towards the mammoth. “Take me back.”