Wednesday 27 December 2023

Indecision by Barry Garelick, espresso with brandy

It was November and dusk was coming disturbingly earlier each day. Judy stood by the window in her studio apartment and watched the lights come on from the houses and apartment buildings on the hillside. ‘The longer you look, the more lights you see,’ she had told Jack when she was describing her new studio apartment earlier to him on the phone. It was in the north Noe Valley part of San Francisco, off of the J-Church streetcar line, she told him. He had called to tell her he wanted to come by to make soup and told Judy the ingredients to buy, including chicken breasts that she was to boil and have ready for him.

Judy was in her early thirties and often wore light colored blouses, as she did now, leaving the top buttons unbuttoned, finding it sexy while distracting from her small breasts. It was 1977; Elvis had died, disco was dying a slow death, punk and new wave rock were making inroads, and singles bars were reaching a peak of popularity. Judy had no allegiance to either type of music. She had frequented singles bars but recently stopped that, among other changes she had made and was thinking about making while remaining undecided about many things.

She remained undecided about staying in her current social work job of providing guidance to pregnant drug-addicted women or whether she should go to grad school. She was undecided about what she really liked about Karl, a man in his late twenties trying to be a writer while working full time. She was waiting to start an assignment with the Peace Corps in the Cameroon; then decided not to go, partly because of Karl, but maybe not; she wasn’t sure. She lived in a state of impermanence. During this time she sat in the apartments of friends who were either traveling or on vacation or otherwise temporarily not there.

When she decided not to go into the Peace Corps, she moved into the studio apartment where she now stood in the living room watching the lights come on slowly outside, while Jack made soup in the kitchen.

‘What are you doing out there, Judy?’

‘Nothing. Watching the night come on.’

‘Wasn’t that a song? ‘Here Comes the Night’?’

‘Yeah, about a guy who breaks up with his girlfriend and he’s hung up on what she’s doing at night,’ she said. ‘It’s an old song. They play it on the radio a lot these days.’

‘I can never figure out why they play the songs they do,’ he said.

‘I think it’s because Van Morrison sung it. He has a new album out.’

‘Yeah. Van Morrison,’ he said.

Judy peered into the kitchen. Jack was shredding the chicken breasts using two forks to break it into chunks and then shredding the chunks until he had strings of chicken meat which he added to the liquid of simmering vegetables and rice in the pot. ‘What kind of soup are you making, Jack? I know it has chicken in it.’

‘It’s a Greek recipe. It’s chicken-lemon soup,’ he said, coming into the main room, wooden spoon in hand. ‘I think you’ll like it.’


Jack was forty-eight, though his gray hair and stubble made him look older. He was liked by many, and despised by a few. Part of a generation of Beat poets, he disavowed the term. He had met Judy at one of his poetry readings in San Francisco, along with a co-worker of hers at the clinic who had told Judy about him. He made little to no money from his books of poems from the few publishers who were still in business. He relied mostly on hand-outs from friends and betting at the race track. When he wasn’t drunk he was argumentative, sometimes loud, but charming in his own way. When he drank he was unpredictable.

‘I got the recipe from a guy who owned a little diner off Hudson Street in New York; near the White Horse Tavern,’ he said. ‘I happened to be walking by there on the coldest day of the winter just as he was about to close. All I had was fifty cents. I told him it was all I had, so he let me have a bowl of soup for fifty cents. He even gave me some bread. I told him he saved my life.’

‘He gave you the recipe?’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘He told me I reminded him of himself. He said he wanted me to have the recipe. Sweet guy.’

‘I can’t wait to try it,’ she said.

Jack came out into the living room and the two stood looking out the window at the lights slowly coming on. ‘You’re right,’ he said.

‘About what?’

‘The longer you look the more lights you see. How’s it going with Karl?’ he asked.

‘I just saw him the other night. He was over for the first time since I moved.’

‘You told him about the Peace Corps?’

‘He knows about it.’

‘What about grad school?’

‘What about it?’ she said.

‘You haven’t talked to him about that idea?’

‘We talk about a lot of things, Jack,’ she said, her voice rising slightly.          


‘I told him that I know you.’

‘Does he know me?’

‘He’s been to one of your readings.’  She sensed he was still waiting for something. ‘I told him I know someone who is always making soup whenever I see him.’

‘And that was after you told him you know me? And you didn’t tell him that was me?’

When she didn’t answer, he laughed loudly. ‘Fantastic!’ he shouted. ‘So now he’s thinking you’re going to bed with two different guys; me and this guy you know who makes soup.’ 

‘Just because I say I know a guy, doesn’t mean I’m going to bed with him.’ 

‘Maybe not, but you’re leaving one hell of a hint about two guys.’

‘I’m not sleeping around, Jack,’ she said.

‘Well, if I’m remembering correctly, you told me that you weren’t always telling him the phone number of where you were staying when you were doing your pilgrimage around the streets of San Francisco.’

She sat down at a little table in a nook in the living room and he joined her. ‘What are you trying to say?’

‘Maybe now that he knows your number and where you live you feel you still need to play games. You’re obviously not telling him the whole story. That’s all I’m saying.’ He went into the kitchen and checked on the soup. ‘So what are you trying to say? Can you tell me that?’

‘I don’t know, Jack’ she said. ‘I don’t know what I’m trying to say.’

Which was in fact true. But she also definitely knew what wasn’t being said. Namely, that she had told Karl about how she and her co-worker friend were trying to get Jack a job at North Beach Pizzeria thinking it would help him out. In a broader sense they thought it would put him on a better path, though what that path was, neither of them could really say. Judy knew the owner who also knew Jack and was willing to hire him part time. But Jack wasn’t interested, and exercised his stubborn resolve to remain solely a poet, and told Judy to keep her mouth shut about the whole thing.

Jack walked into the living room. He put his hands in his back pockets and looked out the window. ‘Do you love Karl?’ he said. ‘Or what?’

She put her hands on the table and looked at them as if they held the answer. ‘I think I do. Yes. I do,’ she said with a hesitant finality. ‘I told him I loved him. A few nights ago.’

‘You never said it before then?’

She shook her head.

‘Did he say anything?’

She shook her head again.

‘That was the end of the conversation?’

‘We made love,’ she said. ‘And then after we talked about other things.’

Jack continued to look out the window and after a moment said ‘What other things?’

‘Things that people talk about.’

‘Like me and the guy who makes soup? Those kind of things?’ he said.

She bit at a fingernail. ‘There’s a lot of things going on. Everything seems artificial at times. About Karl, I mean. And me. I feel like Diane Keaton in ‘Annie Hall’ sometimes.’

‘Haven’t seen it,’ he said.

‘She’s this kind of ditzy non-threatening person, and I’ve tried being like that, really pleasant and interested in whatever a guy might be saying. And guys really like it. I mean I don’t say ‘la-di-da’ like she did. But it isn’t really me.’ She sighed and looked at Jack.

‘Why do you think that being nice isn’t you? Are you putting on an act with Karl?’

‘No. But he doesn’t know the whole me,’ she said. ‘Sometimes I don’t know if he likes me, or what he thinks is me. I don’t know. We disagree on political things. I stay quiet on things I know he disagrees on. He’s not big on feminists. He doesn’t like radical politics. I have friends who are Marxists, so he’s definitely not going to fit in there.’

‘You really don’t know what you want, do you?’ he said with a definitive air. ‘You wanted the Peace Corps and now you don’t, you want guys to like you for the right reasons, but you keep yourself a secret. And now that Karl knows how to find you, you’re playing games with him, trying to get him to love you while you’re still trying to decide if you want to leave him and go to grad school. Somewhere other than here, I’m guessing. How am I doing, so far?’

‘That’s really unfair!’ she shouted, standing up suddenly and pointing her finger at him. ‘You don’t know me, you don’t know what I think about. You don’t know anything about me. Who are you to be making pronouncements? I was married once; you didn’t know that, did you? I thought I was really happy, and he changed on me and I really don’t want to go through that again. So fuck you, Jack. Fuck you. And who the hell knows what they want? Do you know what you want?’ She wiped her eyes with the palms of her hands.

‘You can barely afford your little hotel room on Valencia, and from what I can see, those aren’t going to be around for very long. Then what are you going to do? Write more poems and hope for a patron? My friend and I tried to get you a job at North Beach Pizza; not what you want to do in life, I know, but you’ve done worse – you’ve told me. It would be some money coming in, and it’s not the worst place in the world. Have you thought about what you’ll be doing in ten years?’

She went into the small bathroom tucked next to the kitchen and slammed the door.

‘I live in the present,’ Jack said to the bathroom door. ‘We live by different standards.’ There was no answer.

He remained, talking to the bathroom door. ‘As for what I’ll be doing in ten years – I don’t know. Maybe we’ll still be friends and I’ll be babysitting your kids. Maybe I’ll be going to cocktail parties with Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsburg. Maybe I’ll be dead. If I’m still alive, I’m not really sure what the hell it is I’ll be doing. The one thing I’m fairly sure about is what I won’t be doing, and that’s working in a fucking pizzeria.’

Still no answer.

‘Are you going to come out, or shall I leave?’

The door opened and she stood in the doorway, looking angry but less so now. His last words about ‘working in a fucking pizzeria’ was playing over in her head. The absurdity and reality of the words became increasingly funny in spite of herself and unexpectedly she found herself laughing. He joined her, not knowing exactly why she was laughing, but not really caring.

‘I’m an asshole most of the time. You must know this by now.’

‘I know,’ she said.

‘Glad we agree. I don’t blame you for being mad at me,’ he said and suddenly looked into the kitchen. ‘OK, no, I’ve got to put the sauce into the pot; this is the tricky part. I’m sorry.’ He hugged her and went into the kitchen.

He loved her like a little sister; this she knew. She watched as he stirred two eggs into a pot and then poured the liquid into the bigger pot of soup, turning off the heat, and then stirring the soup.

‘It has to set for about a minute,’ he said. He took two bowls down from the cupboard above the sink and looked around in various drawers.

‘What are you looking for?’ she asked.

‘A ladle. Do you have one? Or I can just pour from the pot into the bowls.’

‘That sounds dangerous; I have a ladle.' She opened a drawer that had the ladle and Jack then filled the two bowls with soup from the pot on the stove. They each carried a bowl over to the little table in the corner of the living room.

‘Let’s have some soup and forget about the world and talk about other things,’ Jack said.


They did just that. They started talking about other things, many things, whatever crossed their minds. Judy said she loved the soup; so did Jack; it reminded him of Hudson Street and the Greek who gave him the recipe, he said, remarking how simple life was back then.

He said how eating together is the great equalizer, and recalled a poem he heard Bukowski read in San Francisco about two years before. It was about Bukowski having sex with a woman he didn't know; about her pretenses and aloofness before sex and how afterward they both laughed at their previously insular attitudes and then ended up having dinner together.

Judy talked about how she liked creative people; she found creativity sexy. She liked the writing that Karl showed her, seeing the beginnings of his gift and the way he saw the world, despite the naiveté of someone in their late twenties. She anticipated him being a writer, and sometimes wondered if she would still be with him if and when that happened; then stopped that train of thought and talked about musicians. She liked musicians; she liked jazz, she liked Dave Brubeck and Keith Jarrett.

Jack liked jazz too, he told her. He liked having jazz behind him when he read. He liked it because it was spontaneous and he told her how Ornette Coleman had said it was when he found out he could make mistakes that he knew he was on to something. And then they were quiet. Judy put the bowls in the kitchen, and Jack stood in the living room and lit a cigarette. She joined him and they both stood looking out the window.

‘The lights have all come on,’ she said.

‘Here comes the night,’ he said.

‘Here comes the night,’ she repeated.

‘I think I’m going to go out into that good night,’ he said. ‘Maybe go to Old Uncle Gaylord’s on Market to get some ice cream. You’re welcome to join me.’

‘No, thanks,’ she said. ‘I don’t feel like going out. And it’s too cold for ice cream.’

‘Yeah, maybe. But I’ve been going there lately. I don’t know why. I don’t like ice cream all that much, but I like the place. It’s opened my eyes to a different the world than bars; a world of ice cream lovers and people who don’t fight.’

‘I know that place; but it’s a long walk from here. I can drive you if you want.’

‘Nah. I feel like walking,’ he said. ‘Besides, I can always hop on the J-Church assuming it doesn’t take a half hour for one to come along.’ He grabbed his coat from the couch where he had left it, and lit a cigarette.

‘It’s a great place, Gaylord’s,’ he said, standing at the door. ‘Probably the only ice cream place with a juke box in San Francisco that has Thelonius Monk tunes. I like Monk. The way he would sometimes dance to the music his band was playing during an interlude in the music when he wasn’t playing the piano. A happy man, Monk.’

‘Are you happy, Jack?’ she asked, though not really knowing why.

He took a drag on his cigarette and smiled. ‘I’m not unhappy,’ he said. ‘What about you?’

‘Yes,’ she said.

‘ ‘Yes’ meaning what?’

‘Meaning I’m not unhappy.’

‘Good; let’s both try to stay that way,’ he said. ‘I’ve gotta go.’ 

He opened the door and stepped out into the hall. He waved to Judy like people do on trains pulling away. ‘We’ll see you,’ he said.

She wanted to say something memorable, maybe about happiness, or mistakes, but only managed to say ‘Thanks for the soup,’ before he was on his way downstairs. His footsteps echoed on the three flights and she started to count the footsteps. She counted many things, a habit from her childhood; tiles in the bathroom, bricks in a wall. When she lost count of his footsteps, she went inside. Once in her apartment she put on a record – any record, she couldn’t decide – and sat on the couch trying to decide whether to call Karl to ask him to come over, or wait to see if he would call. 


About the author

Barry Garelick fiction published in The Globe Review, Cafe Lit and Fiction on the Web. His non-fiction pieces that have been published in Atlantic and Education Next. He lives in Morro Bay, California with his wife. 

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