by Michael Prettyman

"How do feel?"
"Not so bab," he said, "I'm surbirzed."
"Thath what I thayin'," he answered, and spit blood into the snow, "thath's the power of it, you get tagged, maybe tagged bad, and the world don't end. Thee what I mean? Man, every damn thing tonight is interesting. Why is that?"
"We put Ritalin in your drink." "No shit," he said, "what's Ritalin?"




The snow was beginning to come down pretty good - sometimes the wind blew it sideways and sometimes it just drifted down in fat flakes. I walked up the steps into Bar Bar, past the debris from an abandoned construction project that was disappearing into the snow.

Maya, the bartender, knew me, and said hey. And there sat C.J. at the bar, like always, in his plaid shirt, Carharts and boots. He dresses that way, and talks tough, but he's not like that. He went to boarding school, one of the ones that sound English, but isn't. C.J. is just fucked up inside. We have done a lot of drugs together.

His favorite thing to do is to sit at a bar with a hard cover book and get smashed while he reads it. The book gives him a place to go back to if the conversation in the bar is not living up to his standards. He's a bit like a turtle withdrawing back into its shell. He'll sit there, rubbing his beard and reading. Once in a while he'll fire off a comment, then go back to his book.

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His favorite thing to do is to sit at a bar with a hard cover book and get smashed while he reads it. The book gives him a place to go back to if the conversation in the bar is not living up to his standards. He's a bit like a turtle withdrawing back into its shell. He'll sit there, rubbing his beard and reading. Once in a while he'll fire off a comment, then go back to his book.

"Where've you been?" C.J. said.
"Waste of time," he said.
"Hey, but lookit. Lookit what I got, in the mail." I shook the bottle of pills. "In the U.S. Mail," I said.
He smiled. "What kind are those?"
"All kinds," I said.
"Lets have a look," said C.J. and closed his book. "Maya. Nobody's coming tonight, right?"

"Not unless they have a sleigh," she said in her deadpan way. She's a big fan of drugs, too. Her and C.J. have had a thing going for a while. I made a half-hearted attempt myself, but I never could get past her changyness - she's somebody different almost from moment to moment, and over the course of a year Maya will be three or four completely different people, with different hair and everything. But C.J. man, he's encased in so many layers of irony and pretend that you never do get speak with real the person inside him. They were perfect for each other.

When I pictured them having sex I saw C.J. in one of those big padded suits those guys wear who train guard dogs, right? And he's fucking Maya, who changes from a woman to bluebird to a dolphin and back to a woman again. This month, she was a suicide girl.

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I dumped the pill-bottle out on the bar.
"Ooo," C.J. said, "Those ones are Ritalin," and Maya hurried over. C.J. made a sign like a referee signaling a touchdown.

"What do they do?" I said, but C.J. and Maya had already eaten a couple of them. So I took one, too. And then, to be sure I had a good time, I also ate one of the blue ones.

There was a noise outside and the door opened and a man came in along with a whole bunch of snow. He was big, and he leaned on the door after he shut it.

"There's a wind you can't even shout past, not hardly," he said, "what's this place called? Just says Bar." He was brushing snow of his shoulders. Maya turned and scooped up the pills like spilled peanuts as the guy stripped off his jacket and hat.

"It's called Bar. We call it Bar Bar," she said and radiated boredom. She can turn it off and on like that.

"Right," the man said and sized up me and C.J. We all nodded at each other. The man smiled at Maya and said he wanted a "big-ass whiskey and also some beer I don't care what kind of either" so we knew him to be ok. C.J. opened up his book.

"So," the man said, "I'm Ryan," and he stretched out a hand. I shook it. Maya was fiddling with his drinks, her back turned to us. She looked good, from the back, and me and C.J. watched as Ryan stared at her legs. She turned with a bright smile and gave Ryan his whiskey and beer.

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"Cheers," he said and drank the whiskey in one. Maya looked at me and blinked once, and I knew what she had done. I thought how it would be nice for us all to be on the same page.




A little while later, my brain was getting excited, so I looked out the window at the snow piling up out there. They just click together like that,, up in the clouds, by themselves. I felt like I could hear them brushing against one another, and squeaking so softly that it became like a stadium of people whispering to each other. I looked at the bar-top and thought about forests.

"Hey there," Ryan called out, "Whacha reading?"

C.J. hates it when people ask him that, but this time he surprised me by looking up and saying--instead of just 'book', like he usually does--"It's about dreams. Actually, I'm really getting into it."

"Oh yeah? Man, that reminds me, I had the most incredible dream the other night," Ryan said, and we all locked onto him. C.J. closed his book.

"Tell," Maya said, and cupped her chin in her hand.

"O.K." Ryan said, and I saw that he was blond even in his eyelashes. His eyes were blue and they tracked over all three of us. One of his eyelids droopy.

"O.K." he said, and licked his lips.

"The way it started out was I was comin into a bar, comin up some steep concrete steps, and I opened up the door-"

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"And it was this bar!" Maya squealed and clapped her hands.

"No, no, it was real different. It was small, I mean small, like it was made for ten year olds. And everything in there was shadowy and where there was light it was a washed-out kinda light. And there was some little guys in there-like, real little, like midgets-- leaning over the tables and at the bar and they were all sort of, I don't know, destroyed. But the thing about them was that they were made out of icing, like the way there is icing on cakes? In roses and little dollops? They were all white and made out of that stuff and they were devastated about something. I felt bad for them, man. They were trying to drink away whatever had happened to them, and I thought how you can drink yourself into something else-hell, this one night I drank myself gay-" and C.J. and Maya exchanged a look and I could see that C.J. knew what she had done. C.J. fidgeted and smiled.

"Anyways," Ryan said, "I felt so bad for these little guys! One of them spotted me coming in the door and his little white mouth fell open and I knew somehow that he was an elf." Ryan pointed to his glass and Maya filled it without looking away from his face. "The one that was slumped at the bar looked over at me too. He grabbed his head and shouted in this tiny little voice. He was laughing and crying. He ran over to me and hugged my waist. "Oh, you came back," he said to me, "you came back to us, you came back to us, you came back to us," he kept saying and he was sobbing into my shirt. The other ones just had their hands over their mouths, but they were crying, too. One of them was falling into pieces-like sugar cubes- in the corner."

"Jesus Christ," Maya said, "who were you?" She stared at him.
Ryan rubbed his neck. "Well, that's the thing. The little guy huggin me

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was saying how I didn't know how things had been without me there. How some of them were having to... sell themselves. "Peddle their asses" is what he said. Then he said, 'Santa. You came back.'" Ryan said, and drank. "He was real happy. They were all happy that I had come back from wherever I had been."

We were all quiet and I could hear the snowflakes falling again.

"That was you," I said, "You were Santa Claus."
"Yep," Ryan said.

C.J. started laughing, then went serious. "So, Ryan, man, there must be something, I don't know, really good about you."

"I don't know man," Ryan said, "Maybe. I like to think so. But the point is-I don't know. Just that, when I had that dream, I was going to help those guys in a way that- I don't know."

"Oh no," he said, "Santa Claus." He picked up his book. "You think, somewhere inside you, that you are Santa Claus."

Ryan's eyes went slitty and he said, "No, that's not what I'm saying- it was a dream-"

"Oh, but you needed to tell us about it!" C.J. said, "and according to this," he pointed at the book, "That means you think, somewhere inside yourself, there is some kind of magic that makes you into SANTA CLAUS." He laughed. "That's priceless," he said.

Ryan rubbed his eyes and I could see a homemade tattoo on his hand and I thought uh-oh. C.J. went back to his book, then looked up and said, "Then what happened? You checked your list?"

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But Ryan had turned stony and just sat there.

"I think what we really want to hear about-unless I'm greatly mistaken- is all about the night you drank yourself gay."

C.J. was rolling now and I thought no no no no no. Maya was watching this the way she would a tennis match.

Outside the snow piled up and I wondered how many of those little snowflakes were in a storm like this one. It seemed like whatever I looked at was the most interesting thing I had ever seen, and I wanted to know all about it. I thought how maybe that was the Ritalin instead of how things really were. Even that thought had an appeal and I thought about thinking, how it was like the snowflakes crystallizing in the clouds. What I'm saying is, everything seemed pretty much packed with meaning.

"Lemme ask you something," Ryan said and now he was busy peeling the label off a bottle of beer. "For some reason I am seeing things with a particular kind of clarity tonight, and now I want to ask you something."

"Oh, please do," C.J. said, and I felt again how things were getting slightly dangerous and that was more interesting than anything else.

"You ever been in a fight?"
"Do you mean a fist fight?" C.J. said.
"Yes," Ryan said, "I mean a fist fight."
"No." C.J. said.
"So you've never hit a person in the face? Or been hit in the face?"

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"That's what I thought. So nothing's ever made you mad enough to hit somebody?"
"No. Obviously."
"I fight with words," C.J. said, "And with ideas."

And with irony. I thought about the time he and Maya went around to gyms, you know, for the guest membership passes? Anyway, they went around with headbands and stuff and worked out ironically. C.J. said it was hilarious-they made a big show of it, grunting and doing clumsy jumping jacks. They wore matching powder blue warm-up suits. So that's the kind of guy Ryan was dealing with.

"You should get punched the face sometime," Ryan said, with sincerity, "It really brings things into focus. Or, failing that, man, you should hit somebody right in the face and mean it. It's fantastic. There's real power in it."

"Nope," C.J. said, "I don't think so."

I thought C.J. might pretend to punch someone, or pretend to get mad, but he was just too far removed to get riled up. That was his whole thing.

"What's his favorite place?" Ryan asked me. I thought about it. C.J. was blanking the conversation now and burying himself in his book.

"Mexico," I said, "he loves Mexico." C.J. glared at me and I shrugged. "Because of the day of the dead, He likes the skeletons."

Ryan took a napkin and started drawing on it. He worked on it for about ten minutes, stopping to consider it once in while. He finished it.

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"Here," he said and pushed it over to C.J.
"What's that."
"That's a world map."
C.J. looked at the scrawl there. "It isn't," he said.
"It is," Ryan said, "And look there. That's Mexico. And what's it doin?"
C.J. says, "Ah, it's being Mexico?"
"Nope. It's suckin the dick of Texas. See there? Check it out, Mexico sucks the dick a Texas." He was excited and drunk
C.J. said, "Ah, okay. Um. Am I supposed to be mad about that?"
Ryan said, "Well, check it out. I'm from Texas."
"You don't say," C.J. said, and went back to his book.

Maya leaned on the bar and said, "What do you do in Texas? Are you a cowboy?'

Maya likes cowboys now. I filed that away for later.

"No, not anymore than that dude down there is a lumberjack," he pointed one finger at C.J. Then to Maya he said, "Don't try to distract me.' He turned to C.J. "Do you need her to run interference for you? I'm talking to you."

"Man, look," C.J. said, "I don't want any trouble, I'm just-"

"You're just what? Making fun a me and my dream? Hey, you little dick, who's to say I don't have something good like that inside of me?"

"Something good that comes out, oh I don't know, once a year?" C.J. said and then he was dying with laughter. He just can't help himself.

Maya said, "C.J.-" in a worried kind of voice.

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"No, I'm sorry, I just," C.J. was squirming with all the different ways he could make fun of this guy. "Is this-" he picked up the "world map" by one corner and flipped it like a handkerchief, "supposed to incite me to violence? Oh gosh, I'm so upset right now. I'm so mad! I'm going to have to punch somebody." He drank some gin. "And you want to fight me because you are defending-correct me if I'm wrong here-you are defending the honor of Santa Claus?"

"No," Ryan said, and he was confused, "Not Santa, it was those little guys, they needed..."

"They needed you," C.J. said, as if that were the stupidest thing he had every heard. When he talks like this, there is an eye roll in every syllable. "Because you are so good."

Ryan grabbed the bar with both hands, like it was a steering wheel. He bowed his head and we all watched him. He was trying to think of something, and frankly I couldn't wait to see what he came up with. I didn't have to wait long. "So," he said, "Mr. Ironical. Nothin will get you to fight?"

"Nothing I can think of," C.J. said.

Ryan reached over and snatched the book out his hands. He grabbed a handful of pages in a fist and tore them all out. These he dropped on the floor.
"How 'bout now?" he said, like he was genuinely curious.

C.J. looked at the pages on the floor. "Nope," he said, and pulled another book out of his bag. Ryan looked disappointed. He gazed around the bar, and you could tell he was focused on this like a thorny,

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but solvable problem, much like a car stuck in the mud. It was a difficulty, but you knew the car could eventually be unstuck.

Ryan's gaze stopped on Maya.

"Sweetie," he said, "Can I get another beer?'

"Sure," she said, and pulled him a glass from the tap. Ryan took it from her and threw the whole thing straight into her face. He turned to C.J. as Maya stood there, frozen and drenched.

"How 'bout now?" Ryan said.

C.J. looked at Maya, who looked at Ryan. The beer was dripping on the floor.
"O.K." C.J. said, and closed his book. "O.K.," he said, "Yes. Now."

"Oh yeah!" Ryan sang, "Oh yeah! You're a fake lumberjack but you got real cowboy in you, all of us do. I knew it. Lets go."

And we all went outside, into the snow and the wind. "Isn't it amazing," Ryan said, "How we still want to rescue the ladies?'

"We don't need rescuing," Maya said.
"That's why it's amazing," said Ryan.

It's not about that, I thought, but then wait, is it?

"Here's the rules, " Ryan said, "You can hit me, once, and I won't defend myself. But if I get up, I get a shot, so you better make it count. Cool?"

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"Those the only rules?" C.J. asked.

"Yep," Ryan said, "And I am ready." He stood in the snow as the flakes fell around him. C.J. turned to the pile of construction debris and grabbed a length of rebar. As quick as thinking, he whirled and hit Ryan in mouth with it.

Ryan went down in the snow and then he was spitting out teeth.

"You didn't say anything about weapons," Maya said.

"Well, I gueth thath right," Ryan said, "That hurths."

He shook his head and bled all down his chin. He spit more teeth into the snow.
"I gueth I won't be finthin them," he said. "Moreth the pity."

"No, no, your teeth are yellow," Maya said helpfully, "Here's one now."

"Thankth. Thothe're part of my thkeleton," he said, swaying, " And I'm going to want 'em back."

He leaned with his hands on his knees. "Interthting," he said. Blood was coming out of his mouth and he picked up a handful of snow. For a second I thought he would simply through a snowball at C.J., but he packed it against his face.

"My turn," he said.

C.J. looked real scared. I've not seen that look on his face, and I've known him for years. Ryan reached over and grabbed C.J.'s waist. He ripped down, and tore C.J.'s carharts apart. The zipper, the button both

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gave way, and his pants fell down around his ankles. Ryan made a move toward C.J., and he backed up, his pants keeping his feet apart.

"There you go," Ryan said, "Now your walking like a cowboy," he kept advancing on C.J., who kept backing up. "Giddy up," Ryan said, then, "Mosey, you motherthucker!. O.K. I'll thtop," and he stopped. "Pick 'em up." C.J. looked uncertain, but bent down to pick up his pants. As he did, Ryan caught his face square with a solid uppercut. C.J jerked from a bowing position to a limbo position, where he hung for a second, then he fell backwards. He lay there and his nose was like an old plum.

We walked over to him and looked down.

Later, he told us how it looked to him, coming to with the snow falling down in his face and Ryan's busted face hovering over him, the drops of blood catching the light from the window as they feel alongside the snow and landing of his face, soft and warm.




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Story ©2010 Michael Prettyman