Waiting for Figot
There was never any question of him showing up on time — he was simply not that kind of man. It might seem illogical, then, for me to have arrived not only on time but several minutes early, but that’s the way it had always been with us, and I saw no reason to make a change.
It had been several months since I’d last seen Figot, months I had spent in my usual fashion — days at my drafting table, lunches at Bartlebee’s or the Chinaman’s, and evenings at home with my books and drawings — but in those months Figot had, by all accounts, distinguished himself in a number of obtuse and self-destructive ways, impregnating at least one young woman, having two teeth knocked out in a brawl, and losing his job at the journal after calling his editor a most unpleasant name.
We were to meet in a barroom we’d both frequented in our student days, and which had seemed to age with us, its wallpaper wrinkling slightly, the light emerging hazy from behind now-smoky shades. The proprietor, a portly though curiously ageless man named Thomas Jefferson, had at some point been joined in business by his son, also portly and also named Thomas Jefferson, with the result that someone dropping in at morning and then again late at night might mistake the two for one man, and presume that man possessed of a most remarkable and tireless constitution.
As I waited, I sipped a glass of beer and read from a thin novel. It had been twenty years since I’d first sat at this table, invited in fact by Figot, a classmate who’d befriended me during my first week at university. I sat then as now, waiting for over an hour before he arrived, and when he did it was with a guiltless smile on his face and his arm around a beautiful red-haired girl whom he introduced as June. That day, and the next, and countless others over the next four years, he and I sat at that table, talking and arguing, drinking artist’s wine, hatching plots for fame, emitting endless clouds of cigarette smoke, broaching the defenses of endless Junes.
Older now, I had settled into an orderly if sometimes frustrated bachelorhood, but Figot’s appetites had simply grown larger along with his appearance — he was one of those men for whom hard living, drink, and nicotine seemed to have a reverse effect, making their eyes black and their bodies hard. Neither of us had yet written his great novel, or painted his great portrait, but we had the tools, which had permitted us to chisel out comfortable if unspectacular incomes over the years. We were young yet.
It was only twenty minutes past our scheduled meeting time — hardly within striking distance of when I expected my friend would arrive — so I was mildly startled when above the rim of my reading I saw a presence collapse noisily into the booth across from me. I opened my mouth to say hello, then shut it again when I saw that my new companion was not Figot at all, but rather a wiry man of later middle age, wearing a captain’s cap and a dusty, well-worn sweater, and smiling at me with a crinkled and off-center grin.
“Hey ya,” he said in return. “How ya doin?”
“Pretty well,” I said, assuming I knew what would come next. The barroom was not seedy, but nor was it of the highest class, so it did not particularly surprise me that a man like this would approach in hopes of extracting a free drink. I could afford him the favor but was not about to suggest it myself, lest he linger even after Figot arrived. Figot, I knew, might end the night his boon pal.
The man, however, seemed happy just to be sitting, smiling at me in that curious way. After a few moments he leaned back, stretched his arms to both sides, and laid them atop the bench-back, letting out a contented sigh.
“You know, I was in the Navy,” he said. “Joined up when I was seventeen, during the war. Saw some action . . . yeah. Stayed on after, then went to work on the freighters. Saw the world!”
I was puzzled, then remembered the book I’d been reading, its face to him: a cheap edition of a popular war novel, cover art depicting a warship against a crimson sea. His invitation.
“Yeah, I got everywhere: Tahiti, Japan, Argentina, even up around Norway an’ Iceland. Froze my ass off. Met some women out there, boy! Them little women in Thailand? God’s gift to a sailor.” He stuck out his hand. “What’s your name?”
“Nicholas,” I said, taking it. A strong grip. “Nick.”
“Mine’s Pete, and like I said, I went everywhere, spent thirty, thirty-five years. Worked the engine room them early days. Loud as hell. Hot. Spend a day down there you come up in the sun after and it’s like bein’ born. You’re all achy, dirty, you gotta squint against the sun, but one good thing: No matter how hot it is out, it feels cool to you. Tough-ass job, but you make friends doin’ it, you know? Like me and a guy name Big Jules, another engine guy, we signed on together for years, always on the same ships, same tours, Navy and after. He was a wild guy. About six-feet three with big hands, big as melons. Good guy. We drank every sailor in Singapore under the table! Heh! Did that a more’n a few times.”
I smiled. “He sounds like my friend, who I’m waiting for.”
“Yeah? Friends’re good. You’re a rich man if you got friends. Me and Jules was tight.” He wagged his head, chin down, laughing softly. “One time, we was in Abidjan for a week, out on the Ivory Coast, and Jules hooked up with a gal named Wanda, about 15 years old, black as tar, built like a amazon. The next day we’re out in the same bar, these four huge guys come up with friggin’ machetes. Machetes! They was Wanda’s brothers, and they didn’t think too much of Jules poppin’ their sister. We lit outta there so fast you clocked us we would’a set the world record back to the ship, winched up the gangway behind us and stayed there till we sailed, with them down below screamin’ and shakin’ their fists. Ha! Those were the days.
“But I don’t know, maybe things like that put the fear a’ god in Jules, ‘cause the next year we was off on a break and he went an’ married a dame named Agnes, widow in New Jersey had her own restaurant, got it in her name after her old man kicked. Jules sent me a card to the union hall, told me all about it. Met her when he was visiting his brother in Paterson. Told me he was settling down for a while, keep his belly full on her cookin’ and help out around the place. I couldn’t believe it. After all the years we had out there.
“Eh. But I wasn’t ready to do somethin’ like that yet, so I went back out. Did banana boat runs out of Cuba for a while, then worked some pleasure boats down in South America. That was good. Then some more freighters. You know how much work there is for a good man on them ships? I coulda gone on forever if I hadn’t busted my leg comin’ up from Brazil two year back. That fucked me. That’s when I came to the city, got a room.”
He paused. It was the first long breath he’d taken, riding on memory. “You still see your friend, then?” I asked. “Jersey’s just across the river.”
He looked at me, rubbed his eye, smiled. “Jules? Yeah, I hooked up with him when I got out of the hospital. Met him at a bar in Hoboken. Agnes had died by then. Got a cancer. He been runnin’ the restaurant for a couple years then by himself. Asked me if I wanted to come help him out, an’ I did for a while, few months, worked the grill, but it wasn’t for me. I started going to the races, you know? Lost a little money, then I figured I better get out before I jinxed Jules too. Now I mostly just bum around, maybe get a little drunk.” He winked.
“Yesterday? I was comin’ down those big stairs at the bus station? You know the two flights down from the gates? I tripped an you know goddamn I fell right down those whole two flights. Thought I’d bust my head right open.”
He paused again, grinning, and looked around the bar, then leaned forward with his forearms on the table, speaking slyly from the side of his mouth.
“But you know, I got a plan. Know how I said I got around? Spent a lot of time down in Australia once. Great place. Warm. Don’t gotta worry about freezin’ in the winters like here. And they got good beer there, and the women, with those accents? I’m a sucker for those accents. Yeah. I’m sixty-four now. Another year and my pension kicks in. And you know what I’m gonna do? I’m goin’ to Australia. Fuck this place!” He tossed his chin at the room behind him, his eyes flashing anger before it all dissolved again into grin.
“Yep. One more year and I’m gone. Just gone. Gonna go down there, lie on the beach, and drink beer while I get the best tan I ever had. Better’n when I was in the Navy. Better’n anybody’s got. Gonna be the king of Australia.”
He sat back, looking contented, then pushed up from the booth and stuck out his hand.
“You ever get down Australia ways you look me up, cousin.”
I took his hand, the same strong grip, and said I would. He turned and rolled away, not to the bar as I’d expected but straight toward and out the door, into the late fall air.
I sat for a while tapping my fingertips against my book, then glanced at my watch. It was forty minutes past the hour, which meant Figot would soon arrive. I looked over, caught the elder Mr. Jefferson’s eye, and motioned for a beer.
I thought about Australia.