From “Street Life”


The Knot



It was one of those nights, nothing but snow and silence.

Ben Larsen fingered a glass of warm beer and stared out the window, his own face reflected in the glass, changing color with the blinking bar lights. Across the street, half blanketed by thick white, the midtown mall stood with all the quiet dignity of a mausoleum. Even the mall guards had ceased patrol, too lazy or cold to leave the comfort of their office. Bits of snow flicked at the glass, melting slowly into brightly colored tears. A police car grumbled up the street, its treads kicking up the foot-high snow, leaving its lone tracks in the center of the street as it made its way uptown.

No one would plow until the storm stopped, making it nearly impossible for people to travel. Somewhere in the distance, Larsen thought he heard the sound of gun fire, a brief exchange that echoed then died. Even the street gangs wouldn’t stay out long in this, quickly snagging a few Christmas tourists, then collecting their drugs or alcohol and hibernating in the abandoned projects three blocks east of Larsen’s bar.

Larsen should have hibernated, too, though over the last few years, the bar felt more like home than his apartment did. Even now, even with the empty stools stretched out like tombstones, it seemed warmer and more wholesome than the two-room flat where he laid awake at night listening to the gurgle of his neighbor’s toilet. Yet tonight for the first time, he missed the sounds of glasses and curses that usually filled the bar.

A vague craving for coffee stirred in him. But he was too lazy to take the short walk from the window to the kitchen and back. For some reason, he felt he should stay here and watch, like some good seaman’s wife waiting for the ship she knew would never come, searching the foamy white for castaways who he might help to crawl through his door and out of the storm.

When a set of headlights appeared he jerked, his eyes watering as the high beams struck him full in the face. He blinked, making out the shape of a rusted car behind the lights, and the shape of a single driver. The lights cast an amber glow across the mounds of snow as the car bounced over the curb, coming to a abrupt stop near the door. The driveer got out, a leather-jacketed, blonde imitation punker, straight from some walled-in suburban community where kids loved to play-act the role of toughs. On any other night, the real street gangs would have cut him to pieces, collecting his fancy boots and jacket as souvenirs of his visit. Now, the snow gave him immunity, allowing him to stagger from the car to bar without incident.

He walked in, leaving a trail of wet footsteps from door to bar, brushing the white from his shoulders and hair as if it was dandruff. The closer he came, the more Larsen realized his misperception about the age and history of the man. He was no spoiled suburban kid, but a hard, weathered man, with grim scars across his face. He looked more than a little weary as he found a seat near the far end of the bar, glancing often towards the door and his weapons. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve, then cringed, grabbing at a bar napkin to dab at the wet coldness his sleeve had left on his face.

His clothes looked weary, too - his jeans faded and torn, his boots cracked. Only his red plaid lumber jack shirt looked new, though Larsen could see some frayed threads around his cuffs. His eyes had a worn look, too, anger beaten into something more resigned. Larsen knew his kind, men normally seething with trouble, and he usually sent them on their way. But tonight, with the insulating snow and his own sense of isolation, even his kind was better than nothing.

“What happened? Did you get stuck on this side of the tunnel” Larsen asked, easing down the bar to where the man sat.

“The sons of bitches closed all the crossings early” the man grumbled.”I can understand closing the bridges with this kind of weather. But there’s nothing wrong with the fucking tunnels.”

“Sometimes they flood” Larsen said.

“Bullshit” the man said.”They don’t flood until the snow melts and this snow isn’t melting. It’s those goddamn attendants, too lazy to do their jobs, whining all the time about the fumes and the cold and the danger, as if those booths didn’t have the best filters and the best heaters and the best alarm systems money can buy.”

“They probably wanted to get home before they got snowed in,” Larsen said.

“Yeah, like they’d suffer if they did. They got goddamn posh jobs. The state treats them right. It’s us that has to suffer. Us who can’t get home.”

“So what’ll it be?” Larsen asked.

The man squinted towards the row of bottles along the lower shelf, bottles whose amber and red colors reflected in the mirror like a Christmas lightshow.

“Give me a shot of that,” the man said, pointing a thick finger towards the Johnny Walker Red. “And a glass of beer. From the tap.”

Larsen nodded and poured the liquids into their two different glasses. His own glass sat abadoned at the other end of the bar near the window -- much too far away to bother with in his current mood.

“What about you?” the blonde man asked gruffly after tossing back his shot. “Rough night?”

Larsen shrugged. He’d long ago stopped complaining to the patrons. They rarely listened - they came to hide or cry, but not to listen. Questions like this one were one way of breaking the ice, a kind of hello which expected no more answer than Larsen gave.

Larsen waited around after pouring the drinks, but the younger man’s expression said he wanted to be alone, the black eyes as glum as any who left here unescorted on a Friday night. With a nod of acknowledgement, Larsen moved off, back to his perch near the window, his drink cradled in his warm palms. Some men came here to talk, others to bury their secrets in alcohol. All of them paid Larsen to know the difference and respond in kind.

Still the lone customer made the bar seem less empty, less cold. Larsen lit a cigarette and stared, wondering if anyone else would come. Some nights brought as many as sixty people, men and women of every sort filling the barstools and cafe tables with a variety of voices: blue collar men from the string of factories throwing darts or playing pool, while the more professional element sat at the tables, drinking wine coolers and playing the juke box. Other nights, only the regulars came, clinging to the bar stools like drowning men around life preservers. The blonde man stirred a little, glancing at the TV. Larsen put down his glass and slipped across to the cash register and the remote control taped to the top. He punched the ON button and the tube bloomed from a pinprick of light into the full frank face of a newscaster.

The man’s eyes dilated, staring into the colored image as if already fully hypnotized. Larsen, never bored with such expressions, always watching those who watched the screen, amazed by how utterly innocent they looked, so relaxed and unconcerned. Even now, with the newscaster harping about some new Washington scandal, the man’s face remained at ease. Then, as always, the screen called to Larsen as well, entrapping him in its maze of fragmentary scenes. He felt his limbs grow limp and his breath slow down. Deep inside himself, something eased. For years he had felt a kind of knot tied tight inside his chest, something that tightened and loosened with a will of its own, but never went away. When the bar was busy, he almost forgot it was there. But on nights like this, its unrelenting hold seemed to strangle him, forcing him to take refuge in such illusory things as the TV.

The newscaster reminded Larsen of his father, the unmistakeable eyes of a workaholic staring straight into the camera. It made Larsen shudder and turn away. The last person he needed to be reminded of tonight was his father.

Again, the bar door opened. Bits of freezing flakes blew in from outside, biting Larsen’s cheek as the room admitted another weary traveler. This man, too, stomped the white from his boots, his felt hat drooping with melting snow. The hat’s brim hid his face and, with a scarf wrapped around the lower part of his face, he looked like an Arab, though his sharp green stare placed him more firmly in some European country. That stare studied the bar, frowning at the blonde man and Larsen as if disappointed to find so few people here.

He grunted, made his way to point midway between Larsen and the other man, then settled on a stool, slowly unwinding the scarf. The face being revealed showed the scars of a one-time prize fighter. Larsen didn’t recall the man’s name, yet knew him as a semi-regular who often came with two or three other men from one of the local gyms. His wide shoulders took up the space of two men. He nodded perfunctorially at Larsen, his expression one of habitually challenging everything he came into contact with. Larsen had seen other boxers with the same expression, the pure rage battling against greying hair and wrinkles, the hands a fraction of a second too slow to compete in the big time any more.

“Jack Daniels,” the man said tapping the bar lightly with a knuckle. “Straight up.”

Larsen fetched a shot glass and poured the amber liquid into it, letting the alcohol rise over the line as a tribute to the man’s ability to be out and about on a night like this.

“Pretty slow around here, isn’t it?” the boxer said, lifting the glass to his lips for that first all-important sip, his hard gaze surveying the bar over its rim, frowning a little when it rested on the blonde man.

“Just you and him,” Larsen said, closing the bottle, but stashing it under the bar near the man for easy access. This man always drank a minimum of two.

“It’s murder outside,” the boxer said, taking another, deeper sip that didn’t end until the glass was empty. Then, he held it out for a refill. Larsen complied. “It’s those damned weathermen,” the man complained. “They predicted a couple of inches. There’s six out there now and more to come.”

“That means I’m sleeping here tonight,” Larsen said with a laugh, knowing that he would have done so anyway, even without the excuse of the snow.

“It’s nothing like old days,” the blonde man said from the other end of the bar, dragging his attention away from the TV set.

“What the hell would you know about the old days?” the boxer asked, sipping on this second drink with a little more dignity.

“I know what my old man told me,” the younger man said. “He said in the old days it used to storm like this all the time. He said he used to have to make deliveries driving in a foot of snow.”

“Well, maybe,” the boxer said, taking another slow sip. “But people are the same, then and now. I used to deliver coal when I was a kid. People always calling up when it was like this outside, begging me to bring them some heat, telling me it was life or death. As if they didn’t know the day before they had no coal or that it was running low, as if they needed the snow to get them to make a phone call.”

The blonde man nodded, drained his beer and pushed the mug and shot glass forward for Larsen to fill.

“Nobody uses coal any more,” he said, his tone just irritating enough to make Larsen nervous. He poured more Johnny Walker Red in the shot glass and refilled the beer mug to the brim.

“Coal’s not the point,” the boxer growled. “It’s the way people are. I saw a pizza truck out on my way here. Who the fuck would make a man deliver a pizza in the middle of a blizzard?”

The door opened again, and all three men turned. Larsen half expected to find the pizza man crawling in, but was more startled by the figure which finally entered, long hair and pastel sweater peeking out from under a heavy fur-trimmed coat. At first, Larsen thought it was a woman, from the effeminate way the figure moved. There was even a hint of color around the mouth and eyes, which caused the boxer to bristle as this new customer crossed over to the bar. He perched on a seat two stools away from the boxer, his elbows propped in front of him. He seemed to have difficulty keeping his thin hands still, swinging them around by the wrists in slow, circular motions that drew annoyed glances from both of other men at the bar.

“I’d like a Black Russian, please,” the boy said in a voice nearly as dark and sweet as the drink. The blonde man offered up a nasty grin from the end of the bar, which Larsen ignored. The boxer stirred, looking about as confortable as a cornered racoon. He studied the boy with a sidelong glance.

“Look what the goddam storm dragged in,” he said, drawing a sniffling laugh from the other man. The boy, with his hands around his drink, glanced up, failing to catch the challenge in the boxer’s voice. He blinked, then shrugged.

“I saw the light in the window,” he said. “This seems to be the only place open tonight. Are the roads always this bad around here?”

“When it snows,” Larsen said, casting a glance at both other men which told them he wouldn’t stand for trouble.

“But doesn’t anyone ever plow?”

The boxer snorted. “This is Buffalo, boy,” he said. “It snows for real here.”

“But not as bad as it did in the old days,” the blonde man added from down the bar, a little wobbly on his stool now, and too drunk to bother with arguing.

The others seemed to notice a sudden increase in tension, and stared down into their drinks as a deep, even uncomfortable silence engulfed the room. Larsen, however, stared at the boy. Something about the nervous movement of the boy’s hands affected Larsen, as if those hands were somehow tugging the knot tighter inside of him. Even the TV’s canned laughter could not dent this quiet, yet there was some relief offered by the flickering images. Larsen finally looked away and joined the others staring up into its changing face. He found himself staring right through the screen, slipping into the TV’s electronic guts, into the darkness between the tiny dots of color where he saw a familiar face staring back.

“I don't love you any more, Ben,” that face said, perfectly painted mouth wrenched with pain.

Larsen gripped the bar and dragged himself back, watery eyes blinking from staring at the screen too hard. He glanced at the boy again, seeing the same sad set to his mouth. Someone had hurt this soul as much as Larsen had hurt her. A surge of guilt rose up in Larsen, making him close his eyes.

From the TV, the weatherman announced an update: six inches now with another six expected by morning.

“I told you they were wrong!” the boxer crowed, banging his big hand on the bar. Black liquid slurped out the top of the boy’s glass. “Those son’s of bitches know it, too, and now they’re covering their asses, pretending like they knew it all along. The phonies! Everywhere you go there's nothing but phonies.”

The boy stared up at the TV set. His eyes held the look of battered child, confused, yet accepting, as if pain was inevitable.

“Sometimes it’s hard to tell the truth,” he said in a voice so soft that the blonde man at the end of the bar cupped a hand over his ear to catch the words. “Sometimes you have to cover over the nakedness of things with little white lies.”

“Bullshit!'“the boxer said. “It’s better to say nothing than to lie.”

“It’s those computers,” the blonde man said, now thoroughly drunk. “We were just fine in the old days with the Famer’s Almanac.”

“Farmer’s Almanac, computers, they’re all part of the same goddam lie,” the boxer grumbled and downed the rest of his second drink. “People call this the information age. It’s nothing but overload, bullshit on top of bullshit, designed to confuse people. Nobody can look anybody else in the eye any more. Nobody can tell anybody else what they really think.”

“Then I’ve been lying all my life,” the boy laughed and sipped slowly at his drink, putting it down exactly into the wet ring from which he had lifted it. “At first, I only lied to myself. Now, I lie to everybody.”

“That’s why you wound up in a joint like this, boy,” the boxer said, obviously beginning to feel the effects of his drinks. “You tell people the truth and you’ll do all right for yourself.”

“I tried that,” the boy said in an even softer voice, one so full of pain that Larsen felt it across the bar like a blow to his chest. “I even told my father everything.”

“And?” Larsen asked, feeling the knot grow deadly tight. “What did he say?”

“Who cares how much it snows?” the blonde man said, shaking his head at the TV. “Six inches or twelve, it’s still a hell of a lot of snow.”

“Then they shouldn’t tell us anything at all,” the boxer grumbled. “If they can’t tell us what the facts are, we’re better off not knowing.”

“Sometimes that’s lying, too,” the boy said, glancing sharply at Larsen in answer to the bartender’s question, saying by that look that the boy’s father had not taken it well, had literally cast him out into the storm to find his own answers. “Sometimes that’s the biggest lie of all.”

“Bullshit.” the boxer mumbled.

The boy shrugged, took one last sip of his drink, then slipped off the bar stool and headed for the door.

“I have a train to catch,” he said.

“If they’re still running,” Larsen said. “You might be better off staying here.”

The boy smiled tightly, then shook his head. “I have to go on,” he said, and then made his way out the door.

“Damned lies,” the boxer said, shoving himself away from the bar as he threw down several bills. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve and then, still shaking his head, made his way out into the storm.

The blonde man stared after the two of them, blinked several times, and then deposited a few bills of his own on the bar. Larsen wanted to beg him to stay, to keep him company for an hour or two until he was too tired to notice the emptiness any more. But this figure vanished as the others did, and after a few a moments, the starter to an old car ground, and a set of headlights splashed across the front window. Larsen made his way back to his place by the window and stared out at the snow. He drained his glass of now-warm beer. He was not drunk. The knot did not loosen with drink. When the beer was gone, he refilled the glass, swirled it around, and or the first time understood just what the knot was.

It was a lie.


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