Plexiglas

I should have known better than to go to La Fragua on a Friday night, but I can’t say no to my mother. When the bar’s heavy wooden door swings open, she strolls in with an insolent, wild west swagger. Polly never likes to waste time. I hang back and scan the room—first casually, then with increasing anxiety. Not a chair in sight. The joint is packed to the rafters. Every seat has been taken over by tourists.

Downtown San Miguel de Allende plays host to several drinking establishments that cater to American expatriates. La Fragua is a huge place, easily capable of accommodating 200 people. Usually, it’s half-full of locals. All of them sloshed to the gills, yet somehow managing to behave themselves. Most of the time, anyway.

Polly spends weekday nights at La Fragua, drinking cheap beer and flirting with musicians. She avoids the joint on weekends, claiming it’s “too chaotic.” Tonight is a special occasion, however. My boyfriend Paul and I have been in San Miguel for less than a week, and my mother wants to show us the town.

A jazz quartet plays onstage at top volume. I recognize all the members from previous visits. Polly slept with the drummer a few times, but they’re not on speaking terms now. Tom is 15 years her junior and thinks he’s a genius. I have never seen him without his crocheted beanie. It sits on top of his wild shock of blond hair, tilted at a devilish angle. I wonder whether he wears it in bed, then push the image from my mind.

“There’s no seats,” Polly whines. “I’ve never seen this place so packed.”

To facilitate comradery, the proprietors opted for long, conference-style tables. Each one can hold at least twenty people. Patrons are forced to socialize with random strangers, a practice that yields mixed results. Tonight, every seat appears full. The tables overflow with a jumble of full and dirty glasses, overturned beer bottles, and wadded-up paper napkins.

Paul takes my arm and steers me towards a table. I spot an empty chair I hadn’t noticed before, half-concealed by a cluster of bodies. Behind it, a second chair. How could we have gotten so lucky?

In a daze, I stroll towards the first chair. Polly falls into step beside me. My mother doesn’t like to stand for any reason, especially in a crowded bar. We reach the table, slide into our seats. Paul heads over to the counter for drinks. He already knows what I want—another Margarita in a frosted glass, with plenty of salt on the rim.

I’ve already downed three Margaritas, so I’m shitfaced. Polly has an unlimited capacity for canned malt liquor and never staggers or slurs her words. Paul can consume several quarts of Budweiser at a time. Afterwards, he undergoes a Dr Jekyll transformation and turns into a raging asshole. I’m a lightweight compared to my mother and boyfriend.

A nearby man turns his head towards Polly and sneers. “Sorry, ma’am, we’re saving those two seats. You’ll have to move.” His tone is imperious, like he’s used to issuing decrees to errant women.

Polly’s eyes become huge, then she narrows them into slits. “Like hell we will.”

My mother reaches into her purse, pulls out an unopened pack of cigarettes and a Bic lighter. She yanks the tiny golden thread from the top of the pack and tosses it to the floor. Then she extracts a cigarette and jams it into her mouth.

Quick flick of the lighter, and Polly’s fix is complete. A cloud of smoke emerges from her nose. She smiles, looking almost relaxed. “Any more requests?”

Now it’s the man’s turn to gape in fury. “I don’t know who you think you are, but where I come from, ladies do what they’re told.”

“Really?” Polly drawls. “Tell me more.” She exhales another plume, even more forcefully than before. “You from Texas? I doubt if the ladies up there would have a thing to do with you.”

The man guffaws. “You don’t know who you’re talking to. If you did, you might sing a different tune.” He backs away from the table, just as two women approach. One of them grasps the back of my seat with knobby, ring-covered fingers. She gives it a venomous shake. “You seem to be in my chair.”

I start to get up, but Polly intervenes. “Sit down. We’re not going anywhere. No one saves seats at La Fragua. I’ve been coming here for years.”

I glue my butt to the chair and stare at my fresh Margarita. It seems to bubble in the sticky evening heat. Probably I’m just hallucinating. I shrug at the glass, take a long sip. Not enough salt, but it’ll do. My lips feel like they’re about to detach from my body.

“She seems to have a hearing problem,” the other woman says, gesturing at my mother.

“My ears function perfectly.” Polly’s haughty voice fills the room, bouncing off the walls and ceiling like a rubber ball. “The two of you should have stayed in your chairs. Now they’re gone. Deal with it.”

The argument will go on forever. Most of my mother’s skirmishes devolve into a sophomoric exchange of insults. This invariably erodes her adversary’s defenses until the other party withdraws in disgust.

I close my eyes and drift into an unhappy reverie. 1980 sucked ass, and 1981 doesn’t look any better. Ronald Reagan massacred Carter at the polls, and some maniac named Mark David Chapman killed John Lennon in front of his apartment building.

I’ve loved Lennon since I was a small child and saw him on the Ed Sullivan show. Always my favorite Beatle—spiritual but down-to-earth, funny yet somber. His lyrics much deeper and more incisive than McCartney’s saccharine drivel. I can’t listen to “Imagine” without crying. Its message of hope seems far away, almost impossible.

Though I try to avoid thinking about Lennon’s murder, I’m obsessed by it. I endlessly replay the image of Chapman confronting his hero in front of the Dakota, saying “Mr. Lennon?”, and then opening fire. John’s body crumpling to the ground. Yoko screaming and covering her face with her hands.

I shake the image from my brain and peer around the room. Where the hell is Paul? Usually, he’s shackled to my side, glaring at men who display the remotest hint of interest in my anatomy.

A man sidles up to a chair on the opposite side of the table. He checks out the top half of my body and smiles. His grin is both sympathetic and lascivious. “Is that your mother?” He nods in Polly’s direction. “She seems upset.”

Instead of answering, I gaze at my now-empty glass. It appears to split into a kaleidoscope of glasses, all superimposed on each other and stretching across the table in an endless, chaotic formation.

When I finally speak, my voice sounds unnaturally loud. “She’s always upset. Everyone’s losing their mind over chairs. It’s so pointless, considering all the terrible things going on in the world.”

“I couldn’t agree more.” The two of us lock eyeballs. “It’s sad, isn’t it?”

I am relieved to have met such a sympathetic companion. Leaning back in my chair, I close my eyes and smile. Perhaps these folks aren’t so bad after all. Most people can be reasonable if you find a point of agreement.

The jazz quartet reaches a crescendo. Its deafening drumbeat assaults my brain. The discordant melody segues into a saxophone solo. Bright notes rise into the air like balloons. In the background, I can still hear my mother berating the table’s occupants. Her voice sounds even louder than before.

“You’re just a bunch of plastic people. Wouldn’t know good music if you tripped and fell into it.”

I open my eyes and stare at the group. Everyone’s face pulsates with rage. My new friend has left the table, probably for another drink. I’m on my own again. Me against the lions.

Perhaps some levity will help. It has saved my ass many times during uncomfortable scenes. “No, they’re not plastic. They’re cardboard.” I can’t believe how witty I am, even after four Margaritas. “Or maybe they’re made of wood. Wait….I know what they are. Plexiglas!”

Nobody laughs. I hear a sudden rush of wind, like somebody opened a window to let the heat escape. It emanates from the space behind my head, then ceases abruptly. I continue to stare straight ahead, hoping for a reprieve from the hostile crowd. Perhaps they didn’t understand my joke. Dry humor can be too obscure for folks to grasp.

Polly lunges to her feet and begins to scream at the top of her compromised lungs. Poor woman never seems to have a handle on her emotions. Maybe I should think of another quip.

“Goddammit, I’ll deck your ass! Nobody swings a bottle at my daughter’s head! You hear me?” She leans towards me, wraps an arm around my shoulder. “Honey, that gal just tried to clock you with an empty whiskey bottle. Good thing she missed.”

I wheel around and peer at the crowd. A swirl of faces, blurry and indistinguishable from each other. All of them moving in different directions. Who could have perpetrated such a terrible act?

My eyes slowly come back into focus. A few feet behind me, a woman screams, “I’ll do whatever I want! Get your daughter out of here!” Her face contorts like a gargoyle’s. She seems ready to use her teeth on us, should such an action become necessary.

My body sways with confusion. If I remain at the table, I might get killed, but if I leave the bar alone, I won’t remember the way back to my mother’s house. Meanwhile, Polly is still arguing. Her voice rises a couple of decibels and increases in velocity. She hasn’t even begun to fight.

Paul steps out of the shadows. He takes my arm in one hand and grasps one of Polly’s with the other. “Polly and Leah, it’s time to go home now. C’mon.” His tone sounds steady, authoritative. For once, Paul is the most sober person in the room.

My mulish mother becomes utterly complacent, like she was waiting for the right person to tell her what to do. Without another word, she goes limp and allows Paul to lead us away from the table. My boyfriend will get no argument from me, either. I want to leave San Miguel behind forever and head straight home to Iowa City.

As the three of us cross the room, the crowd falls silent. La Fragua’s musicians are on break, so we have become the entertainment. Every set of eyes rises as we pass.

I can hardly bear their complacency. Just a bunch of vapid imbeciles who amplify frivolous concerns to inflate their own egos. Meanwhile, decent people die, despite their tireless promotion of peace. Gunned down in front of their homes. Gasping for air, while other folks waste time on trivialities.

I can’t leave the bar without vocalizing my displeasure. Turning to face the room, I dial the pitch of my voice to its loudest snarl. “John Lennon is dead, and you people are fighting over chairs! Stupid fucking assholes!”

I lurch towards the door and step outside. Behind me, the room erupts into loud guffaws. I can still hear the noise as I stagger down the street towards my mother’s car. 200 people, having their biggest laughs of the night at my expense. In the morning, I will face the world with the worst hangover of my life. Serves me right for drinking with Polly.

John Lennon is dead. But at least I’ve devised a new use for Plexiglas.

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