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THE NIGHT BILLY Goodrich walked in I was tending bar at a place called the Spot, a bunker of painted cinder block and forty-watt bulbs at the northwest corner of Eighth and G in Southeast. The common wisdom holds that there are no neighborhood joints left in D.C., places where a man can get lost and smoke cigarettes down to the filter and drink beer backed with whiskey. The truth is you have to know where to find them. Where you can find them is down by the river, near the barracks and east of the Hill.
An Arctic wind had dropped into town that evening with the suddenness of a distaff emotion, transforming a chilly December rain into soft, wet snow. At first flake’s notice most of my patrons had bolted out of the warped and rotting door of the Spot, and now, as the snow began to freeze and cover the cold black streets, only a few hard drinkers remained.
One of them, a gin-drenched gentleman by the name of Melvin, sat directly in front of me at the bar. Melvin squinted and attempted to read the titles of the cassettes behind my back. I wiped my hands lethargically on a blue rag that hung from the side of my trousers, and waited with great patience for Melvin to choose the evening’s next musical selection.
Melvin said, “Put on some Barry.”
I nodded and began to fumble through the stack of loose cassettes that were randomly scattered near the lowest row of call. The one I was looking for was close to the bottom, and its plastic casing was stained green with Rose’s lime. It was Barry White’s first recording, “I’ve Got So Much to Give,” from 1973. The cover art showed the Corpulent One holding three miniaturized women in his cupped hands.
“This the one, Mel?” I palmed it in front of his face. Mel nodded as I slipped the tape in and touched the PLAY button.
Mel said, “Let me tell you somethin’ ’bout my boy Barry. You done been on a bad trip with your girlfriend—you put on Barry. Barry be talkin’ real pretty and shit, all of a sudden you sayin’, ‘I learned, baby. I sweeeear I learned.’ ” The bass of the Barrance came through the grilleless Realistic speakers, and Mel sensually joined in: “Don’t do that. Baby, pleeease don’t do that.”
Melvin Jeffers had just sunk his fifth rail martini. He had begun to sing and in all probability would continue to sing for the remainder of the night. I eyed my options down the bar.
Buddy and Bubba were in place at the far right corner, seated next to the Redskins schedule that was taped to the wall, the one with the placekicker booting the pigskin through goalposts shaped suspiciously like long-necked bottles of Bud. Buddy was short and cubically muscular with an angular face and white blond hair. Like many men who took up body building for the wrong reason, he had found to his dismay that having a pumped-up physique did nothing to diminish the huge chip that was on his shoulder. His friend Bubba also considered himself to be an athlete but was simply broad-shouldered and fat. Bubba had the pink, rubbery face that some unlucky alcoholics get and then keep after their thirtieth birthday.
I moved down the bar, picked up Buddy’s mug, and with my raised brow asked him if he wanted another. Buddy shook his head and made sure I saw him look me over. I turned my attention to Bubba.
“How ’bout you, Bubber?” I asked in my best whiny, mid-sixties Brando. “You want one?”
Bubba said, “Uh-uh,” then looked at his friend inquisitively, something he did every time I addressed him in this manner. In The Chase, a film that barely contained one of Marlon Brando’s most eccentric performances, the legendary actor continually mispronounced the name of Bubba, Robert Redford’s character, as “Bubber.” It was a film that the Spot’s Bubba had obviously missed.
I left them and, as I passed, avoided eye contact with the only remaining customer, a cop named Boyle. Buddy and Bubba were one thing, rednecks wearing ties, but I was in no mood to open that particularly poisonous, psychotic can of worms named Dan Boyle.
Instead I turned my back on all of them and began to wipe down the bottles on the call rack. I caught a sliver of my reflection in the bar mirror between liters of Captain Morgan’s and Bacardi Dark, then looked away.
ALMOST A YEAR HAD passed since I had taken my first case, a disaster that had ended with a close friend being numbered among the dead. I emerged relatively unscathed but had caught a glimpse of my mortality and, more startling than that, a fairly obvious map for the remainder of the trip. I had three grand in the bank and a District of Columbia private investigator’s license in my wallet. In my license photograph I sported a blue-black shiner below my left eye, a trophy I had earned in a Eurotrash disco while on a particularly ugly binge. Clearly I was on my way.
Though my tenure in retail electronics was over (I had made the poor career move of staging a gunfight in my former employer’s warehouse), I began the year with energy. I made the yellow pages deadline, listing myself as “Nicholas J. Stefanos, Investigator,” even stepping up for the boldfaced type. I bought a used pair of binoculars and a long-lensed Pentax, printed report forms and business cards, and hooked myself up with an answering service. Then I sat back and waited for the cases to roll in.
When they didn’t, I began to take long, daily walks through D.C. I visited galleries and museums, spending more than one afternoon studying the large paintings of Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis in the National Portrait Gallery at Eighth and F. Several times on these visits I was followed through the cavernous halls by suspicious security guards, something I attributed to their boredom and to my progressively hangdog appearance. When I had exhausted the museums, I went to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library and renewed my card, then spent the next week in the Washingtoniana Room on the third floor, mainly in the company of street people who slept silently at the various tables with newspapers wedged in their hands. In that week I read most of the Washington Star’s morgue material printed between 1958 and 1961, in an effort to get a feel for those years of my life of which I had no recollection. I then discovered the European reading room at the Library of Congress and read modern history for two weeks in a row, sitting across from an ultrawhite eunuch who wore a bow tie every day and never once looked in my direction. One day I walked the pale yellow tunnel from the Jefferson Building to the Madison Building and stumbled upon the Motion Picture and Television Reading Room on the third floor. I spent the month of March in that room, reading everything from scholarly works on the spaghetti western to André Bazin to something called A Cinema of Loneliness by a guy named Kolker. Though the room was reserved for professionals, no one questioned my presence or bothered me in any way. In fact, no one spoke to me at all. Spring came and I began to haunt the parks and gardens of the city, returning with frequency to the Bishop’s Garden at the National Cathedral. Some days I would walk through cemeteries finding them a curious combination of the enigmatic and the starkly real. The Rock Creek Cemetery, with its Adams Monuments, was a particular favorite.
Sometime in May I was suddenly overcome with the natural feeling that it was time to “do” something. The next morning I tied my first Windsor knot in five months and rode the Metro to Gallery Place, where I walked to the offices of Bartell Investigative Services on Eighth at H, located smack in the middle of Chinatown.
I had picked them out of the phone book at random, preferring to work in that section of town, and was surprised upon entering and filling out an application that they would interview me on the spot. But as I stood in a reception area at the front of the office, I studied the other operatives at their desks, beefy guys in tight gray suits with prison haircuts who had the appearance of aging high school linemen, and decided it wasn’t for me. I stuffed the application in my breast pocket, thanked the nicotine-throated grandmother type at the desk, and walked out into the street.
I had been all right up to that point, but the experience made me aware of just how irrevocably far from the mainstream I had strayed. I entered the Ruby Restaurant around the corner and had a bowl of hot and sour soup and some sautéed squid. Then I walked to Metro Center and boarded the Orange Line for a short trip to the Eastern Market station. I crossed Pennsylvania and headed down Eighth Street.
On the corner was the bar in which I first met my ex-wife Karen. They had changed both the ownership and the decor, from early eighties new wave to rustic Wild West saloon. I looked in the plate-glass window and saw cigarette-smoking Cambodians shooting pool and arguing. One of them had a wad of ones grasped tightly in his fist, his features taut as he shook the bills in his opponent’s face. I kept walking.
I passed carryouts and convenience stores and cheap ethnic restaurants. I passed the neighborhood movie theater so hopelessly run down that it was no longer advertised in the Post, and a record-and-drug store. I passed two bars that catered to lesbians. I passed a bus stop shielding loud groups of young men wearing L.A. Raiders caps and red jackets, and quiet older folks who could no longer laugh, even in cynicism, at their surroundings. Karen and I had lived in this neighborhood during the early days of our marriage.
Toward the end of the street an MP in full dress was directing traffic near the barracks. I crossed over and headed to a bar whose simple sign had caught my eye: THE SPOT. Other than the rectangular glass in the transom, there were no windows. I pushed on the heavy oak door and stepped in.
There was a room to my right painted dark green, housing a few empty deuces and four-tops. Beer posters were tacked to three of the walls and on the fourth was a dart board.
I stepped down into the main bar, which was to the left and ran the length of the room. There were two hanging conical lamps, which dimly illuminated columnar blocks of smoke. A blue neon Schlitz sign burned over the center of the bar. Billie Holiday was singing in mono through the speakers hung on either side of the room. There were a couple of regulars who didn’t glance my way and a redheaded woman behind the bar who did. I had a seat at the stool in front of the area she was wiping down.
“What can I get you?” she asked, seeming mildly interested to see a new face. She was in her twenties but had crossed the line from youthful optimism to drugged resignation.
“I’ll have a Bud,” I said, breaking my daytime drinking resolution.
She pulled a long-neck from the cooler and popped it with a steel opener that looked heavy as a weapon. I waved off a glass as she set down the bottle on a moldy coaster touting Cuervo Gold. After she did that she didn’t walk away.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Sherry,” she said.
There was more silence as she stood there, so I pulled a Camel filter from my jacket and lit it. I blew the smoke down, but some of it bounced off the pocked mahogany bar and drifted in her direction. She still didn’t move. I thought of something to say, came up blank, then looked up at the cursive neon tubes above my head.
“So,” I said lamely, “you sell much Schlitz here, Sherry?”
“We don’t sell it at all,” she said.
“I thought, you know, with the sign and all.”
“We put up whatever the liquor distributors give us,” she said, then shrugged and gave me a weak smile. “Fuck it. You know?”
Yeah, I knew. It was my kind of place and I was due. I returned there every day for the next two weeks and drank with clear intent.
In those two weeks I got to know some of the regulars and became a familiar face to the small staff. Sherry was, predictably, looking for other work, as was the other shift bartender, a stout-faced, square-jawed German woman named Mai who had married and then left a young marine as soon as her green card had come through. There was an all-purpose busboy/cleanup man named Ramon, a little Salvadoran with a cocky, gold-toothed smile who didn’t understand English except when it had something to do with quiff or his paycheck. The cook, Darnell, worked in a small kitchen to the side of the bar. Mostly I saw his long, skinny arms as he placed food on the platform of the reach-through.
Phil Saylor was the proprietor of the Spot. He came in for a couple of hours in the afternoon and I presumed at closing time to do the book work. Saylor was an unlikely looking—short, soft in the middle, wire-rim spectacles—ex–D.C. cop, originally from South Texas, who had quit the force a couple of years earlier and opened this place. He seemed to make a living at it and to enjoy it. Certainly he enjoyed his abominable bourbon and Diet Cokes, which as owner he inexplicably opted to drink with Mattingly and Moore, the house rotgut.
Saylor’s past explained the unusually large percentage of detectives on the D.C. squad who were regulars. Though the Fraternal Order of Police bar in lower Northwest was still popular with D.C.’s finest, this was a place where cops could drink without restraint and in private. And unlike at the FOP, where they were expected to unwind with “a few” after work, they could do their unscrutinized drinking at the Spot while still on duty. In fact, in my two weeks spent with bent elbows at the bar of the Spot, it became obvious that this was a place where serious drinkers from all across the city came to get tanked in peace, without the presence of coworkers, hanging plants, brass rails, or waitresses who overfamiliarly (and falsely) addressed them as “gentlemen.”
One Monday late in May I watched the bar as Sherry and Saylor retired to the kitchen for a short discussion. I was alone in the place and had gained Saylor’s trust to the point where I was allowed to help myself. I reached into the cooler and popped a Bud and nursed it for the next fifteen minutes while I listened to Ma Rainey on the deck.
Sherry emerged from the kitchen and began to gather up what looked to be her things, stuffing a romance paperback into her purse and then picking up a dusty umbrella from the side of the cooler. Her eyes were a little watery as she leaned in and kissed me lightly on the cheek before walking from behind the bar and then out the front door.
Saylor came out of the kitchen a little later and poured himself a straight shot of Mattingly and Moore. He adjusted the wire rims on his nose as if he were going to do something smart, but instead did something stupid and fired back the shot.
When he caught his breath he looked through me and said, “God, I hate that.” His face was screwed tight, but I guessed he wasn’t talking about the speed-rail bourbon. “I knew she was giving away drinks to jack up her tips—all of ’em do it, even the honest ones—but there was money missing, five, ten a day, all this past month. I had to let her go, man; I didn’t have any choice.”
“Don’t worry about it, Phil.” I had pegged Sherry for a gonif the first day I met her but felt I had no duty to inform Saylor. I didn’t owe him anything, not yet. “You still got Mai,” I said.
He nodded weakly. “Yeah, and she wants more shifts. But she’s got a temper, man, with me and the customers. I don’t think I can handle that German wench in here all the time.” His hands spread out. “I guess I gotta go through the process of looking for a new girl.”
I looked at my beer bottle and saw a thousand more like it on a hundred more dark afternoons. Then I looked into the bar mirror and saw my lips moving. They said, “Hell, I’ll bartend for ya, Phil.”
He pushed his glasses up again and said, “You kidding?”
“Why not? The cases aren’t exactly building up,” I said with understatement, then told the biggest lie of the day. “Besides, I’ve done some bartending in my time.”
Saylor thought it over. “I never had a man behind the bar here. Can’t say any of these guys would notice the difference.” I lit a Camel while he talked himself into it. “I guess I could give you a few shifts, try it out. You start tomorrow?”
“Yeah,” I said with the misguided, giddy enthusiasm common in long-term unemployment cases. “Tomorrow.”
On the way home I stopped at the MLK Library and borrowed a book on mixology called Karla’s Kocktail Kourse, then took it back to my apartment in the Shepherd Park area of Northwest. The book was fine (except for those ridiculous K’s in the title) and entertaining with its modern fifties, triangularly matted illustrations, complete with hostesses serving drinks in June Cleaver dresses and the author’s insistence on displaying cocktails set next to burning cigarettes. I studied into the night; my cat, confused by my diligence, alternately circled and slept on my feet the entire time. When morning came I was ready.
But I was never really put to the test. I found, with some disappointment, that the patrons of the Spot were hardly the type to call for Rob Roys or sidecars, or any of the book’s other extravagant concoctions whose ingredients I had memorized. Neither were they, as Saylor had predicted, unhappy (or happy, for that matter) to see me behind the bar. Generally, their nostalgia for the Sherry dynasty faded with my first shift and their first pop of the day.
As the weeks went by I got quicker with the bottles and memorized most of the regulars’ drinks. I snuck my own music onto the deck and received only a couple of belches, and kept the promise to myself never to drink on shift, which made that first one at the end of the day go down even better. I made few mistakes, though the ones I did make were memorable.
There was a guy I called Happy, partly because of what I am convinced was his inability to smile. Happy had hair like gray seaweed, a flat, veined nose, and heavily bagged eyes. He was taken to wearing baby-shit brown sport jackets with white stitching at the seams. The jackets appeared to have the texture of Styrofoam. Often he’d fall asleep at the bar with his hand limply wrapped around his drink glass. One afternoon he spit a mouthful of manhattan over the bar shortly after I served it to him. I looked his way.
“I asked for a manhattan,” he mumbled loudly.
I thought of the only explanation. “Sorry. I must have used the dry vermouth instead of the sweet vermouth.”
“Listen,” he said with a fierce stare and a voice informed by sixty Chesterfields a day. “When I order a manhattan, I don’t want any kind of vermouth, you hear? Pour an ounce of bourbon into a martini glass and drop a fuckin’ cherry in it. Understand?”
I nodded that I did.
For the summer I had four shifts a week and accumulated quite a bit of cash in the bottom drawer of my dresser. Ironically, I picked up some investigative work soon after I started at the Spot.
The first was a shadow job on the wife of a greeting-card salesman who suspected her of adultery. The salesman had out-of-town accounts and subsequently was away from home three days a week. I spent a good amount of time sitting in my Dodge at the parking lot of her office building in Rockville, smoking too many cigarettes and listening to what was becoming a decidedly boring, unprogressive WHFS. At noon I’d follow her and a couple of her friends to their lunch destination, then follow her back to the office. It wasn’t until her husband left town, however, that she cut loose. On the day of his departure she left work early and drove to some garden apartments off the Pike. Two hours later she was gone and I was reading the name off her lover’s mailbox. The next day they met at Romeo’s apartment for a lunch boff, and I snapped his picture as he walked out the door to return to work. I gave the photos to the husband and watched his lips twitch as he wrote me a check for seven hundred and fifty dollars. It took the better half of a fifth of Grand-Dad that night to wash his broken face from my mind.
Shortly thereafter, the parents of a high school sophomore in Potomac signed me on to get to the bottom of what they hysterically perceived to be their daughter’s growing interest in satanism. I hooked up with her fairly easily through her mall-rat friends and we had lunch. She seemed bright, though unimaginative, and her devil worship turned out to be no more than hero worship. She was into Jim Morrison and her ambition, man, was to visit his grave in Paris. In the conference with her parents I told them that in my youth I had survived a fling with Black Sabbath and early Blue Öyster Cult without killing a single cat. They didn’t smile, so I told them to relax; in six years their daughter would be driving to law school in her VW Cabriolet and listening to Kenny G like all her other friends from Churchill High. They liked that better and stroked me a check for two hundred and a half. After that I resolved to be more selective in my cases (my bar shifts were keeping me solvent), but I’ll never know if I would have held to it since in any case the phone, for the remainder of the year, neglected to ring.
Summer passed and then the fall. When I wasn’t at the bar I spent my time reading, jumping rope, riding my ten-speed and, once a week, sparring with my physician, Rodney White, who in addition to being a reliable general practitioner was a second-degree black belt. Occasionally I kept company and slept with my friend Lee, a senior at American University.
The mayor’s arrest on charges of possession was big news, though that event was more significant for the local media’s shameful self-congratulatory arrogance and their inability to see the real story: the murder rate was at another record high and the gap was widening between the races, socially and economically, every day. But of course there was no story there, no angle. The colonizer and the colonized, just like the textbooks say.
This was also the year that I was to both lose and make two special friends. The friend I made was Jackie Kahn, a bartender at a woman’s club called Athena’s, located two doors down from the Spot. As I was walking past the windowless establishment one evening in late September, I noticed a flier tacked on the door concerning an upcoming “womyn’s” march. I stepped inside and, ignoring a few mildly unfriendly stares, went directly to the bar and had a seat. The bartender gave me the once-over before she asked me what I’d have. She had short black hair and high cheekbones, and deep brown, intelligent eyes. I asked her name first and she said it was Jackie. I ordered a Bud.
After she served it she said tiredly, “Why do you want to come in here, make trouble or something? I mean, we don’t mind getting a few guys now and then. But they’re usually the New York Mary types, you know what I’m saying?”
“I’m a high school English teacher,” I said, feeling a sudden rush from the two bourbons I had rocketed before closing the Spot. “I noticed a misspelling on your flier outside. You have women with a y. Just thought I’d point it out.”
“That’s the way we spell it,” said a humorless type with slicked-back hair sitting to my left. I had the feeling this one didn’t like me much. She confirmed it with her next suggestion: “Why don’t you just move it the fuck on out of here, chief?”
“He’s all right,” Jackie said, surprising me. She was looking at me with a smile threatening to break across her face. “What do you really want?”
“A beer,” I said, and extended my hand. She shook it. “My name’s Nick. I bartend over at the Spot. Didn’t feel like having that last one alone tonight.” I chin-nodded to the table in the corner. “Thought I’d shoot a game of pool while I was in here. That all right, Jackie?”
“Sure.” She nodded, then leaned in close and, with an amazingly quick read of my personality, said, “But do me a favor, Nick—don’t be an asshole. Okay?”
I began to frequent Athena’s fairly regularly after work for a beer and a game of pool. An ex-Brooklyner named Mattie would wait for me to come in and we’d shoot one game of eight ball for a five spot. Athena’s was typical of most of the women’s bars in Washington. It was owned by men who saw it only as an exploitable market niche and therefore tended to neglect it in terms of cleanliness and decor. But it was a place to go. To sensationalize the scene would be to give it too much credit; lesbian bars were the same as any other singles bars, with the identical forced gaiety and underlying streams of sadness. People met and fucked or resisted and went home alone.
Jackie and I began to spend time together outside of our jobs, going to the movies or having a beer or two at some of the saner places on the Hill. She was an accountant at a Big Eight firm downtown and moonlighted at Athena’s for relaxation and to escape the masquerade that was apparently more necessary for gay women than it was for their male counterparts. Occasionally she’d poke her head in the Spot to say hello, and invariably one of my regulars would boast that he could “turn one of those ‘rug munchers’ around” if he had the chance. This was especially exasperating coming from guys who hadn’t even been mercy-fucked by their own wives for years. As our friendship developed I began to pat myself on the back for finally having a close relationship with a woman that didn’t involve sex. It had only taken me three and a half decades to learn. What I didn’t know then was that Jackie Kahn would have the largest role in the single most important thing that I have ever done.
The friend I lost was William Henry. Henry was a deceptively quiet young man with an offbeat sense of humor who had migrated from the South to take his first job out of college as a reporter for a local alternative weekly. I met him when he sat in on a meeting where his tabloid’s sales manager pitched me on buying space when I was advertising director for Nutty Nathan’s. Though I didn’t step up for any ads, Henry and I discovered from that meeting that we had very similar tastes in music. I hooked up with him downtown a couple of times—once to see Love Tractor at the Snake Pit and on another night to check out a hot D.C. zydeco band, Little Red and the Renegades, at the Knight’s Work—but after my career at Nathan’s blew up, I heard from him only through the mail. He was that type of friend who, without an explanation, would send me headlines from the New York Post or buy me unsolicited subscriptions to Australian biker mags, publications with names like Chrome and TaTas.
In July, William Henry was found murdered in his condo above Sixteenth and U, just around the corner from the Third District police station. He had been stabbed repeatedly with a serrated knife. A witness had seen a thirtyish man with a medium build leave the building at the time of the murder. The man was light-skinned and wore a blue T-shirt that appeared to have been stained with blood. The Metropolitan Police spokesman said in the Washington Post that an arrest was “eminent.”
For a few days after that the Post ran a daily article on the slaying, returning to their favorite theme of Small-Town Boy Comes to Murder City and Meets His Fate. But when it was clear that the story would not have a pat ending, the articles stopped, and William Henry’s killer was never found.
I WAS THINKING OF Henry when I stepped up to Boyle that night and gave last call. Buddy and Bubber were gone, as was Melvin. He had left when I put George Jones on the deck. The tape always sent him out the door. Darnell was in the kitchen, cleaning up. I could see his willowy torso in the reach-through and hear the clatter of china, muted by the sound of his cheap radio, as he emptied the dishwasher.
Dan Boyle placed his palm over the top of his shot glass to signal he was done, then drank the rest of the beer from the bottle sitting next to it. I asked if he wanted to put the night on his tab and he nodded, seeming to look both to my right and to my left simultaneously.
Boyle was square-jawed and built like a heavyweight prizefighter, with stubbornly short, dirty blond, Steve McQueen–style hair, circa Bullitt. The age in his bleached blue eyes exceeded his thirty years. He drank methodically, and when he spoke it was through the tight teeth of an angry dog.
Many of the on-duty detectives who frequented the Spot wore their guns in the bar (it was, in fact, a police regulation that they do so), and most of them got tanked up and weaved out into the night without incident. But it wasn’t Boyle’s weapon (the grip of his Python always showed from beneath his wool jacket where it was holstered) that was disturbing, or the fact that he even carried one. He was clearly on the edge, and he was the last guy in the bar who I ever would have fucked with.
“Hear anything more on the William Henry case?” I asked him carefully. I bent into one of the three sinks and rinsed out the green bar netting.
“You knew him, didn’t you?”
“Haven’t heard anything,” he said. “But I’ll lay you ten to one your friend got burned for drug money. In this town, it all boils down to drugs. Let me tell you what it is. It’s”—he glanced around the room—“it’s the fuckin’ boofers. You know what they ought to do about the drug problem in this city?” I didn’t answer, having heard his solution a dozen times. “Take ’em out in the middle of the street and shoot ’em in the head. Public fuckin’ executions.”
I said, “Check on the Henry case for me, will you, Boyle?” He rose clumsily, nodded, and with a tilted, heavy gait made his way across the room and out the front door. A trace of snow blew through before the door closed.
The lights dimmed in Darnell’s kitchen. He walked out, wearing a leather kufi on his head and a brown overcoat. Darnell was tall and bone-skinny and pushing forty. He had done time and from that had gotten a thick white scar from the back of his ear to the underside of his chin. The scar made him look tough but, whatever he had been, that part of his life was clearly over. He was soft-spoken and introspective now, and though it was obvious that he would never rise above his position in the kitchen, that futility did not prevent him from reporting to work every single day. He was, as one of my regulars had described him with special emphasis on the word, a man.
Darnell and I looked through the transom window and watched the steady diagonal fall of thick flakes, a picture that seemed unreal from our warm vantage point. Darnell, hoping for some company, said, “You headin’ up my way?”
“I’ve got some work to do,” I said. “Think I’ll stick around, check my antifreeze.”
Darnell looked at the pyramid of liquor on the wall and then back at me. “What you want to drink that nasty shit for? Shit kills your spirit, man.” He shook his head and walked to the door, then turned. “You want me to lock up?”
“No, I’ll get it. Thanks, Darnell.”
“Check you tomorrow, hear?” He waved and then he was gone.
Dimming the lights even further, I finished wiping down the bar, placing all of the ashtrays but one in the soak sink. Then I slipped Robyn Hitchcock’s Queen Elvis into the deck and listened to the quiet intro to “Wax Doll” as I poured myself two fingers of Grand-Dad. I brought the shot glass to my lips and with closed eyes tasted sweet velvet.
I opened my eyes to a shock of cold air and a memory fifteen years old. Billy Goodrich glided across the dark room and had a seat at the bar.
“Hey, Greek,” he said. “Aren’t you gonna’ offer me a drink?”
THE FIRST TIME I met Billy Goodrich he was sitting on a wooden bench in Sligo Creek Park, rolling a huge spliff with the care and precision of an artisan. This was in the fall of my junior year, and my first semester at Blair High in Silver Spring. My grandfather had used a Maryland relative’s address to get me in, alarmed as he was at my subpar sophomore performance in the D.C. public school system.
Billy yelled, “Hey, Greek,” and I did a double take, surprised that one of the more popular students even knew who I was. “Come on over here and help me out with this number,” he said.
We split the joint (the handshake of my generation) and then laughed awhile over nothing. After that we played one-on-one at the park courts for the rest of the afternoon and our friendship, with the uncluttered reasoning that accompanies those years, was sealed.
Billy Goodrich was one of the better-liked kids in school, though not for the usual reasons. He wasn’t the best-looking or most athletic guy; neither was he the friendly intellectual who even the most brutal students grudgingly learn to respect. What he had was that rare ability to fit in at the fringe of every group—hippies, grits, geeks, jocks—without conforming to their constrictively rigid codes of behavior and dress. He did it with an infectious smile and a load of self-confidence that bordered on, but never slipped into, conceit. As I had always hung with Jews and Italians and other Greeks, he was also the first truly white-bread friend I had ever had.
The details of those years are unimportant and certainly not unusual. Billy had a ’69 Camaro (the last year that car made any difference) with a 327 under the hood and Hi-Jackers in the rear. There was a Pioneer eight-track mounted under the AM radio and two Superthruster speakers on the rear panel. On weekend nights we drank Schlitz from cans and raced that car up and down University Boulevard and Colesville Road, trolling for girls and parties. On the nights when we got too drunk the cops would pull us over and, in those days, simply tell us to get on home. Our friends enacted roughly the same ritual, and amazingly none of us died.
I had part-time work as a stock boy, but on the days I had off, Billy and I shot hoops. Every Saturday afternoon we’d blow a monster joint, then head down to Candy Cane City in Rock Creek Park and engage in pickup games for hours on end. The teams always ended up being “salt and pepper,” and the losers did push-ups. Billy had a cheap portable eight-track player, and on those rare occasions when we’d win, he would blast J Geils’s “Serve You Right to Suffer” over the bobbing heads of the losing team. Eventually our overconfidence (and the desire to unearth the wet treasures that simmered beneath the red panties of our Blazer cheerleading squad) pushed us to try out for the varsity team, but Billy didn’t have the heart and I, in truth, lacked the ability. The day we were cut we walked the path in the park and, with laughter and some degree of relief, split a bumper of beer and huffed half a pack of Marlboros.
After graduation Billy, who had already been accepted to an out-of-state school, took a construction job, and I continued to work as a stock boy at Nutty Nathan’s on Connecticut Avenue. The prospect of another humid season carrying air conditioners up and down stairs was upon me, so when a customer I had befriended offered me the opportunity to tow his ski boat down to the Keys for two hundred bucks, I accepted. Billy’s construction job was kicking his ass so he asked to come along. I secured a leave of absence from Nathan’s with the help of my friend and mentor Johnny McGinnes; Billy simply quit. We made plans to stay in D.C. through the Fourth of July and leave the following day.
The summer of ’76 was not just the tail end of my childhood, a fact of which even then I was vaguely aware, but also the end of an optimistic era for an entire generation. The innocence of marijuana had not yet, to use the most emblematic example, become the horror of cocaine, and the economic and political emergence of minorities hadn’t yet been crushed by the moral bankruptcy of the Reagan years. But our Bicentennial celebration reflected none of this, and what I witnessed on Independence Night was simply the most spectacular party ever thrown in downtown D.C.
The next day Billy and I prepared to leave. We attached a hitch to his car (mine, a ’64 Valiant with push-button transmission on the dash, never would have made it), changed his oil, and filled up the tape box. The tapes we were to return to most were Lou Reed’s Sally Can’t Dance (I can’t hear “Kill Your Sons” now without the druggy heat of that summer burning through my memory), Robin Trower’s Twice Removed from Yesterday, Bowie’s Station to Station, Hendrix’s mind-blowing Axis: Bold as Love, and the debut from Bad Company. We cut the black BAD CO. logo off that tape’s carton and glued it, facing out, on the Camaro’s windshield, to let any doubters know just who we were. There was also the odd business of a plastic grenade hung from the rearview, and a new bumper sticker that read MOTT THE HOOPLE: TELL CHUCK BERRY THE NEWS. For recreation we had copped, from Johnny McGinnes, an ounce of Mexican, a vial filled to the lid with black beauties, and half a dozen tabs of purple haze; there were also several packs of Marlboros scattered on the dash. We were eighteen years old and certain that the world’s balls were in our young hands.
And so we took off. We put together four hundred dollars between us, and our plan was to travel around the South until the money ran out. Billy picked me up, and my grandfather stood and watched us from the front of our apartment house, tight-lipped and with his hands dug deep into his pockets, until we were out of sight. His shoulders were hunched up, and he grew smaller in the rearview as we headed down the block.
A half hour later we had secured the Larson on the hitch of the Camaro and said good-bye to the surprisingly trusting owner of the boat. We stopped once more for a cold six-pack, got on the Capital Beltway, and headed for 95 South.
That night we pulled into Virginia Beach and crashed at the place of a friend who was working in a pizza parlor for the season. In the grand tradition of resort employee living quarters, there were several burnouts staying in his two-room flat, where pot was always lit and the TV and stereo were always competing in loud unison. Since there were no cooking facilities, I can only guess that these guys ate pizza the entire summer. The decor consisted of a fisherman’s net tacked to the wall (during our stay someone had hung a dead sea bass in its webbing) and a bright green carpet, which was stained alternately with puke and bong water. The next day we swam and then in the early evening Billy and I each ate a tab of purple haze and bought tickets to the B. B. King show at the local civic auditorium. We arrived and found we were the youngest and most sloppily dressed in the mostly black crowd of oldish fans, some of whom were sweating through their three-piece suits and evening dresses in the liquid heat. I began to get off on the acid during a tune where Mr. King sang, with his hands off Lucille and one fist clenched, “I asked my baby for a nickel / She gave me a fifty-dollar bill / I asked my baby for a sip of whiskey / She gave me the whole gotdamn still.” Billy and I smoked joints for the rest of the show to notch us down, and the folks around us were all quite happy to join in. I kept a log on that trip, in which I critiqued B. B. King’s performance in the following manner: he had “turned that shit out.” Afterward a bespectacled guy wearing khaki shorts and a pith helmet accompanied us as we wandered from one late-night establishment to the next, fluorescently lit cafés that were indistinguishable in that they glowed and buzzed with identical intensity. We lost our friend sometime before dawn and ended up on the beach for what I thought was the most blazingly orange sunrise I had ever seen. Billy was sleeping by then, with his face in the sand, and I watched his body twitch as a deerfly continually had its way with his leg. I never once thought to brush it away.
We slept that morning and, after stopping to say goodbye to our host (he was scarfing down a slice of pizza as he waved us off), headed south. The drive lasted into the evening and ended when we pulled into a motel called the Pennsylvania on Twenty-first Street in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. We hung out on the beach and swam the next two days in the piss-warm wavelets of the Atlantic. On the second night we felt rejuvenated enough to party and returned to it with a vengeance. By the time we got to the Spanish Galleon, the resort’s most popular nightclub, which was packed with raucous innocents (in a way that only Southern bars can be), Billy and I were raped on beer and tequila and determined to score. We had by now developed a contest involving the number of women we could rack up on the trip (Billy dubbed it our “cock test”), and I immediately crossed a busy concrete dance floor where college kids were doing the shag to Chairman of the Board’s “Give Me Just a Little More Time,” and proceeded to slip my tongue into the mouth of a hideous but willing biker queen who had been standing by herself. From out of the corner of my eye I could see Billy laughing as I rolled my tongue in her cankerous orifice, and now, with spiteful determination, I led her out to the beach for the long walk down to the surf where I “made love” to her near the breakers. After I came in her doughy box her face changed from the merely ugly to the truly frightening, and when she demanded that I “fuck” her again, I obeyed, her oily black hair buried in the sand by my dutiful thrusts. Somehow I lost her in the Galleon and hitched to the motel, where an unrelenting Billy was waiting for me with an evil grin. For the next three days he teased me about the clap (and every time I urinated I could hear his laughter outside the bathroom door), but miraculously it didn’t surface, and the next morning, my head pounding and down in disgust, we left Myrtle and continued south.
Our next stop was Charleston, the Jewel of the South, which at first glance promised to be a genteel blend of white-gloved belles and dripping cypress. We planned to visit Billy’s friend Dan Ballenger, who for reasons I can’t recall was nicknamed and preferred to be called Pooter. Pooter was an amiable squid who lived off base in a decaying suburb of the city. Pooter’s cottage was small and not even air-conditioned with window shakers, so there was little else to do in that oppressive heat but lie around on his sticky green vinyl furniture and do bong hits while watching the Summer Olympics. This was the year the young man from Palmer Park took the gold medal in boxing, and I cannot remember anytime being quite so proud to carry the label of Washingtonian. On the second night of our stay Pooter took us to a shotgun shack of a bar on the edge of town where aggressively plain girls were employed to wear negligees and con the customers into buying them seven-dollar wine coolers. One of them, an emaciated, pimply little teenager, sat on my lap and then got pissed when I refused to step up for the drink. By now Pooter was nervous, as there were several sinewy, long-haired types scattered around the place who looked more than happy to dispatch wiseasses such as us. Billy made a point of finding the owner and telling him what a “classy place” he had, and that was when we all decided it was time to go. In the car Billy and I ate two more tabs of haze and drove to a Piggly Wiggly, where we stole a watermelon from the outdoor rack and, as a startlingly quick clerk chased us on foot, peeled out of the parking lot and into the thick night. The watermelon was as warm as the air and we dumped it after a disappointing taste. Then we found a movie theater and bought tickets to The Out-law Josie Wales. After Joseph Bottoms’s wonderfully acted death scene—“I was prouder than a game rooster to have ridden with ye, Josie”—I remember very little, since the acid kicked in and I focused, for the remainder of the film, on the colorful, dust-filled tubes of light that traveled from the projector to the screen. When the film ended we drove to the Battery, which seemed to be the only spot in Charleston that carried a breeze, and got high, and talked with a young man named Spit who claimed he didn’t care for “ofay motherfuckers” but had no problem with smoking their weed. The whole time we were doing this, Pooter slept (I still don’t know how) in the backseat of the Camaro, his head back between the Superthruster speakers that were now blowing thirty distorted watts of Hendrix out across the intracoastal waterway. We slept that whole next day and, at six in the evening, said good-bye to a rather relieved-looking Pooter.
Soon after we hit the highway we agreed that we needed to clear our heads. Each of us swallowed a black beauty and then, as that cranial tingle began, we pulled over in Columbia and bought two large bottles of burgundy. After Columbia the speed tore in, and from then on it was all cigarettes, wine, open windows, and maximum volume (we blew one of the speakers that night, during Earl Slick’s screaming guitar solo on Bowie’s “Stay”). In Augusta we stopped for more wine, were thrown out of a rock-and-roll club for something Billy said to the doorman, then wandered into an all-black disco and danced with an amphetaminic frenzy until 3:00 A.M. (I was fairly proficient then in a jerky, popular dance called the Robot.) I drove the rest of the night, nervously picking at my thumb the entire way, which resulted in a good bit of blood on my hand by the time we reached our destination. We pulled into Atlanta at 6:30 in the morning.
The first hotel we saw was on Houston Street, and it was there, a ten-dollar-a-night wino flophouse, that we took a room. We only stayed in Atlanta a couple of days, finding it in general to be neither friendly nor safe, though I did get a date on the first night with a young, green-eyed strawberry blonde, a hawker for one of the clubs in the Underground. She had no intention of sleeping with me—she was too smart for that—but we enjoyed a quiet, air-conditioned evening together in her apartment, where she lent me the use of her blessedly clean shower. I think I reminded her of her brother from whatever small midwestern town she had mistakenly fled. The next day a junkie tried to pay Billy and me to pick up his “pharmaceutical” prescription for Quaaludes, and we came very close to doing it. We decided then to think about leaving, as our part of town was clearly no place for a couple of Yankee white boys, and of course there was the matter of the expensive boat parked in the lot behind the hotel. That night I sat almost naked in the window box of our room (the only spot that wasn’t hellish), smoking cigarettes and thinking about home, while Billy stretched out in a bathtub filled with cold water. We left the next morning.
The trip to Key West was sickeningly hot and seemed to take the better part of two days. Once there, we dropped the boat off quickly to some middle-aged hippie and collected our two hundred dollars. We walked around the town but, our spirits drained, found its surreal trappings not to our mutual taste. There was a fully clothed, sun-blistered young man lying in the middle of Truman Street with pennies stuck in his eyes. That is what I remember of Key West.
An hour north on A1-A we smoked a huge, celebratory joint, which had me peaking just as we rolled onto the old Seven Mile Bridge and gave me the most panicky few minutes I have spent on any stretch of road. Liberated from the boat, Billy’s Camaro seemed to be mounted on mattress springs rather than shocks, and it was all I could do to keep the goddamn vehicle from becoming airborne as other similarly drugged and sailing individuals sped toward us, missing collision by what seemed like inches. When we got off the bridge we were both ready for a beer or two, and we stopped in Marathon at what looked to be a peaceful dive called Dave’s Dockside. Never having experienced the novelty of a twenty-four-hour bar, Billy and I began a long, boozy evening in which we lost all but fifty dollars of our payoff money shooting pool. The whole thing ended around dawn when a pirate type (yes, wearing a black eye patch) took a swing at me for talking to his girlfriend. He was too drunk to connect, but suddenly our former friends all looked like bad-assed, raw-knuckled locals, and we walked out to the car and pointed it north.
After another day of hot, conversationless travel, we stopped in Daytona, for no reason other than to satisfy Billy’s desire to drive his car on the beach. We checked in to a cheap motel and spent a sleepless night knocking biting, armored cockroaches the size of thumbs off our beds. After breakfast the following morning we were totally broke. We walked around and asked about work but understandably got no takers, as we were beginning to look like every other K-head biker in town. That night Billy, on sheer charm, picked up an Italian girl and got both a life-affirming blow job and a clean, cool place to sleep, while I settled for the spine-wrenching backseat of the Camaro. (For the rest of the trip Billy did not stop describing the determined look on the poor girl’s face as she attempted to swallow, as he put it, “a month’s worth of jizz.”) The following day we halfheartedly tried to find a job in the one-hundred-and-two-degree heat, but by now we both knew it was over. Sometime after noon we simultaneously fell asleep or passed out on the sidewalk in front of a major hotel and were awakened two hours later by the cops, who threatened to book us for vagrancy unless we left town. We agreed but drove only a few blocks down the road, since at this point we had not even enough money for gas. At dinnertime I created a diversion in a convenience store by breaking a bottle of orange juice, while Billy grabbed candy bars, nuts, and several Slim Jims, and shoved them into his jeans. We ate this bounty seated at some memorial, which (we should have known) turned out to be the favorite cruising spot for Daytona’s homosexuals. One of them, a birdlike boy our age who had the unfortunate, swishy mannerisms that Catskill comedians and conservative politicians so love to exploit, had a seat next to us and offered a small bit of money and a place to sleep if we cared to “indulge.” We both answered with emphatic negatives, but when the kid persisted, Billy winked at me and told me to wait for him at the car. An hour later he returned with a wad of money in his fist and the explanation that he had persuaded the boy to give us a loan. When I asked him, with a smirk on my face, what he had to do to get it, Billy threw me up against the car with an explosion of fury I’d never suspected in him. We drove on and I didn’t mention it again, but after that things were not quite the same between me and Billy.
There is not much to say about the next couple of days except that we found Route 10 and headed west. I do remember the surprisingly green and hilly terrain of northwestern Florida; and of the night we spent in Mobile, I have only the strange recollection of a downtown building painted black.
Sometime early in August we made it to New Orleans. I had Billy blast Robin Trower’s “I Can’t Wait Much Longer” (“I’ll get my coat and catch a train / Make my way to New Orleans”) through the speakers as we rolled into town. We chose to stay in a nine-buck-a-night cottage at a place called the Carmen D Motel on Chef Menteur Highway. The plump, elderly proprietors were rosy-cheeked and friendly, and there were chickens running around in the yard of willowy trees that the cottages surrounded. Billy and I found night work quickly on a movie theater cleaning crew. The manager of the theater was to lock us in at around midnight and let us out in the morning, but this was to last only one night. On that first night we smoked a couple of joints as soon as the owner had split and then decided, to the knowing looks and chuckles of our Mexican coworkers, that scraping chewing gum off the underside of seats just wasn’t our thing. After that we resolved to stop thinking about work and simply enjoy ourselves until the money ran out. There seemed to be bars everywhere in that city, and in the next two weeks we did little more than sleep through the mornings, then spend the humid afternoons shooting pool and drinking Dixie. In one of those bars we met two sisters, older women named Viv and Julliette, who took a liking to us and then proceeded, for eighteen hours straight, to screw us raw in their respective beds. Billy had chosen Julliette (she was the better-looking of the two) but I was secretly happy to go with the redheaded Viv, who was witty and had a throaty laugh and full, buttery breasts. They had a name for that particular summer’s high murder rate down there (I think they called it the Summer of Blood), but I cannot believe there is a place in this country so dedicated as New Orleans to the proposition of having fun. On our last night in town Billy caught one of the chickens in the yard, marked his leg with a twist tie, and fed him a hit of purple haze hidden in a piece of popcorn. Then we each had a tab, the end of our supply. Later, in our room, we began to trip our asses off while watching The Wild Bunch on our black-and-white set, howling as we mimicked the classic lines of dialogue, the images becoming progressively amorphic on the small TV screen set against the green wall, the corners of which by now had completely dissolved. On the stoop later, we sat and drank beer, chain-smoking cigarettes while talking about the road ahead. Our lone chicken was out there, traversing the yard in wild circles, wired to the hilt. Billy was distracted by this and remorseful to the point where he suggested we pack up and leave. I don’t think he wanted to see that chicken dead, something that was certainly going to happen before morning. So we gassed up the Camaro, swallowed the remainder of our black beauties, and were out of New Orleans before dawn’s first light. Twenty-four hours and twelve hundred miles later I was in my bed in the back room of my grandfather’s apartment, and that is where I slept for the next two days.
The next week Billy reported to some ACC college in North Carolina, and I began classes at the state university shortly thereafter. We wrote a couple of letters in the fall, and then I saw him over Thanksgiving. The night we went out he was with one of his new fraternity brothers, a guy Billy called Digger Dog, and we went to a local pub where they talked about “brew” and “sport-fucking” and “DG girls” while I faded into my booth seat and got quietly drunk. High school friendships either die or continue in that crucial first semester, and ours simply didn’t make it.
But none of that really matters. There is a photograph of Billy and me, taken by a tourist, that to this day is in an envelope at the bottom of my dresser. In the photograph we are sitting high up on a fire escape near Bourbon Street. Billy’s hand is on my shoulder, and our hair is long and uncombed and past our shoulders, and we are both smoking cigarettes. There is that look on both of our faces, that look that almost shouts that it has all been grand and that it is never, ever going to end.
In everything that I have done since, and everything that I will ever do, there is nothing that will equal the wondrous, immortal summer that I experienced in 1976. Now Billy Goodrich had walked into my bar, fifteen years later, and brought it all back home.
HOW YOU DOIN’, man?”
“Good,” he said, nodding slowly as he smiled. “I’m doing good.”
I stood there looking at him from behind the bar. He hadn’t changed much. The blond hair was there, but it started farther back, and it was short and swept back. His face was still smooth and unlined, though there was a cool hardness now around his mouth and the edges of his azure eyes. He glanced at my shot glass, then up at me.
“Call it,” I said.
“Anything in a green bottle. If you’re buying.”
I grabbed him a Heineken from the cooler and a Bud to go with my bourbon. Billy removed his jacket—he was wearing suspenders, a very bad sign—and folded it up on the stool to his left. Then he had a pull off the import.
“Well,” I said, “you gonna tell me?”
“Tell you what?”
“How the hell you found me.”
He furrowed his brow theatrically. “Who said I was looking for you? I was in the neighborhood…”
“Bullshit,” I said, going over his clothing. “Guys like you are never in this neighborhood.”
“You’re right about that.”
“I tripped over your name in the phone book, to tell you the truth.” Billy paused. “I was in the market for a private investigator.”
“I called your answering service, and the girl said…”
“She’s a grandmother.”
“Okay, the old lady said I could get you down here. I was surprised she gave me the information so easily.”
“She’s the motherly type. Probably thought she was doing me a favor. Business has been slow, to say the least.”
“Well,” he said, “the whole thing was a shock to me. I mean, I ran into Teddy Ball a couple of years ago, remember him from high school?” I nodded, though I didn’t really. “Anyway, he told me he heard you were some advertising bigwig for one of those electronics retailers.”
“I was,” I said, and let it go at that. “Now I do this.”
“Hey, that’s great,” Billy said, in the tone of voice one uses when soothing a sensitive child. “If that’s what you want, great.”
“How about you, man? What are you up to?”
He shrugged with studied carelessness and said, “A little bit of everything. My Ten-Forty says I sell commercial real estate”—and here Billy winked—“but I have an interest in a couple of cash businesses in the suburbs. Restaurants, carryouts, you know what I’m saying?”
“Things are okay,” he said, then looked at the remainder of his beer and finished it off. Billy held the bottle up. “How about another one of these Green Guys?”
I found him one and killed off the rest of my Grand-Dad, then poured myself another shot. While I did that I watched him nail half the bottle of Heineken. He looked up my way and stared at me for an uncomfortably long time.
“It’s good to see you, Nicky,” he said finally.
“It’s good to see you too, man.”
After that there was another block of silence. I had a taste of bourbon and chased it with some beer while he looked away. The music had stopped, but he was drumming his fingers on the bar. I moved down to the stereo and switched it over to WDCU, to give him something to drum about. They were playing Charlie Parker’s “Lester Leaps In.” When I walked back Billy was grinning. It was still an ingratiating grin but a little forced now, as if he were attempting to smile against a cold wind.
“So,” he said, “I never would have figured you to end up as a detective.”
“It just happened. Anyway, I’d hate to think I ended up as any one thing.”
“You know what I mean.”
“All too well. You meet somebody, right away, what’s the first thing they ask you? ‘What do you do?’ I never know how to answer that. I mean, I do a lot of things. I’m a bartender, I read books, I’m a private investigator, I go to movies, I drink, I box, I listen to music, I fuck—which activity are they referring to?”
“I doubt they’re referring to the last one.” Billy shook his head and chuckled condescendingly. “You haven’t changed one bit, man.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But you probably knew that. And you came down here anyway to ask for my help. Right?”
Billy finished his beer and replaced the bottle softly on the bar, then looked at me. “That’s right.”
“You want to talk about it?”
“I’d feel better if we went somewhere else.” Billy had a look around the bar. “I mean, this place is so depressing. Don’t you think it could use a few…”
“I don’t know. I kind of like it the way it is.”
WE WERE GLIDING NORTH on Fourteenth Street in Billy’s sleek white Maxima, the glow of the dash lights rendering our complexions pale green. There was a car phone between the saddle leather buckets. The numbers on the car phone were also illuminated in green. A notepad filled with blank white paper was suctioned to the dash.
Billy had a pull off one of the road beers I had grabbed before locking up the Spot, then wedged the bottle between his thighs. I flipped through his CD selection and tried to find something listenable, but all he owned—Steve Winwood, Clapton, Phil Collins, the Who (“Hope I die before I get old,” indeed—why didn’t you, then?)—were forty-minute beer commercials. I closed the box and settled for the soft, intermittent rush of the Maxima’s wipers.
Outside, the snow was drifting down in chunked, feathery flakes. Soft, radiant halos capped the streetlights ahead. Children were out, laughing and running on the sidewalks and in the street. One of them, a boy no older than eight who wore only a red windbreaker, threw a powdery snowball that hit our windshield and dissolved. I made a mocking fist and shook it at him as we passed, and he smiled and shook his own fist back. Billy locked the doors with a rather awkward, fumbling push of a button.
Just past Fourteenth and Irving we passed the remains of the Tivoli Theater. My grandfather had taken me there in 1963 to see Jason and the Argonauts, a film noted as the pinnacle of Ray Harryhausen’s work in stop-motion photography. The scene in which the skeletons come to life to do battle with Jason inspired some of the most frighteningly memorable, sheet-soaked nightmares of my childhood. The night of the film my grandfather and I had walked through a heavy snowstorm from our apartment to the theater. I can still feel the warmth of his huge and callused hand in mine as we made a path through the snow.
“Hey,” Billy said. “Your papa still around?”
“Papou,” I said. “He died a couple of years back.”
“How about your folks? You ever hear from them?”
At my direction Billy pulled over and parked near the intersection of Fourteenth and Colorado. He double-checked all the locks before we headed down the block, turning his head back twice to look at the car as we walked.
“Relax, will you?”
“That’s twenty-five thousand dollars’ worth of car,” he said. “I don’t want to see it up on cinder blocks when I come out of this place.”
“You worry too much,” I said, but judging from the pale look on Billy’s face, that bit of analysis didn’t help. I pulled on the thin door and we entered Slim’s.
Slim’s was a small jazz-and-reggae club owned and run by a couple of East Africans, neither of whom was named Slim. At night there was always a live but unobtrusive band, and the Ethiopian food was top-notch. Slim’s had a ten-dollar minimum tab, a quota I never once had trouble making, to keep out any undesirables. I stopped in once in a while on my way home and had a couple of quiet drinks at the bar while I listened to some of the cleanest jazz, mostly of the bebop variety, in town.
We crossed the room to a deuce in the back that was centered under a stylized portrait of Haile Selassie. Our waitress showed momentarily and took our order for two beers. Her name was Cissy. She was wearing a plain white T-shirt and blue jeans, and had beautifully unblemished burnt-sienna skin.
The band that night was the club’s regular sextet—trumpet, sax, piano, drums, guitar, upright bass—whose members took turns soloing on practically every number. The turban-headed trumpeter was the coleader, though oddly the least talented of the group, and his partner was the saxman, an aging, bottom-heavy Greek I had seen around town who took his scotch through a straw. The youngest man of the bunch was the guitarist, and also the musician with the most potential, but obviously a heavy user. When he wasn’t soloing he sat on a wooden stool with his chin on his chest, a crooked knit cap pushed over his brow, deep in his down world.
Billy and I sat through the rest of the band’s set without speaking. Cissy had given us two unsolicited Jim Beam Blacks (a very smooth bourbon that is in fact too smooth for my taste) and served them in juice glasses halfway full to the lip. The band ended its set with a pumped-up version of Miles Davis’s “Milestones.” The young bartender put some low-volume Jamaican dub on the house stereo. Billy, who was starting to look a little pickled, leaned my way.
“Let’s talk business,” he said.
“All right.” I pulled the deck of Camels from my overcoat and shook it in his direction. He started to reach for one but then waved it away. I slid one out, lit it, and took in a lungful.
Billy said, “I guess you’ve noticed the ring on my finger.”
I nodded and said, “So?”
“This is about that.”
“I don’t tail wives or husbands anymore. I should tell you that straight up. My bartending job keeps me off that sort of thing.”
“It’s not what you think,” he said.
“What is it then?”
“My wife has left me, Nick.” Billy took the matches that rested on the top of my cigarettes and pulled one off the pack. He struck it, watched it flare, then blew it out. “She walked on her own accord. You’d call it desertion, I guess, if it was a man doing the walking.”
“None. We tried for a couple of years, but it wasn’t in the cards.”
I had a sip of bourbon then followed it with a deep drag off my cigarette. When I exhaled I blew the smoke past his head and tried not to look into his eyes. “Like you said, Bill, this is business. I’m going to ask you some questions that are personal….”
“This type of thing—and not to make it seem small—well, it happens every day. Hell, man, in a way it happened to me. So why hire a detective?”
“I’m worried about her,” he said. “It’s that simple. And since there’s no evidence of foul play, the cops won’t give it the time of day.”
“You’ve been to them?”
“Yeah, I reported it the first day. They came around, asked me a couple of questions, I never heard from them again.”
I had a last pull off my smoke and butted it. “What do you want me to do?”
“Find her, that’s it. You don’t even have to talk to her. Just report her location back to me, and I’ll do the talking. If she doesn’t want to come home, then at least I gave it a shot.” Billy looked at me briefly and then looked away.
“What else?” I said.
“Like?” He nodded me on with his chin.
“Did she leave you for someone else?” Instead of answering, Billy finished the bourbon in his glass, an answer in itself. I signaled Cissy for two more. “Do you know him?” I asked.
“Yeah, I know him. He was a man I did business with.” The waitress brought our Beams and two more beers. Billy and I lightly touched glasses, and I had a drink while he continued. “I met this guy as a client. I was showing him around town, some spots for a chain of carryouts he was thinking of opening. Anyway, I did him a couple of serious solids in terms of negotiating leases, that sort of thing. He liked my style, and he put me on the payroll of his corporation in a retainer capacity.”
“You kept your job with the real estate company?”
“Kind of a conflict of interest there, wasn’t it?”
“It depends on how you look at things, I suppose. I’ve learned some very creative ways of putting deals together, and I guess Mr. DiGeordano didn’t want me doing that for anyone else but him.”
I whistled softly. “You got yourself pretty connected, didn’t you, Bill?”
“You’ve heard of him, then.”
“I read the paper,” I said, leaving out the fact that my grandfather had known the old man. “The DiGeordanos have been in it once or twice through the years. They’re what passes for a small-time crime family in this town. Nothing serious, by today’s standards—a little gambling, some Jewish Lightning in the old days.”
“I’m aware of those things,” he mumbled.
“Keep going,” I said.
“April and I—April, that’s my wife’s name—we socialized with Joey and his wife a few times early on. Right from the beginning I could see Joey had the eye for April. But that didn’t bother me much. I mean, I was used to it. April is a very good-looking woman.”
“Did they have an affair?”
“I can’t prove it if they did,” he said. “Let’s say it was a suspicion I had.”
“What was your relationship like when she left?”
“I thought it was good. We had our problems, but in general I was pretty content. And I was willing to work at it, that’s the thing. Then I came home one day and she was just gone. Her closet was emptied and there was a note, and that was that.”
“When was that?” I asked.
“A week ago yesterday,” he said. “Wednesday.”
“Anything unusual about the note?”
Billy considered that. “It came off a printer. I guess that’s unusual, huh? A typed Dear John.”
“Any idea why?”
“She ran the thing off on my computer. That was always a sticking point with her—I’d come home from work and immediately get on my computer and start running spreadsheets and figures. I guess I was pretty obsessed with making it and all that. Anyway, she certainly thought so. And the note was just her way of twisting the knife.”
I thought that over and said, “What about Joey DiGeordano? Are you still doing business with him?”
Billy said, “Our business relationship has become strained. I can’t exactly talk to him about it, even though I think he might have some idea where she is. That’s where you come in.”
I lit another cigarette and exhaled a thin gray veil that settled between us. “I’ll need to know a few things about your wife. Her history, family, that sort of thing. A recent picture.”
“Then you’ll help me.”
I nodded and said, “Yeah.”
“Thanks, Nick.” Billy shook my hand and held it for more than a few seconds. His felt cool. “I want you to understand that I didn’t come to you for any friendship deals.”
“There won’t be any,” I said. “I get two-fifty a day plus expenses, with a day’s worth up front.”
“No problem.” A few strands of his moussed hair had fallen across his forehead, and he brushed it back. “Listen, man, I’m a little drunk right now.”
“Me too,” I admitted.
“Anyway,” he said, “it’s as good a time as any to apologize for all the years that went by. The thing is, Nick, I think of life as being more… linear than you do, you know what I mean? High school, college, career, marriage, family, retirement—and I have no trouble leaving the last phase behind me when I start a new one. Anyway, when I went away to school, I could see you just weren’t going to come along. I just don’t want you to think I forgot about you, man. I never did.”
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “You’re calling it straight. That’s exactly the way it was.”
The band was gathering for their next set. Billy reached for his wallet and said, “Come on, let’s get out of here. I’ve had enough.”
“You go on,” I said. “I only live a couple of blocks away. I’ll walk home.”
Billy shrugged and left a twenty on the table. I let him do it and watched him button his coat. “I’ll courier all that stuff to you tomorrow.”
“Send it here,” I said, and we traded business cards. His said WILLIAM GOODRICH.
“Thanks again, Nick.”
I nodded and he walked away. As I watched him cross the room, I felt an odd sadness, that sense of irrevocable loss one feels upon seeing a friend who has changed so drastically over so many years. I recognized the feeling as little more than a burst of self-pity for my own youth, a youth that had quietly slipped away. But the recognition in itself didn’t seem to help.
He was right when he said that I had chosen not to come along, but it was not really something I was sorry for. He had become that characterless, you-can-have-it-all predator that was everything I had come to hate. But somewhere in that cadaver was the long-haired kid who had called out to me one day in the park, and now he was calling out again. William Goodrich had hired me, but it was for Billy that I was taking the case.
I had another bourbon while I watched the last set, then settled up my tab. Out on the sidewalk, I tucked a scarf into my black overcoat and weaved north. The branches of the trees were heavy with powder, and the streets were still. The snow was ending, but its last flakes were still visible in the light of the street lamps. The snow made a sound like paper cutting skin as it fell. Tomorrow there would be a quick melt and a nightmare rush hour, a city of horns and tight neckties. But tonight D.C. was a silent, idyllic small town.
I turned the corner of my block and saw my cat huddled on the stoop of my apartment. I watched her figure slip down and cross the yard, a ball of black moving across a white blanket. Her grainy nose touched the fingertips of my outstretched hand.
FRIDAY AFTERNOON’S LUNCH had been typically hectic.
Our regulars had arrived early, shuffling in and nodding hello with pleading doe eyes while I hurriedly sliced fruit and tossed bleach tablets into the rinse sink. The patrons were eager to start their weekend binges. Darnell’s Fish Platter, a house favorite, began to get a lot of action, and at one point he was sliding the plates onto the platform of the reach-through faster than I could serve them. Ramon was lurking around somewhere, but, having blown a stick of sensimillion in the basement just before opening time, he was virtually useless.
That, however, had been the easy part of my day. When the rush ended I was left to baby-sit those few drinkers who had decided, as early as their first beer, not to return to work. Today this group of geniuses included Happy, who in his perfect world would someday be buried with one hand rigor mortised into a glass-holding C, the other in a horizontal victory sign, the fingers spread just wide enough to accommodate a Chesterfield; Buddy and Bubba, today arguing about boxing (confusing it with bullying) and splitting a pitcher with such intense closeness that they appeared to be joined at the hip; an alcoholic Dutch secretary named Petra for whom we exclusively stocked Geneve, a syrupy gin that was rumored to have the power to induce hallucinations; and, least tolerable of all, a fat federal judge by the name of Len.
The fact that Len Dorfman was a federal judge is a point worth mentioning only in relation to his repulsive personality. Len would swagger in after a tough morning on the bench, announce to our deaf ears that he had just “worked out” at the gym (I would wager any amount that he could not, if a gun were to be placed in his mouth, execute one sit-up), and order a Grand Marnier because, he claimed, he had “earned” it. After one snifter he would check over the clientele and begin to brag about all the “savages” he had put away that morning, adding with bluster that he had “thrown away the key.” Then, like some third-rate Don Rickles (“Hey, if we can’t make fun of ourselves, who can we make fun of?”), he would launch into his “I’m a cheap Jew” routine, a tired shtick that had everyone at the bar staring into their drinks in embarrassment. The fact that Len himself was Jewish made it, contrary to his belief, no less offensive. Finally, after his third round, he would begin to trash gays with a lispy, plump-mouthed imitation so filled with vicious self-hatred that there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that Len was a man who had, on several occasions and probably in some bathroom stall in our very hallowed halls of justice, fallen to his soft knees and, with a fervor equal in enthusiasm to his flamboyant bar soliloquies, sucked cock.
He was doing that imitation when Dan Boyle walked into the bar. Boyle hated Dorfman, not for his ignorant slurs (they shared roughly the same prejudices) but for what he perceived to be Len’s soft stance on criminals. Dorfman knew it and consequently settled up quietly and exited the Spot. The customers, even Happy, gave Boyle a round of applause.
I did my part and had a mug of draught in front of Boyle before his ass spread over the wood of his barstool. His eyes traveled up and lit on the stack of shot glasses. I separated the top one from the stack and set it next to his mug. Then I poured two inches of Jack Daniels into the glass.
“This one’s on the house.”
“You’re the greatest,” Boyle said.
“You Irish boys get so sentimental about your bartenders.”
“Leave me alone. It’s been a bad fuckin’ day.”
“Out on those mean streets, you mean?”
“Go ahead and laugh. After you walk a mile in my shoes.”
“ ‘Walk a Mile in My Shoes’?” I said. “Joe South, nineteen-sixty-nine.”
I heard a sharp whistle and turned. Petra had done the whistling and now she was, with a perfectly angelic smile and the middle finger of her left hand pointed straight at the ceiling, flipping me off. Though she surely knew the meaning of that most universal symbol, some joker had convinced her one night that, in Washington’s bars, this was also an accepted method of ordering a quick drink.
Boyle said, “I think that Dutch broad needs another hit.”
I poured her a short one and while I was on that end drew a fresh pitcher for Buddy and Bubba. Buddy was a sawed-off little guy, and even while sitting straight, his wide shoulders barely cleared the lip of the bar. Now he was slouched and his blond head seemed to be sprouting directly up out of the mahogany. I placed the pitcher in front of that head. He nodded and then growled.
I changed all the full ashtrays into empties and moved back down to Boyle. He had taken off his overcoat and beneath that was wearing an old tweed with suede patches sewn on the elbows. As he turned to fold his coat on the adjacent barstool, I could see the bulge of his Colt Python protruding from the small of his back. I slid him another mugful of draught and washed out the empty in the soap sink.
“I checked into that thing for you,” Boyle said.
“Nothing, really. No new leads, not since the initial investigation.”
“What do you think?” I said.
Boyle had a long drink from his mug, then wiped his mouth with the sleeve of his sport coat. “It’s not in my jurisdiction,” he said. “I only looked at the jacket last night.”
“At a glance, then.”
“At a glance? Your friend probably knew his attacker. There weren’t any signs of forced entry. He had solid dead bolts on the door and an auxiliary lock; none of the jams were splintered. The ME’s report said he was stabbed over twenty times with a serrated knife, like the kind your buddy Darnell uses in his kitchen. Henry was probably dead or in shock before the guy was finished knifing him.”
“What does all that mean?”
“It could mean a lot of things. The intent was clear—he didn’t want to wound Henry, he wanted him dead. It could have been a drug deal gone bad. Or it was a crime of passion. You know, a homo burn.”
“A homo burn?” I frowned. “Come on, Boyle, what the hell is that?”
“We explore every possibility, Nick. That building he lived in, it had a history of homosexual tenants.”
I sighed and drummed my fingers on the bar. “Keep going.”
Boyle pointed to his empty shot glass. I reached behind me to the second row of call, grabbed the black-labeled bottle of Jack, and poured him some sour mash. He sipped it, chased it with some draught. “The main point I got out of the report, the angle I’d go for if I was looking into it, was how he got past the security guard in the lobby.” Boyle winked. “That’s, like I say, if I was going to look into it.”
“What was the security guard’s name, Boyle? The one that was on duty.”
“I’ll deny this if it ever gets out.” I nodded and looked around the bar. Our regulars were drinking peacefully. A couple of them had solemnly closed their eyes and were mouthing the words to Joe Jackson’s version of “What’s the Use of Getting Sober? (When You’re Gonna Get Drunk Again)” as it came through the speakers. Boyle said, “James Thomas.”
I wrote down the name and said, “Any progress on the case?”
Boyle snorted and closed his eyes slowly as he sipped from the shot glass he held in his thick hand. When he was finished he put the glass down. “A case gets cold after a few days, Nick. And there’s always something else. Right now we’ve got hookers gettin’ whacked down in the Midnight Zone. Detectives working double shifts.” Boyle drained half of what was left in the mug. “The thing you got to remember is, almost one out of two homicides in the District go unsolved. Pretty good odds for the bad guys, huh? You kill someone in this town, you got a fifty percent shot at getting away with it.”
“What are you saying?”
“We’re never going to find that boy’s killer, Nick. That’s a fuckin’ bet.”
“Thanks for the information.”
Boyle leaned in and stared hard. He was attempting to focus his jittery pale blue eyes on mine. “If you need anything else, partner, you let me know.”
“I will. In the meantime, I gotta be getting out of here.” I wiped the area in front of him with my bar rag. “Believe it or not, I’ve got a date.”
“I remember those days,” Boyle said. “Dates. Now all’s I got is rotten screaming kids.”
“There’s a solution to that.”
“What would that be?” he said.
“Take ’em out in the street,” I said, “and shoot ’em in the head. Public fuckin’ executions.”
ON THE WAY HOME I stopped and picked up my package at the office of my answering service on Georgia Avenue. After that I headed west a few blocks and parked the Dodge in front of my apartment. The afternoon sun had taken care of most of the snow. What was left was gray now and in mounds near the curb. My cat ran out as I stepped along the walk. She rolled onto her back and let me scratch her stomach. As I did this her left rear paw boxed the air convulsively. When her paw stopped moving I tickled the scar tissue where her right eye had been, then entered my place.
I changed into sweat clothes while the water boiled. Then I made coffee and took the coffee and my package to a small desk I had set up in my bedroom. I opened the package and spread its contents out on the oak top.
Billy Goodrich had organized his wife’s file with all the efficiency and warmth of a client’s prospectus. There was a cover letter and a photograph that appeared to have been professionally taken. I tacked that one to the bulletin board that hung over my desk. I glanced over the rest of the material—family and medical history, doctors, a résumé—and placed it back in the package.
After that I drove west and met Rodney White at a junior high gymnasium in upper Northwest. I did ten sets of abs and several sets of lat and tricep push-ups, then jumped rope while he taught his class. When he had dismissed his students we put on our sparring equipment and went to it.
“Move to the side, Home,” Rodney said after I had taken a particularly vicious flurry of punches and squared off in front of him. “Just slide over, man, then make your move.” He demonstrated, suddenly springing to the left, throwing mock jabs to my kidneys. I was facing away from him.
“What about doing that Hemingway thing, standing in there, going toe-to-toe?”
“Only in gladiator movies, Nick.”
We sparred for another fifteen minutes, until my hands became too heavy to hold up in front of my face. Rodney White removed his mouthpiece and rubbed it dry on the arm of his gi.
“All right, that ought to do you for tonight.” He pulled a towel from his bag and wiped the sweat from his forehead. “Say,” he said. “Been a while since you’ve been in to see me, for a checkup.”
I pulled out my own mouthpiece. A string of bloody saliva ran from the side of it and clung to my mouth. “A checkup?” I said, fighting for some air. “Doctor, I believe I could use one. Right about now.”
A HALF HOUR LATER I was back in my apartment. I threw my wet clothes into the hamper, showered, shaved, dressed in a rented monkey suit, and fed and watered the cat. I got into my black forty-dollar Robert Hall overcoat and slipped a fresh deck of Camels into its breast pocket. Then I locked my apartment, ignitioned my Dodge Dart, and went to pick up Jackie.
JACKIE KAHN LIVED IN a two-bedroom condo with her lover, a woman named Sherron, in a three-story building on the edge of Kalorama. The D.C. guidebooks all claim that Kalorama means “beautiful view,” from the Greek kalo. Not to split hairs, but kalo is actually the Greek word for “good.” The word for beautiful is, phonetically, orayo, but I would never lobby for the change—Orayorama sounds a little like the gimmick for a fifties horror movie.
Jackie’s building was an elaborate Grecian knockoff with egg-and-tongue molding that ran below the roofline, with an urn pediment centered above the stone portico. It was quite regal, and I supposed she was paying for it. I entered an unlocked set of glass doors and pushed her buzzer. After the usual formalities I made it through the second set of doors and took the gated, open lift to her floor.
Sherron opened the door on my first knock. She was wearing winter white pleated slacks and a black sweater with black buttons sewn along the top of the shoulder. On the front of the sweater hung a necklace of spheres that may or may not have been made of gold and that grew progressively larger as they converged at the center. She was taller than me and had wonderfully long legs, and in total she had the build of a Thoroughbred. I had seen reasonably intelligent men commit public stupidities in her presence.
“Can Jackie come out and play?”
“Come on in,” she said in an accent laced with Puerto Rican.
“Thanks.” I kissed her hello and caught the edge of her ripe mouth. She frowned and led me through a marble foyer to an airy living room painted primarily in lavender. There was a fire burning in a marble-manteled fireplace that was centered in the west wall.
“You look different dressed up,” she said, her idea of a compliment. “Have a seat and I’ll fix you a drink. Jackie will be out in a few minutes.”
“Bourbon rocks,” I said. Sherron left the room, and I watched her do it. After a few minutes she came back in and placed a tumbler filled with bourbon whiskey and cubes on a cork coaster edged with a silver ring. I had a long pull, tasted Wild Turkey, and set the glass back down on the tumbler. Sherron had a seat on the divan against the wall across from my chair. She looked me over as if I were a marked-down dress, then crossed one lovely leg over the other.
“So,” she said. “Been peeping in any windows lately?”
“It’s very pane-full.” I drew out the last word so she could get it, but humor wasn’t her shtick. In fact I had never seen her smile. I lit a cigarette because I knew she didn’t like it and childishly bounced the match off the side of the crystal ashtray that was next to the coaster. Some smoke drifted her way and she made a small wave of her long, thin hand, like she was shaking off a bug. Mercifully, that was when Jackie walked into the room.
She was wearing an above-the-knee black evening dress with multicolored Mylar buttons down the front and gold piping around the neckline. Above the curve of the neckline was the top of her firm cleavage, the ridge of her sternum, and the tightly muscled traps of her shoulders. She had on patterned black stockings, and on the ends of those stockings were medium-heeled black pumps. There was a black patent leather belt that was tight enough to showcase her thin waist and the curve of her hips. Her black hair was swept up on one side and held in place by a thin diamond barrette. I thought I could see a bit of the flames from the fireplace reflecting off her bright brown eyes.
“How do I look?” she asked.
Sherron said, “Hot.”
I said, “I’ll say.”
Sherron ignored that, and I finished the rest of my drink while they kissed. Sherron helped Jackie on with her cashmere coat, smoothed the front it, and walked us to the door. We said our tearful good-byes and then Jackie and I were alone and out in the hall. We walked to the elevator, called for it, and waited.
“You do look good,” I said.
“So do you,” she said. “You clean up very nicely.”
“I don’t think Sherron likes me too much.”
“She’s really nice, Nick. But you can lay on that Peck’s Bad Boy act a little thick. And she’s probably a little jealous. Wouldn’t you be?”
The elevator arrived and we got into it. I closed the accordion gate and through it watched the marble staircase as it appeared to rise while we descended through its center.
“I used to love these things when I was a kid. The old Dupont Building, where Connecticut and Nineteenth meet at the Circle, had a gated elevator and a uniformed operator to go with it.”
“Me too,” she said. “I think this elevator was what closed the deal for me on this place.”
“So who am I supposed to be tonight?”
“Anyone you want. Let ’em guess. These company Christmas parties get pretty rowdy, and I figured I could use an escort.”
“Yeah. Once a year they’re expected to cut loose.”
“Sounds like my meat,” I said.
“Do me a favor, Nick. Don’t be an asshole.”
THE PARTY WAS IN the penthouse of a new office building on the east edge of Alexandria and on the river, past National and just past Dangerfield Island. We parked Jackie’s Subaru in the garage and, with a couple of foxy receptionists who had arrived at the same time, took the elevator up as far as it would go.
A mustachioed young man tediously took our coats when we stepped off the elevator. I retrieved my cigarettes and switched them to my jacket pocket, and we entered the party room. It was situated on the northeast corner of the building, and two of the walls were thick glass. The north view stretched past the lights of National to the Mall and the major monuments. The east view shot over Goose Island in the Potomac to Bolling Air Force Base and then into Anacostia and P.G. County.
The floor was shiny and veined to approximate black marble. There were several freestanding Corinthian columns scattered about the room that looked to be made of papier-mâché, their shafts painted a poinsettia red. Thick green ribbons were tied and bowed around the columns that I assumed had been rented for the affair. A swing combo situated on a narrow balcony was playing jazzy Christmas standards. The violinist had Stéphane Grappelli’s style and tone down perfectly.
The room was already crowded and predominantly suited in black. Many of the men sported red bow ties with their tuxes, and most of the women were also in black, though there were a few seasonal reds and, at a glance, one blonde squeezed into gold lamé. I took Jackie’s order and made a beeline for the bar.
The bar was set up in the left rear corner. As I approached it I saw the offerings grouped on the white-clothed table. The bottle with the familiar orange label, the gold lettering THE HEAD OF THE BOURBON FAMILY, and the gold oval-framed granite bust in the center that had a fitting resemblance to both LBJ and Buddy Ebsen was right out front, in all its eighty-six-proof Kentucky glory. I stood behind the other kids in line and waited my turn.
“Yes, sir?” asked a built brunet as I stepped up to the table. She had on a tuxedo shirt and a turquoise tie that was close to the color of the lenses in her wicked eyes.
“A vodka tonic, please. And an Old Grand-Dad, rocks.”
She marked me with one long motherly look and poured our drinks. There was a pitcher set next to the bottles that was half filled with one dollar bills, probably her own. Good bartenders always place a tip receptacle on the bar and start it off with their own money. Wish fulfillment. I put two of mine in the pitcher, she thanked me with a wink, and I rejoined Jackie.
Jackie was with a tall man, and they were laughing about something as I handed over her drink. He was close to my age and his face was boyish, but his hair was steel gray. Two pieces of it, like the tines of a grilling fork, had fallen over his forehead, giving him the reckless look of, say, a young millionaire who raced cars.
“Nicky, this is John Wattersly. John, my friend Nick Stefanos.”
We sized each other up and shook hands. “Good to meet you, Nick,” he said in a smooth baritone.
“John’s a senior,” Jackie offered.
“Really,” I said. “When do you graduate?”
Wattersly laughed and then showed me a warm smile that had probably opened plenty of doors for him during his climb. He seemed intelligent but not arrogant, and I sort of liked him, but he was certainly turning that smile in Jackie’s direction an awful lot.
Jackie said, “I meant he’s a senior manager. He’s on his way to partner.”
“I knew that, sweetheart,” I said, and kissed her on the cheek as I squeezed her arm. Mine was now around her shoulder.
The next time Wattersly turned his head, Jackie ground the stiletto heel of her pump into the toe area of my shoe. The pain ricocheted off my Achilles tendon, sped up my calf, and watered my eyes. By the time Wattersly faced me again I had released Jackie and was wiping my face with a handkerchief.
“What do you do, Nick?” he said.
“International finance,” I said.
“Interesting work. Who are you with?”
“Fitzgerald and O’Malley,” I said, digging my grave as I pulled two names out of the air and stared at my shoes. “Gold bars, bullion, currency exchange.” I winked. “That sort of thing.”
I gulped half my drink as Wattersly winked back.
The evening continued to degenerate along those lines, but happily I was not alone. These accountants and their dates were certainly not averse to having a good time. Someone pulled the plug on the Christmas combo early on, and a boom box was set up, and everything from Motown to Springsteen to Depeche Mode began to turn the place on. There were also several art director types flitting about who, I was later informed, were members of the firm’s in-house advertising department. Their leader was a popinjay who had grown his hair in front of his face precisely so that he could shake it out of that smug face with a casual toss of his head; he was running about the room taking clever Polaroids of the accountants whom he obviously thought he was so far above. After my fourth trip to the bar, I decided that it was a wonderful party and these were all very nice people and I was perhaps the wittiest individual in the room.
My responses to that ice-breaking question “What do you do?” began to range from the unlikely to the absurd. To Jackie’s boss I was a university professor who was teaching a course this semester entitled Existentialism and Top 40. I explained that the course placed a special emphasis on the works of Neil Diamond (just “Neil!” to his legion of fans) and to his perplexed expression contended that “I Am… I Said” was one of the most deceptively simple yet brilliant songs of the last twenty years. To another executive I made the ridiculous claim to being the sole heir to the WHAM-O fortune. And to shut down a guy who would not stop talking to me about his son’s high school football program, I proudly proclaimed, with a subtle flutter of my eyes, that I was studying to be a male nurse, explaining that I had chosen the profession “for the uniforms.”
Late in the evening I followed the stunning blonde in the gold lamé dress to an area near the glass wall. One of my new accountant buddies had explained, with a remorseful shrug, that she was “with” one of the senior partners, a fact that may have frightened off most of the martinets in attendance but at this point did not affect me. When she was alone I touched her on the arm and she turned.
“Hi,” I said.
“Hello,” she said evenly, with the weary resistance born in beauties like her. Her push-up bra had set her lightly freckled, perfectly rounded breasts to a point where they touched and hung like trophies on the edge of her low-cut gown. She had a mane of wheat hair and a black mole above her arched lip. In the midsixties I had experienced one of my first erections while admiring such a mole on Anne Francis’s lip during an episode of “Honey West,” though at the time I did not even possess the beneficial knowledge of self-relief.
“I’m not an accountant,” I said, and hit my bourbon. By now I had forgone the ice, which was taking up far too much room in the glass.
“Really,” she declared aridly. “What are you, then?”
“A mole,” I said, still watching her lip. “I mean, as in spy. I was sent by an industrial espionage firm to infiltrate this party.”
She caught the reptilian gleam of my eye. “Don’t even think about it,” she said, without the barest trace of levity, “unless you are a mole who happens to be very, very wealthy.” Then she walked to the glass and turned her back to me, sipping her drink as she took in the view.
I was studying the arrogant little ball of her calf and the manner in which her dress was painted onto her luscious championship ass when Jackie walked over and stood by my side. Thankfully she was smiling.
“What’s slithering around in that mind of yours right now?” she asked.
“The truth?” I said.
She nodded. “Yeah.”
“I was thinking how, right now, I’d like to see her place her palms on that glass and lean over just a bit. How I’d lift up that dress, lift it with my forearms as my hands slid up the back of those tanned thighs. How I’d pull down those sweet panties, put one of my hands on the glass for support, and the other on her fine ass. How I’d enter that moist mound, not too gently mind you, hard enough to see her bite down on her lip and shut her eyes, shut her eyes slowly and peacefully like some Disney deer.” I gulped some bourbon, rocked back on my heels, and exhaled. “So, in answer to your question, I was just thinking what I’d do with that if I had the chance. What were you thinking?”
“Same thing, brother,” Jackie said with a low, sinister chuckle. “Different method.”
ON THE WAY HOME Jackie and I stopped at Rio Loco’s, a neighborhood Tex-Mex bar at Sixteenth and U and found a couple of stools in the back near the juke. Lou Reed’s “Vicious” was just ending. Our blue-jeaned waitress set down a juice glass that contained two inches of Grand-Dad, and a mug of coffee for Jackie. We tapped receptacles and sipped our respective poisons.
“You mad at me?” I asked.
“Uh-uh. You were a hit tonight. A bunch of my friends asked me about you.”
“Sorry about the kiss. The weird thing was, when Smiley was coming on to you, I was jealous.”
“You’re loaded,” she said flatly. “So don’t start analyzing things, not tonight.”
“Right.” I winked and had another taste. The juke was now playing “A Whiter Shade of Pale.”
“There must be something missing in your life,” she said, avoiding my eyes. “I mean there must be a reason why you drink like you do.”
“Christ, Jackie, not now. There’s work time and there’s drinking time.” I raised my glass. “Okay?”
“Yeah. Sorry. But I want to talk to you about something, something really important.”
“Sure,” I said, and put a cigarette in my mouth. Jackie lit a match, and I pulled her hand in until the flame touched the tobacco. I blew the match out with my exhale. “Let’s talk.”
“Not tonight. It’s too important, like I said. I want your head to be clear when we discuss it.”
“You free for dinner Sunday night?”
“I guess so.”
“Good,” she said. “I’ll pick you up at eight.”
I KISSED JACKIE GOOD night and climbed into my icy Dart. It started after a few attempts and I pointed it northwest. There wasn’t much action on the streets except for other drunks and cops too warm in their cars to bother. I parked in front of Lee’s apartment building and listened to “Cemetry Gates” on the radio until it was finished. Then I ran across the hard frozen ground to her stairwell and rang her buzzer.
After what seemed like a very long while her door opened. She was wearing a brown-and-green flannel shirt and, from what I could tell, little else. She began to shiver as soon as the door was open. I had woken her up and she wasn’t smiling. Her very green eyes had picked up the green off the shirt.
“Aren’t you going to ask me in?” My tongue was thick and I was leaning on the door frame for support.
“It’s late, Nick. I’ve got a final tomorrow.”
“I’m sorry, Lee.” I smiled hopelessly and felt my upper lip stick clumsily to my front teeth. “I thought…”
“I know what you thought,” she said in a low voice that began to build. “There’s lipstick on your cheek, hard liquor on your breath, it’s three o’clock in the morning, and you’ve got a hard-on. You thought you’d slide on in here and relieve yourself, that’s what you thought. Well, think about this. You mean something to me, Nick, in a strange way, but the next time you disrespect me like this, it’s going to be the last time. Understand?”
Before I could tell her that I certainly did, the door was closing with a thudding finality. I stared at it for a minute and then walked back to my car. I drove around the corner to May’s on Wisconsin where my bookie friend Steve Maroulis let me in the bar entrance. We had a nightcap together under the cruel lights of last call. I asked him a couple of questions about local gambling and wrote down the answers so I wouldn’t have to ask him again. I think I downed another drink while he closed up and did the paperwork. It wasn’t until the next morning, when I awoke fully clothed on a made bed, that I realized I had driven myself home.
Excerpted from Nick's Trip by Pelecanos, George Copyright © 2011 by Pelecanos, George. Excerpted by permission.
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