HALF DECENT MAN |

| Written as part of the Aesthete series 

Pat’s was a karaoke bar on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that was most likely mistaken by the neighborhood as just another Irish pub. From the outside it was hard to see it as anything worth remembering; the awning always in disrepair, the “specials” had seemingly gone unchanged for years, and the paint was always changing colors as if the owners were upgrading the place by throwing on a few coats of expired latex and oil. However, to those who knew Pat’s intimately, those who sat their elbows down on the sticky bar each evening knew that Pat’s itself never changed. The longer these poor saps stayed in the grips of Pat’s, the quicker they became just like it; the same old song and dance underneath with a new coat of paint each night to cover the shame of reality.

Everybody was somebody in his or her mind. Housed within this narrow and long reaching pub was the type of folk not even a mother could love. Each person had taken on the role of someone they had always hoped to become, or rather hoped others would see them as someday. Each persona crafted carefully, each lie shaped with great cunning; the people behind these lies knew no limits, most hadn’t the ability to have limits. Others were fresh meat brimming with new ideas that had only now come into full form, undoubtedly feasting on the suffering talent that was housed within Pat’s. Perhaps the worst of them all, and perhaps the most believable was Charlie. It took less than a week for Charlie to weave his lies into this filthy place and into the desolate minds that waited within. It would take only a bit longer for Charlie to find himself more vile and desolate than the whole lot combined.

Charlie had moved to New York City from Memphis and found an apartment for rent just above Pat’s. He probably wouldn’t admit it, but it was the ideal set-up for him: quick access to the bar, nondescript building, and whatever admiration came from living on the Upper East Side. Charlie was working at an anti-death penalty law firm as a researcher in downtown Memphis when he got the call one day asking if he would be interested in a job working for a civil liberties organization in New York City. He jumped at the opportunity; underneath Charlie’s admirable work was an ever-present desire to be seen as someone who chose to do worthy work. Moreover, where else to be seen than in New York City working for the largest civil liberties organization in the United States. Charlie left Memphis without so much as a goodbye; the way he saw it he was leaving a place he was never meant to be in the first place, destined for the lights he was made to call home. Charlie was finally being seen as the person he knew he was all along; he was finally given his fair share of respect. It did not seem to bother him one bit that all of this admiration, all of this adornment was coming from the local lifeless bodies at Pat’s, never reaching beyond the bar.

It did not take long for Charlie to settle in with the locals at Pat’s; his neighbor across the hall, Curtis, was a fixture downstairs and had been for years. Curtis was a bit younger than Charlie, about 27 at the time, and was the first real New Yorker Charlie had ever met. Curtis was stocky, reminiscent of an out of shape Italian boxer from the early twentieth century. Inside his foul apartment was a couple of overweight and underappreciated pit bulls known to greet people jaws first which would come in handy from time to time in this building full of shadowy residents. In fact, the first words that Curtis ever spoke to Charlie were “at least two shemales are living here. They are on the 3rd and 4th floors, directly below us. Would you ever mess with one of them?” Curtis asked Charlie, with all the tact of a gorilla. Charlie, completely unnerved by this type of straightforwardness, glanced towards Curtis and asked, “What’s a shemale?” Charlie knew that this was a somewhat pejorative term for what he would typically refer to as a transsexual, but he wanted to instill in Curtis the notion that he was above this sort of talk and have him believe that he in fact never used or had heard of such judgmental terms. “Oh, a transsexual you mean? No, I do not think I want to mess with them. You can; I do not care what other people do.” Curtis nodded and continued listing the different objectionable tenants housed in Charlie’s new building. There was Joe, the 4oo pound guitarist who, according to Curtis once toured with Aerosmith. Then there was the Latin couple whom Curtis had a tenuous relationship with on account of having slept with the wife on multiple occasions and had at least once gotten into a “stabbing match” with the husband. It was becoming clear to Charlie that he was most likely the only tenant staying in this building legally, and probably the only one paying full price. That did not seem to bother him, though; he was excited by what he saw as authenticity.

Charlie and Curtis walked down the last flight of stairs and out the door onto Second Avenue. Charlie lit up a cigarette and noticed Curtis eyeballing the bouncers at the bar on the corner, a place called Relapse. “What’s the deal with those guys?” asked Charlie. “That place is full of college kids that are too scared of savages like me and my boys,” responded Curtis, not at all answering Charlie’s inquiry. “Are there ever any cute girls there?” asked Charlie. “They will not let us in; we are restricted. They just can’t handle savages like us.” Again, Charlie did not receive the information he was looking for and also had no idea what Curtis meant by savages but decided that he was done inquiring, and he was ready for the evening to begin. Charlie stepped out his cigarette and waived Curtis back over away from Relapse, excited to spend his first night drinking at Pat’s.

Immediately upon entering Charlie was met by two patrons seated at the end of the bar nearest the entrance and was quickly forced into conversation; “Hey, you’re tall,” said an observant patron who Charlie would later come to know as Matt. The person he was with, the other patron, was quite literally the oldest person Charlie had ever seen at a bar and probably in his life. Her name was Miriam, dressed in all black with flawless make-up and perfectly positioned hair. Miriam was demure though at her age Charlie wasn’t sure she had a choice to be anything but. She was very soft spoken, most likely on account of her age, and this combined with the unnecessarily loud music coming from the speakers made it almost impossible to hear her. Miriam was persistent, though, and pulled Charlie in so close to her that he could hear the cheap red lipstick-smacking together between her lips as she spoke. “Did you know that this was Jimmy Carter’s favorite place to come when he visited New York; you know when they had the U.N. stuff and everything going on?” Miriam’s words fumbled out of her mouth into Charlie’s disbelieving ears. He was sure that this was not one of Jimmy Carter’s favorite stops when he visited New York for any reason, even if it was for when the U.N. stuff was going on, whatever that meant. He was also sure that he had just met a liar of his pedigree; a liar of such grandiosity it is hard to tell if she believed herself to be lying or if she, like Charlie, could convince herself that her lies were at once the truth.

“Hey, are you from the south?” asked the still observant patron Matt. “Yes,” said Charlie, “I am from Memphis, Tennessee.” Charlie awaited the stereotypical jokes, the wisecracks they were bound to unleash over his southern accent, and the assumptions that he was a redneck, a racist, and a homophobic backwoods hillbilly. Charlie anticipated these types of confrontations; he awaited their jabs so that he could dispel any ideas they had about him by telling them how he had attended The University of Oxford and could quote Tolstoy on command. However, the jabs and the wisecracks never came. Instead, Charlie was met with a few nodding heads of approval and inquiries about which state had the best barbecue, which Charlie had no interest in getting into. “I’ve been all over the south,” said Matt, showing his less sensitive and participatory side. “ I lived in New Orleans before moving here to become an actor.” Matt was in his mid-fifties by now and had been living in the city for close to thirty years, all spent pursuing a career in acting but mainly working side jobs to stay afloat. Toss in a fifteen-year addiction to heroin and a lively love affair with alcohol and Matt’s life looked more like something out of an old country and western song, far from the bright lights and the stage he had once envisioned for himself. Charlie immediately felt comfortable around this lot; he pitied each of them and judged them harshly, yet he knew he needed them close to him; they gave him the validation he had always strived for and in a moment they made his life seem exciting.

Charlie had always been one of the nice guys and was immediately likable. This played well with him everywhere he went, but especially at Pat’s, where his Southern manners and slight drawl attracted women and respect at the same time. There was something different about him, genuine concern and compassion for others that wasn’t commonplace in the city and certainly not at Pat’s. He would get drunk on Irish whiskey and shots of vodka and sing Elvis Presley, showing another side of him that few back home in Memphis had given him a chance to. Charlie was shining within this long and narrow bar, impressing strangers with his voice and inspiring the locals with his passion and intelligence. However, above the bar, housed in his tiny apartment, Charlie was fading quickly, and his mental health was declining rapidly. He began missing work and spending his days in bed, above the covers and soaking in his sweat. Though a part of Charlie thrived in this new role, another part was dying, and nobody, not even himself, knew it. It was difficult at times for Charlie to keep his secret hidden but for the most part, he only needed to make it downstairs, have a few stiff drinks, and he was back to his charming self. The company he kept wasn’t hard to convince anyhow; it was Charlie himself that he had trouble convincing of his safety and sanity.

Three months, that is how long it took before Charlie’s first trip to the hospital. He had awoken early one morning in a pool of blood and immediately jumped from his bed to investigate. His front door was ajar, and there was glass on the floor by the bathroom. His hand was clinched in a fist though it was numb, and as he glanced into the bathroom, he noticed that his only mirror had been shattered, leaving glass shards and blood in the sink. Charlie was dizzy and confused and began looking around his apartment for the person responsible for this damage. He looked underneath his bed, inside each of his kitchen cabinets, and then hurried to the bathroom where he pulled back the shower curtain only to find the bathtub empty. As he sat on the ledge of the tub, heart racing and still dizzy, Charlie glanced down at his hand. Still clinched in a fist Charlie noticed the dry blood that covered the entirety of his right hand and the glass that was embedded in his knuckles. He tried to relax his hand but couldn’t, it was frozen in a fist, and a dull, unbearable pain finally signaled throughout Charlie’s body. He stood up and tried to look at himself in what was left of his mirror but couldn’t make anything out. He grabbed his shoes and headed down the stairs for Second Avenue, dialing 911 on his way down.

Charlie would spend the next week at an Upper East Side hospital, undergoing physical and psychological exams. He did not mind doctors and felt comfortable in their care; he felt safe. The doctors told him that he had probably experienced a blackout along with an alcohol-induced seizure and was lucky to be alive. He had been put on heavy sedatives to relax his central nervous system and was being administered vitamins and a sodium hydrate combination via an intravenous drip, neither of which seemed to concern or impress Charlie. He was, for all intents and purposes, alive and that was all that seemed to matter to him. Charlie was given a stern warning by the doctors to stay away from alcohol and a pamphlet advertising some treatment facility in Pennsylvania where they suggested he go and get help. Upon leaving Charlie dropped the leaflet in a trashcan on Third Avenue and figuratively did the same with the doctors warning.

Charlie walked into Pat’s with a fresh face and a glow in his eyes. Curtis immediately ran up to him, gave him a hug and asked where he had been for the last week. “Albany” Charlie replied. “Our organization sent a team of us up to the governor’s office to raise awareness regarding the treatment of minorities here in the city. They picked twelve of us to go and, being somewhat of a leader in the office they made sure I was part of the group.” Curtis looked down at Charlie’s hand but didn’t say a word, only turned to the bar and ordered a couple of drinks to welcome Charlie back. Curtis had his news to tell, and Charlie would quickly learn that the delusion in the building had not lessened in his absence.

They spent the entire night drinking and pushed stories across the bar until the lights began to brighten, and the music began to soften. With a head full of medicine and foolish pride Charlie had drunk more than he was accustomed to on this evening, though he was only making up for the time he had lost due to his stay in the hospital. He and Curtis made their way upstairs, both staggering and using the wall for support. They reached the fifth floor, and Curtis invited Charlie in for a nightcap, not missing a beat from their routine. “So what’s the news, buddy?” Charlie asked Curtis. “Oh, I almost forgot but I could not tell you downstairs anyway.” Curtis made his way to a wall of cabinets, located the right one and pulled out a metal box, complete with a security lock and a matte black finish. Curtis sat the box on the floor, opened it and revealed three handguns, all vintage but in perfect condition. Curtis had gotten it into his mind that because it was so difficult to own a gun in New York City, he would begin selling them underground. Even at his worst Charlie knew to stay away from this, as he did with most of Curtis’s personal life. Still, Curtis asked if he would take the only other key to the gun box and hide it in his apartment, saying only that in the event of his arrest he needed Charlie to give the weapons to his brother. Charlie took the key and wished him well but didn’t ask any questions. He stood up and walked across the hall to his apartment, dead bolting the door behind him, and collapsed onto his bed; “Another night in the books” Charlie thought to himself. Moreover, for the next nine months this is how Charlie’s life would play out; the hospital visits became more frequent, Curtis’ insanity would only increase, and everything Charlie once knew of reality continued to drift further away from his grasp.

Curtis knocked on Charlie’s door late one Friday night and asked if he felt like going out and doing something different for a change. Curtis wanted to take Charlie downtown to his new club with the promise of good-looking girls and free drinks. To know Charlie was to understand that this was not an appealing proposition for him; Charlie preferred to sit downstairs and drink and do it alone if given the chance. However, on this night, seeing the excitement in Curtis’ eyes, Charlie agreed to go downtown and visit his neighbors new business. Charlie got ready, made his way to Second Avenue and hailed a cab to take him down to Twenty-third Street. The address given to him by Curtis led him to a dark, nondescript building on an ill-lighted part of the block. Charlie rang the buzzer and was met at the door by what looked like a bodyguard who asked who he was and whom he knew. Charlie told him that he was Curtis’ neighbor, and he was let in and shown up to the top floor of the building. Upon entering Charlie noticed that a few key elements were missing from this “club.” There didn’t seem to be anyone working there, and the “bar” was a makeshift table built out of plywood with a shelf big enough to hold only a few bottles of liquor. There were a few pieces of furniture, all parts of sectional couches that had apparently been found or taken from somebody’s apartment, and all of the windows were blacked-out. There was no working bathroom, and people were smoking cigarettes inside, both against the law or at least in violation of city health codes and certainly in violation of Charlie’s comfort. As Charlie made his way around the, club it didn’t take long for him to realize that the girls here were strippers, prostitutes, or both. This wasn’t any type of club he had been to before and the other guests were making Charlie nervous. They were well-dressed men, all above the age of fifty and all looking as though they had a bevy of secrets to hide. Curtis told Charlie to relax, enjoy the girls and the free drinks but this wasn’t his scene. He made his way outside and hailed a cab, asking to take him back uptown and to the comfort of Pat’s.

Charlie made it back uptown and made his way into Pat’s, ordered a drink and began scanning the bar for a familiar face. The place was empty, though this did little to discourage Charlie. He knew that in time people would start to show up and he would have his company. An hour passed when a young blonde walked into the bar, perfectly out of place, and asked Charlie if he had a cigarette. Charlie handed her a Camel Light and nodded, acknowledging her good looks but feeling sure she was not looking for his company and turned back to the bar with his head slightly down. The blonde stood still for a moment, made her way to the door and then stopped, halfway between the bar and the door. “I like your boots, ” she said to Charlie. “Why are you alone?” She said. Charlie, never one to feel nervous in moments like these, immediately stood up from the bar and followed her out the door, doing his best to keep his stride from slipping. The blonde told him that they were going to the Russian Tea Room to meet a friend of hers and Charlie hailed a cab without asking any questions.

Charlie had never been to The Russian Tea Room, but he liked the sound of it and only hoped they served more than tea. In the cab, the blonde grabbed Charlie by the collar and pulled him in slowly for a kiss. Charlie was not sure where she was going with this, and so he let go and followed her body as she went from playful to aggressive and back to playful again. It was a short ride to the tea room, and the backseat passion was interrupted by the cab driver yelling something in a foreign language, prompting Charlie and the blonde to look up and notice they had arrived. Charlie opened the door for the blonde and followed her inside where they met her friend, another young blonde and only slightly less attractive. Charlie sat down and immediately the two blondes began talking to one another. They were paying no mind to Charlie, and he was only paying mind to his drink, trying to ease the anxiety of the night so far and whatever was coming next. The whiskey did not hold Charlie very long and unwilling to pay twenty bucks for a Dewar’s in a nice glass he set out to find who held the tab for the table. “I do not think we’ve been introduced,” Charlie said to the other blonde who turned to Charlie and asked, “don’t you know who I am?” Charlie looked at her for a moment, turned to her friend as though looking for a hint, and turned back saying he did not think they had met before. She burst out into a sort of condescending laughter, stomped her heels in disbelief, and asked where Charlie had been for the last year. “I’ve been in Memphis and New York City,” Charlie said, which garnered only more laughter. Utterly confused and without saying a word Charlie stood up and walked outside, leaving the blondes with their laughter. Charlie got in a cab and went back home, this night had been too much for him.

Winter was approaching, and Charlie had just returned home from yet another hospital visit, this time a weeklong stay in a psychiatric ward that doubled as a detox unit. He was sitting in his apartment, listening to old Johnny Cash and drinking whiskey out of a pint glass. By this point, Charlie’s hands were always shaking, and it was increasingly difficult to keep any liquor down, so he took slow sips with plenty of time in between. Charlie finished a glass, about four shots of whiskey worth, but the fear remained. His sanity was about as steady as his hands were and he knew it. He had started checking his door locks every five minutes or so and looked out the window shades for anyone that may be looking in at him. Charlie would stare into his shattered mirror, and each time he smiled he noticed that his right eye would close shut. Anger had become second nature to him, and upon seeing his face, Charlie punched himself in the right temple, softly at first but harder each time. He would hit himself so many times that his right eye would become swollen shut, and somehow it made Charlie feel better. He thought of the blondes, his family, and his little delusional friends downstairs; they all hated him.

Charlie’s mind was unweaving, and through this collapse things began to become clear to him. Everything about Charlie, every “good quality” that others saw in him, was a lie. Charlie knew that he could not come back from this life; there was no road to redemption for him. He had thought he had finally found admiration when all he found was confusion. Reality had set in for the first time in his life; he was a nobody just like everyone else. Charlie had come to New York in the hopes that it would somehow change him, and all that changed was his address. He looked down at his hands, scarred from smashing mirrors and shaking from withdrawal. The boy was withdrawing from the world, from any fight this world had to offer him. His cover was blown, he could finally admit the truth to himself; that he was nothing special, he was average. It was over, and Charlie knew he could not suffer another evening like this. He made his way across the hall to Curtis’ apartment, opened the door with his spare key and began searching for the gun safe. An Elvis song started playing in Charlie’s head, and it seemed to calm the commotion around him. He was singing along while sweating on all fours, desperately searching for a gun. He found the blue steel piece in the cabinet, tucked it into his waistband and made his way out the door.

Charlie hustled down the stairs, Elvis still playing in his head. He was well dressed as usual but this evening he went to extra measure to be sure his presence was not mistaken for another’s. His shoes were polished to perfection, his white shirt ironed and paired with a silk tie, his head covered in more pomade than hair. Charlie made his way into Pat’s karaoke bar, this time bypassing the bartender and heading straight for the back where they kept the stage. He asked if they would put on his favorite song, and as the song began to play, he took a seat at the edge of the stage. Charlie started singing along with Elvis, “We cannot go on together, with suspicious minds” and he slowly began loosening his tie. The bar was eerily quiet except for the music, no faded voices or televisions on. The bartender was up front waiting for customers and the back room was empty except for Charlie.

Charlie had always wanted an audience, but he had gone too far, this time, nobody even knew he was alive. Charlie looked once more at the room around him and figured it all made sense. He reached behind him appearing to slide his hand carefully into the waistband of his pants. At that moment Miriam and Matt walked through the front door and immediately yelled out for Charlie, causing him to recoil for a moment as he brought his empty hand out from his waistband. Charlie asked that they turn the music off and just as they did some ten young women walked into the bar, clamoring and squawking down the hall towards Charlie. Jersey girls always made Charlie smile; it was as if they had everything an attractive girl has except the attractiveness. Their determination to be something they are not was steadfast and Charlie felt a strange comfort in this.

He was still seated at the edge of the stage, feet firmly on the floor and with something resembling an audience. The right side of his face began to bleed and his temple was pounding on account of the punishment he unleashed upon himself only a few hours prior. None of that mattered anymore and Charlie knew he could no longer live this life. A man can only take his mind for so long until he has to make a decision and Charlie had his mind made up. He pulled his legs onto the stage, stood up, and began looking out into the eyes of a now semi-crowded room. A little smile came across Charlie’s lips; he was center stage for the biggest night of his life. He turned his back to the room and began to reach into his waistband again. His right temple was still pounding and the blood was now pooling into his right eye. He brushed the sweat and blood off of his face and into his hair and began pulling his hand out from his waistband. The music was turned on again at the same moment Charlie turned to face the crowd. The crowd looked frozen to Charlie, they had never witnessed this type of performance. As he looked into his hands and saw this black piece he wondered if he would look back on his old life fondly, if there were any decent memories. He tilted the cylinder towards his face and pressed the end of it against his lips, as the crowd braced for what would come next. “In and out, in and out”, Charlie continued to repeat, counting his breath. Charlie took a deep breath, pulled the cylinder closer to his mouth and caught the eye of a cute Jersey girl who smiled back but by then Charlie was already in another world. Still, the girl wondered what it was about Charlie that made her smile so effortlessly, and as Charlie began to sing the chorus she realized how lovely his voice was. She sat silently while Charlie was living out a dream, an acceptance he had never felt, and he continued hitting notes he knew the King himself would have been jealous of. As Charlie continued singing, microphone in hand and gun buried in his waistband he felt confusion lift and his ego began to swell again. The misery, the shame, the flat out pain of it all was still there yet Charlie had fooled himself once more. Charlie had created yet another masterpiece and in time it would collapse, but for tonight he knew he was happy. To believe in ones own happiness is all one needs to live happily. Some may call it a delusion, I am not so sure if that is a problem.

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