Featured Image by Beatriz Albuquerque
There are worse ways to spend an evening than hearing Bob-Bob tell the story about the time he brought a cow’s eyeball to school, and the kids took turns sticking it to the palms of their hands. It was easy access for him because his father owned a meat-packing plant, and would ply him with cow parts for show and tell every Friday.
“Sticks just like Silly Putty right there and won’t come off.” He waved his puffy hand over the bar top then bumped my fist. I was unclear why I had bumped fist with someone I had just met, but thought it harmless at the time.
“The name’s Bartholomew, but everybody calls me Bob-Bob,” he said.
“My name is Robert but everyone calls me Bob.”
“Bob-Bob, this is Bob,” said the barkeep, feigning an introduction. “Bob-Bob, Bob,” she said, but I had already been transformed idiotic by a vinegary Merlot.
“I’ve met two Bobs in one night before, but never two Bobs in one guy,” I told him, as he finished a Pilsner.
It is a renewing experience, checking into a hotel in one’s hometown with a New York driver’s license. The smallest part of me almost felt guilty passing off as a stranger in my very own Midwestern capital city. But Bob-Bob was pretty good entertainment, and it was free.
“You know what the Mexicans say when I visit the plant down in Kansas?” he said.
“They all show me the finger and say, ‘Fuck you, Bob-Bob!'”
“Why is that?”
“They love me over there. They’re all illegals.”
“Yup. They put it up on the web, a whole room full of Mexicans giving me the finger,” he said, and scanned me with pride.
“Impressive,” I said. “How did that start?”
“You know how I got my name?”
“My baby brother couldn’t say ‘Bart,’ he could only say ‘Bo-Bo,’ and it stuck.”
“Bartholomew? That’s your real name?” said the barkeep. She looked like the kind of small-towner who never cared about leaving until late in the game. She had a crop of long regrets under her eyes.
“What do you do, Bob?” he said.
“You must be referring to my work.”
“I’m not asking the other Bob,” he said, in reference to the emptiness of the place.
“I show people the worst possible scenario while pouring them a cup of tea.”
“So you’re in the insurance business.”
“What about you?” I said.
I am good at deflection. But he kept the conversation rolling, because he was that kind of guy. Some people call it friendly. I call it keeping the silence at bay.
“I do sales and training of safety equipment,” he said.
“Safety equipment? I was guessing CIA, and the eyeball was someone else’s story.”
“Gloves, hard hats, eye-protection, the works.”
“They must keep you busy,” I said.
“I did a million in sales to Con-Agra last year, 1.8 million to Tyson Chicken. Omaha Steaks, Red Lobster, you name it.”
“Why were they telling you off, then?”
“I’m showing them how to strap on the helmet, how to secure the goggles, and I tell ’em all, ‘Listen, if you don’t do this right, there’s a van outside that’ll take you straight to INS.'”
“You said that?”
“Yeah. So the translator asks me, ‘Do you really want me to say that to them?’ Because these guys didn’t speak a word of English.”
“You mean you don’t speak a word of Spanish.”
“I had him translate every word,” he said.
“That’s when they showed you the finger.”
“The whole factory!”
“Well, you can’t say they didn’t speak any English. They knew how to say ‘Fuck you.'”
“They love me over there. Every time I go there they show me the finger and say, ‘Fuck you, Bob-Bob!’ So where you from?”
“You’ve been in meat-packing your whole life?”
“You never answered my question.”
“Was show and tell a contest at your school?”
“The kids would vote, and I always won.”
“I bet the teacher saved you for last,” I said.
“City or state?”
“What was the craziest thing you ever brought?”
“Probably the cow’s eyeball. All the kids took turns waving it around. Stuck right to their hand!”
Bob-Bob could not get enough of wanding his hand around while the barkeep watched. I kept wondering why he was repeating the same phrase.
“What else did you bring?”
“I brought everything.”
“Everything. One time I brought a tongue on dry ice.”
“How was that?”
“Have you ever seen a cow’s tongue?”
“It’s about this thick and this long.”
“I opened up the cooler, steam came pouring out, all the kids gathered around. They talked about it for weeks!”
“Sounds like a horror flick. I bet the teacher was freaked out.”
“They loved us. Every year, my dad would bring a half of a cow and donate it to the school. We’re talking filet mignon, prime rib, t-bone, rib-eye, the whole works,” he said, fondly stroking a short beard.
“You married, Bob?” he asked. It came with a look not of scrutiny, but of fact-checking. He offered to buy me another glass of Merlot.
“I hope you don’t find it rude,” I said, “but I’m not so good at talking about myself. I’ll switch to the Chilean Shiraz. That Merlot was spicy for all the wrong reasons.”
“Think nothing of it. I just like to hear people’s stories.”
The barkeep brought me a glass of red. We toasted to business.
“Curious George had nothing on that tongue, eh?” I said.
“Exactly. Any kids, Bob?”
He was now officially pushing it.
“Like I said. I’m not good at talking about myself.”
“They looked over that dried ice like it was the best thing they’d ever seen,” he said.
“I bet it was,” I said, but I had the distinct feeling my time had run out with Bob-Bob.
“You headed to Jake’s now?” said the barkeep, and brought him the bill.
“You always can tell.”
Jake’s was the bar at the end of the docks. That part of town used to be the bona fide shipping area, back when the railroad meant trade. Later it served a lonely Amtrak station that saw traffic once a day. By the time the stadium came, the area gained a new demographic. Guys like Bob-Bob were coming through as regulars.
“Good meeting you,” I said and we bumped fist. He had a wedding band, and was left-handed.
“Say hello to Manhattan for me,” he said.
“Say hello to Jake’s.”
He pushed out the side door of the hotel bar and there was a freshness to the wind that blew back in.
“How well do you know Bob-Bob?” I asked the barkeep.
“He comes in every couple weeks or so. Why?”
“Does he work for the Feds?”
She became weirdly unsettled.
“What do you care?” she said and turned cold.
I paid off my debt and noticed she charged me for the glass he supposedly bought. I left her a rare quarter and took the elevator to the fourteenth floor.
From the windows in the upper lobby, the small town avenues looked like real avenues but with slower traffic, and sparse enough I could count the headlights. I turned the key through the lock, and the room was too dry, like someone had turned up the heat.
It was Bob-Bob, or his silhouette, there in the corner plush looking over the lights of the capitol building. He was holding something carefully with both hands, like it was a precious gift.
“What you doing in my room, Bob-Bob?” I asked, but he switched on the floor lamp and was cracking open the top of the mini-cooler with his stubby, beat-up hands. The steam nearly covered his whole face. A pair of hairy eyebrows raised over the top peering down into the fog.
“I wanna show you something,” he said, with a manic lilt at the end. Now he sounded more than a bit loony. He seemed changed, like the disturbed, focused side of the same man.
I did not know how or why, but my curiosity trumped self-preservation. I could not resist my own undoing.
I let the door close behind me and neared the emanation. The capitol building loomed big and blue behind him.
“This is the real thing, here,” he said, as the fog parted, and there it was. The most terrible thing I had ever seen. Anatomically intact and grotesque.
“It’s time for you to leave, Bob-Bob,” I said.