For many years Bay Street was the place. Bar whisky for eight cents a shot or a double slug for fifteen. Waterfront Street. The dirty grey waves slapped at the crusted piles and left an oil scum. A street to forget with. A street which could close in on you, day to day, night to night, until you maybe ran into an old friend who slipped you a five, and somebody saw you get it; there at dawn an interne from city hospital would shove your eyelid up with a clean, pink thumb. “Icebox meat,” he’d say. “Morgue bait.” And maybe, as he stood up, he’d look down at your hollow grey face and the sharp bones of your wrists and wonder how you’d kept alive so long. So very long.
But something happened to Bay Street. It acquired glamor. Reading the trend, the smart boys came down and bought up the property and built long low clubs with blue lights and bright music and expensive drinks. The shining cars lined up along the curb, and the people with the clean clothes gave ragged kids two bits to make certain the tires weren’t slashed while they were inside the places with the bright music and the soft women. The doormen at the new places had no time for the men in broken shoes who were living out the last years of addiction.
So the men of Bay Street moved to Dorrity Street—one block over. Many of the displaced little bars moved over. The red, blue and green neon flickered against the brick flanks of the ancient warehouses, and, in the night, the steaming chant of the jukeboxes, the hoarse laughter and the scuff of broken shoes was the same as always.
Frank Bard sat on the stone front step of an abandoned warehouse and stared at the street, shining in a light misty rain. The rain made pink halos around the neon of the place across the street. “Allison’s Grill.”
Bard thought vaguely that if the rain increased, he’d have to get under shelter. He didn’t want to go inside; he had come out because he had been sick. The muscles of his diaphragm still ached with the violence of his retching. He turned the ragged collar of his dark blue suit coat up around his neck. He wondered if he ought to walk down the alley and see if anybody had tried to move in on him. Two weeks before, he had found a sturdy packing case and, at dawn, had dragged it down the alley and put it under a fire escape. The effort had left him weak and panting. He had filled it with clean burlap and it made a snug bed. The fall rain was chill; the packing case wouldn’t be any good in the winter. He forced that thought out of his mind.
He was a dark man, with a sullen face. Once he had been solid, almost stocky, but the flesh had slowly melted off him during the past year. He was still capable of sudden, explosive bursts of energy. His hair was long and his square jaw was dark with several day’s beard. His cheeks were hollow and there was a dark wildness in his puffy eyes that the shadows concealed.
Across the street an old man with matted white hair lurched out of Allison’s and fell on one knee. He got up and went on, limping and cursing in a thin, high voice, watered down by age.
Frank Bard heard the slow tock, tock of heels, heavy heels, coming down the sidewalk on his side. He knew who it was without looking. He scowled down at the sidewalk. The slow steps stopped.
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I Like It This Way
He looked up. Patrolman Clarence Flynn, tall and solid, stood looking down at him. Flynn’s raincoat had a cape effect across the shoulders that made him look larger than life size.
He said softly, “You okay, Frankie?”
“Give me a cigarette, Flynn,” Bard said hoarsely.
Flynn handed him one, lit it. Over the match flame the two men glanced briefly into each other’s eyes—and looked quickly away.
In the same gentle tone, Flynn said, “When are you going to straighten out, Frankie?”
“I like it this way.”
“You were a good cop, Frankie. You straighten out and you could come back in; your record’s good.”
“I like it this way.”
“You look sick, Frankie.”
“I’m fine. You got a beat to walk.”
Flynn shrugged. He handed the half pack of cigarettes to Bard and walked on. He stopped ten feet away and said, “She wasn’t worth this, Frankie; no woman was worth this.”
Bard called him a foul word and snapped the half smoked cigarette into the street. After he could no longer hear the sound of Flynn’s heels, he tried to light another one. His hands shook so badly that he couldn’t do it. The matches were damp. They sputtered and went out quickly.
He felt in his side pocket to make certain that the fifty-cent piece was still there. It was cool against his fingertips. He stood up, swaying slightly, and then walked across the street, pushed his way into the heat and smell of Allison’s.
The bar was of plywood laid over some heavier substance. Naked bulbs were laid behind the bottles on the back bar, and the light glowed through—amber. The place was narrow and rectangular—with the bar on the left and booths on the right. A jukebox sat against the far wall, bubbles rising endlessly up through the colored tubes. Arther Allison, a small trim man with Truman glasses and a grey Colman mustache, in a spotless white shirt, waited on bar, his quick eyes flicking ceaselessly from face to face. Allison was a watchful, careful man.
Jader waited on the booths and, on occasion, acted as bouncer. Jader was tall and heavy with weak eyes that watered constantly. He, too, was watchful.
Underneath the bar, to the left of the beer taps, was a small drawer. There were usually a few small packages in that drawer. Summer and winter a small hot coal fire burned in the basement. In the winter, the fire heated the building; in the summer the radiators were turned off. On the under edge of the drawer containing the packages was a small loop of wire. Either Jader or Allison could, by yanking on the loop of wire, drop the bottom of the drawer. The little packages would then drop down a chute into the fire. It was safer that way. For every package held and relayed to the proper pickup men, there was a small fee of ten dollars. Five for Jader and five for Allison. On some days as many as eight packages spent varying lengths of time in the drawer.
Allison and Jader were very watchful and cautious men.
When Frank Bard walked in, there were four men at the bar. He knew three of them by sight; the fourth was a stranger. Two of the booths were occupied. In one were two Swedish merchant seamen, and a thin painted girl with hair the color of ripe tomatoes and a wet, smeared mouth. In the second booth were two quiet men wearing dark topcoats. Bard glanced at them and guessed that they were waiting for one of the packages to arrive.
Bard di d a curious thing. He held the door wide, and, as he walked over to the bar, he smiled down over his right shoulder. He said something in a low voice.
He stepped up beside the stranger, still smiling down at a point about six inches from his right shoulder. Allison moved over toward him and said, “You got the money, Frank?”
He took the fifty-cent piece from his pocket and said, “The usual for me and Jeanie, Arthur.” Allison poured two straight ryes and smiled tiredly as he put one in front of Bard and one in front of the empty space. Bard said, “You wouldn’t rather sit in a booth, would you, Jeanie?”
“What the hell do you keep asking her that, for?” Arthur said. “She never wants to sit in a booth; she always stands up here at the bar with you.”
Bard looked vaguely indignant. “It’s polite to ask her, Arthur.”
The stranger, a lean man in work clothes with a pinched, bitter mouth, looked with pained disgust at Frank Bard and then at Allison. “What the hell goes on?” he asked.
Allison looked amused. “Oh, Frank comes in here all the time with Jeanie.”
Frank Bard turned and looked at the stranger. “Jeanie and me, we like this place. She likes to come here even if 3he did have a little bad luck here a little over a year ago.”
The stranger looked into Bard’s eyes and moved back a few inches. “Bad luck?” he inquired politely.
“Yeah. Jeanie was in here late one night and some lush hit her with a bottle. Hit her right over the left ear. I guess my Jeanie hasn’t got such a tough skull. Funny how it didn’t break the bottle, hey Arthur?”
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Jader came over, his pale eyes watering. He said, “Damn it, Arthur, what did you let this dizzy punk come in here for?”
Arthur grinned. “Nervous?”
“No, the guy drives away trade.” He turned to the stranger. “Mister, a drunk bashed her head in with a bottle and got clean away. We give the cops a description but they never found the guy.” He paused and glanced at Bard, who was talking to Jeanie in a low voice, almost a whisper. He continued, “And this thing used to be a cop. Jeanie was his girl. He’s been on the skids for nearly a year, and every time he comes in here he’s got that damn imaginary woman with him. I tell you, it’s enough to drive me nuts.”
Arthur grinned tightly. “Where’s your sense of humor, Jader?”
Jader looked again at Bard, cursed and wandered off. The Swedes were pounding on the table.
Frank Bard bent low over his glass of rye. He lifted it with a quick motion, and downed it. It caught in his throat. He gagged, but it stayed down. He stood for a moment, savoring the glow of it, feeling immediately stronger, more confident. He glanced at the wall above the back-bar, whistling softly. His lean hand, dirt stained into the knuckles, reached slowly out, shoving the empty glass over toward Jeanie. The hand hooked around her full glass and brought it back. He glanced down, as though surprised to see the full drink in front of him. He drank it with steadier hand and smiled at Jeanie.
“Taste good to you, honey? If I had the dough, I’d buy you another.” He looked down at his dime change. He glanced over and said, “What was that, honey?”
He beckoned to Arthur. “Arthur, Jeanie says …”
“Yeah, I know. She wants a beer chaser.” He picked up the dime, drew one beer and set it in front of Jeanie. Bard whistled again, while his right hand stole out and slid it over. He drank it quickly and, again looking at the wall, shoved the glass over in front of Jeanie.
The stranger said, “You were a cop?”
Bard looked at him and drew himself up, looking for a fraction of a second, out of the wise, confident policeman’s eyes. The expression faded and his eyes once more looked hot and wild. “What’s it to you!” he demanded hoarsely. “I don’t see you buying me and Jeanie no drinks; buy ’em and we’ll talk to you, Mister.” The man took hold of Bard’s shoulder with what was almost gentleness. He turned him so that he faced him directly. The work-hardened hand came across, smacking solidly, fingers open, across Bard’s jaw, knocking him against the bar. The hand came back in a backhand blow that straightened him up again, splitting his underlip at the corner.
Frank Bard stood unsteadily, his hands at his side, grinning foolishly at the stranger, his eyes filling with tears from the burning pain in his lip.
Arthur said, “Take it easy!”
The stranger said, “That’s for being a lousy cop; that’s for nothing. You there, set up drinks for Prince Charming and his lady.”
“Thanks,” Bard said humbly.
“Think nothing of it, Prince.” The man turned his back.
Bard drank the two drinks and stood holding onto the edge of the bar. His face greyed and he said, “Excuse me, honey.”
He lurched off to the men’s room and was ill. He came out in a few minutes, still shaking, his clothes soiled and stopped by the bar. He said, “Come on, Jeanie.” He walked toward the door. Jader crossed close beside him. With wild fury, Bard grabbed Jader’s arm and spun him around. He said, “Why the hell don’t you watch where you’re going?”
He bent over suddenly, as though helping someone up from the floor. He snarled at Jader, “Okay. Okay. Go around knocking women down and don’t apologize. You all right, honey,” he said softly, making brushing motions in the air. Jader grunted, balled a large white fist and slowly drew, it back, his wet eyes narrowed.
Arthur snapped, “Jader! Cut it!”
The big hand unclenched and Bard walked to the door, held it open with a small bow and then walked out.
Jader said, “Arthur, I’m not going to stand for …”
“Shut up!” The grey eyes were cold behind the lenses, the mouth a thin tight line under the mustache. The girl with the Swedes giggled shrilly. Jader turned and walked toward the back of the place.
In the alley Frank Bard stood, his hand on the corner of the packing case, looking up at the night sky. The rain had stopped and small clouds scudded across the moon. Bard dropped to his knees and crawled into the box. He lay with his face against the damp wood and tears ran down through the thick stubble on his cheeks. He reached awkwardly into his side pocket and pulled out a small package. He unwrapped the paper. It contained a small cool metal tube that still contained lipstick. Her lipstick. He held it close to his nose. It held the elusive scent of her. His fingertips touched the little skein of hair. Her hair. Long and pale and delicate—amazingly golden. He wrapped the package and replaced it in his pocket. After a long time, he slept.
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The Back Booth
Jader was in a good mood. The drawer was almost full of packages and the first pickup was due in an hour. Arthur Allison had gone to the races. It was the first time Jader had been alone in the place in many months. He liked the feeling of being trusted. The sun was hot on Dorrity Street. It slanted through the smeared front window, lighting the dim interior. One old man was asleep, his head on the booth table. Jader planned to wake him up and get him out soon.
He glanced across the street and his cheerful smile faded. He saw Frank Bard coming diagonally across the street in the sun, looking down at a spot six inches from his right shoulder. Jader could see his lips moving. Jader’s lip curled as he saw Bard’s grey, shapeless shoes, the tired scuff of his walk, the stained, baggy trousers.
He stepped over into the doorway as Bard opened the door. Jader didn’t move. Bard said, “Hey! Let us in!” He took a dollar out of his side pocket and held it up.
“I don’t want no screwballs in here,” Jader said sullenly.
“Where’s Arthur? Arthur lets us come in. Get out of Jeanie’s way, Jader.’
“You’re not coming in.”
Bard stared at him for a few seconds. “Arthur won’t like to hear about this. You got a public place here.”
“You stand up to the bar and talk to the other customers. The hell with that noise; you drive away business.”
Frank Bard considered that statement solemnly. “Okay. So Jeanie and me, we’ll take the back booth in the end and we won’t talk to anybody, will we Jeanie?”
Jader glanced down the street, saw a familiar sedan coming. It would be best not to delay pickup. He moved aside. “Okay, come on in and take the end booth. I’ll be with you in a minute.”
Bard stood aside as though to let someone come in, and then followed. Jader waited until Bard was out of sight in the booth before slipping the package across to the slim, dark man who had ordered the beer. The man drank up and left.
Jader poured two ryes and walked back to the booth with them. Frank Bard smiled up at him. “No, she’s sitting right there across from me, Jader. Maybe we should take a booth oftener. It’s nice and private back here in the end. Jeanie says it’s nice and clean. Clean ashtray and everything. She don’t mind being in the booth where she got hit. Do you, Jeanie?”
Jader scowled. “‘The place is good and clean because I clean it. Stop the chatter and give me the buck; there’s a dime extra for table service.
“But you made me come back here!”
“It’s a dime extra.”
“Okay, Jader. Okay.”
Jader rang up the half dollar and took the change back. He threw it on the table. Bard said, “The front way is the only way out, huh?”
“Yeah,” he answered and walked away.
He went behind the bar and stood with his fat arms on the bar, looking gloomily across at the old man sleeping. Some of the flavor had gone out of the day with Frank Bard’s arrival. He seldom showed up in the afternoon. It was just damn bad luck that he had to pick that afternoon, Jader thought.
He scowled as he heard the low sound of Bard’s voice. Jader couldn’t imagine why Arthur permitted Bard to come around, in fact, why he seemed amused to have Bard around. It was the type of wry joke that Jader couldn’t savor.
When he heard Bard call him hoarsely, he pushed away from the bar, drew two more ryes and walked slowly back to the booth.
He stood in front of the booth and reached out to set one rye down across from Bard. The big white hand stopped in midair and Jader stared at the ashtray. There were two butts in the ashtray. The tip of one was crimsoned with lipstick. For a moment he thought wildly that he hadn’t cleaned it. And he suddenly remembered Bard’s saying it was clean. The shot glass slipped out of his white fingers and dropped, overturning on the table.
“Where’d that come from?” he said in a high, thin voice.
“The cigarette butt? Jeanie smoked it.”
“Don’t say that!” Jader said wildly.
“Don’t you like women smoking? That’s old fashioned,” Bard said severely.
“Where’d it come from?” Jader demanded again.
“I told you, from Jeanie.” Bard suddenly leaned his dark head over and looked at his shoulder. He chuckled mildly. “She was sitting right beside me here with her head on my shoulder when she smoked it. Look here.” From the surface of the dark blue coat he plucked two long strands of shining gold—held them up.
Jader’s mouth worked and the other glass dropped at his feet.
Bard said, “You see, Jader, you only thought you killed her.” His tone was quiet, as though explaining to a child.
Jader made a strangled noise. His wet eyes widened. “I killed her. She couldn’t … . She couldn’t … .”
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He turned then and looked into Frank Bard’s eyes. His underlip hung away from his teeth and he took a slow step away from the booth. Somehow Bard was in front of him. Jader clenched his white fists and struck blindly. He missed and went off balance as Frank Bard’s thin, dirty fist smashed his mouth. He fell heavily to his hands and knees, going over onto his side as one of the grey, broken shoes landed against the side of his head. One of the white hands lay, as still as lard, against the floor. Frank Bard set his heel on the fingers and swiveled his entire weight, slowly.
He walked quickly to the front door and locked it. The old mas still slept. He went behind the bar and carefully opened the drawer. Allison and Jader were cautious, watchful men—but who suspicions or fears a mad alcoholic? He set six neat packages on the top of the bar, opened the cash register and took a nickel.
“Sergeant Sullivan, Police Headquarters.”
“Sully, this is Frank Bard … don’t interrupt me … I’m at Allison’s Grill on Dorrity Street. I’ve just taken over the joint. Jader confessed to killing Jean Palmray. The angle is that she was trying to do some independent spying to help me along and they got wise and Jader killed her; I think he only meant to stun her. I’ve got a bunch of junk here. Six small packages. Send the boys. And have Arthur Allison picked up out at the track. Yeah.”
He hung up, walked back and looked at Jader. The man was beginning to stir. Bard kicked him in the head again and walked back to the bar. He was suddenly enormously tired. He still held the small golden tube of lipstick in his fist. He slipped it into his pocket.
They wouldn’t take a lush back on the force, even if he had done what he set out to do one year before.
He took a bottle off the back bar and pulled the patent gimmick out of the top of it and tilted it up to his lips. Drunk or sober, he had remembered to pretend that Jeanie had been with him. That was what had counted. The buildup. And after a year of buildup, Jader had cracked wide open. It had been tough, pretending that she was always beside him, looking at him.
He tilted the bottle, and as the sharp liquor filled his mouth, he felt a soft touch on his arm. He spun quickly, spraying the liquor onto the bar.
The old man was still asleep in the booth and Jader was still silent on the floor. The door was locked. In the distance an approaching siren moaned softly. The bottle slid from his nerveless fingers and shattered on the floor.
~ The End ~