I’m bellied up to the bar of The Two Boots Saloon nightclub – a wood-walled joint lit by Sterno candles and neon beer signs – not far from the shores of the Puget Sound in Washington State. At night, this place pounds with the unintelligent thump of mainstream club music, and the walls are packed with short shorts and baseball caps and grinding groins on the dance floor. On weekends, it’s a bigger meat market than the back of a grocery store. In the daytime, it’s more like a western-themed saloon. A steakhouse by day, nightclub by night. Right now, it’s happy-hour. In front of me is a glass of water.
I look around at the familiar faces of the after-work crowd, the tall glass bar-tables lining the windows, the empty dance floor and VIP section that will, in a handful of hours, be packed with partying pleasure seekers on the prowl for a good time.
For years, I ran through the late-night crowds of this place with three six-packs tucked under each arm, stocking the coolers with beer, and the shelves with liquor, and otherwise keeping the party going… but even though I met a lot of people here that are close to my heart, and I still hang out here from time to time, I never had too much in common with anyone that came in and out of this place. The music is atrocious and the crowd is foreign to me, but they pour well, and they know my face and my name, and it’s right down the street from where I live.
When I worked here, I wasn’t allowed near the jukebox. They preferred the music of the lowest common denominator. Now that I’m a paying customer, there’s not much anybody can say about it. So, a live dirty version of Sweet Home Chicago rattles the speakers. It’s the last song I played. When it’s done, I intend to leave. The D.J. will show up in an hour or so, and I want to be gone before he bases up the place so loud that I won’t be able to hear the guy sitting next to me shout his drink order to the slim, tanned and toned bartender, slinging drinks and taking tips.
I sit alone, holding my water where it is on the bar. The guy two stools down from me – with an empty stool in-between us, and two rocks glasses, half-full of whiskey in front of him – looks me over, then nods to my glass of water and says, “What is that, water? Did you quit drinking or something?”
“No, I didn’t quit, per se… but … I don’t drink like I used to.”
The man, probably on the shady side of thirty, with a beefy arm leaning on the bar, says, “Oh, okay… never mind.”
“Well, it sounds like you had a problem with it at one point and I don’t want to fuck you up, if you quit drinking.”
“I didn’t quit.” I wrap my fingers around the water glass. “It’s not like I’m counting days or anything… I just … I don’t know… don’t.”
The man shakes his cleanly shaven chin, and I notice a scar running from the bottom of his ear, down the side of his neck. “What’s the worst that would happen if you took a shot right now?” he asks me.
“Worst that would happen would be that I get a taste for it and go to the store and get a bottle, kill it all tonight, wake up tomorrow, and remember why I stopped drinking like that, and I probably wouldn’t touch it again for the rest of the year.”
“So you did stop.”
“I just lost my taste for it. Got tired of waking up the next day feeling like shit, and losing a whole day hung over and getting nothing done.”
“Well, the reason I ask… I’m Jake, by the way.”
“Jacob.” I shake his hand.
“I got out of the Army last year, and in memory of my friends I served with – who I used to drink with, and who I loved, and who aren’t around any longer – I always order a drink and keep it in front of me… and it’s like I’m drinking with them. Sometimes I’ll give it to someone and we’ll do a toast in their names. Sometimes I won’t, and I’ll just leave the drink here in front of me.”
“Ah, okay. I worked here for a lot of years.” I point at the wooden bar top. “A lot of military in this area. I’ve done this toast several times with people. I respect it. We live in the memories of those we’ve touched, long after we’ve died.”
“Good.” He nods. “I like to hear that. So, I don’t mind giving this drink to you, if you want it. You understand the respect involved.” Jake turns the drink slowly in a circle as he talks. “But before I do, I like to find out a little about the person I toast with. Tell me your story. You said you work here?”
“Used to. For like ten years but… that was a while ago.”
“What do you do now?”
“I’m a writer,” I say.
“Yeah… but,” he scoffs, looking me up and down with his lips flattened. “…a successful writer?”
I tap my lip with a forefinger, leaning my elbow on the bar.
“I mean, anyone can say they’re a writer,” he says.
“I don’t know… I guess that depends on what you call success. For you that’s probably money and fame, right?”
“Well, yeah… me and everyone else.”
“Alright Jake, let’s see… I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio.”
“Where’s that?” He interrupts before taking a sip of his bourbon-colored double-shot.
“South of Cleveland, north of Pittsburgh… anyway, I got out of high school and went to college, studied real hard, and got a career walking through houses for banks and mortgage companies, telling them how much the houses were worth. Helped run the business for a dozen years or so… made a ton of cash. Suit and tie to work every day, all my bills were paid, drove a nice car, girlfriend looked good… I could do anything I wanted because I had my own money and I made my own schedule. Would you call that successful?”
“Yeah, I guess… so what happened?”
I look down at my water, swirl the glass around, take a sip, and chew on a piece of ice.
“Eh, I lived in a depressed area. Steel mills collapsed. Industry pulled out when I was just a kid. Everybody cool left and went somewhere else. By the time I got out of high school, the city was abandoned, boarded up, ghetto, crime, drugs. I had all these big dreams, all these things I wanted to do with my life, and my foot was nailed to a hometown that I loved, but just … wanted to leave in the worst way.”
My song ends and the jukebox goes silent. I turn and look at the door, then back to Jake sitting next to me. “But I couldn’t leave,” I say. “I had a great job. My family was there… my friends. So I shot heroin for ten years instead… and the whole time I’m doing that, being stupid, worrying my parents, blowing all my money, I’m telling my friends that when I’ve had enough of getting high, I’m going somewhere that nobody knows my name, and I’m going to write a book about everything I’ve learned. That was my escape plan. I wouldn’t shut up about it. I made them tell me stories of shit they’d been through so I’d have stories to tell when that time came.
“So finally, I see my window to leave and I take it. I give away everything I own – which wasn’t much by that time… anything worth anything, I’d already sold for dope – and I stuff what I’m going to keep into two duffel bags and hop on a plane to Seattle. Just like that… the great escape…the exodus: me and all the voices in my head, gone … onto a new life.”
The bartender walks by behind the bar, nods at my glass of water, and raises her perky little cheeks at me. I shake my head, and she keeps moving down the bar.
“And my plan,” I say. “Was kind of similar to what you’re doing with that drink you have sitting in front of you for your friends that have passed on.”
I point at the second rocks glass, three fingers deep with whiskey. “Eventually, a lot of my friends who told me those stories died of overdoses, of excess, of diseases they got from the way they were living… and… a lot of them were still alive, but locked up in prison – some of which, I had introduced to the stuff that eventually got them sent there. So I was going to use the telling of those stories that my friends told me, as practice to learn how to write, so that I can tell the real story I want to tell, which is more about the awakening of humanity than it is about something as base and mundane as heroin addiction.
“But… I’m playing the long game,” I say, leaning back on my stool and splaying my hands out on the bar. “I knew it was going to take a ton of time and focus and energy to be able to even get to where I was able to write anything worth reading, let alone about things like history, philosophy, psychology, existentialism, or literature, because I didn’t pay enough attention in high school… but it was going to be all that time and focus and energy that I’d put into the process of working toward this goal I have, that I was going to replace the opiate with.”
“It’s hardly a substitute, I would think.” Jake watches the ass of the bartender as she shakes it and laughs with a customer at the end of the bar. “Writing doesn’t give you the rush heroin gives you, I’m sure.”
“It’s a different kind of rush, but you’re right. This is all coupled with changing my scenery, changing my friends, my definition of right and wrong… everything…. I had to change everything to get clean… but to stay clean, I had this thing I was working on.”
I down a few gulps of water and crunch on a cube.
“That’s why I chose writing. It’s something I like doing… something that will take me a long time to learn… and something I can do on a pawn shop laptop in a garage writing den, or with a 98-cent pencil in a prison cell if I have to. So that as long as I have one arm and one hand, nobody can take this thing away from me. Plus, I already threw my old life away. I could go in any direction I wanted. Nobody was after me. Nobody knew me. What did it matter what I did? Right? We can do anything we put our minds to… so let’s see if I can learn how to work the word from pretty much scratch.
“I’d do these 20-page long group letters for my friends locked up across the country – and for the span of the letter, it was like we were all hanging out again, drinking toasts, passing joints and stories around. But it was through the process of writing and sending those stories my friends told me, in a ten-year-long series of prison letters, and now in full book form, once self-publishing got to where it is. I’ve written three books, and I haven’t touched dope in 14 years because of it… would you call that success?”
Jake flattens his lips again with the same look of disapproval. “Well, yeah, I mean… that’s great you stopped doing what you were doing … and you sent a bunch of letters to your friends in prison, but that’s not being a successful writer. Being a writer is … well, being a published writer is being published… by somebody else, like… a publishing company. Not by writing letters, or just putting your own books out there without them being accepted by someone… anyone can do that.”
“Can they?” I scrunch up my face.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong,” says Jake, pulling on his double-shot of whiskey. “That’s great what you’ve done. I don’t mean to downplay what you’re doing. If you can help someone with their struggles because you’ve been through it, that’s awesome… but, I mean… come on. That doesn’t make you an actual writer.”
“Oh, so somebody else has to say you are? Like how you can’t give yourself your own nickname? Do they coronate you with a sword tap on both shoulders? Or is it enough that someone just says it out loud?”
Jake shrugs his shoulders and looks straight ahead at the mirrored shelves of liquor stacked behind the bar. “I’m just saying. You tell somebody you’re a writer, you’re telling someone you’ve been published by someone else, and that’s how you make your money.”
“So you have to make money at it?”
“Well, yeah or people automatically think you’re trying to say you’re something you’re not.”
“Oh, well… I’m out. I don’t make that much money at it yet.”
“You’ll get there.”
“And then I’m officially a writer, right? Do you want me to send you a postcard when that happens? Let you know?”
“No… I’m good. You still won’t have a publisher but… I’ll allow it.”
A moment of silence passes where we both sit, watching the bartender who’s dressed to impress in her half-shirt and tight pants. “Publishing industry’s changed,” I say after a while, “…with the internet. You used to need a publishing company to put up the money to print a bunch of books at once that you hope to sell. Now, it’s all print-on-demand. Someone buys a copy, it’s printed and sent to them like that.” I snap my fingers. “You don’t need much money up front. So now, anybody can enter the game… not just the ones the old-boy-network says can come in. It makes it possible for anyone with something to say to be heard, even if the old-guard blocking the gates of publishing don’t see any chance of profiting off them.
“Used to be if you wrote a book, you had to hire an agent… well, you had to find an agent that would agree to work with you first, which was this whole process of querying and submitting samples and waiting for a rejection letter, then submitting to someone else, one at a time, until someone liked what you wrote… now the agents scan the self-publishing markets and they query you… tables have turned in the publishing world… no different than the music industry.”
“Yeah, but to be heard, you still have to find people who want to hear what you have to say.”
“That’s why I send to prisons.” I fold my hands out as if he’s making my point for me. “Prisons are full of addicts who will relate to every word. It’s hard to find people on the outside who are interested in reading about junkies doing junkie shit. Plus, it’s a long series. So to keep from having to go back to add details to the old shit, as I write the new shit, I can have an audience… for ten bucks … an audience of people who actually connect with what I’m saying – while I’m getting them ready to publish to the outside world.”
“How are you doing that for ten bucks?”
“For ten bucks, I can print and send a book to somebody inside that I’ve already started a correspondence with on an online prison pen pal site… and they can pass it around and leave it with somebody when they get out, and that person can give it to whomever wants to read it, and leave it with someone, and so on. There’s a PO box listed, so anyone locked up who wants, can write me, and I can write them back. It’s cool, I have a closer relationship with my readers then most authors.”
I sit back and hold up my finger. “…but if I was to go with a traditional publisher, fuck putting something out like that before it’s completely finished. Publishers won’t even talk to you if you give your shit away for free. But if I went the traditional route, I’d have to ask permission to change anything. I couldn’t make edits, couldn’t change the price, couldn’t change the cover, couldn’t change marketing keywords or marketing tactics, and I’d still have to do all my own marketing… even with a publisher, I’d still have to pimp out my own books… only with a publisher, I’d have to do it with my hands tied behind my back until they decide to let me add details to the book, or drop the price or whatever. I have total control now, and I’d be handing it over to someone who doesn’t care about what I’m doing, or why I’m doing it.”
“Sounds like an excuse. Steven King doesn’t pimp his own books.”
“For every Steven King there’s a thousand published authors you’ve never heard of, schlepping their own books.”
Jake covers his mouth with his hand and laughs. “That’s cool and all. I dig what you’re saying, but sending books to prison for free is a terrible marketing plan. Anyone you reach in there will probably just steal it from the bookstore when they get out.”
What’s a bookstore? It’s all online now… and who cares?”
“Well, you’d end up losing a lot of money, and so would the bookstore.”
“Hey, at least I’d know someone was reading my shit.”
“And that’s enough?”
“I take that back. You are a writer.”
I shake my head and frown. “No… no, I’m not. You make a good point. What you do doesn’t make you who you are. The guy you call to fix your sink isn’t a plumber. It’s just a guy that plumbs. That doesn’t define him or her as a human being. Next time someone asks me what I do, I’m a say ‘I write… I write books.’”
“Well if that makes you happy.”
“In the way that I’m doing exactly what I want with my life, it makes me real fucking happy… It’s nothing I can really share with anyone though. It’s a happiness I almost have to keep to myself.”
“What does that even mean?”
“There’s a bunch of famous sayings on how you can’t talk about writing… you just have to do it… because to tell someone, in any depth, what you’re writing about, you’ve got to explain all this other shit before the thing you want to say makes any sense at all… an no one wants to sit there and listen to all of that… they’ll just say to themselves, ‘gad, I’m sorry I asked. I’m not doing that again.’ It’s not like a drawing, or a painting, where I can say, ‘here, look at this,’ and all they’ve got to do is look at it. Or like music, where you can say, ‘here, listen to this three-minute song.’ No, I’ve got to drop a three-hundred-page book on the table and say, ‘here, check this out.’”
Jake dips his pinky finger in his drink and dunks a few thin, nearly melted ice cubes under the surface of the whiskey. He pulls his finger out and tastes the liquor by dabbing his fingertip to his tongue. “Yeah, I can see that,” he says. “No one really reads anymore. If it’s not a fifteen second video clip on their phone, they’re probably not interested.”
“They read in prison.”
“Huh, they do read in prison… you’re right. What about addiction support groups online?”
“I’d give my shit away to them for free too if I could. I just want to get it out there… but they call that ‘marketing,’ and you’re not allowed to self-promote in those groups.
“It’s frustrating to be so passionate about something that you’ll spend every free minute of your life doing it, and you can’t talk about it to anyone without their eyes glossing over with disinterest… I wrote for a decade for an audience of just a few people and it helped me to stay off dope. That’s the important thing right there, not how many people read it, or how much money or fame I got from it… I changed my fucking life because of it. I just think there’s a vast amount of people out there who would resonate with those words, and I want them to see it.”
I pick up my glass and drink the rest of the water, put it back down and push the glass to the edge of the bar nearest the bartender in the universal sign for either ‘more water,’ or ‘here, I’m done with the glass.’ I straighten my posture so I’m sitting tall, stretch out my back like I’m about to stand up, and turn my head to Jake. “Am I a writer? Maybe not… but who the hell cares what you call yourself? Successful though? I’d say I’m very successful, and goddamn lucky to be free to do what I’m doing, and not still stuffing dope into my arm so I can’t be bothered with anything but finding more.”
“Want more water?” asks the bartender from where she’s standing, still talking to the couple sitting at the end of the bar. I smile and shake my head, ‘no’.
“And fame,” I say. “Fuck that. Everybody all up in my business. Everybody knows who you are. Say the wrong thing and you’re devoured by public opinion. Fame is the mirror of the vain… I have no interest in it. I totally understand the anonymous part of anonymous addiction programs. I embrace my anonymity, covet my solitude, ravage my passion. I write twelve hours straight some days, alone, in a room, by myself. It’s all I want to do… I just want to get it out.”
All of that sounds good, like eloquent dialogue… but I didn’t say any of that… none of it. I have said it… all of it, many times, when talking to people who seem to know exactly what everyone else should be doing… I just didn’t say it all right then.
Instead, when he first asked me what I do, I said, “I paint.” Because I didn’t want to fucking hear it, and I didn’t want to have to say all of that again, I said, “Commercial painting.”
Which I do. I have. I paint sometimes, commercially, off and on… but I only use the money to sustain myself while I work toward learning a voice to write in. Even though I’ve only painted one weekend this month – and the other twenty-seven consecutive days, my knuckles have shuffled the keyboard keys of a pawnshop laptop in my two-car garage writing den, ten to twelve hours a day – I said, “I paint houses…buildings … sometimes.”
“Oh you’re a painter?” He says. “My brother’s a painter. He makes a pretty good living.”
Jake picks up the commemorative drink sitting behind the glass he’s been taking sips from, and he holds it out to me. “So what do you think? You want it?”
I look at the amber-colored whiskey, sloshing around in the glass. “Sure.” I take it from him, hold it up, and clink his glass. “To your buddies that fell. May they rest in peace.”
“To all my friends,” he says with a stern tightness to his mouth. He takes a sip and flips the tip of his tongue over his lips to wipe them clean.
I nod, raise my glass again in reverence, and drink the whole glass of whiskey in one pull. Jake snaps his head back with a surprised look. He’s taken offense… it’s all over his face. “Whoa,” he says.
“What? Oh, we weren’t doing the whole shot?”
“Well, I mean… that was damn near a triple.”
“Yeah, they pour heavy here.” I raised an apologetic hand. “I wasn’t being…”
“It’s cool,” he says, frowning at my flippant response. “I just wasn’t expecting it.”
No, I didn’t do that either. That is what I did the last time somebody offered me that kind of a toast, and I think I offended that guy by pounding the shot the way I did any old Saturday night swill that came my way. So instead, when Jake holds the drink out to me and asks, “You want it?” I smile, stand up, and politely shake my head ‘no’.
“No disrespect, but… I’m about to drive home.” I hold my hand up in a friendly gesture. “I better not.”
I slip my arms into the coat I’ve got draped over the other barstool next to me. “Good meeting you, Jake,” I say.
“Fair enough.” He shakes my hand. “Good meeting you too.”
I turn and start toward the door, and hear Jake ask the bartender – who’d made her way over to our side of the bar just as I was leaving – “What’d he say his name was? Jacob?”
When I hear my name, my eyes instinctively jump to the mirror behind the small shots bar by the exit doors. In it, I can see both Jake and the bartender, watching me walk out the door.
“Yeah, Jacob… Jacob Gnarley,” she says, twisting her curly brown hair around her finger. “He’s cool, but…” She shrugs her shoulders and wrinkles her nose. “I don’t know… he’s kind of weird.”