OPEN ROAD REVIEW SHORT STORY PRIZE, 2015 (Special Mention)
Frank recognized, as he opened the door and crossed the threshold to the dim interior, that nothing much had changed at the old downtown watering hole. It had been a hangout of his youth before he’d married a quarter century earlier. Back then, he’d stop here after work, or later on a weekend night, to see who was about, chat up women, or watch a few innings of a Red Sox game. Marriage, children, work and bills put an end to all that, and it had been years, decades now, since he’d been back.
The smell that greeted him as he loosened his scarf and unzipped his jacket was like a handshake from an old acquaintance—stale beer, wood polish, and more than a hint of the lunch menu, which relied heavily on the flat grill and the fryolator. Above him, the tin ceiling was still stained to sepia with over a century of tobacco smoke, though smoking in bars had been outlawed in the new century. The wobbly belt-driven fans he recalled churning the air on summer nights were still on this December afternoon. It was the oldest bar in the city, they said, dating back to the 1800’s, when, according to legend, Edgar Allen Poe had drunk here and rented the room upstairs. He came to the city to give some lectures on poetry, back when people cared about such things. Later, though still a few years before Frank’s time, Jack Kerouac had regaled the crowd gathered at the long mahogany bar with tales out of Don Quixote.
What had changed, he saw, as the faces along the bar turned toward the closing door and his eyes adjusted to the shadows, was the clientele. Mostly college kids. Arthur, the gruff, perennial bartender in the days that were gone, no longer held his beery outpost like some antiquated Dickensian sentinel, his blue bartenders’ union button pinned proudly on his white apron. In his place was a young woman with six inches of cleavage and sleeves of tattoos, and Frank tried not to resent her amiable smile.
He wished he hadn’t come early, because until his friends arrived, he was an outcast of time, drinking in a place that, though physically the same, held only the vapors of the world he’d known. Or so he thought, but as he meandered into the murky sanctuary, he noticed an arm waving at the end of the bar and recognized an old friend. “Willy!”
“Howsa goin’ my man?”
“Ah, you know. Jesus, I haven’t been in here in twenty years, and I think the last time I was in you were sitting on the same stool.”
“Shee-it, man, this is my stool.”
“And you look like you haven’t aged a day.”
“Well you know what they say, ‘Black don’t crack.’”
“I guess not. How’s . . . I forget her name . . . you wife?”
“Oh man, Linda, we been divorced fourteen years.”
“Ah, that’s too bad. I liked her.”
“Yeah, she’s a good woman. We still friends. Our son Bradley is in godamn Afghanistan.”
“That’s a worry.”
“Sure is.” He drained his beer mug and pushed the empty glass away. “It sure is.”
Frank caught the bartender’s eye and ordered a Sam Adams and another draft for Willie. “Last time I saw Bradley, you were pushing him on a swing over at Hadley Park.”
“That’s how time goes. You know, I apologize, but I haven’t talked to you in so long, I forget your name. Was it Gary?”
“Oh yeah, Frank. Shit, it’s been a long time. Yeah, I ain’t seen you in here for a long time. Just decide to revisit the old haunt?”
“Yeah, but you’re the only ghost I see.” Frank saw their reflection in the enormous mirror behind the rows of bottles festooned with artificial pine garlands and strings of red and green lights. Old ghosts. He had a sudden recollection of looking into this mirror the night before he got married, wondering how it would all turn out. He remembered the image he saw there—young, bearded, dungaree jacket. That’s how time goes. “Some of us are meeting down here for Blinkie McNamara’s sixtieth birthday. You remember Blinkie?”
“Ah, I probably remember him if I see him.”
The bartender brought their beers. “Thanks. Stella, this is Frank.”
She smiled, gave him a bright hello and took his money.
“Ah, Stella,” Willie called after her, “how did you get so pretty?”
“I heard Arthur died,” Frank said.
Willie nodded and gave a rueful chuckle, “Arthur. Man, that was an old school bartender right there.” They drank their beers and traded Arthur stories for a while, until Lenny came in saying that it was only quarter to five and almost dark out there. “Shortest day of the year,” he said, and Frank introduced, or reintroduced the two and asked Willie if he wanted to join them at a table in the back, but he said he was going to play a little Keno and had to meet someone at Fury’s to shoot some pool.
Frank gathered the change that Stella had left, pushing two singles back. “Listen, I’ll see you in another twenty years, Willie.”
“If I ain’t dead, I’ll be here!”
The old crew was assembled, Frank, Lenny, Walter, and the “birthday boy,” Blinkie. They had gravitated to the same back room booth near the window where they had sat decades ago, as if no time had intervened. They found their initials among many others, painted over, but still visible in the tall backs of the wooden benches. They spoke for a while of the old days, which were somewhat glorified from this snug perspective, and which Frank found vaguely depressing. The truth was that there was a reason he had stopped coming to this bar and the other bars of his youth—a reason beyond the responsibilities of fatherhood and marriage. He’d been ready to leave all that behind; he never missed it, and he could not quite understand Willie’s dogged insistence on maintaining his post at the bar while time moved on and the names of old friends faded.
“Just don’t fuckin’ embarrass me with that stupid Happy Birthday song,” Blinkie requested. They immediately sang “Happy Birthday,” to scattered, polite applause from the bar. Stella had the good grace, a minute later, to bring him a shot of Jack.
Blinkie tossed it back and said, “Sixty, Jesus Christ. I know that’s old.”
“O anguish,” Walter proclaimed, “how the tormented heart trembles!”
Collective groans. “Oh, Jesus, there he goes with Shakespeare . . .”
Walter, undaunted, corrected them. “Bach’s Passion According to Saint Matthew . . . . If I had stayed in Lowell, you homeboys might have got some culture.” He was the only one of the old gang who had moved away. Though he’d been an English major, he had somehow got into sales of medical supplies, married a doctor, and made more money than the others combined. He had no inflated sense of self, though; he still valued his old friends, and had flown up from Miami to be with them this weekend—though it was convenient that the holiday was near and he still had family in the Valley.
“I resent that remark, Waldo,” Lenny protested. “I got plenty of culture. I’ve watched every season of Downton Abbey. In fact just last night I dreamed I was banging Lady Mary Crowley.”
“Whatever. She was lovin’ it.”
“Well,” the birthday boy said, out of his glum reverie, “I suppose the next thing that will happen is we’ll start dying.”
A chorus of disgust. Walter made as if to get up and leave. “It was fun seeing you guys again,” he said. More patrons had entered the bar and a couple of them started shoving coins into the juke box.
Frank shook his head resignedly. “Boys, just be thankful you were not born forty years later. Look at this poor kid at the bar trying to chat up the redhead. He’s talking to her and she keeps checking her phone and texting.”
“Thank God they didn’t have fucking iPhones when I was out there,” Blinkie agreed. “I mean just about anything would have been more interesting than a conversation with me when I was twenty.”
“Oh yeah, you’ve gotten a lot more interesting since,” Walter said. “Now you can tell us about your swollen prostate.”
“Oh fuck you, Walter.”
“Hey, come on, it’s his birthday,” Lenny said.
“All of a sudden we’re supposed to be nice to him just ‘cause he’s a venereal, I mean a venerable sixty?”
“Ah we’ll all be there soon,” Lenny said, “but Frank is right; it’s a different world. Maybe it’s better, I don’t know. I mean my son is gay—it’s definitely better for him than it would have been forty years ago.”
Walter had not heard this news before. “Arty is gay? Have you always known it, Lenny?”
“No, not really. I mean, maybe I suspected. And then he told us about a year ago. It was tough. I mean, you know, I love my son, of course, no matter what, but it’s tough. And Carol was like, ‘What’s wrong with you? It’s no big deal. What, are you homophobic?’ I don’t think I’m homophobic at all, but I don’t know, am I supposed to be happy about it? Am I supposed to be happy that he’ll never have the life I imagined, that I won’t have grandkids of my own, see a lovely young woman caring for a grandkid—and that maybe he’ll still face problems . . . you know, it’s just not what I hoped for, I’m sorry. Call me a bigot.”
“You know,” Walter said, “I understand exactly what you’re saying, but I wonder, you know, we’re all products of our time, and I think that among these young kids today—they grew up so differently than us. They’re much more tolerant than we were . . .”
“No doubt about that,” Frank said.
“Look how fast it’s changed. Imagine if I told my father that two guys could legally get married? That would have been . . . unthinkable. They considered it a mental illness. And once we die off, which Blinkie says is coming shortly, there just won’t be anything to it. You know, you’re a lefty, you’re a righty, you’re straight, you’re gay . . . that’s how it’ll be. We’re the last generation that thought it was strange or wrong.”
The others considered this, and Frank said, “My kid was filling out a job application, and there were a whole lot of choices for ‘gender.’ Male, female, transsexual, transgender, undergoing reassignment process or something, and then one that said, ‘self-identifying.’ What does that even mean?”
“I’ll tell you what it’s a fuckin’ bizarro world out there,” Blinkie noted.
“I don’t know,” Frank said, “OK, I’m an old fart, I guess. Soon to join my friend here as a sextegenarian, or sexagenarian or whatever it is, but the world that’s coming kind of scares me. You know Maralyn was reading this article to me off the internet. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, they have a kid, a girl, but they want people to refer to her as ‘they,’ a ‘gender neutral’ pronoun, until they decide what sex they want to choose. I read that already in some places, school authorities don’t want teachers to refer to children as boys and girls—they want everything ‘gender-neutral’ until the kids like, choose a fucking gender.”
“Christ,” Lenny said, “they is plural. The correct gender neutral pronoun would be it.”
“Is it me, or is that fucked-up?” Frank asked.
“No, that’s fucked-up,” Blinkie assured him, “and by the way, this music really sucks. What is this shit? I’m gonna go put some Stones on the juke box.”
“Good idea,” they said and he slid out of the booth.
“Just to play devil’s advocate,” Walter said, “maybe in twenty years, ‘cause this stuff is changing fast, if people heard this conversation, it would be like us hearing a conversation among a bunch of guys in Alabama in 1950 saying, ‘Yeah these fucked-up people wanna stick blacks and whites together in the same school,’ and to them, it seemed just as crazy as the shit we’re talking about.”
“I don’t know,” Frank said, “maybe. It’s just that discrimination against someone because of skin color is a pretty clear-cut violation of human rights. But this seems to be fucking with nature . . .”
“Or finally recognizing people’s natures . . .”
“Are that many people really confused about their gender? When did that happen? And are we confusing children more? I mean I don’t care if ‘they’ want to change genders, but I’m just thinking, when I was a kid, if the adults refused to recognize any differences between the boys and the girls, I would have thought they had lost their minds.”
Walter nodded and looked into his beer thoughtfully. “Well, yeah, it is pretty fucked up I guess, but the truth is we just don’t fit in the new world anymore and that’s it. You got four-year-olds with Facebook pages . . . downloading bullshit on You Tube.”
“Remember when we were kids,” Lenny said, “if we found a Playboy somewhere, what a big deal it was? I used to get excited about the marble nymphs frolicking in a fountain in an art book in the school library! Now, kids have 24/7 access to hardcore porno in their pockets . . . not to mention ‘sexting.’”
“Yeah,” Frank added, “along with how to make a bomb, join a suicide club, cyber-bully some poor kid, and everything else you can imagine and some you can’t.” Once again, they contrasted all this with the pastimes of their youth, when they used to swap comic books, build tree houses, and play tag football on the street. “And when you were home,” Frank said, “you were disconnected from friends and had time to think, read, and become the person you were going to become.”
Blinkie came back, and picked up the thread of the conversation. “All in all,” he declared, “we were better off before the fuckin’ internet. Now you got child molesters and terrorists hookin’ up with each other, girls from Oklahoma who see some kind of jihad propaganda shit and wanna go join ISIS. It’s a fuckin’ Pandora’s Box, that’s what it is.” Frank listened to him, studying the haggard face and bloodshot eyes, the gray, drooping moustache; he was trying to recall the young man he had known. God, he looked old, as did Lenny and Walter with his mane of white, and Frank wondered if they all saw him in this way, a shrunken, dried and feeble shadow of the man he’d been, railing against the new world of which he was less and less a part.
They all felt better when the juke box blasted the Stones “Honky Tonk Woman,” and the conversation turned from the fucked-up world to women. The room was crowded now, and another bartender had come on, a burly guy with a Fu Man Chu and a bow tie. Stella came over and smiled good-naturedly at Blinkie’s innocuous flirting. She cleared their bottles and he called for shots all around and more beer. Frank headed for the men’s room. Passing amid the college girls, he felt once more like a ghost. He had become invisible to them. It wasn’t that he wanted to cheat on his wife or even capture the interest of some woman young enough to be his daughter. No, it was just the strangeness of it—of this slipping through time, walking the same sunken floor boards, edging once again through the crowded space between bar stools and wall to the same graffiti-blasted bathroom amid the clatter of glasses, the ringing of the tip bell, the shouts, the friendly challenges, the bursts of laughter, while above it all now Mick Jagger vaunted his reputation as a Street Fightin’ Man. It could be 1977, only for that fact that he had shrunk somehow, so that not a single woman smiled as he passed, or tossed her hair, or raised a pair of eyes to meet his. He had become a window through which they seemed to see something else.
When he returned to the table and reported that he had become invisible to women, the others nodded, understanding immediately. A story occurred to him, and he said, “When I was in college, I worked one summer with Blinkie here on the garbage trucks.”
“Ashes and waste,” Blinkie corrected him.
“Right. And one day, I was tossing barrels with this guy, an older guy, well at the time I thought he was old—he was probably forty or something. He points to a guy crossing Broadway, and he says to me, ‘You see that guy right there? He’s forty-five years old, and he’s never had a decent piece of ass in his life.’”
The others considered this awful revelation. “What was wrong with him?” Lenny asked. “Christ, I remember the day I scored three times with three different women in one twenty-four hour period. Have I told you that story?”
“Many times,” Blinkie said.
“I don’t know what was wrong with him,” Frank continued, “or anything else about him. I just remember this guy telling me that, and I thought it was one of the saddest things I ever heard. So my point is, yeah we’re invisible, but what the hell, we’re old. We did have our day, though. No one is ever gonna say that about us. Let’s drink to that.”
They drank to that, and Frank added, “May I also say, at the risk of being, what’s the word . . .”
“Obscene?” Walter asked.
“Stop! Impertinent. At the risk of being impertinent, that I would say that all of your wives and my own would qualify as, you know, a decent piece of ass.”
The others were quiet for a moment, and Frank said, “Look, I’m not suggesting wife-swapping or anything like that. You know, I just mean, they are attractive women, and also . . . very good women.”
“Are you drunk?” Lenny asked.
“I think so, but we made out all right, single and married. And none of our kids is a drug addict or in jail. Lenny may not be overjoyed that his kid is gay, but he’ll tell you Arty is a great kid, right?”
Lenny nodded, “Fabulous kid.”
“Absolutely. We’re happy, right? Why is everyone looking at me like I’m suggesting— like I’m suggesting something crazy or something?”
“Nah, you’re not crazy,” Walter said. “I think we’re happy, probably happier than a lot of people. It’s just that, you know, when you get to be our age, you do wonder how things might have been.”
“Might have been?” Blinkie nearly shouted. “You’re one of the beautiful people, for Chrissakes! Swimming pool, no doubt a stainless steel kitchen, deck the size of my yard, a knockout doctor wife and a damned beach house! You might have been stuck teaching English at Lowell High and married to Dolly Muldoon.”
Walter, who had always been able to laugh at himself, slouched in the bench, leaning sideways against his bleary-eyed accuser. Finally, he sat up and as the laughter subsided he said, “Like I said, I’m happy. I’ve had a good life. So far—you never know what’s coming. But I mean, OK, for example, I like to ski, right? I always have—we always skied when we were younger . . .”
“Until it got too goddamn expensive,” Lenny said.
“It is expensive. Anyway, my wife doesn’t want to ski. She really doesn’t want to go anywhere cold. That’s how we ended up in godamn Miami. I’d love to take a ski trip with my wife. Yeah, I got the money, but my wife doesn’t want to do that.”
“So you want a woman who skis?”
“I know it sounds crazy. But there’s this woman, a neighbor of mine, and she loves to ski—we talk about it—she and her husband go to Vale, up to Maine, even the Alps. Not that I don’t get along with my wife, but I wonder how it would have been if I had married her, or a woman like her, a really active, outdoorsy woman who wanted to go kayaking, mountain climbing, skiing . . . I just think it would have been a lot of fun. It makes you wonder, that’s all.”
“Human nature,” Lenny said. “To wonder like that. But you know, the woman on the skis could have turned out to drive you crazy in some other way.”
“I know. I know.”
“And you wouldn’t have the kids you have. You might have had the drug addict jailbird we were talking about with the other one.”
“I love my wife. I love my kids. You just wonder a little bit sometimes. Or maybe it’s that you want to live more than one life.”
Lenny got up to hit the head, and Blinkie went to order another round. “We’re gonna have to take a cab and get our cars tomorrow,” he said.
Walter said, “That’s all right,” and handed him twenty bucks, “It’s your birthday, man. Your money’s no good.”
When they were gone, Frank leaned across the table and said, “Let me ask you one thing. You travel around for business all the time. Strange cities. Hotel bars. You ever cheat on your wife? It’s in the vault, of course.”
“Senator, I have no recollection . . .”
“It’s just that I always wonder about the travelling businessman . . .”
“OK, for the deep vault files. Once. But it wasn’t on business . . .”
“The woman with the skis?”
“No. Only in thought.”
“There was a woman, Afsoon her name was.”
“Afsoon,” Frank said speculatively.
“Persian. Working as a rep for another company. She used to come by sometimes, we’d share leads because clients who bought her products might also want my stuff and vice versa. Her family was from Iran originally, rich people back under the Shah who fled when the ayatollahs took over. Stunning woman. Huge brown eyes. Short dark hair. Even her voice . . .” He shook his head and blew a sort of sigh. “I was attracted to her, what can I say? So she comes by late one Friday afternoon. We’re discussing foreign films and writers, having a great conversation, and finally I ask her if I can make a copy of a couple of pages of one of her catalogs for a client—anyway, my section of the building is empty by now, but when I take the catalog, I thought she would wait in my office. She follows me down to this little copy room at the end of the corridor, and like I said, there’s no one around. I’m making the copies, and I’m aware that she is right next to me, and all of a sudden my heart is beating like mad, and I’m panicking, what am I gonna do? I’m at the edge of this precipice, you know? I don’t know whether to run or kiss her.”
“Well, I almost ran. I almost bolted for the door, but I was still young, and I suppose full of hormones, not that that’s an excuse, but when she moved her body against mine in that small space . . . I turned and she was looking up at me with those big brown eyes, I just . . . well I’d have to plead temporary insanity if it came to trial.”
“Right there? You did it in the copy room?”
“The charms of this woman faded, I mean immediately, as panic set in. Terror! I saw divorce, disgrace, my wife betrayed, my kids ashamed, the house for sale. I realized I didn’t even know if she was on birth control. What if she was pregnant—or if she had some disease? What if she turned out to be a fatal attraction, started calling me at home and breaking into my house to boil rabbits on the stove?”
Frank laughed. “None of which happened.”
“No, and when Afsoon saw my reaction—I couldn’t hide it, she told me not to worry. I never saw her again as a matter of fact. What a cowardly heel she must have thought me. The ironic thing was that, I felt closer than ever to Laura afterward. I felt as if I had brushed with losing her, and it made me realize how much I really did love her.”
“Yes, I fell in love with her all over again.” He paused and drank his beer, then leaning over the table toward Frank he added, “which still didn’t prevent the odd fantasy about a sexual encounter with a snow bunny at an Alpine retreat.”
“Ah, you’re a terrible man.”
Walter nodded, “Aren’t we all? And what about you?”
Frank shook his head. “Never. Couldn’t do it. Like you said, the fear of losing the respect of your wife—your kids.”
“And you love your Maralyn, right?”
“I do. And I think it would be much easier for her to cheat on me. All a woman has to do is. . .”
“Stand too close to a guy making copies . . .”
He shrugged. “And I wouldn’t be happy.”
“Well, you kept your vows. That’s a good thing, Frank.”
Lenny and Blinkie emerged from the crowd, the latter clutching a round of bottles by their necks. “Hey,” Blinkie said, “this chick over at the bar says I’m the sexiest, sixty-year-old she’s ever fuckin’ seen! I’m tellin’ you, she’s impressed. I told her I could still show a woman a good time. That’s why they call me Irish swagalicious.”
“Yeah, she’s still laughing,” Lenny said.
“Sixty, Jesus!” Blinkie said. He set the bottles on the table.
“Sixty is the new forty,” Frank said.
“Yeah, right. Fuckin’ death is the new power nap.”
“Speaking of Jesus,” Walter said.
“Ah, shit. Here’s that awful fuckin’ ghetto gangsta bullshit on the juke box again. What say we chug these beers and then walk over to the Greek joint—the Acropolis—watch the belly dancer?”
Frank saw that Lenny was already yawning. It was near midnight and no doubt past their normal bed times. Not like the old days. They finished their beers and put on their coats and passed invisibly through the crowd and out under the stars. They breathed the chill air, expelling fogs of breath. Walter spread his arms as if to embrace the night, or his old hometown, and recited:
Study me then, you who shall lovers be
At the next world, that is, at the next spring;
For I am every dead thing,
In whom love wrought new alchemy
“Oh Christ, let’s go, he’s drunk and now he’s gonna get fuckin’ eloquent! We’ll see you at the Greek bar!” Blinkie cried, pulling Lenny by the arm, and Frank watched that dark parade set off along the canal in what seemed to him a somber reenactment of pub crawls now four decades gone, while Walter, the scholar of their younger days, continued his recitation.
. . . But I am none; nor will my sun renew.
You lovers, for whose sake the lesser sun
At this time to the Goat is run
To fetch new lust, and give it you,
Enjoy your summer, all . . .
Frank leaned back against the warped clapboards of the old building and listened.