for Tom Disch
I never told you about Dirty Dan.
This is crazy, check this out.
Wine? Okay, sure.
I can’t remember what the night was like.
It was, phssh, twenty- . . . seven? years ago,
before I even knew you. I was home,
from college maybe, hanging out with friends?
Christmas break, it must have been. And cold.
Too bad you never saw him. Too late now,
not just because there’s no way Dirty Dan
is still alive (he was ancient, even then),
but more because you are not, so prematurely . . .
So: Dan. I only saw him once. Just once.
I guess that’s part of it. It snowed that night.
(Let’s pretend that we’re both sitting around
in your living room, just telling stories.)
Now, it’s my turn, right? So—Dirty Dan.
I swear to god this guy was unbelievable:
this wiry geezer, bug eyed, in a toque,
white short-sleeve chef shirt and a stubble beard.
But wait, hold on, back up. So, this is Dan:
a short-order cook with ice blue, staring eyes . . .
I need to tell you a bit about before.
At any rate, it’s late one night, and I’m
home from school on break. I’m seeing friends
and drunk and underage and talking “art”
with Julie and her boyfriend Mitch, who’s just
like a miniature professor with bad skin.
He’s smart and tweedy and totally insane,
and also so completely full of shit,
which I like. And mostly he likes books,
and getting stoned and talking late. Talk, talk.
And then, long-suffering Julie, small and preppy,
and really very cute, I think sometimes.
One minute, Mitch is spouting Joyce—about
how all he actually wanted was to write
a really good read crammed with lots of jokes
for all his friends to savor, to make them laugh.
Next: the neon blur and flat pink light
of a diner by the park.
I remember this:
the snow and cold and Mitch rubbing his hands
together, as he says, “Let’s go see Dan,”
then we’re in a booth.
The place is packed.
It’s 3 a.m., and there must be a dozen
booths like ours. The counter’s jammed with kids
who’ve come from Luna, dancing, high and freeze-framed
in strobe flashes and ethereal black light.
And now they’re beat and hungry, after-hours,
giving up their orders to these guys,
also kids, who write down all the coffee
and toast and juice and ham and bacon sides,
the eggs—fried, scrambled, over easy, up—
and call them out across the room to Dan.
Our voices mingle in the greasy air,
talking bullshit, screaming with delight,
goofing, over which the waiters’ voices
fly like homing birds,
while, at the grill,
Dan shuttles like a Chinese acrobat,
balancing every order in his mind
like so many plates spun on wooden dowels,
never dropping one, and grunting out
he’d got the order, pick up twenty-one.
And we were there to watch. And snarl-haired Mitch,
who, I just remembered, lost a tooth,
or, no, he had a denture he’d remove
that left this gaping hole each time he’d laugh.
We laughed all night that night.
That’s why we got
together in the first place, why we drank
and smoked and talked of books. That’s why we went
to see Dan in his kitchen, to be amazed,
the way that the whole diner was amazed,
the way the kids who took the orders were amazed.
Dirty Dan was this incredible
freaking genius. Brilliant. You think it’s easy?
Try it. What he did was just not something
anyone can do; he knew it, too.
You could tell. How he would yell in a rage
when two of the kid waiters talked at once,
screwing up his groove—and they’d apologize,
since the last thing they wanted to do was break
his perfect streak that ran till 5 a.m.
It was like riding down the trough of a wave
that started somewhere out in the Pacific.
God, how we roared. That’s all we really wanted
was to laugh.
And you were like that, too, I guess.
That’s the way it always went, wasn’t it?
Open the wine, talk books, reel off new jokes
that always had some place inside the flow
of a larger conversation for the night,
and a place, too, in breaking the tick, tick,
of dingy sink, cold coffee, quiet phone,
afternoon nap, and too much television,
which haunted you in daylight till the night
came back and, ranting, after-hours, we’d people
the vastness with our stories and we’d laugh.
Now you’re dead, I wonder more and more
whom I should tell them to, stories like this,
running through them in my head mostly.
Julie and Mitch? Hmmf. I can’t really say
what happened to them. Did they ever marry?
I doubt it.
Julie must have had more sense than that.
Don’t get me wrong; Mitch was my friend, too.
(He was the one who called him Dirty Dan,
cackling and growling with his gap-tooth grin.)
We were a lot alike.
Now I don’t know where they are. Alive?
Too long ago to know. I laugh
a lot less with them gone. Does that surprise you?
from PN Review 190.