THE SHEPCAT CHRONICLES

It takes a nation of millions not to read them.

The Night Of: August 20, 1994

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a pre-Chronicles tale adapted from the journals of Brent Shepherd
 
The place: a coffeehouse called Insomnia Café, on North High Street in Columbus, Ohio, across from the university, with décor that I described as “sterile … with metal-topped butcher’s-counter tables and artsy, architectural-metal chairs. They served me a giant cappuccino that may have been brewed in hell and express delivered — it stripped the nerves off my tongue and still hasn’t cooled down some 30 minutes later. …

“There’s a huge American flag on one wall that may have been stolen from a Perkins restaurant. At any minute I expect George C. Scott to stand up over there and tell us not to let the bastards get us down.”

The time: Our story begins in earnest around 11:15 p.m.


 
I had decided I wouldn’t stick around long because I had an earlier-than-normal (for me) flight to catch the next morning, but I ordered an Italian soda and turned my attention to the book I had brought with me. Across the room, a lumpy, dirty but comfortable-looking garage-sale sofa was vacated by the trio of girls who had occupied it since my arrival, so I made my move.

I had read only a few pages when the guy whose picture appears next to the word dreg in the dictionary sat down in the chair opposite me with a mug of steaming-hot tea. He wore abused work boots, some kind of fatigue pants with cargo pockets, a T-shirt, and a leather jacket, even though the temperature was 80+ degrees in Columbus that day. He was attempting something like dreadlocks with his hair, which had aluminum-can pull tabs tied to the ends. (Don’t ask. I was hoping you’d tell me.) He had a sparse and stringy excuse for a beard, dirty teeth, and a glazed expression that extended from his eyes to his whole face. He looked like he had bathed once or twice that calendar year and had maybe been released from jail as recently as that morning on someone’s recognizance other than his own.

He took from his fatigue pockets a rolled-up graphic novel that was as ratty, stained and disheveled as he was. He unrolled it, opened it and read as he fiddled with his teabag. Occasionally he would mumble some question about the café to me as though I were a local.

He asked if Insomnia had a chess board. I told him I didn’t know. He asked if I’d be up for a game if he were able to find one. I said sure, why not. Much to my eventual chagrin, he found a board and pieces and we were all set to play.

I tried, somewhat successfully, to feign concentration while we played and thus kept conversation to a minimum. I spoke to him only when spoken to, which was difficult enough given his slurred speech. Nonetheless, he found things to talk about, asking me still more questions about Insomnia Café which I was unable to answer. Only much later in the proceedings did I venture to explain that I was from Kansas City and therefore not intimate with my surroundings, if for no other reason than to assure him that I was merely ignorant, not an imbecile. I chose to let my chess strategies speak for the imbecile in me.

To this point, I have neglected to mention one important feature of my opponent’s costume, a prop, if you will: the knife tucked into his belt.

Apparently no one in Insomnia minded that this most unsavory character was walking around with a knife handle in conspicuous view. You’d have to be Ray Charles not to notice this detail. Then again, probably everyone figured he could do more harm to himself than to anyone else, because of the way he wore it, the blade pointing straight down toward his genitals. (I have no idea whether he was wearing a sheath of some kind in his pants and was really in no hurry to ask. I didn’t want to know him that well.)

This detail is important because early in our chess game we were approached by a trio of his friends, the leader of which was a perhaps more unsavory-looking punk with a carelessly groomed green mohawk, nose rings, a leather jacket and — you guessed it — a knife handle sticking out of his pants, also aimed precariously toward his genitals. (At this point, I wondered whether this was perhaps a local characteristic that I hadn’t been hipped to yet, and I glanced around the room to see if anyone else was wearing a knife in their crotch.) The mohawk punk’s knife had an elegantly curved silver handle, obvious without being glaringly shiny.

At one point in the conversation, the mohawk punk blurted out, “Oh, dude — I got a new knife.”

“Do you have it with you?” asked the dreg. “Let’s see it.”

At which point the mohawk punk grabbed the buffed silver handle and withdrew his new weapon to reveal …

“Aw, man — that’s a steak knife,” cried the dreg. Indeed, it was a steak knife that may have been lifted from a Shoney’s or a Ponderosa or some such place.

“Yeah,” spat the mohawk punk defensively, brandishing the knife. “But I could still fuck someone up with it.”

“But it’s a steak knife,” repeated the dreg.

The girl who had arrived with the mohawk punk spoke up then, something to the effect of, “You’re probably gonna end up stabbing yourself with that thing,” thus prompting the mohawk punk to threaten her with the excision of a certain part of her own genitalia. The girl seemed undaunted, but as the mohawk punk repeated his threat a few times, I imagined myself getting tangled up in violence among complete strangers. The girl wasn’t very attractive, but it seemed to me she could certainly do better for herself than present company. In any event, the steak knife was eventually resheathed (yikes!), and the trio bade their farewell.

The dreg and I resumed our chess game, which lumbered on toward closing time.

At perhaps 1:30 a.m. another of his derelict friends approached the table. This one was older, at least in his late 30s, unshaven and largely toothless in a hockey player sort of way, wearing thick-lensed horn-rimmed glasses. They greeted each other amiably, without wielding cutlery, and talked while the dreg and I played.

“Hey, look what I got,” the dreg said, producing the disheveled graphic novel from his fatigue pocket.

“Cool,” said the derelict, apparently recognizing it as subject matter in which they shared a common interest. He began to page through it. “When did you get this?”

“Today,” replied the dreg. I almost couldn’t conceal my surprise. This ragged, stained, shredded stack of pages had possibly been a crisp new periodical as recently as 12 hours ago. Maybe I care about printed material a little too much.

A digression: Earlier that evening, when I overtook the sofa, the group before me hadn’t picked up after themselves when they left. The table, nothing more than some particle board suspended by two milk crates, still held a mug, a cup and saucer, and a bottle of Arizona Iced Tea that was still about one-fifth full. The dreg and I had sat the glassware aside to make room for the chess board, but at some point during our game, he reached for the iced-tea bottle.

“Is this yours?” he asked.

“No.” I shook my head.

“Mmm,” he grunted in acknowledgement, then proceeded to top off his own still-steaming mug of tea with the bottle’s contents. “I’ve gotta cool this shit down. It’s too hot to drink.”

I was (probably visibly) appalled, thinking, You have no idea who might have backwashed into that bottle before you came along. Then I caught myself and imagined that, if the girl who’d left it behind returned to witness the spectacle, she would’ve been more grossed-out by the concept than the dreg would ever be.

Anyway: Closing time was drawing near, and the dreg and I were in a standoff. I knew we had to wrap up the game quickly, so I started playing kamikaze chess, trying to make things happen and force one of us to win or lose the game. Insomnia employees urged us to finish but were gracious enough to put up with us. I went after the dreg’s king.

The derelict became more actively involved and actually made the dreg’s final five or six moves until they were able to checkmate me (or I allowed myself to be checkmated). There wasn’t much fanfare. I bade an unceremonious (and probably unnoticed) farewell and vacated the premises.

It was 2:10 a.m. So much for getting to bed early.

At 3 a.m., back at my hotel, I called to request a 7 a.m. wake-up call. The night manager didn’t seem to find the request unusual.

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Written by Shepcat

November 27, 2016 at 6:58 pm

Posted in Life, Travel

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