Beware the Solitary Drinker
By Cornelius Lehane
Poisoned Pen Press Copyright © 2002 Cornelius Lehane
All right reserved. ISBN: 1590580168
Five minutes after I came behind the bar for the night shift, Chuck, the day guy, came out of the manager's office, his face as white and drawn as a terminal patient's. Given his normal barroom pallor, he was a ghastly sight.
"Spotter's report," he whispered.
"Shit!" I felt the arrival of doom. "When?"
"Two weeks ago Thursday."
Trying to remember two weeks ago Thursday was like trying to recall my childhood. I couldn't remember one Thursday from another-or from a Tuesday for that matter.
"We all came back from the country," Chuck said.
That was it. I didn't have to wait for the manager's call. I now remembered. The whole day crew came in to visit near closing. I'd practically given the joint away.
"Mr. McNulty." Alphonse, the manager, addressed me with all due solemnity. He sat at his inner sanctum desk next to the liquor storage room. We both knew he was chortling and cheering behind his pompous veneer. "I want to read to you from this report." So he did. As soon as it began I remembered the weasel spotter, short, a round head, brown hair combed across a bald dome, glasses, a wimp's smile.
Alphonse read: "I ordered a double martini. The bartender, nametag Brian, poured it, took my ten dollar bill, registered three dollars on the cash register, and returned me four dollars."
Alphonse looked up. I waited for the rest. The general manager of the hotel half-sat half-leaned, against the front of the desk watching intently; the head of hotel security stood like a palace guard beside the desk. I braced myself.
"Under the circumstances," Alphonse began again, becoming almost majestic in his solemnity, "I have no choice but to request your resignation."
I wanted to stall for time. I wanted some kind of opening into the report. Actually, I didn't know what to do. "Would you read me the rest of the report?" I asked him in an anemic tone of voice.
He looked confused. "There is no more."
"That's it? ... That's Thursday night?"
"That's all that's in the report for Thursday night?"
He nodded again.
I believed God had intervened.
"What the hell kind of spotter's report is that?"
"Enough for us to terminate you," the general manager said.
"Where's it say I stole?"
"C'mon, McNulty. We weren't born yesterday," Alphonse shouted, his solemnity, along with his faintly European accent, bowled over for the moment by his Bensonhurst roots.
"The spotter was. Don't they give those guys eye tests?"
The entire management crew sputtered at me. I was the union steward; they hated me. The business agent from the local used to come for lunch once every couple of months until I started making him enforce the contract. No one likes a troublemaker, not even me. But I can't help it. My father was a Communist, one of the founders of the Newspaper Guild. His quixotic sense of the workers' rights and the boss's injustice rubbed off on me. It's my curse, one of the reasons why this-itself about to become history-was my twenty-fourth bartending gig.
They did fire me, and I did file a grievance. The union said they would find me another job and to forget about the grievance. Since I wouldn't forget it, they wouldn't find me a job. That was how I ended up at Oscar's on Broadway in my own neighborhood, a couple of blocks from my apartment, at 108th Street.
There, on a smoky, drunken Saturday night, I met Angelina. She came through the smoke, up to the bar, like one of those sleek and beautiful mahogany sailboats that slip soundlessly out of the fog and the early morning mist to dock at the Dockside Hotel down on the Jersey Shore-where I once tended bar in an earlier life. The four A.M. drunks were piled against the bar now that last call had sounded; no matter how many hours before that they'd spent staring silently into their glasses, now they talked, urgently, clinging to the night, fighting off tomorrow. When I leaned toward her for her order, Angelina put her hand on mine to make sure she had my attention. Tired, half-drunk myself, I wanted to brush her prettiness away, like I brushed away the other pretty brats: the waitresses-as-actresses, the business-suited innocents from Cincinnati or Iowa. I was sick of innocence and expectation. I'd been to my own four or five hundred casting calls.
That's another of my curses, thinking I'm an actor. The worst one, though, is this ability I have to watch myself when I'm pretending to something I don't really feel. That comes from my father, too. He couldn't pretend either that Hungarian workers were Trotskyists and CIA agents or that the Warsaw Pact troops' entry into Czechoslovakia constituted comradely intervention. That didn't keep him from being a Communist; it just kept him from getting any promotions or being honored at get-togethers for long-time, loyal comrades. This night, I watched myself pretend that this girl didn't bloom in front of me like the last rose of summer and that I wasn't captivated by her blue eyes. She was of that charmed and pretty school of women that men fall all over, obviously used to getting everything she wanted from men with a couple of pouts and a smile. I could fill a warehouse with pretty smiles and innocent eyes.
Pretty wasn't enough. Another link in the anchor chain from my father. "Don't homely people have a right to live too?" asked Pop. "Don't they care about attention? You're no Clark Gable yourself. Why does a girl have to be pretty? What about her heart?" One more example of that unfashionable wisdom that had made him a pariah for most of my childhood. I wanted to show this winsome waif that flirtatious smiles and innocent eyes didn't mean shit in Oscar's on Broadway at four in the morning.
"What?" I asked with no more courtesy than I'd show a truck driver from the Bronx.
"I want to tell you a joke," she said, her eyes flashing like a mischievous child's.
"This little girl wanted to know what her father's dick was, so he told her it was his dolly." Angelina sipped her rum and coke, her eyes already laughing, her voice growing drunkenly raucous. "The next morning the mother found the father rolling around screaming in pain, holding his penis. 'What happened?' the mother shouted at the little girl. 'I was playing with daddy's dolly while he was asleep, and it spit at me, so I wrung its neck.'" Angelina laughed uproariously at her joke. I went back to work.
In a few minutes, she ordered another drink, her long eyelashes fluttering over her pretty blue eyes. Locked into those eyes when I went to give her the drink, I clipped the bar with the bottom of the glass and dumped about half of it on the bar in front of her.
Batting her eyes, she watched me sop up the drink with a bar towel. "Did you spill that because you were looking at me?" she asked gleefully.
We had a drink at the bar after I closed up, then went to an after-hours joint, called the Flaming Star, and stayed until the sun came up. The Flaming Star was a warehouse on 79th Street with a dance floor as big as a tennis court, throbbing disco music, and oases of chairs and tables set about. Truly egalitarian in the worst sense of the word-the joint corrupted everyone without regard to race, creed, sex, or economic status-class, my father would say. Blacks, whites, Latins, we'd all sunk to the same level, bartenders and waitresses after work, drug dealers still at work, gamblers, musicians, assorted weirdos, all of us united in our pursuit of degeneracy. Not the place to take a nice girl on the first date.
Angelina loved the place.
"What do all these people do?" she asked. The clientele sparkled and glistened, men in everything from electric blue suits to buckskin and cowboy hats, women in waitress clothes or glittering party dresses, most of them sleek and slim and vacant eyed. At times, coked up at the Flaming Star, I'd thought I was in a roomful of mannequins.
"Nothing useful," I told her.
"But everyone's so glamorous." She envisioned movie stars and rock musicians.
"No," she said. "You're grouchy and eccentric. But that's a really great way to be, too."
"What's not a great way to be?"
"A teenage girl in Springfield."
Back in the neighborhood at dawn, we walked in a secluded section of Riverside Park, down on the far side of the West Side Highway next to the river. Then, when the morning was pretty well light, we sat on the steps of Low Library, on the very top step, looking down over College Walk.
"This is very inspiring," Angelina said. "It's like visiting a castle."
The solemn, scholarly Ionic columns of Butler Library, the peace of the morning, Columbia inspired me, too. I spent many mornings sitting on the steps, trying to shore up my belief-the only one I had-in knowledge. Years before, I'd started off at Columbia College, a scholarship student, a son of the working class, on my way to a law degree to enable me to defend the oppressed, back when my father believed I would amount to something. But I'd spent much more time in the West End bar than Butler Library, and I didn't amount to much at all.
Maybe those memories haunted the Low Library steps. Maybe my belief in knowledge was that I too would know something someday-like why I'd spent my life in bars. "Dim lights, thick smoke, and loud, loud music ... the only kind of life you'll ever understand."
"Why are you sitting here with a man twice your age?" I asked Angelina when I'd finished my reverie. This was at least something I could know.
"You're a father image." Her face brightened into a smile. "Why are you sitting here with a girl half your age?"
I didn't know after all.
"I'm good for your ego," she said.
"What do you want from me?"
"I want you to be my friend."
"Do you want to sleep with me?"
"I don't know." The night had taken its toll on her, young as she was; she yawned and smiled weakly; her body lost its vibrancy, like the wind gone out of the sails. Nearer exhaustion, you get closer to the truth.
My apartment wasn't far away and we didn't talk on the way there. I wanted to hug myself to sleep with Angelina. I was as foolish as I ever thought I might be, like an old dog trying to cavort with a puppy. I had to watch myself pretend on the walk home that I held onto some sort of dignity-that I didn't have a crush on her, that I wasn't as stupidly innocent and romantic as I pretended she was.
When she was in my arms in my bed, I asked her if she was sure she wanted to do this.
"I knew you'd do that," she said.
"Want to talk about it."
"Is that bad?"
"No, it's good."
"Are you sure you want to do this?"
"No," she said. Her voice was small, as the rest of her seemed much smaller now, her thin white shoulders, her pale and graceful neck, her tiny-nippled breasts that flattened out against her chest when she lay down.
"How will you feel when we wake up?"
"Probably terrible." Her face was beautiful against the pillow, her eyelids closing toward sleep; her face even more beautiful in this repose just before sleep than it had been through the night. "It's not that I don't find you attractive or don't want to make love with you. I feel like something terrible will happen if I do."
She slept, then, chastely, beside me.
Sometime after noon, when we awoke, I regained whatever it is that passes for my composure. I told Angelina she was a sweet kid, but I didn't think we would do each other much good. She nodded solemnly.
"Were you going to fall in love with me?" she asked. Her pretty blue eyes sparkled; her expression was eager and alert, the pink freshness returned to her cheeks.
"I don't know. Do you want me to?"
"Maybe." She lowered her eyelids demurely.
In spite of myself, I was cheered by her reply. But a man of forty can't fall in love with a twenty-year-old. He already knows what little flirts they are and how fickle, and how silly it is to try to hold on to such a girl. "I'm not going to fall in love with you," I said in a tone of voice she would believe. I believed it.
"I knew you'd say that too," she said matter-of-factly.
The picture of her face against my pillow stayed with me-something in the way she looked at me, as if she knew things about me I didn't know myself.
I stumbled around for a few days mooning over her, kicking myself for passing up the opportunity to screw her when I had the chance. I blamed it on my upbringing. "Intimacy should at least be honest," said Pop. "The bedroom is not a used car lot." He must have drilled this sort of wisdom into my head while I slept because I tried not to pay any attention while I was awake.
Not a week passed before she turned up again, just before closing time, coming in out of the pouring rain, standing in the doorway shaking the water out of her hair like a wet mutt. I wondered where she'd been, whom she'd been with, but I didn't ask.
"What a pisser walking up here," she said. "It really sucks out." Then she smiled her wayward angel's smile.
She needed a place to stay for the night because she'd been locked out of her apartment. "I knew I could come to you," she said, between sips of her rum and Coke in the semi-darkness after I'd closed the bar. What did she know: that I didn't have anything else to do with my life but look after her?
She was locked out of her apartment because an irate suitor had kicked down the door. The villain was the cab driver who'd driven her from Port Authority to the Upper West Side and helped her find the address of her apartment house her first night in New York. He was Armenian or Lebanese. She wasn't sure. They'd gone on two dates in his taxi, and he had fallen in love with her. The super wanted no part of her after the maniac cab driver's visit and padlocked her apartment. She also lost her waitressing job because her uniform was locked in her room.
We ate breakfast in the greasy spoon at 106th and went to my apartment. She wanted no part of romance. Very tired, she nodded off to sleep on my couch, and whatever amorous intentions I had were doused by her sleepiness. "I'm too confused," she said before she slept.
I sat for a long time in my old stuffed easy chair sipping scotch, watching the remnants of a late-night Peter Lorre movie, remembering women I'd known, every few seconds turning to look at Angelina's face as she slept.
Excerpted from Beware the Solitary Drinker by Cornelius Lehane Copyright © 2002 by Cornelius Lehane
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.