At the time, I was working at this bar on St. Mark’s Place; it was the mid-eighties, before the Cocktail, and people were dropping like flies. If they were sick, they died quickly, and if they weren’t, they were scared to death. The bar was one of those East Village dives, the clientele a cross between an X-rated Spoon River Anthology and a gay Cannery Row , and more interesting to me than the corporate clonedom where most of my friends worked. There was a lovely little garden out back that was a sweet relief from the urban blight surrounding us. It had been a lot of fun, but now it seemed like all we did was host benefits for people who had no health insurance or were in danger of being evicted. I was starting to think about getting a job as a receptionist in a cool, sleek building, or going back to school to become a teacher, but I couldn’t bring myself to get dressed up for interviews, write away for catalogs. An attractive young woman such as I was at the time should have been out there mixing and mingling, as Tennessee Williams wrote in one of his more cheerful plays, but for a lot of those guys at the bar, I was the little bit of stability they had left. I knew this because Nicky, the bartender, told me so. “Look, it’s not like you’re normal, but you’re the closest thing we got around here,” was the way he put it. Then he started crying, tears dripping down his cheeks into the screwdriver he was mixing.
It was a Tuesday night in summer, and Bessie Mae and I were working the floor. Bessie Mae was a twittery little queen with beautiful violet eyes who went into hysterics whenever he had to wait on more than six people at a time. His real name was Daniel, but everyone called him Bessie Mae because that had been Montgomery Clift’s nickname for Elizabeth Taylor, who also had violet eyes. It was a melancholy night, because J.J., the waiter I had worked with most closely, had gone into a coma that afternoon and Chandler, the day bartender, had stopped dyeing his hair and was letting the gray grow out, so you knew he was ailing because he didn’t care about getting laid anymore. J.J. could be a nasty, bitter bitch, but he was also a divine dancer and taught me how to tango; he did fantastic dips and I always felt like Rita Hayworth when we danced together. So I was in a little reverie about that, standing at the bar, waiting on my drink order, when Bessie Mae came by, shaking so much he almost dropped his tray.
“Oh my God, I can’t take this,” he said, fanning himself so hard that his lovely, silky hair blew up off of his forehead. “Oh my God, I really can’t.”
“Buck up, Bessie Mae,” I said, patting his little shoulder. He was a special pet of Chandler’s, and I knew he was upset that Chandy was sick.
Bessie Mae leaned in. He smelled of lilacs and Listerine. “Don’t you dare point,” he whispered. “Don’t you dare look. They’re sitting in the corner by the jukebox. Don’t look, I told you!” His eyelids fluttered in agitation.
“Who are ‘they’?” I asked. “What are you talking about?”
“They’re mean men,” he said, and I could see his eyes were glistening. “They’re mean men from the West Side, who say mean things and kill people and cut off their hands and put them in the freezer so that they can go kill other people and then blame it on the freezer hands and no one can trace the fingerprints.”
“Bessie Mae, are you tripping? Are you high on something?”
He shook his head violently. His hair slapped against his cheeks. “Nicky said; he knows them from when he worked at the Shallows up on Eighth Avenue.” He closed his eyes and put his hands to his chest. “I think I’m having a heart attack,” he said. “I swear to God, I think I am.”
“Did they do something?”
“They called me ‘little faggot,’” he said, his voice quavering. “And then the meanest one, the one with the red hair, threw money on the floor and said in the meanest voice, ‘Go on, bend over and pick it up, little faggot, so I can rip you a brand-new asshole.’ Oh, my God!” He shuddered, threw up his hands and raced off to the men’s room.
I made my rounds and noticed the men at the table by the jukebox beckoning me over. They were dressed in business suits, suspicious enough in that neighborhood at the time. I looked around for Shay, the bouncer, but he must have gone to Gem Spa for cigarettes or into the alley for a blow job. I walked over to the table.
“Yes, gentlemen?” I asked. “Another round?”
“Well, well, look who’s here,” the redhead said. He was very ugly. “Whatsamatta, we scare the faggot off? He run home to mama?” The men laughed.
“Can I get you something, gentlemen?” I asked again.
“Fucking faggots everywhere,” the red-haired man said loudly. “All over the fucking city. What about you, doll? You some kind of bull dyke, or what?” He reached his hand out toward me. “Lemme see your—what the fuck!” he yelped. The men in the booth jumped. I had broken the top off of a bottle of Becks beer and was holding the neck out to them. I had broken it swiftly, on the edge of the empty booth behind of them. Petaluma, one of the neighborhood drag queens, had shown me how. It’s not something I would have done several years earlier, but you can’t watch everyone around you dying without going a little crazy yourself. Besides, they had made Bessie Mae cry.
“I’m happy to bring you another round,” I said softly. “But if you don’t like fucking faggots, there are bars all over town you might feel more comfortable drinking in.”
I liked the way the men were looking at me. I liked holding the broken beer bottle. It felt good.
“Listen, you fucking cunt—” the redhead began, but from across the table, someone’s hand shot out and stopped him.
“Everything all right over here?” Shay was suddenly standing behind me.
The men were quiet. The redhead stared sullenly into his glass. No one said anything.
“It is now,” I said, placing the broken bottle on my tray, moving past the jukebox to my other customers.
After last call, I was at the wait station piling dirty glasses on the bar. A hand reached out and placed a fifty-dollar bill on my tray. And then a voice said, “You handle yourself well.”
I looked up, into his eyes, and felt a jolt in my stomach.
“I said, you handle yourself well,” he repeated.
“I heard you the first time.”
He smiled, cold and charming.
“You ever looking for a change of atmosphere, I can use someone like you.” His voice was quiet. “I own a place. A couple of places, actually—”
“On the West Side,” I said. I hadn’t meant to say it.
His smile clenched. I hadn’t gotten a good look at him when I was at the table; I was too busy brandishing the broken bottle, hoping I wouldn’t have to use it.
“I don’t remember having the pleasure,” he said formally.
“You haven’t,” I said, wiping my hands on the bar rag and dropping it on the bar. I went out into the garden and lit a cigarette and blew smoke out into the night. I was thinking of the first time I’d seen him, at the Black Diamond on Tenth Avenue. I closed my eyes and saw him standing at the bar, smiling, surrounded by laughing men. I stayed in the garden until enough time had passed.
When I went back to the wait station, he was gone. I had left the fifty dollars on my tray, hoping he’d take it. He had, but in its place was a crisp hundred-dollar bill. I didn’t have to strike a match or hold it up to the light to know that it was real.
I had always gone out with nice guys, but around my mid-twenties I’d hit a snag. I went from dating men who were sweet and fun and lovely to men who were sullen and snide and nasty and it wasn’t like the sex was so brilliant. Bad-tempered sex is no more passionate than good-tempered sex; don’t let anyone tell you differently. I was looking for adventure, excitement, but found instead that bad boys were just as boring in their way as nice guys, and most of them were only playing at being bad. Now I was having a half-hearted affair with a playwright who lived in the neighborhood. When I’d met him, he was working on a run at a reputable off-Broadway theater. But now his production had fallen through and his agent had dropped him and he was in a black mood, holed up in his little hovel on Seventh Street, going through bottles of white wine like beads on a rosary. I was a pretty enthusiastic imbiber myself, back then, but it got to be too much even for me because he was a bad drinker in that he didn’t slur or stumble or display any telltale signs of inebriation and I could never tell when he was drunk or sober. I longed to take off for someplace cool and blue and quiet, but I lacked the money for such things, so the days went by and the heat shimmered up from the pavement, wrapping the city in a steamy shroud.
He never came back into the bar after that night, but one morning several weeks later, when I walked out to St. Mark’s Place after work, there he was, parked in front of the bar. It was some kind of town car, and he had a driver. He sat in the back, smoking. I heard the window open, heard his voice from the backseat shadows, calling to me.
“May I give you a ride home?” he asked me.
“I don’t live far,” I told him. “But thanks.”
“A beautiful woman walking alone at this time of morning, you never know what might happen,” he said, with a small smile.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “But I’m glad you came by, because I have something that belongs to you.” I fished the hundred-dollar bill out of the pocket of my jeans, unfolded it, and handed it back to him. I’d been carrying it to work in case he came back.
His smile chilled. “I didn’t think you’d act like some kid,” he said. “You’re not all that young anymore, you know.” This was obviously said to sting me, but the words only pricked my brain and then they were gone. Did he think I didn’t know that?
“That’s why I need my beauty rest more than ever,” I said, turning, walking away. I tried not to feel self-conscious, knowing that he was watching me. When I got to my apartment on Seventh Street, I undressed and showered the stink of the bar from my skin. When I went to lower the shades against the morning light, I looked out into the street and saw that it was empty.
“What’s up with you and this guy?” Nicky asked me a couple weeks later.
“Absolutely nothing,” I said, counting out my cash bank for the night. He had taken to coming around in the big black car on the nights I worked, waiting for me outside. Every time, he’d offer me a ride. Every time, I’d say no. He never got out of the car. I couldn’t tell whether he knew the nights I was working or if he came down every night. I never asked him because I didn’t want to know.
“Yeah, well, be careful,” Nicky said. “He’s nobody to fool around with. Read the papers.”
Outside of the daily horoscope, I actually never read the papers. I didn’t see the purpose in knowing every bad thing that ever happened in the world. But I didn’t have to read the papers to know who he was.
Then it was the last Thursday in July, one of those scarce days in summer when the curtain of heat lifts and the sky is a deeper shade of blue and the air smells like autumn, but you know it’s a false reprieve because August is right around the corner, ripe and rancid and airless. The fragrant breeze and the cloudless sky made me want to forge a new beginning, so I broke up with the playwright, whose sullen brooding had become boring and who could barely get it up anymore because of all the white wine. When I arrived at the bar, the garden was packed with people, drinking, laughing, taking photos of the sunset over the ivy-laden brick wall.
But then we got the call from St. Vincent’s that J.J. had died, and if we didn’t get up the money for cremation, he’d be buried in Potter’s Field. It was also the first time that Chandler had checked into the hospital, and Bessie Mae was so upset he could do little but rearrange the fruit tray and weep into the formaldehyde cherries. I felt bad for him, for all of us, but I was also tired, tired of benefits and binges and bullshit. It upset me that a day that held such promise had turned so ugly, and that I didn’t have enough money to escape for even a little while.
I’ll never know how he knew that this night was different, because when I came out of the bar he was leaning on the car, hands in his pockets, looking cool and healthy and elegant. When he said, “I know a place where we can watch the moon drop into the water,” I got into the car and when we drove away with the windows open wide, the wind smelling clean and fresh, I was glad, glad to be going, and I didn’t care if I ever came back.
He did indeed know a place, somewhere out in Rockaway Beach. It was little more than a shack from the outside, but inside it was wonderful, with white linen tablecloths and red napkins, and we got a table right by the water, and watched the moon shine a path through the waves while we ate scrambled eggs and smoked trout and the freshest rye bread I have ever tasted, and chicory coffee with milk and freshly baked chocolate chip cookies for dessert.
I can’t remember what we talked about.
Afterwards, we watched the sun rise on the beach, and he sat on the sand, on the jacket of his expensive black suit, smoking, while I walked barefoot on the jetties, balancing on the slippery rocks as though I was on a high wire. Then I jumped down on the damp sand and walked toward him. I took his outstretched hand and he smiled up at me, shading his eyes, his rings glittering in the early morning light.
I would have stayed. I would have slept on the sand and gone swimming; it was he who had to get back. “I have to be in court,” he said. I remembered then there was a trial, something Nicky must have told me or I heard on the television news at the bar, since I never watched the news at home. We drove back in friendly silence, both of us smiling, resting our heads on the back of the seat.
When we came out of the midtown tunnel, he told the driver to swing up to Twenty-Sixth Street, the flower district, where the vendors were already setting out fresh blooms. He jumped out of the car and came back with a riot of colors, orchids and baby’s breath and white roses and tiger lilies. I began crying. I hid my face in the flowers and cried and cried, not because they were so beautiful or because it had been a long time since someone had brought me flowers, but because the smell reminded me of sickness and funerals and I didn’t want to go back to that yet. I didn’t want to go back at all.
He let me cry. After a while, he handed me a white silk handkerchief, monogrammed with his initials.
“I can’t use this,” I said. “Don’t you have any regular tissues?”
He shook his head. “Blow,” he said. And then we looked at each other and we began laughing. We laughed so hard. I laughed as hard as I had cried. I caught the driver’s eyes in his rearview mirror, watching us. We kept laughing, and then I blew my nose into the silk handkerchief. He was watching me. His eyes were kind.
“Better?” he asked gently.
“Yes,” I said. “Thank you. But please don’t come to the bar anymore. Please don’t wait for me after work.”
“I could do things for you,” he said, as if I hadn’t spoken.
“Stick with me, kid, I’ll make you a star,” I said.
His eyes turned the color of steel.
“You asked me once how I knew you,” I said.
He lit a cigarette, leaned back in the seat. Smoke curled out the window in a silver plume.
This was the winter before, when I’d still been with my old boyfriend, Jamie, a freelance photographer given to suicidal depressions. He’d been living on Ninth Avenue, close to the Italian markets, which always looked so fine and colorful, but when we got home after shopping there the tomatoes were often rotten. We stayed in a lot because he was usually broke, but one night in January the loft was too frigid and depressing, so we went out to find a bar that wasn’t a total dive and ended up at the Black Diamond on Tenth Avenue. It was a more polished place than the usual Hell’s Kitchen tavern, with a long, gleaming bar, oak floors, and sloping booths, and, best of all, a real fireplace. The hostess who showed us to our seats was a beautiful woman, in her late thirties, perhaps, with long, lazy hair that floated around her like an unruly shawl, and dancer’s legs, and big eyes, green as emeralds. She smiled and seated us at a small table facing the fire, the warmth so welcome after the chill of the loft. We splurged and ordered Irish coffees, figuring this would be the place to get them. I had been thinking about breaking up with Jamie, as the whole starving artist thing was getting on my nerves, but warmed by the coffee, watching his handsome profile by the firelight, I decided to hang in for a little while longer.
I was facing the bar, and I noticed him because he’s someone you would notice—the widow’s peak, the bony-eyed stare, the way he held his cigarette. There was a circle of people around him, among them the hostess who had shown us to our seats. She had her hand through his arm and was laughing loudly, as though she’d had too much to drink. He said something to her quietly, and she laughed again. She leaned forward, as if to kiss him, and he smacked her so hard she spun away, falling into a heap on the floor. She lay there, her hand to her face, gasping. She tried getting up but between her high heels and her hair, and perhaps the liquor, she was having trouble, and no one moved to help her.
Finally, she steadied herself on all fours, getting her bearings, but before she could lift herself from the floor, he began snapping his fingers, going, “Here, girl! Over here, girl!” taking some bills from the bar and tossing them down on the floor, until the other men took it up, all barking now like a pack of wild dogs, yelling, “Here, girl! Over here, girl!” pelting her with money, bills and coins that got tangled in her hair, caught in the folds of her dress. She backed away from them and began pushing against the wall, hauling herself up slowly. Then she covered her face with her hands and turned and ran, tripping several times, clinging to the backs of the curved booths for support, running past us and finally disappearing behind a black velvet curtain.
I stood and took a step to follow her and see if she was all right, but Jamie yanked me back down again. “Are you crazy?” he hissed, rising quickly, throwing some money on the table. I followed Jamie out, past the men at the bar, now talking quietly among themselves. I looked back once and saw his face, smooth as glass in the mirror behind the bar.
He was silent after I finished speaking. I held the enormous bouquet against my face. The sun was all the way up now.
He said, “You don’t know the whole story.”
“It was like—you could have been swatting a fly,” I said. “And I have to tell you. That dog thing made me sick.”
He cracked his window slightly, threw the cigarette butt into the gutter. Across the street, a man was watering a ficus tree with a hose.
“You don’t know the whole story,” he said again. “But why’d you come then?” he asked. “If you were so, I don’t know. Repulsed. Whatever. Why’d you come?”
I looked out the window. There were too many flowers to count, too many kinds to take note of. The air was fragrant with their breathing.
“I didn’t think we knew each other well enough yet for you to be dangerous,” I said at last. I didn’t want to tell him, “You looked like life to me.” That I wanted to lift a curtain and let in the light for a while. He wouldn’t have understood and I didn’t want to have to explain everything, everyone, J.J., Chandler, the others. I wanted to smell the ocean, the flowers. Balance myself on the rocks without worrying about what would happen if I fell.
We were quiet after that. He leaned forward, tapped the glass partition, and then leaned back again. The driver started the car.
“Do you think I need a shave?” he asked, when we stopped at a light on Sixth Avenue.
I examined his profile. “You could use a shave,” I said.
When we pulled up in front of my building, I turned to him. He smiled.
“If you’re ever interested in hearing the whole story, let me know,” he said.
He got out of the car, walked around to my side, and opened the door. I plucked a huge white rose from the bouquet and handed it to him. “Thanks for the good time,” I said, getting out of the car.
Once in my apartment, I looked out at the street before closing the shade, half expecting the car to still be there. Then I remembered he had to be in court later that morning. I closed the shade and put the flowers in water and got into bed and slept without dreams.
“Oh thank God, thank God, you’re finally here!” Bessie Mae wrapped me in a huge hug when I walked through the door that night. “Thank God, we were so worried.”
“Where the fuck you been?” Nicky asked me. I thought he was irritable because he’d been working double shifts since Chandler had gone to the hospital.
“It’s, like, three minutes after eight,” I said. “What’s wrong? Is it Chandler? Did he—”
“He’s fine,” Nicky said. “Well, not fine, but you know what I mean. It’s you we were worried about.”
“After you took off with that horrible man, and now he’s—oh my God,” Bessie Mae moaned.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“You don’t know?” Nicky said. “It was on the news, every fucking channel. We tried calling you, and when there wasn’t any answer—”
“I turned the phone off so I could sleep,” I said.
He’d never shown up in court. The cops went to his bars, his apartment on Forty-Eighth Street, his house in Morristown, sent upstate troopers to his summer place in Liberty. We watched it on the eleven o’clock news while people waited impatiently for their margaritas. I thought about the driver’s eyes in the rearview mirror of the town car.
“Don’t go looking for him,” Nicky said, pointing his finger at me. I could see from his pupils that he was high. His beautiful eyes looked smaller, crafty. “And if he comes around here looking for you, you run in the other direction.”
“He won’t come around here,” I said, remembering his face in the car.
“True,” Nicky agreed, pouring shots of Bailey’s Irish Cream. “Because his head’s probably in a freezer someplace in Jersey.”
It didn’t become real to me until later, when I saw his face staring out from the front pages of the tabloids. I read all the articles. He was married, with four children, had been an altar boy at St. Michael’s. The woman he’d hit that night in the bar wasn’t his wife. I stared at the picture, at the flowers in a vase by the window. Then I put down the paper and stared at nothing for a while.
I went to the Black Diamond once, afterwards, on a hot night in August, and sat at the bar
and ordered a brandy over ice. I looked around for her, for the woman, for the men who had been there that night, but no one seemed familiar. I asked the bartender about the woman, described her in detail, but he kept shaking his head, rinsing glasses, emptying ashtrays.
“No, sorry,” he said. He spoke with a brogue. “Nobody like that around here.”
They never found him. I kept the flowers until the petals wilted and fell to the floor. Then I swept them up and carried them out to the trash in a separate bag. And when September came, the heat finally lifted and the air was cool and redolent and smelled of wood smoke at night. That fall, Chandler died and Bessie Mae got sick and Nicky went on the pipe, and after that the bar closed down, boarded up, covered in graffiti scrawl, while the garden withered in the winter wind.
I still have the handkerchief. It’s in a small cedar box that J.J. gave me one Christmas, or for my birthday, I can’t remember which. Sometimes I’ll take it out and hold it against my cheek for a while before putting the box back in the drawer. On those days when those years seem more real to me than making coffee in the morning does now.