Let me tell you about aplomb. I don’t mean watery New-Age aplomb, suitable for a fern bar. I mean the real article, forty-weight, that you could lube a diesel with. Manners. Suaveness. Deboneur-tude: A Guide to Social Correctness.
This was in the early eighties. I was still a staff writer on Soldier of Fortune magazine. This was years before Craig, the staff artist, killed himself riding drunk on his motorcycle somewhere outside Boulder. (He died, everyone said, as he would have wanted. Horribly.)
In those days Craig and I hung out for a while in the Berkeley Bar in a bad section of Denver. Craig was a big, baby-faced street fighter out of Chicago with a Special Forces past and a mean streak. He mostly drew skulls. He also like the Brandenburg concertos, and used to listen to them at his easel with headphones built into a World War II leather flying helmet.
The Berk was the home pit for the Sons of Silence, a bad biker club. If you haven’t been in dives like this, don’t start now. They swarm with huge bearded bozos with tattooed eyeballs and missing teeth and slow ominous grins and the IQ of a camshaft. You get the impression that they are evolving, but just not as fast as the rest of us. They’ll hurt you. Either they like you or you’re jelly. They don’t worry about consequences. They can’t remember them.
The Berk had Formica wood tables and smelled like a weight room. Rows of bottles waited patiently, but not for long, behind the counter and corpulent biker babes lolled about like stranded elephant seals. No one else did. When you have a biker clientele, you don’t have any other kind of clientele. Craig and I were guests. I had sold Bob Brown, the editor of Soldier of Fortune, on a story about the warm patriotic urges of the Sons, who didn’t have any. The Sons were charmed. They might get on the cover. They knew they would never get closer to significance.
It was cold enough to freeze the personals off an iron dog and dirty snow gleamed yellow under the streetlights. We showed up in Craig’s pickup truck, wearing our credentials: cammies, antisocial T-shirts (“Happiness Is A Confirmed Kill”) and jump boots. A Tribal Meeting followed, heap big pow wow, talk’em. Craig and I sat in a booth with Torque, the honcho, and a brain-fried guy called Lurch, and Mountain Jerry, who was a pretty Tarzan replica with long golden hair like Rapunzel and gold-flecked eyes that spoke of psychopathy and bone fractures. He sort of looked through you.
“We don’t like the press,” Torque said. So what? Nobody did. I didn’t. Torque had a face like a gorilla’s armpit. “You can do your story. SOF’s a righteous mag. Righteous.” I guess it was a recommendation. Like having Carlo Gambino say that you were a Really Good Person.
“We do what we can,” Craig said.
Lurch just stared at his beer with his mouth hanging open. He didn’t actually drool, probably because he couldn’t remember how. I figured he had smoked too much brass polish or sniffed some bad glue.
During this prayer meeting, Lurch had An Idea. You could tell it was bubbling up inside him. His jaw closed slightly and a crazed focus came into his eyes. He was going to say something, as soon as he figured out what. His head came up. Yes, an idea. He almost had it.
And then it left him. He collapsed with a soughing sound, like a punctured tire. Gone. A Real Idea, probably the unified field theory. And it got away. He stared sorrowfully at his beer. Eeyore of the Bikers.
We went back to the tribal thing.
Manners, though. This is about grace, elegance, and aplomb. Yeah.
Later we were boozing at the bar, doing what women call male bonding. It means talking to each other. I was chatting with Mountain Jerry. Craig was talking to some guy farther down the bar and drinking peppermint schnapps. Which was amazing on two counts. First, that the Berk had such an effeminate candy-ass yuppie-swine liqueur. Second, that Craig would drink it in a biker bar. It was grounds for execution.
Thing was, Craig was scary. He’d cripple you. You sensed he was ready to rock-and-roll, and you really didn’t want to rumble with him. Some guys you leave alone. The Sons could smell it.
About then one of the biker babes got into it with the barmaid. I don’t know what the raison de guerre was. The challenger was a gas-station Brunhilde like a sack of potatoes, except potatoes have better skin. Shrieking ensued. Barmaids in motorcycle hangouts do not back down. You could tell this one wasn’t a Latin professor at Bryn Mawr. She screamed obscenities in a florid cloacal gush. The potato sack gave as good as she got.
The bikers ignored them and kept drinking. Jerry and I were discussing social encounters in rural bars in West Virginia, where we both came from. The chief instrument of intercourse in those regions was the pool cue. It was simple and direct and provided the hospitals with a brisk business.
Over Mountain Jerry’s shoulder I saw the challenger’s arm flash forward. She was throwing a bottle at the barmaid. Either her aim was bad or the barmaid ducked. Bottles shattered behind the bar and the mirror pretty much exploded. Slivers rained down on me, but missed my drink.
Mountain Jerry never flickered. He grinned his slow mean golden grin and said, “Git it on.” And kept on talking. He was amused.
The bar top glittered with glass fragments. The barmaid was about to leap over the bar to do battle with Spud Sack. Screaming continued. Nobody paid the slightest attention. Down the bar I saw Craig absently, without looking, pull a sizable sliver of glass from his schnapps without interrupting his sentence. He dipped a finger to see whether more shards awaited. No. All was well. He lifted the glass and drank.