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Belly Up To the Arizona

'Let's call Mel. Let's see if she'll come down," people said. "I don't want to wake her up," they said. "It's awfully early. And, Sunday. She probably wants to sleep in, but it'd be cool if she came down." The milling about and indecision reached Olympic levels until it was decided: "Someone should be a total asshole and just wake her up."

With that, two dozen eyes looked across the checkered floor, past the tables, over the empty barstools, and gazed upon me.

"Me?" I asked, but I already knew the answer. "Well, it looks like you've all made your decision," I said, reaching in to my back pocket to retrieve my phone.

"Mel," I barked into the receiver, "look, I know you don't want to. I know you're tired and you just want to sleep, but, dammit, how many times are you young? You're only young once. And, when you're young and your friends call you up on Sunday morning to come have a.m. booze with them, well then, dammit, listen. You're not going to get this kind of chance when you're old. There are a dozen of your best friends at the Arizona bar, and we're all mangled on drugs, drinking jet fuel, and listening to music. We want you to come down." Through my stumbling and bumbling and repetitive slurring, this message took about three minutes to leave on her machine. I'm pretty sure Mel's voice mail cut me off before I finished, but I was oblivious. I went on, "Mel, we're not your enemies here. Don't hate us. Think of how much we love you. We're all thinking of you, and we're willing to piss you off a little to get you to come down. It's six o'clock Sunday morning. We're at the Arizona. Gimme a call back."

Renee was listening in, and when I was finished she said, "Wow, that was a convincing message. I'd come down." Right then, Renee's phone rang and she reached back to answer it. "Hello? Mel. Hi. I know. Ollie's an asshole. You know what, sweetie, why don't you come down? It'd be nice to see you and you're already awake. Okay, you think about it, sweetie."

So, the game had been established and the players picked. Renee would be the good cop as chosen by Mel, and I would be bad cop, chosen by everyone else.

Behind me the bartender smashed a glass and everyone yelled, "Ah. That's okay, man. You're doing great!" Blue-collar, middle-class kids on a chemical bender are a congratulatory group.

Kip, Renee's husband, grabbed me by the shoulder and said, "Ollie, let me buy you a drink, man. You're doing a great job." We waited to order our bourbon and sodas while the bartender picked up the shards and dumped them in a trash can.

All over the walls of the Arizona are pictures of groups of men in bowling outfits, boxing gloves, or holding up giant fish. Boats and booze. Button-up short-sleeve shirts and close haircuts. The black marble behind the bar and black deco lamps are a tip to a generation past.

Up high where the wall meets the ceiling, behind the bartender's head, are pencil illustrations. They're about two feet square on heavy stock paper, and they run the whole length of the wall. The paper is discolored, brown and black, but through the smoke-damage tint you can tell the drawings are professionally done. Beautiful rendered caricatures of middle-aged men, all smiling with a drink in their hands or a long-stem cigarette filter in their teeth. The pictures capture the feeling of the bar, the theme: a man's world. The bar exists in a different time, the time before the hippie '60s. You don't hear names like those of the men in the illustrations: Claude Artgraves, Archie Winczewski, and Tough Tony Pandza.

The bartender brought us our bourbon and sodas, and we thanked him. "Hey, those illustrations are really great. What's the story with those? They're obviously real people, do they live around here?"

"Some do," the old timer said, turning to look at the pictures. "Most of them are dead, though. Those are old regulars and bartenders. Can you guess which one I am?"

Kip and I looked past the old guy's ballcap. We craned our necks to pick out the one with his features. "You look like Harvey Carrington," I told him.

"No, no, not Harvey," he said. "Second one from the left."

"Tony Pandza?" Kip and I asked. "You're Tough Tony?"

"Look at that picture," I said. "You're a celebrity!"

"That's right. That was drawn 43 years ago." In the picture, Tough Tony looks to be about mid-30s. His hair is thinning and his cheeks are tight and thin, but the man still has the same broad smile and crooked nose.

Just then my phone rang and I reached back for it. Checking the caller ID first, I shouted into it, "MEL! Get your ass down here. I'm not joking around anymore."

"You need some manners, young man!" she yelled through from her end to me.

"Listen, you can hate me all you want as long as you come down. How come you left the party last night at midnight instead of getting shitfaced with us and staying up for first call at the Arizona?"

"I was hungover," her tiny voice said, sounding contrite.

"You were hungover? At goddamn midnight you were still hungover?"

"I had a rough Friday."

"Apparently you did," I said, wanting -- no, needing to get off the phone and have my first sip of icy booze and water. "I'll talk to you when you get down here. Now let me off this damn phone. Are you coming down?"

"I'm in the car. Let me talk to Renee."

I handed the phone to Renee, and she used her best calming voice, "I know, sweetie. Yes, Ollie's a jerk. But, you could come down and hang out with me." Good cop.

I turned my attention back to Kip and Tough Tony, who were face-to-face and chattering wildly. "You're from Farrell, Pennsylvania? So am I!" they said as I sipped my drink and watched. "Well, I'll be darned," one said. And, "Here we are on a Sunday morning at a tiny bar in Ocean Beach, San Diego, 3000 miles from Farrell. Hell, we were born in the same hospital." When they had finished catching up and comparing (whose mother worked where, what street they each lived on, what high schools they went to), Tough Tony grabbed the bottle of Jim Beam and filled our half-full glasses.

"Thanks, Tony," we said, holding up our glass and clinking them against his coffee mug. I blocked the ice cubes with my lips and pulled a gulp off the top. WOW! My jaw clenched and my eyes shut as though I were trying to chew my own head off from the inside. Bang! Rocket fuel. "You're doing a fine job, Tony!" I wheezed through fuming breath.

After that drink, I figured I'd better use the Gents while I still knew how. Not wanting to touch the aged and grimy restroom door, I kicked the chrome plate attached to the bottom to let myself in. "YOW!" someone screamed from the other side.

"Sorry!" I yelled back through the door and shoved it open a little more. Inside was a shirtless man scrubbing his pits with the crumbly, white powdered soap from the dispenser above the sink. "Didn't know you were here. Sorry for the kick."

"Just freshening up," he said. "It's been a long night." He was either homeless or one step closer than the rest of us. His skin was pocked and drawn, and he was missing a few front teeth. He wet down and combed back his greasy hair and vanished from the room. The door swished behind him and caught up his ragged jacket. When the door closed, the brown stench of BO and stale pee cleared. What I had assumed was the rotting odor of a well-worn dive-bar bathroom was really just the man standing at the sink. I stood looking at the hand-painted tiles in a fairly fresh, clean bathroom. There was even ice in the urinal. I could see why he wanted to clean up in here.

Heading back to the bar from the men's room, before I could grab my drink, Kip said to me, "Only in the Arizona bar on a Sunday morning are you going to kick a homeless guy taking a whore's bath in the crapper."

"You heard about that already?" I asked.

"Yeah, he came out and complained to Tony. Tony had to throw him out of here."

"Why, that no good..." I trailed off. I was starting to fade into blackout. I knew if I drank any more I wouldn't remember what happened afterwards. I would wind up in some strange bed on the other side of town six hours later and the time in between would be a void. I knew it was going to happen, and I let it. While gulping down a mouthful of liquor, feeling the cold condensation against my fingertips, and holding my breath against the gasoline fumes of straight alcohol, I saw a dark figure appear in the doorway. She was a little over five feet tall, wearing a black hooded sweatshirt and dark round sunglasses.

Just before the booze made me lose cognition, I yelled out, "MEL!"

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