What’d They Call You That For?
by Jeffrey Paolano
“That your name?” asks the one the bartender welcomed with “Hey, Galucci, how you doin’?” Galucci swipes a handback across his foam-filled mustache after a satisfying guzzle from the frozen schooner and thrusts his midlife belly against the bar, rubbing with his marqued polo the ancient wood massaged to ruin by thousands of such bellies.
“Yep, that’s it,” says the other guy, taking a long drag on the unfiltered butt; the smoke drift curls and twirls in a chaotic dance until melding into the nicotine haze above the hanging naked bulbs. His eyes squint in the pungent ether, warping his rutted face, with cheeks indented under the third-day stubble, likening the hirsute fellow to the hardscrabble variant. A faded, frayed collar encircles the farmer’s burn a tinting the back of his neck.
The patrons sprinkled about engage in meaningless banal conversations with the occasional physical fracas, refereed by the barman. Then returning to their congregation in this backstreet dump adorned with ancient, imprinted tin block tiles spending numbing hours staring into stale beers, mesmerized by the bubble ascension. They sit splayed across the split seats, oblivious to the musty stuffing tufts.
“Christ, what the hell were they thinking?” Galucci raises the heavy schooner slowly and takes a long, loud slurp.
“Maybe it’s a family thing; you know, historical, somethin’ from the old country.” The guy’s gnarled, speckled hands, ribbed with blue veins, spin the small glass in slow rotation. He watches, rapt, as the bubbles float up slantwise. Leaning back slightly, he pulls a derelict boot off the brass rail.
“Didn’t give no thought to what it would be like to wear it through life,” suggests Galucci. “Somethin’ of a load, I’d say, more’n most can carry.”
“It’s alright, not that much trouble,” says the other guy, fingering the change on the bar, arranging it.
“What a hell of a family that must be,” Galucci says, rising slowly. He swaggers, affecting a street shuffle to the rear of the place, where the pool table awaits hustlers’ drama. The metallic music of his loafers clicks along the wooden floor, marking time as he passes two seniors playing buck euchre, their beer nursing ticked in measured hours.
Galucci, in passing the pool table, fingers the tear in the felt grass. “This has been torn for two weeks. You ever gonna get it fixed?”
The bartender, rag over a shoulder and racking glasses, just grunts.
Galucci kibitzes the two at the euchre table on his way back from the head. He reaches down, grabs a card. The man with the hand rips the cards away. “Fuck off.”
Galucci puts his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Yeah?”
The other guy flicks his knife. “Yeah.”
Galucci returns to his stool, nodding his head at the euchre players, mumbling beneath his breath.
* * *
Galucci and the other guy stare into the bar mirror.
“How’d you do at school? God, they must’ve always been on your ass.” Galucci turns his head to face his companion, as his sight carries out through the grimy window sporting a neon Pabst sign, lit up against what is now the advancing dusk.
“Fuck,” Galucci adds. “I been sitting in this dump all day. I got things I shoulda done. Just wasted the day.” He hangs his wagging head.
The other guy just says, “Ah, I was bigger’n most. Them who wouldn’t let go I was able to whop,” then raises his glass, downing what is left of the beer. He searches his pockets without positive result, apparently possessing no money beyond that thrown on the bar now drowned in drippings.
“Well, that’d help for sure. How ‘bout in the service? Those bastards must’ve ragged on ya for certain.” This time so little brew remains, Galucci can lift the schooner with one hand between bowl and base. He raises his hand to the bartender with a flippant motion.
“You know, in the service you get a new name. A nick name they call’s it. Nobody knew my real name,” says the other guy. “They always called you by your last name when they talked to you official.”
Galucci shrugs. “I don’t know. I wasn’t in.”
“Got somethin’ wrong with ya?” asks the guy. He returns to the slow revolution of the glass; it’s empty but he makes no move to order another.
Galucci just laughs. “No, I was lucky for sure. It’s a Fool’s errand to my mind.”
The guy looks Galucci full in the face. His gaze is forbidding, and there is the slightest tremble upon his lip, a vein running from the corner of his left eye up through his hairline rises and turns a grayish blue. He stands, climbs up out from the slouch, as his crinkled skin smooths, the lines at eyes and mouth corners fade, and his eyes take on a sparkle.
He steps back from the bar, still with eyes on Galucci, and then he turns away from the money. The guy leaves with a military gait, back ramrod straight.
Galucci turns his head and watches the exhibition, fingering the stem of his ice cold schooner. He watches until the other guy has cleared the door. “What the fuck’s his problem?” says Galucci into the ether.
“Pride, you putz, real pride,” says the bartender, wiping his chipped glasses with a soiled rag.
Jeffrey Paolano writes fiction in Southeastern, Ohio. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1964 until 1968.