By: John Van Dreal
At a divey place just off the sound, between Bellingham and
Ferndale. A rich palette of neon lighting, booze advertisements,
dozens of small TVs featuring sports and sitcom reruns filling
the den—the bar owners have made the interior their canvas.
A sign reads, Fancy Beer Not Found Here. The tap is limited
to Coors, PBR, Miller. Yellow ochre and black tinted cigarette
burns and contoured bottle rings have etched the archaic Formica
bartop to the backing board, creating architectural shadows of
Patrons’ arms are adorned with nicotine patches and poorly
rendered, faded tattoos. No hopheads, no hipsters. The bartender
I don’t know anyone. I feel gawky, awkward—I ease my social
discomfort with an overcooked cheeseburger and a third beer.
A lady enters from the smoker’s porch, her body long and
calligraphically flowing from the restrictions of her skin-tight
denim, tailed by the robust smell of stale, smoke-drenched aura.
Taking it in, I fondly recall my grandparents, their home, their
car and everything else they touched with their nicotine-covered
I think of you and the keenness you had for unfiltered cigarettes.
I miss you—
how you would flash an earnest smile at my awkward moments.
You called it your rodeo clown smile because of your jagged
canines that framed the vacant spaces once occupied by a few
I imagine your ghost. Smiling, the teeth still snaggy and missing.
This is your kind of place.
The modal jazz—a soothing sound in my earbuds. I navigate the determined roots of a white oak clawing their way through a sidewalk fracture then stumble and glimpse at the edge of the bridge, tucked just under the concrete steps leading to the park, a man resting, shrouded in a blue plastic tarp. A garbage bag sits, spilling soiled socks, tattered underwear, a pair of truly distressed denims over the damp grass. A Starbucks paper cup, stuffed with candy bar wrappers, lies next to his hand. His sleeping bag is strewn over the stair railing, drying in the sun. A few feet away, a shopping cart adorned with strands of decayed ivy, wet rags, an orange safety cone, a dog leash, and silver tinsel leans against a bridge post. The tinsel doesn’t make sense.
My mind mutes the tune—its moderate, melodic tempo transposing to the smell of dampness and urine. It reminds me of the high school locker room when I was fifteen. It’s not a nostalgic smell.
Compassion fatigue. I’ve become numb to these scenes—the new normal in my city.
In the past, I was acutely concerned. Each person living on the street advising me on guilt—their threadbare accessories and refuse a reminder of my failed humanity. I often felt compelled to do something, but secretly wished they would return to the trees, out of sight.
I know there must be a middle ground, between passion and indifference.
I head back to town, through the park, focused on the music. Miles reminds me that it’s just blues. That’s all it is. My thoughts turn to a book on Andrew Wyeth. My life has always been a painting composed collaboratively by the gods of biogenetics and my parents but left for me to add color, value, form. Now, my kids add glazes of translucent monochromatic tone, like thin, colored slices of stained glass held over the entire canvas. Each layer subtly unifying the whole. There is an awkward aesthetic, but so far it is working. It could have been different, though. It still could be.
I look back at the resting man. That’s me in a different universe. That’s any of us.
Standing a few feet from the edge of the counter, I watch the
barista, cautiously eyeing his style and tattoos. I don’t want
him to be aware of my study, but I am intrigued by his clothing
choices, given his endomorphic build—baggy, gray denim
trousers and generic white deck shoes, emphasizing his short
legs; tightly fitting orange T-shirt with short sleeves that gather
at his thick, yet barely defined deltoid muscles.
From under the cotton material cinched at his shoulder, flows
an inked image of a brilliantly colored hummingbird suspended
upside down below a golden-red sunflower. A yellowish-gray
spiderweb projects from beneath the bird, runs down his biceps,
and transitions into an olive-green snake coiled around his
elbow. Below the snake, just above his inner wrist, is an image
of a mouse, rendered in cerulean blue and surrounded by a
larger, faintly outlined ghostly image of a mongoose.
I study the image for a few seconds. I think, The mongoose
appears unfinished. The barista appears unfinished, or some
might think so, yet he projects a confidence and comfort with
his own physical traits—traits that others might consider
flaws. Perhaps the mouse becomes the mongoose. Perhaps
the mongoose protects the mouse.
I feel myself smile as I eye him from head to toe. I spent the
early years of my adult life learning about what others thought
of as imperfect—now I celebrate the idea of eliminating the
distinction from my mind.
He notices my attention and nods, then hands me a ceramic cup
filled with coffee and a dusting of cinnamon, tipping his arm
outward to expose the ink and his purplish-blue arteries, visibly
A third-generation artist, John Van Dreal began painting and writing at age seven. He earned his formal education in Fine Arts at Humboldt State University and Brigham Young University and educational psychology at Brigham Young University, maintaining careers in both fields while writing. A musician and award-winning artist with work featured in collections throughout the Pacific Northwest, Van Dreal uses his creative vision and accessible writing style to explore both the darker and quirkier sides of human behavior. He resides in Salem, Oregon and is currently composing his first novel.