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Andrew Friedman

Fall13WebsiteCover.jpgAndrew Friedman has won the Zone 3 Fiction Award contest for his short story, "Bar of the Angels," which was published in Zone 3's Fall 2013 issue. Friedman’s fiction has appeared in Ghost Town and Unstuck. "Alien Snow," published by Ghost Town, is listed as a notable in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2011: The Best American Series. Friedman lives in Philadelphia. 

Bar of the Angels

            At one time in my life I frequented the bar of the angels. The place was real out of the way. I got in because I was dating one of the angels. Otherwise, I never would have been there.
            I’m not sure what the angel saw in me. She had white wings and she could strum the strings of her harp flawlessly. I could do nothing flawlessly. Flecks of ivory feathers interlaced down to the perfectly curved small of her back. I had hair on my back. I was just this human. Next to her, each of my features seemed soiled and swarthy. Yet she didn’t criticize them. Angels didn’t criticize. They didn’t need to, if criticizing was a way to figure out how you felt about things. They just knew right from wrong. She could “be at ease” around me. She could “fold in wings and stop flying for a while.” That’s what drew her to our relationship. I provided her hiatus from time and movement.
           I met the angel, whose name was Eloria, because after a few people I knew died of incurable illnesses at the De La Vega hospital, I became a patient escort there. The people who died included my father and some other people I counted on to motivate me to participate in the global frenzy to attain middle-class comforts. I felt a different form of comfort in the hospital after having spent so much time there, sitting by people’s bedsides and trying to convince them to fight losing battles. So I decided to stay on, and dispense more comfort, showing sick people where to go so they didn’t have to panic and add on to an already stressful situation. The angel worked there too, doing a similar job, albeit on another plane of reality. And when nobody was dying, we began dating.
            The dates often took us to the bar of the angels. At first she had outsized hopes for my debut there. She dressed me in a starched white shirt. She watched me while I shaved in the mirror with an extra sharp blade. Apparently the angels liked it when nice clean humans showed up at the bar to tell them thankful stories about goodness, so they could see the concrete benefit of all their works. My girlfriend thought I could tell a story like that, because of my job at the hospital. She didn’t understand why I did what I did at the hospital. We got to the bar, but at my first grand introduction, I just muttered some pleasantries and small talk. I had no stories about goodness. Soon, I found myself sitting at the outer limit of a circle of angels that was gradually closing. My girlfriend pretended not to notice when I slipped off my stool to wander around the bar.
            It was tough to get in if you weren’t an angel, although a few spirits there were, hmm how should I put it…in the middle. One only drank a green wine they had discontinued for good, obvious reasons amid the horrors of the late sixteenth century, which he seemed to remember in great detail. He would huddle at the bar, lift a glass to his insubstantial lips and sob only a single word, “Nightmare!” before he drank. The liquid greenly drained through his transparent frame, from his esophagus to his stomach to his colon, if I stuck around long enough. Those were the kinds of things I did at the bar of the angels, which was one example of what a good time I usually had there.
            This soul summed up the tone of the entire place, the tone of that entire time in my life—a lack of substance lit with a faint bleak irony. The bar was ruinous, but didn’t work too hard at it. A wood plank bar, maybe ten stools, booths and tables carved with the names of people on whom the angels had performed legendary miracles. My girlfriend claimed the bar itself had been a piece of Noah’s Ark. Now it was just a long dry piece of wood with some drinks on it, like any other bar. I didn’t enjoy bars, not because I didn’t enjoy drinking. I just didn’t enjoy company when I did it. And there was always company at that bar. A lot of angels inhabited the Earth. They clogged the place around eight-thirty, scorching your eyes with their white robes and wings. The angels mostly drank milk, which they kept in bottles behind the bar, drawn from all kinds of mammals. The angels would drink the milk from tall pint glasses and they would laugh and laugh.
            They had a particular laughter—a high joyous honking. Their voices sounded like an orchestra of out-of-tune flutes filled with milk. Every five minutes something excited their obscure humor and their titters would splash across the bar. You couldn’t look straight into their faces, because of the brightness of their golden haloes, and some indefinable feature of the angels’ countenances that made your eyes keep slipping off. But whenever I got a strong glimpse, usually through a raised glass of milk, which blunted their auras and made them easier to see, I could tell how pleased they were, how they had been ordained up in the clouds on one special day, and how they now reveled in the superhuman blessedness, all the more exaggerated by the lack of blessings that crowded them in the scrubby byways where we humans lived.
            At my place, my girlfriend was affectionate, a saintly cuddler, a prophet of naps. “You’re like a radiator,” she would say, rubbing her feet together. “Why are you always so warm?” But at the bar, after our first visit, she ignored me, easing into the flow with the other angels. They always had a lot to talk about. I suggested going other places, but she refused, she only wanted to go to that one bar. Occasionally she translated for me, when the angels spoke Latin, when I couldn’t follow their keening octaves, but their stories and in-jokes didn’t make sense in any language, at any speed.
            “See, see, Bartolomeo,” she would interpret, cracking with laughter. “See, Bartolomeo wanted to borrow Melusina’s trumpet…but it was a Sunday! Sunday! So he went to her chambers…he hadn’t told Melusina of course, and he took her trumpet. Meanwhile, she was upstairs with the window open, making more clouds. That’s her job, so she was doing her job, making more clouds. So Melusina descends the stairs, barely covered, and Bartolomeo is holding her trumpet in front of him, and she says, my trumpet! She can recognize the shape! So he blurts, ‘Ah, I guess it is Sunday after all!’”
            “And then what?”
            “That’s it!” my girlfriend would say, banging on the bar.
            “I don’t get it,” I’d say. And she would look at me awestruck. Eventually she stopped translating. She would just murmur, “Need anything?” when we arrived, already turning away. Then she levitated off into the crowd with the rest of the angels.
            That was a detail worth mentioning. When they were enjoying themselves, the angels floated into the air a few feet. When they really enjoyed themselves, they floated higher, all the way to the ceiling, which had been set intentionally high to accommodate this quirk. When the angels enjoyed themselves even more than that, they would go outside and ascend all the way to heaven, my girlfriend included. On those nights, I would wait on my barstool for three hours or more for my girlfriend to reappear and drive me home. All the while I fielded dirty looks from the bartender, a very lost spirit. He didn’t feel like deciding on an eternal home, so he planned to cadge an eternity in the bar of the angels instead. An eternity of bartending was easier than just choosing where he wanted to go. The angels liked him, the reason behind which was no secret, since the guy devoted the remains of his being, the very last dregs, to sucking up to them. He didn’t like me because I was human. He didn’t like having a witness to his sucking up, like a spoiled child at a birthday party who everyone is cooing at until he notices one scowling adult. I sympathized. I had been the child at that very birthday party once. Now I was the adult.
           “I’ll get my girlfriend to smile at you when she comes back,” I told him.
           “You promise?”
           “Sure. Don’t hyperventilate too much about it, though. She’s my girlfriend.”
           “Don’t say ‘sure,’ say ‘I promise.’ You’ll really get her to do it?”
           “I swear,” I said, and finally he handed over one of the warm beers he kept stashed behind the bar. We both knew that was pitiful, to beg for a single smile. But he couldn’t help it. So he would make a big deal of it when he gave me one of the beers. “These are very rare here. They’re for the angels’ company only. I can’t just give them out all the time to randoms like you.” He was the kind of guy who wanted you to know when he thought he was doing you a big favor. But mainly he wanted me to know it was pitiful to remind people when they’re acting pitiful. Which I do know, but I did it anyway.
           The bar only had one truly redemptive feature. This was a mint condition, infinitely stocked, flaming-lightning-bolt and chrome-laden pink and green vintage neon jukebox they kept in a corner by the bathrooms. Someone must have picked it up on a whim at an estate sale or some other harvest of a dead person’s possessions. The angels played it rarely. They much preferred the sound of their own voices or their wondrous harps that they carelessly stacked in the corner, which released, when played, an effervescent saccharine smell, the olfactory accompaniment to the milk.
           The jukebox had a see-through middle so you could watch the gears turn and the black acetate records whirl down. The neon gas fired through some high-pressure mechanism that shot it back and forth between the tubes, and at every fifth record, a small pair of jets would burst white clouds from pipes on the top, which added a pleasant heavenly air to the room, already at times filled with drifting clouds that the angels newly arrived on Earth brought with them from the sky.
           I loved that jukebox. I loved the jukebox more than anyone I knew who was still alive. Whichever angel had stocked it didn’t know what fates they tempted, but if a human had stocked it, it made sense. The jukebox could only have been stocked by love and care. It mostly had punk and postpunk records from about 1975 to 1986. I asked my girlfriend about it. She didn’t know where the records had come from and she didn’t like the music much either. When I first encountered it, I played her a few choice cuts that had formed up my childhood. She said they were just “okay.”
           So over time I spent less and less time applying myself to meeting the angels my girlfriend wished me to meet, and more and more time plowing quarters into that jukebox and letting songs by Television Personalities, Fad Gadget, A Certain Ratio, Magazine, Wire, Johnny Thunders, The Slits, X-Ray Spex, The Flying Lizards, The Only Ones, the Ramones, Joy Division, The Buzzcocks, T. Rex, New York Dolls, Kid Creole, Mission of Burma, Brian Eno, Devo, Talking Heads, Neu!, Echo and The Bunnymen, The Stooges, Gang of Four, Suicide, Can, The Fall and The Durutti Column, rattle away in my brain. I would hug full onto the jukebox when the right song was playing, clutching its shoulders, and because of its perfect, even sensuous design, the jukebox imbued a physical feeling back to me, humming its amorous mechanics into my body even as it played its music in my ears. I hadn’t heard some of those songs in years, and in that way, the bar of the angels became a kind of reunion for me, an incident of repetition from my own inaccessible past—an incident now itself inaccessible.
           When my girlfriend plunged me into a bad mood, I would try my best to be as obnoxious as possible about it, which tuned in with my low human nature. I would play the Can song “Mushroom,” which seems to be about hallucinating on drugs during a nuclear holocaust, and I would shout, “Yeah, angels, where’s the miracle in this little scenario? Where were you then?” as though the song were a historical record of an event that had actually already occurred. Or I would play the Jesus and Mary Chain cover of that song, and be like, “Hey, and guess who this is? The Jesus and Mary Chain, if you wondered what those two so-called characters were up to!” But over time, the angels got pretty skilled at ignoring me. They must have learned that strategy from God. While they were all together, they had a knack for not understanding our language, although they supposedly worked among us all the time.
           On other days, a less playful mood entombed me, and I just played the Joy Division song, “Isolation,” over and over again, numbing my brain to the sound of its speedy little drone.
           It was on just such a day that I met Mona. She coalesced behind me while I was slumped on the jukebox, and scraped (her voice scraped by nature), “Man, I love that song.” She was about a dozen years my senior, which put her in her late thirties. Her bruised up leather jacket and blue jeans were marred with motorcycle oil. Best of all, she was human, and alive. My girlfriend was nowhere in sight at that particular moment.
           The thing Mona loved was to talk. She repaired motorcycles for a living, and she talked about that. She got into the bar because for a few weeks she found herself in an affair with a fourth-tier angel named Rigoberto. They’d broken up but she still swung by. How’d she get in? She did what she wanted. No one had the wherewithal to stop Mona. As if to prove it, she sauntered up to the bartender, asked him a question, shook her fist at him, then came back with a six-pack of good dark Irish beer in bottles that we proceeded to drink. I think she might have been Irish, but I was mainly judging from the beer.
           “Hey, you’re something,” I said.
           “I do my best,” she replied.
           I thumbed over to the clucking angels. Some offbeat circle dance they were performing gripped their attention. Pale stray feathers wafted into the air with the rate of their spinning. I couldn’t even make out my girlfriend, although I figured she was in the circle. The angels looked the same all grouped together like that.
           “So why’d you break up with yours?”
           Mona smiled and sipped. She almost blushed, which I could tell was not how she usually did things. Then she told me.
           “Well, it’s like this. Rigoberto rides this complicated golden chariot when he’s going around saving people or whatever the hell they do.” The angels scowled over. She put her hand across her mouth. “Shit,” she said, “you’re not supposed to say hell.” The angels scowled over again, their eyes even more enflamed. “There I go again. Well, anyway, he’s driving this thing around but he doesn’t even know how it works. Do they buy them through mail-order catalogs? I don’t know. I get downtown one day when we’re supposed to meet and he’s fiddling with the chariot. I sit down to wait. First he climbs on top of it, it won’t start. Then he’s checking the wheels and axles. Then he crawls underneath and starts banging on it with some wrench. I couldn’t take it. I walked over, twisted a couple bolts, and the chariot started right up. I thought he’d be happy, but he was really upset. He wouldn’t talk the whole night, and at the end when he usually left the chariot on the roof of my building while he flew me down to my window, he couldn’t fly. He kept trying, but his wings just fell limp, it was really embarrassing. The next time I saw him, he said we had to break up.”
           “And you still come here? I’d be afraid they’d kick me out.” I looked over to see the circle dance slowing down.
           “I’m never afraid,” she said. “And I do love this jukebox, don’t you?”
           “It’s great,” I admitted.
           She went over and played the Television Personalities song, “Miracles Take Longer,” and we both started cracking up. I guess we were pretty drunk by then, but it warmed me to think that if I explained in detail to my girlfriend why we were laughing, she still wouldn’t understand.
           “And who cares if they kick us out of this dump!” she cried. “Noah’s Ark, my ass. Wasn’t that when they had to get a bunch of sanctimonious humans and animals together to sail away from the world when it got too fun?”
           “That was later, I think,” I said, but I wasn’t sure. Mona ignored me either way.
           “I mean, what was the big frigging problem? That they were doing it doggie style? They had to get the dogs and the humans to a place where they weren’t doing it doggie style anymore?”
           “I think the dogs probably still did it that way,” I offered.
           “Well, I think that sucks. They should kick us out of here. They don’t respect us. But their whole damn lives depend on us!”
           Some angels stopped honking and glared when she said “damn.” They cared about the words but not the content. That was the angels in a nutshell. They were really drinking a lot of milk tonight.
           “Them and their stupid milk,” Mona said, and, surprising me, she tossed a beer bottle at the bar. It rattled across the old wood surface. The angels ceased laughing. The angels didn’t think vandalism was as funny as I did.
           “Don’t they know milk comes from living things? They’re not alive.” She threw another bottle. This one clattered right into a milk bottle left on the bar and knocked it clear over. The precious white milk oozed across the wood. Who knew where they had harvested that milk, but wrath filled the angels at its being wasted. A harsh light that signified their wrath boiled among them. I was sure we were done for, about to be smote.
           Instead my girlfriend drifted over. She looked weighted down with melancholy.
           “You’re going to have to leave,” she said. I couldn’t tell if she was talking to one of us, or both of us.
           Mona bolted up rockily. “With divine pleasure.”
           I looked at my girlfriend. I took her hand, disingenuously. She knew it was disingenuous because she was an angel and she knew everything. “Me too?”
           “I don’t think things are going to work out,” she said.
           But before I had time to feel too bad about it, Mona yanked my arm and hoisted me from the booth. We crashed into a group of angels by the door we were gunning so fast. They smelled antiseptic. One of them was Mona’s ex, Rigoberto. His halo bounced off from the impact and he was dusting it off and polishing it with his own spit so it would gleam again. He had a squishy little face.
           “You’re going to hell,” he said, shaking his head judgmentally at us.
           “Ha!” Mona said. “Fine with me! As long as whatever devil flies me there doesn’t have limp wings!” And she ripped me out of the bar.
           The night was dark but blue, both at the same time. I loved nights like that. Nights like that were what was good about the Earth. Mona’s bike waited for her. It had tall handlebars and a black engine about sixty times as large as a human heart, and just as stupid and furious. She straddled the bike and the heart began to beat.
           “I meant that too. Every word. As long as you’re alive, you’ve got something going for you. Want a ride? You could ride with me. No more ‘Isolation’ necessary. At least for a little while.”
           I thought about it. Heaven knows, I sincerely thought it over. But I shook my head. My time alone wasn’t over yet. Even then I knew that, which now that I think about it, is depressing. “I think I’ll walk.”
           “Are you sure? Not even for a little while? My apartment’s really cold.”
           I shook my head, smiling faintly this time.
           She almost said something else, but she didn’t. She nodded and she waved. Her motorcycle carried her off. And I began walking back to the city. After about twenty minutes, I knew I had made a terrible mistake. I turned around and sped up my footsteps, trying to find my way back to the bar of the angels. I knew right where it had been, but it wasn’t there anymore. The harder I looked, the less there it seemed to be, if that makes any sense. And there was no Mona either. Not even the sound of her engine. I couldn’t find her either.
           I breathed, disemboweled with a loss I couldn’t articulate. I began walking again, back toward the city, my head angled frantically upwards looking for whatever I could find. What I finally saw was the neon sign for a tacky Finnegan’s restaurant in a strip mall out by the highway overpass. I can’t remember what night of the week it was, but business types jammed the place. They had hung on too long with their colleagues after work and never gone home, their paisley ties slackened, their hair mussed, their jokes too vivacious. I took a stool at the bar, and the bartender smiled at me and asked what I wanted. They had three hundred different flavors of microbrews.
           “Do you have any milk?” I asked her.
           She cleared her bangs from her forehead and laughed to see whether I was joking. “It’s not a preschool!” 
           “Okay, anything like milk?”
           She poured me a glass of kahlua and left me to my thoughts.  The jukebox in the corner was less of a jukebox and more of a small digital computer. But I gave it a perfunctory scan, not finding much that interested me. The songs, in fact, perfectly skipped the era I was interested in. There were songs from forty years before, and songs from yesterday, as if the entire period in between, the entire period of my life, had been snipped away. I played “Helpless,” the Neil Young song, and I journeyed back to visit with the ice melting in my kahlua.
           I watched the bartender a while and listened to the song “Helpless.” I decided I liked the bartender. She was just doing her job. That’s why she was there in the bar. She smiled when the job required, she wiped down the bar, she poured a calm, foamless beer, she took out the kahlua when someone needed it. She probably had a life somewhere else, but here, she worked. She wasn’t an angel, she was just a person working in a bar.
           But I did miss the other jukebox…That was what I would miss, not so much my girlfriend the angel. I had an idea why I had gone with Eloria. I had curved the shape of my whole life around a space that was now empty. That was the major fact to know about me. And when I was with the angel, the space could be empty, but some being could be there too. An angel didn’t make the space any less empty. With her, I could protect the space. But it was interesting because forever after that when I thought about Eloria I thought about the bar of the angels, and when I thought about the bar I thought about the jukebox, and when I thought about the jukebox I thought about Mona. Memory drags back partner after partner like that, like a sexually transmitted disease. So because I had gone this far, I thought about Mona again now. I wondered if she was going to hell, or not, or even if she had gotten wherever she was going yet.


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