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Fiction: Drinking with Old Man America, and Other Fairy Tales...
This is a stand alone work of fiction. It is 16,000ish words so it is long for a short story, but not long enough for a novella. At this point it is completely unrelated to the other series of fiction I am publishing on hubpages.com (if anyone is interested). It is an original work of fiction by Clark Waggoner.
(c) 2001, 2009 Clark Waggoner
[manifest destiny as a literary symbol]
There is a white stripe that runs down the middle of every road, no matter where you are in America. He runs up over the horizon and on to one ocean, and then back again to the other. He runs like a dream where all running is like dancing. And he is always there, always running from city to city, ocean to ocean, and story to story. Imagine him—the stripe—running on and on. Running—always running. Can you see him? Dancing, Running, always faster, always further.
There is the real world—the physical world. There is also truth. Truth is always beautiful—and though everything in the real world depends upon truth, it is not always beautiful. There are dreams—dreams of truth and dreams of beauty—and there is reality, and as T.S. Eliot said—it is between these two that the shadow falls. Dreams fuel reality—but they are not reality. Art—even though it is, in essence, the dream—can represent the dream or the reality—or even both. Art can take the dream—truth—and create another reality with it—a reality free of the shadow of the physical world. Therefore:
There is also another world—the world of art. In this world, dreams lead to a reality that exists only in the mind—not in the physical world. In this world anything is possible—but for art to have value there must also be truth. As art mirrors life mirrors art, the world of the mind is a brother—or mirror—of the real world. But unlike a physical mirror he is not bound to represent the exact shape he reflects. He is free to realize that shape—or truth, or dream—in any shape he chooses. Often times, therefore, this world—art—becomes a paradox of the physical world. To use this paradox to show truth or beauty, and to realize dreams that the physical world, because of the shadow, cannot—this is the highest aim of art—wherein all his depth and beauty can be found
Bless the Lord, O my soul…who brings forth of the earth…wine that maketh glad the heart of man.
—Psalms 104: 1, 14, 15
Sorrow is better than laughter,
For by a sad countenance the heart is made better.
How lonely sits the city…
How like a widow is she...
She weeps bitterly in the night,
Her tears are on her cheeks;
Among all her lovers
She has none to comfort her.
I keep dreaming of cities you never see but maybe once or twice during your life. And, if you are lucky, you only see them at night. At night when their streets teem with eyes and hearts filled with the dreams, or at least the alcohol, that makes everything beautiful and possible. When you are young you only need dreams to believe in beauty. When you get older, you still only need alcohol. Life is beautiful.
I keep dreaming of smells. I dream of smells that fill your nose with mystery and half-remembered summer nights. There is that subtle way a smell can take you somewhere you've almost forgotten. I dream of smells like these that marry you to an event, or place, like smoke and smog and old towns even. I dream of nights that run together with smells and questions, and those in-between-spaces where staring up at heaven through gin and stars is all you need to know God can see you too.
I really just keep dreaming about the unbroken highway stripe that stares back at me with his heart—his legacy and history—racing, nearly flying, with excitement and youth. His stripe dances—uneven, broken and confused. He stutters and jitters with excitement and mile-markers and the promises of a virgin city at sunrise—his, our, bride. My dream fades to a memory, and I am staring out of a bug-smeared windshield into the limitless night at what looks like nothing at all—but not even children believe the night is nothing. The stripe of the highway danced unevenly beneath us. His excitement can carry a car on to the edge of reality like dreams, or alcohol, or even gasoline—it was then that I smelled it—dreamed it—again, or maybe it was the first time. I smelled the wet night air, the hint of brush fire, the asphalt…but mostly I smelled America himself, sprawling around me in every direction. He was invisible and therefore limitless—even children know enough to believe this.
And as I smelled his mad dream that runs from one ocean to the next—I stretched huge fingers and memories into paint, liquor and motor oil. Through the windshield the night grew into a vast blank canvas where America was all mine to dream up new and fresh. I could paint him in any shape, any dream I wanted to, all across the horizon, as far as the eye can see or heart can believe—. So I paint him drunk and mad and young and old and beautiful and damned. I paint him with my heart bleeding all over my fingers, all over the night.
[the hotel room]
There are memories that return slowly—calmly rising out of the ocean into your mind, and there are also memories that burst into your mind—trapped memories, like air, in a mad rush to the surface. The fast memories—the sudden ones that roar through your veins with adrenaline—those memories are still alive. Those are the memories to write about.
Here comes one now:
“cheap round wooden tables reflecting artificial light in distant hotel rooms that smell like alcohol…”
There are those cheap round wooden tables in dingy hotel rooms that you never notice till you get up at three in the morning trying to find the bathroom. I am always reaching an arm up to swing the low-hanging lamps above those tables. My feet were on this particular table—and you were lying, on your stomach with your feet up, on the bed. You were buried in half-crumpled sheets of paper stained with words that hide all the things you normally just never say. The things I see pumping like your heart through your eyes and your mind, but never out your mouth. There are two shot glasses on the table. They are dry so far tonight—but memories of another night in another hotel room linger in them like the smell of rum.
I watch your hair slip across your face as you write, and write, and write. My pen itches my hand, but not as much as my mouth itches to move—to say something, anything, to you.
What’s he up to now? – your pen stops and you look up at me. Your eyes shine with a look that never ages, and then you shrug:
I don’t know. I just keep rewriting this thing—the whole beginning still needs a lot of work.
I laugh; I’m normally the one who can never get the beginning perfect. My eyes drift across your face as you turn back to the story you are trying to finish. They focus themselves on lines of concentration as they appear around your mouth as you chew your pen and think. I look out the window—the sky is almost completely dark. In the morning the sun will greet us like an old friend to see us off on the endless highway which leads forever on to the next city, to the next hotel room, to the next limitless night.
I wonder if it will take dreams or alcohol then—that is to find whatever it is—the dream—that we are trying to find by scribbling poetry and old truths like mad in dim lighting on loose-leaf, college-ruled paper and cramming it all into notebooks that we throw into the back of a car that runs on youth and high-octane gasoline.
Our hotel room is accented by heavy green drapes I nearly ripped down earlier trying to open; an out-dated air conditioning unit that has a hand-written apology taped over the control panel; the table I already mentioned; the bed—she is covered by a red plush bedspread that reminds me of extra shaggy carpet and my grandmother; and a lonely two-drawered chest against the far wall with an old television and new adult-program guide on top.
I run my hands through my hair as I stare out the window at the skyline of a virgin city. The sound of the city swims through the wide-open window and pulls at my ankles like the tide—she’s calling me like a lover, or maybe she is just calling the stripe of the highway and you and I are somehow caught in the pull. Her voice calls gentle and husky and lewd and charming. Her song resonates of innocence and decay. As I stand there, listening, her song takes off across the night—from coast to coast—searching. And America stops his drinking—his dreaming—as her song reaches his ears. Time himself loses concentration and comes to a stand still and forever there is only the window, the skyline, the stripe, and her distant voice. What love songs will she sing him tonight—in the bars and streets and shops where hearts are full of dreams or alcohol. Imagine her song to be sung by the only lover you have ever had. Imagine it to be filled with loneliness and anxious hope. Can you hear her song? Can you feel her voice?
Later—outside our room, in the surprisingly well-kept parking lot of a thirty-eight dollar a night hotel that will give you the AARP discount if you are young and female, I can smell the loneliness of the city. It’s a smell she only lets out at night—a smell married to dreams and alcohol. The smell pulls stronger than her song. It brings to mind a dozen nights in other cities all across the country. Every night each one of them watches the highway for the approach of her lover—the stripe. I try to piece them all together as sisters in some dysfunctional, passionate and misguided family called America. I can smell their common flesh—their common dream—and here, tonight, they smell beautiful—even if they are drinking.
San Francisco, Austin, Philadelphia, the cities are all sisters, fathered by an old dreamer whose lusts never grew up. But you know, standing here in the parking lot feeling your arms slip around me, and your head on my chest, the old man’s dreams bite me fresh once again. His passion and his smile—we all fall for his smile. I feel like one of his daughters, smiling through tears at his refusal to quit believing in dreams that never come true, though we all know that reality and alcohol are slowly killing him.
And all throughout America there loom huge structures—buildings—cities. All of them were built for money, for power—for no real dream at all. And even though I know that greed never made anything beautiful—and that endless gain is meaningless, I somehow still find the buildings to be beautiful. I stand in the night staring at the city’s skyline and America crouches behind my shoulder whispering in my ear:
“There she is—that’s my girl! See how tall she stands and throws her arms up to heaven. She is beautiful—don’t be deceived.”
And he is right—they are beautiful. How can you look—with America whispering in your ear—at them without having your heart filled with Awe at the fact that the city is beautiful. She is the city alive inside the city. She is the dream of what a city could be. She is beautiful. He is an old charmer—and he keeps dreaming his old dream, even though he runs from it, always faster, always further—just like the stripe. I feel your fingers dig into my flesh and the appeal of your touch brings me back. We turn away from the city to go back inside.
Once inside you kick off your shoes and climb lazily across the piles of paper on the bed to pick up a new pad—not the one you were rewriting before we went outside.
What are you writing now?
Uhm, last night mostly, that little techno-club with the blind DJ.
Yeah, what was his name again?
I don’t remember exactly, maybe Ray-Gun or something like that. But anyway, do you remember the girl in the silver spaghetti-strap top?
Was she at the same club?
Yeah—she was sitting at the bar.
The girl with the laugh?
Yeah, that’s her. What did you think about her? Do you think she is a generally happy person? – I would have never stopped to think about anyone in a cramped, techno club being happy. Maybe rolling, or on acid, but clean-clothes, lawn-mowed happy?
I don’t get it—why on earth would you want to know whether or not she was happy?
Well see, I went outside to get away from the noise for a while, and there were two girls smoking cigarettes who kept talking about her. They had seen her at another club earlier that night, only at that club she had been wearing a black dress and was with a guy.
Ok, but still, what does changing clothes after a date have to do with being happy?
Well how many people do you meet that change clothes after a date only to go back out clubbing that same night? – I shrugged at that. I had no answer. She, the girl in silver, was one of a thousand mysteries I could never come up with let alone write about.
After a moment of silence you return to your writing. I watch your brow furrow as you write about cigarettes and sweaty basements and clothes-swapping drunks and techno DJs named Radar and G-Spin. Your hair leaps out from behind your ear again with the ferociousness of the life inside your body. I find myself intoxicated at the thought of the life inside you—pumping like mad through your veins all the way to the tips of your fingers and back to your heart. The loose strand of blonde hair sways, sending a slowly creeping shadow across your perfect face. I climb across you—across the bed—and lean against the headboard as you drape your legs across my lap. You write—I stare aimlessly, dreaming of America.
The dream of Old Man America swims back through the window like a smell as my hand runs up and down your leg. You smile at me without ever looking up, or stopping your pen from trying to unravel the girl you are writing about. I sit silently, listening. Someone in the parking lot asks for keys to their room. A car starts. Another one stops. Two car doors open and shut. I can see the moon peeking his head through the window. I’m lost on a bed at sea in search of something that probably only exists in bottles and books anymore. And even though I know the dream I am searching for is old—for beauty is even older than alcohol—I seem to believe youth can find her with his passion and idealism.
After a while longer I move your legs, get up, and walk over to the little round table. I move the shot glasses aside and unfold the map. He’s stained with coffee and sweat and rum; he still smells like three cities back; he’s married to the memory of the two of us sick in the back of a moving car we later realized no one could have possibly been driving. It had to be the dream—the dream inside of America pulling us on, with the stripe forever dancing just in front of us calling:
“Come on, she’s up over the next hill—follow me!”
My finger traces our route back over the map for the hundredth time. As my eyes jump ahead to highway one—our destination—my heart jumps with them. There he is, the edge of sanity, the edge of America, and in the foreign and dimly lit room with you still scribbling words I am already impatient to read, I can hardly stand how perfect you are—how perfect it all is. The pull of the map, the stripe, America, and your lips all roll into one gigantic pounding dream—beating like a strong heart. So I grab you and run with you back out into the parking lot. We run out into the street, leaving the car for the sun and the morning. We run like children into the lights and the smell of the virgin city before us.
The sea-sick dazzling lights spill and run and bleed and charm my eyes. The night air dances with the song and smell of the city. Everywhere she flies in the criss-cross patterns of love and commerce and the bar districts. Her tall dark buildings loom up like the mountains—like fear—like “grown-ups” when you are young. Their eyes peer down at you from thousands of feet above. They pace about, tall and lonesome, with their hands clasped solemnly behind their backs.
Emotion haunts the night—pounding into every sound and movement and even into the silence and stillness as well. Heads turn, mouths move, everything slurs into one single mad effort—the city turning over on her side. The more the night slides together like it’s alive—the more I lose myself in it—and the more I disappear inside her the more I ache to feel—and the more I feel the more I need to talk. To talk to live, to pour out everything in a mad swirling rush of teeth and vowels and tongue and lights and the city and her broken heart is right here in my hand and I can feel her pulse, I can. It beats strong and pure, like the stripe of the highway—like her prayer for him to return again.
I swing my eyes—my soul—around to look at you as if to pour into you—right through your eyes—that I can feel him—that he is alive. That he is here—singing under the pavement, laughing inside the bars, drinking in alleys. Old Man America stands alone in a dark room with his arms crossed on his chest while he stares, watching his daughters through bushy eyebrows and a thousand windows. The cities sing their love song while he listens and drinks and dreams and nods and smiles. And all the while his eyes twinkle like a child’s—and all the while he’s whispering in your ear.
The smell of the city grows stronger—there is a warmth in the night air that seems to rise from the city herself—from some hidden part amidst her buildings and streets. It is her skin—her heart even—usually hidden away—but on nights like these she comes out to roam the streets. She wanders, singing to her lover, and she wraps the street people, the kids, the hookers, you and I, in the deep, warm folds of her clothes—her clothes woven of children’s dreams and alcohol and fireworks and history. Her smell—her warmth—she tucks us inside her like children, and we sleep soundly—dreaming of the highway stripe ever dancing like a child just in front of us. And later, tomorrow, we leave the city—her hair streaming, her eyes distant as she watches—and then we dream of a new city.
The cities wander their streets singing for their lover—the highway’s stripe. And at night when dreams are real—when giants live and breathe under mountains—when all songs sing themselves—the cities walk about listening to their songs dance in the wind while they search for their lover—the stripe, the dream, the madness. And the stripe runs on endlessly—always further—and finally he returns and loses himself in her like a child into a dream. But he only stays for a few moments, and then he is gone again.
Down a golden side street there are three girls staring into the window of a pet shop. They are young—fourteen, maybe fifteen. Their hair is cut in different lengths and braided. One of them has dyed her hair purple—her lips shine a similar shade of lipstick. You squeeze my arm to get my attention and nod towards her.
Watch the girl with purple hair—watch her eyes.
Why? What’s wrong with them?
Nothing—just watch her. So I turn and I watch her eyes. They are blue and pure and huge. Suddenly, as I stare, they change, and make her into a young child. They soften and at the same time glow brightly. Her look is no longer the gaze of a fourteen year old; she is much younger. I stare in awe at her younger and younger face and then, slowly, my eyes follow her gaze to a puppy trying to claw his way up the inside of a pet shop window. Her purple lips curve into a smile as do her friends—the puppy’s legs flail uselessly making little scratching sounds while he whimpers. The girls squeal and go on about how adorable the puppy is. And right here on some random street corner, somehow, this pet-shop—the city—America himself transforms everyone into a child when they stare with awe at a puppy clawing its way up a glass storefront. America is alive—and He’s right here dreaming dreams of children and puppies.
I stare too long and the girl with blue eyes and purple hair notices me staring at her and flushes. She says something to her friends—one of who looks back at us—and the three of them walk off rather quickly. The city reaches her arms around the girls, carrying them off like babies to some other side street or corner that will let them dream and become children all over again.
At the end of the next block squats a low-lying black building with neon purple lights for trim. There is a big purple neon sign above the entrance that reads “The Ritz”—two guys in black slacks and black tee shirts stand outside the door talking and checking IDs. From beneath the pavement the sound of a DJ spinning makes our legs tremble. The line to get in is a block long—mostly girls in thick makeup, spaghetti-strap tops, black miniskirts, and thick-heeled sandal like dress shoes. The guys all have short, gelled hair—with bleached blond highlights scattered here and there. They all wear khakis with thick black belts and silver buckles, solid-colored cotton tee shirts—tucked in—or loud button up short sleeve, collared shirts, and brown and black leather shoes or boots. We glance at each other, while in the back of the line an old man with silver hair stoops whispering into the ears of a couple of girls—he’s spinning them dreams about the night—about the city—about his daughter.
I agree—no more DJ and Baby G for me. We both laugh—one of the girls in line looks at us briefly, so I smile and bow to her—she turns quickly away—I shrug thinking she looked familiar.
I recognized her.
Recognized who?— Evidently you didn’t notice her looking at us.
That girl who turned around just now when we were laughing—I guess you didn’t see her.
No. Who was she?
I don’t know where I’ve seen her—she must just look like someone. We start walking again, bidding “The Ritz” farewell. At the end of the next block we pass a man and woman holding hands and trying to hail a taxi. The woman is carrying DKNY bags—three of them. The man has sunglasses on, even though it is night—and he has black leather gloves on as well. Their clothing could still have the DKNY tags on them from the looks of them.
Out of nowhere it hits me—my mind goes reeling back to the girl who changed clothes twenty-four hours and four hundred miles ago.
You won’t believe this—.
You remember the girl we were talking about earlier? The one who changed clothes last night, the one in that silver spaghetti-strap thing?
Yeah—I was writing about her earlier—.
Well that was her back there.
Where? You look over your shoulder.
Back at “The Ritz” she was in line—the one who looked at us when we laughed.
No way, was it really her? Are you sure?
I swear it was her. That’s so strange. Why on earth the same girl from another city would be here tonight and in line for another club…
How many clubs do you think she goes to a day?
How many pairs of clubbing clothes do you think she owns? We laugh again. Then a warm wind swings down from out of nowhere and pulls us along—I can feel my pulse quicken. The smell of fresh plastic seeps all around us—we must be near a factory or something. The wind enchants and pulls us along like the highway, like his mad stripe. And somewhere—a block away—six blocks away Old Man America whispers dreams into the ears of those who will listen. The city moves herself into a better position to watch the highway for the return of her lover, and her song floats out to find him like a dove looking for a place to land…
So we wander around and end up leaving the clubbing districts to find an older, drunker part of the city. Under a dim streetlamp two guys stand, smoking cigarettes and laughing. One glances over his shoulder at us. He’s wearing a Cleveland Indians jersey and blue jeans. His hair is cut long in the back and short in front and on the sides—a textbook mullet. He turns his head as his nostrils flare with oxygen and tobacco smoke. Even though we walk right past them I can’t seem to make out any of their conversation over the sound of the city’s voice.
A block or so away a street performer beats madly on some sort of drum. The beats spin up through the air like ghosts, like lost children, like anything dreamy or even haunted. The city smiles an arched eyebrow smile and throws her head lazily back inhaling the beats into her lungs like a dream—like alcohol or aspirin the beats heal her heartache—her lonesome night-watch.
As we continue further into the older section of the city, the buildings shrink and the streets fall slowly apart. A streetlight is out. Windows are boarded up. There are spray paint artists at work somewhere nearby. We walk together silently—hand in hand. I’m lost in thoughts of Old Man America alive and in the city. He is here—it’s as if he is leading us even now—whispering in our ears:
“This way, I’ll show you, she is waiting—I’ll show you.”
America talks so fast sometimes that everything he is comes flying out of his mouth like spittle dampening your collar—little pieces of America—souvenirs for the tourists.
So we follow America’s lead—down an old side street—a right on pine—three short blocks—under a newly refinished over-pass—and a right on Virginia avenue. Up ahead and to the left there is an alley with light pouring out of it. We approach the alley and turn quietly into it only to find an old bar completely hidden from the view of the street. Above the entrance swings an old fashioned sign—wooden and painted just like the sign that led Ishmael to Queequeg’s bed—only instead of reading “The Spouter Inn,” the sign reads:
“O’Connor’s Irish Pub”—and instead of a whale spouting water everywhere, there is a picture of a mug with the head foaming over. Foam is going everywhere—which must mean the beer is good. The exterior of the bar is run down and patched here and there with what looks like surgical steel and wood. An aluminum window frame that must have been a recent replacement looks very out of place against the dilapidation of the rest of the building. The sounds of voices and glasses echo like history from within.
As we stand looking on, a man and woman turn into the alley and approach the bar’s entrance. The woman is wearing red jelly sandals; a stone washed blue denim mini skirt, a red AC/DC tee shirt and obnoxiously large silver earrings with red balls on them. Her hair is styled so that her bangs stick out in big fluffy curls reminiscent of early John Cuzak movies. The man is wearing an unfitted Harley-Davidson hat complete with black plastic mesh netting in back, sunglasses with no rims and rainbow reflecting lenses, jeans—Levi’s and minus any stone washing, a faded Harley-Davidson tee-shirt, and worn black leather boots. He turns his head to spit as they go in the bar. The back of his neck is burned red from the sun. Her jelly sandals slap against her heels—slap, slap, slap.
The atmosphere inside the bar coughs out onto the street through the open door—a smoke filled, cacophonous expulsion of alcohol, sweat and what looks like long stringy hair. I look at you and read it dancing in your eyes—He’s here. Old Man America is here—probably in some back corner drinking and telling stories about his daughters and their thousands of sets of eyes.
The smell—the noise—the alcohol, they all wrap themselves around our ankles and travel slowly up our legs before engulfing us in beautiful dreams that never come true. America is definitely here. He crouches behind us—dreaming these mad dreams and whispering them hoarsely into our ears. We suddenly find ourselves transformed into children with all of our awe still intact—saying to ourselves:
“I do believe in dreams, I do believe in dreams.”
I can feel him, all of him—the revolution, the small town church bells, the campaign speeches, the war (civil), and a thousand scars and endless memories that dribble out like beer when He gets to running his mouth. He’s here alright—whispering:
“Isn’t life beautiful?”
The rusted door swings noisily closed and America and all his dreams vanish like monsters in the night when the bedroom light is flipped on. We look at each other—we’re going in. I grab the door handle and pull—I can feel the suction of air from inside—it’s warm and sticky like a drunks breath. As the door opens wider the pull from inside grows and before we can say a word the bar inhales us into his lungs—and just like that we’re in another world.
The pub is one of those low-ceilinged bars with long mirrors that make it look larger. The dim lighting flickers suspiciously from time to time. Most the floor is carpeted, but there is a stage to the back with an old wood dance floor in front of it. In the dim lighting and smoke it’s impossible to tell what color the carpet is—some dark shade of blue or purple or maybe even green. The smoke from what could be a thousand cigarettes hangs damp in the air, infesting everything with the smell of tobacco. The dim lights shine in and off of the smoke making prisms and layers within layers.
I reach out my hand, pointing at the smoke and say, The smoke in here is alive, she’s one big cloud weaving slowly in and out of glasses and lights and lungs and mirrors—it sounds weird, but she’s beautiful.
Yeah, this whole bar is alive—and beautiful. The old man stands in a corner, watching and nodding to himself:
“Beautiful, yes, yes”
I smile and grab your hand. Your flesh is warm and soft. Absently I run my thumb over yours—I can feel your heart pounding through a vein in your hand. I can feel it right out to the tips of your fingers, and all around the room there are dozens of hearts that beat through similar blue veins into deft fingertips—some holding beer, some cigarettes, some other fingertips. The pulse in your hand grows stronger and the whole room begins to thump with the beat of a single heart. Thump, thump. As my eyes drift over the place my mind races—the bar is alive, America himself, this whole country is alive. He staggers around the city at night trying to make the last calls at all the bars—only to pass out, exhausted, on the living room floor. In the morning we can run down stairs like children and find him there, asleep—his gray hair disheveled, his mouth hanging open. “Wake up!”—slowly America wakes up and opens his eyes to look at us—he smiles. The bar is alive and smiling the smile of a half-awake, half-drunk America staring up at two wide-eyed kids.
There are half a dozen guys perched on stools, drinking, at the bar. Most of them turned their heads to watch us walk in. They are all wearing hats—not wide-brimmed, cowboy hats, but those unfitted plastic netting pieces which seem to feel very at home in “O’Connor’s”. The perimeter of the bar is lined with vinyl booths. A few are larger, round booths, but most of them are small and sqaureish. The vinyl is obnoxiously green and most seats sag more than a bit. Each booth has a low hanging lamp suspended by a tarnished copper chain. The light these lamps give off is so faint it hardly reaches the table surface only a few feet below.
The bar itself is small with a heavily finished wood counter that has obviously seen much use. Behind the bar is a large collection of alcohol bottles and beer mugs—most bearing some Irish rune or clover or something. They frame a rectangular mirror that adds to the illusion that the bar is larger than it really is. The bartender is a small man with even smaller hands, which constantly buzz around the bar like a humming bird. His hair and mustache are pitch black. For some reason, half his customers call him Mike, and the other half call him Sal. I have no clue why. I ask Sal—I like Sal better for some reason—for two Tetley’s.
Hey, you know what? We should do some shots.
Ok, what are we drinking?
How about Jameson? Irish whiskey is good for you.
Two shots of Jameson to go with the Tetley’s, Sal.
No problem. The “no problem” hisses around his tongue and out his mouth in a strange accent. Sal, Mike, whoever buzzes his way over to the tap and pours our beers—the foam goes everywhere, just like the sign outside. The excess foam runs down into a drip tray and then through a small hole and from there down to who knows where.
Irish whiskey burns dark and smooth into your stomach. Your nose wrinkles up. You are adorable as you swallow. Tetley’s—bright, hoppy and refreshing chases right after it—down your throat and into your stomach where it will find its way to your heart and from there out to your fingertips.
The bar, or a booth?
I shrug my shoulders as we both begin to scan the booths for a place to sit. In a back corner at one of the round booths sit two darkly stained old men. Neither one of them moves more than is absolutely necessary to take their next drink. They both nurse what looks like Tetley’s. I slide my arm around you as we turn to face them. Foam runs over the lip of my mug and down onto my hand. The din of the room seems to distance itself from us. I look into the eyes of one of the old men—they are lost and distant. It feels like I’m staring into blind eyes that somehow still focus. Neither one of them makes a move to speak or even acknowledge the other’s presence though it is obvious that they are here together.
Let’s see if we can sit with them. I say, nodding towards the old men. They look like they could use the company.
They haven’t said a word the entire time we’ve been in here—I’ve been watching them.
I smile—you always notice the still, silent people—while it seems like I am always obsessed with the loud, overbearing ones. As we cross the bar towards the old men, each step becomes a step back in time. I can feel the years peeling off me like dead skin. The air changes—there is something like charcoal hiding in the smoke. The sounds of the bar recede further and further like the tide returning to the sea. I know that we are just walking across a bar but it feels like we are walking back across history—to find America the way He was a century ago. His ghost is some how still alive and lost in the commotion and roar of a twenty-first century bar.
The other old man looks up at us for the first time. For a second his eyes almost sparkle—there was life in him once. He takes a drink, a big one. Foam sticks to his mustache and an old tongue darts out of his mouth to clean it off.
Anyone sitting here?
A Grunt, another gulp, a hand motion and we’re in:
The sound of the bar is all around us like a cage, but it somehow does not, or will not, invade the booth. We can hear everything, but it’s as if it is far away, drifting slowly back to us. It’s like the sound of a vehicle driving away, slowly diminishing till all that is left is silence, only the sounds never fully diminish and the silence never comes.
The booth’s table is made of darkly stained wood that has earned hundreds of marks, carvings, initials, and dirty jokes scrawled in every sort of shape and script with dates going all the way back to the nineteen-seventies. I reach under the table to grab your hand—you are warm and alive, and I can feel it—thump, thump.
Across the bar America is crouching in the corner whispering fairy tales to a blue-eyed child. Her huge eyes stare blinking at the dingy bar—taking it all in as she listens to the old man go on and on about the limitless night. Alcohol surges through veins—her eyes are beautiful in this lighting.
Name’s Jimmy, an’ him there’s Nod.—to which the aptly named Nod nods.
Jimmy is the larger of the two—his eyes are much more distant and gray. It was Jimmy who looked up at us first—with his blind, unseeing eyes. His silver locks hang in damp clumps on his forehead, soaked in fifteen-year-old sweat. There is a permanent stoop to his shoulders—from years of walking at half-mast; Nod has this same stoop. They are both minors from some forgotten mine that must have run dry almost a century ago.
Just drinkin’ after work—before I head on home. Nod nods before draining his tankard—a man does want for a drink in smoke-filled, run-down bars. Both men speak in thick accents that echo of a long forgotten south. Their words drawl in the manner of men who have learned patience from the sun, or in their case the earth. It adds some sort of charm to their speech—like innocence and honesty do. America watches them, mouthing their words, dreaming about antebellum love affairs.
More Beer! Jimmy shouts at a tired waitress long past wearing make-up to work in a dark bar filled with drunk and lonely minors.
I watch Nod—he has been very silent. His head hangs down—His eyes stare off at nothing. His fingers drum slowly on the table. His hands are careful and quiet. They move with some trace of life—faint or refined. His shirt is newer than Jimmy’s, though just as stained. His hair is thicker; he looks younger. His essence is stained with years of living underground. He looks at you through half-drunk eyes like he’s trying to remember where he has seen you before. His eyes light up with realization and then with pain before they slip back into their distant lifelessness. He half raises a hand to gesture towards you.
You look just like a girl I used t’know.
Really? How long ago did you know her? There is a long, silent pause during which Nod stares off into space—remembering.
What? Oh y’know, a long, long time ago.
He ain’t seen her in more years than you even remember, butts in Jimmy. His eyes are focused on mine as he nods towards you.
You do look like her all right. The waitress returns with another round. Jimmy tips her; Nod just stares at nothing. Nod looks silently at you from within a lost set of eyes I have nothing in common with. There is an entire world between his eyes and mine, though somehow we both recognize you. And as I sit and listen to him compare you to a girl he once knew, I wonder if every man has you hidden in his heart somewhere. I move my thumb to feel your vein—thump, thump.
Her name was— and there Nod pauses again and stares off into space. –She’s been gone an awful long time. Where is she now? The sounds of the bar flare—leaping, like fire, into the booth—which startles me.
Is she still alive?—he shrugs—another pause.
Rose. Her name was Rose. His face contorts itself—everyone has a story even if it is buried under grime and alcohol and years of trying to forget. And here in the corner of this bar, an old minor sits over his beer—pulling out long strands of buried memories—his story, for what it’s worth. Something stirs in my heart—I’m a child again, only this time it’s not even America that makes me feel young. This time it has something more to do with getting ready for bed and looking for the right book I want to read, to live that is. Is it that everyone loves stories? That everyone wants to listen like children? Listen and forget and believe again?
Maybe the city heard my question—maybe she heard the way Nod said Rose’s name, but she heard something—something about a story. Because her song simply falls silent—her ear turns towards the round booth in the back of “O’Connor’s”—she waits and listens. And even further away still—out on the highway, the stripe stops and stands and wonders and remembers. Nod triggers his mind, and other stories and memories flood him in a mad rush mixing them all into one single experience. You see—to him, to a dream, what we do and what we dream about doing are both as true and important as one another—therein lies his paradox—his depth, his beauty.
And somewhere in a corner there is a young country—alive and dreaming—trapped in the body of an old man that is whispering desperately into the ear of a blue-eyed child and pointing at Nod:
“There I am!—old and forgotten, meaningless and stoop-shouldered”
“There I am!—toil stained, beaten, tired, drinking, and still dreaming of the girl I lost a century ago”
The child’s blue eyes look up at him as if to ask him what he means—
America smiles down at her—shows his teeth still white and new. All he says in reply is—
“I like stories.”
The child turns her gaze back to our table and her blue eyes open wide as she watches Nod’s hands silently slip into his pockets as his tired head slumps forward on his chest: Her name was Rose, he breathes again.
Rose, the blue eyed child mouths. Her eyes blink with a thousand memories—Rose—and they all swim and swirl through her head with dreams and candy-land and sour apples and county fairs and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
I can tell you how it happens. How you decide to jus’ give up on dreamin’ and believin’ in things—in anything. I can tell you, I remember how—how you jus’ decide to go underground—where you never have to feel or believe or nothin’ outside of livin’. How it is you end up stayin’ there—how you die there.
(his heavy eyebrows twist themselves up to show acceptance of things lost. His chest rises and falls like the tide. Nod continues:)
I met Rose when we were both children. We were both born in Beaver Dam West Virginia. I knew from the start I’d marry her. She had the look—you know the woman who marries you look—she’s only woman I ever seen it on. So like I said—I knew right from the start we were for marrying. Now, there’s lots of things you don’t learn in a place like Beaver Dam, West Virginia, but there are some things you do learn, and you learn ‘em real well. One of them things is what it means to be proper, and to be married proper. See Rose was proper. There were only about three hundred people in the entire county, but still—Rose was proper, an’ folks knew it. I couldn’t go about tryin’ to marry Rose without no weddin’ ring! Now Rose told me it didn’t matter much to her the way she saw it—but folks sees things how they will, you understand—so I had to marry her proper, no matter what she said—I wasn’t gonna bring no shame on her in folks’s eyes if’n I could help it.
(another deep sigh pulls itself from Nod’s chest—his lungs expand and contract without emotion before he begins his monologue again—Jimmy just nods to himself as he finishes another Tetley’s—How about us another one, only this time with lots of foam like th’ sign out front)
Like I was sayin’ Rose was all for just going ahead and doin’ it—gettin’ married, but I knew deep down she wanted things proper—that she wanted a ring—I mean any girl would. See—though I’ll admit I haven’t always been the sharpest rock in the gravel pit—I knew better than t’ believe Rose didn’t want no ring. See, I was in the know—I read about it in a magazine. I was eleven, maybe even thirteen already—I remember ‘cause it was the first magazine, fancy or not, that I ever laid eyes on. Anyhow, I read how womenfolk had become much more materially minded than they had been in years past. The magazine had done surveyed seventy-five women, that’s over half the women in Beaver Dam at any rate, and well the magazine said eighty-five percent of them responding to the survey said a diamond ring was the most important part of the engagement.
I didn’t know it at the time—but I learned later—diamond rings cost more than a score head of cattle. How so many fellas can afford one of them, I’ve no idea.
(here Jimmy bursts into glee—snickering up his sleeve—but one look from Nod quiets him. In the corner Old Man America is wiping his eyes—Nod nods solemnly)
There weren’t any diamond rings for sale in Beaver Dam, West Virginia, so I knew I’d have to get on over to the next county—all the way to Flat Rock, which was just about a day’s ride. There were all sorts of shops and town folks in Flat Rock, why I figured they’d just ‘bout give a fella’ a diamond ring the second he rode up into town. So I worked all summer and had a right smart stash o’ cash saved up for buyin’ Rose’s ring—the only thing was I couldn’t let Rose know, on account it had to be a surprise. See the magazine said the most important part of givin’ a woman a diamond ring was keepin’ it a secret at all costs. You have to surprise her, or it don’t mean half as much. Rose—she just kept on beggin’ and beggin’ me to go on and marry her already—but I told her it was just as well to wait till the time becomes right. Other folks would bug me about it too—when you proposin’ t’ Rose? She’s been hankerin’ for you to get up the gut to ask. Of course I knew they couldn’t a’ been serious, cause I didn’t have no diamond ring yet. And without the ring—I couldn’t propose proper or nothing.
Well harvest came and then it went and I reckoned it was about time for me to go and buy a diamond ring—so I told Rose I was going over to Flat Rock. Now I had to have an excuse on account of the ring being a surprise, so I told Rose I intended to play some poker. See there was this tournament, this gamblin’ tournament, that was bein’ held over in Flat Rock, and I told her I reckoned to go win so I could get me another pull tractor for the farm. Rose—now she didn’t like that at all, she told me how I was no good at card playin’, and how fellas was always pullin’ ones over on me—I just smiled at Rose thinkin’ of the way she’d react when I brought her home the diamond ring. See—the magazine had a picture of what women do when you give one of ‘em a diamond ring—they jump on top of you and throw their arms around you and then, well then they kiss you right then and there—and it don’t matter who’s lookin’ on! Well I just sat there smilin’, and thinkin’, and tellin’ Rose it was gonna be alright—but it was never gonna be alright anymore.
(he pauses again—to drain his beer. The roar of the bar subsides and slides, and slinks around the booth, listening, waiting, leering and drinking. I feel your pulse quicken—your fingertips trace mine)
Well the day came and so I saddled up early—at the break of dawn on a Tuesday. Rode right out of Beaver Dam, West Virginia while it was still waking itself up. Took me just over half the day to reach Flat Rock—I rode the horse too fast, but I couldn’a helped it—I was awful excited. When I arrived—there wasn’t anyone givin’ out no diamond rings—that was just my fancy thinkin’. You know, a long time ago folks would go on ‘bout my fancy thinkin’ and dreamin’—about how that there weren’t no use for it. Rose though, she wasn’t much like other folks in that respect. So anyways, my pocket was full of money from the harvest—and it was in a burnin’ fix for that ring. But of course—bein’ all alone in a big town and not knowin’ anyone—I figured the best place to find out about buyin’ rings would be at the bar—so first off I went and got me a drink. The bartender was a might friendly and he knew a heap ‘bout buyin’ and sellin’ things in Flat Rock. He told me all about it. He said diamond rings were very expensive, so they had to be bought from catalogues and shipped to Flat Rock on a train. He told me there was a store with an orderin’ catalogue that was sure to have diamond rings in it just on down the street.
Well I don’t know a man who can rightly hold his tongue when he drinks—so I’m no worse for bein’ the same. The bartender told me how he thought I was clever—that there was no doubt it would be the most proper engagement, and marriage for that matter, in all Beaver Dam, West Virginia. I just smiled and nodded my head, thinkin’ ‘bout the smile that would be on Rose’s face when she saw the ring. So after a couple of drinks, I thanked the bartender and headed on down to the store he’d been tellin’ me ‘bout.
The store was fresh and clean and the owner even met me at the door and asked what he could do for me. Well I told him about my conversation with the bartender, about how he told me about catalogues and orderin’ diamond rings and all—he smiled and said he sure could help me. He led me to a catalogue. Well, I hadn’t ever seen a catalogue before and it was filled with slick pages that had color photos all over them—like a real fancy magazine. And, it had diamond rings all right—lots of ‘em. When I saw the prices—well I knew right then and there that I needed more money—so I told him so. He smiled and told me not to worry. He told me all about buyin’ things on credit. He told me a right smart about how I could pay for part of the diamond ring now and then pay the rest later. I told him how much money I had brought with me—which was about half of what the ring I picked out cost. He told me that was the exact amount I would need if I were to want to buy the ring on credit. So that settled it, I gave him my money right then and there—I never thought about getting nothin’ in writin’—I was just thinkin’ ‘bout marrin’ Rose. So I told him I’d be back after next harvest to give him the rest of the money and pick up Rose’s ring. He told me that was fine and he would keep the ring safe for me till then. Again I never thought to even give him my name—I never had bought anything on credit before, we didn’t have no use for buyin’ on credit in Beaver Dam, West Virginia.
So I rode on back to Beaver Dam the next mornin’—and told Rose I lost all of the money I had earned from the harvest on playin’ cards. She was in a heap of heartache about that. I couldn’t help but smile to myself. I didn’t worry ‘bout her cryin’ none too much though. I figured she must a’ known somethin’ was up. Maybe she knew it wasn’t lost, but that it was buyin’ her a diamond ring. She could just be actin’ sad so I wouldn’t know she knew about the ring and all. It was all I could do to keep from explodin’ at that thought. In my mind was that photograph in the magazine that showed how she’d act—kiss me right in front of anyone. That I couldn’t hardly wait for.
(our waitress comes back—this time with hard alcohol—Baileys and Jameson on the rocks—my ears are warm, I can feel the alcohol flowing from my stomach to my heart and to my ears as they listen to Nod’s impossible story—life is beautiful—I feel like the blue eyed child with Old Man America’s lips touching the top of my ears as he whispers about star-lit Nebraska nights and Coney Island, and Hollywood, and the Boston Tea Party)
I had the whole next year planned out in my mind—I smiled every day when I thought about it. Rose—she quit smilin’, but that only made me smile all the more. See, I knew when she saw the ring—all would be ok and she’d love me even more than she already did. All winter I saw less and less of Rose—she kept sayin’ she had to attend to other things in her life—I figured maybe she’d got wind of the ring from someone and was makin’ a dress or somethin’ and didn’t want me to catch no wind of it early. Why I used to fall asleep dreamin’ about what dress she was sewin’ would look like when she was finally wearin’ it.
Now spring I don’t hardly even remember outside of bein’ in the fields sowin’ and a’ plantin’. Rose was gonna kiss me right in front of everyone. Some folks kept on tellin’ me I ought to propose to Rose or at least let her know what my intentions were. I couldn’t keep from grinnin’ at folks when they asked me what I was waitin’ on—seein’s how I knew all long what I was waitin’ on—the ring. But most folks just shook their heads at my grin. They said I wasn’t no good for Rose, but I knew she knew better. I mean, I was buyin’ her a diamond ring—I was fixin’ to marry her proper! How on the Good Lord’s earth couldn’t she a’ known? And anyways if folks had known about the ring—why I knew they would understand what I was waitin’ on. I told Rose that after the harvest I was gonna go back to Flat Rock to pick her up somethin’. She just said I best not waste my money on cards if I expected to ever make something of myself—she was proper I already told you.
Well I decided that in order for me to have enough money come the end of Harvest I’d have to work as hard as I reckoned I ever worked. I told Rose I probably wasn’t gonna be able to see her till after harvest. The strangest thing was the way she cried and cried, and then her ma made me up and leave. I told her it would all be ok after the harvest, that I’d get on over to Flat Rock and when I came back, then she’d see—but I guess she already saw a right smart more than I’d ever been able to. I left that day not even rememberin’ what she’d been wearin’.
Soon enough the harvest came. I jumped up out of bed every morning like a snake bit me. I put my whole-self into it—I put everything I had into gettin’ Rose a diamond ring. I worked faster and smarter that harvest then any other time in my entire life. I knew I was doing good work—everyone knew it. Folks that stopped by our farm would wonder how I found the energy to keep moving so fast from sun up to sun down. But it wasn’t energy that kept me movin’, it was the look that was gonna be on Rose’s face when I gave her the ring. That was what kept me workin’.
(Nod leans over and spits on the carpet)
So I went. Harvest ended and first thing the morning after the crops sold, I saddled up at the break of dawn, same as the year before, and I went back to Flat Rock—back to the same store. Why I couldn’t wait to lay eyes on that ring. That ring would let Rose know I knew she was materialistic, that I already knew she wasn’t at all like women used to be—I knew she’d just be beside herself when I gave it to her.
As soon as I walked in the store, I was greeted by the fella behind the counter. But he wasn’t the same one I had spoken with the year before. He was polite though, same as that other fella. I guess you gotta be polite when you work in a store like that. Well anyways, I was getting so excited by now that I could hardly talk straight. It took me ‘bout five minutes to even get out that I was there about the diamond ring. And let me tell you, his face sure lit up when I started talkin’ bout a diamond ring—at first I figured the other fella must of told him all about me and buyin’ on credit and all. He asked me to follow him so I did. But instead of takin’ me to the ring, he lead me back to the same catalogue and started showin’ me all the same rings I had looked at last year. Well I had to laugh at that—he didn’t realize I’d already been in the store and had a ring waitin’ there for me. He thought I was some other fella in to buy another diamond ring. Right then and there I knew the magazine had t’ been right ‘bout women if so many fellas were buyin’ diamond rings all the way out in Flat Rock.
Finally I was able to talk straight enough to let him know I’d already come by after last harvest. He looked at me strangely, so I told him about my deal with the other fella—about buyin’ on credit. He told me the other fella had done run off with someone’s wife and ain’t nobody heard from him for almost a year. He also told me how the store didn’t even sell nothin’, let alone diamond rings, on credit. He asked me if I had signed anything—and I told him I hadn’t. I was shakin’ by now—they had to have that ring there somewhere. He asked if I had given that other fella my name—so he could maybe look it up, and of course I told him I hadn’t given him my name, because I hadn’t. Then he just stood there and looked at me an awful long time—like he felt sorry for me. I just kept tryin’ to figger out what was goin’ on. He offered to check the storeroom for the ring—but I reckon by then it was gettin’ through my skull what had really happened with the money from last year’s harvest—.
I felt all empty—so I turned and left the store while the fella was still talkin’. I rode out of town without ever even lookin’ anywhere but straight down. I was in a heap of fury ‘bout the whole thing. So I made up my mind to tell Rose everything—how I had planned it all out to get her a ring, a bone-a-fide diamond ring. She’d listen to me—she’d marry me anyway, I’d tried durn well as hard as anyone could a’ asked me to. Rose—she’d just be happy to know all I went through tryin’ to get her that ring. I mean I kept thinkin’, she might not kiss me right out in front of anyone, but she’d still marry me all right. Rose would be mine—and proper too—I’d see to that one way or another. Only problem was that I wasn’t much good with words—so I decided the best way to do it would be to write it all down for Rose to read so she could go over it a spell. Then she’d see how much I loved her—two years I worked for her.
So the next day I wrote her—I wrote it all, about the magazine, about the picture, about the bartender, about the one fella at the catalogue store, and about the other fella too. I even explained to her all about buyin’ on credit. I also put the money from this years harvest into the letter to show her I didn’t lose it in no card tournament. Then I slicked my hair back, like for Sunday meetin’, and I went round by her place. When I got there, it was her ma who answered the door. She told me Rose wasn’t around. I smiled and handed her the letter, asking her to give it to Rose when she got back. I imagined how Rose would react when she read it and saw all I had done to try to marry her proper.
A week went by and I still hadn’t heard no word from Rose. So I reckoned I’d best go to see her and have it out. When I got to her family’s place her ma answered the door again. She didn’t look none too happy to see me. She sighed this deep heavy sigh and told me then and there how Rose had gone—gone and done left Beaver Dam, West Virginia for good. She told me how Rose had waited for me to marry her for years and had finally had to give up on me. She said how any proper, respectable fella would a’ done proposed to and married Rose years ago. She went on, tellin’ me how Rose had been there the day I brought the letter by. I asked her why she had lied to me—she told me it was cause she knew I wasn’t no good for Rose—she kept me from her, to protect Rose. She was protectin’ Rose from me! I reckon I was choked up—havin’ had my heart set on the image of Rose throwin’ her arms around me and kissin’ me right out in the open with that big ole ring on her finger for so long. I reckon it was somethin’ cause it was a few moments before I figured out her ma was still tellin’ me somethin’. She told me how Rose told her that she never wanted to see me again, and how all of Beaver Dam, West Virginia thought I’d done wrong by her. Funny part about it was up till right that moment I had forgotten about the letter—so I asked her what Rose did with it. Her ma told me Rose ain’t never done nothin’ with it, cause she ain’t never even seen it. She told me how she herself had burned it right away before Rose could even know I’d brought it by.
She still kept right on talkin’—like she’d been savin’ it up for a long time, but I didn’t hear ‘nother word. I just turned around and walked off and got back on my horse. Lookin’ back—I didn’t have any plan—it was sorta the end of havin’ plans for me. So I just road my horse—without headin’ nowhere in particular for a while, but finally I rode him on out of town. I kept riding him for a couple days. I only stopped every so often when the horse was thirsty—myself, I didn’t drink or eat or nothin’.
I ended up a day or so’s ride past Flat Rock in a little mining town. There used to be a lot more of them around—and a man could lose himself in one real quick if’n he wanted to. The place was all so dark and dusty. As long as I’ve been there everyone has always kept their heads down, like their feet needed watchin’ or something. Well I sold my horse right away—I hadn’t no use to go anywhere anymore. After that, I went and got a job diggin’ in the mine. I climbed onto the elevator and I rode it down. I rode it right down inside the earth—I imagined Nod was gettin’ himself buried that day. I never concerned myself with who I’d be after Nod’d been buried. I reckon I didn’t have no use for bein’ anyone in particular, so it didn’t matter much nohow. And anyways, I ain’t come back out of that hole in the ground yet.
The bar holds its breath. Nod finishes another pint in one ferocious gulp. The grime in the wrinkles in his skin starts to shine black and beaten. His eyes waver like they are underwater. I look over to see your eyes follow a tear down his cheek. I wonder what it would be like to remind someone like Nod of a girl like Rose. The bar stands silent—and in the corner—in the corner there is an old man with silver hair and a little girl with blue eyes:
“Can you see him Rose? Watch him drink Rose—he doesn’t believe in you anymore. He’s given up on believing anymore.”
And Nod squints through drunken eyes at the last bit of beer in his pint glass before it vanishes between old teeth and fights its way to his heart trying to drown out the stubborn thump, thump. And as we sit there, silent, hand in hand, watching—Nod and Jimmy get up from the booth. Music sings out of a jukebox I never noticed or heard before. It flows in seamlessly with the cigarette smoke. Suddenly we’re just in a dirty, old bar. The two old minors disappear into the night—fading out like phantoms into the belly of the city.
The bar sways with the music—and suddenly alcohol no longer makes anything beautiful, it just makes me think about being violently ill. You pull me up out of the booth and back into the reality of the bar. As I stumble across the floor I look for America (are you hiding in the corner again?)—but he’s gone.
If you listen through the alcohol, you can hear the sound of the city resuming her song—her call to the highway. Only now everything feels heavy—like fear or heartache. And the stripe is off and dancing again—from one coast to the other and back and forth. He runs on and on always pushing faster, and further like he’s trying to forget he ever heard Nod’s story. The stripe has no limit—except maybe for his memory. For some reason the city and her lover both stopped and listened to an old minor’s drunken story about dying. I guess everyone likes stories.
We fight our way to the door through drunks and stares and history and the thickening smoke—my lungs burn with the smoke. I can see the exit in the distance but it feels like the building is spinning—or maybe America himself is spinning. Maybe all this dream really is, is a little piece of mud on the side of a bigger piece of mud that is spinning and spinning around and around. How can anyone think when everything is spinning so madly?
Old Man America stumbles out of a liquor store three streets over with a half-pint of bourbon. He sings to himself as he finds an alley to duck into for a drink:
“There I am!—old and forgotten, meaningless and stoop-shouldered”
“There I am!—toil stained, beaten, tired, drinking, and still dreaming of the girl I lost a century ago”
He takes a side long glance at the city herself, and then another in the direction of the bar. He half grins to himself and spits out through the alcohol—
“Children shouldn’t listen to such stories”
A taxi slides by. A bus stops across the street. Two college kids walk by arguing about record labels. A drunk stumbles into the opposite end of the alley—he pukes all over the place—that is I puke all over the place and look up just in time to see America vanish around the far corner. I stagger towards him almost falling into my vomit like a fool into his folly—
We need to get you back to the hotel—before you pass out.
No, no, we gotta find him—he was right there, didn’t you see him?
What are you talking about? You can’t even stand up. And then I collapse. I look up at you through bleary eyes. I can see your face—you’re smiling, even now. It’s times like these when I realize how young I am and how little I understand other people.
Yeah—ok, lets get back to the hotel. So I let you lead me back, like a child, through old streets and new memories. But the night is no longer young—and like youth, alcohol has his price. I stumble and ache and pay him again and again. I keep wondering why I’m out here—all over America—drinking too much. The wind blows and it smells sweet like honey. I look up—the night air is still limitless, but a man can only drink so much—and one foot in front of the other—that’s it. Dreams—dream dreams—yes, one foot, next. You keep holding me till we reach the parking lot—I can see our room, I smile at you, staggering.
Hey, we were here earlier.
Come on, we’re almost there.
Yeah, we were here—remember? The city, she sang to us—or not to us really, but to the highway—to the stripe. Does he ever come back for her, do you think?
Time for bed.
Yes, bed. Yes, time for bed, yes.
We stumble through the hotel parking lot. You are the only thing between my face and the pavement. You prop me against the doorframe and unlock the door—click. We stumble in the darkness over the crumpled papers, around the table, past the television with adult program guide on top, to the bed. The bed still exists in the darkness—like children, like dreams, like truth. I fall into it head first, whole-heartedly, with complete and total exhaustion. You part the big green curtains and open the window. In through the window echo, like the cries of children, the sounds of a thousand sets of hands and feet all going somewhere, doing something. And in each set there are frail blue veins that carry heart beats out to finger tips and toes. And every hand and every foot throbs with the thump, thump—the heart beat of the city as she lies on her side longing for the return of her lover. He’s out there—he’s alive, always running, always unbroken because he’s only a dream—but a man, well he can only go so far.
It is hours later—just before the dawn. I wake suddenly—my eyes opening and my mind swimming up through high school and other distant, jumbled memories to reach consciousness. I can hear you breathing—your blonde hair shining in the starlight. Your hair lays layer upon layer like silk upon the pillow. My mind is clear of alcohol; he has left me sober and cold—either that or I’m dreaming. The room is different; somehow the light filters blue as it pours in through the window. Through the pale starlight everything jumps and shimmers in deep shades of blue like the room is underwater. I shake my head and everything clears. Blue shimmers and falls off everything before it seeps into the carpet where it disappears. I look over at the small wooden table that sits in front of the window—the shot glasses, the map, they’re still there—waiting, watching. The television stares at me from his spot on the far wall—his one great eye blinking and empty. The handwritten apology on the broken air conditioner shines faintly in a ray of light coming in through the window. I pull the red, plush bedspread off of me, swing my legs out, and walk over to the window.
There she is—the city—she just lays there, waiting, listening, hoping. She knows I’m here peering through the window like a child looking for Santa Clause. I don’t know what it is she has on me—how it is her song can draw me into her arms every night. It’s all madness—and for some reason, the more I see of it, the more I believe. And the more I believe, the more desperate I become to reach our goal—highway one, the edge of reality—I’ve got to make it. I let my eyes close and instantly I can feel the hum of the highway underneath me. It pushes me on like a wind that rushes around you so madly you have to laugh or yell to know you are human and not wind. And when you finally do laugh or yell, you can’t hear or even feel the sound of your own voice. I can feel the call of the open road—the same call of the sleepless city—the call of America himself, mad and beautiful. I open my eyes and stare out the window at her—I can’t pull myself away from the shape of her buildings against the night sky—Oh beautiful for spacious skies…
“She’s alive with dreams and beauty—don’t look at the buildings, look at her. She’s in the buildings.”
His voice startles me and I spin around expecting to see America standing right there, whispering in my ear, but he’s gone. You are the only thing in the room. Your face is still and silent in the moonlight. I stand staring at your lips as they move with your breath while moonlight spills over my shoulders. And while I’m staring, lost in your face, something new begins to seep in. It seeps slowly, spilling in soft little waterfalls around my ankles. It wraps itself up around my calves—warm and inviting like mud.
The city and her song wait outside, not daring to cross through the window. She brushes her fingers delicately over the dirty glass as she stares longingly in. Even the stripe of the highway stops at the curb and kicks stones like a child—but this dream—this thing that wraps itself around me—this beautiful mad joy—like being drunk, like driving forever, like plunging headfirst into the sights and smells of a virgin city—this madness spins me round and ignites in me something I have no name for. And finally—as it pounds through my heart—I know what it is, where it comes from: it is the truth behind the stripe, the desire behind the city’s song, the dream pushing me on my own ocean to ocean journey. It’s him—the old man himself—he’s not mad, he’s just a dreamer who can’t help believing in dreams.
And as I stand here feeling it swirl around me—it occurs to me why He drinks himself to death. I understand why that inspires me. It’s nothing really in and of the old man himself at all. It’s his way of dealing with it, with reality. It’s the way he finds strength to keep believing in dreams that don’t come true. It’s the way he remembers truth like an old hunting injury. It’s the way he feels it crawl through him—alive in and of itself. I remember the first feelings of panic when I, as a child, struggled to grasp the expanse of eternity. America struggles through understanding truth—something so independent of himself or anything else—just like I did eternity. And just like me—he finds himself running from it without even meaning to.
Of course he crouches behind the city whispering to her about her lover as his eyes sparkle mischievously over her shoulder. Of course he drinks late at night with the highway stripe as he goes on and on about how beautiful a virgin city’s skyline is. And of course he sits in the back of my car amid our wrinkled papers and half-finished stories singing to us about tomorrow, always tomorrow. He’s torn between reality and dreams he can’t help but to believe in. He drinks to stay young and to find the words to make his daughters beautiful. There is always the bottle clasped in his hand, and I wonder when he first picked it up. Bless the Lord who has given us alcohol to gladden the heart of America….
I quietly slip into my clothes and undo the chain on the door. I watch your face disappear through the crack of the door as it closes quietly. The dream is everywhere now—everything is soaked in it. The neon light of the hotel sign glows brighter without giving off anymore light. The stoplights stay red longer without anyone noticing. The dream shudders itself down the city’s spine. And as my heart begins to pound, I’m lost in the city all over again—only this time she does not sing. She’s holding her breath. Her smell is different. It no longer smells like alcohol and excitement. She now smells of the bittersweet melancholy of a sleepless night. It is a low, lingering smell that triggers forgotten memories—old marriages—déjà vu. Just before dawn always smells the same. But it is a smell as lost as it is lonely—always erased, quickly and quietly, by the dawn. It is the smell of the city mourning the stripe who never returns. The smell fades with dawn and the city forgets about the loneliness that haunts her during the night as she watches Old Man America wake and stretch his arms out full to the dawn.
I keep walking, turning down street after street, not thinking, or looking at the city as I pass her by. I just keep moving with the pull of the dream. It carries me along like a breeze—gentle and playful. And like a breeze I know it blows independent and almost unaware of my existence. I lose myself completely in it, not caring if I’m asleep or awake until, in the distance I hear it—Thump, Thump. He’s alive and in the city.
The buildings reach deeper and deeper into the night sky as I draw near the heart of the city. All is silent. All is still. The cold streets keep their forlorn watch. I stop long enough to glance around—there is no one anywhere. I am alone in the city. I turn a corner and as I peer down what I know is a street I’ve never seen before, but it feels like a street I looked down once, a long time ago. And suddenly the city feels much older. I wonder how such a young country can feel so old to me. I stare at buildings that I dream reach up into antiquity, not merely fifty years ago—and as I dream it, I wonder which is more true: the dream or the reality? And again I understand why they all drink. The buildings stretch themselves deep into the night—while the city’s heart bleeds all over them, all over the night, all over America.
And her heart does bleed, for it is nearly morning. Alcohol has come to demand his usual payment and a thousand toilets flush with despair, finality, and regret. The air quiets itself and the birds start waking up. The sun starts creeping across the horizon. And even though the old man still rises each dawn to tell us new stories—the city is always left alone this last moment of night—and it is then that she always cries. The city cries—her head hanging down—tasting the salt of her ten thousand tears—with no lover to comfort her. Her heart is heavy with a lonesomeness and sorrow alcohol can only cause, not heal. Somewhere in the night, her lover—the stripe—stands still with his eyes popping out of his skull. He can feel himself trapped and tries in vain to find some new place to dream up and run to. He tries to find something, anything to pour himself into. He is lost without the old man—they all are. He is the reason they dream, their reason to try again. While all the while he himself has nothing but a bottle to turn to when he’s gone too far.
“Wake up old man, wake up!”
I walk slowly past closed shops that shimmer in the streetlights and take another right. At the end of the next block against a street lamp leans an old man smoking a cigarette. His hands move swiftly from his mouth to his side and back again. His head shifts back and forth as he looks at the city. He moves like a dream in the distance—and I wonder what desert it is I travel in that makes such mirages.
His hair is silver but his eyes are young. They twinkle just like Samuel Hamilton’s did—and, as he looks my way and sees me, my heart bleeds the way it did the day Samuel Hamilton died. I can see the years drinking and dreaming piled up on him—making him look old and jaded. He puts out his cigarette with a twist of his ankle—his shoes are made of shiny black leather. He squints at me and motions like he is telling me a story.
I had a girl once too.
Same as yours, same as Nod’s.
What happened to her?—he shrugs and runs a hand through his silver hair
She had to go, had to find her own way.
I don’t understand—who was she? The Old Man looks at me for a long time, and I wonder how many faces has he stared at like mine. How many street lamps in how many cities with how many drunks and dreamers has he had this same conversation?
The longer I’m around the more I see that there is this need in people—this need to go beyond themselves—to see what they cannot—to go where they have no need. There is this mad need to keep moving forward and forward again, without reasons, without limits.
It’s mad, and at the same time, beautiful. Living like that—always faster, always further—manifest destiny—living like that is a devil that will never leave a man content. But it’s not that devil that is beautiful—it’s the dream we always seem to get him confused with. The dream that truly anything is possible—the dream that the sky really is limitless—the dream where wonder and awe are the end of the pursuit of happiness. That is the dream of all children. He looks away, nodding, and adds almost to himself: Children dream the most beautiful dreams.
Old Man America pauses for a long time—hands fumbling in his pockets. He stares up at the buildings as if he’s talking with them, not me. Finally he turns back to me: She didn’t just disappear though—she wrote me at first.
Time happened—that’s all. Her letters just kept coming at larger intervals and from farther and farther away. Then one day they stopped altogether. I knew then that she was gone—but the madness, her demon—it never leaves. That is to say, it never dies, at least not yet.
Will it ever die? —he shrugs.
Who can say what will happen tomorrow, who can even say what happened yesterday? He takes out the same bottle of bourbon he bought hours earlier, and takes a deep drink. His eyes sparkle like a child’s—and, for a second, it is obvious how young he really is. He looks at me and gestures with his whole arm as he recovers from the bourbon.
This thing about always going further, always pressing on without end—well, a man can only dream so much. He is only a man. He is not a sunrise, or a star, or a drink, or even a story—no matter how beautiful they are or how badly he wants to be one.
He looks up at the sky again—and then continues. Old Man America waves his arms around and stamps his feet as he goes on and on in the mounting light of morning. I stand there, on a strange street corner that I will never see again, and I listen to him. And the more he tells me about this madness, this demon, the more and more I feel the beauty of the dream behind it. And the more he tells me how it kills a man, the more it makes me feel like a child when you know absolutely anything is possible. The more he tells me dreams don’t come true, the more I see dreams have never depended upon becoming reality to be true.
I look at him with a strained look—I want to tell him that it doesn’t kill—that everyone dies anyway. I want to tell him that without the dream we wouldn’t even really be alive. I want to tell him nothing in the world is perfect, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful. I want to say something, anything. I want to tell him that it is the dream he condemns that defines who he is. I want to tell him that it is this dream that has brought me out here to meet him in a strange city just before the dawn—but before I can even put the words together—he’s already leaving.
Slowly he walks away as I stare at him unable to believe he is so bitter about something so alive and true. But just before his features disappear he looks back over his shoulder one last time to grin and wink at me. And in that instant I realize he knew exactly what was going through my mind. He knew the exact words I was struggling to get out: that it is beautiful. That no matter how much we ourselves, or the world around us perverts it, the dream itself is untouched, and undisturbed. He knew that the madness, the cities, the highway—that they were all beautiful. But instead of coming out and saying that—he let me think it was my idea. I hadn’t yet learned what it meant to believe in dreams that cannot come true. I hadn’t yet realized why he treated everyone as if they believed in dreams with the passion and naivety he does.
He fooled me—America played a joke on me. I smile back at him and wave, feeling just like a child when you know anything is possible. America waves back—and this is how America waves, how he has always waved: with his arm fully extended and his hand as wide open as possible, reaching back towards you. He shakes his arm with vitality and youth and dreams before he turns away and shuffles off like a kid on his way home from school. The sun breaks over the buildings and as the first rays reach out like needles, piercing the darkness—he is gone. The city shuffles, murmurs, brews coffee, and awakes. It is morning, the next day.
And as I walk back to our hotel room in the early dawn light—the people I see in the streets are mad. And the laughter and stories I hear them share are mad. And the smell of the waking city is mad. And even the feel of the pavement under my stumbling feet is mad. And as my mind wanders back over last night, I realize every bit of it was mad. The bar—the city—the highway—America—everything—everywhere—mad—drunk and mad and young and old and beautiful and damned.
This piece was written originally in 2001-2002, but revisions have been ongoing.
(c) 2001-2009 Clark Waggoner