Horse Walks into the Bar by Joel Streicker
I’d like to say a horse walks into the bar, but it’s really only a guy in a horse costume. Still, it’s not something you see every day, or every night, even on Halloween, which it isn’t. He sits at the bar and holds up a hand to get my attention, which isn’t really necessary because I can’t take my eyes off him, or his costume: an enormous homemade horse’s head with teeth the size of dominoes, a long wig for a mane, the body made out of what looks like old brown shag carpeting. Not a very artful horse. He hasn’t even bothered to make hooves.
“’Bartender says, “Why the long face?”’” he says, just a bit aggressively. “Right?”
I hold up my hands in sign of surrender. His face isn’t really long—it’s more of a lumpy cube, like whoever made it had only the most general idea of what a horse looked like or simply wasn’t much of a craftsman. Still, everyone knows the set-up for the joke.
“Yup. It’s the first thing they teach us in bartender school.”
He laughs, but I can’t tell if he really means it. “First time I’ve heard that one.”
“Flatterer,” I say, wiping the bar down with my rag. “I bet you say that to all the mares.”
This time his laugh sounds real. “And the fillies,” he says. He looks around. It’s early yet, and there’s only a few older guys sitting at the bar, watching the Giants lose another game on three of the four TVs (the fourth has on a mixed martial arts match) scattered throughout the place.
“What can I get you?”
“Well whiskey. Neat.”
I nod and turn my back to get the bottle. I sneak a peek in the mirror. I can tell the horse guy is staring at my ass. I understand the dynamic: Men drink more in the company of half-way decent-looking women, and tip better. The faintest whiff of even a distant possibility of sex is a real wallet-opener. I’ve thought about going to work at a gay bar, but they don’t generally hire straight women. Besides, I admit, I’m getting to the age where sometimes the attention is welcome.
I turn, bottle in hand. Mr. Horse hastily turns his head. We both pretend: Him that he wasn’t staring at my ass, me that I didn’t catch him at it. He fumbles with his wallet.
I wave him off. “When you’re all done,” I say. “It’s bad luck and bad manners to pay right away.” Unless it’s a busy night and you look like a skeezy motherfucker who’ll slip out without paying.
One of the old guys at the other end of the bar catches my eye and I motor over to get him another beer. I hang out with them a while, ragging on the Giants—truly a shit season, this one—but I keep Horse Guy in the corner of my eye until he lifts his glass at me again. I say something clever and flirty to make the old guys laugh, and then I quickly turn toward the horse, switching my ponytail; I fancy I hear it crack like a bullwhip.
“How about another one?” he says.
“Rhetorical questions are my specialty.”
“Why don’t you take off the horse head?”
“Rhetorical questions are indeed your specialty,” he laughs again, and then turns serious. “I can’t take it off.”
“What do you mean, you can’t take it off?” Now I’m interested, but a little bit wary.
“You’re going to think this is made-up. It sounds made-up.” He hangs his horse head.
“No, I won’t. Try me. People are always saying wacky things here.”
He’s quiet for a minute and then says, so softly I can barely hear him, “A witch put a curse on me and turned me into a horse.”
It doesn’t sound any less ridiculous the second time.
He hangs his horse head again. “No one believes me.” I’m confused. He looks normal enough, for a guy who’s dressed like a horse. I mean, he wasn’t sounding crazy until this witch shit.
“I suppose a kiss from a barmaid is the only thing that can break the curse?” I’m trying to joke him back to reality.
“I don’t know,” he says miserably. “She didn’t say. It’s not like in fairy tales or super-hero movies: The villain doesn’t go into a big explanation before he fucks up your life.”
I consider this. It makes sense, even if the rest of his story doesn’t. I’m suddenly very tired. I glance down the bar at the old guys glassily watching the Giants shudder and creak to another defeat. I imagine twenty five, thirty years from now, a new crop of old guys sitting there, joking and drinking their lives away in this dive. And me serving them. I lean on the bar and drop my head. I think of Ray and the ring I used to wear on my left hand. When I look up, Mr. Horse is staring at me. I lean in toward him until I can smell the whiskey on his breath. I close my eyes and part my lips, granting, seeking, the horse’s saving kiss.
Joel Streicker’s fiction has appeared in a number of journals, including Hanging Loose, The Opiate, Kestrel, and Great Lakes Review. He is the author of the poetry collection El amor en los tiempos de Belisario, as well as other poems published in Spanish and English.
Streicker was awarded a PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for his work with Argentine writer and International Man Booker finalist Samanta Schweblin, and was a translator in residence at Omi Translation Lab. His translations of Latin American fiction have appeared in numerous magazines, including A Public Space and McSweeney’s.