Jim Meirose


               Lester sits cross-legged in the darkened landing above his brother’s bar, his misshapen head tilted, his stick bony body all tense. The denizens of the bar are used to him sitting up there. Now and then one of them says to the other what a shame. But mostly they pay him no mind. They sit at the bar with their drinks and they laugh away the evenings. Lester watches one couple who frequent the bar with special interest from his perch. He drinks in the curves of the woman’s body as she moves, smiling, long hair hung down. His gnarled longnailed fingers grip the balusters. She never looks up at him. Like everyone else, to her he is not even there.
               Why should one such as she ever look at him?
               Once after closing he limped down the stairs and asked his brother the bar owner about her.
               What is her name?
               The woman who sits with the man over there.
               Is that man her husband?
               No. They work together—they’re teachers—his name is Paulson—but never mind. Lets go home. You need to eat.
               The days go by this way with Lester sitting half-asleep in the stairhead through the days, nursing a soda, as the business of the bar goes on below, only coming fully awake when Nellie is there. He watches Nellie and at closing time he comes down and talks to his brother about Nellie and how fine she looks and his brother nods and listens and ends up saying Never mind. Let’s go home. You need to eat.
               One evening, as Lester is watching intently from above, Nellie leans close to the man. They’ve never been this close before. What is happening? They talk to each other. Nellie’s hand suddenly goes on the man’s shoulder. Lester’s mind darkens and his eyes are pinpoints. The couple sit drinking and talking closely until it is time to leave. Lester’s eye is still on her. They rise, and suddenly, Nellie hugs the man passionately—Lester’s mind goes blank; the scene below is frozen as though someone paused a movie.
               The hug.
               Lester’s hands shake as they walk from the bar. He sees it again.
               The hug.
               They are gone. Lester bites his lip bloody.
               His Nellie—his Nellie, and that man Paulson—they are lovers.
               My Nellie, he thinks.
               My Nellie.
               They are lovers.
               With a heavy heart he comes down from the stairhead at the end of the evening.
               Nellie and that man—they are lovers.
               What? No. I told you. They’re just friends.
               Then why did she hug him?
               I don’t know—sometimes friends hug. But listen. Never mind. Let’s go home. You need to eat.
               That night in his narrow bed, Lester lies on his side wide awake.
               The hug.
               The hug.
               Nellie and Paulson.
               Need to break them up.
               How to break them up?
               How to—
               At last, Lester slips off into sleep—he dreams—the next morning, he sits having breakfast with his brother. Like always, they eat egg sandwiches and talk.
               Hidden inside Lester, there is an idea.
               Is Paulson married? asks Lester.
               Paulson? Who’s Paulson—
               You know, says Lester impatiently. Paulson and Nellie.
               Oh, him. To tell you the truth, I don’t know. Why?
               Paulson’s wife wouldn’t like that he hugged Nellie—
               What? You’ve still got that on your mind? Lester. Friends hug all the time.
               I never hug my friends.
               Well what friends do you have—no , said Lester’s brother, raising a hand and smiling. I was just kidding. But seriously—I never hug my friends either—but other people do. Come on Lester—never mind that. Eat. You need to eat.
               Lester’s idea speaks.
               I don’t want to eat. I’ve got a stomach ache.
               Oh—that’s too bad—
               I’m not going with you to the bar today. I’ve got a stomach ache.
               Are you sure? You always go to the bar—
               I said I’ve got a stomach ache! I’m staying home!
               All right, all right, says his brother, raising a hand. Don’t get all excited. Stay home and rest.
               That afternoon, after his brother has left for the bar, Lester sits at the kitchen table with the thin phone book open before him, and with his idea in his brain. He’s always been a good reader—in spite of himself, he is. There are things he is good at. There are things he is bad at. His finger runs down the page revealing the list of names.
               Paulsen’s liquors—
               Paulsen, Henry H—
               Paulsen insulation—
               Paulson cleaners—
               His finger slides up the page again.
               Paulsen, Henry H—
               Henry Paulsen.
               That must be him.
               Lester pulls the wall phone down before him and dials the number. The phone rings.
               Paulsen here. Leave a message—
               Your husband hugged a woman down at Solly’s bar, says Lester.
               Your husband hugged a woman—
               They are lovers.
               They—sleep together.
               They—have sex together.
               You—you ought to know this Mrs. Paulsen.
               I thought you ought to know.
               He hangs up the phone and sits with his hands flat on the table.
               There—it is done—if he is married there will be trouble.
               Lester goes upstairs and takes a nap. He sleeps until his brother comes home from the bar.
               Lester! Wake up—come down with me. How’s your stomach?
               Better—all better—
               You need to eat.
               I said you need to eat!
               All right—
               After eating, Lester lies in bed wide awake. The streetlight makes a square around the edges of his pulled shades.
               They won’t be together anymore.
               They won’t be together—
               They won’t be—
               At last Lester slips into sleep with a smile on his face.
               The next afternoon, he takes up his perch at the bar, and waits.
               Maybe she will come in alone.
               Maybe she will.
               Then I have to think what to do next, thinks Lester. How to get close to her.
               All this thinking is too much.
               Lester dozes in the stairhead as he does until two enter and take up their places at the bar.
               And Paulson!
               What—what has gone wrong with the plan—
               Nellie and Paulson laugh away the evening with drinks and chat with the bartender and sit close like they always do.
               That night after hours Lester says to his brother It’s funny they’re in here like nothing happened.
               Who? A lot of people come in here—oh, I know. Nellie and her friend. What do you mean, like nothing happened? What would have happened?
               Oh. Nothing.
               But never mind all this, says the brother, snatching up his keys. Let’s go home. You have to eat.
               Lester lies in bed that night knowing that tomorrow will be different—but tomorrow comes, and Nellie and Paulsen are there, and the next night, and the next.
               I know I made that phone call.
               This shouldn’t be.
               This shouldn’t—
               Then Friday morning comes and they are at the breakfast table eating their egg sandwiches, and Lester’s brother eats with the Local weekly paper open before him. It comes to the house every Friday. The brother riffles through the pages as he eats. It is just another Friday.
               Lester’s brother’s eyes suddenly widen and he lifts the paper before him and talks excitedly to Lester.
               Lester! The police log says some woman in town found out her husband was cheating on her, so she brained him with a frying pan and broke his skull—Jesus—
               Lester stiffened.
               When did it happen?
               Tuesday night—
               Lester’s heart sinks. No. No. He’s seen Paulson since Tuesday night—it’s not—
               And guess what the people’s name is? Paulsen! Mr and Mrs. Henry Paulsen. What a coincidence—that guy with Nellie down at the bar’s name is Paulsen too! Well I’ll be damned—I wonder if it’s him—but no, it says this happened Tuesday. They were in the bar last night. He didn’t look like he had a broken skull to me. Do you think so Lester?
               Lester’s hands shake.
               Uh, no—he didn’t look that way.
               Guilt begins to rise within Lester for what he has caused to happen.
               The day goes on. The breakfast dishes are done. They go to the bar and Lester gets his soda and takes up his post in the stairhead. He is feeling black inside. It had been the wrong Paulsen—it might even have been an innocent man. Guilt flows through his veins.
               Nellie and Paulsen come in.
               At the bar, out of earshot of Lester, his brother asks Paulsen if he’s any relation to the guy whose wife broke his skull with a frying pan.
               His name was Paulsen too—
               No. no. No relation. But it’s a pretty funny story—
               Yeah can you imagine—brained him with a frying pan—of all things—
               They share a laugh, and as her head is tossed back laughing, Nellie’s eyes flash up into Lester’s, full of fun and joy and innocence and beauty. Lester is transfixed by the instant of beauty, all focused on him—never has he experienced such a thing—the beauty flows through him, into him, driving out the guilt, God what a feeling God what a feeling—her eyes linger a moment—and then she looks away.
               The eyes—she saw me, he thought, leaning back on his elbows, spent. She really saw me.
               Beautiful. Someone so beautiful really looked at me.
               At me!
               The pool of guilt on the floor dissipated to nothing in the memory of her look.
               See—it was the right thing to do—it really was. I got something now. I do.
               And he drinks of her beauty holding that instant fixed in his mind, as he stares at her down there in the bar day after day and finally he feels beautiful too—that look—that look had been so powerful. He hangs onto it tight, day after day, happily loving the feeling, using the power of the willfull strength of the mad.

Jim Meirose has had numerous short stories published in major literary journals, including Otoliths. His work has been nominated for several awards and he has had two collections of short work published. He also has two novels, Claire and Monkey, available at Amazon.com and a third novel, Freddie Mason's Wake, is due to be released shortly.
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