CROWDEDPLACE

Tell Nothing In A Crowded Place
by Fraylie Nord

“Allen knows that I’m legit,” said the man, sidling onto the barstool. He smoothed his corn silk hair with his right hand and fingered for a cigarette with his left. “He knows we operate under the same paradigms, so I’m basically a shoe in.”

The man wore an expensive suit, but his brown loafers were stitched with cheap, splintering thread. The leather cracked with lines of industrial road salt. Near the toe box, the right loafer came apart to reveal a pilling wool sock. His skin smelled faintly of Pine-Sol.

“Drink?” he asked, lighting his cigarette with a match produced from his jacket pocket.

“Gin and tonic,” she said.

“Your hair looks swell today,” he said, leaning in to touch a dark curl.

“Swell?”

“Yeah, swell. Like goddess hair. Hunky dory.” He signaled the bartender and ordered two gin and tonics.

The man had chosen this bar for its high ceilings and spread of votive candles. (Better on the eyes, he thought.) The paned windows stretched from floor to ceiling, offering a panoramic view of Charlton and Hudson. The waitresses wore crisp white shirts tucked into linen aprons. This getup accentuated a plethora of petit waistlines, which provided the man with something to look at when his wife turned to watch the crowded sidewalks. It was six o’clock on a Friday—very happy hour. The drinks were cheap and served with too much ice. It was one of the few places that continued to permit indoor smoking.

The man twisted his cigarette between his thumb and forefinger, his mouth open in a way that made him appear short of breath or very thirsty. He crossed his feet and tucked his legs behind the front leg of the barstool. With a hunch in his shoulders, he watched his wife spin the charm of her necklace about its chain.

“So about this promotion?” she said, trailing off. The bartender returned with two gin and tonics in plastic tumblers.

“Well, we’ve been e-mailing about it,” said the man. “Allen, I mean. There’s a lot of ego behind it. Most people don’t know what it means to have a man’s mojo, least of all anybody in management.” He pressed the cigarette into a glass ashtray and, ignoring the small plastic straw, drank deeply from the gin and tonic until the ice clinked against his teeth.

The man’s wife narrowed her eyes, leaned over the bar, and rested her chin against her hand. She took a small sip from the straw and returned the tumbler to its paper napkin.

“So you don’t have it?”

“There’s no reasonable reason why it shouldn’t happen.” He strung his lips into a weak grin and added, “You know, the capital and the lending is the easy part. I’ve got a lot on my plate. A big fish to fry, as they say.”

“As who says?”

“Oh, you know,” said the man, uneasily. “I do. Allen does.”

The bar was filling up as black waves of men in suits pushed through the double doors. A young guy in a mechanic’s jumpsuit edged himself beside the man’s wife and began to tap his fingers impatiently. His breast pocket said Eddie in white stitching. He looked like the kind of guy who could lift a car with one hand and smoke with the other, all while making small talk about fan belts and wide receivers. The man thought Eddie looked out of place but, then again, he supposed they both did. The man fixated on the nearest waitress, biting his lip. This is all going to the shitter, he muttered.

The room was becoming very hot, and the man felt the moisture in his collar. He loosened his tie and lit another cigarette.

“What exactly did you bring me here to ask me?” said the man’s wife, curling her shoulders away from the Eddie.

The man, in somewhat of a trance, did not hear her over the increasing din of very happy hour. Instead, he thought about the next e-mail he’d write to Allen, the one with all the “pleases,” “howevers,” and “it won’t be very long nows,” while his eyes lingered dreamily over the waitresses who, like little beacons of light, glimmered among the landscape of black suits.

The man’s wife laid her slender wrist across his and said, “Hello?”

“Oh,” he said. “Yes. I came here to ask you something.” The man noticed he had been salivating into his cigarette filter, turning the thing to foamy pulp. He stubbed it into the ashtray.

“Everything I do is pretty legitimate, you know? While everyone around me is an awful idiot,” said the man. “But I’m not in a position to tell Allen that my deal is great and his is a total shitter.”

“That’s what you brought me here to tell me?”

“No,” he said. “I’m just thinking out loud. Did I mention I had a lot on my plate?”

“Yes,” she said. “I just don’t know if you’re selling yourself right—they’ve been walking all over you. Have you visited that guy’s website?” The man’s wife dug through her purse and produced an embossed business card. “I grabbed a few in case you already lost yours. He calls himself a pathfinder. Don’t you think that’s poetic?”

“Quite.”

She pushed the card across the bar. “I’m going to find the ladies’ room.” The man’s wife slipped her body from the barstool, her dark ringlets bouncing around her shoulders like unfurling lengths of silk.

The man watched her negotiate the crowd of nine to fivers in their aggressive collars and black wool blends. She wore a white dress that zipped along whole back, like she could be peeled down the middle in two perfect halves. Relaxing his eyes, he allowed the distant image of his wife to blur and double.

He had brought her here to ask that they spend the next weekend in the Adirondacks. They were to celebrate his invented promotion, one that he had been promising to secure for the past two months. Allen wasn’t going for it. The man felt like a regular con artist, a fraud. He thought he should come clean so that his wife could gather her things and leave for a while, maybe for good. Just buying the suit had all but emptied his private savings. (Nobody gets off the bench wearing polyester, Allen scolded him.) The man reached for another cigarette, and, after realizing he had finished his pack, lowered his face toward the bar for another gin and tonic.

“Need a smoke, buddy?”

The man looked up to see Eddie, with a squarish jaw and wide puddle-blue eyes, dangling a cigarette from the edge of his pack.

“Thanks,” he said.

Eddie produced a green plastic lighter with the word Libra written in white cursive. He lit the end of the man’s cigarette.

“I’m not a Libra, if you were wondering,” said Eddie.

“I wasn’t. But thanks again.”

“I found it in my sock drawer,” he continued. “How do you suppose it got there?”

The man exhaled a long plume of smoke and said, in a somewhat exhausted tone, “I don’t know, mister. Maybe you’ve got gnomes.”

“Ahah,” Eddie offered.

The man didn’t respond to this. Instead, when the bartender delivered his second gin and tonic, he proceeded to drink it in much the same way as the first. The ice stung his mouth, and his head was beginning to feel heavy. He scanned the room for his wife, but the bar had become very crowded and dark. Some fool was likely walking around, blowing out all the candles.

“You got something on your mind buddy?” Eddie leaned toward the man and smiled knowingly, revealing front teeth as long as dimes. “Might as well be out with it.”

The man, who should have felt his space violated or his sensibilities affronted, simply hunched his shoulders and rubbed his eye with his left palm.

“She’s going to leave me. She makes enough money to. The deal is going to blow up,” he said. “And not the good kind of blowing up. How long have you been eavesdropping?”

“Long enough,” said Eddie. “What kind of deal you got going on?”

“It’s complicated,” said the man. “You wouldn’t get it. All the Valium and top shelf and silk ties wouldn’t do anything to get it.” He glanced around the bar, anxiously calculating how bad it looked to be talking to this toothy schlump. The suit and tie bullfight was meant for making deals and sticking grubby hands into golden pockets. It was not for blue-collar pity, least of all from a guy who happily spent his days plucking at the underbelly of broken machines.

“You a mechanic?”

“Elevators. Very specialized.” Eddie paused to light a cigarette. “I’m working a building down the street. Some secretary got her hand sliced off on the fifth floor. Tryin’ to hold the doors, y’know? They slammed on her, and the cage shot right up. Boom. Set off all the alarms and everything. We’re in there trying to figure out what the fuck happened.”

“Oh,” said the man. “Sorry to hear it.”

“She’ll live,” said Eddie. “But there was a lot of blood.”

The man nodded as though in a trance. After a few moments, he began to shake his head from side to side as his shoulders sank. In a way that seemed both submissive and graceful, like a nap stolen in a lecture hall’s faraway corner, the man folded his wrists across the bar and rested a cheek in the cradle of his arms. A blade of hair, liberated from its glossy confine, curled and tumbled across his brow.

“Let me get you another drink,” said Eddie. All you suits, man, getting yourself caught up in all the elevators of the world. You all look like you need a couple’a pick-me-ups. But take this one a little slower, alright?” Eddie nodded in a somber way, his wide face hardening like plaster in the sun. He put a hand on the man’s shoulder and gave a small squeeze.

The man realized this night was a new low during the months where his marriage hinged, not only on how well he could fabricate his success as a man of business, but on how desperately his wife required that he, as she put it, “get back on the horse.” They had just refinanced the house and put their youngest into private kindergarten. Once, his wife had put a pamphlet on his pillow called Six Steps to Spiritual and Economic Freedom. On the cover was a grassy knoll—a lotus-folded, business-suited man levitating at its apex.

On the day they refinanced, the man had put two thousand dollars on his AmEx and reserved the shingled Adirondack cabin. The firewood came pre-chopped and neatly stacked in the yard. The kids would have bunk beds and try their luck at fishing. He had signed the no-cancellation policy with bravado.

The man had begun to research fishing tips, and he hung an article called The Zen of Trout on the wall of his cubicle. The man congratulated himself repeatedly—both for his invented promotion and for his enthusiastic return-to-the-land vacation planning. He started to sleep through the night. What better self-fulfilling prophecy than a two thousand dollar deposit?

But now, the prospect of a weekend invented to celebrate nothing had become a paramount disaster. Of course, the nothing was supposed to be something by now, but things weren’t working out as planned. Two days ago, he had shredded The Zen of Trout after Allen narrowed his eyes and accused the man of being one of those “goddamn sentimental types.”

The man crushed the cigarette, half finished, into the ashtray and nervously twirled the gold band around his finger. He lifted his head to thank Eddie, but the elevator mechanic had disappeared. The bartender returned with a third gin and tonic and said, “nice friend you got there.”

The man reached for his wallet to give the bartender a tip. It had been sitting on the bar near an extinguished candle, an old leather pouch with his AmEx, three singles, a five, and a dry-cleaning ticket. But in place of his wallet lay a series of crumpled paper napkins and a few crumbs. The man searched his coat pockets, the floor, the bartender’s face. He came up empty. He was unsurprised by his resignation. A real man would have snapped the leg from his barstool, kicked down the double doors, and chased Eddie the elevator mechanic with the splintered weapon and ferocious vengeance. He barely felt like getting up.

What a man, he thought. What a fraud. Eight bucks won’t even buy a pack of smokes.

And when the man’s wife approached him from behind, slid a hand up the back of his neck, and mussed the hair around his ears, he did not turn to her. She retracted her hand and sat down.

“Have you heard a thing I’ve said all night?” she asked. The man’s wife looked down at the floor, running her eyes over his left shoe, which had become mysteriously unlaced. “I think it’s time we get you some new loafers to match your suit, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” he said. “Of course.”

Gazing onto the street, the man watched a flock of packing peanuts swept into traffic. It reminded him of starlings in a nosedive, a fragmented cloud sashaying beneath the taxicabs.

Fraylie Nord lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. She received her degree in critical theory, creative writing and photography from Hampshire College.

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