By Lao-Tzu Allan-Blitz
The rain was coming down hard and clicked lightly and constantly against the glass. The wind was blowing so strongly that it rushed the clouds in a hurry across the sky, passing shadow and wash of rain in strokes, and every now and then the sun would poke through and shine green through the leafy vines that draped the window. The branches shuddered with it. The trees swayed and ruffled and shook their own rain down. The mud ran from the road and into the grass, and rocks came to the surface. Young boys ran barefoot through the dark puddles.
He sat with a coffee and a dull expression. Shoulders hunched over his gut, his hands in the pockets of his sweater, his eyes gray like the cloud. Cigar smoke from the bar smelled thick and hung on the wood. Gray light pulled the shadows of the rolling rain along the wood floor under the window. He watched, moving only to scratch his nose when a fly landed on it. Her coffee was mostly empty across from him. Coffee and cigar smoke and the smell of alcohol from the bar, and his gray eyes moved for the first time from the floor, but after a second fell back. The rain washed hard across the glass and then relaxed. He leaned heavy into the chair. Her voice could be heard at the bar.
“You should put that out.” She had a glass of wine that smelled sharp. Her white dress came heavy across her shoulders and fell to just above her ankles. Her hair was up. “It’s not good to smoke indoors.”
The man with the lit cigar didn’t look at her, but his eyes did meet those of the bartender and he said something she couldn’t understand. The tip of his cigar glowed and the smoke that came out of his mouth smelled like rust.
“Are you from here?”
“It’s very beautiful.”
“What do you do?”
“He works in the shop.”
“What shop? For cars?”
She looked at his hands and saw they were calloused and greased. She looked at his eyes and saw they were wrinkled and tired.
“And you, señora?” The bartender held out a shot of whisky to the man with the cigar.
“I’m a professor of the arts at the university.”
“That sounds important, señora.”
She giggled and sipped her wine.
“What arts do you teach?”
“Any art there is. I teach dance and theater and painting and music. And the students love me. I can teach anyone. I could even teach you, if you want.”
“I’m not for arts, señora.”
The man smoking said something she didn’t understand and let out a long sigh of smoke.
“What did he say?”
“Nothing, señora. He doesn’t understand English much.”
“Are you from here too?”
“Sí, señora. And you?”
“Me? No, no. I’m from up north. But I like it here. You, where’s the shop you work at?”
The man with the cigar didn’t look at her. He looked at the bartender and the bartender nodded.
The man with the cigar drank the shot of whisky in quick, unexpected sip and took out his wallet.
“It’s just up the road. He doesn’t speak much English, señora.”
“What’s your name?” She took another small sip of the wine and it bit at her nose. “What’s his name?”
The man with the cigar looked at the bartender sharply. He put the few coins on the counter with a loud single snap. He put out his cigar in an ashy wooden bowl. It hissed and was quiet.
“Are you going back to the shop?”
“Can I come?”
Across the small wood floor with the rain still rolling in dark shadows along it, at the table with the half-empty coffee, the man sank deeper into himself. His eyes jumped from shadow to glass and back to shadow. He let his eyes be heavy; he let his weight overtake his muscles.
The wind blew a small branch across the window and it scraped loudly. A clot of mud stuck to the glass. A moment later it was gone. The smell of cigar was stale now, the smoke clearing. The puddles they had tracked across the floor when they came in were gone.
The man sat straighter. The light from the window shone in his eyes. He picked up both cups of coffee and brought them to the bar. The rubber of his heels clacked loudly on the wood floor. He set the mugs on the counter and raised his hand for the bartender.
“How can I help you, señor?”
“I’ll have a shot. Whisky please.”
“Of course, señor.”
He was close enough to smell her perfume, but did not touch her. She was close enough to feel the rustle of his sweater when he shifted against the bar, but she did not turn around. Enrico’s straw hat was on and his calloused hands were in his pockets. He had spit in his mouth and wanted to get outside to spit it out. She was still trying to speak with him.
“Cinco, señor.” He put the shot down in front of him.
“I’ll pay for hers as well.”
He paid and drank his shot in one swallow. The whisky smelled strong and burned strong and his stomach felt alive after that.
“What’s your name?”
“Mucho gusto, Carlos.” He shook his hand and squeezed the way he squeezes a lemon to ripen it.
“How long’ve you worked here, Carlos?”
“Long time, señor. Longer than people have been coming here.”
“Quince años, señor.”
“That’s a long time, Carlos. And you’ve been tending this bar that whole time?”
“And never wanted to do anything else?”
“How come is that?”
“How come you never wanted to do more?”
“Because he likes tending the bar.” She hadn’t turned to him and was still looking fixedly at the man with the straw hat.
“Are you satisfied with your life, Carlos?”
“See now, that’s the problem. Men can’t be satisfied with their lives. If they are, they get complacent. And then they become still.”
Carlos laughed a shallow laugh as he’d done a thousand times before. He took the dirty rag-towel from his shoulder and began wiping down the counter.
“I’m not saying you have to be unhappy, Carlos. I’m saying there’s so much more out there than in here. And you seem like a bright man. I think you can do much more than this.”
“What do you want to do?”
“Solo que estoy haciendo, señor.”
“What do you dream of? Have you traveled much?”
“Here and there, señor. ¿Y usted?”
“I’ve been all over. The world is a big place, Carlos.”
“We’ve been all over.”
“Yes, dear. We have.”
“Come sit with us. Don’t go just yet.”
The man with the straw hat had swallowed his spit by then.
“Lo ciento, señora. He has to go back to the shop.”
When he left, he let in a rush of rainy air that blew warm and thick, and splattered dark gourds of rain drops across the rough wood floor. The door shut and the hissing leaves were distant again. The woman turned back, her wine sparkling in a passing wave of sunlight. Her lips tight, she took a small sip.
“Come, dear. Join us. We’re just talking about how it’s good to strive for something.”
“I’m sorry. You really don’t have to mind him. He does this with everyone. It’s not just you.”
Carlos was wiping the counter again. He turned back to the liquor on the wall behind the bar.
“¿Algo más, señor? ¿Señora?” He held up the whisky.
“Darling, don’t get drunk.”
“I’m not getting drunk. We’re having a thoughtful conversation.”
“You said you didn’t want to drink.”
“I said I’d drink if I wanted to. And I want to.”
“But don’t get drunk, okay?”
“I’m not getting drunk.”
He drank the shot again quickly. She put her wine on the counter. The smell was sharp and too sweet.
“Where were we, Carlos? Did I ask you what you did before you worked here? I meant to. What did you do, Carlos?”
“Before you worked here, what did you do?”
“That was long ago, señor.”
“I know. Fifteen years you said.”
“I was in school, señor.”
“That’s a good man. Did you finish?”
“There was no reason to finish, señor. Here if you study you want to leave. And I did not want to leave.”
“I like it here, señor.”
“I think that’s wonderful, Carlos.”
“Gracias, señora. ¿No te gusta?”
“No, no. It’s fine. I just lost my taste for it. But leave it. I’ll keep sipping at it.” She picked up the glass again. “What were you studying?”
“La ley, señora.”
“I’m not sure what that means. I’m sorry.”
“He wanted to be a lawyer, dear. That’s a good man. Don’t you ever wish you’d kept at it?”
“No señor. Not once do I wish that.”
“But you could have been so much more, Carlos. Such potential.”
He pressed the dirty damp rag into the wood and it left a dark smear where he wiped.
“I am satisfied with what I am, señor.”
“Ah, but there is so much more than being satisfied, Carlos.”
“You are from a different world, señor. Here it is good to be satisfied.”
“I think it’s wonderful to be satisfied. I think there’s not much more you could ask for.”
“Of course you think that, dear.”
“Well, not everyone wants to be Julius Caesar.”
“The point isn’t to be something. It’s to try. Just to try at least.”
“I’ve tried plenty. And I’m satisfied with how much I’ve tried. And I’m satisfied with where it’s gotten me.” She took a sip.
The wind scraped the glass with a branch from a tree it was using. The rain leaked through the roof in spots and fell silently, puddling on a table, beside the leg of a chair, on the ground near the door. The gray sky reflected in the surface of the black puddles.
“Uno más, señor?”
“One more, Carlos.”
She put the glass down on the table and turned her back so that she was looking at the large rain spattered window and the vines. The pale of her cheeks was brighter in the gray light. She didn’t turn back when they started talking again. She watched the drops swell and, filled, fall. Their shadows ran down her cheeks. The rush of the ten-thousand flecks flung at the roof came in waves and washed out the rest of the bar sounds.
The man drank the shot in two sips. He put the glass down firmly. The smell of whisky was strong on his breath he spoke.
“If you put in work, not even if you accomplish anything, that’s not what I’m saying. If you put in the work, and then come out of it, you’re a bigger man. Just by having worked.”
Carlos nodded. He was washing glasses in a tub of hot water under the counter. The soap was still on his hands when he wiped sweat from his forehead.
“That’s what so many people are missing these days. They want it easy. They want to do as little as possible.”
“You know. You understand. It’s supposed to be a hard life. You look like you’ve had a hard life. So you get it.”
“¿Tienen niños, señor?”
“No. No. We don’t. Why?”
“Just asking, señor.”
“No, we don’t. But if we did we’d teach them to work hard. They wouldn’t be lazy.”
“They’d be strong.”
The two men paused as the rain rushed across the roof again and the puddles swelled further. The woman did not look back. She twisted the hem of her short dress between her thumb and finger.
“The human body is a fascinating thing. From right down to the cells. Even within the cells, all the little parts moving, and they don’t know why. That’s the funniest thing. They don’t know why, but they move just right, and then the large system moves. And when they move a certain way, my arm raises up. Like this. And when they move a certain way my heart pumps blood. And when they move a certain way I think my thoughts. But they don’t know why. They’re just moving. And everyone has the same parts pretty much, moving pretty much the same way. Isn’t that something, Carlos?”
Carlos was nodding and watching the back of the woman’s head. Her hair still up, the muscles in her neck were showing running down into the back of her dress. Her head was tilted to the side.
She turned back just enough to meet his eyes, nodded once and turned back. Carlos took the glass, half-empty, the wine gray.
“To know how it works it takes a lot of hard work. It’s a very complicated system. And you have to work hard and long and consistently to get it all.”
“¿You are a doctor, señor?”
“¿That is a good profession, no?”
“A very good profession.”
“Mi tío era un médico.”
“A good man.”
“Come darling, don’t you think we’ve bothered him enough?”
“He doesn’t look bothered. Are we bothering you, Carlos?”
“No no. I am not bothered, señora.”
“Come darling. Let him work.”
She pulled at his sleeve. When they sat back down at their table she didn’t say anything. He watched her, resting his arm over the back of the chair. She was looking out the window again, her lip pinched between her teeth.
“What’s the matter, dear?”
“Oh, nothing. It’s nothing. I wish the rain would let up so we could go.”
“It’s good to have patience, darling. Especially for the little things.”
“Do you still want to go to the movies tonight?”
“If there’s something playing in English. It could be fun.”
The sound of the damp rag on the rough wood was barely heard over the spatter of rain. Then the splash of wine poured out, the slop of soapy water over the glass.
She looked back at him quick, then out the window without moving her head. He scratched the stubble on his chin and ran his hand through his hair.
“You know, darling,” She still wasn’t looking at him. “Never mind.”
“What is it, dear?”
“I just wish you wouldn’t drink. Now you smell of it and it’s giving me a headache.”
“We both smell of it, darling.”
“I had half a glass. That’s hardly enough to smell.”
“The smell sticks to some people stronger than others.”
“It’s a whisky smell. It’s not a wine smell. You smell of it. And I don’t like it.”
“It’s not nice to pull me away from a conversation just to rant at me.”
“I’m not ranting. I’m just getting a headache from you. That’s all.”
“I’ll go away, would you like that?”
“I’ll be at the bar.”
“No, don’t go. I’m sorry.”
“You can’t have your cake and eat it too.”
“Don’t go. I’m just in a foul mood. I don’t want to fight.”
“I don’t want to either.”
“Let’s not fight. Okay?”
“Sometimes your moods make you act unfairly. And I have to fight.”
“I know. I know. It’s my fault. But I don’t want to. Let’s not. Okay? Let’s not.”
“I am getting a headache though.”
“Do you want some water?”
“I think it’s the smell darling. I really do. Maybe I’ll have some too, and then I won’t smell it. Will that work?”
“I’ll get you one.”
She heard him order, her foot resting against the cold glass. She could feel the spatter of the rain tap against her toes. There were chuckles from the bar. She bit her lip again. The only wrinkles on her forehead were the ones from her frown, and they were creased darkly now. He came back with two shots and put one in front of her.
“To us, darling? No, to our health.”
“Actually, I think I’m okay.”
The rain whipped the glass.
“Well, I’ve bought you one now.”
“Thank you. I’m fine.”
“If you didn’t want one you shouldn’t have asked for one.”
“I wanted one when I asked. But I’ve changed my mind now.”
“That’s very childish of you.”
Her arms were crossed and she was pinching the folds of skin between her ribs where he couldn’t see. The whites of her eyes were bright like a fried egg.
“Fine. I’ll have it.” She reached for it.
“No. I just wish you would have decided that before I bought it for you.”
“I want it again. Here. To us? No, to not fighting.”
She swallowed it in one sip. She puckered and bit her tongue.
His sigh was the same one she’d heard a thousand times. He swallowed his shot and breathed quickly through his nose, and the sound of his nasal breath was the same as the wash of rain on the roof. She rocked the glass back and forth on the wood table.
“Did that help?”
“Do you want another.”
“No. I’m fine.”
The smell of whisky was stronger now, fuming from the glass and from their breaths.
“I might have another.”
“This rain isn’t going to stop any time soon.”
“Darling, you’ve had enough. Please. Let’s just go.”
“Don’t you think I’ll know if I’ve had enough?”
“This is one of your moods again.”
“I knew one would be too much for you.”
“I’ll be back.”
While he was at the bar she went to the bathroom. He watched her walk in and close the door. His cheek was twitching just above his lip. The wind blew hard.
“¿Todo está bien, señor?”
“Sure. It’s fine.” He took his next shot of whisky and breathed quick and deep through his nose. “I told you one would be too much.”
He heard the rumble of a truck before he smelt the diesel. He looked towards the door as the shadow passed through the crack at the bottom. The rain became faint and then briskly stopped. The window was peppered in frozen shadowy drops. The quiet was heavy. The leaking roof continued to let through the occasional drop that tinked into the puddles.
She came out of the bathroom, her shawl over her shoulders.
“Shall we, darling?”
“It was nice talking to you, Carlos.”
“Y usted, señor.”
“Thank you, Carlos. It was very nice to meet you.”
He nodded to her. They opened the door to a brusque breeze and a strong smell of wet leaves. The dirt road was mud. Rocks had been unearthed and polished black. They held hands while they walked, avoiding the puddles, neither of them speaking.
About the Author:
Lao-Tzu Allan-Blitz is a fourth-year medical student at the David Geffen School of Medicine, at UCLA. He graduated from New York University with an interdisciplinary degree in Happiness. A writer my entire life, having written over twenty short stories and three novels, this is his first fictional publication, however he has several publications in the scientific literature. His research focuses on global health, which is his primary passion. He has spent the last seven months living in Peru studying infectious diseases.