Nobody was quite sure what Old Herb’s last name was. We just knew what he liked to drink and that when he started rocking on his barstool – his eyes piercing through the brass rail in front of him – you were well advised to avoid talking to him or touching him in any way. I knew to keep his glass full and to act like I wasn’t keeping track. He was a Vet, we sure knew about that by about the fourth or fifth drink. But he was so old, it seemed, that most of the people within earshot couldn’t even imagine a reality behind his words.
Herb drank beers and sipped on brandy that day, like always. Usually, at about five in the afternoon, he would begin to lose his balance a little and step down, teetering to and fro like an unsteady sapling in the wind. His feet would awkwardly carry him out the door without a goodbye where only to find himself assaulted by sunlight. It’s about half a block to his apartment and up two flights of stairs. I know this because I’ve been there. Sometimes he would stop on a ledge twenty feet from the front steps. Sometimes he would stare at the clouds passing behind the distant rooftops. Leaving from my day shift I would encounter this and watch, often, without thinking, imagining he was a stranger and not an old man that I had just imbibed with alcohol for the better part of the day.
I knew where he was going and I knew when it was time for him to go there. He had fallen before, been helped up by another customer or by one of us, then carried home by a pair of friendly arms like a roll of musty carpet. It’s hard to say whether or not anyone else saw old Herb that day or not, after leaving without a goodbye, after stopping to look at the clouds, after fumbling for his building keys. He died in the gutter in front of his building, crumpled up at the foot of the stairs like something one of his neighbors had thrown out.
I heard the news just the same way everybody else did, from Kasmir the cabbie, who drives Gladys around. She lives on the second floor of Herb’s building. We found out that way and, of course, from his conspicuously empty barstool, turning eerily from side to side when someone brushed against it on their way to the bathroom.
“Let’s do one for Herb,” called Jackson from behind an empty highball glass lifted in the air. My right arm quickly grabbed the bottle of Christian Brothers and poured two fingers worth into four glasses, one for Jackson, one for Kasmir, one for Marsha, and one for, well, I guess I poured it for me. Then I noticed Quiet Sal over in the corner and I gave him mine, forgetting quickly about the empty bar stool in between Sal and Marsha. I grabbed Kasmir’s mug and refilled it from the tap. Marsha’s tall gin and ice needed water refill, then I grabbed a towel and wiped the inside edge of the bar-top.
“Gladys will be here after her eye appointment,” Kashmir confirmed, “we should have one ready for her, cause she’s the one who found him.”
I only half listened to Kashmir and continued my wiping. Gladys is a busybody nag and she can order her own drinks, I thought to myself.
“When’s the memorial?” Quiet Sal offered unexpectedly.
“Is there gonna be food this time?” Marsha sneered through floppy, swollen lips.
“Saturday,” I said to the doorway, “I think it’s going to be on Saturday, at two. I think the boss wants to make sure he’s nowhere near the place.”
Jackson chuckled and stiffened the plaid lapels of his sportcoat. “Remember Jimmy’s memorial? I’m not even sure how I got home that night. Let’s do one more,” he said gently tapping his glass on the bar. Turning, I groaned slightly to myself. Jimmy’s memorial was the third in about four months’ time and the son of a bitch was only thirty-five. I poured another round of drinks and distributed them throughout the bar-top indiscriminately. Marsha quickly gulped at it, letting a little drop fall out of the corner of her permanent frown.
“Are they gonna have food this time?” she repeated. “A memorial should have food, period.” Marsha edged back on her stool to display her expertise and authority toward the situation.
“I’m going to bring a date to this one,” Jackson mused, “Marsha, would you do me the honor?” Everyone laughed and I noticed this before I noticed that I was laughing too. I poured a couple of draughts for the younger couple in the corner. It was busy for a few minutes and my arms moved instinctively, turning glasses, grabbing bottlenecks, scooping ice, wiping, washing, pouring, pouring, pouring. “Sal, do you need another?” I asked in mid-pour.
Shrug and nod.
“What are you reading there?”
Shrug and nod. “Elephants,” he said quietly.
“Elephants,” he said, drifting back into a contemplative slouch. “It’s an article about elephants, about how they can remember where they’ve been so well that they’ll travel hundreds of miles in a drought to find a watering hole.”
“That reminds me of someone,” Jackson laughed and looked around to see that he was alone in his amusement.
Sal dipped his gaze again at the magazine.
“Oh, jeez,” Marsha said, “is it five o’clock already?”
“I mean, I resemble that remark,” Jackson said. By this time, I was trying to overcome my disgust at Sal’s horrible analogy by feeling sorry for Jackson. Apparently, so did Kashmir.
“I know what that’s like,” Kashmir said. “One time I picked up a fare, some kid at a bar downtown. His buddy gave me twenty dollars and told me to get him home. The kid had a big, swollen black eye and puffy lip and you could barely understand what he was saying. He just slurred, thurn luft, thurn white, luft, white . After a while, we wound up right back at the bar and he wanted to get out. I felt kinda bad for the kid so I gave him back the twenty.”
“Oh, you old softy,” commented Jackson.
“No, no, here’s the kicker. Two hours later, I drive back by that bar and who do I see?
That same kid is just sitting there down the block from where I dropped him off. He’s just sitting there all alone, no friends, his head on his fists, sitting there in the gutter.”
“Did you pick him up?” Marsha flared.
“Hell, no. I already lost twenty bucks on the guy. No, the thing is, I looked at him as I was driving past and he raised his head, sure enough, two black eyes.”
A round of laughter sloshed from one end of the bar to the other, followed by one last round of shots.
“I saw him,” I said as I poured.
“I saw Herb…lying on the sidewalk. I usually stop to see if he’s okay, I’ve even helped him get up into his building, into his apartment, for chrissakes, but,…I guess I was in a hurry or something,” my eyes dropped and I was suddenly aware of the slow heaving of chests as they drew air in and pushed it out again. My eyes momentarily welled up with the confession, but I fought the tears back and rubbed my eyes with my right arm.
“I’m sure there was nothing you could have done,” Jackson stated sympathetically.
“It was just his time, honey,” Marsha reinforced through her floppy lips.
I nodded and picked up the last shot glasses making my way around the night bartender as she stepped into place. At 5 o’clock it was time to go home and I was thankful for that. I stocked some bottles and counted out my drawer, fisting a small bundle of bills into my pants’ pocket. Sunlight was working its way up the faces of the young couple drinking beers in the corner booth, so on my way out, I flicked the blinds back to the other direction. It was kind of a slow day, and my rent was late again. I appeased myself with the realization that my landlord will let it slide for awhile as long as I throw a few free drinks his way on Saturday night. The ceaseless sensation of pouring and shaking gave my body a chill that I knew would follow me home in the warm summer air. As I walked out the door I noticed the night bartender pouring a row of shots and handing them, one by one, to the now faceless torsos on their barstools.
Without thinking, I grabbed the flyer for Herb’s memorial that had been taped to the door. I crinkled it tightly in my fist and thought about discarding it in the street gutter, or maybe burying it with honor beneath the flowerbed in front of Herb’s apartment, but instead I stuffed it in my pocket and brought it home with me. In my apartment, I attempted to straighten it out, pulling firmly on the edges of the paper, a photocopied picture Gladys found of a young Herb in full military uniform, must have been 60 years gone. His face is rather expressionless and he is holding a rifle with a bayonet at his side. It appeared to me to be a captain’s uniform or something, but I was fixated on the earnest grin lining up evenly below his furrowed brow and eyes squinting from the sun. I continued trying to flatten out the paper but the crease remained, wrinkled like a treasure map, or an elephant’s skin. I taped the flyer up again near my bed and stared for awhile at his face, trying to remember what he looked like as an old man.
As I drifted off to sleep, I thought about elephants. The only ones I had ever seen were in the zoo, or the circus – wearing strange hats and anklets with ribbons and bells. That night, and for many nights after that, I dreamt about work, but not work exactly. I dreamt that I was a circus trainer. I dressed several animals up in comically ill-fitting suits and dresses and sat them at a makeshift bar. The audience would gasp as the animals attempted to lift glasses up in the air with their paws or their trunks. The audience would laugh and applaud when the animals were successful, and laugh and applaud just as loudly when they were unsuccessful. The animals were trained not to notice, either way. But I wasn’t so lucky. From the center ring, I looked up into the darkness, into the knowable presence of a large unseen crowd of onlookers. It was a three-ring circus, I realized, and they may have been applauding something else.
“Elephants” by Eric Erickson. Copyright © 2009. First published in Curbside Splendor.