This is the eleventh chapter of my month-long work of fiction, NOV.
He’s no closer to home. Not his home, anyway. Maybe hers. Who knows. We’ll see.
He’s met women in many places, but a men’s washroom is a first for him. A men’s washroom where she was mopping up someone else’s emesis. And now she’s here in this other bar that looks like a famous painting. And it’s he-still-doesn’t-know-but-it’s-been-dark-a-while o’clock.
He’s standing at another urinal now. Pleasantries have done well so far. Why is she here and not at ART, where she works? Well, she said, why relax at your workplace? The guy behind the counter wearing the paper sailor hat cocked an eyebrow and she cocked one right back at him and he made no comment. They talked about weather and art and that strange game that was on the TV at the other place, which is apparently called Emotions and may or may not be performance art. He quickly put back his first coffee mug of high-test stout, ordered by Janet for him as he rounded the corner of the counter, and once he is done giving his offering to this porcelain altar he will have another. Or a something.
He looks at the wall above the urinal. Oddly, it is devoid of ads. Which is a pity, as that might have given him some clue of where in hell he even is. Instead there is just an air freshener or one of those kinds of device, and he looks and he sees the word SER—S.
He sure could use some ad—. No, no ad, ad—! He’s sticking again. He searches the cre—s of his mind and of the wall for some prompt. Oh, hell, never mind. He washes his hands and returns to the counter, where Janet is waiting, looking sturdy, fresh, and well-balanced. She doesn’t look too much over half his age – is he anything more than amusement for her? What kinds of fun does she count among her —s?
“So,” he says, picking up a nearby menu, “what should I have next?”
“Are you ready for a martini?”
“Ah, yes. The drink that I like the most.”
“One of my favourite bad habits,” she says. Bad habits. Vices. Thank you!
He thinks of a song by the name “Bad Habits” from the early 1980s. “All these things, they lower my resistance…” He points at the menu. “What’s this? i?”
“Do you know what i is? Mathematically?”
“The square root of negative one. An imaginary number.”
“They bring you an empty glass. Heh heh heh heh heh” she’s chuckling lightly as though she was the one who made up the name.
“And you pay for it?” He’s looking at the menu. It’s priced like the others.
“If there are two of you, and you each order one, the glasses are full, but each person has to pay for the other’s, and each drinks the other’s. So you’re at negative one. And you see i to i. Heh ha ha ha heh heh.”
“But i to i would mean you end up with less than you started with.”
“As is so often the case. You spend some time with someone, and in the end you’re left with a hole shaped like them.”
His breath catches slightly and he looks at her at an angle, scanning. Who is this?
Anyway, it seems a bit intimate to order two i’s. “What about the other ones? What’s the difference between a Derivative and an Integral?”
“Another matched pair. A Derivative is two empty glasses – curved, not the conical ones. An Integral is the martini mix that fills them.”
“Why all this math in a bar themed on a painting?”
“Some people are strange.”
“I’ve met a few unusual people.”
“Yes, you come with bona fides. If one takes an interest in you, you are interesting.”
One? One. Not just any one, and not just any. One. But he’s minus one now – he’s squared that off. It has disintegrated. It threw him a curve, or he threw it one.
“Who… is one?”
Janet shrugs. “An accountant. A bookkeeper.”
“I’m a book keeper. I keep a lot of books.”
“Yes. I’m sure you do. They are undoubtedly among your preferred bad habits.”
“Speaking of which. What should I drink?”
“Have an Absolute Value. On me.” She says it half to the barman.
“You don’t have to –” he starts. But the barman is already inverting a bottle of ice-cold Swedish vodka over a martini glass. An ounce, two, three. He does not appear to add anything to it.
“One Absolut, on the house.” The barman pushes it across the counter.
Janet gives a look of exasperation to the barman. Then she turns to our man, shrugs, laughs, rolls her eyes a bit. “I own the place.”
“Then… why were you cleaning up across the street at ART?”
“I own that too.”
“Oh, I thought it belonged to Art. The bartender.”
“He’s the star. I’m not a front person.”
“So.” He raises his glass in a light toast gesture. “You’re a purveyor of vices.”
“And a cleaner-up after them too.”
“Are you having another?”
“Sooner or later.”
“It’s not such a bad habit for you?”
“I have quite a few bad habits,” she says. “Left to my own devices, I choose more vices. And services.”
He sips, looks closely at the glass rim. “So you know this place… this area… pretty well.”
“You’re about to ask me where we are,” she says, “and you’re hoping to figure out how you can get home.”
He drinks about half his vodka in one gulp and sets the glass on the counter punctuationally. “How is it that everyone seems to know what’s going on but me?”
“Not everyone,” she says. “But you were with one. You came from the forest, right?”
He leans forward and grabs her left hand with his right. A pushy gambit but let’s see. There’s clearly more in play, more to play for, than he can see. In a quiet voice, almost hoarse, he says “Tell me what’s going on.”
She leans forward, sets her right hand on his, says in a quiet, even voice, “Not here. Finish that and let’s go.”
She cocks her head to the left and raises an eyebrow. Speaks quietly in his ear. “You don’t even know where you are.”
“I like to have some kind of grip on what’s happening to me.”
She squeezes his hand with both of hers and lets go. “Come outside. Follow me. More shall be revealed.” She stands. “But finish your drink first.”
He quickly swallows it. Three ounces of vodka, down the hatch in one minute. It will catch up soon. Might as well start walking. He stands up and she precedes him out the door.