Part 1: Beauty Rest
He liked to sit at the far end of the bar, away from the music, away from the door and the crowd and the gawkers who treat this bar, his bar, like a cruise ship stop. They come in, order a drink, pose at the bar, sing with the piano man like starlets, kiss the man or woman on their arm when they are done, kiss just a little too long, like they are the most attractive people in the place (which they often are), and move on. He didn’t like being near them. They smell of cigars and perfume and bubble gum. Their heels click on the tile floor too loudly and they move just a little too quickly, as if they have a schedule to keep. They reminded him of show dogs, bred to get somewhere, look good, keep their tails wagging, and win.
By midnight the cruise ship dogs had all gone and it was just the regulars. He lived near the polluted river that divided this city in half, drank from it, crossed it nearly every day to come to this bar. All the trees that had grown on its banks were logged and floated downstream a hundred and fifty years ago. Mills replaced them, and condos had now replaced the mills. Trees, he thought, would have been a better choice, better neighbors: alive, colorful, and quiet. Sure the crows would take over, sit on every branch, but they were here anyway, lining the wires and cawing at everyone who crossed the bridge.
It was March, the ugliest month in this ugly city, but still this city believed in music and brewing beer, believed that some things were worth losing sleep for. It was past midnight, the band had hit their stride and the music and the booze were in his veins and there was no place on earth he’d rather be.
Until she walked in. She was wearing a charcoal watch cap and scarf, bundled up tight, but he could see her light brown hair and blue eyes and thought first of a fairy tale he’d been told as a child, by his mother, about such a woman. He couldn’t remember her name, the girl in the fairy tale, but she was the one who had slept for many, many years, because she was so beautiful and a curse had been put on her.
She stopped at the middle of the bar, unwound her scarf, and pulled the hat off her head, unzipped her coat, and he saw she was more lovely than he imagined. Dick, the bartender, asked what she was drinking. He couldn’t hear her answer, but watched Dick turn and grab a bottle of gin. It was dark in the bar, but she seemed to glow, as if she was lit from within, like a firefly or a glowworm. Like an ember.
He realized that, if she was an ember—warmth and light—he was a cinder, a piece of coal: dark, moody, burned-out. And, logically, he was what she made of men, when she was done with them.
He never understood the fairy tale about the curse and locking up the beautiful woman until now. He was perfectly happy in his solitary contempt until she walked in. Now he felt desire stirring, knew, if he had the chance, he’d talk to her. That he couldn’t stop himself. He’d say something witty, something dark, charming, and try to engage her. Knew he would do just about anything to kiss her.
Who needed that kind of beauty to wrap itself around you and take you on a ride you had no intention of taking? Who needed this kind of jolt to the heart? Disappointment was an easy companion, always predictable disappointment.
From his stool, he could see her in the bar’s mirror. And again he was stunned. She looked so well rested, like she had just gotten up from a long sleep. He saw his own reflection and all he looked was tired. Face lined, skin sallow, he looked more like his father every day—which wasn’t good. And he was tired. Even if he napped for ten years, like she obviously had, he’d look just as worn out, just as beat up. Because he was. Not from living hard, he knew, but from living careful. When did he decide it was easier to make do, easier to not want? Careful takes its toll, turns men sour and cautious, turns them grumpy and old without one decent scar or crazy story to tell. Like his grandpa used to tell him, stay on the path and you’ll run into shit, but it’ll be familiar shit. He’d stayed on course, picked the easiest route, one with no edges to peer over or fall off of, no way to get lost, no one else to even ask him to cross a line, no shit he couldn’t recognize. It was all his.
She was drinking gin on the rocks. Fast. Had the lime in her fingers and was sucking on the pulp. A little piece of pulps sat at the corner of her mouth. He noticed that her hair was tangled, the hat and the scarf sat on the bar, and he thought that if she had been sleeping for a long time, he was glad to see she woke up thirsty.
He watched her try to catch Dick’s eye for another one, but Dick was headed his way, wiping the bar as he went. He picked up the napkin in front of him, formed it into a tight ball and tossed it into the trash can behind the bar.
“Two points,” Dick said.
“Get her another one,” he bent his head her way. “On me.” He set a twenty on the bar. “Make it two. She has some catching up to do.”
This, he thought, will tire her out. This will fade her beauty, make her one of them—the regulars. And if poison doesn’t work—if she becomes more lovely, more lit up, if she surprises him with her voice, with what she has to say, if she’s been asleep as long as he thinks she has—then later, he might even try a kiss.
Part 2: What Happens Here Stays Here
“The last thing I remember was 1984, dancing to the Talking Heads, ‘Burning Down the House,’ in the front room of a friend of a friend’s apartment in Chicago. The room was crowded and hot, the smell of pot in the air, and then I was feeling really, really tired. I was at the party with a friend of mine, Robin, but she was nowhere in sight when I suddenly felt the urge to lie down, so I asked where the bathroom was, figuring a bed wouldn’t be but a door or two away.”
She was spinning back and forth slowly as she talked. The two drinks he had bought her were gone and Dick was pouring them more.
“I found a dark room that smelled like snow. The window was open a couple inches and it was cold outside. Snowflakes the size of quarters floated past the window as I climbed under the down comforter. I remember thinking how nice it was to be surrounded by all that fluffy white. The pillow, I swear to God, was like a giant marshmallow and as I watched the snow float by, I thought this is Heaven. Heaven is a cozy bed with a party down the hall, and no one to bother you.
“Somebody woke me up in 1992 to move the bed from the room. They didn’t like the idea of waking me up, but the movers refused to take the bed down three flights of stairs with me in it. They did let me climb in the back of the van and lay down again, once the bed was loaded in the truck. After that, I couldn’t really tell you what was a dream and what was real, the sleep, like a hibernation.”
As Dick slid the drinks in front of them, he raised his eyebrows. “These,” Dick said, “are on me.” Dick only bought drinks when he thought a regular needed the help, socially, to look more like a happy, regular guy.
She took a long gulp, then continued. “I remember hearing a woman scream hysterically, ‘Yah right. You don’t know who she is. You just found her in your bed, buck naked. Oh, after a party. Somebody left her and you couldn’t just throw her out. You are one hell of a gentleman.’ I heard in his voice a weariness, like he’d had this conversation before, and he knew exactly where it was going.
“I remember late night sounds of ice cubes trays cracking, replaced by the motorized sound of crushing ice. Sounds of a piano, of jazz floating on the air. Heavy shoes on a wooden floor, the smell of a cigarette burning, the sweet smell of pot. The clicking of keys. He’d sing sometimes, lyrics I didn’t recognize, tunes I didn’t know.
“I remember thinking about Quisp and Captain Crunch. About Snap, Crackle and Pop. How I wished to wake to the smell of bacon frying, coffee percolating. I remember feeling sad when I realized I’d miss breakfast. I remember feeling utterly alone when I realized I hadn’t heard his shoes on the wooden floor in a very long time.”
He watched her suck down two more drinks and her words kept coming, clear and crazy at the same time.
“Really,” he said, folding his hands on the bar. “That’s a long time to be asleep. You must be a really sound sleeper.”
“Oh, I am,” she said. She was practically bouncing on her stool—like a kid, she was swinging her legs back and forth, in constant motion. “I majored in sleep in college. I found myself asleep during most of my classes, and my professors complimented me so often on my ability to gracefully sleep at my desk that I decided to make it my major. You’d be amazed at how many professors wanted to watch me sleep. I stopped attending classes. Private tutorials only my junior and senior year.”
She furrowed her brows, for the first time a wave of sadness crossed her lovely face.
“I guess I didn’t finish college, if I fell asleep at that party in Chicago. That was January and I had a semester left to go. I wonder if they missed me? My professors. I wonder if they wondered what had happened to me?”
She swung his direction, looked him straight on and said, “So tell me,” she bit her lips, then, “what have I missed?”
He shook his head. Tried to think of something important, something worth knowing, something that had happened since 1984.
“Breakfast,” he said. “You missed breakfast. Do you like French toast? Hash browns? Scrambled eggs?”
“Yes,” she smiled. “Almost as much as I like gin.”
She had this crooked smile, a dimple in one cheek, teeth white and clean—she bit her lower lip again when she realized he is gazing at her. Those lips he wanted to kiss, but didn’t dare.
He took her back to his house on Nicollet Island. It was a short walk and the night was cool, the moon resting on its side. “This is nice” she said. “To be up at night. What was I thinking, sleeping all this time?”
His house was old, built in 1896, narrow and made of wood. He took her coat and hat and scarf and told her she could look around while he made breakfast, “But please,” he said, “stay out of my bed.” This made her laugh, made him laugh, too, since he had never said those words to a woman before. He found the bacon and eggs, brewed a pot of coffee. While the bacon was cooking he found a radio station that played jazz, turned it on just loud enough to hear in the kitchen.
This was a dilemma. Normally, he’d feed this girl, notice the time, ask her if she was tired, did she want to lie down? Normally he’d kiss this girl, take her to bed, explore her body, see how much she was game for. But this girl made him nervous. What if a kiss was fatal? What if something terrible happened to her, or to him? And if he let her lay down, what if she fell into a deep sleep again, never woke? He liked her. He wouldn’t mind if she was always in his bed, but he could see how things could get difficult. Like changing the sheets. And what do you do with a woman asleep, honorably? He was wishing she knew the name of the man with the heavy shoes, the man who let her stay in his bed until, until what? What had finally driven him to abandon her?
Okay, it was late and they’d drunk a lot of gin, but now he was starting to wonder what had happened to the man whose bed she had been sleeping in. How far had she walked to get to the bar? She didn’t seem to know where she was, didn’t mention recognizing anything. Would she know the man whose bed she had just left? Find her way back into it? Had a curse been put on him? He thought about fairy tales. Beautiful girls were put to sleep, had curses put upon them, but men? Men turn into animals. Donkeys and frogs, right? And he lived near the river and all and…
“That smells so good.” She was standing in the doorway of his kitchen, her head resting on the door. “You look nervous all of a sudden.” She straightened up.
“Oh, I was just wondering.” His voice cracked. “Do you like frogs?”
“To eat? For breakfast?” She walked across the room, rested her hips against the counter next to him. She was wearing jeans that hugged her hips, a white v-neck t-shirt and a soft baby blue cardigan sweater. When she looked at him he saw it is the same color as her eyes.
“God, no. Do you LIKE them. I mean, if you found one, would you take care of it? Good care of it? Make sure it didn’t jump into the river or anything.”
“Wouldn’t it prefer to live in the river? Than with me? Wouldn’t it be happier there?” She inched closer. Her elbow brushed against his. He felt a jolt of energy surge through his body.
“God, no. This river is filthy. It would lose a leg or grow a third one.” She was hazardously close to him now. The left sides of their bodies were touching at every possible point.
“Where would I keep it? Where would he be happiest? In a fountain? Or could I keep him in my bathtub? Would he bathe with me?”
He could see the lace of her bra, and it was all he could think about now.
“He’d love that. Nothing would make him happier.” He could feel the heat of her body. The heat of her glowing skin and he knew she was looking at him as he gazed at the tips of her shoes. Maybe he should find a way to lay her down on the rug in his living room, where it was chilly, where he could keep her awake, trace her body with his fingers, keep her talking, anything, but a kiss.
Wasn’t it a kiss, in all those fairy tales, that changed everything?
Part 3: Congestion
It no longer mattered if there was a curse or a spell, he realized. He had no choice but to see this through, and so he took her by the hand and walked her around the table, into the living room, over to the couch where he dropped her hand for a moment while he bent to pick up the coffee table and move it off the rug his grandmother had left him, a deep, blood red, oriental number that hid all stains. He would not let her lie down on the couch. He had fallen asleep on it too many times, knew its sleep-inducing powers. But when he set down the table, near his desk, she was standing behind him. She put her arms around his waist and ran her hand up the center of his chest. When he turned, she pushed him down on the coffee table, knelt on the floor and with one hand on his thigh pulled him closer. Her other hand was on his arm and she was about to kiss him, he about to kiss her, when the smoke alarm went off.
Damn it. It was piercing and loud and he realized it was three, four a.m., and he thought of his neighbors waking up to the sound of it. He jumped up and headed to the kitchen pantry, grabbed the broom and started whacking at the alarm. It wouldn’t shut off. She had followed him in, hands covering her ears and headed to the pan of flaming charred bacon, pulled it off the stove top and tossed it in the sink. She ran water on it and the room was lost in a cloud of greasy foggy smoke. He felt like such a fool. He hadn’t even remembered he was making bacon, hadn’t turned the damn burner down, much less off.
The ceiling was high. Twelve feet, to be precise, and he had to jump a bit to hit the alarm. He knocked it loose so it dangled from a wire, but still it blared. He could not think, it was that loud. So when the firemen came into the kitchen, masks on, axes drawn, he was stunned to see them. Suddenly the room was full of men in gray and yellow and the sound of muffled voices surrounded him. One of them led him by the arm around the table, into the living room and instead of stopping at the couch, or the coffee table, the fireman led him outside, into the front yard where he saw half of his neighbors standing in robes and parkas. Staring at his house. And now him.
When she was brought out, his neighbor Mark caught his eye, grinned at him. She was talking to the fireman that was leading her out, and he realized that they knew one another, sensed that the fireman probably knew her better than he did.
“Any pets?” the fireman asked him.
“Ah, no. No pets.”
“Edie thought you had a pet frog,” the fireman said and he saw she was smiling at another fireman who had joined the scene.
“No pet frog.” Edie, he thought. I didn’t even ask her her name. Edie? That’s her name? I wonder what that’s short for.
The front yard was getting congested with hoses and men and neighbors and dogs and flashing lights. It was so embarrassing that it was just a small grease fire and completely his fault. He felt responsible for everyone in his yard and wished there was something he could do to make it up to them. Invite them all in for a drink or something, but he realized that would not sound good to most of his neighbors at four thirty in the morning.
Edie was at his side now, and she was laughing and said, “Look.” He turned around and saw the fire hydrant had been opened and a fountain of water arced into the air, splashed to the ground and began to roll and freeze.
“I love fountains,” she said. “If it was warmer, I’d take my clothes off and run through it like I did when I was a kid.”
He was relieved it was March and cold and that for now she’s going to keep her clothes on. “Sorry about breakfast.” he said. “I hope you aren’t too hungry.”
“Never mind. I’ve missed so many breakfasts, I can miss another. Although it did smell good there for a while.”
The firemen capped the hydrant and packed up their things. The one who had led him out came over to them and said, “No more cooking in the middle of the night, okay? Find something else to do.” Then, “Bye, Edie. I hope I don’t see you again real soon. This is twice this week. I’m going to start thinking you’re a pyro or something.”
“Twice? This week?” He was surprised by this, although he wasn’t sure why he was surprised—she did just get out of bed after sleeping for years. She’d probably forgotten a lot of things she had learned to be careful about.
“Yes. He was the one that woke me up, two days ago. Someone in my building had left toast in their toaster and set off the smoke alarm. They had to clear the building, and he was the man who finally woke me up.”
He wanted to ask her how the fireman woke her, but felt self-conscious and paranoid, so he decided to wait until a better time. He wished he could have seen the fireman’s face more clearly—wished he had checked for warts or any discoloration. All the neighbors had gone back into their homes, and their lights blinked off, one by one. He took Edie by the hand, rubbing it in his to warm it up, and walked her towards the house. “Hungry?” he said, “or tired?”
“Hungry,” she said. “But if you’re tired…”
“Cereal,” he said. “Cold and in a bowl.”
They were standing on his front steps and she was smiling at him. Over her shoulder he saw, down near the fire hydrant, a small green lump. And then it hopped. “Oh, my God.” he said.
“What?” She turned and saw the frog and before he could stop her she was running towards it. She crouched down and scooped the thing up in her hands.
“You now have a pet,” she said, showing him the small, green, leggy ball in her hands.
“And it looks like he needs a warm bath. I hope he doesn’t mind sharing the tub.”
When she took the frog and slid him in between her breasts to warm him up, she told him she had learned that from her grandmother. He thought he might die—out of jealousy he realized—and said, “Do you know the name of the man whose bed you slept in all those years?”
“Name?” she asked. “No, I never did catch his name, but I’d know the sound of his voice, the sound of his walk anywhere.”
And as you’d guess, the frog ribbeted, on cue, and they both had no choice but to look down her shirt and admire him.
Part 4: Triumph Over Death
There was a smoky haze in the living room, add the smell of scorched bacon, steam, and grease. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell, necessarily, but a shower sounded good. He was chilled from the trip to the front yard and would have liked hot steamy water running over his body now. He imagined taking her in with him, watching the water find paths and ravines down her body, turning her skin radiant and glossy, even more beautiful than it already was.
The frog wouldn’t like it, he was pretty sure of that. And although he had stopped being careful, stopped the minute he bought her those first two drinks, he was a little worried about upsetting the frog, somehow maiming or killing the guy. No one had to convince him of who the frog was. He already knew it was the man whose bed she slept in for years, and that he had followed her here, to his house. Hopped all the way on those tender legs. If he had been paying attention, he probably would have spotted him at the bar, too. And he knew that the frog wanted her back. Jesus, he was between her breasts now, happy as a clam. But killing the frog didn’t strike him as the answer—accidental or intentional. What the answer was, he didn’t know, but the answer, he was certain, would come to him.
“Drink?” She was in the kitchen. He could hear her opening and closing the cupboards.
“Sure, why not.”
“Do you have any vodka? Your orange juice looks like it needs something.”
“It’s…” He was starting to feel tired, but knew he would not sleep tonight. Not for one minute.
“I found it. It’s here in the fridge. Cereal can wait, the milk looks happy where it is.”
She found him sitting on the floor, in the middle of the rug, legs stretched out in front of him, leaning back on his elbows. She was carrying two drinks and a Pyrex bowl half full of water on a tray he had forgotten he had. It had been his sister’s favorite—a souvenir from Disneyland with Snow White and Seven Dwarfs on it. He’d forgotten about the dwarfs. Were they born dwarfs or had they done something they weren’t supposed to? He could see the frog in the bowl swimming in circles, his legs kicked in perfect unison.
“I think a bath can wait,” she said. “He seems happy enough in the bowl, for now.”
She set the tray down next to him and handed him a drink, then sat down on the floor, cross-legged, and sighed. “I really do wish you’d fill me in on everything I’ve missed. I know something must have happened while I was asleep. Something important, something that mattered.”
“The Berlin Wall came down,” he said. “In 1989. That was a big deal. And 9/11. The Twin Towers in New York were destroyed. That was 2001. Planes flew into them. Knocked them down.” He felt the sadness all over again. Remembered seeing the footage on the television, how unreal it seemed at the time, how he felt like he was ten again watching King Kong scale a building with a beautiful, hysterical woman in his hand and how impossible it all seemed. That it must be some trick of the camera. And then the second plane hit and he knew it was real and the world changed for him. He had never imagined people could do this to one another. Could look at the faces of their fellow passengers, wait in line, politely snap their seat belts, knowing they would get up and fly them all to their death.
It had been a beautiful, warm September morning.
He had not trusted beautiful mornings since. They made him feel uneasy. He felt a tear run down his cheek. Then her hand brushing it away.
He wanted to tell her something else, something else that was good that had happened, something optimistic, something about how the world was better now; cleaner, less hungry, healthier, more peaceful, that we’d learned something, but he couldn’t think of anything. We, as a nation, had elected more men president, dropped bombs, made enemies, declared wars. But what, really, had we done? As a race, as a nation? What had he done to make this earth a better place? He wondered if he had been asleep, too, or worse, he’s been awake but not doing anything, not even paying attention.
“I woke up,” she said, sensing his need to find something good. “I woke up and I met you.”
They were the classic triangle. The frog was after her, she seemed to be interested in him for God knows what reason, and he would have loved to kiss her, but he couldn’t with the frog swimming circles in his measuring bowl, watching them.
And then it hit him. He knew precisely what he had to do. It was a strange feeling for him. He was not a definitive kind of man. Careful, conservative, prudent to a dull edge, he had always let others make decisions for him. He had always been a witness, never an actor, never the one who made things happen. He pulled himself up, off his elbows, and reached into the bowl. The frog was smooth and cool to the touch. He lifted the guy out of the bowl, brought him to his lips and kissed him. The frog squirmed from his hand and jumped away, plopped near the edge of the rug, then sprung to the corner of the couch where he disappeared from view.
“Thank you,” she said. “I couldn’t have done that.”
“What will happen to him now?” He was sitting on his knees in front of her, legs bent, he realized, like a frog’s.
“He is free to go now. He is free to be whatever he wants to be.”
• • •
Julia Klatt Singer is the poet-in- residence at Grace Nursery School and her most recent book of poems, Untranslatable, North Star Press, was published March, 2015. When not writing, she can be found walking the dog.