A memoir of sorts, by social worker-turned-journalist, J. Malcolm Garcia.
A memoir of sorts, by social worker-turned-journalist, J. Malcolm Garcia.
“I don’t know if he’s unheralded, but there’s a writer named J. Malcolm Garcia who continually astounds me with his energy and empathy. He writes powerful and lyrical nonfiction from Afghanistan, from Buenos Aires, from Mississippi, all of it urgent and provocative. I’ve been following him wherever he goes.” – Dave Eggers, The New York Times.
BAR the sign said.
I went inside.
NOW SERVING TAMMY AND MONICA, I read on a chalkboard by the restroom.
I paused, sat down, ordered a beer and put three dollars on the bar.
“Ten bucks,” the bartender said.
I looked at him, my eyes wide.
“Whorehouse prices,” he said.
He opened a refrigerator and took out a can of Budweiser.
He snapped off the tab and set the can on a napkin. He gave me a tall glass dripping with water. I saw a note on the mirror behind the bar reminding patrons to use condoms.
I put a twenty-dollar bill by my glass. I wiped sweat off my forehead. A ceiling fan turned above me, but the air didn’t move.
“I’ll call Tammy,” the bartender said. “You’ll like her. Monica’s busy.”
“I don’t want a girl. Just the beer. I didn’t know, you know. I mean there’s no sign about, you know, what you do here.”
“We’re called The Hotel California,” the bartender said of the bar and pointed to some T-shirts on the wall with the name. “This is Nevada. It’s not illegal.”
“I know, but it just said bar outside.”
“Got you in here, didn’t it?”
He rang up my beer and gave me the change. A big man with a red beard walked in followed by a woman carrying a bag of groceries. She set the bag on the bar and the bartender peered inside.
“Thanks for taking Monica to the store,” he said to Red Beard.
“She owes me,” Red Beard told him. “I’ve run her around more than enough for you today. I expect a free one.”
“What are you talking about?” Monica said.
“You heard me. I get a free one. Gas costs money.”
Monica rolled her eyes. Her face was parchment tight, mouth thin. Her breasts pushed out against her small white T-shirt but there was nothing enticing about the display. She lit a cigarette, took a drag and held it before releasing her breath in one long, lean exhalation that tightened her face even more.
I sipped my beer. I had driven eight hours on eastbound Interstate 80 from San Francisco before I stopped for the night here in Elko. I was on my way to Philadelphia. I figured it would take me four more eight-hour days to get there. I checked into a Motel 6. From my room I saw the bar sign a few blocks away and decided to have a cold one.
I had spent the previous night with Sandy, my ex. All sorts of reasons for our split after eight-and-a-half years together. But if I were to settle on the reason, the one neither of us wanted to articulate as we refused to compromise on our differences, it would be that we had stopped loving each other the way we needed to if we were to spend the rest of our lives together. The drift apart had happened gradually. When we finally noticed, we were at a loss to stop it. But we still loved each other in our way.
A year after Sandy and I separated, a year after I moved out of the house we shared for almost seven years, I accepted a job on the other side of the country at The Philadelphia Inquirer. At thirty-nine and after having lived in San Francisco for fourteen years, I was starting over.
Sandy was stunned when I told her about the Inquirer job. Despite our split, we would get together from time to time not to reconcile, but to ease into living alone. My move to Philadelphia would end the transition period.
“When do you leave?” she asked when I told her.
“Will you come see me before you go?” she said.
“I want to,” I said.
The bartender introduced me to a woman in a thin, flower patterned satin robe. She walked out from a room behind the bar and sat beside me. I could see her black bra, flat stomach and black panties through the robe. Her dark black hair fell to her shoulders and her blue eyes were wide and hesitant. She wore just enough makeup to highlight her cheeks. Small lines furrowed down from her mouth and gave the impression she was pouting. She was not hard like the other woman, but I could see the hardness coming.
“This is Tammy,” the bartender said.
He turned to her.
“He thought we were just a bar. He just wants his beer. I told him you’d be more interesting to talk to than me.”
“Oh,” Tammy said. “You don’t want a girl?”
“Ask him to buy you a glass of wine at least,” Monica said.
“Don’t give him your time for nothing.”
“Right,” Tammy said. “Would you buy me a glass of wine?”
“If you get her wine or a drink she gets half the bar tab,” the bartender said.
“Wine’s five dollars.”
I put five dollars on the bar and the bartender poured a glass of red wine. He put two fifty in a jar for Tammy.
“I had real nice guy the other night,” Tammy told Monica. “He said he’d take me to a movie.”
“Yeah. He’s going to stop here some time tonight and then we’ll go out.”
Tammy turned to me and asked what I was doing in Elko. On my way to Philadelphia, I told her. She said she would be flying to New York City in a few months to meet with representatives of the United Nations. Her mother was Iranian, Tammy explained. She believed she was owed thousands of dollars from Iranian assets frozen by the U.S. government since 1979 when Americans were taken hostage in Tehran.
“That money belongs to all Iranians,” she said. “When I’m paid I’m going to travel the world and then run my own business.”
I didn’t say anything. Tammy had not decided what sort of business she wanted to start. She said she had been a realtor before the bottom fell out of real estate. Four weeks ago, she started working here. She would return to real estate when the market picked up.
“He saved my life,” she said of the bartender. “He gave me a job.”
I spent my last two days in San Francisco with Sandy.
This morning, I got up early. I dressed and carried my duffle bag to my car. When I came back inside she was sitting on the black couch she bought without asking me and that had resulted in one of our countless arguments.
“Coffee?” she asked.
“I’m good, thanks.”
“I’ll visit you in Philadelphia,” she said.
“That would be good, yes.”
“We always enjoyed Christmas together,” I said.
We hugged. Both of us gave in to choked sobs. Then I walked outside to my car. I waved. Sandy raised an arm. I drove around the block and stopped once more in front of the house. I hoped she would still be standing there but the front door was closed.
“Would you like me to show you around?” Tammy asked.
“Ok,” I said.
“I’m ready for that free one,” Red Beard said.
“Shut up,” Monica said. “Last time I ask a favour from you.”
I followed Tammy into a room with a cot and a couch. A hot tub stood in a corner. I smelled the wet heat rising from the tub.
“This room is used for parties,” Tammy said.
She didn’t elaborate. She sat on the cot and watched me. The robe sagged open around her breasts. I looked away.
“What else?” I asked.
Tammy got up and led me out of the room and down a hall. She opened a door that had her name on it and let me in. A bed with a white comforter pressed against the wall near an open closet. Skirts and blue jeans hung on hangers. An ironing board stood in a corner. A McDonald’s plastic cup half filled with soda stood on a dresser.
“We’re charged thirty dollars a day to live here,” Tammy said.
“That’s why I like doing parties. You can make a thousand dollars with one party. The house keeps half. But that’s still $500 for me.”
She stopped talking and loosened her robe.
“It’s been slow this week,” she said facing me. “Depending on what you want, I could probably give it to you cheap. I’d have to ask though.”
I felt my face turn red. If Sandy saw me now: Sure you didn’t know it was a brothel. I could just hear her. I smiled at the thought. Tammy smiled back. I shook my head.
“No,” I said. “I really only wanted a beer. I just saw the bar sign outside and came in.”
She tightened her robe.
“Buy me another wine, then.”
“Would you buy me another wine? So I can make a little cigarette money off you at least.”
“Of course,” I said.
After I left Sandy, I drove into downtown San Francisco and cruised North Beach. I passed a bagel shop she and I often had stopped for breakfast. I continued to City Lights Bookstore where we always browsed on Saturdays.
I took Clay Street to Interstate 80 east. Within two hours I drove through Sacramento and continued on to Lake Tahoe. Then I reached the California-Nevada border. I pulled into a rest stop. I stared at the interstate, its long gray line eastbound into the horizon. I can always turn back, I reminded myself. I can always turn back.
Tammy and I sat back at the bar. I ordered a glass of red wine and another beer.
“Nothing?” the bartender asked, looking at Tammy and then at me.
“Nothing,” Tammy said.
“Well,” the bartender said to me, “you did say you only wanted a beer.”
He dropped two-fifty in the jar for Tammy. I concentrated on my beer. Red Beard took Monica by the arm.
“C’mon,” he said.
“Let go of my arm!” she snapped.
“Stop it!” the bartender said and slapped the bar with his palm. “Christ, I gave you a drink. How much longer you going to go on about a free one for some God damn groceries? You’ve been coming in here too long to act the fool.”
Red Beard dropped Monica’s arm.
“You owe me,” he said jabbing a finger at the bartender. “Gas money.”
He stormed out the door and a sharp splash of sunlight burst into the bar. For seconds I couldn’t see. I blinked, heard a truck start. The bartender blurred into view and I watched him freshen Monica’s drink. She carried it down the hall, her hard face etched in shadow against the wall. The truck pulled away.
“I never thought I’d be doing this,” Tammy whispered to me.
Her warm breath washed against my ear and she place a hand on my knee. I turned to her. She seemed very slight and small. I knew she didn’t believe a word she had said about the U.N. and frozen Iranian assets. I knew she had no experience in real estate. I knew her customer from the other night didn’t exist or if he did, he would never take her to a movie. I knew her name was not Tammy.
I also knew that I had left San Francisco for good. I had days of hard driving ahead of me and when I reached Philadelphia, Sandy would not visit me at Christmas.
I finished my beer. I told Tammy it was nice to have met her. She bounced back with a chirpy request for me to remember her because we might see each other again. After all, Philadelphia was not that far from New York City, was it?
“No, it’s not,” I said.
I got in my car and drove down the street to my motel room. I opened the door to the empty bed and dusty chest of drawers and the thin light filtering through the faded curtains. I stepped inside and closed the door. In the musty dark silence, I whispered, Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye. I felt the words come off my tongue and leave my mouth and dissolve into the quiet. I stretched out on the bed and stared at the ceiling. The morning would be the start of another long day. I closed my eyes and tried to sleep.
J. Malcolm Garcia was a social worker in San Francisco for fourteen years. In that capacity, he started a monthly publication, By No MEANS. Modelled after Stud Terkel‘s oral histories, BNM published first-person accounts of the lives of homeless people. In 1997, Garcia turned to journalism full-time. After September 11th, he began reporting overseas and his work came to the attention of Dave Eggers. His reportage has been published in McSweeney’s and anthologised in Best American Nonrequired Reading.