Some of the pieces I’ve had published appeared in journals that sadly no longer exist. I’ll post them from time to time. “Down from Stockholm” appeared in the June 2012 issue of Nazar Look.
“What didn’t go well?” asked Bill or as regulars at Shotty’s called him Bill Bill. He wanted to be seen as the resident inebriated sage as wise as the unbroken seal on a bottle of cheap whiskey. The problem was he drank with such frequency and commitment that he’d often forget major details of the crises that he wished to impose his wisdom on, so everything had to be explained to him at least twice.
“Private matter between me and Cassie, Bill Bill,” Jake said. He hadn’t told Bill what had happened directly but as with so many of the matters brought to the bar for discussion with Brian, the bartender, Bill managed to overhear most of it. He even asked a couple of pointed and completely inappropriate questions about how things were going in the, as he put it, ‘boot-wah.’
“Who the hell is Cassie?” Bill asked.
“My girlfriend, Bill Bill. I live with her,” Jake said. “You’ve met her. She comes in here a lot.”
“Right, right. I remember,” Bill said. “Blonde girl, big tits.”
“That’s her,” Jake said.
“So?” Bill asked. “What are you, a tits or an ass man?”
“You have a gal with a nice rack,” Bill said carefully so as to not slur. “Maybe you think the grass might be greener down there, huh? Guys get bored with the tits, you know.”
“Have you ever gotten bored of big breasts Bill Bill?” Brian asked, fixing them both up with another beer.
“Fuck no,” Bill said.
“Then why would anyone else?” Brian asked.
“It’s an optative type deal,” Bill said, spittle leaping from his lips.
“What’s that Bill Bill?” Jake asked, though he was really thinking of Cassie curled up on their bed, across the street, less than 100 yards away. For a fleeting instant, he wanted to run to her and announce that he wanted to be with her, start a family, get married, all of that. But then much of Jake’s life had been lived after such moments, past when he’d almost done the right thing.
“Where do you come up with this stuff?” Brian asked Bill. “Schlitz cans have a word of the day now or something?”
“Optative, don’t you kids know your Greek? It’s a verb mood. It signifies that behind our reality must lay a wish that things were different in order for the reality to have meaning for us. Like you,” Bill said. “You’re a fat male barkeeper at a dive that really wishes he was a shot girl at one of those clubs near The Garden cause they make better tips. And you,” he said to Jake, “got a blond with a nice set of tits but you wish you had a young brunette with a tight little ass. Like one of them, what do they call them? Yogurt Teachers.”
“Cassie does have a nice butt as well,” Brian said with a wry smile at Jake. He and Cassie had from time to time carried on a flirtation and though they’d never hooked up, Brian always left the possibility of it out there to mingle with the smoke and alcohol fumes.
It wasn’t long after moving in with Cassie that Jake became a regular at Shotty’s. He and Brian often found themselves together on either side of the bar on a quiet workday afternoon with no one else around and nothing much else to do but talk about their lives. Jake, congenitally unable to keep his mouth shut, did most of the talking. Brian enjoyed hearing the tales of Jake’s wayward travels enough that he didn’t have to pretend too hard to listen.
After graduating high school, Jake had gone out west to college only to flunk out after a year and have to move home. Showing up for classes had turned out to be a bit more than he was capable of at the time. Then, he got a job canning fish up in Maine. Pneumonia laid him low for about a month and the moment he felt well enough, he came back once again to live with his folks. One spring, he moved to Florida and never adjusted. The heat made him feel sluggish and often confined him indoors, same thing for Texas when he gave working an oil rig a try. At least, he’d gotten good at tucking his tail between his legs and going home or so he said, trying not to sound too dejected about the failed enterprise that had been his life up to that point.
There wasn’t a single moment that turned Brian against the idea of Jake being with Cassie. Jake never did anything that made him seem like a bad guy. Like all of the truest and most sour resentments, it simply grew bit by bit over time until suddenly Brian saw Jake as a flake, a wannabe, a New Hampshire rube, not at all the kind of guy someone as substantial as Cassie could be happy with long term. The realization that he had been carrying a torch for Cassie soon followed, bringing Brian’s animosity into full flower.
When Jake told him about Cassie being pregnant, Brian knew it was all about to come apart. As Jake drunkenly spilled forth the story that rainy Tuesday afternoon, Brian felt guilty for not warning her. He’d known her long before Jake came around. Still, he told Jake to do what he wished he could. ‘Ask her to marry you,’ he said. ‘Tell her you want to be a father. That’s where Cassie figures her life is right now.’ Though Brian was conscious of having taken a tremendous risk by advising his rival in such a manner, the evidence didn’t point too strongly to Jake following through. When he came in the next day announcing he’d followed that advice, Brian felt sick to his stomach. Then Jake sat and drank like a condemned man, moaning about the mistake he’d made and Brian’s bartender instincts calmed him with the assurance that it wasn’t to last. Jake would soon reverse course and that would be the end of Cassie and Jake.
“I told you, Cass’d never go for it,” Brian said and took a sip of whiskey from the tumbler he kept behind the bar. “She doesn’t change her mind often and doesn’t like anyone who does.”
“Fucking anyone could know that, if they thought about it,” Bill said, sounding disgusted to have someone as clueless as Jake for a drinking companion. “Cassie’s no bullshit. Girl can drink too.”
“I didn’t really change my mind, not really,” Jake said. “It just took me longer to be honest with her. She expects me to make big decisions at a snap.”
“What decisions?” Bill asked.
“Private matter, Bill Bill. Between me and Cassie,” Jake said and sucked down the last of his pint in a swallow.
He’d met Cassie on a bus ride from New Hampshire to Boston. She’d gone up north Friday night to party with some high school friends but got bored when they went off skiing so she decided to head back to the city the next afternoon so as not to waste the whole weekend. Despite all of the empty seats on the Northway Coachline, she sat next to Jake. With his long hair and slightly dazed look, he had something of the air of a comic saint ready to laugh off his sins as though they might benefit mankind just to spite him. They split the big can of Foster’s that she’d smuggled on board and talked the whole way, honing in on those superficial commonalities that fool certain kinds of people into believing chance meetings are predestined. Jake felt like he’d known her all his life just because they both still listened to Ratt and had seen “Back to the Future” enough times that they could run lines from it.
“She wouldn’t want me telling everyone,” Jake said. “It’s nothing against you Bill Bill.”
“Shit,” Bill said in a cackle. “Ain’t no secrets here.”
“There are a few, Bill,” Brian said. “Even some about you.”
“Any secrets about me are so secret, I don’t even know them,” Bill said.
“A few about me too,” Brian said and gave Jake a smirk.
“What did you say to her anyway?” Bill asked. “How did you manage to shit all over this so called private matter?”
“Forget it,” Jake said. “I should go.”
“You just got here.” Brian put another beer in front of him, hoping to hear some kind of confirmation that he and Cassie were effectively quits. “Have one on the house.”
“Nah, maybe I’ll go for a walk. Maybe I’ll come back later.”
But Jake didn’t return to the bar or go back to his apartment either. He walked over to the reflecting pool at Church Park. The water was a black mirror on whose surface stars shined like wet diamonds. Looking across it to the lights on the crown of the Belvedere Hotel, he finally found the strength to consider the truth that he’d never really loved Cassie, every time he’d told had been false. He’d loved the idea of living in the city in an apartment so close to Fenway Park that in the summer the sounds of the game rode the breeze through the bedroom’s open window. The fact that a great bar like Shotty’s was right across the street didn’t hurt either. It would have suited him more if they could have been roommates, only then he’d’ve been expected to pay for his share of the living expenses which, given his employment status, would’ve been a problem.
Next, Jake turned his usually self-sabotaging impulsiveness to good use for once and hailed a taxi for the airport. Pushing past the lost tourists and families on their way to vacations in Florida and other places New Englanders escape to just long enough to make them homesick, he managed to find a payphone and call his sister. All he said to her was that he needed to come home, no hello, no small talk. She told him to go find the Western Union office and she’d wire him the money. The shuttle flight back to New Hampshire was more expensive than he thought it would be. Four hours later he was home, asleep in his old room. His folks were a little surprised to see him but didn’t trouble him with too many questions that first night.
He told them all about what had happened a couple of days later without making them ask, feeling he owed them that. They didn’t say much and acted as though they knew something like that was bound to happen. To have your thirty-something son crash land back at home once again and reel off a tale that speaks for every inch of his irresponsibility and thoughtlessness must’ve been disquieting but not shocking. They’d grown weary of reproving him for his immaturity and for the next few days were just polite enough not to treat him like the minor nuisance he was. When he announced he was leaving, they didn’t ask where he was going.
They knew he’d go to his sister’s. Angela had yet to tire of his shenanigans, seeing Jake as something of an adventurer. It wasn’t the first ticket she had to buy for him so that he could come home. He told her his latest story the first night he was there. They killed a bottle of Jim Beam by the end of which Jake was shamelessly blubbering away about the mess he’d made of things once again.
They didn’t speak another word of it until the night before he was about to leave six months later. Jake’s old friend Wes, another enabler in his life of bounding, had hooked him up with a job in far northern New Hampshire, tending bar at his uncle’s place. It was all the way up by the Canadian border in a town called Stockholm, as cold but a lot less exciting than its namesake in Sweden.
It was kind of perfect for Jake, somewhere to hide away, where he could bury his head and no one would bother asking him to look up. He never planned on putting down roots, if it was going to happen it could’ve only been by accident in the kind of place not just anyone would want to visit, let alone live. He was trying to decide if he had enough cold weather gear to make it through the brutal winter up there when Angela poked her head in the guest room.
“We’ll leave at 8:30. Gives us plenty of time,” then with a sigh and a shake of her head she said, “Stockholm,” like it was a prison sentence.
“I can’t go back Boston,” Jake said. “Not after what I did. I can’t go back and face her or any of our friends. They all know what an ass I am by now.”
“It’s not exactly the kind of thing a girl goes bragging to all of her friends about.”
“I may have told some people too.”
“I’m sure you did, little brother. You’d only be able to keep a secret that big from your family,” Angela said, sounding cross for the first time about the whole situation. “Just out of curiosity, who was the first person you told?”
“Brian,” Jake said, holding an old sweater up to his chest to see if it still fit, “but he wouldn’t tell anyone.”
“You told a bartender first?” she asked with a laugh and another, more rueful shake of her head. “I guess that makes sense for you.”
“I was drunk, I was confused,” he protested.
“I can only imagine.”
“It’s not my fault that bartenders make the best therapists,” he said. “Anyway, I can’t go back to Boston with the way I left any everything. I’d be humiliated to see any of them again.”
“How long will your exile last?” she asked.
It was eight years before he got back to Boston. He hadn’t meant to stay away that long but met Brigid not long after moving up north. She came into the bar on his second night of work there to get her old man. Other than her, maybe a dozen other women ever came in that place the whole eight years he worked there. The ones missing teeth just barely outnumbered the ones missing chromosomes, so Brigid stood out. She was tall and lean with a rough-hewn tomboy like beauty that commanded the world in front of her.
“You’re the new poisoner they sent in to kill my father,” she said which made the situation awkward with her dad sleeping like the dead in a booth towards the back. Jake was happy to see her since it was closing time and he had no idea how to deal with Frank.
“He’s back here,” he said and led her to a booth lit a hellish red by the neon Narragansett Beer sign hanging above it.
“Don’t get cocky, he’s buried two bartenders before you came,” she said as she examined her old man’s prostrate form.
“You want a hand with him?” Jake asked.
“Get me a glass of ice water,” she said, picking his wool cap and leather gloves off the floor.
She poured the whole cup over Frank’s head. He sat right up like that was how he was used to being roused. Frank slicked his hair back and yawned. His breath was hot with whiskey fumes.
“Where are your keys?” she asked, squatting down to get to her father’s level.
“I got ‘em,” Jake said, jingling them. “He told me to hold on to them while he sobered up.”
“You listened, Dad,” she yelled sounding almost as excited as she was irritated.
She took them without thanking Jake and left. They went through that same scenario a few more times before she asked for his name. That night she stayed late and got drunk with her old man and Jake held on to both their keys. He lived above the bar so he had them both come upstairs to sleep on the floor. Much later that morning, she climbed into bed with him and they made love while Frank slept on the floor just a few feet away.
Soon, they were spending all of their time together. Brigid was a nurse and only worked two days a week. She started keeping an eye on her dad at the bar and listening to Jake. He told her all about his past and Cassie and everything. His openness impressed her. She’d been with so many liars that it was refreshing to meet someone who copped so openly to being a fuck-up.
When Frank died, Brigid took it hard at first. It wasn’t so much the suddenness that bothered her but the guilt she felt for being relieved that it’d finally happened. She was happy to have Jake around and he managed to be supportive by not trying too to be anything. Soon after, they moved into his place above the bar.
Years passed and rather than grow restless by the routine, Jake took comfort in it. During the cold winters, he’d spend days without leaving the square little two-story where he lived and worked. The days when Brigid worked were the only ones he’d even count as long but she was always back before he closed the bar.
Then one Thursday, she announced she was going to an all-day nursing seminar at Children’s Hospital in Boston on the following Friday. She asked Jake to come with her and spend the weekend there, telling him it would be kind of like the mini-vacation they’d always talked about taking. He agreed without really thinking of the shame he’d felt when he left there so suddenly eight years before.
“Maybe you’ll see some of your old friends?” she asked. “See that neighborhood you used to live in?”
“I was thinking about that,” he said, though it hadn’t occurred to him until she mentioned it. “I’d like to see if Shotty’s is still going. I doubt anyone I know would still be there. That whole crowd’s got to be pushing forty if not past it. Bill Bill’s probably in his sixties by now.”
“Ah,” Brigid said, “they’ve probably gotten old and wise like you.”
“I’ve always been wise,” Jake said.
After he walked her from the subway stop to Children’s Hospital, Jake wandered around the city on foot. He pretended like he didn’t know where he was going but all the time circling the old neighborhood, coming to it in a great long loop. He walked past Fenway Park and then down towards the Boston University campus before doubling back, retracing a route he’d walked many times to cool off after one of his fights with Cassie.
Finally shortly after noon, he found himself at the door of Shotty’s with a feeling that was somewhere between surprise and dread. Hesitantly, he leaned on the door to open it. So much brighter and newer with Red Sox memorabilia covering the walls and a huge open kitchen where part of the bar used to be, it looked nothing like he remembered. It was hard to envision Bill Bill sitting at the bar or Brian behind it. He left without getting a drink, a first, and wished he’d never gone inside.
On his way back to Children’s, a bus stopped halfway through a crosswalk where Jake was waiting for the light to change. There in the window right before him was Cassie. She was older, fatter and looked worn down but he could tell it was her. She didn’t see him, trying instead to console the child sitting next to her. Jake approached the bus and squinted through the dirty window at the pair, trying to tell if the kid looked anything like him. Just before it accelerated away, the boy tuned and faced Jake. All he could think when he saw the kid’s face was that eight years was too long to be gone.