The clerk was trying to be funny, like all of the others.
"Hey, Bart. How's Bert?"
Barton cringed, as he always did.
"Barton," he corrected, after making a short, sharp inhale meant to sound like a snicker, as if he was mildly amused by the clerk's attempt at humor. Which he assuredly was not.
"Barton, right. So what'll it be?"
"Large coffee, cream."
The clerk filled a tall Styrofoam cup, capped it with a flimsy plastic lid—the kind that had collapsed on Barton more than once, scalding him—and pushed it across the counter. Barton already had his money laid out, including a tip, but he saw with irritation that he had been too hasty with the tip.
"Cream?" he repeated, as politely as he could manage.
"Oh right, cream," the clerk answered, uncapping the lid and pouring in a splash of cream or, more accurately, milk.
You'd think I ordered something complicated, Barton thought, for as well as this guy remembered. Coffee, cream. What is so difficult?
He reached for the coffee, thinking for a moment about taking back the tip before deciding to let it pass. It wasn't worth the argument, at least not this morning. He was running a bit late, and wanted to have some time to himself before the day began.
So now even the counter guy at Doug's Donuts thinks we're Bart and Bert, he reflected as he stepped back outside. Some sort of inseparable pair. Nothing could be further from the truth, he thought bitterly.
He climbed into his car, a 1978 Dodge Aspen, and carefully wedged the cup between the dashboard and the sloping glass of the windshield. He glanced at his watch. Twenty minutes until classes started; another fall, another incoming crop of freshmen enduring biology only because it was required for their eventual graduation.
His given name was Bart Faulkner, although he recently—finally fed up—had begun insisting on being called Barton. He taught freshman biology at Ashtabula West. He taught passionately at first, before his students' indifference became painfully obvious; but rather than settle into the dull, perfunctory routine of many of his colleagues, he developed a more haughty air, silently sneering at anyone who didn't find biology to be the most fascinating and important of disciplines. He disdained anyone who didn't take the subject seriously.
Bert was his brother-in-law, Bert Fullmer, who was married to Barton's sister Maude. We even have the same damned initials, Barton thought. Yet another reason for people to associate me with him. Bert was popular, a regular guy, a driver for Hostess and, in Barton's opinion, far too visible around town. And this town is too damned small, Barton now thought. There aren't too many people who don't know both of us.
Maude had a ritual for the start of every new school year, inviting Barton to dinner at their house on the first day of school. Barton always went along with it, but only grudgingly. He would endure Bert's jokes, stomach Maude's cooking and sit through a few hours of mind-numbing network television. Holidays were one thing—Maude and Bert were family, and holidays were a special time for tedious family obligations—but these non-holiday invites were unnecessary and usually excruciating. Better to be home with his books and his Basie records.
Tonight, on the first day of school, was another one of those nights. So help me God, he thought, if he giggles again I just might punch him. He pulled into his parking space with ten minutes to spare, dislodged his coffee cup and took a few tentative sips as he contemplated yet another school year.
"Oh, it was alright, for a first day," Barton said, picking at his meatloaf. He had been avoiding his dinner for some time, and was nearing the point of offending his sister. He decided to become expansive in recounting the day at school, in the hope that he could blame getting carried away in conversation for his not eating.
"I started out talking about the basics of cells, all the various parts and functions. The nucleus, the endoplasmic reticulum, the vacuoles. Just the basics, to try to see whether or not this class has any interest at all."
"Did they?" Maude asked with interest, although she had heard it all before, many times over.
"Didn't seem like it. Not any different than last year. No change."
He wanted to see if there was any change here, at this table, in this painfully tidy house. Though he anticipated the response, he decided to press on.
"So, I'm going through some of the structural characteristics, the cytoplasm"—here it came—"the ectoplasm—"
Suddenly, inexplicably but right on cue, Bert burst into a paroxysm of giggling. His face reddened, his flabby cheeks bulged, and he emitted high-pitched squeals as if "ectoplasm" was the funniest word he had ever heard.
Barton sat silently, and tensely. No, nothing had changed. He had intentionally cut himself off in mid-sentence after saying the word, anticipating and dreading Bert's response. The response confirmed his doubts about this town, where Bert was so highly regarded, and the life to be lived here. He withheld his fist.
This is what Maude married. What she settled for.
As the giggling died down, Barton dropped the subject of biology. Better to reminisce and to chat about the happenings around town. A fist to Bert's fat face, while personally satisfying, wouldn't do much for family civility.
What was it about Bert and the word "ectoplasm", anyway? Did it sound funny? What did he think the word meant? Maybe something dirty? Bert might have taken biology back in high school—though he probably didn't get to it until junior year at the earliest—but he surely had long since forgotten the meaning of the word if he ever knew it in the first place.
Barton stared silently across the table at his brother-in-law—already several minutes into a rambling and unfunny anecdote that Barton doubted would ever end—and wondered what his sister had ever seen in him. Bert had a good job when they first started dating, working as a spot welder at the Erie Shipyard. The pay was good, the pension and health insurance quite generous, and the job secure. Erie was flush with orders for new ships back then, tankers and ore boats and massive barges for grain and cement, and Bert had all the work he wanted, including ample overtime at double pay. With all that cash, no mortgage and no worldly cares, he must have seemed like quite a catch to Maude.
He certainly had the money to show her a good time, with enough left over to provide a comfortable future. The union had him covered; he was in good with the steward, an old high school pal, and could count on his continued support.
But before he and Maude were even married, he walked away from the shipyard, just set down his torch one day and walked out the door, dropping his safety goggles and work gloves carelessly behind him as he left. The steward found him hours later at the VFW, enjoying the pointless ease of a free afternoon and clearly looking forward to many more. Nothing the steward could say—appeals to common sense, reminders of what a good thing he was walking away from, questions of where else he would work in a town like Ashtabula—could change Bert's mind.
Bert finally finished his anecdote with an unanswered guffaw, his narrative ending nowhere near where it had started. Maude made a casual remark about shopping for clothes, and Barton saw an in, a chance to subtly prod her one more time, to hopefully gain some insight into his long-unanswered question.
"I spoiled myself for the new school year."
"Oh yeah? What did you get?" Maude asked.
"I went to Richter's and got a new sport coat and a couple of silk ties—the regimental kind, with the wide stripes."
"Please tell me the coat isn't tweed, with elbow patches," Maude teased, continuing an inside joke they had been running for years.
"No, not tweed, and no elbow patches. Gray and black hound's-tooth, actually, very sharp."
He really had no interest in talking about his new clothes. It was just a ruse.
"You know, Richter's is as nice as ever," he began carefully. "It's really held up better than most of the stores downtown. They must still be doing well."
Maude grunted her concurrence as she rose from the table to clear away the dirty dishes.
"Mark Richter's still managing the place. I've heard his dad isn't doing well. Pretty soon Mark will own the whole operation."
Barton pushed himself away from the table, leaning back in his chair, trying to be casual.
"Boy, Mark really had a thing for you back in high school."
"Yes, I guess he did," Maude said from the kitchen.
Though his scheme was working, he suddenly realized another consideration, one which was sitting directly across the table. Bert slouched in his chair, craning his head slightly to see the TV in the next room. The room was half-darkened, awaiting their arrival, the sitcom flickering in a blue-green glow. Each time the laugh track roared, Bert snickered quietly.
Not really listening, Barton thought. Either that or he doesn't care. Still, it would be best to not continue the conversation across him.
Barton rose and walked toward the kitchen, momentarily breaking Bert's line of sight. Though the interruption lasted only a second, Bert bobbed his head back and forth as Barton passed, trying to miss as little of the show as possible. Oblivious, Barton thought.
Maude was rinsing dishes under the faucet before loading them into the dishwasher. Barton strolled in, as casually as possible, leaning back against the orange Formica countertop, his hands resting on its edge behind him.
"Whatever happened to you two?" Barton said gently.
"Happened? Nothing happened, really. You make it sound like we were dating, or something. Mark was just another kid from the neighborhood."
"But he had a crush on you."
"Yeah, he did. But I never had any feelings for him," she added, a bit more loudly, fully aware of Bert's distracted presence in the next room.
Barton noticed it too, and wondered why she bothered. She had Bert. She had to know that. It was doubtful that he worried much over an old high school crush.
"Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you had ended up with him?"
"What?" she asked, turning toward him. She held a wet plate in mid-air, water dripping onto the linoleum at her feet. The tone of her response suggested it was something she had never considered.
"Think about it. He's running the store and he'll own it after his dad is gone, he lives in his grandfather's big old house in the Heights, he's in all the top social circles—the Country Club, the Founders, the Civic League—"
"Stop yourself right there, Bart," she interrupted firmly, her momentary reverie replaced by quiet anger. She lowered her voice so that it wouldn't carry into the next room.
"Mark Richter and I were never together. He had feelings for me but I had none for him. Absolutely none. So there was never any decision for me to make about him. He has his life, and I have mine. My life is with Bert, and I'm happy with him. I really am."
Barton shrank from her piercing glare as she continued.
"Okay, so this isn't a big old house in the Heights. So driving for Hostess isn't owning the biggest store in town, and the VFW isn't the Founders. None of that matters to me. I'm happy with Bert. Understand?"
"Okay, okay," Barton objected weakly, still in retreat. "I was just talking. I didn't mean anything by it."
"Are you sure about that?" she accused, raising an eyebrow. "You didn't mean anything?"
"No, no, of course not. Hey, let's just forget the whole thing, okay? Let's go watch some TV."
He had pushed too far, too fast. Though he never came right out and asked the question—"Maude, why in the hell did you ever marry Bert?"—he knew she suspected where he was going, and what he wanted to ask.
Despite his suggestion, watching TV was the last thing he wanted to do at that moment. Or actually the second-to-last. A mindless hour of Falcon Crest was infinitely preferable to continuing that conversation. Thanksgiving and Christmas were still coming up, after all.
He spent the next hour sitting in a worn easy chair, nursing a Manhattan that he normally would have declined on a weeknight but now gladly welcomed. The bourbon was gently soothing, quietly warming and calming him, and helped him through an hour of the accusations, schemes, backstabbing and teasings of adultery which were played out by the attractive actors on the screen.
The novelty of another school year soon passed, and Barton settled into his regular routine. A morning of classes and mostly disinterested students; an afternoon at his desk in the science office grading disappointing tests and incomplete lab projects, and preparing lesson plans for the next day; and finally, mercifully, the evening reprieve, alone in his snug bungalow, listening to jazz records, sipping a California burgundy and pondering over volumes of Updike, of Hemingway, of Bellow.
No more uncomfortable dinners at Maude and Bert's, for now; Thanksgiving was still, blissfully, more than two months away. Maude called occasionally, and they would chat pleasantly over trivial matters. His daily routine rarely varied, but instead of tedium he found comfort and peace in his various rituals.
On one such ordinary Thursday evening in early October, he was just starting the third chapter of Herzog, at last easing into the novel's rhythms, when the phone rang. He was irritated by the interruption, but answered civilly after picking up the receiver.
It was Maude. She chattered for a few moments about nothing in particular, while Barton wondered why in the world she was calling. She finally got to the point. "I forgot to tell you last night. Tomorrow is Bert's birthday and—"
Dammit. Birthday. He remembered last year, an awkward evening of witnessing Bert and a few of his buddies getting hammered on Hudepohl.
"—I thought we should get together, just the three of us—"
Just us. Well, that might not be so bad. He'd probably have to sit through an episode of Dallas, but it might not be unbearable. It wouldn't be nearly as bad as, say—
"We thought we'd go to the VFW for fish fry."
Her words filled him with mild dread. Friday night fish fry, that odd Midwestern cultural tradition. Local fish plastered in batter and deep-fried in moderately clean lard. Served with tartar sauce which he had never been able to adequately digest, runny cole slaw and french fries doused in salt. He could feel his blood pressure and his cholesterol rising at the mere thought of it.
And at the VFW, Bert's home away from home. Drunks lined up at the bar, spending their new paychecks and laughing uproariously at marginally funny jokes. Air thick with cigarette smoke and deep conversations about the Browns. Barton didn't mind the occasional good cigar, had a mild interest in football and certainly wasn't opposed to drinking, but at the VFW all of these things were amplified, and cheapened.
This could be even worse than last year's birthday.
All of these thoughts crossed Barton's mind in an instant after hearing Maude's suggestion.
"Fish fry. Yeah, fish fry would be great," Barton lied convincingly. "I haven't been to the VFW in years."
That was the truth, though he didn't volunteer the reason why. The VFW was, in many ways, Bert's life, and by extension Maude's as well. Driving and delivering for Hostess surely couldn't be personally fulfilling for Bert, and it clearly wasn't making him rich. At the VFW, Bert was among his own kind. Barton couldn't imagine how Bert could enjoy being there as much as he did, but then again he couldn't imagine being Bert either.
Barton's moment of empathy for Bert was, as far as he could remember, his first.
Barton arrived at the VFW on the following evening at the arranged time, a time which he could immediately see was a good two hours after Bert's arrival. Bert was well into his loud and laughing stage, slapping one of his buddies on the back as they stood at the bar, a row of empties before them.
For anyone else, the bartender would have cleared away the bottles as soon as they were finished. But Bert and his friends were clearly good customers, maybe the best, and they seemed to like the empties sitting there as trophies of their evening. So the empties remained.
Maude wasn't there yet. Barton hoped she would arrive soon.
"Heeeey, Bart!" Bert called from across the room.
Barton forced a smile, made a slight wave and walked toward the bar, shaking Bert's hand as he arrived.
"Bert," he said, nodding.
"Bart—oh, sorry, Barton—you remember Charlie, and Mickey," Bert said, indicating the two men in flannel shirts standing nearest to him.
"Yes, of course." Again nodding.
"Hey there, Professor!" exclaimed one of them, Charlie or Mickey, Barton wasn't sure which. "How's the teaching business?"
"Oh, still the same. I keep teaching them, and keep hoping they'll stay awake. And who knows, maybe even learn something."
He knew the self-deprecation would humor them, keep them in a good mood and, with any luck, ease them back into their old conversation and leave him mostly to himself. The self-deprecation was completely false, but he hoped it would serve its purpose.
He had little interest in the conversation he had interrupted, the one which now resumed. The Browns, always the Browns. Sometimes he enjoyed tuning the TV to football games on Sunday, even if only as background for whatever else he was doing. It just seemed right for a fall Sunday afternoon. But he didn't particularly care to hear about what was ailing this year's Browns team. It was always something different, year after year, and the only thing as constant as another mediocre season was the conviction of Bert and his friends that they knew exactly how to fix the team. If somebody would just listen to them, to hear their boasts, the Browns would win the Super Bowl every year.
"Maude's not here yet, Bart," Bert half-shouted, far too loudly, turning away from his companions. "She oughta be here soon. Had to go to the supermarket."
"That's fine." It wasn't, but hopefully her absence wouldn't last long.
Three people left their seats at the bar, departing for the dining tables which were scattered around the perimeter of the room. Barton gestured toward the empty stools, and Bert nodded as he climbed up. Barton took the one next to him, and with only one more open seat, Charlie and Mickey remained standing, partly staying within Bert's circle but also somewhat apart.
Bert caught the bartender's eye, acknowledging him with a slight but sharp upward thrust of his chin.
"Beer, Bart?" Bert said and then quickly corrected himself, "Barton?"
"No, better make it a whiskey on the rocks."
The approaching bartender heard Barton, and nodded. "Whiskey, rocks. Got it. Another beer, Bert?"
Of course he'd have another.
"I knocked off a bit early today," Bert admitted sheepishly.
That was certainly obvious, based on his breath and the level of his voice. Barton merely nodded in reply.
"I figured, ah, what the hell. I already made all my deliveries, there wasn't any more I had to do. I suppose I could've gone back to central warehouse and picked up stuff for one of the special runs, but I said, Hey, it's my birthday. I'm getting out of here. I don't care about the overtime pay."
The round arrived, and Barton took a deep swallow, nearly a third of the glass. Not bad. Not the really good stuff, but not bad. He knew they wouldn't have any decent red wine anyway, and tonight he thought he needed something stronger.
"Pretty good crowd tonight," Bert said, scanning the room. "And it's still early. It's only sev—"
He stopped, lifting his eyes toward the smoky ceiling. He narrowed his eyes, turning one ear upward, straining to hear.
"Hah!" he muttered mildly as quickly-strummed notes from an acoustic guitar could be heard from the loudspeakers.
"This song always gets me," he said with a grin. "Hank heard it once and said it had to be on the jukebox. Even though it doesn't really fit in with the rest of the stuff on there, with Willie and Kenny and Merle and all the rest."
Bob Dylan's familiar whine came through loud and clear, delivering his usual jumble of words in a rapid staccato. Barton wasn't a fan of Dylan but was still familiar with him. He greatly preferred jazz to this folk or folk-rock or whatever they called it, but a friend had the album and had played it for Barton a few too many times. He knew about the song, and why it was on the jukebox here, at the Ashtabula VFW.
Bert couldn't keep the words straight—Barton wondered how anyone could—but he sang along as well as he could manage, singing the words he could remember in an eager but off-key tenor, and singing the others a half-beat behind after Dylan sung them.
"—da-da-da, da-da, da-da-da, you're gonna make me lonesome when you go."
Dylan's voice went silent as the guitar strummed on.
"Okay, okay, here it comes—da-da-da, da-da-da, da-da-da, I'll look for you in old Hono-lu-lah, San Francisco, Ashtabula—"
Bert laughed loudly, not bothering to sing any further. He giggled, almost uncontrollably, as the song trailed away.
"That kills me every time," he exclaimed, wiping moisture from his eyes with the tips of his fingers. "Bob Dylan, singing about Ashtabula. Who'da thunk?"
"He's probably never even been here," Barton said, smiling for the first time.
"Yeah, probably not. Why do you think he did it?"
"My guess is that 'Ashtabula' just fit into the rhythm of the song. He was looking for the name of a city to put at the end of that line, and he came up with Ashtabula. That, and it rhymes with Honolulu, or in Dylan's world, Hono-lu-lah."
"That's the other thing," Bert said eagerly. "Ashtabula and Honolulu, or Hono-lu-lah, both in the same sentence. Funny. Two places totally different, and nowhere near each other."
"Maybe that's the point. He's going to look for her everywhere, from Hawaii to Lake Erie. Even if he's never been here, he probably has a pretty good idea of what it's like. He's from the Great Lakes himself, from iron country in Minnesota, so I'll bet Ashtabula would feel pretty familiar to him if he came here."
"I get such a good feeling listening to that song," Bert said. "Makes me feel like Ashtabula is someplace important."
"Even if it's just a throwaway line in a song?"
"Yeah. This ain't always an easy place to live in, especially these days. You heard about the shipyard, right?"
"Uh-huh. That was something. Terrible, just terrible."
"Three hundred guys, all out of work," Bert said, snapping his fingers. "Just like that."
"It's a tough economy out there."
"Sure, but Erie? Whew. Everybody figured that place would be around forever. And they're not even getting their pensions. Wow—now it looks like I made the right move going with Hostess, doesn't it?"
It looked that way, it suddenly occurred to Barton. Here's a man who got tired of what he was doing, walked away and wouldn't let anyone talk him out of it, or tell him how differently he should live his life. Maybe a man who wasn't entirely unlike Barton himself. They weren't interested in any of the same things, didn't have much to talk about most of the time, but they both liked being independent, liked going their own way.
"I think you're right, Bert. There might not be anybody who wants to buy big ships any more, but people will always want snack foods. Stuff that tastes good and makes them fat."
"Right. I never thought about it that way before."
"Hmm, still no Maude," Bert noted, glancing toward the door.
"Oh, she'll get here eventually. Another beer?"
"Sure thing," Bert replied, and began to push his stack of bills toward the bartender.
"No, Bert," Barton said, reaching out to stop Bert's hand. "It's on me."