by Ben Nardolilli
Gallant probably isn’t the best word. Foolish might be. Hopeless and desperate could apply as well, but only in the least. Maybe “Nice” would work best. It’s always the fallback word to use whenever someone has to say something about another person and nothing else comes to mind. Everybody who isn’t mean is nice. So I guess you could I say was being nice to that girl in the bar.
The other guy probably thought the same thing about himself too. For all any of us knew, he was being nice to the girl. In his drunken mind, his inner gears and light bulbs wobbled about and probably confused nice-looking with being nice. The Germans probably are able to make different words for them. They probably don’t get much in trouble when they drink. If they do, they just end up invading Poland. But we English speakers are left with “nice” floating around and being used in different ways. Kind of like in the way we use “like” to mean a myriad of different things.
I’m sure I was meditating on such linguistic questions when I was at the bar. When I drink enough, no words become sensible. I receive the meaning of what people say to me. I get what they want me to get, but I end up stripping away the words they use. The containers of sound and ink are thrown aside, left bare. Sometimes they fade away themselves, melting until little gems and kernels remain that I can treasure and investigate.
When words start to become useless coverings, it’s hard to respond to anyone. I prefer using the head in such situations. Nodding is a real thing. It hides nothing. It is universal. I require no translator when I nod. Yes or No, it’s very simple. 1 or 0. It must be how a computer feels when it talks to a human. We put our words in and it gives us words back, but it probably just thinks of itself nodding, shaking its electronic head at us. Its electrons spin according to what it wants to say.
Nodding usually won’t get you in trouble. Words always do. Written or spoken, someone can take them the wrong way. A nod is simple, if you mean yes, and you want to hurt someone, then they understand you perfectly. A shake of the head tells a woman you’re not interested. There is plenty of fooling around to be had with the tongue or the eyes.
A word like “Nice” is never really expressed by head gestures. You can smile, but what does that mean? Nice is a gray word that sits in the middle of every conversation, like a rodent, gnawing away at both sides until no one is quite sure if they’ve said anything or described anyone. Nice can be mean too. That night, when one of the drunks in the bar, who was trying to get over to a stool in the corner tripped and fell, there was a chorus laden in testosterone and booze snickering the word out between their stained teeth. Of course they didn’t mean it the way they do when a blonde with enough taut curves passes them by, but they were absolutely serious in their making fun of the poor man.
I returned to my drink once I understood what as going on. I finished it and asked the bartender to give me a few minutes before filling up the glass. I told him to keep it empty with the shake of my head and placing my hand over the rim. I then threw a few words at him like dull tipped darts, telling him I would be ready for another round eventually.
Behind me, there was a pretty young girl with some friends sitting in a booth. They were celebrating a birthday. It wasn’t hers, yet all their attention, and my attention too, was drawn to the girl with the blonde shoulder length hair that looked cleaner than anything else in the place, except maybe for her light clear skin. She had no moles, freckles, scars, tattoos, or bruises. I wanted to introduce myself to her, but she was surrounded by a mass of friends who were all forming a barrier around her so that me and everyone else could look but not touch.
I pushed my glass towards the bartender. He saw me look away from the girl and understood that I needed to have my drink refilled. While I tried to lose myself in the clanking and chipping sounds he made trying to get me another drink, I heard the laughter over where the girls were sitting suddenly die down. I turned to see what was going on. When such chatter ceases, usually one expects a song and dance number to break out. Maybe they were going to sing “Happy Birthday.”
Instead, they had gone quiet with nervous smiles on their faces. One of the bar’s patrons, younger than me and closer in age to the girls, came over to them and thought this gave him some right to voice his mind, to tell the blonde that she was beautiful and looked like a goddess compared to everyone in the bar. This attempt at a compliment of course only made her friends angry, as it made them look uglier. We, the surrounding drinkers, were not offended. Our job is always to make everyone else look better.
He continued. I was amazed at his diction. He slurred nothing even though he was spinning in his own little orbit. It might have been better that way. Then the girls could dismiss him easier and many of the things he said would be lost on them, tumbling out of his mouth and getting lost trying to find ears to listen to.
“I think you are beautiful.”
“The most beautiful woman here.”
“And I mean that.”
“I’m just trying to be a gentleman here. You’re not just hot. You’re gorgeous.”
“I don’t think you can tell the difference.” If my hands were not so heavy, I would have applauded. Instead they remained on the surface of the counter.
He was starting to get impatient. For some reason he thought that bestowing compliments on a girl entitled him to some sort of special status. He thought that being so nice would give him the key to unlock her wherever he wanted, her mind, her heart, her mouth, or in between her legs. He hadn’t realized that she had probably been getting this sort of attention her whole life. She was, as he said, gorgeous. But the fact was obvious to everyone but a blind man. Even then, if he had hands, he would have been able to tell. I looked around and there were none in the room. He wasn’t doing anyone a favor and the girl was getting uncomfortable.
I looked at the bartender, and he nodded at me. I slid off the stool I was on without making much noise and walked over to him. I did my best not to wobble or falter. There were a few steps that I regretted taking, but the floor knew that what I was doing was right, so it gave me little trouble. The girls stopped nervously laughing and smiling. They were worried that I was coming in to join the guy and the two of us would serenade the blonde with compliments.
Instead, I tapped him on the shoulder and he turned around. Doing so let me feel how well he was built. He was young, but his shoulders were soft, which I presumed the rest of him was like. I thought this meant he would be easy to deal with, that he wouldn’t offer much of a fight. Maybe if someone just told him he was doing wrong, he would wake up and then everything would be fine. Nobody would have to worry about things like punishment and prevention.
“I think everyone knows she’s gorgeous man. Why don’t you sit down.”
Instead of leaving, he stood his ground and continued giving his compliments, and staring directly at the girl. I looked at her too and saw that she was trapped. Something had to be done. Since I was already up and well known in the place, I figured it was my job. I’m not a hero, but he was making me feel as uncomfortable as the girl. In her case, it was the fear of the man touching her or worse. For me it was having to listen to his words, dripping with desperation. He was turning words like “beauty” and “gorgeous” into terrible things. I had to save the words as much as the girl.
Even though I was older than her, maybe not her type, a little show of gruff and muscle in her defense might get her to notice me. She would feel obligated to give me something, possibly a kiss on my stubbly cheek. Maybe more. I wasn’t going to help her because I wanted her to sleep with me, if she was ugly I would’ve helped her too. Looking at her, she didn’t seem relieved to have me there, beside the guy who was bothering her. She probably figured that I had set up this whole situation. The guy was my friend, or a paid stooge. He would make things rough and then I would get rid of him. I had to show her that this wasn’t the case. This scene was natural.
I gripped the guy’s shoulder and squeezed it. I wanted to remind him of his own softness.
“I think you should take it easy.”
“It’s not of your business.”
“It’s not her business either what you think of her. Keep it to yourself.”
“Just let her be.”
“I said stay away!”
His angry voice snapped out of his mouth and hit the boards of the ceiling, almost shaking them a little bit and knocking some dust loose. Everyone put their drinks down and their sorrows away. They wanted to see how the two of us would handle ourselves.
“I’m not here to take her from you. Just leave her alone. How would you like it if I went up and came on to you?”
“So you’re a faggot?”
“No. I’m just trying to get you to think-”
He had no time to consider being in her shiny red shoes. He only wanted to be in her pants. His fist ripped up the smoky air between us, his knuckles devouring it up like teeth. They slid into my face like a baseball player trying to seize home plate away from a catcher. Strangely, I felt the swelling in my jaw before the blow of his hand. Things were hot and dizzy. Then the sensation of his cold skin on my face hit me, but it was the least of my problems.
I fell into the bar, trying to get support. I looked over the woman. Now she was sympathizing with me. I tried to smile at her, but my mouth was warm. My lips were wetter than usual, especially after drinking. I saw a red drop slip out and fall on my white sneakers. Blood. I swallowed as much as I could and felt sick. The guy had been tired by his punch and the hand he had used was hurting. It looked like he was wearing a pink mitten.
He was coming after me. I took an empty beer bottle and swung it into the center of his chest. The air went out of him and he collapsed. His legs went first and the rest of his body sailed forward, carried on by his previous angry inertia. He landed with his head underneath a stool. He wasn’t out, but he was close. When the guy got up, cigarette butts were stuck to his hands, he threw another punch at me and I fell down.
When I woke up the bartender was cleaning my lip with a rag. It was the cleanest one I had ever seen him use. I imagined that it was one he was keeping in reserve, just for me in case I decided to be chivalrous. I asked about the guy. He had been taken outside, dragged through the alley, and given a few kicks and throws to take home. I wondered how it would feel, to have a hangover and battle scars to nurse. I then realized that this was what was awaiting me in a few hours, if I could get to sleep.
I asked about the girl. The bartender nodded his head to my left, and I looked up. I realized that my lips must have looked as red as hers. She smiled at me and brushed the hairs over my forehead. They did whatever she wanted them to. She got them to stay in place without standing at attention or falling over my eyes, something I could never get them to do. I wanted to say something to her but my mouth was dry and my throat was hoarse. All I did was nod my head. Yes. Yes. Yes. Keep your hand on my head, now, tomorrow, and forever. Yes. Yes. Yes.
After a few minutes, the bartender brought out the strongest drink in the house, some rubbing alcohol he kept for disinfecting purposes. He dabbed some on his rag and applied it to my chin and cheek. A little got on my lip. A single flame shot over my face and leapt up to my eyes and hair. I was afraid of being engulfed, but the woman held me down and kept on smiling. Things became cool again and I got up with the two of them helping me.
They asked me if I was alright, I told them that I was and they withdrew their support. Soon I was back on my favorite stool, my swollen lips battling with my engorged tongue trying to drink down a beer. The woman said goodbye to me and she left the bar. She had stayed behind, after her friends had all left. When I turned around to toast the bartender I realized that she had left me nothing but the memory of her face and her hair. There was no phone number in my hand, or stuffed discretely in my pockets. I checked.
Even if had impressed her, it was not enough. I still wasn’t her type. I was tough, but still too old. I took a few more long sips of beer, rolling the bubbles down my throat. I thought about having given the guy a good beating. I still had that. Word would get out even if there was no applause. Maybe somebody saw what I did, and they would stand up to another asshole trying to mess with a girl, or just another random female stranger. Or a male one. I sat on the stool, trying not to fall off, thinking that a revolution was getting started, thanks to me. For nothing, I had given up myself to save another. No money, no tail, not even someone to hold. Nothing. The beer was from the bartender, but I hadn’t gotten into the fight for his sake.
Maybe gallant was the right word, and still is. And celibate too.
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