“The Long Room” by Willy Nast


You stand on the sidewalk facing the long room, a room that you have walked past one-hundred times and have never noticed it is there.

The long room occupies the middle unit of an otherwise vacant three-unit building. You recognize the spaces on each side of this building – the fast food restaurant that sells fried chicken to your right, and the empty lot to your left. The empty lot sometimes serves as a Christmas tree garden, sometimes a pumpkin patch, and sometimes a fruit and vegetable market. Today it is just an empty lot surrounded by a chain link fence. Why, you wonder, do you know so much about this empty lot, but nothing of this building, and nothing of the long room?

You have not noticed the long room before because you have not looked for it. The long room has not called out to you. (It is not supposed to, said the friend who told you that you must go.) If you were to run a personality test on the long room, it would rate Type B – the quiet, uncompetitive introvert. The only sign, which you have never seen until now, hangs too high over the sidewalk to notice. It is perhaps two feet wide and eight inches tall, and reads “the long room” in barely luminous neon light, all letters undercase, as if whispering.

You open the door and step inside. It is, in fact, a long room. Although no wider than you could leap, the long room stretches in front of you for eighty or ninety feet, the bar on the right covering most of this distance. Strings of tiny rust-colored Christmas lights line the various shelves and counters behind the bar. From above, lamps hang at even intervals, barely glowing, with large red cone-shaped shades. More dim lights peek from the ceiling like the bottoms of children’s cereal bowls – green, blue, orange, green, blue, orange. The colors blend together until anything could be any color you’d like, making it difficult for you to describe the long room. It could be dirty or clean, safe or dangerous, inviting or cavernous – but it is somehow familiar, even though you’ve never been inside before. Stepping into the long room, you discover, is not unlike entering some long forgotten corridor in your mind.

The long room is full of people, leaving you to wonder how an establishment so shy became so popular. Despite the limited space, you don’t need to push as you walk deeper into the room; the crowd opens up in front of you and closes itself again behind you, as if you are not walking at all, but sinking. Near the end of the bar, you find an empty stool. You sit, unsure if you are merely lucky to have found the stool, or if you were meant to find it, expected. You order a beer – the special – named Delirium, and watch as individual faces begin to separate from the crowd, floating to the surface.

Maybe it is the ambivalent light playing tricks on you, but every face reminds you of someone you once knew. There are two grey-haired men sitting to your right, perhaps fifteen feet away. They are the oldest men in the room, but do not seem too old to be here. No one seems too much of anything to be here. One of the older men reminds you of a gym teacher you had in high school, an impossibly athletic man of seventy-one. You are glad he is still alive. At the end of the bar, a heavyset woman wearing a green top and dark-rimmed glasses reaches over to a tall man with thinning hair and bad posture and kisses him on the lips for an extended period, and afterward he doesn’t look as moved as perhaps she had wished he would. The man reminds you of a crooked-toothed, overweight boy from high school Spanish class who dated a frizzy-haired, bug-eyed girl. (Isn’t it great when ugly people find each other? a classmate had whispered to you.) One day the boy came to class with a tear-streaked face because he had been dumped. He really thought his life was over, and you were somewhat jealous of him for reasons you didn’t fully understand.

Behind the bar are three bartenders: two men in their twenties, and one woman at least a decade older than the men. Her blue eyes are large, yet sleepy from experience. It isn’t difficult for you to imagine her twenty years younger, pouring drinks and counting her admirers with her tips. She moves with the confidence of a woman who was beautiful once. You drink in her movements, the way she holds two glasses with one hand and the ice scoop with the other, the way she pours Tanqueray into one of the glasses while spraying water into the other, how she opens the garnish tray and pulls from it a lime wedge, fitting it on the edge of the glass – and the fact that she does all of this without ever looking at the glasses, the bottles, the ice, the fruit tray – her eyes always hovering on some spot on the wall behind you, as if she is pondering something, reaching for a memory all the while. She, too, reminds you of someone. Who?

A flash of light catches your eye. You look towards the end of the long room, where there is a separate room framed by a wide entryway. A photo booth stands in the corner; the light inside flashes three more times before the curtain slides open and two women emerge, their faces dispersing into the crowd before you can see them clearly. You stand up from your stool and sink toward this room. The floors, chairs, and cushions of the booth that bends along the rear corner of the room, where you sit, have all been painted black. You think you are alone in this room, sipping at your delirium, when you slowly become aware of a thousand tiny faces – grinning, winking, frowning, shouting – gathering at the boundaries of your peripheral vision, until you are surrounded.

You realize that, instead of wallpaper, the walls in this room have been covered with pictures from the photo booth, each thin strip made of four monochrome squares. Examining the wall at your shoulder, you look for people you might know, half expecting to find yourself. Not finding yourself, you stop on the face that looks most like your own, like you except heavier. (This happened once, the familiar face says to you, your memories are watching you.)

Snippets of conversation from the bar follow you to the end of the long room. “It was the most bellybutton lint I’ve ever had. You could have sewn a shirt out of that much lint.”

“Yeah, if you wanted a shit-smelling shirt. My bellybutton always stinks.”

“Not mine.”


“I’m thin. I have a shallow bellybutton. My lint is stink-free.”

When you were young your mother used to say that if you misbehaved, she would unscrew your bellybutton and your legs and arms would fall off. You pondered your bellybutton for a long time then. It was your center. It held you together. Now it just collects lint and stinks.

You stand up from the booth and walk back into the long room, leaving the faces to whisper behind you. You find your stool, the same stool. The bartender asks you if you’d like another beer, but what you hear is Don’t I know you from somewhere? I don’t think so, you answer, and she turns to retrieve your tab. Your mother. She reminds you of your mother. Not your mother today, your mother when she was younger – but not so young that she was still beautiful. The mother who owned all that she touched without looking at it, reaching for a plastic cup in the cupboard, filling it with ice, pouring in the sweet liquid (saying be careful not to spill), her tired eyes pointed in the direction of something far away.

On the wall behind the bar, you notice, for the first time, a mirror. You scan the familiar faces of the strangers sitting on their stools until you find your own face. There you are, dimly lit, and you remind you of yourself. (Look at where you are, you say to you. Look where you have been. Look where you are going.)

Willy Nast is a graduate of Northwestern University, where he majored in creative non-fiction. He is a native of Aurora, Illinois, a place he finds so complicated that he is trying to write a book about it. He currently resides in Chicago with the world’s laziest dog, an adopted greyhound named Elmo. He updates (far too infrequently) his own writing blog: http://trustmeimawriter.blogspot.com.

To read Willy Nast’s comments on Stephen Markley’s “Hot Crying Girl,” click here.

Notes from Chad Peterson, Associate Editor
For me, “The Long Room” reads almost more as a scenic snapshot than a story, but within its mystical, dreamlike description there was enough story-thread to give it a strong sense of underlying meaning and intension. This piece, for me, asks more questions than it answers, but in the process of doing so, it evokes such a clear sense of mood, and brings such a distinct feeling to the reader that makes the process of discovering where the story is taking you quite fascinating.

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