Do I want to hear a drinking joke? Do I seem like the type who would answer that question? A guy walks into a bar, and so what? Maybe he nods at the regular who keeps to the corner or eyes the ragged blonde grabbing a smoke from a guy whose paunch prevents him from seeing the floor at his feet. Then he raises a glass and knocks back another and disappointment moves offshore with a woozy throttle. One look at the spirits lining the counter and he can kiss goodbye the crap that follows him home from work and the carping that begins at the door of his two-bed, two-bath castle.
Bar time runs fast, not slow. I didn’t figure this out until late in the game, though I first stumbled across the idea when drinking meant tearing the paper off the straw that came with the milk on my lunch tray. Each day before I shot the contents of my carton at a forehead or spattered liquid across the floor, I read the capital letters printed on the paper: “WALK DON’T RUN.” In elementary school I made the most of this unpunctuated sentence, scrunching the paper up accordion-like until the letters overlapped like the sedimentary rock layers in a forgotten geology lesson and which with one drop of milk I changed from a caterpillar into a moist, moving snake. Physics came into the picture too, though I couldn’t have explained the fluid mechanics that allowed me to suck up some of the cloudy liquid hovering inside the transparent conveyor like a bubble in a level. But I released my finger just the same and the milk ran across the gray meat on my neighbor’s plate and pooled around his sodden string beans, making the inedible grosser in the kind of overkill you get in the movies. Remember when Bonnie and Clyde get flushed from life after C. W. Moss betrays them? The bullets spray the car and their corpses with the sound of a hard rain clattering down a drain pipe. Only then do the cops crawl out, cautious after all their false starts and fuckups.
WALK DON’T RUN: a joke short enough for the smallest miscreant, a fortune cookie whose fortune never changes. I disregarded that ominous imperative a thousand times while I separated the straw’s skin from its bone until the afternoon when, sprinting between classes at the high school—late but running for the joy of flight—I smacked into the principal, a bald-headed overseer as creepy as any ghoul in a Wes Craven movie. “Walk, don’t run,” the grim man warned without breaking stride.
His words were the ones I had crumpled and stretched through the desert of days of my school life, his sentence the same I had tried to destroy but whose meaning remained intact as I skipped from primary school to junior high toward that day in my ninth-grade year when I heard the admonishment issue in monotone from his unsmiling mouth as if the letters themselves had assembled to command me to WALK DON’T RUN: the very phrase I hated as a boy, but which as I speak this other sentence in my fifty-second year at a counter three thousand miles away from the school desks scarred with hearts and initials and obscenities with their own illustrations really was for my own good; since, whether you walk or run or skip or limp or trot or march into the bar, you need to drag out that drink and savor the sweetness that burns as it crawls down the back of your throat, because the moment will come when the bartender points to the illuminated clock above the flat screens and the three Cutty Sarks you added to just the one Heineken change 11:30 into 1:50 and you hear “hurry up please it’s time”—at which point the flat screens will stop flickering and the Tanqueray fumes will cease rising and the banter of voices elbowing one another into a brawl will be silent and the three Fates assembled today as the fifty-something woman with a run inching up her pantyhose and the man with the too-solid flesh and the regular hunched with mournful grace over his glass will turn to you as you sit half-drunk with your drink half drunk and will nod in fellowship and you will look up to where your reflected hand looms largely across the rounded glass dome of the clock and with a flick! the bar and the people and the Jim Beam in front of you will flare, gutter, and go dark.
Anne Goldman’s recent publications include “The Kingdom of the Medusae” (forthcoming in the Southwest Review) as well as “Travels with Jane Eyre” (The Georgia Review)–named a “notable” in Best American Essays 2015 and Best American Travel Writing 2015–and “Souvenirs of Stone” (Southwest Review), a notable in Best American Essays 2014. She teaches at Sonoma State University and is at work on a novel.