At four-fifteen on a cold, dry Christmas Eve a nervous middle-aged man in
an expensive overcoat walked bare-headed into the Midtown Tap Room and
stood at the near end of the bar with his membership card in hand, waiting
for the afternoon barmaid to get off the phone. She was about forty, heavy
in a square way, with a shiny face and dishwater blond hair that looked
like she'd got shitfaced and decided to cut it herself. He knew she'd
noticed him coming in, but she was taking great pains to pretend she
couldn't see him. To do so she had to stand at a peculiar angle, leaning
her hip against the back bar and looking off toward the back door so that
she was facing neither the lawyer nor the mirror behind her.
The only other drinker at that hour was a small, very slender young man in
a fully buttoned jean jacket who sat leaning with his elbow on the bar,
his cheek resting on the heel of his wrist with a cigarette between his
index and middle fingers, its ash end burning dangerously close to the tip
of his oily pompadour. His eyes were closed and his mouth open.
The lawyer unbuttoned his overcoat and stood there for a minute, listening
to the barmaid's phone conversation. She had just the start of a drinker's
rasp, and if he were just hearing her on the phone and not looking at her
he'd have thought it sounded sexy. She seemed to be having some kind of
roommate trouble involving a fender bender, a borrowed car, and no
insurance, and it didn't look as though she'd be noticing him anytime soon.
He couldn't remember ever seeing the Tap Room in daylight before, if the
failing gray light filtering through the grime on the front windows
qualified as such. It was a deep, narrow old building with a battered
pressed-tin ceiling and a long oak bar. On the brick wall behind the
bandstand hung a huge black-faced clock with fluorescent purple numbers,
and running the length of the opposite wall was a row of red Naugahyde
booths. All of this was festooned with cheap plastic holly and mistletoe.
Around the walls seven feet or so from the floor ran a string of
multicolored Christmas lights, unplugged at the moment. This is my last
look at this place, he thought, mildly surprised at the idea. He hadn't
been out of town for more than two or three days at a time in fifteen
A squeal from the barmaid interrupted his reverie. "Jesus Christ, Gary,
you set your hair on fire!" Young Gary looked up in cross-eyed
bewilderment at the hiss of the wet rag she was patting against his
smoldering forelock. He protested weakly and unintelligibly as she
snatched his cigarette away from him and ground it out in the ashtray,
then put the ashtray behind the bar. "It's obvious you can't be trusted
with these anymore," she said as she confiscated his cigarettes and
lighter. He started to say something in his own defense, but stopped and
closed his eyes again, resting his cheek back down on his hands. "You'll
get these back tomorrow," she said. "You want another drink?" Gary nodded
yes without opening his eyes.
Now she looked up at the newcomer, feigning surprise. "Oh, hi. Didn't see
you come in." She gave his membership card a perfunctory glance. "What can
I get you?"
"CC, water back." She turned without a word and busied herself making his
drink, following it with another for Gary. "Is Tommy in back?" the man
said as she set the drinks down.
"Nope. He'll be in tonight."
"Could you give him this for me?" He handed her an envelope.
"Sure," she said. She took the envelope from his hand and turned it over a
couple of times as though looking for a set of instructions.
"Tell him it's from Charlie Arglist."
"Charlie Arglist?" There was genuine surprise in her voice this time. She
lowered her head, cocking it to one side, giving him a close look.
"Charlie, is that you?"
"Yeah . . ." At that moment he was certain he'd never seen the woman
before in his life.
"Jesus, Charlie, it's me, Susie Tannenger. Wow, have you ever changed."
She stepped back to let him get a better look at her. The Susie Tannenger
he remembered was a lithe, pretty thing, at least six or eight years
younger than he was. He had handled a divorce for her about ten years
earlier, and in the course of the proceedings her husband,
a commercial pilot, had threatened several times to kill Charlie.
She came around the bar and gave him a hug, a hard one with a discreet
little pelvic bump thrown in. Her ex had had good reason to want to kill
him; he had taken out his fee in trade, at her suggestion, on his desktop.
"Isn't life funny? Are you still a lawyer? Hey, Gary, check it out-this is
the guy that did my first divorce!"
Gary looked up, focused for a split second, then grunted and returned to
his private ruminations.
"Charlie, this is my fiancÈ, Gary. Shit, I didn't even know you were still
in town; we gotta get together sometime."
"Yeah, we should do that." Charlie knocked back his drink and set a
five-dollar bill on the table. "Well, I got some Christmas shopping left
to do. Nice to see you again, Susie."
She swept up the bill and handed it back to him. "Your money's no good
here, Counselor. Merry Christmas!"
"Thanks, Susie. Same to you." He went to the door. It was getting dark
outside, and Susie hadn't yet turned the overhead lights on. From that
distance, in that dim, smoky light, he almost recognized her. "And a happy
New Year to you both," he said as he pushed the door open and stepped out
onto the ice.
When the door closed Susie sighed and looked over at Gary, whose head had
migrated down to the bar and who had started to snore. "There goes the
second most inconsiderate lay I ever had," she said.
Who gives a shit if I say good-bye to Tommy or not anyway? Charlie
thought. He was warm and dry behind the wheel of the company car, a
brand-new black 1980 Lincoln Continental, the finest car he had ever
driven. He was headed west with no particular destination in mind. It was
dark and overcast, one of those days where it was impossible to tell
whether the sun was still up or not, but as yet it hadn't started to snow.
He passed the Hardee's across the street from Grove High, watched the kids
hanging around in the parking lot the way he had when he was in school,
back when it had been a Sandy's. His kids wouldn't go to Grove, close as
they lived to it; they'd be assigned to one of the newer and presumably
nicer schools farther east. Good for them; fuck all this nostalgia crap.
He pulled a flask from the inside pocket of his overcoat and took a long
drink. Now might be a good time to stop by the Sweet Cage; the afternoon
shift would be ending, and there were a couple of the daytime dancers he
wanted to see one last time. It was a little after four-thirty, and he had
nine and a half hours to kill.
Charlie had both hands resting on top of the wheel, trying to screw the
cap back on the flask, when he caught sight of a police cruiser just
behind him to the left, gaining slowly. He quickly gripped the steering
wheel with his left hand and lowered the flask in his right, spilling a
little bourbon on his pant leg.
"Ah, shit . . ." He looked down at the stain, just to the right of his
crotch. "Looks like I pissed my fucking pants." He looked up as he felt
the car swerve, catching it at the last possible moment and swinging back
into the right-hand lane. The black and white pulled up alongside him and
Charlie looked calmly over. The cop on the right rolled his window down
and Charlie did the same.
"Road sure is icy, Counselor," the cop shouted, his face pinched against
the cold wind.
"Sure is, Officer." He tried to remember the cop's name.
"You're doing forty in a school zone, you know."
"Shit. Sorry." Charlie let his foot up off the gas, and the cops slowed
down with him.
"Never know who's gonna clock you around here, Mr. Arglist."
"Thanks. That's one I owe you."
"Merry Christmas, guys." He held up the flask and drank them a short toast
and they accelerated away, laughing and waving. That was a lucky fucking
break, he thought. He switched on the AM radio and rolled the tuner knob
between thumb and forefinger until he found an adenoidal police reporter
giving quick but detailed accounts of a fistfight in a tavern, a foiled
daylight burglary, and a rash of car thefts at a local shopping mall. He
closed his report with a message from the chief of police admonishing
shoppers to lock their cars and take their keys. He was followed by an
equally adenoidal country singer's bland, stringy rendition of "The First
NoÎl." Charlie took another sip and wondered who the hell burgled in the
daytime, on Christmas Eve yet.