Friday, June 18, 2004

One More Thing

Daylight savings time has always been a curse for me, but on this particular night it is a boon for an insomniac who just had a bad date. Or, in this particular instance, a very bad group date highlighted by an unwatchable play at Victory Gardens. While I wasn’t expecting the play to run into the wee small hours, I certainly didn’t expect it to end at ten-thirty. My date did, however, since she bought the tickets, and thought enough of our initial attraction that things would end with my spending the night at her Skokie condo. No doubt we would’ve had a lot to talk about, since getting her to open up- even among a group of her friends- was harder than cracking a safe. Still, she had enough on the ball to understand the double whammy of my refusing her invitation to go upstairs and telling her that I would call that she didn’t press the issue. Given a new lease on the evening I find myself home just shy of midnight, restless, and aware that I had an extra hour of drinking coming my way should I choose the golden opportunity.

“Blues Before Sunrise” begins this evening with Scatman Crothers singing “Ghost Riders In The Sky.” I fumble for a tape to record it, but by the time I find one the song is half finished. So I listen to the rest of the song then head out to catch a cab. After a couple of passes, a Flash Cab comes to a stop. “Where to, buddy”, the cabbie asks. The way the word “buddy” comes out of his mouth makes my arm hair stand on end. He says it like he’s ready to pull a con on me. The name on his hack license reads like half-digested consonants from a bowl of alphabet soup. I’m almost certain from the spelling he’s Bangladeshi. Almost.

I crawl in the cab and close the door. “Green Mill,” I say, rolling down the windows to counter the combined fragrance of pine air freshener, chai tea, and curry. The cabbie turns left on Irving Park Road and blows past Broadway toward Lake Shore Drive. “Where do you think you’re going”, I demand. “I’m taking you to the Green Mill, buddy”, he answers, playing innocent and not acknowledging that I just read the con.

“The Green Mill’s on Broadway,” I counter.

“I know, sir. This is quicker.” He looks at me from the rear-view mirror, matter-of-factly.

“You may be right.”

“Oh, I am sir.”

“Okay. Let's say you are right. But the ride will cost me five extra dollars because you’re taking me out of the way to get there.”

“But Broadway has all those stoplights, buddy. I can never time then correctly.”

I decide to show my hand. “Did I mention that it’s five more dollars you won’t get tipped because you wanted to save time getting me to the Green Mill, sir?” The cab starts to slow as he looks for a wide space to cut a u-turn. I meet and hold his gaze in the mirror. He sighs and says, “Five more dollars you tip me, buddy?”


He swings the cab around, heading back towards Broadway. “I can wait for the red lights, I guess.” He’s right about being unable to time stoplights. The cab comes to a screeching halt every two blocks. I spy the swing shift- working girls waiting at bus stops at the corner of Broadway and Montrose. Vestiges of the old Uptown clinging to its turf like true working class citizens. They don't justify their career choice, but don't apologize, either. Unable to keep up with the rapid changes in the neighborhood, they still give it an honest try because they're nothing if not professional. Their faces filled with deep lines like a depression map and fake leopard print wrapped around their thighs like circus tenting. One of them leans her head into the open window, reeking of come and imitation Chanel. She doesn’t even try to play coy. “So you lookin’ to blow off some steam, or what?” No sales pitch whatsoever, just trying to seal the deal in an uncertain marketplace.

I look at her with a wry smile and reply, “Only if we’re going dutch.” She looks at me with a half-contemptuous smile and replies, "Suit yourself, honey It's daylight savings; I got an extra hour tonight if you change your mind.” The green light doesn’t come soon enough. She takes her place on the bus stop waiting for the next potential mark.

Ten dollars later- with the extra fin I promised- I make it inside the Green Mill and find a seat at the bar. I’d been sweating manhattans from my pores the past three days, so I switch to something lighter- a Bombay Sapphire gin martini with a twist. I focus my eyes in the din, allowing the available light to do its job. I run into some neighbors out with friends. They’re slightly buzzed; at least two of them are well on their way to waking up uncomfortably in the same bed around noon. We exchange greetings, pleasantries, and farewells in a fifteen second time frame, using only a minimum of words. In short time I’m left to my martini and my own devices. The house band’s feeling it this evening. I can feel the rumbling of the Hammond B3’s bass pedals through the oak bar. I feel a tap on my shoulder, turn around, and am confronted by the most fearsome smile I’ve ever seen, like a death’s head. The smile begins to move its mouth. I lean back instinctively in case a smaller head pops out from his smile to eat my face.

“You look like the type of man who lives in an apartment with wall-to-wall carpet. Am I right?”

Wow, I think to myself, it’s an original opening line, at least. Unsure how to play this, I lie and tell him I’m a hardwood floor guy. “Are you sure,” he asks. I lie again. He says, “Well, if you know of anyone who needs some clean carpet, give ‘em my card.” He shoves a business card in my hand. I look and read the business card:

Alvin Williams
Carpet Cleaner
Venture Capitalist

The upper right corner of his card is designed with a pot leaf and a scale. “What kind of venture capital are you involved with, Alvin?” I ask, hoping he states the obvious with more subtlety than he did on his business card.

Alvin pinches his thumb and forefinger together and brings them to his lips. “You know, pfft pfft, mainly crops,” he says, finishing with a sweeping motion of his index finger past his nostrils. Alvin’s “venture capital” sideline was as a drug courier. He also didn’t seem to care who knew or that he was loudly announcing it within earshot of the Green Mill’s security personnel.

“Well, Alvin. Like I said, I have hardwood floors. But I’m not very good with tools. So if anything ever breaks around the house, I’ll give you a call.”

Alvin runs his finger across his nostrils again and says, “I can fix the motherfuck out of plumbing and ductwork, you know!!” I bring my finger to my mouth, hoping he understands the need to not be so brazen in his advertising. Alvin misinterprets this as an opportunity to buy a potential client another martini and heads down the bar to the waiting attentions of a stick-figure blonde sipping white zinfandel through a straw.

I kill the first martini in two gulps, wondering if Alvin’s resume includes his rap sheet. Time passes; I kill time stirring quiet eddies in my martini. We’re now past daylight savings time. It’s as if Fate gave the two o’clock hour a mulligan. Thinking this, I scan the room hoping Alvin still isn’t in the bar. He is, but his attentions are still on the blonde. To my right I hear a curt laugh. I turn and am confronted by unbound beauty. She slinks on her barstool like a new coat of paint, eyes sparkling like emeralds in the Mill’s ambient light. I can make out the pleasant smell of vanilla on her skin through the smoky haze like a comet’s tail. It’s the type of beauty that a man would break his neck for a second glance if it passed him by State Street in lunch-hour traffic. She looks at Alvin and the blonde and shakes her head. “Great. There goes my place to sleep this morning!”

“You know her?” I ask.

“Yeah,” she says. “She’s my best friend. She’s letting me crash at her place for the weekend.”

“You from out of town?” I ask.

“St. Louis.”

“What are you doing in town?”

“Trying to get over a big mistake I left back there.” She spits the words out like sour milk, all bitter and vindictive. I understand what she’s talking about, as we’ve all been there some time. I nod my head slowly and ask, “What was his name?”

“Jeffery,” she replies. “And Evin over there’s been putting me up while I decide what to do next. Now it looks like she’s going home with Alvin the drug dealing carpet cleaner to get her merkin steamed. What about you?”

“I can’t sleep right when we turn back the clocks,” I tell her. “Had a bad date and figured I had an extra hour to drink.” I stare back into my drink, studying the way the lemon twist floats in perfect balance in the gin, like on an unseen pedestal.

She motions to my other martini. “Well, two more of those should do the trick. Buy me a glass of wine, will you?” She smiles at me as if it’s a chore to bear her teeth.

I do and ask her what Jeffery did that was so bad she had to run to Chicago to clear her head. This opens the floodgates as a seemingly endless litany of sins- both real and imagined, hers and Jeffery’s- flows from her mouth in a torrent. Evin and Alvin pass by on the way out. Evin hands her the house keys, says they’re going to Alvin’s. Then Evin leans toward her ear, points at me, and yells, “He’s cute. Not my type, but you should take him home and fuck him like there’s no goddamn Jeffery in St. Louis waiting for you.” As they leave Alvin turns to me and makes a toking motion with his fingers once more, points at me, and mimes for me to call him. Minutes pass into hours. The conversation begins to stall, but the silence between us is comfortable. She starts eyeing me as if maybe Evin made a valid point, like she wants to make a mistake with me. I nod my head and offer a suggestion as the house lights in the Green Mill come to life.

We catch a cab and head to Alexander’s Diner on Clark Street. The skillets there are hot, the coffee salty, the rubric of redemption she starts knitting once we settle in our booth more so. I wipe away the occasional tear from her cheek and provide a necessary ear; an impromptu soundboard of which she readily takes advantage. As the plates are cleared and the check arrives, she leans into me, whispers advice in my ear guardedly like a treasure, and seals it with a scarlet buss on my cheek. I hail a cab for her, buy the Sunday papers out of habit and walk down Clark Street pondering the secret she left me. It was her answer to my asking whether she regretted getting involved with this Jeffery in St. Louis. After allowing that chances were good that she would most likely take some time to cool down and run back to him, she whispered, “There’s one more thing I need to tell you. I don’t regret a damn thing I’ve ever done in my life. You know, we take our chances in life. And in the end, they must be repaid in kind.”

“To whom,” I asked.

“To the universe,” she replied.

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