“That’s the thing about this city,” I say as the shot of tequila burns its way down my throat. "Too many fucking bridges.”
The bartender nods in sympathy, the green bottle poised for another tip into my gullet. “More?” he asks.
I tilt my head back.
“Closer,” he says, raising the bottle, “I can’t reach ‘at far.” I lean towards him, and he pours another shot into my mouth.
“More,” I sputter. But he’s already walking away, along the two-foot width of the wooden bar, stepping over a shot glass, and weaving between two pints of lager and a bottle of Black and Tan that’s longer than his legs.
“The bony bridges grip muddied banks, as salty cars crawl across their span.”
“What?” I say, turning to the right to see the source of the voice. A twenty-something woman, wearing a saffron sweater, sips a glass of red wine, her face half hidden in shadow.
“You were talking about bridges earlier, to Shaun,” she says, nodding towards the midget bartender who’s pouring tequila into the waiting mouth of the woman with a purple pixie haircut and a full sleeve of tattoos.
“I’m writing a book of poems about Pittsburgh,” she says, holding a small leather notebook.
“Uh, huh. You an English major at Pitt or something.”
“No,” she smiles, tucking a strand of black hair behind an ear, revealing a silver raven dangling from her left lobe. “You could say I’m a student of Psychology.”
“That’s even worse.”
“I’m here visiting my Aunt Helen.”
I grunt and watch the bubbles float to the top of my ale.
“I’m Melinoe,” she says, holding out a pale hand. "But you can call me Mel."
“So why the animosity towards bridges?”
I glance to the TV bolted above the bar. A replay of Hill Street Blues flashes across the screen. “It’s not about the bridges,” I say. “They’re just the symptoms, a thousand outcomes of the rivers and the gullies and the hills, and the terrible maze of one-way streets. The bridges, they stitch together the patchwork of neighborhoods hugging the hills and river banks. They connect the Poles, the Jews, the Germans, the Italians, the Irish. The manual laborers and knowledge workers, architects and jazz singers, computer whizz kids and storytellers.”
“Get in!" a frat bro yells as the door swings open. He points to the bartender, turns to his friend and says, “I told you so. Midget Monday Madness!” The stench of stale beer and soured privilege fills my nostrils as they pass behind me, before muscling their way to the middle of the twenty-foot bar.
“And fucking college kids and Mr. Rogers with his prim cardigan,” I continue, beckoning to the bartender. “And the willowy women walking down Walnut Street in their tortoiseshell sunglasses and high heels.”
The bartender shuffles over to me. “Another.” I say, tilting my head back, trying to make my mouth as large and steady a target as possible. He pours a double shot, not missing a drop. I swirl my tongue, making a tequila whirlpool, before gulping down.
He raises the bottle hopefully toward Mel. She shakes her head and taps a painted black fingernail against the wine glass. “I’ll have another, when you get a chance,” she says. He sighs heavily and trudges toward the frat boys. She flips a few pages in her notebook and reads aloud.
Preparation H cream.”
“What the hell you on about?”
“Those willowy women on Walnut Street. I noticed them too. We only see the finished product. The façade. They’re pretty skinny things who volunteered for aesthetic torture. Their dreams are full of needles.”
“If you say so.”
“You don’t care for poetry?”
“Not if it’s bad.” I say, letting my eyes roam up the exposed brick wall behind the bar until they reach the geometric pattern in the black, pressed-tin ceiling.
“Andy Warhol used to drink here,” she says. “His dreams were the same as his waking life. Full of celebrities and soup cans, molded plastic and mushroom clouds.”
“Next you’ll tell me Gene Kelly danced on the bar.”
“No, but Martha Graham did,” she says with a wink.
The frat boys are cheering each other on, seeing who can chug bottles of Iron City the fastest. I wave the barkeep over.
“I’ll have more of that,” I say, pointing to the vessel in his hand. “But first, I’m buying the college boys a platter of pierogis. The deadly hot ones, stuffed with the habanero peppers.”
He smiles and pours me a triple shot. I wipe the drop that’s dribbled down my left cheek and continue, "And fuck the people sitting in their cars, at the red light, in the oncoming lane of traffic, who see your left-blinker blinking, and wave you through when the light turns green.”
“You don’t appreciate the Pittsburgh Left?”
“I’ll turn left when I’m good an’ ready. Not just ‘cause I’m invited,” I say, wobbling on the bar stool slightly. “What time is it?”
“I got ten hours left.”
“Then what happens?”
“I gotta get outta town. Never to set foot in the Steel City again.”
“What will happen if you do?”
“There’s a thirsty crowbar with my name on it.”
“How deliciously dramatic!”
The frat boys are crying and slamming their fists on the bar, shaking the platter of half-finished pierogis.
“Yeah, I got a way of upsetting people. And I upset the wrong people too many times.”
“Will you miss it, this city?”
“Hell no. It's just a city with parasitic bridges and manufactured fog. And re-purposed churches serving indian pale ale and pierogi pizza," I say, watching the beer slosh in the glass as I roll it between my hands. "Christ, it doesn't even earn the pointless sentimentally of being my hometown.”
“But you've adopted it, as your hometown.”
“What? How would…Are you some kind of demented mind-reader?”
“I see people’s dreams. And nightmares. Yours are colliding.”
I try to fix my gaze on her, but I can’t reconcile the double vision before me. There’s two of her now. One shimmering like silver, the other dark, absorbing all the light.
“Can I give you some advice?” she asks.
I shrug half-heartedly.
“In your dream tonight, take the left turn. It will make all the difference.”