Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Robert Johnson 3: Happy Birthday

It was the night of my 24th birthday, in the spring of 1996. Truth be told, the whole week was turning out to be a bummer--first, I was broke; second, it was the one year anniversary of the Murrah bombing, so there wasn't anything good on television (that's a joke, people). Truth be told, I was feeling pretty down--perhaps it was the advent of another season of madness here at work: the end of days I got off before the liquor stores closed. Maybe I'm bipolar. I don't know, but I was pretty lonely--that kind of lonely I try to avoid nowadays, the "I'm lonely because no one understands me" lonely.

Spring had sprung, in other words, and I wasn't very happy about it. I'd left my liter of whiskey in the car, because it was just askin' for trouble to take it over to the Royal--but over to the Royal I went, for my two quarts of beer and a can of Dinty Moore beef stew (comfort food, if you must know). It was dark, around 9:30.

I was about halfway back across the Royal with my beers and my stew when I heard a voice: "hey! hey, cuz! happy birfday!" It was, of all people, Sammy. He was hookin' it across 23rd street as fast as he could with his gimp leg, and I stopped to wait on him. I was pretty fucking broke, but hey, the guy had pegged my birthday, right?

When he got closer, and got some of his wind back, I said "hey, Sammy, how'd you know today's my birthday?" He gave me this look that was half sly and half confused, grabbed me by the elbow, and started dragging me around the dumpster, away from the visible parking lot. His leg was hurting him, I could see, so I didn't mind that--especially since Nam Dude and Big Chief weren't anywhere in sight. Once we were out of sight, he turned to me and said "what the fuck you talkin' bout, YOUR birfday? It's MY birfday! I'm forty seven years old today!"

Wow. What are the odds? But he was still talking: "Man, look. I need five dollars to get into the Jesus House [a local transient hotel, for lack of a better term, that I don't believe makes you pay to get into]. Can you help a brotha out?"

I gave him what I had in my pockets, which amounted to about 20 cents, and started walking back out into the parking lot, talking to him about birthdays. He wouldn't follow me. "You see dat motherfucker over there 'cross the street? In the green Suburban?" Sure enough, there sat a metallic green Suburban...

"I was running my game on him, an' he said, Sammy, it's yo birfday? Here, have a drink. Well, hell, I know better than to drink somethin' that's already open, so I kinda made like I was drinkin' it, an' clocked how he was watchin' me. An' sure enough, he looked me right in the eye, and said 'Sammy, you like to fuck white wimmin?'"

This began to sound like a good story, so I started paying attention.

"An' I said awww, shit--I know how that always goes. Ever' time, ever time I get in there and start fuckin' some old white guy's wife, and he wants to go and stick his finger in my butt, or worse. I know better than that. So I says to him, hey, I'll be right back. That's my cousin over there." And pointed at me.

Now, I'm about as non-black as they come, but I guess it was dark, and Green Explorer Dude probably knew a "no" when he heard it, because when I looked up he was gone. But while I stood there with Sammy, in the dark, I really began to feel like my life was pretty good (which it was, and in fact still is)--despite my utter loneliness, I had a place to live, a shower, and a stable job. And hell, two quarts of beer that were slowly sweating their way through the thin paper bag.

I felt a little sorry for Sammy. And I couldn't help but feel like us having the same "birfday" was too weird of a coincidence to let it go with a "stay away from open beers and green Explorers, Sammy." Fate's as good an excuse to get in trouble as any, I think...

So I said "Sammy, I want you to come back in here. You got to promise me that you won't come back in here when I'm not here, OK? You're only getting back here because it's our birthday, and I've got a present for you." He concurred, and in a few minutes we were sitting in the garage, leaning back against my car, listening to the radio. I had retrieved the half bottle of bourbon from my kitchen counter, and I thought he was going to cry when he saw the label.

Now, Weller's isn't anything special. I like it mainly because it's good, without being outrageously expensive or harsh on the palate. It's good whiskey without anything that really separates it from the crowd. Jack Daniel's, for instance, you either love or you hate. It's got a flavor all its own, and if you don't dig that bite, you just stay the hell away from it. Same with Jim Beam, I guess, although Jimmy never treated me as good. Could be something to do with how we drank it, I guess, but something about the flavor of that stuff just puts me off kilter. No, Weller was in my price range (somewhere around $15 bucks a liter, back then), mellow, and easy on the throat.

But compare it to Kentucky Deluxe, for instance, and it's a most wonderful elixir. It's liquid sunshine, bubba, and after a slug or two the night doesn't seem as dark or as lonely.

So we sat there, in the dark, swapping stories and trading the bottle back and forth. We talked a little about my ex-girlfriend, and that "mean red headed bitch she live wit." And when we were done with that, he began to tell me his story.


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