The Underdog

What I needed was a weekend away. I headed back to my old college town and hooked up with my history professor, who was waiting outside his house flashing me a Nazi salute when I pulled up to the curb. Clambering into the passenger seat of my car, he screamed in my ear, “Straight, then left, then right. Vodka night!”

That was the best hello I could expect, I guess. It was the last weekend in September, and the air still gripped the breath of a cool summer. Vodka wouldn’t harm a fly, and was just the ticket for the big wind-down after 250 miles worth of country road. I went straight, then left, then right and parked outside the new Venezuelan place that had taken over the tumbledown Moose lodge on main street.

A kid I had gone to school with had gone down to Venezuela and taken in a girl from the street. Next thing you know, they’re married and her family is ensconced in the Moose lodge, now bakery and restaurant with the hottest bartenders around. That’s the weird secret about Elkins – it’s a pitiful West Virginia town, but it’s full of extraordinarily beautiful women. They used to be few and far between, but ever since Mega Super Death Corporation took over the Snowshoe ski resort and dumped half a billion into it, Elkins became Little Aspen. The women are scantily clad, beautiful, lithe and powerful. The old Hippie crowd had finally been uprooted. Aged 40-something girls being replaced by new blood – transplanted city girls with financial backing and outlaw songs.

Deep in the bowels of the former Moose lodge, old Doc and I bellied up at the bar and ordered vodka. In keeping with my upbringing, I just said vodka, and, for my sins, I got a high ball glass with cracked ice, vodka and the barest whisper of tonic.

Doc looked at me and I at him and, at length, he said, “Nach, I’m worried about you.”

“What’s there to worry about?”

“You’ve got fire beneath you, Nach. Fire above. I look at you and I see clouds, I see a mind never at rest, I see breathless revolution. I see eternal youth and the exhaustion of extreme age.” He gulped vodka and tonic, “It’s the city, boy. It’s Washington. You’re banking 30, it’s time for the country, it’s time to come back this way and live like a human.”

He had told me on the phone, weeks before, that 18 years in the country was getting to him. He had told me that he wanted a change himself. I drank straight Stoli and leaned back, sucking in smoke-filled air. Across from me sat a fat man in a suit, balding and beaten. A man my age. Manning the bar was Jess, a pale woman of extreme youthfulness and beauty. A willowy blonde with an overbite and thongs above her low-cut jeans was mopping the floor, her layered hair bopping and her blue eyes intent on her work.

“What have I amounted to?” I asked. “A BA in History, a flameout at the graduate level, no ambition, no desires…”

“Mother fucker,” Doc nearly shouted, “You run three websites, all of which command respect from the freaks, the doomed, the fucked up, writers, publishers and teachers. Your work is read from Elkins to China, you travel all the fucking time for weeks and weeks and you make money while scamming your grandparents. You live a life I wish I led at 30. Shut the fuck up you whining pussy.”

He pounded his Stoli and tonic and ordered another one. Jess brought it up without delay, sensing the growing storm of an argument.

“I kind of want money for it. Read from Elkins to China but not paid to write it.”

“You write it anyway.”

“Yes, but,”

Doc shrugged his shoulders. “Money comes and goes. You’ll never control it. You can make a hundred grand and you’ll live your life as if you were making two hundred. People like you need things. People like you spend your money. A thirsty mind surrounds itself with movies and books and plane tickets, Nach. Only the dying live within their means, and that’s only because the hospital won’t tolerate a bounced check.”

“So your words of wisdom are to spend money without caution and to be satisfied that hundreds of pages of rants are a mark of success because someone in China reads my retarded webpage?”

Doc nodded his head, slamming his drink again. “It’s more than many folks have. It’s more than many writers have. Every one of those geeks writing for your page have stumbled upon the new world. Being on that front page is a stepping stone for each of them. They should add it to their resume.”

“Ah,” I said, “The writer’s resume…” I had the intention of launching into a Notes From the Margin rant, but he stopped me.

“No, their actual resume. 2001-whatever. Worked for Greatsociety.org or sfwp.org. You can bet it’s on my resume.”

We drank in silence, each with our own troubled thoughts, when a little brunette came in and settled herself on the other side of the bar. Tight jeans and a loose black top that was nothing but wild cleavage. Her hair was loose and wild, held from her face by banana clips and cluttering her shoulders like uncollected mail, looping up with the hint of rain in the outside world and curling against her will. Grey eyes glittered in the lights, a bewitching power that even held pale Jess in check for a fleeting second. She ordered Johnny Walker Black on the rocks, soda on the side, and ignored the male eyes that trained on her, soaked her up, sucked her in.

Doc released a rushing, peeling laughter and jerked forward, grabbing my shoulder, “There you go, boy!” he shouted. Jess rolled blue eyes, the man in the suit closed his and shook his head, a knowing smile. Grey eyes flashed up and looked at us.

“Doc,” the man in the suit said.

“Tony!” Doc replied, as if seeing him for the first time, “Whatcha say?”

“Repeat after me: Women are wonderful and equal in all ways.”

Doc took off his glasses, has face growing serious, “Women are wonderful and equal in all ways.”

“The tax cut will help the economy.”

“The tax cut will help the economy.”

Everyone was smiling, from grey eyes to my own hazel.

“The 87 million for Iraq is justified.”

Doc repeated the line, then laughed hysterically and rocked in the bar stool.

“You should run for governor, Doc. You lie good.” Jess said softly, bringing him another Stoli and tonic.

“You’ll see something different if I do!” he said.

He grabbed my shoulder and continued a thought, “The Underdog.”

For a moment, I thought he was talking seriously about entering the race, but he put his glasses low on his nose and looked over at the grey-eyed brunette. “That’s what you need, boy.”

“She’s hardly an underdog.” I replied.

“She is, boy. If this room were full of men, they’d go for Jess or our sweeper girl first.”

“That’s a sexy brunette, doc.”

“Look at her boy. That’s a corner girl, a table girl. She’s used to watching things. She’s the thing that waits for the lions to pull down the gazelle before she brings down the lions.”

“I don’t think there is anything like that, doc.”

“There is when you’re dealing with women. Goddamn lions don’t have a chance.” He stared hard and seriously at me, “Whatcha say?” Then he laughed hysterically again.

The underdog is a powerful creature. Beauty, wit and intelligence. The funny girls, the clumsy girls, the gawky girls, the quiet girls, the bookworms, the wallflowers, the sad girls. Everyone knows one. Everyone ends up loving one. The beauty queens know they’re a threat, too. They revolve around the underdog, or the underdog steps back into the shadows in response to territorial claims. It’s an eternal dance, and drinking vodka with my old history professor put it into focus.

But then he was pulling at me. “Get moving, Nach! We’re going to a gay bar! We’ve got faggot rednecks now!” In a gale of laughter, he pulled me out of the bar and threw me onto the sidewalk and into the rain.

Hard like criminals, we piled into his big Buick. Drunk on the blood of Russia, we pulled into the night rain and bounced through a railroad town to the city limits roadhouse – Journeez, a bar set up by a moneyed Phi Mu sister, a die hard lesbian. A haven for hillbillies, fags and lesbians. At the door, three bucks is the cover, and you have to do a shot of firewater. Inside at the pristine bar, a tall lesbian fills two glasses of vodka and hands them to us as if she could read our minds. The rednecks are singing Johnny Cash at a Karaoke machine, a lesbian couple are heavy petting in the corner, a fat man screams out my professor’s name and a Phi Mu sister grabs my arm and says she reads Greatsociety. Doc looks over his glasses at me.

Two men beside me are kissing, hands on cocks, and I spin around and put my back against the bar, celebrity spreading, it’s doc and me in a bubble of homosexual hillbillies with plenty of room to swing our legs.

“These fuckers know how to party!” Doc screams into my ear before rocking back and forth and speaking for three minutes in fluent German, then flashing a Nazi salute and laughing.

He began singing a MC 900 Foot Jesus song, Adventures in Failure, and, from there, the night took off.

A gay man grabbed my arm and I fell into a cradle of lesbians, a hillbilly put his hat on my head and Doc, hiccupping, drinking firewater on the house, began singing Monkees tunes into the Karaoke machine. How long had it been? The Stoli lies to you. From MC to the Monkees, the clock passing 2am, the bar still hopping and ready to greet the dawn. The bartender moved past us, she was humming Avril’s Skater Boy. I grabbed her arm and told her she needed to upgrade her cultural taste, suggesting some Joy Division songs.

She smiled, winked, and switched tunes effortlessly, singing a few lines from Leaders of Men.

Even doc seemed mildly surprised, but he jack-knifed. “Just a loud mouthed Yankee, I went down to Mexico.” His hysterical laughter cut through the crowd, and the lesbian I was lying on top of was breathing Veruca Salt lyrics into my ear.

“What am I doing hanging round?” Doc sang into the Karaoke machine. He continued and completed a perfect rendition of the Nesmith song.

I should be on that train and gone. I should be riding on that train to San Antone. Stuff like this hits you when you’re drunk, 29, surrounded by gay men and resting comfortably in the arms of a nimble lesbian who smells like vanilla. There’s a sense of falling, Alice and rabbit holes and so forth. Or maybe it’s more of a mouse’s tale sort of thing. What am I doing hanging round?

Doc pulled me from my lesbian nest and downed fire water, the Phi Mu’s moving us towards the back room where we were given relative silence. I leaned forward with my head in my hands, doc lying back and hiccupping, unfocused eyes staring. Three Phi Mu’s stood guard as we recovered. Our very own sirens. I tried to focus, and I smiled.

‘He no longer denies all the failures of modern man.’

I was back on Joy Division. I turned to Doc, “Hey, if I start singing Gram Parsons songs, get me to a hospital.”

Doc was staring at the ceiling, “Time can pass and time can heal but it don’t ever pass the way I feel. You went away a long time ago, and why you left I never knew. The lonely days and lonely nights, I guess the world knows I ain’t feeling right…”

Jesus Christ. I grabbed a Phi Mu, “And when you’re gone the hours pass so slow, and now I’m still feeling blue.”

“Should we take them home?” A girl with suicide blonde hair asked.

I moved with the Stoli in my veins, rising above the surface of my little planet, “And, baby, since you’ve walked out of my life, I never felt so low. Can’t help but wonder why you had to go.”

The Underdog. Names, places, girls, cunts, tits, tongues, breath.

There are many girls but I can’t say.
They come and go but still I feel this way.
And ever since the day you said goodbye,
No one treats me like you used to do.

I’m inside them, and are they inside me? The girls who pull down the lions? Grey eyes bewitching, blue eyes watching, brown eyes caressing. Moving beneath me, beside me, on top. Flesh against mine, the heat of the years, and 29 going on 30. That’s not too old, is it? I’m not too far away from the path am I? I’m not trapped in these goddamned memories, am I?

I hope you’re out and happy now,
Doing up the town, ‘cause you know how.
Every time I hear your name I want to die,
And now I’m still feeling blue.

It’s a haunting spirit. Not the girls, but my own wonderful youth. The days move around me, all the regret and all the fear and all the love and all the screaming whispers. All the girls and all the friends and toys and bikes and porn and drugs and soda and brownies. Voices without faces and faces without voices.

Here’s to our dead. Here’s to their memory. Here’s to everything I never said to them.

I kissed a lesbian that night and I woke up while still staring at the ceiling of a room at the Super 8. HBO on the tube, bruises on my arm, vodka soaking my clothes, and breathing alone in another hotel in another town in the same shoes.

To our dead. To their memory. To everything I never said. To everything I never said.

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