Friday, March 11, 2011

Lawson Thomas: An Edwin Balder story

Edwin Balder was late meeting his friend, Lawson Thomas, for a few drinks at the local bar. After he’d left the apartment of Ms. Molly Brown, Edwin had spent the next two hours sitting in silent revelry, thinking about Molly, the possible softness of her hair, her long nose, those green eyes, and whether or not she’d bought her nail polish in this part of Brooklyn. Edwin had lost track of time. He’d finally gotten hungry and decided to make a meal similar to the one he saw Molly eating out of that pot, like an inbred heathen. He remembered the ingredients as being something along the lines of elbow noodles, sauce, and meat. After tearing apart his kitchen, Edwin came up with the noodles from a box of macaroni and cheese, a small can of Hunt’s no salt sauce, and an old bag of TVP crumbles that had been in the back of his freezer since 2007. Just as he resolved to cook the meal using those ingredients, to be closer to Molly, Lawson called Edwin on his cell phone. He left a message. Lawson sounded scared and pissed off, and that’s when Edwin realized that he was late to meet him at the bar. The noodle and sauce dish would have to wait. Edwin tossed a ham and cheese Hot Pocket in the microwave, and then ate it walking up 75th street, washing it down with an old, flat can of Coke.

The bar had been Edwin’s idea. He’d called Lawson during the work day, just after the tile had fallen on Mary’s head, soaking her. He needed someone to laugh about this with, and since Lawson was his best friend, he was always Edwin’s first choice. But Lawson hadn’t found the tale of Mary’s woe too humorous. In fact, he’d gotten angry at Edwin for getting such a kick out of it. Lawson scolded him like a child, his voice angrily rising to Mary’s defense. Was he still nursing that ungodly crush for her? Edwin thought. How gross! Lawson’s attitude had angered Edwin and might have attributed, at least in some subconscious manner, to his arriving late at the bar.
The bar was on 3rd Avenue and was what many people told Edwin, an old man bar. At thirty-eight and thirty-seven, respectfully, Edwin Balder and Lawson Thomas were often the youngest men in the joint, for “joint” was the word that Edwin used to describe the place. Lawson called it a racist dump, a hotbed for the systematic dumbing down of America. Edwin had to agree that he was most probably right, as the men in the bar maintained a certain penchant for blaming the various minority races for the ills and woes of America. They held a special hatred for members of the Muslim race, often invoking the tired, clichéd invective of September 11, 2001 in order to get their point across. A tattered flag hung over the bar along with one from Ireland. Images of 9/11 were plastered on the greasy walls, along with a photo of former President George W. Bush, and a photo collages of many of the bar denizens participating in cookouts or birthday parties that had taken place at joint. When the television was on and the newish, black president came on, the words socialist and nigger were tossed around the old bar. Still, the beers were cheap. So was the scotch. And if one of the men in the bar used a racial epitaph in the presence of Lawson, they were sure to apologize and claim not a racist bone in their body.

There was nary a woman in sight in the joint, and if there was a woman, she was typically some hapless bar whore, content to plant her behind on one of the many old, ass-sweat-soaked stools, and slowly drink her gin and tonics all day, until one of the many soused losers offered to walk her home in exchange for a brief tryst in an alleyway or between a few sturdy garbage cans. Edwin wondered what it was like to watch two drunken, closed-minded idiots go at it in the cold night. It bothered him, at least somewhat, that this pack of cretins were seeing more action on a regular basis than he’d seen in two years, unless he counted his hand, which loneliness had forced him do to somewhere around Christmas the previous year.

Edwin looked in the window of the bar, peering between the Miller Light and Budweiser neon signs to get a better look. There was Lawson, alone, at the head of the bar, sipping his vodka and cranberry, anxiously watching the television, as the rest of the men in the bar huddled toward the back playing darts, or drunkenly dancing to what was most probably a Grateful Dead song playing on the jukebox. For even though the joint was filled with the worst kind of hack conservative minds, many of the bar regulars proudly maintained that they were once proud hippies, charter members of the Tune-in, Turn-on, Drop-out generation. Until Reagan arrived on the scene, that is. Now the only way their freak flag was flown was if one of the guys had forgotten to get his monthly, standard issue, right-wing dullard haircut, or if someone discussed the possibility of same-sex marriage without one of the guys getting off of his stool, staggering about the bar, and claiming that he was going to be sick. Again, the drinks were cheap in this joint.

“What in the hell took you so long?” Lawson hissed, when Edwin got over to him. Before he answered, Edwin took a listen. It was not the Grateful Dead playing on the digital jukebox, but Marcy Project’s own Jay-Z.

“Cherchez la femme,” Edwin said, sitting down. The bartender, who had an earring in the wrong ear, although it was never questioned, came half way down the bar and began fixing Edwin his scotch and water on the rocks. “Great musical selection. Did you play it?”

“Yeah, right. Because I have a death wish.” Lawson sucked down the rest of his vodka and cranberry and then looked back toward the assortment of men in the bar, middle-aged white men wearing the hats and jerseys of their favorite sports teams, and watched them pump their fists and dance to the rap music. “Ivan played it.”

“The big Russian with the bulbous red nose?” Edwin asked.

“The very one,” Lawson said, turning back around. He took off his thick, black framed glasses and rubbed his face. “He put the Jay-Z on, came over to me, and said, this one’s for you, buddy.”
“So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

“Don’t quote Shakespeare at me.” Lawson looked down at the bartender, shook his glass, and with a sullen resignation the bartender set about fixing his drink as well. “Good deed, my ass.”

“I thought I was quoting Willy Wonka,” Edwin said. “Maybe it was a friendly gesture. You’re always so angry. You typify the angry black man.”

“Don’t start, Edwin. I’m already pissed about you being late.”

“I have a good reason.”

“Yeah?” The bartender set the drinks in front of Lawson and Edwin, made small talk about the size of the evening newscasters breasts, and then grabbed a short stack of money in front of the pile Lawson had sitting there. “Start talking.”

“Remember how I told you about my new neighbor?”

“I think I recall you mentioning something about a whore with the cadence of a Neanderthal moving about above you.”

“Don’t remind me of that,” Edwin said. “I’ve put her footsteps out of my mind.”

“So you met her?” Lawson asked, taking more of his drink. He put his glasses back on and stroked his goatee.

“I did. I went up to complain about the noise, and when she opened up the door I was confronted with such a vision of beauty that I could barely speak for a moment. Were she not slurping her food out of a pot, I would’ve been completely smitten.”

“What’s she look like?” Lawson asked, as the Jay-Z song ended. “Thank God.”

“How to describe perfect beauty,” Edwin wondered aloud. “I’ll be base. She had long brown hair parted in the middle, green eyes, and a wonderfully elongated and full nose.”

“Did Barbra Streisand move in above you?”

“Are you accusing her of being a Jew?” Edwin rose and pointed angrily into his friend’s chest. “Because if you are, I’ll have you know that my mother was one-fourth Jew.”

“I wasn’t accusing her of anything,” Lawson said. “I don’t care if she’s Jewish.”

“We were all Jews in Hitler’s eyes.” Edwin sat down and had a sip on his drink, feeling like Dick Burton. “Now do you want to hear about her or not?”

“Yes. What does she do?”

“She’s a student.”


“I don’t know.”

“How old is she?”

“Does age really matter?”

“So you didn’t ask.”


“Does she have a job?”

“I don’t remember. I think she works several, like a Jamaican.”

“Is she from here?”

“Beats me,” Edwin said. “Although she had the queerest t-shirt on. It said Brooklyn Girls Do It, or some kind of braggadocio nonsense.”

“Sounds like you two have the world in common,” Lawson said.

“Are you being sarcastic?” Edwin asked. He had more of his scotch. “Because it sounds like you are. I’ll have you know that Molly and I had a wonderful conversation about life, about where we’d come from and where we were going, and I don’t need to sit here and have you belittle it, you third-rate Proust scholar and music snob.”

“How am I a music snob?” Lawson asked.

Edwin pointed toward the men in the back of the bar, singling out Ivan, a large Russian with a tuft of white hair, a red face with that previously mentioned bulbous nose, and a belly the size and shape of a beer barrel. “That man was kind enough to play you a tune, one written and performed by a valuable member of your community, and all you did was sit here, sulking, calling him a racist.”

“I didn’t call him a racist.”

“Not today.”


“What can I say? “ Edwin said. “I’m insulted and mad.”

“I don’t understand why,” Lawson said. “I didn’t say anything to the contrary.”

“You berated me about Mary.”

“You were being mean.”

“Well, she’s ugly.”

“No she’s not,” Lawson said.

“You’re just saying that because you have a horrible bout of jungle fever.”

“Jungle fever? What year are you still living in?”

“I live in a world where I don’t want my best black friend dating some insolent, half-retarded secretary in a faceless invoice processing plant.”

“Did you know Mary studies French Literature?” Lawson said.

“I doubt it,” Edwin said.

“We talk about Proust whenever I come by to meet you.”

Edwin had another long drink on his scotch. “How does a black man become a Proust scholar anyway? What? While all of your hommies were out pimping and thugging, you sat alone in your public housing bedroom dreaming of madelines?”’

“I’ve never had a madeline.”

“Madelines, Oreo cookies, whatever,” Edwin said. “Same thing. Why don’t you just bone Mary and get this horrible fixation over with so that we can move on, and I can deal with the awkward repercussions of that.”

“Now who’s being mean?” Lawson took a sip on his vodka and cranberry and got up from his stool. “She’s a nice person.”

“She’s ugly and dumb. And where are you going?”

“I have to piss.”

“I’m not being mean, just so you know.”

Lawson looked back at the pack of men in the bar. The bathrooms were across from the dart board, where everyone seemed to be huddled. “If I make it back here alive, how about you and I start over?”

“Agreed,” Edwin said.

“And you can tell me more about this chick. We’ll hash her out before Pollard and Nickerson get here.”

“They’re coming tonight?”

“Don’t act like you didn’t know,” Lawson said.

“I guess with all of the tragedy and joy mixed into today, I simply forgot that those two wunderkinds would be joining us.”

“They’re good guys.”

“I’m sure people said the same thing about Mussolini and Gandhi,” Edwin said.

“Gandhi was a man of peace,” Lawson said.

“Well, sometimes Satan comes as a man of peace.”

“That’s Bob Dylan.”

Lawson walked toward the back of the bar, as Edwin watched. Before he got to the bathroom, he was accosted by Ivan, who put a hand on Lawson’s thick, flannel shirt, and held him there. Oh, Christ, Edwin thought. A bar fight. But nothing happened. Ivan held Lawson there for only a moment then smiled, and tapped him on the back. Lawson disappeared into the bathroom, and Ivan looked up at Edwin and gave him a wave. Edwin had a final pull on his scotch and water, and waited for Lawson to come back to order another one. He looked around the bar at the photos of Ireland, America, and everything else, thinking that it was such a bad place after all. Maybe he’d take Molly here and brighten up the joint.

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