The Hideaway has fishy yellow light on the business side of the mahogany, illuminating staggered rows of liquor, staining the glass containers. My headless disciples, Eli calls them, their caps screwed straight onto their necks. Eli is an attentive bartender. He leans over the cash register, a rectangular nimbus gliding over his features—the glint of a new credit card. The remainder of the Hideaway lies in the dim, diminished, familiar light common to taverns. Snug booths with leather pews line one wall. Oval tables and narrow chairs clutter the floor. Patrons play eight ball in the wings, contributing to a semi-visible noise that fills a pocket in my head. Bar noise comforts me, and the soft, somnolent light calms my mind. Now and again I slumber, upright on my stool, elbows steady against the bar, head only slightly bowed. The best dreams I’ve had I’ve had in bars.

    I’m drifting when the woman speaks, my cigarette musing in its tray, bourbon drowsing in my hand. I don’t hear her begin, her voice confidential by the time I separate her words from the public complaint of the jukebox. …have to explain, and there’s no explanation. My husband’s a good guy, not like some. That’s why I’m asking you, the kindness in your face.

    Not kindness, I think, coming fully to, but the satisfaction of sleep.

    She sits with her back to the bar, a beer between her legs, the ruffled trim of her blouse like the blooming leaves of April—green and sudden and out of place.

    “Millicent,” she says, offering her hand. “Mill, to friends.” Her eyes meander over my face, lovely eyes, the same green as her blouse, her narrow nose their guardian, lips an intimate pink, a woman whose beauty is a kind of frailty.

    Eli passes by, carrying in one hand a glass sizzling with tonic and in the other, change for a twenty. He likes handling money. Making change, he says, is metamorphosis. In his wake, our reflections appear in the mirror above the bottles: Mill’s bright bonfire of hair, and me in my gray coat huddled over the ashtray, a face that knows the chill of middle age but forgets. I forget as I shake her hand.

    “I’m Al.” Among all the things I know about myself I can’t choose another to tell her. Fifty-two and unmarried. I loved, for many years, the same woman. She lives now with a man who sells bonds. These facts seem too feeble to offer a woman who wants me to phone her husband.

    Finally I say, “Once I drove my truck into a sofa. Long time ago, when I lived in New Mexico.” I don’t tell her why I was in the desert at night, roaming the back roads, just that I came over a rise and in my headlights appeared a discarded divan. I ran it down and cracked its spine. “If there’d been a person sleeping in it, I would have broken him, too,” I say all in one breath, as one ought to announce an accident.

    “But there wasn’t anyone?” Mill says, lifting her beer.

    “There could have been, but there wasn’t.”

    She drinks from the bottle, slides a slip of paper beneath my ashtray. A phone number shows through the colored glass. “This music.” She makes a face. “Is there always this music?”

    Way, way down inside, I'm gonna give you my love…

    Yes,” I say, “there’s always Led Zeppelin.”

    “Do you have quarters?” She rummages through her purse. “Never mind.”

    Then she’s gone. I don’t try to follow her in the Hideaway’s cataract light. Bourbon lingers on my tongue before it sweetly burns my throat. Keep it in your mouth too long, it tastes like blood. That’s a lesson best learned in a bar. My stoolies, Eli calls us, we reliable minions who need an audience to drink and his steady hand to pour.

    Eli’s back, casting his chin toward the opposite end of the bar. “The old lady with the hat asked me for ‘a bit of the spirits.’”    

    “I know what that means,” I tell him. “Liquor that comes from a still.”

    “You’re a bright one, Al.”

    To distill is to purify. Spirits turn to vapor, condense, and re-become, cleansed of impurities. The woman I loved is a Christian now. It’s not rational, she tells me, that’s why I like it. She loved my story of driving into a couch. Ask Al about having truck with a sofa, she’d say. It happened the night I met her. I left the party and couldn’t go home, driving in the dark on dirt roads—an advantage of the desert, the percentage of thoroughfares that remains unknowable. I kept hearing her voice, knowing that I was lost. Her voice still resides inside my head, near the corridor that ushers in sleep. In that brief passage, she often speaks my name or offers a flutter of words in a familiar pattern.

    …really ought to…

    …if it can’t wait…

    …lay my head…

    In a different bar, one that exists nowhere but this dream, a bar of my own making, wide and dark and floored with narrow flaxen boards, I watch a table of women, how they move furtively and with purpose, women whose heads have tails, one two three of them, and at their fingertips, golden ale in glasses gilded with frost. They pronounce, with painted mouths, complex syllables of smoke that assemble above their heads, unstable in the tavern air, an opaque text of desire. Music lights a stage. The women rise, as tall as palm trees, swaying with that same languor when they walk. What do they think about while they’re dancing, swans among the cock and hen, baby spots illuminating no one but them, the house band spanking through “The Shape I’m In,” and all the men who did not come with women watching? I watch, imagining the life I might have with one of them: a house ablaze with underthings and a car the color of radium.

    The dream hazes. I shift on my stool. No one knows I was gone. The tumbler’s ring of condensation has reached the scrap of paper Mill stuck beneath the ashtray, making one of the numbers bleed, the numeral enlarging as it loses definition. I ask Eli for a fresh drink and to make a call.

    He returns with the bottle and a squat black phone. “Be brief,” he advises as I punch in the numbers.

    The voice that answers says “Yes” instead of hello.

    “I’m calling from a bar. A woman asked me to call. I don’t much know her. Her name’s Millicent. She’s okay, is all. She wants you to know she’s okay.”

    “Al,” says the voice on the phone. “It’s Mill.”

    I turn to stare, but there are only the customary shapes and shadows, the slender chairs haunted by bodies.

    “I knew you’d call,” she says. “But you took your sweet time, didn’t you?”

    “Is it late?”

    “I just got home. My husband’s at the kitchen table, sound asleep. He’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt. His head’s on a placemat.”

    “I should have called earlier.”

    “I should have been here earlier. If I were the person I want to be, I’d have been here all along.”

    “Here we are feeling sorry for ourselves,” I say, “and I hardly know you.”

    “I don’t feel sorry for anyone,” she says, then relents. “Maybe for Teddy. My husband. It’s an awful shirt. Women doing the hula. I gave it to him.”

    “I dreamed about women dancing. They were smoking and drinking, and then they were dancing. It meant something.”

    “What did it mean?”

    “There was something about it kind of splendid.”

    “Al, are you going to be okay tonight?”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Okay. All right. Not crazy or sad or in the street.”

    “I suppose I’m always okay if that’s what you mean.”

    “That’s good,” she says, and I think we may be through with each other. Then she says, “I’m going to leave Teddy. There’s no reason. Just my own stupid way. Is that why you’re alone? I bet it is. Something inside made you push the woman who loved you away, and you’re ashamed because she was a good person and now you’re alone.”

    “Well,” I say. “You’re opinionated.”

    Her laughter spins inside the receiver. “There’s a glacier on television—I have the television on with no sound. I hope that doesn’t offend you. This glacier has been a glacier for a thousand years—or a million years, who knows—and I’m watching it fall into the ocean and become water when all it has ever known is ice.”

    Eli leans in as he ducks beneath the telephone cord. “I can’t let you go on forever.”

    “I’m getting you in trouble,” Mill says.

    “No,” I say, “but you’re capable of it.”
    “Am I? I’ve always been attracted to damaged people. What made you this way, Teddy?”

    “I’m Al.”

    “Sorry. There. I turned off the television. Tell me.”

    I’d like to give her something, but there’s nothing wrong with me. No more than with any man of middle years who lives alone and finds his comfort in a bar. “One time,” I say, “here in the Hideaway, a man told me this life was a test. Said we’re guinea puppets for another world. Those were his words, guinea puppets.”

    “Did he mean god?”

    “That’s right. Maybe god loves us, but our job is to run this maze, peck that tray.”

    “You hear things in bars.”

    “Drinkers tend to have theories.”

    “What about you, Al?”

    “I just like the noise and the light and the liquor. I come to drink and sleep and be with that noise.”

    “Did you say sleep?”

    “I was sleeping when you spoke to me.”

    She breathes gently, kindly. “If I were there, I’d sleep with you. I’d shut my eyes and we’d dream about those women.”

    Eli lifts the base of the phone. “This is a bar,” he reminds me. I follow the bounce of curling cord that connects his part to mine.

    “I have to let you go,” I say.

    “Yes,” she says instead of good-bye.

    “You should eat something.” Eli snatches the receiver. “I may have crackers. In the old days we had pickles and eggs. But that was then.”

    I lift the tumbler. “Another of these.”

    “Last one.”

    I nod. I don’t keep liquor at home. You know what they say about drinking alone. The slip of paper with Mill’s number I palm, pocket it.

    Truth is, I do have a few theories. I’m no different from anybody else. Here’s one: I believe you can be a fool for love or a fool for laughter, and you don’t get to choose. You can devote yourself to the languid movement of a woman’s head and shoulders, the human flux that makes a body long for trouble; or you can turn your back and keep a secret, like those monks who never talk except to praise the jail-keep.

    Or you can find a nice bar in which to drink and have a sleep.

    Beside the freshened drink, Eli drops two packets of saltines. “On the house. Put something on your stomach.”

    The cracker disintegrates on my tongue. I sip the bourbon. My lids close. I want to return to the women and their ponytails, watch them smoke, their heads moving in the liquid dark as they talk one to another, the spark of teeth, chalice of beer, their arms lovely and bare. Maybe there’s a phone at my table.

    They’re rising now, I say. They’re going to dance.

    Al, Millicent says. It’s you.

    It’s me, I say. Let me tell you what I see.

Robert Boswell is publishing two books of nonfiction in 2008, a collection of essays on writing called The Half-Known World, and a book about a real-life treasure hunt in New Mexico: What Men Call Treasure: The Search for Gold at Victorio Peak. His most recent novel is Century’s Son. He is the author of six other books of fiction: American Owned Love, Living to Be 100, Mystery Ride, The Geography of Desire, Dancing in the Movies, and Crooked Hearts. He has received two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Iowa School of Letters Award for Fiction, the PEN West Award for Fiction, and the Evil Companions Award. His stories have appeared in the New Yorker, Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, Best Stories from the South, Esquire, Ploughshares, Harvard Review, Colorado Review, and many other magazines. His sci-fi novel Virtual Death (written under the pseudonym Shale Aaron) was a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award. His play Tongues won the John Gassner Prize.

Back to Freight Stories No. 1


Robert Boswell

Sleeping in Bars