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 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?”
“I guess, maybe. Once in a while.”
“I never saunter.”
“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?”
“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?”
“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.”
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?”
“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 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.
“What do you do when you’re not making drinks, Charlie?” said the man, popping the olive into his mouth.
Charlie shrugged. “Not much.”
“So what do you do?”
“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.
“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.”
“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.