Hazel At The Bar

by Martin Tucker

Today, at her best, smiling though her eyes cry a sadness, Hazel may be described as tall and trim. I suspect she has been trim since she was ten. Really, she is neurasthenically thin if I allow myself to be accurate, and skinny if I uphold my reputation as a gentleman critic. Skinny is a term we used years ago to describe what I myself was years ago. On a teenager skinny looks good. Hazel is over 60. She dresses, I imagine, in the same way she has dressed for years--an ageless style that speaks a youthful grace. I suspect she thinks of herself as a girl, with promise in the air beyond her nearest door. When she looks in a mirror she regards forty-watt bulbs as environmental fixtures. A girlish tone accompanies her space--the rhythm of high sentence melting into coquettish sweetness. The remains of her prettiness are everywhere evident in her presence. Frail as she may be, Hazel's force of willed naivete is impregnable.

That is the reason, I suppose, I was not surprised at the story she told after our afternoon concert. Hazel and I go to concerts regularly, and always in the afternoon. Neither of us likes to stay out late. When my wife died I stayed indoors for months. I'venever had many friends and I never saw much of women friends without my wife present. I didn't mind my wife's intrusiveness. I miss it now. And she must have known how much I appreciated her concern, even though I made noises about it from time to time. Amy, my wife, never paid much attention. To be honest, my noise was a necessary gesture that was not necessarily disruptive. Once sounded, Amy and I could equally forget it.

I met Hazel at one of my concerts. I had turned in Amy's ticket to the box office and received a tax credit for it--after all, Amy had been dead three months and I had every right to get something out of the season subscription. It was the last concert in theseries, and I did have some fears as to who might be sitting next to me. But I wanted to do a civic turn, and I thought it was only one concert to go. Next year would be another season, and I would get a single subscription. Concert tickets are expensive, even in a small city.

Hazel was the purchaser of the ticket. When she sat next to me--was it only four years ago?--I did pay attention. I wondered if she would be one of those noisy women opening and shutting her pocketbook, unwrapping a candy bar. I noticed how well she dressed. I could tell she had money--or enough to make a presentable impression of herself. Idle thoughts then. I really had no thought of speaking to her, but she spoke first. We exchanged pleasantries--she giggled a lot, and I thought she might be a simpering fool. I mean, vulgar, no, I mean naive. Even then I thought this is a lady who has gone through life without much touching her. Except maybe loneliness.

When she told me she had moved here from New York City I knew I was right in my thoughts. New Yorkers live up to their reputation, and there are two kinds of them--the brash, assertive bossy woman and the timid gentle one. I know of no more timid a woman than a timid New Yorker. Perhaps they are frightened of their bossy counterparts. I am, too, but I've been fortunate. My wife Amy was not a bossy New Yorker, though she was bossy. There is a difference. Hazel and I were having tea in the hotel salon. It is a new hotel, and Hazel likes to try new places. She is one of those people for whom a new place is an adventure. Lacking other experiences, she regards a new place as a spiritual quick journey. A fix, if you like. I am not being disrespectful if I say Hazel opts for quick jobs rather than the long haul. I am not talking about sexual adventure, or adventurism. I do not know anything about her sexual life. We've talked about sex in a vague way--it's the best method to avoid it. I can joke about it. My wife and I joked about it, more than we indulged in it, but I don't miss the opportunity some people are likely to say I missed. Have said, as a matter of fact.

I do miss Amy. Hazel is a kind of substitute for loneliness. She knows this, as I know it. We both lift our pastries, drink our tea, and have no regrets. . Hazel was married, for a year she told me. Then she was single again. A single person in New York, timid as Hazel is, has to be half out of her mind with time running out. When she retired and moved down here, I don't know what she really expected. Maybe she thought she'd find friends, but though Hazel is friendly, really an easy person to be with, she doesn't have friends. Maybe that's the reason she used to go to bars in New York. Sipping her tea, she says to me, "Oh, yes, I went to singles bars in New York. I was younger then."

She is smiling. "I always went with a friend. I had this one friend--we weren't really close--and we went to this classy hotel. It wasn't an official singles bar. Just a reputation for single people to go. It was an exclusive hotel, Madison in the sixties. You probably know it. I can't remember the name--"

"The Plaza," I say, to be helpful, and also because I am prodding her.

"No," she replies, "north of it. I'm sure you know it. You're not shocked, are you?" She giggles. The corners of her eyes twitch. I think she is enjoying recalling herself in a den of iniquity. "I'm sitting with my friend, and we're talking. And I order a glass of wine. I drank then, but only white wine. Of course we were looking--

"Casing the joint," I say in jest.

"Yes." She has caught my humor and is pleased I am pleased with her recounting. "This man starts talking to me. He's very well dressed, and he offers me a cigarette, which I refuse. We talk for a while. He's funny, and my friend finds odd things to do--lighting a cigarette for herself, etcetera, so she doesn't get in the way. Maybe it's only ten minutes we've been talking, and then he takes my hand and presses a note in it. I think it's his address, I know that's the hip thing to do. I'll get home, phone him and tell him what a good time I had talking with him, and we'll make a date for a real date. So I hold onto the paper, don't even open my palm, and he looks at me with soulful eyes. I still remember his eyes and that look. It was --yearning, and it was knowing. Do you know what I mean?" she asks.

"I think so."

"You probably are shocked."

"Hazel, how many times do I have to say no? Besides, it was years ago. How many years?" I ask.

"I remember it as if it were today. Well, I couldn't keep my hand closed and pick up my drink at the same time, and I was --embarrassed--to look point blank at his address. That wasn't seemly. I thought it would be like looking at a nude painting--everything naked in front of you. But the gentleman--oh, I thought he was a gentleman, it made me feel so exciting to be in a sophisticated bar with a handsome stranger. The gentleman gave me the opportunity I needed. He turned to talk to the bartender, ordering another round for the three of us. He was a generous person, and I really wanted to see where he lived. So I opened my hand and in it was--"

"Where did he live?" I ask.

"It wasn't his address. It was a hundred dollar bill."

She's waiting for my response, and I think also she's proud of herself for being mistaken for.... I try to be complimentary. "He thought you were a dangerous woman, then."

"Yes," she giggles.

"A hundred dollars was a lot of money in those days," I offer as another compliment.

"Yes," she agrees.

"Something like a thousand today."

"It wasn't that long ago."

"Five hundred then."

"All right."

"And then?" I ask. "It could have been a difficult situation."

"I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to give it back to him without embarrassing him... Or maybe it was myself I didn't want to embarrass. I put the slip in my pocketbook, and I saw he looked pleased. Then I asked my friend to go to the ladies room with me. I mean, I made it sound natural. I said to the gentleman I'll be back, just have to powder my nose, yes I said that because I didn't know what else to say. He seemed to think it was a natural thing to say. I mean, he didn't look surprised, or displeased. He was smiling all the time. So I got my friend to walk with me, and I found the way to the ladies room, and I saw him watching, so I waved to him, and he kept smiling, a bigger smile all the time. He was smiling so much I thought his mouth would crack. But he wasn't a smiling fool. No, that's for sure. That smile wasn't innocent, I know that now, but I was too nervous to think about it. I wasn't nervous about any danger I might be in--I mean, can you imagine me a hooker?"

"No," I admitted honestly.

"And he might have thought I was trying to run out on him."

"He might well have," I agreed.

She was giggling again, and I wondered if Hazel was proud of her escapade. Into what depths of loneliness had she fallen that she would seize on this, perversely turn it into a glamorous adventure? It was a revelation that was shocking, not her act but her enjoyment of it. Her need to feel significant through it. Our need to feel significant, I thought. What did she recall that was significant in her life? No children. A one-year-old marriage. A night at an uptown bar. I wiped the thought from my consciousness before she could read anything in my eyes.

"What did you do?" I asked.

"I asked my friend what to do, and she told me just do it. To tell the gentleman, who was no gentleman I now realized, that it was all a mistake. And then to get out of there. But there wasn't any real danger. I mean, it was an exclusive hotel. It was still
light outside. There are plenty of taxis on Madison Avenue."

"And did it work out that way?"

"Yes," she replied. "I just went up to the man... he had changed his seat, he was at a table close to the ladies room waiting for me, and I said, I'm sorry, I'm afraid I misunderstood you. I took all the blame. I just said it boldly like that, and gave him back his hundred dollar bill. He didn't seem angry, maybe he knew all along it was a misunderstanding, maybe he figured it out waiting for me outside the ladies room. I'd like to think that. I'd like to think I'm right when I remember him looking at me tragically as if I were a fool for passing up ... an adventure."

"He probably did think you were an innocent," I said.

"It's over now. It was a hundred years ago though I can remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday. Today, I mean. What made me think of it now?" She looked round the glittering lounge. The room was swathed in red velvet and stuffed armchairs, and two polished chandeliers sparkled from the ceiling. She was giggling again. "Is it possible this hotel reminded me--but then you would be the man--"

"Hazel, I'm a gentleman."

"That's what I thought about him, too, and I was wrong. Can I be wrong twice?" She was winking at me, and I thought perhaps there is more to Hazel than I ever imagined. And I worried that I might not be able to dislodge the gentleman I always had been with her.