I remembered these people for more than four decades. Then I woke one morning with the following in mind, probably more a thoughts-while-waking/I-could-write-this than an actual nightmare:
A town with nothing to do at night. Dark road,
dark woods, dark stores and houses.
A neon sign: *GOLDBERG’S TOPLESS BAR*
Inside it’s dim, empty, an old man behind the bar—
Goldberg, I assume—and a fat old woman
who must be his wife, mopping a far corner
of the floor. She wears a pilled green sweater
over huge breasts that sag below her waist.
Looks of desperation in their eyes, tired smiles
from centuries of pain. The place reeks of Pine Sol
and stale beer. I order whisky and joke, “The sign says
Topless Bar.” “Bessie!” the old man yells. “Get to work!”
The woman sets her mop in the corner
and shuffles to a tiny platform, huffing with
the exertion. Her husband switches on
a spotlight. She starts to pull her sweater up.
I run to the door, push it open and feel
the fresh air. “Wait!” Goldberg yells. “She’ll do
a lap dance! Look at that tookhus!” I can’t tell
which happens first, escaping or waking up.
BACKGROUND: When I started college, I found a coffee shop across the street from the campus. Their breakfast special was only 75 cents—for juice, eggs, toast, and coffee.
The owner and his wife were the price you paid for the bargain. He was grim as he cooked my scrambled eggs on the grill. She was fat and wore the same sweater every day. She shuffled along in bedroom slippers; I assumed her ankles were too swollen to wear shoes all day.
Her shoulders drooped as she took his verbal abuse: “The young man wants his coffee. Can’t you get him his coffee? Hurry up!”
On second thought, her shoulders always drooped. She would shuffle over to where I sat at the counter and set down my coffee, usually spilling a good deal of it into the saucer. I would hope he wouldn’t see that and yell at her again
After a couple of weeks, I couldn’t take it any longer. College was enough of an adjustment without beginning each day in this zone of misery. I walked a couple of blocks further and paid 25 cents more for my food at a busier, more impersonal place.
A year later, I saw that the old couple’s coffee shop was closed. Somewhere I heard that they’d retired to Florida. I imagined them being wretched in a warmer climate.
The poem above was the first time I wrote about them, although I would sometimes do a little comedy number about them, to remind myself that, no matter what’s going on in your life, you should always lighten up.
Or, in other words, if life hands you some eggs, you can smile and be kind while you stand at the grill and scramble them.