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The Pepsi challenge--the story version

Tuesday 2/7/23

I had put up some of this before, but it has changed quite a bit. The below is from a story called "Banged Up," which I'm finishing now.

Want to compare it with the Rushdie? Want to do the story version of the Pepsi challenge? Sure. We can do that. There's no comparison in quality. And there is nothing more obvious than that.

Ah, David Remnick: You bigoted, talentless, immoral, vacuous fraud. And you too, Deborah Treisman. David Wallace. Bad jokes in human form. Discriminatory, fraudulent, clowns of the diseased, revolting, corrupt, lying, incestuous publishing system. A cartoon system of insanity. As gross as it gets.

The story is about a man getting drunk at a bar. It's an urban bar. Not well-populated. There are a handful of people in this less-than-stellar hostelry. It's winter. There's snow outside. There is no music on at the bar. It's a story about murder, in a way. The lives that continue on, after a life is taken. The reportage of murder. How murders are prioritized and privileged. How they're quantified. How some get a leg up on others, so to speak, as if they count for more.

This man never explicitly says that he lived with someone--presumably was married to her--who was murdered. The story emerges. He talks about the language that describes inebriation and both his intentions and his situation. First he starts by mentioning the phrase getting loaded, and how no one really uses it anymore. He has a buddy who favors the term, "banged up."

The man starts telling us about an evening at the bar, when he was both getting loaded, and doing what he calls his own version of getting banged up. There's a ritualistic quality to this undertaking for him. He's sitting at the end of the bar just inside the door. There's a man at the other end--this blowhard--holding court, which means going on and on to the guy across the elbow of the bar from him.

The blowhard is talking about murders. And he says something along the lines of, well, did you ever think there was someone who just deserved it? He's a loudmouth. And the man telling the story--the man getting banged up--can't handle this. It's twisted the evening into a direction he can't afford it to go. So now he's going to leave. And as he leaves, the man from the other end of the bar leaves, too.


I pay the check, step out into the snow and then halt myself. Press my back against the brick wall of the bar as I gather my strength and allow my feet to set so that I don’t fall over. I begin feeling around in my pockets for my gloves, which can turn into an extended process depending upon the hour of the day and the state I’m in. I don’t like to put my gloves on inside. Seems defeatist as a default move, an automatic admission of incapacity and incapability that I’m also allowing to become continuous, when it’d be better first to evaluate and see where things stand. Take life as it comes, and take the snow and the cold the same way, too. Maybe something has improved since I was last outside, and the idea of carrying on will be less like a curse. But probably not. Still, there’s that moment. The moment when I have to steady myself, and the cold hits my face.

The guy who will never acknowledge his own age follows behind me, and I hope he’s just there for a smoke and we won’t have to go anywhere together, not even for a short distance or until I vomit.

“Fucking good night,” he says standing in the open door, like the air itself has lent willing ears to whatever he has to say and is ready to receive his wisdom.

I can’t tell if he’s wishing me a good night with an added bit of exclamation, a spirited send-off, or he’s evaluating the scene and approves of how winter has elected to present herself. He’s weighed in. Ruled. Adjudicated.

He zips his jacket in the manner of a man who is about to be on his way with an unhesitant step. A man whose time is invaluable like there is always someone anxiously awaiting his arrival. He administers an extra harrumph of adjustment up around the area of the collar. He’s headed to someone who needs him. He’s a man in demand.

I say “Yeah,” as if there could be any doubt. Fucking good night indeed.

There’s a cab on the other side of the street that’s otherwise shorn of cars which seems like it has to belong to one of us by right—and maybe by birthright—but we still have to formally determine who gets it.

“Which way you going?” the man asks me, with the discernible shape of an idea hovering around the edges of his question.

I motion with my hand to the left.

“That way.”

He considers for a moment, and in that second I have a chance to speak where it’s still kind of my turn.

“I’m gonna walk,” I tell him. “You grab the cab.” My tongue might as well be a beaver’s tail it’s so thick.

“Suit yourself,” he says, with another harrumph that transitions into a swiveling of his body as he passes me from behind and steps to the road with a gait marked by the up-and-down motion of misaligned hips. He colors houses. It’s a joke he’d been making, his way of saying that he paints houses the same as college kids do but he makes better money than they could dream of making, just don’t ask him why.

I listen to the squelching crunch of his work boots on the snow. They’re light brown, or they were originally, but now they’re these steel-toed canvases for crosshatched tangles of spilled paint, scumbled from wear so that the skeins of color on the tops of the boots both absorb and reflect the strobing whiteness of the ground and the hovering grays of the sky. Night isn’t always black. You just think it is.

I’ve walked about twenty yards down the road when the cab that contains this man grinds past me, also to the left. I can hear the snow itself groaning in the tread of its tires. There’s a play whose name I don’t remember where a guy is being killed by people piling rocks on top of him. He’s crushed at the bottom, but not quite dead yet. He says, “more weight” so he can be finished off. The snow beneath the tires sounds to me like it’s saying the same thing, and has co-opted my own voice as I hear it inside my head.

I don’t look up to see the never-old man looking at me out of the cab’s window, which I know he’s doing. I’ve been wrestling with my coat, a struggle that passes for an attempted distraction, but I’m banged up, and ironically I can’t be distracted now. Nothing can take me away.

There’s only one glove to be disinterred from my pockets. I must have lost the other. The cost of doing business. Banged up business. I think whatever. I’m not going to wear just the one, and though this glove is probably a goner—I’m pretty sure I started the evening with two—I stuff it back into my jacket in case its mate turns up and I don’t have to throw it in the trash tomorrow. It never feels right to throw a glove in the trash when you’re sober. It’s almost like even that is a thing to try and get through.


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