I put down my guitar and as I turn around "Sex Machine" comes on. You've got to be fucking kidding me.
Michelle and I dance at each other and sing along with James Brown while she pours the drinks. A couple down the bar laughs at us and nods their heads. Before I can grab my drink, Michelle comes from behind the bar to walk it over to the pool table. She treats us well. We don't pay for many drinks.
The three strangers are all from Uganda. David and Kameesha are a young couple, smartly dressed and charismatic and full of joy. With them is Godfried, an older, portly man in a mesh shirt. He, as well, is charismatic and doles out shot advice to Spring every time she sets up. They all celebrate each other's shots and give pointers freely. Competition is alive, but so is goodwill. There are few rules.
I sit back and take it in. David is a lanky and young, with a crisp long-sleeved shirt buttoned and tucked into his jeans (and a studded belt? You GO, African prince!). He plays with intense enthusiasm--he celebrates loudly and explosively, and when he misses he curls up his fist in amused frustration. He disposes of Godfriend and points his finger at me, a huge smile on his face.
I start out on a good streak but go cold fast. By the end of it I'm trying to fight back, but he's beating me by four balls. Luckily, he's a young man and he makes dumb mental errors all over the place (at one point taking his eye off the ball and glancing off the side of the cue, wasting a shot).
He's chasing the 9 and I've still got two balls on the table. I square up to face one of them--a long shot all the way at the other end. It's in the middle of the bumper. The angle's off on that end, so my only hope is to bank it for an extremely long shot running the length of the table and back again into the far corner pocket.
Godfriend cheers me on. "If you beat David you are a HERO!"
WHAM! I don't know how but I nail it. Everybody but David celebrates.
WHAM! I hit the exact same shot from the other end of the table.
WHAM! 8 ball, corner pocket.
David is still smiling when we shake hands. Good game, no hard feelings.
Spring and I rack up and the three Ugandans remain by the table to watch us play and heckle. We finish and turn the table over to them. We notice that Kameesha is drinking straight Jameson, but she's giggling like she's drinking coconut rum.
Spring and I take a seat at the bar and talk to Michelle. We overheard something troubling and want to make sure she's OK.
She unloads on us. Things are not good right now. She's being kicked out of her apartment. She will sleep in the bar tonight.
I don't notice until then that Michelle is incredibly drunk. She lines up three shots of whiskey. "To people who fucked with our lives today!" She takes hers and lurches over towards the garbage can. OK. Just grabbing a beer bottle. OK.
I go back to the table and talk to Godfried for a few minutes. Somehow the conversation about the neighborhood turns to the bombings in London.
"You know there was revolution in my country?"
"And it was violent. And now, in my country, there is no terrorism."
"You know what they do, my country? When there is bombing, they round up every Muslim they can find. And then they find the head of the mosques and they pick out the ones that are good Muslims. And this is how they find the terrorists."
"Really?" I don't know what to make of this.
"Ever since they do this, there is no terrorism in my country."
I'm too drunk to bandie this around in my head properly. I'm reminded of a Patriot Act critic who said, basically, "Of course these things make it easier to hunt terrorists. It was also easy to hunt terrorists in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia and under any dictator. But is that what we want to become?"
I wonder at the effectiveness of it. Godfried seems happy.
But also, he is in Harlem.
The Ugandans take our numbers and leave. We'll be seeing them again soon enough.
We're the only ones left in the bar with Michelle. She's staggering back and forth, singing along with Janis and occassionally beating the bar for emphasis.
She puts on her INXS DVD ("Live Baby Live"), which we'd all watched together on Monday night while repeatedly eulogizing Michael Hutchence. She turns off the juke for a second, watches half of a song, and turns the juke back on. Spring and I finish our last game of pool (which Spring wins with a killer 8 ball shot).
"We should get her to put on the INXS video," I whisper to Spring.
"No! It'll make me sad."
"But it'll make Michelle happy. C'mon."
We request "New Sensation." She obliges happily.
She's singing along with her eyes closed. She turns her attention to Spring, tells her over and over again how beautiful she is. She says nothing else for a while. After a few of these she tells me again and again, behind her boozy smile, "You've really got a beautiful girlfriend."
Spring looks like she doesn't quite know what to do with this. She doesn't handle it well when people fawn on her in this fashion. She just smiles and says, "Thank you." Michelle repeats her sentiment, to me and to Spring, again and again and again.
Finally, a group kicks in the door and greets Michelle noisily. She moves to their end of the bar, yelping and laughing while Spring and I trade stories about working in the mall.
Michelle comes back with another round of beer and whiskey. She takes a shot with me and chats up the two off-duty cops who've wandered in.
Before I realize it the female cop is at the bathroom door checking on Michelle. "You OK in there?" She emerges smiling, goes back to her post, and announces to everyone, "Hey, I just lost my guts!"
Things are heating up. A few more people amble in and they're louder and more raucous. I'm ready to go, as is Spring. We don't know how much to give Michelle (and neither does Michelle, we imagine) so we just throw a pile of bills her way.
Spring excuses herself to the bathroom and I practice my pool shot. I watch as the crowd turns ugly, chanting, "Show Your Tits!" at Michelle. I do not watch. It's sad. I know where she is right now. It's sad to me.
My head is down when they explode. Well, ok.
I look up and Spring is behind the bar with Michelle. She's giving Michelle a hug, wishing her well.
We're off into the night. I can't help but worry. I'm like that. I hope she's OK.
We re-heat some mac and cheese and watch Raging Bull. When Jake gets fat we turn it off and go to bed. The cats all sit together and the floor is polished and clean. At least some tides are turning.