Polly and I are tossing back Black Label doubles—stuff cheap enough to get us both over the barrel—and this guy comes up and starts a row. Just one of a million nights out of a year, and who am I, just a face, and he comes up to our table. I had my choice; we wouldn’t have even been out. But Polly she likes a chance to put something nice on, go out on the town. I work delivering packages for Airborne Express and don’t get much down time; so when I have a night off she likes to go out-- show herself off. She’s no fancy pants, I mean, she’ll like a place where she can fit in with jeans, but a new blouse, a dressy silk number she picked up with her weekly check. She likes to have a place she can show it off. So, I took out the paper when I got home this morning. I hate movies, even when there’s something that looks decent, so I skip right over that section. There are no decent bands around anymore; just two-cord would be rock stars charging an arm and a leg to play poor cover songs I don’t care for anyway. I did find one bar didn’t look so bad, with music from nine to twelve, a folk band, and a few pool tables to boot.
I call Polly up around seven. We’ve been hashing out the idea of merging rents; but that is risky stuff and neither of us is too keen on it just yet. So, I get her on the phone and give her the hiddi-ho.
Hi. How’s things? I give her.
She responds, Good, good. I got my cat down at the vet, she tells me. Somebody took him out with a Caddy. Some rich bitch, and she didn’t even offer to pay. I guess she thought she’d done her John Q. Good Citizen deal bringing Randy in at all.
She loves this cat. I’ll never understand giving something you love a name like Randy. Her excuse is it’s the name of her first real boy friend. Some say the first is always their true love. Me, I think her cat’s her true love.
Anyway, she continues, The vet gave it thirteen stitches across the stomach. Sixty-five bucks. I brought it home, gave him some milk. He goes for his usual nap, on top of the T.V., and I went out. Just down the street for some bread and a six-pack of Heineken. When I get home he’s dead. Still laying on the T.V., dead. I cried all frigging afternoon. Then I got drunk.
She was still a little drunk while we were on the phone. I told her how sorry I was, even though I hate cats, especially the ones named after my girlfriend’s first love. I hold off on telling her what I’ve planned. I mean this whole dead cat scenario sounds like a foot in the door. I could care less about the bar. What I really want sounds more feasible with this sob story.
Then she says, So, we got to go out, get loaded. I don’t want to be sober at least until I go back to work Monday.
There goes my paycheck this week. If we’re going to booze up all weekend and I’ve got rent and credit card bills, I can say good-bye to any savings this week.
So, that’s how I wound up here staring down some greaser, a real number, too. Straggly reddish-blonde hair, untrimmed mustache, beady eyes that look black in the dark room. I still haven’t figured out why it’s me he’s picked.
An hour ago I caught him setting eyes on Polly. But I’m a really low-key guy, so I just relax. He can peruse the menu, just as long as he doesn’t plan on any entrées.
Then here he is. Both fists set on the table. This guy, he grins over the table scattered with used shot glasses; planting those black beads on me. What a perfect smile! Unbelievable, the way some people are just positive they shit ice cream. His straggly goatee hides the ends of his smiling mouth, but I’m convinced there is a devilish turn to the end of his lips.
With some serious suave he turns his eyes on innocent old Polly. She is smiling like she has just won Miss America and this character is about to bestow her with the wreath.
“Sweet heart,” He says. I’m not even in the same state by this point. “Whaddaya say we blow this skeet shot?”
What a come on! I’d bet my whole savings this guy has a lifetime subscription to GQ.
“Hay, ace,” I say, “ You mind, take a hike, bud. Her and me, we ain’t got no trouble with you. Why don’t you just talk a walk? What do ya say, get a drink on me, or something.”
While he’s getting a close up once over of Polly and her new pink blouse, I give a quick glance at the bouncer holding up the wall. He’s got the goods on us, but must think it’s going fine because he’s not anxious. Bouncers are like trained dogs, they love the smell of aggression, and he’d be at least rolling his sleeves he thought anything was up between pretty boy and me and Polly. Must think I’ve got it under raps.
“Mind if I take this seat?” He asks.
He is already in it and I don’t bother offering the boot, instead I finish my drink, and give two fingers for the waitress. She’s counting tips at an empty table. They must be good because she’s on her way over.
“Yeah, what can I do you for?” She asks, giving the little scene a once over, like she’s watching some play and not sure what it’s telling her.
“Two Black Label doubles.” I gesture to slap happy across the table.
“Yeah, how ‘bouts a gin. Gin’s good. Make it the Bombay Sapphire, mac here’s got it on his tab.”
“No way, give him the well.”
“Whatever you say, boys,” and she is gone.
He takes his pack of menthols out of his tight black genes; he has to stretch his leg across half the bar to do it. He offers one to Polly and takes one for himself. He looks at me and lights up. Polly turns in upside down and puts it in an empty shot glass. Most people wouldn’t have any trouble taking this signal.
“So, whaddaya say? Clear out with me?”
“Mick, I’ve been as cordial as you’re gonna see, now take a breather. I don’t wanna have to take this any wheres else.”
“Please Clive,” Polly speaks. She doesn’t seem committed to any particular action. I don’t even know, she could be up and out the door with Mr. Regular Dental Visits here in a heartbeat, or she could just stay. I’ve no idea.
“Yeah, Clive. Why don’t you step out, go get our drinks at the bar, or something? Make yourself useful.”
“That’s it, hit the road pal.”
“Oh, baby.” He says this with such apathy I don’t even know how to take it.
Then he looks to me with these death eyes. These eyes seem to grow out from under his lids, and they fix on me. I wait for them to beam red light, and fangs to slide out over his pale lips. They don’t, of course. He just stays on me with these eyes.
“You don’t got to get all uptight on me,” he says.
The music is over. The band is packing their things. People are clearing out. A guy and his girl pass behind smiles-a-lot, kissing, letting their tongues come out their mouths and touch in front of God and everybody.
I raise a hand trying to shake his eyes off me. “Pal,” I tell him, “Let’s relax and just cut our losses.”
“Whose losses? You don’t think I’ve lost, do you?”
“Would you make your peace and be off?”
The waitress brings around the three drinks. She smiles. There is no way she has any idea what’s going on. She leaves, expecting a good tip.
“Don’t worry, bud,” he starts. “I’ll let you join in I need the hand.”
“Okay,” Polly sets in, “That’s the end of the line. I don’t care who the hell you think you are; just make way. Skiddatle.”
“So, that’s how you are.”
That’s when he gets up. He is standing over the table, again. Looking at us both. He seems to have no idea what has just happened. As though he is standing there, forgiving us for some injustice. I can feel it: We’re being absolved of some social crime against him. He moves to the door like a Bishop from the pulpit to the sacraments. He’s gone. I feel the weight slowly lifting. What remains is a vague trembling in my fingertips. I put out the waitress’s money like offering simony for some unconscious guilt he’s burdened me with.
At home, we break out the bottle of vodka I keep in the freezer. We put down a half pint at the kitchen table. We use paper cups; I don’t often remember to wash dishes.
Our eyes get real funny, smiling and cloudy. On each other’s arms, we make way up the stairs. I took a three-year lease on studio with a loft because my last girlfriend kidded herself she was a painter. We stuck out six months on the lease before she took off with a dime store poet for panhandling in Harvard Square. I don’t have much use for the space, but she left all her paraphernalia when she busted loose and I have her half-finished work all over the large room downstairs.
We finish the bottle on the bed.
“That guy was a real piece of work,” Polly begins.
I'm staring at the ceiling. She is working at the buttons of my shirt.
“No, joke,” I say. “I thought we were gonna have a real show for a while there.”
“I could see right off he was harmless. He didn’t have that instinct. He was a joke.”
“I don’t know. He had those eyes.”
“It’s a defense thing. I see it all the time down at the shelter. He was weak. We were just letting him have his time.”
Polly is a social worker. She is the head of things at the shelter in Quincey. She went to college to learn to pass around free chowder and sandwiches to the downtrodden. I like it, though. She’s a real bleeding heart. I get away with a lot.
“I guess you’d know.”
“I see it all the time.”
She’s down to my jeans by this point. I pull her new blouse over her head, and her breasts fall out her bra. They are beautiful, perky numbers with dark, red nipples that are tight and round. I think they’re what won me over too her. She was real nice when we first met, but it’s hard to find nice nipples. Good small nipples are a real catch.
I’m awake at eight-fifteen. Me head throbs, and I pick small, curling hairs off my lips and tongue. Polly is working hard at sleeping.
There is no booze in the house. If Polly meant good on her project for the weekend I know I’d better go fill up for when she is awake.
I take the car out of the driveway. This is a bad idea, my head is cloudy, and reaction time is slim. I drive out on the highway, going north. Saturdays this is a clear highway, and I know a place open at this hour.
I pull into the small market with the separate liquor store off in the back. It is a hole in the wall place. Owned by an elderly man, a tall man. It seems he is too tall for his age. The lights are sour milk yellow. Loose, dry skin falls under his eyes and is slack by his cheeks. He looks like it was a war getting out of bed. He raises his canister of coffee to me as some kind of salute. I gesture back, but my heart isn’t real into it. At his age, I’ll see things that way.
This morning I make it as far as the cooler. I take out a case of Milwaukee’s Best. Then I go and find the good stuff, Black Label. I pick up a new bottle of vodka, too. The hangdog old man at the counter steals my money.
Outside I fire up the old Toyota Corona with all its 175,000 miles, concentrating to figure out what I’d forgot. I stare into the rearview mirror, examining the road behind me. Everything is dead, even for a Saturday morning. Some people do have jobs even on Saturdays. Where are they?
Then it comes to me, what I forgot: A scratch ticket. Whenever I buy the booze I have to get a ticket, just a buck, but it makes me feel right, keeps things in perspective. It reminds me why my life is where it is.
I leave the car running and go back inside. The old man looks at me. Sizing me up, really. Wondering if I didn’t get enough, or if I should be in rehab, or A.A. I alleviate the stressed vain bulging at his left temple by telling him why I’m back.
“You know this whole racket’s a sham,” he explains. “It’s just another one of those government conspiracies. All the winning tickets are in the rich people communities. They plan it out. You wanna buy one of these pieces of crap go up to Rockport or Boxford or somewheres else like that. It’s something the state does to extract money from the lower-middle class and poor they don’t think pays enough in taxes.”
Paranoia is an infection. It festers in people who don’t have enough to do to occupy their time. They sit around all day in places like this drinking coca-cola and eating ring dings trying to figure out where the armies hiding all the aliens. Convincing themselves the government’s created AIDs and Cancer to kill off all the underprivileged in order to cultivate a race of elite intellectuals who can spawn a new humanity in test tubes. How the weather bureau raises the ocean temperature ten degrees when they put it in the papers so people will be more apt to go to the beach and spend there dollars on the state.
While I’m thinking this, these two guys come bursting through the door with nylon stockings over their faces. Both men are holding these big pistols out in front of them. One, the shorter one, puts his gun to my forehead, digging it in real deep. I just stand there, my scratch ticket between the fingers of my left hand.
The other throws a sack at the old man whose face is no longer so hang-dogged.
“Give it here.”
He fidgets in the register.
“Don’t fool all around with that shit. I know you have the good stuff in the safe. Let’s have it.”
The whole experience is over in a matter of moments. The tall one gets on the counter. He kicks the old guy in the face. “Where’s it at?” He points, but I can’t make out where because he is too far under the counter for me to see. The short guy keeps checking over his shoulder, then looking to the door, then at me. “Don’t move, I mean it,” he tells me. I don’t, just lock my knees and wait. I can feel my nerves wanting to rattle apart my body but I fix my legs at the knees and clench up my stomach, holding with all I’ve got to make my body override the messages my brain is sending out.
They leave through the front door. The tall guy has the money bag over his shoulder. I hear the car’s engine burst and sputter, not knowing how I missed it the first time, and they’re gone as if they had never stepped in the place. Except I know they have because I can feel it on my forehead. The old man is crying on the floor with blood running down his face. I go around behind the counter.
“Here take my hand,” I stretch it out in front of him. “Take it, let’s get you clean.”
“Forget me, call the cops. Call the damn 911; it has got to be good for something. Stop messing around with me.”
“They’re history, man. Those guys are last nights news.”
“Fuck that, call them up. You know how much money I just lost.”
I go to the pay phone and call 911. I get this lady. I explain where I am and why I’m calling. She says to me she sent someone straight away. They’ll be right here, she says. She asks me if I have a description of the getaway vehicle. I don’t, I tell her. She says, again, that they will be right here.
“Now that that’s all set, how are you?”
He sops up blood from his forehead with a paper towel roll. His eyes squint.
“I’m good. They took all my dough.”
“No. I mean everything. Saturdays I put all the weeks’ dough in this volt, my son comes and takes it to the bank for me. They got all of it. Every damn last cent.”
I don’t know what I have to say. I put my ticket into my pocket. I’ve been holding it the whole time. I want to give this guy some words, or something. But there’s nothing coming to mind.
I wait around for the cops to show. I help straighten up some of the stuff that got tossed around in the confusion. The old man goes to the bathroom. I can hear him crying through the door. The cops finally show and I give my statement. There isn’t much to give. Then I go out to my car, which is still running.
Back at my place I park in the driveway and kill the engine. I look at my hands shaking like beach grass. My fingers have left a deep imprint on the steering wheel.
Polly is still sleeping when I walk in the house. Nothing is different since I went out, so I figure she hasn’t been up from the time I left. Sitting down at what I make do for a kitchen table I take out the bottle of Johnny Walker and split the seal with my ignition key. I work at steadying my hands. I use one of the dirty, paper cups from last night. I fill it. Then swallow it with one gulp.
It burns going down my throat. Soon I can hold my hands steady without concentration. I take the scratch ticket out of my pocket and set it on the table and watch it.
That guy last night, I should have had it out with him. I should have tossed his ass. Right outside with the bouncer and the rage junkies watching, surrounding us.
I move the scratch ticket dead center in front of me. It lies between my hands. I pour a long one and look at it. I take a pull. Then another. A spider comes walking across the table. It goes straight for the bag of booze.
On the other side of the table, Polly has left her cigarettes from last night. I take one. I light it and let it rush into my lungs. The spider works its way back over the table to my glass. I permit this. It ascends the side and struts around the rim. The cigarette has burned to a nice rosy ember. I turn it over and slowly move in above the spider. It doesn’t seem to notice. I get right down near it and get it. The carcass writhes and falls from the glass and shakes on the table.
I decide to scratch the ticket before my eyes are too far-gone and I can’t see anymore. The game is one of those where you have to beat the dealer’s hand. I hate that kind and can’t remember why I bought it. I work off the first group and lose by one: 6-7. This is always the way with these things. The next is a 2 for me, and a 12 for the dealer. I win on the third: 9-6. I work off the last round before seeing what I won. I’m not all too concerned; it’ll be a buck or two. It is here that I am wrong. It is not a dollar. The thing is a $2,000 card.
This is exhilarating, for the moment. I pour a fresh scotch. I start thinking. I’m not the good luck kind of a guy. I re-check the figures. 6-7. 2-12. 9-6. 9-6. Huh. Two thousand is like three weeks pay. I start thinking Chinese ideologies. Ten billion people and you would think they’d have some healthy insights. This Ying-Yang bit comes to mind. I’ve been having God knows the rottenest bit of luck this weekend. Beginning with Polly’s cat kicking the old bucket. These are no isolated incidents, I assure myself. This is the general course of my life. Have I got a little of the Yang suddenly?
This is when Polly starts down from our room. Her face is a bad mask of itself. Her cheeks are puffy, blotchy red. In places, her hair looks sticky, matted from sleep.
Polly holds off saying anything. Standing at the table she takes a pull off the bottle of scotch. She collapses into a chair.
“You started in without me,” Polly reprimands.
“I can’t believe it myself. It was on your . . . our account I even went out at all. We needed some fresh artillery. I wouldn’t have taken to it only you can’t imagine what’s happened.”
“So, what happened? You’re all sweaty. You look shook-up.”
“That’s a way to put it.”
“Will you believe me?” I want to know. She gets in these ways and it’s hell to get her to take anything I say serious. I know she puts up with a lot of shit where she works. With the people she has to deal with she has seen it all.
“There was a hold-up this morning. You know the mini-mart we sometimes go to, the one off the highway. This guy put a gun in my face.”
“Damn it, you don’t kid about that stuff.”
“See, I knew it.” I freshened up my scotch and relaxed into my chair. It doesn’t surprise me, this attitude.
“Okay, fine. You’re for real?”
“I’ve been about to laugh crazy for the last I don’t know how long.”
She leans in for the bottle. Some of the scotch spills over on the table. She rubs her finger in the gold pool of liquor. Over her glass, she looks at me. Fear is crowding in the bloodshot, white parts of her eyes. I hadn’t realized she actually might be falling in love with me.
“Pass me one of those cigarettes,” she says.
I take a new one for me and give her the pack. She fumbles one onto her dry bottom lip and clamps down the top one. I light both.
“I need to tell you, Polly, there’s something we need to talk about.”
I’m not thinking just about this weekend. We both haven’t been handed the best lot from life. One night we talked about it. We were sweating off a bad round of sex. We got into how we both had spent the better part of our lives in a bad way. That night she told me about being married before, when she was young. He was from her hometown in New Hampshire. His head was crushed when a scaffold fell while he was painting a house. She said there wasn’t even enough face left to identify him. It didn’t matter; everybody, including the foreman, watched it happen. Her best friend’s boyfriend just got his leg busted off in it. I explained how my luck had been just about as bad.
“What are we talking about?”
“Take a look at this.” I pass the ticket across the table to her. Her face goes blank, no expression.
“Are you telling me things are looking up?”
“Fuck me.” She mumbles in her deep and low way.
We move to the sofa across the room with a T.V. set out in front. I start cutting the seal on the vodka. Polly finishes off the last few pulls of scotch at the bottom of the bottle.
She sits down beside me, puts her hand on my knee.
Much later in the day, the sun is going down. Outside the window, the sky is lavender. Clouds are rushing by. All around is a spectacle.
I start thinking about the ticket. Most specifically, I am thinking about the two thousand bucks. I think about our savings, too. A while back, around the time we discussed moving in together, after deciding it was a bad idea, we started a joint bank account instead. What a strange idea? We figured it would add dimension to our relationship.
Polly starts talking. At first, it’s just a dull blend of words. Then I realize she’s saying something.
“We should get the hell out of here,” I hear her say. “Massachusetts. We should get out. We have this money; it’s ours. Let’s use it before anything can go wrong.”
“What you mean?” I slur. “Where? Where would we go?”
“I don’t know. As far as possible from this place. Anywhere?”
“You really think. Just a while ago we were worried just moving in together.”
“What’s stopping us? Things go bad we can still split. You can always come back here.”
I take the bottle out of her hand. I can feel perspiration on the bottle.
“Name a place,” I say. “Anywhere, something tangible.”
“Nebraska,” she gives.
“What’s in Nebraska?”
“And that’s where you’d have us go? Nebraska.”
“Fuck you, then. Why not? What we have to lose?”
“But it’s the middle of nowhere.”
“So are you.”
“But at least I haven’t gone in for silly talk. At least I’m holding my own, not talking nonsense.”
“What is in our way?”
She is right. I want to talk it out of her, but I know, she is right. I have a dead-end job, she hates watching people worse off then her sink through self-pity and despair, knowing they’re right to feel the way they do. There is fear. The sun comes up, and we have a good day at the job so we drink. I get a flat and am an hour and a half late on my deliveries: We drink. A cat die at the wheel of an impatient driver: We make a marathon of it.
Next day I wake up and am in a ball on the floor. The room is spinning around and around. A knife is cutting my brain like a pie. I put my hand to it, convinced I have no skull. It is there all right. I want to puke, but there is nothing.
I watch the toilet water as I flush and flush and flush. Spinning and spinning like a roulette wheel with no little ball bearing to announce my winnings.
I get up, and go for the fridge. I tear off parts of the Milwaukee’s best box and take a can. I punish it in a few seconds. I take another. As I hold it, sipping, I look for something my stomach won’t reject. There isn’t much food around. I take some eggs. Then I realize how heavy eggs are. I shut the door. I started opening and shutting cabinet doors. I find the hot pot and plug it in. I pour water in the pot. I shake a rice bag in the water. The egg timer sits by the toaster. I set it on five minutes.
I hear Polly on the stairs, but don’t look for her. I just wait for the five minutes to end and sip at my beer.
“You think about Nebraska?” She asks, balancing herself at the stair bottom.
The question comes from a long time ago.
“Do you want rice?” I ask her.
“No. A beer sounds good.”
I get a fork from the drawer and take it with the rice and beer to the table.
“I don’t know about the whole thing,” I begin.
“What’s to know, really,” Polly starts, “let’s just go.”
“Tonight. Tomorrow. We can go a few hours; get a place in New York State for the night. It’d be a start. In the morning we could go on.”
I sit with my rice and nibble. She looks at me, periodically drinking her beer. Outside the sun is everywhere.
I guess there really is nothing to say. Maybe Polly is right about the getting up and doing it, no delays, no calling bosses, landlords. People we would never need to see again.
I look at her swollen face. Her blue eyes are dull in the well-lit room. She takes the beer to her small, red mouth and drains it. I keep looking at her. Searching for all the things she isn’t going to say. Finally, I smile. The last thing I do is rap my knuckles on the table. She laughs at me. Her whole face starts glowing.