I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
This First Proof contains the short story “The Bar On Tompkins Square Park.”
For Eric Fischl
“Let’s not stay much longer,” she said.
“Bored already? We just got here.”
“It’s tired here. It was tired from the minute we walked in.”
“You chose the place, didn’t you?”
“Sure, but that doesn’t make it any less tired, does it?”
She had straight brunette hair with a few flecks of gray. She had the jade green eyes of an Aztec tiger. She had white skin and full lips, red without lipstick. She had a creamy neck. She had narrow shoulders. I liked these and other of her features but that is not why I loved her.
“Okay, let’s leave then,” I said.
“Well, let me finish my drink, at least!”
I thought it best to say nothing for a while. She sipped her highball stuffed with fresh mint and ice. A summer drink, incongruous with the present season. She wore a thin yellow wool sweater with short sleeves. I could feel the cold on her naked arms.
A blind man in his early 30s put change in an old jukebox then returned to his seat at the bar. He did not use his cane or his dog to find his way to and fro the bar, so you would hardly know he was sightless were it not for the round coal-black glasses framing his very pale face or for the dog with his harness beside him on the stool.
“How are you, Harry?” I asked.
His dog picked up his ears and glanced my way, blinking. He often answered to his master’s name, though his moniker was Augustus.
“Not bad, Louie. Just sailing with the days,” the blind man said looking my way.
“Fair winds, then, Harry,” I said turning to her, who was gently pressing her glass against her cheek.
“Toothache again?” I asked her.
“Toothache for love, toothache for that root canal you promised me for my last birthday.”
“It’s considered unethical for a dentist to drill his lover—unless he bills her,” I said.
“Bill away, Bill. And please order my drink in the meanwhile.”
I motioned to the barman, whom I could see was not wanting to be bothered with work, filling in, as he was, little boxes with words in a newspaper he had spread across the bar.
Finally, I made a polite wave.
“What’s your desire, Marie?” He addressed her with a full smile of yellow teeth.
“The usual,” she said, “is my desire.”
And presently he filled a quarter of a water glass with amber stuff, poured out from a bottle with her name inked on the label.
“What about you, Louie?” he asked, with the weariness of a man who had woken that morning to find his life had taken a walk without him.
“Another Java, maybe in a glass this time.”
“Someone was asking about your paintings last week,” he said, giving a nod to a seascape of mine on the wall. Sailboats caught in a squall, masts heeling seaward, the sky pewter, the sun frightened.
“The same as always.”
“Did you remember to mention that I might be flexible about the price?”
“No. I said they were not for sale and that he could not afford them if they were.”
The blind man walked to the piano in the rear and began tickling the ivories, which soon got giddy with melody. Augustus remained by the stool, coolly guarding his master’s seat.
* * *
A blue horse walked into the bar and asked for a beer, but since he was a known deadbeat and a flagrant non-tipper, the bartender pretended not to notice him and slid over to the opposite end of the bar, where, stashed in a white vase, a bouquet of sixteen white roses drooped, having seen better days weeks ago.
Snow began to press lightly against the window—a snow of bloody feathers torn from pigeons murdered in flight by the local hawks. But soon more snow fell, this time the glacial kind, forged by all manner of precipitation and atmospheric changes. Flat gray sky, white snow flakes in a whirl describing the letter M. I ordered my third coffee, in a cup this time.
A couple walked into the bar. She wore a tight red dress and red pumps. Her hair was red, so, too, her expensive Italian leather handbag, made in Brazil. He was just a flat guy, you could hardly see him when he turned sideways. Otherwise, it is useless to describe him because you would forget what he looks like the instant you finished the sentence describing him. At least I would. He had voice of a rasp being tickled by straw. And in that voice he ordered a ginger ale with a water backer. She ordered the same but in reverse.
“Why couldn’t you just say you’d have the same?” He glanced at me to let me know he was irritated with her. As if to say, women from the time of Mother Eve to Madame Curie are irritating. They stir up trouble in gardens and ballparks, radiate grief and disorder in restaurants and bars. I did not return him a concurring look because to some degree I like trouble and grief and disorder organized by women. Intelligent women. Witty women. Sexy women. Women who wear hats with half-veils at cocktail parties. Women who walk as if stalking a rose. Women who, when you are about to take a long walk off a short pier, might say, “May I tag along?” Women: Marie.
“The order in which drinks appear is important to me,” the red woman said. “I like the water set down before the G. A.”
“The G. A.?”
“You say B and B, so what’s the diff?”
He saw her point and backed down. I would have done the same, back down at her argument. I have always wanted to be reasonable.
The clock struck 3:00. Then moved on to chew up another hour. To chew off another bit of my life. Chew up all the life about us, the hawks of Avenue B, the elm trees in the park, the worn oak wood of the bar, the horse with his two missing front teeth, the woman in the red dress with half her finger poked in a glass of water, the man with the raspy voice nervously searching for some item in his left jacket-breast pocket. His anxiety infected me and made me search my pocket to be reassured that my little box of pills were still there—which they were.
The horse swung his mane impatiently. A few of us at the bar wished he would leave because he was always taking up too much air and space, even in a wide Monday afternoon. And always being glum and sending out currents of gloominess. But, for the moment, I felt sorry for the sorry nag and I said, “Send him a beer—float over a bucket, in fact; I’m buying.”
I was high on cash, but I could have put the bill on my tab. My tab was good anywhere, even in the Bronx, where the sky was very small, except on Sunday family dinners ages ago when I was a boy and my uncle Unberto magically plucked dimes from my ear. What made me think of that now? The Bronx and the dead. My dead piled up there in Woodlawn waiting for me. The barman made a few polite swipes of his towel and settled a bucket before the horse. Eddie, for that was the jade’s name, made a little bow my way before dunking his head in the bucket of suds.
Then Marie said sweetly: “Do you think we could go to the movies this evening?”
“And your husband?”
“I’m sure he’d join us if you asked.”
“He didn’t the last time.”
“That doesn’t mean he won’t want to go this time.”
“Right you are, why didn’t I think of that?”
We were just going through an old routine. She had no husband and she hated the movies. I like them all, from the Three Stooges to Last Year at Marienbad, especially the movies in which all the actors in it are dead. Ghosts on the screen, saying the same lines and doing the same deeds for eternity. A kind of afterlife which we the living share with them.
It comes at you quickly. One morning you wake up and find a hard lump in your throat, or you get a stunning headache that no aspirin can alleviate, or in a routine physical exam they find spots on your pancreas or insoluble fiber meshed in your lungs or cancer swimming in your blood, singing in your liver. One morning you wake to a death sentence without any hope of reprieve or pardon from the governor. And from that morning on you are already dead in an ocean of the living. Platitudes, but nonetheless true.
The flat man came over, a little shy, a little cautious, a little smiling, a little stooped over in deference. Looking only at me, he said:
“Pardon me for bothering you.”
“Don’t bother me, then you wouldn’t have to be pardoned,” I wanted to say, for the joke of it, but of course I didn’t say that. “No bother,” I said affably. What does it cost, affability?
“My girlfriend wanted me to ask if your lady friend is an actress she thinks she recognizes from the movies.”
“Very likely,” I said. “Marie is a great star of the Bulgarian cinema.”
“Bulgaria. Where the Bulgars live,” Marie joined in, affecting a French accent.
“She’ll be happy to know she was right,” the flat man said, backing away to deliver the news.
I motioned to the barman, who reluctantly left behind the scratch sheet he had some while ago traded for the crossword puzzle.
“Send them over a round or two of whatever they’re having.”
“On your tab?” He wasn’t pressing me, just wanted to get the billing straight. He was one of the few left who did not care that much about money but cared about the form of things.
“No,” I said, “it’s cash today, and I’ll settle my account before we leave.”
I liked the manly fullness of saying the words, “I’ll settle my account.” I would have liked to have had the occasions to have said it more often and with such variations as “let’s settle our accounts,” or “let’s call it quits.”
“Who you betting on, Lorenzo?” I asked, with polite curiosity.
“On some losing nag or another,” he said with a little sigh.
The blue horse picked up his ears, flared his nostrils, made huffing noises. “We are not nags,” he said with equine dignity. “And we do not enjoy talk about or reference to glue factories in our presence, should you ever have the mind of bringing up those dreadful places in immediate conversation.”
“I apologize, sincerely,” Lorenzo said. “Please accept another bucket or two with my best wishes.”
The horse gave a nod and a little lift of his foreleg. “Okay. All’s Jake with us, all’s level, L,” he said.
Augustus came by and gave me and Marie quite a sniffing. He always had favored Marie and took an extra whiff of her shoes, finding some world of interest there. Maybe it was some traces of Kublai Kahn’s pulverized bones that had drifted over the steppes, over oceans and deserts and amber time that he had smelled or maybe it was the dried urine of a man who, caught short of home one winter night, of necessity peed against a tree, an elm of great age and bearing, like the one in Tompkins Square Park diagonally facing my apartment window.
“Lorenzo,” I said, “Can you find Augustus a chunk of baloney in the fridge?”
“He doesn’t appreciate baloney,” Harry called out, giving the keys a rest. “But I do.”
“Fix Harry a sandwich, would you please, L,” I said, tiring of calling him by his full name and following Eddie’s earlier abbreviation. “On me, of course.”
The red woman came over to thank me for her drink. But she had her eyes on Marie.
“I’ve never seen a Bulgarian film, so that’s probably not where I’ve seen her.”
Time chewing up Augustus, too. Ticking away at his bones, at his dreams. Why is it I wondered, that there are speaking horses but no speaking dogs? And what kind of dreams did he have, that Augustus, a seeing-eye dog, responsible, always on duty, careful, cautious, bound to his blind man for life? Did Augustus ever dream of adventures where he ran wild, without leash, in streets and in parks with others of his kind?
“You should try seeing one the next time there’s a Bulgarian film festival. Bulgarian cinema is great and noble and generally underlit, but to stunning effect.”
She smiled, graciously I thought, or graciously enough to make me feel foolish for having persisted in this lame joke.
“What would you like to hear?” Harry asked, throwing his voice in my direction.
“Choose something you like, Marie,” I said. “Whatever it is, I know I’ll like it, too.”
“I wish I had a guy like that,” the red woman said, nodding my way, to the flat man in a voice loud and wistful.
“See,” Marie said, “I always told you there’s a woman waiting for you somewhere.”
“Rather unwieldy title for a song, don’t you think?”
The snow was falling heavily in the park. Perhaps elsewhere as well. The snow was falling in thuds that I could not hear. The snow was covering the benches. The snow was, was white! Also a little purple because of the purple of the dying light. Also a little violet. Purple and violet, yes.
Marie went over to the bar and whispered in Harry’s ear. Harry smiled and spread his fingers percussively over the keys and soon the bar was filled with piano music of romantic distinction. First “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” followed by, as Marie had obviously also requested, “Just Plain Bill,” then concluding with “Louie, Louie.”
Not a dry eye in the house. Even Eddie shed a long tear or two down his great long face. Marie went to the loo to wipe the mascara off her cheeks but before she left she said with the warmest of smiles, “Don’t let that lady in red give you any ideas, Louie. You belong to me.”
“Day and night,” I said. “Night and day.”
What a good end to the day; what more perfect way to leave it behind. To know that Marie also had a good time with me at the bar meant the world. Before long, I would send her home in a taxi and know she would soon arrive in her cozy flat some place over the Brooklyn Bridge and be there safe from the mounting snow and the bitter cold that bites the empty streets near rivers. I would take a walk through Tompkins Square Park, passing by the children’s slides and swings and find my way to a bench facing the row of brownstones on 10th Street, and look up to my lighted apartment window.
Eddie came over to me and in a very low voice said: “Louie, may I have a word with you alone?”
“Shoot,” I said.
It was a story about a horse he knew, who had told him a story about a horse he knew, a story about a race that was soon to happen.
“Okay,” I said, without too much enthusiasm. I had already heard the one about the horse who needed a cataract operation and was too broke to pay for it. I wished Marie would return soon to rescue me. She didn’t give Eddie the time of day in these philanthropic matters and would gently brush off any of his appeals and schemes.
“This horse I know knows a horse who is going to win at Aqueduct. It is certain.”
“Wonderful,” I said. “I hope you make a bundle on the bet.”
“Not just me, but you, too!”
Then he let me have it: He needed a loan. The bet was sure sure sure and he’d repay me immediately plus interest. He insisted on the interest.
“That’s the beauty part. 30 to 1.”
“Does this winner have a name?”
“The greased or the plain variety?”
“Look, Louie, it’s a fabulous deal,” Eddie said.
“No question. I even like the odds.” I took the wad from my pocket and peeled off ten one hundreds under the counter. “This is for you, Eddie.” Then I counted off another grand and said, “This is for me. But if I forget to collect the winnings, give them to Marie.”
Eddie gave me a long, thoughtful sway of his head. Touching in its duration. Then in a low, earnest tone he said: “I’ll be back here tomorrow at 5:00 with everything, Louie.”
“I’m sure you will,” I said, and I was.
Marie came back just as Eddie was returning to his place. He gave her a gallant nod. And she returned his salute with an affectionate pat on his shoulder.
“He’s okay,” she said when he left. “What did he want this time?”
“He came to tell me how beautiful you looked today but he was too shy to tell you himself.”
She smiled. “He’s not bad looking but he could use some grooming.”
“I’m sure he’d glam himself up under the right circumstances.”
“Like you did,” she said, smiling, brushing her fingers over my face.
It was dark now. The snow was blowing about crazily under the streetlights. I knew it was freezing outside. I could feel it even in the quiet, mellow warmth of the bar. I thought it was getting to be time. I thought that even if I could sit there with Marie forever I could not. How could I keep on delaying and delaying?
“Let’s just have something here,” I said. “I can’t face going out and looking for a place to eat. It’s so cold out there tonight.”
“Good idea,” Marie said. “Just something little, I don’t care.”
“Yes, let’s do that, then I put you in a cab.”
“Are you coming?”
“I’d love to,” I said, “but I can’t tonight.”
“I’m disappointed,” she said, making a disappointed face. Seeing her expression almost made me change my mind—not that it would have mattered.
We ate some heated over tomato soup and kaiser rolls. A crummy dinner that put us in a down mood. Everyone at the bar was in a down mood, reluctant to leave, tired of staying. But slowly they drifted out, the blind man and his dog, the flat man with the red woman, Eddie with a thick wool shawl over him that Lorenzo had found in the back room.
And we left too. I kissed Marie as I normally would, not too hard and not too passionately, as I very much would have wanted. I watched the cab stop at a light, the snow piling up the back window, where I thought I had glimpsed Marie waving at me. Then the cab took off, grinding away down the snowy street until it disappeared into a whirling cloud of whiteness.
This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation.
Frederic Tuten is the author of the novels The Adventures of Mao on the Long March; Tallien: A Brief Romance; Tintin in the New World: A Romance; Van Gogh’s Bad Café; and The Green Hour. His short fiction has appeared in several literary magazines and art catalogues. He is a Guggenheim Fellow in Fiction and has been given the Award for Distinguished Writing from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He lives in New York City.
Originally published in
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee