Lesser Greek Gods
Duel on Whitehall Street
The tavern is old, weather beaten, well and ill used by its customers, the chandeliers more wire than glass, the tables and chairs wobbly, the mirror centered behind the bar has fine cracks horizontally and vertically. The light enters through windows that were cleaned once, back in the 70s, but no around now remembers that. It sits no more than three blocks up from the ferry, positioning that ought to draw a fair number of customers on their daily commute to and from the island but it doesn’t. Just two blocks away, the Fraunces Tavern with its several hundred year history continues to thrive but that monument just renders this tavern shabby by comparison. This place hangs on and takes its small comfort in its ability to do just that.
At one end of the bar sit two men, one black and one swarthy Mediterranean, engrossed in their conversation, paying no attention to Fred, the oldest active bartender in the Apple, and little attention to the only other occupants, a man and a woman seated on the street side of the bar, separated at the very least by two bar stools.
“Why is it, again, that you’re black?” the swarthy guy asks.
“Why is it that you’re not?” the black guy responds. And then, he smirks as he adds: “Diversity is good for the Mount, you know.”
“Yeah, I know but does anyone else even notice?”
“You mean their highnesses? Hera and Hades, no! They’re too wrapped up in the fact that no one believes in them anymore.”
“Be nice! You’re talking about my children.” The grin accompanying the remark belies any seriousness in the comment. The black guy looks at his friend for a moment, studying the face while considering the last remark. Finally, he says: “I wish you’d make up your mind. They’re either your children or you’re their child. You’re the only one of all the gods who tries to have it both ways.”
Eros laughs his agreement: “Works for me,” he says.
“Confuses the Hel out of everyone else.”
Eros ignores the comment to return to his original question. “C’mon, Sten, explain to me again why you’re black this year.”
The man called Sten takes a moment to sip his boilermaker, watching the whiskey swirl from the shot glass seated at the bottom of his beer glass. “Mostly, I guess, it’s tryin’ to make a name for myself. Tired of bein’ a third tier god. Like to work up tuh second tier and then get me a seat on the Mount. You couldn’t “preciate the problem; you been first tier since the beginning.”
Eros takes a sip of his boilermaker before he says: “You’re taking up a dialect as well?”
Stenochoros grins back at the elder god: “Goes with the uniform.”
“And you think being a black Greek god is going to merit a promotion to the top of the Mount?”
“Worth a try, ain’t it?”
Eros shakes his head in disbelief, considers his drink, and then looks up at the bartender. “Hey, Fred, two more of these and a couple of eggs.” Fred doesn’t bother to respond. With careful steps on the wooden grating that sits on the floor behind the bar, he retrieves a bottle of Philadelphia from the shelf next to the mirror and carries it to taps. With agonizing attention to detail, he fills two shot glasses with the blended whiskey and two beer glasses with Rheingold draft. Very carefully so as to spill the minimum amount of whiskey possible – his hands aren’t as steady as they once were -, he lowers the shot glasses into the beer glasses. He remains good enough at his craft to seat the whiskey without diffusing more than a trace into the beer. He delivers the finished product to the men who had watched performance with genuine appreciation for a skilled artisan.
Fred goes back down the bar to fetch a couple plates. From a gallon jar sitting on the bar by the taps, he extracts two pickled eggs placing one on each plate and delivers this product to his customers.
“On the tab?” Fred asks.
“Works for me,” Eros answers. Shoving his empty forward for Fred to remove, he reaches for the egg before him. Taking a bite that consumes half the egg, he chews with relish and then swallows. “Why didn’t we ever invent these? How could we be civilized and not know about pickled eggs?”
Sten finishes his drink so that he can place the glass at Fred’s disposal. “We were into wine, remember?”
“Well, there’s a lot to be said for wine; that’s certain. But pickled eggs and boilermakers, this is almost fit to replace nectar and ambrosia.” Finishing off his egg, Eros returns to the conversation.
“It’s doomed to failure, you know.”
“Your plan to make it to the top of the Mount. Being at the top of the mount is all about power and you just don’t come equipped with enough to challenge the status quo.”
Sten frowns grunts his displeasure with the comment, takes a sip from his new drink.
“I got as much power as any o’ you bastard children,” he says, his glare daring Eros to refute the statement.
“Now, now, Sten; don’t get all tight in the rectum. Think about it a bit; that’s all I’m asking you. How are you going to compete with Mars or Aphrodite – he pronounces the name A-PHRO-di-te – or any of the others?”
“I am a god of natural forces just like dem fools and you know it.”
“Not just like them, Sten; not quite just like them.”
“What? You want some kind of proof?” Disbelief wars with consternation on Sten’s face. He looks around the tavern for inspiration and finds only the unmatched couple sitting at the far end of the bar. While he fumes at the injustice of the universe, his gaze travels past the two humans without registering their presence. When his mind finally grasps what he had just asked, his gaze returns to the man and woman. The question transforms itself into an idea.
“You think you’re stronger than me, Eros? Do you? Do you think you got more power than I got?”
Eros winces but it turnes out that he wasn’t wincing at the question: “Would you drop the dialect, Sten; it’s driving me insane.”
“Forget that; get to my question.”
Eros considers his friend for a moment. “Must be the boilermakers, Sten. I’d have never guessed you could see yourself in my league.”
Furious now, Sten spits the challenge: “You wanna take me on, Mr. So-Much-Better-Den-Me? Okay, let’s get it on, right here, right now.”
“You want to brawl with me?” Eros’ incredulity is thick enough to stop any lesser god in his tracks but Stenochoros is no lesser god. He plows right through.
Let’s do it, baby. Right here; right now.”
Eros shrugs his unwilling acceptance, shifting his weight to stand up from the bar stool, beginning to remove his sport coat. Stenocoros grabs his arm. “What’re you doin’, dude? That ain’t no way to prove who’s got the power. Hel no! You do your thing: I’ll do mine; we see who comes out on top.”
Confusion wraps Eros as he adjusts the sport coat back on his frame and re-seats himself on the bar stool. “I wish you’d speak properly, Sten. I have no idea what you’re proposing.”
“Take a gander down this bar. What d’ya see, huh? A proper test lab for certain. You get your pick, man or woman. You do your thing; I do mine. If they succumb to your power, you win: I shut up and never bring it up again. But, I win, you back my bid to get on top o’ de Mount.”
“I select one of them, the man or the woman, infest that one with lust for the other. If that one manages to lure the other into a commitment to leave this place intending assignation, then I win. If my candidate cannot tempt your candidate out the door, you win. Is that what you’re proposing?
“That’s it in the proverbial nut shell, baby. You up to it?”
“Oh, yes, I’m – as you say – up to it. It will be a pleasure to put this conversation to rest, finally, after five thousand years.”
“Drink up, then, Eros. I’ll buy the next round and then we’ll get to it.”
The friends drain their glasses. When Fred replaces them with refills, Sten turnedto Eros: “Who you want, bro?”
“I select the woman.”
“Good, good. I was hopin’ you’d go that way. Do your thing, then, and let’s get this settled.”
Eros eyes his avatar, blinks twice, twitches his nose, and nods his head.
“That it? You done?”
“No, I was just clearing the haze from my perceptions.”
Sten watches closely but does not see another move on Eros’ part. He is surprised when his friend announces he is done. Quickly, Sten enters the mind of his avatar and does his thing.
Eros begins to describe what is happening. “She’s thinking to herself that she has been sitting here for thirty minutes, sipping white wine, waiting on his ass to show up. Once again, she decides, she is the fool. He isn’t coming and she knows it. Six months they’ve been doing this dance: he shows when it’s convenient; he doesn’t when it isn’t. She is nothing but his fall back position and tonight he doesn’t need her.
On her own, without my assistance, she decides that this crap is going to cease. Now. Tonight. He doesn’t know it but she doesn’t need him….well, she doesn’t have to need him. She can need someone else.
Now she’s got to convince herself . Her thoughts run: yeah, sure! Thirty six, starting to sag, love handles, grey sneaking in where she doesn’t catch it. A couple of lines. Not wrinkles, mind you, just lines.
“It’s not as if she doesn’t have admirers. There’s that guy in the elevator who keeps looking down her blouse. There’s the guy at the news stand who whistles…well, he whistles at anything in skirts. There’s the guy in the grocery store pushing his cart around looking for…someone like her.
And now my prod begins to take effect. She thinks: Hell, there’s this guy at the bar. He’s taken a couple quick glances. Here, she’ll shove her left hand out to order the next glass of wine so he can see. See? No rings! Single. Unattached. Available.
Then, startled, she thinks: This guy? I’m thinking about this guy. Middle forties if he’s a day under 50. Nice shiny spot where he used to wear a ring to match the nice shiny spot on the back of his head. Horn-rimmed glasses, no less. A frigging geek! Omigod, she groans to herself, I am NOT that desperate!”
Sten smiles at the description. As soon as he can, he breaks into to let Eros know how his boy is doing. My guy’s a perfect candidate for your girl. He was sittin’ there feelin’ sorry for hisself, like: Three months, two weeks, six days since we buried her and I’m sitting in a bar thinking about drinking myself into oblivion except how the hell would I get home. Get my butt arrested is what I’d do; drunk and disorderly. Yeah, right. The suits would love that. Finally have justification to can my ass.
The flat is lonely. Big double bed, queen size, fills up the room so there’s barely room to walk around it. We never did; just climbed over each other. Damned big bed and just me in it.
Picking up women is supposed to be easy these days. All the young studs in the ops center talking of conquests, new one every night. Shit, I didn’t have a conquest before Marie. Ain’t likely to make one now that she’s gone. Over 40, over the hill. Nearing 50, nearing celibacy-for-life. Might as well enter a monastery.
Look at this one. Nice. Sandy brown hair well kept. Makeup looks good, not too much, not too little. Just like Marie.
Except she isn’t Marie.
Nice body. Not so damned skinny and not so muscular. Comfortable, you know? She looks comfortable. Oh, man, if she heard that she’d kill me.
She’s waiting for someone, anyway. No point talking to her. And I’m way too old for her. Have another beer and call it quits. Go home. Watch TV. Date my hand if I have to. Another night I can get through.”
“And now, it begins,” Eros says over his boilermaker, a slight smile playing on his lips.
“Nope, sorry! Now it ends before it begins,” Stenochoros replies.
“Watch and see, little black god; watch and see. She’s working herself up to it thinking: Not desperate, no. But not a freaking nun either. It’s been a while and I’m ready. There’s the two at the end of the bar but I’m not ready to take on two at a time and I don’t feel like cutting one out of the herd. Well, cutting one from his bosom buddy. Are they? Don’t care; not interested.
That leaves Mr. Geek here. Nice touch, that grey at the temples. Going to need a haircut in a few days but not tonight. I don’t think he’s too flabby; hard to tell under that sweater. Only a geek wears a sweater like that to a bar even if there is a chill in the air. Wear a jacket, man; have some style.
When he takes those glasses off, the profile’s not all that bad.
And this wine’s getting to me “cause I’m beginning to feel it. I want some and this is the only source so he’s going to have to do. What’s the best way to get this started?”
“Never claimed you asn’t good, Eros. Never did say that. Just said I might be jest as good. My guy, he ain’t blind. He can feel something building to his left and he’s interested. He’s thinking: She’s gonna talk to me: I know she is. And I’m gonna talk to her. All she’s got to do is open things up. “
“And here she comes,” Eros gloats.
Down the bar, the woman rustles around in her purse, pulls a pack of cigarettes out, extracts one, and then spends more time rustling in purse. Shrugging her shoulders as if it must be a lost cause, she gets off her stool, stretches out the kinks, and moves one stool to her right, holding the cigarette between index and middle fingers, hand poised just below her face. “Do you have a light?” she asks.
The guy fumbles in his right pocket, his hand reappearing with a lighter, a grin of triumph spreads across his face as he turns to provide the requested service.
“Steady, steady, here it comes,” Sten laughs.
The guy belches, loud and ugly.
That was cruel,” Eros laughs. You should hear her thoughts: He belched?! He belched! That is gross. Horny or not, that is too much. Get this freakin’ cigarette lit and I’m back to my own place. That sucks!”
“And he’s not much better. His thoughts run: Where the fuck did that come from? I don’t belch in anyone’s face. Much less a woman I’m trying to come onto to. What the hell happened?”
Aloud, his hands now shaking so badly that he almost cannot light her cigarette, the guy apologizes. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know where that came from. One minute I’m just a normal guy going to light a normal cigarette and all of a sudden, boom! I belch. I don’t do that, lady. Honest to god, I don’t do that.”
At the end of the bar, Stenochoros looks at Eros as if to say the ball’s in his court. Eros is ready. “Takes more than a belch to shut down this engine,” he says. “She’s taking that apology well and a little nudge gets her back on track. She starts thinking: Well, he apologized. Never had a guy belch in my face before and can’t say that I ever want to again. But his apology seemed sincere and the panic in his eyes is kind of cute. Guess I’ll forgive him. Those are eyes are intriguing. Intelligence there but a whole lot more. Hurt, compassion, decency. A lot to be admired.”
Aloud, the woman says: “That’s okay. Accidents happen; I understand. Thanks for the light.” She shifts the cigarette to her left so that she can extend her right. “My name’s Marge.”
“Yeah, he’s put it out of his mind as well.” Sten tells Eros. “Her forgiveness makes him believe he hasn’t blown his chances of getting somewhere. Her hands feels strong and fine to him and he likes the smile she give him. Yeah, I’d say he’s back in her spell.”
The guy tells Marge his name is Warren, that he appreciates her decency, and asks if she’d like to join him. Marge takes the stool next to him, smiling at Warren as she does so. Warren returns the smile.
“Can I buy you a drink?” he asks and she agrees to a another glass of Chardonnay. Warren opts for another draught. As Fred begins to fill the order, Warren turns to Marge: “I’ve never seen you here before,” he says. She agrees that this is not one of her usual haunts.
Eros fills Stenochoros in on what’s going on: “She’s thinking if this is a usual haunt for him, then he lives somewhere close. That’s handy.”
“Ah, the woman has intentions, doesn’t she?” Steno says. “Time for act two.”
From deep within Warren’s intestines, a gurgling arises, un-mistakable and not easily ignored by either of the couple. They laugh.
“Does that happen often?” Marge grins but Warren can see the concern, hear the distaste in the question.
“Never; it never happens to me,” he protests.
“But it did; just like that belch,” she says. “Are you having problems? Do you feel okay?”
“I’m fine. You must believe me that I don’t ordinarily have these problems.”
“Well, you are getting older…”
“Not that old.”
“That was a good one, Steno,” Eros is laughing. “You almost won the game right there. But another little nudge from me has her thinking well, there’s no reason not to believe him. He looks totally honest and trustworthy. Not like what’s-his-name who I no longer care about. He’s got a good voice, warm, comforting, when it isn’t panicked. No reason to cut this off yet.”
Aloud she tells Warren that she believes him.
“My boy’s panic hasn’t completely subsided. He is furious with himself that such things should be happening to him right when things were looking so good.”
“The god of bodily functions is a real bastard, isn’t he?” Eros lifts his glass in toast to said god as he makes his remark.
“Bodily functions are a force of nature just like the lust you manipulate. If you can control people through their instinct for lust: I can control them through natural body events. People have no control over lust any more than they have over belching or stomach noises.”
The couple’s small talk goes through the standards, what do you do, where do you work, what brings you here, the latter question earning the little white lies customary for such occasions. The progression is so normal and so predictable that they are almost to the “can I take you home?” moment when Steno unleashes act three.
Gas fills Warren’s intestinal tract, quickly, painfully, his body near doubling from the cramp. When he can talk, he excuses himself from the bar, heading for the toilet, not quite escaping before some of the pressure releases itself in a particularly awful aroma. Warren walks away so quickly that he does not see Marge dive into her purse for handkerchief to cover her nose.
Eros isn’t at a loss for action of his own. He helps Marge to concentrate on the retreating form, noticing the nice butt, the reasonably decent shape, the health of the step. To Sten, he reports the reaction. “She’s noticed his figure, a fine figure of a man his age, he is. She’s thinking: Looks good on the outside. Damned glad I don’t have to deal with his inside. That is the most putrid odor I’ve encountered since the last time was where there was a paper mill operating. Houma, wasn’t? But, he could be good if we can just get his body to concentrate on mine instead of all these other distraction it is manufacturing.”
When Warren returns, the gas having departed his body in the usual fashion, he is once again the soul of embarrassment. Marge is just putting her handkerchief away; Warren hopes she was just blowing her nose, something nice and normal like that. Just as he is about to reclaim his seat, he is hit with another pain, this time his bladder. Without explanation, he pivots 180 degrees and makes another dash for the toilet.
“That is almost more than I can counter,” Eros admits. “She is fading fast but I think I can sustain another attempt.”
“You know what comes next, don’t you? Do you really want to have to find another bar this evening? Old Fred there is competent wit’ de boilermakers and de eggs. Not another place for miles this quiet. You want to go through with this?”
Eros thinks about it for a moment, runs a quick scan through Marge’s conscious, the same Marge who is gathering her things for a strategic withdrawal, half off the barstool. He decides to lose gracefully.
“Okay, there are some things lust cannot overcome,” he concedes.
“And I am one of them,” Stenchoros gloats. “Next round is yours and, soon, on to the Mount.”
Warren emerges from the toilet to discover Marge has had enough of his antics and departed and that there is a new guy at the end of the bar. He looks like someone Warren thinks he’s seen before but the guy who had been sitting there had been black, he remembers, and this guy was sort of a swarthy Mediterranean type.