This week’s guest blogger and upcoming
victim crime writer to be mercilessly grilled under hot lights interviewed on the Crime Cafe podcast is Bob Hartley.
But not this Bob Hartley. Or this one! 🙂
However, as I’ve mentioned before, he has written a really, really great book!
So here’s the deal. You can get a copy of this top-rate gritty crime novel for only 99 cents from March 25 to April 1!
So here’s the Amazon link for the book.
But don’t just take my word for it. Check out the following excerpt, which starts (awesomely!) with a quote from one of my personal heroes,
Johnny Rotten John Lydon!
North and Central
Andy’s a bartender in Chicago’s North Austin neighborhood in the late 1970s. For years, he’s been slinging beers to corrupt cops and fat Zenith employees, but given the West Side’s ongoing decline (and his own serious health issues), he’s starting to wonder how long it can go on. He’s serving workers from a dying factory in a dying neighborhood; he sees crime on the rise–and he decides to become a criminal himself.
“North and Central” evokes Chicago in the epic winter of ’78-’79–the bleak season of blizzards and disco and John Wayne Gacy–capturing it in microcosm through the denizens of one blue-collar watering hole
“For people like me, there is no order.”
– John Lydon, “Problems”
In the 1970s, Zenith Corporation manufactured televisions and employed over 12,000 workers in Chicago.
Emily Clark and Mark Wilson, The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago.
Trembling Under Fingers
I was a balding thirty-five-year-old with a belly and heel spurs. My bar took up a corner at North and Central. It was red brick with glass block windows.
It was a Friday in early December and the Old Style sign was swinging in the wind. I sat banging dents into quarters with a hammer and nail. Bill, the night bartender, had called in sick again. And I’d had to stock and clean the bar because Donald, the afternoon guy, hadn’t done shit. All I asked for in bartenders was that they showed up, did most of what they were supposed to, and didn’t steal too much. Donald was getting too close to the line. Bill had maybe crossed it. With every whack of the hammer, I imagined I was cracking his skull.
Railroad Bob was passed out in a booth with his dirty hair forming a wooly cloud around his head. His boots were sticking out and dripping mud onto my floor. The Skeletons sat with their shoulders hunched. Their elbows were sunk into the bar and they chain-smoked Chesterfields. They were old and gray. Their skin sagged so much it looked like it’d been draped on them. Like always, they were fucking with each other.
“Buy one,” she said.
“With what?” he replied.
“Enough for one.”
“Christ. Think only of yourself.”
“You married me.”
“Don’t remind me.”
The arguing was part real and part con. They gambled. If they kept it up long enough, I’d either buy them one or throw them out. Sometimes it’s easier to be a sucker. I had too much to do. I gave them two Buds. “On me,” I said. “Shut…the…fuck…up.”
It was like giving a baby a bottle. They went back to smoking and I went back to work. I’d just started bashing Washington’s head again when Rita came in. She always wore this old brown leather bomber jacket with the collar turned up. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail and she had this little gap between her two front teeth. She had these hazel eyes that pierced right through me and made me sometimes forget what I was saying. She hopped onto the stool next to me.
“Seen him?” she asked.
I’d seen Jerry around six and he’d said he’d be in. He told her he’d be working. Jerry lied to her all the time even when the truth was just as good.
Anybody else, I could look straight in the face and lie to, but not her. I looked at the quarters. “No,” I said.
She leaned closer and tried to make eye contact. I kept banging dents.
“Really?” she said.
“Really,” I said.
“Every payday the asshole’s a ghost.”
“I can let ya have fifty.”
She leaned even closer. Her arm brushed against mine and the feeling of her skin, even for those few seconds, made me want to take hold of her.
“What are you doin’?” she said.
“Bill called in sick. And on top of that, I’m pretty sure the fucker’s been ripping off the jukebox during the week,” I said. “I think he’s stupid enough to use the register to cash in the quarters. Monday night, when I’m countin’ the drawer, if these are there, I’ll fire his ass.”
She tilted her head a little, laughed and said I was smart, and, because it was her that said it, I believed I was. She told me that, if I saw Jerry, to call her. She hopped off the stool, backed up, and turned toward the door.
Railroad Bob had pulled himself up. He was smoking a cigarette and staring at the table like it was telling him a secret. He looked up and, when he saw her, he smiled and raised a hand that shook a little.
“How’s it goin’, sister,” he said.
“Good,” she said. “How’s your ma?”
Rita’s face went a bit pale. She didn’t say anything, but she didn’t move either. She needed an out.
“Could be worse,” I said. “Right, Bob.”
“Yeah,” Bob said. “Bitch could still be here.”
Rita looked at me and smiled. Then she laughed a little, moved to the door, gave it a pull, and walked out. Railroad Bob got up and threw a five on the bar. I cracked open an Old Style, shoved it in front of him, and made his change. He took a drink and looked over at Old Man Skeleton and said: “Some dead are more alive than the livin’.”
“Shut up,” Old Man Skeleton said. “Christ, you’re a dark bastard.”
“Death smiles at me. I smile back.”
“Shut the hell up.”
I thought about running after Rita and telling her that Jerry had lied and that, if she came back later, she’d find him spending the money she needed. But I couldn’t tell her that, because if I had, she’d have known for sure that I was a liar too.
It started getting busy around eleven.
First, the cops started filing through the back door. On Friday nights there were always three or four squads parked in my alley with the windows rolled down. The cops took turns sitting out back and listening for calls. Most of the time, there were more of them in my bar than they had at roll call. Jerry wasn’t on duty. The rest were. They threw their uniform jackets over the barstools and their caps on the bar, then pulled out their shirttails and rolled up their sleeves.
I opened a dozen Old Styles, put them on the bar, and started their tab. They played liar’s poker. Each one kept a beer in one hand and a folded dollar bill in the other. They huddled around taking peeks, and making bets. Soon there was a small mountain of crumpled bills piling up on the bar.
The Zenith factory second-shift guys came next. Like the cops, they marked their territory and took up space close to the door. They threw their work coats into a booth, sat down on stools, and cranked their heads to watch the TV. Over the past couple of years, there’d been steady layoffs. So there were fewer of them, but they knew how to drink, and still made up a good part of the business. They ordered pitchers and shots and threw quarters into the Wurlitzer. They loved “Iron Man” and played it over and over.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and hit the reset button. When the music stopped, Railroad Bob still stood in front of the box, stomping in place, whipping his hair around with his eyes fixed on the ceiling. He looked like a drunk Jesus waiting for the ascension.
“Bob, the fucking song’s over,” I said.
But he kept it up. “Fuck you. I’m Iron Man.”
“Well look at your pants. Somebody pissed on Iron Man.”
Only then did he notice the stain on his crotch. “Mother of mercy,” he said. “Is this the end of Bob?” The cops and Zeniths laughed, and somebody bought him a beer.
After a few rounds, the two groups blurred. A few of them started making bets on the Shuffle Alley machine. The puck banged against the pins and each time somebody hit a strike, bells rang, and Catwoman’s tits lit up.
Business had been shit and I needed a good night, but I wished they’d stop coming through the door for a while. Still, each time it squeaked meant money. I banged on the register, threw bottles into garbage cans, dumped ashtrays, and wiped up spills. And every ten minutes or so, two or three red or blue flannel shirts walked out the backdoor and came back with slits for eyes, and smelling like weed. The cops paid no heed.
When Gin and Tonic Doc came in, I knew it was midnight. He took his usual spot in the middle of the bar and a few stools from the Skeletons. He sat with his back straight and eyes forward. He kept his ashtray, cigarettes, lighter, coaster and drink in one straight line. He spent most of his time reading some book and waiting for his chance with rough trade.
Then the St. Anne’s nurses came in wearing tight sweaters and tighter jeans. Most were from the neighborhood and were friends, sisters, or cousins of the Zeniths and cops. Like the guys, they mostly drank beer. Only tonight there was a new one who looked like one of those big-headed kid paintings that everybody had in the Sixties: frizzy hair, saucer eyes, and puckered lips. She came up to the bar and said: “Make me something special.”
“Like what?” I said.
“I don’t know. Surprise me.”
Christ, I hated people who couldn’t make up their minds. It doesn’t matter if it comes in a glass or a bottle, it’s all fucking alcohol. I surprised her with a shot and an Old Style chaser. “Try Railroad Bob if you want special.”
Then this young black guy came in hustling Craftsman knockoff tool sets for twenty bucks. A few suckers were drunk enough to take the bait. He stuck around and bought a beer. One of the nurses smiled at him and said he was cute. He smiled back and said she was cute too. Then he put his arm around her shoulder. People started to stare. I told him it wasn’t a good idea. He caught the fierceness of the eyes on him. He took his arm away, gulped down his beer, and left.
When it hit 2:00, we got the swing shift stragglers, and the professional drinkers who’d closed the other neighborhood bars.
It didn’t matter how drunk they got. Everyone knew when closing was coming. With two hours to go, even with shots and full beers in front of them, they ordered backups for themselves and each other. And they constantly needed change for the juke box, the pool table, or the cigarette machine. The bastards kept me running from one end of the bar to the other.
Then some asshole came in with a handful of cigars. He handed them out, and soon one end of the bar was covered in a gray cloud. With that and the cigarettes, my lungs were leather.
My back ached more and more the deeper I had to reach into the cooler for a beer. But they kept buying each other drinks. And the Skeletons wouldn’t stop singing “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amoré,” even though neither of them could sing worth a good goddamn.
“You’re off key,” I said. “Shut up.”
“You’re stiflin’ our creativity,” Old Man Skeleton said.
Then some started plinking away on the upright piano. I don’t know why, but, when people get drunk, the bastards think they’re Mozart or something. I usually put up with it, but one of the morons started banging on the keys with his fists. I told him to stop or get the hell out.
Then a couple of the cops started shoving each other over a bet. I told Jerry to control his friends. Jerry grinned, shrugged, and told them they should ease up. “It’s just a fucking game,” he said.
Then some asshole put on that same goddamn disco song from that same shitty goddamn movie that’d been played in every fucking bar for months. Railroad Bob stood in front of the box, gave it the finger, and screamed, “You are the shitstain on American music.” The longer it played, the more they shouted that it must have been a nurse that put it on, because nobody else would play that faggot crap. And the nurses said that was bullshit, except for Saucer Eyes, who was now blasted and hanging all over Jerry. And I almost hit the button again, but somebody bumped the Wurlitzer and it reset and we all cheered.
Finally, it was 3:30 and I yelled, “Last call, fellas. Dancing girls waitin’ outside.”
Somebody by the pool table yelled, “Go fuck yourself.”
“If I could,” I said, “life’d be easier.”
In between final drinks, I threw six-packs into paper bags and stuffed the cash into the register. One of the cops pulled his squad in front of the place and threw on the rollers, lighting the place up with flashes of blue. And I yelled, “Squads are out, boys. Squads are out.”
A few of them said I was an asshole. Then more joined in and they all started chanting and it got louder and louder until the whole place was screaming: “Andy is an asshole. Andy is an asshole. Andy is an asshole.”
I shoved six-pack bags at them.
Jerry had his arm around Saucer Eyes. Her hair looked like a fright wig and there was a smudge of lipstick spread across her cheek.
“Hey, Jerry,” I said. “Who’s your favorite clown?”
As they walked toward the door, she stuck her tongue in his ear. He gave me a wink and left with his hand shoved in her back pocket and squeezing her ass. It pissed me off, because, just a few hours before, I’d had to lie for him. I always had to lie for the fucker and there was no payoff.
I poured quick last call shots and blasted them with the bar lights. And they all shouted, “Oh shit.” They squinted and clutched damp brown paper bags. And when the Skeletons were making their way to the door, the old man reached his boney arms over the bar and tried to pour himself a Budweiser. I grabbed the glass from his hand and told him to behave himself.
“Why?” he asked.
The Skeletons snapped at each other as I nudged them toward the door.
“You married me.”
“Don’t fucking remind me.”
I grabbed Railroad Bob by an arm, pulled him out of the booth, got him to his feet, and put his coat on him. For a second, I thought he wasn’t going to make it, but then he started moving and I got him into the street. I let go of him. He stood there swaying and staring up at a street light.
“I stare into the hole and it keeps lookin’ back,” he said.
“Gonna make it home?” I asked.
He looked at me, grinned, and said, “Every pleasure has its price, gherkin.”
“Careful,” I said. “Gettin’ crazy around here.”
“We’re all a little crazy,” he said. Then he took a few steps, put his palms against a brick wall, bent over, and threw up on my neighbor’s building. I thought about helping him, but the cold made me walk back in. He wasn’t my problem anymore. I pulled hard on the door and locked up.
Bottles, glasses, and dirty ashtrays were all over the bar and booths. A layer of beer mixed with mud and cigarette butts covered the floor. The bar mats were sticky and the coolers were nearly empty. And even though business was down and I’d thought about not replacing the thief, I knew I couldn’t handle another Friday night working alone.
As I walked down to the end of the bar, I pulled the stools out. Toward the end, there was a purse. I picked it up and opened it. There was a wallet. Inside it were two twenties and a ten. I took a twenty as a finder’s fee. Then I put the wallet back in the purse and put it behind the bar for safekeeping.
It was 6:00 before I finished cleaning and stocking. I always did the books last. Next to the register, I kept a piece of paper with two columns of hash marks—one for six-packs and the other for drinks. I pulled the bank and counted the difference. I kept three .38s hidden: one at each end of the bar and another behind the register. I never left them there. There’d been a lot more burglaries lately, and the last thing I needed was to be shot with my own gun. I put two in a plastic bag and one in my pocket. I put the night’s take and the list in a bank pouch, grabbed the gun bag, and went down to the basement.
The safe was toward the front of building close to the old coal chute. Next to it was a card table with a few folding chairs around it. On top of it was a long-sleeved flannel shirt and a pair of gardening gloves.
The safe was in the floor. Years before, the place was burglarized and they’d taken the old one. My mother thought it was so heavy no one would be able to get it up the stairs and out the door. She was wrong. So she’d had the basement floor broken up and a safe dropped into it. She said that if the fuckers wanted it, they’d have to bring a jackhammer.
I opened the safe, pulled out the IRS ledger, and put it on the table. Then I put on the shirt and gardening gloves and opened the old coal chute door. Inside was a big pile of black chunks and dust. I pushed my hand into the pile until my arm was covered with coal and I felt the plastic bag. I grabbed and pulled. Inside the bag was the second ledger—the real one.
I took it out of the bag and threw it on the table. I took off the gloves and shirt. I sat down and added up the six-pack money and then the drinks. I took it from the pouch, wrapped the wad with a rubber band and stuffed it into my pocket. I ripped up the lists into small pieces and put them in my pocket too. I always flushed anything that could be used against me. Then I counted the rest and entered the total into the IRS book.
I put the cash in a deposit envelope, licked it, sealed it, and put it back into the pouch. I closed the book, opened the other, and entered the total amount of Saturday’s take.
On the inside flap of the book was a pocket with some envelopes. I spread them out. Under each flap was written 100, 50, 20, or 10. I never wrote anything else on the envelopes. I didn’t need names. It was 1978, it was Chicago, and it was Austin. Everybody, from the local juice loan guy to the neighborhood priest, knew the way the game was played. And even though the bar wasn’t making near what it did, I still had to pay the fuckers their money.
One hundred went to Jerry who bumped it up to his district commander. Fifty went to the liquor control people. Twenty went to fire, health, building or any other inspector who might come by looking for some trumped up violation. Ten went to random cops for hauling away drunks or bouncing the occasional asshole.
But I rarely had anybody busted. My mother taught me that anybody can have a few too many and have a bad night. Unless they were always causing trouble, you wanted them to come back. They can’t spend their money if they’re in jail.
I filled any empty envelope and put them back into the ledger’s pocket. I put the pouch and IRS book back into the safe and closed it.
Austin Federal had a drop box, but I never made a deposit at the same time or on the same day. Sometimes, I’d even skip a week. I was taught that, in the bar business, especially in a neighborhood like mine, I should expect to get robbed once or twice, but that didn’t mean I had to make it easy for the bastards.
I put the gloves and flannel back on, took the real ledger, put it back into its plastic bag, and shoved it deep into the pile of coal. I did the same with the gun bag. I shut the chute door, took off the gloves and shirt, and went upstairs to wait for Donald.
At 6:45, Donald pounded on the door. He was big and looked tough. He even had a tattoo of an eagle on his skull. He was harmless. It’s usually the little psychopaths that are the most dangerous. They’ll slit your throat just for being in the same room with them. But Donald’s size and that tattoo kept me from having any trouble during the day. Plus, again, he showed up, and he didn’t steal too much.
I unlocked the door, we traded nods, and I walked out. I made sure the tavern never opened earlier or closed later than the license allowed. Still, there was a small group of Zenith night shifters and early morning drunks huddled around the front of the bar shifting feet and blowing into fists. And, even though it had never happened before, they all looked at me like this was the morning I’d let them in early. That hungry look is what hustlers depend on.
It reminded me of being a kid waiting for the fucking nuns to open the school doors in January. On those days, it didn’t matter that my mother had wrapped me up in my winter coat, scarf, and hat, and that she’d put my feet in plastic bags and covered them with my socks and shoes. It didn’t matter that I kept my hands balled up inside my gloves all the way to St. Lucy’s. The cold still cut through my pants, stung my face, and numbed my fingers. The snow still managed to get passed the plastic bags. By the time I got to school, my feet were frozen stubs.
We stood there in straight lines. We huddled together, stomped our feet, and hunched our shoulders. We looked like little slaves in a gulag. But even for the littlest ones, the nuns would still never open up early. They would just stand inside and make small talk until the bell rang and, then, finally, they’d unlock the damn doors and let us in for another day of getting smacked around.
Even before the school day started, they made sure we knew who was in charge. How anybody can say they liked those bitches is beyond me. I never met one I didn’t want to shove in front of a train.
When the drunks heard the click of Donald locking the door, they looked at me the way I looked at those nuns. I knew what they needed, but wouldn’t give it to them. Instead, I just shrugged, shoved my hands in my pockets, and kept moving. I’m sure they wanted to shove me in front of a train too.
I’d always lived above the bar. First with my parents and then alone. It was just cold enough to make me fumble the keys and drop them. I picked them up, slipped the key in the lock, and gave the door a shove. I grabbed the Trib lying against the hallway door. I unlocked the door and looked up at the stairs. It wasn’t a long way, but after working twelve hours, it didn’t matter. I stalled. I unwrapped the paper, sat on the steps, and read until I caught myself nodding off. I dropped the paper, pulled myself up, and made the climb. Then I ate a quick bowl of cereal and went to sleep on the couch.
No Teeth—No Drinks
Every Wednesday night I went to Jerry and Rita’s. Jerry sat at one end of the table playing daddy. He wore a small crucifix around his neck. It always amazed me how, every Sunday, most of the cops I knew could kneel down next to the same people they ripped off the rest of the week. But, then again, most of the other churchgoers were doing the same thing.
He had a pilsner glass in front of him with a crumpled Old Style can next to it. He wore dirty sneakers, an old pair of jeans, and a striped Cubs jersey. But even without his uniform, he couldn’t help but look like a cop. He had this bushy mustache and sideburns that they all seemed to have back then, but it was more than that. He drank his beer, told corny jokes to his kids, and talked sports with me. But, every once in a while, he’d flash me this get-me-the-fuck-out-of-here look. Even on his day off, in his own house with his wife and kids and best friend, he could never let the streets go.
Rita sat opposite Jerry. She was leaning back and fiddling with a fork. She wore a black sweater with matching jeans. Her hair was down and it covered her shoulders. Around her neck, on a silver chain, she wore the Claddagh ring I’d given her when we were in high school. She didn’t always wear it, and I remember wondering why she was wearing it that night.
I sat across from the kids, like the pitiful uncle who’d never married.
Every once in a while, people asked me about going into the bar business. I always told them that, if they wanted friends, to choose something else. I learned early on that it was people who said they were your friends that did the most sponging. Besides employees, they’re the ones who’ll make you go broke, and when you do, they’re nowhere to be found. My only friends were Jerry and Rita.
Rita never let money get in the way of setting a good table. What she didn’t make herself, she found in junk stores. She said most people didn’t know the beauty they could find right in front of them. The table was covered with an embroidered tablecloth. In the center of it, she’d sewn the trunk of a tree surrounded by little grass patches. A series of branches arched from the trunk and became smaller and smaller until they ended in tiny emerald green leaves. The leaves became a chain that created a border. For each place setting, she used china plates with red, blue, and yellow flowers. There were white linen napkins, and polished silverware. In the middle of the table was a glass vase. In it was a tree she’d made from branches found in the backyard. Dinner was just meatloaf, potatoes, gravy, and broccoli, but, because of what she’d done with that table, for a little while, I felt like I was in a place far from the neighborhood.
I liked watching her with her kids. The boy was eight and the girl ten. The boy was staring at the girl’s plate. He asked why his sister had more food than he did.
“We like her more,” Rita said and, even though it was a running gag, it made me laugh. “After dinner, she gets a pony.”
The boy looked hurt, until she leaned over, kissed him, pointed to his plate and said, “You never finish.”
The boy grinned. Rita told him his sister was still getting the pony. Then she told them to get their jackets and go outside. And they moaned that they didn’t want to.
“How long?” the girl asked.
“When ya can’t feel your feet, come in,” Rita said. Then she pointed toward the back door and, with slits for eyes and gritted teeth, she said, “Go.”
They put on their coats and hats and trotted toward the door. As they walked out, Jerry hollered, “Write if ya get work.”
It was another running gag, but it didn’t make me laugh. It was just one more thing he forced. If I hadn’t watched Rita struggle, if he’d been a real father to them, maybe I would’ve. He was my best friend, but that didn’t mean I had to like him.
I thought it was strange that she sent them away. We usually played some board game or cards. The boy was really good at blackjack. Most of the time, he took me for a few bucks. “What’s goin’ on?” I said.
Rita traded looks with Jerry. She took a second and then said, “How’d it go with that bartender?”
I told her I’d fired him.
She asked if I’d be hiring somebody. I told her I would. She put her fork down, leaned to me, and said, “Jimmy needs work.”
Jimmy “Fatboy” Tracey, Rita’s younger brother, was a junkie. A drooling, shaking, itching, stealing, lying, motherfucking junkie. And possibly a murderer, too. The best thing for everybody was when he finally got locked up.
“Yeah?” I said.
“Just got out.”
“No,” she said. “He’s really different. And he’s been out for a while.”
She told me that she’d waited to ask me because she wanted to make sure her brother was really off heroin. She told me that Jimmy was doing really well and looked great and that, as soon as he could, their father would get him on at Zenith. And she sounded convincing because, even though Zenith hadn’t been hiring for months and everybody was worried about their jobs, she believed it was going to happen. Her father was a union steward and had pull. She said that, as soon as someone retired, he’d get Jimmy a job. She said that her father was a bastard, but not a lying bastard.
“Great,” I said.
“But ‘til then, he needs work.”
She stopped speaking and waited for the words to sink in. I knew I’d give in and so did she, but I didn’t answer right away. I couldn’t let on that I could be swayed so easily. I needed to fool myself into believing that I didn’t love her as much as I did, but the truth was that she had more power over me than anyone I’d ever known.
I knew replacing one thief with a worse one was a really stupid idea, but what bothered me most was that she was letting her brother con her again. Like any junkie, he used her love to feed his arm, and, now, it was like he’d never left. He was just out of prison and already making a sucker out of the person who cared about him most. Asshole.
“You can say, no.” Jerry said. “I would.”
“Shut up, Jerry,” she said.
Jerry got up from the table and walked into the kitchen for another beer. “I’m lookin’ out for my friend,” he said.
She put her hand on my arm. “He needs this,” she said.
I nodded and I knew I couldn’t say no. I asked her if Jimmy was really clean, and she said that he was, and all he needed was a chance. I told her that I couldn’t make any promises, but to have him come around to the tavern on Thursday night and I’d talk with him. But we both knew that, as long as Jimmy looked the part, I’d give him the job.
She sprang up from the table, kissed me on the cheek and hugged me. Her hair brushed against my face, her hands moved down my back, and I trembled under her fingers.
Jerry gave me a ride back to the tavern. He was supposed to just drop me off, but instead he pulled the car into a spot and came in for a beer. The place was empty except for the Skeletons, Railroad Bob, and Donald.
As soon as he saw us come through the door, Donald grabbed his money from the tip jar and slipped past with a six pack tucked under his arm. I took his place behind the bar. Jerry took a seat close to me. I pulled the bank from the till and counted the remaining cash.
“How much?” Jerry said.
“A hundred,” I said.
“Probably rang one ten. Don’t know how you work with criminals.”
“Ten I can live with. Plus I already had to can one thief.”
“Just in time to hire another.”
Railroad Bob pulled himself from his booth and ordered a beer. I cracked one open and gave it to him.
“Property is theft, gherkin,” he said.
“Uh-huh,” I said. “Back to your cave, Bob.”
I pulled an Old Style from the cooler, opened it, and put it in front of Jerry. We stared at the Zenith. The Blackhawks and the Rangers were zooming from one end of the rink to the other. The puck was a tiny black blur.
It was the last of the third period and we watched Tony Esposito, the Blackhawk goalie, humiliate his brother Phil, the Rangers center.
I loved the way Tony played. When the Rangers got possession of the puck, he crouched into his butterfly stance and faced his brother. Shot after shot, many of them going one hundred miles an hour, flew at him. He flopped from one side of the net to the other. His stick, gloves, and pads were all over the place. His lack of finesse should have been his weakness, but he stopped everything that came at him.
When his shifts were over, Phil would sit on the bench and stare at his brother. You could see the frustration pouring out of him. Tony just couldn’t be rattled, even by family. The Hawks won 3-0.
At the end of the game, Tony didn’t stop to talk to anybody, not even Phil. He pulled off his mask, wiped his face with a towel, and skated to the locker room. To the end, he was all business. I envied him.
“You really gonna give Fatboy a job?” Jerry said.
“I guess,” I said.
“Gonna rob you blind.”
“Time for you to go?”
“How come you never go home?”
“It sucks. Mortgage, car, electric, gas, tuition. All she talks about is money. Always. She used to be fun. Remember? No more. It’s like being married to a bill collector. It’s amazing I go back at all. Christ, sometimes I even wish you’d married her.” He gulped down his beer and stood up.
I wanted to tell him it was his fault. He’d made her into a bill collector. I wanted to tell him I wished I’d married her too and that, if he didn’t stop fucking around, I’d do my best to take her from him. But I didn’t, because I knew I couldn’t make good on it.
“So, goin’ home then?” I said. He laughed, gave me the finger and walked out.
Railroad Bob’s hand rose from his booth. “What am I?” he asked. “A orphan?”
“Legs broke?” I said.
He pulled himself from the booth and walked toward the bar, and said, “All great thoughts come from walkin’, gherkin.”
“Uh-huh.” I gave him another beer. He threw a crumpled bill on the bar. I rang it up and gave him his change. He took a couple gulps and pointed at me.
“All trouble comes from other people,” he said.
“Uh huh,” I said.
“Shut up,” Old Man Skeleton said. “I’m drinkin’.”
When Fatboy opened the door, the blast of light and cold made our heads snap.
Back when we were kids, he’d always inhale the chips and candy he’d lifted from the corner stores. So he’d plumped up, and picked up a nickname to match. In the neighborhood, nicknames were never nice, and almost always putdowns. People zeroed in on your weakest point and pecked at it until it scarred over. I used to think it wasn’t right, but as I got older, I understood. It prepared you for the world.
But now Fatboy was not fat, and it was clear he was off heroin. Like almost everyone I’d known who’d done time, prison added muscle. He’d tried to dress the part of a bartender—black dress pants and a white long-sleeved shirt. But he wore dirty high tops and an old jean jacket with frayed cuffs and collar. He stopped halfway in and blew on his hands to warm them up, and a gust of wind caught the half-open door. It flew open, and we were treated to a blast of cold air.
The Skeletons were sitting in the middle of the bar. The old man was wearing the gray pinstripe coat he always wore. It was so thin you could see the imprint of his spine. Under his boney ass was an old overcoat. He shivered, squinted and shielded his eyes with one hand. ”Shut the fucking door,” he said.
Fatboy pulled the door shut. He took his jacket off and put it on a stool. He didn’t wait for his eyes to adjust and just walked toward me, staggering like a drunk. He bumped into a couple of stools and stumbled over Railroad Bob’s muddy work boots. “Watch it, gherkin,” Railroad Bob said.
Fatboy apologized, brushed a smudge of mud off his pants and kept moving. He combed his hair back with his hands. (There are a few ways to tell somebody’s been locked up. They open a pack of cigarettes from the bottom and keep it upright in a shirt pocket, they keep a forearm in front of their plate when they eat, and they use their hands to comb their hair.)
Old Lady Skeleton swiveled around on her stool. She took the cigarette from her mouth, and, with a plastic nail, scraped some lipstick from her teeth. She looked him over head to toe as he walked past.
“Pretty boy,” she said.
“Shut up,” Old Man Skeleton said.
“He’s a goddamn baby.”
“Just ‘cause I read the menu, don’t mean I’m buyin’.”
“Not what you said last night.”
“I was drunk.”
I sat at the end of the bar pretending to read the paper. When he got in front of me, I looked up. Christ, up close, he looked like a recruiting poster model for the Waffen SS–blond hair, blue eyes, carved cheeks and chin.
“Where’s your armband?” I said.
“What?” he asked.
“What time’s the rally?”
“Nothin’. Come on.”
I brought him behind the bar and showed him around. There were two stations with speed racks, ice bins and pop guns. The speed racks were for the house brands and some of the call liquor. The rest of the call and premium liquor was on shelves on the back bar. “Once in a while you’ll get some asshole from after a party at the Manor come in and ask for somethin’ weird,” I said. “But most of the time, it’ll be shots and beers.”
I showed him the register with the sheet of prices taped to it. The machine was so old that a lot of the numbers had been rubbed off and some of the buttons stuck. (I’d thought about replacing it, but I couldn’t. When my parents bought the tavern, it came with it. Like a lot of stuff in the place, it reminded me of them.) I told Fatboy that, until he got to know what the buttons meant, he was going to have to guess and that, if he made a mistake, to make a note and put it in the drawer. “If ya don’t,” I said, “difference comes outta your pocket.
Above the register, there was a sign, No Teeth—No Drinks. “I mean it,” I said. “They drool.” I showed him the beer coolers. I explained how to stock, and had him wash and put away some glasses. “You need to keep the bar clean and stocked,” I said. “I come in and the ashtrays are full, there’s tons of dirty glasses, or the coolers are low, we’re gonna have a problem.”
Finally, I brought him down to the basement and showed him the stockroom. I switched on the light. The fluorescents buzzed and flickered before coming on. On one wall, I kept the cases of Old Style on wood skids. They were piled to the ceiling. On another were the metal shelves with bottles of gin, vodka, whiskey, and scotch. Next to them, were cases of Yoho potato chips. (When I was a kid, while my friends were playing street hockey or softball after school, or sneaking smokes, or fooling with girls, I was filling the ice bins, and stocking the beer coolers and chip racks. I hated it. On each chip bag was a picture of a smiling kid in a sailor suit giving me the thumbs up. I always wanted to slap the smile right off that fat little bastard’s face.)
Finally, I showed Fatboy the Old Style and Budweiser barrels. I told him to rock them to see if any needed changing. The Budweiser, the Skeletons’ favorite, was empty. (As always, Donald was lazy. He’d served them Old Style and let them think it was Budweiser. I’d done it myself when it was busy, and I wasn’t above pouring a short shot on an amateur drinking Bloody Marys or some other idiotic concoction, but days weren’t busy, and there was no advantage in conning the Skeletons.) I could have changed it earlier, but I wanted to show Fatboy how it was done. I had him turn off the gas, unhook the empty, and switch it out.
After, we sat at the card table near the safe. On it was a pile of the dented quarters. I told him how I’d caught the thief.
Then, like I did with everybody I hired, I told him a joke about a bar owner who hires a new bartender. The owner shows the bartender around and then tells him he’s going in the back to take a nap, but instead he really watches the bartender through a hole in the wall. A customer comes in. The bartender serves him, rings up the sale, and puts the money in the till. The customer orders a second drink. The bartender serves him, but stuffs the money in his pocket. This goes on for a while. The bartender pockets the money every other drink. But then he pockets the money twice in a row. The owner runs out front and yells, Hey! Aint we partners no more?
“In the bar business, you’re expected to steal,” I said. “Anybody says any different is either lyin’ or don’t know what the hell they’re talkin’ about. Steal every tenth drink and don’t shortchange regulars. Just the ones who come in once in a while. Make sure they’re drunk when ya do it.” (What I didn’t tell him was that I shortchanged regulars all the time. I wasn’t stupid about it. I didn’t do it to the same drinker every time. I spread it out, but everybody got their turn.)
I pointed at the pile of quarters and said, “Everybody’s a thief, but this fucker was greedy.”
I handed him his schedule: Wednesday and Thursday during the day and Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights. I told him to buy regulars every fourth drink and, even though there hadn’t really been any new customers for a year, I told him to buy them every third.
“I’ll be with you for the first week or two until you get the hang of it,” I said. “After that, we’ll work together on Friday and Saturday nights. At night, after twelve, don’t ring up any of the six packs, but make sure you put the money in the till. Keep track on a piece of paper how many you sell. I’m doin’ your sister a favor here. Don’t fuck me over. If you do, I’ll do my best to fuck you over worse. Understand?”
“Yeah,” he said and he looked a little hurt. Junkies, whether they’re using or not, are an amazing thing. Even though they’ll steal their mother’s last nickel, they still get all weepy when you question their integrity.
“You aint gonna get rich,” I said, “But you’ll pay your bills.”
“That’s all I need,” he said. “Thanks.”
“No dope,” I said.
“No dope,” he said. And he sounded like he meant it, but junkies always sound honest right up until the time you find them on the street selling your TV.
Above us, we heard the squeak of the door. Next thing, the old lady started hollering for a drink. I led the way and we hustled upstairs.
Nobody’d left. Gin and Tonic Doc had come in early and taken up station at the bar. His overcoat was neatly folded on the stool next to him, and he’d spread out the Trib in front of him.
The old lady stared at us like a drunk basset hound. Her mouth was open and her tongue was hanging out. She held an empty glass in a shaking hand. “Is that you, gorgeous?” she asked. “The thirst’s made everything so fuckin’ blurry. Fill ‘er up, baby.”
Railroad Bob sat up, raised both hands above his head, and said, “Me too, gherkin. I’m fightin’ a hard battle over here.”
I handed Fatboy a bar towel, took my seat, and said, “Serve ‘em.”
West Side man killed with bayonet
By James Thompson
THIRTY-YEAR-OLD Anthony Pedilla was stabbed to death Friday morning.
Mr. Pedilla was commuting to his job at Zenith Radio Corporation when he encountered Thomas O’Connor of 5760 W. Wabansia.
Mr. O’Connor was double parked and blocking the street. Mrs. O’Connor told police that, when she heard a horn blaring, she thought it was her husband growing impatient.
“When I came out,” Mrs. O’Connor said, “I saw Tommy standing in the street with the bayonet. There was blood everywhere.”
Police estimate the victim was stabbed at least six times. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Mr. Pedilla was the father of two and had been a Zenith employee for ten years.
O’Connor was arrested and placed in Cook County Jail where he awaits a bond hearing.
Behold, the Dog Breath Experience
After a few weeks, I knew Fatboy could work the bar alone. He’d gotten to know the regulars. They liked him, but he didn’t put up with any of their shit. Plus, he was on time, hadn’t missed a shift, and was stealing what I told him to steal. In the bar business, that made him employee of the fucking year. So, other than the days we passed each other at 6:30 in the morning, the only time I saw him was on Friday and Saturday nights.
What I saw was somebody who wasn’t lazy. He kept up with his side and, when I got too busy, he jumped in if he could. He cleared empties and glasses, threw bottles in front of me when he overheard an order, made change for the machines, and bagged six packs.
He was a quick learner. He didn’t wait for me to tell him to restock before the Old Style ran out. And when he saw a customer down to the last few gulps, he asked if he wanted another. He kept the ashtrays and bar clean. But, most of all, he knew something I couldn’t teach him. He knew how to read people.
On a Friday night, about one in the morning, Fatboy was busy with a bunch from Zenith.
Dog Breath was one of them. He was a young long-haired guy who wore bib overalls and drove this old powder-blue Ford van with patches of pink Bondo and rust. (He called it “The Love Palace.” Inside it was covered with navy-blue shag carpeting. Plus, he’d decked it out with a cooler, a queen-sized mattress and box spring, a brass headrail, a black light, and a poster of a purple Jimi Hendrix. On the back bumper were two stickers: To all you virgins, thanks for nothin’, and Don’t Laugh, Mister. Your Daughter’s in Here.) And he had this huge gut. He liked to impress us by using it like a shelf and balancing a beer bottle on it.
That night, after he’d gotten a half dozen Old Styles and a few shots in him, he plopped a quarter into the Wurlitzer and played It’s Only Love Doing Its Thing. And as Barry White pushed out the tune, Dog Breath’s friends grabbed pieces of his fat ass and hoisted him up onto the bar. He put his fists into his flabby sides, turned his head, looked up to the ceiling and, in his best Superman voice, hollered, “Behold, motherfuckers! The Dog Breath experience.” Then he put his hands behind his head, wiggled his hips, and revolved. We watched waves of flesh roll until the song ended. He was a deranged bastard, but he made me laugh.
Every time Dog Breath came in, he had new story of a woman he’d had in The Love Palace, even though we’d never seen any woman climb in or out of it. But even more than Old Style, whiskey, and imaginary women, he really, really, really loved weed.
Anyway, that night Jerry was selling some grass he’d taken off some kid hanging around Young School. (He’d done it before and, as long as he kept it to just weed and nobody smoked in the bar, I didn’t care, provided he slipped me ten bucks, or a dime bag. Either way, it brought in more cash. After Jerry’s customers came back from smoking, they bought up bags of chips, which made them thirsty, which made them buy more beer.)
As usual, Jerry took Dog Breath out back first. Jerry didn’t smoke dope, so he needed Dog Breath for quality testing purposes. Dog Breath was his loss leader. If he liked it, word would spread, and Jerry could get rid of the rest. If he didn’t, he’d have to try to pawn it off on some suckers in Cicero.
When they came back through the door, Dog Breath blew a stream of pot smoke right over the pool table. His eyes were bloodshot and he had this stupid grin on his face.
“Hey,” I said. “You gotta respect the establishment.”
“Sorry,” he said.
When he got to the Wurlitzer, he stopped, put his hands behind his head, dry-humped the machine, and hollered, “It’s just love doin’ its thing, baby.” It was like watching an orca trying to fuck a buoy.
His friends gathered around and started shooting the shit, a buncha loudmouth B.S., like “Betcha that’s the only thing he fucks tonight” and “That’s because it can’t move” and “Hey, that’s the only way it happens the rest of the time, too,” and all the while Dog Breath kept grinning that stupid grin. I couldn’t follow all of it, but here and there I’d catch him pulling one of his buddies aside and cupping his hand to talk in the guy’s ear. Then, every fifteen minutes or so, his friends went out back with Jerry, two at a time. They came back smiling too.
Once Jerry dumped all the weed, he had a pocket full of cash. He started shooting pool and made side bets on wild trick shots. He was a terrible gambler and, when he had money, he was reckless. (When he ran out, he’d borrow. He always had a juice loan going and, over the years, I’d lent him money too. I never asked for it back. I knew if I didn’t give it to him, he’d borrow more, which just meant less money for Rita and her kids. I knew he thought I was his sucker. Fuck him.) But unlike most nights, he kept making the impossible shots, and he held the table. When the cops, Zeniths, and rest saw that the odds were against them, the line of quarters on the rail dried up.
So Jerry started conning drinkers into games. He knew he had to find something that hit a nerve. If he could, not only would they play, but they’d play angry. If they were pissed, they’d make mistakes. It was a good hustle. So he went for what was sure to make a man lose it. “You always were a pussy,” he’d say. “You’re a ball-less cocksucker. Go get your sister, faggot.”
About the time Jerry had played all the suckers on his side of the bar and was moving his way toward the front, Fatboy told me something was wrong.
“What the fuck do you mean?” I asked.
“Look at Dog Breath. His eyes are glassy. He’s about to fall over.”
“Yeah. From fuckin’ beer and whiskey and dope.”
“No. Look at the rest of the group. It’s starting to hit them too.”
I looked. It was his whole group.
“They’re not doin’ shit,” he said. “They’re just standin’ there starin’ at themselves in the mirror.”
They were all holding onto the bar like it was the only thing that could keep them upright. Every once in a while, they’d raise bottles to their lips and take sips of their beer. They were pale and their foreheads were sweaty.
“I asked if they wanted another round,” Fatboy continued. “They looked at me like I was shouting from the end of a tunnel.”
Just then, Jerry asked Dog Breath if he wanted to shoot a game. Dog Breath shook his head. Jerry said he was a fucking pussy and poked his gut with a cue. Dog Breath still shook his head.
“Come on, ya fat fucker,” Jerry said. “Afraid ya might lose an ounce? You’re a fat motherfucker who’s never screwed a woman in his whole miserable goddamn life. Least not a conscious one. Love Palace? Bullshit palace.”
Dog Breath didn’t take the bait. I waited for him to explode, but he just kept staring straight ahead, and those little drops of sweat kept rolling down his face.
Like everybody else, Jerry knew Dog Breath still lived at home with his mother. And, like everybody else, he knew he didn’t like to talk about it. So, of course, that’s where Jerry went next.
“Christ,” Jerry said, “Can ya even find your dick under all that? Your ma must hold it for ya when ya piss. Is she a big fat fucker too? Who’s got bigger tits? Jesus Christ, how’d she push you out? Musta used the jaws of life. Must have one helluva pussy. Is it true all the guys on the block called her Grand Canyon?”
Dog Breath still didn’t take the bait. So Jerry said that he didn’t want to play a mama’s boy anyway. He turned around, walked back to the pool table, and yelled, “Who’s next?”
Dog Breath’s jaw was tight and his fingers were white from gripping the bar. I told him to take it easy. He let go of the bar and, for a few seconds, I thought he was going to pull me over and grind my face into floor. But then he grabbed the cash he had on the bar and stomped out.
And I thought that was it.
Jerry gave up hustling pool and joined the other cops who were flirting with some St. Anne’s nurses. Railroad Bob came out of the men’s room with his fly open and his dick swinging. The nurses and cops laughed.
“Mr. Johnson, Bob,” I said.
“Shit,” he said. He fumbled with the zipper until his dick was safely put back in his pants. Then he bowed and said, “My apologies, ladies. Life is short, but there’s always time for manners.”
Then the door swung open and Dog Breath came back in. He wedged himself between his friends, but he kept looking down toward Jerry.
Fatboy asked if he wanted a beer, but Dog Breath didn’t speak. He just nodded and threw some cash on the bar. He held one hand over his belly and used the other to keep hold of the bar. He started mumbling through clenched teeth, and he was swaying. Fatboy gave him his beer and cleaned up around him. And that’s when he saw it.
Fatboy calmly finished wiping down the bar and emptying Dog Breath’s ashtray. Then he walked to the register and motioned to me. While he pretended to make change, he said to me: “You see it?”
“That fucker went and got a gun.”
I looked over and saw the grip of a Colt .45 peeking out from Dog Breath’s bib overalls.
I usually kept a blackjack in my back pocket just for this kind of thing. But I’d been marching up and down the bar all night and was sick of dragging it with me. So, I’d left it at the other end of the bar and had to go get it before something bad happened. For all my streetwise bullshit, I could be such an idiot.
I thought about grabbing one of the .38s instead, but it would have been stupid to pull a pistol. If I had, I’d have taken the risk of Dog Breath pulling the .45. Plus, I had a bar full of cops with guns. Christ, before long, I could’ve had bullets flying all over the place and, with my luck, I’d be the one who ended up on a slab.
“How do you want to handle it?” Fatboy asked.
I had to come up with something.
I couldn’t tell the cops and have them start shooting. I couldn’t go for my gun. It had to be the blackjack.
The one thing I could count on was that a crowded bar of drunks never pays attention to the bartender unless they want a drink. There were times when I was so sick of them, I’d stand in the middle of the place giving everybody the finger just to see if they’d notice. They never did.
At last I said: “Give me a minute to get behind him. Then buy them a round of shots.”
“Shut up and do it.”
Fatboy grabbed a handful of shot glasses and the bottle of Jack, and I calmly headed down to the other end of the bar. I reached underneath.
“Want shots?” I heard Fatboy saying.
And, of course, when I need it most, the blackjack wasn’t there.
“Want shots?” Fatboy was shouting at Dog Breath’s crew, screaming down their drug fog tunnel.
But the fucking blackjack wasn’t there and the fear came. Maybe that fuck Donald had taken it. Maybe I’d left it someplace else. Maybe it was upstairs on my dresser. Maybe I’d lost it for good.
I looked up. Fatboy was lining up the shotglasses.
Then I bent down and reached a little farther back and felt the leather handle.
When I came around the bar behind Dog Breath’s group, Fatboy was already filling up the shots, pouring each right up to the rim. I got behind Dog Breath right as they started picking them up and throwing them back.
Right when Dog Breath’s head snapped back, I kicked his knee from behind, like a kid sneaking up on the playground, and in that same moment I brought the blackjack up on the back of his skull.
It happened so fast nobody noticed.
I stepped out of the way as he fell. His legs gave way and his back hit a table. When he landed, he let out a grunt. The floor rumbled under my feet.
I grabbed the .45, slipped it in my waistband and covered it with my shirt. I looked up. They were finally realizing their friend was on the floor.
“One too many, Dog Breath?” I said. I told Fatboy to give me a cold damp bar towel. I put it on Dog Breath’s forehead. I patted his cheeks until he began to moan. Then I asked Dog Breath’s friends to help me carry him out.
Dog Breath looked like a fat Gulliver. Drool was seeping out of his mouth. His hands and arms were limp at his side and his legs were spread. Each of his friends grabbed a limb. I held the door while they hoisted him up and squeezed his flabby ass out into the cold December night.
Railroad Bob followed behind them and sang, “The party’s over. It’s time to call it a day.” And the Zeniths, cops, nurses, and Skeletons formed a funeral procession that flowed out of the bar, and onto the sidewalk. Pretty soon they were all singing.
I told them to keep it down. “Fuck it. We’re the cops,” Jerry said. So I starting singing too.
They opened the van door and wrestled with arms and legs and grappled flab and bib overalls until Dog Breath was mostly inside the Love Palace. They banged his head against the brass bedrail getting him onto the mattress. And at last they crammed his legs in and slammed the door.
Railroad Bob raised his arms and hollered, “The hardest victory is over self.”
Then somebody said it was too fucking cold, and they all went inside.
I didn’t follow, not right away.
Violence never came natural to me, and afterwards, I always felt sick. I needed a minute. I stood alone on the street. It was so quiet I could hear the click of the traffic light changing. I didn’t want to go back in, but I did. Dog Breath left cash on the bar. I needed to get to it before anybody else.
That night, a couple of things became very clear. If I had been working alone, I could have gotten shot. And if he learned to pour a proper shot, Fatboy might work out. They put lines on shot glasses for a goddamn reason.
The Sweet Spot
Angel dust, that’s what made Dog Breath want to put a hole in Jerry.
Of course, Jerry hadn’t known the weed was laced. When we told him, he laughed and said some people just couldn’t handle their drugs.
Still, I could tell it shook him. After that, his dope dealer days were through. It didn’t put too much of a dent in his wallet. Just because he wasn’t selling drugs, it didn’t mean he couldn’t shake down drug dealers. He could count on a few bucks from traffic stops and, like always, he collected for the commander’s Hundred Dollar Club.
Pickups were made the last Wednesday of every month. Because I owned a tavern, I was one of the lucky members.
I’d learned early on it was better to pay. My mother held back once. They were there when she opened and closed. On our busiest nights, they carded everybody going in and out, even the Skeletons. The assholes followed our customers and pulled them over for anything. A month of that and we’d have been out of business. So ever since, once a month, they sent somebody around and we handed over the envelope. (Sometimes I was glad I only had to pay a hundred. Owners running a game or hookers paid double, and had to kick up a percentage to the Outfit, too.)
Jerry and his partner were the bagmen. They weren’t picked just because they were crooked. After all, the commander had plenty of criminal cops to choose from. But he’d chosen them because they were reliable, didn’t skim the take, and didn’t talk about the club to anybody who wasn’t in it. In return, they got a monthly kickback. And as long as they answered calls, they could do whatever the hell else they pleased.
Fatboy and I were stacking Old Style in the coolers. The Skeletons and Railroad Bob were watching Let’s Make a Deal. Monty Hall was onscreen in checkered jacket and slicked-down hair, hustling some guy in bib overalls and a straw hat. Farmer had to choose between $500 or whatever was behind a big curtain on the stage. Fatboy and I stopped to watch.
“Go for the fucking curtain, asshole,” Old Man Skeleton said.
“Take the cash,” Old Lady Skeleton said.
Farmer jumped up and down. He had this big toothy smile and held a picket sign that said: Pick me. I aint chicken. He chose the curtain. A skinny model waved her skinny arm and the curtain rose. Behind it were two mutts in dog houses marked His and Hers. Old Man Skeleton pounded on the bar like he’d lost the $500.
Railroad Bob patted him on the back and said: “Gambling is the son of greed and the father of despair.”
“Jesus Christ,” Old Man Skeleton said. “Why can’t you talk like a regular goddamn person?”
Railroad Bob didn’t answer. He looked like a second grader shamed by a teacher. He put his head down and took a few steps to the side. In a low voice, almost a whisper, he ordered an Old Style. I gave it to him. He went back to his booth. Fatboy and I went back to stocking.
Just as the news came on, Jerry came through the back door. He waited at the end of the bar. He always made my pickup last. I opened the register, lifted the drawer, and grabbed the envelope. I gave it to him and he walked out. But a few minutes later, he was back. He was jumpy. He waved me over.
“Can’t get the trunk open,” he said.
“So? Get another squad car.”
“I can’t,” he said. “Bag’s in there. I can’t turn in the car like this.”
“For fuck’s sake.” I threw on my hat and grabbed a can of oil from the garage and stepped outside into the cold. Jerry’s partner was just standing there, shivering and looking at the trunk like if he stared hard enough, it would magically pop open.
“Good afternoon, Reverend,” I sneered.
Alvin “The Reverend” Anderson was a tall thin black guy. Like Jerry, he was in his thirties and had a cop mustache, but unlike Jerry, he was a meticulous bastard. Today, as always, his shoes were spit-shined, and his pants were ironed with razor creases. (Also unlike Jerry, he didn’t drink too much, and he knew his fucking Bible like a card counter knows the deck. Hence the nickname. He always wore a military-issue bulletproof vest. He said, no matter what, he was going to retire a healthy man.)
“Good afternoon yourself.” From the tone it might as well have been Go fuck yourself. He looked at the oil, shook his head, and said: “We’re gonna catch hell.”
I squirted oil into the lock and slipped the key into it, but it still wouldn’t move. Jerry pushed me to one side. He jiggled the key. Nothing. He lost his temper and started trying to force the lock.
“You’re gonna break it,” the Reverend said.
“Fuck it,” Jerry said.
“Well take it to maintenance, then!” (I couldn’t see why it was my problem. It’s bad enough they made you pay, but to have to help them cart it away…)
Jerry stopped and looked at the Reverend. They both smiled and laughed a little.
“They’ll rip us off,” the Reverend said.
I felt stupid. But then I thought of something. I told Jerry to stop, and ran back into the bar.
Fatboy, before the dope made him careless, was a damn good thief. Hell, the first time he stole a truck, he was only twelve. (The whole neighborhood knew the story. He’d walked past a truck delivering cheese to Van’s, the neighborhood supermarket. The driver had locked the doors and taken the keys, but no matter. Fatboy was behind the wheel in no time. He did it so fast, in fact, that he hadn’t stopped to think about how hard it is to sell stolen cheese, or how a twelve-year-old driving a delivery truck is pretty easy to spot. So he’d pulled the thing into an alley, thrown open the doors, and grabbed whatever he could. When the cops found the truck, it’d run out of gas, and was almost empty. But everybody in the neighborhood had fridges stuffed with provolone and Swiss.) Anyway, when I asked him if he could open the trunk without damaging it, he smirked and said, “No problem.”
We walked back out to the squad. Jerry and the Reverend were leaning up against it, hunched up against the cold, puffing cigarettes and looking nervous.
Fatboy walked up to the trunk. He bent over it and looked closely. He ran his palm down the middle of it until he was a few inches from the lock. Then he made a fist, raised it above his head, and came down hard on the trunk’s lid.
The thing popped right open. And like anybody else would’ve said the world is round, Fatboy said, “Chevy’s got sweet spots.”
“Sonuvabitch,” Jerry said.
“The Lord provides,” the Reverend said.
They grabbed the bag and threw it into the backseat.
And now Fatboy knew about the club, too.
We went back into the bar and started piling bottles again. When we were done, I gave him the list of liquor and chips we needed. He took it and trotted down the stairs.
I sat down on a stool, lit a cigarette, and watched the news. There was a story about some guy who got caught robbing a Wisconsin jewelry store while he was still punched in at his city job. Right in the middle of it, Railroad Bob jumped up. He stomped over to Old Man Skeleton, pointed a finger in his face, and said, “Sometimes I’m so smart I don’t even know what the fuck I’m sayin’.”
The Ceiling Falls
My mother made me into a pretty good musician. She used to play in the bar. When she was younger, she’d played in clubs. So she knew most people couldn’t understand the music. She was able to tune out the drunks. She was tougher than me. I never could.
I still had her black Baldwin upright in the front room of my apartment. Most mornings, after work, I sat down and played. She’d taught me to do more than just bang out a tune. She taught me to let it breathe, to not fill every space with sound, to allow for silence. She taught me to play a ballad slow, really slow, funeral parlor slow.
That morning, I did what I was taught to do. I played “Body and Soul,” and the lyrics and tune flowed.
My heart is sad and lonely,
For you I sigh, for you, dear, only
Why haven’t you seen it
I’m all for you, body and soul
I shifted the pedals just right. The sound soared and mellowed. At the end of the first verse, I let the note trail off before launching into the second.
I spend my days in longing,
And wondering why it’s me you’re wronging
I tell you I mean it
I’m all for you, body and soul
I didn’t end the note, but let it almost trail off until it collided with the next. But during the third verse, my hand cramped up and the tremors set in. It didn’t last long, less than a minute. But I knew.
I stretched out and kept playing. I knew there’d be a day when I couldn’t play at all.
When it first showed in my dad, he didn’t know what it was. He’d been adopted and didn’t know much about his medical history. So he didn’t see a doctor for weeks. He thought he was just getting older. But then came the rage.
First I should say that my father had never been an angry man. He didn’t let a day begin or end without telling us he loved us. That’s what I want to remember first.
For the longest time, my mother refused to get a dryer for the laundry. It would be too expensive, she said, and besides she was happy just carrying it downstairs to hang on a clothesline in the basement. Then one week she was struggling with a heavy load, and she fell down the stairs. When she showed him her bruises, my dad wanted her to go to the hospital, but she laughed and said it was nothing. So he put her on the sofa, tucked a quilt around her, and gave her dinner on a tray. Then he snuck outside in his hat and overcoat, got on the North Avenue bus, and went to Sears. When he got there, he asked the salesman for the best dryer they had. It was delivered the next day.
“This is top-of-the-line,” she said when it came through the door. “Do we have the money?”
And he just smiled and said: “For you, we always do.”
He treated me that way, too. Even when he should have given me a kick in the ass, he didn’t. Sometimes, I wish he had. It would have been easier.
When I was fourteen, I was sitting in the back stairwell smoking a cigarette, and I heard my mother coming. I quickly squished out the butt, threw it in a corner, and ran out the back. But I was too quick. The thing landed behind a cardboard box, and I didn’t realize it was still smoldering.
My father was in the basement doing the books. He smelled the smoke and ran upstairs. When he got there, the whole box was on fire. He grabbed a bucket and put it out. Then he went looking for me.
He found me a few blocks away playing softball in an alley. I was at bat when I saw him. The ball was thrown. I let it go by. He stood there with his arms folded looking at me. It was the kind of look that pierces your chest and brings on a flood of shame even before you know what you’ve done. The guys said hello and asked him how he was. He didn’t say anything. He turned and started walking toward the tavern. I dropped the bat and followed.
I sat at the kitchen table with both of them. My father questioned me and, after a while, I admitted what I’d done. I expected him to bounce me off the walls, but instead he told me to look at my mother. “What would it be like to never see or talk to her again?” he said. “How would you live with yourself if you’d burned her to death?”
He went on until I was crying so hard I couldn’t catch my breath. Then he put a hand on my shoulder and told me it was going to be okay.
So those are the memories I like from my dad. But it didn’t stay that way.
One day, I was playing an Ella record on the Hi-Fi. He was sitting in his chair reading the Sun Times. He told me to shut off the music. Like any teenager, I was a smartass. I told him it was unfair, that it was my house too. He jumped up, ripped the record from the turntable, and threw it across the room. Then he backhanded me across the face, hard.
He sat down and went back to reading the sports page like nothing had happened.
I don’t know what surprised me more, that he destroyed an Ella Fitzgerald record or that he hit me, but that’s when my mother and I knew there was something wrong.
His disease made every day worse. One minute, he’d buy everyone drinks, and the next he’d ban a regular for nothing. Once, my mother and I found him pointing a pistol at a customer’s head. The guy was scared shitless. His eyes were wide and he had his hands stretched above him. My dad said that he was there to rob the place, but the only one with a gun was my father. Every time the guy would start to lower his arms, my dad would holler, “Up!”
My mother saved the guy. She put her arms around my dad and talked to him. “It’s alright, honey,” she said. “It’s alright.” He slowly lowered his arms around her. She slipped the pistol out of his hand and slid it down the bar and out of reach. My father kept asking her what was wrong with him and she kept telling him it was going to be alright.
I showed the guy out. He was so scared he kept his arms up until he was in the street. We were lucky. We shared a mutual friend. He didn’t call the cops.
More and more, my mother and I took over the bar. During those years, she taught me everything she knew about the business. She was the one who showed me how to keep the books and do inventory. She taught me about payoffs and how not to get ripped off by distributors. She made it possible for me to survive.
After a couple of years, my father could barely walk. He wasn’t able to control his arms. We had to dress, feed, and shave him. And what it did to his head was godawful. My mother would come home after long shifts of dealing with the drunks and he’d start screaming at her. He accused her of everything from fucking his friends to planning to kill him.
When he’d come out of it, he’d realize what he’d done, and we’d see the terror in his eyes. He knew everything was slipping away. We spent thousands on doctors, but after a while, we knew it was useless. Eventually, he’d be eating through a stomach tube and breathing from a respirator.
One day, after I’d gone bowling with Jerry, I found a sign on the tavern door: Closed – Boiler Broken. Jerry and I went to the apartment. At first, when I saw the envelope on the kitchen table, I thought it was just going to be about another trip to some doctor. Then I saw the words I’m sorry, and I knew they were gone.
She said my dad was never going to get better, and trying to fight it would just mean more bills to pay. We’d run out of money, have to sell the business, and be left with nothing. And she said she had to go out with him, otherwise I’d end up spending all the money on lawyers for her. I’d end up in prison anyway and you’d be broke, she wrote. What kind of life would that be? She told me where I could find the bank books and safety deposit box keys. She told me to call the cops.
But I didn’t.
I ran down the stairs to the garage. Jerry followed. I opened the door. The fumes poured out. I held my breath and threw open the roll top. The cloud of exhaust cleared and I saw them. They were slumped to one side. His head was tilted back and his mouth was open. She sat next to him with her head against his chest and arm around his shoulder. Their faces were cherry red, like they’d fallen asleep on the beach.
I tried to open the driver’s door, but she’d locked it. Jerry grabbed a tire iron and smashed the window. He pulled open the door and turned off the engine. He dragged her out and laid her on the cement in the alley. Then he did the same for my father.
I pumped on my mother’s chest while Jerry gave her mouth-to-mouth. A neighbor must’ve called because, after about fifteen minutes, the paramedics showed up. But by then I knew it was useless. She was gone.
I used to wonder why we didn’t try to help my dad, but now I know that it was because my mother was right. I’d loved him, but he wasn’t my father anymore. He was this thing that’d become a weight on me.
Huntington’s is a family disease. I was told I had a 50/50 chance of getting it. It usually hits in your thirties. So, when my hand cramped up, the fear hit me, and when it happened again, I could only think of one person to tell.
I went to see her when her kids were in school and Jerry was at work. When she opened the door, she was wearing a sweatshirt with little splotches of paint on it, and her hair was covered with a scarf. Her face lit up. She smiled that smile with the little gap. She raised her eyebrows, grabbed my shirt with one hand and pulled me inside.
“I want you to see something,” she said. I followed her down into the basement. She’d converted the coal shed into a work space. She said the light was terrible, but it had a lock to keep her kids out.
She had canvases, brushes, paints, palettes, and an easel crammed under the single bulb, and there were crates of finished paintings. She kept snapshots on a pegboard of neighborhood buildings: taverns, bowling alleys, bungalows and two-flats.
She showed me the painting she was working on. Two kids played softball in an alley under a street light. One player watched the ball with the bat at his side. The other waited with outstretched hands. On a garbage can there was a quart of beer and a pack of cigarettes. Next to it, a man dressed in a white t-shirt and gray work pants smoked a cigarette and watched.
I told her it was great. It was.
She made coffee and we sat at the kitchen table. Even though I’d taken her away from her painting, she said she was glad to see me. It took me a few minutes, but I finally blurted it out. “I’ve got it,” I said.
Her face dropped and she looked like the ceiling had fallen down on her. She asked if I was sure. I told her about the piano, and how it’d happened again the next day.
“I think I’m starting to lose my balance a little when I walk,” I said. “Nobody will notice, unless they know.”
I said that, for now, I could explain I was just getting clumsy, but in a year, maybe two, excuses wouldn’t work anymore.
She reached across the table and took my hand. She pulled me closer and kissed me. She told me she’d see me whenever she could. “Just us,” she said.
I’d broken it off with her about a month after we were sure about my dad.
We were still in high school. I brought her down into the basement of the tavern and, there, with the sound of drunks above us, I told her that there was a good chance I’d get it. I told her that I loved her and would always love her, but I could never marry her or any other woman. Her face dropped and the tears came. She told me that it didn’t matter, and that she’d take the chance. The chance? Christ. She was sixteen. What the fuck did she know? What the fuck did any of us know?
Bob Hartley was raised on the West Side of Chicago. He holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Pittsburgh. His second novel, North and Central, was published in 2017 by Chicago’s Tortoise books. His first novel, Following Tommy, was published in 2012 by Cervena Barva Press. Both novels received extremely favorable reviews, including from Rick Kogan ( Chicago Tribune/WGN) who called North and Central a “…terrific, terrific novel.” Shortly after publication, North and Central caught the eye of Ed Blatchford, co-founder of Chicago’s American Blues Theater. Bob is currently collaborating with Ed in adapting the book for the stage.