A Man Walks into a Bar by Paul Elwork
I’m just getting into the crudest routine in my set, the show-stopper, when my estranged uncle walks into the club and sits down. Estranged isn’t even a big enough word. I haven’t seen Uncle Aaron in over twenty-five years. It doesn’t help how much he resembles my dad when he walks in, looking at me as if he expects to see me. Of course he does. I’m on stage, standing in a spotlight. I’ve performed this bit and others many times at open-mike nights in little comedy clubs around the area, and anybody walking in during my set at least shoots me a look. I’ve done the routine with more frequency in the last two weeks, since I moved out of the house and into an apartment, returning only to pick up the kids and drop them off. It’s familiar, a bold friend that gives me courage. But tonight is different. Maybe it’s because I recognize him, maybe it’s the resemblance to my dad—but damned if Uncle Aaron doesn’t look at me like he knows me.
For a split second, I freeze. The mind becomes unmoored in front of a crowd, time slips past—such slow instants are hardly a blip to those watching. I teach high school English, and I also feel it there. In this barest instant, I almost end my set. But I’ve already started the premise—watching the porn movies I found in my brother’s drawer when I was a kid. I’m in free fall. So I just never look at my uncle while I push on, the sweat on my scalp like fingers in my hair.
The routine goes like this: When I found a new porn movie in my brother’s drawer, and a new one would appear from time to time, it was a moment of great promise. Naked or mostly naked women, doing things your mother never dreamed of, with men, with women, with themselves. Imagine such things. And it would seem to me I had a weekend’s entertainment before me, so great was my appetite for the stuff. The tapes would roll, the actors would undress, and then all the carnal things would begin before your eyes. From here I become expansive, commenting not only on the boy who was me but on all males watching such films, lost in the same spiraling excitement. Playing along at home, you feel the strength of ten men. The strength is always on the verge of failing, knees knocking, when the right moment arrives. Here, on stage, I go far enough to simulate the act, back bowed, rocking to the motion. And groan, it’s over. Instantly, almost before the shudders are gone, all of the dizzy wanton abandon is gone, too. Those people on screen—two, three, four, however many—may as well be spinning pots. Off with the TV, the video recorder. Click, click. Even if the climax of the action is taking place right there, and the strangers on the screen are crying out in release, even if the spent passion is flying through the air. Spinning pots. If left playing, it can all begin to look a little distasteful, in that time before the feelings come back. Such brief power, to feel absolutely above it. “These people should all be wearing smocks!” I declare, and this usually gets the biggest laugh. And it does tonight. I say goodnight and thank the people for their kindness.
Uncle Aaron sits at his table and watches it all. He shakes his head; he chuckles in spite of himself. The emcee steps up to the microphone and asks everyone to show me they love me. The audience does a pretty nice job of going along with it. I can’t look over at my uncle as the emcee says my stage name, my mother’s maiden name—as if he would know it like my unusual real last name, his last name, the name I didn’t want to follow me back to my classroom and the faculty lounge.
I hurry off, as always.
I met my uncle’s daughters, Grace and Michele, my cousins, almost two months ago. We stumbled into each other on an internet social-networking site. I put our strange last name into the search window and their pages popped right up, like dossiers on an old spy TV show: where they had gone to school, where they had traveled, a variety of photos with different likenesses, hairstyles, outfits. Before my wife, Theresa, threw me out—before she found out about Angie, one of my colleagues at school—Grace and Michele had come for a visit and charmed my wife and kids, my girls. My cousins are lovely and supportive, like sisters, the kind of people who continue to make all of the right choices. They brought warmth and photos down with them from New York City. They showed us pictures of their dogs, of wedding ceremonies, of vacations on European coasts, of smiling friends on Ivy League campuses. Their happiness seems so earned, so fully deserved; they hold it against no one.
And there in one of the photos was Uncle Aaron, my father’s brother, at a baseball game with his wife of thirty some years. He looked so much like my dad, holding Aunt Jane close, standing by a railing, their windbreakers rolling like sails in the late April bluster. The face in the picture had weathered like my dad’s, in ways mine is barely beginning to show.
My dad stopped speaking to his brother not long after their father, my grandfather, died. My grandfather remains in my mind like a character out of Faulkner, a man of epic stubbornness. I really only have fragments of the whole thing, even after putting some of the pieces together with my cousins. Ugliness over the estate. My grandfather’s decision to cut my father out after my grandmother died. Questions about my father’s devotion. My father’s resentment at Uncle Aaron being thousands of miles away, already a professor in California, absolved by distance. My dad’s insistence that my uncle made the most of a situation, always worked the angles. Misunderstandings stacked under years of silence and neglect, and there you are. I carry all of this backstage with me.
There is a little bathroom back there, just a sink and a toilet. Not shabby enough to be truly romantic, but sort of worn and dressed up with fake marble accents. Classic shots of Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, and Lucille Ball and Ricky Ricardo hang around in plain black frames. I sometimes wonder if any of these folks used the word motherfucker half as much off stage as most of the guys I share the stage with do in front of a crowd. Old comedy teams, weathering some situation or other in these stills, doing it with humor or at least a comic, sad dignity. And always the sense that it will be okay.
I don’t splash water on my face and look at myself in the mirror. I guess I would in a movie. I wash my hands as if I’ve used the toilet and sit down on the closed lid. Can’t stay back here long. Unpaid open-mike comics aren’t supposed to hang around back here; you can use the toilet and pull yourself together, if you need pulling together, if things have gone particularly badly or well, and make your way back out.
The worst attempt I’ve ever seen, an occasion when lots of pulling together was called for, involved a young guy who is always there for open-mike night, a moving presence in the club who behaves as if on stage even on the sidelines. Can’t be more than twenty-five and always looks just a little jittery before he goes on, despite his designer sport coat and carefully swept hair. He bounds up on the stage after being announced, taking his spirit from sheer bravado. His set is an all-out attack on every human weakness, though he hasn’t found it in himself to show off his own. All of his weaknesses are revealed inadvertently, without any real comic control, like the time he jumped up on stage, bounced around a bit, hooted for himself, and stepped to the mike with a suddenly vacant expression. The words he had practiced and practiced, probably in front of a mirror, the posturing—all of it abandoned him in an instant. After watching him leave the stage in utter defeat and rejoin his friends’ table, where he sat with his head in his hands for the next few comics, I had to feel bad for the kid, this hack who had no right to be there other than his inability to stay away.
Onstage, the emcee is announcing a short break. After that, three more comics waiting out at the tables will come up, and the place’ll be noisy again for a while. I know well what it’s like to be out there at a table waiting, running through odd parts of the set, barely able to keep still in nervous energy. At this moment my dearest wish is that I could simply be out there again among the tables, on a night like the others had been, preparing to be funny about how petty and disappointed I feel a lot of the time.
I found a motel with cheap weekly rates up on Route 1, right outside of the city. It’s just what you think. Tidy, smells clean enough, but still. It’s a sad kind of way station, a suspension of life.
The girls cried and cried when we told them I would be out of the house a little while. Then I took myself somewhere and cried and cried. A corner of the basement, it was. The spiders and me in the light from the bulb over the washer. Theresa told the girls that she and Daddy had to think about things. I say she threw me out, but she never said anything more than that—think about things. She said it with a look in her eyes, though, like I’d better be thinking hard, because she was going to be. That look made me almost turn and run when she closed the door on me that first night. So I wandered over to my car, instead, and started it feeling like I was going to go drive off the edge of the world. Summer break had only just begun, two weeks ago—a perfect time for a teacher to lose all grip on reality.
And whenever I see the girls or talk to them on the phone, it’s Daddy come home, Daddy get done thinking. So I reassure them and hang up and choke on things a bit, shaking. I don’t tell them that I think of two things: not being home and making those hardened drunks and couples on cute dates laugh until they lose themselves in it, until a plunge into the silliest and most wretched parts of us becomes a kind of escape from it all.
I had twinges about meeting my cousins, yes. Dad prides himself on nearly feudal oaths of loyalty. But they’re my cousins as much as they are his nieces. We never agreed to silence until the grave. It’s different with Uncle Aaron. Somehow he seems more my father’s rejected brother than my lost uncle.
I have taken the coward’s way out of it so far, cousins and all. I haven’t told Dad a word about it.
Sitting there on the toilet, I try to assemble the man from what Grace and Michele have said, from the old photos in my head, and from what Dad has told about him. A determined student and witty advisor. Dad said Uncle Aaron had an infuriating way of asking why he, my father, allowed himself to get so upset. Practical. The old university buildings out west where he earned his Ph.D. The vast lecture halls. My cousins, as babies, as little girls, as young women. Aunt Jane, her squared face and light blue eyes, her freckles and red-graying hair—a mother who had left the girl she was behind long ago. The smooth lawns of Uncle Aaron’s suburban neighborhood. Parties with friends, fine food, wine selected with care. An affectionate father, ardent in his praise. Deep, brooding frown lines. As willing as my father to turn his back for decades at a time. Another son of my grandfather, who had served in the Red Army in the war and come back different by all accounts—my grandfather, who had been under the command of a general who ordered that enemy towns and villages be left behind in absolute silence, not a sound or a rustle of life. My uncle, another son of immigrants, determined to make an American success of himself. A lot like me, my cousins said, in his sense of humor and candor. A man who would want to talk books with me. A lover of the arts. My grandfather arguing with my father in my grandparents’ bare living room during my childhood, their shadows huge in the light of a bare bulb, bent toward one another, pointing, shouting in Russian—Uncle Aaron absent but somehow part of it all.
Such a strange way to be exposed, meeting him like this. Another secret from my father, this standup comedy business. A secret from just about everyone. I try not to imagine how it would all seem to Uncle Aaron, a university man and published scholar. My dad had usually looked at me with mild bewilderment when I dropped some smartass line. He had no patience whatsoever for the routines I would recount from heroes of mine as a kid—George Carlin, Sam Kinison. Always a dream of mine to stand up in front of people with the courage to be so brazenly honest, to bare something so true they would have to laugh in shared embarrassment and relief. In grade school, I memorized an astonishing catalog of dirty jokes and told them to groups of friends in the schoolyard, where other guys periodically beat the hell out of each other. The laughs my offhand remarks draw from my high school students got me thinking about it all again. Angie, trading clever remarks and stories with me in the teachers’ lounge, told me I had missed my calling, her eyes bright. I had almost walked into a wall after that conversation, a confused child again, blind and almost sick with gratitude. I was never going to write that novel knocking around in my head. I had to do something.
I don’t have to tell Uncle Aaron about the whole standup thing. I’ve already told him that, or coincidence had, or whatever the hell knocks things around in the universe. Grace and Michele had talked with him about my wife and kids. They told him the very night we all met, found him in the kitchen at his place and shared it all. The old man had even let his guard down in front of his girls and cried. I asked myself if I was going to pretend everything was fine at home, or possibly make vague noises about differences and arguments, as I had with my parents, knowing that Dad would at least accept this as the grim reality of a society where half of the marriages went wrong. Regrettable, but orderly and patterned in its way.
Out on the stage, the emcee is telling the crowd about an upcoming open-mike tournament at the club. Cheap shots between comics will be encouraged, he promises. “These fuckers are lining up to tear each other apart,” he says, to a room full of people and Uncle Aaron. “You’ve got to see this.”
The first time I found myself alone with Angie was on a Friday afternoon, only a few months after I’d started teaching at Northeast High. I came in and found her sitting at the window with a cup of bad coffee from the machine on the table before her, her eyes on the street outside. Her laptop, closed, was pushed off to the side. In the hall, a custodian ran a floor buffer past, rattling the door I’d just shut. The halls seemed abandoned already for the weekend and gave back hollow echoes.
Angie turned from the window when I came in, flashing me a smile as if she’d been waiting for me. She hadn’t, I knew, but it felt good all the same. She has that quality of liking people until they convince her otherwise. She turned from the window to face me as she said hello—she looks at you like she knows all your secret regrets and doesn’t mind. Angie is the school goddess, striding down the halls in stylish boots and soft sweaters, the swells of her hips and breasts almost heartbreaking to many students and teachers, an object of mass fantasy. She wears it all with a shrug and a disbelieving laugh well suited to her wide and slightly lopsided grin. I can imagine the gawky girl she must have been, with big ears and an oversized smile, before she grew into this creature who makes men behave like boys pretending to be men. The other male teachers and administrators flutter around her. Until that moment in the faculty lounge, I had receded, contenting myself with passing hellos and small talk. But here she was, smiling as if just for me.
I got my own cup of bad coffee from the machine and sat down at the table with her, not out of any boost in confidence or passion. Just the opposite. I sat down not much caring if she was really happy to see me or not. We talked about curriculums and standardized tests. We talked about our homes in terms of projects and plans, our spouses in quirks and eccentricities. She made little jokes here and there to let me know I shouldn’t take her too seriously. I looked at her wedding and engagement rings nestled together on her left hand. Her husband is a structural engineer who works downtown. I imagine him thinking in geometric shapes and tons per square foot. A practical man, the kind I will never be, the kind my wife always told me she hadn’t wanted and didn’t marry.
When Angie got up for another cup, her ease in every move and the feminine power in her form—the long neck, the sturdy legs, the legendary tits and ass that had schoolboys jacking off even as we drank our coffee—got me thinking about what it would be like to undress her. My mind followed the bare skin of her arms and shoulders down into her blouse to the place just above her buttocks. A kiss there would cause her to arch her body and lift one foot as she did when bending for her cup.
I talked some about my family when she came back. I told stories about the wonderful things my girls said and did, one in kindergarten and the other barely in preschool. She hung kindly on every one. Most of the stories were at my expense; they cast my wife as a devoted and somewhat frazzled mother and friend to dumb animals, me as a dopey but well-meaning dad. That first day, I didn’t say anything about the shouting. Neither of us did.
One night, months ago, Angie walked into the club to catch my set, and I was almost as surprised as I would be to see my uncle. Of course I had hoped, had invited her to come out sometime and see what her encouragement had me doing. But when she walked in, as I was just getting up on stage—she had an entrance that defied expectation. She sat at a small table and laughed toward the ceiling, throwing her hair back. She almost fell out of her chair when I went into the routine about masturbating to those old porn videos. She applauded and whistled through her fingers when I thanked everyone and said good night. I can’t remember ever being so terrified and happy at once, before or since. I stopped backstage before going out to meet her. This time I splashed water on my face, but didn’t do more than glance in the mirror.
In a couple of hours, after a few drinks, we would find a small motel with hourly rates and book a room. By then, we’d had months of verbal foreplay in the teacher’s lounge. Angie would sit on the bed and kick off her shoes like a kid. Then she would stand up and her eyes would change; she would start unbuttoning my shirt, the most pleasant smile on her lips. I would smell her neck, my hands moving down over her hips, my tongue tasting the sweat behind her ear. And we would climb into bed without a word, nothing but sighs and moans until after the first time—no fear or regret until we slipped past the front desk and said goodbye in the parking lot, hugging like old friends. But in the club, going out to find her at the table, to see her eyes light up in the dim room, gave me the exhilarating feeling of stepping off a diving board into midair. She broke the silence first, in her invincible, good-humored way, and her voice made the doubts disappear.
“There you are,” she said.
“Here I am.”
Angie said we should take some time apart, too, after I moved out. We talked on the phone and the fear of what we had done and what could happen now was in her voice. She kept apologizing to me, and I kept saying I was a grown man, culpable for what I do, and so on. Finally I realized she wasn’t really apologizing for that. Men are so dumb sometimes—testosterone addled. She was apologizing that we had to stop, to stop doing further damage to my marriage (if more could be done), stop before also endangering hers. Who can blame her?
I told her she was right. I told her I loved her, as I had many times by then. I’m pretty sure I meant it every time, even in my desperation. I never told Angie or myself that I didn’t love my wife anymore. Sometimes I ask myself, Well, so how about that? It seems a bit like believing in God to me, because once the dust settles, once we’re done being modern and informed, we either get up and testify or take a walk, because we’re either in or we’re out. And still I ask, so what about that?
I emerge from backstage at the club after my set and stop at the bar for a beer, still directing my eyes away from where I know Uncle Aaron is sitting. A few people are lined up on stools, including the kid who failed and recovered so horribly. I have to respect him.
Right after the bartender drops off my beer and goes down to the other end to take an order, an older woman steps up to the bar not far from me. She places her hands on the bar almost in supplication. I notice her polished nails and narrow, graceful fingers first. I look up at her face and see her eyes directed from me but aware of my glance, a somewhat remote look that isn’t dismissive or interested. She has big, clear eyes and a pouty amusement around her mouth. She is used to the glances of men. Slender and easy in her body, she’s somehow youthful despite the wrinkles around her eyes and the creases under her chin. She doesn’t look like a regular; she has that presence of somebody’s wife, someone’s mother, a person who lives her life for other people. She has the glow of being there for a special occasion. There is something momentous about her hands on the bar, about her distracted half smile. She seems hopeful and somehow vulnerable, but she has the easy power of one who has traded innocence for regrets, many times. To be her assistant, if she has an assistant, only an elbow away at meetings. To be her neighbor, catching glimpses of her on the front walk to get the mail.
I’m stalling, but there’s always something more going on.
Finally I turn from the bar and face Uncle Aaron. He is looking in the other direction, maybe watching something or someone not in the room, his gaze dislocated and distant. This is the moment. I start in his direction, half expecting a long trip across a familiar floor, but if anything it’s faster than usual. I notice the enviably mundane things going on as I approach him: two young women bent together in hushed conversation; a group of friends listening to one obese man, a mountain in a bright red shirt, tell a story in a high-pitched and mocking tone, and all of them breaking into laughter; a waitress stopping to let me pass, holding a platter of empty beer glasses and smiling indulgently, granting wherever I’m going the utmost importance, as if she had been trained in a world-class hotel. I try to smile back; I’m sure I fail.
Uncle Aaron turns to me just as I appear beside him. He offers a curious and pleasant look, his eyes and forehead showing wrinkles like I had seen on my father’s face when surrounded by friends and lively conversation, or when he has occasionally looked at me fully, surprised and disarmed.
His face seems on the verge of twisting into any expression, but instead withdraws into a tight blank. His eyes contract in realization. In one disorienting instant, he gathers together all his girls have told him about me, all of the history. Uncle Aaron had been about to receive a stranger with openness, or what passes for openness out in the world, but suddenly here is the secret and fearful man (me), and there on my uncle is a face I may not have seen for years of knowing him, if ever. There is a resemblance in this, too.
“Life is funny, isn’t it?” I say, feeling a sudden advantage and a need to put him at ease.
Regaining himself, Uncle Aaron’s eyes shoot a look past me. “It sure is.”
Banter, such wonderful make-believe. Let’s pretend we are immortal. It’s somehow more comforting than if he had wanted to hug me right away.
He says my name. It sounds clumsy on his tongue, almost ridiculous.
“Can I get you a drink?” The table is empty before him.
He looks at the bare table himself, as if he hadn’t noticed. “I don’t think I’ve ever needed one more.” A second look past me, held longer by the barest instant.
I follow the look over my shoulder. There is the woman from the bar, standing a few steps closer to us, a tropical drink in one hand and a beer in the other. She focuses on Uncle Aaron but quickly turns her eyes on me. Between us passes the few moments we had stood side by side at the bar and much more. She smiles without happiness, takes the few steps back to the bar, places her full glass down, and walks towards the door of the club, head up and shoulders back.
When I turn again to Uncle Aaron, his eyes are on me but I know he saw her go. He looks tired, older since only seconds before, and strangely glad to see me. He gestures to the empty chair across the table from him. Relaxed into his chair, abandoning all pretense, I see in him the generous man his daughters adore. Now he looks at me like he knows me. Now I see. “Please,” he says, “have a seat.” He waves for one of the waitresses. “We have a lot to talk about.”
We have to become pals, now—sharing secrets right from the start.
Paul Elwork is a writer and editor living in Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. His fiction has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Philadelphia Stories, Word Riot, and other journals. His first novel, The Tea House, came out originally from Casperian Books in October 2007; The Tea House will be re-released by Amy Einhorn Books (Penguin Group) in 2010.