The poor gentleman didn't realize his error, his missed opportunity; I guess no one really would after such a lengthy time. And now, thinking back, perhaps it's just as well he didn't. The cold wind outside had sent his aged and tired body to this place, drawn inside by the soft lights promising warmth and conversation. Perhaps he thought someone from the kitchen would offer him a scrap to eat, or maybe he hoped a good stranger would bum him a smoke or buy him a whiskey.
He sat across from my booth at the corner end of the bar, hunched over and slumping at his barstool, tucked away from booths and traffic. Removing his heavy and torn coat, the gentleman grumbled something under his breath and scratched at a dirty, bearded cheek. Slowly the gentleman reached into his pockets and began removing a series of interesting items and laying them carefully on the bar: a pocket watch, some nail clippers, a matchbook with "Lacie Jane's" printed on the cover, a rubber band, a rusty, military-issue pocket knife, and a faded, yellowing photograph of a young girl sitting on her father's knee. Taking his time, the gentleman laid out his hat and scarf, neatly folding the latter into threes and setting it beside his display. My grandmother would call this a letter fold. She was a secretary for S.A. Cousins Publishing, a local press. She worked there for forty-two years; I've worked there for seven. I guess you could say books are important in my family.
A few heads turned as the bar door creaked shut, a well-dressed couple demanding their presence be known, and for a brief moment conversations paused. They scrutinized the worn gentleman, only now just settling into his corner, and then almost immediately everything went back as it was, as it always was, with time and space as predictable as what people were drinking. This place drew an interesting crowd. Affluent businessmen and attorneys brushed shoulders with construction workers and college students. Young professionals sat next to quickly aging drunkards clinging to their scotches. I came here most nights after work, mostly for the jazz. Sam, the proprietor, had the best jazz collection in the city. Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Dave Brubeck, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker. Sam also had Guinness on tap, and I loved Guinness. My grandmother would tell me I liked it a bit too much, just as my Uncle Mike had. He died in an alley behind The Juke Joint, a bar in Northern Idaho. Apparently the husband of the girl he was sleeping with didn't like Mike's advances on his woman, so he beat him to death with a logging chain, cut off his dick with a buck knife, strolled back into the bar, and stuffed it in the mug of beer his wife was drinking. At least that's how I heard it. But Uncle Mike was a crazy drunk, and I was not. And I knew I wasn't sleeping with anyone's wife because I wasn't sleeping with anyone.
At Sam's I'd sit in my booth, the corner "sky box" (named such because it was slightly bigger than the others) and read there, usually Hemingway; sometimes Raymond Carver. That evening I was lost in my fourth reading of The Sun Also Rises (I don't think there is another American author that refers to drinking more than Hemingway; a bar is the perfect context for reading him). After some time, I looked up and noticed Heather Parsons, the girl in the second booth, staring -- almost gazing, trance-like -- at our strange, new gentleman a bit too long.
Heather Parsons came into the bar frequently and was well off to be sure. I know this because I knew her from college. She lived on campus in the sorority house next my apartment building, and I watched her a lot.
Most days I'd cut through the Alpha Chi parking lot on the way to classes. I'd see her through the window, standing there in her boxers, hips thrust to one side and nipples erect under her thin tank top. It was white with red letters that spelled "Freedom" on the front, and was too small for her twenty-year-old body. I noticed that the "F" and "M" were forced to stretch around her breasts. It was a beautiful thing. She'd be talking loudly on the phone or toasting bagels or eating sorbet in the kitchen. I liked Heather. Sometimes at night she'd stand in front of her bedroom window, brushing her long, sandy hair, looking into the sky as if searching for something. I liked watching Heather walk to her car, fumbling with her bag, looking for her keys or cell phone. One winter her car wouldn't start and I watched from my second story window, thinking I'd come out to help her, only to be intercepted by Mark Sterling, president of the Sigma Chi house and third-string quarterback on the football team. He was perfect too, and they seemed to get along. In the summer I'd watch her lying in the sun, her soft skin turning pink, her thin and muscular arm reaching for another iced tea. Everything she did, even the most insignificant of things, seemed magical to my freshman eyes.
On weekends I'd see her with friends at the lake, all of them perfect and sun-bleached and tan, drinking beer and playing Frisbee. Sometimes they'd jump from the plat-formed, mud cliffs on the east side of the lake; other times they'd all lie in the shade on the north side, drinking wine coolers and eating fruit. Mark Sterling had a boat, so sometimes they'd ski too. I'd watch them and read my book, but mostly I'd imagine Heather and me together on the beach, away from her friends. I wanted to walk with her along the sand, talking about Picasso and Homer and Jazz. I wanted to do a lot of things, but didn't.
It was the last week of summer. One late Sunday afternoon at the lake, I saw Heather, walking up the beach alone. At first I didn't recognize her without her usual entourage, but as she neared, I caught the outline of her figure in the setting sun, unmistakably perfect. Today, though, from a distance, I could sense that something was wrong with Heather. She had a slower gait than usual, a sort of exaggerated shuffle. I watched Heather grub her way through the sand and pebbles, swaying from side to side, pausing every now and then to sigh. The evening wasn't quite cool yet, but Heather's shoulders were sloped forward and her arms wrapped tightly around her body. Finally she stopped, sat down in the sand, and began to sob. I watched her for a few minutes, alone there crying, burying her hands deep into the now cooling sand, letting it run through her fingers and looking out over the blue-green water.
I paused briefly before approaching her, wanting to hold onto the moment. I felt the sinking sun on my tan shoulders, the weight of the book in my hand, the taste of perspiration on my lip and mustache. I looked at Heather and her perfection and knew to remember it. I wanted to recall this moment entirely. The hills surrounding the lake turned purple now, the sky pink. I watched the wind come down the mountain towards us, rushing through the pines and sage. It hit the beachfront hard, kicking up sand and pushing me towards Heather. I shivered once, and then followed its guide. When I reached her with the wind I stopped. Then, in one slowed moment and one I'll never forget, Heather's eyes slowly moved upwards, first looking at my sand-crusted feet and calves, past my knees and hips, and finally across my stomach and chest. It was then that our eyes met for the first time.
"Is everything ok?" I managed to breathe.
Heather brushed the hair from her eyes with one hand and held it there for a moment before tucking it behind her ear. "Yes, I'm sorry. I'm fine," she replied, trying to be convincing by straightening upright in the sand. Her lip quivered, then, rubbing her hands into her eyes and looking away, she began to cry again.
I looked out over the water, trying to find the right words. The wind blew harder now, and I stood there, fidgeting with my book and looking at the rocks, not knowing what to do. Finally I leaned over her a bit and smiled. "Can I help? Do you want to talk about it? I'll listen, Heather," I offered.
"It'sÉ.you see my father isÉ.I'mÉ." Heather coughed between shortened breaths. Her throat quivered with her lip and she bit it, trying to compose herself. The wind came hard from the canyon again and blew some sand around us. Heather's stare became confused, then thoughtful, then vacant and numb.
Awkward moments passed with the swirling lakefront wind. Now sitting beside her in the sand, I recognized the moment's significance. Heather's sarong whipped back and forth across her lower leg, flapping in time with the incoming wind-driven lake-tide. Hesitantly, like an early teen on his first movie date, I put my arm around Heather. She accepted by nuzzling her head in between my chest and shoulder. Then, with a quick glance, she looked upward into my eyes, readjusted our awkward embrace, and settled.
Recognizing my one chance, I finally broke the silence: "Why don't you come and walk a bit with me, Heather. It's getting a bit cool. I'll listen. There's a little place up the beach here where we can clean up. I'll buy us something to eat, and you can tell me about it."
At this Heather turned to look at me again. "I don't want to be any trouble. It's just that, say don't we go to school together?" she asked, changing the subject.
"Yes," I replied. "Here, give me your bag. My car is just over that ridge; behind those cedars. It's a short walk. Come on."
We walked to the car in silence. The sand was cool now on our feet and the crickets were coming out. An easy wind brushed back the tops of the cattails along the outer beach, bringing with it the smell of wet driftwood and fish. Still, it was a pleasant evening, and we strolled the beach alone, both recognizing the comfort in the moment. The lake somehow sounded louder now, at dusk. The natural sounds of the wind and water; the trees and sand were perfectly loud and harmonious. No people on the beach, they were all indoors now, eating or showering; maybe putting aloe on sunburns or picking at peeling skin. I knew the lake was different at night; I had been here before. Tonight, though, there was something else: Heather was there with me. I smiled at this thought, and we walked, feeling the cool night, watching the new moon rise over the Eastern hills. By the time we reached my car it was high above us, lighting up the night and reflecting off the lake.
"The moon always rises too quickly," I said, and Heather smiled politely, not speaking. "It's always over too soon."
Mr. Charlie's was a roadside diner on the south end of the lake. Mostly the locals ate there; not many tourists knew about it. It was off the main paved road that circled the lake, tucked away in between monstrous cedars and wind-weary aspens at the end of a winding dirt path. I liked Mr. Charlie's for nearly the same reasons I liked Sam's place in town: the staff were friendly, they played jazz, the food was fantastic, and you never knew what kind of sun-soaked characters would wander up from the beachfront. One time Carlos (the proprietor of Mr. Charlie's -- no one knows who the hell Mr. Charlie is) let an old ex-hippie calling himself Buffalo Joe sleep on the drunk-cot, kept in the backroom, for the entire summer of 1988. At the end of that summer, when Carlos finally called the police, Buffalo Joe had become "that stinky patchouli oil hippie- thief Joe who owes me two-thousand-two-hundred-and-thirty-six dollars." Carlos never got his money back, and I'm sure Joe's laughing about it somewhere, just as I laugh every time Carlos tells that story; he likes telling that one.
We took an outdoor table facing the water. Some larger sailboats were still on the lake, just off shore and beginning to anchor. You could see their lights just coming on now, and sails were being dropped for the night. Soft, playful, human sounds made their way up to us from the water, and I imagined Heather and I inside the belly of one of those schooners, pouring a last glass of wine, and then undressing one another for bed.
"Thanks, I didn't want to be alone," Heather interrupted my thoughts. "I'm a mess here. Would you order us a couple of drinks while I clean up?" Heather asked, now smiling.
"No problem; take your time, Heather. We have all night to talk or whatever you want." She smiled again, giggled an "ok", and gathered her bag, hanging it over her perfect shoulder making sure to pull her hair from underneath the strap first. I caught the waiter's attention and ordered some rum with orange juice. It felt like I was in some kind of movie, and I was Carey Grant or Steve McQueen or Paul Newman. Duke Ellington was playing on the stereo, the night was soft and breezy, and I was confident and cool.
I was just kissing Heather (this time, a cross between Elizabeth Taylor and Katharine Hepburn) in my fantasy-movie when the drinks arrived. Heather was there, too, and she smiled as she sat down. Our eyes locked and everything was right.
"I hope I didn't scare you back there, it's just that it's my father's birthday and I haven't seen him in a long time. A very long time," Heather explained.
"That's alright, I sympathized. "It's been a while since you've visited home?"
Heather shook her head and then looked away, now vacantly staring at the water again.
"I mean, if it's ok. I'll listen if you want," I offered. There was a long pause, and I uncomfortably ran my fingers along the curved designs carved into the wrought iron table where we sat. I waited a bit longer, hoping she'd break the silence this time. Finally she sighed, squeezed her eyes shut tightly, took a deep breath and started.
"Yes," she said, gripping the table hard and beginning her story. One day, when Heather was four or five, her father disappeared. "Not while on a vacation over seas or anything suggesting foul play" Heather noted, "but just gone one day. He left me at the zoo. I was looking at the peacocks down by the willow trees, eating a grape snow cone, and then he was gone. I don't know why he left my mother and me, but he did. And now I hate animals, especially peacocks. I hate snow cones. I hate the zoo. I hate him."
I looked at Heather and listened intensely. No one had heard this story before, and now she opened up her memories to me like a dangerous freight train going hard, full steam into the rain-soaked night, reckless, exploring emotions of elation and laughs mixed with anger and hurt and frustration; asking questions and answering them simultaneously, digressing into the pain caused by her mother's countless boyfriends, her father's kind eyes and strong hands, the tree house in her childhood backyard where all of the neighborhood would come and play, all kept inside for too long. It had been over an hour when she finished, and she was exhausted. With one great gulp she finished her rum, looked into the bottom of her glass, and then sighed.
"You ok?" I asked. Miles Davis was now playing "Freddie Freeloader" and I noticed the ease of his breath into the horn and the complementing piano.
"I'm better now, yes. I've never really told anyone about all that. I hope you're not going to send me off into therapy or something," Heather laughed. "I just miss him in a strange way and have a lot of questions. I guess. I'd give anything -- anything -- to see him again."
I nodded and we talked for a long while. Our words blended in with Miles' horn; he was a part of our dialogue now and the three of us fed off one another with grace and ease, listening when appropriate, taking control at other times, in synch and loose simultaneously. A certain rhythm made us breathe together in time with the water and there was nothing but Miles and the lake, and we were together breathing with the horn and the wind and the clink of glasses with rum and ice. At dawn I drove Heather home and, like the rising moon, realized that it went by too fast. I wanted her and that last week of summer to last forever, but then it was over.
Back at school, a few weeks later, I saw Heather in the bookstore with some friends. I hurriedly smiled and waved, nearly knocking over the local authors display and causing some staring. As I approached, Heather shrugged and looked at the ground. "Heather!" I called, and this time our eyes met so I gave a friendly smile; she frowned and left in a near sprint, leaving her friends there to fend me off.
"Heather?" I asked no one in particular, watching her leave over the shoulders of her friends. They were huddled together now, glaring at me. Then, with knowing smiles, the three turned and left. I sighed a breath of hurt and confusion when the tears came to my eyes.
This went on throughout the fall and winter. We'd see each other at dances and football games; I even saw her at the ballet over Christmas break, a civic production of Cinderella in the theatre downtown, still she ignored me. Somehow I had lost something. I had lost that summer with Heather Parsons.
The following spring semester we had a class together: Philosophy in Literature, taught by Dr. Long in the basement of the old part of the library. It was hot there, and Heather made it hard for me to focus on the lectures. I was confused by, and angry with, her, but still longed for that night at the lake together, remembering our connection. I'd sit behind her when I could, catching glimpses of the curve of her breast when she'd turn, imagining us together. Sometimes I could even smell her, not a perfume, but a mix of sun and skin and heat and lotions. Heather had a natural beauty. Even now, when out walking on warm summer nights, I can still smell her.
Dr. Long and his Philosophy in Literature course were boring that day, and I was lost somewhere between Heather's perfect calf and the bend in her knee. My routine was well established. I'd start my gaze at her sandaled foot, noting what color her toenails were that day, linger a while and ponder the shape of her ankle, and then slowly move to her calf. Her legs had a light sheen of perspiration on them, and I knew she had Tennis 101 right before Dr. Long's class. I'd pretend that my hand was on Heather's knee, slowly moving her skirt up with my thumb, brushing the soft hairs on her upper thigh. On this particular day, longing for her and the warm winds of spring outside, I must have stared at her a bit too long.
"What exactly do you think you're doing?" I didn't hear her the first time, now slowly moving my glance up to her bared mid section.
"Hey! What do you think you're staring at? Jerk." She simultaneously pulled at her skirt and shirt, sitting upright.
"I. Um. What did you say?" I stammered, confused.
"You were staring at me." Then, calling the attention of her girlfriends added, "Hey! Did you see that pervert? Who do you think you are? Do you even know me? What gives you the right to stare at me?"
"Heather, what's going on? I'm sorry," I managed. My wit and any semblance of intelligence had abandoned me, leaving me stupid and senseless in the face of Heather Parsons, the girl I walked with, listened to, and absolutely worshiped. I grabbed my backpack and headed for the door in such a hurry I broke one of the straps.
The light hit me hard outside, and the shining sun seemed to be mocking me somehow. I found comfort underneath the shade of an elm tree on the southwest corner of campus, next to the English building. Lying in the grass that afternoon, I recognized that Heather's shallow rudeness wasn't the same Heather I had known at the lake, and that I would somehow try and forgive her. She had obviously forgotten our time together at Mr. Charlie's. Forgotten her tears and her father. Forgot my willingness to listen to her heartfelt story. She had forgotten. Recognizing this, tears came to my eyes and I lay on my back, staring up into the broad limbs of the elm, searching for some kind of comfort now.
Miles Davis blasted a high E, finally waking me from my daydreaming and remembrances. I guiltily looked over at Heather (who simply and fearlessly ignored me now) afraid that she might somehow be able to read my thoughts. She was there, still staring at our new friend at the end of the bar. Sam slid a Budweiser across the bar to the old gentleman, who was now fumbling for the change he kept in a small zip- lock baggie. He struggled while Sam waited, patiently. Heather's lengthy gaze still held firm, but the gentleman had not yet acknowledged it. She watched him, and I watched her. There was a certain weight in the air between them.
Heather's stare was finally broken by the well-dressed, affluent
couple who had now just slid into the booth with her. I noticed both were
careful to not ruffle themselves in the process. After they exchanged
pleasant greetings, I listened to them discuss clients and business cards and
new cellular phone technology; how to negotiate anything or be successful
in the workplace, and where to vacation. They were posturing and posing
for each other, the way teenage girls do. I chuckled at this, realizing that
Heather had spent her entire adult life in this false reality, full of self-
importance. I looked at my reflection in the mirror and realized that I knew
Heather better than anyone, even herself. The only time she had ever been
honest about anything was that night at the lake just over ten years ago. I
laughed out loud at my reflection then, enough to make the old gentleman
look up from his beer. Then, during my moment of resolve, ten years in
the coming, I looked into the face of the old gentleman and saw Heather's
eyes. Heather, now smiling superficially with her affluent associates,
certainly not friends, had now missed her opportunity, and I knew it. I
looked at her, now oblivious to the poor gentleman sitting at the corner
barstool, and knew what to do. I could make everything right. Smiling at
Heather's father, I closed my book, finished my beer and paid my tab, then
walked out into the cool city air, leaving Heather Parsons and that summer
behind me forever.
© 2002 Michael P. Christensen, all rights reserved
appears here by permission
This story is a fictional tale that free associates many real locations, including Jr.'s Tavern, the campus of Utah State University, Bear Lake, Cabo San Lucas, and Bear Lake West. I feel the protagonist and Heather are real in my subconscious; perhaps something happened to me in college that I'm still learning to deal with. I'd like to know what you think of my simple story. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org