The Simple Life

PhotoFunia-f24f0f8_oSome nights were busy, some were not. This one was not.

The man on the bar stool swiveled and moved his lips as he read. He looked up from his pages, thinking, then said, “What’s a channeled whelk?”

The bartender pulled his head away from the television. A moment later his eyes followed. He scratched his cheek, and began to wash a mug. “That a drink?”

The man shook his head. “I don’t think so.”

“If it’s not a drink, then I don’t know.”

The bartender grabbed another mug, washed it, turned his eyes back to the game. The Mets were out west getting beat by the Dodgers.

The man flipped a page, reading. After a moment, he looked up again, squinting and shaking his head. “What’s a saunter?”

A pause from the bartender. “Is that, like, a kind of walk?”

“Is it? Says here, ‘to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter . . .'”

“Yeah. A saunter is a kind of walk.”

“Do you walk in the morning and saunter in the evening?”

“Do I?”

“Do people. Do they walk in the morning and saunter in the evening?”

“Let me see it.” The bartender reached for the page and read. ‘To be refreshed by a morning walk, or an evening saunter. To be thrilled by the stars at night. To be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in the spring. These are the rewards of the simple life.’  He scratched his cheek again, handed back the page. “I think saunter is just another way of saying the same thing as walk, but different. For variety.”

“Do you saunter?”

“Do I?”

“Yeah.”

“I guess, maybe. Once in a while.”

“I never saunter.”

“No?”

“Never get thrilled by stars either.”

“Can’t see too many around here. In the city.”

“But I’m saying even if you could, I don’t think I’d get too thrilled by them.” The man began to raise his drink to his mouth, stopped, set it down, rubbed his eyes. “Is that bad?”

The bartender shrugged. The man seemed bothered.

“And this part about the bird’s nest,” said the man. “I had a bird’s nest outside my bedroom window.”

“Were you elated by it?”

“Hell no, it pissed me off. I knocked the damn thing down. Damn bird chirped its ass off, woke me up every morning.”

The bartender nodded, said, “I see.”

The man rubbed his neck, ran his hand through his half-moon of hair. “Am I an asshole?”

“Pardon me?”

“I mean, that’s someone’s home. Some bird’s, I mean. Some bird lived there, and I knocked it down. How terrible is that?”

“Was the bird in it?”

“What?”

“Was the bird in the nest when you knocked it down?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did something feathery flap away when the thing fell?”

“I don’t think so. I mean, I was a little drunk, but I don’t think so.”

“I wouldn’t worry.”

“You don’t think?”

“They can build those things – ” he snapped his fingers ” – like that.”

“But I shouldn’t be knocking them down. I should be elated by them on my morning saunter.”

“Evening saunter.”

The man blinked, wrinkled his brow.

“Morning walk, evening saunter.”

“I thought you said they were the same.”

“They are, but the quote – ”

“Do you get thrilled by stars at night?”

“Do I?”

“Yeah.”

“Not especially.”

“And you’re okay with that?”

“It’s never really been a concern. What’s this about, anyway?”

“This stuff somebody gave me.” The man flipped through the pages sloppily. “This collection of quotes and stuff. We got to talking at work one day, me and this lady friend, and she said she was gonna bring me some stuff to read, and this is what she brought, because she collects these quotes and stuff.”

“They make you think, huh?”

“They make me think I’m some kind of asshole.”

The bartender nodded, not necessarily agreeing, just following. “Can’t appreciate chirping much with a hangover,” he said. He watched the man take a last swallow from his drink and set it down on the bar. He let it sit there too long for the man’s liking, and the man gave it a little nudge.

“Aren’t you gonna ask me do I want another martini?”

“Wasn’t planning to.”

“What if I ask you nice?”

“How many you had?”

The man began to calculate this by closing his eyes and tapping the bar with his fingers. He had to start over twice. Finally, he said, “I don’t know.”

“I think you’re drunk.”

“I agree.”

“Driving?”

“I just live down the street. Won’t mess with any bird’s nests on the way back, scout’s honor.”

The bartender shrugged, went to pour the drink. As he poured, he watched the game and was disappointed to see the Mets go down looking in the ninth. He brought the drink back, set it on a napkin, and drove a tiny plastic sword through an olive.

“And after all this time,” said the man, tapping the olive against the glass. “I still don’t know your name.

“Name’s Charlie.”

“What do you do when you’re not making drinks, Charlie?” said the man, popping the olive into his mouth.

Charlie shrugged. “Not much.”

“You drink?”

“Nope.”

“You smoke?”

“No.”

“So what do you do?”

“Different stuff.”

“Like what, for chrissakes?”

Charlie thought a moment, then offered, “I play piano.”

“No kidding? You any good?”

“I’m taking a class.”

“You see? That’s good stuff you do, Charles, you do stuff. Me, I go to work, I come to your bar, I go home, I smoke, I go to work, I knock down bird’s nests, stars don’t thrill me, and I damn sure don’t do any sauntering.”

“Stumbling, though, I seen you do that.”

“And that’s no good,” said the man, pointing the tiny plastic sword at Charlie, for emphasis.

Charlie flipped on the lights. It was about that time.

The man took a last swig, set down the empty glass. I’m doing it wrong, my life. I’m doing it all wrong.”

Charlie shrugged. “Everybody’s got their thing.” He walked to the television and shut it off.

“I’m gonna make some changes, Chuck. Can I call you Chuck?”

“I wish you wouldn’t.”

“Gonna make some changes, Chucko. Gonna dry out. Less boozing, more sauntering, that’s my new motto.” Suddenly, the man’s eyes went wide, and he held out his hand as if to command a silence. He was about to say something terribly important.

“Bumper stickers,” he said.

Charlie blinked.

“I’m gonna make me up some bumper stickers!  ‘Saunter, godammit!’ That’s what they’ll say, and I’ll sell them, by god! I’m gonna do it!”

“Good for you,” said Charlie, and he meant it.

“Look here,” said the man, lazily holding up one of the pages. “‘That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.’ Emily Dickinson said that.”

“Who said that bit about sauntering?”

The man flipped back a few pages, looking for the quote. His fingers were sluggish, and Charlie watched him pass it over twice before he found it. Charlie found the quote, reading upside down, while the man was still scanning the page. “Here it is,” said the man, finally, “Guy name of John Burroughs.”

“Wise man, that guy.”

“You heard of him?”

“I have now.”

“You wouldn’t have if he’d been a drunkard stumbling home at two o’clock every morning.”

“Probably not.”

“Damn straight.”

“Yes sir.”

“Yes, indeed, Chucko.”

The couple by the window pushed back their chairs and waved to Charlie on their way out. Charlie collected their glasses and ashtray and brought them back to wash.

The man at the bar looked at the clock on the wall. It was two a.m. “Yes sir, gonna make me some changes.” The man began packing up his pages, and when he finished they were no more organized than they had been when he started. He rose from his stool, caught his leg, and almost fell. One hand reached for the bar, for balance, the other for his wallet. “How about some 151, Chuckster?”

Wiping down the counter, Charlie said nothing.

“Just a quick one for the road.”

Charlie leaned on the bar, one hand clamping his rag in place, and gazed into the man’s eyes, which were not entirely focused.

“Just one,” said the man.

_____________________________

When Charlie got home that night, like most nights, he wasn’t terribly sleepy. He worked odd hours, so he slept odd hours, staying up well into the night and rising late. He scrambled some eggs, toasted some bread, and ate in silence. His thoughts turned to his sister on the West Coast, and he knew she’d be up. He gave her a call, and they had a good talk about the Dodgers-Mets game.

While they were talking, he watered the plant on the windowsill. Noticing some dust on its leaves, he found a soft cloth and a spray bottle and wiped them clean. He opened the blinds for the light to enter in the morning. Some leaves seemed a bit less green than the others, and these he turned towards the window.

He opened the fridge and poured a glass of milk. He carried the glass to the piano and set the glass on a coaster so it wouldn’t make a ring on the wood. It was old, his piano, and not worth much, but that didn’t matter much to him.

He sat on the bench in front of the piano for some time. He drank his milk and gazed out the window at the tree rising up from the circle cut out of the sidewalk. He didn’t think the tree contained a bird’s nest, but he wasn’t certain. Then he placed his fingers on the keyboard and began to play.

54 thoughts on “The Simple Life

  1. You captured the essence of lonley-ness between the two chaps beautifully. Brought back the visual of an old friend, “Fat Jim”, who would ponder these things. I think of “Meander” as a morning walk, random, no real destination. Thanks Walt.

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  2. Was drawn in to this straight away by the realistic dialogue. The whole thing had an atmosphere that reminded me of Cormac McCarthy stories. Would love to read more. And saunter a little.

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    • Thanks so much for your kind words. None of us wants to write in a vacuum, and feedback like this makes all the difference in the world. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

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    • Oh, I don’t blame you, I never want to read posts this long. In fact, I resolved a while back to limit mine to 1000 words or less. But I break my own rule sometimes when I post things that were written before I made the rule. I think my rule has made me a better writer, though. It’s helped me focus on eliminating a lot of unnecessary words. Even when I’m well under the limit, I now see places to cut where I didn’t before. Thanks so much for plowing ahead. I’m glad that you’re glad you did!

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  3. Like the sauntering pace of the dialogue, the desultory conversation of the vague drunk. Why does inebriation always bring forth life-altering vows to be forgotten in the morning? Subconscious minds unveiled. Loved it!

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    • Frederick, I just saw this comment from over a year ago and noticed that I didn’t reply to it. I know it’s kind of ridiculous to respond to it at this point, but responding I am, if only to say I’m sorry for missing it. It’s important to me to respond to every comment and I flubbed it up on this one. Apologies. Thanks for your kind words, it means a lot. ~ Walt

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  4. Each of us should always learn how to enjoy the simple things around and stop looking for some unrealistic material stuff. I like the last four paragraphs which depicted such a simple and peaceful life.

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  7. This is gold, here. It feels effortless and rich, and flows real nicely. And I had a couple good guffaws about the bird. I have that same bird outside my window and they’ll be back here soon. Great writing Walt.

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  8. Your dialogue in this story is nothing short of incredible. Definitely taken a few pointers, that I will be using in my own writing. The more I see of your blog, the more I’m enjoying myself. I can see why you have so many followers 😉

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  9. Dude, do you have any idea how effortlessly your story reads. It’s like these words are flowing out of your brain juices and you’re just kind of catching them in order. Great writing friend! I’m new to all this so congratulations, you’re my first follow, and you know what they say about ‘firsts’. I think we just became best friends. Looking forward to more in the future.

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    • Thanks so much for stopping by and reading, and for the kind words. Glad you felt it flowed b/c it actually went through a bunch of heavy edits and polishes. Sometimes that can suck the life out of something. Sometimes you get it right. Maybe I got it right on this one. Thanks again.

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      • Hmm…interesting. I always saw Charlie as the guy who gets stories out of others. I’ve never thought about what stories Charlie might have in himself wanting to get out. What do you suppose those might be?

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      • He definitely has his own story to tell. He comes across as one of those quiet, enigmatic people hidden in the back ground. A nod and a wave to people he sees regularly, but no-one knows him properly. Someone who you instantly feel comfortable around, but don’t know why. I think he could be either a writer with severe writer’s block after a traumatic love affair (too cliché?) or a writing genius who can’t handle his constantly churning imagination, so he takes a job as a bartender. drawing stories out of unsuspecting customers and churning out novels in his 2nd floor apartment, just to keep his mind from overloading. He should be a writer as he loves observing people – but at a slight distance – hence the bar job (people only notice you when they want to order something or too drunk to realise they don’t ‘know’ you).
        Hahahaha – sorry got carried away there!
        I love the way you write. It’s so different from the normal ‘start middle finish’, It flows like a conversation. I can equate it to listening to Peter Ustinov when he used to give one of his talks. You could listen to him for hours and not realise hours had gone by. Kate :0)

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      • So I like your ideas about Charlie. Would you be interested in writing your own story about him? You could post it here and on your own blog as well. You are welcome to give it a go if you’d like. If so, great, if not no worries. Totally up to you and I’m fine either way. Just thought I’d put the offer out there.

        “So different from the normal ‘start middle finish.’ Well, I guess so, now that you mention it. I never thought about it. Or rather, I’ve never thought about middles, and I often feel like I don’t know where to begin things. But I like a finish that wraps things up. I like the finish to say ‘okay, that’s why I read this whole thing, I get it now.’ I read a short story published in a lit mag once that was all about a guy and the faucet in his sink, or something. I think the guy might have been a monk. I read the whole thing and at the end I thought, what a waste of my time. I’d like my writing to live somewhere between “best thing I ever read” and “well, it least it didn’t waste my time.” Anywhere in that range, I’ll be happy!

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      • Hello Walt
        Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to this. I was a bit gobsmacked to be honest. Never been asked to write a piece with someone before and I was a bit scared. However, I thought ‘what the heck’ if it fails it fails, but have a go. I wrote this today. It leads straight on from your final line. Would appreciate any feedback

        The music Charlie played depended on what mood he was in.
        When he was angry, he played Chopin as it gave him something else to concentrate on. His subconscious could then deal with his turmoil for a while. Anger had never been an emotion Charlie had the time or inclination for, so it was a rare event. When he was upbeat, he played a bit of ‘Boogie Woogie’ or Cole Porter.
        Tonight – or rather this morning, he was playing some soft Jazz.
        This was the music of his reflective mood. Luckily, the neighbors didn’t complain about him playing his piano at all hours of the night. Charlie lives on the top floor of a three floor apartment block.
        On one side of him, the guy worked nights at an all-night truck stop and on the other side, the lady ‘worked nights’ from home. No one lives in the apartment below – not since the police raid a few months ago. Never did find out what the deal was.
        Charlie was a listener of the tall tales and sea of woes from the bar flies and irregulars that came in to ‘Laguna Paraiso’. He always wondered about the name, but not enough ask.
        He liked working the late shift as most nights, business just ‘ticked over’ – mainly shift workers who liked their favorite bar stool. Only when ‘out of towners’ came in and got a bit ‘hands on’ with the ladies after one too many Tequilas’ was there any real trouble.
        Charlie always kept an eye on them and refused to sell them drinks after a certain number, but some guys were whiley and sneaked in a hip flask or two. Then it would be denials, protestations and flailing fisticuffs as Charlie had them thrown out with a warning not to return.

        He was in a reflective mood because of his earlier telephone conversation with his sister (‘When are you coming home? It’s been years! She doesn’t even live around here no more, you need to move on Sweetie’) and for some reason, the conversation he’d had with the old ‘nest destroyer’ guy at the bar.
        ‘I’m doing it wrong, my life. I’m doing it all wrong’ the guy had said.
        It had made Charlie think. ‘Am I doing it all wrong? Should I really be here, living alone in this soulless apartment? Listening to sob stories from drunks, wiping up spilt beer and scraping gum from under the pool table once a week?’
        He took a gulp of milk and played on, the soothing notes washing over him as he stared out of his now blind-less window onto the street below.

        Nothing going on yet, it was too early. He watched the sun peek over the roof of the apartment block opposite – the light permeated the tree outside.
        ‘Is that a Sycamore’? He thought, then shrugged his shoulders. Still no sign of birdlife there.
        He stopped playing, walked over to the window and opened it slightly to allow the cool morning breeze blow gently through the apartment.
        He threw himself on the bed, letting his left arm shield his eyes from the sun as he dozed off to sleep. ‘Really need to retune that piano’ he said to himself.

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      • Didn’t mean to gobsmack you, but understood and no worries. I will post it as a guest post if you’re okay with that, linking back to your blog and mentioning you by name. If you’re not okay with that, there are other options, like linking to the comment. Or doing nothing. Whatever you are comfortable with. What do you think?

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      • Hello Walt. Thanks. I just wanted your opinion. really. I started writing with one idea in my head and as I wrote it, it changed. I think Charlie could be a great character and could spawn a book (not me, I only write short stories and poetry). Don’t know what it is about him – maybe he’s an American Mr D’Arcy in the rough ?:0)

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      • Hi Kate! Okay, I won’t post it then since it sounds like you don’t want me to.

        It’s interesting that you have him living on the third floor. I too envisioned him being at the top of the building, but not a tall one.

        I like the way he opens the window – that seems very “Charlie,” and I can see him falling asleep with his last thought being about the piano needing tuning.

        Where I see him differently is the parts that talked about anger (the beginning) and that hinted at angst (the end, the “doing it all wrong” part). My take on him was that he seemed like someone who was just fine with his station in life and who would never really register any negative feeling stronger than mild annoyance. I guess what I’m saying is that to me he seemed like a guy more or less at peace with himself. However that’s not meant to take away from anything you’ve done here. I think readers have a lot of room to layer their own take onto the character.

        I get what you are saying about sitting down to write one thing only to find it come out as something else. That’s happening to me in a couple of things I’m working on right now. I find its best to allow that to happen, then go back and remove the parts that started out as something else, or that don’t fit now that the thing has redefined itself.

        Thanks so much for taking the time to do this. I’m honored that something I wrote affected you or stayed with you after the final sentence. There’s a lot of stuff out there on the interwebs and most of it is disposable, including most of what I do. Glad this one wasn’t.

        Thanks again!

        Walt

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      • PS – I probably should read P&P sometime. This Mr. D’Arcy fellow has had quite an impact himself. I have a feeling I’d like it, and even if not it would be worth it just to know what everyone’s talking about!

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      • Hello Walt.
        Thank you so much for the reply. I am so glad you liked it. I did originally think of Charlie as okay with his lot, but then I thought – where would the story go from there? Would he just be a conduit for other peoples stories? I like that he is a bit ‘Zen’, but there has to be some sort of discord for a story to focus on him – but I know you don’t see him as that. P&P is a fabulous book I have read it many times. It’s not just Mr D’Arcy , it’s about how people lose out in love and life by going along with the ‘status quo’ or the restrictions of etiquette and class, when all they had to do was say no I’m not doing it that way.
        I really enjoy reading your work. I love the way you can write completely different things in different ways and it always makes me think – which I love. So thank you again :0)

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      • You’re right, of course. If he’s content with his lot, there’s not much of a story. He would have to want or need something, or something would have to happen to him.

        I didn’t know Pride & Prejudice was about all of that. That sounds right up my alley. I should definitely read it.

        Well, that was the nicest way to end a comment that I could ever imagine! Thank you for reading! I’m glad to hear that you can often find something to connect with as I flit from thing to thing! 🙂

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  10. Hello Walt. You’re very welcome. Thanks very much for the feedback and comments, much appreciated. I think you will like not just the story of ‘Pride and Prejudice’, but also the wonderful language. wit and conversational banter. If you could get a glimpse of the BBC TV adaptation with Colin Firth as D’Arcy it would give you an idea. Also the costumes and scenery are sumptuous.. I’ll stop selling it now :0)

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  11. Can I say that I have not read anything good in a while but this touched my heart. If I was not at work I would have cried my eyes out… How something simple like that could change the man… I love this and I am going to read more of your work!

    With Love

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