It is business as usual at the Hampton Lounge on a random Tuesday evening toward the close of this most regrettable year, two-thousand and fourteen. The Hampton is an upscale martini bar which ekes out its meager existence amid the raunchy nightclubs of Washington, DC’s Adams Morgan strip. Tourists mostly avoid the Hampton which offers no entertainment, unless the term is defined to include staring drunk-eyed at the widescreen above the bar or at the patrons themselves, as sorry a group of aging hipsters as you’ll ever encounter.
Tonight is no exception.
A few stools down from me sits a middle-aged woman wearing the overdone makeup and desperate look of a seasoned barfly. She had been sitting by herself all evening until this young fellow sauntered over and treated her to his best line: “Can I buy a beautiful young lady a drink?” She’s already soaked him for two apple martinis and a shrimp cocktail without giving up first base, but the clod maintains this debonair smile like he is destined to get lucky.
The rest of the bar is the usual dribble. You have your regulars, the lawyers, office drones and assorted corporate pawns, puffing cigars and swirling martinis in the booths in the back. You have this married couple engaged in a heated argument at the corner table. There’s me, of course, just in for a quiet meal.
And then, there’s the bear.
It had been sitting on the barstool next to me for a solid twenty minutes, sucking down beer after beer, belching after each one and scratching its furry rump with its paw.
“Long time no see,” the bear finally growls. “What’s it been, ten years?”
I turn the other way. “Club soda, Sal,” I say, as the bartender makes his rounds.
“Club soda? Oh pleeeeeease,” the bear miffs. “Why don’t you just get it over with, Rico?”
I hate it when it calls me that. Always have. My name is Bradford Wellington and I don’t look much like a Rico.
Sal sets the club soda in front of me with the paper umbrella sticking out of the lemon the way I like. The bear cups a beer in its paws, sucks it empty in a single draught and then sticks its long brown tongue in the mug and laps up every last drop.
“Ahhhhhhhhhh,” it hisses, slamming the mug down on the bar. “Down to business. So, the old lady finally gave you the boot. Guess ten years with a recovering alcoholic ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
Sal slides a veggie platter my way. “There you go, Mr. Wellington.”
“Thanks,” I say, rolling my eyes in the direction of the bear, the international signal for: Can you believe this guy?
“Everything alright, Mr. Wellington?”
I flash Sal a knowing smirk, another international signal. This one I think translates roughly to: Don’t worry about me. I’ve got the situation handled.
Sal is a pretty cosmopolitan guy and gets what I’m saying right away. “Whatever you say, Mr. Wellington. I’ve got to make my rounds. You’ll be alright for a while?”
“Right as rain,” I assure him.
“Nope,” the bear chuckles as Sal walks off. “Must notta been no fun at all. Guess you miss her, eh sport?”
That cracks me up. As anyone who knows me will tell you, the only thing I miss about my wife is her cooking. That and the fact she kept me sober.
“But, you know what time that makes it, don’t cha Rico?” The bear holds up a closed paw for me to bump. “Party time!”
I leave it hanging and study it in the bar mirror: five feet tall, pushing four hundred pounds, its black fur showing signs of grey. And just like me, it’s gotten a little thicker around the middle. Like the bear said, it’s been ten years. Still has that goofy smile, though.
Typical for a black bear
Black bear have this killer reputation. If you’ve ever been to the national parks in upstate New York or West Virginia, then you’ve seen the signs: Black Bear Alert — Danger!
As if. When it comes to danger, Black Bear are on par with raccoon.
The Grizzly, ursushorrilibus, now there’s an animal that earned its scientific name. A fierce predator, grizzly will tear you apart if you are foolish enough to invade their space. Just ask Timothy Treadwell. A Kodiak will actually stalk you, hunt you down like prey. The Polar Bear is no slouch either, although its kill stats lag behind the others due to its isolated environment.
Black bear spend their days eating berries, routing through garbage in national park dumpsters and looking for handouts from tourists.
And they’re goofy as hell, believe me, the pansies of the bear world.
I busy myself with the vegan platter and do my best to ignore the brute, which isn’t hard. There’s a fair amount of entertainment tonight. A group of lawyers are engaged in a spirited debate about whether section five-oh-six of the tax code can be applied retroactively. The tiff between the angry couple has escalated to a shouting match and the barfly is still going strong. She orders another round on the clod while eying the door and checking the time on her cellphone.
Speaking of doors, the one to the left of the Hampton Lounge has a sign that says: Psychic Readings, Tarot Cards and Palms Read — Second Floor.
Let me tell you why that is a problem.
Two weeks ago, after finalizing the divorce from the wench, I purchased a condo on the third floor of the Stewart Building, the same building that houses the Hampton. My entrance, the one that leads to the condominiums on the third and fourth floors, is shared with the second floor palm reading service. Having a palm reading sign on the front door is a little tawdry, I admit, but the price was irresistible. Sixty thousand below market.
The problem is, every once in a while an intoxicated couple will come knocking in the late night hours looking to have their fortunes told. The last time it happened was two nights ago. He was in his thirties, over-weight in an expensive suit. She was in her twenties, a red haired bombshell with breast implants and a cheap handbag.
I was tempted to invite them in, sit them down and foretell great misery in their future, at least in his. The woman would bear him no children. She would tolerate him for a few years and then kick him to the curb minus half of everything he owned. I didn’t need to read his palm. I could see it in her eyes.
“One floor down,” I barked, and slammed the door.
I’ve taken to eating dinner at the Hampton every night because I can’t stand eating upstairs alone, but hadn’t counted on running into the bear, who is droning on and on about the old days.
“Bee Bop Alley, that was the spot. You really earned your bones there, Rico.”
The Bop is a blues bar on the Strip. I haven’t been there in ten years, since before I got married, but back in those wild days there wasn’t a weekend went by that I didn’t at least put in an appearance. The bottom floor was live blues, the upper two floors always crammed with intoxicated females and the young men pursuing them.
The Bop was a goldmine. Probably still is.
“Remember that time,” the bear holds a furry finger in the air, “you met that Peruvian chica with the muscle-bound boyfriend? Challenged him to a shots contest? Got him so drunk he passed out and then started making out with his girl?” The bear is full-out laughing, slapping a paw on the bar. “Tell you what, man. I’d pay honey to see that again!”
I’m smiling myself. The boyfriend was all flash and gold chains, a machismo idiot that had no business with a woman like that. She was olive skinned with high cheekbones and a dynamite body in a low cut dress. Not tacky though, nothing sleazy. I can still remember the taste of her lipstick and the sight of the idiot face-down on the bar drooling. I had already been three-sheets when they walked in, but the lightweight had been no match for me.
What the bear leaves out is that was the night I got stopped for DUI. They locked me up overnight and took my license for six months.
“Or the time that ditzy red haired broad, the actress. What wuz her name?”
I chuckle, but don’t look up. I know just the woman it’s talking about. Terry something.
“Don’t tell me, don’t tell me . . . Had that gawwwwd awful New York accent. Dumb as a block of cheese. You got her ripped, then convinced her you were Brad Pitt’s agent.”
I nod my head, grinning at the memory of that, or at least what I can remember. Mostly it’s a blur.
“Next morning she was beggin’ ya to introduce her to Brad. Beggin’ ya!”
“Or the Irish twins . . .” I whisper to myself.
“Don’t remind me!” The bear is bent over, holding his bulging stomach with one paw and hanging on to the bar with the other. “They wuz so drunk they agreed to met ya back at their place with your twin brother. Your twin,” he cackles, through guffs of laughter. “How ya pulled it off once ya got there alone, I’ll never know.”
I’m smiling so hard it hurts, but the bear doesn’t let up. It launches into an inventory of my most treasured memories. Like the time Dave Bruno and I were on a double date with those roommates from Georgetown. What a pair. After ordering lobster they both let on that they were born again Christians and looking for meaningful relationships. Dave and I started ordering doubles, got sloppy drunk and ditched them both before dessert. Stuck them with the bill and finished the evening hooking up with two Canadian tourists.
Sisters again, if memory serves.
And the time — I haven’t thought about this in years — that Allison Sedgwick and I got blasted on the second floor of the Rhumba, didn’t realize that the place had closed and ended up locked in there all night with nothing to do but drink and what comes natural. It would have been a perfect evening if she hadn’t tripped the silent alarm behind the bar, or if we hadn’t been buck naked on the floor when the cops showed up. I did three days on that one. Turned out my DUI probation had a condition that I not drink.
The bear goes on for an hour about Amy Sheldon, Stella Cohn and Veronica Jones, about that little incident at Dusk Till Dawn when I got booted for hopping on stage and trying to make out with the lead singer, about Sharon Phillips, Dusty Allen — she was a real piece of work, that one — and Sue what’s-her-name, that wild chick from The Bop who ended up being my boss’s daughter.
It all sounds pretty exciting if you leave out the agonizing mornings and nights in the drunk tank. You’d have to leave out a bunch of stuff, actually. Losing three jobs. Smashing two cars. Years spent nursing a hangover like a monkey on my back.
Or a bear.
You’d definitely have to leave out the chronic depression. The night of my bachelor party I ended up on the Key Bridge. Tanked. Blasted clear out of my mind. God’s own drunk and a fearless man. I was standing on the rail, teetering back and forth over the edge singing, “Eenie meanie miney moe . . .”
Lucky me, that last moe was bridge side.
Getting married put an end to all that. Ten years of going to bed early. Endless nights in front of the television. Weekends spent puttering in the garage instead of frolicking in the nightclubs. It was a safe environment, but a prison of sorts.
I can’t honestly say I miss it.
The Hampton is winding down. The regulars have drunk themselves quiet, the angry couple are well into the I’m-not-speaking-to-you phase, and the barfly? No surprise there. As soon as the clod makes for the bathroom the little tart makes her play for the door.
Just as I’m getting ready to leave, this thirty-something woman walks in and takes the barfly’s empty stool. She has long legs, a pretty face, wavy blond hair, not natural, but nice. A recent divorcee I suspect, judging from the circular discoloration on her ring finger.
Sal puts a shot of Jack down in front of her and then starts pouring her a Yuengling from the tap. She knocks back the Jack before he’s done carding the foam off her mug.
“There you go, sport.” The bear leans in, so close I can smell the hops on his breath. “Just your type. A-number one, primo real estate. All you need is a shot of confidence. Come on, boss man. Lemme see some of that old-time charm.”
“Keep the change,” I tell Sal, throwing a twenty down on a fourteen-dollar tab.
I must be smiling, because Sal smiles back. “Something funny?” he asks, confused.
“Not a thing. See you later.”
“Very good, Mr. Wellington. Tomorrow evening, then?”
“Yeah, you’ll be back,” the bear declares, a sly snarl curling its lip as it turns and watches me head for the door.
Bio : Mike Madden, a criminal defense attorney in Washington, DC and a writer of tawdry pulp fiction, has been published in Every Day Fiction and the Baltimore Sun.