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Plato At Scratch Daniel’s


ISSUE:  Spring 1986

In 1944, when Danny was 20, he met Hooper in a bombed-out basement in Cassino, Italy. The German-occupied town blocked the Allied advance to Rome, and for five months Danny had fought to take Cassino, suffering through a nightmarish winter of combat, a winter when he dreamed nightly of his own death. Then in May, when the battered town at last fell, he got cut off from his unit and found himself alone on a narrow cobblestone street, bracketed by the crumbling walls of what were once people’s homes. He moved slowly. He crept along the street with his back pressed hard against a stone wall, the breech of his BAR snug against his heart and his left hand sweating tight around the handguard. He took a short step and the wall behind him crumbled; and he fell backward onto a flight of stairs, tumbling several feet to a dark basement. When he sat up he saw Hooper sitting on a pile of rubble dressing a wound in his thigh.

“You all right?” Hooper asked.

Danny looked himself over. “Seem to be,” he said. He nodded toward Hooper’s thigh. “What about you?”

Hooper tied a strip of red cloth around his thigh in a bow. Blood was already soaking through it. He reached behind him and picked up half a broken bottle. It was covered with blood. “Fell on this and gashed my leg,” Hooper said. He looked down at his shoes and shook his head and laughed quietly, as if he were remembering a private joke.

Danny laughed too. Hooper was a short man—five-six, five-seven at the most—whose most prominent feature was an extremely high forehead (there looked to be an inch and a half more space between his eyebrows and crown than was humanly possible), and he was skinny. He cut an amusing figure, laughing the way he was, sitting on a pile of broken stones in the semidarkness with his pants down around his bony, pale legs and a red bandage decorating his slender thigh. So Danny laughed with Hooper while all around and above them the sharp, staccato claps of rapid gunfire echoed. “I just fell through the damn wall,” he said, and they both laughed again. Then he noticed blood gathering in pools around the edge of Hooper’s bandage and spilling in tiny rivulets down his leg. “Here. Let me help,” he offered.

Hooper looked at the bandage and nodded. “You can’t be any worse at this than I am,” he said.

Danny took two strips of linen from Hooper’s first aid kit. After removing the blood-soaked bandage, he folded the first into a rectangular patch which he pressed hard against the wound until the bleeding stopped. Then he fastened the bandage tightly to the leg with the second strip.

Hooper thanked him, and they shook hands; and as their hands met their eyes met, too, and Danny felt awkward for a moment before turning and starting up the stairs. When he reached the top of the flight, Hooper called to him from the basement shadows.

“By the way,” he said, “where are you from?”

“Syracuse, New York,” Danny answered, and from the darkness he heard Hooper’s quiet laugh, and though he couldn’t see him he knew he was looking at his feet and shaking his head as he laughed.

Thirty years later he saw Hooper again at Scratch Daniel’s, a flashy, slick bar on the corner of E. Onondaga and S. Warren Streets in downtown Syracuse. The bar at Scratch Daniel’s is some 30 feet long, and behind it is a huge triptych of mirrors, the same as the bar in length and in height reaching from the floor to a 20-foot ceiling. The barroom itself is narrow, the major part of it having been partitioned to serve as a dining room, and since the partition is mirrored with a triptych identical to the one behind the bar, a customer looking into either mirror can see his echoed image traveling forward and backward into a constantly shrinking infinity. This is precisely what Hooper was doing when Danny entered the bar on a quiet, snowy Syracuse afternoon: staring at his own image with wide and luminous eyes.

Only Hooper wasn’t Hooper anymore. His skinny frame had been filled out with flesh and muscle so that he had to be described as stocky, and he wore a full, glistening gray beard over round, pudgy cheeks. His hair was shoulder-length and as gray as his beard, and he sat at the bar with a Greek toga draped over his clothes. He appeared rigid, seated on the barstool, his eyes flashing as he stared at his own image. Thirty years had effected such changes in Hooper that Danny would have never recognized him if it weren’t for the unmistakable forehead.

He considered introducing himself to Hooper, but the man appeared to be in a world of his own, so he took a seat at the opposite end of the bar and put a 20-dollar bill on the counter.

“What can I do you for?” the bartender asked. Like all the employees at Scratch Daniel’s, the bartender was unusually good-looking and dressed in black shoes, black socks, black pants, black vest, and a white shirt.

“Scotch and water,” Danny answered. As he watched the bartender go about preparing his drink, a pretty barmaid with long black hair came out of the kitchen and took some change from the cash register behind the bar. She nodded and smiled politely at Danny before returning to the kitchen. He wondered how the owners got away with hiring only beautiful people. There was something morally wrong, he suspected, with such a policy, but he came to Scratch Daniel’s precisely because everything about the bar was clean, neat, and attractive, including the employees. “Listen,” he said, lowering his voice when the bartender returned with his drink, “what’s the story on that character in the toga?”

“That’s Plato,” the bartender replied, also lowering his voice. “He’s harmless. Buy him an ouzo on the rocks and he’ll do his number for you.”

“What’s that?” Danny asked. “What number?”

The bartender smiled. “I promise he’s harmless.”

Danny pushed a five-dollar bill forward on the counter.

“Plato,” the bartender called. “This gentleman is offering you a drink.”

For a moment Hooper’s face turned solemn, but then he shook himself from whatever world he had been inhabiting and turned and looked at Danny.

In Hooper’s eyes Danny saw not the least glimpse of recognition.

Hooper descended from his barstool and joined Danny, pulling up a seat alongside him. The bartender, still smiling, set a glass with ice on the counter and covered the cubes with a clear liqueur which turned milky on contact with the ice.

Danny started to introduce himself to Hooper, but the bartender stopped him and spoke as if Hooper weren’t there at all. “You just say right, or yes, or true, or something like that when he signals you. Otherwise he gets mad.”

Danny nodded.

The bartender signaled Hooper, and Hooper turned to Danny. “Tell me,” he said, folding his hands and resting them in the lap of his toga, “what manner of government do you term oligarchy?” His voice was rich, deep, and authoritative.

Danny looked at the bartender. “Right,” he said.

The bartender laughed.

Hooper looked at Danny sternly. “An oligarchy is a government resting on a valuation of property,” he said, “in which the rich have power and the poor man is deprived of it.”

Danny felt foolish. “Yes,” he said. “I understand.”

Hooper looked appeased by his response. “And tell me,” he continued, “do you know what timocracy is?”

Danny shook his head.

“Government!” Hooper boomed, “in which love of honor is the ruling principle!”

“Right on!” the bartender said.

Danny laughed nervously.

“And how,” Hooper asked, “does the change from timocracy to oligarchy arise?” He looked around the room as if awaiting an answer. Then answered himself. “The accumulation of gold in the treasury of private individuals is the ruin of timocracy! They invent illegal modes of expenditure, for what do they or their wives care about the laws?” He looked at Danny, again awaiting a reply.

Danny was now entirely lost. When the bartender nudged him he said, “Yes. Right.”

“Yes indeed!” Hooper said and put one hand on Danny’s shoulder. “And then one, seeing another grow rich, seeks to rival him, and thus the great mass of citizens become lovers of money.”

“That’s true,” Danny said.

“The gospel,” the bartender added.

“And so they grow richer and richer, and the more they think of making a fortune the less they think of virtue, for when riches and virtue are placed together in the scales of balance, the one always rises as the other falls.”

“Amen!” the bartender said.

Danny laughed. “It’s the truth,” he said.

“And in proportion as riches and rich men are honored in the state, virtue and the virtuous are dishonered.”

“Right,” Danny said.

“Right,” the bartender said.

“And what is honored is cultivated, and that which has no honor is neglected.”

“Hallelujah!” the bartender said.

“And so at last, instead of loving contention and glory, men become lovers of trade and money. They honor and look up to the rich man and make a ruler of him and dishonor the poor man.”

“They do,” Danny said, and by then he was listening carefully to Hooper and for the next hour he and the bartender—whose name he learned was Allie—listened to Hooper discourse on the nature of good and bad government. Danny was engrossed and fascinated by the talk, and Allie, who had heard parts of it before and occasionally walked away to tend to some business, also seemed interested.

When it was all over, Hooper indicated with a nod that his one-sided dialogue had come to an end. The bartender applauded, and Danny wanted to shake his hand, but he had hopped quickly from the bar stool, pulling the toga over his head as he approached the coat rack near the entrance to the bar, and before Danny could figure out what he wanted to say, Hooper had stuffed the toga inside his coat and was on his way out the door.

“Hooper!” Danny called. “Wait a second!”

In the half-opened doorway, framed in part by the darkness of the bar and in part by the white snow falling behind him, Hooper turned slowly around, his face screwed up into a grimace, his lips pulled back in a snarl revealing yellow teeth locked savagely together.

Allie took a step backward, and Danny took a firm hold on the molding of the bar. Hooper hesitated in the doorway, and then turned and walked out into the light and snow.

“Jesus Holy Christ!” Allie said. “What in God’s name did you say to him?”

Danny shook himself sharply, as if reacting to a chill. “That was unbelievable,” he said. “I thought he was going to attack us.”

“What’s this Hooper?” Allie asked.

“That’s his name. We were in Italy together in the war.”

“The war?” Allie said. “World War Two?”

Danny looked at him as if he were crazy. Of course World War Two. Then he realized how young Allie was, probably at the beginning of his twenties, and that World War Two, for him, was something he had only read about. He nodded. “World War Two,” he said. “We saw combat together in Italy.”

“Jesus,” he said. “Plato’s a war buddy of yours and his real name is Hooper.” He said this factually, as if straightening things out for his own understanding.

“I wouldn’t call him a war buddy,” Danny said. “I met him when we took Cassino. It was a big day. But I don’t even know his first name. He had Hooper stenciled on his uniform.”

“He’s Plato to us,” Allie said.

“I can see.”

“He’s a Hutchings outpatient. He’s been coming around for a year or so. A shrink I know says he spends all his time reading. You know, he wasn’t making that stuff up.”

“He wasn’t?” Danny said.

Allie shook his head. “It’s from The Republic, by Plato. The real Plato. He’s memorized the whole damn thing.”

Danny looked surprised.

“Here,” Allie said. He reached under the cash register and took out a paperback copy of The Republic. “I keep this around for the skeptics. I don’t know what part it is,” he handed the book to Danny, “but if you look through it you’ll find everything he was saying.”

Danny held the book in his hand. It was impressive to consider. “He’s memorized this whole thing?”

Allie nodded. “It’s how he makes spending money. He goes around to different bars in the day—anyplace within walking distance of Hutchings-—and he usually finds someone, and they buy him drinks and sometimes slip a few bucks into his coat pocket when they leave. He’s got a following.”

Danny laughed. “That’s amazing,” he said. “What a character.”

“No lie,” Allie said. “And you say his name is Hooper and he and you were in World War Two together. What was it like, the war?”

Danny looked down at the bar and thought about the question. He shrugged. “What’s to say?” he said. He took a five-dollar bill out of his wallet, pushed it across the counter, and started for the door.

“This a tip?” Allie asked, surprised.

Danny nodded. “You been good company.”

“Well, hot damn!” Allie said, affecting a country-Southern accent. “Y’all come on back soon now. Ya hear?”

“Will do,” Danny answered, and he gave a little half-wave as he walked out of the bar into the snow.

His truck was parked in the municipal lot alongside the courthouse, and by the time he got to it the snow had stopped falling. He nudged the truck out onto the street and 20 minutes later was out of the city and following a series of winding roads to Bale Road on Onondaga Lake in Liverpool, where he lived alone in a house built to accommodate a medium-sized family.

He pulled the truck to a stop in front of his attached studio (which used to be an attached garage before he bought the house and had it converted); and, getting out, walked around to the back door, which he kept unlocked. Behind him he could hear the water of Onondaga Lake slapping against the shore as he entered his house and walked quickly through a meticulously neat and well-furnished living room and through an equally clean kitchen to his studio. The studio door was the house’s only abnormality. Surrounded by the normal wood and plasterboard walls of the average house, the door to the studio was constructed of brushed steel and it was secured with both a mortise and a rim lock. It looked like the door to a bank vault stuck in the middle of someone’s kitchen. Danny wasn’t fond of its appearance, but he earned his living by restoring paintings, and since he sometimes spent months working on paintings worth a great deal of money, he needed the elaborate security.

Currently he was doing an extensive cleanup for the Everson Museum. They had managed to acquire, with the aid of a big publicity campaign and donation drive, Edward Hicks’ “The Peaceable Kingdom” and had engaged him to work on it before its initial exhibition. He reached up to the cabinet alongside the refrigerator and, pushing a box of Cheerios aside, turned off the burglar alarm. Then he released first the higher rim lock and then the mortise lock. Inside the studio, Hicks’s painting rested on an easel in the center of the room, and the late afternoon light coming through the studio’s barred windows cast the shadows of the bars over the surface of the painting so that the painting itself looked to be behind bars.

Danny lifted the easel and turned it to face the lakeside light, illuminating the painting with a steadier, if dimmer light. He had had the painting for a couple of weeks and was coming to like it a great deal, better than either Bingham’s “Fur Traders on the Missouri” or Homer’s “Breezing Up,” two other well-known American paintings he particularly admired. There was something special about this painting by a Pennsylvania preacher and sign painter who was attempting, simply, to make apparent the Word of God. The Prophet Isaiah said, “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the lion shall eat straw like the ox,” and so Hicks painted just such a peaceful menagerie and threw in, for good measure, William Penn signing his peace treaty with the Indians. But it was the animals and children in the foreground of the painting that most impressed Danny, the way the eyes of the cats seemed transfixed, as though they were staring outward at the viewer, awaiting a sign, and the way the children seemed so carefully posed—and so ugly. There was something about it all that fascinated and enthralled him.

He pulled up a chair alongside the window and studied the painting awhile longer, but meeting Hooper again after so many years had stirred up uncomfortable feelings, and he turned and looked out through the bars at the snow falling over Onondaga Lake. The surface of the water was dull gray, and where the wind ran across it, choppy and white with foam. What had happened between then and now? he asked himself. Between meeting Hooper in a bombed-out basement in Italy and meeting him again in a bar in Syracuse? He thought about the question and couldn’t find anything of singular importance. He had none of the conventional milestones by which others measure their lives. He had never married, nor had any children. He had never even been in love, though there had been women in his life, even some who claimed to love him. Both his parents were still alive, as were two younger brothers, though he hardly saw them since his brothers married and left Syracuse and his parents retired to Florida. Aside from his work and his music—he studied and played flute—there wasn’t a lot to Danny’s life, and though this hadn’t bothered him before, seeing Hooper made him think about the passing time, and thinking about it disturbed him.

He considered working on the painting, but decided, instead, in order to cheer himself up, to make a big meal. He locked the studio and started to work on a spaghetti and meatball dinner, but instead of getting involved in the cooking, as he usually did, he found himself performing each task mechanically. Hooper’s recitation of Plato’s dialogue had resurrected an odd memory. After the war, he had spent a few weeks at an Army base in Kentucky before being honorably discharged and sent home. One Sunday morning he had awakened wanting to go to church, though he hadn’t been since he was a child. He got dressed and outside the barracks met a group of black recruits on their way to services. They were embarrassed but they let him join them, and he wound up in a small country church, the only white face in an all black congregation. He thought he had forgotten that Sunday long ago, but now he remembered clearly a huge black preacher looming over a dwarfed pulpit, and he remembered the words he bellowed in a sonorous, forbidding music: “Greed and violence, brothers and sisters! Greed and violence!” Though he couldn’t remember anything else from the service, those words the preacher shouted, accusing, were sharp and clear, and they repeated themselves annoyingly in Danny’s mind, over and over. By the time the meal was cooked and set out on the dining room table, he was feeling surly and mean.

“I can’t believe this,” he said, and slapped his fork down on the table. He shook his head and looked around him, and when he found himself for the first time in a very long time feeling something like fear at the silence and emptiness of his house, he stood up and got his hat and coat out of the hall closet, and, leaving his dinner on the table, took the truck into the city.

At the Harrison-Adams exit he got off Route 81, but instead of turning right on Harrison and heading into the city, as he had thought he would do, he turned left on Adams and drove to Hutchings.

“I can’t believe this,” he said again as he drove into the parking lot, but he followed his impulse through. After having some trouble finding the right entrance, he walked up to a woman dressed in a doctor’s white coat who was seated behind a metal desk.

“Excuse me,” he said. “I’d like to visit a patient by the name of Hooper.”

The woman looked concerned. She checked the time on her wristwatch and then, as if to be absolutely sure she wasn’t confused, looked up at the large institutional clock hanging on the wall behind her. “It’s well past visiting hours,” she said with wonder. “Is there something wrong?”

Danny stared at her. He felt strange and disoriented and wasn’t sure what he should say. He put his hands in his pockets. “He’s a friend of mine from the war,” he said. “We were there when they took Cassino. He was wounded and—”

“Just a moment, sir,” she said, and she put her hand up to signal him to wait a second. She picked up the black phone on her desk, pressed a button and dialed a number. “Doctor Hammer to the front desk, please,” she said politely. Then she smiled at Danny and hung up.

“Oh hell,” Danny said. “God damn.” He turned and started for the door.

“Sir!” she called after him. “Sir!”

But Danny was already out the door and jogging through the parking lot to his truck. After he started it up, he sat behind the wheel and laughed. At the entrance to the hospital, two male doctors joined the woman at the door, and all three of them stared at Danny’s truck and talked among themselves. When one of the male doctors finally stepped outside, Danny put the truck in gear and headed home.

For the rest of that winter he tried not to think about Hooper and avoided going to any bars where he might run into him. Hooper made him question his life. When he started thinking about Hooper, he wound up thinking of himself, thinking he had never married or had children, thinking he had not accomplished anything of value with his life; and such a bleak appraisal of his life depressed him. He spent the winter working around the house, restoring little-known paintings, and trying to improve himself as a flutist. He put Hooper out of mind as best he could. But in the spring, after Onondaga Lake had gone through its annual freeze and thaw, something happened in a department store in downtown Syracuse.

He was shopping for a jogging suit, when he heard the unmistakable sound of gunshots coming from the floor above him. For a moment or two after the gunfire, the store was so quiet that Danny could hear the electronic hum of hundreds of cash registers. Then there was panic. People came charging down the escalator, rushing for the exits, and shoppers screamed for lost friends and missing children. From the top of the escalator a thin woman called for a doctor; then collapsed on a ridged metal treadboard and was carried slowly, slumped against the balustrade, to the first floor landing.

Danny’s instincts told him to leave, but he was relatively calm and stood his ground; and eventually, because he decided it was the right thing to do, he went up to the second floor to see if anyone was hurt or in danger. The store had turned quiet again, and as Danny stepped off the stairs he saw a handful of people milling around the furniture department. One man, a few feet away in the appliance department, was sitting on a stove and, with his feet dangling a few inches above the floor, violently rubbing his temples with his fingertips. Beyond him, Danny saw a man lying on a four-poster bed, his open eyes staring up at the bright fabric of the canopy, and as he moved closer he saw a dark stain of blood under the man’s head soaking through the quilt and into the partially exposed pillows. Drawn by curiosity, he moved even closer and saw that part of the base of the man’s head was missing where the bullet must have exited. At the foot of the bed, half covered by the side curtains, he saw a bright silver automatic pistol.

The man was a stranger to Danny, but he approached until he was close enough to touch him, and when he finally stopped, he shook his head half in disgust and half in sorrow. Then he saw the others: the woman kneeling over a coffee table, her torso resting on the slick mahogany surface, and the two small children who looked to be sleeping comfortably on the wide cushions of an expensive sofa, red stains soaking ugly circles through the fabric of their matching white jackets. He turned his back on the scene and saw a small group of onlookers.

“It’s a tragedy,” one of the people said as Danny approached them.

“I knew him,” another said. “They were buying furniture for their new house. That’s his wife and children.”

But Danny wasn’t listening. With the scream of approaching sirens in the background, he took the escalator down to the first floor and headed for the street. Outside, none of the hundreds of people busy traversing the streets seemed aware of the tragedy that had just been played out so close to them. Danny watched them scurry against a background of bright steel and glass, and it looked as though every one of them was in the midst of doing something important. They didn’t look at each other. They all walked quickly, their eyes set on a distant goal.

Danny turned and headed for Scratch Daniel’s. With a little luck, he thought, he might find Hooper there. If not, he could always check the other local bars, and in time he’d find him. And this time, he decided, he’d be careful not to call him Hooper. “If he wants to be Plato,” Danny said aloud, “Plato he is.” Alongside him, an attractive young girl dressed smartly in a navy blue business suit heard him talking to himself and looked at him as if he were diseased. Danny noticed. He turned and scowled at her and then hurried down the street to the bar, feeling, suddenly, as if he had an appointment of some importance.

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