Max slid onto the only available bar stool. “Ol Max”, they called him, though he was only thirty-five; it was more of a “Good Ol Max” kind of thing. He surveyed the scene to the left, and then to the right, a Rubik’s cube of familiarity jumbled up suitably. He offered his customary half twirling wrist wave, a specialty, but received sighs and grunts in return. Miffed, he saluted Barbara Bean and she rewarded him with a healthy pour of Campari and an equal of soda. In a glass, of course.
“Max,” explained the Bean, “I’ve got a bit of grim news to cram into your melon, so hold still. Kenny Boots had a pain in his neck…”
“Now, Babs, I know how this one goes, and you shouldn’t call Murray a pain in…”
“Shut, Maxie. Kenny Boots had a pain in his neck, and he was smart enough to go to the doctor, and turns out he’s got some kind of spinal cancer or something, all spidery around his neck.”
“Holy fuck. There’s such a thing as that? Fuck. That’s fucked.”
“Yeah, and Kenny pulled the card. They’ve given him two months.” The bar nodded. If this was a sick joke, everyone was in on it.
“Well, Jesus. Isn’t there anything they can do for him?”
“He himself asked if there was any possible chance of amputation.”
“ONE CHEER FOR OLD KENNY BOOTS!” shouted Slim Pickins, anchoring third base. And they all had an uncomfortable laugh, said huzzah, and sipped. Impending death, like tequila, usually does a better job of bringing out humor from its host than from those merely observing.
“Fuck me. Fuck that. I’ll tell you what,” Ol Max opined with a point of a finger, as if daring the assemblage to disagree, “Kenny Boots was a sharp shooter through and through. I’ve had conversations with him, with him five drinks in, mind you, on the finer points of many a subject. The man knew more about the American Revolution…”
“And liquor, and flowers…”
“Yeah, the flowers thing was a little odd,” continued Max, “but he knew more about those things than anyone I ever knew. Encyclo-fucking-pedic knowledge.”
Slim chimed in. “He didn’t lord it over you, though. Never brought up a topic first.” On this the opinion seemed unanimous, so Slim continued. “But if you wanted to know something, it was easier to ask Kenny that to fish out your phone and try to get a signal in this shitty bar.”
“Speaking of, Barbara…”
“Whenever you pay your tab, you drunk, that’s when we’ll get a new router.” Again a nearly-unanimous rumble. Lennie’s tab could buy the whole Internet. It was a documented fact. But Lennie protested nonetheless.
“Kenny paid my tab once.”
Vivian broke the silence, mostly by being the first one to recover her jawline from the floor. “When was this, like 1972?”
“No, he covered me the night my wife died. You all didn’t find out until a month after she passed, but that night I came in here and sucked Mozart’s testicle. Kenny Boots was the only one I talked to; we just huddled on third base and I unloaded on the poor bastard, every bit of love and hate I ever had for that woman and how I missed her even before she was gone. He soaked me up and filled me up and when I couldn’t walk, he put me in a cab and gave the cabbie fifty bucks and my keys. And, he never told nobody anything I said that night. And, he paid my tab.” And Lennie Labrador finished his whiskey.
Artist Jenny, after everyone caught their thoughts, pointed out that Lennie was lucky the cabbie didn’t roll him out and ransack his house. Brooklyn, after all. It was Marksketeer, the part-time bouncer, who set her straight. “Let me tell you something about Kenny Boots.”
“One night, I don’t know, maybe a month before I got hired, I was in here drinkin’. Guy comes in, off the street, not crazy or drunk but clearly not right. Everybody sees it. Long story short, guy starts mouthin’ off to Barbara the Bean here, you remember, Barb?”
“I tried to be nice, but I was thinking about the pepper spray in the change tray. Wondering how it worked!”
“Right. And I’m a couple seats away, suckin’ on my fifth Miller, so I suck it the rest of the way and keep the empty bottle, you know? Sort of thinking, if it becomes necessary, I’ll go glass to ass. And Louie Lamont, remember him? Louie just stops talkin’ and slips out of his stool and stands flat footed lookin’ straight ahead.”
Barbara nodded the Bean.
“And guy’s getting really rude now, and convo stops all the way down the line. Now here’s Kenny Boots, right next to the guy, finishin’ off a plate of wings. ‘Barbara,’ he says.”
“I’ve had enough.” Barbara, this, still nodding.
“And guy looks at him. Little guy like Kenny Boots. The fuck, right? And Kenny picks up a napkin, one of those nice cloth ones they give you with the wings, right? And he asks if Barb has any more.”
“And I says, why, Kenny?”
“Right. And Kenny goes, ‘I don’t know what’s going to come out of this guy’s cockholster next, but I don’t want to get my hands bloody.’ And finally, for the first time, he turns to face this guy. And he says nothin’. Nothin’. He just, I don’t know, looks the guy. And I saw something on Kenny’s face I never seen before, like, even more placid than his usual face, no smile, no nothin’. I can’t imagine what it looked like to this idiot guy up close. But he left. Just melted away like herpes, except you knew he wasn’t coming back.”
Alice (in Chains) was giggling at ‘cockholster’, as she told the room. “Sounds like something my brother would say, he’s a Marine.”
“I think maybe Kenny was Navy,” Slim Pickins ventured. “He had that anchor tattoo on his forearm, really faded.”
“That wasn’t his only tattoo,” whispered Artist Jenny, though no one noticed. She thought of his body, drew a mental map as if his tattoos were dots to be connected by lines. She drew him, painted him, sculpted him. Some of those tattoos were scars, strange pullings of skin and muscle she shuddered to think of, reflections of inside parts he rarely spoke of, unless he was too drunk to stand alone. He was, she thought, the most empathetic man she’d ever met, the most sensitive person. How many of those scars were his own? He never forbade her to talk of art, but it occurred to her this might not be the time to add her story to the cauldron.
Ol Max suddenly had a thought, a rare enough experience that he commanded everyone’s attention. “Why are we talking about this man in the past tense? Jesus Christ, he’s sick, not dead. If he could hear us, he’d be fucking annoyed, I bet. Is this how we treat a stand-up citizen? Fuck all. We should do something.”
“Like what?” Alice wanted to know. “It’s a death sentence. I mean, we could all get drunk, that’s something to do technically, but seriously, you think he gives a fuck about coming down here and celebrating his spinal cancer with people he gets wasted with? Man probably has other priorities. Probably wants to spend time with family, for one.”
“First off,” scolded Ol Max, ticking off fingertips, “first off, he’s… okay first off, it’s rude. I’d hate for someone to pasttense me. It’s rude. Second of all, he is still alive, right?”
“Far as we know,” Barbara Bean said. “I got the news yesterday.”
“Okay, well then, facts are on my side. Third of all, does anybody know if he even has a family?”
The awkwardness of the silence was its own extra blanket, and they emerged from it slowly. No one could remember ever seeing Kenny walk in with anyone else, although he dressed well enough that consensus speculation was that some good woman was taking care of him. He certainly never complained about a wife, never mentioned children except to say they made good bait for alligator hunts, which everyone always assumed he was kidding about. He was just old enough that his parents were most likely dead, but no one could remember any mention of them, either. Even Artist Jenny had to admit to herself that she knew him differently, but not really more deeply. The best she could do was agree quietly that One Such As He must have attracted somebody that stuck by. It offended their collective outsider status to believe otherwise. He was their ambassador, someone said, probably it was Murray, who’d been kicked out of the Foreign Service; Kenny must have had a family.
And Ol Max realized aloud that he didn’t really know.
And Slim Pickins admitted he didn’t know where Kenny lived.
And Alice (in Chains) wondered what he did for a living.
And Vivian Le Blonde trumped them all. “Does anyone actually know his last name?”
Jenny didn’t. She’d never needed to, and it wouldn’t close the wound she felt opening unexpectedly. She had his phone number, knew she could call, knew she would call, because she was a woman that stuck by, even if he claimed not to want her to. Maybe he had a family, or maybe he didn’t, but he’d answer, wouldn’t he?
Lennie asked Barbara Bean, “How’d you get the news, Barbara? Someone must have called.”
“Nope. Kid showed up on a bike,” she said, pointing to a bottle of Oban 14 next to the register. “There was a note attached, explaining the whole thing. Said to wait three months, long enough for dust to collect, and then if anybody needed a drink, it was on Kenny Boots.” And they collectively looked, and drank in the two cartoony cowboy boots drawn on the label with a Sharpie marker.
“I’ll tell you this,” Barbara said. “That man was a great tipper.”
“One cheer for Kenny Boots,” said Slim Pickins to his glass.