CHAPTER EIGHT: Ugly Ollie’s Speakeasy – Greenwich Village
She was singing something about friends. Everyone could relate to the words, but they could never have written them as eloquently as she. Her voice was crisp, thunderous as the 1-Train emerging from the 122nd Street tunnel and out into Harlem. Scratchy like the first words after a heavy sleep. Exhilarating as baby’s first cry.
Of the seemingly endless supply of tattoos, the most interesting were written up and down her arms. They proclaimed words like UGLY, BROKEN and ANGRY. MISPLACED. BUSTED. BRUISED. WANTING. STRUGGLING. FALLING. HUNGRY. HOMELESS. WORTHLESS. She said the tattoos came from a dark place in her life, one she was not proud of, and one she didn’t think she’d ever escape from. But she did escape, and now the words that once defined her had become more than that: they were challenges to be met. And she had conquered them all. The most important one, the UNLOVED on the back of her right hand, was what she focused on every time she strummed her guitar, serving as fuel for her euphony.
She was so beautiful and so talented and so perfect in every way it was hard to look at her and not be excited for her. Her lyrics were both searing and dreamlike. Truthful and shattering. She had a lip stud, pierced a little off center, just enough to make you want to question its placement. Her shaved head, tattoos and electric blue cowboy boots were far beyond a mere statement anymore; they were all simply, amazingly her.
Jesse focused on every melodious reverberation she put forth. Every letter within every word within every lyric must have meant something so extraordinary to her when she first put them on paper. There was a salty tear behind every sweet thought. Jesse was a fool if he thought this girl was not worthy of being in his life, if he couldn’t afford her even a shred of himself. She was singing something about friends. And like most friendships, her song came to an end just as the crowd expected more. They applauded but didn’t know why she had to leave them.
Sharona walked off the stage and sat directly across from Jesse at his tiny table for two. She locked her guitar back inside its case and set it on the floor. Jesse had already downed one Bacontini and two Green–Eyed Monsters, and he’d long since finished mixing the remaining drops of both martinis in with the bowl of shrimp cocktail sauce and one piece of chewed licorice bubble gum. It had created such an unexpectedly harsh aroma that he wondered when the waitress would be by to clean up his mess. Where the hell was she anyway? Had she forgotten all about him? If only Sharona didn’t have to show up first and be witness to the most peculiar of his many habits.
“I didn’t think you’d come,” Jesse noted, sliding the bowl away from her.
Sharona downed an entire glass of water, ice and all. The frozen cubes were visible as they slid down her throat. “I sort of had to be here,” she answered. “There were posters all over the Village for this thing.”
“No, I’m sorry. What I meant was I didn’t expect you to come and sit down with me.”
“There’s no reason to be sorry Jesse.” Throughout her set, everyone in the club had noticed each time the wondrous songstress stared at the solitary man seated at the table for two. It was plain to see where her lyrical attention had been focused. Of course she was going to step off that stage and sit down with him. “So, what have you come up with?”
“It’s obvious you’ve been sitting here thinking about what you want to say to me.” She withdrew both a cigarette and a lighter in one motion from her pants pocket. Jesse wondered how that single cigarette could have remained so perfectly straight within Sharona’s denim compartment all night. “So what’s it gonna be?”
“Listen Sharona. I don’t have anything to say except I’m sorry for cancelling on you the other night.”
Sharona lifted the cigarette to her mouth before realizing that the smoky club was actually smoke-free. She still couldn’t get used to the fact that every club in Manhattan had the same asinine restrictions. Surely even the city’s steamiest dives could still allow smoking inside, couldn’t they? I must admit that a part of me missed it too. “That’s it then?” she asked. She tried to be cool, to say the words with the cigarette dangling from her lips, but it was too difficult to pull off. It fell into her empty glass the instant she uttered those TH-words.
“Um…” Jesse couldn’t help himself from being intimidated by Sharona. Truthfully, he was quite afraid of most women in general. He had almost bolted the moment Edith Galloway first opened her front door for him so many years ago. “That’s really all I’d come up with.”
“No. I mean, that’s it for us then?”
“What us? We only had one date.”
“Plus whatever you want to call this.”
“Honestly, I don’t know what I’d call this. But it couldn’t possibly be considered a date, could it?”
“No. I guess not.” Without the distraction of the cigarette, Sharona repeated herself. “So that’s it then?”
The best Jesse could utter with was, “Yes.” But yes was the honest truth, so it really was all that he needed to say.
“Yes really. You figured me for a fighter?”
“A fighter? No. I thought you’d be a little more pissed actually. I guess I just assumed there’d be more to this is all.”
“Whatever this is, right?” Sharona waved the cigarette at Jesse, in rubber-pencil style. “Do you mind coming outside with me so I can smoke this stupid thing then?”
She had been singing something about friends. The words were still echoing in Jesse’s head, something about how friends will always be there for you when you need them. Even for the littlest of things in the smallest of moments. Even when they don’t really want to be there. And then they’ll leave you just as you’re wanting more.
Jesse and Sharona had been sitting outside Ugly Ollie’s Speakeasy for maybe ten minutes without a single word between them. The truth was that Jesse didn’t know what to say; he didn’t know exactly why he was there at that moment. And Sharona? She just wanted to finish her cigarette. He’d only known her for a few days, but Jesse had already decided upon the oddest thing about Sharona: she must have been the most talkative creature on the planet, but when she smoked Sharona was as silent as a funeral procession. Of the passersby, no one paid any attention at all to them, and the only conclusion Jesse came to was that the two of them must have appeared to belong together. That had to have been the only possibility. When two people are so right for each other they blend effortlessly into their surroundings. So why then was Jesse trying so hard to distance himself from her?
Sharona flicked the wet stub of her smoke high into the air, almost hitting the opposing sidewalk. Its wispy trail dissipated in a perfect arc over MacDougal Street. Her skills were fantastic, weren’t they? “You know,” she finally began, slicing the silence in two. “If you’d told me you were coming by tonight, I could have gotten you in for free.”
“Then I would’ve felt like I owed you a better explanation.”
“You expect a lot from people, don’t you?”
“You do. Especially from yourself. You don’t have to over think everything.”
“I over think?”
“If you need to ask, then you’ve already answered.”
She’s so powerful and clever, Jesse thought. Like The Thing and Mister Fantastic in one. The streetlight bounced off the mystifying shine of her plum-colored eyes. Sharona’s sealed lips still seemed to hold the last of her cigarette’s smoke. Like there was an invisible fire inside her. Fuck, she’s just like Invisible Woman and the Human Torch as well.
“What are you smiling at?” she asked him, putting an end to his fantastical daydreams.
“Nothing.” Jesse tried to come up with an answer that would be more something than nothing; the kind of something that would actually be believable. “You know, I work with these two guys who are always trying to get me to join their band.”
“I didn’t know you played an instrument.”
“So what, do they want you to be their lead singer?”
“I can’t sing either.”
“I don’t think so.”
“The drummer then?”
“Like I said, I don’t play an instrument.”
“You don’t have to have any actual talent to be a drummer. Drummers are the most overrated members in any band.”
“Then why do people always say drummers are the coolest?”
“Well shit, Jesse. The other guys in the band just go along with it because they need a drummer.”
“Maybe they do want me to be the drummer then…”
“What’s the band name?”
“I think right now they’re calling themselves Retards in Leotards. But it seems to always be in flux.”
“Seriously? Who are these guys?”
“Pond and Germ.”
“Pond and Germ? Maybe you are the coolest of the bunch.”
“Ah, they’re okay. Do you want to know the dream I used to have when I was younger? I liked to imagine myself playing a wicked guitar solo in the pouring rain, wearing a leather vest with tassels and standing on top of a moving train. Like in one of those hard rock videos from the Nineties.”
“That’s a pretty specific imagination you’ve got there, Jesse. Maybe you should join them then.”
“Ha, ha. Very funny.”
“No really. If that’s a dream of yours then you should grab onto it. There’s nothing worse than letting a dream get out of reach.”
Jesse took a moment to imagine himself once again; his long hair blowing in the wind from the moving train. He couldn’t help smiling; he hadn’t concocted that image for such a long time now.
“You’re doing that smiling thing again Jesse.”
“I think I’m just wondering why you’re not pissed at me.”
“You want to know why I’m not pissed?”
Jesse nodded cautiously. He wasn’t sure if he did want to know.
“It’s because I’m from Canada, Jesse. Canadians have an innate ability to see the truth in everything.”
“They do?” Mystified, Jesse stared at her, as though Sharona had just leaked government secrets. He also felt a tiny bit uncomfortable, like she could see right inside of him.
“Of course they do. And all Canadians have webbed feet and can spit out of their ears.”
That’s pretty wild. “So what’s the truth then?”
“The truth is this: you want to stop seeing me? That’s cool. You’re an interesting guy Jesse. Maybe one of the most interesting guys I’ve met in this city. I actually like your stupid superhero t-shirts that are supposed to look retro and those dreadfully groomed sideburns of yours. But I’m okay with you feeling the way you’re feeling right now because I know you’re the type of guy who’ll change his mind. And I’d like to save all of that awkward can’t-we-give-it-another-try bullshit. I’ve done all of that before, you know?” Sharona pulled another cigarette out from somewhere. Maybe it was from her pants pocket again, but Jesse couldn’t be sure. Just like her words, her movements were far too fluid to follow completely. Nonchalantly, she asked some guy walking by if he had a light, and he was only too happy to stop and oblige her, before telling her to have a great evening and moving along to wherever it was that he was supposed to be going.
Jesse stared at her blankly. Who was this girl with the power to stop strangers in the street like that? He didn’t know exactly what Sharona was talking about just then, but something told him she was right.
She didn’t mind the empty stares though. She was the kind of girl who seemed used to it. “What I mean is, sort out whatever you feel like you need to sort out. Get over it, and then come find me again.” Sharona slapped the palm of her one free hand against the streetlight beside her. “You’ll find the poster for that future show right here. Come on by and we’ll start up right where we left off. Is that cool?”
Jesse didn’t know what it was that brought him to the Village that night. He also wondered why he hadn’t talked it over with Kate and Tommy. Why couldn’t he tell his best friends about this girl, and any of the dates he did or didn’t have with her? How the hell did Edith Galloway leave such an embarrassingly large hole in his soul? How long were the feelings supposed to last anyway? “Listen Sharona,” he finally started. “I’ve been through a lot of shit in the last year.”
“So get over it.”
“It’s not that simple.”
“That’s what everyone says Jesse. But nobody’s problems are so incredibly special. We all grow up and go through and get through the exact same horrible problems, don’t we? Yeah. We do. We all have our hearts broken at some point, don’t we? Fuck yeah, we do. So all I can tell you is: whatever that shit is, get over it already.”
Jesse hung onto her words for a moment. They were harsh, but they were also incredibly truthful. “You know, maybe what I’m going through isn’t all that special. Maybe everyone is hurting as much as I am. But I still think I need to talk to somebody about it. Would that be okay with you?”
“I’ve got two ears Jesse. And all they’ve ever been good for is listening.”
Jesse told Sharona his story. As advertised, she listened closely to every word of it. It had been almost one full year since Jesse’s art show in New Jersey. That was the warehouse space Edie had spent her own money on. That was the night she had left the note behind for John, who hadn’t a clue about his wife’s affair with the unassuming comic store clerk. The funny thing was, Jesse saw her leave the note behind, and he remembered thinking, “What if John was to show up?” Jesse had considered grabbing that stupid yellow note when Edie wasn’t looking. But he didn’t. It was sitting right there on the table, like an invitation to ruin all three of their lives, but Jesse didn’t do a goddamn thing about it.
The art show was like a real-world stage for the spectacle of comic books. He created giant-sized comic book pages, life-sized Manhattan street scenes with battling heroes and villains, all constructed from drawings, explosions and word balloons cut out from actual comics. The comic books were all from a Lower East Side store’s twenty-for-a-dollar bin. Jesse cleaned them out and ended up paying a couple of hundred bucks for it all. The finished pieces were a fantastic sight, like he’d created his own world, his own unique version of New York City.
Jesse was right in the middle of giving a very awkward, very impersonal thank-you speech to everyone in attendance when it happened. He wore the tuxedo Edith had bought for him, but articulated his look with bright red gloves and a domino mask. He was speaking from the sidewalk he’d crafted himself, standing on such words as “BRAAK!” and “PTOOM!” when John Galloway made his appearance. In fact, Jesse just happened to be thanking the lovely Edith Galloway for her constant and enduring support. Thank you Edith for making the show’s success possible. Thank you Edith for allowing such dreams to become real. Thank you Edith for making yourself available to me because your husband was never available to you. Something along those lines anyway. And it was exactly then that the two men spotted one another. John recognized Jesse immediately, even behind the mask. His ancient memory was uncanny; John Galloway could still recall the names of all eighteen kids in Mrs. Hartman’s first grade class and he never forgot to reset his clocks for Daylight Savings Time. Jesse could only watch as the man put the pieces together inside his head. The connection was made. It was feasible that over the three-year period some suspicion of his wife’s indiscretions had already been aroused within him. It was entirely possible that neither Jesse nor Edith had ever been as clever as they had liked to believe. But John was not a dumb man, and he knew then that some of his immense power had shifted to the insignificant employee of Midtown Comics. To that one stupid kid whose eyes had lit up at the simple prospect of attaining nothing more than some smelly, yellowed comic books.
John grabbed his wife by the arm, and insisted that they leave the show immediately. She fought back, slapping him across the face. She was certainly a feisty woman, and even more so when she was undeniably drunk. He grabbed her other arm. She swore at him. Her colorful collection of atrocious language was impressive beyond belief. Jesse was certain he’d heard words he never believed had existed. And when John Galloway threw his wife against the wall, the crowd rippled in nervous reaction.
Everything slowed down around Jesse. The crowd had frozen. The lights above them were no longer flickering, and they burned right through him. Surely, he thought, the snow outside had also stopped in mid-fall. Jesse didn’t know what to do; he looked around to his best friends for answers. Kate was in the middle of flirting shamelessly with some guy at the open bar when the commotion started; of course Gene had not accompanied her that night. Kate had mistakenly believed the man was from Australia, but it turned out he was from Nebraska, and just had an odd accent derived from his mild cerebral palsy. Tommy and Rachel hadn’t even shown up yet. As good as Rachel was at improving on so many of Tommy’s faults, she was notorious for making the two of them late any time they had promised to be someplace.
Jesse realized it was all up to him. He was the only one who could do anything that night. Save the city. Win the girl. Three years of incredibly poor decision-making had all led to that moment, hadn’t they?
“So what did you do?” Sharona asked. In the process of baring his soul to Sharona on the wet MacDougal Street sidewalk, Jesse intentionally skipped the best part of his story. First and foremost, his was a tale of great loss, and he didn’t want to spoil it by telling her the one part that had always made him smile. That wouldn’t have been right. So he saved it.
“I didn’t do anything,” is what he told her. “John threw Edie into his car with the intention of bringing her home and figuring out where they’d gone wrong in their marriage. But they didn’t make it back to Gramercy. He lost control of his car in the Holland Tunnel. The police said it was the road conditions, the wet tires from all the snow. But I don’t know if it was the snow that stopped them, or if Edie was still struggling inside the car. Or maybe John had never intended to make it home in the first place. And I’ll never know if Edie was maybe just growing tired of me altogether. Maybe she’d left that note behind on purpose.”
Sharona wanted to ask, but she couldn’t. She wanted to know the outcome of Jesse’s story, but she didn’t want to hear it. She could only guess. She stared at him, into those big brown eyes that seemed unnaturally dry. Maybe he’d told his story too many times before? Told it so many times already that he had come to be unaffected by its details. And yet, she wanted him to go on. All the while, the songwriter part of her had hoped that the words Jesse would murmur might make for some good lyrics.
In his mind, Jesse couldn’t help but recollect the sight of the accident. He and Tommy drove through the tunnel the day after, on the way back from New Jersey where they’d been cleaning up some pieces from the art show. There was still the twinkle from the clusters of broken glass, reflectors and metallic chips. A dark brown stain streaked across the STAY IN LANE painted on the road. Tommy said it looked like blood, and he carried on about how most people will assume blood is always red but because of the iron’s oxidization dried blood will turn brown. He’d learned details like that when he was doing research for his novels. Jesse didn’t want to think about it. There were no longer any police on the scene, but Jesse imagined what it must have looked like the night before, the red and blue lights reflecting off the tunnel’s wet, tiled walls. The underground echo of the body bag zipping tight. The sirens blaring forever beneath the Hudson River.
When Jesse’s lips had finally parted, the only words to come forth were the very same ones Sharona had already heard him say. “Like I said, it’s been a shitty year.” There was a scrap of newspaper at Jesse’s feet. He noticed it was an advertisement for Midtown Comics. “Sometimes I wonder if I’ve always made the wrong decisions.”
Sharona sucked on another smoke. She held her cigarettes in such a way that it made everyone else want one too. It seemed that perfect. “Everyone is going to make the wrong decisions. I mean, what the hell are the chances that we’re all going to make the exact right decisions every single time?”
“Not very good.”
“Exactly.” She finished the last cigarette, and flicked it across MacDougal Street, just like the one before it. And whether Sharona meant it to or not, the second cigarette landed perfectly flush with the first one. Of course, Jesse noticed these tiniest of details. “But it sounds to me like maybe you made one questionable decision, and you’re simply applying that to everything bad in your life. So what was it?”
“I’m sorry? What was what?”
“What brought you here, to this city and to this sidewalk and to me right now, Jesse?”
The flickering streetlight above him suddenly became static. The wind temporarily vanished. The smell of impending rain seemed to become something else entirely, as though it was not signaling the near future, but rather the scent of right now.
Breathe in. And hold it.
Jesse was second-guessing his intentions for being there, beside that marvelous girl on that particular foot-stamped sidewalk. He wanted to tell Sharona it wasn’t going to work between them. Because it really wasn’t, was it? The truth, he contemplated, was that he was getting tired of it all. I know that Jesse assumed he would fall in love with the city he’d read about for years, the city he’d grown up with but so far apart from. He was lingering on the fallout from his accidental relationship with Edith Galloway. He continued to hang on to the memories of Patrick Kohn. And he was still hoping that sticking with Tommy Mueller was the answer to it all.
“I don’t know if I can be in this city anymore,” Jesse finally uttered as the winds once again pushed the rains ever closer. “It just feels like I’m sitting around waiting for something to happen. Something that never does.”
“Something is happening Jesse.”
“I used to believe everything that Tommy ever told me about New York. He told me the Flatiron Building was really a giant arrow that pointed towards the location of some long-ago buried treasure. He even said that the United Nations Building was originally designed to be a giant skateboard ramp, and that there was a big magnet inside the Washington Square Arch that held Manhattan in place.”
“You actually believed all that?”
“I’m not sure if I did. But I think I wanted to, because it all sounded so fantastic. Like this was the one place in the world where any of that could really be possible.” Jesse looked back down to the torn newspaper ad between his feet. He scrunched the paper under the wet sole of his shoe. “But now I’m thinking that I never should have seen any of it in the first place. Maybe I should have stayed in Seattle or gone to art school in Columbus. But I think I’m afraid to tell Tommy. I’m afraid of what he would think of me.”
“All right then.” Sharona was smart enough to know she had gotten as far as she was going to get. “Don’t do it for me, do it for yourself. Get over this Jesse. I don’t know how you’ll go about doing it, but you need to get over it.” She stood up and slapped her palm firmly against the streetlight again. The rings on her fingers sent a hum that reverberated all the way up to Midtown. “Just look for my poster here when you’re done.”
Jesse paused for a long moment before finally opening his mouth again. “I still don’t know why you’re not pissed at me Sharona.”
She didn’t answer him. Jesse assumed she was silent because she finally was pissed at him, but then he turned around he realized it was because Sharona simply wasn’t there anymore. He stretched his neck to look down MacDougal Street, both to the north and to the south. But just like the Invisible Woman, she’d disappeared completely.
Jesse was lying face up in the mud in Morningside Park. He was right on top of second base, trying his best to ignore the instinct to recall any of baseball’s sexual metaphors that Tommy might have told him over the years.
Jesse had decided to walk all the way home from Greenwich Village, and he’d made it nearly one hundred city blocks before the rain had begun to fall again. It was a downpour by the time he reached 110th Street, and he decided to cut through Morningside Park but he slipped in the mud of the baseball diamond. The rain passed. He lay there in the mud for another hour counting the stars and considering his next move. His fingers clenched the mud and dirt so tightly, as though he was trying to hurt the city itself. Jesse was still a little woozy from the three martinis he’d downed earlier, making it harder and harder to keep track of the glimmering specks in the sky. Tommy and Kate could always hold their liquor much better than Jesse, as evidenced by the photograph on his refrigerator in which he’s falling from the tip of the Alamo. Jesse was growing exceedingly frustrated, losing track of the stars after only counting ten or so. He tried again, but he’d now found himself stumped even sooner.
He was so tired of making mistakes. Throughout his entire adult life, Jesse had actually attempted to keep track of the number of mistakes he’d ever made, the small ones and the big ones. But just like the shimmering stars above him, he was beginning to find it hard to admit that he might’ve finally lost track. Still, he had to wonder if sending Sharona on her way was yet another in his latest series of regrets. But really, how could he possibly ever keep up with a girl like that, a girl with that much power? Nevertheless, the decision to let her go still hurt. Was it his intention to make Sharona as gone as Edith was? Jesse stared into the black of night between the jagged claws of clouds that had begun to form, but then simply stopped moving. He had to wonder if the world had slowed to a stop again or if it was really that painfully quiet. He considered how from his vantage point, the stars in the night sky all seemed so close together, almost to be viewed as a singular thing. The stars were just like all the people in New York: so close from afar, but really billions of miles away from one another. He asked himself: Was that so bad? Does one star worry about the actions of another?
Jesse’s thoughts of Patrick were confusing him too. On the one hand, Patrick Kohn’s return to Manhattan might just be the launching pad for a whole new chapter in the lives of himself and his friends. On the other hand, Jesse was finding himself taking Tommy’s side in the whole situation. Maybe the return of Patrick heralded the beginning of something worse? Or perhaps it was simply the wet mud creeping under his shirt and into his shoes that was generating such unwarranted negativity?
His feet were nearly frozen from soaking wet socks. He reached his hand into his coat pocket, hoping to find a dollar or two for a cab. After crossing nearly the entire city he was ready to give in with only four more blocks to go. His wet, muddy wallet was ruined, but it did not contain anything of value anyway and certainly nothing close to what he was searching for. An ancient subway token. Three incomplete Wing King’s stamp cards. A CKY Grocery receipt for two liters of milk bought seven years ago. Yet the lack of money or anything else of importance at that moment yielded the appearance of something new: John Galloway’s business card was stuck to the bottom of his pocket. That same card had sat in the same pocket of the very same coat he’d worn four years ago. The card was coarse, though four years of lint and hair and dust and grime had found its way into the grooves of the fine paper.
I waited as Jesse considered Sharona’s last words. She didn’t know how he was going to go about getting over his past, but she told him he’d have to find a way.