My new manager at the restaurant, this big paranoid man named Preston, he told me the damage is at the edges of my eyes.
“All blurry and always so bloodshot,” Preston said. Always so watery and desolate and fucked up and red.
But it being only noon on my birthday, and later my only night off, I took a train uptown to visit my favorite paintings.
The absolving reds of Cézanne’s apples. Or the perfect geometry of his mountains.
Inside the museum I stood downstairs, in the bathroom, studying my features in the mirror.
I mean, look at me. Maybe Preston’s right.
I ordered three beers at the bar down there, where a portrait of an angel rose out of some marble. Columns rose like curtains. Restaurant work is ruining me. I sat against the gallery wall, downing all three of the beers, and I studied the angel’s streaming features.
Back through the park I contemplated the obsessive nature of Cézanne.
Cézanne, who worked until his eyes bled. Who died of pneumonia he caught while working.
My only night off. My birthday. And look at me, all hallowed and lovely in the lamplit lake.
Preston was wrong about me, man. I felt fine.
Heading toward the only good bar I know of uptown, I pushed through groups newly released from the theater when there, against the gallery wall, my best friend Danger was sucking air from a radiant red balloon.
“Danger,” I yelled out of the crowd, laughing. “Jesus, Danger—look at you.”
Dirty and bearded and laughing in the light, and with his eyes rolled back completely, Danger stood there shining like a saint. We hadn’t seen each other in months—or not in weeks, at least—and I felt the theater lights pulse inside his beautiful red balloon. I helped him to empty it, our edges blurred and merging into a hug now, but only briefly, and slowly I asked Danger where he’d been.
“I just recorded with a new band in this old renovated barn,” Danger said. “You would have loved it out there, man—this beautiful mountain of a barn—it was like an American cathedral in the country.”
Danger and I bought two more nitrous balloons from the guy selling bouquets of paper flowers, hugging again, and we walked farther west, toward the bar together, propping each other up and laughing.
The bar was set three steps below the street. Inside it was low and candlelit and quiet, and all around us hung these heavy scarlet curtains.
I tossed my scarf onto one of the candlelit tables. In the mirrors behind the bar, our nitrous balloons shone like red buoys in the barroom dark.
Danger told me how a friend of the new band owned a farm, and the old renovated barn, and this friend let Danger’s band record out there for the month. Danger bunked with the bassist. An old hunter’s cabin in the hills. “Bunkbeds,” Danger said. An outhouse. They had to hike their water up to it, their cabin, and winter lingered in the woods for a while. Weird, brutal nights learning how to build a fire. But the lead songwriter brought up a bunch of acid, and the group experienced a prolonged, shared bout of synesthesia together. For a stretch of time, you didn’t know what kind of art you were making. Whether it was a painting or a tower or what. The band merged into a kind of organism inside the barn—a single breathing thing—and that’s when spring came. Flowers started popping up. And for the first time, Danger learned there’s an order to the blossom of flowers in spring. “First it’s the crocus and snowdrop,” Danger said. Then it’s the hyacinth and the tulip. And then these magnolia trees went blooming, and the irises, and toward the end of their trip, Danger drummed and drummed and drummed until time was nothing but one big origami flower. Danger told me that drumming in time became like a kind infinite folding in. A folding in and in forever until the hands of God opened into the petals of this perfect paper flower.
But I needed another beer. Danger had hardly drunk a sip, but when I stood to get myself another, he guzzled his empty. I took a sip of my balloon. I handed it to him, smiling, and at the bar I closed my eyes for a silent, holy moment.
The bar was empty. I was empty too. It was my birthday, and my only night off, and when I opened my eyes again, the bartender appeared looking exactly like Preston.
The candlelight threw shadows all over him, but it was the way those blossoms on his shirtsleeves seemed so perfectly creased. Or the way his red hair was slicked back, a polishing rag hungover his shoulder. Exactly like Preston.
I avoided eye contact, of course—but still, despite my state, I felt I should ask about his night.
“Dead,” the bartender said. “It’s been a bad, dead night.”
In the mirrors behind the bar, I watched Danger clear some space at our table, pushing my scarf against the wall and ripping pages out of a spiral bound book.
“Why so bad?”
“We failed our health inspection back in February.” He gestured toward the windows with a paranoid, Preston-esque look. “The inspector completely screwed us, man. Gave us a green B for filth flies. He counted the flies, that bastard. Apparently you can have as many as you want in summer, but in the wintertime, you can’t have more than five. That bastard counted seven. He stood there and counted the individual flies, man.”
Preston set two fresh beers before me on the bar, and I flinched.
“How do you know you’re not counting the same fly over and over seven times as it flies around the bar? Or the same three flies seven times? And this guy called them filth flies, just to fuck us, and now we’re dead,” Preston said. “Look at me, man—this bar is as good as dead.”
My hands on the bar top shone like plastic. Everything around me felt frail and flimsy.
Preston on my only night off. On my birthday. I rested my head on the malleable bar top. I just couldn’t deal. I felt ruined. I’d cracked up completely.
Back up on the street, and with a half-folded flower in his hand, Danger was laughing and laughing and laughing, and I caught a vivid memory of our childhood church. Dawn breaking day after day on the mountain outside my room. My mother making breakfast, I’m just a kid. The quiet drive down the mountain toward our church, and that perfect arrangement of light as it reached through the saints in the stained glass, the way it fell onto my lap like a rainbow.
And Danger is there, before he changed his name. Before his father sickened and died. Before money and alcohol and work, or any artistic ambitions, but just a few families sitting there in a room. An old wiseman in white robes, reading. Lighting candles. Asking us to stand.
And standing outside the bar beside Danger—Matthew—my oldest friend, who was still laughing as he handed me the paper flower, saying something kind like, “Here you go, man, here you go—” I experienced a solitude specific to the city.
Preston was right.
The thrust of empty towers and churches. The towering, ominous trees as we walked along the park.
My only night off. My birthday. Bar after bar after bar.
Danger and I stayed out all night dancing. I spent my week’s pay on beers and balloons and bouquets of paper flowers. But at dawn, Danger and I leapt into the lake.
The water stunk of sewage, but Danger blessed it. Danger made it holy water. He baptized me. Cleansed me in the city’s newly reflected light.
And today I feel fine.
Dylan Smith is a writer working in Accord, NY with stories in X-R-A-Y Lit, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and elsewhere online, and also tweets sometimes @dylan_a_smith
image: MM Kaufman