by Richard Burgin
A man walks into a bar and decides that he will tell a joke beginning with those exact words–“A man walks into a bar.”– He feels that he’s really been a kind of crypto-comedian all his life and wants a chance to show it, if only to the people seated at the bar. Just before he opens the door, he realizes that he’ll let in too much cold air. He shuts the door before he even tells a single joke. Instead he takes a walk up Chestnut Street and thinks about his childhood as if the wind blew it forcefully into his mind. He remembers pulling his blanket up over his ears when it was cold and how he felt like he was in a tomb of ice.
One night when he couldn’t sleep because he felt so cold, he called for his father and told him his problem. His father opened his closet door and put three more blankets over him. When that still didn’t work, his father started telling him silly jokes one after another, like “Do you know why the basketball died? Because it was shot so many times.” He laughed after every joke his father told, and kept asking for more. Just before his eyes closed, he saw his father tiptoeing out of the room. It was perhaps his favorite memory.
“The wind lives in a seashell,” his mother told him at Revere Beach. “Put the shell over your ear and you can hear it talking.”
He did what his mother said and heard the wind.
“Does the wind have a family or does it live alone?”
She looked at him as if he’d asked the wrong question. He knew then that she didn’t know. That no one did.
His parents had let him go to the movies by himself in Boston. His house was only ten minutes away by streetcar but still he had the feeling of having taken a substantial journey, and because he was by himself, he felt both excited and a little nervous. It was late fall, and the wind blew leaves around the Boston Common. He knew he should take the subway home now but instead looked around at the vast green lawns of the park while dodging the leaves that occasionally flew toward him like little birds. Suddenly, he saw two teenage boys fighting a third who appeared to have a dog leash tied around his neck. Then a new figure approached him, older and larger with wild green eyes but vague features, as if his face were made of watercolors.
“Wanna take a walk with me?” the man said, holding a different leash.
He started running down Beacon Street as fast as he could without once looking back. Good thing he didn’t pick the park to run through as it was mysteriously empty except for the fighting boys and the man who was half-yelling, half-laughing at them.
The wind has its own sound but it’s also part of every other sound. The dinosaurs heard it –they just didn’t write poems about it, he thought. He remembered the way the sink faucets moaned in his parents’ cellar. It was a muted but oddly terrifying sound, like a devil choking. But one afternoon, when he was alone in the cellar, he heard it in a different way and didn’t run upstairs. Instead, he kept pulling himself wildly knowing that this time he wouldn’t stop until he exploded. He could feel it piercing forward like a hot wind building inside him. Then it spilled out onto the cellar floor. He stood over it, astonished, as if it were both dead and alive.
A man walks into a college talent show. He is a student living away from home who thinks he has a gift for making people connect through humor. He tells some mild sex jokes, some observational humor à la Jerry Seinfeld, but steers clear of politics and religion. Things are going pretty well until he starts to shiver. He becomes afraid that the audience will notice it and be distracted from his monologue. He begins to think more about his shivering than his jokes and starts to lose the audience. Later some of his friends tell him he was funny, but he knows they’re lying. It is the last show he ever performs in public.
Shortly after college, after he moved to Philadelphia and began working at an insurance company, he felt the chill again. It was as if it had been following him since his childhood and had finally tracked him down. He was returning from a restaurant when he felt it pass through him like a small, violent wind. Since there was a kind of wind tunnel near his apartment where he was walking, he didn’t think much of it, figuring it was something that would go away in a few seconds. But the cold persisted even after he walked into his lobby and paid his respects to the doorman. He self-consciously paced around to lessen the chill that seemed to have targeted him, especially his neck.
It didn’t get better in the elevator; in fact, if anything, it got worse. Fortunately, there were no other passengers, so he could press himself against the wall to try to create a feeling of warmth. Shortly, though, he realized that was only an illusion.
He wondered if anyone else felt it. The doorman didn’t look any different bent over his racing forms, but how often did he really look at the doorman in a careful way? So he couldn’t really evaluate the doorman’s behavior.
What about the people on the streets? Any unusual activity there? Again, he hadn’t noticed, but ever since he moved to Philadelphia by himself he’d followed his parents’ advice to look straight ahead and never make eye contact with a stranger, though, of course, almost everyone was a stranger.
He began using a lot of blankets at night and wearing a heavy shirt over his sweatpants, but it made little difference. It was as if, ghostlike, the wind had invaded a part of him just above the base of his neck, where it couldn’t be dislodged.
Soon he started seeing doctors. When he let each doctor touch his chill spot, or, more accurately, the chill’s ostensible port of entry (since he felt the coldness internally as opposed to on the surface of his skin), they told him they couldn’t detect any difference in temperature between his neck and any other part of him. He soon decided the doctors were as useless as rocks in the desert.
Then his dreams began, first about the doctors, then about the chill itself. In one dream he was running from the chill, looking over his shoulder at it as he ran towards his apartment. The last time he looked, he saw a face forming on it but he couldn’t recognize it. It didn’t really look like a human face and yet it was nonetheless strangely familiar. If he had a close friend in the building or even in the city or if his parents were in Philadelphia, of course, he would have screamed their name. He thought of the phrase “Life is a scream” as if it were skywriting made by an invisible plane. He pictured his doorman bent over his racing form. Everyone was always monitoring their luck. They had their luck, and he had his chill. He was running so hard now that he felt he was burning–burning and freezing simultaneously.
When he woke up and focused his eyes he was completely dressed, sitting on his couch, no longer sure if he had really been chased by the chill or if he’d dreamed it. He was breathing heavily, panting like an animal, slowly trying to retrieve his breath.
He called his friend Fennel on the phone who told him perhaps he needed to get online and meet a woman. Obvious advice, of course, but coming from Fennel, his best and only friend, it had impact–enough for him to join dating sites and to devote some free time each day to looking at profiles and sending out his own.
There was a woman named Vicky whose kind of cheerful aggression appealed to him– frankly, since he’d left home for Philadelphia, he’d lost some of his own. Also, her emails were kind of funny; perhaps she would discover his “inner comedian,” as he now thought of it.
She suggested a place in Rittenhouse Square he hadn’t heard of, but then, although he ate out at least one meal every day, he hadn’t been keeping track of any restaurant names. The place turned out to be lively and not too pricey– an excellent and considerate choice on her part.
She wore black designer jeans with a classy pink top. He could see she had a good body. She smiled and laughed a lot, but not too much. She seemed to have a lot of experience with quiet men like him. She worked as a legal secretary but wanted to write children’s and young adult books–maybe one day start a small publishing company of some kind. After a glass of wine, he admitted that he wanted to be a comedian and hadn’t completely given up the dream yet.
She thought this was “marvelous,” clapped her hands, and literally squealed with delight. Not since his mother had a woman reacted with such enthusiasm to something he said.
“You’re amazing!” she exclaimed.
Instinctively, he turned away. He didn’t want her to see that he felt he was in love with her already.
“You’re probably wondering why I haven’t said anything funny so far.”
“First of all you have–in a low key kind of way, and I like low key. And second, I know you comedians are often serious people who make comedy out of your pain.”
That seemed to open the door even wider and they began to confide more things in each other–especially her. She told him she was just starting to date again after a long relationship.
“That’s rough,” he said knowingly, although his longest relationship was scarcely a month. After two more glasses of wine he invited her to dinner.
“I’ve got an idea. My place is only a couple of blocks from here. Why don’t you let me fix you some food,” she said.
“No, I couldn’t let you do that.”
“But I’d love to. I have some Chinese and some really nice French hors d’oeuvres. Believe me, they’re too scrumptious–it’ll wreck my diet if you don’t help me eat them.”
He looked genuinely incredulous. “I can’t imagine you needing to be on any kind of diet.”
“Watch out, James, you seem to know how to really get to my heart.”
He laughed–he hoped not too loudly. When she said “heart,” he wanted to think of her soul; instead he pictured her chest that covered it. Yet apparently he’d escaped detection (after all, he shouldn’t think of her as a mind reader), and she still seemed eager to take him to her place.
Her apartment was orderly and feminine, and the colors of the living room matched well. It was lit just brightly enough to be romantic, he thought.
She motioned to a sofa and they sat down together. They spoke for a few minutes and then she suddenly kissed him and said, “Food can wait a little while, can’t it?”
He felt she was borderline drunk and that it wasn’t fair but who was he to resist her. He pictured Fennel, the closest thing he had to a sibling, telling him he was a fool to resist her.
They kissed relentlessly for a minute or two. Soon clothes started to fly off like leaves in the wind. She told him to sit on her carpet, then she slid up to him, put a hand on his head, and pointed him down to her genitals. Meanwhile, she was moaning in an oddly musical way. The singer and the comedian, he remembered thinking, as if they were a stage act.
He felt she had an orgasm in his mouth, though he couldn’t be certain and was afraid to break the spell by asking. Meanwhile, he was getting erect and a little sore in his knees so he got up to enter her.
“Stop! What are you doing?” she half-screamed at him.
“Oh, don’t worry, I have a condom.”
“Worry? I’m not worried, I’m not doing it is what’s happening.”
“But I thought–”
“Don’t think. Just listen. I’m not ready for that.”
“Yeah, ‘Oh,’” she said, clearly mocking him. “I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt, otherwise you could be charged with raping me.”
She was staring at him. There was an odd tattoo by her vagina but he couldn’t read it without staring at it and he certainly wasn’t going to do that. He forced himself to look at her eyes. She seemed a little calmer now.
“I’m sorry there was a misunderstanding,” he said.
“Yeah, so am I. You better get your things on now and leave.”
For a long time he thought about his ill-fated date with Vicky. Finally, it hurt a little less every day to remember, as Fennel had predicted. But then the chill returned, albeit briefly, not in his dreams but in his waking life.
There is always a way to reassure ourselves, he thought, hence the saying “Where there’s life there’s hope.” In his case, he thought that the chill happened much less frequently in his apartment, yet of course when he thought some more about it, he had to concede that might not really be the case, that even if it did happen less frequently in his apartment, when it happened it was often unbearably intense–so that the next time he felt it, he went out in the night as if he had no choice. He thought that if the chill were in his home then he was essentially homeless. Your home is the death of choices, he thought.
He walked a block and a half into Center City with no sign of the chill. He even undid the top button of his winter coat (which he wore although it was already early spring). He was struck by how bright and festive the city looked. Every place was intriguing and strangely filled with charm. He tried to stay calm and rein in his tendency to romanticize things. Things weren’t more beautiful than before, he told himself. He was simply able to appreciate them more because the chill wasn’t chasing him.
Another block passed. People seemed to be smiling at him–what was he to make of that? He decided, superstitiously perhaps, to stay on his same route at the same speed heading downtown through Center City. He would not undo another button, though he was tempted to, and would continue to look at his city with both admiration and trust.
But then, like the first signs of a toothache, he started to feel the chill again, and before he could walk another block it was already gnawing at him.
He broke into a trot then, soon deviating from Center City. A moment later he turned left onto a side street and ducked into a bar breathlessly, where he sat next to a thin blond man in a black T-shirt and black cowboy hat.
A man walks into a bar quasi-hysterical, he thought, and doesn’t know whether it’s worse to talk about what happened or keep it to himself.
“Hey, pardner,” the cowboy said, turning slightly towards him and in the process almost making eye contact. “You OK?”
“Sure. Why do you ask?”
“You look like you just seen a ghost. Other than that, no reason.”
The cowboy was smiling although he couldn’t tell the color of his eyes, only that they were part of a smile in progress. He forced himself to laugh strictly to be polite to the cowboy before realizing that now he’d have to say something at least remotely true about his general condition.
“Well, I guess you’re right.”
“Yeah, I thought so. Are you shivering because it’s cold or ‘cause it isn’t?”
“It just hasn’t been the best night of my life.”
“Sometimes you gotta fish for a long time before you feel any kind of tug on your line.”
He looked hard at the cowboy in the half dark of the bar and thought maybe he really was a cowboy. The way the light in the bar was, the cowboy’s head seemed still and strangely suspended, like the work of a taxidermist.
“This your first time here?”
He felt his heart beat as if the chill were already hovering nearby in the bar.
“Why? You come here often?”
“Yeah. That’s why I asked you if you’ve ever been here before. I figured I would have noticed you one time or another if you had.”
Was there something extraordinary about this place, he wondered. He noticed then that it was entirely populated by men, some of whom were being overtly affectionate. Oh that, he thought. He’d have to make it clear to the cowboy where he stood on the issue.
“Sure. That makes sense,” he mumbled.
“Care to dance?”
He wasn’t even aware that there was music.
“No thanks, I’m a little tired.”
He didn’t feel like getting into the fact that he was straight. He saw a quick image of the boys in the park and their wild-eyed master.
“Sure, I get it, I’m a little tired too. Truth is, I’m exhausted.”
“Why’s that? Hard day at work?”
“Wasn’t work so much as what happened after work.”
“Oh. Feel like telling?”
“I did some running. Serious running,” the cowboy said, looking at him incriminatingly.
“I admire you guys who stay in shape like that. Yeah, I really admire you runners.”
The cowboy held up his hand in protest. “I didn’t say I was a runner. Never said that.”
“Just that I was running today.”
“Where to?” he asked, immediately thinking he was being uncharacteristically nosy. Maybe escaping the chill had affected his behavior.
“I was running after someone, tell you the truth.”
Of course he wanted to know why but he held his tongue. For several seconds they sat in silence.
“Bet you want to know, don’t you?”
“I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t, would I?”
“I don’t know. There are so many different opinions about what makes someone human these days.”
“I hope in any group discussion on the matter I’d get voted in?”
“Oh. You never know about things like that. People are so. . . slippery.”
He smiled, not sure if he should laugh or not.
“Anyway,” the cowboy said (he noticed that his Western or pseudo-Western accent had temporarily disappeared), “I was actually running after you.”
He stared at the cowboy intently and then turned his head away as if he’d just looked too directly at the sun.
“What do you mean?”
The cowboy smiled thinly while a series of peculiar expressions seemed to fight for supremacy on his face.
“Can’t say it any more clearly. Hasn’t anybody ever run after you before?”
His immediate temptation was to say no but then he thought about that man in the park back in Boston.
“But why would you do that?”
“Run after me? Did you think I’d dropped my hat or something?”
“I mean, you don’t even know me, so why would you run after me?”
“I didn’t say I knew you just that I ran after you. Did the other people who ran after you all know you?”
A valid point, but one he didn’t feel like pursuing. Maybe the cowboy was only acting out some fantasy, or making some kind of avant-garde pass at him. It would have been much easier to have just danced with him.
“I seem to be making you uncomfortable,” the cowboy said.
“I’m going to use the men’s room for a minute, but don’t worry, I’ll be back, and we can talk some more about this.”
“Sure,” he said, as neutrally as possible.
He was afraid to look in the direction of the bathroom, afraid to see the cowboy moving or perhaps in some way to see only the wind. Maybe the cowboy thought he was someone he knew. If he saw either of his parents in Boston he’d run after them. Perhaps that’s what happened to the cowboy.
But that line of thought balanced against the cowboy’s behavior wasn’t really reassuring. It was preposterous and simply an unrealistic conclusion to reach. Wasn’t it more possible, since he’d already asked him to dance, that the cowboy was trying to intimidate him in some way that would impress him, that he simply wanted him sexually? He himself had lived long enough to know that people of all kinds were capable of acting that way, though he had never been that aggressive. His night with Vicki was proof of that. He was always the pursued and never the pursuer.
He got up from the bar then and walked to the door. Fortunately, he hadn’t bought a drink yet so he wouldn’t have to be delayed by paying for it.
For a block, he walked at full speed, then broke into a run. He didn’t hear or feel anything but the sound of his running, the strange music his shoes made on the sidewalk. He remembered as a kid trying to outrun a dog that eventually bit him. He always thought he could have avoided the bite if he’d just run a little faster.
Colors streamed by him like water as he ran into the wind, his eyes tearing like little windblown ponds. He had no concept of direction. Soon, it was like running into a blizzard. For a long time he ran this blind blizzard run, then finally he saw his building tall and proudly monolithic like a fortress at the top of a hill.
The doorman gave him a funny look as he walked by but what did it matter? People could only really judge you if you let them.
When the elevator came he was ready for it. A woman from his floor who rarely talked to him felt an impulse to quasi-acknowledge him with a nod which he happily returned. It was strangely reassuring. There was no ensuing conversation but that was OK, perhaps better to protect the moment which words so often destroyed.
A muted chill crept somewhere between his neck and left shoulder but it wasn’t freezing. Now it felt more like a cool spot in a warm desert.
When he got inside he went directly to his room. On the bureau were two 5” by 7” silver framed pictures of his parents. In one his father was wearing shorts that showed his hairy legs. He was smiling at him. His father had even taken his glasses off for the photograph. In the other picture, his parents were kissing while he sat in front of them, no more than three years old, playing in the grass. He thought of calling them but they were probably already in bed. Instead, he sat on the edge of his bed and stared at his parents. It was odd to stare at them but it was also calming. A moment later he realized the chill was gone, and then, with all his clothes on, he lay down for a minute and fell asleep. When he woke up he felt he was in a warm green park shaped like the yard of his childhood, a shining blue sky overhead. Peace is temporary, he thought, but always blessed.