Wednesday, November 5, 2008
The Biltmore Hotel, Second-Floor Bar
This can't happen here.
He's been at the bar for ninety minutes; a dozen men have come and gone, having drowned their sorrows, done a little business, and put the whole thing to bed.
There are four whiskey glasses in front of him, each one different, none of them empty.
In one corner the television is on, volume down, the talking head postmortem will go all night. In the other corner, by the window, there's a couple canoodling like there's no tomorrow. And in the middle of the bar a screwball with a Zippo lighter runs his thumb over the wheel again and again, scratching the flint to spark. "Windproof," he says each time the fuel ignites. "Windproof."
"It's on me as much as anyone," the Big Guy says to the bartender. "Humility if nothing else requires that a man take responsibility for his failures."
"You sound like a man pleading guilty," the bartender says.
"I am guilty."
"No prophet is accepted in his own country; no doctor heals in his own home."
"You're seriously playing that card here?"
"On Saturday nights I work at the casinos, Desert Diamond, Talking Stick. I've seen men give up the ghost right in front of me, and even on their way out, they're still feeling the high. 'Hit me. Hit me again.'"
The Big Guy shakes his head. "All men make mistakes, but making the same mistake twice is not a mistake, it's a pattern. Tonight it was like Fat Man and Little Boy got back together and planted a mushroom garden right here in Phoenix. And yet, somehow, we're surrounded by folks who have no idea what they have brought upon themselves. No idea."
A man slides into the seat next to the Big Guy, glances at the four glasses of whiskey, and signals the bartender.
"Pour me one of those," he says.
"The one in the middle."
"There is no middle," the bartender says.
"The Highland Park."
The Big Guy looks up. "You can call it in the dark?
"Slainte," the man says, knocking back the drink.
"You're not one of them, are you?"
"One of what?"
"Your hair is wet so I'm thinking you're one of the assholes who got sprayed with champagne and did a little victory dance a couple of hours ago."
"I don't think so," the man says. "I'm more like a fella who came downstairs and took a dip in the pool in order to clear my head."
"Explains the smell," the Big Guy says. "Chlorine."
The man taps his glass for the bartender. "Again."
"Were you in the room upstairs?"
"And what did you see?" the Big Guy asks.
"A generational earthquake that split the terra firma."
The Big Guy snorts.
"I would characterize it as a heavy metal Led Zeppelin, a grim shaking of the head, the palsied all-too-knowing dip of disappointment, keening women knowing they'll have crushed male egos to deal with for breakfast. The damp, dull face of defeat. They banked on the wrong horse in the absence of a better horse while full well knowing it wasn't even a horse race but really a rat race."
"Please, tell me you're not a reporter."
"Historian, sometimes professor, occasional author but not on the clock tonight."
"If you're not on the clock, why are you here?"
"Bearing witness?" the man suggests. "Fella traveler?"
The Big Guy flags the bartender. "Give him the Ardbeg. It's one of my favorites. I call it Santa's Paws, tastes like it crawled out of the fireplace. Smoky."
The man laughs. "Similar to Lagavulin."
"Similar. I'll tell you what I don't like, a scotch that's fruity. I don't want anything that's got raisins, cherries, or essence of Fig Newton. That's what I call a stool softener." The Big Guy belches. "Pardon me," he says. "I'm in a little deeper than I thought."
"They should just burn it down," the screwball with the Zippo says, flipping his lighter into the gun position, letting the flame go high and then slapping the lighter closed.
The bartender goes over and asks the screwball to settle his tab. "It's been a long night for everyone," he says. "Time to go home."
"There's no place like home," Zippo says, standing up. "Every dog is a lion at home." He peels twenties off a thick wad of cash, knocks back the rest of his drink, leaving the money under the empty glass.
As Zippo wobbles out of the room, the Big Guy taps his glass. "Ardbeg again for me and my friend."
The bartender pours.
"You want to know what I've been writing?" the Big Guy asks.
"Yeah," the man says.
"My memory of the dream."
The Big Guy nods. "September 2, 1945, my introduction to the world."
"I was literally born into it. The war ended and the American dream came into bloom with my name written all over it. You know what I've been saying all night? 'This can't happen here.' But it did. And it's not the first time. Happened eight years ago as well, but that time we took it back. This go-round there is no rescue plan."
The two men drink.
"What do you call that?" the Big Guy says, nodding toward the couple in the corner.
"Wound licking," the man says.
"It hasn't progressed. Two hours and they're still like that."
"They're married but not to each other," the man says. "They can get away with what they're doing now, call it grief counseling, but if they take it upstairs, it becomes something else."
"You a married man?"
"No. I would say that I am devoted to my work, but that wouldn't be true either."
"Been here before?" the Big Guy asks.
"Do you mean literally here in this bar?"
"I have," the man says. "As a kid, I came here with my father. There was a special knock to get in or at least that's what my father told me."
"Back in the day, the liquor used to be kept in a false bookshelf," the Big Guy says. "You see that skylight up there? If trouble was coming, they'd shine a light over the roof and the fellas would skedaddle. I'm not sure that was Mr. Wright's intention when he designed it."
"I thought it was Wrigley, like the gum."
"Frank Lloyd Wright designed it. Wrigley bought it in 1930 and put in the pool. People used to come out for the season. There was an office of the New York Stock Exchange downstairs. This was the Smoking Room. You might say I'm a bit of a history buff," the Big Guy says. "If you wanted to get in you had to know the password."
"What was the password?"
"It changed frequently."
"Was it something like 'It's raining on Mount Weather'?"
The Big Guy looks at him. Mount Weather is not a run-of-the-mill noun one simply drops into conversation. "Oh Shenandoah," the Big Guy lobs back.
"High Point," the man says, replying with another watchword.
"The squirrel got the nut," the Big Guy says.
"I left my suitcase on a train," the man says.
"You two quoting poetry to each other?" the bartender asks.
"Just singing the same song," the man says.
"Sniffing each other out to see if we're members of the same club," the Big Guy says. "I don't think I got your name?"
"I didn't give it." There's a pause. "What did you expect tonight?"
"More," the Big Guy says. "I expected more."
"Hope," the man says. "That's what he offered them and they went for it. Hope won over More."
The two men are quiet for a moment, nursing their drinks.
"I'll tell you something," the Big Guy says, looking around as if making sure it's safe to reveal a secret. "There are two cycles for political business in this country; one is eighteen months and the other is four years. We talk about the 'next go-round' like we're buying tickets on a theme-park ride. Democracy, the roller coaster. It goes up a couple of hundred feet and then plunges at a hundred miles an hour and what do people do? They get in line to go again. And again. Up and down, each time their stomachs drop; you can't escape biology; each time they feel the rush. Eighteen months. Four years. Other countries plan one hundred years out. Native Americans talk about what things will look like seven generations from now-150 years. What do we talk about? Tax rebates. We give people three hundred bucks to blow and think that seals the deal."
"Continuity," the man says.
"The plan ensures that our government as we know it continues to stand."
"Exactly. It requires a vision."
"The last great vision was the dream."
"Bye, bye, Miss American Pie," the man says.
"It's time to get the program going. The program is the plan. You know what I'm talking about?"
"Give me another hint," the man says.
"Extraordinary circumstances," the Big Guy says. "There is a moment when you have to be ready to take action. You can't rely on others. This is the kind of story you tell your children; it's about the night you woke up, realized that things were not what they seemed, and you did something about it."
"What are we going to do?" the man asks.
"Something big," the Big Guy says, showing the pile of napkins he's been making notes on. "A forced correction."
The man finishes his drink.
"Gimme your number." The Big Guy pushes a clean napkin toward the man. "Let's stay in touch. A fella like you is a good man to have around and I suspect we have a thing or two in common."
"We've never met," the man says, preparing to leave. "But I look forward to another sing-along soon."
"Are you working on anything in particular at the moment?" the Big Guy asks.
The man shrugs. "A book. It's a brief history of the twenty-first century called Thus Far."
"So, you're a historian but really more of a scribe."
"Till soon," the man says, leaving cash on the bar.
"Hell of a guy," the Big Guy says to the bartender. "Knows all the songs." A moment passes. "Any chance the kitchen is still open?"
"What are you looking for?"
"Soft-boiled eggs and toast soldiers?"
"Let me see what I can do."
"And pass me some more of those napkins; I've got to get it down on paper." "A patriot's plan to preserve and protect," the Big Guy scrawls in blue pen. "Double Rainbows with Cherries on Top." He sketches what looks like a football play chart; two rows of players that look like red cherries in a U-shaped lineup guarding the Liberty Bell.
One by one the Big Guy finishes the drinks in front of him. It's after two a.m. when room service arrives with a dome-covered plate. Voilˆ. The bartender lifts the dome. "Tits up," the Big Guy says, looking at the beautiful pair of soft-boiled eggs staring up at him.
The bartender laughs. "You're more fun than you look."
"In my cups," the Big Guy says. "I am in my cups." He taps his spoon against one of the eggs; the first blow lands on the silver egg cup, sounding the alarm. He continues tap-tapping, sending the message "We are no longer safe" in Morse code. Until finally, the shell cracks.
The Day Before
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Laramie County, Wyoming
Earth and sky are open and endless. As the brightness increases, the sky flushes with pink and red hues somewhere between birth and Armageddon.
She steps outside to be alone. The air has the clean snap of winter to come. She's thinking about the sky, the distance to the river, the mountains, the great unfolding of land. Even if one has no particular religious belief, the enormity of it is a spiritual experience. It reminds her to remain in awe as she faces into the wind. The ground, coated in frosty white dust, cracks underfoot. She hears her parents behind her, leaving the house.
"As long as you're happy," her mother says.
"Thrilled," her father says. "I'm absolutely thrilled. We'll be among the first."
Sonny, the ranch hand, is at the wheel, the scent of his morning cigarette leaking out of the cracked car window.
The bison are at the fence, their enormous eyes like great black globes of history, of memory, their wide nostrils pumping out air like steam pipes. She thinks of them as ancient animals somewhere between bull and minotaur.
The tires roll over the cattle guards, ka-thunka, ka-thunka, a marker between home and the rest of the world. She watches over her father's shoulder in the rearview mirror as the ranch recedes.
It seems strange: Yesterday she was at school in Virginia giving a report on the three witches in Macbeth. After class, she took a taxi to the airport and got on a plane that landed late last night. Now she is here, in the truck, with her mother and father, on the opposite side of the country. There are many Americas; the language and the brand of orange juice might be the same, but they are very different places.
"I remember my first time," her father says. "My father took me."
"It was centuries ago," her mother says, laughing.
"Is it that funny?" her father asks.
"Did you go by horse-drawn carriage?" she asks.
"Actually, we walked," her father says.
"I'm just realizing that I didn't even register until after I was married to you. I wonder why I didn't participate then?"
There's a beat. A moment of silence.
"How'd you sleep?" her father asks her.
"Like a log." She'd gone upstairs, cracked her window, and let the night air slip in like the plume from a genie's bottle. The cold air, a little chimney smoke, the dirt and dung of animals on the farm, a couple of deep breaths, and she was out. "As soon as I get here, it's like I'm under anesthesia." She pauses and realizes he's waiting for a compliment. "And the warm milk was very good, thank you."
"Fresh air, fresh milk, you don't need much else."
"The cookies," she says. "Night cookies."
"I don't sleep well without them," her father says.
They are quiet as the car rolls toward town.
"Is it always on a Tuesday?" she asks, when the silence has become too loud.
"Yes," her mother says.
"For a reason?"
"For the reason that it has always been on a Tuesday," her father says.
Her mother scoffs. "I'm sure the men who originally picked the day had something more in mind than the idea that two hundred years later people would say that it's always been that way."
"Well then, look it up," her father says.
Copyright © 2022 by A.M. Homes. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.