A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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You feel, when you enter the Castaway, that you’ve left the other world behind, cast off, and floated to a new world.
You’re at the end of a long oakwood bar. There are nets on the ceiling, a thirty-year-old candle with a rainbow of wax drippings, and, in a little niche right across from the bar, a jukebox. A jukebox that plays only jazz — classic jazz, mellow jazz, Billie Holiday and Lester Young jazz.
My husband and I like to come to the bar in the evening. We take turns putting our quarters in the jukebox. I play “Mood Indigo” for him, he plays “Lullaby of Birdland” for me. The two parakeets, man and wife also, in a large fish tank, sit on their perches and nod at us. If we play “Green Dolphin Street” they will sing, and fly back and forth in the fish tank. There is also a fish tank with rainbow-colored fish behind the bar.
The bar is everything a bar should be. The lighting is dim and soothing, only the wooden bar and colored bottles gleam, and the bartender is a soft-spoken, soft-moving man with a golden beard. We do not know his name, but we secretly call him Charlie, because he is just like my father’s best friend, a man named Charlie who lives in a beautiful house in Santa Monica, California, a house as tranquil and magical as this bar. Charlie’s house is spare in a Japanese way, and the only splash of color comes from the large abstract paintings that Charlie paints. If you step through the sliding glass doors into Charlie’s backyard, you are blessed by the scent of jasmine, and as you look down his sloping lawn you see a little green park, and beyond that, the city lights twinkling from as far off as Pasadena.
But this Charlie’s domain is the Castaway Bar and Restaurant in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. Beyond the bar is a room flooded with golden light, and glass-topped tables. My husband and I have eaten here, and the food — Italian — is very good. Charlie is the cook, as well as the waiter. I once had scampi that danced in garlic, and my husband dined on several little neck clams. It is a simple place and never crowded. I have never seen more than three tables occupied at a time, which is lucky for Charlie, since he has to do everything. He even warms the crusty bread before setting it on the table.
After my husband and I sip our drinks — I usually get Kahlua and cream (which Charlie calls a “sombrero”) and my husband a Guinness — we slide off our stools and start to dance. We kiss softly as we dance to Errol Garner’s “Misty.” My husband holds me close, and we feel that combination of sexiness and tenderness that grows ever more intense as we approach our twenty-fifth year together. Charlie knows to leave us alone, and if we’re not the only people in the bar, there are never more than one or two others, usually perched at the other end of the bar talking to Charlie in unobtrusive voices. It is as if the glow of the jukebox is our own fireplace and we are in our own little world, cast away, floating on the music and the love, shedding the many skins of argument and disagreement that can cling like burrs as you move through twenty-five years together.
Down beyond the other end of the bar is a deep alcove, with a raised platform, an upright piano, a microphone, and a sound system. All of the jazz greats come to this little place to play on Friday and Saturday nights. On the wall are pictures of the players who have been here: Zoot Sims, Etta Jones, Chico Hamilton, Clark Terry, Horace Silver. I like to look down at the silent platform, the shining black formica, and wonder what it’s like when the joint is jumpin’, when the bar is three-deep with people, and the room is filled with a purple haze of smoke and the clicking of glasses and chatter. When we are here, it is always quiet. And that is what we like, to be alone together on our own magic island.
Today, we enter and turn immediately into the golden room glowing from the electric candles suspended from the ceiling. We have brought our young son and my parents. We have told them that we know a nice restaurant, and that the waiter who is also the chef reminds us of someone, and with one look, they will know who. Even before my father sits down, he says, “Charlie!” He is amazed to see someone so much like his gentle friend, the artist, and I can see how it pleases him, as this Charlie brings the warm bread to our table. My father has been friends with his Charlie for more than twenty years, and on Saturdays they go to different places in Los Angeles; Charlie sets up an easel and paints his abstracts, while my father takes photographs, flitting around like a bright firefly. My father is not a professional photographer, but he has a reverence for all the old structures in Los Angeles, and captures them in all their long-suffering dignity, in black and white, sometimes just before they are to be torn down.
While my parents are perusing the menu, I steal away to the jukebox and put on all piano players: Art Tatum, Fats Waller, Oscar Peterson, Duke Ellington. My father is delighted, and he can name each when he has heard only one or two notes. With Art Tatum, it seems it is only half a note and he already knows it can only be Art, just as he knew Charlie of the restaurant could only be named after his Charlie.
My father is not a drinking man, but tonight he is on his second double vodka. That is because he was frightened today, by blood that poured out of his anus. I wanted to send him immediately to the doctor, but he wouldn’t go, and my mother felt they could wait until they got back to L.A., which would be in two days. My anxiety was somewhat alleviated when I looked in our medical book, and was able to figure out from his symptoms that he has bleeding hemorrhoids. Though it reassured me, he continued to make little jokes about bleeding to death, showing that he was still feeling anxiety. And then he ordered his second double vodka, which caused my mother’s eyebrows to rise quizzically. But the soft rhythms of Errol Garner seemed to soothe him. I love my Daddy, and I only get to see him every three years or so, what with my parents on the West Coast and myself on the East Coast, and so it has been for the twenty-five years of my marriage.
When I was a child, I used to dance under the piano, as my father would play “Don’t Blame Me” or “All the Things You Are.” My father plays by ear, and he is so good, good enough to be a professional, though he chose to earn his living as a salesman. Now that he is retired, he has taken up the piano again with a fervor, and he was playing my piano before we left the house. But my piano, a wonderful old Krakauer, is like an old man without his false teeth, hearing aid, toupee. At least half the notes are missing or off, and to hear my father try to play the squeaky thing is actually sad.
My father gets up to go to the bathroom, which is way beyond the bar, in the other room. We watch him zigzag across the floor, and almost bump into the wall. He turns around and says, “I am not drunk,” and he winks at my mother, who is muttering, “He’s drunk.”
My father was just diagnosed as having diabetes, and I worry about him, as I see that the pallor of his skin has turned to a flat yellow. I see my virile father, his hands still muscular and hairy, as he played the piano at my house, now shrinking, growing older, as we all do. His snowy hair is combed across his head to hide the ever-widening bald spot.
The songs from the jukebox have ended, but I do not jump up to put more quarters in, because Charlie has come with our steaming food. Eggplant parmesan for me, stuffed flounder for my husband, veal for my parents, and a grilled cheese sandwich and huge salad for my son.
Charlie, who has somehow made all this food while serving someone at the bar and serving another couple who sit at the far end of the dining room, has done it all without any hustle-bustle.
I say to him, “I don’t know how you do this.”
He says, “It is all an illusion.”
And I wonder if that is true. Maybe we are in a dream, and it is all an illusion.
Suddenly we hear the silvery tinkling of the piano. Strokes as bold as Art Tatum, with the gentle waterfall effect of Errol Garner, and the one-finger majesty of Oscar Peterson. The music is coming from the other side of the bar, not where the jukebox is. Could it be my father?
My mother says, “No. Can’t be him. It’s too good.”
But I stand up and walk over to see my father, deep in the alcove, playing the Yamaha with those dancing fingers of his. He sits tall on the bench and makes that music that has whirled through me all my life, and swirls in me now like rolling clouds. I go back to my seat and we all clap, including the couple at the far end of the dining room. I call to my father to play “Don’t Blame Me,” which he does with the same assurance, making little steps of sound that climb to the ceiling and dance with the golden lights, and the birds start singing too, and the fish swim back and forth in rainbow rhythms. Charlie comes out from the kitchen, and says, “I like your music. It sounds just like a record.”
My father returns to the table. I look across to the bar, and see the ghosts of my husband and myself dancing next to the jukebox, and I look at my two silver-haired parents, and see them sitting at that tightly-packed table in the little speakeasy on the north side of Cleveland where they used to go to eat spicy ribs and listen to that blind magician Art Tatum, as he made his fingers spin like a full orchestra zooming intrepidly over the ivories. And I look into the pools of my son’s blue eyes, and I see the continuity of memory locked in those eyes. For some day, that is what this will be. Memory. Golden and beautiful memory, that lives on like the light that shimmers when you open the door of the Castaway, and moves like shadows from the jukebox to the bar, to the piano, to the table, to the one glowing light that shines like a halo over Charlie’s head as he comes with more bread, freshly warmed from the oven.
Pamela Altfeld Malone