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On Being A Distraction
“Where can we sit?” I asked Jules, the bartender who wished she wasn’t a bartender.
“Sit anywhere you like.”
A man with few teeth looked up from his phone. “Ask if you can sit on her face!” he yelled.
Jules whipped around — “SHUT THE FUCK UP, FRANK!”
My buddies and I picked out a table nearby. We didn’t fit in. The bar was filled with other drunk Franks, while my buddies and I were six frail tech losers from New York who all looked Jewish or Jewish-adjacent.
We come to Sarasota every year. The beaches are pretty, but we rarely go out to the bars at night because the scene is always a bit...I guess the word that feels right is…beaten. A combination of too much meth plus the fact that Sarasota is famous for being our nation’s headquarters for the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey circuses.
Last year, we met a different sad bartender.
“My father was trampled by one of the horses my mother and I were training,” she said, “and then a month later, my mother fell from the trapeze and is now paralyzed.”
But that was last year.
This year, an ambulance pulled up to the bar next door. Two tables away from us, a man put down his drink and stood up as if he had something to say. I thought he was maybe concerned about the ambulance. Maybe he thought someone had been hurt.
“WAAAMBULANCE,” he yelled. “LOOKS LIKE SOMEONE CALLED THE WAAAAMBULANCE.” He wore a black shirt that read ‘John’s Bikes. Ask Me For A Ride,’ and he was doing the thing that aggressive people do when they’re fishing for attention — you know, when they look around a crowd while yelling, hoping to catch someone’s eye to avoid having to sit with how they feel and where they’ve been and who they are. When they’re searching for any kind of distraction.
My friends and I were easy targets.
He approached our group, and as he did so, four of my friends looked away. But not Jake. And not me.
“WAAMBULANCE,” the man continued. “WAAAAMBULANCE. WAAA WAAA WAAA.” He did it three more times, each successive call implying an additional level of instability.
My friend Jake laughed. “Ha! I’ve never heard of that before. That’s hilarious,” he said to the yelling man.
Jake was born and raised in Manhattan and prided himself on being unphased by the unhinged. The man reminded me of my father, so I, too, was unafraid.
“You’ve never heard that before?” the man asked. “Everyone knows waambulance! Do you know waambulance?” He asked me.
“Yes. I know waambulance.”
“Waaaaambulance,” he said again, staring at me.
“There was a fight next door,” I said, holding his gaze. It’s important to maintain eye contact when someone is having a moment like this. That moment when you feel the feeling in your gut that tells you that this might not end well for you. The trick is not to look away. If you look away, they notice, and all your power is gone.
He dragged over a stool.
“Small bar fight and they called the waambulance?” the man on the stool mocked. “Psssssh.” Spit flew everywhere. COVID was lurking, but it was Florida, where COVID isn’t real. “Unless your nuts are in your nostrils, we don’t call no waambulance.”
“It was a pretty bad fight,” I said, taking a sip of my beer. “Two people were on the floor.”
He looked at me but then looked away quickly, as he moved past the topic at hand. My dad gets like this. Where he’s just using me as a distraction from himself. In those moments, you could swap me out with any warm body. Anyone at all.
“You see that bike over there?” said this man, who I later learned was named Doug Watkins.
Jake and I nodded.
“Bought her last week. Third one this month,” Doug said.
“Why so many?” Jake asked.
“My ex-wife is trying to take all my money. But December 17th,” Doug said, “that’s the day I’m gonna show up to court with nothing. I’m gonna walk in all homeless-looking,” he said, imitating a hobble. “Imma make HER look like the rich one.” He spoke with purpose. “Last time she got me good. At court, she was all crying to the judge. She looked terrible. She even had a beard. Fifteen years, I ain’t never seen her grow a beard. Must’ve stippled it on.”
Stipple: to mark a surface with dots or specks.
“She looked like a big manly lumberjack,” Doug said.
“Would that do it for you?” Jake asked me. A weak gay joke.
I shot Jake a glare — Doug didn’t seem like one who would be down with the gays. I redirected us back to Doug’s problems.
“You getting divorced?” I asked him.
“Yeah. After 15 years,” he said. “And then on Christmas, I find out that she’s been married to someone else this entire time!”
“Oh wow. I’m sorry,” I said. “That sucks.”
“That does suck,” Jake said, handing Doug two shots of rum. I wasn’t sure why Jake was doing this. It felt like he thought he was in a zoo and this was all fun to him. Jake smiled at me with a look of “this is gonna get good.”
“And so I confronted her,” Doug said, throwing back shot number one, “and then she had me committed!”
Jake’s demeanor changed. He took a half step back.
There’s always something special about the moment when you watch someone realize that they may be in over their head.
I stared directly at committed-Doug. “For how long?” I asked.
“Only a few days,” he said.
“You can just…have someone taken away?” I asked.
“Yeah. Any family member in Florida can have you committed. For no reason!” he said.
The Baker Act is a Florida law that enables families to provide up to 72 hours of detention for loved ones who are impaired if they display certain violent or suicidal signs of mental illness.
It’s not for ‘no reason.’
“Well, the first time, it wasn’t bad. But the second time was six months,” he said. “And that one was my step-daughter’s fault. That fucking bitch!” he yelled.
“You whining about Angela again?” shouted drunk Frank from down the bar.
“One of these days, I’m gonna kill ya, Frank. I swear to God,” Doug said, pointing his finger at him.
Jake was no longer asking questions, but he couldn’t leave because Doug might get offended. And now I didn’t want to leave because I was more curious than I was afraid.
“So, you and your step-daughter don’t like each other then?” I asked him.
“Hell no! And I paid for her college,” he said. “And then she had me committed!” he said again. “What a fucking bitch, right?”
“And she pretends to be a do-gooder,” he said.
Doug went on for a bit about how his step-daughter was an English major and how he thought he raised her well, but he didn’t raise her to be what she is now, which is again, a fucking bitch who,
“Runs around the country making sure that American livestock doesn’t get contaminated with livestock that isn’t American,” he said. “But what that really means…is that she walks onto farms and searches for Mexican chickens.”
“How does she know which chicken is Mexican?” I asked.
He didn’t answer this part, “And she walks out onto that farm. And she looks around at all the chickens. And if she sees a Mexican one, she turns to the farmer and she says, ‘Every chicken here must die.’” Doug took his second shot.
Then Doug laughed. And so I laughed. And so Jake laughed.
“How does she kill them?” I asked.
“Well, she doesn’t kill them — her men do,” he said, proud of this woman that he felt that, at one point, he actually had raised. “And. They use flamethrowers.”
I Googled livestock contamination “flamethrowers”. Nothing came up.
“But then she had me committed!” he said. “Did I tell you that?”
“Yes, Doug. Yes, you did.” I said.
“And I said to the guard, the second time I was committed, I said ‘I’d rather be dead, naked, and painted red white and blue in a Baghdad flea market than be here with you’.”
I was confused if he had been in an inpatient psychotherapy facility, or if he was now talking about jail, but I wasn’t sure how to ask.
“Were you in the army?” I said.
“Three tours,” he said.
“And…how was that? Was it…fun?” I asked.
“Fuck yes,” he said. And then he jumped up from his stool and pretended to be shooting a two-handed-machine gun, if that’s what those are called. He made the sounds and when he finished shooting, he smiled, again, proud. And then he laughed and so I laughed and so Jake laughed.
“How long were you stationed for?”
He took another sip of his drink and ignored my question.
“The Russians!” he said. “For a year, each fucking day I’d put my on my pants and I’d walk right up to that line,” I assume he was talking about the Cold War, “and I’d look a Russian straight in the eye,” Doug was inches away from my face at this point, so I assumed that I was the imagined Russian, “and I’d say with my gun, right next to his fucking nose, are you gonna fucking kill me today? Or am I gonna kill you? Cuz I’ll fucking do it!”
And I held Doug’s eye contact because this didn’t seem like a good time to leave him in that. Not that I’m caring or something close to it, it just didn’t feel like a good moment to give him more than he was already taking.
“And then,” Doug said softly. “And then,” he repeated even quieter.
Doug’s smile faded, and he looked away from me and down at his drink for a moment. And when he looked back up, he didn’t look at Jake or me but instead stared off, far into the distance. And his left hand gripped the table. And his teeth clenched. And he just stared far far away, at nothing — he had on the face of a man who was short-circuiting. Jumping back and forth between fear and regret and grief. As if he remembered something he didn’t want to think about, but knew that he always would.
I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to pull him out of it. Maybe, say his name. Or ask him a question about Harley-Davidsons, if that’s what bikers talk about. Or maybe say something like thank you for being the person who gave up your life and your sanity so that I could preserve mine. For walking down the path where you now stress about probably having murdered for the sake of some greater good that seems to have fucked you over, so that I’m allowed to stress about a boy who doesn’t like me back or about how my flannel pillowcases from Prime won’t arrive for an extra day.
For ten long seconds, Doug just stared.
Jake didn’t like this part. Probably found it boring, or maybe too real. He walked away to the other side of the table and joined the others.
I was getting ready to put my hand on Doug’s shoulder. To seem supportive. But as I began to lift my hand, a drunk voice behind yelled.
“Doug! You done flirting with those pansies over there?” Frank said.
Doug whipped around. “Fuck you, Frank!” Doug said. “Two shots, sugartits!” he said to Jules, who still hated her job.
And then Doug Watkins stood up from the stool and walked to the bar in pursuit of a new distraction, as if I had never been there at all.