“Martini glass. White vermouth. A little ice. Sure, an olive on a cocktail stick, too. That’d be a treat.
“And the gin.
“What’s that? – no ice? No olive? No vermouth? Well, hell. You’ve got the gin, though. You do have the gin, I suppose? Well. I guess we’ll muddle along then. We’ll pull through.
“Truth is, Mag, you could’ve forgotten the damn Martini glass for all I’d’ve cared,” Paul says, and takes a swig straight from the bottle.
Taking a ride on the fifth avenue El, Mag and Paul, in summer with the blue clouds pooling in the sky.
“Poor saps,” says Paul. He’s looking down through the tall windows of the Tricolore building. Inside, six men sit around a desk in shirtsleeves and braces, staring at a can of shoe polish.
“What was it again?” asks Mag.
“’Shino gets ‘em super-smart,’” says Paul in a doleful sort of voice, and has another drink out of the bottle.
“My Paulie, you were the best ad-man they ever had.”
“Yeah. I could see it. The guy they had for the billboards, he woulda been perfect, Mag. Looked kind of like Fairbanks, you know? Hell of a handsome kind of guy.”
“Why’d they ever fire you, Paulie?” Mag says.
“I would’ve sold their damn shoe-shine faster than they could’ve turned it out.”
“What’s a little drink before work? Nothing. The number of times I’ve been a little tight from the night before, and Mr Brannigan, that’s the foreman, he just says, ‘Well, girls, a little of what you fancy does you no harm’.”
“Damn them,” mutters Paul. The El clunks along the rail around the corner and he can’t see into the Tricolore building any more. In the street below a little man in a brown derby is trying to reach down his shoes from a laundry-line.
“Fire every guy who goes into the office a little drunk, well, then, you’d have to fire the whole darn city,” says Mag, laughing and waving her hands.
“Mag, I been thinking,” says Paul. The gin’s getting to his grammar.
“Including the gosh-darn mayor, for God’s sake.”
“I’ve been thinking of calling time on, you know,” Paul says, not looking at her but at kids throwing a ball in a back-alleyway.
“What? Calling time? But Paulie you said how I was the best thing that ever happened to you,” Mag says, clutching suddenly at the sleeve of Paul’s sports coat. “Paulie? You said how you loved me and all. Why only this afternoon -”
“What? No, not that. Not me and you. Why, baby, you’re grand as can be.” Gives her a quick squeeze, and she smiles. “I didn’t mean that,” Paul says. “I meant this.” He shakes the two-thirds-empty gin bottle in his hand. “The sauce.”
“Oh, that. Well, fine. Sure. Who needs it, darling? Such a little thing.”
“Not this sap.”
“Sure. Go ahead. Pour the lot down the drain.”
“Been feeling kind of mean in the mornings these days.”
“Yeah. Sure! Stuff’s a poison.”
“Agin the law, anyway.” Paul gives the bottle another pull. Like a good-bye kiss, he thinks. “Agin the goddamn law, anyway.”
They ride the El. There are trees beneath their feet and blackbirds jockeying for position in the trees.
“Remnant Street,” Paul says. “Where I was a kid here, Maggie.”
“Why, yeah. You was born here, right?”
“Yeah. Across the street Joe Kish kept racing-pigeons. That guy was a drunk. Damn, you ought to’ve seen old Joe Kish, for Chrissakes.”
“Was he a real crack-pot?”
“A super crack-pot. God, I’ll tell you.”
“What did he do, baby? Was he funny? Come on, Paulie, tell us about old Joe Kish.”
“He was – ah. Lord, Maggie. I dunno. Just thinking of old Joe.”
“Paul, you seem a little sad all at once.” Mag leans in close to him, and puts her nose to his cheek. A little powder rubs off. “What’s up?”
“Joe Kish, by god. He’d get oiled up and play stickball with us kids all night long. And old Mrs Kish hollering from the kitchen-window. “Come in this minute, Joseph! This instant!”
“But old Joe, he was having too good a time right there playing stickball jus with us kids. Hitting homers over into Kentucky Alley like he was goddamn’ Babe Ruth, Maggie.”
“Sounds like a real crazy crack-pot.”
“Yeah. I guess he was.”
“Well, there,” says Mag. Not sure what to make of her Paulie like this. Usually so funny. Such a funny guy. Smart too. Looks at him now, half-way smiling, half-way looking like a condemned man. “Well, there,” she says again.
Paul, looking down as dark and slouchy roof-tops pass beneath, says – as much to the roofs and the blackbirds as to Mag – “It’s all a damn’ mess. What’s a guy to think? I mean it’s all a mess. Listen I’m a smart guy. Smart? Super-smart. And here I am not a bean in my pocket to afford marry my best girl. Or buy a nice hat from some nice store.”
Then he sits still with both hands folded between his knees around the neck of the gin-bottle.
“You going to buy me a hat, baby?” says Mag after a while, when it’s dark now in the low sky over New York.
“Nice hat for my best girl. And for me, some nice pair shoes.”
“Yeah. Well, some day.”
“I’ll -” Paul pauses, and rubs his forefinger along his top lip. “Well I was going to say I’ll drink to some day.”
“But I jus remembered I quit the sauce.”
“Don’t look so sad, Paulie.” Mag smiles, and kisses Paul’s cheek. A little rough with stubble now it’s getting late. “Listen. How about we quit the drinking, the both of us, after we get off this train? After that we’ll both go dry as Arizona.”
“Sure yeah. But since it’s a pretty night, Paulie, we’ll go down Fifth Avenue one more time, right? Since it’s a pretty night.”
“And we’ll drink to that new hat. And new shoes.”
“Shino gets ‘em super-smart,” says Paul, and laughs.
“One more ride around. We’ll take a nice drink and I’ll tell you about old Joe Kish, baby. Boy, was he ever crazy.”
They ride around again, and the moon sits up high tonight and watches. Paul thinks: I fought. Fought good and hard. Goddamn’ hun. Goddamn’ uniform. Nuzzles the gin-bottle and thinks: done all this fighting and come home here to New York and can’t even stay in a goddamn job. Jus a little breakfast, for Chrissakes.
I seen things. With Mag under his arm he thinks: done all their goddamn’fighting. Now look at me. Not going to fight no more. I’ll tell ‘em when they ask. Done fighting.