The Last Wednesday: 11/22/06.
It’s a week before Christmas, and I’m passing by the Naughty Pine, and the papers that have been plastered over the street-side windows are now down, so you can actually see inside. Not only that, but the little alcove seat just to the right of the door—the one with the L-shaped wooden bench and the sloped shingled roof—now has a series of six lit candles in it. The place looks totally warm and inviting, and as I get closer I can see Richie drawing a Santa-with-his-reindeer picture on the inside window, a picture that’s framed inside a frosted circle of snow and holly. I take two steps forward and lean closer, and the picture disappears, but I can still see Richie moving around inside the bar. And then he’s outside shaking my hand. “Work’s almost done,” he says, and my heart leaps. Open in time for Christmas! Yes! “Want to see what it looks like?” Do I! He pushes open the door, I walk in behind him, and I am bathed in the glow from the bar and the overhead lamps and the light flares out at me as I smile and open my eyes to sunlight streaming into my bedroom on the morning before Thanksgiving, four weeks before Christmas, and a feeling in my stomach like every steak I ate for the last week was rancid.
Either the Second or the Third
Circle of Hell
The temperature is 55, so it feels more like the end of April than the end of November as I hit Duane Reade and buy a jar of Planter’s peanuts and two bags of Dove candy goodness for tonight’s marathon. When I drop off a bag of Dove Milk Chocolates for the downstairs crew, Glynnis asks me if I’m going to the Closing Party on Sunday. I barely answer yes when she adds: “Allyson is counting on you to make her feel like she’s there.” I wonder if Allyson has told Glynnis about the Closing Diary entries I’ve been sending her in the mail; and, if so, whether she’s shared any of them.
It’s five minutes of six when I get upstairs, and Dave’s bar is already totally packed with regulars. Besides John B and Marita, Trish is there, Kerry Anne is showing Robert and DJ pictures from her trip to Niagara Falls, and Elijah is talking to Warren. “Hollow Leg!” Warren says when he sees me. It’s Dave’s nickname for me and it’s how he used to introduce me to people at the bar in the first couple of years when I’d be upstairs scribbling away between the two pillars of taps. “And that is Hollow Leg Wells,” Dave would say. “He’s a Red Sox fan but we don’t hold that against him.” And then he’d spray me with water or flick Hoegaarden at me. (This was back when they had Hoegaarden, so this is probably around the time when Allyson and I were arguing over which was the better Joss Whedon show, Buffy or Angel. Those were the days.) I bring up stories like this one whenever people ask me why I don’t bring a laptop to the bar. As far as I know, there are no beer-proof laptops on the market. So I could probably make a fortune designing one.
Mauri and Jynah are waitering tonight. Elijah moves to table 201 with Warren when their friend Jay shows up, but I promise to visit him on Saturday afternoon for lunch while he’s tending the downstairs bar. British Mike comes in, and for some reason he goes totally ballistic when Dave gives him a bowl of soup instead of a cup of soup. DJ asks me about Dante translations. She’s looking for one to give her brother for Christmas.
DJ: What about the Ciardi?
ME: God no.
DJ: How about the Mandelbaum?
ME: The Mandelbaum’s good. Also the Sayers, if you can still find it.
DJ: Sayers? Dorothy L. Sayers?
ME: Yup. The old Penguin edition. Rhymed ottava rima. She died while halfway through the Paradiso, it was finished by Barbara Something –- Barbara Reynolds maybe? Whoever she is, she also translated the Orlando Furioso. There’s also the Hollander. He’s done the Inferno and the Purgatorio. Then there’s WS Merwin’s version of the Purgatorio, which is very good. But the best Inferno is the 20 Poet Inferno. Everybody from Seamus Heaney to Jori Graham. Every now and then it’s at Barnes and Noble. If I see a copy I’ll pick it up.
DJ and I talk about Vertical Hour. As always with David Hare plays, the discussion begins with a single question: how would you rewrite the play so it works? My beef: in the first act Bill Nighy is set up as a bad guy and Julianne Moore is well rid of her past as a war correspondent. In the second act, the bad guy turns into a good guy after all, and (because the play demands it) the main female character returns to the past, like being a witness everyone ignores is better than being a teacher no one listens to. And because Julianne Moore can’t sell her character’s conflicted soul, the choice at the end feels schematic and frankly so escapist as to be virtually pointless. Which makes me wonder if this play is at heart Hare’s comment on Americans? Or just American actors?
We drink a toast to Robert Altman, who died two days ago. I sing the praises of Long Goodbye and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and scourge the hatred of women that seems to be in every frame of Short Cuts; DJ bows down before Gosford Park and bemoans the lost opportunity of Buffalo Bill and the Indians. (Read Kopit’s Indians instead.) We both remark on how it will be impossible from now on to watch Prairie Home Companion and not think of it as one long premonition. Talk of Gosford Park leads to talk of Clive Owen (“The best thing in Bourne Identity,” says Deej, and don’t you dare argue with her) and then the new Bond. “Which should be him,” says DJ. End of discussion.
Henry comes in with his wife Michelle. They haven’t been in the bar for ages, and they just happen to come in tonight. When they find out the place is closing, they call as many friends as they can and tell them to come upstairs. In less than 30 minutes their corner of the bar has eight people leaning over it, and Dave is in his element.
From my notebook: Dave is playing all my birthday compilations tonight; so many birthdays I’ve spent up here. There’s a discussion about waxing going on at the other end of the bar [TRISH: I’ve never done it. MARITA: It hurts like hell.] Somebody (okay—me) reflects on how ordering beers is like yelling for a woman. [ME: Stella! Ho!] Trish’s roommates Hession and Stacy come in, and they all end up sitting at one of the middle tables with some of their friends. Elijah leaves at 7:30. At 8:45, Dave pours me my fourth Jameson shot of the night. Fifteen minutes later I have a shot of tequila in front of me. I write down the words: “We. Are. DOOMED!”
A little after nine o’clock, I put my sweater on because it’s getting chilly up here, and find myself in the middle of an Old Time’s Sake gag, because Dave turns around and immediately raises the heat and Mauri says “Thank God”!” and throws on her sweater till the place warms up. This gag dates back to a night three years ago, a winter night that was (if I remember correctly) a Thursday, during which Dave kept raising and lowering the heat in the upstairs, just to watch me take my sweater off, and put my sweater on. He let everyone else at the bar in on it, and I was either so drunk or so involved in conversation that I was totally oblivious to DJ sniggering beside me and Allyson and Aaron giggling in the service area as I put my sweater on, and took it off, and put it on again, once every half hour, then once every fifteen minutes, then once every five minutes, until I finally figured out what was going on (Dave’s shit-eating grin was a dead giveaway) and the entire bar erupted in laughter. I still blush thinking about it.
At 9:45 it feels like midnight. Because Dave’s been bugging me all week, and because Trish has never heard it, I do my impression of Bob Dylan singing the Gillian’s Island Theme Song for everyone. I sit for a while at Table 201 with Warren and Jay; Warren is reading The Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh, which I read a couple of years ago. Seeing a familiar book in a buddy’s hands is like unexpectedly bumping into a friend on the street –- it gives you that feeling of connection, of order beneath the surface of Coincidence Ocean. So we talk Indian novels for a while, and then I talk to Jay about his travels in South and Central America. They leave around 11, and Mauri gives them the store, charging them only for their food and not their four rounds of drinks.
At about 11:00, as Dave is trying to get the upstairs closed, Andrew comes up and goes into Get Away From Me contortions whenever I take his picture. As Andrew drinks his Guinness and flinches whenever I make a move for my camera, DJ cries “Oh my God, listen, it’s my June song!” And yes, we’re listening to the Stones sing “What a drag it is getting old,” which was going to be DJ’s theme song from a play I conceived at McQuaid’s, the bar we made our local exactly 15 years ago now. (November of ’91, when we did The Mildred Piece.) It was called “April Mai & June” and it was conceived as a series of four 90-minute one-acts, chronicling the events surrounding three sisters returning home to bury their mother. The idea was to do a play a night Thursday through Saturday (Thursday would be the night they all arrive, Friday the first wake, Saturday the second wake) and then a matinee on Sunday after the funeral. Their mother would be onstage as well, as a ghost/memory character, and each sister would be the main subject of one of the evening plays, with the funeral play being the ensemble piece. It was originally conceived to be acted by my friends Elizabeth and Laura as well as DJ, but it never made it out of the early draft stage. Fifteen years ago. And now Elizabeth is married in LA, Laura is divorced in New Jersey, and DJ is about to be made a Vice President at Goldman Sachs. There’s something ineffably sad about all that . . .
When the door is finally closed, it’s just the core die-hards upstairs, and Dave puts on Sergeant Pepper. We all sing along. Not for the first time, I shake my head at how high all their voices are. Paul’s especially. “She’s Leaving Home” is pure soprano. And while it’s playing, Dave leans over between the taps and stares at DJ and me.
DAVE: You guys have been my anchors up here. And that’s all I’m going to say.
That’s as sentimental as he gets. When the album is finished, between midnight and 1, DJ leaves and Kerry Anne, Trish, Dave and I head downstairs. Bernie is there and he buys KA and me a drink.
KERRY ANNE: I seem to remember you—I’m sorry, this is going to sound awfully rude, but I remember you being . . . heavier.
BERNIE: I lost 110 pounds.
KERRY ANNE: (aside, to me) I hope he wasn’t embarrassed
ME: Are you kidding? He’s proud of it. He looks great.
Bernie takes my camera and snaps pictures of me and Kerry Anne. “You’re always behind the camera,” he says, snapping off six quick shots. I don’t even get to see what they look like –- Kerry Anne snags the camera and junks all but one of the pix because she doesn’t like the way they make her look.
This to me is one of the seven deadly sins of digital photography. You never erase anything, even the bad stuff, because sometimes bad portraits are good pictures. And you never, ever, erase pictures from somebody else’s camera. It’s like ripping pages out of another writer’s notebook. You just don’t do it. Or I don’t anyway. Something else I try not to do, as much as I’d like to, is force the world to live by my rules. Whenever I do it, the world usually laughs.
And that sound you hear? Universal chortling, as Kerry Anne bids me goodnight and Emma Lee, who has been observing all this from three seats away, sidles up to my side and sits down next to me. We hug and cheek kiss, and catch up, during which I say very little and watch Emma Lee down three Stoli O’s on the rocks until she is not only plastered, she is spackled and shellacked. Which gives her the courage to look me in the eye and say out loud what she’s probably been thinking since she started talking.
EMMA LEE: You know, Mr. Wells, you’re the reason I come here. Not Dave. Not DJ. You. You’re sweet, you’re funny, I think you’re incredibly talented and a fantastic person, and I don’t know what happened, but we haven’t been as close as we were a few months ago.
ME: (thinking it but not saying it:) Well, I can tell you why. It’s because I saw you leaning forward and I pulled back.
EMMA LEE: And I know I haven’t been keeping in touch as much as I’ve wanted to, and I don’t come in here as much as I used to, but I miss that. I miss you.
ME: (because what else can I say and not sound like a heel) I miss you too.
I don’t know what else to say. I don’t want to be encouraging but I can’t be silent either. I could pretend to be drunker than I am, and either ignore what Kerry Anne is saying or stagger over to talk to someone else like I was under the influence of some drunken idea that just can’t be denied, but that would only get me out of tonight, it wouldn’t get me out of the corner I feel like I’m in. And it’s a definite backed-into-a-corner sensation. It’s tense, it’s claustrophobic and it’s aggravating. Is this what all those women felt when I was pressuring them with my oh-so unpressuring attentions?
I try to get beyond the aggravation, and what comes to mind is, I make so many jokes about nobody Liking me with a capital L; and here’s somebody who does, so what’s the problem?
MY INNER SOBER SELF: You mean, besides the fact that you don’t feel the same way about her?
DRUNK ME: (duh) Oh yeah.
Here’s the deal. I don’t know whether I’m closed off from a real feeling or I just don’t really feel anything. But I do know that there are moments in the past year when I have felt things for people, non-neurotic things for people, believe it or not, and those feelings are nothing like this one. It’s taken me five decades to figure out the difference between a product of domestic manufacture and something imported, Never mind something thrown together by cheap foreign labor or illegal immigrants, and not even alcohol is going to make me blur that difference. Which is the absolute wrong thing to think, because that is when Alcohol rears his foamy head, puts his arm around my shoulder, and starts whispering in my ear.
KING ALCOHOL: Go ahead, stick your tongue down her throat.
KING ALCOHOL: Stick your tongue down her throat -- you know I want to do it.
ME: Excuse me?
KING ALCOHOL: (Whoops!) I mean you know you want to do it.
ME: So is it me or you that wants to do this?
KING ALCOHOL: Uhm . . . you?
ME: (making a buzzer noise) Wrong answer.
KING ALCOHOL: Bagged!
So I don’t stick my tongue down her throat. I meet her lips, keep my own lips closed, and get a kiss that tastes of carbonated Jack Daniels. I give Kerry Anne a hug (but not a Matthew hug) and break away without doing anything stupid. But I could have done something stupid. I could have done it quite easily. And King Alcohol just laughs.
KING ALCOHOL: (laughing) And when you do something stupid? The truth now. Is it me or is it you who wants to do it?
So I do the one thing I know that King Alcohol hates. I tell the truth.
ME: Emma. If I'm wrong about this, let me know. But I get the feeling that you want more than friendship from me, and that when you say the word like, there's a capital L on it. And if anybody can hear that capital letter, it's me. I do this all the time. So I need to tell you, up front, that yes, I like you as a friend, and yes, I miss you as a friend, but I do not feel anything more than friendship for you.
I stop myself from saying two things—(1) “That doesn't mean it couldn't happen at some point,” because that's keeping a door open, and I hate it when someone does that to me, it's the worst kind of tease, a tease with thorns. And I don't say (2) “The fact that I'm not attracted to you is actually a good thing, that means you're a decent person and not somebody who I can be neurotically generous too and convince myself that it's Lurv when you accept it.” Because while that may be true, it’s also an open door. No open doors. King Alcohol loves opens doors.
So I don’t say any of that. What I do say is what Cheryl Peyton said to me twenty-five years ago, back when I was in Boston.
ME: So if it is more than friendship that you feel, and if you ever need to talk about it with anyone, I would be offended if you didn't come to me first. Because, believe me, I am the best person in the world to talk to about this. I've been on both sides of it, so I know. Plus I'm an idiot, so I can always learn.
That gets a laugh out of her. But when I hear the words I've just spoken, I wonder if I've opened that door a crack. By admitting that I'm an idiot, she might get it into her head to educate me about the charms of Emma Lee. If you can't find a straw to grab at, you'll make one. Is EL doing that? I have to confess: I’m too drunk to tell, which pisses me off right now. I really wish we were having this conversation sober, so I could read what she’s writing accurately, and not see it through the blur of my own preconceptions. What I do see is Emma Lee with a tight smile, looking at me unblinking.
EMMA LEE: Thank you for that. I appreciate it. I can’t say you’re wrong, but I don’t think you’re right, either.
ME: Then I want to hear about it.
EMMA LEE: Deal.
ME: Over coffee.
EMMA LEE: Deal.
ME: One more for the road?
EMMA LEE: One more for the road.
ME: On me.
I cap my pen and close my notebook, and as Chris Isaak plays in the background, the words of our conversation drift out to sea as soon as they’re spoken.
I don’t remember Emma Lee leaving, but I do remember ordering one more pint of Guinness and having an argument with myself after it happened.
KING ALCOHOL: Go back and grab her. You gonna let that get away? Come ON! Do you really only like it when they say no?
ME: I've been with women who've said yes.
KING ALCOHOL: Not recently.
ME: And I have control over that how exactly? Because drinking ain't gonna make it happen.
KING ALCOHOL: But it will make you feel better about it.
ME: No, it will make me feel like I NEED drink to make me feel better. And better than what?
KING ALCOHOL: Everything.
ME: I'll tell you what. I'll drink like a fish as long as I can write like an angel while I do it. Can you promise me that? Can you? Hello? Your Majesty?
KING ALCOHOL: It could happen.
ME: And Liora could call me tomorrow and say I'm yours! But not in this universe.
SARAH: Who the fuck are YOU talking to?
And I realize two things: Sarah is standing beside me at the bar, and I have been talking to myself, out loud, which is something I always do when I'm by myself but never do in public unless I'm extremely angry or extremely relaxed. And believe me when I tell you—you get extremely relaxed at your peril in New York City.
SARAH: You okay?
ME: I am fine. I am arguing with King Alcohol about my lack of social life.
SARAH: You're one of the most social people I know.
ME: Curly hair, straight hair.
ME: We're all unhappy with what we've got.
SARAH: Yeah, why is that?
I quote “Self-Pity,” my favorite DH Lawrence poem:
I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.
SARAH: I can't tell whether you're too drunk or not drunk enough.
ME: My rule is, if I can quote poetry word for word? Not drunk enough. What'll you have? I'm buying.
ME: Water it is. With a water back.
As we talk, I’m scribbling our conversation down so I’ll remember it. Sarah gives me the hairy eyeball. I write down the words: I am going to miss this woman’s mind like nobody’s business. It will be my phantom limb for years to come. Then I cap my pen, close the notebook, and put both of them in my shoulderbag.
SARAH: Is this off the record now?
SARAH: About fucking time.
We share a hug, and then we start a conversation that will never end as long as one of us can take a breath upon this planet.
Alcohol: Guinness (10) Jameson (7) Patron (5)
Copyright 2016 Matthew J Wells