5.07 / July 2010


The table is in a restaurant in a building that was built in 1885. The building was remodeled in 1915 and again in 1952 after it was found that a broken sewage pipe had been weakening the foundation for decades. The building is located in a somewhat gentrified area of a medium-sized city in a medium-sized state on the Pacific Coast of the United States of America. And also your hands are damp. The restaurant is a restaurant that claims to cater to the health- and cruelty-conscious but really mostly caters to the tattooed, jaded urban hipster, something you both staunchly ridicule but secretly fear you are. There is one spear of watery sunlight that falls from the windows in the front of the restaurant onto the table you are sitting at. It bisects your menus and her hands as she moves them, as she arranges and rearranges her silverware that is no longer bound in a napkin; as she touches ragged cuticles with nicotine-colored fingertips; as she flattens small bits of detritus on the table.

You have hardly spoken. The sunlight halves the table as you try to speak.

You did not come here together. You met her here.

And at this table, as the woman sits next to you and looks at your face or down into her lap or over your shoulder where outside everything is shot through with a cold winter sunlight, seventeen different individuals have left without paying their tabs over the past nearly-twenty years[1] and that number is about to increase in about five minutes. Approximately fourteen individuals with the name or a derivative of the name “Harold” (“Harold”, “Harry”, “Hank”) have eaten breakfast, lunch or dinner at this restaurant within that span of time, which has only within the past eight or ten years made the jump from traditional diner fare to optional substitutions like Boca Burgersa and free-range eggs or tofu, rather than bacon or sausage; “Harold” no longer appears to be a very common name. It’s not you it’s me, you say and she rolls her eyes and does not look at you. She fingers a crease in the menu in front of her. Please, you say, I’m sorry please try to understand.

(Except that what has been said so far is less even than a half-truth. They’re hardly anything at all, these words you’re saying. The same old shit: cowardice couched in a supposed truth.)

This table has been painted many colors, in bright and cheery designs, as have the other eight tables and the concentric half-circle of a bar that rings the waitressing station to your immediate right. The table at which the two of you sit has on it a smiling sun that is holding a coffee cup in one of its rays. It is painted in acrylic. The colors on the table are blue, green, yellow, black and white. Along with the sun, there are also many five-pointed stars painted on the table, and a Cerulean blue background that is obviously meant to denote the sky. The table, aside from being painted, has also been varnished. She says nothing, is now looking down into her lap again. You are worried that she will begin to cry soon. You do not want her to cry in a busy restaurant. There is a small, almost imperceptible blemish slightly to the right of the exact center of her chin; it is almost the exact same hue as her lips, which are beginning to tremble now. You have spent weeks steeling yourself for this exact moment. This one right here.[2] But in picturing it, you did not imagine her crying.

The varnish on the table is very thick – there are slight ridges that you can feel under your fingertips.[3] And while your fingers do that, your mouth, your lips and tongue and teeth, is about to form the words I’m just not ready to commit to being with a woman but then the waitress – thin, with bright and lovely tattoos arcing up and down her arms, a small metal spike through the middle of her bottom lip – arrives with your plates of food.[4] The woman next to you, the woman who has repeatedly told you she loved you over the past three months while you have done everything short of electrocuting yourself, throwing yourself out of the sole window in her chilled studio apartment in order to stop these words from tumbling gracelessly, hollowly from your own mouth, bows her head like a supplicant, like someone about to be knighted or beheaded. And yes, her lips, her lips are definitely beginning to tremble now.

You two need anything else, the waitress says.

No thanks, you say, smiling up at the admittedly hot waitress to show that you are polite, but not too suggestively or brazenly, in order to subtly reinforce the notion to this woman sitting across from you that, despite the fact that she has brought you to orgasms strong enough to make your hands lock themselves into knife-like shapes while the veins in your neck leap out in stark relief, despite the fact that the first time you kissed her, her tongue darting gently into your mouth, there was the familiar and lovely warmth that spread up into your belly, the same fluttering of that stupid muscle your ribcage, the same sense of falling towards something good as you told and listened to each others’ stories, no, you are most certainly not a lesbian at all. No. The time she cawed laughter when you fell on your ass in the ice and somehow it wasn’t mockery at all and something inside you cracked free at that, at the realization of that. It was like some dark, previously closed-off space inside you was flung open and her laughter was simple joy and not hurtful and how incredible that feeling was, do you remember that? And yet it is not possible, even as the idea flits and batters itself against the dim lamplight of your heart, that you are afraid of love itself. No. It is not possible, in spite of the fact that this is the fifth woman in your life that you have said those exact words to. It has no bearing on the situation now, at this moment. All of those women in your life you have left with bitter tears, the small ghosts of them murmuring inside you. All of them left stunned when some interior bell begins to clang a warning inside you.

But what you do not know is that there are ghosts everywhere in the world, even here in this room. Because another thing you do not know is that there was once a man murdered in what is now the kitchen of this restaurant, though it was not the kitchen of a restaurant when the man was murdered. The man’s name was Aaron Shelby Dobbs and it happened in 1934 when the restaurant was not a restaurant at all but an upholstery shop. Dobbs was the proprietor of the shop and was feverishly pro-union, which was sometimes an incendiary thing to be in 1934, and also other times too. Worse still was to be a soapboxer, an outspoken, loud pro-union man in a time when city-wide general strikes were going on in San Francisco, Minneapolis and elsewhere and men were being killed by police and there were many riots, sometimes even in this medium-sized city. Dobbs was a man like that. He had been trying to organize a union among other upholstery shops (those with employees and bosses: Dobbs’s shop was small, his son being his only employee, both of them sharing equally in profit and responsibility) and the owners of these upholstery shops would get very upset when Dobbs soapboxed and sang songs on Saturday mornings on what was then and still is the city’s major thoroughfare, Water Avenue[5], and would get very, very upset when Dobbs would sometimes pass out leaflets and/or handbills to the workers of various other businesses in the mornings as they went into work, forsaking his own business in favor of trying to Organize The People. This upset many wealthy men in the area, and after certain incendiary events elsewhere had come to pass[6], and after they had spoken about him for some time over beers and tumblers of whiskey and the fanned-out hands of playing cards and over the telephone sometimes too, action was agreed upon.

This would not interest you. But what would interest you is the fact that very near to this table you are sitting at, as you unwrap your fork from its little cocoon of napkin and wish briefly but ferociously that you could take it all back, everything, not just with this woman but with every woman in your whole life, that this is where Dobbs became a phantom. Right there, actually, right over there. And also that he could simultaneously be construed as “near you” and “not near you” as the woman definitively sitting next to you allows one fattened tear to slide down the contours of her face.

As you look on helplessly. Locked in the arms of your own wordlessness.

And what happened was that Dobbs was working late one night – he had spent much of the morning leafleting a cannery in the industrial section until various mid-level management types had shoved him away, one threatening to “kill his ass dead”, though his demise had been in the works for some time and orchestrated by men other than this – and had a backlog of work to do. At that time of night he was refurbishing a set of a dozen chairs for a billiards-and-whisky club on, again, Water Avenue. It was past eight o’clock in the evening when there was a rap on the door. Dobbs pulled up the shade, saw a bearded man with one of his leaflets in his hand, with dark and shifting eyes like a rat. Dobbs had excitedly unlocked the door and the man had stepped inside and they began to speak. The man was very nervous, wiping the back of his hand across his forehead repeatedly, but this seemed reasonable to Dobbs – the machinery of commerce did not want workers to be united, to form an entity larger than themselves but crafted towards their own interests; this was inherent to the machine’s very hierarchal, destructive nature. Of course the man was scared – he was risking so much by coming there, Dobbs believed. It was after Dobbs had invited the man in, after he had turned away from the man to retrieve additional literature he kept in his shop, literature that he had kept high on a shelf for just such an occasion as this, first a trickle then a tide he would tell his son daily, that the bearded man, who was from Spokane, Washington and was hired by men who knew that he did such things, that he was capable and willing to do such things for money, placed a small .22-caliber pistol against the back of Dobbs’s head and pulled its trigger.

So I guess this is it, the woman says to you. It is nearly a whisper.

I just don’t think I’m ready to be with a woman, you say, and this, yes, this could be a lie, you realize. It is not her womanhood that frightens you, is it?

It’s simply her thereness. This other person.

The trust that’s complicit in love.

Dobbs had fallen without fanfare, without blood – the bullet entering and then ricocheting within the curved bowl of his skull – and the man stood over him and fired two more shots into the side of Dobbs’s face (per instructions) and dropped a typewritten letter his employers had given him onto Dobbs’s stilled chest (per instructions) and walked out the door and went without molestation or interference to his roominghouse after first making a phone call from O’Malley’s Tavern on, yet again, Water Avenue, that the job had been completed (per instructions). The way the world works is sometimes riddled with coincidence: the dozen chairs Dobbs had been reupholstering were from O’Malley’s Tavern. The letter has since been lost, its contents unknown. The man spent a quarter on a pint of beer in O’Malley’s after he made his phone call, drinking it wordlessly at the shining oaken bar. (This was decidedly not per instructions, but the man had an awful, raging case of piles at the time, and a pint helped him sleep.)

Do you want some of my food I’m not very hungry, the woman says, knuckling another tear away from her eye, her voice growing husky and thick. And it is a small knife in your heart, those words: that you have hurt someone like this, that those tears belong to you, they are your property, that you did not say I love you back to her when you could have any of those times, that three days ago you feigned other pressing, just-remembered obligations and left her bed immediately afterwards and ignored her plaintive messages on your cell phone and have not called her for the past three days, this well-known dread galloping up and down your spine.

Oh, this cowardice. How tired you feel in your skin sometimes. All these trappings.

Also what would interest you: Dobbs’s ghost still haunts this restaurant. How Dobbs’s ghost is actually standing and not standing right next to the two of you. Also how the cooks and waitresses will sometimes talk about it, him, the ghost in the restaurant, to their lovers and friends or their managers or each other (the owners are wealthy and are usually vacationing.) The employees will speak of vegetables suddenly mounded and prepped in perfect heaps when previously, only seconds before, they were lined haphazardly on the stainless steel counters. They will speak of stacks of dishes moved from one shelf to another, all in a moment when their backs are turned away and they are alone in the kitchen. At this restaurant, you do not know it but there is a high turnover of staff. The ghost of Aaron Shelby Dobbs is not a physical entity per se but does physical things, and that is interesting because he is standing next to you and also not standing next to you right now when the physical thing you do right now is say No thanks to the woman sitting next to you.

This body of yours, lungs and voice box, corporeal and incredible, all of it a machine apparently designed to bruise the hearts of others.

You say No to this woman, that you do not want a bite of her food and then you say Please understand and she barks laughter and says You keep fucking saying that. You are afraid now of her face, those trembling lips and the one beautifully crooked tooth and the green-flecked brown eyes, one of them always looking slightly off-center no matter what.

You’re just scared, she says flatly, still looking down at her plate, and the hand that holds her fork, all of those knuckles are white there, she’s holding it so tightly.

No it’s not that I swear.

You’re just scared of being with anyone, she says. Being a dyke has shit to do with it.


Bullshit Lara you’re just fucking scared, she says. Her voice is rising and, even more than hurting her, what you are afraid of is making a scene in public.

I’m not a fucking dyke, you say (more vehemently than you meant to – people are definitely looking at you now) and now the woman stands from this table, her food untouched. She slams her thighs against the edge of this table as she rises and orange juice spills onto the face of the sun and she practically pushes you to the ground as she muscles her way past you into the aisle and people are watching still because your coffee cup falls from the table and shatters when it hits the painted concrete floor[7]. The woman storms down the aisle, past the other customers, all of them twenty-something, all of them shot through with tattoos and ridiculous haircuts and clothes that are so unfashionable they are somehow fashionable – in short, people just like her and just like you – and, with one hand curled loosely around the door handle, turns to you, her face a rictus tracked with mascara and hurt.

You are a selfish bitch, she says to you from across the room, enunciating each word but spaced with tremors, and what happens next is that all the silverware in the restaurant, all the knives, forks and spoons, all the metallic napkin dispensers and salt and pepper shakers and rounded placard-holders with the breakfast specials clipped inside, they all suddenly balance themselves on their points or begin to spin around rapidly in counterclockwise circles[8]. The exodus towards the door and the picturesque, sun-dappled sidewalk is immediate and frenzied. A punk, his hair quilled like a porcupine, his face peppered with piercings, is the first to reach the door. He oh-so-gallantly pushes the woman to the side and makes his exit and soon there are others, a massed throng, everyone is screaming – the cook comes galloping from the back shrieking The fuck was that the fucking knives stood up and started spinning around and someone else says Earthquake it’s an earthquake – and she hits the floor and lays there dazed and something happens to you when you see her there like that.

And you rise from this table. You do. The silverware thrums and spins on the tabletops and along the arm of the counter as if they were dozens, hundreds of tuning forks or diving rods or dervishes and the people are pushing each other through the doorway onto the sidewalk where there is sunlight and nothing strange, where inexplicable things do not happen. Some of them keep running once they get outside but some of them turn, their faces filled with wonder now that they are outside; some of them begin taking photos with their camera phones or mill around and peer through the window, faces slack with awe and also one woman continues to scream even though she is outside and you, you walk over to the woman on the ground while the silverware thrums and jitters on its points, while there are small bits of spasmodic sunlight, hundreds of them, dappling the wall. You walk over to the woman and crouch down, your hand on her shoulder – her skin is warm through her t-shirt with its ironic saying and you have no idea why you are not afraid right now, or if not afraid at least not stunned by this strange menagerie but mostly what you are afraid of is everything ending like this with this woman and you say, Please talk to me I’m sorry I love you too I do it’s just that I’ve never made it past this part before.

You have no idea where this bravery comes from, how you can ask her forgiveness among the spinning blades and shivering forks wiggling upright on their tines and though you do not know it, this will serve as a catalyst for you throughout the rest of your life. This is a definable moment in time in which you were brave, in which you have thought of someone else. This is possibly the first time you have been brave for someone else but it will not be the last now because it gets easier with time. And what you do next is you say Please wait for me Esther and even though it is only a dozen feet, maybe twenty, you walk back to this table and grab your bag and Esther’s bag among the calliope of light dancing on the walls and you come back to her and she is no longer crying but has the same look on her face as the people peering through the windows – that of awe and punchdrunk wonderment – and, laden with both your bags, you help her rise and hold her hand in yours as you both step out the door into sunlight. You are brave and when you step out the doorway there is a clatter and clang and thunder like music as everything falls down.

[1] Yes, you will be one of them.

[2] If and when you ever become familiar with the act of self-reflection, you’ll realize that you have always prepared yourself for these moments within the first minute of meeting someone – at the very least, long, long before your body ever collides with another, long before the thought of whatever new lover makes your heart flutter in your ribs like a trapped bird. It’s all part of the process, isn’t it? Always finding yourself here once the luster fades? Or once someone begins to expect something from you?

[3] The varnish is made up of a synthetic resin called polyurethane, which is defined as polymer units that are linked by various urethane groups and used chiefly as constituents to paints, adhesives, foams and, yes, varnishes. You could not define polyurethane if your life depended on it, but this doesn’t make you a bad person. What you are doing right now in this restaurant to this person doesn’t even make you a bad person. It just makes you afraid.

[4] For you: The Ve-Gan-Do-It!, consisting of spinach, tomato slices, artichoke hearts and cubed and marinated tofu and two slices of unbuttered, 16-grain bread. She is having the Not Eggs-Actly Eggs, which is pretty much seasoned just tempeh and a vegetable medley slathered with a pesto-cheese sauce. Still, a part of your mind abstractly thinks that you should have ordered that instead.

[5] Named thusly because this medium-sized city in this medium-sized state on the Pacific Coast of the United States was then a port town and still is.

[6] See the San Francisco Longshoremen’s Strike, the Teamsters Strike in Minneapolis, the Auto-Lite Strike in Toledo, Ohio, etc.

[7] See footnote 3.

[8] Ghosts who have died without seeing their executioners – an incomplete list includes fleeing soldiers throughout history, the victims of suicide bombings, various politicians and one long-dead upholsterer who laments the fact he never got to share a pint with Joe Hill – are both gifted and cursed with the shifting and occasional knowledge of their own disembodiment. In short, Aaron Shelby Dobbs, even though he is both here and not here, sometimes understands that he is a spirit. Is someitmes aware that he can manipulate the physical, yet is himself without physicality. This awareness does account, of course, for the strange and unexplainable acts – which are, to his credit, nearly always to the benefit of the workers (chopping vegetables, cleaning up, etc.) – which take place around the restaurant. And the act of the shattering cup has served as a kind of electromagnetic claxon call to his wending spirit and, for the moment at least, more there than not there and feeling the emotional current between you and the woman much in the same way you would feel if you put a battery to the tip of your tongue, has attempted to stem the tide, to give you both pause, to stop you in your tracks. In short, and despite the fact that the air is soon punctuated with screams and, in one unfortunate case, the loosening of bowels, the spirit of Aaron Shelby Dobbs is trying to help the two of you out. In the spirit – no pun intended – of pure kindness, something the living so rarely manage, he’s trying to give you the opportunity for a different ending.