We were raising a glass to old Martin G, God rest his soul. His hands, I said, hurt something awful when he clapped. This was indeed unfortunate. The world so pleased him that he had reason to applaud a hundred times a day. And no, he needn’t have had a whiskey or a beer or even good sex to feel this way. Morning sunlight reflected off the windows of the new building across the avenue, the drumming of rain on the air conditioner, the fresh roar of motors each time the traffic light outside his bedroom window changed, the sliding scratch of cat claws on wood as Wookie (the gray & white) chased Fred (the amber tiger) out of the bedroom for no reason at all– and these no more than the top of a list as long as the Chinese Army marching past you ten abreast. You’d be dead before he finished. The man lived and died a happy man, no more than that.
Billy, a bit bleary-eyed, looked me—just looked. The Saturday coming up his youngest daughter was to be married. He was already out of money and energy both. Not even a “grumpf” out of him, but that didn’t mean I was to remain quiet. He don’t speak, I’ll speak for him.
But, ‘ah,’ you say, I say to imitate Billy, and, of course, he’d not said a thing. ‘What a rare thing is that, a happy man.’ Billy swirls his empty glass—not even remnants of ice cubes.
And I reply, ‘Are you sure? Or do you perhaps put too high a standard on ‘happy’?
Then, as Billy, “And what do you mean by that?”
So I’m here to tell ya. But first things first. “Barman,” I call out. “Give us another, me and my poor listener. If I’m gonna carry on maintaining both sides of this here conversation, I’ll need lubrication. If he’s gonna put up with me, he’ll need some numbing.” Tall John was on that night, him grinning his ‘it’s-almost-closing-time grin’ as he strides down the catwalk, a spigot-topped bottle in each hand. An old fashioned bartender, Tall John. For years he worked at Smith’s down by Penn Station. This quiet neighborhood joint was his idea of retirement. Still he kept to his old ways. No fresh set-ups for the refills, just more booze.
“If yer glasses are dirty, it’s yer dirt, an’ anything I pour into them’ll kill anything that’s already there.” I remember it was almost midnight and John’s white apron was still spotless. Clearly the man knew something. He filled the two glasses, gently tapped the bottles to each other, set them down in the gutter rail in front of us and left us to our talk.
A swallow and good friend Billy speaks out. “You were about to tell me about happiness.”
Truth is I was, and yet I really wasn’t. Now don’t get me wrong. I can carry on, especially when I’ve been sitting at the bar for an hour or two. But looking back it seems my talk of Martin G had more to do with me than with him. Things had been slowing down of late. It’s this retirement thing. Almost a year now I’ve been not working and still not comfortable with it. My family, you see, my family’s a working family. We put great stock in doing what’s ours to do and taking care of ourselves without the government. Sitting around is something we’re just not at home with. If it wasn’t for sports on TV or a bar to sit down in, we’d all have second jobs or go crazy with the boredom. Now here I am with a Medicare card and a senior citizen’s half-price Metro Card and asking every time I buy something, “Do you have a senior discount rate?” It doesn’t feel right, even though I know it’s all legal.
Martin G was from the same stock as me, brought up with the same values. He’d been retired for about four years before he left us and, I wasn’t lying, he was happy as your fabled clam. He knew something I didn’t and, clearly, this was something I needed to know. It wasn’t like he was running here to there doing from morning to night. Something else. More than once I wanted to invite him out for a glass, for a chance to pick at his brain, but every time it was the right time, I’d get kind of stupid and drop the idea. Then, of course, I’d go to the bar alone and spend the night kicking myself for having done just that. Dumb son of the sod I can be! By the time I felt like I couldn’t postpone things any more, he was too ill to step out, and I was too self-conscious to visit.
Now I was wishing Billy was Martin G, wishing I could say something as simple as, “Fer Chrissakes, Marty, how do you do it?” Instead I’m here with Billy who don’t give a rat’s ass what I talk about so long as I sport him a shot now and then. Martin’d order one tequila on the rocks—how he started drinking that stuff I’ll never know—with a soda back and sit there all night with it. The only reason he’d get that is because he’s renting the stool. He’s good without the buzz. I don’t get it. I wish I did.
“You were gonna tell me about being a happy man or something,” Billy wakes me up.
“Yeah, I was,” I respond.
“’Tell ya the truth,” he goes on. “I don’t think you know shit about it. I mean, you can tell me about Marty G, not that I didn’t know the man myself, but when it comes to being happy, that hasn’t been you since you left the shop.”
What? Was this Billy talking?
“Huh,” was the best I could come back with.
“’Huh,’ right,” he says to me. “Face it, man. You haven’t had a minute of happy time since Sally passed, and it’s only gotten worse since they pushed you into this retirement bullshit. You haven’t a clue about happy or anything like it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at your calendar—if you have a calendar—the only thing it might say on it is ‘go to the bar.’ You got no idea how on God’s earth to use your waking hours once you feed yer cat and dump the litter.”
“And who the hell are you to be telling me this crap!” Now I’m pissed. “If I wasn’t buying, you wouldn’t be here.”
“Well you are, and I am, and I guess that means I owe you. So here it is: You’re alone and retired, so accept that and act alone and retired. Get a hobby! Read a book! Go down to the senior center and see what all them widows are about! At home you got nothing but pictures of your dead wife, God cherish dear Sally’s name, and your overfed cat. You spend your damn’ day doing nothing but waiting until you can feel all right about walking into this place. This place! Nothing new or interesting has happened in this hole in the fifty years you’ve been coming here. There are probably more women in gay bars than in this one. Get yourself a life goddammit!”
I swear to God I wanted to clock the motherfucker. I wanted to lay him out no thicker than the sawdust on the floor after they sweep. He was right, and I hated him for it. I just looked at him.
“Now you listen to me,” he goes on. “I know it all hurts. I know what I said hurt, but I’m not about to apologize. I needed to say it. You needed to hear it. More than that, my friend, you need to do something about it. Y’understand me?”
Whoa! I could feel my shoulders come down from under my ears. I took a deep breath, stretched my neck up out of my collar.
He smiled. “Ya pissed at me?”
I smiled a little, chuckled sort of. “I thought you didn’t care about that?”
With raised eyebrows, “Are ya?”
I showed him a deep sigh. “No, no I’m not.”
“Sometimes things gotta be said,” he said.
“I suppose,” I answered him. We both finished off our drinks. I was gonna ask him what he had planned for the next day, but next day was a Tuesday. He’d be at work. I wouldn’t. I thought about the Yankees. They had a day game, but they’d been nothing but disappointment all season. No reason to go back to what don’t work. Besides, I figured there’s a whole bunch of places I’ve never been I could probably go to. Museums and such, and, I suppose, that senior center. I’ve walked by there more than once. They got a whole bunch of groups and classes and the like. As for the widows, that feels like a way off.
“Look” Billy says. “It’s getting late.” He gets up and reaches for his wallet.
“Where you going with that,” I ask him.
“Let me just get the tip,” he says.
“What the hell,” I answer. I pay. He tips.
“Safe home,” he says.