Beauty Rest

Julia Klatt Singer

 

He likes to sit at the far end of the bar, away from the music, away from the door and the crowd and the gawkers who treat this bar, his bar, like a cruise ship stop. They come in, order a drink, pose at the bar, sing with the piano man like starlets, kiss the man or woman on their arm when they are done, kiss just a little too long, like they are the most attractive people in the place (which they often are), and move on.  He doesn’t like being near them.  They smell of cigars and perfume and bubble gum.  Their heels click on the tile floor and they move quick, as if they’ve got a schedule to keep.  They remind him of show dogs, jumping through hoops, pleasing some master with a pocket full of treats, bred to look good and amuse.

     By midnight the cruising show dogs are all gone and it is just the regulars.  He lives near the polluted river that divides this city in half, drinks from it, crosses it nearly every day to come to this bar.  All the trees that had grown on its banks were logged and floated downstream a hundred and fifty years ago.  Mills replaced them, and condos have now replaced the mills.  Trees, he thinks would have been a better choice, better neighbors; alive, colorful and quiet.  Sure the crows would take over, sit on every branch, but they were here anyway, lining the wires and cawing at everyone who crossed the bridge as it was.

     It is March, the ugliest month in this ugly city, but still this city believes in music and brewing beer, that some things are worth losing sleep for. It is past midnight, the band has hit their stride and the music and the booze are in his veins and there is no place on earth he’d rather be.

     Until she walks in.  She is wearing a charcoal watch cap and scarf, bundled up tight, but he can see her light brown hair and  blue eyes and thinks first of a fairy tale he’d been told as a child, by his mother, about such a woman.  He can’t remember her name, but she was the one who slept for many many years, because she was so beautiful and a curse had been put on her.

     She stops at the middle of the bar, unwinds her scarf, and pulls the hat off her head.  Unzips her coat and he sees she is more lovely than he imagined.  Dick, the bartender, asks what she’d like and he can’t hear her answer, but sees Dick turn and grab a bottle of gin.  It is dark in the bar, but she seems to glow, as if she’s lit from within, like a firefly or a glowworm. Like an ember.

     He realizes, that if she is an ember--warmth and light-- he is a cinder, a piece of coal; dark, moody, burned-out.  And logically, he is what she makes of men, when she is done with them.

    

     He never understood the fairy tale about the curse and locking up the beautiful woman, until now.  He was perfectly happy in his solitary contempt until she walked in.  Now he felt desire stirring, knew, if he had the chance, he’d talk to her.  That he couldn’t stop himself.  He’d say something witty, something dark, charming, and try to engage her.  Knew he would do just about anything to kiss her. 

     Who needs this kind of beauty to wrap itself around you and take you on a course you had no intention of taking?  Who needs this kind of jolt to the heart?  Disappointment is an easy companion, and always predictably disappointing.   

     From this angle, he can see her in the bar’s mirror.  And again he is stunned.  She looks so well rested, like she did just get up from a multiple-year sleep.  Sees his own reflection and all he looks is tired.  His face lined, his skin sallow, he looks more like his father every day—which isn’t good.  And he is tired.  Even if he napped for ten years, like she obviously has, he’d look just as worn out, just as beat up.  Because he is.  Not from living hard, he knows, but from living careful.  When did he decide it was easier to make do, easier to not want?  Careful takes its toll too, turns men sour and cautious, turns them grumpy and old without one decent scar or crazy story to tell.  Like his grandpa used to tell him, stay on the path and you’ll run into shit, but it’ll be familiar shit.  He’d stayed on course, picked the easiest route, one with no edges to peer or fall over, no way to get lost, no shit he couldn’t recognize.

     She is drinking gin on the rocks.  Fast.  Has the lime in her fingers and is sucking on the pulp.  A little piece of pulps sits at the corner of her mouth.  He notices that her hair is tangled, the hat and the scarf sit on the bar, and he thinks that if she has been sleeping for a long time, he’s glad to see she woke up thirsty.  He watches her try to catch Dick’s eye, for another one, but Dick is headed his way, wiping the bar as he goes.  He picks up the napkin in front of him, forms it into a tight ball and tosses it into the trash can behind the bar.

     “Two points,” Dick says.

     “Get her another one,” he says.  “On me.”  He sets a twenty on the bar.  “Make it two.  She has some catching up to do.”

     This, he thinks will tire her out.  This will fade her beauty, make her one of them—the regulars.  And if poison doesn’t work--if she becomes more lovely, more lit up, if she surprises him with her voice, with what she has to say, if she’s been asleep as long as he thinks she has-- then later, he’ll try a kiss.

 

 

What Happens Here Stays Here

     “The last thing I remember was 1984, dancing to the Talking Heads, Burning Down the House, in the front room of a friend of a friend’s apartment in Chicago.  The room was crowded and hot, the smell of pot in the air, and then I was feeling really really tired.  I was at the party with a friend of mine, Robin, but she was nowhere in sight when I suddenly felt the urge to lie down, so I asked where the bathroom was, figuring a bed wouldn’t be but a door or two away.”  She is spinning back and forth slowly as she talks.  The two drinks he bought her are gone and Dick is making them more. 

     “I found a dark room that smelled like snow.  The window was open a couple inches and it was cold outside.  Snowflakes the size of quarters floated past the window as I climbed under the down comforter.  I remember thinking how nice it was to be surrounded by all that fluffy white.  The pillow, I swear to god, was like a giant marshmallow and as I watched the snow float by, I thought this is heaven.  Heaven is a cozy bed with a party down the hall, and no one to bother you.

     “Somebody woke me up in 1992 to move the bed from the room.  They didn’t like the idea of waking me up, but the movers refused to take the bed down three flights of stairs with me in it.  They did let me climb in the back of the van and lay down again, once the bed was loaded in the truck.  After that, I couldn’t really tell you what was a dream and what was real, the sleep, like a hibernation.”

     As Dick slides the drinks in front of them, he raises his eyebrow.  These, Dick says, are on me.  Dick only buys drinks when he thinks a regular needs the help, socially, to look more like a regular happy guy.

     She takes a long drink, then continues, “I remember hearing a woman scream hysterically.  ‘Yah right.  You don’t know who she is.  You just found her in your bed, buck naked.  Oh, after a party.  Somebody left her and you couldn’t just throw her out.  You are one hell of a gentleman.’  I heard in his voice a weariness, like he’d had this conversation before, and he knew exactly where it was going.

     “I remember late night sounds of ice cubes trays cracking, replaced by the motorized sound of crushing ice.  Sounds of a piano, of jazz floating on the air.  Heavy shoes on a wooden floor, the smell of a cigarette burning, the sweet smell of pot.  The clicking of keys.  He’d sing sometimes, lyrics I didn’t recognize, tunes I didn’t know.

     “I remember thinking about Quisp and Captain Crunch.  About Snap Crackle and Pop.  How I wished to wake to the smell of bacon frying, coffee percolating.  I remember feeling sad when I realized I’d miss breakfast.  I remember feeling utterly alone when I realized I hadn’t heard his shoes on the wooden floor in a very long time.”

 

     He watches her suck down two more drinks and her words keep coming, clear and crazy at the same time.

     “Really,” he say.  “That’s a long time to be asleep.  You must be a really sound sleeper.” 

     “Oh I am,” she says.  “I majored in sleep, in college.  I found myself asleep during most of my classes, and my professors complimented me on my ability to sleep so gracefully at my desk, that I decided to make it my major.  You’d be amazed at how many professors wanted to watch me sleep.  I stopped attending classes.  Private tutorials only my junior and senior year.”  She furrows her brows, for the first time a wave of sadness crosses her lovely face. 

     “I guess I didn’t finish college, if I fell asleep at that party in Chicago .  That was January and I had a semester left to go.  I wonder if they missed me?  My professors.  If they wondered what happened to me?”

     She swings his direction, looks him straight on and says, “So tell me,” she says, “what have I missed?”

     He shakes his head.  Tries to think of something important, something worth knowing, something that has happened since 1984. 

     “Breakfast,” he say.  “You missed breakfast.  Do you like French toast?  Hash browns?  Scrambled eggs?”

     “Yes,” she says.  “Almost as much as I like gin.”  She has this crooked smile, a dimple in one cheek, teeth white and clean—she bites her lower lip when she realizes he is gazing at her.  Those lips he want to kiss, but doesn’t dare.

 

     He takes her back to his house on Nicollet Island .  It is a short walk and the night is cool, the moon resting on its side.  “This is nice” she says.  “To be up at night.  What was I thinking, sleeping all this time?”

     His house is old, built in 1896, narrow and made of wood.  He takes her coat and hat and scarf and tells her she can look around while he makes breakfast, but please he says, stay out of my bed.  This makes her laugh, makes him laugh too, since he has never said those words to a woman before.  He finds the bacon and eggs, brews a pot of coffee.  While the bacon is cooking he finds a station that plays jazz on the rad io, plays it just loud enough to hear in the kitchen.

     This is a dilemma.  Normally, he’d feed this girl, notice the time, ask her if she was tired, did she want to lie down.  Normally he’d kiss this girl, take her to bed, explore her body, see how much she was game for.  But this girl makes him nervous.  What if a kiss is fatal?  What if something terrible happens to her, to him?  And if he let her lay down, what if she falls into a deep sleep again, never wakes?  He likes her.  He wouldn’t mind if she was always in his bed, but he could see how things could get difficult.  Like changing the sheets.  And what do you do with a woman asleep, honorably?  He is wishing she knew the name of the man with the heavy shoes, the man who let her stay in his bed until what?  What had finally driven him to abandon her? 

     Okay, it is late and they’d drunk a lot of gin, but now he is starting to wonder what had happened to him, to the man whose bed she had been sleeping in. Had a curse been put on him too?  Men turn into frogs, right? And he lives near the river and all and…

     “That smells so good.”  She is standing in the doorway of his kitchen, her head resting on the door.  “You look nervous all of a sudden,” she straightens up.  

     “Oh I was just wondering.”  His voice cracks.  “Do you like frogs?”

     “To eat?  For breakfast?”  She walks across the room, rests her hips against the counter next to him.  She is wearing jeans that hug her hips, a white v-neck t-shirt and a soft baby blue sweater.  When she looks at him he sees it is the same color as her eyes.

     “God no.  Do you like them.  I mean, if you found one, would you take care of it? Good care of it?  Make sure it didn’t jump in the river or anything.”

     “Wouldn’t it prefer to live in the river?  Than with me?  Wouldn’t it be happier there?” She inches closer.  Her elbow brushes against his.  He feels a jolt surge through his body.

     “God no.  The river is filthy.  It would lose a leg or grow a third one.”  She is hazardously close to him now.  The left sides of their bodies are touching at every possible point.

     “Where would I keep it?  Where would he be happiest.  In a fountain?  Or could I keep him in my bathtub?  Would he bathe with me?”  He can see the lace of her bra, and it is all he can think about now, and he is wondering how hungry she is.  

     “He’d love that.  Nothing would make him happier.” He can feel the heat of her body.  The heat of her glowing skin and he knows she is looking at him as he gazes at the tips of her shoes. Maybe he should find a way to lay her down on the rug in his living room, where it is chilly, where he can keep her awake, kiss her everywhere but on the lips.  

    

     Wasn’t it a kiss to the lips that changed everything?

 


Congestion

     It no longer matters if there is a curse or a spell, he realizes, he has no choice but to see this through, and so he takes her by the hand and walks her around the table, into the living room, over to the couch where he drops her hand for a moment while he bends to pick up the coffee table and move it off the rug his grandmother left him.  A deep red oriental number that hides all stains.  He will not let her lay down on the couch.   He has fallen asleep on it too many times, knows its sleep-inducing powers.  But when he sets down the table, near his desk, she is standing behind him.  She puts her arms around his waist and runs her hand up the center of his chest.  When he turns, she pushes him down on the coffee table, kneels on the floor and with one hand on his thigh pulls him closer.  The other she has on his arm and she is about to kiss him, he about to kiss her, when the smoke alarm goes off. 

     Damn it.  It is piercing and loud and he realizes it is three, four a.m. and he thinks of his neighbors, waking up to the sound of it.  He jumps up and heads to the kitchen pantry, grabs the broom and starts whacking at the alarm.  It won’t shut off.  She has followed him in, hands covering her ears and heads to the pan of flaming charred bacon, pulls it off the stove top and tosses it in the sink.  She runs water on it and the room is lost in a cloud of greasy foggy smoke.  He feels like such a fool.  He hadn’t even remembered he was making bacon, hadn’t turned the damn burner down, much less off.

     The ceiling is high.  Twelve feet to be precise, and he has to jump with a broom in his hand to hit the alarm.  He knocks it loose so it dangles from a wire, but still it blares.  He cannot think, it is so loud.  So when the firemen come into the kitchen, masks on, axes drawn, he is stunned to see them.  Suddenly the room is full of men in gray and yellow and the sound of muffled voices surround him.  One of them lead him by the hand around the table, into the living room and instead of stopping at the couch, or the coffee table, the fireman leads him outside, into the front yard where he sees half of his neighbors standing in robes and parkas. Staring at his house.

     When she is brought out, his neighbor Mark catches his eye, grins at him.  She is talking to the fireman that is leading her out and he realizes that they know one another, senses that the fireman probably knows her better than he does.

     “Any pets?”  The fireman asks him. 

     “Ah, no.  No pets.” 

 

     “Edie thought you had a pet frog.”  The fireman says to him and he sees she is smiling at another fireman who has joined the scene.

     “No pet frog.”  Edie, he thinks.  I wonder what that’s short for. 

     The front yard is getting congested with hoses and men and neighbors and dogs and flashing lights.  It is so embarrassing that it was just a small grease fire and completely his fault.  He feels responsible for everyone in his yard and wishes there was something he could do to make it up to them.  Invite them all in for a drink, or something, but he realizes that would not sound good to most of his neighbors at four thirty in the morning. 

     Edie is at his side now, and she is laughing and says look.  He turns around and sees the fire hydrant has been opened and a fountain of water arcs into the air, splashes to the ground and begins to roll and freeze. 

     “I love fountains,” she says.  “If it was warmer, I’d take my clothes off and run through it like I did when I was a kid.” 

     He is relieved it is March, and cold and that for now she’s going to keep her clothes on.  “Sorry about breakfast.” he says.  “I hope you aren’t too hungry.”

 

     “Never mind.  I’ve missed so many breakfasts, I can miss another.  Although it did smell good there, for a while.”

     The firemen cap the hydrant and pack up their things.  The one who had led him out comes over to them and says, “no more cooking in the middle of the night, okay?  Find something else to do.”  Then, “bye Edie.  I hope I don’t see you again real soon.  This is twice this week, I’m going to start thinking you’re a pyro or something...”

     “Twice?  This week?”  he is surprised by this, although he isn’t sure why he is surprised—she did just get out of bed after sleeping for years.

     “Yes.  He was the one that woke me up, two days ago. Someone in my building had left toast in their toaster and set off the smoke alarm.  They had to clear the building, and he was the man who finally woke me up.”

     He wants to ask her how the fireman woke her, but feels self-conscious and paranoid, so he decides to wait until a better time.  He wishes he could have seen the fireman’s face more clearly—wished he had checked for warts or any discoloration.  All the neighbors had gone home, and their lights blink off, one by one.  He takes Edie by the hand, rubbing it in his to warm it up, and walks her towards the house.  “Hungry?” he says, “or tired?”

     “Hungry.  She says. “But if you’re tired…”

     “Cereal.”  He says.  “Cold and in a bowl.”

 

     They are standing on his front steps and she is smiling at him.  Over her shoulder he sees, down near the fire hydrant, a small green lump.  And then it hops.  “Oh my god.”  He says. 

     “What?”  She turns and sees the frog and before he can stop her she is running towards it.  She crouches down and scoops the thing up in her hands. 

     “You now have a pet,” she says, showing him the small green leggy ball in her hands.  “And it looks like he needs a warm bath. I hope he doesn’t mind sharing the tub.”

     When she takes the frog and slides him in between her breasts to warm him up, she tells him she learned this from her grandmother, he thinks he might die--out of jealousy he realizes-- and says, “Do you know the name of the man whose bed you slept in, all those years?”

     “Name?”  She asks.  “No, I never did catch his name, but I’d know the sound of his voice, the sound of his walk anywhere.” 

     And as you’d guess, the frog ribbets, on cue, and they both have no choice but to look down her shirt and admire him.

Triumph Over Death

     There is a smoky haze in the living room, add the smell of scorched bacon, steam, and grease.  It isn’t an unpleasant smell, necessarily, but a shower sounds good.  He is chilled from the trip to the front yard and would like hot steamy water running over his body now. He imagines taking her in with him, watching the water find paths and ravines down her body, turning her skin radiant and glossy, even more beautiful. 

     The frog wouldn’t like it, he’s pretty sure of that.  And although he has stopped being careful, stopped the minute he bought her those first two drinks, he is a little worried about upsetting the frog, somehow maiming or killing the frog.  No one has to convince him of who the frog is.  He already knows it is the man whose bed she slept in for years, and that he has followed her here, to his house.  Hopped all the way on those tender legs.  If he had been paying attention, he probably would have spotted him at the bar too.  And he knows that the frog wants her back.  Jesus, he’s between her breasts now, happy as a clam.  But killing the frog doesn’t strike him as the answer—accidental or intentional.  What the answer is, he doesn’t know, but the answer, he is certain, will come to him.

     “Drink?”  She is in the kitchen.  He can hear her opening and closing the cupboards.

     “Sure, why not.” 

     “Do you have any vodka?  Your orange juice looks like it needs something.” 

     “It’s…”  He is starting to feel tired, but knows he will not sleep tonight.  Not for one minute.

     “I found it.  It’s here in the fridge.  Cereal can wait, the milk looks happy where it is.”

     She finds him sitting on the floor, in the middle of the rug, legs stretched out in front of him, leaning back on his elbows.  She is carrying two drinks and a Pyrex bowl half full of water on a tray he had forgotten he had.  He can see the frog in the bowl swimming in circles, his legs in perfect unison, kicking.

     “I think a bath can wait, she says.  He seems happy enough in the bowl, for now.” 

     She sets the tray down next to him and hands him a drink, then sits down on the floor, cross-legged, and sighs.  “I really do wish you’d fill me in, on everything I’ve missed.   I know something must have happened while I was asleep.  Something important, something that mattered…”

 

     “The Berlin Wall came down,” he said.  “In 1989.  That was a big deal.  And 9/11.  The Twin towers in New York were.  It was 2001.  Planes flew into them.  Knocked them down.”  He feels the sadness all over again.  Remembers seeing the footage on the television, how unreal it seemed at the time, how he felt like he was ten again watching King Kong scale a building with a beautiful, hysterical woman in his hand and how impossible it all seemed.  That it must be some trick of the camera.  And then the second plane hit and he knew it was real and the world changed for him.  It was a beautiful, warm September morning.  He has not trusted beautiful mornings since.  They make him feel uneasy.

     He feels a tear run down his cheek.  Then her hand brushing it away. 

     He wants to tell her something else, something else that is good that has happened, something optimistic, something about how the world is better now; cleaner, less hungry, healthier, more peaceful, but he can’t think of anything and he wonders if he has been asleep too, or worse, he’s been awake, but not paying attention. 

     “I woke up,” she says, sensing his need to find something good.  “I woke up and I met you.”

 

     They are the classic triangle.  The frog is after her, she seems to be interested in him for god knows what reason and he would love to kiss her, but he can’t, not with the frog swimming circles in his measuring bowl, watching them. 

     And then it hits him.  He knows precisely what he must do.  It is a strange feeling for him.  He is not a definitive kind of man.  Careful, conservative, prudent to a dull edge, he has always let others make decisions for him, he has always been a witness, not an actor.  He pulls himself up, off his elbows, and reaches into the bowl.  The frog is smooth and cool to the touch.  He lifts the guy out of the bowl, brings him to his lips and kisses him.  The frog squirms from his hand and jumps away, plopping near the edge of the rug, then springs to the corner of the couch where he disappears from view.

     “Thank you,” she says.  “I couldn’t have done that.” 

     “What will happen to him now?”  He is sitting on his knees in front of her. 

     “He is free to go now.  He is free to move on.”

     “And you?  What will happen to you, I mean if I kiss you?”  He chuckles at the thought of his kiss having the power to change the course of not only one life, but two or three.  A few hours ago, he would have thought he was going mad, with a thought like that.

     “You’ll have to kiss me to find out.”  As he gazes at her, he remembers that feeling he got right after the basketball left his hands, how he knew at that moment if it was going to make it through the hoop, knew if it would hit backboard or swish through the net.  Knew if it would drop perfectly in.  Leaning forward, his eyes on hers, he lingers, knows exactly what will happen next.