The prompt I have been doing for the past three days involves taking the first and last line of a favorite book and using the last line as the first line of my writing and using the first line of the book as the last line in my piece. Links to the results of the first two chapters, if you haven’t read them, you can find below. I’m going to continue so long as people keep providing me the first and last lines. More info about that is at the end of my Chapter 2. So, here goes Chapter 3:
Nothing that is not there and nothing that is. That is what most people think about. There were a few of such thinkers scattered atop the stools along the long bar that ran front to back on the left side of the room. The right side was taken up by three pool tables and a series of plastic beer signs where water bubbled up from deep springs and pristine rivers and, supposedly, directly into amber bottles with labels such as Pabst and Old Milwaukee.
This was the sum total of nature that Ninny had thought to infuse within her establishment. No fern bar this. A bit of black mold, perhaps. And as noted before, the place seemed equally devoid of human nature–the drinkers here like robots with glazed eyes seemingly staring at the mirror behind the bar or the bottles in front of the mirror, or perhaps their own reflections reflected behind the bottles. Little conversation seemed to be going on. There was no music. Even the bartender, an ancient man with unintentional chin whiskers and a small protuberant belly over a tight-cinched bolo belt and baggy Levis, seemed to be muffled–negotiating the world behind the bar without clinks of glasses, or pops of bottle corks or whooshes of the draft beer dispenser. It was as though I’d entered a “Quiet” zone.
Ninny being gender non-specific, now that I thought of it, I wondered if this quiet gentleman was, in fact, Ninny. I established myself on a bar stool, ordered a dirty Martini, then took myself and my over-sized bag off to the ladies room where I struggled out of my shooting range jeans and into the diaphanous swirly skirt of the day. Under my T-shirt was a spaghetti-strap little top that color-coordinated with the skirt. Let the games begin.
Unsurprisingly, no one seemed to notice my transformation as I sashayed back into the room I had purposefully and sedately left only moments before, but as though I had caused the change in the room, the jukebox immediately sprang to life, causing the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign to blink off and on, seemingly in cadence with the song. It was familiar, but I’ve never been good at remembering the names of other people’s songs…nor my own, as a matter of fact. It was something about somebody’s baby being somebody else’s baby now, but that doesn’t narrow down the field much.
I parked my recently-freed shanks on the bar stool, allowing my skirt to hike up as it was wont to do. The controlling part of my life was over for a few hours. I looked around the room, seeing what new adventure was about to present itself, and my eyes fell immediately on a wizened little woman sitting at the end of the bar. She was not, understand, old. Simply wizened, with sharp little features: nose, chin, cheekbones. Even her eyes made sharp little glances around the room, as though she was taking everything in. Me, too, although I could never catch her eyes on me.
After every sip of what looked like a Rum and Coke, her sharp little tongue darted out of her mouth to extract every drop from her lips, as though she was unable to control this “Yum yum” action–every sip duly acknowledged and appreciated. She had the fiery intelligent demeanor of a weasel or a mink. Darting, secretive and swift. I observed this all with my own sneaky eyes as they executed furtive reconnaissance missions in her direction while seeming to be merely surveying the room. In fact, I couldn’t have told you a thing about any of its other inhabitants. My long glances in various directions were merely subterfuge. It was little weasel lady that was drawing my full attention.
She was tidy and trim, in a polyester sea foam green pant suit with a flowered polyester blouse–the collar turned neatly over the collar of the jacket. On her wrist was a dainty bracelet of fake pearls and tiny rhinestones. Her shoes were thick-heeled and square-toed-like shoes a schoolteacher might wear. Her hair, in tight little ringlets, looked as though she’d just ducked out of the beauty parlor for a quick drink before her comb-out. She could have looked severe, given her sharp features and tailored clothing, but she was saved by a sweet rosebud mouth, the corners of which curled up as she drew her lips into a tight little compressed grin.
There was a plate of peanuts on the bar beside her, and I picked up my drink and moved over to the bar stool next to her, as though in pursuit of them.
“Hungry,” I half-chortled as I took a handful and stuffed most of them into my mouth. I half-expected her not to answer, but saw her raise a finger at the barman and say in a sweet little-girl voice moderated by a smoker’s huskiness : “Nestor, give this lady some fresh peanuts, please.” Then she looked at me quizzically, causing two little furrows to pop up over her tiny straight ski-slope nose. “You want something else to eat? We have frozen pizzas that are pretty good. Or sub sandwiches we can also heat up for you. Chips. Beef jerky.”
“Pizza sounds good. Are you Ninny Ricketts?”
She was. We polished off one little pizza and then another. I switched to Rum and Cokes, which went much better with pepperoni and tomato sauce and cheese than gin did. We talked for three hours, and by the end of that conversation, I almost understood the quote hanging on the wall behind the bar between the bottom shelf of liquor bottles and the top of the draft beer dispenser.
“If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the world. ”
“What does that mean, Ninny? ” I’d asked her when I first noticed it. We were only fifteen minutes into our initial conversation at that time.
“If yer just lookin’ at it, you’ll never know,” she shot back at me with those furrows over her nose again. But then she smiled. “I reckon soon enough you’ll be seein’ through it like everbuddy else at the bar.” Then she chuckled, and for the next three hours we talked about football (her interest, not mine), politics, recipes for shortbread, the freeing qualities of polyester, the clitoral orgasm, Parcheesi, the Nebraska watershed, stepmothers, the immorality of Christian missionaries in Africa, lawn fertilizer, Walt Whitman, Edith Sitwell, Bob Dylan, Patty Duke, Cheetos, Philodendrons and Richard Nixon’s incredible gall.
I’d left my house at 11 a.m. for my supposed trip to the firing range. By the time I thought to look at my watch again, it was nearly four. If I stopped at the grocery store on my way home and made a few quick and non-selective runs down a few aisles, I might be able to fill up enough bags to convince Peter I’d had a long leisurely shopping session after my shoot. I paid my bill, told Ninny I’d be back soon because I’d enjoyed talking to her, and walked calmly for door, breaking into a sprint only after I reached the parking lot.
In the car, I wriggled into my Levis, extracted myself from the skirt by pulling it over my head, pulled my T-shirt from my purse and pushed one arm through the armhole as I turned on the key, the other as I let up the hand brake. As I drove, I tried to will myself to slip back into home mode. But as my body got closer to home, my mind seemed to slip further away from it. And although I was no closer to solving its puzzle than I’d been four hours ago, my final thought as I drove into my driveway was one I’d be puzzling over for a good many months to come, “If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the world. ”
The Prompt: The book suggested to furnish the beginning and ending lines of this chapter is “The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero” by Robert Kaplan. First line: If you look at zero you see nothing; but look through it and you will see the world. Last line (which quotes Wallace Stevens): Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is. My thanks to Robert Okaji for furnishing a beginning and end for me to fill in today. Please keep those prompts coming in. Without them, this story will abruptly end. Judy