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The big dreamers weren’t anywhere to be found in my bar that day. You know the kind, if you’ve ever been in a saloon. The big talkers who like to think they have life by the throat. If they were just a little luckier, or if fate was a little pluckier, they could improve their lot in life in a minute.

But you hear all those dreams, those half-lit ambitions, and you know they’re not going anywhere but from the bar stool to the privy, and back to their bar stool. And the drunker they get, the loftier the dreams.

Old Walt Zuckerman, who used to manage the Red & White, he always had the dream of buying himself a house boat. Said if he had one, he’d float on the lake all day, drink beer, and enjoy the fruits of his labor. What particular fruits, and what particular labor, he never said, but he was keen on buying that boat. And on what lake, I don’t have any idea. Wasn’t a lake within 200 miles of Handsome. I guess if you’re going to dream something up, the matter of a lake shouldn’t have no bearing.

Then he decided he was going to build that boat. He studied diagrams in Popular Mechanics, and even bought a garage-full of lumber. He said he sent away for blueprints from a company in Pennsylvania.

Walt spent endless weeks talking about that boat, and how he would name it “The Marie” after his high school sweetheart, and how he’d paint it green and stencil her name on it with bright orange paint. He would have a fully stocked kitchen, which he called the galley, and eat pork and beans and put ketchup on his eggs and leave a bottle of bourbon on his bedside table at night because no one could tell him he couldn’t because he would be the goddamned captain of The Marie.

Of course, the lumber gathered termites, and his hammer and nails turned rusty, and it came to pass you couldn’t buy Walt a drink if you mentioned The Marie. He was done with it, and he never spoke of her again.

Time slipped away, like it always does, and life got in the way. And so it is with everyone who leaves a crumpled dollar bill on the counter of my bar. For every “trade her in for a new Cadillac, maybe next summer,” there’s another greasy sawbuck in my cash drawer.

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Excerpt from Ordinary Handsome, available here. Thanks for reading!

Chandeliers

I dreamed of that ballroom we saw in that movie, you know the one, with the old-timey music that flooded the air, Glenn Miller I think, or maybe Jimmy Dorsey, and those tiny tables that could only fit napkins and two martini glasses (at least our TV trays can fit a Hungry Man Dinner and a biscuit). The couples danced in rhythmic seizures, the war was over or maybe not begun, bright colors and balloons, sweaty but not in a smelly way, and everyone was crazy alive, and they looked like Blondie and Dagwood. Yeah, I dreamed we were dancing, really moving, and we danced the Charleston, hands and grins all over the place, and people watched and they envied our sway, and I looked up and saw elegant chandeliers, and I remember you said we should get one of those for the cabin, and I promised you I would look. And now it’s 4 a.m., I’m online, and honey, I don’t think it would fit in the living room. But I did find a nice set of candles and a Big Band CD collection, and we can dance like stink in the backyard if we want, and maybe drink wine coolers from our much bigger TV trays.

Charles Clowe

Charles Clowe was a good-looking boy. Ruffled black hair, eyes as gray as a funnel cloud. Bad teeth, though; them Clowes never did have a good set between them. But you forgot that when he fixed his eyes on you. He was a smooth talker just like his daddy. Honey on toast, he was. But there was something underneath, like he was laughing right at you, same time as he was beguiling you. Maybe it was just the way he was raised, thinking he was born a few steps higher on the staircase. He sure dressed better, with his pressed shirts and pleated pants. And wingtip shoes! Yes, a boy in wingtips! The rest of us comported ourselves in bibs and hand-me-down mud dogs, and he cocked around like he was assessing the worth of our souls.

His eyes, though, the way they shifted from light to dark. Irises clear as rainwater one minute and a standing brook the next. I guess there are better words to describe it, poetic words maybe, but his eyes pulled you in. When you were inside them, you might consider him an artist or a philosopher. But he wasn’t nothing like that. He was stark crazy. That’s as simple as I can say it.

I don’t know. It’s all the same repetition of effort to get to the bones of it, the same pecking away at how I felt about him. People liked Charles, men and women both – and women, certainly – but sometimes it felt they were liking him against their will. That was Charles as a boy.

Charles the man wasn’t the same after the Japanese paid a visit to our shipyards in ’41. He deepened and toughened. Any childhood left in him was finished. He slicked back his tumbleweed hair and parted it in the middle, and he grew a pencil-thin mustache that made him look a little like Clark Gable. He was more refined, somehow, like the war had polished him hard. His smile was shinier, his face more provoking.

You don’t have to be damaged in war to be damaged. Charles was damaged from the start. I don’t know why or how. He just was. Maybe there was a short circuit in his thinking, or maybe it was something more commonplace, like a failed romance or a reckless ego. With him, all you saw was the surface, a face scoured clean of all the underneath. He played a cultivated man in a town full of corn pickers.