THE MOMENT WAS STRANGE. There was no reality in the bar; there was no longer solidity; all things merged, one into the other. Time had stopped.
He sat alone in a booth, listening to the music which came out of a red plastic box, lighted within. Some of the music he remembered from having heard it in other places. But the words he could no longer understand. He could recall only vague associations as he got drunk, listening to music.
His glass of whiskey and water and ice had slopped over and the top of the table was interesting now: islands and rivers and occasional lakes made the top of the table a continent. With one finger he traced designs on the wooden table. He made a circle out of a lake; he formed two rivers from the circle; he flooded and destroyed an island, creating a sea. There were so many things that could be done with whiskey and water on a table.
The jukebox stopped playing.
He waited a long time for it to start again. He took a swallow of the whiskey to help him wait. Then after a long time, in which he tried not to think, the music started. A record of a song he remembered was playing and he allowed himself to be taken back to that emotional moment in time when . . . when? He tried hard to remember the place and the time, but it was too late. Only a pleasant emotion could be recalled.
He was drunk.
Time collapsed. Years passed before he could bring the drink to his mouth. Legs numb, elbows detached, he seemed to be supported by air, and by the music from the jukebox. He wondered for a moment where he was. He looked about him but there were no clues, only a bar in a city. What city?
He made a new island on the tabletop. The table was his home and he felt a strong affection for the brown scarred wood, for the dark protectiveness of the booth, for the lamp which did not work because there was no bulb in the socket. He wanted never to leave. This was home. But then he finished his drink, and was lost. He would have to get another one. How? He frowned and thought. A long time went by and he did not move, the empty glass in front of him.
At last he came to a decision. He would leave the booth and go talk to the man behind the bar. It was a long voyage but he was ready for it.
He stood up, became dizzy, and sat down again, very tired. A man with a white apron came over to his table; he probably knew about liquor.
"You want something?"
Yes, that was what he wanted, something. He nodded and said slowly so that the words would be clear, "Want some whiskey, water, bourbon, water . . . what I been drinking."
The man looked at him suspiciously. "How long you been here?"
He didn't know the answer to that. He would have to be sly. "I have been here for one hour," he said carefully.
"Well, don't go passing out or getting sick. People got no consideration for others when it comes to doing things like that for other people to clean up."
He tried to say that he did have consideration for others but it was no use. He could not talk anymore. He wanted to get back home, to the tabletop. "I'm OK," he said, and the man went away.
But the top of the table was no longer home. The intimacy had been dispelled by the man with the apron. Rivers, lakes, islands, all were unfamiliar; he was lost in a new country. There was nothing for him to do except turn his attention to the other people in the barroom. Now that he had lost his private world, he wanted to see what, if anything, the others had found.
The bar was just opposite him and behind it two men in white aprons moved slowly. Four five six people stood at the bar. He tried to count them but he could not. Whenever he tried to count or to read in a dream, everything dissolved. This was like a dream. Was it a dream?
A woman wearing a green dress stood near him, large buttocks, dress too tight. She stood very close to a man in a dark suit. She was a whore. Well well well. . . .
He wondered about the other booths. He was at the center of a long line of booths, yet he knew nothing about the people in any of them. A sad thought, to which he drank.
Then he stood up. Unsteadily, but with a face perfectly composed, he walked toward the back of the barroom.
The men's room was dirty and he took a deep breath before he entered so that he would not have to breathe inside. He saw himself reflected in a cracked distorted mirror hung high on the wall. Blond hair, milk white, bloodshot eyes staring brightly, crazily. Oh, he was someone else all right. But who? He held his breath until he was again in the barroom.
He noticed how little light there was. A few shaded bulbs against the walls and that was all, except for the jukebox, which gave not only light but wonderful colors. Red blood, yellow sun, green grass, blue sky. He stood by the jukebox, his hands caressing the smooth plastic surface. This
was where he belonged, close to light and color.
Then he was dizzy. His head ached and he could not see clearly; stomach contracted with sharp nausea.
He held his head between his hands and slowly he pushed out the dizziness. But then he pushed too hard and brought back memory; he had not wanted to do that. Quickly he returned to the booth, sat down, put his hands on the table, and looked straight ahead. Memory began to work. There had been a yesterday and a day before, and twenty-five years of being alive before he found the bar.
"Here's your drink." The man looked at him. "You feeling all right? If you don't feel good you better get out of here. We don't want nobody getting sick in here."
"I'm all right."
"You sure had a lot to drink tonight." The man went away.
He had had a lot to drink. It was past one and he had been in the bar since nine o'clock. Drunk, he wanted to be drunker, without memory, or fear.
"You all by yourself?" Woman's voice. He didn't open his eyes for a long time, hoping that if he could not see her she could not see him. A basic thing to wish but it failed. He opened his eyes.
"Sure," he said. "Sure." It was the woman in the green dress.
Her hair was dyed a dark red and her face was white with powder. She too was drunk. She leaned unsteadily over his table and he could see between her breasts.
"May I sit down?"
He grunted; she sat opposite him.
"It's been an awfully hot summer, hasn't it?" She made conversation. He looked at her, wondering if he could ever assimilate her into the world of the booth. He doubted it. For one thing, there was too much of her, and none of it simple.
"Sure," he said.
"I must say you're not very talkative, are you?"
"Guess not." The intimacy of the booth was gone for good now. He asked, not caring, "What's your name?"
She smiled, his attention obtained. "Estelle. Nice name, isn't it? My mother named all of us with names like that. I had one sister called Anthea and my brother was called Drake. I think Drake is a very attractive name for a man, don't you? He's in women's wear. What's your name?"
"Willard," he said, surprised that he was giving her his right name. "Jim Willard."
"That's a nice name. Sounds so English. I think English names are attractive. In origin I'm Spanish myself. Oh, I'm thirsty! I'll call the waiter for you."
The waiter, who seemed to know her, brought her a drink. "Just what the doctor ordered." She smiled at him. Under the table her foot touched his. He moved both feet under his chair.
She was not distressed. She drank rapidly. "You from New York?"
He shook his head and cooled his forefinger in the half-empty glass.
"You sound sort of Southern from the way you talk. Are you from the South?"
"Sure," he said, and he took his forefinger out of the glass. "I'm from the South."
"It must be nice down there. I've always wanted to go to Miami but I never seem to get away from the city. You see, all my friends are here and I can't very well leave them. I did have a friend once, a man," she smiled privately, "and he always went to Florida in the winter. He had beautiful luggage. He invited me to go down with him and I almost went, once." She paused. "That was ten years ago." She sounded sad, and he didn't pity her at all.
"Of course it must be terribly hot there in the summer. In fact, it's so hot here
that I think sometimes I'll die
from the heat. Were you in the war?"
He yawned, bored. "I was a soldier."
"I'll bet you look good in a uniform. But I'm glad it's finally over, the war."
He moved his glass around the table, listening to the satisfying noise it made as it hit scars and cracks. She watched him. He wished she would go away.
"Why're you in New York?" she asked. "And why are you getting drunk? You got everything and still you're sitting here all by yourself, getting drunk. I wish I
was you. I wish I was young and nice-looking. I wish . . ." Quietly she began to cry.
"I got everything," he said, sighing. "I got everything, Anthea."
She blew her nose in a piece of Kleenex. "That's my sister's name, Anthea. I'm Estelle."
"And you have a brother named Drake."
She looked surprised. "That's right. How did you know?" Suddenly he felt himself in danger of becoming involved in her life, hearing confessions, listening to names that meant nothing to him. He shut his eyes, tried to shut her out.
She stopped crying and took a small mirror out of her handbag. Tenderly she powdered the pouches under her eyes. Then she put the mirror away and smiled. "What're you
"I'm doing it. Drinking."
"No, silly, I mean later. You're staying in a hotel somewhere, maybe?"
"I'm staying right here."
"But you can't. It closes at four."
Alarm. He had not thought what he was going to do after four o'clock. It was her fault. He had been happily listening to music, until she came along and changed everything. It had been a mistake, not assimilating her.
She menaced him with reality. She must be destroyed.
"I'm going home alone," he said. "When I go home, I go home alone."
"Oh." She thought a moment, decided on injury and hurt. "I suppose I'm not good enough for you."
"Nobody is." He was mortally weary of her, and sick at the thought of sex.
"Pardon me," said Estelle, sister of Anthea and Drake. She stood up, arranged her breasts, and returned to the bar.
Now he was alone and he was glad, with three glasses before him on the table: two empty, one half full with lipstick on it. He arranged the glasses to form a triangle, but then when he tried to arrange them to form a square, he failed. Why? Three glasses ought to be able to form a square. He was distressed. Fortunately, reality began to recede once more. And Jim Willard sat at his table in his booth in his barroom and made lakes, rivers, islands. This was all that he wanted. To be alone, a creature without memory, sitting in a booth. Gradually, the outline of fear grew blurred. And he forgot entirely how it began:
ON THE WARMEST AND greenest afternoon of the spring, the high school's commencement exercises ended, and boys and girls, parents and teachers, streamed out of the brand-new Old Georgian school building. Separating himself from the crowd, Jim Willard paused a moment on the top step and looked out, searching for Bob Ford. But he could not make him out in the mob of boys in dark jackets and white trousers, girls in white dresses, fathers in straw hats (this year's fashion in Virginia). Many of the men smoked cigars, which meant that they were politicians--this was the county seat and singularly rich in officeholders, among them Jim's father, the courthouse clerk.
A running boy struck Jim's arm playfully. Jim turned, expecting Bob. But it was someone else. He smiled, struck back, and exchanged cheerful insults, secure in the knowledge that he was popular because he was the school's tennis champion and all athletes were admired, particularly those who were modest and shy, like Jim.
At last Bob Ford appeared. "This year me. Next year you."
"I sure wish it was me who just graduated."
"I feel like they opened the prison door and let me out into the great big world. So how did I look up there on that stage wearing that black potato sack?"
"Don't you know it?" Bob chuckled. "Well, come on. We better play while we still got some light." As they moved through the crowd to the door to the locker room, a dozen girls greeted Bob, who responded with an easy grace. Tall, blue-eyed, with dark red curling hair, he was known throughout the school as Lover Man, a phrase somewhat more innocent than it sounded. "Love" meant little more than kissing. Most girls found Bob irresistible, but boys did not much like him, possibly because girls did. Only Jim was his friend.
As they entered the dim locker room, Bob looked about him with a delighted melancholy. "I guess this is the last time I'll be coming in here."
"Well, we can still use the courts this summer. . . ."
"That's not what I meant." Bob took off his coat and hung it up carefully. Then he took off his tie. These were his best clothes and he handled them with respect.
"What do you mean?" Jim was puzzled. But Bob merely looked mysterious.
The two boys walked the half mile to the tennis courts without speaking. They had known each other all their lives but it was not until this last year that they had become close friends. They had been on the baseball team together and they had played tennis together, even though Jim always won, to Bob's chagrin. But then Jim was the best player in the county, and one of the best in the state. Games had been particularly important to both of them, especially for Jim, who found it difficult to talk to Bob. The hitting of a white ball back and forth across a net was at least a form of communication and better than silence or even one of Bob's monologues.
Excerpted from The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal. Copyright © 2003 by Gore Vidal. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.