Everybody’s gone, of course. Of course they left him glassy-handed in the chair and left behind quite a wake, a tornado of playing cards and poker chips and the usual array of aluminum and glass and plastic, the animals, not even cleaning up but I wouldn’t clean up either probably. Watery guitars weeping from hidden speakers and the muddy lurk of the night outside the window and the palpable pulse of his mind. Arm numb he raises glass to lips and takes in a pull, nectar of the dogs ha! the dregs swirling and sinking until it’s all gone, down the ol’ gullet and a tingle in the blood all nerves firing. Then to the fridge for a snack but the fridge holds no signs of satisfaction and he knocks his shoulder against the doorjamb solid on the blade and he grimaces but the pain don’t come and how delightful. On the floor in a knocked-over bottle a little volume of liquor, whiskey it seems upon squinty-eyed inspection, rock n roll! and a half-drunk can of coke on the table so he pours ’em together a little too fast, a few residual splashes on the cheek. He chugs warmly and immediately it’s Camel time but all’s to be found is an empty pack and nothing in his pocket, I had a half pack of toskies and those thieves musta stole it. But there’s a toskie round here somewhere so he combs the couch and ransacks the bedrooms and then back to the living room looking hi and lo tippy-toes to hands-and-knees and then oh glory! oh happy day! luck of luck Lady Luck (who shines on me will telllll you where I’m aaaaat) behind a flap of couch-fabric on a golden patch of carpet: a lonely toskie, gleaming enamel-white in its lonely lair. What fortune! Kid in a candystore bull in a chinastore haha! Back on the chair he sips and smokes having a grand time now, the music’s been on the whole time but only now does it register, washing through his head like a wave music to my ear music to my hear orchestra-conducting with half-full tumbler substituting for baton, what’s-their-name, the skinny weird British dudes…it don’t matter, the marvelous mood of early afternoon has returned and he doesn’t wanna be alone so he reaches in his pocket and scrolls through his Blackblurry and the first name he settles upon is you know who, the white jacket with the fluffy collar and oh the tits on her, I know she loves me (she loves you yeah yeah yeah) and those stockings she wore even in that cold cold night, first composing a text message but halfway through reconsiders and here goes nothing, the full-blown call. Risky business, this day and age. Alas: straight to voicemail and probably she’s working. Anyways he don’t want to talk to her anyways, most likely it’s better she wasn’t there since who can forget those all-too-recent calls she did answer cause how come you only call latenights huh mister? And the real gut-punch of we’re great when we’re drunk but sober we’re like strangers. Yah and besides he is in a fine mood an electric mood a dangerous mood and such a time is no time for a girl, that’s what he always says. Girls are for going to bed next to and waking up next to and then everything in between is just, well…And what about Patty and the rest of the party? Big Mike and his fiancée and she’s got a bun in the oven too and Jackie from college and her friend with the leather skirt and others, faceless others. Patty would know the plan, the man with the plan the Plan Man so he scans one-eyed through the Blackbleary and places the call.
–Well look who’s risen from the dead, says Patty.
–Pshaw risen from the dead. Tired is all.
–You need to handle your liquor better.
–I handle my liquor jus’ fine, thank you.
–Not what the ladies say.
–Yah yah Romeo, where’d you run off to?
–Well Fitzgerald’s for now.
–Yes for now. Means “for the time being” or “at the moment” or –
–Well hold yer horses, I’m on my way.
–Giddy up then!
–And don’t fall asleep on the way.
He’s in a hurry suddenly and the thirst is growing so he downs the drink, hmmmm, mutes the stereo and into the kitchen but still there’s no food except in the cupboard some bread and a tub of peanut butter so with a forefinger he smears a lump of brown across the surface of the bread and the bread tears and crumbles and the peanut butter won’t spread so he just shovels the horrid mess in his mouth but now he’s thirsty on top of hungry but no time to waste. Whoa now – not without the ol’ trusty fedora which aint on the coffee table and aint on the bed and aint on the coat rack either and I bet Peppermint Pat took that too, half pack and the ol’ trusty fedora to boot so the bowler’ll have to do but as he sets the thing on his skull he realizes the fedora’s been there all along, ha!
Hoofing it up Marshall traipsing through the dusty snow and slanting aside for the couple in matching mittens huddled and pink-faced like they’d been walking miles, howdy folks and double hellos. Zig and zag across the sidewalk. Left right left hi-ho through the snow floating gorgeous and warm and I love this jacket. Can’t read the street signs but then he sees the park and the path is hidden with snow but what the hell. There’s a man on a bench in earmuffs a lipstick-red coat and two scarves huffing a cigarette blowing breath smoke in the air and I could go for a toskie. He makes an offer but the man doesn’t hear or doesn’t care.
–Sir I’m in a bind here you know how it goes. Sir!
But the sir aint listening.
–Well you can pretend you don’t hear me but yer being ridiculous. Alls I need is a toskie and yer being ridiculous.
And then the man jumps alive yelling and flipping the scarves back and forth back and forth shoulder to shoulder.
–It’s you who is being ridiculous, the man says with high-pitched indignation, –You are the one who is interrupting me! I can’t even have a moment of peace in this park because of people like you! I’ve seen you here before, you know. I’ve seen you!
He’s never heard such high-pitched indignation on and on sounding like a frustrated little bird so he starts laughing which really irritates the bescarved man whose rant grows louder and higher and he can’t stop laughing, baby you’re a lo-ost cause and he takes off down the path and then he’s got a genius idea, he bends to the snow and scoops a handful of the white stuff compressing the powder in his hand and he fires a high hard one which explodes across the yelping man’s chest a flurry of white a fury of white ha! and the man springs toward him with long awkward strides and then it’s a tangle of arms grabbing and shoving until he loses balance slips lands heavily on his ass with a grunt and the man stands above him with a dumb puzzled look on his face just stands there so now he’s mad all hot about the face hot to trot too hot to handle and a buzz in his back,
–I’ll kill ya you mother!
The man’s eyes get big as poker chips and then he’s gone in a tailwind of scarves, earmuffs bobbing through the dark like apples.
The silent lights of Selby beckon, the brownstone Dacotah Building the Russian restaurant’s crimson façade the snow-crested streetlamps and a taxi crawls east slow and steady wins the race right Ma? Crossing the street and here’s stuffy old WA Frost what the hell I’m thirsty anyways and inside a smell like roasted cashews, crowded house and all, the ornate wallpaper and diamond-bright chandeliers and a hundred polite conversations swirling in the air, through the huge door with the frosted-glass window here’s the bar, fancy oak and brass monstrosity, tables for two abound but not an empty seat in the room, sharp-dressed crowd, snacking, drinking, loud actually or at least not quiet, now lookie here lookie here all you wine-drinkers and cheese-eaters here’s a guy who knows how to have a good goddamn time! No one pays him any attention not least of whom the bartender, a hunchbacked man with the face of a marmot and a poorly cultivated beard.
Tapping his credit card on the bar. Tapping. Knocking his knuckle.
–Hey, don’t mind me, I’m just a peasant! I know I aint a good ol’ boy but is my money no good here? Hey!
But when the bartender saunters over it’s like he hasn’t heard a word, brandy seven (grunted), and the bartender bows like a good little servant and slowly mixes the drink, slowly mixes the drink. He pays and leaves a small tip like fifty cents buy yerself a razor and the drink is holy hannah he takes a few gulps or rather sips and eavesdrops on the women next to him.
–Her son is on his second tour. But that’s not the worst part. He was shot in his first tour. Like, with a gun. Can you imagine anything so crazy, getting shot and coming home and then going back? Can you imagine anything so crazy?
–And she’s one of the lucky ones, says the other. –Think of all those mothers who get the midnight phone call.
–Oh I couldn’t bear it. I don’t know what I would do.
–I don’t know how she can even fall asleep at night.
–Excuse me, another glass of the Bordeaux please.
–God, and with Tom travelling so much…
There’s a lull and he takes the opportunity to lean in smells like apricots politely asking for a cigarette but his request is greeted with twin looks of mortification disgust pity disappointment all mashed up in the creased eyes and fading lips of these two women, mothers probably but not so far removed from stranger longer happier nights, still made up, still perfumed, still on the sly lookout for the glances and little attentions they no doubt garnered in their so-called heydays, twin shakes of the head and that’s all there is to it. He smiles but they’ve already turned back to their private conversation which given the time and place he absolutely does not care to process so without further ado without even finishing his drink he escapes that genteel prison out again onto the frosty pavement awash in the glare of a street lamp and the allure of Fitzgerald’s and the boys and the girls pulling him alone along the long lone road.
–Don’t get me wrong, says the woman who looks a little like his mother. –I had plenty of fun in my day. But you know how it goes.
–Well yer here aren’t you?
–And how old are you anyways? ’Cause you don’t look that old.
–Silly boy, she says. –I’m not touching that one.
He shrugs suit yerself lady.
–Well how old you think I am?
–I don’t know, twenty-six maybe.
She turns pink as a puppy’s nose.
–You’re just saying that.
–No really, twenty-six or twenty-seven.
–I–I know what you’re doing, says the woman who looks a little like his mother. What with her globe earrings and pale blonde hair and nickel-plated eyes and the confident way she crosses her legs and the boyish manner in which she tosses back her drink and the ivory-white stilettos worn with a certain clumsiness and even her ethereal laugh, uncanny really, just like his mother or no just like the stock photo of her they used to run in the paper.
–So Paul, she says and where the hell did she get that one. –What do you do?
–This and that. Man of many hats. A man of many fedoras ha! coat of many colors! man for every season! man of many coats!
—But what do you do for a living, I mean.
–I’m a professor, he says.
–Professor of what?
–Paul, she says.
–That aint my name you know.
–It’s okay, he says. –Anyways I like it.
–I’m going for a cigarette.
–Got a spare?
She fishes in her purse, shakes her head sadly. –Last one.
She leaves a wake of perfume and lip gloss and of all the girls and all the whiskey joints in all the world and where’s Patty and them anyhow? Out comes the phone and he dials Patty. Three rings, four rings. Finally Patty answers:
–Don’t hola me, man. Where the hell are you?
–Take it easy, says Patty. –Sweeney’s.
–Yah, you know, Sweeney’s. Corner of –
–What happened to Fitzgerald’s?
–We were there and then we left.
–You was here and then you left.
–The girls wanted to leave, what was I supposed to do?
–Yes, girls. You know, the ones who, instead of wieners they got –
–Wouldn’t you like to know.
–C’mon man, who?
But the names are all lost in static and bar noise.
–Goddammit I’m comin’ so hang tight this time.
–Don’t, Patty says. –We’re leaving.
–I’ll call when we leave.
–Goddammit Patty! But he doesn’t know what else to say and it’s a bad connection, a rattle on the other end and a sharp click and Patty’s gone like he never was there in the first place so nothing much to do now except sit back relax order another cocktail and relax. The woman who looks a little like his mother is nowhere to be seen or heard or smelled.
–Alls I want is another stupid drink, he says, but the bartender aint listening no more and here comes this ogre the whaddaya call him the the doorman the mandoor Mandarin chicken is fin-ger lickin’ but not a bulky testosterone-junky type more like the pudgy kid who never played sports and wore glasses and played some obscure instrument in the school band, he’s huge and coming forward to address the situation and the bartender has a tired look on his face and I wish he’d wipe that damn smirk off his face I oughta knock him flat on his ass is what I oughta do.
–Just gimme another one and this don’t have to be so difficult.
–You’re done, says the bartender.
Without thinking much he leans over the bar reaching for a bottle something anything and it’s fingers grasping glass and he’s not sure if he wants the bottle to hit the bartender or to steal but then the ogre is there laying two big sweaty palms on his shoulders.
–Okay, buddy, time to hit the road.
–But alls I want is one more drink! And he squirms out of those big sweaty hands and the brute raises his hands like whoa, okay, I’m not getting touchy here which is precisely what he’s doing and gone is the schoolboy nerd and standing there’s a huge meathead who’s been through anger management counseling where he learned to count to ten before raising those anvil fists and wreaking the havoc he wishes he didn’t have to wreak, this is all so clear now and there aint any reasoning with this behemoth so he surrenders, all right all right, and the bartender says,
–Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!
And oh if that weren’t the most infuriating sentence etter othered, the coward, coward, some people are cowards and that’s just how it is.
Outside and since when did it start snowing? he dials Patty and says don’t go nowhere I’m comin’ to Sweeney’s and before Patty can say anything he hangs up and heads down the road walking right into the slanting snow and it’s slow going for a while, he passes three girls in hairy boots who laugh at something, icy breath issuing from their glossy mouths and he really wants a toskie. At Dale there’s a convenience store he’s never noticed before so he buys a pack of not the right brand of smokes but who cares and asks for a book of matches which they don’t have so he buys a lighter and outside lights one up and it really hits the spot he gets to thinking how he really oughta beat the hell outta that bartender so he turns round and heads back the way he came and he passes the same three girls in the hairy boots and they look at him like he’s the crazy one and they laugh again and his blood boils but it’s not them he’s after and with long strides straight now he works his way back to Fitzgerald’s which seems to take much longer than the previous trip and he stops once for a toskie which tastes harsh but he smokes it to the filter anyway and his throat is dry like wool and he can feel potato-chip ridges on the roof of his mouth and no way he’s getting nourishment here so screw it.
Pit stop: the whole place smells sour like July sweat but there’s plenty of people here all seemingly oblivious to the reek so maybe it’s all in his head or all in my nose ha! The neon shamrock on the back wall is about the only Irish artifact in the entire bar which some of the Irish bars in town go so overboard with the whole Eyre thing to the point of gimmickry while this place happens to have an Irish name and that bright green sign and otherwise it’s a bar where you can order a goddamn beer without feeling compelled to make it a Guinness. It’s loud here but controlled and a diverse crowd really, some black men shooting pool and an old lady at the bar with a bag of peppers and a table of girls with ringed fingers and a man with a huge puff of hair like a brown dandelion reading a sci-fi novel near the window, a diverse crowd really, he acquires a drink and takes a booth by the pool table and watches the game of pool for a while but the game isn’t familiar to him not eight-ball and not nine-ball what then, seven-ball? it’s too confusing. He notices a couple at the bar, a man tall and gray-haired standing with his arm around a seated woman whose streaky hair is fading perhaps from too much time under the sun or the lamps of a tanning booth, she looks familiar but not as familiar as the man who is upon futher review undoubtedly his father, even from a distance and through booze-blurred eyes he knows it’s his father and how many times do I have to run into him like this his father is with a woman and he’s alone, how embarrassing, his father, forty-seven or forty-eight and past his prime though maybe with his money and his job he’s actually smack-dab in the middle of his prime at least for certain women, his father, laughing and drinking and mindlessly rubbing the lower back of a woman who from his vantage point appears to be attractive or at least in good shape, his father, and as for him, well, he’s merely alone and ooooohhhhh oh lo-onesome me. Then his father laughs and turns scanning the bar for something or maybe just out of curiosity which if curiosity killed the cat and the cat jumped over the moon then who killed the moon and inevitably they lock eyes and a look of calm recognition washes across his father’s face and he whispers something to the woman who of course spins around to see. He doesn’t recognize the woman but it doesn’t matter. His father heads his way with laconic strides like when Ma used to say Do something, aren’t you going to discipline him, I’m tired of being the bad cop.
–Funny seeing you here.
–You don’t know?
–Thought I ordered whiskey but maybe it’s tequila.
–Not so bad.
–Trusty old scotch for me, says his father, holding aloft the drink for a cheers.
They smile twin smiles, the apple don’t fall far from the tree eh?
–So who’s yer friend at the bar?
His father seems relieved. –That’s Danielle.
–Well come on Pops, aint you gonna introduce me?
–Well yah I mean, she don’t have to sit by herself over there.
His father beams, face like a heat lamp, walks over to his friend and they talk for a moment and the woman gathers her coat the collar of which is made of fur or fake fur, not gratuitous fur but natural and sophisticated and nice, how come men can’t wear fur since it looks so warm and smart and what’s more manly than draping yourself in the pelt of some animal? Introductions are made and this Danielle is a pleasant lady, much soberer than either of them though she’s drinking something clear with a lime garnish that most definitely aint water.
–I’m in accounting, she says, not she’s an accountant but rather that she’s in accounting which leads him to believe she’s a secretary in some corporate accounting department rather than an actual CPA, plus she don’t exactly look like the number-crunching type, what with her Florida tan and the streaky hair she looks more like an upper-upscale interior decorator instead of a bean-counter. She don’t say much but she laughs a lot and not like polite laughs either she seems genuinely cheerful and at some point she goes to the restroom so he says to his father,
–So Danielle, eh?
And his father nods and tries to hold back a smile.
Sometime midtoskie he notices the snow has stopped which seems strange to him, it’s been snowing so long he got the feeling it would never stop and now that it has there’s a sinking feeling in his gut like maybe he’s done something wrong. And then the door opens and here’s his father wrapped in a beige overcoat which looks new.
–How about a little father-son bonding.
–Okay, he says and hands over a toskie like it’s the most natural thing in the world, the two of them huffing down Camels though he’s never seen his father smoke and he’s never smoked in front of his father but he gets the feeling his father’s known all along. They don’t say a word. He finishes and waits for his father and then they go back inside where Danielle is playing pinball all by her lonesome but looking content.
–Seems like a nice lady.
–Yeah, good. You mean it?
–I’m a little drunk, he says.
–You’d really like her.
But the way his father says it rings false, something slightly off about it like a phantom note slipped into a piano chord, would I really like her Pops? would I if what? and here’s a moment ripe for either breakthrough or breakdown, an apology or a truce or else an explosion of pent-up Stuff, a barrage of things one has been meaning to say to the other for years now, no inhibitions, let it all hang out, the conversation’s just about stalled out and either it’s gonna die right there in the sweaty neon-swirled air of the bar or it’s gonna go right off the rails.
But then there’s a commotion near the door and a group of young men enter in a collective fit of boozy laughter and well well well if it aint Patty and them. Patty and Big Mike and Gilly to be precise no girls in sight and judging from their mood they’re four sheets to the wind and when they recognize him they shout across the bar: Richie, Richie, you lush, where you been? And boy is he ever glad to see them, he’s not mad anymore and it’s all handshaking and backslapping and other masculine affections.
–Guys this is my Pops, he says, and then there’s some more introductions, hey how ya doin’, nice to meetcha, some blizzard eh? what’re ya drinkin’? let’s get a round, okay, all right, sprinkle the infield. A merry bunch. And Richie, he’s so glad to see them all. Strange night but then again aint they all.
And there’s beers to drink and jokes to tell and any minute now the lights’ll come up and we’ll shield our eyes and we’ll stall we’ll drag our feet we’ll bribe the bartender for one more just one more sir and here’s a little something you know for the effort and he’ll cave in out of pity or because he’s been in our shoes before and we’ll really milk the last one until reluctantly we’ll shuffle on out the door where we’ll stand talking laughing joking, what now, what now, and we’ll end up at our place someone’ll put on some music too loud of course and cigarettes will be smoked and cards will be played and drinks will be mixed with anything that can be found and we won’t care how they taste and someone’ll tell a weird long story that goes nowhere fast but we’ll laugh every last one of us we’ll laugh and laugh ’til our throats go raw because no one’ll want the night to end no one’ll want the night to end just yet.
Front page image by OiMax.