Waiting for campers to leave, I polish off one bottle and half another of the restaurant’s coldest, cheapest white. Soon I’m across the street where the quiet back room is closed for a private party. I give the front a shot. College football. In the plasma glow of five televisions pulsing all the great action missed, I listen to two grown men in the alma mater’s colors explain to two women how they’d sling any girlfriend under the train to save dear old mom. Such filial piety leaves the women enamored, and when the student section marches off to buy a round the girls argue over the tall one.
I catch the bartender’s eye, change my beer order to two shots of diesel. He reaches back and snatches two ponies, clamps them directly before me and all of a sudden seemingly pulls a 750-ml out of his hip-pocket. His hand shoots up, compelled like an evangelist’s, an absurd motion that frightens me—I sense murder in it. The bottle’s ass teases the low, tin ceiling.
To the brims. Not a drop touches bartop. From where do we get such skills? He could have coptered over Cambodia panning for thirst-starved children, fed their sky-turned open mouths, but he was here.
I name each shot, Hope and Grace, consume, then leave.
On my block and as far east as I can see, the street lamps have burnt out. The darkness is shocking. This happens sometimes. A sensor fails and a block drops into preternatural dark—or so it looks to the over-lit urbanite—as if by decree of some sky-perched Orwellian authority.
A city worker sucks a flashlight, cursing down around it, thumbing wires in a switchbox while his hard-hatted partner sits on a low step, smoking between his knees. Across the street, the church and its rose-wheel window, the massive blue eye. It burns like a portal, as never before in the city light. I feel something in my chest jump stupidly, as I see two towering ranks of dim alien forms borne of the blooming eye, setting positions for a rally of souls.
“Man, you’re standin’ on my dick.”
I return. The failed street lamps. Too much blue light. Too much Catholic elementary school. Too many demerits from Sister Mary Helene. I have been overserved, and I’ve lost track of my feet. I’m standing practically on top of the smoking man. I tell him, sorry. I step back, breathe. Because he’s in a patch of dark matter, I can’t tell where he’s looking, but his knees seem pointed at the burning wheel. I look back at it.
“Goddamn blue-plate special,” he says, the glowing point of his cigarette dancing.
“What? The church?”
“Man, that ain’t no church. That’s a restaurant.”
I squint at the massive window.
“A meat-and-three, man! You know. Things? Course, the plate up there’s a meat and…” The cigarette bounced steadily. “Eleven. But you get four little troughs, one for meat, three vegetables.”
“You gonna help me now you’re feeling better?”
A flashlight swings over us. “Too angry to work cause his wife moves in with her teacher, but he can crap with you about chow lines,” says the guy at the switchbox.
“Rude, man! You have no sympathy.”
“I told you I felt you, shook your hand.”
“You stuck me the white-man’s handshake.”
“I am white!”
A dinner plate. I cross the street, head up the steps, washed in neon. Something is pulling me toward the oaken doors, something soft and peaceful within, I’m certain. I imagine a beautiful soprano singing in the high loft, at lonesome practice, her tiny music-stand lamp issuing the only light in the immense, holy space. With inflating, new heart I pull.
I stumble up to my apartment and tear open a plastic-wrapped calendar that some insurance company mailed me and has been sitting in the pile for weeks. I flip to the December page and nail the whole thing up above my bed. Outside the lamps flicker on. I take a permanent marker, circle and circle Christmas, each circle thicker and more determined than the last, not really sure what I intend by it—I’ll do something by then I suppose—and the more I circle the more I feel something will be done.
Next afternoon, out of bed, it embarrasses me. The calendar is tattooed. Heavy, grave loops of a crazy person. Something off Oswald’s basement wall. I tear it down.
John Kersey lives in Chicago with his wife and their daughter. He teaches creative writing at Elgin Community College. More work of his can be found in the Fall 2012 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal.