I’M SITTING ON a backless swivel stool at O’Brian’s bar nursing a double scotch, my thoughts on how my life went to hell ten years ago. A guy comes in and takes the stool next to me. I look across the bar and eyeball him in the big mirror. Angry eyes! I see a bearded man, big features, blue work clothes. He puts one hand on the bar and leaves the other somewhere in his unbuttoned heavy greatcoat. Impression? Guy’s got a problem.
I shift a couple of inches past a half-full bottle of gin aggravating my view and focus on my reflection. The guy I see is grubby, unshaven, dirty shirt, mouth down-turned in a scowl. I stare at my shirt collar in the mirror. Frayed, just like me. Life sucked.
My parole officer decide to check up on me I’d be up shits creek. I couldn’t be here. Maybe someday he’d find out what down and out means.
O’Brian’s sits in the middle of a row of struggling businesses a hundred and forty steps from my pad. I counted them twelve times before I lost interest. To call the hovel I live in a pad is generous. I’m on the third floor of a nineteen thirties brick tenement that lost hope forty years ago. It ought to be condemned but in Detroit you can go up and down half the town and see the same thing. There’s a word – endemic. Yeah, that’s it. Detroit and me have had better days.
Guy in charge where I live: dirty every way. Never see my super dealing, but some of the types I eyeball walking to his door and looking around like “how guilty am I” says it all. He fits with the dingy halls, holes in the walls, amateur knife carved woodwork, graffiti, and yeah, the smell, urine, rotting garbage and a pervasive undertone of weed. You don’t get used to it.
Derelicts lurch and stagger in the hallways. They can’t hold it, don’t care or are too drunk to know. My plumbing breaks twice a week on average. Ask the super to fix it, I’d wait forever, so I mickey-mouse it.
I look into my whiskey glass. My two hands gently cup it like a lover, but my thoughts keep bouncing back to the long ago January when my hell began. Remember that movie Groundhog Day? Mine goes ten years back…today…ten years back…today, like a yo-yo.
Ten years ago I had a good job, respect, decent pay. How I could embezzle all that money and get caught and do time, that’s history. Looking at life from the other side makes me sick, but you know; I did it and nothing new, I did it for a woman.
The big guy looks me over. He speaks, “Tale of woe?”
Tale of woe? Sure. Why not? I got time. I could write a book I got time. I look at him direct, first time.
Now the guy has a half smile on his lips. His eyes don’t speak to me like before, but I’m looking into them and they’re dead eyes. I’m immersed in me and if I should see some signal, I miss it. We exchange a few nothing words on the state of who cares and I decide to go for it. You wanna talk, strangers are best.
“You really wanna know?”
He looks at me fixedly. After a short pause, like he just swallows something didn’t agree with him he says, “Tell me…”
Seems like there’s more but he clams up.
I swing my stool towards him and then back and stare into my half full glass. I wind up with a couple of long breaths. “Of all the months of the year, I remember January, because that’s when I started cooking my company’s books.”
The man gives me his ear. Good line, I’m thinking, like the first hook in a novel. His eyes jump a little when I say January. It makes me wonder, but I let it pass. I warm to my narrative.
“I lived in Des Moines and did the books for this grain company. I had a wife and a couple of kids. I made decent money and no, I wasn’t happy, but life could be worse and I knew it. The kids grew and I worked a lot and my wife got tied up with soccer and plays and PTA stuff.
“She didn’t have time for me, even bedtime. Too tired? Headache? Either the same to me. I took it she began to lose interest in the things a relationship is supposed to be about, the saving graces, if you know what I mean. Ended up she did her job and I did mine.
“I didn’t see it then. Like I say, I figure she’d cooled off. It happens. You see it on TV all the time, disaffected people, sordid romances, whatever. So I worked and that’s what I did for my family. What more could she expect?
“Okay, I don’t get what I need at home so I start stopping at the local bar a mile or so from my house for a couple before going home nights, you know? If she speaks at all she might yell from the TV room, get your supper from the oven. Most nights I ate alone.
“This goes on a couple of years. Resentment builds, right? Well, bars are good places to pick up girls. Also true is hot, needy girls look for the lonesome single, right? Everybody’s looking to fill some void. So this gal comes along one night I’m sitting there minding my business and next thing you know I’m minding her business. She says her name is Millie. She’s cute and she’s hurting and I’m hurting and you got to know what happens.”
I have the sense the guy is tense and contained…like you can’t see a bomb ready to explode but you sense it. I’m too disconnected to read anything out of it.
“Upshot?” I say, still thinking of my story. “Suddenly I’m in need of money. I’m living for the first time in years. I’m enjoying myself. I start cooking the books. It’s easy. I’m Steady Eddie, right? The boss doesn’t suspect…only he does and I don’t see it.
“The yearly audit arrives, but instead of my boss asking me are we straight with the government and do we have plenty of cash reserves like always, he hires an outside company to do the work and next thing you know I’m indicted. Then I’m in jail.”
“That’s ten years ago. Now I got no wife and my kids have been adopted by her new husband and she won’t let me see them and I live in this piece of shit place even the rats don’t like.”
I run out of steam. I turn to look at the guy and I don’t like the look on his face. It’s tight and red and suddenly I stare at him, like what the hell did I say?
Now he speaks. Measured, clipped, holding back like on a short fuse. I swivel towards him again, confused.
“Well, Steady Eddie,” his words dripping with sarcasm, “this Millie, she was my wife. We patched things, but she couldn’t handle her betrayal. She killed herself the January after her affair with you. I’ve been waiting for you to get out. I searched a long time to find you. I’m going to help you…”
His coat opens and the arm he’s hiding comes out and in one motion he plunges a six-inch hunting knife into my belly.
He finishes, his voice filled with hate, “…out of this world.”
The pain is so bright I can’t catch my breath. I double over onto the bar. He gets up and starts to leave but stops, turns and says coldly though the haze of my roaring pain, “I remember January, too.”