The woman to my right at the bar hands me a party hat, a metal noise maker with a short wooden handle, and a shredded bright colored paper pennant.
“What’s this for?” I ask.
“It’s almost time.”
“Time for what?”
I look at the bartender. His party hat is tilted to one side, loosely held in out-of-place, by a thin piece of stretched elastic. I want to ask him what is going on but I am hesitant to speak. He looks away as I begin to address my question to him.
“What’s the occasion?”
Either he doesn’t hear me, or he won’t answer my question. I watch as he works in the smoke congested darkness of the bar. He is making something with his hands but I can’t see what it is. A waitress stands by a service station tightly gripping the chrome bars that delineate her space from the rest of the bar. Her mouth is moving but there are no words.
A man next to me says, “Smoke?”
I begin to say, “No…” but he isn’t talking to me. He isn’t talking to anyone.
He says, “The answer is, ‘There is no occasion.’”
“For anything. Your question. Your life. For being here. Or not.”
I turn to question him more closely, but no one is sitting there. Nothing moving but the gray fog of the smoke. A silence now that is almost tactile. I can almost feel what I cannot see. I drink what is put in front of me. The concoction is carefully aligned on a neatly folded cocktail napkin: a half-empty glass of something amber with ice cubes. I don’t know what it is, only that it must be mine. Drinking, I feel an uncommon sense of warmth inside. I carefully replace the glass on the napkin and wait. I can see nothing moving. But my glass is filled once again. I reach for it and drink.
Somewhere in the darkness to my left, near where the end of the bar might be, a footlight flashes on what must be a stage. Followed by another, and another, in a long line of brightly colored filtered lights. No sound is heard but shadowy figures, outlined by the eerie suddenness of the light are slapping their hands together in a motion that could be clapping. Just as abruptly as the footlights had come on, they are switched off, a jolting shock worse than the suddenness of their unannounced presence. Then, without warning, an overhead light, the ghost light is switched on.
I can hear a greatly amplified, scratched vinyl record begins to play, the solo voice of a unaccompanied female singer. I can’t make out the words, as they’re in a foreign language I am unfamiliar with. Her tone, though, is a universal: one of lost love and yearning, intimate yet distant. Her voice is as distant as the mime on the stage, holding a microphone with no cord attached, pretending to sing. The outline in black of painted teardrops on the white grease painted cheeks, the red painted broken heart on the mime’s white shirt leaking large drops of imitation blood. The blood, the tears and the unpainted lips in the ghost lighted stage.
And then, the reanimation of the room. The noise of the crowd, the clattering of glassware, and ice, and meandering conversation. The occasional sound of a noise maker, a tin whistle, rustling pennants, jester’s bells and cat of nine tails whip like cracks in the subdued lighting. Nothing moving on the stage. The jukebox plays. A September Song. Seven versions in succession by seven different artists.
The bartender’s hat is no longer askew. He wears a cheap black eye mask as if he were the Lone Ranger with a shot glass instead of a six gun. Glass tumblers disappear into his hands. Ice explodes where alcohol meets ice.
I drink my tall drink. A woman is standing next to me, wearing a long red evening gown, low cut in the back and front. Whenever she moved her head to speak, her green felt fool’s cap bells jungle, and the elastic of her white eye mask slips, covering one of her eyes. One eye is blue and the other is green. I can’t hear what she is saying, but it appears by her gestures, that she wishes me to light the cigarette in the long black filter she holds between white gloved hands.
I turn to the bar to retrieve the pack of matches that had been lying near the half-filled drink at my place. As I turn to her, with the lighted match, there is no one there. I hold the flickering match as it burns down toward my fingers, waiting for the sudden intake of breath, and the quick release of smoke that always follows after the lighting. I wait, and the match burns, but nothing happens.
Nothing happens until the sound of laughter around me begins. I wonder what the joke is, who is laughing, and at what? Or is it, whom are they laughing at? At what? Nothing at all.
The bald man, at my left, is dressed as a clown, except for his face; a face is covered by a rubber mask His voice is muffled as he tries to speak. I can see the area where the mouth should be, sense the movement of lips, but nothing resembling speech comes out. When I do begin to hear, the sound is distorted as if he were speaking from under a vast body of standing water. The laughter that follows his speech also sounds far away. Indistinct, but, real nonetheless. I imagine him on a stage, dressed in an all-white suit, painted the way mimes are painted, but I cannot imagine the noise. Noise and music, laughter and the sound of coins falling in the jukebox.
I am drinking. The more I drink the hotter I feel. I gesture towards the man with the black eye mask and the party hat, but no one responds.
I call out, “Hey, tarbendner. I’m hot and thirsty. Give me one of your finest coldest beverages.”
All noise in the room ceases. Motion is suspended. A thousand pairs of mismatched eyes stare at me. I can feel the heat inside. The increasing urgency of it. The closeness of the room, the smoke and the heat lamps intense, concentrated glow. I drink what is placed in front of me. Drink it and the next without asking or wondering where and why or how. A Beer Barrel Polka plays. Everyone laughs. Even me.
“Try your noise maker now, sonny.”
A disembodied voice is speaking to me in the darkness. The voice sounds as if it could belong to an older woman. A much older woman. One who has never worn a long evening gown or a party dress in her life.
“Don’t ask questions. Just do it.”
“Of course, now, it’s almost time.”
“Time for what?”
“Time for the noisemakers. You’ll be sorry if you don’t have one that works.”
I retrieve my noisemaker from the bar next to my drink and crank the handle. It makes a loud, annoying sound in the otherwise silent room.
“Seems to work fine,” I say.
“Now don’t you feel better?”
The room is no longer silent. Drinks are being consumed, glasses clinking together, soda is swishing into glasses filled to the rim with alcohol and mixers. Laughter and conversation. I do feel better. Much, much better.
I say so.
Loudly as the house lights come all the way up. All the noisemakers come alive at once. Everyone screams in unison
I know better than to ask what it is time for.
Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows. He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.