The Woman Who Married A Bear – John Straley
There was a woman in peach-colored slacks standing in the middle of the street trying to watch for traffic and take a picture of the Russian Orthodox Cathedral at the same time. This involved a lot of head bobbing and hand waving from her husband on the sidewalk. A raven was the only one sitting on the wall now. A slight breeze off the harbor ruffled his feathers, and as he watched he made noises deep in his throat that sounded like stones dropping into a well.
The tourist lady fussed with her hair and looked nervously up and down the street, even though there were no cars in sight this Sunday morning. She snapped the shot, scurried to her husband, and the raven flew to the curb in front of a bar where he begun to eat what looked like the remnants of a pickled egg.
I walked up the steps of the home and in through the double doors. I had left the book by Wendell Berry on the bench outside. No one steals books, and poetry is particularly safe. It would be there when I came out.
The North Pole is a room for serious drinking. It is long and narrow with a long ceiling that holds the thick smoke above the patrons like a summer fog. There is a mirror and a lineup of bottles. There are no stuffed animal heads or pictures of ships foundering on reefs. There is one beer company sign that has shimmering lights behind the scene of a hunter getting ready to shoot a stag just cresting a hill. The only artifact of honor is in the center above the bottles: and eight-inch basketball trophy. The inscription is tarnished; none of the bartenders know who won it or when. The single leather booth near the bathroom door has been slashed across the bottom so that anyone sitting there sinks awkwardly into the stuffing. The bathrooms are in the rear, and the closer you get to them, the stronger the smell of the round deodorant bricks that are in the bottoms of the urinals. I woke up in one of the bathrooms once in broad daylight and saw some kind of tobacco-colored stalactites hanging from the ceiling. The North Pole doesn’t serve mineral water, and the bartenders don’t give out information about any of the patrons to outsiders unless under subpoena.
Seated next to the blond woman was a woman with raven black hair. She was wearing a blue North Pole Bar windbreaker. Her head rested on the bar and her arms were folded over her head. She held a lighted cigarette in one hand, a five-dollar bill wadded in the other. The bartender took a slice of lemon and doused it with bitters and then a pinch of salt. He placed it in front of her.
“Lucille? Eat this.”
She looked up at him in confusion as if he were standing at her door at four in the morning.Without a glimmer of recognition, she ate the lemon. “Fuck it, ” she said. She took a deep breath and sighted down her cigarette then, then stubbed it out.
The key to life in the North Pole was to avoid the sunlight and to survive until the night crowd came in. Once that happened anything was possible.
Over in the corner nearest to Lucille was the bar’s only icon. It was a small religious painting. One of the old owners of the bar had been Russian Orthodox and he had put a Russian icon in there but it caused such a stir that the bishop himself came down to see that it was taken out. The owner then found a picture in a library book and ordered a copy of it for the far end of the bar. It was embossed and then mounted behind unbreakable glass and bolted to the wall underneath the hot dog rotisserie. There were scratches on the glass but no writing. The bishop heard about the new image but understood it was a page torn from a book and as long as it wasn’t really an icon he couldn’t muster the energy to go down to the bar again. Besides, he had heard the painting was by an Italian.
It was a little reproduction of the Crucifixion by Anatello da Messina . I had once watched it for the better part of a day, and it was one of the better reasons to drink in this bar. Grünewald, had painted the torture of the Crucifixion and the ecstasy of the Resurrection in two separate paintings, but Messina’s Christ was caught in the middle: tired, with his head to one side, beautiful and expectant . . . but sad nonetheless. The hills beyond Golgotha were sprinkled with the sizzling green light of the olive trees and the sky was the milky blue of an ascending morning. Why would anyone want to leave such an earth?
The ceiling of the bar was painted black yet the smoke still seem to stain it. The cushions on the stools were red leather and the electric beer sign illuminated the patron’s skin like a lamp designed to kill bugs. Lucille sat with her head slumped down in front of the Messina, with the five-dollar bill still waded up in her hand. And she still had the hiccups.
“Fuck it . . . fuck it.”