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          From M'waukee Stories
                                                                                                                               
Life in the 1960s

 

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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 a hold
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.
         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 working-men 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 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. 
         “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 some 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
sometime, 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 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, 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 in Peanuts’.  The first time
since Ray got married.  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 brought forth 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, he 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 thought 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
Schmitty
, like a German.  He’d only seen Smitty in a book.  And a guy
named Sanek was sometimes called Snake by his buddies.  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.
         
“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 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 voice.  Linda’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!” she 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.  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 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 Claudia.
          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.
          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 farmers’ town of Adams. 
         
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.  But 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 . . .  
          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 takes 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  
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