Vera was sitting at the kitchen table when my mother came in the front door.
“Your father didn’t come home again last night,” she announced.
“With the paycheck,” my mother said, setting her suitcase on the floor.
Vera wrung her hands, nothing to do but wait for Al to run aground, for he was abroad now, on the high seas of his imagination.
He’d nipped over to the liquor store at lunch. Got a pint of that Polish vodka and stashed it in his locker at work. Had a drink at one o’clock, a drink at two, a drink at three, at drink at four, becoming talkative; the shop foreman just shaking his head and counting the minutes.
A couple shots more after work and then a beer at the top of the street and he’d reached that point a man thinks to himself, You can still go home now with a bag of groceries and a hundred dollars.
—and half a bottle for the morrow, my grandfather cursed over his shoulder at that iteration of himself departing in the sunlit street.
The Municipal was empty yet. The bartender lugged cases of beer around the basement, and the cook banged pots in the kitchen. A big fan turned slowly up in the dark, on the tin ceiling.
My grandfather tilted the bottle back and his head swam, and a glow came over the room….
Al Urbanski, in gold trunks, was on his feet and dancing.
Round three … against that prick from Manchester with the barell chest and little bowed legs, my grandfather said to himself—for every good boxer has a habit of soliloquy.
He jabbed. Manchester stalked….
The boys from the composing room at the Times were coming in now: Joe Barbone, Stevie Ulmer and Bill Bannon.
“An Italian, a German and an Irishman walk into a bar,” my grandfather said, shuffling the wooden floor.
“Then what?” Barbone said.
“The polack at the end of the bar buys them a drink,” he said, jabbing left and right.
The four men sat on the corner of the bar at the top of the street as the pedestrians and the cars went up and down, feeling like kings.
Bannon spread the Times evening addition on the bar.
“See it?” he said.
My grandfather perused the type for the odd face, widow, orphan. Bannon liked to set something off, visible only to the trained eye of another compositor. It was his signature, like some sufi weaver.
The leading wavered at the bottom of the first column…. My grandfather held the page up to the light and turned it over and squinted at it. Turned it back over.
Right there. Bannon had slipped a Futura H into the headline: HARTFORD POLICE. It was audacious. A stroke of genius.
“This calls for another round—on someone else,” my grandfaher said.
At length thery retired to a table in the back and played cards for small stakes. A waitress brought drinks. Later they ordered dinner, except for Al, who kept drinking.
“I’ll eat on Sunday,” he said.
“When Vera let’s you back in the house,” Bannon said.
“I got keys,” Al said, standing unsteadily.
His head swam, and he seemed to peer out of a fog. Then he got that look in his eyes … as if the queerness of everything suddenly made sense to him, and he jabbed Bannon right in the face.
“Son of a bitch,” Bannon cried, and he swung a wild backhand that caught my grandfather on the ear.
“You dumb fucking polack!”
“That’s right Billy Boy,” my grandfather said, dancing. “A dumb fucking polack!”
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” Barbone said.
“Dumb fucking polack!”
“Hey, Al,” Ulmer said. Ulmer had been quiet most of the night.
“Yeah, Stevie?” my grandfather said.
“Shut the fuck up, you dumb fucking polack!”
They’d all gone their separate ways home. Al took a Pall Mall out of the red pack and made an awkward feint on the sidewalk.
Hartford Hospital loomed out of the foliage along Maple Avenue like a great ship. Across the street was a bar. My grandfather came this way from work sometimes. They knew him.
“Alexiev!” the proprietor shouted.
“Alexis, goddamnit,” he said. “Not Ruski. Polska!” he said, up on his toes again and in his oponent’s face, feinting and jabbing and dancing outside the opponent’s reach.
“Okay, Okay, Alexiev,” the proprietor said, “sit.” And he slid Al a beer.
“What are you into tonight?” the proprietor said.
“That prick from Manchester with the barrel chest and the bandy legs,” my grandfather said.
“Uh-huh,” the proprietor said, wiping the bar with a rag.
Lungs like a goddamn horse, my grandfather went around the room.
Then he got quiet and drank his beer.
“Dupek!” he shouted suddenly and banged his fist on the bar.
“Alexiev!” the proprietor shouted.
“Alexis!” he shouted back.
“Ha! You and me, we are totally fucked!” the proprietor said.
Al peered up as if hearing him for the first time.
“You and me,” the proprietor said, coming up close so Al could smell the liquor on his breath, “are totally fucked!”
“What?” Al said.
“No!” Al said looking in alarm at an outcropping of nose hairs in the proprietor’s lurid face.
“Alexiev! I am fucking with you!” he said and poured my grandfather a tumblerful of vodka.
My grandfather awoke mid-puke. A convulsion racked his ribs, and he rolled over and staggered to his feet.
A cold sweat broke out on his brow and a great forboding in his bowels.
He steadied himself, rocking slightly on his heals.
And (the strangest thing) his hand as he reached for his handkerchief seemed inadvertantly to float up infront of him, and flutter, like a man feeling in the dark.… He stared at it, this hand, as if awaiting instructions; for he was in need of instructions….
Cries of duffers came across the Park.
He’d aimed himself in the right direction somehow and come to this conclusion: behind a laurel bush, in medio vomitus, a block from the Hinton Street house.
Better than half his paycheck remained. Not a catastrophe—though Vera would certainly see it that way; drag Penny into it like she did, his own daughter, whom he loved passionately and who bore the wounds of that love. Make a scene….
Tucking in his shirt tails, he started along the sidewalk, thinking longingly of his cot in the basement: to lie like a devil in the dark while the world ran away with itself, in one’s own comfortable hell of card tables and stationary and tools hung on the pegboard; later, a distant report of supper, and of reconciliation….
At the top of the street a wave of nausea and despair passed over him, and in its wake the promise of another drink. He put his head down and trudged to the bus stop. Downtown he found a liquor store just opening. In the bright, empty parking lot he unscrewed the bottle and his stomach lurched at the smell.