When I was not yet thirty, I split with my first wife. We were both glad it happened, but we had just moved to Louisville and neither of us knew anyone we could stay with. I slept on the couch until she found a place, which ended up taking months. I think she took her time to punish me, but it wasn’t especially painful. It was just uncomfortable. I avoided her as much as I could until things were settled. I ate dinner at the bar near my building and stayed there until it closed. When I was bored with the bar, I walked larger circles around my apartment, looking for somewhere to go. I ended up spending less than one waking hour at home each day, mostly to bathe.
The bar was pleasantly impersonal. I would come in around six so I could claim a stool before it got crowded. People would complain to me about their jobs completely unprompted, and I got better at making small talk. The conversations usually dissolved into vulgarity, but there was an intimacy to them. People would think we had met before and try to guess my job. They would introduce themselves and I would immediately forget their names.
Alan is one of the few names I remember. He was quite drunk by the time he talked to me, and I think he had made a few abortive attempts at conversation with other people. He had a ruddy face, hairless except for his eyebrows, and there were bulges of skin on his cheek and jaw where the flesh hung uselessly off. He gave the impression of a slowly deflating balloon. He was wearing a black waistcoat and tie — the jacket must have been left in his office or on a bus somewhere. I might have forgotten his name if he hadn’t given me his business card. He handed it to me before saying a word. After a pause, he said, “Alan Platt,” and gave a small cough.
“Now what is your name?” he demanded, as if he thought he had to badger it out of me.
I told him.
“Well, it’s nice to meet you. What do you think of this place? It’s my first time here.” He paused for me to say something, and when I didn’t he continued. “I’m finding the service quite lacking. And I prefer female bartenders.” He looked away as he said this. He seemed to find the stool very uncomfortable. His body shifted as he spoke, and he was never entirely still. He spoke again, more quietly. “There are too many people.”
The bartender brought him his scotch and he puffed his cheeks before gulping down half of it. “I worry that I’m over-dressed,” he said, glancing around the room. “I didn’t change from work. It’s actually a little formal even for work. But I have these clothes. I’m not going to not wear them.” He eyed me, but my face was blank.
I told him I didn’t have a feel for these things. He seemed satisfied, and turned away from the bar again, looking towards the booths against the opposite wall.
“It’s my father’s actually. I didn’t even buy it. I got all his clothing when he died. It fits me quite well. Am I just going to leave it in the closet?” He had settled into the stool, and now he traced a circle on the bar with his index finger. Abruptly, he pressed his palm against the upper part of his forehead and brought it down slowly over his face, as if he were rubbing off an imaginary splotch of ink. He lifted his head and shook it, examining the booths again. “This is an odd place, don’t you think? The mood is off.”
I nodded out of habit.
There was a pause, and he said, “I don’t think I’m going to come back here. It’s not for me.” He finished off the scotch and signaled for another.
There was a specific booth he was looking at. I didn’t have the angle to see in, but he was transfixed and let the conversation trail off. Whoever it was, she must have glanced back at him, because he spun suddenly around. He curled over the bar and stared at a flaw in the lacquer two inches from his face. The next scotch came, and he uncurled. He took too large a sip and started coughing. “Bad scotch, bad scotch,” he said. His shoulders twitched in sympathy.
“I suppose you aren’t a religious man. Thorn in the flesh, and that.”
I shook my head.
“No. Well, I’m not sure I really recommend it.” He stared forward and did not speak for a moment. “I’m … I don’t know how to tell you.” He stopped again to regroup, clenching his face inward. “I have no place to sleep. Do you understand me?” He was suddenly very close to me, and there was something violent in the way he spoke. He couldn’t be homeless. He was too clean. “I have no place to live.” He stopped, and then added, “I sleep poorly.”
For a moment, I thought he would hit me, or knock over my glass, or leave in disgust, but he went back to staring at the bar. He finished the second drink.
If he attacked me now, would there be witnesses? People were everywhere, but I was the only one watching him. He pressed his face against the bar and I realized he hadn’t thought about how dirty it was. He was silent and I thought he had fallen asleep but after a minute he spoke again, without raising his head.
“Another scotch,” he said, as if he thought the bartender was above him. I was the only one who heard.
I prodded him to get him to sit up, and he raised his head. “I’m sorry.” He said it very quietly, as if he weren’t speaking to me at all. I finished my drink and he stared at the array of bottles behind the bar. “I’ve forgotten your name.”
I told him again.
He nodded and stood. “I can’t stand all these people looking at me. I want to smoke a cigar. Do you want to talk outside?” He dropped some money on the bar.
I followed him through the crowd to the doorway. It was raining outside, but lightly enough that we could ignore it. Alan stepped under the eaves to light his cigar and then started to pace, setting his body back in motion. I followed him, but he seemed to forget I was there. We moved back into the rain.
“Looking at me like that. Awful place.”
A raindrop doused the lit end of his cigar and he stared at the damp bundle for a moment before tossing it in the gutter. He stopped walking. “Do you want to see something?”
He turned his eyes down and spoke more softly. “Really, though. I mean don’t just say it.”
I asked what he was going to do.
He became quietly excited. “You have to see it. Can you count for me? Like this. One, two, three; two, two, three.”
I stared at him blankly.
“All right. Just count up in threes.” He took off his waistcoat and hung it on a parking meter. “A waltz. Like: one, two, three; four, five, six; seven, eight, nine.” He took off his tie and tucked it into a pocket of the waistcoat.
I started counting. “One, two, three; four, five, six…
On seven, he swung his arm out and spun on one foot. On ten, he stopped his body completely, waited a beat, and on twelve took a preparatory hop. On thirteen, he threw his body against the side of the building. His knees buckled slightly when he hit the ground but he took a few quick steps and leapt into another part of the dance. I had stopped counting when he hit the wall and my cadence was thrown off. I was yelling out the numbers now, hoping that would be more helpful, but I was out of sync and he didn’t seem to hear me. He twirled again, but this time it was more of a spinning high kick. It lifted his body off the pavement. He landed off-balance and staggered towards me spinning. I caught him under the shoulders before he fell. He rolled out of my arms and went back to the square where he had started. He bent his knees, planted his hands on the ground and stayed still. Water was dripping off his face. It occurred to me that he was waiting for applause so I brought my hands out of my pockets to clap, but after a moment he sprung up and the whole thing began again.
As the numbers got higher, he poured more force into the gestures and they became violent. When he twirled, a hand swung close to my face and I had to step back to keep from being hit. He rolled from one motion to the next without pausing for grace. As his legs finished a half-turn, he twisted the rest of his body upward, beginning a new jump before the old one had finished. I had lost count of which numbers were stressed. I kept chanting but there was no order left in the words.
“Thirty-nine, forty, forty-one; forty-two, forty-three, forty-four; forty-five, forty-six, forty-seven.”
He swung around a No Parking sign and the metal edge scraped into his palm, leaving a trail of slight red lines. He spun until he fell backwards onto the hood of a parked car. My hair was soaked by now, and I watched the rain dropping onto his face and beading off his bare scalp. I stopped counting. His mouth was open, and his eyes were shut so tightly that it wrinkled the rest of his face. I thought he had hurt himself.
He stood. His shirt was transparent from the rain and the line of buttons looked like a scar down the middle of his chest. He put on his waistcoat and buttoned it, covering himself. He glanced at me. As soon as I met his gaze he looked at the sidewalk. He pulled a soaked cloth out of his pocket and wiped his face. It felt brutish that he had stopped so suddenly and I wanted to tell him to keep going but the moment had passed.
A car went by behind him but he did not turn. He was soaked through, and his clothes clung to him like children. His body sagged under the weight. Slowly and with effort, he raised his arm. He opened his mouth as if to speak, but waited. He seemed to expect something, and after a moment he realized it wasn’t coming. I think he would have spoken if he had been alone, but he was not alone. When he brought his arm down, water streamed from the cuff of his shirt.
He turned, shaking, and stepped into the street. I meant to say something –“goodbye,” perhaps — but it didn’t come together in time, and he didn’t wait for me. I watched him cross, but the rain was heavier now and it was like watching through a screen. When he got to the opposite sidewalk, he started running. He began slowly, but soon he was moving as fast as he could bring his body to move. He was far enough away that I could only see him as a blurred shape, receding into the water. After a moment, he was gone.