Characters: Joe, short appearance by M, OFC (mortal)
Disclaimer: Nothing is mine.
Summary: A very private conversation with Joe.
Set 'Em Up, Joe!
By Judith Hill
"It's quarter to three; there's no-one in the place,
Except you and me;
So, set 'em up Joe, I've got a little story,
I want you to know "
Joe laughs, keeps wiping the beer glass. "That's an oldie! Hey, kid! What's up?"
"That's what I love about you, Joe! I'm four years older than you and you still call me 'kid'. It's nice."
"Why the long face?" He puts the glass away and picks up another one.
"Oh. Yeah. Ain't they a pisser? What'll you have? -- It's on the house."
"In that case, make it Benedictine. Some expensive fire water, barkeep!"
Joe puts down the glass he's wiping, fetches a tumbler from the rack and plops it down in front of me. I watch as he reaches for the Benedictine.
"Where did you learn to like this stuff?" he asks me as he pours a healthy shot.
"In Davis Strait, somewhere between Greenland and Baffin Island."
"What the hell were you doing up there?"
I take some of the golden liquid on my tongue, swoosh it around and let it evaporate before swallowing. Whoooo-ee!
"International waters, eighty cents a shot in the officers' mess."
"Navy?" He seems interested, unless that's just his best barkeeper manner.
"Canadian Coast Guard. Icebreaker out of Quebec City."
"That's different. You were what, a steward?"
"I didn't come to be insulted, Joe! I was an engineer."
"Hey!! All right!"
I smile and take a swig, remembering what it had been like living in a tin can for four months straight with sixty-two other people. Once you're up there in le Grand Nord, as the Quebeckers call the High Arctic, at some point it always hits you that there is no way home from there if anything goes wrong. No mail, no movies except the worn-out tapes -- how many times can you watch '48 Hours' in gutter French? -- no restaurants, no friends dropping in, no phones, just work and sleep and eating too much, living always with the sound of engines and the smell of diesel fuel and hydraulic oil. Twelve hours a day, seven days a week, no holidays, no change in the routine. The only person on board who knows what day of the week it is is the guy who keeps the log. And the sound of ice dragging along the hull, the thunderous shudder of the ship's frame as it reverses to take another crack at the ice pan. There's no other sound quite like that. I'm not sorry I went. I just don't want to go again.
I have the distinct feeling that Joe knows about things like that, in a more tropical kind of way. At least I wasn't being shot at or blown up. Hell, I even liked it a lot of the time. I got to see polar bears, whales and bright blue multiyear icebergs -- 'bergie bits' as my friend used to call them. I doubt Joe cared much for his steaming jungles.
There's nobody else in the place at the moment, it being early and all. Joe pulls up a stool on the other side of the counter.
"Mind if I keep you company? Mike will be here soon."
"I can use some company, Joe. A birthday makes you think about things you haven't thought of in a while."
"And that's not always good, is it?"
"No, that's not always good. How about you? Do birthdays get you down?"
"I'm the barkeep! I'm the one who gets to ask the questions." He laughs. I like him. A lot. He's been there. Every bartender worth his pickles should be able to say that he has been there and done that. How else can you trust that he understands?
"Have one with me, Joe."
"Don't mind if I do." He grabs a second glass but pours Scotch into it.
"To growing old, Joe! I can't believe it. Where did it go?"
"Feel like you're watching an express train going by and you didn't quite manage to get on board?" He takes a gulp of the Scotch. "It's not true, you know!"
"The train never passes you by. You're born on it!"
I laugh. He's right! How many times have I wished it would stop so I could get off?!
"Fifty-seven, Joe! Goddamn!"
"Beats the alternative."
"You know, when I think about when I was little, it's like looking through the wrong end of a telescope. It's so far away!"
"I know. I think about it myself, sometimes, think about Nam. When we were kids, they used to call it French Indo-China. I remember when they got Sputnik up! When was that?"
"Fifty-seven. Nineteen fifty-seven. October."
"Yeah! The teacher made a big deal of it. I remember everyone being pissed off because the Russians did it first! I don't miss the Cold War. You must have been born in the big war."
"Yep. Two months before D-Day. Born in Bomb Alley, south of London. They tell me I cried all the time because of the noise from the anti-aircraft guns. I don't remember, although loud noises still send me through the roof! I remember the cities being full of rubble, though. They didn't get that cleaned up for a long time. I thought cities came that way! There were a lot of us European kids coming to North America in ships who had never seen anything else. What waifs we must have looked in our braids and hand-made clothes and all so damned skinny!" I stop talking, thinking about what it was like back then when everything was gray and sad and everybody still wore hats. Joe is looking at me, waiting for me to say something else.
"How do you remember the fifties, Joe?"
"What it was like before flower power? Gray. I remember everything as being gray. Maybe it's because we didn't have colour TV. Either that or it rained a lot!"
I laugh. "Yeah. That's how I see it. Nobody ever smiled. Everything was so strict and by-the-rules. I remember a girl in grade ten being sent home because she had make-up on. She was told not to come back until she'd 'wiped that muck' off her face! I think it's gone too far in the other direction now -- it's always that way. The older generation rebels and changes things, then the younger generation doesn't have the memories of what it used to be like and the pendulum swings again."
"I had a teacher who'd been an army drill sergeant and made us boys run around the cinder track after school until we dropped for doing stuff kids do every day now."
"You have good parents, Joe?"
"Yeah, I had good parents but they were some upset when I let my hair grow and learned to play the guitar. My father fought in the South Pacific and when I was drafted, he said he was proud of me but I always wondered if he was just glad it wasn't him; I've never really sorted that out." He looks wistful and takes another swallow of Scotch. "What about you? Why'd you leave home?"
"We all leave home eventually, Joe."
"You don't have to talk about it if you don't want to."
"Maybe I should. It's been on my mind."
"Birthdays can do that to you. Here, have some more fire water." He refills my glass, very generously this time.
"Do I look as if I need that?"
"Let's just say you're my project for the day. You need an ear and I'd like to see you smile."
"You're a good man, Charlie Brown!"
"It's what they all say! So. Why'd you leave home?"
I hesitate, finding myself reluctant now. How do I put it into words that won't take all night to say? I've never talked about it, how I felt then, how I feel now. I take a big swallow and look at my hand holding the glass. When I was ten, I sat in the field behind our house and looked at my hands and they were a child's hands. Something in my head told me I would always remember that moment and it has turned out to be true. I've often looked at my hands as I have grown up and grown older and now I see the skin turning papery and dry, the first brown spots, the blue veins becoming more noticeable. My hands have never lied to me about my age. But, they're good hands, solid, square, regular, long-fingered, artist's hands, hands that can play the piano or make lace, hands that have held a husband, a lover, a baby. And the field? I hear it's a housing tract now with twenty thousand people living there. It all changes.
My thoughts are wandering. I look up and see Joe's face watching me, concern around his eyes. I smile, trying to reassure him that I'm okay. He's a very caring man. Like my husband. He was a very caring man and I will always miss him.
"I left home to avoid going crazy, Joe," I finally say. "I never met my own father. He was someone who had come to England to do his thing on D-Day and after the ruckus was over, he went back to Texas and I've never heard a word. I was raised by foster parents after my mother abandoned me because it was the blackest sin there was back then, having a baby out of wedlock, and my grandparents refused to have me in the house because of the scandal it would cause. Some things have improved since then. I don't think about it much. That's just the way it was. The babies born to the troops were just collateral damage."
"Yeah. It became a big issue in Nam. Did your mother come back for you?"
"She sent for me." I sigh. I don't want to talk about that day. They just told me I was going away, that my mother wanted me back. Then they put me in a taxi and I didn't see them again for seventeen years. I don't think I ever got over it, and Joe doesn't need to know.
"How old were you?"
"I'm sorry." He pats my hand with his big, warm one. I see the lines on his hands, too.
"I take it it didn't go well?"
"No. Me and my stepfather fought for ten years. We screamed at each other, he bounced me of the wall a couple of times. He and my mother fought all the time, too."
"So you took off."
"Yeah. I got the message. I had a hundred and fifty bucks in my pocket and a bus ticket. I look back now and wonder how I did it! Sometimes it doesn't take courage, just ignorance!"
The door opens and we both look up. It's Mike arriving for work with Gracie behind him. He greets Joe, stows his gear and comes behind the bar. Mike says 'Hi' to me and I smile back. Joe tells him to hang in there by himself for a while because he's busy. Mike nods and picks up the cloth. Gracie puts on an apron and starts mopping tables, getting ready for the mid-week customers, which will be few. Joe suggests we go to a table in the corner and continue our conversation out of earshot. The need to talk is strong in me and I agree gladly. He asks Gracie to bring both the glasses and the bottles and we move to the table by the little stage where we can't be overheard. I sit with my back to the wall, an old habit. Joe pulls his chair right next to mine, sits and rests his cane by his leg as Gracie puts the contents of the tray on the table. We pick up our glasses and salute each other anew. We're close enough that we can whisper together.
"Where were we?" asks Joe.
"I was saying I left home."
"There's more to it, isn't there? What aren't you telling me?"
"I'm not sure I should tell you, Joe. You don't want to hear this."
"It's none of my business unless you want it to be but I get the feeling you need to dump some old garbage so you can get on with your life. If I can help, use me. I'm here. If you're worried about what I'll think of you, don't be. I've pretty well seen it all."
"Okay." I knock back another big swallow. "Ask me a question, Joe. Anything. It'll get me started. Just ask me a question."
He frowns and I get the feeling he's taking a stab in the dark. It's an educated stab.
"Your step-father abuse you?"
"No. No!" I laugh. It's a nervous laugh and I can't look at him. "That's the usual one, isn't it? No. We just fought non-stop, wore each other down."
"So who was it?"
"Who? You know, don't you, Joe? Good old Joe."
"Yeah, I know. Who?"
"The next door neighbour. I was babysitting and I woke up at three in the morning and he was on top of me." I can feel the tears wanting to come and I fight them back. It was so long ago. "He was hurting me and he put his hand over my mouth and told me not to scream. Then I don't remember what happened after that. It's nearly forty years ago, Joe, and I've never been able to remember what happened after that!" I stop, the first tears squeezing themselves from between my eyelids. Joe leans forward and takes my hand. He touches my face so gently.
"It's all right. How old were you?"
"You tell anyone?"
"No. What would I have said? I didn't know what had happened. I wasn't in the habit of telling my mother anything. I wasn't going to start then."
"And you've never said anything since?"
"Not exactly. Something happened that summer and my mother invited him to stay with us for a few days. I got so scared, I told her."
"And? Did she believe you?"
I look into his face and the tears come. I fish for a Kleenex but he hands me his handkerchief. I dab at my eyes and feel him waiting. I've come this far
"She slapped me and said I'd asked for it! My own mother, Joe!" The flood gates open and Joe pulls my head down on his shoulder. I sob into his shirt; I long ago learned to sob silently. I feel safe enough to let the pain come. I stuff the handkerchief in my mouth and feel the shaking take over.
"And that's what you've had to live with, isn't it?" he whispers in my ear. "Oh, damn, kid! Oh, damn!" And he rocks me, his arms around me. One hand rubs my back; he kisses my forehead. "Just let it come. Let the poison out. You did the right thing to leave but it shouldn't be that way."
It seems to take forever for the shaking to stop. I gasp for breath, praying he won't let go. He doesn't. He knows. He knows.
He's still holding me as I calm down. The door opens and I see Adam come in. Adam, of all people. I don't want him seeing me like this. He heads for the table. I pull away from Joe, for the sake of decorum, and wipe my face, snuffling a little as I catch my breath. I look at Adam and smile, not very successfully.
"Am I interrupting anything?"
"No! Nice to see you," I blurt out, as if he can't see that something has been happening.
"Are you okay?" he asks me.
"She's having a birthday, Adam," Joe interjects.
"Oh, hey! Happy birthday!" He grins happily. "You should have said something and I'd have brought flowers. Why the long face? Have you been crying?"
"Adam!" Joe says, pointedly. "Go away. Whatever it is, take it and go away."
"Um, I just stopped off to borrow -- you know, that book I asked for."
"It's behind the counter. Take it and go!"
"All right! I can take a hint. I'm gone!" He looks at me again. "You still want me to help you move at the end of the month?"
"Yes, please," I say, managing a smile. "I'll supply the beer."
"That's the usual price. Well, have a happy birthday." He leans over to give me a hug and a quick peck on the cheek."
"Okay! Okay!" And he's gone. I watch the door swing shut behind him.
Joe squeezes my hand and asks if I'm okay. I breathe deeply and nod. I take another drink, draining the glass. He pours us both a little more.
"You know, Joe," I begin, still watching the door, "I have such a crush on that man! I feel like such an idiot!" And I look at Joe, who still wears concern on his face. "I'm sorry! I meant "
"I know what you meant," he says, smiling. "Don't apologize."
"Now I feel foolish!"
"Because well, he's so much younger than I am! I'm not even supposed to be looking."
"Adam's an attractive man. You're normal! Why wouldn't you look? You think I don't dream about Julia Roberts wrapping her legs around me?"
I laugh out loud. It's true! Why do we think we can't look just because we're older?
"Is there a man in your life?" Joe asks. "I mean, I never see you with anyone."
"I was married."
"He died. It was a long time ago now."
"And you still miss him."
"Of course. I loved him very much."
"Why didn't you look for somebody else? You can't have been that old at the time."
"I was forty-five. I, um, just lost interest, you know?" I snuffle again and blow my nose.
"Yeah. I know. I lost interest along with my legs. But it comes back if you let it."
"I know. I'm interested now. It's just that no-one else is."
"Don't be so sure. You look good and you sure don't look your age. You're slim, you have a nice face. You're a good person."
"That's no substitute for being young, Joe. And that's too bad. We've become so fixated on being young, it's hard to believe I'm good for anything any more. People look at you, see you're over fifty and treat you differently. And if you're not careful, you start believing the message they're giving you, that you don't matter any more. That's what makes you old -- believing the messages. I'm really only thirty, you know. Inside, I'll always be thirty. If I ever start thinking any different, it's time to pick out a plot! How old are you inside, Joe?"
"Thirty-five. I got it together about then and that's how old I feel in my head. It was a good year."
"You know what really scares me?"
"It is so not fair! I'm not dead! Everything works and is raring to go, believe me. Sometimes I can't stand seeing Adam around because he reminds me of what I can't have! Did you know that someone wrote in Newsweek magazine that a woman over forty had a better chance of being shot by a terrorist than being remarried?" He laughs. "It's true! About the article, I mean. Someone actually wrote that. Can you believe it?"
"You've got a better than average chance, believe me!" He's still laughing.
"Of being shot or being married?"
He laughs louder. "You want to be married again?"
"No! No, I've probably been alone too long. I like running my own life. I like having control of the remote! I'm not sure I could share again. But I may have another thirty years and I don't want to be alone, either. I want a man, Joe! I want someone to take me out to dinner, a little wine, a little dancing, a little romance, a lot of fooling around!"
"I hear you." He laughs. There's a big smile on his face. I know he understands.
"I want to dress up and go where other people go. I want to be touched, Joe. I want to feel a man's hands on me again, feel that thrill, that anticipation. I want to breathe hard and get hot and sweaty. I want to get naked and screw my brains out!" And I start to giggle. I put my elbows on the table and drop my face into my hands. I've made an ass of myself! He's trying not to laugh too hard, but I can hear him. In a minute, we're both laughing. I peek between my fingers.
"I'm sorry!" I can feel my face turning red. "It's the Benedictine. It makes me giggle!"
"I should feed it to you more often, then. You don't laugh enough." He's leaning back in the chair, with his head on one side, smiling. "Feeling better?"
"Yeah. I am. Thanks. Nothing like a good cry and a good rant!"
"Tell me about the good things."
"The good things?"
"There are always good things, good memories. What are the good things about being fifty-seven?"
I sigh. He's right. You go through a lot of bad stuff, you feel a lot of pain but once the pain has faded, the good stuff stays. The older you are, the more you've learned, the easier it gets and the more good stuff there is. It's a pay-off, maybe, a reward for sticking it out, for not jumping off a bridge and staying out of jail. Who knows? Most of it is very private, the inner things for which there are only phantom images and which can't be explained in words. These things are not for others. But then there are the things which can be told about, which live in the visual cortex like bright banners. These things can be shared.
"Let's see. The good stuff. There's riding the donkeys on Blackpool beach and watching the Illuminations come on; there's learning to skate and toasting marshmallows, chocolate, fireworks, magic, movies, getting kissed for the first time, snow. There's the big stuff, like hearing Martin Luther King tell you and two hundred and fifty thousand others one hot August afternoon that he has a dream, or counting your baby's fingers and toes and finding they're all there. There's walking in the snow with the man you love at night, with the dog and the full moon and northern lights thrown in for free. There is seeing the dawn come up on the Great Slave Lake and watching the whole thing from horizon to horizon turn rose pink and hearing nothing but sweet silence.
"And travel. There's a biggie! I remember standing on top of the Isle of Capri, seeing the incredible blue of the sea, the white houses, the Bay of Naples with Vesuvius in the background, and thinking it one of the most gorgeous sights on earth. Date palms in Sorrento -- I pigged out on fresh figs because I'd never had them before, and spent the night running to the bathroom! And Venice -- well, Venice is a decaying old whore, Joe, and she stinks, but there's nothing else like her. Budapest is a wounded city, still full of bullet holes but the view from the top of the Kiraly Var! I swear you can see half-way across the Hungarian Plain from up there. It rained in Vienna but I got to go on the Riesenrad, you know, the giant ferris wheel from "The Third Man". We saw the palace, too, and the museums, but that's what I remember best. I wish I'd seen Prague but there's still time and I want to see the east, Japan and China. I've been through the Panama Canal twice and right through the Northwest Passage, all the way around North America. And I still think I've never been anywhere or done anything!"
"What stands out the most?"
"What is it for you, Joe?"
"This isn't my birthday. Come on, kid, it's your nickel. Tell me your best memory and maybe on my birthday I'll tell you mine."
"Okay. I guess the most vivid memory is being on the stern of the ship in nineteen eighty-five, I think, in September, going through a narrow passage between Baffin Island and Bylot Island, going south before the storms set in. It was one in the morning and I was off watch. We were passing Pond Inlet and there was snow everywhere. There are mountains on Bylot Island and they were all white and shining in the biggest full moon I've ever seen. A ginormous iceberg, with a top as flat as a table, had run aground in the little bay and the sky was full of stars. The sea was flat and the water blacker than coal but it was full of phosphorescence so that the starry sky and the sea seemed to be joined, both lit up from the inside! Joe, if I live a thousand years, I'll never see that again. But I saw it and I won't forget. I remember thinking that the best camera on earth couldn't have recorded what I was seeing and it took my breath away. It lives inside me and will go to my grave with me. It's like a treasure that I hold inside my mind and my soul. It was as if God was tapping me on the shoulder and saying, 'See what I can do?'"
Joe is shaking his head and smiling. It's as if he knows something I don't.
"What is it, Joe? Am I being silly? I did see it."
"I know you did. It was what you said about living a thousand years."
"What is it?"
"Nothing. It's nothing." I'll swear he's looking at me differently. I can't tell what he's thinking. I empty my glass and realize I'm feeling good. I'm even feeling happy.
"So, when all is said and done, how does it feel to be fifty-seven?"
"When all is said and done, Joe, it's been a slice. I wouldn't have missed it for the world! I'm not sorry I came along for the ride; I'm just not sure I want to go around again!"
"Then, this fifty-three year old man would like to ask a certain fifty-seven-year-old woman to go to the movies. They're replaying Gladiator now that it's won all those Oscars. Lots of blood and guts. Very cathartic!"
"You're on! Let's go watch Russell Crowe do his thing one more time."
I get up and pull my sweater straight. Joe makes the arrangements with Mike and we head for the door.
"Did you see the Oscars this year, Joe?"
"Oh, yeah. Never miss 'em. I'd love to see that Chinese one."
"Me, too. Did you think Ridley Scott looked pissed off for not getting best director?"
"Absolutely. Did you catch Bob Dylan?"
"Reminded me of the old days "