Hatful of Pain
Hatful of Pain   Chapter 4

I no longer feared the passage of time. I had stopped it while waiting for the set to end. When it finally did, Hoover and I rushed to the bar to wait for Corky. I spun onto a stool in front of Mervyn the bartender, and Hoover curled around the base of the stool.

Mervyn was as tiny and fragile as a sparrow. His sea-blue eyes took in his surroundings through wire-rimmed glasses that sat low on his nose. Although I knew nothing about his past, conversations with him revealed considerable expertise in the field of deviant psychology.

I nodded to Mervyn, who poured me a glass of water. I splashed the straw around and about in the icy water while scanning the crowd for Corky.

Seated three stools to my right was a man in a brown leather coat whose granite face seemed incapable of the flexibility required for a smile. Although his voice was soft as he talked to Mervyn, I caught enough of his words to realize he was asking about Fluke, and their rapidity gave the impression he wasn't just passing the time of day. I leaned toward him, trying to hear more.

The male conversations around me broke off--a sign Ann was approaching--but I was surprised when she swung onto the stool next to mine. My brain sounded an alert that it was shutting down. I've never developed whatever part of the brain it is that enables men to say whatever you're supposed to say to women. I suspect that even John Hinkley, who shot President Reagan to impress Jodie Foster, knows more about women than I do.

"How's it going, Clark?" Ann said.

"Fine." I scooped a handful of beer nuts from the bowl on the counter.

"Where's Corky?"

"Don't know, she disappeared."

"Ah. A rather unusual usage of the word 'fine' of which I wasn't aware."

Mervyn came down and wiped up some of the liquid off the counter in front of me.

"What'll it be?"

"A Cavalry Charger, please." Rarely do I drink, for fear of saying something stupid, but it seemed a little late to be having qualms.

"Make it two," Ann said.

Mervyn made us two Cavalry Chargers using half the bottles on the back bar. Our drinks came and we sipped them while we looked for Corky.

"Clark," Ann said. "Can I ask you something?"

I cocked my head to listen.

"I've known your sister more than a year and I still haven't figured out why she gets so tense whenever Dudley's around?"

I pondered Ann's question as we both watched two men wander in who looked as if they'd cheerfully disembowel their own grandmothers for the price of a beer. Their presence gave me a measure of joy; not because I approved of this eccentricity in customers, but because their patronage meant we were drawing some of the crowd from the Stagger Back Inn, the topless bar across the street.

For several years the Stagger Back had steadily lost business to the Lobster. A few months ago, they closed for two weeks. When they reopened, Bill and I crossed Rosy Street to see what had changed. The doorman looked down at us from the unfathomable heights of his exalted position. I suspected the owner had stationed him at the door and told him that any customer was a bum until he proved himself otherwise. Showed him what he meant by proof, then put it back into the cash register.

Inside, a stagnant mysterious smoke clung to the few molecules of oxygen I gasped for. The lumpy shape of cigarettes suggested most of the crowd rolled their own. It was the kind of place you hoped you wouldn't meet your sister.

Bill and I sat at a table near the bar. Topless waitresses hustled around, making me nervous. Ten minutes later, a band came onstage but no one seemed to listen. People came into the bar, looked around and left.

When we decided to leave, I made a theatrical show of feeling for my wallet and being relieved to find it still in my pocket.

"I really should carry traveler's checks in a place like this."

Although I had soaked in the dank atmosphere of the Stagger Back Inn only a few minutes, I recognized its patrons when they came into the Lobster and began to breath normally again. The two new ones took a seat.

"When Corky broke up with Dudley," I said, "she insisted she was a jinx on him because he almost electrocuted himself the day they decided to go steady."

Ann gave me a sidelong glance.

"Then I understand why the issue isn't resolved for Dudley. He knows Corky is too sensible to believe in jinxes."

"True. But I still don't know her real reason. Although . . ." I let myself trail off, thinking that ever since Dad died, Corky had seemed afraid of getting close to anyone. Or was I just projecting? I bombed in another beer nut.

Without a fair and adequate warning, Ann asked, "So, what went wrong with your marriage?"

I swallowed the beer nut the wrong way and nearly choked, making it too late to work a mystified smile onto my face that might convey I hadn't the slightest idea what she was talking about. So I forged ahead, even though my brain was twinkling with warning lights like the console of a crashing airliner.

"Didn't need a wife, I had a television set to insult my intelligence."

I crossed my legs, toyed with the button on my shirt pocket, then rattled the ice cubes in my glass to see if any liquid was trapped beneath them. Mervyn answered the rattle. With his keen sense of deviant behavior, he saw I was in trouble and mixed me another Charger.

A few gulps of my second drink led me into my past.

"Six years ago, after I graduated from college, I got married. Seems a lifetime ago."

But how many lifetimes have to pass before I can forget that gut-wrenching moment when Jessie told me she wanted a divorce. Jesus. I can't believe it still hurts to think about it. I don't think I can talk about it.

So I lied. "My wife was always mad at me."

"About what?"

I put my glass down and twisted it against my soggy napkin.

"She said I never listened to her. Or something like that."

Ann didn't return my feeble attempt at a smile.

"There's not much else to tell," I said. "Our marriage didn't last long. Although it did teach me one valuable lesson. If a woman says, 'We need to talk,' you should treat it like a hotel fire: don't breathe, stay low to the ground, and crawl rapidly for the nearest exit."

I could tell by the look on Ann's face that something was wrong, and that it had to do with what I'd said.

"Clark?" She looked me over thoroughly, perhaps measuring me for a straitjacket. "You go to an awful lot of trouble to appear, even to your closest friends, like you have no feelings. You offer no more depth than . . . than the goofy sayings on these cocktail napkins!" She picked up a wet napkin, let it drain a little, then flopped it gently across my nose. "How come?"

"But the napkins are very funny." I let the wet one stay where it was.

"Funny," she conceded, "but not very deep."

I felt I ought to say something--I'm sorry I'm alive, or something.

"Women are naturally deeper than men," I said. "You should have seen me when I found out I wasn't ever going to be a woman. I cried like a baby. Hell of a thing to tell a kid." I offered Ann my warmest, most charming smile.

"What the devil are you smirking at?" Her green eyes looked hurt and clouded in the brief moment I saw them before she glanced off into space, ignoring me. Yep, another minute and she'll be curled up in my lap. I took the wet napkin off my nose.

Mervyn materialized, pushing his wire-rimmed glasses back into place, offering me more beer nuts. I said thank you, then tried not to look at them. One bowl was enough.

Ann looked back at me. "I don't know if you realize it, but your wife has left scars on you that aren't properly healing. Why?"

Opening and closing my mouth, I was unable to bring myself to offer an answer that wasn't as good as the question. I gazed out the window instead.

"Is it still snowing outside?"

Ann didn't answer. The noise of the bar flooded in on me. The rest of the band had disappeared.

"We're due backstage."

* * *

Corky didn't show up during the second break, either. I guessed there had been an emergency, and she'd left in a hurry. After the third set, Bill told us all that he was headed for the men's room.

I caught his arm. "That guy over there with the granite face looks familiar. Could he be a local reporter?"

"Could be," Bill said. But, then again, he was on his way to the men's room. I suspect he would have agreed if I'd said God is a woodchuck.

Hoover followed Ann backstage, his rear end waddling busily. Dudley walked past me toward the bar, and I joined him, heading for a booth reserved for band members.

To our chagrin, the booth was inhabited by Cavalry's three most ubiquitous convicted felons. Their leader, Lester Gillis, was a short man. Maybe five-two, but stocky, swarthy, with a large mustache. A soul less charitable than myself would have said he looked like an organ grinder who'd just stomped his monkey to death. He was leaning back in a silver fox fur coat, watching Dudley and me approach as though we were maggots climbing onto a wedding cake.

A purplish tattoo, scratched into the knuckles of the right hand of the tallest felon, said Mungo.

I recognized the third, a rodent-faced man, from newspaper photos. He had a shaved head and a nose that looked sewn back on. His name was Harry "The Rat" Hickabob. His arms were folded across his barrel chest, and he'd eaten half the RESERVED sign to educate the waitresses.

"Excuse me, gentlemen," Dudley said softly. "This booth is reserved for Fluke."

The Rat said clearly that he didn't much care. I understood it even without the gesture.

Mungo stood up, and up. Towering over us, he looked down, his eyes red with alcohol, showing all the humanity of rusted ball bearings.

"Why'd ya steal our customers from the Stagger Back?"

Rather than answer I tried to figure out if these guys presence and Corky's absence might be in some way connected.

I forced my attention back onto Mungo, who was lecturing on the high cost of dental work and the difficulty of a musician trying to earn a living with two broken arms. As he finished he looked down at me and shifted his gaze to a small black ant crossing the piebald floor. He crushed the ant, grinding it as though it were a giant tarantula.

"I hate bugs." He was looking at me.

"It was only an--"

Crack! The Rat smashed an empty beer bottle over the edge of the wooden table. Glass sprayed. Dozens of glistening wet shards stuck to my cotton jacket.

Everyone in the bar was watching and pretending they weren't; their stillness gave them away.

The Rat pointed the sharp edge of the bottle at me.

"You ain't listening. It's pissin' us off. . . ."

My first instinct was to take away the broken bottle and feed it to him. But there was no way to tell to what extent he was bluffing, or to what extent he was insane.

Dudley leaned toward me and whispered, "Get Richard."

I backstepped. It didn't go unnoticed.

"Hey, Baby Face," The Rat hollered. "A squirrel ever run up your pants leg and down the other--disappointed?" Mungo threw back his head and let out a great peal of gleeful laughter.

I was so preoccupied backing away that I didn't get around to feeling insulted until much later. After a few more steps, I turned and hightailed it for Richard. It took a concerted effort not to look back to see if anyone was following me, as I had no desire to be skewered on the business end of a broken beer bottle. I wove my way through the crowd to where Richard was polishing glasses behind the bar.

I plopped onto a stool in front of him, as I'd done countless times in the months following my mother's death. After Fluke had played and gone home, with nowhere to go, I'd sit and talk and joke about nothing in particular. Richard didn't seem to mind. It was in keeping with his personality to listen and to laugh, amused by the world and dead serious at the same time. With snapping eyes that seemed to be just one step ahead, he'd anticipate what I'd say, yet never seem bored.

Richard stopped polishing the beer glass, hung it upside down in a glass cabinet, folded his towel, and then walked toward the booth.

Mungo and The Rat were still laughing. Dudley was waiting, but Lester, like my sister, had disappeared.

Richard slid into the booth and put his arm around Mungo. Mungo grinned broadly, as if the canary had just landed in the cat bowl.

Hatful of Pain   Chapter 5

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