By Eugene Lim
I went at the regular time to the karaoke bar to meet Muriel and Gus. The bar, which had several names but usually went by “Alibi,” took up the entire ninth floor of a hastily built structure amidst the dirty neon of one of Diaspora City’s seedier districts. A heavy-pile, dark red carpet covered the floor of a stage, which was illuminated with several bare low-watt bulbs. As usual, that night it was crowded and filled with clinks and respectful low murmurs. I found Gus at a table near the back nursing a tequila.
As I sat down he pointed across the room. Muriel was waiting next to the stage and was about to go on and sing. A stylish Samoan we knew named Bill was just finishing up a plaintive version of “Rubber Ring” by The Smiths. When Bill finished, Muriel stepped onto the stage and took the microphone. Her accompaniment began and from the opening strum of guitar I immediately knew she’d chosen one of her old standbys, namely “물 좀 주소” (Gimme Some Water) by Han Dae-soo. While she was singing, Gus leaned over and told me he’d gone home, had dinner, and then taken a short nap. During which, he said, he’d had the most disquieting dream.
“In my dream,” Gus whispered, “I was a junior member of a theater company. We were putting on a play in which the main character was the devil. The devil in the play was supposed to be very seductive and charismatic, and one conceit of the drama was that he simultaneously won over not only the other characters, but also the members of the audience as well.
“I was the understudy to the actor who played the devil.
“The actor who played the devil happened to be fantastic. He had that internal light sometimes spoken of in actors, which he could brighten or dim at will, and which made him incredibly charming and mesmerizing to watch. I didn’t mind so much being this actor’s understudy and, what’s more, I thought that there was a great deal I could learn from him.
“Each night during our run of this play, the other understudies and bits of the crew and cast would gather in a small room at the back of the theater. There, we’d watch the performance on a closed-circuit TV monitor.
“In my dream the actual devil was also part of our company, and he would join us in this room to watch the performance.
“He had wanted to play himself, but everyone had agreed that the other actor would do a better job.
“The devil was incensed by this. And he would come to the performances and join us in the small room and talk to the television set — or us or himself, no one was sure who he was talking to — and complain loudly and bitterly that the actor onstage was a hack and a phony, that he didn’t know why we’d chosen this actor over himself, that the performance was terrible, that if you wanted someone to play the devil, why, he was the perfect and natural choice! And on and on, each night, the devil would complain like this.
“Soon we were all sick and tired of the devil’s bitching and moaning.
“And one night the director actually joined us to watch backstage. And as the devil went into his usual tirade, the director, who was hearing it for the first time, grew increasingly angry and red-faced until finally she exploded and shouted at Satan, Fine! You’re such a pain in the ass. Tomorrow night, you play the role.
“And Satan smiled broadly, and you could see how wonderfully pleased he was with himself.
“But then the next night he went on — and the devil was just awful at playing himself. He was crabby and ungraceful and whiny, just as he’d been all along, the entire time we’d known him (which seemed like forever), and so he was totally unconvincing as the seductive embodiment of sly evil he was supposed to be portraying.
“Watching the tiny monitor, everyone in the room at the back of the theater laughed and jeered and then grew smugly quiet as the devil made a fool of himself on stage. I, however, never made a peep and I didn’t laugh or shout at the devil on the monitor like the others. I just sat there and thought, When will I be given a chance? And also I thought, I guess it’s true what they say: the squeaky wheel is always the one that gets the grease.”
Gus stopped talking as there was an explosion of whistles and hoots while Muriel drove the folk song through its final verse.
As usual, Muriel was giving it her all, which the audience evidently appreciated, begging for more when she finished. Muriel was happy to comply, and, after quickly programming the karaoke machine for her next number, we heard a run of violins, and I could tell she was going to sing another of her favorites: “Frühling” (Springtime) by Richard Strauss.
These performances came to her naturally and were minutes we downplayed as simpler, even gauche entertainment — but they also held, in their nugget of fantasy, a surprising sustenance. The effects on her of these seemingly minor acts of self-actualization were, I’d noticed, remarkably durable. Maybe Gus, in his own way, had noticed the same, but the observation in him had triggered something different, a desire to also be recognized, thus his dream. Or so I interpreted it. I decided to encourage him. “You should go up,” I said, “and sing.”
“Me? No, I couldn’t.”
“Sure you could. Why not?”
“Hmm,” he said, noncommittally, but I could tell the seed of the idea had been planted. That was enough for now, I decided, and we turned our attention once again to Muriel, who was capable of handling Strauss’s lieder — no one could argue otherwise — with an outstanding delicacy. Nonetheless, as I’d heard her sing night after night for so long, my attention wandered a bit, and I scanned the various rapt faces in the crowd. The Alibi always held an eclectic bunch, reflective of the nature of Diaspora City, and seeing it this night stirred up a thought that had been agitating in the background for my attention, a fundamental aporia that seemed to distort all my days here.
I leaned toward Gus and, hoping not to appear rude by talking during our friend’s performance (but she wasn’t paying any attention to us; when she was singing, Muriel was truly transported to a different dimension), I said, “The thing about this corridor of our city — from Woodside through Elmhurst through Corona through Flushing and on to Bayside and beyond — an incredible swath, at times like the Kowloon Walled City in its density and inventive bricolage, and by far superseding it in terms of the sheer diversity of its immigrant populations — is that this often praised mixing shoulder to shoulder of people from every dominion on the planet breeds a respectful and intimate but insuperable separation, which is made all the more vexing due to proximity. In the morning one can see the parents of — among many others — Sikh children and Uruguayan children, Romanian children and Cameroonian children, Bhutanese children and Basque children, all dropping off their kids at the elementary school. One perhaps cannot imagine such a sight without experiencing it first-hand. The place is awash in color of both traditional costumes and very au courant if off-the-rack business casual; the Cantonese-inflected English mixes with scrubbed Midwestern and Punjabi lilt as I hear striver family heads discussing playdates and swapping recipes. Nowhere on any other place on earth does this prismatic confluence occur. And yet, for its singularity, everyone is rather ho hum about the spectacle. The smoothing of all that difference into capitalist civility is remarkably unremarked upon. Oh the digestive juices of the market’s gut — it eats it all! And maybe the non-remarking is but one other aspect of the digestive process. (How quietly it eats!) So it’s true that one, in a moment of weakness, could think it a commercial for American utopia and racial harmony: the interlocking of all these communities, the painless and insidious assimilation, the simultaneous proud and painful resistance to that assimilation, the flow of first to second to third and fourth generations, the seemingly unifying and seemingly ubiquitous materialist ambitions. And yet, like the city itself, the complex is unknowable, one’s neighbors are so close yet so far away, we each find ourselves alone and lonely, and the functioning diversity miracle itself is only another demonstration of how far short the most miraculous will fall in the futile ambition to save ourselves from ourselves.”
I paused as Muriel finished her second song and the room again convulsed in raucous applause. She waited with great showmanship before beginning her concluding number: “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin. On hearing the first notes the crowd instantly went wild.
I had to shout in order to be heard, but leaned closer to Gus and yelled, “And yet at other times — when I trundle down its streets and avenues, weary from my day’s labors or the prospect of my nightly ones, when I am going to the greengrocer for bell peppers and onion to make another basic bachelor’s supper, when I stop to hear the busker’s tambourine for just a minute before shyly dropping in a few coins, when I order some sweetly marinated meat over rice from the food trucks, when I’m in line to buy Band-Aids and deodorant at the pharmacy — at these times I look around and see all my harried neighbors doing the same, the gimpy and spry, ill- and sweet-tempered, nebbish and vampy, and yes it’s then I do believe in some unity of purpose, despite the chaotic provenances of Diaspora City, and I see the essential program provided to all is not to acquire or win, but rather is just to exist — and to avoid pain — and we are not at all making the world and are therefore not at all responsible, but in the moment have only been given it, the prospect and circumstance of the hour, and we are forced to navigate this place, each of us, as best we can.
“Then I think: Fellows! Sisters! Cousins!
“But,” I concluded, “the feelings then, while not marked so much by loneliness, are drenched with a resembling error, namely self-pity.”
“I think I know exactly what you mean,” yelled Gus in response. The music had finished and the admiring crowd was giving Muriel a standing ovation, above which it was a struggle to be heard. We were both standing and clapping like the others, albeit a tad more mechanically. Gus said, “Yes, I think I understand you perfectly. I had recently a very similar thought. I’d met this guy at a bar who happened to be a night guard at The Frick Museum, and he said he could, since he knew I was a painter (‘Only a Sunday painter,’ I’d said; ‘Whatever,’ this guy’d said) he could, if I was interested, let me in to the museum after hours. And I said, ‘Sure! Of course I’m interested!’ for it had always been a fantasy of mine — not an uncommon one I’d bet — to wander a museum at night and glare and wink at those oily triumphs all by myself and as long as I wished.
“So he set it up,” Gus continued, “somehow with his bosses. He was a gregarious guy who was difficult to say no to. And so one night after closing I met him at the museum around ten o’clock and he gave me the run of the place.
“Henry Clay Frick, the man who had collected all these works by Dürer and by Delacroix, these paintings by Watteau and Kirchner, by Boucher and by Hans Holbein the Younger, at the time he had collected them was dubbed the most hated man in America. For he was a vicious capitalist, and it would be as if Dick Cheney and Pol Pot and Jeffrey Skilling were one man and had begun collecting all the Donald Judds and Robert Smithsons and all the Joan Mitchells and Julie Mehretus and all the Joanne Greenbaums and Paul Chans as a historical machine, a timeless massager of their reputations, so that instead of a villainous and rapacious, murderous bigotry and egotism, we instead only remembered dimly the rough waters of history, seemingly calmed and seen through a glass darkly, blinkered and blinded by these beautiful and profound works of art placed before our eyes to shield these evil men of power from true and righteous judgment and to shield us too from the wearisome task of carrying out that judgment. See — I’m winded just uttering the observation.
“And so I was ecstatic to be allowed into the museum at night, where I could roam its halls and peer at these paintings as if I owned them myself, or, even more, as if I was in some cosmic dance with them, some intimate relationship with these 19th century masterpieces, these works by Fragonard and Whistler, these works by Vermeer and Constable, by Goya and Titian, by El Greco and Ingres. And it was, initially, a sublime, sweet, and slow walk through its galleries and down its halls — the museum at night.
“But after a few hours of this, after living out the fantasy of being alone with these paintings, I realized there was something immensely lonely about the experience or, that it was something so ecstatic that it had to be savored jointly, with some other soul or souls, or else the solitude would ruin the taste, would transform the sweet into bitter, the wine into vinegar. So I left the museum, came out into the cool night, and walked for hours and hours digesting what I had seen, my mind overrun and seized with both beauty and sadness.
“At dawn I came up with a plan. This was, I recognized, a high point in my life. I couldn’t just leave it (which I realize now was perhaps unwise), and I thought: I have to do it again. But this time I have to bring somebody else.
“And so I invited this woman I knew.
“She happened to be an art critic. Actually she was an arts blogger. Well, in actual fact, she was a data analyst at a corporation and worked eighty hours a week building profiles of you and I and everyone else we know so that targeted messages would have us buy, at just the right moment, just the right brand of diaper or automobile or colonoscopy. For her tireless efforts she was paid huge sums with which she bought the combinations of Xanax and marijuana and cocaine and vodka that helped to ease her often ruffled psyche. But in a previous incarnation she had held down waitressing and dog-walking jobs so that she could get through an MFA in studio art, in ‘multimedia,’ which she claimed was a vocation — and this turned out to be true — for which she had no calling.
“However these days, on the side — because she was immensely talented and energetic, which was why I was drawn to her — she contributed (under pseudonym) to one of the city’s more widely read art blogs. She made it a point to spend all of her scarce free time going to galleries. In fact this was where I’d met her, standing in front of a painting we both happened to admire. We casually exchanged comments (‘mesmerizing,’ ‘so beautiful,’ ‘makes it look easy’) and that was that – but then her face popped up several weeks later on OkCupid…
“So a month after my first visit to the Frick after dark, my friend quite generously arranged for it to happen again. Except this time I was bringing along a date.
“At first it was just as before but better, because it was still a fantastic privilege to wander that space and live for a few hours with those paintings in a bubble of private intimacy — but it was even better because one could share that wonder with another person, and so that wonder — the ecstasy, the joy — became reflected and built up by some harmonic into a golden, gonging mutual pleasure. But.
“She kept talking.
“She talked the entire time. And it wasn’t that what she was saying was so wrong or so pedantic or so pandering or so not-up-to-the-moment. These things were true. But they were true about what I was saying also. And I too was talking the whole time. We were commenting on our experience and the exegesis, which was necessary to make the sublime more human, more touchable, turned out to be the thing that tarnished it irreparably, secularized if not made it profane, and so turned the transcendent ritual into a bauble of anecdote.
“Fucked,” Gus concluded, “if you do. And if you don’t, in like wise fuckeroonied.”
By this time, Muriel had made her way off the stage and slid through the shadows to join us at our table. She’d caught the tail end of Gus’s story.
For a while no one said anything, and we all turned toward the stage to listen to a Mongolian family throat-singing in subtle harmony.
After a moment, however, Muriel leaned toward me to say out of the side of her mouth, “Before I forget, here’s your book,” and she took my lost novel out of her bag and slid it toward me. “You left it at the Thai restaurant where we’d had lunch.”
“Oh, great! I was looking for that. I thought I’d left it at home.” I took the Inspector Tate mystery novel from her and put it on the chair beside me.
Then Muriel turned to Gus and said, “By the way I know precisely what you mean. Precisely! Progress: so called! The more things change the goddamn more the même chose no doubt. Am I right or am I right. What you say reminds me of a very similar thing that happened to me at the hospital where I work. In the hospital complex there’s a cafeteria space that keeps changing. It’s in an out-of-the-way section of the hospital, which is why I liked it. It’s two blocks away from my ward so I probably won’t see anyone I know. I like to preserve my privacy. And also since it seems an out-of-the-way area, not just for me but for almost everybody, it’s often empty.
“There is an ophthalmology wing close by. You can tell because the only people you’d see in the cafeteria were men and women with a white, gauze-y patch over one eye, always huddled over a bag of chips or a basket of wilting French fries. But other than these depressed cyclopes, I more or less had the cafeteria to myself.
“Which was the problem, because as the huge cafeteria space was always empty, it didn’t quite make sense to keep the place going. On the other hand it was in an awkward location, which I imagine made repurposing it difficult. It was that fact plus managerial inertia that allowed the cyclopes and I to continue to have our chips and tuna melts and greasy chicken noodle soup and watery coffee in peace for so long. But it couldn’t last forever. Nothing does, goes the rule.
“The cafeteria area has gone through three major upheavals since I’ve worked at the hospital. How I found it initially was the best for me, but this was no doubt doomed because it reeked, literally, of inefficient subsidies and a cheap, bulk mind: mushy lasagna and vats of tomato-bean soup and grainy cheese macaroni. Plastic trays and a deep fryer and Jell-O desserts. You get the idea. The workers looked bored out of their minds, however there were over a dozen of them. The dreary seating area was purely functional, but in the afternoon this could be offset by a flood of soft, warm sunlight. I would happily go there on my breaks to drink their bad coffee and read my book and even sometimes stopped for an hour just to unwind after my shift.
“But inevitably the cafeteria became too great a financial burden. Not enough cyclopes paid to eat its grilled cheese sandwiches and soggy vegetables. So I was saddened but also not surprised when I went one day and found the place had been shuttered. The dozen workers had moved on, presumably, and I barely registered the notion that I’d most likely never see them again. I was frankly more pained to see the darkened lights over the grill, the tarped cashier’s register, and the dusty gloom in front of which a sign had been placed: This area closed.
“For several months I didn’t go back. Instead I tried to find different places for my breaks to just sit and read or in order to eat my lunch in peace: a Chinese restaurant, the steps outside the library, the park. Each of these I found were imperfect places to rest. The park wouldn’t work on cold or windy days. I had to be in the mood for Chinese food to justify the visit to Wok and Roll. And the library steps were okay, but crowded with teenagers. So after weeks and months of some restless roaming, one day I wandered back over.
“I was surprised to see an entirely different cafeteria had taken over, a more upscale one. The new place featured fashionable baked goods and soups and juices. The coffee too had improved, though everything had also doubled in price. There were fewer workers, but they seemed at first happier, or perhaps they were better paid.
“Initially I was annoyed. The once dreary seating area had now become a designed space with color-coordinated furniture and decorations of tasteful kitsch. However, I found myself growling less when I realized it still adequately functioned as a place of rest. It’s true my small meals had doubled in price, and I was slightly ill at ease sitting underneath reindeer antlers painted sky-blue or beside the polished fender of what a prominent sign informed came from a 1956 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz, but I could eventually tune out this visual noise when I realized that, in general, it was still just me and the glaucoma-diseased and the cataract-addled — that is, once again it was only me and the cyclopes. It’s true a few more young, mostly foreign, doctors could be found there, usually in pairs or in threes, but these were actually rare sightings, despite the fact these people were no doubt the establishment’s intended clientele.
“So I settled back into my routine, coming to the new cafeteria on my lunch breaks and after work. It was here I thought about my paintings and it was here that I would sometimes do some drawings. I found refuge once again in the now-gentrified space, slurping my up-market beverage and tucking into my pole-caught albacore tuna sandwich made with artisanal levain — financially poorer but spiritually enriched, I concluded, through sanctuary. My depressed cyclopes looked the same, perhaps a smidgen droopier, but that was no doubt accounted for by the contrast between them and their shiny, optimistic surroundings.
“Gradually, however, the perky owners and employees (it was difficult, at a glance, to tell them apart) of the new cafe began looking a little tired, more harried and shopworn. It took me a few weeks to figure out why this was so, but eventually it hit me: the business was failing. The expected legion of young, hip doctors and their capitulating cohorts had failed to appear. My interludes there were still peaceful, but marred slightly as Not too long from now, I predicted with some certainty, the cyclopes and I will once again be homeless.
“But for months and months it kept not happening. It was as if the owners of the gentrified cafeteria could not themselves believe in their own defeat. But the telltale signs kept appearing. There were desperate menu changes: bacon hot dogs and fondue flights. Near the touchscreen cash register, the owner had displayed a sequel-less children’s book she’d authored titled, We Opened a Restaurant!
“Yet in time and inevitably, their defeat conquered their disbelief of it, and this second version of the cafeteria also closed down. It seemed to happen even more unceremoniously, as if in shame, and over a weekend the place was stripped nearly to its studs.
“Where the cyclopes went I did not know, but I began another bout of wandering. From the shrimp-broccoli lunch special at Double Happiness to the wet park benches over to the teenage riots of the public library — I made my unhappy rounds. But eventually, out of nostalgia or weariness I couldn’t tell you, I returned.
“I suspect mostly it was to grieve the passing of the two cafeterias and not to see if yet another version had since come into being. If you had asked me at the time, I would have said it was much too soon, but — there it was: a third version of the cafeteria… however, this time it was something I was wholly unprepared for or (perhaps should have been but) in no way expected.
“In a corner along the wall, two open refrigerated display cases contained an assortment of pre-packaged sandwiches and wraps and salads. They looked as flavorful as cold iceberg lettuce, which is what most of the sandwiches seemed to be made out of. A separate shelf had urns of passable (corporate, familiar) coffee. Another case displayed bags of chips and plastic-looking fruit. All of this was compressed into one small section of the cafeteria.
“I’d filled a paper cup of coffee and was momentarily confused as to how to pay for it, when I realized that a quartet of monoliths, which I’d subconsciously ignored when I’d passed them, because they were too unfathomable, were actually check-out robots. A sign explained that by removing the cup from the area, the price of a small coffee would automatically be deducted from the account at my bank, which somehow the monoliths had already spoken to and from which they had received approval for payment. If I had any questions about the transaction, I could ask the digitized cafeteria’s sole human employee, whose only other task that I could surmise seemed to be refilling the coffee urns.
“I took my cup over to the seating area, which was now larger and filled with indestructible-looking modular seating. Not entirely uncomfortable, nonetheless there was something authoritarian in the seating that suggested tarrying over your turkey wrap any longer than half an hour would be unseemly.
“But the most surprising thing of all — indeed, the bitter punchline — was that the place was packed! Conversation rattled the air as nurses and doctors nodded over coffee or hunched over laptops. And all about these, my dear cyclopes dotted the scene, uncharacteristically grinning, like drugged morons, over their shiny, burst bags of potato chips.
“It was so crowded that I couldn’t find a peaceful seat. I just finished my cup of coffee as quickly as I could and left and have never been back,” concluded Muriel.
The three of us just sat quietly for some time after Muriel had stopped talking. Maybe her tale had depressed us a little. Bill was now back on stage and was performing “Shimmy Shimmy Ya” by ODB. In fact the three of us didn’t talk much more that evening, but after several hours had passed, just at the very end of our night out, and after many tequilas, we prevailed on Gus to take a stab at singing. He nervously went up to the stage to a smattering but supportive applause. He’d chosen “Yesterday” by the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” — and he performed very passable versions of both of these.
“Alibi” is excerpted from a novel currently called Father Island
Eugene Lim is the author of the novels Fog & Car (2008, Ellipsis Press) and The Strangers (2013, Black Square Editions). His writing has appeared in Fence, The Denver Quarterly, Jacket2, EXPLORINGfictions, The Brooklyn Rail, and elsewhere. www.eugenelim.com