Ilan Mochari

The Old Man of The Promised Land

Donald heard a mermaid sing,
Susy spied an elf,
But all the magic I have known
I’ve had to make myself. – Shel Silverstein, “Magic”

 

The forty-two-year-old waiter reached for the lone utensil with his flabby right arm. His elbow was one inch from the left breast of a coed who reminded him of someone he didn’t want to think about. “I need to grab that spoon or I’ll get fired,” he explained. She did not reply. She was speaking to the two young men who sat opposite her in the booth. Spoon in hand, the waiter turned away. He heard their laughter behind him.

At midnight, he went out to smoke with his much younger coworkers in the empty, snow-filled parking lot. It was the middle of February. The waitresses wore fingerless gloves. The waiters shoved their non-smoking hands into their jacket pockets. Andi finished her second cigarette and checked her watch. “Hang in there, Toby,” she said to the older waiter. She embraced him more tightly than she usually did. She knew.

Toby went to the bathroom to wash his hands. Observing his bearded, double-chinned face in the mirror, along with his receding hairline, he exhaled hard. “My very appearance affirms her decision,” he said to the mirror. He clapped his hands a few times, as if he were his own basketball coach, rallying himself to play with more vigor. A post-shift beer or three would have been great to look forward to. But his semiannual doctor’s checkup was next week. He knew he’d regret those beers as soon as he stepped on the scale.

***

Days later, he was chalking the night’s specials on a blackboard: fresh pappardelle al ragù bolognese was the headliner. It was a $15 entrée in a pub where $7 burgers and $5 beers were the norm. He was about to chalk the second special—grilled vegetable risotto with quinoa, $12—when his phone pinged: a text from his ex. He raced to Andi and Trish, who were setting tables. He read the text aloud: Wavu, the agency that works upstairs from mine, has a job opening for a marketing/PR writer. I can put you in touch with Julian Rothfuss, the executive director. I hope it’s okay I’ve contacted you about this.

“I’m sure she means well,” said Trish.

“I fucking hate her right now,” said Andi, untying her purple bandana. On the stubbly sides of her head, where her long blond hair used to be, was an etched pattern of lines and circles. “Where’d you get these?” asked Trish, dragging her fingers along the buzz-cut figures.

Toby gazed out the front windows. An old Tom Waits tune played in his head. He knew all about how Andi and Ben—frequent double-daters with him and Rebekah—had gone to a renowned local salon to etch matching patterns in their hair for Valentine’s Day.

The late-afternoon street was bright with the restaurant’s front lighting. Cars and cyclists cruised past a row of parked cars. A young woman on a bike sped by, followed by a second young woman on a bike. The second biker collided with the suddenly opened door of one of the parked cars. She fell awkwardly to the ground and put her hands to her orange helmet. The young man who’d too suddenly opened his door stepped out of his car and knelt by her. The first biker circled back toward them. “We’ve got to help,” declared Trish. She left the tables, grabbed a pint glass from the shelves of the bar, and filled it with water from the soda gun. In moments she was outside, kneeling beside the two cyclists and the young man. Andi and Toby stayed inside. “Oh, to be young and still give a shit,” said Andi. Toby grinned.

Later that night, during a cigarette break, Andi asked Toby: “So, if you get the job at that Swahili nonprofit upstairs from Rebekah, will you still work here?”

“I don’t know,” said Toby. “If I leave, will you still do the photos for my first book?”

“Yes,” she said, “as long as you write the intro to my first book.”

The backdoor creaked open. It was Celina, the general manager. Toby and Andi began discussing the new microbrew on tap. “Andrea, you’re cut,” said Celina. “Do your side-work before you go, or I’ll shave the rest of your fucking head.” Andi reentered the restaurant. Celina, wearing her customary black button-down and baggy black jeans, slapped a pack of Camels against her palm. The slapping made an obscene sound.

He didn’t mind Celina as much as his colleagues did. She was, in fact, easier on him. She was his fourth general manager at The Promised Land, and she deferred to his institutional memory. For most of the staff, she was the only general manager they knew. “So, how’s the writing going?” she asked, sitting on a milk crate.

“Great,” he replied. “I banged out a few villanelles this morning.”

“Villa – I’m not familiar with that.” She inspected her scarcely dragged Camel, as if its orange tip of lighted ash held the answer.

He explained. She nodded. He wondered how much longer they would be working together.

***

On the day of his interview at Wavu, he agreed to meet Rebekah for lunch. It was her suggestion. He found it hard to say no. He didn’t wish to appear thin-skinned about their breakup, and he was going to be in the neighborhood anyway, since Wavu was upstairs from where Rebekah worked in downtown Boston. Also, it was Rebekah who’d helped arrange the interview.

The interview began at ten a.m. and only lasted thirty minutes—about as long as it had taken him that morning to shower, shave, and dress in a suit.

With time to spare before Rebekah met him, he waited in a coffee shop. He worked on the final two stanzas of a villanelle:

Now her journals contain the red marks of revision
No longer am I her adorable pup
And my very appearance affirms her decision

The black horse of “yes” is a grounded gray pigeon
Abashed I will be if again we meet up
In those first lusty weeks movie-love was her vision
Now my very appearance affirms her decision
–Toby Leonhart

It spoke his heart, but was the subject matter too limited? Did he need to relate his heartbreak to larger questions? Regardless, he liked his pigeon / vision rhyme. He’d read so much Shel Silverstein as a boy. Where the Sidewalk Ends was on the daycare center’s bookshelf. He read it again and again while the other kids played outside.

Rebekah’s early arrival startled him. “You’re so dressed up,” she said. She was used to him in restaurant gear, smelling like French fries and mixed marinades. “What are you working on?”

He did not rise to hug her. His suit pants were unflatteringly tight. “Villanelles,” he said. He stuffed his notebook into his knapsack.

“You always use forms when you’re sad,” she said. She wore a white blouse and a black knee-high skirt.

“Indeed.”

“So—how was the interview?”

He reviewed with her Wavu’s needs and his own credentials. He had never written professionally, for anyone. Waiting tables and poetry were almost all he’d done since his undergrad days, which—for him—began at age twenty-two, since he needed to earn money for tuition. Still, Rothfuss had told him he was “a serious candidate.” They’d let him know in a week.

After graduation, he’d worked three years as a desk guy at a private pool. Then he got fired for smoking in the locker room. It was too bad. At the pool, you could write in your downtime, swim laps on your breaks. College pals stopped by to visit. Where were they now? They were Facebook acquaintances, benevolently asking in online correspondence if he still worked at the restaurant. Every now and then they invited him to their homes. He said no. It was not easy to attend when you worked weekends. But if he got the Wavu job, his weekends would be weekends once again.

“So it went well?” asked Rebekah.

“I guess they’re open to me because I know you,” he said.

“Don’t sell yourself short,” she said. “You’re hard-working, well-read—”

“Dreamy’s not on your list?” he asked.

“Toby. Of course it is. We dated five months. It didn’t work out, is all.”

“Cut the shit, with your ‘it’ didn’t work. For you, it didn’t work. For you, the sex wasn’t exciting. For you, we were a hyperextended friendship.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“I need a cigarette,” he said. He stood, ever conscious of his ill-fitting pants. Outside the coffee shop, snow fell lightly. At a nearby intersection, three slender men in form-fitting winter coats briskly crossed the street. They looked like teammates from the track team who’d grown up and now worked for the same bank. Toby guessed their girlfriends didn’t need weed or hours of conversation to be desirous of them. Their girlfriends were probably scared to lose them. Who was scared to lose a heavyset, twice-published poet?

He came back inside. By the time he reached Rebekah, walking slowly, he was crying. “I’m sorry, Becks, I’m just not ready for this,” he whispered.

She stood and reached out to embrace him. He moved past her and grabbed his knapsack from the back of the chair. “Toby, wait,” she said.

“Don’t settle,” he mumbled, on his way to the door.

***

That night, Trish’s hair was the talk of the staff. She had gone to the same salon as Andi and Ben—it was called Shorn Again—and now the sides of her head contained their own etchings: a crisscrossing pattern of diagonals, with the occasional circle. As Toby dressed for work at his locker, Nate and J.P. ran their fingertips through Trish’s hair. “May I join this follicular gang bang?” he asked.

“This is no country for old men,” said Nate, a grad student in film. He kept his fingers on Trish’s head. J.P., a musician, back from a month-long tour of New England college towns, extended a hand. “I heard the news,” he said. “I warned you about those humanitarian chicks.”

“You did,” conceded Toby. He recalled J.P.’s prophecy of Rebekah leaving him for a mission in Haiti or Pakistan. How comparatively flattering that would have been.

“You don’t seem too down,” observed Nate, tying his apron.

“I try to be a model of comportment for you twenty-somethings,” said Toby.

All night long he was anxious. He tried to ease his breathing by goofing off with the Salvadorans in the kitchen. With Adelmo, a line cook, he set up a game of basketball, shooting cherry tomatoes into a lineup of ramekins.

Around midnight, he took his cigarette break by himself. Trish was tied up at her tables; Nate and J.P. did not smoke. Quite the contrary: they were former college jocks who still played competitive Ultimate Frisbee.

Alone in the cold parking lot, he considered calling Andi. But it was the sort of thing you just didn’t do—call a coworker on her night off. True, he and Andi were more than mere coworkers, but the old norms still applied. There was also Ben to consider. He didn’t want Ben to view him as Andi’s ultra-needy male friend. He didn’t want Ben to view him accurately.

Unbidden, the old Tom Waits song began playing in his head. He welcomed it. Years ago, one of his therapists had taught him to dwell on pleasant distractions. This was after another breakup, when he was dealing with anxiety for the first time. His chest pains had been so severe, he’d gone to the emergency room.

Quietly, he sang to himself:

So don’t bother me ‘cause I got no time,
I’m on my way to see that girl of mine,
Nothing else matters in this whole wide world.

At closing time, he stacked his chairs slowly. Nate asked about grabbing a beer with Trish and J.P. “Some other time,” said Toby. “I’m seeing the doctor tomorrow.”

“So?”

“So I weigh too much,” said Toby. “And I’m not happy with how my life is turning out.”

“You’re a published poet,” said Nate. “You just spent five months with a hot-as-balls girlfriend. And you got a job interview. You—you’re successful.”

“But I want to be dreamy,” said Toby. He patted Nate’s arm and said goodnight.

***

“Still smoking?” asked Dr. Parker, his bespectacled nose deep in the manila folder containing the Leonhart profile.

“Yup,” said Toby. He sat in a black chair with padded arms, where the nurse—whose anatomy reminded him of Rebekah’s—had taken his pulse (79) and blood pressure (130/90).

Parker asked him to step on the scale. “Should I take off my shoes?” asked Toby.

“Don’t bother,” said Parker. Toby stepped on the scale. Parker moved the sliding weight from the 150-pound notch to the 200-pound notch; then to the 250-pound notch. “You’re two hundred and fifty-six pounds,” said Parker. “Two pounds less than you weighed six months ago. That’s great.”

“Yeah,” said Toby. “Maybe I’ll be lean by the time I’m dead.”

Parker didn’t laugh. “For your height—six foot one—you’re still about forty-five to sixty-five pounds more than what we like to see.”

“Than anyone likes to see,” quipped Toby.

The doctor ran his index finger along the grid of the body mass index tacked on the wall. “Are you dieting?” he asked.

For a moment Toby thought he’d asked, “Are you dying?”

He gathered himself. “I haven’t had a beer in ages,” he replied.

***

There were more than two-thousand poems on the hard drive of his eight-year-old PC. Only two of them were published. The joy of creation—abetted by nicotine and caffeine—still excited him, but facts were facts: he was fat and, to the world except for Nate, no more accomplished than a coffeehouse aspirant. It was time for a change.

At Dr. Parker’s behest, he began taking thirty-minute walks prior to each day’s first cigarette. He kept one cigarette in his pocket and he lit it as soon as his stopwatch beeped at 30:00.

His feet and legs suffered from more aches than he was accustomed to. During breaks at work, after smoking, he performed any stretches he could recall from gym class and the one time Rebekah dragged him to yoga. Bending at the waist in a forward fold, his gut spilled over his belt and kissed the nylon of his apron. One night, Andi and J.P. caught him in this position. “Now there’s an international sex symbol,” said J.P.

“One day you’ll get there, son,” said Toby.

“I’m gonna miss you guys,” said Andi.

“Where’re you going?” asked Toby. He felt the old anxiety in his chest.

“I have a job interview at Midtown Grille,” she said. “The waiters there make two hundred a night.”

“But they have to dress like butlers,” said J.P. “And memorize sixty wines.”

“It can’t hurt to interview,” offered Toby. He exhaled hard.

“Have you heard back from Africa?” asked Andi.

“Any day now,” said Toby.

J.P. cleared his throat. Toby looked at him. JP turned right, revealing the newly buzzed side of his head in profile. Etched in his dark brown stubble was a figure of five interlocking rings, like the Olympics logo. “Very impressive,” said Toby. “How much do these coifs cost?”

“Forty,” said Andi. “But make sure you ask for Briana. She does the best work.”

“Why the Olympics?” he asked J.P.

“I’ve always liked the pattern.”

Toby checked his watch. “Back to the sweatshop,” he said, tossing his cigarette to the pavement.

In the bathroom, in front of the mirror, he wondered how many more years he’d be waiting tables. His feet and calves were burning and there were still ninety minutes left in his shift.

***

Much as he missed Rebekah, he welcomed the return of his solitary rituals—certain acts of self-care that were easier to perform with no one around. Chief among them was his habit of soaking each foot in a bucket of ice at two in the morning, when he finally came home from work. It was a sublime numbness—feet on ice, cigarette in mouth, voice recorder in hand, speaking out ideas for the next morning’s poems.

He was about to turn off his phone for the night when the email from Rothfuss arrived: Toby—It was great meeting you and hearing about your ideas for publicizing the work we do in Kenya. Rebekah speaks very highly of you, as do your references at The Promised Land. So it is not easy for me to tell you that we have chosen another candidate—someone who has a bit more experience in the NGO sphere than you do. Please keep in touch though. We would strongly consider you if another position opens up. Warm regards, Julian

He lit another cigarette. He wanted to call Andi and tell her not to leave The Promised Land, especially now that he was going nowhere. But he did not call. “You don’t call another guy’s girlfriend at two in the morning,” he spoke into his voice recorder. Just as quickly he erased it, deeming the topic—and his artless articulation of it—unfit grist for poetry.

Another email arrived, from Nate: “Hey, old man. I just downloaded a shitload of Tom Waits. It kicks ass. Thanks for the tip.”

***

The ice had melted but he wasn’t quite ready for bed—not until he fixed in his head the idea for tomorrow’s poems. He wondered what it would be like if he saw Rebekah during his thirty-minute walk. He remembered a bad dream he had the first night he’d slept at her place. They were in a department store. She was looking for dress shirts to buy her father for Father’s Day. As she browsed, he asked her about the book she was reading. “Can we not discuss this right now?” she said sharply. “I need to focus.”

He spoke into his recorder: “Becky, in the bad dream, but we’re swimming, not shopping.” He dried his feet, shut off his phone, and went to sleep.

The next morning, after his walk and smoke, he drafted the following poem:

slow swimmer

a body joined my lane today
but when a free lane opened
she
excitedly
crossed the buoyant partition
plashing
(she was faster than i)
i used to stroke harder
when someone threatened
to pass me by, by
today i just let her pass, pass
yet my arms ached
like they never did
when i was younger
–toby leonhart

 

He showered when he was finished. Then he called the salon.

***

The chairs at Shorn Again looked like the numeral “5” turned upside-down, with curling, pliable backs and flat bases instead of legs. He sat near a glass table reading Rolling Stone. He feared his girth would topple the 5-chair if he slouched too far right or left.

The light of early afternoon spilled into the salon through ceiling-length windows, which provided a view of the Boston Harbor’s frozen brown waters. The sounds of scissors snapping, blades buzzing, and blow driers blasting filled his ears, providing a dissonant background to the eighties music flowing through the ceiling speakers. The Cars, followed by Culture Club, followed by Cutting Crew. Did the deejay, if there was even a deejay behind the playlist, have a fetish for alphabetical order? Around the room, in elevated black chairs, there were a dozen customers, mostly women. He returned to his magazine. There was a photo of a musician he’d never heard of. A guitar was strapped over his shoulders; a few groupies were wide-eyed in the front row.

His name was called. Briana, the stylist, raised the padded chair for him and he sat. He looked at his receding hair in the mirror and feared he’d made a mistake. “Don’t look so nervous,” she said. “What do you have in mind?”

“I work at The Promised Land,” he said.

“Oh, sure. Andi and all them.”

“I was wondering—could you please put a star on the side of my head?”

“I’ve never done one before,” she said. “It’s not easy to do those small angles.” She inspected the sides of his head.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” asked Toby.

“You’ll have paid forty bucks for an Army cut.”

“Have no fear,” said Toby. “I’m not here to win a beauty contest.”

Briana nodded. She ran her fingers through his light brown hair where it was still thick, toward the back and above the ears. Toby closed his eyes, winced slightly. “Am I hurting you?” she asked.

“Hardly,” he said. He stared straight ahead at the mirror. Briana snipped a little, then swiveled the chair. She lowered the chair-back down to the sink, to shampoo him. The warm water licked his scalp. Then came the cold goo of the shampoo, the light pressure of her fingertips. Tears formed at the corners of his eyes.

When she was done, she wrapped his head in a warm white towel and raised the chair. She began snipping again. When the sides of his head were clipped short, she took out the razor.

***

At first, he concealed Briana’s art with a winter hat. At The Promised Land, he remained bashful. He changed into his work shirt, clogs, and apron in the bathroom, as opposed to the usual place—by the lockers—where everyone could see him. He inspected the star in the mirror. His face looked fatter in the bathroom mirror than it had at Shorn Again. But the star was still there. One of its legs was a little wider than the other. But it was, unmistakably, a star.

Keeping his hat on, he went outside for a pre-shift smoke. Andi and Trish were already there. So were Nate and J.P., standing a few feet back from the smokers. “I said no to Midtown Grille,” said Andi. “I’m happier here than I realized.”

“What happened to two hundred a night?” asked J.P.

“There are more important things,” she said.

Trish approached him from behind and yanked his hat off. She shrieked when she saw it. “It’s incredible,” she said. Nate and J.P. came closer to look. Andi stood back. When it was her turn to observe the side of his head, she probed the star with her fingertips. Toby felt her thumb in the star’s right leg, her index finger in its right arm. Again his tears began to form. He pulled her close. “I’m glad you’re staying,” he said.

“Me too,” she said. Toby loosened his grip. He didn’t want their embrace to isolate the rest of the staff. And as always, there was Ben to consider. He lit a cigarette and thought ahead to the end of the night. With his feet on ice, he’d ponder the star on his head, and muse on a poem that could capture the magic of its creation.

 

 

 

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