Fiction Friday: “The Torch”

by Pardeep Toor

Torch 2

The two men standing by the popcorn machine were arguing about police power, unbeknownst to the dark-red painted ceiling that reflected the bright halo of foam from their pint glasses.

“The police have too much power in this City. They are individual units of dictatorship. Their cruiser is their throne and our City is their domain.”
“That seems a bit dramatic.”
“How else would you explain their brutality? Their violent rampages on citizens?”
“Maybe they are just doing their job in a tough community?”
“Fear keeps them in business. They have always intimidated with words and fines, but now they do the same with batons, Tasers, and guns.”
“How can we fix this?”

I’d been drunk here many times before, but never under a red ceiling or while consuming a variety of fruity and sour-flavored beverages that were now scattered on the dark wood-painted tables. My students used to talk about this place in decades past. On the right night, identifications were optional and the drinks were pouring. Now, the rainbow-colored beverages were an afterthought compared to what I stored in the top-right drawer of my desk. The desired effect of the beverages is cartoonish compared to those of the the oddly shaped bushes, powders, and pills that I confiscated almost daily.

The visible spectrum of beverages dominated the topic of conversation beside me at the bar, the alley-window to my back, the brief glimpse of sun silhouetting me to protect me from faint acquaintances or former students. The lady beside me, no older than thirty, who had white skin that embezzled all the light in the dark, cramped, aging, second-floor lounge, was sure the special flavor was raspberry. The gentleman to her left was arguing for blueberry so diligently that I thought he might be a representative of the Blueberry Farmers Association up north, only traveling to this common latitude to lobby the State Capitol sixty miles west.

She said: “You never believe me.You never trust what I have to say.”
“This isn’t about you. It’s about the flavor. I’m sure it’s blueberry.”
“You always disrespect my opinions. I’m not dumb.”
He said: “I never said you’re dumb. Let’s get a deciding vote.”

He turned to me. I looked up at the game, recognizing the familiar red team on ice and adjusted the grip on my bottle to unveil the crown label which rendered me a man without flavor, taste, or respect for intoxication.

I used to come here with my fellow teachers once a week, usually on Wednesdays, to break up the routine, but sometimes again on Thursdays, depending on how the week was going. Most of us smoked back then which made it easier to drink more in the winter. Our only concern was to avoid war and get to the weekend. The wars were foreign then, the enemies clear, but the weekends were the same, cold, boring, and short with an unnerving guilt that we were supposed to be somewhere else, doing something else, with someone else. The returning soldiers were the enemy then.

I was learning more about police power from the conversation blocking my path to the restroom that was just down the stairs beyond the popcorn machine and coffee pot. I turned back to towards the window and the alley beneath me, in search of a crevice or rear tire of a vehicle where I could relieve myself without causing trouble. The alley was much better lit than when I used to drink here before. The cars were shinier. Fewer of my past and current students lingered around these parts anymore.

“We can fix it by arming ourselves.”
“What will you do then, shoot at the police?”
“If I have to, yes.”
“Now the police are afraid that everyone is carrying a gun and prepared to shoot at them. What do you expect will happen then?”
“I expect equality. Equal liberties. Equal power. I expect everyone to respect each other.”
“You’re wrong. You are arguing for another Civil War — for chaos.”
“We need to take back power. The only difference between the police and us is that they get shots fired at their funeral while the rest of us go in silence. It needs to stay that way.”

The advocate for police power reached for his glass. His combatant and defender of individual liberties did the same. Both were broad shouldered and thick in the chest. Their hair was cut close to the scalp, like soldiers. Their cheeks were too soft. They must be shaving more than once a day in preparation for a sudden national crisis when their respective philosophies may be tested in actuality, in harsh conditions, away from the comfort of hamburger buns and onion rings.

“Excuse me, sir. Would you mind being a judge for a dispute?”
“I can try but I’m no ‘sir.’ If you knew me, you would agree.”
He squinted and looked back at his girlfriend. She nodded.
“We would like to know what flavor you taste in this beer. Would you be willing to take a sip and let us know what you think?”

He pushed his glass closer to me. His bright-striped, collared shirt protruded from the neck of his equally blinding sweater. He stared at me directly, either to emphasize the stakes or intimidate me to accept his challenge. I looked down in the glass at the viscous, dark liquid that smelled like stale morning coffee.

“I need to relieve myself first — don’t think I can have another sip until I do.” I stood up while staring at the red ceiling. “I’ll be glad to help when I get back. I never used to get this drunk.”

I stayed closed to the bar, allowing the brightness of the ice on the newly minted, television screens overhead to guide my path. The kitchen to my right was nothing more than a grill and a fryer beside the bar. The sizzling sound of oil triggered urgency. I hesitated in front of the protectors of liberty and justice who now stood closer together, holding hands, and pulling each other closer to let me pass through.

The stairs to the restroom were steeper than I remembered them. There was less graffiti on the bathroom walls and more toilet paper compared to when I used to drink here before. Absent was grease on the stainless steel taps on the lone sink. Now, the bathroom didn’t smell like shit, but only hinted of it. The steps back up to the bar were even steeper than I remembered them just a few minutes earlier on the way down and definitely steeper than when I used to drink here before.

When I got back to my seat the blueberry lobbyist and raspberry lady were gone. A Lincoln lay between two empty glasses. The flavor didn’t matter after all. The red team was the home team and everyone took a sip when they scored. I decided to paint my classroom ceiling red over the summer.

Pardeep Toor is a Canadian-born Indian living in Flint, Michigan. His father taught him about hard work while his mother inspired persistence. He adopted his stubbornness from CM Punk and Kevin Garnett. He still has hoop dreams. This is his second contribution to Michiganders Post. Read more.

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