"How are things, George?" I asked as he set my second whiskey before me.
"Never better," he said. "Yourself, Harry?"
I looked him in the eye. "Never better."
Marlene's opens every day before noon and closes in the very early morning and is almost always populated by its regulars, most notably several local women who park themselves in a row at the bar and settle in for the duration like birds on a wire, smoking and kibitzing and getting shitfaced. But here George and I were tonight with the place to ourselves, separated by a barrier of scuffed wood, he serving, me drinking, a scenario that plays itself out everywhere, all the time, two lonely men doing some manner of business together, not quite making eye contact.
"Couldn't find the remote the other night," said George. "Looked for it everywhere, all over my apartment. High and low. Even tried the freezer."
"What were you watching?"
"One of my programs," he said. "The one with the doctors. So I'm looking for it and the phone rings. I go to pick up the phone and press the remote and say, Hello? So there was the remote. Then I couldn't find the phone. Finally found it on top of the fridge where I left it when I was looking for the remote. Sometimes it seems like the world is playing a joke."
"And it's not always funny," I said. "By the way, Luz threw me out."
"What? She did? When was this?" He looked truly shocked. Long-term marriages apparently appear as permanent to others as geographical formations; when one dissolves, it's as if Fuji or Fiji had disappeared overnight.
"Not too long ago," I said.
"Well," he said, "that's tough. That's just tough. So where you living now?"
"I'm renting a room in the hotel down by Newtown Creek."
He cocked his head and set another whiskey in front of me. "This one's on me."
"Thanks, George." I lifted my glass. "'Blindly we lurch through life like crones / Plying high heels on the cobblestones.'" That was from one of my old poems, the ones that were as accessible to my memory as my own name.
"Sure," he said. He was used to my delusions that I was the neighborhood bard. He folded his arms and looked down at the scuffed surface of the bar. "Those cobblestone bricks down on West Street are made of wood, not clay, did you know that?"
"Near Noble Street," I said. "You can see the tree rings in them if you look closely. I wrote a poem about it. 'Frets, concentric, fraught with letters from old clouds.'"
"I was afraid they'd catch fire when the Terminal Market went up a few years back."
"Me too," I said. "I kept thinking, if the wind were blowing inland, the whole neighborhood would catch. It would have happened so fast - a piece of burning ash falling just so."
I had watched the grand old warehouse burn with Luz beside me, both of our faces pressed to the same windowpane.
George shot me a look. "Right, you live in the Astral," he said. "That must have been scary."
"That's right," said George, the tip of his tongue swiping at his upper lip. "Maybe you're better off out of that place. I hear there's mushrooms growing in the bathrooms and bedbugs living in the furniture. I hear the super has a photo studio in the basement where he takes pictures of young Asian girls." He said this last without a whiff of salaciousness. George seems to have excised the sexual part of his brain as a way of keeping his life simple. Smart man.
The door opened, and Karina entered and charged down the bar toward me. "Hi, Dad!" she said. "I thought you'd be here. I wish you would get a cell phone."
"Why do I need one?" I asked as she kissed me on the cheek. "You know where to find me."
"I'll have a draft, please," she told George, then said to me, "I've been worried about you. How are you?"
"Never better," I said hopefully, but I already knew she wasn't having any of it, and anyway, I was flattered by her concern. My daughter had just turned twenty-five, but unlike other girls her age, she was totally uninterested in anything beyond a narrow range of severely ascetic passions, the most intense of these being dumpster diving, colloquially known as freeganism. She regularly foraged for and redistributed quantities of garbage, or rather "perfectly good food and clothing," to "the poor," of which I was now, come to think of it, one. In addition to trying to save the world from its proliferation of waste and to save the poor from deprivation, she has never been able to shake the notion that she's solely responsible for the well-being of her family.
Excerpted from The Astral by Kate Christensen. Copyright © 2011 by Kate Christensen. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher
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