hen I arrived at Mulcahy’s, I was winded and my left hip joint was tight, delivering a nagging ache that extended down into my groin. With an almost imperceptible nod to the bartender, I bellied up and ordered a double red Johnnie. Workman-like, I downed the glass in two liberal gulps and called for another; the blessed spirits shuttled swift and unimpeded through my internal pathways, meeting my pounding heart in warm reunion, and soon the cocked fist in my jaw began to unclench into a drunken wisp of a smile.
Spinning a slow half-turn on my stool, I narrowed my eyes to adjust for the dim lighting. I’d been going there for over ten years, and in that entire time I’d never seen more than a scant handful of patrons scattered around the dump. Mulcahy’s is the sort of establishment you go when your express order of business is to get plastered. The clientele is a dour, predominantly geriatric bunch that for the most part imbibe in silence. Once in a while, you might hear a fractious bit of diatribe, blurped through false teeth and wet lips, but that’s a rare occurrence. There’s no TV blaring, no laughter, no friendly banter between barkeep and customer, just a tomblike atmosphere tailor-made for the walking dead. After my third Johnnie, I began to feel its effects in earnest, and stumbled my way to the back of the room, slumping down into an old booth with a thud loud enough to elicit an icy glance from some soused codger sitting nearby.
Tipping back a swallow of hooch, I shifted my ass on the unforgiving pine of the booth. My head lolled sideways, too heavy for my neck to support. I took another quick shlurp, and the bonds of gravity fell from my ankles and wrists. A-OK…full go – blast-off! Shimmering mesopheric clouds rushed past my ears, blinding me, beckoning me heavenward. Itchy-palmed, I reared back to slap the face of God.
When the front door swung wide, I barely noticed through my haze; a breath later, she came into view – and God could wait. She appeared to be no more than 21, maybe less, with large, penetrating eyes – black as coal – that contrasted starkly with her flawless porcelain skin. Her full lips, not quite bee stung, were painted blood red and her sheeny sable hair parted to the side in an elegant bob. A battered Army field jacket covered a vintage dress made of taffeta, and in her left hand, she held an old Snoopy lunch box, dented to hell. Her goofy getup seemed intentional, as if she were taking great pains to downplay her natural beauty. It had the opposite effect; her striking features only stood out in sharper relief against the drab mustiness of her clothing. Exuding an easy confidence unique to the young and fabulous, she took a seat up front and tapped on the bar rail to announce her presence.
“I’ll have a whiskey sour please,” she said, in an assured but reedy voice. “And can I get it with Maker’s?”
The bartender – a grizzled fossil direct out of central casting – looked her up and down, twisting his incredulous mug. “A whiskey sour, huh? Sweetheart, you got some ID on you?”
With a fast dash through that quirky “purse” of hers, she retrieved a passport of some unknown origin and handed it over. Raising an eyebrow, he took a moment to inspect her credentials before passing it back with a brusque flick of his wrist.
“Good enough. One whiskey sour coming up.”
Looking on from my shadowy perch, I straightened myself, running a quick hand through my hair. I hadn’t showered that morning, and felt a twinge of shame for my unkempt appearance.
“What’s your name?” the girl asked the bartender as he turned to fix her drink. “You look like a Joe.”
A dreamy look rippled across her face. “Emile,” she repeated. “That’s such a lovely name.”
If I were a younger man, I most probably would have summoned the wherewithal to approach her; not that I would’ve ever had a shot in Shanghai. Now, I merely contented myself with the temporary distraction she provided. No job…no job…no goddamned fucking job. A few minutes later, Emile returned, glass in hand.
“Okay, hon, here you go,” he said, presenting her with one of the lamest excuses for a whiskey sour I’d ever seen.
“Forgive me, Emile,” she said, wrinkling her petite nose in disappointment. “Though I’m positively loathe to criticize your talents in the mixological arts, I feel I have to ask…does this look right to you?”
“What’s a matter with it?” he sniffed.
“For starters, where’s my orange slice?”
“Orange slice? Get this everybody, she wants an orange slice! Princess, what kind of place you think this is?”
His angry words rattled about in the air for a second, like a couple of pee-wee marbles in a tin can, followed by an indifferent silence. Emile looked deflated when his theatrical display failed to provoke any reaction amongst the smattering of lost souls, attempting to swill their drinks in peace. Only one rheumy-eyed drunkard at the end of the bar appeared to be paying any attention at all, emphatically nodding in seeming allegiance with the bartender. For all I knew, he could have been having a private conversation with himself. The young woman, however, was not at all impressed.
“To answer your question, Sunny Jim, it’s clearly a place to avoid if you happen to be in the mood for a whiskey sour. I could show you how to make one if you like?”
Defeated, he stormed off mumbling to himself.
If I was wearing a fedora and carrying a gat, I remarked to myself with a soft chuckle, I’d say this fast-talking broad had moxie to burn.
As I sat there, openly staring at her, she turned her body in my direction, almost as if she’d been prodded by the intensity of my gaze. I tried averting my eyes, but it was too late. She flashed me half a crooked smile, understanding all at once that since she had arrived, I’d been her enrapt audience of one. Our wordless exchange was interrupted by an irate Emile as he dropped a tiny plate down on the bar, atop of which lay a single withered tranche of something vaguely citrus.
“Enjoy,” he muttered under his breath.
“Mille mercis!” she squeaked, before popping it in her mouth, rind and all.
I continued to spy on her as she finished up at the bar, noticing that she kept looking down at her watch every few minutes as if she had somewhere else she imminently needed to be. Judging from her attire and general demeanor, my best guess was a sparky hipster fete, encased in concrete block, somewhere deep in the heart of Brooklyn – probably Greenpoint…maybe Bushwick. As if on cue, she took one last sip of her cocktail, then steadied herself a moment before departing with such elaborate purpose, it appeared as if she was exiting a stage.
I stuck around for a few more booze-soaked hours or so, girding my loins for what would be a very long and very cold walk home. The air was stale and thin; when she’d gone, all the oxygen had slipped out with her. Fixing the collar of my pea coat, I roused myself from that ass-breaking booth, and squared the tab with Emile. It was coming up on 10pm – the event horizon of a bummer tomorrow.
By the time I reached my building, I’d convinced myself that I was coming down with a virulent mélange of pneumonia and tuberculosis. Part of my trek home had taken me under the 59th street Bridge, where I had encountered an ancient woman zipped up in a tattered maroon sleeping bag, which offered little, if any, protection against the elements. She’d attempted to repair some large tears in the nylon with duct tape, but there was still a lot of stuffing blowing all over the place. As she lay on her side, head propped up by a stack of old newspapers, her urine spread out beneath her in a wide radius, glistening on the sidewalk like a sad, frozen yellow lake. For a twisted second, that moronic grammar school pun, The Yellow River by I.P. Daily, popped in my head. I bit my lip, admonishing myself. It’s awful, but I often have the nastiest thoughts under moments of duress. For some demented reason, those are the times that my subconscious chooses to reveal to me my inherent asshole-ishness. The poor woman’s haunting yelps echoed throughout the cavernous space, compelling me to act. After all, someday I could very well be in the same position. I made a mental note to stop into Modell’s later in the week to pick up a brand new sleeping bag and perhaps a Coleman lantern, in case I got scared in the dark.
Crouching down, I asked her if she needed me to take her to a shelter – I knew there was an old church nearby that would provide her with a warm cot for the night. Blue from the cold, her thick lips parted as if she were about to thank me for my kindness, but instead she proceeded to hack the wettest, phlegmiest, sickliest cough straight into my face. I tumbled backwards like I’d been shot with a .38, my ass falling smack-dab in her lake of piss. Horrified, I lurched to my feet, spitting violently into the street to mitigate the inevitable infection. Tossing her whatever cash I had left in my pockets, I started to sprint up First Avenue, my mind running down the long list of famous consumptives I’d read about in school – all of them now thoroughly and completely dead.
Once inside my apartment, I raced through the foyer, not even bothering to turn on the light. I knew that I had about a half a pint of whiskey on my bedside table and made a blind beeline for it. Hoping the booze would serve as an antiseptic, I took a long pull from the bottle and gargled the stinging liquid until my mouth went numb. Legless, I staggered to the bathroom and hawked into the toilet. When I lifted my head back up, everything began to spin. I clutched the edge of the sink in desperation as a wave of intense nausea almost toppled me. A sour shot of bile spurted up into the back of my throat and I prayed to God that my stomach would hold out. If there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s throwing up – I’ll do it solely as a last resort. Looking into the mirror, I turned on the tap and splashed some cold water on my face, which now appeared as white and lined as a sheet of loose leaf paper. Mustering every last scrap of will power at my disposal, I managed to get through those harrowing and crucial minutes without spewing all over the place. In a slow and painful ebb, the cramping in my innards eased up long enough so that I was able to walk the short distance to the next room which held the only available seat in the apartment. There it lay, reclining in the quiet darkness, a rickety folding beach chair I referred to – with some affection – as “the rack”; my faithful companion.
Arranging myself with care, so as to not bust through the tenuous canvas, I leaned back and closed my eyes. The pools of sweat that had gathered under my arms and down my lower back had begun to cool and it felt pleasant. I’d survived the worst of it. Not bothering to take off my coat and scarf, I stretched out my legs as far as they could go, and drifted off into an obsidian slumber, utterly devoid of dreams.