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It has been fifty-seven days since Ray has had a drink of alcohol, and it is his hope that he can maintain his sobriety during the journey. This hope proves impossible as Joseph and Ray are sucked into the bar scene. The two friends focus on their present experiences to find some meaning in their otherwise unfulfilled lives but problems arise as a result of their penchant for immediate gratification. They decide that focusing on the present, while working hard to forget their past failures, might just be their ultimate salvation.
As I took another drag from the blunt and passed it to Ray, the distorted sensory perceptions set in. Outside my window, I could see the images blend together into one continuous stream of colors, enriching and tasty. Ray and I had been friends for years, ever since I was thirteen or so and noticed his need for excitement and propensity for something beyond. We were both twenty-eight now, and the lifetimes we had shared since junior high had left us both enthralled and scarred at the same time. Our trip wasn't about our problems, however. The fact that Ray had struggled through his addiction and sought sobriety was inspiring enough, especially considering our experimental treatment with alcohol for the past eight years. Time lagged and became fuzzy as I took the blunt for the second time. My brain shut down, and all that remained was an amplified sensory experience that left me glad I was alive.
I let my head rest against the seat after my second rendezvous with the marijuana. "This is some good shit.... I don't think I've ever had any this strong."
Ray took another drag before responding. "Joe, I told you I work hard, so I don't mess with that ditch weed any more. For God's sake, this is a working man's right ... to have the best at times, you know?" Ray's face was shining through the smoke that filled his SUV. I knew I was high when I heard the music get louder, sharper, with more defined notes. "This is it, Joe. This was probably the best idea you've ever had."
"What's that?" I wasn't tracking well as I plunged into an altered mind bliss.
"This trip and getting away with no plan as to where we're going or what we're doing. It's exactly what we needed." Ray's voice slowed, sounding deeper and more confident. Time slipped away until I was left with only the wavy sights and sounds nesting close to my being. Ray put out the blunt, storing a small bit for later in his cigar box. I didn't want any more, anyway. I was too busy enjoying existence with my good friend while the world passed by my window.
"I'm taking you to the place I tried to take you to last time we were out." Ray was relaxed and alert. His attentiveness embarrassed me. I was finding it more difficult to focus while under the influence.
Ray sighed at my inability to follow. "The sports bar. The one we were going to visit when I got arrested."
I shook my head. "I gotcha. You mean the strip club?"
Ray quickly corrected me. "It's a sports bar that happens to have dancers. I almost have Serena convinced of that." Serena was his wife and no dummy, but Ray had a way of talking, of making any situation or setting better than it truly was.
"Okay, okay, the sports bar."
Ray smiled at me with a wide grin. "That's better. Now you're gonna see some attractive women. What better way to start our trip than with tits and pussy staring us in the face?"
I was sure that with my state of mind I could look at a wall and find just as much enthusiastic bliss. But all the same, I knew Ray wanted me to see the girls, especially his favorite one.
As we pulled into the lot, the darkened windows of the bar appeared ominous to my already intoxicated mind. I got out before Ray and stood beside his door as he fumbled around to hide his pot so he could take his cigars inside. After concealing the weed, Ray opened the door to the club. Darkness from the black lights inside the establishment spilled outside, consuming us as we entered and were greeted by security.
"Hey guys, do you two have I.D.?" The three bouncers rushed to meet us. I groped in my back pocket to retrieve my wallet and produced my license. Ray paid the cover for both of us and led the way inside. I stumbled ahead through the entrance. All the bouncers gave us handshakes and pats on the back as we passed them, seeing us as nonthreatening. Ray found two cushioned chairs facing the stage, scooted one aside, and let himself fall into its softness. I followed suit, not knowing exactly how to act in such a place.
"So what do I do? What's the etiquette?" I asked.
Ray shot back a puzzled look before he recognized my ignorance as sincere. "Etiquette? There is no etiquette. You don't have to do a damn thing. Just sit back and enjoy the show, man. Do you need a beer or a shot?" I knew Ray wasn't drinking, and I vowed to myself I was not going to drink in front of him. At least not yet.
"No, I'm good. Are you getting anything?"
"Yeah, a Red Bull."
I decided I could use the lift as well. The pot was making me feel self-conscious and feeble. I felt everything was happening too fast, and I was unable to keep up. Ray got us drinks from the front as I slipped into a hypnotic state brought about by too much potent marijuana in my blood. The black lights illuminated everything around me, producing a new glow that I found fascinating.
"Hey guys, how are you?" Two dancers, one blonde and one brunette, were standing before us. I had no idea as to how to respond, what they wanted, or even if I should look directly at them.
"Fine baby, how are you?" Ray's words fell from his mouth like velvet. I had always admired his ability to maintain his social skills while intoxicated. The blonde dancer passed me and sat on Ray's lap. I followed her with my eyes, sure that she was the dancer he knew so well. Suddenly, I felt someone touching me. When my head lazily turned, I found the brunette sitting sideways on my thigh with her legs dangling between mine.
"What's your name?"
I stared at her, smiled, and then answered groggily, "Joe. What's yours?"
"Nice to meet you, Joe. I'm Erica." She was beautifully exotic. Hispanic, for sure, but it was difficult to pinpoint a nationality with any accuracy in the dim lighting combined with my spinning vision. She smelled pleasant, though, and it felt good to have her sitting on my lap with her arm draped around my shoulders. "Your hair is so nice. Can I touch it?"
I smiled and nodded that she could. She reached back and as she did so, her hair briefly touched my cheek. She twirled one of my curls that spiraled down from the band that was holding my hair off my face. As she played with my hair, she eyed me with fascination.
"Wow, this is awesome. Hey Jasmine, you have to feel this." I looked over at the girl on Ray's lap just as she reached over to pull a different curl. Everyone back home hated my hair, but apparently in Florida, it was a novelty.
"Is it naturally curly?" the brunette asked.
"Yeah, I'm surprised you like it. All I get is complaints back home."
She leaned in again, this time facing me as she swirled and lightly tugged on the same curl. "Are you kidding? You have better hair than most of the girls I know."
I took a sip from my drink to divert her attention, feeling a bit bashful with a woman I didn't know sitting on my leg, playing with my hair. I knew I was supposed to be enjoying it, but for whatever reason, I felt uneasy. I was sure her kindness was a ploy to get my money.
I felt Ray nudge my elbow and looked over at him to see Jasmine staring at me.
"Are you fucking falling asleep?" Ray asked.
I leaned in to whisper to Ray that I wasn't, but all he could do was laugh.
"Well, wake up, Joe. You're going to bore poor Erica to death."
I was afraid it was too late for that. After the conversation about my hair, our dialogue flat-lined. She was reduced to talking about teeth, braces, her scar on her leg and how it had blistered from a motorcycle muffler, and finally her ambitions to go back to school. The only thought lingering in my head was that she didn't mean a damn word of it, that she wasn't genuinely talking to me. I became weary of trying to entertain small talk when all I wanted to really do was see her soul.
"I'm going to go over there for a second. I'll be right back." Erica patted me on my shoulder as she rose from my lap. I knew she wasn't returning and so did she, but it was polite to consider the possibility. I sat in my stupor after she left, until Jasmine started asking me questions.
"Are you from here?" She sat on Ray's lap, pushing her breast in his face as she looked into my eyes.
"No, I'm from Indiana."
"Hmm," she said, which was supposed to imply interest but failed miserably.
Ray leaned in toward me just as she began the next question. "Man, this girl's talk sucks. If this is all she has, she's not getting any of my money."
I laughed and reclined in my chair, knowing it was possible she heard every word of his indiscreet claim.
She pouted as soon as he sat back up. "Are you boys telling secrets?"
I knew what Ray meant. She was annoying.
Before long, Jasmine was up from Ray's lap too, with promises she'd return falling on deaf and disinterested ears. Ray and I got up to take a piss and had the awkward task of walking past the dopey guy by the sink running the water for customers to wash their hands. We met back outside the bathroom, where Ray was talking to a few of the bouncers.
"So where's Tammy?" he asked. "Shit, I thought she might be working tonight."
The bouncer in the tight black shirt leaned closer so Ray could hear his answer. "She's not working, as far as I know, but you might wait around. She could be coming in later. It's still early."
Ray looked at me, his stupefied friend. "Do you want to stay here for a bit, or leave?"
I shrugged. It didn't matter to me. I was too high to care much about the dancers or anything else.
"Well, let's hit the road. This place is lame tonight." Ray was always going, always needing the next thrill, and the sports bar with its single television in the corner showing a baseball game just wasn't enough. Jasmine came out of the restroom just as we were deciding. She glanced at Ray, who looked away. Then she glared at me, her face wrinkled into a frown. I just shrugged my shoulders again. It was time to move on.
"Were you not feeling that girl back there?" Ray took another few puffs.
I took a moment to mull over my response before answering. "I've had enough of love. It's hell, you know?"
Ray chuckled, which sent smoke hurling out of his flared nostrils, like a bull. "Well, you don't have to think about love on this trip, so forget all about your problems with love-or anything else, for that matter. This is about us and this journey. Look at this spanning highway calling; isn't it beautiful?" It was beautiful, and I caught myself staring at the lined scroll that sent us on our way.
Ray turned the stereo volume up again. After we each took a few more hits, he sent the remainder of the blunt out his sliver of open window. There was a brief spark before it disappeared. I didn't recognize the music he was playing, but it was hitting just right. It was speaking, and I don't mean the lyrics. The music itself was speaking. The bass, the synthesizer, the different sound bytes, it all was coming to life. I found it impossible to focus on anything else. Ray let me become completely consumed by the sounds, only nodding while keeping his eyes fixed ahead, always ahead.
So much had happened since I had last seen him. I had so many stories to share with him that I didn't know where to begin. I started rehearsing in my mind which one I would tell him first while simultaneously predicting which one he would like the best. Of course, there were also the changes he was making. His pledge to not drink in order to become a more responsible person for his wife and children had led to a whole new set of kicks, which he was sure to impart to me. In the boiling cauldron within, I decided to let my stories marinate longer in exchange for simply enjoying existing next to Ray.
Our descent down the southern tip of Florida took us to the next location, a popular bar on the strip in Clearwater. Ray had to valet park his truck and shuffled through his possessions quickly before surrendering the keys. I followed him out of the vehicle, watching him tip the man who hurried away with his truck as we walked toward the entrance. Entering Shadeland, as the bar was called, Ray and I took a slow stroll through the entire length of the spacious establishment before deciding on two barstools toward the far side. We rested our arms on the counter as we waited to be served. There was no rush. We weren't drinking anything except Red Bull and water. So instead of our usual impatience, we were relaxed, content to scan our surroundings and take in every face with an exactitude we rarely did when drunk. The bar was sparsely populated, considering it was the day before the Fourth of July, but Ray decided that the absence of a crowd was probably due to everyone else resting up for the true party that would take place the following day. I didn't mind, though. I found the people there jovial and kind as I watched their expressions and listened to their conversations.
It was pleasing not having an agenda or schedule to maintain. I always preferred a spontaneous approach to life. Our drinks arrived, and I sipped the Red Bull, feeling the adrenal surge as soon as it hit my lips.
"This is nice. I've never drank this before. It's a great balancer."
Ray nodded. He looked over the place to see what was happening and what kind of potential existed. I was much more subdued, happy with the mere thought of being lost to the world.
"Hey, I love your hair." A woman's hand touched my shoulder and stayed there as I turned to my left to see who had made the comment. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to be forward, but can I touch it?"
"Sure." As soon as I uttered my reply, her hand lifted from my shoulder and coursed through my hair. I could feel her fingertips gently grazing the curls before her eyes focused back on my own. "Is it your natural hair, or did you do something to get those curls?"
I laughed. "It's natural."
"I've never seen hair like this. I wish mine was this curly." Her eyes were glazed over. She was obviously drunk on liquor and life. "Do you mind if I pull it?"
Excerpted from Fifty-Nine Days by Michael Gilbert Copyright © 2010 by Michael Gilbert. Excerpted by permission.
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