Tuesday, October 12, 2010
7:54 PM |
Excerpt from "Fly-Over Country"
[an excerpt from a story in progress]
I have never been to Cedar Rapids. When you come from Milwaukee or St. Paul or Madison and are headed my way for whatever reason, Cedar Rapids will most likely be your portal mid-sized metropolis—the last sprawling stretch calling itself a city, with buildings more than five-stories high, before you get to the tree-lined, grassy-knolled avenues of my stout-hearted town, so stout it mistakes itself for a city.
But I came, tail between my legs, from Chicago. And settled some months ago in the staid suburban hug of Coralville, a football pigskin’s throw away from the academic wet dream of Iowa City. I had journeyed by car through Interstate 80, motoring past the exit signs to throw-away towns with the airy, borrowed names such as Joliet, Marseilles, Malta, Woosung, Ottawa, La Salle, Peru, Le Claire, Cambridge, Princeton, Milan—names which struck me as sad. Almost forlorn, like an empty promise.
On that trip, the ghosts of Chicago still after me, I had maneuvered my beat-up sedan, more than ten years old, towards one of those small towns just west of the Mississippi. It was a dump called Jaspers, with a seedy-looking strip mall at the center of things, with a Wendy’s that showed no signs of life. But it was the town with the nearest exit that could be had for a late lunch on the road, and I was hungry enough to eat a squirrel, which was compounded by the boredom of the landscape—endless stretches of cornfields, punctuated only by barns and silos. In Jaspers, I had a turkey breast and black forest ham sandwich from a sad-looking Subway stop tucked into a corner of a grocery slash gas station. An Indian girl curled my order with a thick Mumbai accent. She seemed frightened, or tired. The fluorescent lighting above her counter, which seemed to contain a scarce supply of the sliced mishmash of her sandwiches to-go, cast shadows below her eyes and made her look old. She gave me my total and her thank you spiel in a thick fog of sounds I could not understand, and I soon found myself back in my car, behind the wheel, munching away at the sandwich like an absent-minded dog. All I thought of was how the Indian girl seemed trapped, like a gerbil in a cage, in that horridly lit space behind the sandwich counter. It was not as if I felt sorry for her—I didn’t, but all I could think was how people could survive with lives like that, like a gerbil in bad lighting, muttering sandwich ingredients for a living.
In Coralville, I settled in the cheapest one-room apartment I could find that was decent enough, and found myself a job in Iowa City muttering the names of cocktails and cheap beer in a gay bar called Studio 13. It was in an alley off Linn Street. On Tuesdays, the town folk came in for the karaoke and the $3 draft beer. The rest of the weekdays, I rolled my eyes as the deejay spun dance music almost a decade old. On weekends, Saturdays for the most part, between ten o’clock at night and two o’clock in the wee hours of morning, I took off my shirt, flexed my biceps and pectorals, and played flirtatious bartender to the young college boys coming in, their eyes always darting around in the dim light, always hunting. The small space was a beehive of sound and frenetic dancing, the darkness animated only by glow sticks and laser lights and the incandescence of white skin off the twinkie boys showing off—with the sweet abandon only the desirable young could pull off—the promise of tactile desire. I had seen all these before, in various incarnations, manifestations, and all I could do was shake my head.
He came in one Saturday night. He looked almost out of place, a chinky-eyed man in his mid-thirties, with spectacles. His face was a wonderland of curiosity and amused disbelief it was almost comic. As if he had never seen men dance with other men before, as if he had never seen that much skin in the throng of writhing bodies in the worship of Kylie Minogue, or Madonna, or Lady Gaga.
He ordered a spritz of strawberry soda, no ice.
I raised one of my eyebrows and smiled. “Is that all you’re having?”
He flashed a nervous smile back at me, and said in an almost apologetic tone, “I don’t really drink.”
“Then why are you in a bar?” I said, my eyebrow still raised. I leaned towards him, my elbows on the counter, my face quite near his. I could feel his skin flushing.
“Oh.” He laughed a little. “I thought it was a good Saturday night to get away from my hotel room, at least for a while. I was tired of writing.”
I stared down at his lips. “So, you’re one of those Iowa writers.”
That was all he said.
It was part of my job description to flirt just a little. It kept the drink orders coming, or so I was told. I didn’t mind. I liked flirting. I thought of it as a kind of sport. I thought of it as something you do to make other people feel better about themselves.
I was the Mother Teresa of flirtation.
“So maybe, if I play my cards just right, I’d probably end up as a character in one of your stories,” I said, curling just a hint of a smile to make my one dimple pop out.
“I…I suppose so,” he said.
“So I guess you’re here for research then.”
“You…you can call it that.”
“So, let’s say you’re really writing this story. And I am a character in it. What would you name him?”
“What’s your name?”
“Allan is a good name for a character that’s a bartender.”
“And what does Allan the bartender do in your story?”
He looked straight at me all of a sudden. I could catch a glimmer in his eyes that weren’t there before. It couldn’t be drowned out by the stray brightness of a laser beam, or a nearby glowstick being sliced through the air by a dancer in frenzy. He said, in a pace that was deliberate: “Allan... Let’s make him a character with a past. Let’s say, he’s running away from something. Let’s say he’s from some big city somewhere. St. Paul, maybe. Des Moines, perhaps. Let’s just say Chicago. It’s far enough. And big enough. And familiar enough to most people. Let’s say he settles in a small place—like where we are now—where no one he knows can find him. Or so he thinks.”
Suddenly something about all this bothered me, but just a little. Still, I did my bartenderly motions, and proceeded to make his drink—a strawberry soda spritzer, no ice—and pushed the glass across the bar towards him, and told him, “Go on.”
He took his drink, and slowly sipped from it. “Let’s say Allan befriends this guy in the bar he’s working in, the guy looked a little lost, and so he takes him into a kind conversation, opens him up, makes him feel comfortable in the middle of all that dance music, all that noise and spectacle.”
“What’s the other guy’s name?”
“What happens next to Allan and Tony?”
“Tony does not drink.”
“What did he come to the bar for then?”
“Perhaps he was bored. And it was a Saturday night. And the rest of the town was dead for the weekend. The only sign of life there was was in the bars.”
“Tony takes him back to his hotel, just across downtown, near Hubbard Park.”
“They have sex in his room.”
It was I who was flushing now. Still, I couldn’t resist wanting to know what could happen next, to this fictional bartender and his fictional friend. I felt my insides already too invested in knowing the rest of the story, whatever it was.
“And then?” I asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
“And then the next morning, they go to Cedar Rapids.”
“That’s 25 miles away.”
“It’s a good autumn day. The drive up Cedar Rapids would be something.”
“But what’s in Cedar Rapids?”
“There’s a good Filipino restaurant in Cedar Rapids.”
“Tony is Filipino?”
“I suppose he is.”
“So they’re going to Cedar Rapids to eat in a Filipino restaurant?”
“For lunch, yes.”
“Allan would fall in love.”
“Oh, come on. What about Tony?”
“Tony will break his heart.”
“Well, that’s something.”
“It’s something, isn’t it.”
He smiled, and then he downed the rest of his drink. Then he reached across the bar to shake my hand. The skin of his hand felt smooth, his fingers were long and steady. His grip felt both strong and tender.
“My name’s Henry, by the way,” he said.
And so it was that I found myself in Cedar Rapids the next morning.[continued...]
Labels: fiction, writing
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