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Elizabeth Gilbert

Tall Folks

In the good, good days when the Ruddy Nut Hut was across the street from the Tall Folks Tavern, there was a steady passage of drunks from one place to the other, every night. It was as if the two bars were one bar, weirdly split by the four fast lanes of First Avenue.

Ellen owned the Tall Folks Tavern and the Ruddy Nut Hut was her husband Tommy's. They had been married for fifteen years, separated for thirteen, hadn't slept together in two, and held no particular interest in the politics of divorce. Tommy was a fabulous drunk. It was impossible to get kicked out of his bar-not for fighting or falling down, not for being broke or underage. Tommy delivered every possible permission. Ellen delivered famous bartenders. Not all of her bartenders were great beauties, but several were. The others had their own specialized appeal, such as immediate sympathy, great wit or reassuring alcoholism. Ellen always kept one bartender who was good with names, as a guarantor of hospitality, and she always kept one mean bartender, because there are people who crave that, too. There are people who crave a mean girl who calls fat guys "Slim" and throws ugly drunks out by hand. If it was not somehow possible to fall in love with a girl in five minutes, Ellen would not hire her. She had done very well this way, brokering these particular and necessary loves. And Tommy, too, had done very well.

The Ruddy Nut Hut had pinball and darts. The Tall Folks Tavern had a pool table. Some nights, one place had toilet paper or cigarettes when the other did not. And in the hot summers, the drunks crossed that stretch of First Avenue like it was someone's back yard, like the moving cars were harmless as swing sets or sandboxes, like the twin bars were just neighbors' picnics, welcome as any suburb.

Then Tommy didn't pay his rent for eight months, and the Ruddy Nut Hut closed. All that autumn, Ellen's customers left their drinks and stepped out of the bar for air, paced, stepped back inside again quickly, restless and irritated.

In December, the Ruddy Nut reopened with a hand-lettered banner that said, "WALTER'S TOPLESS." The front window had been painted black, and there was a sign hung there that said, "The most beautiful ladies in the world." On the door there was a smaller sign that said, "The world's most beautiful ladies." The final, smallest sign, which was really just a note, explained that Walter's Topless would be opened every day of the week. At noon.

__________

Ellen had a nephew named Al. She had hired him to be her plumber, which meant that he was in charge of digging rotting lemon wedges out of the sink drains and replacing the toilets that the young men sometimes tore out of the bathroom walls to commemorate great moments at the pool table. Al was nice to look at and easy to talk with. If he had been a girl, he would have been a perfect Tall Folks Tavern bartender. He would have been the kind of pretty that union guys are crazy for, and Ellen would have given him the Thursday evening happy-hour shift. If Al had been a girl working Thursday happy hours, the carpenters and teamsters would have come in every week and tipped the hell out of him for being so pretty. After Tommy left, Ellen spent most of her time with Al, and it was Al who went with her when she finally crossed the street to check out Walter's Topless.

Ellen knew everyone drinking at the bar when she walked in that night.

"These are all my people," she said to Al.

"And Tommy's."

"Tommy can't really claim any of these people anymore, can he?"

It still looked like the Ruddy Nut Hut, except that the pinball machines were gone, replaced by a small stage with a wide mirror behind it and a long rail in front. There was one stripper dancing-a skinny girl with knees wider than her thighs and a druggie rock star's tiny hips. Ellen knew her, too.

"That's Amber the junkie," she said.

Amber smiled over at Al and shook her chest at him. Her breasts were just nipples on a rib cage. Al smiled back.

"She's terrifying," he said.

"She used to come into my bar and drink rum and Coke all day," Ellen said. "Then she'd fall asleep on her cigarette. I used to try to catch her shooting up in the bathroom, but every time I'd go in there she'd just be brushing her teeth."

"That's almost grosser."

"Almost."

"You should put blue lights in the bathrooms. That's what they do in fast food places. Then the junkies can't see their veins and they can't shoot up."

"That's a little bit mean, I think."

"I like blue lights," Al said. "In a blue-lit room I can't see my balls."

"Stop that," Ellen said. "That's not true."

There was a girl behind the bar in a dark bathing suit. Ellen didn't know her. She had black hair in a serious center part, and the bathing suit was a practical one-piece, faded, with tired elastic and wide straps.

"She looks like she should be wearing flip-flops," Al said.

There was a man behind the bar with her, and when he turned to face them, Ellen said, "Walter?"

He was carrying a case of beer, which he brought over and set on the bar in front of Al. He had a long beard, seedy and gray, like the beards of prophets, or the homeless.

"Hello, Helen," he said.

"Ellen," Al corrected.

"Don't even tell me this is your bar, Walter," Ellen said.

Walter said nothing.

"What the hell are you doing with a place like this? Nobody told me this was your place."

"Sign tells it."

"I didn't know you were the Walter."

"What else Walter is there?"

"I'm Al," Al introduced himself. "I'm Ellen's nephew."

The two men shook hands over the case of beer between them.

"Walter?" Ellen said. "I'm not sure about the name of this place. You should at least call it Walter's Topless Bar. Walter's Topless sounds like an announcement. It sounds like you're the one that's topless."

"It is an announcement."

"I guess so." Ellen looked around. "Tommy didn't tell me it was you."

"It's me."

"I'm just surprised."

"I don't know how come. Sign says it plain enough."

"Walter?" Ellen said. "Secretly, I always thought you were Amish."

Al laughed, and Ellen laughed, too.

"I'll buy you a drink on the house," Walter said. "And one for your nephew."

"Thank you, sir," Al said.

"We'll take two beers and some good scotch," Ellen said. "Thanks."

Walter took two bottles from the case and pulled an opener out from the inside of his shirt, where it hung on a chain like a heavy crucifix. He opened the beers, which were just short of cold, and put them in front of Al and Ellen.

Walter went to the end of the bar for the scotch and Al said, "I haven't called anyone 'sir' since I was twelve."

"Walter can't run a strip joint," Ellen hissed. "He hates women. He never even used to come to my bar because he hated women bartending. Jesus Christ, what a lousy joke."

Walter came back with two shots of scotch. Ellen drank hers back and left the glass upside down on the bar. Al smelled his and set it in front of him carefully.

"Who's your bartender?" Ellen asked.

"Rose," Walter said. "My daughter."

Walter and Ellen stared at each other in silence.

"Wow," Al said. "I was thinking of asking for a job, but she's probably staying, I guess."

"I have three daughters," Walter said, still looking at Ellen. "They all work here."

"Are you going to drink that?" she asked Al, and when he shook his head, she put back his scotch, too, and set the glass next to her own. "This is the funniest thing, Walter," she said. "It's so funny that Tommy didn't tell me it was you. But good luck and everything, right?" Ellen took a twenty dollar bill out of her pocket and slid it under her beer bottle. "Make sure Rose keeps us happy down here," she said, and Walter walked away.

On the stage, Amber the junkie was finished. She was sitting on the floor, buttoning up a man's long-sleeved shirt. She looked as tiny as a third grader. Walter changed the tape and adjusted the volume, and another girl came up out of the basement and onto the stage. She had red hair in a braid from the top of her head, and without a lot of performance, she took off her bra and started bobbing lightly on her toes, as if warming up for a jog.

"We can't compete with all this tit," Ellen said.

"Sure we can."

"This is such dumb stuff. Why should anyone cross the street for this stuff?"

"They won't," Al said.

"But if it's just plain old tit they want, we can't compete with that."

"Polly takes her shirt off sometimes," Al said.

"Yeah, but only when she's really drunk. Then she cries and everyone feels bad. It's not the same thing as this. Plus, Polly only works on Monday nights."

"You're right."

"What if Walter tries to hire my bartenders to dance here?"

"They won't."

"If someone could get Polly to take off her shirt and look like she was enjoying it . . . that would be something, wouldn't it?"

"A guy would pay for that," Al said.

Ellen waved to a huge man as he walked in, and he came over and sat beside her.

"Wide Dennis," she said. "Good to see you."

Wide Dennis kissed Ellen and ordered a beer for himself and a scotch for her. She patted his head and smiled. Wide Dennis had a head thick and faded as a old buoy. He had far-apart eyes that tended to lean random and outward, as if he were watching every corner at every time. He smelled like baby powder and spit, but he was smart enough to do something with computers that perhaps only two other people in the world could do, and he was paid well for this.

"Did you know this was Walter's place?" Ellen asked him.

"Just found out."

"I always thought he was Amish," Ellen said.

"I always thought he had a friend in Jesus," Wide Dennis said.

Ellen laughed. "Remember Willy? Walter's brother?"

Wide Dennis rolled his eyes.

Ellen said, "Willy could put his whole fist in his mouth, remember?"

"He put his whole damn near fist in my mouth a few times."

"I don't know that guy," Al said.

"You'd know him if you saw him," Wide Dennis said. "He'll be the guy banging someone's head against a dumpster. Talking real loud."

"He was a hell of a talker," Ellen said. "Listening to Willy tell a story was like getting stuck behind a school bus. If anyone was going to open a damn strip joint in that family, it would be that bastard Willy, not Walter."

Wide Dennis took a dollar bill from his pile of change and went up to the stage. He handed the dollar to the redheaded dancer. He said something to her as she took it, and she laughed. Ellen ordered two more beers, and when Rose brought the bottles over, Ellen asked, "What do they say to those girls, usually, when they give them money like that?"

Rose shrugged and walked away.

"Can't shut that girl up," Ellen said. "Just like her Uncle Willy."

"Usually they tell her she's beautiful," Al said. "They tell her she's a great dancer or something."

"That's sweet."

"You used to strip. You remember how it is."

"Not in a place like this," Ellen said. "Not professionally. Just in the beginning, at Tall Folks. Just to get people in there." Ellen drank her scotch. "It worked, that's the truth. Some of those people still haven't left. Actually, some of those people are in here right now. Can't remember anyone ever handing me any money for it, though."

"How's my boy Tommy been doing?" someone behind Al asked. Ellen looked around her nephew and smiled.

"Hello, James."

"Hello, Ellie."

"Where've you been, James? We miss you."

James waved at the stage. There was another dancer up there now, a tall, black girl who was swaying with her eyes shut. They all watched her for a while. She swayed and swayed, slowly, like she'd forgotten where she was, like she thought maybe she was alone. They watched her for some time and she didn't do anything more than sway, but nobody was in any hurry to look at anything else. The redheaded girl gathered up her things and crossed the stage behind the swayer.

"Oh, my," James said. "Will you look at that?"

"Which one?" Al asked.

"All of them! Everywhere!" James smiled. He had a front tooth missing, from where Tommy had fallen down on him one night, and James had hit the floor with his mouth.

"Do they let you sing here?" Ellen asked.

James shook his head. He used to come to the Tall Folks Tavern and stand under the light by the cigarette machine to sing. Ellen would turn down the jukebox and threaten the circus into some kind of silence, and they would all listen to James. He used to dress for it, too, in a found suit, dress socks and sandals. He looked like Nat King Cole, but sang better. The light above the cigarette machine shadowed his face just right. People used to cry. Even sober people used to cry.

"How's my Tommy doing?" James asked again.

"He's so fat now you wouldn't believe it."

"Always was a big man."

"Now he looks like a monk. Drinks like a fish, still."

"Like a monkfish," Al said, and James laughed and hugged him. James was wearing a leatherish coat that looked like it had been made out of pieces of car seats. Patches of brown and gray and darker brown.

"I do miss Tommy," James said.

"And we miss you," Ellen said. "Stop over. Make the time."

James nodded toward the swayer on-stage.

"We've still got girls across the street, honey," Ellen said.

James did not even nod this time, and Ellen whispered into Al's ear, "I want my people back." He squeezed her hand.

Ellen got up and went to the bathroom, which still looked the same as it always had. Above the urinal, it still said, "I fucked your mother," and in a different pen below this it still said, "Go home, Dad. You're drunk."

Ellen put on lipstick and washed her hands without soap or paper towels, which she was used to. Under the mirror was the oldest graffiti in the place, a decade-long joke. "Top Three Things We Like Most About Tommy:" it said, "#1) He's not here." There were no listings under numbers two and three.

"Ha," Ellen said out loud.

She stayed in the bathroom a long time, ignoring a few quiet knocks and one quick pounding at the door. When she finally came out, the dark-haired girl with the serious center part was standing there. They smiled at each other.

"Rose," Ellen said.

"I'm Sandy. Rose is my sister."

"You look like sisters."

"We all work here."

"I heard that. It's like a cottage industry. It's like a bodega," Ellen said, and when Sandy did not answer she added, "I'm Ellen."

"I know."

The two women looked at each other. Sandy was wearing a bathing suit like Rose's, but she had shorts on.

"How's business?"

"Great," Sandy said. "And you?"

"Great," Ellen lied.

"Good," Sandy smiled. "That's real good."

"Are you waiting for the bathroom?"

"I'm just sort of standing here."

"Do you know my nephew, Al?" Ellen pointed down the bar. "He's the cutest one here."

"He sure is," Sandy said.

"He told me the other day that he's been in love with me since I used to push him around in his baby carriage."

"Wow."

"Do people fall in love with the girls in this bar?"

"I don't know. Probably."

"I don't think they do," Ellen said. "I think they just like to watch."

"I don't guess it matters," Sandy said.

"Your dad doesn't even like girls. Excuse me for saying it."

"He likes us."

"You and your sisters?"

"Yes."

"Does he like Amber the junkie?"

Sandy laughed.

"Don't laugh at Amber. She's a sweetheart. She's from Florida, poor kid. . . . It's hard to say," Ellen said. "I used to have this bartender, Caroline, who had this walk. People used to come to my bar on her shifts just to watch her walk back and forth. Not your father. He never liked my bar."

"Do you like his bar?" Sandy asked, and she smiled as she asked this.

"See, Sandy. It's like this," Ellen said. "Not really. You know?"

"Sure," Sandy said. "I think I'll go in there now." She pointed to the bathroom, and Ellen moved out of her way.

"Sure," Ellen said.

Ellen made her way back to Al and ordered more scotch for both of them. Wide Dennis was still there, and James in his car-seat coat was there, too, talking to Amber the junkie.

"I don't like this place," Ellen said to Al. "Who's going to come to a place like this?"

"Me, too," Amber said. She was eating a sandwich out of one of those small coolers people use for carrying around six-packs, or organs fresh for transplants. She was drinking what could have been a rum and Coke. "This place is the worst."

"Nobody loves anyone here," Ellen said, and Al took her hand and squeezed it. She kissed his neck.

"He's the cutest boy," Amber said.

"Remember that bartender you used to have over there? Victoria?" James asked Ellen. "She was a sassy thing, that girl."

"She worked Wednesday nights," Al said.

"She worked Tuesday nights, baby," James said. "Trust me please on this one."

"You're right," Al nodded. "It was Tuesday."

"My God, I do miss that girl."

"She was a good bartender," Ellen said.

"Those were good, good times. We used to call that the Victorian Era, didn't we? When Victoria was still working."

"That's right, James."

"Get that girl back again. That's what we all need."

"Can't do it."

"Tall Folks was holy back then. We used to drink out of that damn girl's hands."

"She has kids in grammar school now," Ellen said.

"They don't make girls like that anymore. That's the truth."

"They're always making girls like that," Ellen said. "They just keep on making them, and there's one of them across the street at my bar right now, if you're craving a great girl."

"Who?" Al asked. "Maddy? Not Maddy. Hardly."

"I don't drink like this all the time," Amber the junkie said suddenly. "You know that? Some days I don't drink for two weeks."

Then they were all quiet, looking at Amber.

"O.K., sweetie," Ellen said. "That's great. Good girl."

"Sure," Amber said. "No problem."

Behind the bar, Walter was changing the cassette again, and a new dancer stepped up onto the stage.

"Wow," Al said.

"I know, baby," James said. "You don't have to tell me."

She was blonde, but not a born blonde, with dark eyebrows and short hair, combed down straight against a round, round face. She wore fish-net stockings and garters, big clunky 1940s high heels and a short, antique pink dressing gown that tied in the front. She was chewing gum, and as the music started, she looked down at Al and blew a bubble.

"Jesus Christ," he said.

"That girl is a pinup," Wide Dennis said.

She danced for a while with her robe on, then slid it off and coyly folded it at her feet. She stood up to face the bar with naked breasts, and her nipples were perfect and tiny, like some kind of cake decoration.

"She's beautiful," Ellen whispered to Al.

"Ellen," he said, "I would eat that girl up with a spoon. I really would."

"She's a steamed dumpling, isn't she?" Ellen said.

The dumpling had an actual act. She worked the bubble gum and the stockings and her flushed little arms. She worked the big, clunky shoes and the belly and thighs. She held every available attention.

"You know what I feel like?" Ellen asked Al. "I feel like I'm looking at a pastry, you know? In a bakery window?"

"Yum," Al said gravely. "Yum."

"You could melt cheese on that girl."

"You know those tubes of biscuit dough you can buy in the dairy case?" Al asked. "You know how you smack them on the counter and they go 'pop' and all the dough pops out?"

"Yeah."

"She came out of one of those tubes."

The dumpling was dancing in front of the mirror, looking at herself. She put her hands against the reflection of her own hands and kissed the reflection of her own mouth.

"That's what strip joints are all about," Wide Dennis said. "Greasy mirrors."

"You know what she's leaving on that mirror?" Al said. "Butter."

"That's not lipstick she has on," Ellen said. "That's frosting."

Al laughed and pulled Ellen tight, and she put her arm around his shoulders.

"You should give her some money," he said.

"No way."

"It'll be cute. I'll go with you. She'll like it. She'll think we're a married couple and our therapist told us to come here so we could have better sex."

"She'll wonder how I tricked a twenty-year-old into marrying me."

Ellen put her face against Al's neck, which was warm and salty. Wide Dennis went up to the stage and leaned his huge self against the rail, as if he were on a verandah, or a cruise ship, as if the scenery was delightful and vast, as if he were a man of great leisure. He pulled dollar bills out of his pocket one at a time and held them up suavely between his second and third fingers. The dumpling accepted the money somehow within her choreography, and managed to tuck each dollar bill into her garter as though it were a slip of paper with a phone number on it that she thoroughly intended to call later. Against Wide Dennis, she looked slightly miniaturized, a perfect scale model of herself.

"He'll stand there as long as he has money, won't he?" Ellen asked.

"She's the nicest girl," Amber the junkie said. "I love her."

The dumpling leaned down and took Wide Dennis' huge head in her hands. She kissed him once over each eyebrow.

"I love that girl," James said.

"Me, too," Al said.

"I love her," Ellen said. "I love her, too."

Ellen drank the last of her scotch and said, "This is bad news for me. This place is really bad news, isn't it?" She smiled at Al, and he kissed her then, with his boozy, pretty mouth. It was more of a kiss than aunts usually get. He kissed her as if he had been planning the kiss for some time, and Ellen called up all of the lessons of her considerable history to accept and return it with grace. She let him hold the back of her head in one reassuring hand, as if she was a weak-necked baby, feeding. To Ellen, his mouth tasted like her own fine scotch, nicely warmed.

__________

When Ellen and Al finally crossed back over to the Tall Folks Tavern, it was closing time, and Maddy the mean bartender was kicking out her last drunks.

"Go home!" she was yelling. "Go home and apologize to your wives!"

Ellen did not ask Maddy how the night had been, and she did not greet any of her customers, but walked behind the bar and picked up the lost-and-found box. Then she and Al went together to the back room. Ellen spread the lost and found coats over the pool table. Al turned off the low overhead light, and the two of them climbed up onto the pool table, with its thin mattress of other people's clothes. Ellen stretched out on her back with a damp jacket pillow and Al settled his head on her chest. She kissed his smoky hair. In the dark of the back room, without a window or a fan, the air smelled like cigarette ashes and the dust of chalk. It smelled like a bar, or a school.

Much later, more than an hour later, Al did roll carefully on top of Ellen, and she did lace her fingers snugly against his back, but before this they rested for a long time, still in the dark, holding hands like old people. They listened to Maddy the mean bartender throw the last drunks out of the Tall Folks Tavern, and they listened to her clean up and shut down the bar. On the best nights, Ellen used to dance on that same bar with her arms spread open wide, saying, "My people! My people!" while the men crowded at her feet like dogs, or students. They used to beg her not to close. It would be daylight, and they would still be coming in from across the street, begging her not to close. She told this to Al, and he nodded. In the dark of that big back room, she felt his little nod.

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