I opened the door of the Harken and went inside. My nose crinkled from old cooked chicken, roasted potatoes, and tobacco smoke. People sat at tables in pairs, in threes, and more at the shorter roundtables. The volume of the combined conversation sounded similar to that of a hornet’s nest. The place reminded me of the saloons out West, where the tables, the chairs, and the building appeared to be constructed from grayed, waterlogged wood. In both places, the bar was the only piece which gleamed—the waxed wood finish, the mirror behind it, and the bottles of gold, brown, and clear liquor.
I maneuvered between the tables, brushing against chair backs and finding my way to the bar. I found an empty seat and the bartender promptly showed up. I ordered a bourbon, pointed to the bottles on the top shelf, then laid two bits and a dime on the counter. He took a bottle from the upper shelf and poured me a glass. I measured four fingers to be sure he didn’t swindle me and gave him a nod. He flicked his fingers off the bottom of his chin and off he went to take care of other customers.
I sipped the drink, taking in the flavors, trying to forget, yet my mind continued to show me Thomas Fickle’s unjustified reprimands.
I spun around in my chair, looked out over the drifts of pipe and cigar smoke. A lady came onto the stage, but it seemed the piano player was wringing out his hands as if he’d been in a fight. I know—I do that after a boxing match. It helps to keep the swelling down. I wondered what poor fellow had taken the beating and if it was over that delicious thick-legged lady with her reddish tinted hair and tight red corset. I would fight for her company. I chuckled to myself.
I glanced around, seeing who might be of interest to strike up a conversation with. Something, anything to get my mind off my reprimand. I peered to my right, and there was a man sitting there—long hair, looked like he’d not washed in weeks. His gaze was in his bottle, and when he took a drink, he reared his head back and took a big swig, then promptly slapped the bottle on the counter. Perhaps not the best conversational partner, but still…
“How are you?” I said.
He slowly turned his head in my direction. He glanced me over, then went back to staring at his bottle.
“Don’t mind me. I was talking to the bottle.” I half expected the man to chuckle or even look at me, but he didn’t. “You two look quite happy together.” The corners of my mouth turned down slightly.
I shifted to the man on my left who was smoking a pipe and drinking what looked to be rotgut, the bottom-shelf stuff people who only drink to get drunk would buy. He knocked back his glass down in two gulps. His arm shook, and his head wobbled when he set the glass back on the counter and asked for another. He was inebriated, close to the point of unconsciousness if he kept going. I thought I’d have better luck striking up a conversation with my stool.
I watched as the bartender poured the fellow a new drink. The man took the glass, his hand, arm, and part of his body shaking. He brought the brown piss to his lips, and in two gulps it was gone. The bartender hadn’t even bothered to leave, waiting, anticipating his customer—he was ready to fill the glass as soon as the man’s shaky arm was able to place his glass back on the counter.
Finding company wasn’t turning out to be what I’d hoped, but then when the drunk threw is head back again I saw a lady at the corner of the bar.
She was alone, sitting, an empty seat next to her. She struck me as regal the way her chin tilted up, her focus directed toward the stage, her arm in a just-so position at her side. Her posture was erect and her body exquisitely lean and firm. Most men would not attempt an approach, but I was not most men.
I got up, headed toward the lady, passed the long-haired man who’d finished taking a swig of his drink, weaved between a group of mill workers in gray overalls and steel-blue caps. I was practicing my conversation starter – what’s a girl like you doing in a place like this? No, that one doesn’t work. Did you come from up north? No, that one was a bit lame. She might be from the south, or from out west, or maybe she’d come over on a boat.
As I got closer to the lady, another man came into view and sat down next to her.
I stood there feeling foolish, having believed she was alone. She then turned her face from the stage to greet her companion, and I realized that I recognized her.
I went to retreat back to my stool, but it was taken. I was stuck, trying to find a place to hide. Thank God for a line of mill workers, on the other side of the long-haired fellow, stood to leave. Headed home to their wives, or to be alone.
I moved the seat closest to me. The woman was from my route. She and her companion were four seats away.
Him I didn’t know. He was clean-shaven, fair hair, and was leaning toward her, talking. His suit jacket was finely made and stitched. A sleek design. He looked he’d be more comfortable at the Holly.
Stacey Newberry was her name, and she was attractive. She had dark hair, a sort of giddy laugh each time the man spoke quietly in her ear.
While she continued to stifle her laugh, looking out into the crowd, her companion looked over at me. His eyes lingered, and I held his stare, then turned away and drank my bourbon, just a sip. It was how he looked at me as if to say sarcastically “why not come over and join us” or maybe it was more like “why don’t you piss off.” Either case, it didn’t make me feel welcomed.
I was nursing my bourbon, trying to keep to myself. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that the gentleman was facing me. I kept my eyes forward wondering what he wanted. I avoided the temptation to look over, taking a drink this time instead of sipping on the brown wildfire.
It was getting to me that urge building inside like an itch you need to scratch. Though as much as I tried to not look, I couldn’t help myself.
I tilted my head, slowly turned, trying to go unnoticed until my gaze fell on them directly. There he was, touching her arm, running his finger over the edge of her shoulder, down to her silken clothes. What’s she doing with him…?
Then his mouth stretched from ear to ear, and he held an indecipherable grin.
I was about to look away when he made a gesture—the kind men do when they’re with an attractive lady and trying to show her off to his friends when she’s not looking.
I wasn’t his friend.
The strange man was holding his hand up and bringing it down like a salesman does when he’s trying to get you to buy a new suit.
Stacey’s gaze was focused on the stage as three women came out and music queued for the next performance.
I held my bourbon close and whispered. “What do you think? Is he an ass or something else?” I took a drink but didn’t find any answers.
“What was he doing?” I said under my breath.
I didn’t know, and I didn’t like it either. I thought he was a bit brash with his company, acting more like a youngster rather than a gentleman with a lady like her. I knew the sort of woman Miss Newberry was in her private life, but still, when in public with a lady, regardless of how she lives her life, one should maintain a gentleman’s attitude.
I continued to eye them, holding my focus on him, thinking maybe he was just playful. That I had overthought his intentions. That he had a boy’s sort of glee that came out when he was with a beautiful woman. It was that, or he’d had too much to drink. I couldn’t tell either way, even if I were close enough to smell his breath. I’d lost my sense to detect alcohol when I started to drink today. It was like that, how the nose disables its ability to detect a smell once it’s become used to it. Much like garlic after eating a large plate of pasta with sauce heavily laden with the pungent root.
I knew Miss Newberry, but we weren’t friends. But why was she here of all places? We were on the corner of Fifth and Vine, which was filled with taverns and saloons. The post office was off Fourth and Vine, one of the reasons why I came to this place. Easy to get to after work. Miss Newberry lived at least sixteen blocks from here if you went down fourth, then took Park over to Sixth, veered to the left, took a side street to Caviler, and headed north past Saint Joseph but before Clinton.
Sorry, the habit of a postman.
She was on the edge of my route, and of all places to choose off Vine, she chose to be in the Harken when there so many nicer places between here and there.
I took a drink.
My glass in hand, I spoke in a low voice. “I’m wary about going over. It would be rash, but then again it could be a bit of fun.” I glanced over at them.
Their attention was on the showgirls dancing on the stage, the music at a high pitch as the piano player doubled the tempo. There were a few people who were on the small dance floor.
I’d never seen Miss Newberry’s companion before; I had no idea who he was. If I knew where he lived, that might be helpful. I knew a lot of people, maybe not by their face, but I did know them by what they received. I knew their names, their addresses, their friends, their families, what they celebrated, what religion they associated with and what political party they aligned with. I knew which ones were in trouble with their bills, which were doing well for themselves while others struggled. I knew birthdays if someone sent money in a card by the weight of it and the slight bulge. I knew who drank too much from the number of liquor bottles in their trash can. I knew which ones owned dogs, cats, or birds. I even knew who was sleeping with whom. Yes, I knew. I’d seen men slipping out of the side windows—one window comes to mind. Mrs. Fielding’s house. I’d seen a red vase appear on the front porch when she was alone. When the husband came back in town, no more vase. So, if I knew where Miss Newberry’s friend lived, and he’s on my route, then I’d know what kind of person he was.
The man at the corner of the bar stood out like a rose in a bed of daisies. “Maybe if I could find out his name, I might know his address,” I said a bit too loudly.
The fellow next to me shifted in his chair and moved two seats over to a vacant stool.
I ignored the man and continued my friendly conversation with my glass. “I’d know all about who he is, what he does, and where he lives. I think the chances are good. I have a large route, and it’s possible he is on it. Maybe he lives near Miss Newberry. Maybe they go to the same church together.” I chuckled to myself, thinking of this as more of a game than anything. “What do you think?” I put the glass to my ear.
I nodded, put the glass down. “Yes, that’s right. All I needed was his name.”