Rays Happy Birthday.

April 12, 2009

posted & written by Caroline Picard

Rays Happy Birthday.

an excerpt from a novel pretending to be a book of short stories

Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar is a dive in the heart of South Philadelphia. It sits on the diagonal street of Passyunk Avenue, in relative obscurity. It’s clientele wavers between those who have been frequenting its tap for thirty some years, and twenty-somethings, new to the neighborhood, who call themselves kids. It’s relatively well lit inside and paneled in a honey-colored wood. Everywhere on the walls there are photographs of its clientele and trinkets and signs dedicated to Ray himself. There is a jukebox and a two electronic video games. The bathrooms are as cramped as those of a train car.
Tobias likes it inside. He feels both comfortable and intrigued. He sets his luggage on the floor beside a table that seems occupied by Fletcher’s friends, though they are not physically present. There is a pack of cards at the table, a leather bound book with loose pages tucked inside, a pack of cigarettes and a baseball hat with mesh on the back. Tired, Tobias sits on a stool above his bags, watching as Fletcher makes his way to the bar and stands, with arms crossed, beside another kid in skinny jeans. The other kid has half of his head shaved in an a-symmetrical fade. He has bangs in his face.
The kid startles a little, before recognizing Fletcher. They embrace, the one with bangs blushing with surprise. He’s a large guy and with the exception of his hands, neck and face, his body appears to be covered in tattoos. Tobias cannot hear what they are saying, but he watches his brother order a beer from the bartender, a middle aged man with big hairy hands. The bartender takes an empty stein from the wall behind him and begins filling it with a keg on the floor. They do not seem to have any taps. The proper taps have plastic cups on them. Fletcher nods, takes his beer and gives the proprietor two dollars. He pulls a quarter out of his pocket and lays it on the bar, before turning again to his friend.
The guy from the bus joins them. He is taller than the other two. They all wear the same clothes more or less: a plaid shirt, a long sleeve undershirt of garish colors, skinny pants, leather belts with large belt buckles—Fletcher’s the largest, only the tall one has leather studs on his.
Out of the three, Fletcher is certainly the oldest.

Tobias looks at the notebook. He pulls it toward him. It appears to be a journal. The cover is soft and warm with a sweat stain on its bottom half. As though it might sit in someone’s back pocket while he went about his business in the city. After first looking around, Tobias opens the book.
Inside there is an index of meals with accompanying calories. Each entry is dated. Today, the author ate an egg McMuffin, granola with strawberries and yogurt, a small coke, a cappuccino, a bag of potato chips—salt ’n sour, a Vietnamese sandwich with tofu, organic beef jerky, a cup of coffee.
It appears that the owner’s diet is more or less moderate until about seven in the evening, when he begins to consume alcoholic beverages and spikes of junk food—accumulated in what seem to be rapid binges. The handwriting is scratchy, ill at ease and often smudged. In some places things appear to have been erased and re-written. There are additional notes in the margins, notes more customary for a journal—they appear to document an occasional event worth noting, sometimes an apology for dietary issues (i.e. got drunk, or date with Noi), but even these seem to reveal a deeper intrigue (fight with Noi about Christmas).
Tobias pulls his backpack up off the floor, its straps still wet with sweat. He puts the book inside of his backpack. He pulls out his wallet. He counts the bills and, setting his bag back on the floor, approaches the bar, nervous a little, unsure if the bartender will ask his age.
The bartender does not. Neither does the bartender ask what he wants, but pulls another glass from the wall behind him and fills it with the keg between his feet.
“How did you know what I wanted?” Tobias asks.
“You kids all want the same thing.”
Tobias nods, “I see. Hey, thanks.”
The bartender doesn’t seem especially friendly, but Tobias decides it must be for good reasons; reasons that he will one day discover. The bartender, after all, looks wiser than Tobias imagines himself—an efficient sort of person engaged in an efficient kind of work. Tobias decides the man is trustworthy.
Upon getting his beer he walks to his brother.
“What am I drinking?” he asks.
“Pabst,” the two others say.
“Let me introduce you,” says Fletcher. “This is my youngest brother. This is Tobias. Tobias, this is the Plunk.” The one with hair in his face nods. He has an elfin face. Unlike most elves that Tobias has seen, however his face is brown. It is strange that the fellow’s face is so structured and lean when he is otherwise so corpulent. “This one here,” Fletcher raises his glass to the tallest one, “is Punk Rock Dave.” Punk Rock Dave drinks a pink drink in a skinny glass, but does little to acknowledge Tobias.
“Nice to meet you,” Tobias says.
“Punk Rock Dave,” says Fletcher, “will be living with us for a while. Until things settle down.”
“I see.” Tobias pretends to understand, assuming again that things yet unknown will make themselves clear when necessary.

About the bar:

“Did you notice the back room by the bathrooms?” Fletcher asks, knowing full well that Tobias has not. “That used to be the waiting area for ladies. Before ladies were allowed in bars without men. They used to have to wait there, sitting on stools, waiting for a single man to enter through the front door and escort them inside.”
“What did the women have to do?” Tobias asks. “Once a man brought them indoors, I mean.”
The Plunk sniggers, almost spilling his drink. He gestures his head in such a way as to shift the hair out of his face without using his hands.
“I’ve never known the answer to that question,” says Fletcher. “I don’t know if there as a tacit understanding in which a lady could do as she pleased once inside, or if there was some other kind of unspoken agreement. I’ve no clue. I’m sure it was scandalous, either way.”
Tobias imagines women wearing many colored dresses with heads poised, with coal-painted eyes glimmering under candlelight, watching the door in anticipation—smoking. Because they had nothing better to do. He wonders if any kept flasks to nurse while waiting. He imagines their gossip.

Quickly drunk, the Plunk’s eyes seem to have shrunk. He lumbers like a small dancing bear and, reaching up with both hands, boxes Punk Rock Dave on the ears at the bar after sharing a shot.
“Ow, my ears! My fucking ears!” Dave cries.

Fletcher on Punk Rock Dave.

“Punk Rock had his ears sewn shut,” Fletcher says to Tobias with an easy confidence. They are standing at another end of the bar now. Punk Rock Dave and the Plunk stand on the other side, the side nearest the bathroom.
“Really?” Tobias lifts his chin to see. He sips his beer. “Can he still hear? That sounds painful.”    “Not the whole ear. Just the earring part—the lobe,” says Fletcher. “He had plugs, big ones, plugs the size of a quarter. His ears were stretched real big. But now he needs to go to court. So he sewed them shut. Himself. I watched.
“I should tell you about David. We’ll be living together, so you should know.
“Punk Rock Dave was seeing this punk rock girl—Simone. Until recently, they lived together on Christian Street with peripheral responsibilities. They both have black hair. They have the same haircut. While he is taller than she, they boast the same small waist size and wear the same belts. His feet larger than hers. Of the two, she wears more make-up, but he let her put eyeliner on him every morning. And you can tell he likes it, because now he puts his own eyeliner on.
“All other anarchists live in West Philly and although Dave and Simone signed a lease, bought some ferns at the Home Depot and bought clean towels for the bathroom, they each suffered hopes of  decrepitude.” Fletcher waves his hands. Enjoying himself. He does not stutter. “Because they like being punk rock, and punk rock isn’t towels, Murphey’s Oil Soap or thank you cards to parents. She imagined that one day she’d meet the Punk Rock King who would come and steal her away—I got that out of her late one night at the Royal Tavern. Dave, on the other hand, supposed his troubled sensitivity would pull him down, all the way, until he wrote the best poems ever. I think he’s always wanted to die before he was 20. That’s part of his problem. He’s 23.  His favorite books are written by Baudelaire. He used Baudelaire to woo Simone.
“In October a lover’s quarrel broke their third story window.
“She had decided to make curtains for the living room and kitchen and bedroom and he called her Boujie.”
“Boujie?” Tobias asks.
“Like, bourgeois.
“According to him, she threw his stereo speakers through the window and punched him in the throat and broke his glasses. She punched him in the face. He left their house for the last time wearing his only pair of purple corduroy pants and the checkered tennis shoes, which they bought together. She threw a copy of Marx at his head and ordered a restraining order.
“Proof of their violence. He had a black eye. I’m not convinced he didn’t punch himself. She can’t be that crazy. The court gave her the restraining order, I mean.
“I told him, ‘You look like the pooch from The Little Rascals—Alfalfa’s friend.’
“He didn’t even bat an eye—that’s how I know he’s a criminal. ‘That’s a racist, sexist show,’ he said.”
“When does he go to court?” Tobias asks.

Punk Rock Dave on Punk Rock Dave.

“Two days,” says Dave coming next to them. “Order me something, will you?”
“What did you do?” Tobias asks.
“I got kicked out. That girl’s crazy. She beat the hell out of me.” He pulls up his shirtsleeve, revealing a purple band of irritated skin. “Look at that. That’s from a fucking Indian rug burn!” He shakes his head. “Have you ever seen that happen from an Indian rug burn?”
“Not for all my years in camp,” Fletcher says. He grins wide and broad, like the happiest man in the world.
“If you think that’s bad, you should have seen my face. That chick is not just mean, she’s loco.”
“Why do you have to sew up your ears if you’re innocent?” Tobias turns with his drink. “And who’s this Ray guy?”
The Plunk, having sidled up to Tobias, shrugs. “He’s dead, I think.”
“Did he die on his birthday?’
The Plunk boxes Tobias on the ears too and everyone laughs.
Tobias thinks he might be happy. He has a good feeling even though his ears smart. He takes the assault as a sign of affection.
Within moments, however, his companions stray outside. Having not been invited, he stands still, examining the room.

On His Own.

Ends up sidling next to the bar, curious, decides he’ll relish being a man until someone kicks him out for being a boy.
After a few minutes, he feels the old man on his right staring. At first Tobias pretends not to notice. This proves impossible. Especially when the pressure of the other man’s elbow increases against his own. At last Tobias turns to face a waxy face. In all of the smoke in the room, it is at first difficult to focus on his features.
“You are definitely under age,” the man says.
Tobias glances at the bartender. The bartender is talking to a seventy-year old woman with a lot of gold jewelry. She is brown from a tanning salon. She and the bartender laugh. Tobias decides to deny everything. “I don’t know what you mean. Who are you?”
“I come here every evening. I’m about to go home. I know that you are a boy.”
“What is a boy?”
“You are a boy.”
“You haven’t told me your name.”
“My name is Roy Beckhoff. Your secret is safe with me.” The man has a sickly pallor. He is very thin. There are dark circles under his eyes.
“Do you live here?” Tobias asks.
“Not in the bar. In the city. I make keys.”
“You’re a locksmith.” Tobias smiles.
As though insulted, the man leans back, “I am most certainly not a locksmith. My father, Max, was a locksmith and part of the Greater Philadelphia Locksmiths Association. My mother, Fanny, was also a locksmith. I am not a locksmith. I do not change combinations, install locks or understand the intricacies of getting in and out of safes. I only make keys.”
“I see,” Tobias says. “I guess that might be an important distinction.”
Roy’s hair hangs to the nape of his neck, steely gray. His hands shake a little around his glass. He smokes constantly. The ashtray in front of them is brimming with butts. Roy might be in his sixties. His voice is strong and rich.
“When I was a boy,  I lived on West Oak Lane with two older brothers. Each brother had his own house key. When my brothers lost their keys, I lent them mine. We lost my key as well. When our father, the locksmith, refused to make another, all three of us had to sit on the stoop after school. Eventually, our father relented and gave a fourth key to a neighbor. I swore he’d never lend my keys again.
“What happened to you?” Roy asks. “Why aren’t you in school? I see too many kids out of school. You seem depressed, son. Those kids you’re with too—they’re no good those kids. They’re nice enough I guess, but I don’t think you should hang around them too long. You ought to be in school.”
“Actually,” Tobias says. “I came here to apprentice for a watchmaker. Unfortunately I learned that he’d passed away today. I’m depressed because I lost my livelihood without ever having had it.”
As though he had not heard, Roy continues to talk. “You should try being a locksmith. No you shouldn’t. I get my coffee on Market Street every day before I open my tiny storefront. I feel like an ant walking down Market, next to the Lord and Taylor’s—it’s giant, that building. When I get to the church I feel human again. It’s smaller than the store. Some mornings, the customers are already waiting for me to roll up the gate. The sign in front—my dad made it, says: Expert Locksmiths: ‘KEYS MADE WHILE YOU WAIT.’
“I work in a room, five-foot square, where I am a giant. The first key is always my best. It’s when I’m fresh. Rows of blank keys hold court around my stool and workbench. They wait their turn.
“My place, Expert Locksmiths, is a little larger than a telephone booth. The store is set off from the street by a Plexiglas window, a small knot cut into the urban jungle of steel and masonry. The window is full of faded photographs and cheeky witticisms: It’s a good idea to love your neighbor but don’t forget to lock you car when you’re in church. I came up with that one. I like that one.” Roy moves his hands elegantly, pulling them through the smoke as thought weaving. He clears his throat. “There are two phone lines in that cell on 13th. One is the business line: a black rotary telephone from the 1960’s called a Space Saver. It hangs on the wall and the receiver is its largest part; there is a separate bell that rings under the counter. The second, an ivory telephone, was put in for Fanny’s, (my mom’s)—” here, Roy adds the index and middle finger of both hands to buttress the clause,  “‘Social Activities.’ Oddly enough, my folks still get phone calls.
“They ask for ‘Max Beckhoff, please.’
“And I says, ‘I’m sorry he’s unavailable.’” Roy giggles through his nose. Tobias imagines him as a child.
“And they says, ‘Fanny?’ like she’s still around, lord have me.” He shakes his head. His tongue touches the side of his mouth and he licks his lips.
“So I says,” Roy winks, “‘May I ask what this is about?’
“And they—‘I’d prefer to speak with them directly, thank you. Do you know when they’ll be back?’” He looks like he’s about to cry. It’s very funny to Roy.
“I just says I says, ‘No idea.’ Shit.
“I guess it’s not that odd. Hell, my receipts still have my pop’s name printed above the company logo.
“Max Beckhoff’s stationary advertises two Expert Locksmith locations: 35 S. 13th street and a shop at 16th and Market that closed in 1970. Originally, however, there were three. The original Expert Locksmith was on 15th and South Penn Square; it closed in 1968. The little room on 13th Street where Roy spends his days was opened by Max and Fanny thirty-eight years ago. Let me get you a shot. You want a shot?
“Jimmy, lets have us a couple shot over here.”
The bartender, smiles. Without looking at Tobias, he pours their shots. He does not make eye contact with Tobias.
Tobias and Roy drink. Tobias coughs. Roy pats him on the back.
“Pretend you’re drinking with your old man kid. That’s all.
“Now. My Old Man grew up in splendor. My Pop was both a locksmith and a bootlegger. He taught me the art of key making. When the Depression came and my father’s store shut down, but that old geezer took to the streets, making keys in a cart. He left Philadelphia to fight in the war, and when he came back he and Fanny started the family business. Fanny looked after the store on those days when Max had to make house calls. It was she who insisted on the second telephone. If the business telephone was strictly for business then she would need a second line for more personal matters. After my dad passed away in 1970, Fanny looked after everything. When she passed away in 1991, I inherited the domain.” Roy shakes hi head. “It’s something else, kid. Being an orphan. I mean, I used to be a French teacher for chrissakes.” He giggles again.
“When I was a kid I did my homework on the stool next to the social telephone. Fanny used to play a game with me. It was the game of hot and cold. ‘Here is the key,’ she used to say.” He motioned to Tobias an imaginary key, and it seemed to give Roy some deep pleasure to reenact what had once been. “She would show me a key that needed to be copied. ‘Now find it,’ she says. I used to pause, look at all them walls, all lined with blanks.
“The foreign keys are on the right along with the motorcycle ones; they range to the left in a wide variety of American, or American imposters made in China. Most of the keys are made out of brass; the stronger ones are made out of nickel. That childhood game was the beginning of my career. Course I didn’t know that it would be a career at the time, but that is why it was a game. I went to college and studied Poetry of all things.”
He shakes his head, chagrin, claps Tobias on the back. “Sometimes I think it’s better poetry what I do. You can tell a lot about someone when you see their key chain: whether their key belongs to an expensive lock or how many doors they think they might have to open on a regular basis; there are regional preferences: Like Chicago, Philadelphia uses five and six pin blanks, while New York boasts seven. You can see how someone approaches a lock, whether they jiggle the key backwards and forwards, whether they are frustrated and forceful when opening their front door, even if the key is often thrown from a window: the metal begins to bend; it records the areas of stress. Every key is like a fingerprint: something individual, something personal. I see these things, and sometimes I’m forced to recommend alternate methods of approach.
“These damned folks come to me with something bent to shit, ‘Take it easy when you use it,’ I says before I give the customer a new key with the old. ‘Don’t jiggle so much.’
“And you should hear their excuses, ‘It’s not me, it’s my daughter.’” He laughs. “I swear.”
“‘Well tell her to take it easy,’ I says, ‘or she might snap the thing in two.’
“I feel like they come to me like a palm-reader or a principle in school. They offer excuses about what might have necessitated making a copy. Often they are elaborate, and the responsible party is rarely standing at the window.
“Like, ‘Yeah, I need three copies of these. My wife—she smashed the window again.
“I take a key from the man’s key chain and find one of the same family from behind him (cold, cold, warmer, ah! Hot.)
“‘She got locked out and smashed the window,’ fellow says.
“Or: ‘My son lost his keys and needs another set.’
“Or: ‘I need a new set of keys, my dog ate my old ones. Whole goddamned set, for Chrissakes.’
“I just smile.” Roy smiles. “I takes the key and place it in my machine: called a Borkey, it sits all the time in a nest of fine metallic shavings. The shoulder of the original key is placed in ‘the guide’ and the blank is inserted along ‘the cutter.’ The Borkey starts up her whining, like a gnat, its pitch marked with different inflections when the cutter bites into the blank. A duplicate is produced according to the original pattern and the process is relatively short. The price is about $1.50, depending on the key. I don’t always offer unsolicited advice. I’m a good man, after all. I may as well be, I spend all of my time in what may as well be a confession box. People rather come to me than church!
“A bunch of folks don’t want skilled labor, either. They need me to acknowledge their crises. I know what goes on in the post office, the bank around the corner, the coffee shop down the street—the one with the older guy who winks and grins at the girls—and the church, even, with the fellow who got drunk (last night, can you believe it?) and cussed to the priest at Dirty Frank’s.
“I know the gossip and I know the dreamers. People stop by with their fantasies—stories that I agree to believe in.
“Like this lady, she comes by all the time and I says, ‘How did you date with Prince go last night? Or is it The Artist Formally Known As? I get so confused.’” Roy shakes his head.
“‘No, I canceled,’ she says, sighing, demure, shaking her darn head. ‘I hadda eat casserole with my mother-in-law.’
“‘Did you call him?’ I ask.
“‘What, to cancel? No. It’s not like that. We’ve a very free sorta thing. No questions.’ And this girl, she shrugs and rolls her eyes, ‘You know how it is with artists.’
“I’m the last of my line, though. The very last. Today is the anniversary of my folks’ death. They died the same day, nine years apart. Strangest thing. First him with the cancer and her years later with a heart attack.”
“Where do you want to go when you retire?” Tobias asks.
“Retirement?” Roy guffs. “I’ll be working there until the day I die.”
“What about your kids?”
‘Will I hand the key over, you mean.” But he doesn’t say it like a question.
“Will you?”
“It all ends here.” He points to himself. “Never had kids.” He is still smiling, his thumbs pointed at his chest. His smile is more like a sneer. The man looks scared in a mean sort of way.
“And then?”
“This is it. This is it.”

When Tobias finally finds Fletcher, he asked his brother about the girls.
“Where are the girls?” he asked.
“The girls aren’t coming here. They’re going to Tattooed Moms. We should go there.”


3 Responses to “Rays Happy Birthday.”

  1. hank beckhoff Says:

    hello caroline picard,i happened upon your excerpeted story, ‘ray’s happy birthday’,and was flabergasted that you wrote about my younger birother,roy.listen,he died 4and half years ago, if you didn’t know that and obviously to me, you somewhat knew him,may i ask, about your relationship with roy? i miss him very much and your story brought out the melencholy in me.so,if you don’t mind responding,i’d appreciate it.thanks,

    • urbesque Says:

      Hey Hank!
      Thanks so much for such a nice note. That’s amazing. I actually lived in Philadelphia about six years ago. It was a pretty brief stint–I lived there for about 8 months. During that time, however, I happened to write a few things for The Philadelphia Independent and my editor asked me to see if I could do an interview with Roy. That interview was published–I’m not exactly sure which edition but I do believe I have a spare copy lying around. The version in this story is significantly shorter. I also changed a few things–for instance, I believe that he did have a family? I’m not sure, but I think he did. In any case he was lovely to talk to and when I’d drafted the article I sent it to him to get his OK. He seemed appreciative of the effort. He seemed like a really lovely man–he had an incredible relationship, from what I could tell, with his community. He offered a number of stories about people he saw every day and really seemed to appreciate the city and, even (if not especially) his family history–how it tied into his job and all that. I remember he told me about how he’d been a kid and–there were three brothers? is that right? i’m likely misremembering, but he told me about how each of you lost your key to the house one by one, him (the youngest?) the last one to do so. I remember I imagined you all sitting on a stoop after school.

      In any case. It’s lovely to hear from you, Roy left a real impression on me. He was generous to take so much time to talk–I was only about 22 then and had little experience in anything. He was great. If you want to email me additionally, you can do so at lantern.g@gmail.com.
      Thanks again for reading and responding,
      and as I hope is evident I’m so sorry for your loss. Death is an impossible weight.
      All the best,

  2. Pk Says:

    I was thinking of Roy and this story popped up in my search. He was a great guy. Truly one of a kind. I miss him very much.

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