“Next round’s on me, guys.” Charlie Bishop bellied his way to the bar and leaned on it, signaling the bartender.
“Boys, I’m cashed.” Jean dug in her purse. “Charlie!” she yelled, sticking some bills under the napkin dispenser. “I gotta go! Pickin’ up Jasmine!” She waved and backed out the door. Charlie returned.
“Guys?” he said, injured. “Next round’s on me.”
Malik ducked under the strap of his messenger bag, standing to his full height. He threw a twenty on the table.
“Sorry, man.” He clasped Charlie’s hand and pulled him in, pounding his back. “See you tomorrow. Dinner’s waiting.”
Lou looked around for his wallet. Danny stood, arms open, and Charlie grinned.
“Reverend Dan. One more round, come on. It’s six o’clock for fuck’s sake, do me the honor.”
Danny considered the evening ahead. Charlie, his white friend: they’d have another drink and go to one more bar, or three. The dollars, the liver and kidney stress, the buffalo wings and fried potato wedges…the cigarette breaks, the unbearable emotional intimacy.
“Sorry, brother. I gotta turn in.”
“But it’s Thursday!” The logic of Charlie’s argument seemed to instantly vaporize. “Guys? Come on. You’re a bunch of pussies.” They smiled.
Charlie dropped his head and surrendered. “All right. It’s been a beautiful evening. I love you all, gentlemen.” He hugged each of them, even Lou, and made like he was packing up, throwing his bag over his shoulder, staggering a moment under its weight.
“See you tomorrow. Bright and early,” he said, saluting them. They wondered how much longer their principal was going to let his tardy mornings go before docking his pay. They wondered if they’d be asked to cover his classes tomorrow.
Charlie headed for the bathroom. When he came out, his colleagues were gone. He went back to the bar for one more whiskey.
The bartender was dashing. Charlie wished he had a chin like this guy, a Kiefer Sutherland chin.
The tin-ceilinged room was brighter than usual: they had turned the lights on for the coming evening, but the sky still glowed blue. It felt like a music box.
Whiskey? Or beer? Beer would last longer, but it was weaker. He imagined for a moment, if he was either beer or whiskey, which would he be? What was his essence? He was probably beer. Yeasty, down-to-earth, sloshing over the sides: the kind of thing that made you fat if you drank too much. This bartender was whiskey. No, he was Scotch.
He would order a double. He tried to catch the bartender’s eye. Charlie didn’t know his name yet.
“Well, if it isn’t Charlie Bishop.” A woman with horizontal lines for eyebrows stood behind him. Her face was otherworldly; she reminded him of the girl from Blade Runner.
“Amelia,” he breathed, turning around.
“What can I get you?” the bartender finally asked. Charlie whipped around. He whipped back to Amelia.
“What’re you having?”
“Hendricks on the rocks with a lime”
“We don’t have Hendricks,” the bartender said.
“Whatever. Tanqueray, Bombay, I don’t care.” The bartender raised his eyebrows and looked at Charlie.
“I’ll have a whiskey, double. The well is fine.” Amelia set her elbow on the bar and leaned her head on it.
“Where are you at now? You still teaching?” he asked. She nodded.
He swallowed and watched the twilight inking from violet to black outside. His back and chest were damp.
“Stuyvesant! Nice! How’d you swing that?”
“Wow,” he nodded, hiding his envy. “How is it?”
“Everyone can read. Everyone turns in their papers on time. Some of my kids are smarter than I am. It’s fucking awesome.”
She smiled and plucked a cocktail straw, accordioning it with her fingers. Her gaze was steady.
“Are you still at Taft?” she asked.
“I thought you wanted to quit. That’s what you said.”
He tried to conjure the custodial closet they’d shared once, but the memory wouldn’t budge.
“What about music.” She fingered the white joints she’d made in the straw.
“No,” he said. “Not, um, not anymore.” She didn’t know that when they met, writing songs and playing the bass had been new preoccupations; before music was standup comedy, welding, his own letterpress business, and several zines on philosophy and religion. He was someone whose apartment was stacked with CDs, videos, comics, a million books, leather-bound editions of Marx and Kafka and Whitman and Kant, a towering junkyard of devotion. He had been drinking a lot lately.
The bartender set their drinks down. Charlie paid before Amelia could reach for her purse, not that she would. He tipped double. The bartender had already turned around and didn’t notice.
“You still living in Prospect Heights?”
He remembered her long nose. A Meryl Streep nose: it bisected her face on the vertical axis, while her high cheekbones and eyebrows did the same on the horizontal. When they were sleeping together, he had wanted to crack open her deadpan disinterest, to find the smoldering he knew was underneath. He never found it. Their affair had dissipated like smoke.
He fought to maintain the shape of his buzz. This was the expansive, ambitious part, when everything that needed doing would be done. It was the pounding buildup of the piano, punctuated by urgent staccato strums on an electric guitar, the introduction of a song before it really began and the drums and vocals kicked in. He wanted to always live in this moment, with whoever happened to bear witness as he entered it. He finished his drink and almost slammed the glass on the bar.
“Come to my place.”
Amelia’s smile was pitying. She scanned the room. She tipped her glass back and swallowed the remainder of her drink. She pulled out the lime and sucked the liquid from it. She ran her tongue along her teeth, feeling for citrus pulp. She blinked. She tossed the lime back into the glass, where it landed with a wet plop.
She shook her head.
“What are you doing? Tonight? Tomorrow?”
She stared at him.
“Amelia—come on, let’s go to Manhattan. I’ll take you to the best Martinis in the city at this rooftop bar no one knows about.”
“I gotta go.” She yawned and hitched her purse. “Call me,” she said obliquely.
“I don’t have your number. I lost my phone.”
“Email me. Same address.” She mimed typing with her hands as she backed away.
“Amelia.” Charlie’s voice drowned in the din. He watched her turn around and push the door open, the dry breeze ruffling her choppy haircut. Through the blinds in the front window, he could see her stride down Washington Street and turn the corner.
A panic scuttled up to him. He reached into his pocket for his phone and texted Reverend Dan.
* * *
Against his better judgment, Danny found himself hiking to the C train to meet Charlie Bishop at a supposedly secret bar in Hell’s Kitchen. It was 7:30 on a school night, several hours before Danny’s alleged bed time. He had a weakness for Charlie. Was it because he was single now? Danny palmed his fedora and strode under the sputtering lamp of a mosque on Fulton Street. He wondered if he was the first person Charlie had texted. He wondered who Charlie was friends with outside school. Danny pictured men in hats and plaid shirts with carefully honed aesthetic judgments. Women in frumpy shoes and dark lipstick. White people who graduated from Vassar and Bard and didn’t talk about the fact that their parents had money.
They’d been teaching together for three years, and while Danny didn’t think Charlie was the best teacher at the school, or even one of the better ones, he acknowledged that he liked him. Or, he liked that Charlie seemed to like him so much, he liked feeling exalted in an unearned way. Charlie made him feel special.
* * *
Charlie’s buzz had cooled on the train, and he promised himself he would make this whiskey last until after Danny showed up. He felt foolish for coming all the way into Manhattan as he dug in his wallet for another twenty: his last, at least before he hit an ATM. He’d only been here once, after an epic night of bar-hopping with guys he vaguely knew from a friend’s fairly successful band. He’d felt huge then, like a big sail full of fresh sea wind, around these loud, articulate, bearded men flush with the sales of their new record, buying everyone drinks. For one night, he’d felt welcomed into their fold. They’d exchanged numbers, emails, blog addresses. They’d talked about jamming some time. It was as though he’d finally stumbled into the New York life he should have been having – it was supposed to feel like this, rich, bright, large-scale. He never heard from any of them again.
“Chas, what’s up, man,” Danny said behind him in his radio announcer’s baritone. Charlie loved Danny’s voice; it made him believe almost everything he said. He loved that Danny called him “Chas.” When he was a kid, he’d tried to get his family to call him Chas, but they wouldn’t do it.
“What’s up, brother, I didn’t see you come in! Sit, sit. What’re you having?” Charlie sounded like a host, like he lived there.
“Um, well. Nothing crazy. What do they have on draught here?” Danny squinted. “Yeah, gimme a Pilsner,” he told the bartender, who placed a square napkin on the bar in front of him. He reached for his wallet.
“No, lemme get this round,” Charlie protested.
“Don’t worry about it,” Danny murmured. He paid the bartender, smiling politely, and placed his hat on the bar, seating himself. He turned to Charlie.
“So,” he said.
“So,” Charlie echoed, suddenly shy. “Listen, thanks for coming out, man.”
“Naw, it’s no problem. I wasn’t doing anything anyway.” Danny folded his hands in front of him and hunched his shoulders. He thought of the episode of The Real Housewives of D.C. he was missing. Why did it make him so anxious to stray from his routines? It was one of the accusations his ex had darted at him when they broke up: he was unspontaneous and inflexible. Unspontaneous wasn’t a word; he’d checked. She made him feel so stupid, and then she went around using imaginary words.
“Lemme ask you something,” Charlie said. He had no idea what he was about to say. The impulse possessed him and vanished.
“Um,” Charlie tried again. “Listen. Question. You ever think of leaving teaching?” Was this what he’d meant to ask?
Danny thoughtfully scratched the shadow on his jaw.
“Yeah. All the time.”
“Would you? Do something else?”
“I don’t know. I’m already doing this, right? It’s hard to see starting at the bottom somewhere else.”
“What about you, man? You thinking of leaving?”
“Aw, I don’t know. I don’t know. I probably should, but. I don’t know what else I’d do. I was gonna be a famous musician, but. You can see how that turned out.” Charlie laughed ruefully.
“I hear you,” Danny said. “I was gonna be a pro football player.”
Charlie looked at Danny and knew he had never stood a chance of playing professional football; it was a kid’s dream, every kid’s dream. He was mildly offended Danny equated it with his dream of being a musician. Charlie had played music for five years, on and off. They lapsed into silence.
“You having female trouble?” Danny asked absently.
“No. Why?” Charlie gulped the last of his whiskey. “Well, I guess I’m always having female trouble.” He laughed.
“Nothing out of the ordinary.”
“Right. I guess.”
“You sure you’re okay? Something up?”
Charlie was full of something he could not express, and it kept filling his chest and threatening to flood. When he drank whiskey, he tried to contain it, to know its depths, but it eluded him, despite its size, its pounds of pressure per cubic inch. He sought a port in which to unload this massive cargo, and he kept not finding it.
“Why? Do I seem not okay?”
“Like. How many drinks have you had?”
Charlie felt like someone had turned on all the lights, and he blinked.
“I don’t know. I’m a big guy, it takes a lot for me to get hammered.” He laughed.
“Are you trying to get hammered?”
Charlie considered the question. “No. I don’t know. I like whiskey.”
“Oh, Danny,” Charlie said, and buried his face in his hands. Danny sipped his beer and stared ahead of him at the flickering game. The Giants were murdering the Eagles. When he looked at Charlie again, he saw that Charlie was upright, looking at the ceiling, quiet. Danny wasn’t sure whether he had seen Charlie’s face
in his hands at all.
For a long time, they watched the Giants. Muted figures like bipedal buffaloes mauled each other, and occasionally, the camera tracked a tiny orb as it flew through the air. In his mind’s ear, Danny heard the roar of the crowd keep the orb afloat, longer, longer, longer still, until it sailed between the goal posts. Instinctively, he jerked up when the field goal was made, and he quieted himself when he noticed no one else in the bar seemed to care. Danny couldn’t be sure, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of straight men here among the scattered, lonesome patrons. Of all places, why had Charlie brought him here?
Danny gulped his Pilsner and put his hand on his hat.
“I think I gotta head back to the bear cave, man. I’m out past my bedtime.”
“It’s…” Charlie looked at his watch. “It’s nine o’clock. What time do you go to bed? What, you get up at four to meditate or something?”
Danny wished it was later. He felt so far from home. He put his hat back down on the bar and skimmed the condensation off the sides of his glass with an index finger.
“I’m not much of a drinker, to be honest,” Danny said.
“Bullshit. I’ve been out with you. You throw back more than me. Bullshit.” Something in Charlie had gone slack. “Don’t go,” he said.
“I don’t know. I don’t know, man.” Charlie put his face in his hands again.
Danny thought about his sister Felicia in the years before she went to rehab to dry out. He knew the arc: jocose, bellicose, lachrymose, comatose. Danny knew that whatever was about to come next would be a soupy mess of half-cooked sorrows.
“You’re a good guy,” Charlie’s muffled voice said.
Here we go, Danny thought.
“I mean that, brother. You’re a good man. A good man.” Charlie’s head was still in his hands.
“Thanks.” Danny usually loved Charlie’s compliments, even when he thought he was full of shit, but there was a new desperation to it tonight.
Charlie sat up quickly, swaying a moment.
“Danny,” he pleaded. “Danny.”
“I got too much love.” What? Charlie was nodding vigorously, agreeing with himself. “I got too much love. I can feel it in my chest, it’s this big…love. And I don’t know where to put it.”
“Hey, you’ll find her, man,” Danny told him. “She’s out there. You just gotta be patient. Don’t try too hard, don’t go looking. She’ll turn up.” He drank the last of his beer.
“No, no. That’s not what I mean. That’s not what I mean.” Charlie put his head down on his forearms, the way their students did when they wanted to give up. Danny looked at his watch, mesmerized by the second hand’s steady clicks.
“That’s not what I mean,” Charlie repeated from his arm fort.
“I mean…it’s like this thing, that I can’t get rid of.” He swung up again and turned to Danny. “I love you,” he said.
“I love you, too, man,” Danny replied, used to Charlie’s declarations.
“No.” Charlie shook his head. “No, you don’t understand, you don’t understand. I love you. I love you.” As though awakening into an unfamiliar bedroom, Charlie shook his head and looked around the bar, dazed. He stepped down off the bar stool, staring wide-eyed at the floor, and found his bag. He clapped Danny on the shoulder, not looking at him.
“See you later, man,” he said, nodding, nodding. “Have a good night. Have a great night.” Time hovered for a moment, barely breathing, as he embraced Danny with one arm, and then he disappeared into the street.
Danny watched the game. He didn’t look anywhere else, not until it was over.