Spring2007

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A Bar Story

going nowhere…

By Neil Bhandari

Part 1: overhot and overtired in panama, empty boxes and black negative space on crispy yellow paper…

…by the time I make it the three blocks from the cabinas to La Choza, my shirt is soaked through with sweat and my eyes are burning… trying to keep them down, off of the sun, just left em free to be filled with the blowback from the dust-explosions set off by my every step… I push through the swinging, saloon-style doors and pick the seat next to the rusted metal table fan on the left end of the bar… it’s pretty much empty and Julio’s tending bar today… good… he’ll ask me about the weather (Hot as balls, no? a phrase I taught him) and about the morning’s waves (Are good, or just mush?), and that’ll be it… he nods in my direction and before I can say anything he’s set a Balboa in front of me— it’s warm, but appreciated nonetheless—and is back to halfassedly wiping down the bar with a dry, scum-crusted rag… watching him, the futility of the effort, along with the circular monotony of the arm action, makes me tired, so I take another pull before closing my eyes and dropping my head on the bar with a soft fall… this is alright… this is exactly how I want it to be…

….I let my neck go limp and my head begins to bob, unable to settle between the dead underwater silence and the chaotic slapping sounds of the surface… the water’s not as clean as I thought it’d be… my hands are blurry, and my lower half, as far as my eyes are concerned, could be anywhere…

………when I get back up, probably only about five minutes later, it’s to the sound of someone singing, almost whisper-singing, into a microphone in the small open “dance floor” area to my right, past the far end of the bar… she’s tiny, asian it seems, in too-big sunglasses and overgrown bangs, and there are two elderly men watching her… I cant really make out the words, it’s a Spanish song, uptempoish, but the thickness of her own accent (she’s rolling her L’s) makes it impossible… her audience doesn’t seem to mind, content to drink their beers, stare at a reasonably attractive girl who’s probably about one-fourth of their age, and not have to watch Julio swatting flies or me scratching past mosquito bites til my ankles are red-raw… …I reach into the right hip pocket of my fraying shorts for a fold of paper, a crossword puzzle ive been carrying around for the past two months, picking up a clue here and there, unable to fill it in due to the fact that it’s been soaked and re-dried far too many times to withstand a pen or pencil tip… ive been pretty good about remembering which ones ive gotten though… …none of the clues look new… it’s probably been three days since ive solved one, but I keep it out just in case, and so it looks like I have something to do…


Part 2: leaving costa rica, bigness in the hands and heart, bringing us up to speed…

Six across: United Fruit Company nickname, seven letters… sounds familiar I guess, something tells me I should know it, but, nope, not at all, not ringing any bells…

….id been in costa rica for only a couple of weeks on what was supposed to be my big “college-is-over,-my-degree-is-worthless,-here’s-one-last-shot-at-bridging-the-gap-into-proper-adulthood” dig before deciding that it wasn’t the place… more spring breaky than id imagined, I guess… so after a bit of wandering down the western coast, jam packed with unoriginal honeymooners and disappointingly annoying ex-pats, I caught a three-dollar, fifteen-hour bus to changuinola, panama… the ride wasn’t pleasant—an inexplicable metal seat-protrusion left quite a mark across my back, and, contrary to scientific laws of liquid displacement and my own perhaps optimistic logic, sweating profusely for hours on end in no way relieves the need to take a piss for hours on end—and the border crossing, on foot over the Sixola River Bridge—a series of semi-connected planks in varying degrees of decay—was more than a bit disconcerting… but it was foreign… adventuresome… like hemingway without the n-bombs…

…after a short water break and the few moments that it takes to pass through a customs/passport checking process that is at once alarmingly and comfortingly lax, the few of us journeying to further destinations are escorted through the nighttime dustiness of changuinola to the docks to wait for the “botas,” a team of rudderless motor boat taxis piloted by a team of cheerful men with deep, sun-blackened skin and shiny yellow teeth… after a few minutes of waiting, im approached by Henry, a bear of a man in a stained t-shirt and an old sea-cap, who introduces himself by stating his own name and thrusting his giant paw in my direction… I grab it, tell him my name, and hop off the dock into the boat… isla carenero, bocas del toro… … he nods, grins and pulls the engine cord… it turns over on the first try and we’re off… I sit at the front of the boat, letting my left hand trail through the warm water, while Henry sits in the back, his fingers drumming an easy rhythm on the motor… this sea is alive and it’s impossible to make out the horizon line in the darkness…

…neither of us says a word for the duration of the trip—about an hour, maybe—which is perfectly fine with me, too tired to want to shout over the engine buzz, and not wanting to do anything more than let this fast saltwater air blow through my hair and into my skin… as we approach the island, Henry smiles at me… I can see his happy teeth… ‘eight dollar’… he winks… …damn… even though I know it’s more or less the ‘official’ currency of panama, something about his asking for payment in dollars kind of annoys me… but not really… and it’s his boat… and theyre all I have anyways… …i pull the crumpled bills out of my pocket and he takes them, counts them slowly, folds them and stuffs them away before once again nodding with a grin and offering me his giant hand… ‘suerte’… I thank him, throw on my backpack and walk towards the light, to find somewhere to sleep…. …

(…the days now, for two months, living in a perfectly dank cabina, which started at two dollars a night, prorated to ten dollars a week, prorated to twenty-five a month, have been filled [with variance, of course, as given in life and for the occasional Sunday church sitting] with hours of swim and surf and beans and rice and bikes and books and sun and sleep… I know some people, and they know me, I know some Spanish and it serves me well, and as it goes, always, there are Balboas and Atlases and Panamas with Julio, at La Choza…)


Part 3: til sunset and long past…

…her confidence is growing- she’s gotten louder and she’s swinging her hips to the music, and, three beers in, I guess I can see the allure, though probably not enough to move me from where im sitting… I think about calling home, something I haven’t done in a few weeks, but upon considering my limited arsenal of discussion topics (“I swim and drink and eat pineapple, im not getting a job”/ “the girls here smell like flowers”/ “I stepped on a sting ray that didn’t sting me”) I decide against that too… I don’t have enough money on me for it anyways… Julio pours us both a shot of guaro and we silently, though not unceremoniously, imbibe… icy and astringent, it shocks my throat… this is exactly how I want it to be…

…twenty-four down: beatles song “for _ _ _ _ _”….five letters… this one’s been killing me for the longest time and, it feels to me, taking a piece of my what I had thought to have been my fairly sound musical-credibility with it every day…. cindy…patty…linda… julio…… .ringo…. ……

…the sun is setting and slants of fire-orange decorate the bar and burn on the faces of the slowly growing crowd… everyone’s talking and drinking and I smile and listen and drink, saying nothing to no one… …my senses are acute in the way that only alcohol can make them, and I notice that no one sneezes here… or bites their nails… I wonder what I must look like, scratching myself and biting myself, and looking around, it’s clear that no one notices… or cares… or minds… anything here… its amazing… …Julio flips channels on the tv in the corner, quickly, past the news and past the evening soaps and past a clown show and finally settles on a soccer match, and anyone that cares is pleased with his choice… I order another round… and another… and another… and another…

…I will end up here for the rest of the night… and nothing bad will happen… I will drink more than I need to and stay longer than I should, and on the good side of 4 am I will make it back to the cabinas, and I will sleep… I will wake up in the morning and swim and eat something fresh and ripe and delicious… I will know the ironies of having come here to escape Americans… I will understand that there is nothing post-modern about citing hemingway in a story about a foreign bar… try as I might, I will not finish the crossword puzzle, and that will be the extent of my misfortune… and I will clap my hands and howl along every time she sings the words, “Taaay Quiellllllllo”……

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