emergency almanac - summer 2003
 Unlovely Night at the Wooden Nickel

by Chris Fink

Perfection and beauty are so alien they almost never touch.
ĖMark Doty

   Like most people who find some arbitrary numerical constructions with which to chart the slow decline of their lives, decades say, Iíve come to measure my descent in women, and since I can never keep a woman around for a year let alone a decade, the sad litany of my life I measure in months. I am a serial lover, faithful to each for her time. And I think itís best this way, until end game again, when I review the litany, amazed the heartís ability to withstand punishment, to pump itself clean, but unsure, too, if it will work this time. Wednesday finds me at the Nickel a day early, drinking a left-handed beer and mourning Monique, soon to be latest gone, by recalling her predecessors.
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   Twenty-four months ago it was Rhonda, who, being armless from birth, could perform almost any function with her feet. She could sit up at the bar and drink a glass of Red Label with her feet and smoke cigarettes with her toes, bringing the lit cigarette to her lips as casually with her right foot as I could with my left hand. More, she rolled her own, and could parse the tobacco and roll a perfect weed all the while sitting up there at the bar and talking dirty things to you, if thatís what you liked. She could even shoot a fair pool game if you propped her up. I loved Rhonda for a while, until Ruth began to show me her tricks, and we had quite a time, for a good eight months, having lots in common besides just beer and cigarettes, which we both cared for dearly. She could drive straight too, feet at ten and two, and it was many Thursdayís she drove us home in her sturdy old Buick while I passed out in the seat beside.
   Then there were the brief, sweet four months of Ruth. She was a singer and great lakes swimmer. She hooked me when she told me how the wind across the plains had a very under water quality, how when youíre under water in the lake and an outboard wings by, you can hear the whine of the outboard, like wind. She was right about that. Iím a sucker for a smart broad, and I told her that was the best idea Iíd heard for weeks, which was true. Ruth began to sing karaoke Thursdays at the Nickel. She could pull out her two front teeth and sing other peopleís songs as if they were actually her own. I couldnít hold a note to save my life, and that was a sore spot from the start.
   Youíre tone deaf, she told me.
   We make silent music, I told her, arguing what Blake said about the music of the spheres, how bodies make music just moving through the void oblivious of one another. We could be making a beautiful waltz right now, I sang, and twirled convincingly across the sawdust floor. But she was gone even then. She left me eventually for a hair-lipped blacksmith who did, her words, a heart-rending Lonesome Town. The thing is people come into your life, but they never really go out, despite what you do to grind down their memories small. Iíll never see Ruth again, though her impressionís here yet. Sometimes I see it on the bedsheets and elsewhere. Every place she was seems to mourn the loss of her.

   For better or worse, though, Unlovely Night at the Wooden Nickel seems to offer a bottomless well of damaged goods and deformities. Thursdayís clarion call is heard halfway across county and there doesnít have to be a week in the year when you endure your damage alone. You get to feeling so low during the week, but it seems that the Wooden Nickel has something to for every case.
   And so it happens that Iím already headlong into the months of Monique before the last month of Ruth had run its sorry course. I tell you Iím not obsessed with cosmetic beauty and that might explain why I would date Monique, who has, her words, a bit of a hunchback. But despite the hunchback, or perhaps because of it, Monique is a beautiful woman. I kid you not. And one hell of an athlete. Sheís a tennis player and a regular pro about it. Plays on a club team in the city, and Sundays I motor in to watch her. She moves over the court like a deer, and you canít hardly feel sorry for her at all. I think part of her endowment is that her opponents do feel sorry for her at first. I mean, the first time you see her, she does look pitiable, like she couldnít possibly be any good with her shoulder jutting upward, like some horn trying to erupt from her back. At first blush you think sheís on the team because of some souvenir rule about cripples. But this hunchback girl, Monique--beautiful name for a girl--her parents must have given her that name to compensate, like some ornithologist who gave that ugly brown bird the beautiful name, starling. Say it. Star-ling. Anyway, Monique, sheís beautiful out there. Mo-nique. And itís a pleasure to watch her and the looks on the faces of her opponents as theyíre being out pointed by a hunchback. So much of tennis is about being beautiful in the usual cosmetic sort of way. I guess itís not just tennis; people are always feeling sorry for other people for the wrong reasons, and it costs them.
   In bed sheís no slouch either. I suppose youíre already imagining that. She isnít exceptional in the grotesque Penthouse Forum sort of way. Sheís just graceful and, well, exotic, you know, and you canít help smiling all the while. I think what I love about her the most is her smile. Itís an awfully crooked thing, but itís crooked in the opposite way that her back is crooked, so that, compositionally, everything evens out, and when youíre with her, you forget sheís a hunchback at all, except in public when everyoneís staring at you.
   The months of Monique. Theyíve come to nearly twelve, my longest stint by a long way. But I can feel them slipping away even as theyíre happening. My life tends to occur this way, a somewhat dreary game of gain and loss. Love-love. Fifteen-love. Thirty-love, et.cetera. Last week, after her match--it was a chilly day--she made a cruel comment about my stump, about the purplish color of it. It turns out I only have one arm, the left, and Iím pretty sensitive about the right being gone, as you might expect. I mean, I never bring it up. Who likes to be defined by what they donít have? I also donít want sympathy. Already youíre letting me off the hook because Iím a one-armed guy, but Iíll warn you, Iíve learned to use the lack to my advantage. All the unlovelies learn this trick, and it keeps us in the game, so watch out.
   Anyway, it started with the stump: a slight imperfection that had gone mostly unmentioned until then. This is an important moment for all of us: when a love-object begins to blemish, become mere object. I can understand her feeling. The thing is, Iíve looked at beauty. Iíve seen it in her for christís sake, and it brings tears to your eyes. She must have seen it in me, fleetingly. What is she supposed to do, forget it? Surely she knows how quickly it can slither back into its hole: the damp earth worm, beauty.
   So this is how it goes: that night in bed, in the dark, after another miracle, I feel her finger tracing the geography of my face. And it isnít moving there out of love and caress. I feel it pause when it finds a lack or glut: not enough chin, too much lip. Her moist finger probes my mouth and finds a clump of tongue thatís softer than most, an over bite. She finds my whole body a morass of dents and hollows, so many comings and goings. How can it be the same after she discovers this? We lie there petrified. In the morning, or some morning soon, sheíll be gone, and Iíll be alone again, a half of something.

   Itís Wednesday night at the Wooden Nickel. A dead night. Old One Nut pours me a freebie. He knows Iím low so offers his hillbilly discourse on the sublime and the beautiful, but Iím not taking. My mindís on Monique. Sheís a goner for sure. And I wonder will I be able to crush down the memory of her to make room for more. And I wonder, too, if all the incompletions make somehow for a life.
   It is some comfort to be here. There is the old stuffed musky above the bar and the jackalope to catch out the foreigners. The bartop is no great shakes: a long brown thing, dented and used, but sturdy, and the line of three-legged stools seems to carry on forever. I think about all the Wooden Nickels stitched in a crooked pattern across the fat belly of the country, holding the country together, holding the guts in. The lovelies come in here and see guys like me crapped out on barstools and they think, dismal resignation. But thatís not right. Tomorrow night is Unlovely Night at the Wooden Nickel and Iíll have my boots on. Thereís tonight to get through though, and Monique. Mo-nique. Already I can feel a lack of her. It comes as a tingle where her protrusion would fit up under my stump just so, her coupe de maitre, fittingly, master stroke, no mere figurative completion of me.