I was scrunched up tight against Mike and Elvin; we made a gaping trinity off the noses of which Esmee purveyed her shining but misguided Wagnerian fantasies. Her father, like the fathers of more socially assured characters, had instilled in her a hatred of exactly that category of humanity with whose members she was doomed to have intrigues and so it fell upon her in the most dreary of catechisms that she must slug it out with her inherited conflicts in the sawdust-littered taverns every night, buying for all the weaklivered who weren’t sure if it weren’t maybe time to go home, as well as the budget hedonists always sniffing around the hemlines of any bitch who paid.
The humpsters and slicksters had already left and for some reason I hadn’t gone with them, maybe because I was cursed with an adapted gallantry that placed me with children and nuns and I was curious to see what far enclosures of the eastern night Esmee might bump up against in her nearsighted drive for moonlight redemption, lipstick smeared, pantyhose around her knobby knees. Mike was staring hard at her, on his fifth pint. Elvin fidgeted, reverting to the small boy who had grown up around stern and punishing women. He kept his feelings close to the nipple, having been smacked down at least once too often at the hands of the reproductively necessary sex.
It was not by any means a perfect gathering, but, even when everybody had been there, it had not been by any means perfect. The thinning out actually made it more interesting. Now a few things were going to give, no matter how you sliced the log, because, among four people in varying states of inebriation, there was a sleek and fast limit placed upon the number of possible outcomes: Einstein’s comprehensible universe, in a manner of speaking.
I avoided looking at the time, knowing that, come morning, I would be miserable no matter what hour it had gotten to be, or what bearded angel sounded the bell. It was in any case well past the time when any common-sense departure would have been possible and by now, up to my neck in intrigue, I had a sense of obligation to my own intelligence-gathering faculties. I needed to see how the pairing went. One of the guys was going to lose and I had to know which of them it would be.
I took a look at Esmee. Meeting her eyes when she was drunk was a dangerous act. The consumption of half a dozen mixed drinks with dyed cherries in them had produced in her a frenzied mania and glowing cheeks
I took a look at Esmee. Meeting her eyes when she was drunk was a dangerous act. The consumption of half a dozen mixed drinks with dyed cherries in them had produced in her a frenzied mania and glowing cheeks; she became a blend of Egon Schiele’s self-portraits (but better fed), Klimt’s diskimonoed babe-zelles, and Walter Thorvald Burdock’s big-eyed supermarket checkout girlies. Seductiveness alternated with extreme and implacable aggression. She was a lot like the drunken me of the late 1970s and I felt unfairly locked out of a pickled, derelict Eden.
The boys drank, Esmee drank, the anonymous fellow travelers in the Bucket O’ Crabs at the hour of two and beyond drank, even the bartender, a nondescript blond with a harsh face, took a glass, maybe because it was close to last call and the trip home was long.
Esmee trained her hysterical gaze on me and asked what the fuck I was doing still hanging around. It was the kind of question I had never been good at answering on the same day it was asked. And she would certainly apologize, wouldn’t she? And I didn’t have to renounce the right to gouge out her eyes, did I?
But I didn’t feel any more embarrassed than usual. I was always embarrassed to some degree, which was something aggressive people—hell, all people–could inevitably read in my face. Esmee was a good reader of the faces of people more insecure than she was; she jumped right into the wheelbarrow of my neurosis and stayed there for as long as she could before the exigencies of sloshedness took hold.
I was afraid she was might actually ask which of the guys I wanted for myself, or grill me on my mental state, or how much money I had in the bank, or my age, or how much I weighed.
Mike stole a darkeyed look at me. His trademark smirk had become more acute in angle since the alcohol had reached critical mass; by the time he was completely trashed, his mouth formed a perfect lowercase “v.”
All at once Esmee jumped up, clambered over the lap of Elvin, who was seated next to her in the booth, and rushed to the ladies’ room.
While she was gone we reconnoitered, rummaging anxiously for any last fragments of coherence or strategic integrity.
Elvin rolled his eyes and grunted. He seemed vaguely pleased about something.
I forced out the conventional remark that Esmee was “too much.”
Then, remembering how I really didn’t need anybody, I said I was going to have to get going. In uttering the words, however, the extent of my own drunkenness became apparent to me.
I tendered a longwinded description of the disgruntled older woman that I sometimes impersonated in embittered tavern chats in order to be the first to arrive at a foregone collective conclusion, and I scolded the abstract entity of men in general, scrupulously excepting “present company,” for forgetting that they were the empowered species and taking advantage. I looked fatuously at Elvin to discern his reaction. He was snoring lightly.
I wasn’t sure if I was really as drunk as I thought or I just needed a convenient excuse for not leaving.
I had thought it was curiosity but, as I turned around, seated so close I was practically on top of him, it occurred to me that it might have been that I was interested in Mike. His bulky shape was swathed in cracking black leather; his fleshy face had taken on an interesting mauve hue. I looked again, then pulled my glance. I had never thought of him as attractive; the mild shock of seeing it now just added to the murk of the drink and the fatigue. I redesigned my earlier remarks, moved back into the past and snatched the bad ones out from under Mike’s pointy nose–I knew he was too drunk to discover the trick.
He looked at me from under his cocker spaniel’s eyelashes, seemingly dazed. He had consumed about a truckload already, and a full pint was sitting in front of him waiting. From subaqueous depths I dredged up the Greek conception of love and talked about that to him, edging closer, my tongue between my top and bottom teeth, flicking from right to left as I drank him in, oblivious of and careless about the subject of the tablesful of men and in some cases male females who peopled the dart room. They looked over occasionally, whispering and giggling. Sometimes one would pantomime shaking a burned hand.
I knew only one routine and that was hostile avengress with amoral intent, and so I pulled it out and played it into the bolts of the benches. Eventually the wall hit.
I turned to Elvin and gave him a look almost as stilted as the one I had seen on Mike. It was meant to pretend that everything was the same, equal and cool. The table was already spinning at an angle, its orbit having gone from flat upright disk to wildly bucking ellipsis in a bath of frothing stars.
If it continued to rotate like that, Mike and I would be hurled together, since I was already at the extreme edge of the bench and pressed up against the wooden wainscoting.
Esmee came back from the toilet and march-scrambled again over Elvin’s bruised kneecaps.
“Ow!” he yelled.
She pursed her lips; when she smiled, she kept her mouth closed, for the same reason I did: teeth. Hers were convex in the charming yet slightly cloying manner of a Sunday school teacher’s; mine were more in the diabolical line, with sharp canines. The scent she exuded was almost sickening, and she kept toying with a ring on her finger and twirling her ringlets: comic-book mankiller, except it seemed inconceivable that a man would have fallen for it; except of course I knew very well that it wasn’t inconceivable at all.
Esmee had grown up virtuous and pious and was striking back. It was known that she had been taking a guy a week to bed since something like Eastertime, and people joked about it in copy shops and Korean stands around town.
All at once she was jumping back over Elvin again–this time he put up his great brute arms in a vain attempt at self-defense–and she dashed over to the jukebox, a ten-dollar bill in her hand that she waved back and forth provocatively like a Roosevelt-era hooker.
I soon saw that the greater part of female magnetism lay in holding one’s head right down close to the filthy line of the basement molding where wall and floor came together like a huge and noisy closing of eyelids at the dawn of night.
It could also have been that disillusion was evident.
Ten minutes later I left without looking back at any of them, still hunched and huddled in their booth under a spotlight, and took a train home to the apartment, which was ringing.
A while after that I saw Mike in a book stall. He wanted to know something about a French artist during the war and I didn’t feel like a free answer kiosk so I asked him how it had ended.
“That Esmee is crazy,” he said, rolling his eyes over my face, neck, and clavicle, and shoulders and inner eyebrows. The rolling was done with a wooden rolling pin and after a while it flattened me into a receptive state.
He described Elvin’s win-out in a taxi as if I had never even been there with them, had never seen any of the buildup to it, had been somewhere over the Russian border, scraping cabbages out of the bottom of a pit. I remembered then Esmee’s stilted choreography, the putting back of salt shakers and darts that had been kicked to the ground in the front, the flipping off of strangers, the curious moment in the back of the Bucket when we had first sat down, before Steve and Brody had left us, but after the incident with the drunk in the corn cobs.
I had thrown down my coat unaware that Mike’s was already holding the place. He was in the men’s room getting messier and when he came back and saw me there he lifted his coat and pushed it between us like a bolster, then produced the briefest of V-shaped provocations.
“Nobody should sit too close,” he said locking eyes with me as I sat frozen in the position I had been in when he first got there. I tried to move closer to him just to say that it was all right, I didn’t mind his quasi rejection in front of the four others, but the dream molasses of the hour and horror held me back and all I got out was this half leer in which my anger and hatred must have been for at least a fleeting moment apparent, and I recovered with a bounding thoughtleap into the zone beyond mortification, where I moved like an motorized armadillo back and forth between abject shame and exaggerated defiance and let the villagers pet me on the hide as many times as they wanted to before setting off sparks sticking forks in me.