this was one of two of my first published stories. I used to have the journal in print that they were published in but they’re all lost.
Everybody is alive in Philadelphia tonight
I had myself a dream. It was loud and it made me nervous. They were loud. They were there for me. I ordered a whiskey, took it to the bathroom and puked. Then I drank the whiskey in sips, letting it rest on the urinal when I heaved. Sam walked in. I didn’t look but it was him for sure.
“Sam, I thought you said this was a good idea. I’m not so sure.”
I was sweating. I was shit. My forearm above the urinal.
“Come on, come on. They want to hear you read. Don’t fuck me on this, you said you would do me a favor. I published you once, remember?”
“Yeah, you asshole,” I said. “And don’t pull that guilt-tripping bullshit on me.”
Sam was a graduate student at one of the colleges here. He put together the reading. He wanted to impress the English department so they’d give him professorship. I was sending stories to literary magazines a few winters back and he picked mine up. I don’t know why. I didn’t like him but he liked my writing. Besides, I was getting $100 and my drinks paid for me. He promised me women too. I doubted this.
“You got 5 minutes,” he said. “What will you read first?”
“Get the fuck out of the bathroom, please.”
I puked again.
I walked out to the din. Stage lights, the bar creatures. It was too dark. The noise grew more vicious through the mob. I heard a mug break and a fist fly.
“Alright, alright let’s just calm down now.”
Sam tapped the microphone twice. It shrieked back at the audience and they gave him hell. He walked down the steps where I was and said, “Good luck.” I ascended the wood steps slowly. Not for dramatics but because I was drunk. I was hardly known, hidden. I looked out at their red faces and put the pages on the table.
“Can we get started already?” I said into the microphone.
They all cheered. I suddenly did not need to puke. One of the front-rowers leaned across the divide with a cigarette and matches. I accepted, lighted, smoked. Sam ran up with a bottle of whiskey. They booed him hard.
“Slipped this from the bar,” he said winking.
He ran off. Maybe he wasn’t so bad.
And like a flame turned low the crowd simmered. And I began.
I got my good ones in first, the ones they’d read or heard about before. The neighbor and her exceptional blowjob. And the one about my first time drinking. There were the sad ones, too, about loneliness and the one or two women that I based all my writing about women on. I loaned them a piece of me with every one.
Between applause or a fight or the end of a good line I would work on the whiskey. I wanted to keep the nerves from coming back. The men looked less affected, their faces loose and red. Some of the women were crying. I saw one smiling. I saw brown doe eyes in the dark. She was beautiful and if I moved suddenly, she would flee. She heard everything, all my life in the void, and if it wasn’t scaring her to shit, she was a dangerous woman. She was keeping up. She fixed her lips. She drank her beer. I kept reading and thought I might be hallucinating again. I hadn’t slept in days and maybe for that, I earned this cruel mirage.
“…and they should tell the children that they can’t be anything. Save them the let down and they will save themselves. Because once you realize there’s no way out, it will never start and it will never fucking end.”
They swelled up and cheered, standing, clapping wildly. And 3 mugs broke to the closing lines. I thought they were good. I finished all but a few hits of the whiskey and felt accomplished. Everybody was alive in Philadelphia tonight.
I headed straight for the bar, handing my last bit of whiskey to some poor soul on the way. Lots of the college guys and their playful girls filtered out. To drink. To fuck. To have their way. Most of the bar people hung around and came up to me to talk. To complement. To drink with me. To mess up my perfect lines that were their favorites. But it was all right with me. I felt better among the crazed.
“Hey, uh, great job out there! Jesus fucking Christ did you hear ‘em?”
I didn’t have to look.
Sam ran up to the bar with a white envelope. It had a $100 bill in it.
“You know, I figure that if you can somehow get up here once or twice a week you’ll be making more than that.”
“I don’t really do this for the money, Sam. I’m sure you know that by now.”
He stared at his beer and turned to me.
“I had this professor once, one of my freshmen classes, and you know what he told me?”
I looked at him.
“He called it ‘Fuck-You’ money.”
“Hmm?” I kept drinking.
“It’s when you get to earning enough money that you can tell your boss ‘Fuck you, I quit’. That’s Fuck-You money. You buy another house, invest a little. Don’t you want that?”
“I want to live and be comfortable and write. That’s all.”
And then I saw those doe eyes. I picked up my drink.
“Sam, I really appreciate all this tonight. I’ve got a flight in the morning. Where’s the hotel key?
“Right here.” He took a silver key out of his pocket.
“You’re a mother-fucker Sam, I hope they give you that job.”
We shook hands and I went to chase after her, losing her, pushing through the smelly cigarette mob, pushing through the backdoor, pushing through the cold night in the alley. I lost her. Fuck. I stumbled out to the long road that went to City Hall. A black coat and black hair sat huddled on the curb. It’s as if she knew to wait for I was slow. Taxis rode by. I went up to her.
“You wouldn’t have an extra cigarette for me, would you?”
Her head turned. Those doe eyes opened.
“Yes, I do. Here.”
We lit each other’s cigarettes and breathed in and out with all of downtown. We were quiet and then she leaned to me real close.
“I liked your stories. They’re so foul and raw but then again, isn’t life that way too?”
“I’m waving down a taxi,” I told her.
“You’re leaving me? Don’t you want to talk?”
“We can go to my room at the hotel. I have wine and some beer in the fridge.”
“Well, alright.” She smiled entirely with her eyes.
I waved a yellow cab down to the curb, got in with her, told him the address. As we drove down toward City Hall, I looked at the world beyond the windows. Orange streetlight fell across us then darkness. She curled her arm through mine. The colleges, the meat markets, the fountains, the bums. We passed them all, passing the time, passing through the fire of our one and only life.