26 October 2010

Making Plans For Nigel (a short story)

The following is a short story I wrote a number of years ago - just after I graduated from the Art Institute, maybe 2003. It was published in Spindrift, Shoreline Community College's Art & Literary Journal. They have it online too, but I've never been happy with how they have it laid out. So here it is. Just because...

Making Plans for Nigel

Once Nigel gets here he wouldn't have to drink by himself anymore, thought Berk. He went into Viento's, the dark Mexican bar on second avenue. He stood near the doorway for a minute until his eyes grew accustomed to the dim. There were bare bulbs hanging down over a third of the tables, the rest just had empty sockets on the end of twisted wire. There were only a handful of people in the bar at that time of night. They looked up at him for a moment, then bent back to their drinks.

Berk went to the bar and ordered two beers. He paid for them with the bald man's money and took them to a table in the back. That was what he did in bars, since Nigel had gone. He always ordered two beers at the bar so that the bartender would think there was someone else joining him. He would walk up to the bar and wait until the bartender came up to him. Then he would glance back at the door and then at the bar clock. He would hesitate and then look up at the bartender with a calm but impatient look and order one beer. Just when the bartender would start to turn away he would look back at the door and change the order to two beers. This way the bartender would know someone would be meeting him shortly, that he wasn't all alone.

He would then take the two beers to a back table and sit down. He would drink three swallows from one beer and place it across the table from him. He would then take a drink of the other beer and roll himself a cigarette. When the cocktail waitress walked by he would flag her down and ask her for some matches. Just as she would start to turn away he would make a noise to get her attention, look towards the bathrooms, and ask her if they could see a menu. That way she would know someone else was with him, that he wasn't all alone. Later on when she would come back to check on him, he would explain that his friend had been called away for an appointment. By this time the beer opposite him would be empty and his would be half gone. The menus would be across the table near the empty beer. He would explain that he wasn't the one who had been hungry and that he would just like another beer. This way she would know that he had been with someone earlier, that he wasn't all alone.

He liked to say that Nigel had been called away for an appointment. He liked the sound of the word appointment. He would never have thought to use that word on his own, but once in a bar somewhere he had heard a man with a tie stand up and say it to a group of people he had been sitting with. The man with the tie stood up and said he had to leave, that he had an appointment to attend to. Sometimes Berk added the "to attend to" at the end, but not always. He was happy the man had said that because he had used it many times. No one could possibly think he was alone. He was happy that now no one would think he was alone and he was happy that he had come up with the idea of the two beers and the appointment. But it was also a lot of work. He did this in bars all across the city. He had to make sure he didn't go back to one too soon so that the bartender and cocktail waitress would not remember him and his friend that had to leave. It was a lot of work for his brain and it made him tired. It wore down his nerves. He would be glad when Nigel came back and he wouldn't have to do that anymore.

The bald man had not wanted to give Berk his money. It was OK, sometimes it was like that. You just had to make them see that they had to give the money. He did this by slamming the heel of his hand into their nose. If the shock didn't convince them, the pain and blood usually did. Berk's nerves were on edge that night. The bald man had been the third person he had tried to get money from after they left the mini-bank machine. The first two had not had any money with them. They must have been putting money into the machine instead of taking it out. It was OK, sometimes it was like that, but he usually didn't have to wait for three people before he got the money. And with Nigel getting out tomorrow his nerves were really shot. The bald man had started crying after he took his money, so he had had to put him in the bushes and make sure he didn't cry anymore. It was his nerves. Normally it didn't end up that way, but sometimes it was like that.

The cocktail waitress came back and asked him if he wanted anything to eat yet. Berk didn't like to eat. He kept away from eating if he could help it. He asked for another beer. He would sure be glad when Nigel got back and he didn't have to drink by himself. It had been three years since Nigel had been sent away, since he had been caught with one of the people from the mini-bank machines. Berk didn't know sometimes how he had made it this long without Nigel. He knew that he was right on the verge sometimes, and that maybe he wouldn't make it. But now Nigel was getting back tomorrow. Berk knew that he wasn't very smart like they tried to teach him in books when he was younger. Nigel was a lot smarter, but Berk knew some things pretty good. He knew which parks you could sleep in without getting beaten by other men or woken up by the cops. He knew which restaurants put their old food out in the alleys without mixing it with the coffee grounds and eggshells and other trash. He didn't like to eat, but sometimes it was necessary. He knew where you could take the whores without getting arrested. And he knew how to get money for beer and whiskey. He didn't know much from books or things like that, but the real stuff, the important stuff he knew pretty good.

Berk saw his life in three parts. The first part was growing up and he didn't like to think about it. He sometimes had dreams with his father in them. His father hitting him with a broken car antenna or slapping his ears and telling him to get a goddamn beer out of the ice box. Sometimes the dreams were of his mother and all her cousins. Her cousins usually came over after his father had gone to work the graveyard shift at the paper mill. He didn't think it strange until later that all his mother's cousins were men and that they always went into her room with her and laughed and laughed. Later, after his father went away, his mother would sometimes get dressed up real pretty. He would get excited thinking they were going to go somewhere. Then she would kiss him on the cheek and leave and lock him in the apartment. Once she had been gone for three weeks. He had finally broken out the window in the back and climbed out on the fire escape to go play. When she got back she beat him for breaking the window. He didn't like to think about the first part of his life and tried to make himself not dream about it, but sometimes it was like that.

The second part of his life started when he met Nigel. He didn't even remember where they met, but his life had been exciting and good for the first time. Sometimes it felt like he had been with Nigel for years and years. Then other times he knew that it could have only been a few months. But what a few months they were. They seemed like a lifetime to Berk. Nigel and he would drink and drink and then go visit the whores. Nigel even knew some of their names and he would talk to them. And the whores would talk back, and sometimes even to Berk. He liked talking to the whores. He hadn't talked once to them, except to say what he wanted, since Nigel had gone. He couldn't wait until Nigel came back and they could laugh and talk to the whores again.

Nigel was the one who showed him how to get the beer money from the mini-bank machines. He had messed up the first time he tried it and the man had got away. Nigel had been mad, but he hadn't said anything. He just looked at Berk and shook his head. He had made sure he did it right the next time. Nigel called it beer and chow money, but Berk didn't like to eat much. They would go to all-night restaurants and Nigel would have two breakfasts and a milkshake. Berk would just have some toast and coffee. Sometimes a ground steak if he felt kind of weak. Nigel would just look at him and shake his head. He felt bad when Nigel shook his head at him. Then Nigel would tell some crazy story and they would laugh. Once Nigel picked up one of the little plastic creamers and held it upside down over the dish. He squeezed it until it burst open and cream shot out across the room onto a little girl at another table. They had laughed and laughed. The man with the girl stood up and began yelling at them. Nigel jumped up and slapped the man across the face. The man fell down and then crawled back to his table. That had been a good night.

Then they went back to their flat and shared a bottle of wine. The flat reminded Berk a little of the apartment where he grew up. The walls were cracked and some of them had mold on them. The bathroom sink didn't work and neither did the stove. Roaches and flies ran in and out. There were always winos getting sick out front and the hallway smelled like piss and the bitch landlady would always nag about the rent. Still, he liked it. He had his own little room with just a mattress on the floor, but that's all he needed. Nigel had a desk and dresser and a big bed in his room and some nights Berk could hear the springs squeaking when the whores would come around. He had lost the flat soon after Nigel had gone. He knew that once Nigel came back they would get another flat, an even better one, and they would have wine again and the whores would come over and he wouldn't even mind the sick winos and the piss-smell hallway and the bitch landlady.

The third part of his life was everything since Nigel had gone. Most days just passed by without him realizing they were going. Sometimes people would talk to him, and he would listen for a while, and then it's like his mind just started thinking about other things or nothing at all and wander off on its own little path and then Berk would walk away. During the summer he would sleep in the safe parks and in the winter he would go to a shelter or break into a car to sleep. Once Nigel came back he wouldn't have to sleep outside ever again.

The next day he was waiting by the Irish bar on fifth when he finally saw Nigel. He was walking up the street a few blocks over. Berk started grinning like a little kid and jumping around, and he began running toward Nigel when he saw him. He ran over to Nigel and began asking him when they were going to get a flat and if he wanted to go get two breakfasts and a milkshake and when could they talk to the whores. Then Nigel just stared at him for a little while. He asked him what he was still doing hanging around here after three years.

Berk said he had been waiting for him, making plans, trying not to think too much. Nigel just shook his head and said he couldn't be held back by a dummy anymore and that he was catching a bus to Phoenix the next morning and getting out of this crappy city and its cold winters. Berk said he'd never been to Phoenix before but if the winters weren't cold then it was alright with him. Nigel shook his head again. He said that Berk didn't understand because he was slow. Nigel said that he didn't want to be around a dummy like Berk anymore, that he was going to Phoenix by himself. He told Berk to get lost. Then he turned around.

Berk just stood there and watched Nigel walk off down the street. His mind went off on its little wandering path and he didn't remember hitting Nigel on the back of the head with the beer bottle. He had then had to put Nigel in the bushes because he didn't want to hear him crying anymore. Or maybe it was Berk who had been crying. He couldn't remember. He walked around for a few hours and then he stopped. His mind came back from its little wandering path. It had begun to get dark and the street lights were flickering on. He saw the streets stretching off in the distance between the tall buildings and the dirty, snow-covered parks. He saw the winos huddled in the alleyways piled with trash. He saw the whores he couldn't talk to, and he saw the rest of his life stretched out in front of him. It wasn't supposed to end up this way.

But sometimes it was like that.

- Kevin Timmermans ©2003 (with apologies to XTC)


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