The Lowest Bar

The bar was a squat, ugly box, haphazardly tacked on to the base of a character art-deco building. Strategically designed as an ugly duckling amid the uptown glitz and glamour, artificial grunge permeated the place, from the unfaced stage-front of cheap pine, to the carefully worn formica bar surface. Even the smoke was embellished in those days of indoor cigarettes, a hidden fog-machine adding to the haze.

You couldn’t see the floors, of course, because the place was packed slightly over capacity. The sticky surfaces underfoot didn’t have to be faked, with dozens of people fighting for elbow room while juggling pints of beer.

We couldn’t wait to be part of it, and the queue was punctuated with short, terse conversations, underpinned by adrenaline.

Finally, the shuffling line edged its way past the threshold, each of us parting with a token cover charge that seemed a fortune to hollow student wallets, and, for the first time in my life, I walked into a bar.

Our Chem tutor, a hip twenty-something worshipped by most of the girls, and not a few of the guys in our lab, was playing that night, because it wasn’t enough to be handsome, smart and engaging, he’d just have to be a jazz saxophonist, too. You could say a few of us guys, still struggling with acne and introversion, were a little envious – but even we couldn’t deny that he was pretty damn cool, and receiving even third-hand invitations to attend the gig felt incredible.

One by one, we approached the bar, giddily handing over our paper entry chits. One by one, each of us received a pint of suspicious house beer. One by one, that is, until it was my turn.

“How old are you?” The bartender didn’t look too interested.

“Er, 18,” I managed to contain the “in a couple of weeks,” that threatened to follow, as I presented my folded driver’s licence.

He barely glanced down at the unhelpful document. “Sorry mate, the law change isn’t for another three months, so the age is still 20. You’ll have to head outside.”

The blush spread across my face, as I froze and considered a thousand inappropriate responses. A juvenile instinct to incriminate my friends, to stamp my feet and claim unfairness, surfaced only briefly, guiltily in my mind, before embarrassment and a polite nod won out, and I wordlessly shuffled against the tide of alcoholic bliss towards the door.

From the carpark, I could hear the band: they were really good. Taller, older-looking friends popped outside to take shifts standing with me, sharing consolation for problems they’d never encountered, but the consolation mattered.

We stood vigil to the low pulsing lights and boozy world of warm companionship, forging our own bonds as we watched together in the darkness; still distant, still outside, but connected.

This piece was written for Nika Harper’s Wordplay #1. The challenge was a 500 word short story using the prompts “unbridled enthusiasm” and “a guy walks into a bar.”