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I was sitting inside Bill's Bar and Grill, listening to the hard wind that whistled through the cracks in the picture window embedded in the brick wall behind my back. The one held together with duct tape and striped neon piping that spelled out Bud Light and Rolling Rock. I had been kidding myself all afternoon, thinking it was possible to make myself invisible by hoarding a stool in the far, dark corner of the South End bar, all dressed up like a clown in my wedding-day blazer, charcoal pants, and virgin loafers with tassels.
It was March 21, according to the folded newspaper that sat ignored on the bar beside my right elbow.
Remains Hint at Horror in Mexico!
It was supposed to be one of the happiest days of my life.
But I never made the ceremony. That made it one of the saddest.
Instead, I'd been hiding out in the corner of this old bar, counting down the minutes until the happy-hour crowd left me alone and Bill the bartender dimmed the lights to make ready for some serious drinking, serious disappearing. If only vanishing were possible.
Horror in Mexico!
The world's business.
The blues in Albany!
After five slow hours inside Bill's I could tell you exactly who came and went like clockwork. An old man who called himself Kenny P. C. ("P for Pretty," he slurred, a toothy vampire smile on his ruddy face. "C for Cute.") and dressed himself in blue polyester slacks, white rayon shirt, and matching blue jacket. A man far older than his years who sat five stools away from me toward the middle of the bar and drank bottom-shelf scotch. Until the head bob began and the space between the bar and his forehead became narrower and narrower. Until the bets were placed for which final bob would send his skull bouncing off the hardwood. At which time he was escorted to the door, stage right, a taxi already warmed up and waiting for him just outside the picture window.
Then there was the woman in Sears jeans and white cotton T-shirt who'd come in sometime around one-thirty. She had a pockmarked face and frizzy gray hair. She smoked Pall Mall 100s, one off the other, and carried on one hell of a conversation with herself in a South All-benny accent. On three separate occasions she found her way over to me, set her hand on my thigh, told me how sad and lonely I looked, then offered her body. All three times I told her no. Finally, I flipped her a twenty from my honeymoon bankroll, just to shut her up.
Maybe I liked being lonely, I told her.
And then there was the young Mohawk Indian kid who sat four stools down from me, whose hands shook so bad he had to use them both to lift his whiskey glass off the bar, bring the rim to his thick lips.
I'd gotten to know them all during my disappearing act at Bill's.
I had no way of knowing if my fianc?e, Val Antonelli, or my best man (and lawyer), Tony Angelino, had attempted to contact me. No idea if they wanted to contact me. As I removed the pinned carnation from my breast pocket and set it down on the bar, I knew that by now I had to have been recognized. That I wasn't invisible. And if I had been recognized, then I was also sure that Val and Tony knew exactly where to find me.
I blamed the Albany cops.
Maybe I had no idea what their names were or what precinct they worked out of (though Albany wasn't that big). But as a former maximum-security warden, I'd had gained enough experience over the years to be able to sniff out a cop at twenty paces. It was never the uniform that gave them away. No cop would dare enter this or any other bar for a drink dressed in his on-duty blacks.
The cops who came into Bill's were almost always young, almost always dressed in generous-cut Levi's jeans, immaculate running shoes, maybe a pastel-colored polo shirt or Notre Dame sweatshirt pulled over broad, iron-pumped shoulders. They wore gold Irish Claddagh rings on their middle fingers, and their flattop hair always had that wet, just-out-of-the-gang-shower look.
And man, talk about the overwhelming aroma of Aqua Velva.
But if all this were not enough to convince me that the young dude ordering a pint of "Half and Half" was one of Albany's Irish finest, then I could be certain when he wrapped his arm around Kenny P. C.'s shoulder and addressed the drunk by his first name. Naturally, Kenny would ask the cop if he could spare a couple of bucks. But then the cop would pull out the empty pockets of his jeans, allow them to hang there like little white wings. He'd hold his hands in the air and say, "Kenny, even Jesus Christ Himself could touch only so many lepers."
You could always spot a cop at Bill's Bar and Grill, because everybody knew cops drank for free.
As a former lawman I knew that the cops must have come and gone immediately after the eight-to-four shift or right after the four-to-midnight action shift. Just in time for last call. I'd seen quite a few of them during my afternoon inside the bar. Maybe I'd gone a little out of my mind by then, but I knew they spotted me just as easily as I spotted them. I also knew that it was only a matter of time until one of them placed a call to Tony's downtown law practice to let him know where the hell I was. Tony, in turn, would tell Val. On the other hand, why should she waste her time looking for me? Why even make the effort? I was the one who had left her standing at the altar all alone. I was the one who, for five long hours, had been pissing away our honeymoon money on beer, whiskey, and regrets.
The wind whistled. Even with my blazer on, I could feel the cold March air on my back. I sipped beer from a long-neck bottle, fired up a smoke, and for the hundredth time that afternoon, hit the playback button in my brain.
It had just started snowing as I'd passed the stone pilasters marking Albany Rural Cemetery's south-side entrance. Snowing hard in mid-March. I had pushed on past the old iron gates, feeling stiff and cold in the brand-new wedding-day blazer and loafers. Shuffling toward the plot that had been home to my first wife, Fran, for almost three years now.
As usual, I was running late.