Those who sleep snugly in their beds don’t understand that night is not just day with the light off but it’s own world with it’s own sounds, characters, spirits and ghosts.
As gentle dusk gives way and fades, a viscous oozing darkness fills the inky valleys, blackens the river, squeezes down the tracks from the countryside to be held barely at bay by the dull hiss of sodium lights and the fewer and fewer glowing windows. Night flows thickly through the alleys between house and hedge, nudged steadily by the ill winds of emboldened remembrances.
The two old girls sat at their accustomed corner of the long bar drinking their usual cheap Riesling and, as always, minding everyone’s business.
“Look at him preening,” said the tall one.
“He had a stroke, you know.” the other observed.
“I remember,” the tall one answered, her cheeks sunken, having left her teeth at home. “Can still see it in his limp.”
“No, that’s an old football injury. He’s had that for years.”
“I had forgotten he was a player.”
“Hew was something.”
“Strong boys become wounded men..”
“…then they become…
“…whatever he is.”
“You’re a caution!”
He stood beside his stool at the opposite corner of the bar-face to the ceiling-so straight he was almost leaning backward, relishing the warm pain that released along his spine from his belt line to the middle of his back. Controlled and controllable pain. He pushed a tiny bit more and it became a stab. He gasped and came back. Noticed that his glass had gone empty. He would wait for Chloe to notice. Calling out would appear desperate. And he wasn’t. Not anymore.
The bartender, the niece of an old friend, was loading the cooler right in front of the two gossips, not eavesdropping but hearing nonetheless. Was she pointing her bottom toward him on purpose as she bent to her task? To give him a bit of a show? In case she was, he kept his eyes there, not to shun a gift sweetly given.
There’s no fool like an old fool.
Lifting his eyes slightly,noticing the attention from the opposite corner, he raised a finger. “Evening ladies! Can I buy you a drink?”
“Amaretto for me”, called the redhead. The bar was a large room and-even when it was empty-raised voices were necessary. “Cognac” called the other. Wonder what they were drinking on their own dime? The bartender gave them fresh glasses, so it certainly wasn’t Amaretto and Cognac.
Her task in the cooler complete, Chloe made her way to him to collect a few bills from the pile in front of him and eyed his empty glass.
“Another I take it?”
“You take it correctly.”
She filled his glass as he liked it. Bourbon. Two fingers. One small ice cube.
“Can I buy you one?”
“Not the best practice, drinking on this side of the bar.”
“I never did when I worked here. You knew I tended bar here back before you were born.”
She gave a crooked grin. “Seems you might have mentioned that once or twice.”
“We-the bartenders as a group-would set up a bit of a libation station in the back, he tossed his head toward the double swinging doors. So when we’d go back to grab more beer or a fresh bottle-we could have a quick nip and none would be the wiser.”
She, as always, let the story play out and when he paused,
“Those biddies are watching you.”
“You should have television.”
“They’re not your biggest fans. They’re keeping track of what you’re drinking.”
He pointedly kept his head down-ear cocked. A priest in the confessional. “Can I steal one?”She pushed her pack his way. He took one, tapped it on the bar and leaned so she could light it.
He blew the smoke theatrically toward the ceiling.
“They’ll love this then.”
“They’re reporting back to your wife.”
Was she purposely leaning toward him, cleavage first? Maybe it was the bra she was wearing that made mountains out of molehills.
“I’ll be the talk of the back pew tomorrow.”
“All church ladies then?”
“Oh yeah-now anyways. Though the one down there on the left. The redhead?”
“Yeah. Helen. She was a bit of one back in the day. Word was, she liked it in the back door.”
“Preferred it that way…so I’m told.”
“Oh, you don’t know, for certain. First hand?”
“What, me? No, I’d never bugger and tell.”
She snorted a laugh. “You never know about people.”
“In your job, you’d better.”
“And now they all go to church together.”
“It’s a load off my mind. A relief actually.”
“Why a relief?”
“I’ll only have to put up with this for a few more years. Until eventually, they’ll all be in Heaven gossiping all they like but they won’t be able to get to me where I’ll be.”
She smiled and said, “It’ll be more fun where we’re going…”
“Gotta be more fun than this.”
She nodded to his empty glass.
“No, I’ll be off.” He lifted his jacket from the back of his stool and slipped it on.”Evening Ladies!” he waved at the biddies.
“Tell Milly we’ll see her in the morning.”
“Will do lovelies!” he winked at the bartender who was enjoying herself.
“Leave through the back” she said. “You know the way.”
“Indeed I do.” that had been his point of entry and exit for years.
“Just watch the steps!”, she warned. “And I might have left you something on the linen shelf.
He smiled, dropped a too-large tip on the bar and pushed his way through the double swinging doors. The light back there was harsh fluorescent and his eyes blinked. It was the same: ice machine, walk-in cooler, liquor cabinets. To his right, hidden when the door was propped open, a shelf with bar towels, folded neatly from the service and wrapped in paper sleeved bundles. He could see a bottle cap peeking over a pile and lifted a bundle.
It was a bottle of brandy. Nothing that they kept behind the bar. This was good stuff, kept on the lighted shelf beside the register. Beside it was a small glass. He poured two fingers gently. Not to be greedy, then opened the ice machine.
Behind the bar Chole smiled, hearing the creak of the ice machine door.
One small cube, he thought. Just to awaken the bouquet. Not to dilute.
He sipped gently, savoring, gazing at the wooden door to the office with the hand lettered sign: Authorized Personnell Only. He recognized the spelling and penmanship as his father’s and raised the glass. “See you soon, Pop.”
Finished, he wiped the glass with a clean towel then secreted it back with the bottle. The tell-tale PING of the alarm system alerted the bartender that the door was open and that he was gone home.
Outside the club, across the alley, the coke train still rumbles dully on it’s way toward the western mills. It’s path is foretold by the single white eye cutting ahead and slicing the darkness. He’ll watch it pass and recall his uncle’s story of inadvertently kicking the severed head of the poor unfortunate who picked the wrong place to pass out.
He pulled his jacket tight around his neck-the silence suddenly crushing in the train’s wake. Was probably bullshit, he thought. Tales told to boys who played around trains.
Across the fenced lot a tow boat’s blue lights creep upriver, pushing coal to the coke plant. The hundred year cycle.
His left foot dragged slightly on the alley’s uneven surface. That would happen when he was tired or tipsy. He stopped. Was that his name he heard? Was someone calling to him? He turned to look back. Was that Chloe standing at the back door? He raised a hand to shield his eyes from the dim lamp above him. No, he realized. It’s not her. It’s not anyone.
Had he really seen her? He’d heard her for certain. Hadn’t he? Who among the living would be about now, calling his name? No one. It wasn’t like back in the day when he couldn’t walk ten paces without running into someone he knew.
He was still facing back toward the club and took a halting step. A rat squeaked and scurried from an upturned milk carton leaving a wake through a fetid puddle that shimmered silver and gold in the faux light.
Ah, you’re real at least he whispered watching the slick shadow push its way through a crack in the foundation of the long defunct lamp factory. After a time, he turned again, resuming his pathway home.
No fool like an old fool.
He made his way steadily if not swiftly to the crossroad, past the empty lots of remembered row houses and friends who had lived there. This was Steve’s with the bike. Then the hardware store where his Pop had bought him a wagon. All long gone.
It was Sappy, the night officer heading back to the station after a walkabout.
“G’Night Sappy”, he raised a hand. At least it’s not just him and the rats.
His father’s house, now his, sat darkly in the middle of the block beside a garden of thick yew trees crowding out the hedges that reach for him and scrape at his jacket as he slides by. As a boy, they came to his waist, perfect for playing cowboys or war. Now they loomed and grabbed, beckoning him deeper into the lot-a perfect venue for a rustic crucifixion. How many times had he napped unseen here-just not making it to the door? The garden was the shortcut to the back door-where the spare key hung behind the thermometer on the porch. He patted for it blindly. Would it kill her to leave a light on?
In moves practiced thousands of times, he slid the thermometer aside, snatched the key and, with only one miss, unlocked the door.
Inside, he closed and locked the door and left his coat over a chair and headed for the stairs. The hour being what it was, he took them slowly and carefully, good leg first. At the top, he paused at his wife’s door, listening to her light snoring.
“Milly?” he whispered with a light rap, “I’m home…”
“How does that concern me?”
He followed the hall, gliding his hand on the railing that the agency installed after. His room was at the end. He cracked the window inviting the darkness then lit a cigarette from the box he kept on the bedside table and stretched out not bothering to undress. . From his back, he saw the red dot reflection of the cigarette in the dresser mirror.
He had come to view a long life as a sort of penance but he couldn’t remember for what.