It is no longer clear to me what came first, the woman or the Raincheck Lounge. Often I believe that they came into my life at the same time, appearing in such close proximity here in the city, which back then was still a stranger to me. There was a man too, but he came later, too late for me to understand who he was. Not who he really was. I don't mean that. No one could know that. What I mean is, who he was in relation to me, and to the woman, and to the Raincheck.
The woman was Puerto Rican or Mexican. I wasn't sure, and now it had been weeks since I'd been to see her, further confusing things for me. The last time, she'd thrown me out because I'd arrived too drunk to do anything, totally useless to her. I stayed angry, determined not to visit her again. Still I kept going to the Raincheck anyway, just to stay inside her orbit. I can't say that I missed her exactly, but I did miss something. Perhaps it was her soft Spanish swearing when she came, or the way she carefully pushed me out the door after I'd dressed. Something was missing, something I didn't understand. All I knew was that although she made me feel lonely and fucked up, it was in a different way than the rest of my life did, and that made it more than tolerable.
Inside the Raincheck, it was Frank Talbot who first told me about the fight. Apparently, everyone already knew it was going to happen, but the details were still elusive. I ignored the warning signs and ordered a beer. Frank tried to tell me again.
"Listen," I said, "I don't want any trouble. Not tonight." I stuck a cigarette in my mouth, and Frank flipped open his lighter and ignited it for me.
He smiled. "No one even knows who's fighting."
"Then how do we even know it's going to happen?"
"Someone said something to someone else who told someone else. Now everyone knows."
"But not who or when? That's stupid."
"This place is like that sometimes."
"That I know already. You don't have to keep telling me."
It was August outside, hot and humid, even at night. The cement walls dripped beads of condensation, glowing red and blue and yellow in neon and fluorescence. A dark wetness was everywhere, making it hard to get a grasp on things, both inside the bottle and without. "Is it you?" I asked. "Are you the one?"
"Maybe," he said. "There are people who would hurt me."
"People I owe money to, for instance. Others too."
"How much money?"
"Don't ask me that. It's not about that."
"You can tell me. We're friends, right?"
"Yeah, well, we'll see about that."
What I thought he meant was, if it came to it, would I stand up with him in a fight. I was sure he'd do it for me, since he'd helped me out once or twice since he'd first appeared at the Raincheck. That was after I'd already been going there a while. What he helped with, like everything else about that time, is confusing now. It is fair to say that it probably wasn't clear then, either. Frank was always telling stories, some real and some imagined. Whatever version he believed to be his life, I thought I had heard it all, and yes, it is true that he wasn't a good guy, not even according to himself. Still, he was once good to me, if that makes a difference.
Frank wasn't the only one wondering aloud if the fight meant that tonight was his turn to defend himself for what he'd done. A man we both knew to be a coward told us how he'd robbed a woman at knife point, in broad daylight. He'd been too afraid to use a pistol. Another had tried to sell his first load of speed and gotten so frightened that he flushed the whole thing down the toilet. He did the kind of math desperate men do and told us what he owed. We all agreed that it might be him, but there were other possibilities as well, like the man who'd slept with his brother's wife, and one who'd fought a man only last week, in another bar, and still had the bruises to prove it. His opponent had gone to the hospital, but could be out by now. One man had been arrested two years prior, but had got off by turning in two of his friends. He fingered the golden crucifix around his neck and called himself Judas. His guilt was thick and Catholic, and no one said anything after he spoke. When the door opened to the parking lot, heads turned and silence fell deep enough that you could hear the sound of our spines shivering in the bar's wet darkness. Eventually, knuckles were cracked and exploratory fists formed. Men flexed muscles they hadn't used in years. We tested our jaws with probing fingers, checking for glass, hoping for steel, and yes, I do know that a reasonable person might say that we were all criminals, that whatever we got would be half of what we deserved. So what if we were? Those days, there was nothing but criminals anywhere, and I don't think things have changed all that much since.
We were having a good time, laughing at each other's crimes. I know for me, at least, that this was true. Yes, someone was going to be punished, someone was going to be hurt, and hurt badly if it came to that. But the rest of us would escape, still free. What frightened us was that we would have our day too. What liberated us was the possibility that today was not that day.
"What about you, Jack? You're the only one who hasn't said anything." Frank stood, leaned up against the bar. He was grinning at me, his drink disappearing into the flesh of his fist.
He was right. There were things that I had done, as bad as anything anyone else had, and some things even worse. I just wasn't ready to talk about them. Back then I still believed in invisibility, that the things I did touched no one. Everything was still a victimless crime.
"I'm innocent," I said, grinning, and everyone burst into laughter. It had been a long time since I'd made people laugh like that.
"You're innocent? Is that right? Nothing you want to confess to the rest of us?"
I didn't respond, and Frank shook his head. "I'm tired of this," he said, draining his beer in one gulp. He stuck his thumbs into his belt loops and looked around at the other men, who were waiting to see what he would do. On his way to the door, Frank slapped me on the back once, hard enough to slam my teeth into the neck of my beer bottle, making me choke. Tears blinded me. In the moment it took me to clear my throat, I saw that Frank was at the door, heading out into the night. We all crowded in the doorway, watching him walk to his old Cadillac, wondering if he was the one. When he started the ignition and then pulled out of the parking lot, we felt the spell break. Surely, nothing was going to happen. It had all been a mistake.
We went back to our drinks. Everyone was quieter now, let down without the fight and uncomfortable with the things we had said, apparently for no reason. I didn't stay much longer myself. I was for once happy, and drunk enough to think that the woman would let me in tonight, sober enough to think there might be a reason to bother. I left the bar and walked the six blocks to her apartment, smoking and humming a certain song that had played on the jukebox earlier in the evening. I don't remember what song it was. Knowing what I know now, I wish I'd paid better attention. There had been so many warnings already, and that song was probably the last one.
See, there never was a fight at the Raincheck. It had all been a lie, a joke no one got at the time. When I arrived at the woman's apartment her door was already open. She wasn't there, or at least, I didn't see her. Instead, Frank was sitting on her couch, drinking a beer. He stood up as I walked in and shook his head, slow and sad. When he started hitting me, I curled up on the floor and pleaded that I hadn't known, that I would have told him if I did. It was too late for confession, too late for forgiveness. My nose broke and ribs cracked. As I bled, I knew that it wasn't about what I had done with her, but what I had done to him.