It must have been a hell of a night. One of those long, dangerous nights where the world shifts and doors open and you give yourself over to your more perilous instincts. A night of bad judgment and wrong turns, of weariness and hilarity and a hard sexual charge that both frightens and compels. A night where your life changes irrevocably, for better or for worse, but who the hell cares, so long as it changes. Batten down the hatches, boys, we're going deep.
It must have been a night just like that, yeah, if only I could remember it.
It started inauspiciously enough. The preceding few days I had been in the center of a media storm. The New York Times on line one, Live at Five on line two, Action News at six, details at eleven. Now, I am never one to shy from free publicity -- the one thing, I always say, that money can't buy -- but still, the exposure and the hubbub, the constant vigilance to make sure my name was spelled correctly, the crank calls and dire threats and importunings to my venality, all of it was taking a toll. So that night, after work, I took a detour over to Chaucer's, my usual dive, for a drink.
I sat at the bar, I ordered a Sea Breeze, I let the tang of alcohol, with its blithe promise of sweet ease, slide down my throat. There was an old man perched on the stool next to me who started talking. I nodded at his words, yeah yeah yeah, even as I looked around to see if there was anyone else of interest in the bar. A woman in the corner gave me the eye. I tossed it back. I finished my drink and ordered another.
My memory here sounds almost coherent, but don't be fooled. Even at the moment of which I write, it is starting to break apart. The old man, for example, I can't remember what he looked like. And in my memory I can't feel my feet.
John Lennon is singing from the jukebox, imagine that. The old man is talking about life and loss in the way old men in cheap bars always talk about life and loss. I finish my drink and order another.
The door opens and I turn to it with the great false hope one holds in bars that the next person to step inside will be the person to change your life. And what I see then is a beautiful face, broad and strong with a blond ponytail bobbing behind it. The face still lives in my memory, the one thing I remember clear. She looks like she has just climbed off her motorcycle, black leather jacket, jeans, a cowpuncher's bowlegged walk. The very sight of her gives me the urge to up and buy a Harley. She stops when she sees me, as if she had seen me before. And why wouldn't she have? I am famous, in the way you get famous for a minute and a half when they plaster your face on local TV. I give her a creepy smile, she walks past me and sits at the bar on the other side of the old man.
I finish my drink and order another. I order one for the woman. And, to be polite, I order one for the old man, too.
"I loved my wife, yes I did," the old man says. "Like a fat kid loves cake. We had all sorts of plans, enough plans to make a cherub weep. That was my first mistake."
I lean forward and look beyond him to the blonde. "Hi," I say.
"Thanks for the beer," she says as she taps her bottle of Rolling Rock.
I raise my glass. "Cheers."
"What's that you're drinking?"
"A Sea Breeze."
"I don't doubt it."
"I detect a note of scorn. I'm man enough to drink a prissy drink. Want to arm-wrestle?"
"I'd pop your elbow flat out of the socket."
"Oh, I bet you would."
"Let me try it," she says.
I smack my elbow onto the bar, twist my palm into a wrestling grip.
"Your drink," she says.
"See, you can't make plans," says the old man as I slide the drink past him to the woman. "Life don't let you. Wasn't long afore I found out she was sleeping outside our marriage bed. With my brother, Curt."
"You don't say," I say.
"I just did," says the old man. "But I could deal with that. Leastways she kept it in the family. No need to upset the apple cart and spill the milk."
"What do you think?" I say to the woman, whose pretty face is twisted sour after a sip of my drink.
"It tastes like hummingbird vomit," she says as she passes it back.
"My name's Victor. Victor Carl."
"What, they run out of last names when you were born?" she says. "Had to give you two first names instead?"
"Exactly that. So what do they call you?"
"Wouldn't you like to know."
"I'm just trying to be friendly here."
"I know what you're trying," she says, but a smile starts breaking out anyway.
"It was the cancer, finally did in all them plans," says the old man. "It tore up the throat. Curt's throat. When he died, she up and ran off with the night nurse. Happiest day of my life when she left. Now I miss her every minute of every hour. I loved her true, like a Hank Williams song, but what does that matter?"
I snatch down the rest of my drink, and that is apparently the moment my mental recorder decides to go seriously on the fritz. I remember Jim Morrison intoning sweet mystical nothings from the jukebox. I remember my drink tasting funny and me laughing at the joke. I remember the old man getting up for a moment and me slipping onto his warm stool so I could sit next to the woman. I remember ordering us another round.
Excerpted from MARKED MAN © Copyright 2011 by William Lashner. Reprinted with permission by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.