EDITOR’S NOTE BY MARIE-HELENE BERTINO
A man walks into a bar. Ouch!
In 2007, during a daylong reading session at One Story, I found Sam Allingham’s story “Bar Joke, Arizona” in the slush pile and knew it was a gem. In it, Allingham gives the employees of the well known bar joke, man-or-animal-or-construct walks into a bar, a day off. One by one, the man, the rabbi, the grasshopper, and many others collect at the bar to engage in a surprisingly moving drinking session.
I liked the story’s big, chancy premise immediately. It easily could have failed but doesn’t because Allingham smartly upends expectations at every turn. I liked the story’s descriptions — the “nullifying” sky, the bar breathing like a “giant set of smoker’s lungs.” I liked that the characters curse when they are grateful. Cursing is funny when done well. Since the story’s matter is literally comprised of the stuff of humor, it’s clever and telling that Allingham doesn’t go for easy jokes.
The past, present, and future walk into a bar.
It was tense.
A man once criticized Picasso for creating unrealistic art. Picasso said, “Show me some realistic art.” The man took out a photograph of his wife. Picasso said, “So your wife is two inches tall, two-dimensional, black and white with no arms or legs?”
What is so realistic about our very realistic realism?
“Bar Joke, Arizona” gets closer to the human condition than many stories that attempt to do the same while obeying the laws of physics. That’s double work, as Allingham is charged with not only inventing a world, but making it play on both the literal and figurative planes.
A priest, a rabbi, and a vicar walk into a pub.
The barman says, ‘Is this some kind of joke?’
Even in the environment of a deconstructed bar joke, Allingham doesn’t allow us to get comfortable. Toward its conclusion, the story upends itself one final time, on the occasion of a duck climbing to the top of a table and requesting attention. What happens next made me hold my breath the first time I read it, until I reached the piece’s perfect, final beat.
A grasshopper walks into a bar.
The bartender says, “Hey, we have a drink named after you.”
The grasshopper says, “You have a drink named Stan?!”
Not every story that swings for the fences succeeds, but every story I list among my favorites swings for the fences. I’ve read “Bar Joke, Arizona” countless times, and each time am newly moved and inspired. I’ve pressed it into the hands of so many people I no longer own a copy. Neither does One Story — the story has been sold out since it was published. Which is why I’m delighted to give this bar and its troubled inhabitants an address on the World Wide Web, so many, many more people can walk into it.
Author of 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas
Bar Joke, Arizona
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by Sam Allingham, recommended by Marie-Helene Bertino
A man walks into a bar. He walks over to the bartender and says, “Can I get a drink?”
The bartender looks up from the fan he‘s been tinkering with and says, “Sure. What would you like?”
“Well,” the man says. “The problem is, I don’t have any money.”
“I see,” the bartender says.
“But I do have…”
The man then breaks off, hesitates, and begins again.
“I have… oh… wait… hold on…”
The bartender shakes his head and starts washing some glasses.
“Look, I have — you know,” the man mumbles, gesturing in the air. “Oh, I used to remember this one. Gimme a second.”
Finally he gives up and stares at his hands.
The bartender finishes washing the glasses, throws the rag over his shoulder, and gives the man a hard look. It’s a stifling day, the bar has no air conditioning, and with the fan broken the heat’s beginning to bother him.
“You forgot the punchline, didn’t you?” the bartender asks.
The man nods sadly.
“It happens,” the bartender says. “You have good days and then you have bad days.”
“What do we do now?” the man asks. “Where do we go from here?”
The man looks he might cry, which makes the bartender feel a little queasy.
“All right,” the bartender says. “C’mon now. Buck up.” He checks the door. The barflies are all at home, sleeping through the heat. Nobody ever comes to the bar this early on a Saturday.
“Look,” he says. “Let’s start this whole thing over.”
“Really?” the man says, perking up.
“Sure. But on one condition. You get behind the bar.”
The man shakes his head.
“I don’t have any bartending experience,” he says. “I wouldn’t know the first thing about it.”
“It’s easy,” the bartender says. “I’ve been doing it for years. Your parts all logical.”
“I’m not too good with logic,” the man says.
“Do me a favor,” the bartender says. “It’d be nice for me to get out from behind here for a few minutes. It’d do me good.”
The man takes a deep breath and rubs his temples with the tips of his fingers. “All right,” he says. “I‘ll give it a try.”
The bartender smiles and wipes his hands on the rag. Without taking their eyes off of each other, the man and the bartender circle the bar and exchange places. All of a sudden, the broken fan rumbles and begins to whir.
“Go ahead,” the man says. “I think I’m ready.”
“Can I get a drink?” the bartender asks.
“Sure,” the man says. “What would you like?”
“Well,” the bartender says. “I have to tell you, I’m flat broke. I don’t have a red cent to my name. There‘s nothing but lint in my pockets.”
“In that case,” the man says, pulling a beer out of the cooler, “this one’s on the house.”
He slides the beer across the counter.
The bartender just stares at it. “Hey, look,” he growls, pointing his finger at the man’s chest. “What are you trying to pull? We had a real simple deal here. You’re the straight man. It’s all logical. A monkey could do it.”
“I know, I know,” the man says. “But let me tell you something. It‘s nice back here. Look at all these bottles of liquor, lined up by type. It’s really something.”
The bartender looks at the bottles, amber and light brown, white frosted glass.
“They‘re all right,” he admits.
Do yourself a favor,” the man says, putting his hands out, palms up. “Drink your beer. Relax. Take a breath. Didn’t you say yourself that you needed a break?”
The bartender considers this. “I’m tireder than I’ve been in my entire life,” he says. “It seems like it’s the same bit every time, over and over.”
“That’s because it is,” the man says.
The bartender doesn’t respond. He takes a sip of his beer.
After a minute, the door swings open, and a duck waddles into the bar.
“Hey,” the duck says, hopping onto a barstool. “Got any duck food?”
“Look,” the man says, “I’m new here, and I know this might seem strange, but how about we just cut the whole routine and I give you a drink. On the house. Because we’re all a little tired here today, and we’re not in the mood for gags.”
The duck turns his beady eyes toward the man, then the bartender, and then the man again. He flaps his wings, shakes his ass, and hunkers down on the barstool.
“Jesus Christ,” the duck says. “I sure could use one.”
“What are you having?” the man says, smiling.
“Give me a Wild Turkey, straight up,” the duck says. “For starters.”
“How’s the week coming, Duck?” the bartender asks.
“Just fucking dandy,” the duck says, chuckling. “Thanks for fucking asking.”
Before long, a man with a large hat walks through the door. He moseys up to the bar, takes off his hat, and sets it on the table.
“Let me guess,” the man says. “You’ve got a little guy inside that hat.”
The man with the hat blushes.
“Is it that obvious?” he asks.
“It’s just one of those things,” the man replies. “Does he want a drink?”
“Are you kidding me?” a muffled voice shouts from inside the hat. “I’d love one!”
Soon the place starts filling up with men: guys with speech impediments, guys with eyepatches, sailors with wooden legs talking to tax attorneys. The animals arrive, too. People keep tripping over a boa constrictor and cursing. In one corner a bear and a sperm whale are communicating through grunts and clicks.
“Don’t tell the management,” the bartender whispers to the man. “We haven’t made any money all day.”
“But look how happy everyone is,” the man says. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
“It won‘t change anything,” says the bartender. “Just you wait.”
As if to prove this point, a man bursts through the door and runs full-tilt towards the bar, his head hung low like a bull charging the cape. A priest, a minister, and a rabbi all grab onto his coat to restrain him, but even with their collective strength they can barely keep him from slamming his head into the wood.
“What are you people doing?” the bar-rusher yells. “Let a man do his goddamn job! Let a man DO HIS MOTHERFUCKING JOB ALREADY!” And since he can’t make physical contact with the bar itself, he starts to shout “Ouch! Ouch!” over and over again.
“Be still, my son,” the priest says, wiping his forehead with a damp rag. “Be still. You have seen the trials of life, but you will be forgiven in the life to come.”
“Have some bourbon,” says the minister, handing him a glass. “There’s no law against it, on heaven or earth.”
“If you ask me,” says the rabbi, “the boy needs therapy.”
The three holy men lean over the bar-rusher and whisper comforting words. The other customers begin to take notice and turn towards the scene. Some make the sign of the cross; others murmur prayers.
“I’m sorry,” the bar-rusher says, sipping his whiskey. “I’m so sorry. I’m a basket case, I can’t relax. My hair’s starting to fall out and I can’t sleep. My wife left me for a man who writes ad copy. How can anyone keep up these days?”
The whole bar nods in agreement.
“Let me ask your opinion,” the bar-rusher says to the three holy men. “I know God’s view on the meek and the lowly, but what about the middling kind of shit-kicker? What about the overgrown suburban lawn with the unpruned rosebushes, the ungrateful kids, and the low-paying 401k? I need to know: does God smile on mediocrity?”
“Of course,” says the priest.
“Maybe,” says the minister.
“No,” says the rabbi.
The bar-rusher lays his head in the priest’s lap and weeps.
“I feel for you,” says the man with the hat. His little man is punch drunk, passed out on the table and snoring. “My dad was a bricklayer who hung out at the Polish Society Hall. Now people talk to each other on computers, no one knows how to fix an engine, and I’ve got dyspepsia like you wouldn’t believe. I take pills upon pills and it never gets any better. It‘s a beat-up dog of a world.”
Night falls. It’s a perfect example of a Southwestern American sky, clear and nullifying all humanity. The stars are like pinpricks in a cloth that keeps everybody ignorant of what’s really going on. Everyone fumbles around by the light of a sickle-cell moon.
Under cover of darkness the conversations get lower and less animated. Stories emerge from the chatter. Eyes grow damp. The alcohol pulls secrets and failures out of everybody’s wobbly mouths.
“I remember I was lying in bed once,” a giant moth says, his diaphanous wings glowing in the light of the ceiling lamp, “with my wife. ‘You’re a one trick pony,’ she told me. ‘It’s always a cycle with you, one joke over and over again, a bad ride that never ends.’”
The moth has a small, buzzing voice, like someone over a bad long-distance connection saying words nobody wants to hear. It shakes a little from too much crème de menthe.
“All I could think of,” the moth says, “was her spinning slowly in a Ferris wheel in the middle of an empty county fair, stuck in a seat with a guy like me, who didn’t have much to say. That was the night she left me for a man who sells funny T-shirts over the internet. They can travel whenever they want, she tells me. They’re globetrotters now.”
The moth’s wings fall to his sides, and his wide gray feelers wave in the dim light. His drunken friends, two large fruit flies, are drinking sweet liquor through straws. They rub their legs together in a penitent fashion and buzz mournfully.
The clock edges towards closing time. Most of the customers have already fallen asleep in their beer. The sperm whale has beached himself against the long far wall, and three bears are sleeping in his shadow, wrapped in each other’s arms. The bar-rusher sleeps with his head on the priest’s shoulder, face pressed against the cool cloth of the holy man’s vestments. Half asleep himself, the priest strokes the bar-rusher’s soft, thinning hair. The minister and the rabbi sleep with their faces turned to the heavens.
By the time the duck hops onto an empty table in the middle of the bar, the only constant sound is the wheezy pull of the whole bar breathing, strained and rough, like a giant set of smoker’s lungs. He gives a couple of loud honks. Everyone pricks up their ears.
“Friends,” the mallard says, flapping his wings. “I’d like to tell you a story. It’s not a funny one, but it’s something I’ve been wanting to tell for a long time and I’ve never really known how to do it. So I thought I’d tell you all tonight, since you’re all now my friends and it’s been a pleasure knowing each and every one of you. You’ve really made a duck feel welcome. That’s a rare thing in this world.”
Little calls of joy and affirmation flare up around the room, like ineffectual sparks. The duck waits for them to die down before going on.
“When I was a younger duck,” he says, “I lived in a large city on the eastern side of this fair nation. It was a hell of a fucking town, let me tell you. There were lights on all twenty-four hours of the day and places you could crawl into at four o’clock in the morning where someone would buy you a drink and scratch your tailfeathers for you, if that was what you were in the mood for. Paradise on earth.
“And of course, I had a girl. A beautiful fox who lived in a second floor walkup, right over a club where they played jazz on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Now in those days, and even now, a relationship between a fox and a duck wasn’t very common, and there were only a few places we could go and not get looks, even threats. The club where she lived was one of them. We spent a lot of nights there before going up to her room. The Wednesday band was good; the Saturday band was better. They had a trumpet player who made big gorilla men weep tears for love.
“But you get tired of the same old thing, y’know? So one day my fox, she says to me, Let’s go to the symphony. I’ve never seen the symphony. I think a fox ought to have seen the symphony at least once in her life.
“Now, I‘m strictly a whiskey and beer sort of bird; not what anyone would call sophisticated. But I thought, hell, why not, the lady wants a bit of culture, I might as well accompany her on this particular social engagement. We got dressed up on a Friday night, and went off to the symphony.
“The hall was a big place with gold leaf all over. It was a real class joint, and I didn’t feel like we fit in, but we found our seats and waited for the show to begin. All those people in black ties had their instruments ready. Have any of you ever heard an orchestra tune up?”
Nobody makes a sound. The duck sighs and examines his wings.
“I didn’t think so. The orchestra,” he continues, “was all right. I don’t really remember what they played. I remember I enjoyed it at first, but as it went on I had a hard time staying awake. My fox didn’t much care for it either. She liked dressing up, she liked the pomp and circumstance, but the music left her cold.”
“So you could ask me why I remember. Why I’m bringing it up. A fair question. Because although the music wasn’t really all that thrilling, there was this one thing that stuck with me. After the musicians had tuned, after the conductor came out and there was a big round of applause for him, after the musicians had all settled into their seats — that was when the whole hall filled with a moment of absolute wonderful silence. Quiet like you wouldn’t believe. Bows raised, lips on mouthpieces, and of course my fox in the seat next to me, her heart hammering, like it always did whenever she was waiting for something she thought might be exciting. A whole room waiting, absolutely quiet.
“After the show we went back to her apartment. We were weirdly tired, and we went to bed without touching each other much. I listened to the traffic noise in the night like I always did when I was trying to go to sleep, but for the first time it didn’t seem soothing. It just made me wish for a kind of silence that wasn’t there.”
The duck gets quiet for a second. Outside some drunk is singing a tuneless song. It makes the duck wince. The drunk passes on, and the song dies away.
“There isn’t really a good end to the story,” the duck says, in a softer voice. “Suffice to say, the thing with the fox and me didn’t work out. I started wandering all over the city at night; it was spring and I was restless. I went to the symphony a few times by myself, but in that silence I was telling you about I felt so lonely I couldn’t even stand it. So I stopped going.
“I moved to Arizona try to get away from her. It’s quieter here. I stopped talking to people. I even made a pilgrimage out into the desert once, with a bunch of Buddhist mystics who wanted to live totally mute. They never said a word to each other the whole time we were out there. The whole vow of silence bit.
“But despite my best intentions, I could never do it. I would walk over to a cliff and sit and watch the sky, and I’d feel that itching in my throat. It started at the back, close to my spine, and worked its way upward. My beak twitched. I started muttering, mumbling. And then it would start. I would be sitting on a cliff and I’d start talking to the canyon.
“’How’s the weather?’ I’d ask. ‘How’s your parents? A man walks into a bar. Are you married? I love you. I miss you. Where were you born? I’m lonely. Do you have any duck food?’
“Just me talking to the canyon,” the duck says, his beak trembling. “And then I’d get up and go back to the Buddhists. They’d nod at me. I’m pretty sure they knew what I was doing, but they never let on.”
“Someday,” the duck says. “Someday I’m going to shut up, and it’ll be the happiest day of my life.”
The duck gets quiet. He shakes his tail feathers, lays down on the table, and closes his eyes.
Men are sleeping, slumped in chairs or spread across the dirty floor. Nobody speaks, except for the occasional whisper from someone’s lonesome dream. The man and the bartender consider one another. The clock reads 2:15. Outside people are stumbling across the road, falling into one another, stumbling all over the place.
“We ought to kick them out soon,” the bartender says. “You can’t let people stay all night.”
“Show some kindness,” the man says. He starts wiping the bar in long, slow strokes, shaking his head softly. “Show a little kindness for once in your life.”