Here’s something I remember: Two women coming into Frederick’s by themselves, sitting alone in the back corner, well past midnight.
This wasn’t unusual. Women came into Frederick’s all the time, every day of the year. But this was during the hottest part of the summer, on one of the hottest nights I can remember being awake for, and the women were dressed, head to toe, in black. They were covered. They were nuns. True brides of Christ.
And though I couldn’t place her, I had known one of them.
Just before that, I had woken up to find the bar’s owner, the Chinese man we called Frederick, pouring water down the back of my neck to stop me dying on his floor.
You fall asleep, he was telling me.
Huh? I’d said.
There were two men propping me up on a stool. We, me and the three or four men who would also find themselves outside Frederick’s every night, were all dressed in suit-shirts, thick cotton work-shirts and ties, as if by some miraculous event we would all be given employment. There were others, too. Married men, working men, all of us as ashamed as the others, none of us thinking anything. They were just then stopping me from going back under.
You fall asleep. You stop breathing.
I was breathing, I said. Just get me another drink.
Down the bar two others had their heads down, but when Frederick slid glasses towards them they lifted their faces up and began talking again like they’d never been away.
Anyway, said the guy next to me, who’d been telling some story about his wife.
What do I do? he says. She’s crazy. There’s nothing I can do. Can’t kick her out, they’d lock me up.
How long was I out? I asked him.
Listen, he went on. Slowly she gets worse, starts hearing things at night, seeing things, locking her door. She starts talking about these fairy stories from when she’s a kid, Russian stories. She’s locking the door because she thinks we’ve got a Russian house spirit.
Frederick put a drink in front of me. I didn’t know your wife was from Russia, I said.
What? the guy said. My mother is from Russia. This is my mother. Have you been listening?
Sure I have, I said, bowing my head down as Frederick rung a wet cloth out over my hair. He mopped up what fell on the bar and moved on. When I put my head back up, the women, the nuns, had walked in.
There was never any music at Frederick’s, never a jukebox or record player. We never noticed until moments like those. I thought, watching them come in, that we were all in some kind of trouble.
What this house spirit does, the guy went on like nothing was happening. Is it tricks the lady of the house into thinking it’s the man, the master.
The nuns went to the furthest corner of the bar and sat down in a booth, both on the same side, both facing the door.
Look at that, I said.
I tell her, What am I gonna do? the man said. What’s the spirit gonna look like? Me? Dad? Dad’s been dead for thirty years.
I watched Frederick go over to the women and talk to them. Then he came back and started fixing a drink.
So she says it makes no difference. She says her father was one, my father was one. Every male in her line’s a spirit putting on a face to get laid. Can you believe that?
Can you? Are you listening?
I got up off the stool just as Frederick was taking the drink over to the women. He set it down in front of one, the one I thought I knew, and retreated. Up close, I could see the one I didn’t know was older. In their robes they seemed huge and very far away. They spread into the darkness of the bar and took up the whole corner.
The one I knew, the younger one, took the drink and held it in her hand without looking at it. Then, all at once, she brought it to her mouth and finished it in three or four seconds. She sighed deeply. I sat down opposite them without saying anything.
Easy, the older nun said. Neither of them looked at me. The younger one stared straight ahead with her eyes unfixed and her face warming up red. I couldn’t place her. She had been the wife of a friend, or she had been my teacher, something from my past.
Ready to go now, Lynette? the older one said.
I know you, I said. Don’t I know you from somewhere?
Mister there are plenty of other seats, said the older one, looking at me for the first time.
I’m sure I know you from somewhere.
Oh yeah? said Lynette, eyes still fixed on nothing.
But I have no idea where from.
She shook her head and brought the glass back up to drain whatever was left.
The older one said, Come on now, but when Lynette was done she said, Can you buy me a drink, mister?
The older nun started to stand. No, Lynette, she said evenly.
Just tell him one of the same, said Lynette.
I went to wave to Frederick but the older nun had rested her hand on Lynette’s and with her other hand she was rubbing Lynette’s shoulder.
Just get me the same, Lynette said. I’ll be whoever you want me to be.
It was just the one, said the older nun. Just the one drink and then we’re back.
It’ll just be the one, said Lynette. She looked up at her friends face and her eyes started to get full. The older nun shook her head slowly.
We need to get back.
Can’t we stay?
We need to get back now.
Lynette looked at me again and I thought she was about to cry. I waved to Frederick but by the time he came over Lynette had stood and her friend was taking her towards the door.
I wanted to say, Wait. I wanted to say, Take me with you.
Instead I stood up and watched them walk out. Not much, if anything, moved. They drifted out silently as they’d come in.
She says all of them, the guy at the bar was saying to somebody. Every male in my mother’s family. So that’s what I’ve got to look forward to.
I went and sat back down at the bar next to him and I said, You already told us that story.
He looked at me. No I didn’t.
Yeah you did, said that other guy. You tell us that story every night.
He looked between us a couple times before laughing. Fredrick brought me a drink and I spent a while looking at it. When I’d woken up with Frederick pouring water over my head it’d felt like only a few moments had passed but, they told me later, after it happened again, that it’d been something like an hour.
I’d gotten that rare, sick feeling then. A great deal of the world turning in less time than it takes for a thought to zap down the wires in your spine, or realising you’re dreaming without remembering ever going to sleep, or waking up without knowing who you are.
Of course, soon I would wake up with Frederick’s bar closed, Fredrick dead and gone forever, his family going back to China. Not once could I remember ever paying him for the drinks we took. But that was part of the plan. Soon, we thought, we will drink ourselves to death, and then Frederick will have lease of our souls. What use they were to him we didn’t know.