This Is What He Said To Me
This is no secret sweet cubbie hole where I can hibernate to hide from my problems. This is just a cluttered old office and a rather small one as that. Pop, I seem to find tokens of your memory scattered about everywhere in here. How did you manage for all those years? What kept you going? Weren’t you ever weary of the shadow your father left behind?
The Winstone family name isn’t much to live up to anymore; it’s just become this antiquated old sign that should warn others of impending doom and depravity. It’s a sad state of affairs, all things considered, so much so that lately I’ve been wondering if it’s all worth the expensive charade.
I’ve never been very capable of self-preservation or acts of derring-do, but it’s not as if I’m afraid of failure. How could it? Failure follows me down these dirt-encrusted roads, each cobblestone an accommodation to my weary footsteps, as I lead my misery back home to bed.
Thanks to you, pop, my inheritance included an unreasonable amount of debt, several years of running unashamedly in the red, sucking dry the last vestiges of whatever wealth our lordly ancestors once accumulated many years ago.
But it isn’t as if I can speak of a great distinction between prince and pauper; I’ve never known that kind of luxury or even the doubtlessly pleasurable experience of having fallen from grace. But then again, neither did you. You always blamed your pop and your pop always blamed his.
The blame has been passed down for so terribly long that I can’t even begin to fathom when it truly began. But I’m not trying to blame you, pop. I did that enough while you were still alive.
I wanted to turn this pub into the beginning of something new. I wanted to create a new legacy for our family name. We’ve never been glorious or even chivalrous little bastards, just a drunken clan of low-level gutterboys who once had enough quids to kiss the hand of the King and go shopping for a pretty coat of arms.
So legacy is probably the wrong word and prestige isn’t even one worth mentioning, which is why I think it would be best to sell this sorry plot of land for whatever it’s worth — not much, I’d imagine — auction off the ancestral abode in Coventry, and barter away the rusted trinkets of my life for a plane ticket and some nibbles.
I’d like to begin anew, perhaps somewhere in the desert. I’ve heard Phoenix is nice; far away from the fog and cold that drive me batty. Why would Sal, that old goat, want to live out his days here in this swamp? What’s the draw anymore for this former center of the world besides glorified tourism, overpriced real estate, and the faint recognition that we used to be important?
And what about Molly? It’s like she had rightly romanced an ice cube before she kissed me out there. We’re already growing apart and it hasn’t even been a year. She must think I’m a ripe old prick, for reasons beyond my comprehension. I mean, should I be the one to clean out the bathrooms in my own establishment? She was an employee before a lover, after all, and she’s the one who volunteered to open up during the week.
There’s got to be another reason, one that I’ll likely find out about later tonight before she ships off to sleep in some other man’s bed. I’m not thinking this through clearly enough. I can’t be. She’s never given me any sort of indication that she’d rather be with another man. I’m probably overanalyzing and overreacting.
Surely that must be it. I hope it’s a family thing or something. Something that has nothing to do with me. It’s getting to be that time of year again, after all. Holiday doldrums, seasonal affective disorder, yeah, that sort of thing. I could have received that lukewarm kiss solely because of some hidden family issue. Surely nothing to worry about, Mark, maybe she’ll still love you in the morning.
I need to get back out there. Sal seems a little down tonight. Not that he’s ever filled to the brim with an overwhelming amount of cheer, and I think his sour disposition is starting to rub off on me. Oh, what did I come in here for? Cigarettes? Peace of mind? Yes, well, enough of the Remembrance Day parade. Do I have my keys? Yes. Bye for now, pop, I’ll try to do better.
I do indeed hope we’ll have a bit of a crowd tonight. A light dusting of snow never kept the loyal drinker away. Besides, I’ve got bills to pay, lads. But it’s best to keep expectations to a minimum; that’s how a proper gentleman avoids getting hurt.
There she is, adding fire to the flame. We’ve burnt so much rotten wood, and yet there’s still so much more to burn. Sal couldn’t have left already, could he? I was only gone for a couple of minutes. His jacket’s still here. There’s his coat and matches. He must be canoodling himself in the toilet, dreaming of an evening outside the confines of my precious dump.
What should I say to Molly? Will she only kiss me on the cheek and offer up another inscrutable kind of smile? I doubt she’ll grab my cock and howl at the moon. That sort of passion fell away long ago.
I’ll have a seat and act calm. But first, a drink. When is she going to notice me again? Was Sal right? Do the people you care about never think as much about you as you do them? She probably thinks I’m not thinking about her. Christ, babe, if I could only stop myself. Sometimes I think we should…live together. But she’d never accept; no, she’d never want that. We’re not good enough for each other.
Ah, a glimpse! “Hi,” she says, her voice flat. I’ll just keep it simple and show her my toothy grin.
“Hello. Where’s Sal?”
“If that ain’t a stupid question, Mark.”
“Well, are you going to stand by the fireplace for the rest of the night or come over here and have a seat?”
“I think I’ll remain standing. Besides, I’m the bartender. Why don’t you have a seat?”
What a bloody c—. “Why, I don’t mind if I do!”
Maybe I wasn’t overreacting after all… Ah, there’s Sal, my savior in a time of need.
Molly makes herself a gin & tonic. I suppose it’s going to be another one of those nights again. “Sod it,” she says with a shrug. “I don’t think we’ll be too busy tonight with this weather.”
“You’re the boss,” I tell her, hopefully with a bit of humor.
“Mark.” Yeah, Sal? “No Floyd? What gives?”
That damn rubbish jukebox again. “What are you talking about? We have Dark Side.” He must have his tits set upon something else.
“Right, but no Wish You Were Here. But, what fresh hell is this? You have ABBA’s Greatest Hits, but no Wish You Were Here?”
“Hey buddy, I just own the place. What do you want from me?”
Silence. I hate it when he doesn’t answer me. Is he perpetually stuck in some sort of spiraling reflection or just an asshole? Too often I want to lean towards the latter, but I can’t bring myself to hate the guy. I’m almost certain he provides a quarter of our revenue. He chooses ‘Tuesday’s Gone’ and ambles back to his seat.
“All right,” Sal says. All right what? Is it story time? No offense, Sal, but at this point in my life and my day, I could really give a damn. “I never even told my wife this and I don’t know why I’m going to share it with yous now, but I had an epiphany in the pisser and that epiphany was that I don’t particularly give a shit what anyone thinks anymore. Comes with age, I think.”
“Wow, I thought we’re supposed to be the nihilists here.” That’ll be my intellectual contribution for the evening. I’m not even sure I understand what the hell I’m talking about anyway. Sal surely doesn’t give a shit. I tell myself I don’t give a shit. I’m going to sit here and nod my head.
Oh, but Molly, how can I take my eyes off of you? Would you marry me if I asked you? Would you love me if I said I cared? What prevents me from kicking down these invisible barriers, tearing down the wall, and making a commitment?
Pop would slap me and call me gutless. Molly and I haven’t had an easy ride together. I suppose a bloke like me should expect a few rough jabs out of the gate when sex and grief are left to mix and stew in the same black pot. I couldn’t prevent her brother from dying, but I could bend her over at the waist to make her feel something else besides the numbing sting that death leaves in its wake.
We’ve never been the type to have super secret trysts, or at least the kind that involves wining and dining and a candlelit log cabin in the woods. At first it was just a carnal ten-minute romp in Pop’s office — my office — after closing time. After five or six times of that, we settled for strict bedroom interactions, always at her place, so that I could leave before daybreak.
“And no matter how adorable such-and-such a person might sound, even when you’re self-consciously trying not to gush and sound like a sentimental putz, it seems like you’re only remembering the cracked eggshells while anyone who bothers to listen receives the proverbial omelet.”
Wot? “I hear you there, Sal,” I tell him. Ahh, Guinness. Sal might have his Belgian beauty, old Stella Artois, but I’ve got my chocolate steak. Goddamn, that snow sure is coming down now. There won’t be another soul coming in. I should call Marcel to tell him to not even bother showing up tonight. We’ll close early.
“…I only managed to meet her once.”
Jesus, Sal. “Once, eh? How in the hell does that work?”
“Not very well as far as romance is concerned, I bet,” Molly says, giving me some stink eye. What did I ever do to you, huh? If you want some romance, then ask for some goddamned romance. I’m not here to read your mind, Mollypop.
“So where did you meet this looker?” I ask.
“Chicago,” he says. I think I have a cousin who’s been there once. I watch Molly light a smoke and realize I could use a drag.
“Damn,” I say to Sal as he continues his tale. A minute or two later I ask, “May I?” I give Molly a look of hopeful appreciation. It’s a vicarious way for my lips to touch hers.
“Kill it,” she says. She doesn’t even hand it to me, just leaves it in the ashtray for me to grab. If that isn’t the story of our lives, I don’t know what is.
I’ve never heard Sal reveal so much about himself before tonight. It’s hard to believe he’s sixty-four. Though I’m a piss poor listener, I admit I’ve always enjoyed hearing him speak. He’s got a voice as smooth as silk, even though he’s constantly smoking cigars. You’d never guess in a million years that this guy, who looks like Hemingway’s long lost brother in a bucket hat, used to be a radio DeeJay.
“Whew, how romantic!” Molly, you’re such a giggling traitor; forever so dismissive of me. But I forgive you.
“Yeah, no shit,” I say instead. “Did you manage to give her a smooch or something that day?”
No. How predictable, Sal, how truly sad and predictable. Why didn’t you say something, huh? Why didn’t you—
“We’d set a date, but then she never showed. I found out the next day she’d been killed in a car accident.”
Oh. Oh dear. But how? I’m not sure what to say. I never have anything good to say. I want to say at least he wasn’t in the car with her. At least when the car flipped, or did whatever it did, at least he didn’t have to hear her weakening voice ask, “Sal, are you okay?” Then, later waking up to learn she died soon after he passed out. At least she didn’t die with his name being the last thing to escape her lips. Is that a consolation? It’s best if I keep quiet and sit closer to the fire.
No, wait. “What about your second love, mate?”
The door bursts open and with it comes a gust of wind and snow. This bloke is rosy in the face like he just exited a musical.
“Good evening gentlemen, ma’am! Not too busy tonight, eh?”
“Not with this weather” is the only answer worth mentioning to this blustering bag of cocks. He’s utterly mad, and talking about being truly in love for the first time.
“I’m buying a round!” he announces to the three of us, and I could rightly give a damn, but we could use the money.
He orders a cognac for himself when we have tremendous selection of ale! Now he’s shaking hands with Sal. Who is this pompous bastard?
“I’m Ed.” He holds out his hand to me and I reluctantly take it.
“Winstone.” His eyes flick to the sign above the bar. “Like the owner of this place.”
“That’s right.” What are you getting at, mate?
“How come that lovely lass is slaving away behind the bar if you’re the head honcho?”
“Because he is the head honcho,” she says. “Or so he claims.”
“Ignore the help,” I suggest with priggish glee. “Anyhow, Ed, I heard you say something quite curious, something about being in love? What brings you here, all by your lonesome, if you’re so madly in love?”
I shouldn’t have even asked this kid a question. I’m not even a tidbit interested. I don’t need to hear anymore about unfertilized love. It’s all a shame and it’s all a great big joke that no one ever laughs about. I almost want to yell out, “Don’t! It’s not worth the risk!” But I don’t. I never do.
“So, what’s her name, doll?” He’s been here five minutes and she’s already in love with him with the red hair. I’m yesterday’s news, hardly even read.
“Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t found out yet, but I’ll know soon enough.”
Absurdity! “Haven’t found out?” I can’t restrain the incredulousness in my voice. “Why, two minutes ago you sounded like she had just said yes and lifted you up off your knees. What gives?”
Only in this day and age, it seems, can you love someone and never even know them outside of a momentary hello. Sal interjects with a cough and it sounds like he’s as aggravated as me. This could get nasty.
Then, Sal says, “But love isn’t a one-sided affair. Trust me, son, I’ve taken the train a few times around town.” The kid is silent and then takes a drink.
And suddenly everything makes sense. It isn’t a logical sort of sense, filled with words and figures and charts and graphs. I can’t explain it. It’s so simple. So simple I repeat it to myself.
Love isn’t a one-sided affair.
Molly and I both love each other, I think, but at different times of the day. It’s like we’re on different schedules of affection, maybe even different time zones, in fact. She’s looking at me now, wondering what I’m thinking. I’m wondering the same.
I look at her hands. I’ve always loved her hands. They’re a part of her. I remember them touching me, my cheek, my lips. Now. I look up and we make momentary eye contact. Does she love me? I wish.
Sal lays down a couple quid and grabs his coat to leave. He must be drunk and fed up for the night. I hope he’ll be safe on the way home.
What will happen now? Will Molly wait to berate me until after this kid has finished his drink and gone as well? Or will she avoid me for the rest of the night? The kid looks deflated, but I give him a gentle tap on the shoulder and, contrary to my usual misbegotten advice, tell him to never lose hope. Ed says cheers and I finish off my drink.
Molly laughs. It’s the type laugh that twinkles stars. I get up to go to pour another, and she kind of hip checks me on her to way to wipe down the table where Sal sat. I realize I need to find a split second to tell her I love her, even if it doesn’t resolve anything in the end. And not just her hands or her hair or her smile. Her, the whole damn thing.
Thanks for reading this musty old story I unearthed from the archives and dusted off this afternoon. If you made it this far, it must not have been that awful. Cheers!