The Gentleman Jackalope
Knock, Knock—Who’s There?
By Ronnie Sullivan
Hindsight is 20/20. I know now that after four glasses of wine, Don shouldn’t leave his apartment. I know that being somewhere illegal on New Year’s Eve can get sticky. I also know that my wife, Meg, shouldn’t be the safe keeper of weapons.
And I’ve always known that drunks will pay for anything.
“It’s supposed to be a post-apocalyptic grocery store or something,” Don explained to Meg and me as we finished our third drinks. He was talking about the new project by Tom, a former co-worker. The four of us had worked for the same grocery store in Portland until Tom quit one day. Then word spread that Tom was opening a small business. The Grand Opening was New Year’s Eve and we were invited.
During the weeks leading up to the opening, speculation ran rampant as to what Tom would open. Even his close friends didn’t know what the hell he was doing. We only knew he was calling it The Knock-Knock. The rumor with the most steam seemed to be the post-apocalyptic store with five-gallon bottles of water and sacks of rice.
As Meg and I started putting on jackets and shoes, Don poured a final glass of wine and downed it like tequila. Then, we released ourselves onto Hawthorne with a fresh buzz.
Don’s apartment was a little over a mile from The Knock-Knock. I pictured the exact location in my head: a rundown building on SE 7th between Madison and Main. We walked to save a designated driver.
It was a typical winter night in Portland; cold, but warmer than it should be because of the moisture in the air. It didn’t rain while we walked but the streets were wet from a recent downpour. The rain clouds above absorbed urban light pollution and glowed an ominous orange.
I smoked a cigarette halfway through the walk and stopped paying attention. I just enjoyed the walk with my wife and a friend.
I didn’t really look closely again until we found ourselves on SE 7th, about a half-mile where we should have been. The directions had been clear. I looked to Don and asked, “Do you know where Main is?”
He looked around at street signs, confused, and said, “I thought it was here.”
We had been on Mill for a few blocks. If he had mistaken Mill for Main, he would’ve known long before. Instead, as I tried to focus through the buzz, I realized we were three drunks, roaming with no agenda. Nobody was leading, as so we had all just walked.
I looked around, taking in what landmarks I could see. After a moment, I gathered my directional bearings and started us in the right direction. It baffled me that I knew Don’s neighborhood better than he did.
The three of us stood outside of the building I pictured in my head. It was a part of an earlier generation of Portland’s development. The type of building that probably sold something everyone needed and then ran out of business when Portland fell victim to suburban sprawl. Now, it looked unattractive. The soda machine business next door with a small junkyard of old A&W dispensers didn’t help.
Don sighed and pulled out his pack of cigarettes. I could sense my wife’s frustration. She doesn’t like to be strung along. When she’s had a few, her patience diminishes. Mix those two with Don’s failure to navigate, and me bringing us to what looked like an empty building, and she was unhappy. Some people count to ten to calm down. My wife chose to wait through Don’s cigarette.
Don dug in his pockets and came out with a Mini Bic and the grocery store’s standard issue box cutter. After he lit the smoke, I asked, “Why do you have that?”
He looked down at the cutter, unmistakable, as not many items in this world are radioactive piss green. His eyes connected dead with mine, and I noticed him swoon. Through his wine-stained lips, he answered, “In case things go south.”
I shook my head, “Nope. Things won’t go south. Gimme that.”
Before he could do any number of things to keep it away from me, I snatched the cutter from his hand. I looked around for a quick place and slipped it in Meg’s purse.
She looked down and then back up, because something on the door caught her eye. It was a Post-it note above the deadbolt keyhole with scribbled handwriting. Meg stepped up and read aloud, “Knock, knock…”
She turned around and looked at both of us, shrugged, and knocked.
Someone we didn’t recognize answered the door. She looked at each of us quickly and smiled, opening the door fully. We walked into a small room that looked like a simple, post-apocalyptic storefront. Near the door was a table with an old-school cash register. Around the floor were five-gallon bottles of water, sacks of rice, a few folded tarps, and blankets. The wall held shelves of Campbell’s soup and batteries. What caught our attention was the commotion behind the open “Employee’s Only” door. We looked to the girl and back to the door, and it was as if she knew what we were thinking when she said, “The party’s back there. Go on ahead.”
The back was something completely unexpected. The door led to an open main room, lit by red and white Christmas lights. Small groups of people were standing, talking, and drinking. As we entered, friends from the grocery store noticed us and waved. From the main room, there was a bathroom and two side rooms. One, lit by a single light bulb on the ceiling, was just a couch and sound equipment connected to a turntable, playing jazz. It served as a lounge. In the other room was a bar, with Tom tending it.
He smiled and raised his arms, “Hey, guys!”
Meg and I nodded politely until Don, visibly drunk, blurted, “What is this?”
Tom shrugged, “It’s the Knock-Knock…”
A co-worker leaned in to help, “It’s a speakeasy.”
Meg and I said, in unison, “Ohhhhh.”
Tom nodded with a stupid grin.
“Want a drink?” he said pointing to the cooler of Hamm’s behind him.
“Hell yeah!” I said.
With a drink, I meandered from group to group, touching base with anyone I knew. When the conversation grew stale, I would move on to the next group. When my beer was empty, I’d give Tom another dollar.
There weren’t any clocks in the Knock-Knock. This fact was only realized sometime after midnight when someone announced we’ve missed it. The group erupted into spontaneous cries of “Happy New Year!” The assholes who brought noisemakers started making noise. I’m sure that somewhere in the room were disappointed people who didn’t get to kiss someone or get to do the group countdown.
Around one, I made my way back to the bar to see Don. He’d been at the bar all night, letting everyone come to him. There were a few empty cans in front of him. I patted him on the shoulder and said, “How’s it going?”
He didn’t move. Instead, he kept staring at Henry.
The grocery store was located next to a flower shop. We knew all of the employees. Out of the small staff of seven, Henry was the only male. He dressed like a mild-mannered hipster, but he was a flamboyant homosexual who gave himself the nickname “Flower Girl Hank.”
I was concerned. In any situation that Don would be staring at Henry, I would be concerned. I lightly elbowed him and asked, “What’s up, dude?”
He swooned in the barstool and growled, “I think that queer touched my ass the last time he got a drink.”
I looked around. The room had a lot of people. I laughed, “It’s so crowded in here. I’ve probably touched your ass.”
His eyes shot on me with a look that was no laughing matter. I maintained the smile for continuity, but was nervous. I nodded to him and said, “Yo, Don. Want a smoke?”
He nodded and got up. We started walking outside.
Don tried his best to act as sober as possible and when Meg stopped talking, leaned in and asked, “Can I have my cutter, please?”
Meg, who was trying to pay attention to the girl talking to the group, nodded without really hearing Don. She reached in her purse, pulled out the neon green cutter and handed it to him.
Don slipped it in his pocket and continued toward the door for the cigarette.
Outside, the clouds have started misting the streets. It can’t be described as rain, because it can barely be seen unless you look at the light directly under a streetlamp. As the mist tickled my face, I lit a cigarette.
I was relieved to see another group of co-workers waiting outside for a cab. Don and I waited with them, smoking and talking. Well, I talked. Don stood, taking slow drags. His eyes were focused on an object, but really nothing in particular. I could tell that Henry was living rent-free in Don’s thoughts.
His hand never left his pocket and I had the sinking feeling that he reacquired his cutter. Inside, just like Homer Simpson, my brain turned on me and said, “I thought that things weren’t going south…”
I mumbled to myself, “Things aren’t going south.”
One in the group tried to pry Don from his thoughts. While Don interacted, I turned to Katie, another in the group, and pleaded they keep an eye on him. I was brief, but blunt, “I’m getting him out of here because he wants to start a fight. I need to go get Meg.”
“Who’s he gonna fight?” Katie asked.
I was silent for a moment and answered, “Hank the Flower Girl.”
She started laughing. I knew why. Everyone knew that in a fight between Hank and Don, Don would win ninety-nine times out of one hundred. Even without weapons. The laugh lasted a few seconds and Katie nodded, “Yeah. We’ll keep an eye on him.”
A few minutes later, I returned with Meg.
Don stood alone, facing the group. They huddled together opposite Don, as he held his cutter. From our view, it looked like a weird hold-up. However, the group was just keeping watch over each other, listening to Don.
Don ranted about Henry touching his ass. He huffed about the nerve of touching him, like he didn’t have a girlfriend. Like he wasn’t straight! Someone from the group tried to reason with him: “It’s crowded in there.”
He didn’t listen. Another thing I know in hindsight, is that when Don starts ranting, he quits listening. In later rants, I would take the opening he left for me to reply with something like, “That’s shitty!”—and instead say something like, “It’s ‘cause the Lakers won the championship”—every time, he pressed on like nothing happened.
Things went south. Not for everyone, mainly just me. I found myself in the situation of having to diffuse a bomb in a crowded area. I knew that Don couldn’t just start a fight in a speakeasy because someone would call the cops. There would be nothing routine about that call when the cops questioned Tom. Before dawn broke, I knew that an angry drunk could bring down everything another man worked on for months. It made me angry.
I walked up to Don with two plans ready to go. Plan A was to just flat out tell Don that we we’re leaving before he started that fight. I took the risk of riling him up by grabbing his shoulder and telling him stern, “Let’s get out of here. If you start a fight, Tom’s bar gets shut down. It’s that fucking simple.”
There was a tense moment where I watched him digest the information from someone he trusted. The entire time on my end, I was mustering up the courage for Plan B.
He finally nodded and slipped the cutter in his pocket, “Yeah. Fuck that queer.”
I released the tension wrapping my fingers into a fist and sighed. Plan B was to lay a haymaker on Don, hoping for a knockout, and take him home in a cab. I wanted to tell Don that calling anyone queer doesn’t sit well with me, but I knew the fire was out. There was no need to spark it again to make a point. Instead, the three of us started walking back toward Don’s apartment in the Portland mist.
Despite feeling relieved that I put out the fire, I was pissed that I had to do any of it. An important note about Don: he’s sixteen years older than me. If he made two or three wrong decisions in high school, he could be old enough to be my father.
Always remember that because people grow older, they don’t necessarily grow up.
Irritated, I thought of a way to try and recoup what felt like a lost night. Halfway back to the apartment, I saw the bright red neon sign for The Jolly Roger, a pirate-themed bar. As my stomach begged for a burger, I hatched a new plan for Don.
Inside the Jolly Roger, my irritation and Don’s anger slipped away with every burger bite. When the waitress came back to take our plates and drop off the check, our mood was great.
The check didn’t sit for thirty seconds before Don grabbed it and said, “It’s all on me, guys.”
I reached out to try and grab it, “Oh, c’mon. Let me at least pay for us.”
“No, please.” He insisted.
I smiled. Plan C went off without a hitch.
“Don’t call your mother, don’t call your priest,
Don’t call your doctor, call the police.
You bring the razor blade, I’ll bring the speed.
Take off your coat, it’s gonna be a long night.”
“It’s Gonna Be A Long Night” –Ween