It always returns at the end of summer–the feeling of failure. It has a dry, bitter taste that goes with it, as if it’s a wasting disease that afflicts your entire body and psyche and not just your self-esteem. “Amour-propre,” the French call it–literally, “self love”–and if that sounds a wee bit egotistic, well, everybody needs to have enough self-respect to get out of bed in the morning and drag themselves to a meaningless, dead-end job in order to keep body and soul together.
It’s one big hamster wheel of an existence. And that’s why you’ll find me and others similarly situated slipping out of office buildings–human file cabinets–towards the end of August in Boston. We duck down alleys to hole-in-the-wall bars in a desperate attempt to forget summers of our past, which explain why we ended up where we are in the present.
My regular getaway is Bill’s Bar, voted worst ambience in the 617 area code for eight years running. It has everything, the whole noir dive bar starter kit: a juke box that doesn’t have a single song under ten years old; a dame or two, hanging around hoping to cadge a salad and a glass of white wine out of some poor sucker with visions of romance dancing in his head; and brands of malt beverages that time forgot, like Pickwick Ale, and Ballantine, and Schlitz. They never went upscale; they still taste as sour on the lips as your first pull on a twelve-ounce can decades before, when you were young.
“Anybody got a quarter? I wanna hear Oke-She-Moke-She-Pop.”
To hear those words–“when you were young”–echo through my mind, it touches off a riotous peal of internal laughter, like a madman crouched in the corner of an asylum, and I can’t help but emit a self-derisive little snort at myself. It’s “the tell,” as the poker players say, and it’s how we few, we bitter few, can spot each other a mile off.
“What was it for you?” a guy sitting at the other end of the bar, his fedora tilted back off his sweaty forehead, asked in a bland monotone that said he barely cared what my answer would be.
“Canoeing,” I said, and I tried–for the sake of the few unafflicted patrons in the place–to keep the bitterness out of my voice. “You?”
A little sigh escaped from his nostrils. “Pioneering.”
“What the hell’s that?” Duke, the bartender asked.
“See–it’s misleading advertising. They make it sound like it’s adventurous in the camp brochure, but it’s not. It’s just a bunch of knots.”
“What are the other ‘nots’?” Duke asked.
“Not ‘not’ n-o-t, ‘knot’–k-n-o-t.”
“Oh, I get it,” Duke said as dunked a beer schooner down into greasy grey dishwasher that looked like the North Sea in the middle of a squall. “I was pretending that we couldn’t see the narrator spelling the words out on the World Wide Web.”
“That’s okay,” the guy said. “I’ll have another.”
“Right. How ’bout you?” the solitary drinker said with a nod to me.
“I’m drinking non-craft beer.”
“No blueberries, orange slices, or kumquats?”
“No I, no P, no A?”
“Miller High Life.”
“The Champagne of Bottle Beers,” my new friend said, affecting a tone of mock-grandeur to recognize the respective plates of hash we’d made of our lives. “Cheers.”
“Same. So–you were no good at knots?”
“I didn’t know a sheep’s head from a bowline from a double-bongo.”
“Huh. I was okay at that.”
“Did you . . . get the badge?” he asked hesitantly, as if fearful I’d confirm his failure by my success.
“Yes, but my knots were a mess, I was embarrassed to have my mom sew the badge on my sash, you wouldn’t have . . .”
I stopped when I realized he was sobbing into the crook of his arm splayed out on the bar. I moved down to comfort him.
“Let it go–it’s no big deal. There’s lots of strong, powerful men who never got that badge.”
“Well, Julius Caesar, Stonewall Jackson, Geronimo, Alexander the Great.”
“Nice try, but I know you’re lying.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Alexander the Great wept when he realized he had no more merit badges to earn.”
“I made that part up. Let me tell you my story, it may cheer you up.”
I signaled to Duke to bring me a bag of Planter’s honey-roasted peanuts, the fattening, high-salt snack that’s guaranteed to lift the spirits of any self-pitying former Boy Scout. “I was like a fish out of water that summer,” I began. “My Scout troop wasn’t going to camp until my family would be on vacation, so I had to go with another one.”
“Stranger in a Strange Land?” he asked, evoking Robert Heinlein’s cheesy sci-fi classic.
“You grok me, dude. Anyway, I was doing okay in Pioneering, excellent in rowing . . .”
“The only perfect score on the written exam in the history of Camp Pa-He-Tsi.”
“All I had to do was get the boat out in the lake and bring it back to the dock and I’d have that one too.”
“So you were sitting on pocket aces.”
“Sort of.” I gulped, then began again. “And then there was canoeing.”
“What was the problem?”
“Nothing–and everything. I was always paired up with uncoordinated kids. I wasn’t strong enough to lift the end of the boat out of the water to drain it when we did the ‘capsize’ drill. And . . .”
I hesitated, the way one does when a recollection comes flooding back from a deep grotto of repressed psychic pain.
“The instructor didn’t like me.”
My new “friend” was strangely unsympathetic. “You got to learn to deal with it.”
“There was no dealing with it. The kid was a jerk. Even his name was nasty–Barry Cross.”
“Which you no doubt transformed into ‘Very Cross’–right?”
“So what happened?”
“Like I said, I pretty much had two badges sewn up, so I said–screw it. The dingleberry hates my guts. There was a final exam on the last day of camp before your parents picked you up, and I just–blew it off.”
A woman sitting at a table perked her ears up and a strange expression crept across her mouth–half-smile, half-sneer; a snile, or maybe a smeer. I must have appealed–if only for a teensy-tiny second–to the bad girl deep within her libido, trying to wriggle out of the tight strictures of civilization that bound her, like the Playtex Living Girdles my dad used to sell in his store.
“You . . . just . . . didn’t go?”
“Nope,” I said, as I took a long, cool sip of beer. “I had come to the realization–long before most males do–that life is too damn short to put up with . . .”
“I was going to say ‘doody-heads,’ but yes–‘dinks’ will do nicely.”
My drinking partner seemed taken aback. He probably expected me to steal his identity next, the depths of my perfidy were revealed to be so deep.
“So you just packed your things and never saw the guy again?”
“Not exactly. When I went down to get my rowing badge he sauntered up from the canoe dock, carrying an armful of life jackets, going about his business as if he didn’t care that I’d dumped him before he could fail me.”
“Did he say anything?”
This was the worst part, but when you launch the ship of your story on the waters of conviviality, you’ve got to finish your journey.
“Yep. He said ‘Hey squirt, how come you didn’t take the exam?’”
“What’d you say?”
“I tried to stay cool. I shrugged my shoulders and said ‘I already had enough badges, so I decided to skip it.’”
“And what’d he say?”
“He stared me down, like he had three of a kind to my aces. He said ‘Too bad–if you’d showed up, I would’ve given you the badge.’”
There was silence in the bar. On the off chance that any of the beer-besotted customers had ever read Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim,” I thought to myself that they would have found in that work a model for the deep sense of regret, of a lost chance, that will haunt me until the end of my days.
“Change it to the Sox game,” someone yelled out, dispelling my reverie.
“That’s quite a story,” the woman said as she got up from her table and started to go, burning off the fog of regret that had rolled in on the tales of the two lost souls she’d been eavesdropping on. “But I heard a shorter version.”
“By whom?” I asked.
“Woody Allen. He said 80% of life is just showing up.”