North and Central by Bob Hartley perfectly evokes Chicago in the epic winter of ‘78-‘79—the bleak season of blizzards and disco and John Wayne Gacy—capturing the city in microcosm through the denizens of one blue-collar watering hole. You can get the novel from Tortoise Books over here. In the meantime, listen to this reading by the author. Thanks, Bob!
Trembling Under Fingers
I was a balding thirty-five-year-old with a belly and heel spurs. My bar took up a corner at North and Central. It was red brick with glass block windows.
It was a Friday in early December and the Old Style sign was swinging in the wind. I sat banging dents into quarters with a hammer and nail. Bill, the night bartender, had called in sick again. And I’d had to stock and clean the bar because Donald, the afternoon guy, hadn’t done shit. All I asked for in bartenders was that they showed up, did most of what they were supposed to, and didn’t steal too much. Donald was getting too close to the line. Bill had maybe crossed it. With every whack of the hammer, I imagined I was cracking his skull.
Railroad Bob was passed out in a booth with his dirty hair forming a wooly cloud around his head. His boots were sticking out and dripping mud onto my floor. The Skeletons sat with their shoulders hunched. Their elbows were sunk into the bar and they chain-smoked Chesterfields. They were old and gray. Their skin sagged so much it looked like it’d been draped on them. Like always, they were fucking with each other.
“Buy one,” she said.
“With what?” he replied.
“Enough for one.”
“Christ. Think only of yourself.”
“You married me.”
“Don’t remind me.”
The arguing was part real and part con. They gambled. If they kept it up long enough, I’d either buy them one or throw them out. Sometimes it’s easier to be a sucker. I had too much to do. I gave them two Buds. “On me,” I said. “Shut…the…fuck…up.”
It was like giving a baby a bottle. They went back to smoking and I went back to work. I’d just started bashing Washington’s head again when Rita came in. She always wore this old brown leather bomber jacket with the collar turned up. Her hair was tied back in a ponytail and she had this little gap between her two front teeth. She had these hazel eyes that pierced right through me and made me sometimes forget what I was saying. She hopped onto the stool next to me.
“Seen him?” she asked.
I’d seen Jerry around six and he’d said he’d be in. He told her he’d be working. Jerry lied to her all the time even when the truth was just as good.
Anybody else, I could look straight in the face and lie to, but not her. I looked at the quarters. “No,” I said.
She leaned closer and tried to make eye contact. I kept banging dents.
“Really?” she said.
“Really,” I said.
“Every payday the asshole’s a ghost.”
“I can let ya have fifty.”
She leaned even closer. Her arm brushed against mine and the feeling of her skin, even for those few seconds, made me want to take hold of her.
“What are you doin’?” she said.
“Bill called in sick. And on top of that, I’m pretty sure the fucker’s been ripping off the jukebox during the week,” I said. “I think he’s stupid enough to use the register to cash in the quarters. Monday night, when I’m countin’ the drawer, if these are there, I’ll fire his ass.”
She tilted her head a little, laughed, and said I was smart. And because it was her that said it, I believed I was. She told me that, if I saw Jerry, to call her. She hopped off the stool, backed up, and turned toward the door.
Railroad Bob had pulled himself up. He was smoking a cigarette and staring at the table like it was telling him a secret. He looked up and, when he saw her, he smiled and raised a hand that shook a little.
“How’s it goin’, sister,” he said.
“Good,” she said. “How’s your ma?”
Rita’s face went a bit pale. She didn’t say anything, but she didn’t move either. She needed an out.
“Could be worse,” I said. “Right, Bob.”
“Yeah,” Bob said. “Bitch could still be here.”
Rita looked at me and smiled. Then she laughed a little, moved to the door, gave it a pull, and walked out. Railroad Bob got up and threw a five on the bar. I cracked open an Old Style, shoved it in front of him, and made his change. He took a drink and looked over at Old Man Skeleton and said: “Some dead are more alive than the livin’.”
“Shut up,” Old Man Skeleton said. “Christ, you’re a dark bastard.”
“Death smiles at me. I smile back.”
“Shut the hell up.”
I thought about running after Rita and telling her that Jerry had lied and that, if she came back later, she’d find him spending the money she needed. But I couldn’t tell her that, because if I had, she’d have known for sure that I was a liar too.
It started getting busy around eleven.
First, the cops started filing through the back door. On Friday nights there were always three or four squads parked in my alley with the windows rolled down. The cops took turns sitting out back and listening for calls. Most of the time, there were more of them in my bar than they had at roll call. Jerry wasn’t on duty. The rest were. They threw their uniform jackets over the barstools and their caps on the bar, then pulled out their shirttails and rolled up their sleeves.
I opened a dozen Old Styles, put them on the bar, and started their tab. They played liar’s poker. Each one kept a beer in one hand and a folded dollar bill in the other. They huddled around taking peeks, and making bets. Soon there was a small mountain of crumpled bills piling up on the bar.
The Zenith factory second-shift guys came next. Like the cops, they marked their territory and took up space close to the door. They threw their work coats into a booth, sat down on stools, and cranked their heads to watch the TV. Over the past couple of years, there’d been steady layoffs. So there were fewer of them, but they knew how to drink, and still made up a good part of the business. They ordered pitchers and shots and threw quarters into the Wurlitzer. They loved “Iron Man” and played it over and over.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore and hit the reset button. When the music stopped, Railroad Bob still stood in front of the box, stomping in place, whipping his hair around with his eyes fixed on the ceiling. He looked like a drunk Jesus waiting for the ascension.
“Bob, the fucking song’s over,” I said.
But he kept it up. “Fuck you. I’m Iron Man.”
“Well look at your pants. Somebody pissed on Iron Man.”
Only then did he notice the stain on his crotch. “Mother of mercy,” he said. “Is this the end of Bob?” The cops and Zeniths laughed, and somebody bought him a beer.
After a few rounds, the two groups blurred. A few of them started making bets on the Shuffle Alley machine. The puck banged against the pins and each time somebody hit a strike, bells rang, and Catwoman’s tits lit up.
Business had been shit and I needed a good night, but I wished they’d stop coming through the door for a while. Still, each time it squeaked meant money. I banged on the register, threw bottles into garbage cans, dumped ashtrays, and wiped up spills. And every ten minutes or so, two or three red or blue flannel shirts walked out the backdoor and came back with slits for eyes, and smelling like weed. The cops paid no heed.
When Gin and Tonic Doc came in, I knew it was midnight. He took his usual spot in the middle of the bar and a few stools from the Skeletons. He sat with his back straight and eyes forward. He kept his ashtray, cigarettes, lighter, coaster and drink in one straight line. He spent most of his time reading some book and waiting for his chance with rough trade.
Then the St. Anne’s nurses came in wearing tight sweaters and tighter jeans. Most were from the neighborhood and were friends, sisters, or cousins of the Zeniths and cops. Like the guys, they mostly drank beer. Only tonight there was a new one who looked like one of those big-headed kid paintings that everybody had in the Sixties: frizzy hair, saucer eyes, and puckered lips. She came up to the bar and said: “Make me something special.”
“Like what?” I said.
“I don’t know. Surprise me.”
Christ, I hated people who couldn’t make up their minds. It doesn’t matter if it comes in a glass or a bottle, it’s all fucking alcohol. I surprised her with a shot and an Old Style chaser. “Try Railroad Bob if you want special.”
Then this young black guy came in hustling Craftsman knockoff tool sets for twenty bucks. A few suckers were drunk enough to take the bait. He stuck around and bought a beer. One of the nurses smiled at him and said he was cute. He smiled back and said she was cute too. Then he put his arm around her shoulder. People started to stare. I told him it wasn’t a good idea. He caught the fierceness of the eyes on him. He took his arm away, gulped down his beer, and left.
When it hit 2:00, we got the swing shift stragglers, and the professional drinkers who’d closed the other neighborhood bars.
It didn’t matter how drunk they got. Everyone knew when closing was coming. With two hours to go, even with shots and full beers in front of them, they ordered backups for themselves and each other. And they constantly needed change for the juke box, the pool table, or the cigarette machine. The bastards kept me running from one end of the bar to the other.
Then some asshole came in with a handful of cigars. He handed them out, and soon one end of the bar was covered in a gray cloud. With that and the cigarettes, my lungs were leather.
My back ached more and more the deeper I had to reach into the cooler for a beer. But they kept buying each other drinks. And the Skeletons wouldn’t stop singing “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amoré,” even though neither of them could sing worth a good goddamn.
“You’re off key,” I said. “Shut up.”
“You’re stiflin’ our creativity,” Old Man Skeleton said.
Then some started plinking away on the upright piano. I don’t know why, but, when people get drunk, the bastards think they’re Mozart or something. I usually put up with it, but one of the morons started banging on the keys with his fists. I told him to stop or get the hell out.
Then a couple of the cops started shoving each other over a bet. I told Jerry to control his friends. Jerry grinned, shrugged, and told them they should ease up. “It’s just a fucking game,” he said.
Then some asshole put on that same goddamn disco song from that same shitty goddamn movie that’d been played in every fucking bar for months. Railroad Bob stood in front of the box, gave it the finger, and screamed, “You are the shitstain on American music.” The longer it played, the more they shouted that it must have been a nurse that put it on, because nobody else would play that faggot crap. And the nurses said that was bullshit, except for Saucer Eyes, who was now blasted and hanging all over Jerry. And I almost hit the button again, but somebody bumped the Wurlitzer and it reset and we all cheered.
Finally, it was 3:30 and I yelled, “Last call, fellas. Dancing girls waitin’ outside.”
Somebody by the pool table yelled, “Go fuck yourself.”
“If I could,” I said, “life’d be easier.”
In between final drinks, I threw six packs into paper bags and stuffed the cash into the register. One of the cops pulled his squad in front of the place and threw on the rollers, lighting the place up with flashes of blue. And I yelled, “Squads are out, boys. Squads are out.”
A few of them said I was an asshole. Then more joined in and they all started chanting and it got louder and louder until the whole place was screaming: “Andy is an asshole. Andy is an asshole. Andy is an asshole.”
I shoved six-pack bags at them.
Jerry had his arm around Saucer Eyes. Her hair looked like a fright wig and there was a smudge of lipstick spread across her cheek.
“Hey, Jerry,” I said. “Who’s your favorite clown?”
As they walked toward the door, she stuck her tongue in his ear. He gave me a wink and left with his hand shoved in her back pocket and squeezing her ass. It pissed me off, because, just a few hours before, I’d had to lie for him. I always had to lie for the fucker and there was no payoff.
I poured quick last call shots and blasted them with the bar lights. And they all shouted, “Oh shit.” They squinted and clutched damp brown paper bags. And when the Skeletons were making their way to the door, the old man reached his boney arms over the bar and tried to pour himself a Budweiser. I grabbed the glass from his hand and told him to behave himself.
“Why?” he asked.
The Skeletons snapped at each other as I nudged them toward the door.
“You married me.”
“Don’t fucking remind me.”
I grabbed Railroad Bob by an arm, pulled him out of the booth, got him to his feet, and put his coat on him. For a second, I thought he wasn’t going to make it, but then he started moving and I got him into the street. I let go of him. He stood there swaying and staring up at a street light.
“I stare into the hole and it keeps lookin’ back,” he said.
“Gonna make it home?” I asked.
He looked at me, grinned, and said, “Every pleasure has its price, gherkin.”
“Careful,” I said. “Gettin’ crazy around here.”
“We’re all a little crazy,” he said. Then he took a few steps, put his palms against a brick wall, bent over, and threw up on my neighbor’s building. I thought about helping him, but the cold made me walk back in. He wasn’t my problem anymore. I pulled hard on the door and locked up.