Back to Sydney Harth's Artist PageTo the Artist's Page     Back to the Unlikely Stories home pageTo our home page
Quality TimeTo Sydney Harth's previous piece

The Neighborhood Bar

The neighborhood bar drew her the way sex or shoplifting enticed friends of hers. Coming home from school, she would go out of her way to pass this bar, and sometimes, in pleasant weather when its door stood open, she would pause on the threshold, imagining herself one of the customers inside. They, her secret heart told her, lived each moment passionately, even at three-thirty in the afternoon, their minds uncluttered by homework and dirty gym suits.

Motionless, and pushed flat against the open door, she would imagine herself strolling right into the bar one evening, simply dressed but with flamboyant diamond earrings (why did her family have no exciting heirlooms?) flashing against her dark hair. She would lean gently on the arm of...certainly none of the toads she knew. A few actors met her standards, those with a certain rugged handsomeness, or the tall slender types, like a cousin who once visited from London, with lovely accents. In the most thrilling scenario, she stopped the buzz of conversation as she swept up to the bar alone, like a film star herself, but this vision was too dangerous to entertain often.

Father kept saying she could accomplish anything, if she set her mind to it, and she did earn A in algebra, did memorize a really sticky Schubert Impromptu for the recital. A trip to the neighborhood bar could not be as hard as that Schubert.

"We go there Fridays, lots of times. It's a great spot. You should come with," said Randy, an imbecile junior at her school who barely had made it through geometry.

"Maybe, sometime…" she said. Walking into the neighborhood bar, with poor Randy in tow, might give disaster a new meaning, but no way could she enter alone. Film Stars might have chutzpah to burn, but she was not yet one of them. Only if she talked her brother, David, into breaching the ramparts with her could she go at all. No easy job. Whenever she really wanted something his price was high.

David shared her appetite for the place, but he kept stalling. "Sore throat," he said, one night when conditions were perfect. "History project," he said on another.

She said, one time when their parents had gone to the theater. "Chicken! That must be your problem because you look way more than fifteen."

David had shot up to over six feet, and people now called him heavy-set, instead of fat. He had that dark complexion that always seemed to need a shave, even if real hairs only sprouted on his upper lip, and his greatest asset was his dark suit, purchased for his bar mitzvah. A bit snug now, even after being cleverly altered by Ralph-the-tailor following endless consultations with Mother, it still looked pretty good. Most of the men, when she sneaked her peeks into the neighborhood bar, were wearing much worse.

"They would say it was all my fault. If we got caught, I mean. Who would believe it was your idea," David answered her. "Girls, according to them, never think up anything that bad."

"What's so bad? We drink wine on the holidays, and Father has given us beer at picnics sometimes. The end of Macbeth will look tame by comparison, if we botch it, but we won't," she said, attempting to put authority in her voice.

She would never, and he knew it, accuse him of talking her into illegal behavior. Worse still, parents might consider what they did immoral as well. "You can trust my silence. I'm absolutely reliable. I never did tell anyone but you that Herbie Perlman pulled the emergency brake on the camp train." she said.

"If they'd caught Herbie, they'd have given him nothing close to what they'd give us for going into the neighborhood bar. They'd ground us forever, or send you to live with Aunt Lena, or who knows what."

"Forget about punishment, but don't forget, you owe me. The magazines under your bed. The fire in the park's trash basket. Not to mention the errands and dishes I've done, when you skipped your turn. I once even took an extra piano lesson for you, saying you were at the dentist."

"Well…neither of our parents has ever forbidden the neighborhood bar, but if we get caught that fact won't help much," he said shaking his head. He was weakening, she realized. She heard, "if we get caught," as if a trip to the neighborhood bar actually lay in their future.

Prohibiting bars would never have occurred to Father, or even Mother, who knew their ways better than he did. Difficult and disobedient as both parents claimed they were--unlike the polite diligent brilliant unassuming children of their friends--neither parent could guess the itch both of them had to slip in among the untouchables who spent their time in bars.

They sometimes went along on Father's Sunday morning walks, and if they happened to pass Lady Queen of Martyrs when a mass was letting out, he would point with amusement, to the scramble of parishioners away from prayer and toward the bar across the street. "Look at those shikkers. They run to the booze right after church," he would say.

Father had high standards. He lectured her when he discovered she had cut school to see a thrilling singer appear at an airport, but he had heard of other daughters doing the same, read about it in the papers, and she almost felt a repressed smile floating above his bawling out. But he had never heard of children --at least children he might know-- going inside a neighborhood bar, a place dim and crowded, blue with smoke.

She kept telling David all they would have to do in the bar was sit around acting like everybody else. "No one will notice us, and almost any Friday evening will work," she said one Friday. Mother and Father went to Brooklyn most Fridays, to share the Sabbath dinner with some of his family members. None of his boring relatives had children still in school, and not long ago, when she and David had to go every week, they would bring books and read them, speaking only in monosyllables.

Their sulky rudeness, when her brother turned fourteen and she was twelve already, spurred Mother to convince Father to let them stay home with enough money to eat dinner at the deli or the Chinese place. Of course, there was a catch. Mother let them off with the understanding that they would make her "proud" of them, (which meant playing the piano, conversing pleasantly) when they did have to trek out to Brooklyn on special holidays. They gave their word eagerly.

"That dinner money is a break," she explained to her brother. "We'll fill up at home on peanut butter sandwiches, and we'll have the dinner money for buying beer and some chips, or something."

Most allowance, and most money either of them earned, even most gifts relatives presented on birthdays and such, went into the jaws of a faceless and insatiable monster called College, leaving little cash even for presents, much less adventures. More frugal than her brother, she had a small but growing stash, which she intended to use the day she turned sixteen, and she ran away forever. He never had a quarter of his own, and their dinner money would save her secret pile, or at least most of it.

"We can't do it until you find some way of looking more grownup. They'd spot you in a minute," David said. She had to agree. In matters of what she and her friends called "development," she wore a 34B bra, to the envy of many in the locker room. She also had a narrow waist, and hips which would have been noticeable had Mother let her dress like a real person. She was short like Mother--petite, Mother said--and her unformed baby face, with no cheekbones to speak of and a round button nose in the center, she considered a total loss. Mother, when she took them to see a film, never had anyone challenge the child’s ticket she demanded, humiliating her daughter when she hit twelve.

She was almost thirteen on the Friday evening she finally persuaded David (and herself) that the moment had come for the neighborhood bar. "This must be the moment of truth," she said, although what she looked like in the three-way mirror of Mother's dressing table almost made her cry. She did not look even her real age, much less twenty-one. Makeup, and lots of it, would have to add the necessary years.

Mother, who lied about her own age and her daughter's, allowed that unfortunate daughter only some vague pink lipstick, a grudging concession to her entering high school two years early. Mother cheated when she wanted, and also applied, on important occasions, equally vague pink cheek color to moderate her daughter's paleness. "Don't tell your father," was Mother's serious injunction as she applied her art.

Mother was so beautiful--blue, blue eyes--she needed no makeup, but her dressing table held all the normal jars and tubes other mothers owned, and alone in the apartment, her daughter often had practiced applying them. Mother had taught her how to use a blow dryer to soften her bone straight hair, and she hoped the effects she knew how to produce would convince anyone who saw her that she was the young sophisticate she wanted to be.

Might as well go the whole way, she thought, putting on Mother's best black dress with its plunging neckline. On her it was a bit shorter than an ordinary mini, because she was not as petite as Mother, but outside of that, the dress fit perfectly, its silky material clinging to her body. She found in Mother's jewel box a flashy pair of gold earrings, which she blithely fastened to her ears. She also found her late grandmother's diamond brooch, in its own little green velvet bag. She tried it out just below the neckline's V, the way Mother did. Not an electrifying ornament, it seemed to make her eyes sparkle, and she left it on. Mother called it, my-ONLY-decent-jewelry and would kill her if she knew, but the whole evening could mean sudden death anyway.

Mother bought her only the most disgusting baby shoes, and Mother's feet were a full size smaller, but she knew she could walk all right in an old pair of sling-back patents she had rescued from the Temple clothes drive bundle. They almost fit her by now, and she only had two, fairly long, blocks to walk. The rest of the time she would sit down.

Sit at the bar itself? Or in a booth? She and her brother canvassed that important issue on their walk over, during which she noticed he was not slouching the way he usually did. Her transformation clearly had impressed him, and he held her arm carefully--as if she were a box of Swiss chocolates, she felt. He said they should sit right up at the bar. She said they should sit in one of the booths lining the sides. More secure. But he said a waitress would look right at them when she took their order, and a bartender would only hear, not look. They also would see more from the bar. It stretched along the base of a triangle, and in the mirror behind it, they would be able to see a lot. A booth only would give them a view of the tables right around them. The tables they quickly eliminated. Crowded into the center, they promised exposure without even giving their occupants a view in return.

The door to the neighborhood bar stood open that soft spring evening. They grinned at each other and walked right through it before they could think any more. Father did not leap out at them shaking his fist. No one paid any attention to them at all. They headed, as if impelled by a magnet, toward two empty seats in the center of the bar and sat down on them. He, in the firm baritone he had acquired not long before, ordered two beers. They had discussed cognac, which seemed elegant when Father sipped it after dinner, but the neighborhood bar had no claims to refinement, which was half the place's charm. They also feared a bartender would look twice at someone who ordered cognac. Beer seemed the safest and cheapest. They liked its taste so little, they could not see why the law had forbidden it to them.

She, while her brother ordered, fumbled importantly in Mother's little beaded bag, looking for an old compact she had long since made her own. The beers came. Her brother paid. Their shoulders relaxed. His foot nudged hers under the bar. They knew they were safe. She drank some beer and said something about how much money athletes earned, as if continuing a conversation. She next opened the compact. Mother always eliminated, the moment they sat down somewhere, any fault in her makeup. She wiped the powder off the compact mirror with the back of her hand, adding Mother’s head toss, and before she could examine her makeup’s needs, she saw Mother in the mirror.

Impossible. Mother was in Brooklyn at the Sabbath dinner. Mother would never come to a place like the neighborhood bar any more than Father would. But Mother lied and Father did not, so maybe….

She clicked shut the compact, without checking the shine on her nose, and swung around on her barstool. No, Mother would not even walk through the door.

A better view showed Mother sitting in a booth with Ralph-the-tailor. He of the snapping black eyes. Insinuating voice. He who laughed at her when she complained about how he fitted a skirt and said her period was on the way. Her mother always claimed she appreciated the way Ralph-the-tailor picked up and delivered cleaning personally, did fittings at home.

Mother's lover. Ralph-the-tailor was Mother's lover. She knew about lovers. She had seen films about them, read books about them. Everybody knew about how sad lonely women found lovers. But Mother did not suffer, like in the TV soaps, and Father was not mean like their husbands. Nor was Ralph-the-tailor a dashing intruder. Yet why else did Mother's lovely face wear a sweet dreamy smile, and why did one of Ralph-the-tailor's hands clasp one of hers across the table of the booth enclosing them?

David should have agreed to sit in a booth. She would not have seen Mother and Ralph-the-tailor from a booth.

"Mother's here," she whispered.

"She's not," David said. He turned, and she heard him suck in his breath, felt his body tense. His fear spilled over on top of her own misery. He looked away quickly and said, "Let's get out of here."

She took a gulp from her glass and told him to finish it. She said she had to see a man about a Chinese singing lesson, their family way of saying she had to go to the toilet. "Hurry up," he said, not trying to stop her. She intended to go over to that booth, but she did not tell him that. It was too hard to explain why.

She needed to understand how Mother's beauty charm wit elegance--her children had no Mom and Dad, only a Mother and a Father--had brought her only nasty Ralph-the-tailor for a lover. He was no hunk, nor even a wit with an accent. Her own future probably held uncounted horrors, if that was the best Mother could do.

Nothing would be the same again after she reached that booth. She did not hesitate, although she thought she should do her running away tonight, not wait until sixteen. She could decide nothing until she reached Mother's booth, which drew her like a whirlpool drew that man in the Poe story. She stopped not even for her Chinese singing lesson, much as she needed one. Her mouth, as she edged round the tables, emptied itself of words, but they always came when she had to have them.

She felt her brother's eyes on her back, almost heard him sweating. He never had much nerve. Those guys who ran after him calling him a Kike would have made him climb the struts of that bridge and would have killed him, if she had not started punching them.

The only words she could pull up, as she reached the booth next to Mother's, were, "Frater, salve atque vale," and she knew she needed a different line right then. What would Father say if he walked up to their table? He would look at them with cool irony, sit down, gesture to a nearby wait-person, and order a brandy. Even though his poor heart was breaking, he would never lose his cool.

She had less cool, and she would have to seem like she had enough. But how? She slid, with no plan, into the seat beside Mother and said, "Hi. I guess you didn't go to Brooklyn, after all? Won't everybody get mad at you?"

Mother said, almost automatically, "I'm going later. I had to help out my friend who just had a baby." A lie. The off-key ring of Mother's latest lie sounded worse than a third grader's piano recital.

Ralph-the-tailor looked at her hard and whistled softly. Mother looked at her and shrieked, "You stole my diamonds!" A hand clawed at the brooch.

She pushed away that hand and stood up. "Who steals my purse, steals trash, and anyway, Gramma's diamonds shouldn't go to a horse-and-dog," she said , feeling that Father was giving her courage to tell Mother some home truths. She was sure some hero in Shakespeare had called some villain a horse-and-dog. Father would know. Father always was quoting Shakespeare, and his quotes stopped them all cold. Usually.

She also felt pee beginning to roll down her leg. No one would see it in the dimness surrounding her, and she did not care if they did.

To the top of this pageTo the top of this page