This story was read aloud at:
This story was also recorded for the summer podcast series.
It is the last of the summer 2007 podcasts (Called 'Endless Summer) and is available at the above link under podcast.
(Mine is the second story read)
My summer started with Pete announcing, exactly on cue, that I had no class. The same bad pun had continued for nine months. It went like this. My afternoon shift would end at the bar, and rather than stay for a drink, I would grab my backpack and head out the door. Pete would ask where I was going, and I would answer school. Which brought the same comment over and over again. "Yes you do need class."
Two things happened during the seemingly endless but rapid summer of 2000. I joined the no life club at the saloon, and I contemplated Christianity.
My thoughts on Christianity were the result of the classes I had taken that winter. Over the last nine months I had taken a class called The Bible as Literature. It taught the bible strictly as a piece of literature to be dissected as any other book. Dogma never entered the argument.
While young I went to the Presbyterian Church with my mother and brother, but stopped at the beginning of high school. All I felt was anger at the church. Diffused unfocused anger, and I didn't know where it came from.
The summer had a simple routine. Work the afternoon shift at the Saloon in Laguna Beach. Most of those afternoons were spent with Pete, Lyle and Aron. We would drink Popo shots, watch old movies, throw crumpled dollars at the can next to the e s presso machine, discuss politics, religion and sex. One day Lyle and I discussed what made a girl good in bed, we discussed technique, body shapes, angles, noises and other such things and when we were done, Pete threw in one word, and in that one word summed up all that was necessary, all that a girl needed, and that one word was enthusiasm.
Pete and I worked as bartenders at the saloon, Lyle was a sculptor and painter at the Pageant of the Masters, and Aron was a drunken chef.
The official Saloon policy for drinking on the job was two drinks allowed two hours before the end of the shift. My shift ended at six. So I could have a drink at four. But it almost always went like this. At 3 O'clock and I would ask the bar "What time is it?" and the answer would come back, "4 o'clock!" and we would all do a shot.
One afternoon I told Pete the story of Job. Pete already knew the story, but I told him what I found interesting. The book raises the question: Why do bad things happen to good people? And why do good things happen to bad people? It was, and still is, a basic question people deal with every day. What I found interesting is the Jews had no heaven and hell. Heaven and Hell did not arrive until the Christians, and I believe they were created to answer this question. So Heaven and hell was a creation by man to answer a philosophical question.
Pete listened to my story, and he was the ultimate bartender. Not just because he made a beautiful drink, but because he made people feel welcome. Pete actually listened to them and they felt like he cared when they talked. He listened to their stories and was not judgmental. He listened and they talked and they felt better. The perfect psychologist bartender.
"I'm not drinking any more." Pete would announce as he entered the bar, and a glass of wine would magically appear in front of him, and I would say, "Yes, but you're not drinking any less."
I bent Pete's ear another day about Moses. I remember being told that he was a wonderful person, Patriarch of three religions. And then I read about what happened in Numbers Chapter 31. As Moses and his people wandered in the desert for forty years, they came across the city of the Midianites. Moses sent his army to ethnically cleanse the city. After killing all the men and burning the city to the ground, the army returned with all the loot and the women and children. Moses told the army to kill the women and boys, but keep the 30,000 virgin girls and Moses gave them to the army to do with as they pleased.
Pete and I talked about our past and future. He was once a boxer, which surprised me because he was always so quiet and bookish. He had also owned an editing company, reading and editing manuscripts and sending them to publishers, but he came to hate telling people that their books were unpublishable, he came to hate breaking their dreams.
Now he wanted a small bookstore attached to a wine shop. Spending his time sipping beautiful wines and reading wonderful books.
Pete once said to me something that has stuck and helped in times of hardship. He knew I wanted to be a writer, and without ever reading any of my stories, said I would be a good writer, because of who I was.
Stumbling home at two in the morning, a thought my subconscious had been mulling over for some time came to the surface. I realized where my anger for the church came from. It was because they lied to me. All my childhood they said that Moses was a great person, they said the church was good, when most of its history is about the murder and torture.
And with this realization I lost some of my anger at the church. I became not so reactionary. Now when I discuss religion, it tends to be a quieter affair.
Then there was the day that I officially became a member of the No Life club at the saloon. It was the day we spray-glued a dollar bill to the sidewalk. Now I must say it is funny watching people reach down and try to pick it up, no matter how pedestrian it seems to be. The good ones were the ones who tried to scrape it up with their fingernails and failed miserably. But the best part was the person who tried to pick it up, and realized it was stuck firmly, glanced around and saw the four of us, standing at the bar and laughing.
Returning from an overnight camping trip in the hills of San Diego, someone had chalked 'God is smiling down on you' upon a stone cliff face. I scoffed as I rode by.
Back home there was a message from Michaeleen, my boss at the saloon. When I called, she asked if I was sitting down.
She told me Pete was dead.
I had nothing to say.
Irene found him lying on his bed. Fully clothed. He was 37. They thought his brain just forgot to tell his heart to keep beating.
The next few days were blurred, but I remember sitting on the little bench with Michaeleen and watching the stupid tourists pass by endlessly. I wondered why a good person like Pete was gone and they were still here.
In the chapel at the mortuary, I held onto Jenna's hand, and stared at the closed casket and visualized his body inside.
Pete's brother got up to speak, but I didn't hear what he said.
I was walking up a small cobble-stoned street with thick fog glowing around the flickering gas lamps. On the right, double windows expelled twin shafts of light into the night. I entered the shop. On the left was a long wooden bar with a couple wine bottles scattered on top. To my right and lining the walls in the back were dark wooden bookshelves housing hardback books. In the middle of the shop were two blood red wing-back chairs. Pete sat in one, and smiled at me over his book. I poured myself a glass of wine, topped up Pete's, and sat in the chair next to his.
In the mortuary I wiped the tear from my face and right then wanted to believe. I wanted to believe in heaven and hell, I wanted there to be somewhere we went after death. I wanted some sort of solace.
But I knew I could never believe, I knew I would never have faith. At that moment, I wanted it all. Because I wanted to see my friend again.
End Note: Digging through my old photographs, I found the picture I took of the god message on the side of the road a few days after Pete died, and found that my memory was slighty flawed. The original photograph is below and also some links to photographs from the days in The Saloon.