My brother had the big idea to make and sell “Free Jones Hand” t-shirts. Jones Hand was a guy I went to high school with. He sat behind me in an advanced algebra class. We weren’t friends, exactly, but we talked a lot. He signed me yearbook. “To a pal. Keep in touch,” he wrote. I think I only asked him to sign it because he asked me to sign his, and I didn’t want to seem like a dick. I remember thinking that Jones was a good enough guy, even if he did reek of booze most mornings.
A few years later, Jones had a psychotic break and attacked his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor with a hatchet. Jones cracked the poor guy’s head open.
When the news hit my hometown, most people acted stunned. I told them, “I blame the parents. Of course your kid’s gonna be a drug addict if you give him ‘Jones’ for a first name.” I rarely got a laugh when I said that.
My sister was shaken up by it all. She was friends with Charles Hand, Jones’s younger brother. Charles was rightfully torn up about all this. In fact, no one thought my brother’s idea about a “Free Jones Hand” t-shirt was funny. People responded to him with that long, slow, scolding “dude.” As in, “Duuuude. Not funny.”
I thought it was funny. I wanted one of those t-shirts.
I still kinda want one.
I don’t even remember Ramon’s real name. He’d been in a high school Spanish class with my brother. Ramon was his Spanish class name. He was a suburban White kid like the rest of us. He worked at the Cinnabun in the mall. In those days, it wasn’t uncommon for my brother, my friends, and me to get a big soda at the mall, spike it with whiskey, and get drunk on the mall benches. This led to a lot of heckling. Ramon was often on the receiving end of this heckling. Nothing malicious. Just longwinded hoots of “Ramooooon” when he walked by.
Ramon was a tall, fat, sad guy. He’d shake off the heckles with a wave of his hand.
Our ability to heckle Ramon ended when Ramon killed a hooker under the 520 bridge. A buddy of his helped Ramon dispose of the hooker’s body. They both got caught.
Wendy was part of the whole crew I ran with back then. She was a sweet girl. There’s no other way to put it. She dated my brother for a while. Even my brother would say, “She’s too nice of a girl to date a guy like me.” They broke up after a couple of months. I don’t remember why. It wasn’t hostile or anything. Everyone remained friends. She was still part of the crew.
Wendy had a thing about birthdays. She always remembered people’s birthdays. On my twenty-third birthday, everyone forgot. My parents forgot to call. I worked all day with my brother. He forgot. No one at work remembered. My roommates didn’t remember. That night, we all went out drinking. Not to celebrate my birthday. Just because we drank every night. I ran into Wendy that night. She said, “Happy birthday.” She bought me a beer.
When Brian Zettle turned twenty-one, we all went out to celebrate. Since he actually didn’t turn twenty-one until midnight, we started the night at the restaurant where Wendy worked. Wendy brought us our first pitcher of beer and said to Brian, “You turn twenty-one tomorrow, don’t you?” Brian nodded. Wendy said, “Happy birthday.” She served us several pitchers before the ten o’clock closing time.
We all ended up at Spanky’s Pub. Wendy included. I drank a lot. Threw darts. Talked smack. Played songs on the jukebox. We all did. At midnight, Brian wanted to get his first legal drink at the strip club around the corner. I remember inviting Wendy to go with us, just to be polite. Very politely, Wendy said, “No thanks.” She was hanging out with a dude. For the life of me, I can’t remember what he looked like. Wendy introduced me to him. I shook his hand.
Later that night, after the rest of us had closed the strip club and stumbled drunkenly home, Wendy’s dude took the same hand that he’d used to shake my hand, wrapped it around Wendy’s neck, and strangled her.
Now, I think about Wendy every time I have a birthday.
Bart Staeger was one of my brother’s roommates in college. He got in a fight with a guy named Steve Austin—I’m not kidding about the name; it’s real—outside a bar in Orlando. Steve Austin punched Bart. Bart kicked Steve. Steve fell on the curb, cut open his head, and, because he was a hemophiliac, he bled to death. Orlando doctors did not have the technology. They could not rebuild him.
Bart’s one kick was renamed manslaughter and he was sentenced to five years in a maximum security prison. I heard he made parole in his third year.
John Cox trained me when I started at the Groundhog Tavern. He showed me around a lot during my first days in Atlanta. He introduced me to a couple of other servers who would become lifelong friends of mine.
Back in those days, he dated this beautiful girl, Nikki. Nikki was pregnant with John’s baby. They were keeping the baby and would get married one day. In the meantime, John spent a good bit of time cheating on Nikki. Sometimes, he’d take his dates to the Groundhog. For some reason, he always sat in my section on these dates. I felt a little like I was cheating on Nikki when I served them.
I worked with John for a long time. I quit the Groundhog, moved to Arizona, moved back to Atlanta, worked with John again at the Groundhog. By this time, he was tending bar there. I never really drank at John’s bar, but a lot of hours of my life have been spent drinking with John.
The last time I saw him, a few years later, John had this huge abscessed tooth. It looked like he was smuggling a tangerine in his cheek. We played darts, did some shots, talked about old times. I’d like to say it was good to see John that night. Usually, it was good to see John. On this night, it wasn’t. John was all coked out and aggressive. I even let him win a game of darts, just to calm him down a bit.
I worried a little about Nikki and John’s five-year-old daughter.
At the end of the night, I told John, “Man, you gotta take care of that tooth. If that shit bursts inside your mouth and you swallow the poison, it’s gonna kill you.”
I don’t know if that’s true about an abscessed tooth. I wasn’t talking about the tooth, anyway.
A couple of years later, back in Atlanta, hanging out with one of those lifelong friends John had introduced me to, talking about all the old crew, I asked her about John Cox. Her eyes got big. “You haven’t heard?” she said. I shook my head. “Nikki was cheating on him and he couldn’t take it. He came home one night, shot her and shot himself.”
I couldn’t believe it. “They’re both dead?”
“No. He killed Nikki, but when he shot himself, it didn’t kill him. He’s paralyzed.”
“So he’s in prison now? Paralyzed?”
My friend nodded, big-eyed and sad.
“And the little girl?”
“Living with Nikki’s mom.”
Tom Schwering was a shop teacher at my high school. One summer, I worked on a carpentry crew with him. The guy was kind of a hero to me. He was always giving me advice about dating girls, and the thing was, his advice actually worked. The year after I graduated high school, Schwering got shot in a botched coke deal. He survived. He lost his job at the high school, though, and moved back to his hometown in upstate New York. Rumor has it that he got shot in another coke deal in New York, and that time, he didn’t survive.
And so on.
I was tending bar at the Phoenix Brew Pub one night. At closing time, only three people sat at the bar: my manager, Glenn the brewer, and a guy named Kevin, who used to be my manager at the Groundhog. Since Glenn was part owner and everyone else outranked me, I let them help themselves to drinks while I did all the work of closing down. I hosed down the floor, dragged the bar mats into the kitchen, emptied the trash, wiped the bottles and the bar, counted out the bank and the tips, and everything else. Glenn, Kevin, and my manager kept drinking and chatting through it all. When I was done, I poured myself a beer and suggested darts.
We played several games, all with little wagers. Kevin won the majority of games and I won everything he didn’t. Glenn lost them all.
I should have noticed that Glenn was a sore loser. I should not have started teasing Glenn about the little man purse that he always carried around. And I absolutely should not have let the manager pull the bottle of Jagermeister out of the cooler.
Two shots of Jager, one more game of darts that I won and Glenn lost, and five or six more man purse jokes later, Glenn showed me what he carried in his man purse: a .45 millimeter pistol. A Glock. Glenn showed it to my by pointing it at my head. “Do you know what this is?” he asked.
“Put the fucking gun down, Glenn,” I said.
Glenn tried to make some kind of point. I have no idea what that point was. I didn’t even listen. I thought about all the lines of coke that Glenn and Kevin had inhaled off my freshly-wiped bar. I remembered someone telling me that Glocks don’t have a safety. I answered everything Glenn said by saying, “Put the fucking gun down, Glenn.” My manager and Kevin joined me in the chorus. Glenn kept talking. I kept looking down the barrel. I thought about Wendy and Ramon and Bart and Schwering and Jones Hand. I didn’t think about John Cox and Nikki because they were both still alive and walking at this point. Had they not been, I may have thought about them, too. Mostly, I thought about me and said, “Put the fucking gun down, Glenn.”
Finally, he put the fucking gun down.
I didn’t finish my beer or say a word or even pick up my jacket off the bar stool. I walked straight out the door.
Author’s note: This is the fourth chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote. It originally ran in Razorcake #37. For more information about the collection, read this post.