FICTION: At The Talbot by Patrick Fitzgerald

In the first moment upon waking, Henry looked through the empty room and inspected the rustic door bucking against the very essence of life and threatening him to get out of bed. It was all that stood between him and the rest of the world. He imagined boarding it shut, throwing the blanket over his body, and falling back asleep. The silence was diaphanous, and through the bedroom window he could see the woken beast of the evening sun. He cursed the world for forcing him out of his home and reluctantly off to work.

By the time he left the vacant lot of his country home, the sun was directly overhead, reminding him of the possibilities of a new day. He drove through the empty streets, staring at the flat lands of the American Great Plains while the spring breezes blew against the mid-grass prairies, guiding the dust from the dirt roads onto the highway. The dust hung in the air as the birds flapped through it and over the dried ponds that would have been filled on a rainy day.

It was a long drive to work.

He lost himself in the southern blues and jazz. Henry found no greater joy in life than hearing the old sounds from New Orleans and Chicago. The elegant notes of the soft piano coming through the speakers always conjured an image in his head of those soulful singers. He’d whisper to them to “sing one for me,” hoping that maybe one day they would.

Still in the prime of his youth, Henry was a handsome man—handsome enough for people to wonder why he lived in such solitude. He was well over six feet tall, with lanky hands and feet, a German build for an individualist of the most pronounced type. When he finally arrived at work, he sat in his car watching the few clouds in the fresh baby blue sky. The sign in front of the old bar read “The Talbot.” The rickety prairie school-style bar in the dry, dusty flats was constructed mostly from rough-cut lumber.

He opened the bar’s front door. The only light visible streamed through the windows to rest on the floor. A couple of emergency lights twinkled in back. Skimming through the dark, Henry flipped the switches hidden behind crates of liquor and towels used to clean the bar. He turned on the washer, swept the walls and ceilings with the long-handled broom, and checked the drawer to make sure there was exactly three hundred dollars. Little flies hovered around the dusty bottles of alcohol kept behind the bar. Henry moved on to dust the star-studded crowd of realist paintings depicting the American west hanging along the walls, the hand-woven tapestries, Native American trinkets, and a bleached white cow’s skull hanging above the bottles of liquor.

A skinny boy with fair blond hair scampered inside. He was wearing black clubmaster-framed glasses, and his clothes were torn up and covered in dirt. His eyes darted about, looking puzzled and worried at the same time.

Between gasps for breath, he said, “Sorry I’m late. Had to run. I couldn’t–” He paused to catch his breath.

“You alright, Finch? What happened?”

Finch fanned himself with a menu until the haziness passed. “Fine, fine. I just came as fast as I could.”

“Calm down.” Henry punched Finch’s arm “It’s alright. Come help me set up outside.”

A few minutes later, they were back inside. The bar was ready, and it was time to open its doors.

Finch put on his cranberry slim fit shirt and olive server’s apron. His ragged clothes and tattooed body belied his devout Mormon upbringing, growing up in a home of nine brothers and sisters, including two half-brothers. His father was a cheat, an immoral man, who always tried to justify his infidelity and shortcomings by saying “it was in God’s plan” or “I strayed from the path.” But the path always led him back to the church. Finch had quickly learned that not all men are who they claim to be. His father was no exception. In fact, he hated his father for it.

As a result, Finch rebelled his whole life; no one was every really sure what to do with him. His family thought he was a lost soul, and his refusal to accept the ways of the church and inability to take care of himself were enough for them to stop speaking to him. When he left, he never turned back.

A young couple entered the bar. They seemed like the road-tripping type, on some romantic adventure trying to break the patterns of modern life. Henry motioned for them to sit wherever they wanted. More people stopped in to have a beer or two, play some pool, or just spend some time in the company of others. Their orders were quick, and they were out the door before Henry learned anything about them.

He turned the music on, the soulful and rocking songs of men humming tunes and women singing words. Eventually, the other came in, clustering like animals looking for water. Some were from the nearby motel, spending their night at the bar because they had nothing better to do. Others came in because they were lonely and perplexed. Most were driving somewhere else and stopped in to break up the monotony of the road.

Tonight was the usual: a group of bikers who congregated around the beer and pool tables. A photographer from a New York magazine followed them, nostalgic of a time when men traveled to discover what it truly meant to be adventurous and glean insights into the human condition. He stopped in the hole-in-the-walls dotting the plains, explaining his quest to anyone who would listen, but really he just had a maniacal love of drinking.

A doctor from Minnesota stormed in, looking for a telephone. His car had broken down a few blocks from the bar. He shook his head at Finch. “Jesus Christ. Well, that’s why you don’t drive.”

A group of young men accompanied a Polish boxer on his way to a match in Las Vegas. Each time he ordered, his mood changed. The gaps in his memories frustrated him. His entourage was loud, but minded their own business except to call out, “Say, bartender! How about you bring us a round?”

Henry was preparing another round when the shouts started outside the door.

“Well, goddamn it, you were asking for it!” A groveling old man walked in, mumbling to himself. He took his regular seat at the bar. Billy was harmless, but Finch thought he was mad—or half-mad, at least—given his outbursts and vagaries.

“Billy.” Finch nodded a greeting to the old man before looking around and noticing he’d come inside alone. “Where’s Betsy?”

“Don’t know. Don’t care.” He glanced over his shoulder, then he waved his hand in a dismissive manner. “Eh, she’ll be in soon.”

“She’s good to you. Why do you treat her like that?”

Billy waved his hand again. Each day he stopped in for a drink, and every night he returned home to an empty house, with only his broken heart to keep him company. He longed for even a few more moments with his wife. Since her passing, he’d ignored his day-to-day responsibilities, resigning himself to end his own life. But each night he stood outside, counting the stars in the sky. He wondered if she was up there, looking down.

One night, after a day of drinking, he gave in to his rage. He labored in the dry fields under the dark sky and tasseled every star shining above, bringing them down one-by-one to bury them in his field. He refused to allow them to glimmer above his home. He had lost everything beautiful in life and refused to see anymore. He prayed to God to send him death. He missed the way his wife chew on her bottom lip when trying to find the right word, the way she left her hair loose to play in the wind, and the lavender smell that trailed after her wherever she went.

He turned to a shot of whisky and a couple beers every night to drink the sadness out of his mind, but in his misery he’d met Betsy, who had lost her husband years ago to illness and was looking for someone she could take care of.

“My boys!” Betsy said as she walked in, bedecked in an immense string of pearls. Despite being an heiress to millions who always held enviable social and financial positions, her old age was marked by bitter loneliness. Her solution was to spoil Billy, no matter how ungrateful he was.

Billy thought that Betsy too overbearing, bent on controlling his life as much as helping him out. He only met her at the bar. He did everything with such discretion and efficiency that it did not even occur to Betsy that he might be using her wealth instead of letting her generously give it to him.

A gaunt-looking Mexican man and a somber truck driver hailing from the Deep South stopped in the bar, followed by a well-dressed man in a dark suit and a silk bowtie. He belonged to a wholesale bottling family and was himself president of the Specialty Bottle Company of Mississippi. A group of men—heavy Scandinavian types, tall and blond—sauntered in, quietly, not offering much emotional reciprocation. They looked as if they had returned from an exploration to the coldest depths of earth, wearing puffy jackets fit for the harshest winter. They sat at the end of the bar, never removing their jackets.

“I’ll take a stout,” the man in the middle said in a thick Nordic accent.

The man to his left stiffened. “I’ll take one as well.”

“Me too,” the third man said, looking at Henry long and hard.

Henry grabbed the glasses and poured. “What brings you boys in?”

The man to the left responded. “We are staying at the motel down the highway. We’re heading to Canada and all the way up to the North Pole.”

The man in the middle interjected. “We’re explorers from Denmark. We just returned from the south. I’m Otto, this is Nikolas, and he is Hans.”

Nikolas resembled a television star from Henry’s childhood. His eyes were a compound of sweetness and daring, Hans, the scrawniest of the three, maintained a look of gloom that never wavered from his face. Otto was certainly the leader of the three, the perfect type of primitive man with cool and level eyes.

It took a few drinks for the explorers to start fully enjoying each other’s company. Their minds progressively became less understandable.

“It’s a phenomenon of life, young man,” Otto hurled at him through drunken slurs, “that men will always crave adventure.” After twenty years of exploration, Otto felt he had used the last remaining laurels of exploration. He’d first felt the indomitable call of the Northland when he was a young boy hearing the Nordic myths. He was convinced that, when they reached the northern-most point, he would see the world in its entirety and all of its secrets would be exposed to him. “We had reached so far south we were below sun. But the ice conditions grew worse, endless moraines of rough ice forced us to turn back,” Otto said.

An old man, lean, ragged and wearing a captain’s hat of some sort over his unnaturally dark hair, interrupted. “You think that’s an adventure? Let me tell you about the seas.”

Bang!

The loud crash sound came from the back when Finch dropped several glasses while cleaning a table. He entered a couple of new orders into the register, and the tickets came through the machine reading what drinks were ordered. The first ticket was for a table with a professor preparing a lecture he would be giving at the University of California in Berkeley in just a few days. He studied the pages of public policy and skimmed lecture notes held together in a luxurious leather binder. Trying to focused, he moaned like a spoiled child when the folk singer playing soft tunes distracted him. He had traveled from east Washington and was a true Northwestern boy living on money from gigs and spending his days wallowing in the torn heartache of past lovers.

“Boy!” a Cajun man screamed. “Another bourbon on the rocks.”

Wrapped in a wool sweater, the Cajun man could drink anything, no matter how loathsome. Once he had enough drinks, the juices in his stomach extracted the last bit of alcohol necessary to make him drunk for the rest of the night. He had little poise and control, and early in his trip to the West Coast, nostalgic from memories of camping with his father, he made a bleak camp at a local nature reserve only to spend the night in a motel down the highway. He chatted with an Indian florist, letting the topic of art create a magical bond between the two. He decided to teach the florist how to play the banjo, his long, thin fingers dancing up and down the neck of the instrument.

Henry looked up as a man walked through the doors. The newcomer was wearing clothing similar to what Henry had seen in photos of old shamans in Asia. The man joined the group of Cherokee engineers wearing their feathers and turquoise, white shirts and blue jeans. A German engineer pulled up a chair as well, bringing with him an egg-shaped machine. The men spoke to each other about the complicated mechanics of the mysterious machine, whose purpose was to put moisture in the air to help against the plains’ ongoing drought. They spoke in the language of innovation, but this machine scared them with its bigness and strangeness as it softly mumbled to itself as if it were alive. They brought a Wu Shaman from China to bless it and call to the spirits, just in case all their options had been exhausted, hoping a storm would come through the area. They talked about the machine needing repairs and how the tribe couldn’t pay for the work because all the young members were moving to the cities and the older members left behind didn’t have a lot of money.

Cowboys from New Mexico sat a couple tables away. They’d come walking back from smoking outside with hands in their pockets and hats pulled down, covering parts of their face.

Henry wandered up and down the bar, checking each person’s glass for another round. At eleven o’clock, the entire bar maintained a potent cheerfulness and joy. People sat end to end on the hard benches, chatting, slamming shots, or sipping their drinks.

Henry found himself talking to a Brazilian banker, but all he could learn about the mane was that he had come from Santa Catarina and never accepted the public belief that bankers were inherently evil. He was a pitiless critic of those who used their professional prestige to attain unlimited amounts of wealth.

Finch became distracted by a group of girls from Nashville in their floral printed attire and low-cut jean shorts. They began to act rowdy, dancing along the bar and eyeing the cowboys, until Henry had to impose order in the crowded bar. He was the only one who knew how to react when the Korean ventriloquist and his dummy could barely make it through the crowds to the bathroom. Henry grabbed the man, helping him find his balance.

Finch began a third round of drinks for the traveling theater group reenacting a beloved play set during the French Revolution. The Oklahoma folks were in no rush and sat morosely silent while sipping their beers. Two wives from Massachusetts were embarrassed by the lack of restraint of their drunken husbands who were patting their knees like war drums as they each took a shot of whisky, followed by drunken kisses. The wives’ blushed cheeks turned into soft giggles.

A Colombian circus troupe, Danish ballerinas, and South African astrophysicists were chatting about their cross-country drives. A French writer intruded in other people’s affairs, listening intently to the conversations spiraling around the room. He was a useful and serious young man whose eyes hid behind round spectacles in brown frames as they observe the room of splendor. His natural languid manner was immediately charming, but it was also viewed as a disguise to convince others of his importance.

A group of men gathered around a table. “I wasn’t expecting you so soon,” one man said after waiting for his friends. He stood to hug them.

The sullen lanky salesman, born in Cuba and travelled to America as a young boy, never betrayed the confidence of his clients. He personally delivered every item he sold. Several tables over, identical Italian twins played a game of cards. One had been convicted of drug trafficking and was released four years earlier. The other had received his doctoral degree from Tulane in New Orleans. Sailors trembling to get up and stay standing.

A coal miner, whose nervous little eyes were wary of all the foreigners in the bar, got in Finch’s face. “They’ve been nothing but trouble. Nothing but trouble.” His breath reeked of rotted onions, but he was one of the few visitors with a sense of humor. The Scandinavian men had drunk so much they were rigid and motionless. The captain and a Canadian painter were bombarding Finch with curses and questions. Their life experiences formed their views of the world, and they felt the need to share them with the bar.

“We will stay on this road straight through and see where it leads. You have to trust the hunger in your stomach,” the Canadian painter croaked. “You have to go out into the world, eyes closed, mind open.” He pointed his finger at Finch. “Tell me boy, what do you dream of in this precious life?”

“Hey!” A burly Marine flicked the cigarette stub from his mouth and towered to his feet to stand in the face of another full-fronted and heavy-chested university team rower. He rubbed his forehead to clear his face. “Did you spill that on me?”

The rower’s shrill tongue answered back. “It was an accident, okay, buddy?” He turned around with little care, casting a mighty shadow that boiled the Marine with rage.

“Don’t you buddy me!” His voice filled the room. He clenched his fists, preparing for a great fight. He never lost an opportunity to grind his teeth. He was very candid and always stood his ground, no matter what the odds.

The rower got in his face. “Yeah? What are you going to do about it?”

There was no stopping the rush. The Marine cleaved the rower’s chin and flung him aside. The rower scrambled to regain his composure, sweeping the blood from his eyes before springing at the Marine. A shrill yelp of pain echoed in the bar when the Marine landed several feet away, sprawled on the floor.

Henry raced over before another punch was thrown. He enjoyed the reputation of promoting harmony and was overwhelmed by the sudden change in the bar’s atmosphere. He tried to unroll the fight, but the Marine was on his feet and driving into the rower so hard that the university mane flew out the front door. The Marine followed, trampling into the dirt lot to continue the fight.

A group of women skirted the fight and made their way inside. Their physics defied conventional standards of beauty, and their bodies were matchstick thin. They were wearing makeup so pale it highlighted their skin. They were dressed in lavish kimonos—long, white, and made from the finest linen in all of Japan. They joined a table of businessmen from Texas and patiently introduced themselves. They discussed baseball players and the stock market and occasionally poured more drinks. Most of the bar’s patrons left them alone until their curiosity turned of its own accord toward the women when they started dancing for the men.

Nikolas nodded toward them. “Are they…” His lips drew back from his teeth. “Strippers?”

A mighty bellow broke from the captain’s mouth. “Strippers?! There will be no such business.” The captain did not find such a thing as stripping in accordance with the laws of God, and he commanded his crew to never touch a woman in exchange for money. The captain had the stern belief that a woman’s touch could never be bought, but rather only earned through the will of a man’s heart. His integrity, his leadership, and above all his honor were his lifeblood.

Henry shook his head. “They’re geishas.”

The captain puckered his lips. “Ah, right, right.” He sat silent for several moments before asking, “What’s a geisha?”

“That’s a geisha,” Finch said. They watched the geishas’ seductive dance to the old songs playing from the jukebox, who were later joined by the sailors for karaoke. They grabbed the microphones and stood on the back of the stage, their dull voices singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” until each voice trailed off, forgetting the words. Their tuneless singing turned into a murmur waiting for the memories of the song’s words to return.

Billy, asleep on the stool, opened his eyes when Betsy nudged him, saying, “Let’s go dance!” He took a nip at his private flask and disappeared with her into a vaudeville dance.

While everyone focused on them, Finch pulled out a bottle of tequila and whispered to Henry, “Let’s take a shot.”

At two o’clock in the morning, the bar was still as intensely brimming with people as a few hours ago. A Haitian fortuneteller was reading people’s palms, letting them know of their short or long lives, their future mistakes, and warnings about what was to come. It left some of the patrons very quiet, lost in their theirs as they contemplated how to change their fortune. Some were giddy to learn good fortune was on its way. The fortuneteller finished half of the whiskey and fell over onto a table full of empty bottles, which crashed to the floor.

The Brazilian banker argued with the folk singer, not feeling the need go into an extended explanation for his choices in life. The banker had to become a man very early in life and now, at almost sixty years old, he did everything he could to keep himself looking young. He was no stranger to the latest plastic surgeries, injections, or health fads necessary to ensure the young women were taken in by his charm. A ballerina joined the geishas’ dance, and a tightrope walker from the Colombian circus latched a rope across the bar to walk back and forth, maintaining a careful balance above everyone’s heads.

A pastor held a bottle between his knees so he could use both hands to bless the couple sitting across from him. He had a diabolical talent for convincing others he could do no wrong. The pastor worked to spread his gospel from coast to coast and often mentioned to those who turned away from him that they would find their soul in flames. “Know this, or face the gates of hell,” he said.

But it was the engineers putting together the final pieces of the machine that caused the most commotion. They turned on the switch and put their hands close to their chests while eyeing the machine. When there was a small shake, one of them shouted, “Aha!” The machine clattered heavily, and white smoke drifted from a tiny hole at the top. The billows of smoke grew, and the engineers’ faces turned from awe to concern and even anxiety as the white smoke engulfed the entire bar until rain burst forth. Everyone in the bar rushed for cover.

“Turn it off!” Finch shouted.

The water beat their faces as the frantic engineers searched for a way to turn the machine off without damaging it. In a moment of slick hands, they dropped the machine, breaking it in half. The white cloud slowly evaporated.

Everyone was soaked to the skin, and as they collected themselves, they exited the bar.

“Everyone! I need you to close your tabs,” Henry shouted.

The Scandinavian men left, followed by a handful of the captain’s crew. The cowboys left with the girls from Nashville, and the geishas finished their final dance and returned to their car. A trapeze artist swung calmly above the bar on short horizontal bars hung by ropes; perhaps he needed help and hadn’t gotten around to asking for it.

“I’m too goddamn tired to care,” Billy said.

“I’ll drive you home!” Betsy yelled, her vitality completely restored.

The engineers celebrated the invention and hugged each other with joy, reminding each other that they were geniuses, true visionaries.

The captain stayed until the bar was completely empty. “Sir, we must be off,” he said in a drunken slur. He pointed his finger back to Finch and offered a stern look. “All will come right, and it may be in your interest to note, incredible things are happening in the world.” The last of his crew pushed him out of the bar.

Finally it was time to close up.

As Henry drove along the country road back to his old home, the sky’s glare was the only light illuminating the countryside. During his drives home, he often considered the significance of changing his life. But he, too, was afraid of making that riotous leap into the unknown. In the midst of that solemn drive, he contemplated packing up his belongings, putting his life on hold, and—in splendid immaturity—walking away from it all. He gazed over the barely visible landscape, hoping for a guiding dream, but his mind was in turmoil as all the fears that stopped him from ever considering a change rushed upon him. The few people he had known were tempted to leave this small town, but it was not easy for him to put away all that he had ever known. He could not convince himself that this life was doing him harm. He could not convince himself he was worthy of being an impetuous runaway.

But maybe that’s what made him so truly deserving.

The prairie stars hovered in the soft sky above his home. It was an undertaking of extraordinary beauty. The stars voiced a kindred intellect and spirit, and a feeling of revulsion came over him. Among the most vivid memories of his life were the times he spent as a child in the front yard looking up at them. When he got out his car, relieving a piece of life he had already lived, he lay on the ground, looking up at them. He grew up more adventurous, expecting to depart from this place one day. At nights, his mother would read to him on the front porch, whispering loving words in his ears before hugging him so tightly he could hardly breath.

He walked into his home and headed to the kitchen cupboards to examine the options. He grabbed a box of crackers and sat on the chair in the front parlor. The stench of the aging wood and furniture permeated throughout the house. He always forgot how lonely he was until he returned to his empty house. It was like living on a ghostly pendulum, swinging back and forth between life and death, people coming and going.

He glanced at an old photo of him with his mother. He held it up. “Goodnight, mom.”

He peeled off his clothes, gathered them up into a wad with a sweep of his arms, and shuffled into his bedroom. He boarded the door shut, threw the blanket over his body, and fell asleep.

 Patrick Fitzgerald

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Patrick Fitzgerald is a new voice in American literature. He was born and raised in Chicago and attended Indiana University for undergraduate studies, where he fell in love with the art of writing.  Patrick writes stories with the dream of making magical realism mainstream in American thought.

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