“Other People Ruin Everything” by Leah Mueller

I rarely go to the Blue Moon anymore. Too many of my bar friends have died. The remaining ones have turned into pudgy old vampires. They press their asses against stools and drink beer and shots while they watch the Mariners game on the pockmarked overhead television. Just looking at the place makes my liver hurt. I’d much rather stay home, sip a glass or two of wine, and carefully monitor my intake.

Last night, I felt a strange desire to visit my old hangout. After parking on a side street three blocks away, I trudged towards the bar. A cluster of men leaned against the outside wall, puffing on cigarettes. Not long ago, marijuana was illegal in Washington, and folks stepped into the alley for a furtive toke. Now, indoor cigarette smoking is forbidden, and people must leave the bar for their nicotine fixes.

I looked closely at the group, noticed the owner was there. George’s face lit up when he saw me. He wrapped his arms around my shoulders in a friendly, boozy hug, then smiled, revealing a row of nicotine-stained teeth.

George had aged a lot since the last time I’d seen him, five years earlier. His face was leathery, creased from years of heavy tobacco use. “How the hell are you?” he asked. “Are you coming in for a beer? I hope so.”

I nodded. “I was driving past, and had an urge to stop. It’s been more than a blue moon since the last time I was here.”

George pulled the door open, and I stepped into the cavernous interior. The place hadn’t changed a bit. Its walls were stained a permanent shade of brown, a remnant of decades of patrons’ continuous smoking. Above the battle-scarred booths, hundreds of disheveled books stood on wooden shelves.

In all my years of drinking at the Moon, I’ve never seen anyone crack open one of the volumes. The literary motif is an homage to famous writers who’ve pickled their brains at the bar — Tom Robbins, Theodore Roethke, Richard Hugo, and scores of others. According to rumor, Robbins once placed a collect call to Pablo Picasso from the wall pay phone, but the master declined to accept the charges.

I sat down carefully on one of the bar stools and ordered a pint from the bartender. The line of men glanced in my direction, then looked away. This was a furtive but calculated maneuver, one I recalled from my earlier years, when I was an aspiring alcoholic in search of adventure.

Though happy hour had just begun, the bar was only half-full. To my left sat a fellow with a round face and a porn-star mustache. An empty glass rested on the bar in front of him.

The man on my right was experiencing considerable difficulty remaining in his chair. He grinned at me and reached for his shot glass, almost toppling it in the process. “You from Greenlake?” he slurred.

I realized, with a shock, that I looked like an affluent Seattle matron in my clogs and camel’s hair coat. Many of the men at the bar had probably slept in their clothes.

“No, I’m from Tacoma.” I spotted a bowl of peanuts on the bar, shoved it in his direction. “Have some peanuts. You seem like you could use the nutrition.”

This sort of cheeky comment was typical for the establishment. The Moon is one of the few Seattle bars where inebriated men regularly yell “Fuck!” at the top of their lungs. Women need to leave politeness at the door, or be eaten alive.

The fellow laughed and swayed on his stool. “YOU have some peanuts,” he replied, pushing the bowl towards me. He scooped up his shot glass, took a huge gulp, and signaled for another.

The man on my left was more eager to talk, and had better control of his faculties. “I can tell by looking at you that you’re not part of the Matrix,” he said.

I gazed at him and nodded. “I met a CIA agent in Puerto Vallarta when I was there with George,” he continued. “The guy knew everything. He told me this: when the eclipse comes, don’t be at the place of totality. Be a little bit west or a little bit east. But don’t be in the exact path, because then you won’t get the full visuals.”

“What full visuals?” I swiveled in my seat, so I could better hear my new friend. Obviously, a long narrative was forthcoming, and I needed to look as though I was paying attention.

The man grinned, pleased by my friendliness. “I’m Don,” he said, extending a beefy hand. “George and I met on the beach in Puerto Vallarta, and it turned out he owns the Moon. Now we party together in Mexico every year. Anyway, this CIA dude wouldn’t tell me what I’d see. He just told me to LOOK, man.”

I continued to nod, feeling like one of those swivel-necked dogs on the dashboard of an old person’s car. I wasn’t sure why I felt the need to appease the guy. He was so earnest, and in dire need of someone who would listen. I just happened to land on the stool next door.

“I took his advice,” Don continued. “Me and my buddies went a bit inland. We woke up that morning, had our coffee, and looked at the sky. It got dark real fast, and the next thing I knew, the sun was covered, except for that frame of light around the edges. I figured I’d better take a picture before it was gone forever.”

Don reached into his pocket, pulled out a battered cell phone. He scrolled through a few photos, then stopped and gazed at me expectantly. Holding the phone in front of my nose, he pointed at an image with one chubby forefinger. “Take a look at THAT,” he said. “There’s no logical explanation.”

I squinted at the image. The eclipse — a huge black dot outlined with a bright cornea of sunlight — sat squarely in the center of the photo. On its left was a moon-shaped sliver. The object hung in the sky like an illuminated toenail.

“See that?” Don hissed. “The CIA guy told me to check out the left side of the eclipse. He said I’d be surprised by what I saw.”

I continued to stare at the apparition, trying my hardest to come up with a logical explanation. It appeared solid, and radiated an eerie, celestial glow. “That’s incredible,” I murmured. “What could it possibly be?”

Don gazed at me, face solemn. “Damned if I know. But isn’t it amazing?”

I nodded, and Don took a thoughtful sip from his beer. “Hey, are you hungry? I’m about to order a whole mess of pizzas.”

I smiled politely. “Sorry, I don’t eat dairy products,” I said. “But thanks for asking.”

I rose from my stool and wandered into the rest room. The Blue Moon’s lavatory graffiti was legendary, known throughout Seattle for its semi-cogent, philosophical ramblings. There were many scrawled references to the sexual prowess of male patrons. My old drinking buddy Dan was immortalized on the women’s rest room wall for several years during the 1990s.

The scrawled homage had puzzled me, since I’d never found Dan appealing as a potential romantic partner. His diplomat parents raised their only son within the confines of luxury hotels, so Dan exuded a seedy, yet aristocratic air. That was probably the secret of his popularity. Unfortunately, his alcoholism caught up with him several years later, and he became a bar ghost.

I wandered into a stall and sat down on the edge of the toilet. Graffiti swirled above my head. “Layne Staley is the most beautiful man God ever created.” “If you have the right glasses, it gets even bigger.” “Anal Nicole Smith.” “I love you Layne! Your girlfriend, Debby.”

Layne Staley seemed to inspire a great deal of posthumous love. This struck me as tragic, since he lay in his apartment for several days after his fatal overdose, and no one came to check on him. His neighbors thought he was a strange guy who kept to himself. They didn’t realize he was famous. Some of them probably even owned Alice in Chains albums.

After I finished peeing, I noticed the best graffiti of all: “Other People Ruin Everything.” Truer words were never inscribed on a rest room wall. Not just “people”, mind you, but “OTHER people.” I understood the writer’s sense of isolation. I’d felt that way all my life, but never articulated it so plainly. Of course, Sartre said it first, without ever setting foot in the Blue Moon.

I ran my hands under the sink water and stepped back into the bar, feeling melancholy. Dan’s graffiti was long gone, his memory buried under layers of paint. Don was already deep in conversation with another patron, a young Hispanic man who looked unblemished and cheerful. Give him another twenty years, I thought.

I leaned towards George. “Hey, how is Mark Preston?” I asked. “Last I heard, he went home to Ohio to live with his folks.”

George shook his head. “He’s back. Parents can only deal with so much. I think he’s homeless. He comes in sometimes, sits in the corner. He’s already shitfaced by then, so he doesn’t order a lot.”

He paused for a moment, took a slug of beer from his pint glass. “Saddest thing of all is that he doesn’t have his fiddle any more. He fell asleep on a park bench, and somebody stole it.”

Mark and I were close friends for two decades. As his drinking increased and his marriage collapsed, we lost touch with each other. For years, he played bluegrass fiddle with the withered old pros at Folklife Festival, elderly folks who wore bib overalls and hailed from places like Twisp and Cle Elum. The group respected Mark because he played like he was from the holler, and wasn’t some aspiring Microsoft executive who got a violin for Christmas.

“It’s not as easy as you might think to drink yourself to death,” George said. He rotated on his stool and smiled.

George’s eyes were astonishingly clear and direct. He’d spent forty years in the bar trenches, and reminded me of an old sage. You don’t get to be the owner of a historic dive bar in the U-District if you’re an idealist.

People had lived and died on the Moon’s bar stools, and their ghosts hovered in the corners of the ancient booths. George watched the stories unfold, and knew the outcomes before anyone else did. Poor Mark wasn’t a ghost yet, but it wouldn’t be long.

“Seattle has changed a lot,” I said. “It’s hard to make it if you’re not rich. When I first moved here in ‘85, my monthly rent was ninety bucks. Now, studio apartments will set you back almost two grand a month. Where do people get that kind of money?”

“Goddamn software,” George replied. “The new Seattle gold rush.” He took another swig of beer from his glass. “I’m pretty much retired now. My daughter runs the bar, and I’m only here one day a week. That suits me fine.”

The front door opened, and a man entered, carrying a pile of pizzas. “Where the hell should I put these things?” he asked.

After a bit of scuffling, Don and a couple of other patrons managed to clear space on one of the side tables. They stacked the pizza boxes on top of each other and opened the uppermost one, exposing a mass of cheese and pepperoni.

Several men left their stools and wandered towards the boxes. The fellow on my right remained in his seat for a moment, looking baffled. He rose abruptly, almost upsetting his half-full shot glass. “Bout time dinner got here,” he giggled.

I returned my attention to George. He lowered his eyes from the television and regarded me thoughtfully. “I work as little as possible,” he continued. “I’ve done my time. Happy hour used to be a mob scene. These days, the stools and booths are half-empty, except for Friday and Saturday nights.”

I vividly remembered the 1980s-era happy hour crowd — a loud, ribald group of tie-dyed misfits who crowded around the bar, ordering pitcher after pitcher of Rainier. Now, a handful of people clung to their seats like barnacles, drinking slowly to avoid spending money too fast.

I took a final sip from my second beer. Though I could feel the familiar Blue Moon suction pulling me into my stool, I knew better than to order a third pint. I rose to my feet, smiled at George. “I’d better go. It’s a long drive back to Tacoma.”

George’s face broke into a grin, exposing his brown teeth. “So glad you stopped in,” he said.

As soon as the words were out of his mouth, I heard a sickening crash. Someone had accidentally rammed one of the pizza boxes into an empty pint glass, and it toppled to the floor. Jagged shards flew in all directions.

Sighing, the bartender grabbed a broom from the corner. George didn’t even blink. “Come back any time,” he said.

I stepped across the threshold into the street, turned around once like Lot’s wife to look at my old haunt. The “Sorry, we’re open!” sign was long gone from the window. A few people still leaned against the alley wall, puffing on cigarettes.

I resumed walking, rounded the corner and passed a line of parked cars. The narrow side street fronted I-5, but was spared a full view of the freeway by a particularly hideous chain-link fence. I’d parked there many times during the 80s and 90s, when spaces were plentiful.

The first two buildings on the block were slated for destruction, their windows covered with plywood. Yellow land-use signs disclosed new plans for high-rise boutique housing. I strolled past the condemned properties towards my waiting vehicle.

The walk seemed much longer than usual. In fact, I couldn’t remember ever having to park so far away from the Moon. Finally, after a couple more blocks, I spotted my car, right where I’d left it. A long piece of paper flapped underneath one of the wipers.

Goddammit, a fucking parking ticket.

I yanked the paper from the window, stared at its tiny print, and scowled. Zoned parking only, violation fee sixty bucks. Jesus Christ, when did the city of Seattle turn a glorified alley into a cash cow for the city? Like everything else, it happened when I wasn’t looking.

I glanced down the street and finally saw the new sign, protruding from the cement like a middle finger. Its dark lettering proclaimed the city’s intention to fine anyone who dared to park on the block without a permit.

I unlocked my vehicle, hurled the ticket towards the back seat. I’d have to pay the damn fine, since I couldn’t think of an argument that would stand up in court. Still scowling, I pulled into the road, remembering the bathroom graffiti. “Other People Ruin Everything.” I almost laughed out loud. It was the most accurate thing I’d heard all week.

On the other hand, most of us manage to do a damn good job all on our own.

Leah Mueller is an indie writer from Tacoma, Washington. She is the author of two chapbooks and four books. Her most recent book, a memoir entitled Bastard of a Poet was published in 2018 by Alien Buddha Press. Her work appears or is forthcoming in Blunderbuss, The Spectacle, Outlook Springs, Crack the Spine, Drunk Monkeys, Summerset Review, Atticus Review, Your Impossible Voice, and many other magazines and anthologies. She was a featured poet at the 2015 New York Poetry Festival, and a runner-up in the 2012 Wergle Flomp Humor Poetry contest.