They were playing 80’s music, and even though I didn’t feel I had a right to it, I was awash in nostalgia. I was just as old as everybody else, these slack guys, with their guts bound up in golf shirts, hair thinning, their salted goatees, these ladies with their acid washed asses spreading out just like the universe. A few representative of younger generations had wandered in and mostly stood at the edges appraising with feint disdain the clump of folk as old and alien as their parents. The band was the sort that mostly meant to make the song sound like you remembered it, and the false notes rang like Gabriel’s horn. We were past our youths, lost in the ages, knuckling down on futures we had never imagined coming. Still, all these people were smiling and bouncing. I myself wasn’t really moving, and I wouldn’t be able to smile back at anybody in time. It seemed like the way I’d gotten here was so different from the way they had gotten here that the proximity was illusion. But there I was anyway. Long after it is clear that no such thing will happen, you take your face around with the vague hope it will unlock in some right person some right thing and your life will snap into place.
Beside me a little tan man with white hair and big white dentures suddenly snatched the pink baseball cap off the head of a woman he had been talking to. She was totally bald. He smiled like he hadn’t noticed, or like he had already known what to expect. She swiped at the hat a couple of times, while he hopped about and pulled it out of her reach. Then he tried to hand the hat to me. I turned away, with a sense of disgust into which we had all three played a part, and disgust in that disgust, too. In a moment, I could feel the chaotic scramble of them subside.
Folks were mostly silhouetting against the stage lighting. Some of the women moved so nicely. You can fall in love with just about anything from a distance. They danced with each other or with men that knew how to let loose of themselves, and I envied them all. I didn’t know how they achieved their certainty and ease, and I cursed myself for my inability to just release myself from the confines of what the world had made of me, or what I had made of the world.
Out there on the floor was a man named Matt dancing with a sleek woman in a sleek red dress. Earlier, I’d heard her rebuff him, but, apparently, he had kept at it. He was only a little younger than I, arranged, as always, in saggy clothing, with his sparse beard and sparkly eyes, like some down to earth skater boy past his prime, which, I suppose, he was. Once, in a disagreement sparked by our mutual attention to a single woman, I had slapped him, stunning us both. He showed no shame when he saw me after that. He didn’t even appear to remember the slap. His eyes would just slip past me, the way it was with most everybody. Now, he was smiling and swinging this new woman about. When he reeled her in, she clung to him. She was the best woman in the place. People like him always won in the end, and maybe they deserved to, having mostly unburdened themselves from the things that made others ugly and small.
When I looked back again, the little man was gone, and the woman had her hat on her head and was talking to some other men. I couldn’t tell from her face if behind it her night had been ruined. The man had left his beer. I picked it up and took a swig. I had stopped drinking three months before and just started up again recently. I knew how it would go. I’d drink and then I’d stop for a while once more, and then I’d do it all again. Recognizing the patterns of your existence can be a terrible thing. Entire lives might pass in these cycles. Soon I had achieved that sense of forgiveness that comes fairly early in a night of drinking, and, consequently, I felt nothing bitter about these people for possessing something I did not, or for not possessing something with which I was stuck.
Outside, patrons were smashing their cigarette butts through the iron netting over the fire pit. They sat at little tables eating loudly from baskets of tortilla chips and chicken wings. This was all it was for some of us mid-lifers, the liquor and the salt and the fat. Existence itself was labor, so we threw ourselves onto every opportunity to go mindless.
A drunk woman in her 50’s stopped and looked me up and down. “Damn,” she said. She wore overalls with one strap undone and her breasts hanging heavy in the shirt beneath the denim. She’d been born right out of next to nothing, like all of us, had lived through a childhood, her teens, everything thereafter, and here she was. Her front teeth were gapped on the top and on the bottom. It might be the only compliment I would get this night. Maybe for many nights. It could, in fact, prove to be the that last compliment of my life, something all people will receive. I grinned and nodded, the way I often did in absence of any real substance with which to meet the world.
She said, “It’s like you’re not quite handsome. And you’re not quite pretty. Like being a little pretty ruins the handsome thing, and being a little handsome ruins the pretty thing. But, hey, I dig your look. I like your shirt.”
I thanked her, for I had purchased the shirt—a linen, short sleeve thing with a checkered design—recently and wasn’t sure of it. I was always trying to figure out who I was not just to everybody else but to myself as well.
She said, “Are you with anyone?”
I told her that I did, indeed, have someone. In the fog of sudden contact, I almost did not know it was lie. Then I remembered that what had felt the last time I’d been close to somebody had passed what felt like a long time ago. She said, “A boy or a girl?”
“A girl,” I said.
“The guys,” she said, “who I can’t tell if they like women or men are the best lovers.”
I nodded and nodded. The band was playing. The woman stuck her tongue against her four front teeth so that its meat came through. There was, of course, something obscene in this, in everything, almost.
And still, the night went on.
Then there was a text from my buddy, who had gone off a year or so ago to live in a small town in the mountains. He was now in the city. He was not even far away. “Come over here,” he wrote me. “There are two girls.”
I went to the bar. I hadn’t been there in years. I had had an argument with the owner about a machine in which you tried to catch these poor live lobsters by a metal claw. It was gone now. My friend was drunk, and so was I. I’d never seen him with both of us sober. He had just flown in from Dallas, where he visited his unconscious and estranged father, from whom they had been about to detach the machines that seemed to be keeping him alive. My friend had offered his goodbyes and whatever else he needed to say and boarded a plane out of Dallas. Just after arriving here, my friend received word that his father had not died after that unentanglement but was instead fully awake and relatively and remarkably recovered. My friend didn’t know what to make of it.
I suppose I liked that he thought I had the special touch with women, but I knew it was an illusion. The whole misunderstanding was based on the fact that, a couple years before, he had tended bar at a place I went to frequently. Occasionally, I had dates, and they were good looking women. Though almost always I was alone, he remembered these few beauties from this vaguely charmed time in my life. Those women burned in the distance for me too, as visible and bright and far away in time and space as stars.
The women beside whom he was now sitting were young enough to almost make me turn around. The closest wore glasses. I wasn’t attracted to her. In fact, I couldn’t recall the last time I felt truly attracted to anybody. The loneliness was there, though. She had many rings on her fingers, some of them pretty, and that made her seem older, but not old enough. Nothing could do that. The woman beside her was thin and straight backed. “Which one do you pick?” my friend asked. “Do your thing.”
I wanted magic. Who doesn’t? But there was nothing except for a collection of falsified memories concerning who you used to be and what he had done, like marbles in your pocket that you might take out and roll around in your palm for a while. You could feel that these women knew the situation exactly. I had to go through it all anyway. “Hi,” I said to the one close to me.
She said hello, but she did not look at me.
I stood there in silence.
“We want you to settle a bet,” my buddy finally said. “Do you think it’s all right to wear tank tops this time of night? Or even after the sun sets?” He pointed to a tall guy in such a shirt standing with his pool cue between two tables. My friend himself was in cargo shorts and a t-shirt with California written on it. I had on that once complimented shirt. The girl beside me seemed to think on it. Her friend, with her head erect on a sleek neck, turned to look at the man. She said, “I think if you have really big arms, like my boyfriend, with tattoos on them, like my boyfriend has, it can look all right.”
“Right,” I said.
Then she turned all the way around to look at me, and I saw half her face had been destroyed. I blinked but did not turn away. What was in the world that could leave you alive like that?
I continued to agree with her, not just about the idea that certain people could wear such a shirt whenever they liked, but that she had made a boyfriend of just that kind of man. I nodded and nodded. The bad side of her face did not move. The eye was dead in it. Half the lips refused to do more than quiver. I have lived with women whose faces I can’t recall even part of.
“Thank you,” I said. She half smiled and turned forward. Her friend was already checked out. I wondered about her, the one that had been more obviously maimed, what she was like beside you in her bed, staring up at the ceiling, beneath the burden of what she knew about where she had been. It all seemed so sad and lovely, like the scene of any distant tragedy, that I wanted her then, this woman I would never have. I wondered if beneath her hair the ear was damaged or all together gone, and I hated to think that secrets that were not mine had been whispered into whatever it was. I had been lied to and cheated on, just like everybody else, and I had once had a woman I thought I loved call to confess to me that she was following a guy to his place from a bar at which they had met. By what she was compelled to follow him or to tell me that she was doing it, she could not say. She promised me that she was coming to her senses and stopping the car and turning around and going home, and then she hung up the telephone on the last time I’d ever hear her voice. Despite this, and a million other little hurts in love, I never felt so jealous as I did of the boyfriend—conjured, one way or another—of that girl with half a face of one world and the other half of another. The envy was nauseating. She carried the secrets and truths of eternity with her. I had picked up a little green sword of plastic, and I wished I could fall on it.
The girls got up to go. My buddy was deflated. His mother lived around the corner, and he’d spend the night with her before driving to the mountains, or, maybe, he’d decided instead to return to his father in Dallas, though relating to the man awake was an experience to which he wasn’t sure he could reconcile himself. He was here, undecided, hoping to drink and socialize away thoughts about what becomes of us all. They’d all once been wealthy people in Texas, this friend of mine, his father, his brother, and his mother. Now the mother’s apartment was small, and she was old, and she was not surprised or heartened or disappointed to hear the dying man had risen. He was so far away from her that the news of such slumbers and such awakenings was like the news of characters on television shows you no longer watched.
“Death should be this very long sleep where you come awake a little bit every now and then. When you do, you think to yourself that there is nothing you have to do. And then, knowing that, you can go all the way back to sleep,” my friend said.
That sounded about right.
We drank for a little while. He told me again about his dream of buying a boat and sailing around, eating and selling and trading caught fish, alone and happy on the sea. He’d gotten the idea as a young man when he went out to San Diego and tended and then managed bars. These were golden times, with plenty of cash, various women who were now long gone, like pretty much everything else.
“Won’t you get lonely?”
“I don’t know. Probably not. You don’t get lonely when you pick things to do alone.”
“Everywhere you go,” my friend said, “you’re looking for something.” I didn’t know if he meant me, or himself, or both of us, or all of us, even, but I knew he was right.
It was early, relatively speaking. We could drink for hours still. But then it was time. I had a beer half empty, half full. I’d leave it. It didn’t matter if there were still possibilities in the night, or if I’d believed in them. There always came a moment when the urge would come as suddenly and powerfully as a sneeze. I had to go. It was the thing I was good at, knowing things were over. I stood up.
Earlier, before I left the first bar with the 80’s band to go see this friend, I’d overheard the same older woman in the overalls telling some other guy I sort of knew—Brian or Oscar or something—that he was a beautiful man. Maybe he was. Maybe everybody is. Before that, before I’d walked off from her, she’d fastened my shirt by one more button. “It looks better this way,” she’d said. I liked to wear my shirts a little open, the way James Spader characters did in his early movies, when I was young. But when I asked her if she were sure and she said, “One thousand percent,” I believed her. Even though I didn’t know where she got her authority, I believed her. And though that was four or five years ago, I still believe her. It’s a wonder, little things that leave big marks, and big things that leave little marks. I don’t even know if you can tell the difference at the time. But isn’t there a point in life when it all comes together? When we get to be certain and whole? Even if it’s just a moment, just a minute, some real and apparent zenith, shouldn’t there be a time, a single time, even if we will spend the rest of our lives coming down from it, when all is right?
J Eric Miller’s short story collection, Animal Rights and Pornography was published by Soft Skull Press and has since been translated and published in France, Russia, and Turkey. Human Beast Productions has also purchased an option on the book with the aim of developing several of the short stories into a film. His novel Decomposition has been translated and published in France, Spain, and Italy; a cinematic version is in pre-production with Fatcat Films. A number of his short stories have appeared in various journals, including: decomP, Semaphore, Starry Night Review, The Scarlet Leaf Review, eFiction, Pindelyboyz, Clean Sheets, Manera, Burning Word, Ink Pot, and Outsider Ink. One of them, “Invisible Fish”, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. The photo imbedded in the story is of, and provided by, the author.