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The Bar Stool in the Sky

By Leah Mueller From Issue No. 3

The late morning temperature was sixty degrees when I finally reached the center of Vashon Island. A thick marine layer hung over the street like a cloud of depression. After three years in Washington state, I still hadn’t acclimated to the dampness, especially during the summer months. It was June, for Christ’s sake, and I was desperate for warmth.

Earlier that morning, I’d awakened, still wearing my clothing from the previous night’s revelry, and had remained in bed until eleven, waiting for the fog to burn off. I resided at the south end of the island in an abandoned school bus. The ungainly, flesh-pink vehicle was permanently parked behind my friend Tom’s geodesic dome house, next to a helicopter whose engine Tom never got around to starting. His aircraft perched in the bushes like an inert but watchful dragonfly. It had no plans to take flight ever again.

Someone had stolen the bus engine before I moved to Tom’s property, so my home wasn’t going anywhere either. I didn’t own a car, and needed to hitchhike the six miles downtown. Everyone on the island knew each other, so I never had to wait more than a couple of minutes for a ride. Often, the drivers smoked bowls of homegrown marijuana with me as we tooled down the road together. “You working at the restaurant today?” they asked. “Nah, I’m usually only there on weekends,” I replied.

I worked part-time at Los Puertos, a mediocre Mexican joint. It was strategically located at the northern tip of the island, adjacent to the ferry dock. Vashon Island was only accessible to the Seattle mainland by boat, so people ate in a hurry and left either huge or miniscule tips before rushing out the door to their waiting cars.

The restaurant owners didn’t like me much. They nagged me constantly, ordered me around in front of the customers, and issued loud demands for me to wear make-up and hairspray. These demands struck me as ridiculous, since Vashon was an island of hippies. I couldn’t imagine standing in the forest beside my bus, spraying toxic chemicals into my hair from an aerosol can. When I mentioned this to the boss, she was unimpressed. “Get the kind in a squeeze bottle,” she said. “It won’t hurt the ozone layer.”

My days at the restaurant were numbered, and it was hard for me to determine whether I should quit first or wait around to be fired. I leaned towards the former, since, for the first time in my adult life, I lived rent and utility-free. Tom had graciously allowed me to run an all-weather extension cord from the bus to his dome, and I had electric power. He had also given me full use of his lavatory facilities. I usually waited to use the toilet until he was at his Boeing job, but I kept a shovel behind the bus in case of emergencies.

Vashon’s main drag was only three blocks long. Pick-up trucks filled with wood lined the curb, interspersed with VW buses and ancient cars that sported green, moss-encrusted windows. I made my way down the sidewalk and peered along the street, searching for friends. I had enough money in my wallet for breakfast at the Islander. The food was execrable, but cheap, and all the locals ate there. They gossiped in window booths, chain-smoked hand-rolled cigarettes, and stared at the passersby. Altogether, it wasn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon.

As I stood with my hand on the doorknob, I heard a familiar voice. “Gonna take your chances on some morning swill? You’re brave.” I pivoted and spotted my friend Jim. He was dressed in his usual tie-dyed shirt and filthy, ripped jeans. His was a common Vashon uniform, and no one paid it any mind. “Why don’t you skip breakfast, and smoke a bowl with me instead?” he asked. “You can always eat later.”

I glanced down the block, and shook my head. “Here?” I asked, incredulous. “That would be controversial, even for Vashon.” Jim laughed. “No, silly,” he replied. “Let’s go over to Bobby’s. I moved out last month, but he won’t mind.”

Bobby Stanford was an island legend. At various times, he’d worked as a penguin trainer, a stand-up comedian, and a professional baton twirler. I’d first met Bobby three years beforehand, after arriving in town with three hundred bucks and two duffel bags. He perched on a stool in one of Vashon’s four taverns, holding on to the bar to keep himself upright. When he saw me, he smiled, revealing a set of yellow, uneven teeth.

I figured Bobby was doing his utmost to give a good first impression because I was fresh island blood, and female to boot. Two beers later, Bobby confessed he was a Midwesterner, and had grown up a few blocks from the state prison in Joliet. I hailed from Chicago, so the geographical synchronicity thrilled us both. Bobby loudly vowed to meet me on my upcoming twenty-sixth birthday. He promised to bring a baton and an unspecified gift.

I’d completely forgotten Bobby’s promise when my birthday rolled around three weeks later. By happy accident, I wound up at the same bar as before. I was delighted when Bobby appeared, clutching a baton in one sweaty fist and a fat joint in the other. He glanced around furtively, then pressed the joint into my hand.

Bobby’s subterfuge was comical and unnecessary, since the bar owners moonlighted as cocaine dealers. “Wow, thanks,” I said, genuinely touched. I dropped the joint into my purse, and stole a peek at the bartender. She hovered in the corner, swiping a rag across the top of a pile of pint glasses in a desultory manner.

“I’m not done,” Bobby said. He sounded mildly affronted. “Give me some time, okay?” He took a step backward and threw his baton into the air. The bartender looked mildly surprised, but turned her attention back to the glasses. Bobby caught the baton a few seconds before it hit the floor, then twirled it between his fingers awkwardly for a few minutes. Finally, he looked at me and smiled. “I’m a bit out of practice,” he admitted.

Bobby had celebrated his own birthday the previous November, and I’d been astonished to discover he was only fifty. He looked as though he was at least seventy, no doubt due to a lifetime of neglecting dietary needs in favor of alcohol consumption. Now, three years later, I often spotted Bobby’s frail, diminutive figure as he painstakingly made his way down Vashon’s main street towards his ramshackle house. It took him nearly half an hour to travel three blocks, and he was often exhausted and cranky when he arrived home.

This trademark crankiness was the main reason why Jim had decided not to live with Bobby any more. Still, there were no lingering hard feelings, and Jim was welcome to hang out at Bobby’s house any time, even when Bobby wasn’t home.

“You know, I’m not really hungry,” I told Jim. “I’ll take you up on that bowl. I hope Bobby’s awake by now.”

Jim and I strode down the sidewalk towards Bobby’s house. It loomed in the distance—a two-story structure with peeling white paint and a front porch that clung to the house through the combined efforts of faith and duct tape. When we arrived, Jim casually threw the door open and burst into the front room. Bobby did most of his living there, since the stairs were too daunting for him. His bed stood beside one of the windows, covered with an assortment of stained pillows, rumpled sheets, and ratty patchwork quilts.

I glanced at the bed, and spotted Bobby’s tiny, pale form, huddled beneath a nest of blankets. He was still fast asleep. Weak rays of sunshine shone through the dusty window glass and illuminated his face. A light breeze blew across the sill and ruffled his thin gray hair. Jim smiled. “Bobby had a wild time at the tavern last night,” he said. “I’m pretty sure he was there until last call.”

“That means you were there until last call, too,” I pointed out. Jim laughed. “True,” he said. He reached into his pocket, pulled out a plastic bag filled with buds. After groping around in the same pocket for another moment, he produced a pipe. With a look of intense concentration, Jim pinched a fat chunk from his stash, and pushed it into the waiting bowl.

“I was bar-hopping most of the night,” I confessed. “I went home around midnight, though. Hitchhiking on the island gets pretty random after the witching hour.”

“Every hour is the witching hour in these parts,” Jim drawled. With a practiced motion, he placed the pipe in his mouth, lit the contents, and inhaled deeply. He held his breath, smiled with satisfaction, and handed the bowl to me.

I glanced over at Bobby. He was still spreadeagled on the mattress with his eyes tightly shut. Jim had spoken the truth when he said our friend had enjoyed a raucous night. I’d conversed briefly with Bobby at his favorite tavern, while he perched on his bar stool, surrounded by an assortment of full and empty glasses. Our discussion hadn’t been entirely pleasant.

Earlier in the evening, while I was visiting my friends Mary and Kitty at their trailer, Kitty suddenly asked me, “Laurel? Do you EVER wear makeup?” I confessed I’d only worn makeup a few times in my life, and didn’t know how to apply it properly. “Oh my God,” Kitty gasped. “You’d look so beautiful with make-up! Don’t you think so, Mary?”

Mary nodded. “Come on, Kitty!” she cried impulsively. “Let’s put some makeup and a low-cut dress on Laurel. She’ll look just like a Barbie doll!” I wearily submitted to their ministrations, figuring I had little choice in the matter. Mary and Kitty cooed over me for almost two hours, coating my face with layers of goo and shoving my feet into an assortment of high-heeled shoes until they found a pair that fit.

Finally, they pulled my underwear-clad, bra-less body into a tight-fitting dress and stood back to admire their handiwork. “Perfect!” Mary squealed. “Now watch what happens, Laurel. You’ll save a fortune on drinks.”

I wandered sullenly into downtown Vashon, Mary and Kitty gamboling at my side like puppies. I’d always had trouble understanding why women spent hours preening themselves, just so they could go into a bar and swill alcohol with a bunch of other drunks. However, seconds after our entry into the first tavern, I realized Mary’s assessment was correct. “Wow, Laurel,” a man said when he spotted me from the other side of the room. “You look nice tonight. Want a beer?”

The night continued in a similar manner, until we entered bar number three and I encountered Bobby, propped on his usual stool. He gaped at me, horrified and disgusted. “What the hell is that all over your face?” he demanded. “My friends decided to give me a makeover,” I replied meekly. “Well, it looks like shit,” he bellowed.

I gulped and stared at the floor, deeply mortified. Despite the fact that Bobby was usually shitfaced, he possessed an imperious air that often intimidated me. His disapproval was a harsh reminder of my own disgust with my gaudy, painted face. Noticing my discomfort, Bobby softened his demeanor. “I like you better the other way,” he said gruffly.

Jim’s voice interrupted my reverie. “Are you going to hit that bowl, or are you going to pass it over to me?” I placed the pipe stem in my mouth, flicked the lighter, and inhaled. “Good stuff, as always,” I said. Jim nodded with satisfaction. “Plenty more where that came from,” he replied.

A weak shaft of light pushed its way through the grime-encrusted window glass. The sun was finally winning its battle with the marine layer. A sudden light bathed Bobby’s face and gave it an oddly saint-like glow.

“I’ve got nothing but time this afternoon,” I confessed.

“What the hell is going on with that job of yours?” Jim demanded. “Aren’t they giving you any shifts at the restaurant? I need to come in and get a burrito, and tell everyone you’re the best waitress I’ve had in my entire life. That’ll confuse them.”

“I try not to make too many plans,” I said breezily. I took a drag from the pipe, then shifted my gaze to Bobby’s prostrate form. The recalcitrant sun had completely emerged from the clouds. It shone through the window glass onto Bobby’s parchment-like skin, illuminating both his face and one bony hand, which protruded from underneath the blankets. Bobby looked even more like a resting prophet than before, and the sight of his sleeping form filled me with a strange kind of peace.

Of course, it was easier for me to focus on Bobby than it was to contemplate my own future, or explain it to Jim. My twenty-ninth year had been singularly terrible, and the prospect of turning thirty filled me with terror. During the past year, I had destroyed my relationship with a local attorney, an act which left me completely devoid of worldly possessions. My ex often came into the restaurant when I worked the lunch shift. I pretended to be cheerful, brought him platters of enchiladas and baskets of chips, and pocketed his tips after he finally cleared out. Each time he entered the restaurant, I felt the same punch in the gut, followed by a sense of grim inevitability. I wasn’t sure if I could maintain an appearance of sanity much longer.

Jim glanced over at Bobby. “Man, he sure is sleeping soundly,” he said. He turned his head, met my eyes, and smiled. “You know what to do if you ever need help. Don’t suffer alone. We gotta take care of each other on this rock.”

Feeling embarrassed, I strolled across the floor towards the bathroom. I liked to project the illusion of being in control of my life, and Jim’s declaration was an acute reminder that I wasn’t fooling anybody. I stepped inside the tiny space and shut the door behind me, glad for the chance to shelter myself from the sudden onslaught of sentiment.

Bobby’s bathroom was extraordinary, and people came from all over the island to urinate in it. I perched on the edge of the toilet and gazed happily at the wall. Photographs covered almost every inch of it—Bobby on stage, getting ready to deliver a comedic zinger, Bobby as a young man in a naval uniform, Bobby with a group of hard-drinking Vashon artist friends. A border of stenciled, dancing penguins separated the top of the wall from the ceiling. All of the penguins held tiny batons, which they twirled above their heads with abandon.

As I examined the artwork, it occurred to me that I might be indulging in a sort of visual eulogy. Bobby wasn’t ever going to awaken. He had expired in his sleep, and Jim and I were enjoying a stoned party with his corpse. As soon as the thought arrived, I negated it. The vibe in Bobby’s place was too cheerful for death. If Bobby was dead, the atmosphere in his house would be gloomy, and Jim and I would know instantly that something was wrong.

I finished urinating and emerged from the bathroom. Jim passed the pipe to me, and I inhaled deeply, savoring the contents. “I’m glad I ran into you today,” I said. “Thanks for your support. I have to go now, however. I’ve got a lot of things to figure out.”

Jim smiled again. “Yeah, I should try to be moderately responsible, myself. Too bad Bobby never woke up. I’ve got something important to tell him. I’ll need to come back later today.” He dumped the ashes from his pipe into an empty beer can and rose to his feet.

Suddenly, a thought struck him. “I’ll write Bobby a note,” he said. “He’d feel left out otherwise.” Jim plucked a piece of paper from the overflowing coffee table, and rummaged around for a pen. Finally he located one underneath a pile of bills. He carefully lowered his body to the couch, scratched his head, and wrote, “Dear Bobby: Laurel and I were here around noon, but you were still asleep. Thanks for the hospitality. Enjoy your long nap. I’ll see you later this afternoon. Love, Jim.”

“Well, that should do it,” Jim said. “Come on, let’s go.” He rose from the couch, and the two of us wandered towards the front door. I stole a final glance at Bobby. He was still sleeping peacefully, with the sun shining full-throttle on his face. I detected the hint of a smile on his lips. Otherwise, he looked exactly the same as he had when we first entered the room. “Goodbye, Bobby,” I said softly.

Bobby continued his deep slumber, stretched out on the bed like a penitent. The sun grew even brighter, but he didn’t move. He remained in exactly the same position until five hours later, when Jim returned to the house and phoned the coroner.

Within an hour, the entire island knew that Bobby was dead. The islanders handled the news with their usual stoicism. Later, at his funeral, nobody shed a tear. Bobby would have been disgusted by displays of mourning, since there was no reason for grief. He had finally gone to the great bar stool in the sky.

About Leah Mueller More From Issue No. 3