zonyx     fiction     zonyx     fiction     zonyx     fiction     zonyx     fiction
    RAT

TAR



A SHORT STORY BY

                 Zonyx Report Celestial Logo:  Go to Index Page Home
          From M'waukee Stories
                                                                                                                               
Life in the 1960s

 

                                CLICK for Frameless View 


      
Strength in his arms and shoulders, gripping the edge of the sink, lifting himself for a second a few inches from the floor.  Hands with their short clean square nails.  Enjoying the feeling.  Donnie Groeling faced the mirror in the small bathroom, fresh from the shower and the mirror still fogged, waiting for it to clear before combing his hair.  Almost-new beltless cuffless black dress pants and a clean T-shirt.
     Through the closed door the faint sound of the radio in his bedroom as he snapped his fingers and shuffled a brief dance step in the steam to Beatnik Fly.  Johnny and the Hurricanes were still turning them out.
     The fog on the mirror cleared as he began carefully combing his wet hair.  Actually almost blond or nondescript brown, it was dark from the soaking and a dose of fresh Vitalis.  The brisk aroma of fresh-shaven men in a barber’s chair floated around.  Maybe he should try the Brylcreem again.  Arranged it and rearranged it, arms growing tired from being up in the air.  Finally he was satisfied with the tangle of curls he had made by pulling the otherwise straight hair down with two fingers over his forehead.
    
He heard the telephone in the living room. 
Then his mother, rapping on the door and:  “It’s for you.”
     It was his old joke, but he continued the ritual:  “Man or beast?”
     “Man, I guess.”
     “Yeah, okay.”  Looking at himself once more, raising his eyebrows in his thoughtful look.
     He picked up to hear Ray Malina:  “So what‘re ya doin’ tonight?”
     “Man, I dunno yet.  I just got up.”  It was late afternoon, but he knew Ray wouldn’t be surprised:  Working a lot on second or third shift they were used to drinking and partying at odd hours.  “I been going out early to Chuck’s with a couple quarts of beer a lot.  Listening to records and shit.  Grant’s been going too, he’s seeing Donna’s sister --  but what do you care, you can’t go out anymore anyways.  Man, it’s been a long time -- ”
      “Yeah, shut up, will ya.  You’ll find out what it’s like when you decide you’re gonna marry some chick -- if she’s like Linda, anyways.  But listen, I can get out tonight, so where ya gonna be later?”
     “Ah . . . I guess I’m goin’ to Castaways, I been hanging out there lately, there and Peanuts’.  Unless I can find somebody that’s havin’ a party, ‘cause man, I can’t afford to sit inna bar all the time -- that forty-nine dollar comp check don’t go very damn far.  ’Specially after you’re used to makin’ a bill a week.”
     “You’re tellin’ me?  Man, I’m getting the same amount of coins you are, and I’m getting married on it.  Christ, I wish we were both back at the can company again.  This summer we didn’t have any worries . . .”
     “Hell,” said Donnie, lowering himself to the fragile-looking phone bench.  “I didn’t tell ya to get engaged.  Nice as she is.  Remember what you said this summer, you said, ‘Play it cool, put in your eighteen weeks and we’ll get laid off and collect our checks this fall and have a ball.’  Well, I’m havin’ a pretty good time, where are you?  In fact, man, I was at this party last night, you shoulda been there – ”
     “Is that where you were?  Linda was mad at me last night, so I figured I might as well go out -- I went up to Castaways lookin’ for ya, and Peanuts’, and all over, only I couldn’t find you, so I got ahold of these guys I used to hang around with from the East Side before I started workin’ at the can company.  You know -- Larry and Rat, you seen ‘em already -- ”
     “Yeah, I know, you invited ‘em over to my house one time when you were drunk.”  He slumped further down on the bench and swung his legs over the blue plush arm of the nearby easy chair.  His mother was off in the kitchen where pans rattled.  He spoke quietly.  “Good thing the old lady didn’t come home.”  She hated that term. 
     “Those’re the guys.  We really went out and got twisted  last night, and talked over old times and stuff like that.  We had a ball, only Rat, he -- well look, I can tell you tonight, only what I meant was, what’re ya doin later tonight?”
     “I’ll probably sit at the Castaways all night and get high.  Chuck’s gotta work tomorrow.  What else is there to do?  Unless I can pick up a broad -- hey man, did I tell ya, me and Grant picked up these two chicks a few weeks ago, one had her old man’s Chrysler, he’s a Wauwatosa alderman -- ”
     “Tell me later.  Look, why don’t you meet me about twelve tonight if you’re not doing anything special.  I can’t spend much money, but we can have a few beers and shoot the shit for a while -- ”
     “How ‘re you gonna get out again tonight?  I thought Linda didn’t let you out at all at night.”  Donnie laughed.  “You ain’t been around hardly at all since we got laid off.”
     “You’re very funny.  I go out, I just gotta be cool, that’s all.  See, I’m gonna take Linda to the drive-in, there’s this movie she wants to see, only I’m gonna take her home early ’cause I’m tired.  Usually she asks my old lady what time I got home, but my old lady ain’t home tonight, my family’s visiting relatives someplace.”  Donnie knew he was still living with his folks in a small basement apartment on the East Side.  The older part, west of Holton Street, more run-down, with more of the recent Mexican and poorer Italian population.
     Donnie shook his head with disgust and shifted the receiver to his left ear.  “Why don’t you just tell Linda you’re goin’ out and she can go to hell if she don’t like it?”
     You know I used to do that, and she’d  start cryin’ and screamin’ and everything, ‘n’ that was bad enough, but the last time I finally got pissed off and punched her out she took off and I couldn’t find her for two days, and I was sick worryin’ about her, and man, she’s gonna have my kid and I wouldn’t want to lose him -- ”
     “All right, all right -- forget it -- none of my business anyway.”
    
Hell, that was true enough, he thought.  He didn’t even know what to do with his own life, and even an old buddy like Ray now seemed remote with his plans for marriage.  People were probably right in telling him he lacked something, responsibility or ambition, but he felt more like an observer and just had fun whenever he could.
     “You’ll find out what it’s like.  You’ll be all in love with some nice girl and she’ll be bossin’ you around, and it’ll be my turn to cut you down.”
     “Maybe, but I doubt it -- the way I figure, a broad wants the guy to tell her what to do, and she’ll keep pushin’ him if he won’t stand up to her.”  Though he spoke with conviction he still envied Ray a little for having someone he could stay close to no matter what.
     “Man, Linda don’t run my life.  I mean, I can see why she don’t want me to go out, or get in trouble, and we gotta save out money for the kid.  And I manage to have my kicks, and drink, ‘n’ all that, only I gotta be careful ’cause I don’t want her mad at me.  ‘N’ we have lots of good times together, too -- I can’t wait ’til we get our own apartment.  I’m gonna settle down and be a regular family man.
     But, I ain’t married yet -- I still gotta have a few good times.  So -- you wanna meet me later on if you ain’t doin’ nothin’?  How about at Peanuts’?  That’s close to Linda’s and it’s cheap there.  I wanna get high, man.”
     The tips of his shoes.  They were new, from when he was still working.  Really pointed.  The color was sharp, a brown called candy-apple.  Stupid name, he thought.  “Yeah, what the hell, a bar is a bar, and there probably won’t be anything else to do anyways.”
     “Okay.  And look, if somethin’ happens and one of us don’t show up, you wanna go lookin’ for jobs Monday?”
     “Are you kidding?  I’d hafta get up in the mornin’, and I ain’t about to do that.”
     “That’s what I figured, you lazy bastard, but I thought I’d ask.  Well listen, I gotta get goin’ now, I gotta pick up Linda, so I’ll see you later at Peanuts’ about twelve.”
     “Sure.  Hey -- I meant to ask ya, about your buddy Rat, how’d he get that name, anyhow?”
     “Rat?  Oh, he -- hey, I told you I seen him last night, didn’t I?
 
Jesus, what a
mess -- ”
     “Yeah, yeah -- that’s what reminded me to ask about it.”
     “Well, look, I gotta get goin’, I’ll tell ya about it
tonight . . . ”
     “Okay, I’ll see ya then, Ray.”
     “So long.”  Black phone back in its cradle.  Standing up, then finished dressing in his bedroom.  Choosing a white shirt because it was Saturday night, and a dark brown, unbuttoned sweater to go with the shoes.  He looked into his wallet and slipped it into his back pocket.
     Past his mother sitting at the kitchen table engrossed in Mrs. Griggs’ advice column in the Green Sheet in the afternoon Milwaukee Journal.  She had started reading it when she had just moved from her father’s little cheese factory near Richland Center and had written her own letter when she was just nineteen and married to Donnie’s alcoholic father.  Some twenty or so years later she was remarried to a divorced vet who put away a lot of beer himself but who never missed work as a machine operator at Cherry-Burrell, though Griggs hadn’t offered any help beyond telling her to be understanding.  Like taking a quart of whiskey to bed every night and hocking all the appliances  -- the toaster was a favorite -- calls for patience, Donnie thought.  But his old lady had figured things out by herself.
    
Then down the long, dark hallway and out.

                                    *          *          *

     The old gray-brick building had probably started out many shades lighter.  But the two stories were grimy, the apartments above -- including that of Peanuts and his wife and two small boys he called Acey and Deucey -- with small, unwashed windows.  Below were the large plate-glass windows, painted over on the bottom three-fourths with thick blue paint, trimmed with white and with white lettering announcing
Cold Six-Paks to Go and Hamburgers.  Above the doorway hung the bright white sign with the Schlitz emblem and block lettering that said Peanuts’ Tap, and Peanuts Herlitz beneath that. 
     Inside, a few hours before closing time the tavern was as noisy as it ever got for a neighborhood place and a Saturday night crowd.  The older workingmen were probably not very far from their flats and duplexes on both sides of 27th Street with its small, tidy lawns, garages and ash boxes lining the alleys found on almost every block.  Mostly roughly dressed, shouting and swearing -- usually because of the rattling dice cup --  but some in uncomfortable suits.  These were usually with their wives who dressed up a bit, even to sit on a bar stool.
     Sometimes groups of younger men:  workers too, or unemployed -- though nearby A.O. Smith Corp. and other factories kept a lot of people working.  The few students  were more careful with their choice of clothes -- white shirts and elaborately patterned vests seemed to be the style lately  A lot of them carried fake IDs manufactured by enterprising students at Boy’s Tech and sold for ten bucks each, or moved from bar to bar as the word spread:  “Man, they’ll serve anybody in that place.”  Peanuts himself didn’t seem to be a highly suspicious type, and Donnie had been drinking there before it was legal.  It still wasn’t for Ray.
    
Meeting as planned, Donnie and Ray drank beer and talked and bowled on the machine, trying to win the six-pack for the day’s high game.  No luck.  Finally just sitting on the bar stools with the cracked red coverings.  Talking.  Smoking.  Drinking as music played.  They both liked Stay by Maurice Williams and anything by Jack Scott or Jackie Wilson, but in this neighborhood it was more likely to be Jim Reeves or Bobby Rydell.  Very little doo-wop, though Finger Popppin’ Time by Hank Ballard and the Midnighters played once in a while.
     “So what about Rat?” Donnie prompted Ray after a while.
     “You should see Rat now.  Is he tore, ever!  His face is all broken out, I get sick lookin’ at him -- he’s really in a bad way . . . ”  Trailing off as he raised his glass, a dime beer.  Not going down easy any more  -- about half before he shuddered a little, almost choking as if the swallow wanted to come back up.
     He caught his breath and rambled on about Rat and the other guys from Riverside High in the old days.  Slurring and stumbling over words -- growing harder to understand, but the beer did its part as he grew misty but re-lived with some joy the really great year.
     Listening, drinking, smoking -- Donnie nodded once in a while. 
     “We used to have some times, man.  It was just before we all got kicked out of Riverside -- Larry Prager looked pretty funny when they dragged him out of study hall in handcuffs, we were stealin’ cars -- we used to cut school almost every day, ‘n’ Larry’d get a car and I’d get some money for gas if we needed it, ‘n’ Rat’d buy the beer,  and we’d drive around all day and drink.”
     A long swallow.
     “We went out at night too, we were all goin’ steady, but we used  to take the chicks home about midnight, then meet at this one tavern where we got served.  The chicks didn’t like that at all, ‘n’ we had to do some pretty good lyin’ to get away with it -- finally the girls caught on to what was happening, and they all hated the other guys for makin’ their boyfriends go out and get into trouble.  Rat got most of the blame, though.”
     Ray smiled with the telling.  He nodded in time to the music from the chromed jukebox of glowing colors and rising bubbles as he clicked a quarter on the bar until Peanuts strolled over.  A short, cheerful man with a short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt hanging over his protruding beerbelly.  The empty glasses were snatched away and replaced with fresh beers.
     Almost delicately Ray sucked the foam down to level with the rim.  “Linda hates Rat.  She thinks he made me go out drinking and picking up ribs" -- his latest word for girls -- "and shit.  Of course, she  knows I don’t hang around with Rat any more, I wouldn’t want to since he changed so much, so she blames you now -- ” 
     “Waaait a minute.  I don’t care if you go out or not.  And I don’t want Linda mad at me, either.  But she can’t be that dumb.”  He thought a bit, picturing Linda Gavigan as he knew her when he and Ray had doubled that summer, at drive-ins in Ray’s Ford that Donnie ended up buying.  She was kind of big, reddish-blonde with a sweet, usually smiling face.  Ray would get high and talk about other girls, all the ones he had made it with, as he told it anyway.  Most of it was probably true, Donnie figured -- Ray was dark and foreign-looking but a small and endearing kind of guy that chicks always wanted to have around them. 
     He would subtly insult Linda with his stories and she’d be slow to react.  Then she’d break into an insane scratching and biting rage: Dirty little wetback with thick lips who should go back to Mexico and live with the alligators . . .
     Of course he had been born in Milwaukee, though his old man wasn't,  but he just laughed at that and earnestly explained he had just been kidding and drew her to him.  “You know I love you.”
     Pinning her arms.  Doggedly pleading, “Do you still love me, Linda babe?  Honey?”  He would beg while she wrestled with him until she was placated and let herself be kissed.  Later they would all drive home with the radio playing loudly and the two of them close with Ray’s hand on her thigh under her skirt to show he still could.  Their relationship always baffled Donnie, and he reflected that Linda was indeed dumb, or at least believed only what she wanted to.  It seemed like the same thing.
     He looked at Ray’s empty glass and drained his own, quickly.  Started to rattle the bottom of the glass on the black bar but decided it wasn’t cool.  Held it up, empty, just enough for Peanuts to notice. 
    
The palm trees and shiny patch of blue sea moved toward them. “Huh,” said Ray, grinning and blowing a big stream of smoke.  “She believes anything I want her to.  She even used to have a crush on Rat, really bad, but she found out what kind of a guy he was, with his drunk record, and sneaking out on his girl all the time.  And ending up in jail.  ‘Course, I did it too, but she don’t know about all the times, and she blames it all on Rat, anyways.  Now that we’re getting married she thinks I’m gonna stay home all the time, I’m different than he is.  Or you.”
     With a thin smile -- but still a smile -- Donnie slid off the red barstool.  “You’re kinda sneaky, aren’t you?”  Shaking his head.
    
He walked to the jukebox, eyes drawn by the bubbles.  Dropping coins and punching in some tunes.  He would have to wait for Lawrence Welk’s Calcutta and a cornpone North to Alaska by Johnny Horton to play, but he found
Play Shirelles Selection YouTube Icon .JPGTonight’s the Night by the Shirelles and a version of Play Zonyx YouTube Selection Icon .JPGAlley-Oop. 
     “Y’know,” Ray started in again, “It’s pretty funny.  Rat used to like Linda a lot and he could never get anyplace, ‘cept for one time when I got drunk and took off from a party with another broad and he had to take Linda home.  We always used to do that -- try and get each other’s girls away.  He’d always leave his girl’s house through the front door and I’d come in the back ‘n’ she’d start takin’ her clothes off.  I had a ball, man!  But I fixed him with Linda, lettin’ her find out what kind of guy he was.  I mean, he’s a great guy, at least he was, but I couldn’t have anybody messin’ around  with my girl.  I wonder what he thinks now that we’re getting’ married.”
     Ray sighed, wobbling on the stool as he hitched it closer so Donnie could hear him.  Noise.  Raucous laughter and music, the rattle of dice spilling out of the leather cup onto the bar.  “But,” he mused, “I saw him last night , the first time since I got engaged, and he looks like he’s about dead.  Man, I can remember when I  thought Rat was about the sharpest guy around.  He was the sharpest guy in jail that one time, I’ll say that.”
     Donnie had to laugh at the casual mention of jail.
     “No, I mean it.  We were all havin’ a ball that night, y’know?  We ended up in jail laughing, and we were just stoned -- a little grass that Larry got, of course -- Rat was so twisted that night, you know what he did?  We were in Ma Fischer’s restaurant there on Farwell earlier, and he thought the jukebox was the can or something, and he was pissin’ on it -- honest to God -- and we had to drag him out of there, and the broad behind the counter was havin’ a fit . . . ”
     Sputtering out beer, they both laughed at the picture, choking.
     “So what’d ya do then?”  Donnie forced himself to speak clearly; he could see Ray was feeling foggy, too.
     “Well.”  Leaning over with his elbow on the bar, resting his chin in his cupped hand, mouth distorted.  “We ended up in jail after drinkin’ all that brew down by the lake, where we went later on.  First we had these skags, see, one knew me from someplace and I didn’t like her so I kinda left her alone in the car.  I had my own car by then, the Ford, and I went down by the water to watch Rat and his girl, Rat didn’t mind.”
     He tapped his cigaret thoughtfully with his forefinger and watched the gray ash float slowly to the floor.  “’N’ then when I got back there was this lipstick all over the car. 
I hate Ray M, and Ray is rotten, stuff like that.  The chick was gone, but we found her later, and we were gonna make her clean off the whole car and then maybe drop her off someplace like way out in Ozaukee County, everybody is dumpin’ dead bodies there anyways . . .”
     Lowering his head, a little ashamed for a moment.  Softly: “W-well, we found that broad, only she was with some other guys, real big guys I wouldn’t want to mess around with.  ‘Course, I might’ve acted different if I hadn’t been so tore outa shape, but what’s a little guy like me gonna do?”
     Looking down at himself a little ruefully, then, amazed:  “But Rat ain’t afraid of nothin’, and he’s even smaller than me.  When he’s high he’ll take on anybody.  We’ll sit in a tavern and he’ll talk queer, just to get guys mad at us.  He starts more fights . . . ”
     Silence.  Lost in thought and thoughts to get lost in.
     Donnie watched through blurring eyes.  Realized he was having trouble focusing.  He darted his eyes to the back bar, the rows and rows of bottles.  A bottle of Rock & Rye with a pale disintegrating quadrant of lemon floating in the liqueur momentarily brought sickening memories of a horrible drunken night.  He could smell again the cough drop odor from when they experimented with shots.  Other than that, he'd never had much rye; nobody he knew did.
     But the label took him back to 1947 when he stayed with foster parents on a farm near Oconomowoc while his mother kept on working after the war as a nurse's aide at the Children's Home.  Tex Ritter's Rye Whiskey had been the first pop record he had really paid attention to on the radio, though Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters were popular first.  He would stop everything and rush to the speaker to listen whenever it was Zonyx Fiction Sound:  DL Ritter .MP3  from Site
played, transfixed.
     Ray’s elbow slipped on the beerslick of the bar.  His cupped chin jarred, he was startled then sheepish for an instant before quickly deciding to grab another beer.  Donnie too forced his down, nodding to Peanuts just before he shouted “Last call for alcohol,” and it was almost time to split.  Palm grove and the beach in front of them again.
     A foamy gulp, dribbling his chin, then remembering.  Rat.  “So listen, when I backed down from fightin’ that stud -- actually I guess I was feelin’ pretty  sick -- Rat twirled with him.  I didn’t see it, I was layin’ in the back seat of the Ford, but Rat cleaned up on him, really wiped him out.”
     A pause for a cigaret drag, then sighing.  “Afterwards, I started feelin’ better, and we went out to celebrate.  Really hit some spots -- we ended up Downtown, really out of our heads . . . I used to be able to drink more than I can now, Rat too.  He can’t drink much at all now, and he used to be able to suck all night.”
     A shake of the head.  “I remember, what was so funny, we were walking down Wells Street, ‘n’ there was this big black beetle on the sidewalk.  Me ‘n’ Larry each said we’d give Rat half a buck if he’d eat it.  Finally, I said I’d give him a dollar, and he ate it, he really did.  I can still see, after he swallowed it there were these long feelers sticking out of his mouth, and he had to lick them off.”
     Donnie grimaced.  He couldn’t quite imagine the scene, but he grinned slightly anyway.  “Christ, you musta’ been high.  So what happened then?  How’d you wind up in jail?  You guys were only about seventeen.  Not,” he added, lowering his voice and glancing at the white cardboard sign, black-lettered, Scotch-taped above the cash register:

                                      If you ARE NOT 21
                                    DON’T GO AWAY MAD
                                          JUST GO AWAY

“. . . that nineteen is old either, but they’re not supposed to keep you there if you’re not eighteen, not downtown in the regular crowbar hotel.”
     “Yeah, nineteen and I’m gonna be married in a couple weeks -- and a father in a little while longer.  But anyway, the fuzz got us Downtown on the Avenue, but we only got busted for bein’ drunk, ‘cause we all had fake IDs.  Well listen, about Rat, we were in jail -- singin’ and yellin’ ‘n’ everything, real happy -- and you wouldn’t think it now, but Rat was about the best lookin’ cat there.  He had on this real excellent shirt, and dress pants -- y’know?  Real sharp.  His hair was combed real nice, even though he was drunk.  He was the best out of all of us, I think. 
     “Even Linda used to think so, he was one of the two guys that made out with her since I met her.”
     Donnie’s slight frown was thoughtful.  Funny how Ray could mention a guy’s looks a lot.  Nobody else would.  He didn’t pretend to be a fighter, but being small and cute got him a lot of pussy so guys who knew him never thought he was queer and liked to have him around as the charmer.  It was guys like Donnie -- a little bigger, enough to look like a respectable challenge -- that got pushed around by the tougher guys out to prove something.  He hoped the factory work, the grind of stacking cases of empty cans coming off the line at a relentless pace onto the wooden pallets, always needing to be pulled from the stack and dragged, at least helped build him up, stamina or something.
     Ray was looking pleased.  “I think he still likes her.  He denies it, but he always kept tryin’ to make out with her when I wasn’t around.  Now we’re getting’ married -- too bad for Rat.  Too bad for me, too.”
     The smile left the face of white teeth and olive skin.  “If it was anybody else but Linda I’d have left town a long time ago -- down to Mexico or someplace for a while.”  From beer drunks and wine drunks and pussy to today's trap -- the passing bewilderment was visible in his eyes. 
     “But I couldn’t leave Linda.  I really love her, ‘n’ man, I couldn’t stand to think of anybody else touchin’ her.”
     He shrugged and picked up his beer, relaxing again.  Though half Mexican, the Italian part was evident too, the black, curly hair, but he didn’t look out of place in the bar in the mostly German and Polish neighborhood.  The lower East Side and the Third Ward were full of Italians, and even the Irish could be dark.  So much of everybody was mixed, anyway, like Pat and Freddy Leibl back on the block, half-Irish but with beefy Pat having a huge round face topped with red hair, while Freddy's was dark-brown and curly.  Even Donnie's mother said how cute he was.  He'd heard Pat was getting married and trying for the police department; he wondered how the bride would feel about the tiny four-inch dick he was supposed to have. 
    
Going back again to the wild times:  “Anyway, about Rat.  He was pretty sharp once, but he isn’t anymore, though.  When I saw him last night he looked wasted, man.”  The puzzled look flashed over him again, and the look of feeling sorry for his old buddy.
     The smoke had been rising and layering for hours in the soon-closing bar.  The crowd, diminished but still going strong in clumps, was still loud and Donnie’s eyes were burning and a dull ache beginning to pulse in his head as he looked at the littered floor and up again as a frenetic instrumental took over.  Play YouTube Selection: Perfidia, VenturesPerfidia, by the Ventures. 
     “What’s wrong with Rat now?”  Prodding Ray with his free hand.  “How come you don’t hang around with him any more?”
     “You remember him, don’t you?  Ya remember that night this summer when nobody was home at your house, your parents went to the lake or somethin’?  I brought Larry and Rat over here and we went to your pad?”
     “I remember all right.  That was the night you told us you were gettin’ married.  Man, you were twisted that night, ‘n’ you were gonna fight Rat ‘cause he was cuttin’ you down about getting’ married.  Both you guys were outta your minds.”
     Donnie thought back.  Crazy night.  Ray had called, told him to meet at Peanuts’ after he got rid of Linda, about one o’clock.  Ray showed up with buddies Larry and Rat, half-drunk already, celebrating the engagement, and he couldn’t pass up an opportunity like Donnie’s open pad -- so he had stopped someplace on the East Side on the way over, and there was another car with seven chicks and two guys on its way over to Donnie’s place.  He hadn’t been thrilled with the idea, he didn’t want the house busted up by Ray’s strange friends, but after a few more drinks at the bar he went along with the idea, and they left for the house.  Things turned out cool, though.  Ray had probably given them fucked-up directions and nobody else stopped in.  Thank God.
     “I probably remember a lot better than you do.  Hell, after we got you and Rat broke up and back to the poker game, you were so drunk you couldn’t see the cards.”
     He smiled,  recalling how they had started calling him Ray T. Malina -- T. for twisted -- and kidded Ray:  “Good thing you didn’t drown when you passed out in the can.  Remember how Rat had to come in and get you and carry you to the couch?”
     “Good old Rat did, huh?”  Ray dropped a cigaret butt to join the others on the grimy floor beneath the barstool, crushed it, one foot resting on a chrome rung.  “What a night that was.  Nah, I didn’t wake up ‘til you got back that mornin’.  I never did find out, just what in the hell did you guys do then, anyhow?  I know you had my car.  Fuckers.”
     “That’ll teach ya.  Hell, we went peggin’ up and down the Avenue.  Christ, your buddy just about got us killed.  He was draggin’ this Mercury down by the War Memorial ‘n’ just about missed the turn.  Man, he was worse off than you were, really stoned, ‘n’ drivin’ like he didn’t give a damn.’  Shrugging.  “Well, we were all pretty high, ‘n’ it was kicks, but I thought we were gonna get it one way or another.”
     Donnie rubbed his face with both hands, wiping away layers of fogginess, breathing out slowly.  Heavily.  “Your car’s sure got a nice set of pipes.  Sure did sound tough when Rat was rackin’ ‘em off.”  A sly look towards Ray:  “I guess those kinda days are over for you, huh?”
     You couldn’t help but notice the long lashes, the big brown eyes glistening even on the verge of stupid-drunk, looking back.  “Oh -- I’ll guess I’ll manage to have a few kicks yet.”  Thick voice, trouble with the words.  He took a long swallow of beer.  “Gah,”  he said, draining the glass.  “I mean, like I’m only nineteen, and Linda’s gonna hafta get used to this idea of me goin’ out.  I know how to handle her.”  He hitched a foot under the rung of the barstool and pulled it closer to the bar. 
     Donnie watched him for a moment, then shrugged.  Leaning forward with both elbows on the bar.  Mouth dry, fuzzy in spite of the beer -- because of the beer, actually, he knew.  After too much drinking and smoking he always felt rotten, and it was about as near to closing time as it could get.  The crowd had mostly drifted off -- clearing the view to the back room where they sometimes drank beer and played poker till six in the morning or so after second shift -- and without them the loudly echoing jukebox took on a mocking tone.
         Remembering they had been talking about Rat.  “So,” he said to Ray who had developed a fascination with the foam clinging to the bottom of his glass.  “You were tellin’ me what bad shape Rat’s in.  When I seen him he seemed pretty sharp, seemed like a nice guy.  ‘Course, he seemed to go a little nuts, and that stuff about him and all his women was slightly too much, but even so . . . ”
     Ray shifted.  “It was probably true.”  He started to tip over but caught himself, pounding  rapidly down on the floor with one foot.  He smirked.  “Oh,” he went on, gesturing vaguely, “He’s just tore, that’s all.  It’s from drinkin’ too much or somethin’ -- shit, he takes home a case of beer every night, Larry says, and drinks it by himself.  He’s livin’ by himself in this cruddy room down on Wells Street.  He’s got bleeding ulcers or somethin’, it hurts to drink anything but beer, and he coughs blood.  He’s wasted, man -- his face is just terrible, ‘n’ he’s got this ugly-lookin’ brush haircut.
         “Me ‘n’ Larry don’t like to go out with him any more, he looks so beat, ‘n’ he always wants to take on everyone in the whole bar -- even me.”  Bewilderment again.
     “He used to be such a great guy.”
     Donnie emptied the inch of pale-yellow beer that had been sitting in front of him getting warm and stale.  “That’s too bad.”  But Rat’s trouble didn’t seem that mysterious -- he wondered why Ray didn’t see it.  But then he couldn’t really understand what made Rat the way he was, or Ray either.  He closed his eyes for a long moment, rubbing the back of his neck.  At least he always had some sense of restraint in his own life.  Starting college at UWM as he was planning -- the only one of the bunch -- meant he had some goals.
     “Hell, let’s get out of here, he’s closin’ anyway.  I feel like a piece of shit.”
     Ray nodded slowly and yawned, sliding off the barstool.  He moved stiffly toward the door, Donnie behind him, also staggering but both controlling it well.  They glanced back at Peanuts, the Germanic flat-top cut and white scalp shining through under the turned-on house lights, and his “See ya, boys,” making casual waves.
     That called for Donnie’s usual, indistinct “So long now, Penis” as they left.
     Near the door Donnie’s eyes were caught again by a bright multi-colored cardboard parrot near the potato chip rack, perched with yellow beak grinning on a sign:


                                 You Must Be Twenty-One
                                      Before You Can Say Corby’s

     “Corbyscorbyscorbys,” he muttered, his private grin also a little sneer over sessions gone by when they both made it in by luck and bluff.
     They stood in front of the empty tavern for a moment on the broad quiet street lined with darkened houses, only a bus in the distance though a few cars started up from the curbs and pulled away. Brittle leaves caught by the rising whipping wind scurried through yellow-cone rays of the headlights, like scampering mice.  Donnie breathed deeply in the suddenly chill air -- it was fresh but he shivered and buttoned his sweater.
     “Well,” Ray said, “I guess I better get going.  I gotta take Linda to early mass in the mornin’.”
     Donnie shuddered at the thought, almost imperceptibly, but his mind drew an uncomprehending nothing.  How in the hell did those Catholics do it?  At least he didn't believe in that bullshit, though his mother had sent him to the nearest Lutheran Church.  “Yeah, well, we’ll hafta get together again, man.  Be good!”
     “Sure, I’ll call ya -- you know how Linda is.  Be cool,” he added in the way he always said it, his voice rising with the last word in comic emphasis and drawing it out: Cooool.  He crossed the street  to his car.
     Donnie stood there a moment longer as the sign above and the lights within the tavern flicked off, dizzy and the saliva rushing into his mouth, trying to keep the beer from rising to his throat.  But it was a visceral boot, and the involuntary rapid swallowing cooled his flushed face and calmed his stomach and brought a glorious peace and calmness for the moment. 
     Down the sidewalk, carefully making his way, one dirty white concrete square after another.  Lit from above in pale circles from lights on tall bare metal poles.  Reaching the side of his car, reflection gleaming on the polished but dusty hood from the red light at the intersection flashing red, flashing red.  City stillness just before the dawn.

                            *          *          *

     Donnie was home shortly after two o’clock closing time at Castaways on Friday night.  By the time he was in the house, dark and silent, his parents asleep behind a solidly closed door off the kitchen, the exultant feeling from sitting at the bar listening to the guys talking about the fights they looked for and found in the out-of-town minor-bars had gone.  He remembered his last drive to the country when
Wyler’s and This Old House had been full of girls jamming the dance floor under the blue lights and a chick singing “A Thousand Stars” with the band like Cathy Young.  Sheriff’s deputies right on the floor to keep the peace while some guys stalked the floor with beer bottles held backhanded, like clubs.  Ray had been chased down once in the parking lot by belligerent farm boys and hid in a car while some chicks had stood in their path saying, “Go!  Leave him alone!”
     But now he was only hungry.
     He quietly found the makings of a sandwich, Oscar Mayer baloney, cutting a slice of Velveeta and fishing a warty midget dill pickle from the Milwaukee’s Pickles jar.  Pouring a glass of milk.  Flinching with guilt as he fumbled and the refrigerator door slammed shut.  Eating, he realized he had forgotten how great food could taste sometimes, how he used to drink lots of milk when he was trying to gain weight to get on the football team and poured another glass, even though with the lifting weights and not smoking during the layoff he was bulking up and even starting to get a belly.
     He flopped on the bed, three o’clock showing on the black-and-gold Baby Ben.  A graduation present from his mother three years ago, with the pointed remark that it would help him get up and look for a job.  Comfortable and touching the edges of sleep and strange tableaus flashing as he turned over under the mounded covers momentarily opening his eyes -- used to the dark -- to see the light gray rectangles of the windows on the other side of the room.
     Then it was all shattered:  Insistent buzz of the doorbell.  Penetrating as he  grabbed his bathrobe and found his slippers and stumbled out the kitchen door to the downstairs hall swearing while hoping it wasn’t one of his friends making the racket.
     “Man,” said Ray when Donnie unlocked the door.  “You gotta help me celebrate.”  He waved a quart of Heaven Hill whiskey in Donnie’s sleepy face.  “We hooked three of ‘em off the back bar at Johnnie’s.  Let’s go,” he pleaded.  “We’re gonna get drunk -- be a buddy!”
     Decisions.  Donnie stood frozen for a moment.  He hadn’t seen Ray since that night at Peanuts’.  A wild party in the middle of the night?  Why not, except that he was tired and for the moment had enough of drinking.
     “Like how many times do I get married?  You’re coming.”
     Shrugging.  “In a minute,” he mumbled.  Waking up, going back up the stairs, realizing Ray was following him. 
     “Jeez, I gotta go to the can,” Ray whispered.
     Back in the upstairs flat Donnie felt crowded by the other’s presence in the dimness.  He went to the bedroom to dress, first urging Ray -- after he lurched and sent a pot clattering from the sink -- to shut up.  Hurriedly dressing and quickly into the bathroom to run some cold water to splash on his face.  Combing his hair.
     “Let’s go.”  He stepped out into the dark kitchen, clicking off the bathroom light.  “I’m pretty dry.”
     “I’m hip, man.”  They made it to the door without much sound.
     Rumbling at the curb of the silent, narrow side street the unfamiliar Buick convertible that he made out to be yellow seemed to be impatiently pausing as they burrowed in.  “Larry’s car,” Ray explained, tilting his head at the figure, obscure in the darkness, hunching over the wheel and shifting.  The burst of the muffler made Donnie cringe for the neighbors, but Ray was oblivious:  “All my old buddies’re  gonna get drunk with me tonight.”
     Slumping in the back, Donnie heard the clinking and rattling sounds from the front seat before Ray turned towards him with what turned out to be a whiskey and sour in a large, floral-design glass from someone’s kitchen, ice cubes tinkling as it slopped a little when the car slowed for a stop sign, then barreled away.  “We got the works, boy.”
     “Ice cubes, even!  Christ, that’s all right.”  Then, suspiciously:  “Where did you . . .  you didn’t . . . "  as Ray gleefully held up the metal tray with its attached lever. 
     "Hell, you can take the tray home when you go.”
     “I better.  My old lady’ll bitch at me if I don’t.  Stay out of our refrigerator,” he added.  “She’s not very happy about me the way it is -- all that stuff about me not working, even though I am getting the comp money.  So I get paid to sleep and go out, what difference . . . ”
     “Shut up and drink -- get high.”  Thinking for a moment, then adding, “For tomorrow I die.”  A chuckle, but -- after a swallow from the quart -- continuing:  “Wish we could afford to have a reception tomorrow, though.”  Another swallow.  Then, earnestly, as if to leave no misunderstanding:  “But, I’m glad I’m getting’ married, though, she’s a wonderful girl.  I never liked anyone else since I met her.”
     Another sip from the bottle, turning again toward Donnie.  “Drink up” he ordered.  “I mean, I don’t know what you think, but I think she really looks nice when she wants to, I mean really excellent.”
     Donnie nodded.  Linda was pretty.  What could he say?  He looked out the windshield at thick white snowflakes falling and swirling, an infinite number caught by the headlights in a porous, shifting wall between the moving car and the remote-looking houses.  Isolated from them even more by the late-winter snow.
     “How’re ya doin there?” Ray was asking. 
     “Yeah, I’m tryin’.  Where we goin’, anyway?”
     The Buick fishtailed slightly around a slippery corner.  “Rat’s pad,” Ray answered, swaying.  ‘It’s the only place we could think of.  Rat won’t mind.  Long as we give him somethin’ to drink.  Hell, we used to be good buddies, ‘n’ I’m getting’ married tomorrow.”
     “I thought he could only drink beer.”
     “Hell, I tried to think of someplace to get some beer, but it’s too late.  Oh well, tough.  He’ll let us in, though.”
     The car moved on and they reached Rat’s rooming house off Juneau Avenue near Marquette University.  A large old mansion with many gables and a broad porch, set back from the street on a hill like all the houses, where they glided in, crunching snow, to the curb.  Most of them cut up into apartments.  Few lights showing that early in the morning.
     The front door was unlocked and they clomped past a hall table with a few pieces of mail on it, up a long flight of worn wooden stairs -- one dim overhead light bulb -- and down a narrow hallway lined with fresh, thin plywood from a recent partitioning.
     Behind Donnie came Larry.  Small, like Ray, even lithe-looking -- with similar curly hair -- almost delicate and very careful about his clothes but still seeming aggressive, maybe easily violent, and deliberately masculine.  Motherfuckin’ this, cocksuckin’ that.  Donnie could see how he was bait to the queers he preyed on, that he bragged about taking for a lot of money before he got married himself and got a job.  He’d let himself be picked up and taken to nice apartments to be gobbled -- when he couldn’t just steal or coerce or cajole the cash from the aging fags.  And they still wrote him and Ray -- who often went along, though he said he never let himself be blown -- passionate letters, sometimes from jail.
     Larry and Ray and a brief conversation in the doorway.  Rat in his underwear, yawning as they whispered, with Donnie leaning against the grimy plaster wall back in the shadows.
     “Just take it easy, huh?”  Rat asked listlessly as they entered.  “I mean, anything goes here, but you gotta be quiet about, this late.” 
     A bare room, with smooth wooden floors almost gray from lack of polish, and a few pieces of scarred furniture:  table, chairs, dresser. The old double bed with its dingy gray sheets had a definite sag and scraped metal against metal when Rat sat down on its edge.
     Donnie first looked around critically but everyone generally ignored the furnishings, trying to have a good time.  Ray moved to the battered dresser where he had dumped the sacks of bottles and glasses and the ice cubes.  He mixed drinks, and the momentary unease passed.  The radio, tuned to music on WOKY, played almost unnoticed in the background until Ray twisted the volume knob louder for a moment to the sound of Zonyx Fiction Sound:  DL Gene Pitney .MP3 Gene Pitney:


            Yes we're gonna lift the world and all of its troubles
          Go right on spinning by
          We're gonna build one dream upon another
          Clear up to the sky


          Cause I wanna
          Love my life away
          I wanna love my life away
          I wanna love, love, love
          Love my life away with you -ooh ooh

     “Cool,” he said,” but Rat reacted quickly:  “Jesus, keep it down,” grabbing for the knob.
         Talking and getting drunker -- Rat quiet and sober -- they kidded Ray about his honeymoon.  He and Linda were staying in Milwaukee for the weekend.  “Man, like I told Linda, all I can say is that I hope the motel’s got a good television set, that’s all I’m interested in any more.”  They smiled a bit, knowing Linda was very pregnant.
     Ray, scrawny and shaky as Donnie had expected, his once clean-lined face blotchy and puffy, choked down some Heaven Hill but gave up when his stomach began to hurt.  He grimaced and lay down on the bed, though Larry and Ray tried to cheer him up and offered some mixer. 
     “Say, Ray,” he mumbled, then sat up.  “I gotta joke for ya.  There was this airplane flyin’ across the ocean, see, and a motor conked out.  So the stewardess comes back and tells the passengers the plane is too heavy now, three of ‘em will hafta sacrifice their lives to save the rest by jumpin’ out.  So an Englishman gets up and says, ‘There’ll always be an England,’ and jumps out.  Then a Frenchman stands up and says, ‘Vivé la France,’ and jumps out.  Then a Texan gets up and yells, ‘Remember the Alamo,’ and pushes out a Mexican.”
     They laughed, though Donnie knew he had heard it before. 
    
“That’s pretty good, I’ll hafta remember that,” Ray said.  He made some more drinks, strong enough to be amber colored.  The ice cubes and soda were almost gone.  Donnie took his and moved to a wooden chair that had Rat’s good pants draped neatly over the straight back, next to the one window where the aluminum-painted radiator hissed.  He put out his hand and toyed with the round black knob, warm and cracked.
     “I’m gonna get some sleep -- I’m supposed to be at the tannery in a couple hours.”  Rat passed his hand through his scrubby bristling hair.  “Congratulations, Ray.”  He stretched out on the bed in the pants he had pulled on.
     They shrugged and ignored him, drinking a little more until Ray, rocking back and forth on the floor declared, “What this party needs is some chicks, man . . . one last hump, ‘fore I settle down . . . "  and passed out, slumping over on the bare board floor at the foot of the bed.
     They looked at each other, nodding and grinning a little.  “Let’s go,”  Larry whispered.  Feeling sly but knowing his own legs were feeling kind of rubbery, Donnie lurched to his feet after Larry and followed him as quietly as possible out of the hushed room as more gray light came through the smudged window.  Escaping steam from the radiator sizzled, rattling the wooden knob.
     Lumbering down the stairs they chuckled a little, feeling slightly guilty.  “Be pretty funny if neither one of ‘em wakes up in time and Ray misses his own wedding,” Larry said.
     “Maybe Rat’ll get up and leave him there.”  They did not turn back.
     They climbed in Larry’s car -- parked at the curb for longer than was legal, but no ticket anyway -- and Donnie leaned back in the seat as he was being driven home, closing his eyes tiredly against the reddish rays of the sun glinting and slashed by bare trees between the houses.  The new snow from the night before had almost vanished, much of it melting as it fell, pounded to slush and congealing in the gutters, leaving the dirt-crusted heaps of old snow lining the sidewalks.  The sun, falsely warm through the car window, fell on his face.  As he had many mornings, he decided he didn’t give a damn if the sun rose or not.


                          *          *          *  

     It was a few months until he met Ray at Peanuts’again.  The first time since Ray got married.

     At least now he had someone he could say liked him, that he didn’t have to chase, even if she was still in high school.  So she couldn’t go out with him to bars like Peanuts’, but they could park in his car by the lake when she could get out at night, or hang out at Chuck and Donna’s place on the North Side where his buddy had moved when he got married.
     He told Ray about meeting Lorri at the counter of the new little restaurant a few blocks from his house where they made hamburgers dripping with butter and he first learned about a California burger.  It was a Saturday afternoon and she was just walking around and he ended up giving her a ride home -- where she told him to call her, jotting her number on a scrap of paper.
     After that they dated, though she seldom was free at night and he had plenty of time – too much -- to bop around to various dives, still hoping for some real sex even if he did miss her while sitting alone with his beer.  Since she was underage he would fleetingly think it would be better if he found someone else, but he would deal with whatever happened if the time came.
     For now he would have to settle for the handjobs, mostly during the daylight hours, while Ray never seemed to be without a chick willing to fuck -- even if he had to get married to get the one he really wanted.  And she was knocked up, besides.  Not a situation Donnie wanted for himself, at least for a long time.  Still, s
ometimes he remembered far back to Peckham Junior High School when his best friend Dewey Duschek had something new to claim his interest and he could be smug about Joanna Diener, a girl that suddenly had a crush on him and sent him notes and met him after school -- he implied that she let him feel her bare tits – and Donnie wondered why he didn’t have anybody who cared what he did or where he went.  He fantasized about sex and jerked off, but thought it would be nice just to have someone to make him feel important the way Dewey did.  At least Ray with his sneaking around could feel he had someone who cared.  But it would be a long time, and then it would be because he made the moves and at least could get some dates.

     So he envied Dewey..
They had been throwing darts in the orderly basement then, next to the squarish laundry sinks, the only spot Dewey’s mother would let his friends play in the house -- Donnie had been awed by the immaculate rooms with the well-groomed plants upstairs that looked unused, even though his own mother was always given to cleaning, even using a toothbrush on the baseboards, though if she came across an object like a coin or hairpin on the floor and her hands were full she would absently hold it in her lips while she kept going.
    
And as they competed in the cellar they had talked about getting laid and how Donnie hoped to manage it by the time he turned 16.  In the background the radio played the Top Forty records of the day, stirring Donnie with Tony Bennett’s rendition of Play Tony Bennett [from 1953 "Kismet"]Stranger in Paradise, the full-bore male vocal with swelling choral and orchestral enhancements rousing inchoate emotions he scarcely recognized, as much pop music did.
     It did seem odd that they were no longer buddies, but Donnie had gone to work while Dewey had started college right away, and they had lost touch.
  Now, sitting at the bar with Ray and wishing he could be drinking there with Lorri -- or her older, more sexually accomplished double -- he dipped a little fuzzily in and out of the conversation.  So he learned that Rat had somehow gotten up in time to go to work -- the  alarm clock must have been set -- waking Ray before he left. 
     They sat in the bar, just like old times, laughing about it.  It was a night for the beer to taste good, and they dropped coins in the jukebox.  The baby had been born at County General several months ago.  “She wanted to name it after my old lady, Maria, but I told her I wanted to call her Linda, and she couldn’t do nothin’ about it.”
     A pause.  “Man, I had it made when she was in the hospital.”
     No surprise that Ray was going out on his wife.  “I like to hump, man.”  He beat on the bar with the flat of hand for a few notes in time to a record.  “I  love my wife, but it’s got nothin’ to do with her.  ‘N’ if  I get tired of the same old hair pie every night or go out with the guys once in a while, what’s wrong with that?  A guy’s gotta have some fun in life -- I’m too young to settle down.”
     Donnie rested the empty beer glass on the bar.  “I suppose,” he joked, “that you don’t mind if Linda gets a little on the side, too?”
      Ray stared at him.  “Man, I catch anybody screwin’ my wife, I’ll shoot his nuts off.  So I'm a little guy -- I'll borrow your gun.  She’s my wife, man.”
     He was talking about the .25 automatic they knew Donnie had stolen a long time ago from his aunt's house after his uncle the detective had died and he uncovered it in the bedroom dresser one night -- hoping to find a sex manual -- when he stayed over.  Not that he would otherwise steal from his aunt, but the lure of the gun when he was a skinny high school kid always getting beat up was irresistible. 
     Donnie looked back for a moment.  "I don't think so."  Leaving no doubt, though he figured it was just drunk talk anyway.
    
And there was no point in dwelling on the obvious unfairness, so he shrugged it off.  Over by one wall of the tavern a pinball machine bong-bong-bonged  and flashed bright lights and the old lady playing it screamed and shuffled a drunken little dance, polka-dotted blue shiny dress clutched above the knees in one hand, showing fat white legs laced with tiny blue veins.
     “There we were,” a man in a faded garage-man’s coveralls and red hunter’s cap said loudly to his companion down the bar, a sloppy bespectacled hulk in a blue Pepsi-Cola uniform, “drunker’n seven bags of shit . . . ”
     Probably one of them belonged to the pinball lady, Donnie thought.  Now there’s a future for you.  At the same time Ray was looking around with distaste and boredom.  “Let’s go to this tavern by Rat’s pad for a while, they got a good band in there, ‘n’ Rat and Larry’ll probably be there.”
     Donnie glanced up, surprised.  “You seein’ Rat and Larry again?  I thought you weren’t gonna hang around with Rat any more.”
     “When I get a chance, I do.  They’re good guys, man.  We used to have lots of good times together -- ‘n’ Rat straightened himself out now, he’s all right.  He can be pretty sharp when he takes care of himself.”
     “Yeah, I guess so.”  Donnie mused a bit over news of Rat’s recovery.  Being young meant you could get over just about anything. “Well, that’s great . . . you know I never did get that ice cube tray back, you bastard, and my old lady’s always bitchin’ about it.” 
     Ray had the sensitivity to look sheepish.  “Well, let’s split then. You can talk to Rat about it tonight.  Or I’ll buy ya one, someplace.”
     Donnie got to his feet.  “Let’s make it.”  Feeling light and happy enough with the beer, he wanted to keep it going.  It didn’t always work.  “These places where all these old people come to cash their social security checks get me sick.”
     They drove quickly to The Night Beat.  “What the hell,” Ray shouted as they passed a car on 27th Street near Vliet.  “You can’t lose your license if you haven’t got one.”
     The bar was packed with a younger crowd, though mostly looking in their thirties or so.  A rock ‘n’ roll band was playing, as expected, and they handed over the cover charge after exchanging looks and shrugging.  With the wailing and blasting, the walls shook and the floor trembled with the bass notes as they stood near the doorway surveying the scene.  Weaving close to the spot where Rat and Larry sat, they grabbed the cold bottles of beer Rat passed to them and drank, making brief remarks over the din.  Then drifting off again into the crowd.  Donnie was determined to look for girls, or at least look at the ones that might look back at him.  Of course, there were mostly couples, or chicks in a bunch at the tables.
     But he couldn’t get over the change in Rat.  He had let his hair grow long again, black and combed and glistening in the dim light from the red and yellow and blue neon tubing that ran around the bottles with chrome pour-tops lined up on the back bar.  Wearing a freshly-ironed shirt sport shirt with a pattern of small checks, buttoned neatly at the throat but with the cuffs folded exactly twice on his forearms. 
     As Donnie watched from a distance, leaning against a post at the edge of the dance floor, Rat said something to the harried, sweating bartender, who laughed and handed him a shiny green bottle of 7-Up.
    “Hey,” Donnie said to Ray, by that time standing at his side with a beer bottle in his hand.  “You never did tell me, how come you guys call him Rat?”
    A frown.  Ray thinking back.  “I dunno,” he said finally.  “Rat is really Art, thass all.  Arthur, but his family usually called him Art.  Long as I’ve known him, most of us guys had nicknames -- I was usually Pancho.  ‘S’funny, actually, he’s not really ratty or anything.”
     “Hmmm.”  Nicknames were strange, he knew.  At the factory even the colored night foreman named Cliff Smith was called Shmitty, like a German.  He’d only seen Smitty in a book.  And a guy named Sanek was sometimes called Snake by his buddies at the factory.  Then, remembering, he started towards the bar again to find out about the ice cube tray as long as he had the chance.  But Ray punched him lightly in the back and beckoned him close again.  The band vibrated the whole room and smoke eddied thickly above their heads.
     “See that broad?”  He tipped his head towards a large blonde in a tight green knit dress sitting on a stool facing them and the band, holding a drink in her hand on her lap.  She smiled widely at her girlfriend next to her, saying something, and lifted her glass to her shiny red mouth.  She shifted on the barstool, widening the space between her knees so the tight cloth strained against the hefty thighs.  Chunky calves, bare and white, but the slender ankles made it all right, Donnie thought.  But she was a large one, reminding him of Linda.  And not too old. 
    
“Man, what I wouldn’t give to have a go at her,” said Ray.
     They moved together closer to the woman until Ray stopped.
    
“Hell,” I ain’t even gonna try -- I know I could never satisfy her, she’s got thighs like a horse.  She’d probably laugh at me.”  He raised the bottle and started chugging, then pulled it away from his lips with a moist, smacking sound that slipped through with a lull in the din.
     Is that what it comes down to? Donnie wondered.  Hell, there must be some way of working it out.  And he felt big enough, especially when he was getting a handjob from Lorri, though he needed a chance to prove it.
    
“She’s too tall for me, anyways.”
     Donnie wondered if Linda had been cutting him down again the way she did sometimes even when the guys were around, hinting that he wasn't always getting it up.  He'd even acknowledged it once:  Hell, if she'd try something different once in a while -- there's more'n one way of doin' it . . . 
    
But Donnie kept watching, fascinated, hoping he could make conversation.  “Hell, she’s just my size,” he said with a confidence he felt he had to show.  Wild ideas of burying his face between those two rounded peaks, wobbling around after he got them naked, as he moved through the crowd.  Even snapping his fingers absently to the frenzied beat of the band while his brain seemed to float somewhere above him, detached, observing his numbed body throbbing to the saxophone’s notes seeming dished out by the bucketsful and the lead and rhythm guitars cut the air into ribbons that had his backbone quivering.
     She turned to him as he reached her, ginger-colored hair in some sort of twist at the back with tendrils poking out, and she wasn’t that cute, but cute enough.  Her slight, purplish acne scars were mostly old and fading, and he liked her wide mouth.
 

                          *          *          *

     A week later the sunlight reflected whitely from the fresh snow on the sloping roof of the house a few feet from Donnie’s bedroom window, across from the icicles like upside-down ice castles hanging from the gutter.  Waking, he blinked and squinted against the noon light, getting up to pull the shade down like he should have the night before.  Already feeling the coming hangover he tried to put it off by going back to sleep, trying to think of pleasant things like the girl he had met that night, the tight green dress and then last night the feel of her tit in his hand.  Her name was Claudia, and she had only taken his phone number, to call him in a few days to meet him at her corner bar, but she had turned out to be married -- her husband was some sort of drunken Indian, he gathered, who let her go out as long as she didn’t fuck anybody -- and she had stopped him when he tried to get under the skirt hiking up over her legs.
     She had just lost a lot of weight, she said, mostly by taking speed, and she deserved to get out, and she even had a little grass in her purse that they smoked in her tiny clay pipe with Indian markings on the bluff at South Shore Park, overlooking the lake.  But that was it, and he soon took her to her flat on Pearl Street.
     On the way a squad stopped them for driving over a curb, the cop said, though they all knew it was a crock, but he managed to hide the beer can he was holding and promise to do better.
     So he didn’t even want her to call as long as that was the deal, but the nicely full breast with the prominent nipple under the loose bra stayed in his mind -- the only thing like it other than Lorri's he had felt for a long time -- as he tried to drift off and maybe dream about her, but something disturbed him, kept bothering him as he tried to relax, and he realized:  It was the ice cube tray.  He had forgotten the goddamn ice cube tray that night.
     He swore and tried to sleep, but he was wide awake.  His mother was running the vacuum cleaner, and he gave up and swung his legs out of bed.  Somehow his slippers had gotten poked far underneath and his headache doubled its intensity when he had to lean way under the frame.  He decided to call Ray and tell him to get the damn thing as soon as he had the chance.
     A young girl’s voiceLinda’s sister was telling him Ray had found a job.  “Linda is shopping and I’m watching the baby,” she said proudly.  “Is there any message?”
     “Forget it.”  He hung up, knowing he hadn’t anything better to do, he might as well get the motherfucker himself right now.  Rat, he knew, after getting fired from the tannery had found a new job working third shift, and slept days.
     While he washed and dressed his mother scrambled some eggs that he didn’t really feel like eating; his stomach was upset from the night before and he just craved liquid.  He gulped down a large, cold glass of orange juice and left for Rat’s apartment.
     The upper hallway of the decrepit house was empty and dusty and his steps reverberated.  He hesitated in front of the door looking at the brass numeral 5 -- after all, he was Ray’s buddy, he didn’t really know Rat -- hoping there would be a beer around.  Even if it was warm, though there was a windowsill to use.  He was about to knock when he heard Rat’s voice over the muted music from the radio inside, a rock ‘n’ roll tune.  It was like movie dialogue, but really just a playful, mocking version:  “Put down that quart of beer, bitch, or I’ll hafta beat that ass.  Especially as bare as it is.  Cute, though.” 
      More muffled, growled words were followed by giggling and the unmistakable whack of a hand on naked flesh and a shriek.
    
“Don’t!” the female implored while laughing at the same time.  “I’ll be good, I’ll do anything you want me to.”  Another screech, followed by whispering, muted even more by the closed door.  Then the metallic bed sound made by the pair settling down.  At first, it sounded like some birds chirping, but there was little chance of that in the drab apartment.
     Hand poised to rap, Donnie stopped dead.  Listening, then turning to walk as noiselessly as possible down the stairs after he pictured for a moment a substantial naked butt, quivering a little.
    
Smiling at first, but as he drove off his throat was dry and scratchy from the night before and the hand holding the cigaret trembled when he reached toward the ashtray under the dashboard, and he decided to stop at Peanuts’ for a soothing beer.
     It was deserted during the day as usual as he entered the quiet bar, thinking about Rat.  He nodded at Peanuts’ wife and sat down near the door so he could see the street, and ordered a beer.  She had curly, dark hair and usually wore shapeless dresses, looking like sort of a hillbilly, something like Patsy Cline, Donnie had decided.  She served him, putting down a coaster, and moved silently back to her spot on a barstool behind the far end of the bar.  The bright afternoon sun shining through the windows revealed layers of mold-like dust on the tops of the cigaret machine and jukebox and highlighted the dried rings from the bottoms of glasses on the bar.
     A long, thoughtful sip of beer, swallowed eagerly.  It seemed really cold and went down like a cloud of pinpricks to rest uneasily in his stomach, but he knew that soon he would start to feel better.  Was Rat a rat? he asked himself.  Sure, in a way, after all that had been Linda in the room there all right.  And he guessed he wasn’t surprised.  But was he really?  Like a children’s rhyme it chased itself around in his head:  Is Rat a rat? Is Rat a rat?  Shit, who could sort that triangle out?
     He looked at himself reflected in the streaked mirror of the back bar, but it was too far recessed into shadows to make out much of anything.  The hell with thinking about it.  He lifted his glass to press it, cool and soothing, against his forehead for a moment.  He saw in his mind a green dress over solid thighs and wondered if he could run into Claudia and her dope pipe again, couldn’t forget her getting him high -- he wanted to do it again -- and easily cupping her tit like that, the way he would expect a married woman to be if she was fooling around.  But then stopping him.  Like Judy Majkowski, who had preceded Lorri, who would neck with him all night at the drive-in but keep his hands away from everything.  Sure, she had a boyfriend from the corner in the army, Mike Lo Menzo, stationed in Germany, but those Catholic girls were like that all the way back to grade school.  Anyway, if he was going back to work soon, and with more money, he could find somebody better than the unyielding Claudia.
     Even Lorri, in school that afternoon, would be better if she could be a girlfriend he could see when he wanted to and get beyond her somewhat passionless stroking of his dick in the car as he focused on her hand and waited with the white handkerchief at the ready.  So things were often cool between them when he pushed too hard, and he would give up for a while.  It was one of those times earlier when it was still warm out and he was sitting at this very bar, and he came out into the Saturday sun to his car to find the note prominently lying on the dash.
     The small white square that he saved for a while was written in pencil on both sides


            Guess who was here, didn't
          have anything special to do right now.
          I thought I'd have some fun by
          sneaking around. We got plastered
           by strucks & I ache allover & got
           caught sneaking through yards.


2.
          some people & some guys are all
          th staring at us & thinking that were
            crazy or we broke in, so we just look
          back & wave.
          Better go now. I finished my cigarette
            & I don't like to smoke in public.
          You should lock your car next time
          Don't have much else to say but
             I want to tell or ask you something if I
          ever see you
                  Love
            Guess who?
          some little kids are telling the
            whole neighborhood were here &


     She hadn't been alone, it seemed, and eventually he learned it was her girlfriend whose last name was Struck whose parents' beer they helped themselves to.  It made sense that a couple of girls getting into an unoccupied car and not driving away drew attention on busy 27th Street with porches close to the sidewalk and kids running around.  But her revelation turned out to be trivial, about going dancing, and not capitulating to his lust. 
     So nothing much changed.
     In the unnatural stillness of the tavern he longed suddenly to hear loud music and have people around him to get drunk with.  All the bars he went to were deserted now, he knew, and the guys he drank with were probably at work.  But maybe he could find one of the wives to let him in and wait.  Chuck’s wife Donna even took a shower one time when he and Grant were there and Chuck went to work at the body shop on a Saturday afternoon, walking around in front of them in a towel.  That was when she first seemed to start coming on to him.
     The steamy bathroom behind the open door, hair piled up with damp wisps sticking out, lots of freckles and pale shoulders and legs, all hard to take in like it wasn’t exciting him.  He recognized the scent of
Evening in Paris wafting about.  Someday it would all work out and he would get laid, he knew, and start catching up with the rest ofZonyx Report Pic:  Perfume & a Towel them.  As it was, he was almost as inexperienced as when he had found the marriage manual he hoped his aunt would have.  It said the husband should use "nature's own lubrication," saliva, whenever needed, but applied by hand -- never the perverted way, never with the tongue.  He figured things had changed since then, but he just hoped he didn’t have to promise to get married to find out, the way he figured Chuck did with Donna when they met up north.  She must have wanted to get to Milwaukee bad, even if the goofy-looking bastard wasn’t nearly as cool as he came off looking in the little farm town of Adams. 
     So the couple ended up on Milwaukee's Northwest Side near where Chuck's folks lived, Donna looking fat and pregnant but still pretty, in a featureless area built up in the postwar days with mostly ranch houses and duplexes and four-unit buildings like theirs.  Sterile, Donnie thought, uninteresting except for an occasional tavern and some small shops on the busier thoroughfares like Capitol Drive and 60th Street.
    
She hid a brandy bottle in the cupboard, she  told him, and liked to drink to make the housework easier and cheer herself up when she was alone.  Aren’t you supposed to be depressed after having a baby? he had asked.  Even he had had read about postpartum depressionBut No, she said, I got over that.  Sitting close enough on the couch for their thighs to touch.
     Chuck was his buddy from high school, of course, but if she made the first move it wouldn’t be Donnie’s fault.  The boxy, plain apartment just off Capitol Drive had a few brassy decorations on the wall, and he had once made a lame joke about her liking a cockatoo, and she had laughed.  Of course, Chuck often complained about all the headaches she seemed to have, but when she implied it was because he came home drunk so much and he told her go play with your ass she would counter with I’ll find someone to do it for me . .
     After such an exchange after the past Christmas when he was sure Donna was flirting with him, though he remained conflicted about Chuck being his buddy, he impulsively took advantage of the mistletoe hung in the doorway to the kitchen to kiss her and she responded surprisingly fierce with the open mouth and then, "What took you so long?"
     But after that he backed off, feeling guilty and somewhat alarmed when
she said, "I love you, Don."
     "I, ah, don't know whether I love you or not, but I like you as much as I've ever liked anybody . . ."  Hefting a quart bottle, chugging it.
     "Is that why you did it, because you're drunk?"
     "No, of course not.  Chuck'll be back soon, but maybe I can come over some day after I have morning classes?"
     "I guess you're right . . . why don't you?  Don't wait too long."
     They left it at that, and he stayed away for a while even when Chuck was there, wondering at odd moments what it would be like, but afraid of a disruption in all their lives.  Especially since he was in college and life should get interesting with new classes and people or whatever -- and he was hanging on with Lorri, though she wasn't even as sexy or bright as Donna, who at least had wanted to be a teacher herself before getting pregnant, and could talk about books they had both read.  At least popular novels, like Michener's Hawaii.
     Then there seemed to be way out of the impasse, when he was sitting in the bar with Ray, who hadn't been part of the old gang from the corner, and found himself confiding, "Ya know, there's this girl, we  have these parties at her house, and she drinks during the day when her husband's at work because she's lonely . . ."
     So they planned for Ray to go along one night, and after that if he showed up with some six-packs or something and she liked him it could eventually break up the marriage, he hoped.  Donna had said that before Donnie she had resisted Chuck's buddies who had surreptitiously made a play for her, though he didn't know if he believed her, but Ray was slick that way, soon letting him know that he was banging her in the daytime.  Whenever he could get away.
     At least it had given him some time to think, and he could figure she hadn't cooled off.
    
When he hit the street the chill wind didn’t bother him, and he walked carefully on a long patch of icy sidewalk that had settled low, with a tilt.  It reminded him of the playground in grade school, the narrow frozen puddle that stretched for yards that the boys would line up for to take turns running then sliding as far as they could without falling and ripping their pants, bruising their legs, the girls in their scarves watching and cheering the winners.

                                                AN END  
TOP

 

   Home | Hot Links | Gallery | Poetry | Fiction | Counterculture | Kaleidoscope | Zetteler Family

      Comments | Art | Dance | Anti-War Reportage | Longshoremen | Magic | Freeks | Zone II

© copyright 2006
      Mike Zetteler
Zonograf Scorpio Logo:  Go to Zonograf PageZonograf Page
 
Some Pix & Multi-Media Selections