THIN AIR - ROBERT CAPORALE
Originally published in INK POT #4 - 2004, a literary journal
It’s almost impossible to get into Margo’s Lounge for a quick beer without listening to the tuna boogie blues. Every day the Professor stands out on Canal Street in front of Margo’s panhandling or answering questions for loose change like some back alley quiz show contestant.
A can of albacore packed in water equals a shot and a beer in Professor Pissy Pants’ world. “I need a can of tuna fish," he bums. “Can you help me out with a buck, some change, anything?” It’s his signature spiel, he has a half-loaf of white bread up in his room at the Y but no tuna. “Just till Tuesday,” he Wimpys. “That’s when my check comes, on Tuesday. What do you say?”
“Ignore him,” Tomtom says.
“I own him this time,” Paulie says. “I’m going to stump him for sure.”
“I’m in no mood for Professor Pissy Pants, not tonight,” Tomtom says.
“He’s good for a laugh.”
“He’s good for nothing.”
“It’s a shot and a beer if you can tell me the speed of light.”
“One hundred eighty-six thousand miles per second.”
“Damn,” Paulie says.
“Is he right?” Tomtom asks.
“I believe so.”
“I told you,” Tomtom snaps.
“The guy was a history professor, what’s he know from physics?”
“Enough to take you for a cocktail.”
They watch the Professor chase down a shot of Calvert with a beer.
“Okay,” Tomtom tells him, “take it back out on the street.”
“Chill," Paulie says. “He’s not bothering anybody.”
Auggie, the bartender, asks the Professor the capitol cities named after United States presidents.
“Jackson, Madison, Jefferson City... Monrovia.”
Another shot and a beer.
“See. See,” Tomtom says. “See what you started?”
“The guy pisses me off.”
“Everybody pisses you off.”
“Not like the Professor.”
“Why’s he so special?”
“Simpatico,” the Professor says.
“What’s he talking about?” Paulie asks.
“Tell me... we’ll both know.” Tomtom shrugs and walks off, drops coins in the jukebox, punches in some tunes. When Tomtom gets back, the Professor has a couple more setups in front of him and he’s starting in on the 1956 Olympic fiasco. That’s when Tomtom loses it, knocks over a bowl of salted beer nuts.
The Professor is showing everyone at the bar with his thumb and index finger the difference between fourth and first place. Tomtom watches him in the mirror on the back of the bar. “Less than an inch and a half,” he says, “that’s it, a frigging inch and a half, the difference between notoriety and obscurity. I was a world-class long jumper back then," the Professor says. “Odds on favorite to take the gold that year. Big man on campus. I was getting all the press. Free drinks in the bars, free food in the best restaurants, people wanted to hang with me, and the women, ohhhhh, how the women treated me fine...”
“Enough,” Tomtom snarls. “We’ve all heard this. Fact is, the closest you came to the ’56 Olympics was reading about them in the Times.”
“Check it out for yourself.”
“I did,” Tomtom tells the Professor. “At the library. You’re not listed. Anywhere.”
“It’s an oversight.”
“You’re an oversight, you old bag of beer bones. You know why? Because they only post the medal winners.”
“My point exactly,” the Professor says.
Tomtom sits down on the stool next to Professor Pissy Pants. He orders up a beer and turns towards the Professor. Considers him. Tomtom slips a Zippo out of his pocket, like he might light the poor son-of-a-bitch bastard on fire or something. Tomtom starts opening and closing the Zippo. Click click. Click click, and at the same time Tomtom grazes on the inside of his own mouth like it’s honey-glazed. It’s clear to everyone sitting at the bar that something is about to happen here. Tomtom stops the clicking. “How long?” he asks the Professor.
“The jump? How long was your jump?”
The Professor tells him down to the sixteenth of an inch.
Tomtom’s an impresario at this sort of manipulation, as good as any crooked DA. “How wide do you think Sally Alley is?” Tomtom asks the Professor. Everybody’s leaning in now, curious on where he plans on taking this line of questioning.
“I don’t know.”
“Less than twenty-four-and-a-half feet, give or take?”
“Much. Maybe, sixteen feet.”
“I say there’s no way in hell you can make the jump from Margo’s roof across Sally Alley onto the adjacent roof. Not on your best day. Not in your dreams.”
Christ. Who saw that coming? Nobody. Talk about lowering the boom. This is better than falling in love on a Tuesday night.
Johnny Snips holds up a hundred dollar bill. “I got a C-note says he makes the jump.”
“I'll take some of that.”
“Put me down for twenty.”
Everybody’s right on cue.
What starts off innocuously at the bar escalates three flights up onto the roof of Margo’s Lounge and into the eye of a blue neon storm.
The Professor steps out of his pissy pants, carefully folds them along an imaginary crease, and lays them over a rusty air vent. He’s wearing stained bikini shorts, knee-high pimp-socks, and a beat-up pair of black US Keds.
“What’s with the Speedo?” Tomtom wants to know.
The Professor bends and twists, he stretches his hamstrings as he eyeballs the distance. “You can’t expect me to make a jump like this in long pants,” he says and marches away in giant steps while counting off in threes. He stops, turns back, shakes himself out, and crouches down into a three-point stance. A splendid looking sprinter’s three-point stance. The professor has a new face on. A game face. Who’s having who is still up for grabs. Either way it looks like the Professor is ready to take a belated shot at the gold up in the hazy blue of Margo’s neon sign. The Professor looks determined, he exudes the persona of a true athlete, an Olympian rather than some ball-busting whiny shit-ass stew-bum. He’s all sinew and sleek down in that three-point stance. In his mind he pictures the jump. In his heart he is the jump.
“We’re just having a little fun with you here,” Tomtom says giving the Professor his obligatory way out-always give a guy an out. “You don’t have to do this,” Tomtom tells him.
The Professor gives Tomtom an understanding nod.
“Come on, old-timer,” Paulie pleads, “enough is enough, let’s go back to the bar and suck down some beers. Have a few laughs. You proved your point.”
“I don’t have to prove anything to anybody.”
Tomtom sticks his hand in his pocket and starts clicking the Zippo.
It’s a muffled click, but still it’s a click click. Click click.
“Is someone going to readysetgo me?” the Professor wants to know. “Or am I just going on my own?”
“He’s bluffing,” Tomtom says.
Tomtom says, “Ready.”
The Professor takes a breath.
Tomtom says, “Set.”
The Professor digs in with his back foot, streamlines. It gets real quiet up on the roof. The Zippo stops clicking, the blue neon stops hissing.
It’s a good start. The Professor is off and running. No bullshit about it. In a matter of a split-second he is in perfect aerodynamic stride. Legs, arms, heart, soul all in concert drawing strength from the collective. We the spectators are blown away by the suddenness and the power and the grace of the spectacle. By the time the Professor approaches the edge of Margo’s roof he is but a blue blur. If he hits the takeoff, Goddamn if he might not make the jump. He nails it. He’s out there-legs arms still working hard, tendon cartilage churning. His ears full of roaring crowd, his eyes wide and sparkling. His chest heaves, his back arches as he stretches and reaches out.
The Professor is running on thin air.
Running on thin air.
BIO: Robert Caporale’s most recent publications can be seen in Wildcat, The Café Irreal, Zuzu’s Petals Quarterly, The Lummox Journal, Confrontation, and The Avatar Review. He is finishing up a short story collection and thinking about a novel. He takes MFA workshops at the University of Massachusetts.
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