He lost faith with the bars in Hollywood. No. It was not a matter of faith, certainly not loyalty. He had always been there for them. The bars had turned against him. One by one, the dark, refrigerated rooms had closed, or, worse, gone through a grotesque sort of sex change and come out the other side all water-wall and lucite and light the color of jellybeans. Effeminate places, impossible to drink in without sacrificing your manhood.
There was a time a man could get a great deal of serious drinking done on Hollywood Boulevard between Highland and Vine. Darkness and the memory of cigarettes waited for him on Las Palmas and Cherokee, on Whitley and Wilcox and Ivar. Places steeped in the fellowship of solitary drinking. Where afternoons would dependably melt into evenings spent looking into a rocks glass filled with the glistening amber promise of properly poured straight whiskeys. A glass of water at a discreet distance on the thickly varnished bar.
There was a time you could get a double for a buck and a quarter. He thought he remembered paying that once. Mostly he remembers paying three dollars. Then three-fifty. By the time the bars in Hollywood abandoned him, he was not buying individual drinks, but putting down a twenty and being told when more money was needed.
Nothing was like the cold of an air conditioned Hollywood bar in the dead of August. Nothing. No forest could compare for peace. No cathedral could bring you closer to God.
To drink. To sit and drink. To feel sensation withdraw and rest, falling away from the fingertips and ears. To watch the quality of the light sharpen at the points of reflection, bouncing back from the sides of glasses, the slick surfaces of ice cubes, the red corners of women’s lips. Lips moist from drinking. Wonderful red lips.
All the women had red lips then, and were once as plentiful as the bars off Hollywood. Red lips and confectionary hair. Black cocktail dresses. Cocktail dresses. Dresses meant to be worn while drinking. Satin. Velvet. Swooping around and holding aloft incomparable bosoms.
Past Vine to Argyle and El Centro. All gone. The bars and the bosoms. Now, it was all waist deep in irony and hipness. Now, the streets were thick with young pretenders, mistaking this Hollywood for the real thing. Like walking down Main Street at Disneyland and thinking you were in a real town.
So he had ventured into the Valley and found it was where Hollywood had gone to die wrapped in what dignity it managed to drag through the Cahuenga Pass. There are dark bars there, but they are spread out, unconnected. Like last outposts of something. Somebody’s lost cause. You can’t move from one to the other, like you could in Hollywood. The bars are just too far apart. You have to make a commitment and settle in for the night with the same bartender. Aren’t any good bartenders left either.
You have to depend on the whiskey in the rocks glass. A real rocks glass. Short and heavy, thick based. You can feel the flat sides in your hand. You can match the edges where the sides meet to the underside of your knuckles. You can own the glass. Guard it through the night.
And trust the whiskey. Trust the whiskey to do the job it’s always done. Dependable, certain, unwavering in the comfort it brings.
The first one is the first one. It is the sophisticated one. The one that is sipped. It is not sweet. It is adult. It prepares the way.
The second is like the first, but different. You know that because the warmth has begun and the ice in the second sounds different from the ice in the first. Closer, clearer, sharper. Like your vision, like the way the world becomes focused and the unimportant things retreat into darkness.
The third continues where the second left off. The second has taken care of the light, now the third will take care of the clock. Time will be addressed and defeated. By then you have put the second twenty down on the bar and matters proceed as they were meant to proceed.
You can hear your breathing above the muffled sound of the others in the bar. There are not many now. Fewer people. They keep their distance. They have their own glasses.
Your glass is on the bar in front of you. It is full. It has never been empty. It is amber. It glows. You hold on to it as you feel the whiskey move along your spine and into your loins like that kiss. Like that one kiss.
He remembers buying drinks for a girl in a black dress. Looking at her, feeling the heat rising from her breasts. The thin icing of sweat across her remarkable breasts. He remembers the confidence he felt knowing she was as drunk as he was, so they both knew what to expect. All will be well.
He leaves money on the bar. Too much money, she tells him, and takes back a ten spot and folds it, crumples it in her hand, like a magician doing a trick. She’ll make that ten spot disappear. He puts his arm around her, his hand on her hip, and they walk through the darkness to the door. He feels her heat through the dress. Right through her dress.
Outside it is February or November or March and there has been rain. There is rain. Mist. They start up Cherokee, to his car. His car is up on Cherokee, near Yucca. Up the hill, just below Yucca.
Behind them he can hear the cars on the wet boulevard, making that sound, that sound sort of like cymbals, like somebody telling you to be quiet. The noise of the cars on the street falls away and there’s just the sound of her heels on the sidewalk and her breathing through her parted lips. Taking in cold air and mist and maybe starting to sober up a little. No problem. He has a flask in the glove compartment.
In the car he reaches past her to get to the glove compartment. Not for her, but for him. She leans into him and bites his ear. She is still drunk. He is grateful.
He drinks from the flask, she drinks from the flask, then he kisses her in the dark car. The car is parked looking down the hill, down toward Hollywood Boulevard and all those bars that aren’t there anymore.
He smears her lipstick with his mouth. She puts her hand on him and sighs, surprised, or relieved, to find him hard.
He reaches for his glass in a bar on Riverside Drive in Burbank and slides his hand up under her tight black dress.
Outside the mist holds the light in the air.
Joseph Dougherty is a writer living in California.