So anyway, Gus went to Eau Claire over the weekend of the mumblety-mumblth. He went with his friend, and ex-employer, Jim. It was for a convention, the topic of which I ain't a-gonna mention here, because when I did mention it to my friend, M, she broke into gales of derisive laughter. So I think it's enough to say that the conference room was peopled entirely with women, except for Jim. And me, of course, but I was only there to move heavy things and to be company. And that's fine. I was not attending the convention.
Okay, that's out of the way. The convention was held at the 29 Pines Inn and Conference Center, which is basically a self-contained compound between Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls, just off of what highway? Highway 29, of course! Right smack dab in the middle of the prairie, miles from anything. It consisted of rooms, a swimming pool, a bar, a restaurant, store, gas station, laundromat and some slots. Everyone has the slots! And really, I didn't care. It was good just to get out of my town and into another, just for a change of scenery.
We got up there in the afternoon. I helped Jim get set up in the convention room. While we were setting up, three women came up to Jim, all excited to see him. They were all my age or older, but all, oddly, with perfectly blonde hair. At that age, I tell you. But Jim introduced them as some friends of his who love to party. Well, that's fine too. But then they disappeared. Jim had some things to do, projects he was working on, so I went to the lounge and had a beer.
The lounge was pleasant enough, with some good beers in the cooler. I passed the time writing and watching people and basketball. And really, that first evening passed very uneventfully.
On Saturday Jim was going to be busy all day there. I had come down to the continental breakfast lounge to have a cup of coffee that might have been okay except for the taste of styrofoam. Man, if that doesn't leave a bad taste in your mouth! So I took off and headed to Chippewa Falls to search for a good cup of coffee. I finally found a place, a really funky little brick building with big picture windows. It was the "4:30 Coffee House." I went in and saw artwork that I didn't pay much attention to. There was a group of high-school age, or young college age, kids sitting at the counter. I got my coffee and sat down. I took my first sip. It was lousy. It was just a lousy cup of coffee. It was weak and bitter. And I thought, "I just drove a half an hour for a bad cup of coffee."
Then I looked around. The artwork was just photos of banal landscapes with some hot air balloons. There was a little lending library filled with Tom Clancey and Dean Koontz novels. And there were little family-type groups scattered around, the type of people who aren't going to complain about the coffee even if they do know it's bad. I was really disappointed, but I sat and watched the people and drank my coffee. I got to the bottom and tossed back the last of it and got a mouthful of grounds. They tasted like twice-brewed grounds. Nice. I left.
And you know how it is when you're in an unfamiliar town, and you know you should explore and find something cool to do? Well, that was my thought too. But I just didn't have a starting point, to tell the truth. I drove around aimlessly and finally found my van pointed back toward Eau Claire. And I decided to go to Water Street. I could find Water Street easily enough. And I had some recollection of hearing that it was a cool part of town to be in. Of course, I might have mis-remembered. Or things might have changed. Either way, I did end up on Water Street. It looked a lot different than I remembered, but I drove through, saw a coffee shop, and pulled over.
This one looked neat, in an old brick building with a big picture window facing the sun. It looked warm and welcoming. There were college kids in there, reading and doing college stuff. The girl at the counter was nice and friendly and gave me a coffee mug and pointed me to the carafes. I tipped her and filled my mug and sat down. I took a drink. It was no better than the cup I had in Chippewa Falls! I didn't know what to do. Do I go up and tell the girl that I hate her coffee, when so many others are obviously fine with it? Let's face it, I'm the odd man here. So all I could do was sit quietly and drink the coffee and try to not scowl. I watched a girl walk past the window in the sunshine. She was wearing a red dress with white polka dots on it. The dress was nice, but she was really clumsy on her high heels. I finished my coffee and walked about 8 blocks, up and down the street, then drove back to the 29 Pines.
When I got there, I looked for Jim at his table. He
wasn't there. Just on a whim, okay, maybe an educated guess, I checked
the bar. And there he was surrounded by the three cutest women at the
convention. They were nice looking, though two of them I think were
older than me. The third was about my age and had really nice friendly
eyes. There was an empty stool between her and the others. She pointed
me to it. It seemed like a safe enough place to sit.
The women were all drinking Bloody Marys. There were a
couple of other women sitting on the other end of the row, around the "L",
furthest from me. The biggest one seemed to be hitting it kind of
hard. She started to get loud, laughing a lot at her own jokes. She
started talking abut the size of her breasts. They were huge. They were enormous. They rested
on the bar on either side of her drink. Then, since I was the only other guy in the room, she turned her attention to me. She stretched
the neck of her shirt way down to show me her print brassiere. "Isn't
this nice?" she shouted across the bar, daring me to contradict her.
"Jim say's you're a carpenter!!"
"I got some work that needs doing. I won't pay you any money though. But I'll take care of you, if you know what I mean!!"
I guess I turned red. Everyone started laughing
at me. And even at that distance from her, I'm sure I flinched a
"You don't need to be afraid of me," she shouted. "I won't bite! Unless you want," she added coyly.
The woman beside me, the one with the nice eyes, put her arm around
my shoulder and told the big woman, "Now you be nice to him!"
The bartender was overworked, and finally brought my Bloody Mary.
It was huge, with a skewer of pepper jack cheese and some sort of Slim
Jim sausage, and a few other things to munch on. In the meantime, the big woman had two Old Fashions in
front of her. She drank one down and started on the next. Then she
started shouting at me about all of the work she needed done, and how
she'd take good care of me if I did it. She showed off her bra again,
and the woman beside her started making comments about how scarey her
breasts looked in the morning with nothing to hold them up. Turns out
it was her niece. They were sharing a room. The drunk woman's jokes got cringingly crude. She shouted about if anyone needed milk in their coffee in the mornings, just ask. Yeesh. But maybe Gus is sharing too much. He has to slip into third person to forget the horror. The horror!
We all ordered chicken wings. They were really messy and not very exciting. Gus can't remember the last time he had wings, but knows enough to not be disappointed if he doesn't like them. And he was not disappointed. But he had a pleasant conversation with the woman beside him. She was an ambulance driver in Milwaukee. She used to be married to a baseball player who had been a pitcher for the Brewers but never got far. Now they're divorced and she has a boyfriend in Green Bay, and is thinking of moving up there.
And by this time, they all got up to leave, except the really
drunk woman. The nice one beside me squeezed my arm when she left.
"Don't let her scare you," she said. And just like that, I was alone
with the drunk woman. The nice women were gone. Jim was gone. Even the bartender had disappeared somewhere in the back.
"Come on over. I want to talk to you!"
"Nah, I've got my stuff right here. I'm fine." My ears were hot. A man came in and sat at the far end of the bar, intent on the basketball game on T.V.
"Well, I don't want to yell!"
I didn't want her to yell either, but I also didn't want to be seen
with her. I tried to compromise by moving down to the corner of the
bar. This at least quieted her down. Quite a bit, actually. So that
helped, except that she started interrogating me about where I lived,
why I was there, when I could come to Madison to work for her. I
answered really vaguely, and even lied about where I lived. It seemed
to work. After a long, long time Jim came back in to see how I was doing.
"Fine," I told him. "I'm gonna run to the bathroom. I'll be right back." When I got back, the woman was gone. Jim was still there.
"I told her that her niece needed some help with something. I
guess we're eating in the restaurant here tonight. Unless you found a
different place." But I hadn't. And by dinner time, the really drunk
woman was completely sober and quiet and apologetic. But the nice ones
had made other plans, and we didn't see them again until morning.
But that's not all! That evening I wandered back to the lounge. There was a group of people there, celebrating someone's birthday. They all seemed to be couples, and they were all pretty drunk already. They were locals, and I got the feeling that this was their regular Saturday night gathering place. One of them was sitting next to me at the bar. He was a fierce-looking guy on the high side of his fifties, I guessed. He had a cloth engineer's hat on his head, and hard and mean glinting blue eyes. He had a great bushy gray mustache that traveled around his mouth, down over his jaw on either side of his chin and down his neck to his shirt collar. He was sucking on Bud Lights and tumblers of Jack Daniels while he talked with his friend, a gaunt and hollow-eyed guy who fidgeted and twitched the whole time.
They were discussing "that n***er in the White House," and how he was going to destroy this country with his health care system. They talked about that for a while, then the discussion turned to their guns, and how they weren't giving them up. The gaunt man said he didn't have any assault rifles anyway. But Mustache Man reminded him that one of his rifles could be converted into an assault weapon. "Oh yeah, that's right," said Gaunt Man. "Well, either way, they're not gonna take it from me!" He wandered off to talk to the women, who were sitting at a tall table together, drinking and screaming with laughter. The women had been drinking "Mystery Shots" since about 5:00 that afternoon. The Mystery Shots were a row of bottles with brown paper wrapped around them and numbered from 1 through 10. Each one cost a dollar. The bartender had told me earlier that it was really cheap booze that nobody would buy anyway, so this was a good way to get rid of it.
Another man took the stool beside Mustache Man. He called for a couple of more drinks. His arm was in a sling. He said he had just had surgery on his shoulder.
"Oh, man," said Mustache Man. "That can't be fun! I remember when I messed mine up arm wrestling..." I gave him a closer glance. He didn't appear especially tall, but his neck was thick and corded and sloped outward to his shoulders like the foot of a stone mountain. He seemed like a man who could back up his tough talk any day of the week. We wasn't a man to be trifled with. I started listening more closely, even though he was pretty drunk and starting to repeat himself.
"...well, my arm was getting sore, and I should have stopped right there, you know? I mean, I just beat five guys in a row, and that was enough. But I said, 'Okay, one more!' And this guy came up. He was a sheet rocker! And he was just a kid, but musta weighed 220 pounds if he was an ounce! And I thought, 'Oh no.' And I knew I'd have to take him right off the line or I wouldn't stand a chance. So we locked hands there and the starter said, 'Go!' And I pushed that kid's arm about yea far...and just stopped. It was like I hit a fucking brick wall! And that kid looked at me and smiled just as nice as anything, and says, 'Is that all you got?' Smart-ass little shit. Well, I tried to give it more, but I just didn't have it! And before I knew it, he just pushed my arm all the way back and slammed it down on the table. And I could feel it! Man, I felt it and heard it, everything in my shoulder just going, 'R-r-r-r-r-rip!' Jeezus! And that was all she wrote. I couldn't even pick up a fucking beer. And I finally got up to go that night, and it was windy out there. And the wind caught that door, and do you think I could pull it back? Not to save my life. And that was the last time I arm wrestled. Hell, I used to wrestle with either hand. But I want to save at least one, you know? Anyway, if I tried today it would be just bone-on-bone. I don't think there's any cartilage left..."
They each had another tumbler of Jack Daniels. Two women came over to join them. Jim showed up then, and ordered a martini. He said he was done for the day. Mustache Man turned to look at us, as if he hadn't even known I was there already. He pulled off his hat and gave what might have passed for a grin, if not for those hard blue eyes.
"Well, look at us!" he said. "Three bald men in a row! I think that's lucky." Jim didn't know any more than I did if that was good luck or not, but we were both agreeable to the idea. Mustache Man aimed his eyes at me. I got the feeling that he'd love to fight just to pass the time. "How old are you?" he demanded.
"I've got you beat," he said. "I'm 59!" It sounded like a challenge.
"Yeah, I guess you do have me beat."
He seemed disappointed. Then he said, "How old were you when you started losing your hair?"
"I don't really remember..."
"How old were you?!!"
He settled back onto his stool. "Yeah, I was about 30." He seemed to be brooding, and his eyes narrowed into little sparkles of pale blue. "I ride out to Sturgis every summer. And I don't wear nothing on my head. So I get out that and my head's all red and so hot you can fry an egg on it..." He stopped again and stared at the rows of bottles along the back bar. Then he said, "You ever get these sores on top of your head?"
"What kind of sores...no, I don't get any sores."
"Well, I started to get 'em. Now the doctor says I have to keep my head covered. Sucks to get old...but it beats the other choice, I guess." Jim and I agreed with him.
One of the women came over and leaned against Mustache Man. Her hand was on his thigh, rubbing him a little. "You ready to go home, babe?" He seemed to consider this for a long time. He was staring at a half tumbler of Jack Daniels and a can of Bud Light in front of him. He was giving them more attention than he gave to the woman. He finally said, "Yah. I s'pose." But it took a long time to finish those drinks. He kept forgetting them while he talked to his friend, then mumbled to the woman. They finally helped one another out the door and to the parking lot. Jim and I agreed that we were glad we weren't on the road tonight.