Subterranean

by: Paul Albano

“Everyone was in a state of suspension, living in small voids sequestered from time.”Hold on tight for a night on the town with “The Chapters”…

Subterranean

I didn’t get to the Flat Iron until about nine thirty. When I arrived, Conny, Jason, Kemper, and Pete Clifton looked more than a few drinks in. The occasion was Conny’s birthday. We work in Mr. Patterson’s factory as writers, and everyone takes one chapter of each book. Conny’s tackling Chapter Two. I was late to arrive because I’d stayed after our shift ended to finish a metaphor. I can’t recall exactly what the metaphor was, but it took me awhile to think of it.

The Flat Iron is a big square building on North Avenue with dim lighting and wall murals of pastel skinned monsters floating in empty space between planets not drawn remotely to scale. There were seven or eight others from My. Patterson’s factory sitting amongst the tables, all arranged like in a defensive circle. We greeted each other and there was some clapping. Jason threw his arm around me and grabbed my shoulder. He said “Somebody get this guy a drink,” and no one objected.

The somebody was the waitress. She brought me a vodka and soda with a lime twist. Conny sat facing the entrance, legs slack, his shoulders regally slouched, his grin pure and beaming, almost childlike. A multicolor plastic cone was rubber banded around his head, and a fake mustache was glued beneath his nose. Jason cornered a new hire, Chapter Nineteen I think, and made wildly haughty movements with his hands and chin. I sat flanked by Kemper and Pete Clifton. We talked about the factory and Mr. Patterson and the great-granddaughters of the hundred year old woman who reads the paper to us while we write. It was like every conversation we’ve ever had. Nothing was introduced, nothing was resolved, it was all just middle. The Falt Iron’s speakers played songs I didn’t recognize. Some had lyrics in different languages, while some were so discordant, I tried to consciously stop listening, which never worked.

I finished my drink and drifted over to the bar. Some guy asked the bartender if there were any pretzels, the look on his face seemed hopeful. I raised my glass, rocked it back and forth, and pointed at it. The bartender looked confused and I realized I had made no indication of what I was drinking. I half-shouted “Vodka and soda,” and he nodded severely, almost into a bow.

The Flat Iron’s entranceway doors were propped open with a stool and new patrons streamed inside, swelling the room and shrinking the empty pockets of space between each person. A blonde woman stepped in next to me at the bar. She stood sideways and had deeply freckled arms and numerous, purplish ridges, most likely veins, along her hands. She held up two fingers and said “Three” to the bartender. I couldn’t tell if her thumb was extended, completing the order. There was a football coach being interviewed on the television above the bar. A reporter asked him for his thoughts on the game and what it meant for the rest of the season. The football coach refused. He said “There is no past. There is no future. There is only Buffalo.”

We left the Flatiron and hopped the Blue-line one neighborhood northwest to Logan Square, bound for a place called The Green Eye. Inside, the lighting was strange—green, but an eerie, swampish green that splayed across the brick walls in kaleidoscopic overlay. I ordered another vodka and soda. Conny held court at the end of bar, near where the counter lifts up so ice can be brought in and drink trays carried out. He was next to Kemper, Jason and Chapter Nineteen. We were short one person from the Flatiron, Chapter Forty-Four, having gone missing with no one seeming to know why.

There were oil paintings of old, miserable men with their faces slowly melting on the wall opposite the bar. I found a place to stand next to Kemper, with Pete Clifton a few feet from me, facing the paintings. Kemper leaned back, doing his best imitation of an European man out on the prowl, his elbows resting on the bar counter, and took in our surroundings. He had dark hair, except for a walnut-sized cluster of white, the thumbprint of some long ago trauma, and a brow that furrowed nobly at the slightest of provocations. He said “This is shaping up to be a grand night.” I heard Conny laugh.

Pete Clifton asked me if I was unsettled by the excessively tall guy dressed as a clown standing near the bathrooms. The man in the clown costume was immense and drinking something through a curly straw. He tossed a coin into the air over and over again and sometimes snapped his fingers before he caught it. I replied that yes, I was unsettled by his presence. It was mostly the shoes and lip makeup that bothered me, but the gigantism and red hair growing from the side of his head didn’t put me at ease either.

Jason stood very close to Chapter Nineteen and rustled her bangs every time he spoke. Chapters Twelve and Fifty-seven sat together, arms locked, conjoined in a kind of macabre symmetry. Conny told good natured stories of his body systemically dying and how his premature balding saved him the ignominy of trendy haircuts long after they had stopped being trendy.

A guy came in selling tamales from a plastic cooler. They were beef and pork and we all chipped in and bought two dozen. Behind the bar were long open windows that stretched from the floor to the ceiling. There was a steady breeze, that was warm and cool and yet somehow neither, that fluttered the napkin I laid over the counter while I ate my tamale. It was delicious.

Somebody in a cream-colored linen suit stood next me and ordered an Anis. I said “This place reminds me of that guy who wrote books about stuff like this and sometimes war.” Pete Clifton said “Hemingway?” and I said “I can’t remember his name but the guy I mean shot himself or something,” and Pete Clifton just nodded.

We ordered another round of drinks and Conny told a story about a family vacation to a country called Spanish Sahara. “That’s how old I am,” he said. “I was once in Spanish Sahara.” He didn’t say what the place was like or why his family wanted to go there, just that he had been.

Outside, the sky darkened from dusk to night, and a light rain fell, greasing sidewalks so that they glistened beneath the moon and streetlights. Small crowds amassed at the street corners and bus stops and they glowed, white and spectral, like hallucinations. I asked Pete Clifton if D.C. medical examiners really have authority over the government’s satellites. He said “Probably not, but nowadays who can tell.” The enormous clown drifted from the restrooms to a high, rounded table. He had a smooth, graceful walk, the kind of walk that could easily pass unnoticed if he wasn’t eight feet tall and a clown. I wondered if that was why he became a clown, so he would always be noticed for something other than being tall. I told this to Pete Clifton and he said “No, the guy is probably a child molester.”

On the television above the bar I saw that the Cubs game had just ended. The Cubs had lost 11-2 and the Cubs manager being interviewed nodded with grim acceptance of the loss beside a clean-shaven reporter who was matching the manager’s nods and grimness. Pete Clifton and I finished our drinks while the press conference from the previous football game was re-aired. The coach again said “There is no past. There is no future. There is only Buffalo.” It was the same clip as before, but by that point in the night his voice sounded flatter and less human than I remembered.

We left The Green Eye and caught a bus east to Wrigleyville. We were officially bar hopping. Pete Clifton led us about two blocks from the bus stop until we found a place called Kasey Moran’s. The night claimed another one of our troupe, the one with the mustache, Chapter Forty-nine I think, so Jason invited the clown to round out our ranks. The clown spoke with a strange accent I didn’t know existed and took up his own bench on the bus. Conny was tipsy. Pete Clifton and I helped him inside the bar and dragged him twice around the joint until we found a seat at the bar where the counter bends into a horseshoe. Conny asked for another drink and started telling us a story about the first time he ever used a computer and how the blinking cursor drove him to murder his dog.

I bought a round of drinks for Conny, Pete Clifton, Jason, and Chapter Nineteen. Jason grabbed Chapter Nineteen’s elbow and they spun around the place in slow waltzing circles. The clown stood in the corner near the bathrooms, drinking something from the same twisting straw and tossing his coin into the air in ever faster intervals. Pete Clifton talked about the end of the world, and whether it’d be man or disease or the expansion of the sun that gets us and we all said “Man.”

There was a large, crowded dance floor between the bar and the front doors. People danced there, in movements that were choreographed or impromptu or maybe both, where some people were doing existent dances and others were just reacting. I followed the dancers with my eyes as they entered and exited and make their way across the floor. Groups and couples danced together, while some danced adjacent to groups and couples, and others danced alone.

One of the dancers, a woman with dark hair and a beige dress, seemed to notice me, watching me as I watched her dance. She did not appear bothered by this. She moved with a kind of stiff intensity, the way a particularly dexterous Victorian lady might have danced. It was sensual and prudish, all repressed passion bubbling out and swallowed back in. Her wrists flailed, none of the others who were dancing were doing this, and her legs kicked vigorously at nothing. At first, I thought she may be there with someone, an elbow-y guy in a white tuxedo jacket who hovered near her, but he eventually left while she stayed.

I bought another round of drinks. It was close to twelve thirty by then and the clown came over to us all and announced “The night is young,” and then he closed his fist around his tossing coin and made it vanish. It was quite an impressive feat.

Conny told another story, this one about plagiarizing an essay on Attila the Hun in college. He said he plagiarized from a book written by his professor and that the professor knew what he had done. I turned back to the dance floor and watched the woman in beige sputter and glide. She had prominent knees. I waited until the song ended, it was metallic sounding, with intermittent breaks of what seemed like human screaming, and approached her. She appeared shorter and younger than she was when I had been watching her across the bar. I told her she dances well. She smiled and replied “I loom consistently.” I followed her to the bar and asked if she wanted a drink. She said she was a teetotaler and I did not know what that meant. I ordered her a vodka and soda and she said that was awfully supercilious of me. I did not know what the meant either so I said “Cheers, to dancing and looming.”

She left soonafter and I relayed my encounter to Pete Clifton who told me the definition of those words and I said “I see.” Conny spun in circles on the bar stool, his face flushed and damp with unhealthy sweat. I started to say something to Pete Clifton but stopped when a sports analyst on the television behind the bar cut to a clip of the football coach. I knew what he was going to say.

We stayed at Kasey Moran’s until last call. It was one thirty in the morning. We walked Conny outside to find him a taxi. The sky was possessed strangely luminescent darkness typical of a city sky. A couple in an apartment across the street shouted at each other. I could not tell why they were upset. There were a lot of people in line for taxis and we waited for a half an hour before we found one.

Pete Clifton, Conny, and I took the backseat, while Kemper rode in front. Conny was drunk and slurring, but when he realized that we were taking him home he protested. He said he’d been alive for twenty one thousand, nine-hundred and twenty-four days and this was the only one of them that he’d ever turned sixty. It was a persuasive argument. Pete Clifton told the driver to take us to Subterranean and the driver doffed a hat he wasn’t wearing.

Kemper said “Grand,” and pulled the cuffs of his shirt out from beneath his suit jacket. Conny sat in the middle and put his arms around Pete Clifton and me. He said we were good friends and that lesser friends would have said he was too drunk to keep drinking. The taxi stalked east until we were funneled onto Lake Shore Drive. Pete Clifton passed word to Jason and told him not to bring the clown. Conny punched numbers into the credit card machine on the seat back in front of him and told a story about how his grandfather was a muckraking journalist blackballed by William Randolph Hearst. He did not say why, but his hand shook violently each time he said Hearst’s name.

We drove further south. All the windows on the taxi were down and the outside air rushed in, warm and crisp, tasting of ambition and a little bit of beached fish. Kemper hummed. It was a melodious hum, the kind that starts a barbershop quartet, that syncs them in rhythmic unity. The taxi driver joined with song. There was something aggressively serene about his voice, something primordial, like it was the voice that had soothed every generation of humanity during its darkest and most fraught hours. The song was called “What’s New Pussycat,” and I rather enjoyed it.

When we’d gone south enough, past the Drake Hotel, but before the Planetarium, we turned off of Lake Shore Drive and headed west, along Randolph Street. We were in downtown, the very center of the city, with high rises and skyscrapers stretching above, and rows of symmetrically arranged streetlights drawn out in front of us. There were multitudes, cosmic in their density, of patrons and bouncers and cops sprawled along the sidewalks, and in that moment I could feel the city itself, its air and mass, its atoms and pulse pushing against me. It was brooding. At stoplights I looked into the cars and taxis next to us. Everyone was in a state of suspension, living in small voids sequestered from time. We continued west, out of downtown and past the I-90 and the west loop, back into Wicker Park.

It was just past two thirty, so there was a cover to get into Subterranean. We paid the bouncer, a lithe bearded man with a blue tie knotted around his forehead, and slid in through the entranceway. Like all early morning bars it teemed with people. Conny couldn’t walk so we carried him in behind a young muscular guy in a Croatian soccer jersey seated on stool. We stood there until the muscular guy was guilted into giving up his seat and we propped Conny up. Conny tried to order an absinthe fountain but we vetoed it and instead ordered him a water, which we made him finish, and then a beer. Kemper chose something Spanish, Pete Clifton another whisky, and I stuck with the vodka and soda.

My lucidity flitted in and out and I had trouble keeping my balance until I found a second wind, a regeneration, what great athletes and new mothers always seem to find in moments of extreme peril. I drank more. Jason, Chapter Nineteen, and the clown oddly all showed up. The clown stood cartoonishly tall and I was fairly certain he was an ex-professional wrestler, one of the really tall ones. He asked if Conny should be drinking and I said that’s mighty grand coming from an eight foot clown. The clown looked surprised and said he’s capable of human empathy like anybody else.

His voice was pompous and I thought my ears would bleed. I told him to worry about himself and I tried to think of a way to punctuate that with some wise-crack about balloon animals but I couldn’t. The clown migrated across the bar and over to the wall to find a place to stand. Conny fell face first into a bowl of peanut shells.

Jason and Chapter Nineteen embraced while Pete Clifton pressed against me, pushed by someone else who was pushed by someone else and so on. The bar felt stretched beyond capacity, like it would tear at any moment, but more people poured in and there was a line forming outside, bent around the street corner. The bartender wore a fedora and tattoos of film that spooled up and down his forearms. He made us another round of drinks. Pete Clifton relayed a message from the guy behind him, who wanted to know if we knew that our friend was passed out. I said “Yes,” then Pete Clifton said “Yes,” and then the guy behind him nodded. Sweat amassed underneath my shirt from the communal body heat. I tried to wake Conny. The clown drank through a straw and looked content. He was the only one no one was pressing against and I longed for his freedom of movement even though he wasn’t using it to go anywhere. We kept drinking and the surrounding images blurred.

Pete Clifton asked what I thought Mr. Patterson was doing right now and I almost said sleeping but I had trouble picturing him doing anything that human. I said “Staring at a map and thinking about the time he met the King of Spain or something.” Pete Clifton said “Hunting homeless people or cancer patients in a private forest.” Both ideas seemed possible.

Eventually the house lights came on. Pete Clifton’s face was flushed and his eyes struggled to shrink into focus. Jason and Chapter Nineteen separated. It was five in the morning and the bouncers shouted that it was time to go and motioned towards the doors.

En mass, we spilled out into the streets. It was still dark, but faint threads of light spindled through the night sky portending its transition into morning. The emptying crowds moved in all directions, walking and flagging down taxis. Conny couldn’t stand on his own yet he told a story about hitting a deer on a long winding country road. He was halfway through when he stopped and said he no longer remembered the point of it.

I tried to find a taxi while Conny exclaimed that he wanted to keep drinking. Pete Clifton tried to placate him by saying there’s no place else to go. The clown stood behind us. He said the bartenders and wait staff all drink in the basement after the bar closes, and he could take us if we wanted. I refused on the principal that I hated that fucking clown. Conny wept and kept saying “Thanks.” Jason looked to Chapter Nineteen and then said he was in and Chapter Nineteen smiled and said she was in too. We turned to Pete Clifton, who replied that we shouldn’t but agreed as well.

So we turned back, the clown leading the way, clearing our plans with the bouncer, then a barback, before we followed one of the bartenders down a flight of stairs hidden behind a door near the bathrooms. The stairs were lit by an exposed light bulb that swung with a dying monotony above us.

The bartender was old, with short gray hair spiked in cresting waves and a sweat band stretched around his forearm. He led us to what looked like a rec room from the 1960s. There was a lime green shag couch, a pair of gashed orange recliners, and metal folding chairs propped against one of the walls. It smelled like weed and a second-run movie theater. The bartender asked if these guys, pointing to us, could join. Two people shrugged. The barbacks were all thin and half-heartedly bearded. They wore tight fitting T-shirts that said things like The Ramones, Sriracha, and Pants. One of them came downstairs lugging a metal cooler with blue padding on top. He opened it and passed out beers to the staff, then to us.

Conny was reborn. Suddenly he could sit up on his own. Pete Clifton looked hesitant while Jason and Chapter Nineteen held hands and interlaced their fingers. The bar folk asked us who we were and we explained. We asked who they were and they replied in unison “Bar folk.” No one asked who the clown was.

The barbacks brought out multi-player strategy games and corned beef sandwiches wrapped in butcher paper and masking tape. I had never heard of any of the games. The rules were very complicated, but the goal was always to conquer small hexagons or trade beads that stood for vast quantities of brick and sheep. Pete Clifton and I played on the same side. We lost every game.

Conny told a story about meeting his twin for the first time when they were thirty. The twin was a jewel thief with a cottage shrouded amongst the mountains of Slovenia who had two twin boys of his own. Conny ended his story by staring straight ahead and saying that everything he knows about stories tells him that there should be something significant in this, maybe concerning vicissitudes of fate or the laborious weight of regret, but he didn’t know what it could be. Jason proposed marriage to Chapter Nineteen. He used the word betrothed and prefaced it by saying how now might not be the best time and Chapter Nineteen agreed. In that moment I noticed for the first time that Kemper had gone missing.

The barbacks refilled the cooler and we kept conquering and drinking. We did this well past dawn, into the steep slant of the new morning light, as one by one consciousness melted away, and everyone fell slumped or splayed, restless or still, alone in the suspension of sleep and the madness of their dreams, and I stayed up until I could no longer remember where I lived, or what I did when I was there.

 

Paul Albano is from Milwaukee, WI. He has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and his work has appeared in cream city review, Paper Darts, and Whiskey Island Magazine.

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