It had been a slow night. My daughter, Kate, reminded me it was finals week, and that all the kids were probably at home studying. Cramming is how she put it, in a way that sounded like she thought I’d never heard the word. She goes to the university, too. Part-time. On weeknights she helps me tend bar, though I don’t want her to. She serves drinks till close, and then she hits the books at home. She’s a worker; she always has been. I’m very proud of her. But I wanted to be pissed off. I wanted to be upset that she was there, and that her classmates were blowing off coming to my bar because they had slacked off over the semester. I couldn’t, though. I’ve owned this bar long enough to see plenty of finals-week lulls. But money is money, and I can wipe clean glasses for only so long.
I’m one sob story.
To say we were slow is not to say that we were empty. The Professors were there. Two old men, slumped on stools at the other end of the bar, taking turns shaking salt into their beers. They come in from time to time, usually when we are busy, so I don’t know them that well. They usually drink hard liquor, so I was upset to see four emptied mugs in front of them. I had hoped their tastes would save the night from being a total clunker.
The Creative Writing Professor had a frizzy head of graying curls, with white sideburns that came out two inches from his temples. His broad shoulders stretched the back of a cracked leather jacket. He was staring at his reflection in the mirror that hung behind the bar. His face and skin,
particularly the dark circles under his eyes and the thick creases in his whiskered cheeks, showed that he had experienced a lot of life. He’s fought a lot of rounds, my wife would’ve said. And with the surly demeanor he always brought in with him, you could tell he hadn’t won a lot of those rounds. The English Lit Professor was the bookish-type, skin and bones, about the same age as his friend. He was quiet and had eyes that darted about the room, paranoid. His gabardine-suited frame trembled as he watched salt crystals sink to the bottom of his mug. A thin strip of silver hair fell down his spotted forehead.
As I wiped another glass, Kate backed through the kitchen door. She was carrying a dish tub full of ice. I snapped my fingers to get her attention. With her hip she threw the tub onto the back counter of the bar. She dried her hands on the dirty dish rag she keeps half-tucked in her front pocket. “What’s up?” she asked.
I nodded my head at The Professors. Kate had been serving them all night while I was in and out of the back, filling out my weekly shipment forms and fiddling with the electronic dart board that couldn’t keep the right scores. “What’re they drinking?” I asked.
Kate smiled. “Beers. I told them to give it a shot. They grumbled a bit, but I think they’re going down okay.”
“You’re losing money with those beers,” I said. “You know that. Those guys like to drink, right? Let them drink.”
“Relax,” Kate said. “Why are you being so pissy? You’re always so pissy. It’s Christmas.”
I looked down at my foot. It was tapping against the wood floor. Hard. It had become a bad habit of mine. “They behaving?” I asked.
Kate laughed at me. “They’re harmless,” she said. “Look at them.”
We watched them together. The English Professor was busy with the salt shaker. The Writer was hunched over the bar. Kate looked back to me. “They couldn’t get Betsy Dwyer to go home with them,” she said.
I thought about Betsy. All two hundred pounds of her. I pictured the English Professor heading out the door with her, his arm barely making it around her waist, his fingers clutching into her love handles, hanging on for dear life. “Love handles,” I said out loud, laughing.
“What?” Kate said.
“Nothing.” I covered my smile.
“Hey,” the Writer groaned. “What’s so funny?”
Kate bit her lip and buried her head into my shoulder. I patted the back of her soft head, which made me feel good. “Nothing,” I said to the Writer.
“Well we can use some more drinks here,” he said. The English Professor raised his glass to emphasize his friend’s request.
“Why don’t you go home?” I told Kate. “I can close up. Go study or something. See if you can catch up with your friends.” She took her head off my shoulder and smiled. “You sure?” she asked. I pushed a strand of hair back over her ears. “Yeah,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”
She un-tucked the dish rag from her pocket and slapped it over my shoulder. “I might call Lisa and go out,” she said. “But it won’t be too late. If I do, I’ll make some sandwiches you can eat when you get home.” She kissed my cheek, then skipped across the bar to say goodbye to The Professors. I followed her.
“You boys get home safe tonight,” she told them. She grabbed two glasses from the bar and filled them with generous amounts of bourbon.
The English Professor used his hand to work the thin strip of hair back atop his head. “Only if you drive us home,” he said.
“Yeah,” the Writer groaned. “Me too.” He sat up on his stool and puffed out his chest. “Let’s hang out,” he said.
I wanted to lean over and shove the dish rag down the Writer’s throat. Kate snapped her fingers. “Shame on you boys,” she said.
The English Professor straightened himself. “We do not wish to offend you, my dear,” he said with a hiccup. When he caught his breath, he chuckled. The Writer finished his drink in three swallows. The English Professor went on. “Our apologies,” he said. “For we meant not to be crude, nor crass—”
“Nor craven,” The Writer added before belching.
Kate waved her finger between the two of them. “You old mushrooms couldn’t handle me anyway,” she said.
The way she said that made me feel uncomfortable. Worried. But the Writer didn’t let me think about the matter. He pointed to me. “You have a real ball-buster here,” he said. “You should be proud.” He looked back to Kate and showed her his thick, hairy hands. “You should know something, though” he said. “You see these hands? These right here? These hands can work. They could write. They could love. They can still love. If you ever got in these hands? Forget about it. Forget it all. You’d never leave.”
He licked his lips clumsily. “You know how I know this?” he asked.
Kate bit her lip to keep from giggling. “How?” she asked.
I inched closer to the conversation. My fists were clenched. The Writer rose from his stool and leaned over the bar. Kate leaned in too. I inched closer. The Writer’s eyes, tired and yellow and watery, stared into my daughter’s. His mouth opened slightly. His voice passed off as a whisper:
“Because my three wives told me so,” he said.
He gave Kate a wink and a smile full of black teeth. Kate laughed. “Oh God,” she said, and then she looked to me. I looked to the English Professor. He nervously sipped his bourbon.
Kate ran her hand through my hair before saying a final goodnight and backing through the kitchen door. The humor quickly wore itself into silence. Three old men were left with no conversation, just recollection. I thought about my wife, about the way she used to stroke my hair before she left the house. I don’t like thinking about those things, though. So I started in on the Writer.
“You guys seem to be getting into a better mood,” I said.
The Writer cracked his knuckles. His nose looked like a rotting strawberry, its black pores like seeds. “We can’t have that, now,” he said. He pushed his glass to me. His watery eyes pleaded with slow blinks. I filled his glass.
“You guys are getting there,” I said.
The English Professor patted his friend on the back. “We had a good head start earlier. Our department had a Christmas party today. There were spirits present. That’s all I’ll say.”
The headlights on Kate’s car broke through the blinds of the bar’s side window. I narrowed my focus to watch her slow through a stop sign. The tires pivoted on sand left by the snowplows. With a rev of the engine the car turned and disappeared down the street. I hate the sound of leaving cars: the slush and rubber. Kate drives too fast, and has little regard for the ice and impacted snow. As much as I love her and trust her, she worries me.
The Professors were grumbling. “I don’t think she wants to sleep with you,” the English Professor whispered to his friend.
“You don’t?” the Writer said.
“Who we talking about?” I asked. I busied my hands with another clean glass. I didn’t know if it was from nerves or anger.
The English Professor waved his hand at me. “This girl we know. He knows.”
“A student of mine,” the Writer said.
The English Professor shook his head and exhaled. The Writer wasn’t having it. “She’s older,” he said. “Old enough. Jesus, it’s not like she’s a freshman or anything.”
“She wouldn’t do it anyway,” the English Professor said. He looked at me. “He wouldn’t do it, either. He’s been down that road before.”
The Writer nodded.
I thought about Kate. “Last call,” I said.
The English Professor waved me off. I grabbed the cheapest Scotch I had and filled the Writer’s glass in silence.
“You think I’m a pervert. Don’t you?”
“Hank,” the English Professor said. “Just drink.”
“No,” the Writer said. “He thinks I’m a pervert. He thinks I like little girls. He’s thinking about his daughter. His little girl.”
Something ran down my spine and into my hands. I wanted to put a fist right through the old drunk’s rotting face. “You’ve been coming here for years” I said. “I’ve never had a problem with you. Just drink and be gone.”
“I may be no good,” the Writer said, “but I’m no pervert.” He took his glass and swallowed half the Scotch I gave him. He didn’t blink. “That girl,” he continued. “The young one I got caught with? I married her. I’m no pervert.”
The English Professor wiped liquor from his lips. “He didn’t say you were, Hank. Did you, Sir.”
I took a deep breath. “Which one?” I asked.
“Which one what?”
“Which wife?” I asked.
The Writer looked confused. Then he chuckled. “The second,” he said. “Gertie,” he said. He cleared his throat. “Gertrude. She left me. Got up and walked out.”
“They weren’t right,” the English Professor said. “She wasn’t right. In the head, I mean.” He tapped his balding head with a finger. “She had problems. She was an English major. We all have problems.” He raised his glass and tipped it at his friend. “Case in point.”
The Writer finished his drink and wiped his lips. “She used to do all kinds of nasty things to her body,” he said. “It was a real shame too. She had a great little body. She wasn’t fat like Marie.”
“Marie?” I asked.
“Number three,” the Writer said. “I met her a few years before I came here. Six years ago? Anyway, she was a good woman. Loyal. Not very attractive—but loyal.”
I filled the men’s glasses. “What happened?” I asked.
The English Professor quickly went for his Scotch. The Writer swallowed from his friend’s unfinished beer. “She passed away,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” I said, trying to busy myself by rearranging some glasses below the bartop. But the Writer waved his thick hand at me. “She was sick,” he said. “It’s alright.”
“She was a good gal,” the English Professor said.
“She was loyal,” the Writer added. “She believed in my writing. She supported me. After that other bitch left.” He pointed his finger at me. “Gertie never supported me. She didn’t give a shit about my writing. She married me because she read my book in junior high. She thought I was a god. My writing’s never been the same.” He raised his glass. “The bitch.”
He swallowed the Scotch whole. He scratched one of his sideburns. “She used to cut up her body, too,” he grunted. “Gertie. With knives and scissors and shit.” He made scissors with his fingers and ran it up and down his arm. “Anything sharp,” he said. “It was sickening.”
He waved for another drink. I obliged, and he swallowed it down before belching. “But it was her body,” he said. “What am I going to do? I didn’t care. Not after a while. But then she started cutting up my work. All my stories. My stories. Cut into pieces. Shreds. They were everywhere.”
“Do you have a computer?” I asked.
“No,” the Writer snapped. “I can’t stand the little bastards. But that’s not the point.” He cracked his knuckles. “Anyway,” he said, “she would just scatter my stories all about the house, all in these little pieces, these shreds. She may have well just sliced my veins open and left me for dead in the bathtub. That bitch. She cut my life up.”
“Have you published anything since?” I asked, though I didn’t really know what I was talking about. The English Professor finished his glass as quietly as he could. There was a long silence. The Writer went back to the mirror behind the bar. He shed two slow blinks, shook his head, and licked his lips.
“I haven’t written anything good since Helen,” he said.
I looked to the English Professor. He held up one trembling finger.
I poured myself a drink. “She was it?” I asked.
The Writer buried his fingers into the curls on his head. He scratched and scratched. Hard. It looked painful. He didn’t answer. He didn’t have to.
I drank slowly, deeply, taking pleasure in the burn. I took The Professors’ empties and put them on the back counter, next to the tub of ice. “We better be closing,” I told the English Professor.
“I guess I’ll use the lavatory,” he said. He pointed in the direction of the hallway with his finger, asking me to verify what he already knew. He walked around the bar, never raising the soles of his feet, and disappeared into the darkness. I placed my own glass on the back counter. In the mirror I watched the Writer clear his throat and wipe his nose with the sleeve of his leather jacket.
I have guided many sad, drunken souls out of the bar before. They tell me their tales in a slur of stutters and sobs. I ignore them, nodding, and say “uh huh.” I prop them up and guide them out into the world. I ignore their stories because I don’t believe them. Hearing a drunk sing his blues is about as sympathetic as hearing a politician apologize for a scandal or some abuse of his office. They’re all guilty. They wouldn’t be pissing themselves away at my bar if they were innocent. The innocents can always walk themselves out. I am in the business of snakes, creeps, liars, cheats, whores, and criminals. They come to my bar and talk to my daughter, to her classmates. They waste their lives here. And I allow it. I allow it all.
The Writer started breathing hard. I turned to him.
“How old’s your daughter?” he asked.
I didn’t know what to say, so I told the truth. “Nineteen,” I said.
“Is she in school?” he asked. “I’ve never seen her on campus.”
“She is,” I said. “Part-time.”
The Writer showed me his red palms. “I’m just asking,” he said.
“It’s okay,” I replied.
He rubbed his hands and shook his head. “Fucking kids,” he said.
“They’re ruining me,” he said. “They’ve ruined me. My students. I read their pieces. It’s all garbage. And I have to read it all.” His shoulders dropped. “Their characters,” he said. “Jesus! All they do is talk. Their stories are pointless. And I have to read it all.”
“I’m sure they’re just trying,” I said.
He stared into the bartop. “These stories,” he said. “They get in my head. Nothingness. Banality. It all haunts my dreams. And I have to read it all.”
He looked up at me. “I write the crap they write. It’s all because of them.” He stared at himself in the mirror for a long minute. “I used to be a great writer,” he said.
“Bullshit,” I said.
“What?” he groaned.
I placed the dish rag on the bar top. “Bullshit,” I said. “They don’t give a shit about you. Nobody is ruining you.”
The Writer grabbed the salt shaker he used for his beers and ran his fingers over the holes. He shook his head. “You don’t know,” he said. “It’s all gone.”
The pipes in the wall flushed with the English Professor’s fluids. The bookish man emerged from the hallway. “Let’s go, Hank,” he said. “Get your coat.”
The Writer didn’t move.
I looked to the English Professor. He grinned. “I guess he’s yours,” he said. Then he put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “Get some sleep, Hank.” He walked to the door and wrapped himself in a full-length overcoat. He fit a plaid trilby on his head. He turned back, looked over the bar with those paranoid eyes of his, nodded, and pushed through the door.
The Writer watched through the bar mirror. He raised his finger to me. “Your daughter,” he said. “What’s her mother like? Is she a ball-buster, too?
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t. I bowed my head. My foot was tapping.
“What?” the Writer said. “What happened?” He wiped his nose on his sleeve again. “She leave you or something?” He started chuckling, and then stopped. “What happened?”
I grabbed the dish rag. I wrung it in my hands. I rolled it into a ball. I didn’t want it anymore. I threw it at the tub of ice.
“Helen was sick,” the Writer started again. “Like Marie, but different. Marie had lived a pretty good life. Helen was young, though. Too young to even think about dying. The things she never got to see—I think about that sometimes.” He rubbed his eyes hard. “She was great, though,” he said. “She just opened me up and spilled me out.” He wrapped himself in his arms and took a deep, soothing breath. “It was easy back then to be messy.”
“She used to do everything,” he said. “The cooking. The cleaning. The bills. Everything. All I did was write.” He shrugged his shoulders. “I didn’t know any better.”
I grabbed another glass and bottle before he waved me off. “I had this office,” he said. “Where we lived. Whenever I was writing, she used to bring me my meals on this little tray.” He outlined a small rectangle with his stubby fingers. “Everything was perfect on this little tray. And she used to leave these little notes under a plate, or a glass. These little folded notes saying: Dinner for my love, or Lunch to feed the mind of the next great novelist of our times.”
He hugged himself again. “Boy, did that make me feel good,” he said.
I poured myself another drink.
“She got sick,” the Writer said. He cleared his throat and swallowed the remains. “The happy times—they go like that,” he said with a snap of his fingers. “They up and vanish into memories. But the pain, well, that’s fucking death. Slow, painful death.”
His eyes went back to the bartop. “Everything bad happens slowly,” he said.
I refilled my glass. The Writer straightened himself. “You had a Helen,” he said. “Didn’t you?”
I swallowed the burn. “Ellen,” I said.
The Writer smiled at her name. Then he frowned. “What happened?”
“Car wreck,” I said.
“Oh,” the Writer said.
“You’re right, though,” I added. “It was slow. After the accident, I mean. The accident was quick, but the pain . . .”
“Yeah,” the Writer said.
“Yeah,” I said.
The Writer shook his head. He looked at me. I nodded.
“Yeah, we said together.
The Writer pointed to my face. He squinted his eyes. “Your daughter doesn’t look like you,” he said.
“Is that hard?” he asked. “Her looking like her mother?”
I shook my head.
“Just a little?” he asked.
My eyes met his again. “Yes,” I said.
“Yeah,” he whispered.
His fingers were typing on the bar.
He hopped from his stool and tugged the hem of his leather jacket. He stomped his feet into the floor. “Sounds like you’re in a good place,” he said. “As good as you can be, at least.” He whispered something to himself as he hobbled to the door. He looked at the dirty winter landscape outside the front window. Then he looked back to me. I watched him pull a snow cap from one of his pockets. He fit it over his frizzy curls. Then he pointed to the HENRY that was knitted across the front of the cap. He smiled.
“Marie,” he said.
“Can you get home alright?” I asked.
The Writer zipped his jacket and pulled the collar stiff. “You’ve never asked me that before,” he said.
I shrugged. “Guess not.”
“I’ll be fine,” he said.
As he pushed through the door I called for his attention. A cold, stiff wind blew into the bar.
“Don’t write a story about this, Professor.”
The Writer smiled at me. He fished some crumpled bills from his pocket. “Don’t worry,” he said, placing the money on one of my tables. “It’s all been written before.”