The Lamplighter Bar was almost empty when I reached there late in the afternoon. That's the time I like to put aside my canvas and paintbrush and mingle with my fellow beings. We artists are loners who have to remind ourselves, every now and again, that we must felicitate what we so devoutly depict in our paintings. That's exactly what I was doing -- felicitating my fellow beings at the bar. If, while I was doing that, if I were to internalize a few tall glasses of beer -- so be it.
On one of the stool sat an old geezer contemplating his glass of whiskey. He wore a plaid jacket with maroon elbow patches, and hadn't bothered to take off his grey felt hat. His gaze seemed immutably fixed in the deep, golden dregs contained in the tall glass, of which he had previously taken a long draught.
"Hello," I said, "mind if I join you?"
There, I couldn't be accused of being antisocial or obsessed with solitary confinement.
"No," he said, but a distraction like me hadn't done anything to sway him from his contemplation.
On a closer look I noticed he wasn't as old as I had originally thought; dim bar lighting played tricks with one's vision. He could have been no older than forty or so, some half a dozen years older than me. But although his hands were long and unblemished (what work did he do?) his face appeared heavy and unshaven, his eyes bloodshot under bushy eyebrows.
"Quiet for a Thursday evening," I said, settling down a couple of stools away from him to give him and myself some space.
The bartender, swathed in a white apron tied under his armpits, was drying glasses with a white towel and putting them away on the glass holder above him. Thursday as a precursor to Friday, and then on to the weekend found the bar filling up more than during the early part of the week, although my visits there followed no set pattern, so I couldn't be sure.
"Uh-huh," he replied looking up briefly.
I had never seen him before. The bartender, Willy, didn't keep an eye on who came and went unless they were regulars.
"What'll it be, Mack?" Willy said, turning around to wait on us. He was eager to finish his chores before customers came in. This was a favorite spot being close to the bowling alley next door, from where the women's bowling league came in for drinks on Thursday and Friday nights after bowling, and for the women's line dancing class on Wednesday nights.
"Beer, no ice," I told him with a croak in my voice. "Bad throat." Willy went off to fetch the drink.
"You should try chamomile tea."
I whirled around abruptly when I noticed that the speaker was the loner with the drink. I hadn't expected him to say anything at all.
"Chamomile tea. It's good for everything -- colds, sore throats, fever. It's like echinacia and helps to build up immunity."
I had to chuckle to myself. Here was this man who had been sitting staring at his glass of whiskey as if the whole world had crashed about his ears. The next minute he was recommending chamomile tea. I introduced myself to him.
"Lawrence Nolan," he said in return.
Willy placed my drink in front of me, glanced at us absent-mindedly, and went back to his cleaning. I wasn't a tea or coffee drinker, pop was my poison, but I had heard of herb teas being good for you. The topic also seemed to have loosened my companion's tongue.
"In Argentina they drink a strong tea called mate, drunk from a gourd with a sort of tube," he said, warming up to his topic.
The entrance door swung open now letting in employees of nearby office buildings who stopped for a drink or two before going home to wives and children. Their congregating here forged a bond and an easy comaraderie. The darkened bulbs gave off subdued lighting, so that when you looked across the bar counter, the tinted mirror on the opposite wall threw back a darkened, more sinister reflection of you.
Soon, newly arriving patrons of the bar claimed Willie's attention. The man sitting next to me showed no interest in them. As a painter I looked for interesting faces, an expression here, a stance there. My landscapes had not been successful lately. Gwen at the Blumquist Art Gallery had suggested that I try portraits. Certain famous landmarks -- the Twin Cities bridge, the Super Ranger 111 -- a commuter boat used in summer, sold well, as did autumn scenes.
"Besides these, you're better off doing portraits," she told me. Gwen was the assistant manager of the gallery but she had a good eye for art and Arne Blumquist left a considerable part of the business to her discretion.
I had no choice but to try new subjects. I needed money to send to Blanche for child support and for the more imminent purpose of keeping body and soul together. These were lean years for me. Worse than that, I had lost the joi de vivre of composing, simply because I had seemed to dry up inside. I munched on the peanuts in front of me and offered the man some. He sat up a little and didn't appear as huddled up as before.
"Have you been to Argentina?" I asked, my curiosity waxing a little, thinking that he might even be an interesting subject for a portrait.
"Indeed, I have, many times to gather material on the Peronist regime. Finally, I accumulated enough to write a text book for the political science class that I teach," he said, with something like a glimmer of satisfaction on his face. "There's mass hypnotism for you -- largely by the efforts of Peron's wife. Manipulation of the masses. How a chauvinist like Peron came to entrust so much power to his wife, one can never know," he was muttering to himself mostly.
You cannot take the vocation out of a man, I suppose. I am sure that I carried mine around with me in my own absent-minded way, and people recognized my profession in a second -- if only from the paint smudges on my fingers. I was getting a lesson in political science. I listened patiently, for he was proving to be an intriguing subject for a portrait, with the right kind of opaque lighting diffusing down from the ceiling.
A low hum of background sounds and the man talking produced a lulling effect in me as I mentally summoned the medium and colors I would use, earthtones, some yellow, crimson and gold against a dark brown backdrop.
"Of course, the military had a suspicion that the coffers were being siphoned off by Eva Peron's pet projects -- the Foundation, and why not? She could play Lady Bountiful and Santa Evita to the masses. Do you know that my wife, Marysa was from there?" he turned toward me.
"Well," I said, jovially. "When you spend as much time as you did on your work it seems natural to take a wife from there, doesn't it?"
He nodded in agreement with a half smile. "You absorb so much of it's life blood from there. She was very valuable to me, having helped me in my work. Soon, she knew her power over me. I had to cultivate contacts for information, and she spoke Castillian."
"I was there for two years when I started feeling ill, fainting for no apparent reason. Marysa used to make me mate. At first, I liked the strong taste of it, then, it seemed to taste different to me. Or maybe I lost all sensation in my tongue."
He paused for a moment, staring wild-eyed at his glass, as if re-living his experiences.
"Marysa was a political consultant at the Foreign Office in Buenos Aires, and very successful. Then, I noticed a change in her. She seemed irritable, easily annoyed at my long hours of work and professional commitments. I wasn't planning to live there; I wanted to return to the States to teach. Initially, she had agreed to that. We would live in New York. With her experience she would work as an interpreter at the United Nations."
He was well into his narrative and deeply engrossed in it. I marveled that he didn't mind sharing personal details with me, a total stranger. Perhaps, that was just it; he needed somebody to talk to.
"She was wildly popular, had a lot of friends and admirers."
I looked at my watch, not realizing that it was close to eight o' clock. Where had the time gone? I had to pick up turpentine and other supplies before Northern Stationary Supplies closed.
"Look," I said, "I'm sorry. I have to leave in a hurry." I was angry with myself for the clumsy way in which I was handling the situation, "You see, I am an artist and am interested in doing a portrait of you, if that's all right? Could you be here tomorrow evening at the same time?"
His features altered as they broke into a faint smile. "Of course, but I hardly think I would make a good subject."
I waved away his objections and left.
The following evening he was there, as good as his word. Nervous that I wouldn't get started I set up where I could, a little away from the main thoroughfare of the patrons of the bar, where there was a stained glass shade throwing meager light on my subject. If he had refused it would have served me right for my gaucheness. I had him looking in front of him without the glass in the picture.
"Please," I said, "don't feel you have to sit in silence."
He seemed eager to talk and there was none of the dark moodiness I had seen the day before. He took up where he had left off then. "Marysa decided she wanted to leave me. Argentina was her home; as if the thought had just struck her, she couldn't bear to leave her homeland. I suppose that was all right. She wanted a divorce. Of course, I was distraught -- for selfish reasons. But she had her life there. She was a wonderful tango dancer and she and her dance partner were proving to be celebrated in Buenos Aires. It was then that I became ill. I was so ill one day that I found myself at the hospital having no recollection that I had fainted. The doctor and Marysa were leaning over me, she with her red lips parted questioningly."
It seemed to me that he hadn't recovered from his illness, for despite the dark ambiance of the room, he appeared very pale. I was reluctant to let him continue with his story, afraid that the reminiscences might cause a physical disability.
One of the reasons I set up my work away from the main area was to avoid curiousity seekers looking over my shoulder. But that didn't include Willy.
"Say," he said, looking in wonder and amazement at the emerging portrait, "how about you do a picture for me to hang over the entrance? You could have your lunches here for as long as it took you to finish it."
"I'd be glad to," I said, pleased that my artistic ability was being appreciated. The picture I was painting was showing me the reason why Gwen at the art gallery felt portraits were my forte, even before I knew it. I was beginning to capture the mood of my subject. Landscapes and still life were mellow, soothing, but you could, with the stroke of a brush, draw out, as it were, the soul of your subject. Of course, you were also investing it with something from within yourself.
Nolan didn't seem to notice my absorption in my work, for he commenced his narrative. "Marysa nursed me back to some semblance of my previous health, with more mate, though this time, with special echinacea and chamomile herbs in it. She didn't mention divorce for a time, not because she had changed her mind, but because she didn't want it upon her head that she had left an invalid husband," he paused. This was therapeutic for him, I supposed. It was at the tip of my tongue to ask him how long ago all of this took place, but engrossed as I was, I ignored the urge.
"But, you know," he continued in a confidential tone, "convalescence is a good time for soul searching. I decided I was going to give Marysa her freedom. After recuperating somewhat I would be ready to teach fall semester at North Central University. There would be no question of going to New York now, since Marysa wouldn't be there. She was pleased that I was rallying around so nicely."
I gathered that he had come to terms with the events that had distressed him and had returned to his former situation and settled back in. Or so it seemed to me.
After some more sittings the portrait was completed to my satisfaction. I returned to the bar to invite Nolan to a meal at my bachelor pad. But when I reached the bar I saw Willy holding a black wallet. It was Tuesday and there were the usual die hards who gathered for a drink, but nothing that consumed Willy's attention or that of the other help.
"Your friend left his wallet, Mack. I found it on the floor where you were sitting the other day."
I took it from him and looked at it. It was black lizard skin and elegant looking. Opening it I saw a driver's license picture of Nolan, with a Wisconsin address, a picture of an auburn-haired young woman, exotic, a mesmerizing smile on her red-painted lips. Marysa? What sort of woman was she? There were a few ten dollar notes, slips of paper with odd bits of information, notes to himself. Nothing else.
"Yes this belongs to the man whose portrait I was doing," I told Willy.
"He didn't come in today," Willy said.
Since I finished the portrait he had probably decided not to come, odd as it seemed to me, for we were getting acquainted as much as people meeting casually could understand one another. Moreover, I wanted to invite him to a meal as a token of my appreciation for being a willing subject. But it was not to be. I hung around at the counter chatting lightly with fellow patrons of the bar, all the while wondering what could have happened to Nolan.
A few days later, I called North Central University to inquire about Nolan. I asked for the political science department. After being put on hold I was cut off. Then, trying again, I got the main office. A few detours later, a female voice answered in a sing-song tone, "Poli Sci Department?"
"May I speak to Lawrence Nolan?"
There was a pause. "I'm afraid, Dr. Nolan is no longer with us."
"I beg your pardon?"
"He was on sabbatical in Argentina over a year ago. He died there rather suddenly."
But, I wanted to say, he has been here. He could easily have driven back to North Central University, a distance of about a hundred miles. Tourists often came here from Wisconsin and drove back the same day.
"You must be mistaken," I said, still reluctant to give the details of Nolan's presence here. It could have been somebody else with the same name. Sometimes, two different people had the same name.
The voice at the other end seemed to relax a little and I sensed sympathy.
"You probably didn't hear of his being away and then the sad news. It took us a while to get the full details," she said, assuming that I might have been someone who knew him slightly at the professional level.
"How did he die?"
"Food poisoning, they said. It was unfortunate, really because he had just gotten married not long ago. We had heard that he was very happy and that he and his wife were coming to the States. May I ask where you are calling from?"
I told her my name and where I was.
"Portage? That's interesting because Dr. Nolan would often go there for fishing and rabbit-hunting.
"Did he?" I said, suddenly feeing cold and disoriented. How many, I wondered, were strangers among us, whom we not know, despite hours of conversation or some other form of human contact? I had read in the paper, not long ago, about a woman and her baby being trapped in a second floor apartment during a fire and how a man from down below urged her to throw her baby to him. She did as he said and then jumped herself. The baby and the woman were both safe, but when she turned around to thank the man he was gone. Who was he? More to the point -- what was he?
And why did Nolan choose me to tell his sad story to? Was he warning me against giving somebody else power over me? But no one gave somebody else dominion over one, at least, consciously, and then if one did, it was too late.
When I saw Willy again he asked about the wallet.
"I found him at the marina, which he had mentioned before. I figured he'd be there," I told him.
Willy turned around and went about his chores nonchalantly as I left the bar.
The following day I sold the portrait to the gallery. They called it "Contemplation."
R. Ambardar lives in Upper Michigan with her husband and two teenage kids. Until two years ago she taught freshmen engineering and business students at the university there. Now she writes fulltime, and she is currently working on a short contemporary novel. She says she likes the short story form as it imposes a certain discipline on the writer. On the other hand, you can develop as many stories as you like from the germ of an idea.