Varios, del volúmen dedicado al Alcohol
There is an Irish bar in Philadelphia, equidistant from the university and the train station. At ten in the morning, one customer sits across from the bartender and looks sick. He has not taken off his fedora; he has not released the Daily News from his grip; he has not spoken a single word; he has not eaten a single bite; he has not had a drink.
In the bar's dark, a BUDWEISER clock wrapped in red neon receives all his attention. He is concentrating, is unflappable, grits his teeth and watches the second hand. Timing is crucial. If he opens his mouth at the wrong time, he might vomit right on the bar. If that happens, the bartender will have no choice but to kick him out. But he needs to open his mouth to ask for a drink, and even though the bartender knows what drink he wants, he also needs to know that the man can ask for it on his own.
At ten thirty the man unclenches his jaw and asks for a shot of vodka. He is sweating, shaking a little, as he fills his mouth with the shot. The alcohol stings his cheeks and makes his gums itch. With the vodka full in his face, seemingly splitting open his pores, he looks up at the BUDWEISER clock, clamps shut his eyes, and swallows. The bartender puts down his cup of coffee to look in at him.
The next few moments are suspenseful. If his face does not redden soon, he will probably pass out or spit it up.
After a few moments, he opens his eyes to tears, exhales, and, with specific deference to the clock, raises the empty shot glass, "Welcome home."
According to a Plaque ...
by Charles Brown
According to a plaque
over fifty years ago in Alaska
Melvin Hawk shot a Polar Bear
don't know what happened to Mel
but the Polar Bear's head
made it all the way to Volant Pennsylvania
to watch over me while I drink scotch
and tell white lies to women.
150 Weetamoe Drive
by Walt Hunter
I mowed a green lawn to the edge
of another green lawn, had a dog named
Rex, a Magnavox TV set, brick linoleum
on the kitchen floor, fuzzy
wallpaper and a teardrop chandelier
in the dining room where Mother played
"Deep Purple" on an old upright.
Father's cough boiled over
in the den, his silhouette
etched in the blinds, cigarette smoke
slipped out one ghost at a time.
I sat in the breakfast nook; Rex
kept his eye on me, his long black nose
an inch away from my TV dinner.
Upstairs, my sister stuffed herself with
fish sticks and movie magazines.
Termites broke through the basement timbers
the summer I left for Boston.
The neighbors waved good-bye
from their driveway, but never came over
in all those years.
by Frances Kerridge
"Does he ever touch you?" the mother asks.
The child, Kate, has just arrived home and is sitting on the chair telling her mother about the picnic. He had, as always, driven her home.
Kate glances at the clarinet case on the floor beside the couch. It has been there since last night. These picnics are for play only, her teacher, Mr. S, says. No work. Just play. Hike around the woods, eat the food his wife has prepared for his little group of musicians.
She feels confused. She had been talking about the creek that ran beside the picnic tables, telling her mother about the fish swimming between the rocks, sleek, fast fish with the bluing of gun barrels. Kate had wanted her, with the use of her words, to see them.
The mother nods the nod that at ten the child knows, a secretive nod that says she doesn't have to ask. She already knows. She says, "You know." Another nod. That quick squint of her eyes. "Touch you."
It is late afternoon, still warm outside, but the sunlight no longer feels as bright. The fish swimming in the creek are gone. The day has shifted. Kate is thinking of all the possibilities of what her mother means, incidences, moments. A feeling slides inside of her. She has never felt it before. Whatever it is, she doesn't like it. It makes her avert her eyes and at the same time want to understand.
She is his favorite; everyone knows that, although as far as music is concerned he does not offer any favors. She has to work as hard, harder, she thinks, and does. He does call her Ekaterina. Said in his accent it sounds exotic and fun. She likes it better than the quickness of Kate or the harshness of Katherine spoken when her mother is upset.
On these drives home from the picnic she rides in the front seat with him. She lives further out than the others, so one by one, those who have ridden with him are dropped off until just she and Mr. S remain. They play a game: how good are Kate's reflexes? His right hand is held in the air away from the steering wheel, hers, palm up, beneath it. His comes down without warning to Kate's, the rapid slap if she isn't fast enough.
But she is. Over the past few years after these three-or-four-times-a-year picnics she has gotten faster than her teacher. She can look out the front window, even glance out the side, but from the corner of her eye, sense his movement, and respond.
He laughs, shakes his head. "You're going to go so far Ekaterina. You're already on your way."
Is this wrong, this touch?
She has never considered it in terms of right or wrong. It has been a game. She likes games. She likes winning. Winning spins her heart, cushions her steps. That's all. Until her mother asks.
For a living, her mother cleans the homes of elderly women. Even though the women have told her that she can wear her regular clothes, she wears a clean white uniform to work every day. "I'm not ruining my clothes over anybody's mess," she says.
Today she tells Kate that Mrs. Hinkle, the woman whose house she has been cleaning the longest time, has gotten a dog. "The nastiest thing I've ever seen."
Mrs. Alexander, the neighbor, has a dog, a big black dog called Sam. He stands beside Mrs. Alexander while she works in the garden. "What does he do?" Kate asks about Mrs. Hinkle's dog.
Her mother curls her lip. "He licks himself for one thing. Lays right out there in the middle of the kitchen floor and licks and bites and carries on. And then." She stops, puts her hand to her mouth as if she's about to be sick. "He gets up against things," she says through her fingers. When Kate looks puzzled she drops her hand and says. "You know what I'm talking about. It's a male. There's nothing any nastier."
Later that afternoon Kate goes over to Mrs. Alexander's. While they pick vegetables and place them on a piece of newspaper Kate watches Sam for indications of nastiness but all Sam does is stand there. She thinks of telling her mother that but when she walks in the house her mother says, "What did that woman say to you, Kate?"
Kate places the vegetables on the kitchen counter. "That woman," her mother called her. Not Mrs. Alexander. Kate feels a note of alarm, a tingling feeling like someone has just touched her with an ice cube, but she shrugs. "She didn't say anything."
"I saw her talking to you Kate."
"She was just giving me the vegetables. I thought you liked getting them." Kate looks at them. Carrots, red peppers, lettuce. She likes the way the different shapes and colors look on the newsprint. She likes leaving them there awhile so she can look at them.
Her mother looks out the window. She nods as if she has heard something. Kate follows her gaze. Mrs. Alexander is kneeling down between the rows of beans. "They climb like this," Mrs. Alexander has told Kate about the beans, and her hands brush gently over the climbing plants. "Aren't they wonderful?"
Kate, too, sees magic in things, mostly in the way the music looks on the page and then sounds when played, but in other things as well: the way the light at dusk angles on the wild oats on the hill behind the house, polliwogs in spring puddles, the way bats dive toward moving objects-and she smiles at this shared trait.
"Well," her mother says now and turns away from the window. "I don't want you going over there begging any more."
Kate's head swings toward her mother. "I didn't beg. I never have." It's true. Mrs. Alexander has been giving them vegetables from the garden for years.
"There is just so much," Mrs. Alexander says. She smiles. "Bountiful."
There is a noise like a popping sound in Kate's ears.
"Well you might not think you did. But going over there like you do all the time makes it look like you're begging."
"I don't go over there all the time," Kate starts to say, but stops. She doesn't know how often she goes over there. She's never thought about it. Does it matter?
"Don't argue with me," her mother says.
She grins into Kate's face. "Yes, you are," she says, then turns away. "But you go right ahead. Don't listen to a damn thing I say. You'll find out the hard way.
"Find out what?"
She grins again. "Find out what?" Her head snaps back. Her expression darkens. "Find out what people are like. That's what."
Mr. S is strict during practice. There is no fooling around. Kate always arrives early to the practice room, even before Mr. S. She greases the cork on her clarinet, then aligns the pieces. When she first began to play, at six, the instrument was so heavy that she had to lean the bell against a piece of music stand that Mr. S set up for her, but now it feels light in her hands, easy, as if it has, over the four years she has been playing, grown to be a part of her. She closes her palm around the keys, feels how they feel against her skin. It feels as if the feeling is going from her hands deep into her body where it will stay until the practice begins, when, piece by shining piece, it will all come out.
Mr. S comes into the room. He nods at her, that slight smile on his face, and walks to the podium.
A boy who plays the trumpet pushes the boy sitting beside him and is asked to leave for the day. A flutist is asked to play a part of what they have practiced for today and when she stumbles-the second time this week-is asked to trade seats with the girl beside her.
At the end of the practice session when the kids are putting their instruments away, Mr. S places a piece of music Kate has never seen before on the stand in front of her. "Look it over quickly," he says and he stands and waits, his hands clasped behind his back, his chin tipped slightly, his gaze focused on air.
Kate's own eyes graze the music.
"Fine," he says a moment later, and he gives Kate the slow tip of his head. She plays through to the end.
He reaches down, squeezes her shoulders, then raises his hands to the sky. "Beautiful," he says.
Kate looks up at him. She feels as if she is about to burst open. She feels as if she could raise her own arms and fly right up to the ceiling.
"Kate?" her mother calls when she arrives home. Yes.
"How was practice?"
Kate places her clarinet case on the floor, then walks past where her mother is sitting at the kitchen table, to the refrigerator. "Fine."
Her mother has just arrived home. She's still wearing her uniform. "What did you do?" she asks.
Kate removes bread and jelly from the refrigerator. She shrugs. "We practiced."
"Oh." She looks at her mother. "I sight-read again." "Did the other kids do it?"
"No." She drops her eyes, goes back to making the sandwich. "Then why you?"
She begins to feel strange, as if she's done something wrong. "I don't know. I guess because I can do it." She shrugs.
"Have the other kids been asked to?"
His fingers squeezed her shoulders. Her head, behind her eyes, begins to feel hot. "I don't know. Not today. It was just me today." "What about other times?"
"Umm." She tries to remember but in her mind she sees the music. "This piece was harder." She smiles. "But I did it." "That's not what I asked."
The music recedes, and in its place, a coldness settles. "I guess so. Yes. Sandy did once."
She feels her mother's hard stare. "What else." "You mean who else?"
"No. What else did you do?"
She shakes her head. His fingers squeezed her shoulders. His palms cupped both arms. Is that what she wants her to say? She thinks of his raised arms. His hands on her shoulders. He said, "Beautiful." Just the thought swells her up inside. She takes a deep breath. "Nothing," she says. "That's all we did."
"You wouldn't lie to me, would you?" Her head tips down. "Because you know what I think about lying."
"No," she says, but she won't meet her mother's eyes. She licks jelly off her palm. "No." Kate practices in the mornings before she leaves for the bus, during the noon recess, twice a week with the school orchestra, and at night after dinner. She plays until the reeds splinter. A rash appears on her chin.
"The music you were just playing was lovely," Mrs. Alexander tells Kate after she has walked across the grass to the edge of the yard. It is nearly dusk.
Kate has taken a break to come outside to watch bats fly. She throws rocks in their paths and then watches as they dive toward the rocks. She stands here now, two rocks in her hand. She hasn't talked to Mrs. Alexander since the other day even though she has been doing it for some time now. Her mother would want to know who else does it and Kate is the only one.
She turns back to Mrs. Alexander but if she has said anything wrong, Mrs. Alexander is giving no hint. Sam is butting his nose up against her. "Oh Sam. Go on and let me and Kate talk. Over there now. Be a good boy and sit over there."
"That's okay," Kate says. "I have to go in now anyway."
"Perhaps you'll tell me more later. It's just a marvel to me how someone can keep straight what everyone is playing."
It doesn't seem so much a marvel to Kate as just something about herself. She can hear what everyone is doing even when she is playing. She can hear the flat notes and the missed notes. She can hear her own mistakes. And it's not just in music. She senses her mother's moods even before she has spoken. She can tell by her mother's stiff back and the darkness of her expression when to talk and when not to say anything. Lately Kate hasn't talked much at home at all.
In October her mother quits the job at Mrs. Hinkle's. "I just couldn't take it anymore," her mother tells her. She is sitting at the table drinking a cup of coffee. Kate wonders how they are going to live without this money. Things are tight anyway. Kate has put a piece of cardboard in her shoe to cover the hole in her sole. And there is the money she needs for reeds.
"That damn man sitting in that house all the time." She closes her eyes against her own words. Kate knows her mother is talking about Mrs. Hinkle's brother and the thought makes her feel weak inside. Her mother doesn't like him. He moved in with Mrs. Hinkle a few months ago and her mother has been upset since then.
"Men don't have any pride," her mother said the first day he moved in. Kate has heard this before. "A woman walks by and they drop their pants." Kate isn't sure of what this means-why would somebody do that?-but she knows it isn't good.
A few weeks later her mother said, "He expects me to pick up those damn shorts where he's dropped them. Men sweat so bad. I'm not about to touch them." And then today: "He pees all over that damn toilet lid."
Kate feels sick. She doesn't want to hear this but her mother would get mad if she left the room.
"And then they expect me to clean his bedroom. Change the sheets on his bed." She makes a gagging sound. "I told Mrs. Hinkle when he moved in that I wouldn't set foot in that room and I won't."
At Tuesday's practice Mr. S tells everyone that a week from Saturday will be the last picnic of the season to Black Rock. "Let's make it a little earlier," he says, "It's starting to get cool early."
Black Rock is where the fish swim. Kate can see them in her mind, moving swiftly between the rocks. The kids will cook hot dogs. Mr. S's wife will make a cake. A warm breeze blows in the afternoon. The air smells sweet. On the car ride home Mr. S's hand comes down to meet Kate's. Her mother's hard unquenching stare.
Kate loses her place during practice. Her silence echoes in her own ears like thunder. She scans the music but can't see where she should be. She listens to the others for a clue, but it is her mother's voice she hears: "A male. The nastiest thing." She feels Mr. S's eyes brush over her. She finds her place, begins again, but just as quickly is lost.
Mr. S's baton slices down as if it's a knife through the air. "When Ekaterina is paying attention, we will begin again," he says and he stares straight ahead.
Several years ago Kate's mother asked her why her friends were calling her
Kat. Kate started to tell her that it had something to do with Ekaterina, but stopped. Her mother's arms were crossed over her chest. She was standing side
ways to Kate so that she was looking over her shoulder at her.
"Because that's what Mr. S calls me," Kate said.
"And why does he call you that?"
Because he likes me, she thought, but her mother wouldn't approve. Her
mind searched frantically: Kat, cat. "Because once I made a cat noise when I was
"You know what I think about lying," she heard for days afterwards. She
knew. Lying would get her face slapped. But telling the truth wouldn't be good
Yes, he touches me, she thinks now as she walks home from the bus stop. But it's not bad, is it? She does not think that she thinks that it is bad. But her mother would say it is. So Kate is not sure. Just the thought makes her heart beat too hard.
When Kate gets home Mrs. Alexander is in the garden. "Oh Kate!" she calls. Kate stops at the edge of the grass. Her mother's car is in the driveway. Without Mrs. Hinkle's house to clean on Tuesday afternoons she is now getting home early.
It would be rude to ignore Mrs. Alexander. Kate looks down at where she is standing, on the imaginary line she has drawn in the grass that separates the two yards.
"I have so many green beans," Mrs. Alexander says as she walks up to Kate. "So late in the year, too. Why don't you come pick some Kate? It's either you or the birds."
There is a flock of black birds lining the telephone wire.
Kate sees her mother behind the window pane. "Thank you but ah, my mother is not feeling well so we wouldn't eat them." Liar, Kate hears in her mind. "Oh dear. I have seen her car home more these days. I hope it's nothing serious."
"Oh no. Just an upset stomach." Quickly she looks down at the ground but not before she hears her mother's voice, "There is nothing worse than a liar." Mrs. Alexander looks closely at Kate. "Are you all right?" "Oh, yes."
"Well, Kate, you don't seem yourself lately." Her hand reaches out, rests on Kate's arm. "I do miss our talks."
Kate pulls away from her hand. "I have to go now," she says.
Her mother has been talking in her sleep more lately. Every night now it seems. Kate can hear her through the wall having a conversation. She doesn't know what her mother is saying, doesn't want to know. The tone of her mother's voice, a whining sound, makes Kate bury her face in the pillow, press her palms hard against her ears.
"I can't go to the picnic on Saturday," Kate tells Mr. S. They are sitting at the piano. "Treble clef," Mr. S says. "I'll do bass." Kate usually likes these sessions with other instruments -she especially likes the violin, although when she makes a mistake and the bow screeches across the strings, the others put their fingers in their ears -but today she is aware of him on the bench beside her.
"I'm sorry," he says in response to her statement. "We will miss you."
Carefully, she moves down a few inches. "My mother and I have something we have to do."
He nods, places the fingers of his left hand on the keys. "Next time then."
Kate dreams of sleek swimming fish. She wants to touch one, cup her hand around it, feel it slide through her palm, but Mr. S has told her that hands will
burn fish. In her dream she reaches her hand until her fingers touch cold creek water, deeper until she feels the slightest movement against her fingertips. Mr. S's hand grabs Kate's. "Naughty, Ekaterina," he says, withdrawing her hand from the water, his grip tight on her wrist, then her mother's angry face, "I knew it. Didn't I. I asked you if that man ever touched you and you lied to me."
"Ekaterina, you're slouching," Mr. S calls from the podium. Moments later he steps closer. "What is it? Are you not feeling well today?" "Yes, I'm well." Her own voice sounds sharp.
"Fine." He makes a little bow with his head. "Good that you are well then."
Her mother watches as she places the clarinet case on the floor beside the couch. She stares at the black case a long moment, then crosses her arms over her chest, turns her head so that she is looking away from Kate, and stares at a spot in midair.
Mrs. Alexander's corn stalks are brown now. The past three years Kate has brought several home and put them outside the front door for Halloween decorations. She made a scarecrow out of one. Mrs. Alexander liked it so much that she asked Kate to make one for her. Each year it's been a ritual: cut the stalks down, take them into the garage, and drink hot cider while making the scarecrows.
This year Mrs. Alexander walks out to the road to meet Kate. "I was afraid you had forgotten the cornstalks," she says. "You've probably been so busy the time has slipped up on you."
"No I didn't forget." Without wanting to she looks in the direction of the
garden. "I think I'm too old for Halloween."
"Too old? Oh goodness Kate. That makes me ancient." When Kate doesn't respond she says, "We had so much fun." "Well." Her gaze drifts off.
Mrs. Alexander removes her gardening hat. "Well if you change your mind, there's plenty of them out there."
"That is the dirtiest woman I have ever seen," her mother says when she comes home from Mrs. Riley's. She has been cleaning Mrs. Riley's house almost as long as Mrs. Hinkle's.
"She can't pick up a damn thing. Leaves everything she touches right where she drops it." She crosses her arms over her chest, leans back in the chair, and mimics Mrs. Riley. "My hands hurt so bad I just couldn't do those dishes. I hope you don't mind."
She uncrosses her arms. "She just wants attention, that's all. And I've about had enough of it."
Mr. S sits down beside her. "Ekaterina," he says in a soft voice. "You cannot get air into your lungs if you don't sit up straight. And if you don't have air you don't have music."
"That's better. Here, take a deep breath. From here," and he puts his palm flat on his own stomach. "Fill up everything. No, don't lift your shoulders. What is it? You want to tell me? Why this problem now?"
She looks away.
"Here, then." He takes her hand, places it palm down on his on his chest. He takes a deep breath. "Feel that? Feel how it fills everything up? The lungs, the stomach, everything. Good. Now try it yourself. Like this," he says and he reaches again for her hand. She pulls away.
"All right." He raises his hands into the air as if he is conducting. "Breathe up," he says, his palms open to the ceiling. "Up."
His hands come down. He says in a low voice, "Why don't we talk after practice. Okay? See me then?"
"There is something bothering you," he says when the others have left. "Am I right?" He is sitting on a stool. Kate stands before him, looking down at the floor. He tips his head down.
"Can we talk about how it is affecting your music?" Kate looks up. "I'm quitting music," she says.
Mr. S's head snaps back as if someone has hit him. His mouth opens. Kate has never seen him look like this. She is suddenly sorry.
"No," he finally says, and then as if to check himself, "This must be something we can work out. You are upset maybe."
She doesn't know what to say. His hand reaches out to touch her arm. She steps back.
"Are you frightened? Have I somehow frightened you?"
Yes, no, she doesn't know. A whirlwind in her mind. She looks at him. He seems so familiar. Has he really done something? And then she feels suddenly tired: of wondering, of thinking, of knowing, and not knowing. She thinks of telling him, but she doesn't know what it is exactly that she will say and how she will say it. Besides, her mother would not want her to talk to him in this way. She wouldn't like it at all. Kate feels as if she is about to crash to the floor.
"You've worked so hard Ekaterina. You have so much talent. Don't throw this away."
"My name is not Ekaterina," she says.
A breath rushes out of him. "Of course. Kate. Katherine. Whatever it is that you prefer." Something in his voice makes him sound like he believes things can be okay now and she feels suddenly frightened that she will change her mind. She steps back.
"Tell me," he pleads. Tell me. Whatever it is, we can work it out." "It's that I'm quitting. I don't want to do this any more. That's all."
Kate waits for bats. She sits on the back steps. The days are short now, the time the bats appear between dusk and dark so quick that she has to be just as quick so that she doesn't miss them. Each night she stacks the rocks up in a little pyramid. She keeps the pile supplied. Mr. S came to her house. He walked up the porch steps and knocked on the door. Her mother waved her away. "I'll take care of this," she said and she opened the door.
"Maybe just some time off," he said. "But not to quit. Ekaterina has so much promise."
"What did you call her?"
"I'm sorry. It is how we say it in my country."
"You're not in your country. So mind your own damn business."
One bat appears, its small wings beating hard. Kate sees it from the corner of her eye. A rock already in her hand, Kate stands up quick, and throws it into the bat's path. The bat dives toward the rock. Kate ducks, then suddenly afraid that the bat will dive toward her, hits the ground until she is lying on the dirt face down.