Prologue Off the eastern coast of Ireland near the mouth of Galway Bay lay three small islands. Of these three, called the Aran Islands, the island of Inishmore is the largest. On Inishmore, at the edge of the sea atop, a sheer cliff one hundred meters high sits an Iron Age, semi-circular stone fort. The inland-facing fortifications of Dun Aengus guard nothing but a small slab of limestone ground. Some say the walls were once circular, but erosion long ago dropped half into the sea.
Whatever their histories, there now stand three, irregular inner walls, the inner most high and thick with a wall-walk for defenders. Beyond those is a Chevaux-de-fries—a wide row of large, sharp limestone slabs stuck deep in the ground every which-way making navigation through the thing impossible—and beyond the Chevaux-de-fries runs an outer wall covering fourteen acres.
Dun Aengus shook a fist at the horizon. Though defending nothing but an area big enough for a small condo, pool, and cabañas right along the cliff’s edge, certain its builders must have been that whatever foe saw from the sea such an imposing structure, they’d be sure to think twice before taking up arms against it.
When Ronny and I arrived in Key West, my mind wandered as it had when I lived in north Jersey, California, or Chicago—which by the way is a hell of a city to be in for St. Pat’s. I missed Belmar. With my missing, memories crowded my thoughts. For some reason, in Key West I thought about Sophie the most, about our last summer all those years ago, right after my adventure at Avon Ed’s featuring his Everly Brothers soundtrack and the two overly made–up, seventh grade girls.
After I paid my fines and left court—Ed didn’t leave jail for years—Sophie spoke one sentence to me for the next several weeks.
I loved Sophie. The first time I made love with the first woman I made love to, we conceived a beautiful baby girl. What happened to all that? I stopped asking years ago.
In the early sixties, my corruption of minors charge didn’t cause headlines in the Asbury Park Press—just a note in the police log. It didn’t even make the Coast Advertiser, a Belmar weekly favored by burglars that featured engagement, wedding, and fashion show photos along with blurbs about Mr. and Mrs. Blowhard Jones set to sail on the Queen Mary. My story had legs of its own.
I got shit from the under thirty, younger borough crew—some for being so stupid, some for not scoring jailbait pussy. The older men with children took it more seriously. I’m sure they said more behind my back. I was grateful for their restraint.
Away from the open kidding, silent looks followed me. A housewife poking her head out the door to watch Denny and I collect brush from her curb, a shopper at the Acme recognizing me and then leaving the aisle. I believed such people watched to make sure I witnessed their repugnance. At mass—the only time I got within five feet of Alice--all the eyes followed me back from communion. At first, my stare studied the carpet.
Then one Sunday I raised my eyes and looked back at them. I turned my head, swept the crowd and smiled. You stupid people don’t know about me. I looked at Mother and my sisters. Mother looked confused. After I married Sophie, Mother had told me, “My prayers have been answered.”
They sure as hell hadn’t involved a thirteen-year-old girl. I smiled wondering what request she’d sent up.
Denny said to me the day I got back to work, “Seamus, what were you thinking? What the hell’s the matter with you?”
We were picking up branches from around Silver Lake after a big thunderstorm. I put hands on his shoulders and led him to the other side of the truck, its big engine idling between my words and the houses across the street.
“It wasn’t all that bad.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“You hypocrite. We never asked what was wrong with us. What were we thinking? Besides, I barely touched —”
“Let go!” his arms flew up.
“I wasn’t holding you.”
I couldn’t tell Sophie to piss off. I wished she had said the equivalent to me. All I got was silence and something else—she would not leave me alone with Alice. From the time I got home from work until the time I went to bed, she would not leave me alone with Alice.
We rented a little cottage on Sussex and E—down west from Lisa and Robin’s place—and it had two tilt-ceiling, spares upstairs, the subject of Sophie’s one sentence: “I want you sleeping upstairs.”
I went along. If she felt that way, I was okay with it. I believed I deserved punishment. The shit I took at work and from Denny was one thing. That I could handle. When Sophie rushed to Alice, the second she heard me close the front door home from work every weekday and Saturday afternoon, it tore my heart. She’d scoop Alice up from her Bozo Blocks or from her nap, hold her tight, and look up at God or the ceiling on the way to the kitchen.
That was her fortress. She’d latch the little swing gate I’d put in the kitchen doorway to keep Alice out of the kitchen and away from the hot stove while mommy cooked. Now the gate kept Alice in and me out. Before I’d sit at our little table, Alice in her highchair with some finger food, sip a beer and keep the girls company as Sophie prepared dinner.
I got tired of that damn fast. I started to wish they’d sent me away for a time like old Ed. There wasn’t a drop of patience in me, and in my anger and resentment, I began to search for a petty crime. A cigar smoked on a deserted boardwalk bench, a whiskey bottle hidden in a ceramic drainpipe. I wasn’t looking for absolution. Just some accommodation.
I picked an after-work drinking session with Joe Foster and Butch Peters, two men in their thirties, working men by then well-worn from the twin grinding wheels of routine and cynicism.
“If she won’t let you in the fucking kitchen to get a beer, what choice is there?” Joe said to me one afternoon at Tessinger’s. He bunched burly shoulders and slapped back blond hair from his forehead.
“She’ll be pissed I’m spending money out.”
“No choice,” Butch answered. Short and dark haired, tattoos covered his forearms. At two hundred and fifty pounds with hands like vice grips, Butch lived up to his nickname. His real name was Herbert. I saw exactly one unfortunate man call him Herbie.
He laughed without opening his mouth and spilling his tobacco juice. Most mornings Butch brought a pint of Mogan David 20 proof wine—Mad Dog 20/20—with him to work. He wore his thinning hair combed straight back—a duck’s ass without the duck’s front.
“Fuckin’ bitches,” Joe mused.
“Not for me,” Butch shook his head. “That’s your problem right there,” he pointed at my beer glass.
“That’s your problem. Set us up,” he waggled a hand back and forth from my Rheingold to his.
“Usual, Butch?” The bartender said. His bow tie was the real thing, not clip-on. He put ice in two glasses and poured us two Canadian Clubs. Each time he held the pour spout over the shot glass, turned the glass when full, and for a fraction of a second held the spout down as the whiskey coated the ice.
Far from a first taste of liquor—that was Sean Hanlon’s concealed Irish—this was the start of my summer with the three-headed monster: booze, perceived slights, and anger. Before that, drinking had been a cold one after coming home, beers on nights out, at ballgames with friends. I discovered the more whiskey I drank, the more people wronged me.
My last drinks were neat—Butch kept buying—and by then I was too interested in how he managed to drink whiskey with chewing tobacco in his mouth to give a damn about the time.
On my way home, I thought of running because I knew I was late. That was a mistake. All that Canadian came up next to a sycamore tree down the block from home. I was so pissed off and proud of my crime, I hoped Sophie heard and recognized my up-chuck.
She hadn’t, but she had locked the front door. Keys were a problem. They dropped, and then stuck in groups, refusing to become individuals. I thought about windows, the back door, waking Alice.
When Sophie hit the porch light and opened the door, saw the vomit on my legs and shoes thanks to that sycamore, she finally spoke.
“Come in,” she said. I don’t remember anything else about that night except a vague feeling of triumph at her words.
Next day, after my head and I got home from work and Hanley’s Liquor Store, the kitchen gate was gone. I was free to pass.
I opened up my first-ever bottle of house-kept liquor—a bottle of Bushmills—poured some into a Flintstones glass, took a sip, and waited, almost hoping for Sophie to say one word.
I grabbed a can of Schaefer, stuck in the can opener, and when the steel opened up pop, Alice turned in her high chair, made her happy, high-pitched cooing noise, and said, “Daddy home.”
I was home. I’d broken through the obstacles. I’d dealt at mass with Mother, the Marys, and the congregation, at work with Denny and the others.
I was so goddamn certain of everything I opened up a second hole in my can, took a long-day pull and smiled at Alice, “Yup, Daddy’s home,” because nothing could touch me.
Safe behind my walls, I walked out the front door, gazed down the street, and shook my fist at the horizon. All summer, bottle by bottle, my fortress grew.
That same summer I first brought liquor into our home, my fellow borough workers Joe and Butch smelled blood. If they had their way, no man should be married. No man should have any contact with the opposite sex other than fornication. Most of all, no man should stoop to or go out of his way to speak with a woman. Fuck ‘em, leave ‘em, drink. Their fins circled me each day at quitting time.
“Where the fuck you going?” Butch asked when I climbed on my bike.
“Home to honey to make nice-nice. Never apologize. It’s a sign of weakness.” Joe’s head swirled with John Wayne movie quotes.
One day I told them,“ You two are like the Three Stooges episode where they join the Woman Haters club. Down with every fellow who sings my life, my love, my all.”
“ Come down to the Sander with us. We’ll have you home by six.”
The Sander was a bar on F Street and Sussex. In those days, Belmar wasn’t bar happy. There were just a few places in town and practically nowhere to drink along the beachfront. On F Street, you could find luncheonettes, drug stores, barbershops, gas stations, and car showrooms. We even had a movie theater—the Rivoli. It sat right next to the Sugar Bowl where the elementary school kids went for sodas, shakes, and burgers.
Joe and Butch would fill me with whiskey and degrading stories about girls they knew in town. Some nights by the time I got home, I felt so tired and loaded I hit the sack without dinner. Maybe a few complaints about what money had disappeared from the checkbook before I crashed. It wasn’t every night, but it was regular.
One hot Saturday—we worked six days a week—Joe, Butch and me got off work at noon. We hit the Sander. The beer went down cold and fast. Three cigars later—in those days I went through maybe ten Swisher Sweets a day—I realized Sophie and I were supposed to go to her parents for a cookout. I paid up, hopped on my bike, and headed home.
The place was locked. A note taped to the door read “At Mom and Dad’s.”
Sophie’s parents lived on Inlet Terrace. Their house would have held three or so of our rental cottage. Inlet Terrace surrounded a manufactured lagoon. Ocean water flowed in from Shark River Inlet. In 1918, the lagoon witnessed past and future Olympic Gold Medal winner Duke Kahanamoku compete against swimmers from the New York Athletic Club. I didn’t know him then, but Ronny grew up on the Terrace, a few doors down from my in-laws.
Sophie’s father, Carmen Constantine, owned an awning business. Almost every house on the Terrace and every big rooming house on the north end of town had awnings, and Carmen made them all. His father started the business. The house had been his and his wife’s. They croaked within weeks of each other—Carmen called it a lover’s ending even though both had been senile for years—and the house and business passed to him.
Sophie’s mother, Rosemary, a very shy Italian woman—not exactly common—had been married before she hooked up with Carmen. Rosemary had Sophie and Carmen Jr., who enjoyed his old man only when they installed awnings on different houses. Sophie, though, wasn’t the apple of Carmen’s eye. She was the whole goddamn orchard. Sophia, he called her. Never Sophie.
Visiting my in-laws' gave me as much pleasure as trying to explain a baseball game to two foreign gymnasts. Carmen Jr. had his own place, and he never hung around home. That left Sophie, her parents, and me, the handsome blond working-class Irish kid married to the dark-haired, wealthy beauty. Every one of my friends told me you’re the luckiest bastard in town to be married to Sophie.
Two hours late, I coasted down their driveway.
Carmen, Rosemary, and Sophie sat in the backyard around a table. A bright yellow umbrella with white fringe shaded them. On the table sat tall, weeping drinks; cheese, crackers, veggie sticks and dip underneath a cute, little bug net; and of course Carmen’s big cigar ashtray. Carmen’s cigars were long and fat enough to splint a broken forearm.
Alice slept in her portable playpen underneath her very own umbrella. The thought of Alice toddling into the lagoon scared Sophie to death.
In the driveway, I set my bike’s kickstand and started down the yard.
“There he is,” Carmen roared in his boss voice, “better late than later.” He wore shorts too tight for his belly; knee-high, white socks; and seersucker button-down. Stocky, with thick forearms and grey flecked, curly hair, he practiced ways of letting you know he was in charge.
“You’ll wake Alice,” Rosemary shushed. Hair beauty-shop perfect, my mother-in-law always smiled when she spoke, but a second later her eyes would fall and smile fade as if someone had just told her to shut up. For the two years I knew her, I never saw her wear the same dress twice.
Carmen stood up from the table and walked over to Alice. He put hands on knees and peered down.
“Alice. What kind of a name is that for my granddaughter? Makes me think of that Alice in Wonderland.”
“ Hello, all,” I said. Carmen looked me up and down after he checked his watch. Rosemary got up and gave me her usual tentative hug.
“How are you, dear?” Rosemary looked up at me as if I’d just fallen down stairs.
I stood there. “Great. Worked hard today.”
“ Work hard or hardly worked?” Carmen laughed. After about three highballs, he fancied himself the Lithuanian Jack Benny.
I walked over to Sophie. As soon as I got close enough to touch her, she straightened and said “Hi,” before walking back to the table where she sat down and dipped a carrot stick.
“Sorry I’m late.” I sat across from Sophie.
She turned her cute little upturned nose towards daddy. “What time are we eating, Popa?”
“Any time you want. Everything’s been marinating. All I have to do is start the coals. You want me to start them, Sophia?”
“ One of us could probably stand to eat something.”
“ Yes, I think so,” Rosemary chimed. “Come on, Carm. Let’s you and me go get the sausage and peppers.” She practically pulled Carmen out of his chair. They walked together up the yard.
Their house had very steep back steps—twenty or more between two halves of white, concrete terraces full of flowers. Twin garage doors stood under the house’s first floor. A curled, concrete retaining wall rose from the driveway up to the top of the right hand garage door. Privet hedges bordered each side of the yard, which narrowed slightly before it reached the bulkhead walkway along the lagoon.
As soon as the back door closed, Sophie started. I looked straight ahead. It was easier to quarrel if I didn’t see her. Our good looks were all we had.
“We talked about this for days. Don’t be late Saturday. Papa’s going to offer you a position. Please don’t be late.”
“ I know. I’m sorry. Is Rosemary pissed off?”
“ I don’t know. Papa is.”
“ Carmen’s been pissed since he gave you away. How long have we been married?”
“ Two years.”
“ Spell that first word.”
“ Too many letters. Did your father put a cooler out?”
I’ll say this for him. Carmen always set up a cooler full of beer for me when I came over. Carling Black Label. He never touched beer—booze before the meal, then wine with it.
“He likes you more than you know. Why don’t you take his offer? It would mean more money for us.”
I grabbed a cold one. An opener hung from the cooler handle. “I don’t want to work for my father-in-law.” With a festive pop, beer sprayed from my can.
“He wants you to learn the business.”
“I don’t want to install awnings.”
“He wants to teach you about business.”
“He wants you to have more money.”
“He wants to teach you—”
“He wants his daughter to have more pretty things.”
“Stubborn,” Sophie said. “Bull-headed.”
“You can’t set things right for yourself by doing somebody else’s idea of what’s right.”
Oh, my. Did I see the irony in my words? Of course not. Even though my father died before I married Sophie, when we found out she was pregnant, I did what my father would have thought was right.
My wife poked me so I would turn. I looked into her eyes.
“Here they come. Think about it. For me, will you? For us?”
“ You two settle down? You ready to enjoy the evening now?” Carmen put the platter of sausage and peppers on the table—long, fresh sausage thick as an eel and giant red peppers sliced in half.
Alice yawned awake just as three ducks flew out of the lagoon. They waddled around the yard. Lying on her tummy, peaking at them through the playpen mesh, Alice jabbered, pointing at the ducks as they surveyed the territory.
“Get outta here!” Waving his arms, Carmen ran at the ducks. “Filthy things. They shit all over my boat.”
“ Little ears listen and repeat,” Sophie said.
“Sorry, Sophia. You’re right.” Carmen went over to the playpen and lifted up Alice.
“Is she wet?” Rosemary asked.
Carmen patted Alice’s bottom. He smiled and made some cooing noises, his forehead touching Alice’s. “You take her,” he brought her to Rosemary. “Give her mamma a break, huh? I got coals to light.”
He poured out charcoal from a big bag into his grill, circled lighter fluid around a few times, and tossed on a match. The flames rose up. Little curlicue puffs of soot lifted into the air, twisting in the fire’s heat.
With the coals going, he came back to the table, filled his highball with ice, poured four thick fingers of gin, and then fizzed the glass with tonic. He squeezed a wedge of lime into the drink and brought a chair and his cigar ashtray next to Sophie.
“While your mother’s inside I have to tell you. You remember the Hoopers? Three houses down?”
Sophie gazed out at the lagoon. She sipped her ice tea. “Sure.”
“You heard Helena, the daughter, died.”
“Did you hear how she died?”
“She had a seizure. She was an epileptic, right?”
Carmen lit his cigar. The smoke curled and blew at me across the table. “This I got from Joe Dane, the next door neighbor.” He looked across at me. “You don’t know these people, James. The Hoopers, Ida and Samuel, an elderly couple, had a daughter, Helena. She was early fifties when she passed. This woman played the harp. A harpist, good enough to play Carnegie Hall. Unfortunately, she suffered from epilepsy. The Hoopers are Christian Scientists. You know what that means?”
“ They run a newspaper?”
Carmen didn’t even blink at wisecracks. “No. They don’t believe in doctors. No medicine. Everything’s in God’s hands. Helena lived with her parents. Samuel rarely left the house. Sometimes, Joe Dane told me, he’d see old Samuel through a window. A long, white beard down to his chest, all stooped over. Joe would see Ida moon bathing in the nude on their veranda. This Ida took the cake. One summer a few years back, she had fences installed across both sides of her bulkhead walkway. Nobody could walk all the way around the lagoon to visit neighbors. Remember, Sophia?”
He took a long pull on his highball, puffed a few times, and started again.
“When Helena was little, Samuel Hooper bought this house of theirs for Ida. For Valentine’s Day. Look at the house sometime. It’s three houses down. Slate roof, terraced veranda in back. Just a beautiful place. They gave Helena private lessons. Like I said, she became a professional, a concert harpist. She never married, never left home. Samuel and Ida watched their daughter grow from a child into a middle-age spinster right in the same house. Of course, they grew old right along with Helena.
“Ida was always strange. I’ve been on the Terrace longer than Joe and Phyllis Dane, so I know. Before the nude moon bathing and fences, there were stories. As kids, we threw an egg or three at the Hooper house more than a few mischief nights. We never saw Samuel, but Ida came out to curse us. She poisoned dogs that crapped in her yard. Mrs. Hancock, I think, paid for an autopsy.
“This is what Joe told me. It wasn’t in the papers. Even the cops hushed it up. Joe told me several days before Helena supposedly passed, he noticed a peculiar odor coming from the Hooper’s during that hot spell we had in June. Joe didn’t think much of it. Probably they haven’t been seeing to their trash. That’s what Joe’s wife, Phyllis, said. Trash day came and went. Joe saw Ida haul out a can and carry it back the same day after collection. One thing struck him odd: as hot as it was, Ida wore a coat. She wore shorts with a heavy, woolen coat.
“Days passed. The smell didn’t go away. Then one night, Ida ran screaming out of the house. She staggered over to Joe and Phyllis’ place and rang the doorbell, screaming her eyes out. Joe answered while Phyllis called the cops. What he saw in the porch light took years off his life. That’s the way he put it. Ida’s hands, arms, and the inside of her forearms up to the elbows were burned. Her skin was blistered, blood red in places. She shivered, crying for help. Minutes later the cops, ambulance, and practically every municipal vehicle with BELMAR FIRST AID written on it showed up at Hooper’s.
“They found Samuel in his wheelchair in the living room-dining area, along with a cot set up for him to sleep on. He didn’t know what day it was. They found Helena upstairs in her room on the bed, her body surrounded by bricks, some of them still hot. Bricks heated in the oven downstairs and carried upstairs by Ida to warm the deceased body of her daughter. Four days this went on. Helena was the smell. No telling how long it might have continued if Ida thought to use potholders.”
I don’t remember much about the cook out that night at my in-laws'. After that story Carmen told about Ida Hooper, I watched him sear those sausage and peppers on his grill. I didn’t eat. As daylight waned, Rosemary poured Carmen into bed before she drove Sophie and Alice home. Who knows what they discussed? I rode my bike.
I do remember the conversation between Sophie and me from the moment I opened my front door until I went upstairs to a spare room.
“You couldn’t say one word,” she said from the kitchen.
“Not one. Not even, I’ll think about it, Carmen. Thanks for the offer, though.”
“ The job again.”
“ The job again. Just who do you think’s going to hire you after what happened with that girl?”
“ I thought we weren’t going to bring that up again. Nothing happened.”
Sophie came out from the kitchen. She held a dishtowel. “I’m bringing it up.”
I thought she was drying her hands. She squeezed the towel as if trying to take life’s air from it.
“What are you doing?”
“Let me see.”
She spun around and hurried into the kitchen. I followed her. She ran the sink faucet, her hands underneath. When I came close, I saw blood swirl with water down the drain.
“What did you do?”
“I cut myself.”
“Let me see.”
She covered the back of her left hand with her right. I couldn’t see where the blood came from. She twisted her back to me. “It’s fine.”
She looked up. “Just leave me alone. Look,” she turned and showed me, “it’s nothing.”
Blood ran from a gash behind her knuckles. She returned her hands to the stream.
“Take your hands out of the water.”
I moved to pull her arm. She twisted back.
I saw the layers of white skin peel back under the faucet stream. “That’s going to need stitches. How the hell did you do it?”
“ I don’t know.” She kept her hand under the water.
In my twenties, I morphed into a logical, professor-type when intoxicated. Nothing could happen without reasonable explanation. “What do you mean you don’t know? How do you cut yourself on the back of your hand and not know?”
“ I just did! There’s the knife!” she pointed.
On the drain board in plain sight. How did I miss it?
“What were you cutting? Turn off the water. Put pressure on it.” I looked at her hand again. “You need to get stitches.”
She snatched a towel from the rack on the stove’s door, put it on the gash, and walked out of the kitchen.
“Where are you going?”
Our bedroom door slammed. I heard the bolt slip.
“Sophie?” I said to the door. I tried the knob. It turned, but the bolt held the door shut. “Sophie. You need to get stitches.”
“ It’s fine,” she sighed. “Go to bed. It’s fine.”
“ Are you sure?” Nothing. I waited, turned the knob one more time. “Call me if you need me.”
I went in the kitchen expecting to find a gory mess. A thin line of red ran down from a single drip on the baseboard into the white porcelain sink. I picked up the knife—one of the steak knives from the set we received as a wedding present. After two years, we still kept some of our gifts displayed prominently. The box of steak knives sat on the countertop next to the toaster. I opened the flip top. Sure enough, one knife missing. Case solved.
I opened the refrigerator. If I leaned some weight against its door, I could open the big handle quietly. Same for shutting it. This was way before magnetic doors—old fridges used to be death traps for kids.
A beer in each fist, I headed for my banishment room. I forgot the can opener. Back to the kitchen. Why not a drop of Bushmills to help me sleep? On the top shelf, right behind the Quaker Oats. Then up the stairs I went.
The rest of that night is bits and pieces. I don’t know if a young drinker’s brain is more nimble than an older drinker’s. Perhaps the young brain has more cells. With the help of memory mixed with a police report, I pieced together the evening’s follies.
After finishing my beers, I softly closed my room door. The ceiling spun. I moved into temporary sleep before a new darkness stopped the spinning—walking west, headed for F Street. The Sander started the deluge, so I headed there. Just a few blocks. I practiced walking straight on the way to F Street, had it down pat by the time storefronts and cars lighted my world.
The Sander offered an atmosphere of dimmed drinking. Walking in from F Street left me blind. My eyes had to grow accustomed to the darkness. Two machines lit the place—a jukebox at the far end of the bar and a bowling machine—some people call it shuffles bowling—stood against the wall opposite the bar. The only other source of illumination came from underneath the bar where the rack booze, glasses, and sinks lived. I took a barstool.
Once I could see, I counted five people in the place including the bartender. In the dim glow lifting from below him, he might have passed for Lionel Atwill in “Son of Frankenstein.”
I knew all the old horror classics. They ran on WOR-TV’s Million Dollar Movie. Either that or WPIX-TV’s Chiller Theatre hosted by Zacherly. One show Zacherly talked to a cubic foot of quivering Jell-O during every commercial break. It’s alive, it’s alive!
“What’ll you have?” Old Lionel blinked a few times as he watched me, waiting for me to twinge a finger.
I didn’t know what I wanted.
“I asked you what’ll it be.”
“Ah, Rheingold draft.”
He huffed a breath out, brought a draft glass from underneath, and pulled the tap. “You got ID?”
I took out my license along with a dollar from my wallet. He leaned down into the bar light to read my birthday aloud from my license. He placed my beer on a coaster before he took my money.
“Outta one.” The cash register dinged. A white, pointed .25 tab lifted up.
“Excuse me. I wanted a mug of Rheingold.”
He put three quarters and a nickel on the bar next to my beer. “You ordered a Rheingold draft. I gave you a Rheingold draft.”
“ I meant a mug. Mug’s a better deal.”
“ Look, pretty boy. You want a mug; I’ll give you a mug. It’ll cost you another forty cents.”
“ A mug’s almost two drafts.”
“ Boy’s got you there, Phil,” a voice said. I turned my eyes. It was one of two men down the bar.
Phil laughed to himself. He moved down the bar to the voice. The jukebox came to life—some country song I didn’t know. The cowboy singing the song lost his woman. The bar lost my interest. I gulped down my beer, belched, and stood up to move on.
I walked about two doors down before it hit me. Pretty boy. Or just boy. One person could call me boy—my father. Nobody in the Sander filled that prescription. I turned around to go back inside. Perceived slights plus anger.
The patron from the end of the bar, the one who called me boy, had his back to the front door. It was his turn on the bowling machine. Leaning forward, he bent to slide the metal disc back and forth in rhythm with the flashing red bonus lights that pulsed above the pins. I stood alongside the machine. I planted both hands on its side edge. His eyes up, he followed the light a few more times. Then he straightened to look at me.
“Could you move?”
I folded my arms. “Ninth frame, huh?”
“Yeah.” He moved the disc back and forth, back and forth.
His opponent sat behind me at the bar. Phil had his face buried in the bulldog edition of the Daily News. I watched the disc slide into the pins—only one ding. I looked. I leaned back on the machine and bent my head down. He had a 7-10 split.
I grinned at him, “You know how to make that?”
He stared at the pins before turning to me. “Will you get out of the way?”
“Out of the way who?”
“Who? What’d you call me before?”
“ I didn’t call you anything.”
Behind me, I heard a newspaper rustle.
“Yeah, you did.”
Behind me again, “Easy, boy.”
“Okay,” I held up both hands, took a half step toward the bowler, and snapped my right fist at his face. Well, if you’re right handed, especially if you’re drunk, don’t ever lead with your right. He hit me on the chin, and then I half fell, half stumbled into a good punch just above my eye—I had a lump over my eyebrow the next morning. I managed to grab his hair to knock his head against the wall.
Then I was on my back with an ass in my face. Somebody held both of my legs out straight. I got turned onto my stomach with what felt like an elephant near the bottom of my neck until the cops came. I remember getting comfortable with the weight on my back and not being happy about the cops cuffing me, standing me on my feet, or giving me the bum’s rush into their cruiser.
I acted very docile after my arrest. I kept my voice low and pleasant. I threw out an occasional comment about familiar members of the Belmar PD, not to mention the DPW.
My night in jail cost me one week’s suspension from work. I received two citations, public intoxication, and disorderly conduct. That kept me in booze for a good month courtesy of Joe and Butch, who didn’t mind switching to Tessinger’s. I was no longer welcome in the Sander.
I had found my anger. I didn’t realize its source at the time. Up until my father died, I can remember watching guys get into fights. I stood back and laughed. Except directed at myself,
anger just didn’t live in me. Born in Sean Hanlon’s death, fortified by labels and self-doubt, my anger grew steadily that summer.
I began to play pool at Tessinger’s and other bars. Pool, alcohol, and time became my anger’s fertilizers. The pool table—my phosphorus. I’d root to that son of a bitch for hours. One more game, Seamus. One more game. All that alcohol became my nitrogen. It allowed my anger and resentment to grow, to bear fruit—fisticuffs, missing teeth, facial abrasions. The time away from my wife and child became my potassium. My resentment grew stronger with each missed meal, each lost first of my daughter’s childhood.
Then in the fall, I left. Just like that. I got an off-season room rate at the Commodore, fixed Chef Boyardee on a hot plate, and washed my dirty dishes in the common shower. Sophie did fine. Carmen gave her a job and paid her rent until she got on her feet. She had boyfriends but nothing permanent until Alice graduated from third grade. She lives with her husband, Stan, up near Long Branch. She visits Alice all the time.
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