The window of the bar had a view of urban verticality. Steel buildings—rewrapped every ten minutes by black bus exhaust—stretched north and south cutting off any view to the sky they supposedly scraped. Converted warehouses turned swanky lofts shared sidewalks and walls with rundown motels and flophouses. People in the mix walked here in silk ties, in ripped up jeans with doped up pockets while newspapers kicked around in the city’s wind tunnels. Jacey and Pape were taking in this view with each sip at the bar counter. The time was eight in the evening.
“And you wonder what it’s like in one of them units,” Jacey said as he clinked glass bottle to glass window and pointed up toward a loft.
“I don’t know. I mean I imagine something with shiny hardwood floors, with some spiffy shit fridge to keep drinks in the bedroom.”
“The fact of the matter is, no matter how cold those chumps’ fancy beers are up there, they still have to take that elevator down and come out into all this.”
Two stools down from them, a man wearing a hat with an exaggerated feather in it was refused another drink. The woman with him ran her acrylics down his neck and the two moved toward the bathroom when the bartender’s back turned.
“Hell, man, this right now is pretty damn sweet. Beer’s are cheap, cold as hell—and we don’t have to write any fat-ass check to no one to keep ‘em that way,” Jacey said.
“I’ll drink to that.” Pape called out to the bartender, “Another round, man.” The bartender slid two foaming glasses to them, spilled the sudsy hops on the counter and walked to the back of the bar where a couple from the bar was standing. “Look, man. Now I don’t want your bullshit in here so you can walk your Yankee-Doodle peacock ass out of my bar—take that lousy hat with you... And none of her kind in here either.”
“Fucking prostitute,” Jacey said to himself.
It was usual for the common of the area to hang around for liquor, drugs, sex and whatever else they could score there. The bartender found that rattling the bathroom door handle or a police-style knock usually got the junkies to leave.
“We’ve got, what, less than an hour to kill before it’s time to get to work. Maybe we should—”
“Relax, my man. What do ya’ say we go down the street to Ruthie’s and grab some grub before we—?” Jacey asked.
“—Before we what? See, man, you can’t even say it.” Pape emptied his beer in one gulp.
“You want a fancy loft, Pape? You want to be able to get a nice new watch or take a trip out of this city once in a while? Hell, you want a steak dinner? All those things need green, brother.” Pape stood up from the bar and reached to put on his coat.
“Look, Pape, I’m sorry. We all gotta’ work. These gigs will be temporary. Come on man. Let’s play a game of pool to loosen up.”
The two men walked over to the pool table. Its red felt top stained with brown liquor and white chalk dust matched the place’s carpet, walls and people. Everything in the room was wearing proof of what it’d been through. Jacey examined himself in front of the smudged mirrored wall behind the table. He smoothed his hair and tucked in his shirt. Pape got two cue sticks.
“Hey, Pape. We look all right. I mean,” he smirked, “Would you go for it?”
“Knock it off, man. I know you’re trying to make me relax or somethin’ but it just isn’t…”
Jacey and Pape chalked the ends of their cues and put something down on the game.
“If I win, you buy breakfast tomorrow morning and vice versa.” The pool table was in the back near the bathroom with its banged up stalls and marker graffiti. The two men were far from the window view of the decaying action outside. It was dark inside that cave and smoke curled around barstools and clung on the mosaic lamp that hung above the table. “Rack ’em,” Jacey told Pape.
“I can’t find the 8-ball. No point playin’ without the eight ball.”
“Check for it in the pockets or somethin’, I don’t know.”
Pape fingered the pockets along the table. Their mesh, sticky with beer, grabbed at his hands. The place had filled up. Seats at the bar were all taken by caricatures of a rough crowd.
“There’s nothing in the pockets. Let’s go solids and stripes, first to sink all his balls wins,” Pape suggested.
“Whatever, man. I’ll want my breakfast tomorrow for cleaning up this pool table tonight,” Jacey said as he broke the rack with a decisive hit of the cue ball.
The balls spread across the table; one or two teetered near a pocket while most clustered in the middle for Pape to break up on his turn.
“Hey, I saw your sis at the shop. She still ridin’ you, Pape, still worrying about—?”
“—Hey, you know how she is, man. And with what we’ve got planned for tonight, shit, I don’t blame her.”
“Pape, it’s for you, man. The cash you’ll score tonight—for however long we keep these gigs up—is for you to make something of yourself.”
“Shit, man. We were kids in this neighborhood. ‘Pape’ they called me, ‘Papers’...”
“That’s because you rolled the best joints back in the day, man.” Jacey took a swig of beer.
“That’s not the point, Jace’. We’re still here, still in this hole. Not kids any more. The street don’t mean the same thing, you know?
“We’re not like the rest of them. We’ll get in and get out. We can quit this gig anytime,” Jacey said.
The two men stood in silence for a few minutes. Air wafted through the opening and closing bar door. It reached their nostrils and smelled like leather, beer and tobacco. The same old routine of commuters, workers, and pushers was alive outside. Inside the bar, a familiar pattern played out, too. It was standing room only. Jacey grabbed his coat off the chair.
“It’s about that time,” he said. They put on their coats and headed outside.
The two stood only a few feet from exit, leaned against the cold brick exterior and waited.
“Pape, I hear we’d do best down by that park—you know, the one across from that old gym—I’m thinkin’ since it’s getting late and all, we’d better head that way—”
“I need a minute, alright man. Just lemme grab a quick smoke.”
And as Pape reached into the interior pocket of his scuffed jacket, a man approached them. He whispered something into Jacey’s ear and pointed to a parked car.
“Look here you pervert, you sick fuck. Whatever scenario you think you’ve dropped in on, you’d better untwist your —”
“What my friend here means,” Jacey interjected, “is that we’re not lookin’ for anything tonight. But no hard feelings, eh man?”
The stranger stepped back. “You boys better get what you’re sellin’ straight.” He spit on the pavement and walked away.
“Pape, I don’t need you runnin’ your mouth. Eyes on the prize, all right? This is our chance to turn things around.”
The air was cool and bursts of exhaust and dirt kicked up with each car and pedestrian that passed them. The lights of the lofts above seemed miles away.
“Where’d you say that park was, Jace’?” The men turned their backs to the bar and carved their way through the crowd of loiterers. It was time to get to work.