Tuesday, January 1, 2013

The Sign


                    It was almost Christmas. Christmas was in a couple of days. The frozen sky followed me into Al's Bar, and I slammed shut the door against it. Bones sat on the bar stool closest to the big window. “Hi yer, Stranger,” Bones said. It was cold and dark outside, but warm and bright inside Al's Bar. It was very cold in Chelsea that night. I says “hi” to Bones. I walked over and sat at the bar beside John. He was drinking a beer and studying the papers. Usually John went to Jack's to study the papers after work. Jack's was on Broadway near the corner of Fifth Street. Jack's was a quiet place till they started happy hour at six. Sometimes they started happy hour at five.
  Bones turned to EJ who was sitting beside him, and he said, “Hey, look at that light!” 
  EJ, perched precariously on the bar stool, turned, and leaning back, the beer bottle glued to his lower lip, he peered past Bones out the window. “Light? What light?” EJ said. 
  “Over there,” Bones said. “I seen a light.” Bones was very thin; he ambled along through life a bag of bones. Sometimes he worked at the chicken processor, other times at the riggers'. The flesh tightly wrapped his face. When he laughed he tipped back his head and made with his mouth a big, happy, silent circle. “It's over there,” he pointed out the window. 
  “He seen a light,” EJ explained to himself, “a light on the brain.” EJ was strong shouldered and thick around the waist, and he walked with a limp, claimed that he had got an extra bone in his leg while doing hard time in Viet Nam.
  John, the old man, glanced up from the newspaper, and said to me, “They're drunk, and it ain't even night yet.”
  “Am I lying?” Bones said. Waving his arms, he slowly swiveled the bar stool. “'Cause why would I lie?”
  Al stood behind the bar, leaning, smiling broadly, his big nose shiny under the light, his tiny eyes pinched in the slots.
  “Look for yourself,” Bones said. 
  But EJ said, “We don't needa look.” 
  So Bones stood, shuffled the short distance to the window, made a bowl on the window between his palms, pressed his forehead into it. “By Jesus, it's a light. Don't tell me. Between the buildings.” 
  John snorted and EJ grumbled. 
  “Don't tell me whud I seen, when I seen whud I seen.” 
  “Yeah,” EJ said, “the light between your ears.” 
  “I ain't got light between my ears. I ain't got nothing between my ears. The light's out there.”
  Bones and EJ commenced swearing at each other pleasantly. EJ summed it up, “Light! Ya bum!” 
  Bones cocked his leg, swung it over the bar stool, sat down and said, “Oh, yous shad dap. There's a light over there, I'm telling yah. On the horizon, there, between the buildings.”
  That's when I says, “I saw a light, too. I was walking down the street and I saw a strange light over there far away to the west.”
  “See?” Bones says. “That's what I say, Stranger, the same as what you say.” 
  “Where?” EJ says. He tips back off the bar stool, leans toward the window. “There ain't a light. It's dark.” 
  “Between the two buildings, beyond the vacant lot.” Bone's fingertip stumbled toward the light.
  “Don't shit me, now,” EJ says. “If I get up and look out that window, where you're shitting me, I'm gonna swat yous both.” 
  “Oh, I'm so sceered,” Bones says. Then he explained confidentially to Al, “he's pro'ly gonna swat me down, Al. I'm so skeerd.”
  Al's eyes under the clean, pale forehead, locked in their slots. His mouth made another slot which struggled not to laugh.
  “Shaddap,” EJ says. He straightened his shoulders, stepped toward the window, cupped his palms, peered out the window between his palms. “Well, I'll be damned. An askteroid? Or one of them wazzits? A comet? No. The bomb blast. It's the A bomb, blasting off. Finally. No more Chelsea!” 
  “The A bomb!” Bones said. “It ain't. It's the light.”
  John looked up from the newspaper, and said, “Now I seen it all. The whole bunch of them seen a light.”
  “Then come look!” EJ said, peeved at John. “You old bassud.”
  “I ain't goin' there. Whud I wanna go there for? Whud I look like?” John said.
  EJ was still looking. 
  “Pro'ly a comet,” Bones agreed. 
  “Comets have a tail. That's just a light. Like a star. A light,” EJ says. It's his idea now. 
  “Well, what then?” Bones wonders. 
  “How'na hell do I know?” EJ lurched back to the bar, cocked his leg over the stool, sat. EJ's and Bone's necks were loose, hangdog.
  Chicky sat at the bar half way between EJ and John. Chicky was patiently counting his pennies. He alleged loudly that he had personally counted out and stacked in front of him on the bar five neat stacks of ten pennies each, the price of another beer. Chicky worked with EJ and Bones too, sometimes, at the chicken processor. He liked to play poker with the boys. His place was across the street. Ma Janny, a Maine Indian woman, kept the house. She was a good housekeeper and the boys liked to go over to play poker, but Chicky chiseled pennies. Al counted every penny because Chicky would count just nine pennies to a ten penny pile. Al disapproved loudly; Chicky must think Al's Bar was the neighborhood piggy bank. He threatened to throw Chicky out. Chicky denied resolutely that nine pennies were in a ten penny pile. Al counted out nine pennies, so Chicky threw in an extra penny for good measure. At the conclusion of threats and counter threats Al brought him a Millers. Chicky's connivance interested and amused the men, and they were jolted out of their doldrums.
  EJ recommenced debate concerning the origin of the light. Could it possibly be the lights at the airport? 
  But Bones argued, “The airport is that way,” cocking his head in the direction opposite. “It must be the bomb, I guess. They finally let her off and she's comin to Chelsea, and the whole place is gonna drop off into a sinkhole. Just a few empty beer bottles rattling around, and two of Chicky's nickels with Chicky's hand wrapped around them cut off at the wrist.” Then Bones turned away to catch Chicky's eye. Chicky sat counting a new pile of pennies that he had chiseled. “Chick,” Bones said, “is that a light or is that a light?”
  “How'na hell do I know? Either one, I guess. Now, don't bother me. I'm busy.”
  John burst out laughing. Here the old man was, reading the papers, trying to learn something about the world, instead of being a dumb ass all his life, and he had to put up with this! He said, “No wonder I usually go to Jack's.”
  Then I, Paul Paris, whom they liked to call Stranger, spoke up suddenly, “I saw a light, too. I thought it was beautiful. It was to the west.”
  EJ and Bones looked at me lazily. John blushed because he had to be sitting beside such a nut. John was peculiarly unable to prevent himself from blushing. A lot of things made him blush.
  Chicky stopped counting. He used to teach school, but it turned out that he hated the little “barstards”. Chicky turned toward me, and he said, “What?” Then he shook his head. “As if I don't have enough to do. So quit botherin me.” 
  “Who the hell's botherin you,” Bones interrupted. 
  “You! So shaddap.” 
  “Whudder'ya mad at me for?” Bones said, opening his arms. 
  Chicky glared at him, tossed a last penny down on the bar. Grunting, he stood up, walked purposefully to the window, glared out, grunted, walked back, sat down and announced, “It's the junkyard.” 
  “The junkyard!” Bones says, waving his arms. “That way is the junkyard.” Pointing off awry.
  Chicky hunched over his pennies, counting. “I said it's the junkyard. Now don't bother me.”
  EJ looked at Bones; Bones looked at EJ. They burst out laughing. EJ slapped his thighs. Every time Bones' mouth formed the big round circle, a new silence came out. Both having finally stopped laughing, EJ and Bones up an walked to the window, and they glared out. 
  “Donno,” Bones said. “Can't hardly see it no more.” 
  “Hell, I never did seen it,” EJ said. 
  They walk back, cock legs, sit. 
  “Most likely won't ever seen it again,” Bones said. 
  “Al, 'nother beer for the boys,” EJ said, meaning for himself. 
  “Must have a name though,” Bones said. “Because if it has a name, nobody's gonna pay much attention to it. But since it don't have a name, watch out.”  So Bones stood up, turned. 
  “What now?” EJ shouted. 
  “I just wantta have one more good look at her.” 
  “It's an askteroid. I told ya.” EJ was getting all befuddled by this activity. 
  “Oh oh, asteroids don't have names.” Says Bones. 
  “Then siddown and shaddap. Drink! Simple. Nobody bothers ya.” 
  But Bones was not to be talked out of it. He cupped his hands at the window, and said, “There it is! We thought it was gone. But there it is! Brighter, too, looks like, wouldn't be surprised.”
  “Awright. Wouldya just sid down and shad'dap? Who cares, for cryin out loud?” 
  “Funny,” Bones said softly. 
  So now EJ was about to have a fit. “What's so goddamn funny about it?” He said. 
  “Well, it wasn't there, and now it is!” Then after a long silence Bones added, wistfully softly, “Blinking?” 
  “Sure. Pro'ly the stop light down the corner.” 
  “Nahh. Oh well,” Bones concluded. He walked, cocked, sat. Thinking about it. Silent. Musing on it.
  Al brought “the boys” another beer, picked fifty cents out of the pile E J had accumulated on the bar.
  Then I said, “I don't think it blinked. Lights like that don't blink. Something musta got in the way for a second.”
  “That's what I say, Stranger,” Bones said. “That's maybe true.” 
  “Maybe it's a sign,” I said. 
  “Could be. Yes, could be a sign,” Bones said. “But how would I know a sign even if I saw a sign?” 
  “Why not get off our sorry dead butts and go find out?” I said. 
  “Let me tell you guys something,” EJ concluded. “There must be a load of really stupid bullshit going on around here, because I feel like I'm gonna vomit.”
  “Here's a sign,” Chicky said, throwing ten pennies on top of the bar.
  “That's one thing,” John said. “I'm reading the papers, and I don't like people botherin me.”
  “Yeah,” EJ said, loudly. “In short, shad'dap!”
  “From God,” Bones said. “Did you ever think about it? A sign from God?” 
  “Only one way to find out,” I said. “Get up off our sorry butts, and go find out.” 
  “Colder than a bitch out there, Stranger,” Bones said. 
  “A lot of things,” I says. “Cold. Impossible. Who's going to believe you? From God. Come on!”
  “You know what it looks like to me?” Al said. “Gus, at the junkyard. They put up lights, you know, so the crew can work late.”
  “But that's not the right direction,” Bones said.
  “Sure. It's reflecting off the buildings. I've noticed it the last couple of nights.”
  “No!” I said. I didn't want it to be the lights at Emerald Auto Parts. What would make Gus and the crew work late on a night like this? It was almost Christmas. Christmas in a couple of days. No, it must be something else, but I didn't know what. Why can't a regular guy get a sign, too, because other people do? If I had a sign, I'd know what I was doing. I really wanted to know what I was doing. Because I didn't know what I was doing.
  “Oh well, I guess,” Bones said.
  It was zero outside and the wind howling, and inside Al's was warm and bright. Nobody went anywhere.
  “No sense running around,” EJ said. “'Mon, have a few. Nothin bothers ya.”
  Then Rosie dropped in, EJ's lady. Boy, she was a handful.

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