Boystown 6 – From The Ashes
by Marshall Thornton
Some people are like orchids: delicate, easily bruised, wilted by a chill breeze. Others are more like weeds: stubborn, hard to dig out, impossible to kill. Most people don’t know which they are until life starts to kick them around. Early in 1984, I found out which I am. I’m a weed.
Tucked under the Sheridan stop of the Jackson Howard, the bar was called Irving’s “L” Lounge. The year before, I’d spent so much time drinking there they hired me as the day bartender. I was surprised by the job offer since my no longer being a customer likely put a noticeable dent in their profits. Irving’s had a liquor store—and one-time delicatessen—on one side and the dark, sticky bar on the other. By the time I worked there, Irving was long gone—if there ever was one—and the place was now owned by a fat guy named Ludlow who clerked the liquor store himself because he was too cheap to pay anyone else to do it.
When you walked through the nicotine-drenched velvet curtain that covered the front door, the first thing you noticed was the antique mahogany bar. Even though the shellac had worn off in spots and there were chips every few inches, it was a beautiful sight: inlaid columns holding it up every few feet, a thick brass foot rail, and a heavy lip wrapping around the whole thing. Behind me, when I was working, it rose to the ceiling, with more columns, a wide cornice at top, and three beveled mirrors. The bar was obviously an antique and, like much of the clientele, in need of rescue.
The day-drinkers liked to make up stories about it, the most common being that it was salvaged from an old hotel down in the Loop that was pulled down decades ago. They speculated that Al Capone sat at it and drank. I never thought that story was particularly true. The bar was too small to have served a hotel, a speakeasy perhaps, but never a hotel. And, as far as I knew, Al Capone spent more time selling booze than drinking it. Still, the story kept my regulars occupied between sips.
Across from the bar, four small booths lined the wall. The booths were upholstered in licorice black leatherette, matching the stools that ringed the bar. Every few minutes the El rattled by above us. I had to be careful not to stack the glasses too close together or they chattered. And chattered. And chattered.
Every morning at five I arrived to get ready to open the doors at six. By seven we were in the middle of a rush. Our regulars broke down into a couple of distinct types. First, you had the graveyarders, the men and women who’d worked all night and wanted a couple of drinks before they went home to sleep all day. No one would think twice about them, except that they did everything opposite the normal world. Then, you had what I called the freshmen. Young kids who’d just discovered drinking, got drunk on Rush Street the night before, and decided they just had to keep going. They usually showed up just once or twice. Sooner or later they’d get some sense unless, of course, they turned into the third type of customer we had—the career drunk. These were people who drank in Irving’s until closing at four a.m., ran out to a twenty-four hour diner for a little breakfast, and were back at the front door waiting for me to open at six. The career drunks drank twenty-four hours a day for as long as they could, then crashed somewhere for a few days or maybe even a week, and then began the process all over again. That was me for a while. I gave it up when I crawled over to the other side of the bar. Not because I had an epiphany or read a self-help book or suddenly got all happy, it was just that drinking day and night got boring after a while. So, I slowed down.
The morning Mrs. Harker showed up at the bar was windy and barely above freezing. On the way in, I’d hit a patch of black ice on the sidewalk that allowed the wind to sail me back a good three feet. The fact that she’d braved the elements and at least two buses was not a good sign. She snuck in while a regular was telling me about the Super Bowl. Well, not so much about the game, according to him that was a real snooze with the Raiders trouncing the Redskins, but about a commercial, a really cool commercial in the second half for a computer named after a fruit.
“The ad was based on that book, you know the one, it says the world is gonna end this year.”
“1984?” I guessed.
“Yeah, that one.”
I’d never read it, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t about the apocalypse. I looked over my shoulder to see if anyone needed anything and there was Mrs. Harker, sitting primly at the street end of the bar. She looked older, older than she was even, though I didn’t know exactly how old she happened to be. Somewhere near, or past, seventy. Her hair was white, whiter than the clumps of snow outside on the sidewalk, her skin was pink and about as thick as tissue paper, her eyes were hard and mean as a snake. I walked down and stared at her a moment, then asked, “How’d you find me here?”
“Your lawyer tell my lawyer,” she said. This was how we’d been communicating, through lawyers. Showing up in person was a new twist but it did mean she wouldn’t be getting an invoice from her lawyer. I figured sooner or later she’d get tired of paying to torture me and look for a way to do it for free. She looked around the bar and sneered. “Bertram would not like this place.”
No, I thought, she’s right. And he wouldn’t like me working there either. I decided to be snotty and said, “I won’t tell him, if you won’t.” She gave me the frown I deserved. No one was telling Bert anything. He’d been dead for more than a year. “What do you want, Mrs. Harker?”
“I have Seven and Seven,” she said. I wasn’t all that sure, but I didn’t think I’d actually spoken to her since Bert’s funeral. Her accent seemed to have grown thicker, her English rough. I wondered if she spoke it very often; if she spoke any language very often. Or was it more that she’d become disenchanted with America, angry about all the country had given her and then taken away.
I arched an eyebrow at her and said, “It’s nine o’clock in the morning. Isn’t that early for a high ball?”
“This is way you talk to customer?”
After a heavy sigh, I walked down the bar and made her a drink. I brought it back and set it in front of her. She opened her purse and began to dig through it. “It’s on me,” I said, but she stubbornly put a five-dollar bill on the bar. I stubbornly ignored it. I stood there until she took a sip of her drink. She tried to hide her shiver as she swallowed. She was not the kind of woman who drank in the morning, and to remind her of that fact, I’d made the drink a little strong; well, it was almost brown.
“Now, tell me what you really want,” I said.
“I, I need hire you.”
“You need a bartender? Are you throwing a garden party?”
“I need detective,” she said with a scowl.
I almost said I didn’t do that anymore, because I didn’t. I’d been avoiding my chosen profession since I killed the man who killed Bert. That sort of made me lose interest. Still, I couldn’t help asking the obvious question. “Why do you need a detective, Mrs. Harker?”
“At my church, my priest, Father Maniatis, he died.”
“Father what?” I asked, not quite catching the name through her accent.
She gave me her basic unhappy look. She didn’t believe she had an accent. “Is Greek. Many-ah-tis.”
“Father Maniatis. He was murdered?”
“I don’t know. I am not detective. You are detective. You are to find out.”
“Do the police think he was murdered?”
She shook her head. “No.”
I waited for her to say more but she didn’t. “What do the police think?”
“He had heart attack.”
“And you don’t think he did?”
“No. Very young, very healthy.”
“How young was he?” I asked.
That was just about five years older than I was. Which did seem young. On the other hand there were days I thought I might be on the verge of dropping dead of a heart attack myself. Usually right before I passed out drunk. “Why do you think he was healthy?”
“His doctor say.”
“You talked to his doctor?”
“Father Maniatis tell me.” With a glance she read my mind. “He would not tell lie.”
“Well…doctors have been wrong before. Was there an autopsy?”
“I do not know. This is for you to find out.” She gave me an exasperated look, as though I were a child who refused to understand.
“I told you. I don’t do that anymore. Check the yellow pages.”
“So you not help me? I pay you.” She knew I wouldn’t take her money. I hadn’t touched a penny of Harker’s money even though he’d left me half of it. He’d never said so, but I figured he did it so I’d always take care of his mother. A position that my lawyer had made clear to her lawyer. From the way she was looking at me I think she’d decided my doing work for her came under the heading of taking care of her. I didn’t agree.
It took a few more minutes, but she finally figured out I wasn’t going to do what she wanted. She snatched up her five-dollar bill and with a huff got off the stool. I watched her walk out the door, happy she was leaving.
She didn’t belong in a place like Irving’s.
I had him face down on the bed, head shoved into the pillow, back-arched. I held onto the veneered headboard with both hands and fucked him in an aggressive way that in some states was classified as a felony. Owen Lovejoy, Esquire was enjoying the hell out of it.
He was too tall to be considered short but too short to be considered average, which put him on the tall end of short. He had dark hair cut conservatively, nice copper eyes that were made bigger by the large, round, tortoise-shell glasses that kept slipping down his nose as I fucked him. His body was squat and athletic, like a wrestler or a boxer, even though I knew for certain he didn’t do either of those things. Long hours and take-out food seemed to be his only health regime.
His ass was perfectly round, especially when he lay on his stomach, and he lifted it up to meet me as I thrust into him. I’d been fucking him for what seemed like hours. He’d come maybe ten minutes before. I wanted to come. I was tired and the room was hot with radiator heat so I was sweating like we were mired in the dog days of August.
I pushed all thought out of my head and concentrated on the way my dick felt sliding in and out of his ass, the little gasping whimpers he let out, and the sexy arch of his back. A minute later, I could feel myself getting close, muscles contracting, cum flowing through me, and then a few brief seconds of silence, release, blissful emptiness. The French call it la petite mort, the small death. But I don’t think it’s like that. It’s more like life, before I screwed it up so bad.
I caught my breath and pulled my dick out of him. He flipped over and said, “I made a mess of the sheets. I came twice.”
“You paid for them. I don’t think I can complain.” On his second visit, Owen had arrived with a set of nice permanent press polyester and cotton sheets from Carson Pirie Scott. I lived in a place called the Hotel Chateau where you could rent rooms by the hour, the day, the week, or the month. The rooms were furnished right down to the bedding. Bedding that wasn’t up to Owen’s standards.
The Hotel Chateau was located in a six-story, yellow brick building on Broadway with a mod sixties neon sign and steel awning stuck on one end of the building. I lived in a single room with no kitchen. The sallow yellow paint had bubbled off under the window and the drapes had a groovy brown and black pattern that hid the mold growing up the back of them. There was a double bed, a dresser, and a small metal table with two chairs. In other words, the place was thoroughly disgusting. But it was a hundred and ten dollars a month and I could walk to work. That gave it an appeal.
Abruptly, Owen said, “I keep hearing that this is what causes AIDS.”
“Sex, dear. What we just did.”
“Do you wanna stop coming to see me?” I asked, completely unconcerned with what his answer might be. Well, maybe not completely. It would be inconvenient if he stopped coming around.
“No. I mean, if you’ve got it then you’ve already given it to me. Right?”
“Or vice versa.” I really had no idea what he did when he wasn’t in my bed. I mean, aside from being a lawyer and working his ass off. He could have been fucking half of Chicago in shifts for all I knew.
“True,” he admitted. Of course, he knew that Harker had been sick with AIDS when he was murdered. I suppose he was thinking it was more likely that I’d be the one to be handing it out. If it truly was caused by sex, that is. We lay there a minute or so, the sounds of traffic on the street below drifted up. I’d cracked the window a bit to help with the extra radiator heat.
“This is nice pillow talk,” I said, finally.
“Sweetie, I just wondered if you were worried. Are you?”
Was I? It was like I’d been waiting to start dying for a year, well, hoping might be a better word. It was starting to get hard to believe that I would. “No, I’m not worried.”
“It’s mostly in New York and San Francisco, anyway,” he pointed out.
“I think something like two thousand people have died nationwide. But I don’t think there’s even been two hundred here. If that.”
“Lucky us,” I said, though I didn’t feel lucky. I’d known three people who had it. Two of them wouldn’t have made the death count, though. Harker because he’d been murdered. Earl Silver, Ross’ boyfriend, had officially died of liver disease since it was less embarrassing. So, of that couple hundred, I knew one who’d been counted. Some guy named Robert who’d been Brian’s grumpy roommate. I didn’t like the drift of the conversation so I changed the subject. “You told Mrs. Harker where I work.”
“I told her lawyer where you work. Was it a secret?”
“She came by to see me.”
“I’ll call Buck and tell him that’s not cool.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“What did she want?”
“Her favorite priest died of a heart attack. Except she doesn’t believe it. She wants me to poke around.”
“Are you going to?
“No, I gave that up.”
“You still have your license, though.”
“For another year.”
“When you’re ready to go back to work, I can use you at the firm. In fact—”
“I’m not going to get ready. I just said I gave that up.”
He put a hand on my bare chest and said, “Relax, it was just an offer. Why doesn’t she believe the priest had a heart attack?”
“Because she’s a stubborn old bitch.”
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