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One last night at grogan.., p.1
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       One Last Night at Grogan's (A Matthew Scudder Story Book 11), p.1

           Lawrence Block
 
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One Last Night at Grogan's (A Matthew Scudder Story Book 11)


  A Matthew Scudder Story

  We had dinner at Paris Green, a few blocks south of our apartment on Ninth Avenue. I ordered the sweetbreads, and wondered not for the first time why they were called that, being neither sweet nor bread. Elaine pointed out that Google could clear that up for us in no more than thirty seconds. More like two hours, I told her, by the time I’d run out of other fascinating things to click on.

  The fish of the day was Alaskan halibut, and that’s what she chose. After many years as a vegetarian, she’d been persuaded by a nutritionist to regard fish as a vegetable. At first she worried it would be the culinary equivalent of a gateway drug, and in no time at all she’d be cracking beef bones and sucking out the marrow. So far she hadn’t progressed past fish a couple of times a week.

  It was around eight when Gary showed us to our table, and maybe an hour later when we said no to dessert and yes to espresso. It’s rare for her to have coffee, especially late in the day, and my surprise must have shown in my face. “It could be a long night,” she said. “I figure I’d better be awake for it.”

  “I can see how much you’re looking forward to it.”

  “About as much as you are. It’s got to be like a wake without a corpse. Except last night would have been the wake, so what’s this? The burial?”

  “I guess.”

  “I always thought the Irish wake made a lot of sense. Pour down the booze until you can think of something good to say about the deceased. My people cover the mirrors, sit around on hard wooden benches, and stuff themselves with food. I wonder what it was like last night.”

  “I’m sure he’ll tell us.”

  We finished our coffee, and I signaled our waitress for the check. Gary brought it himself. How many years had we known him? How many years had we been coming here a couple of times a month?

  It seemed to me that neither he nor the restaurant had changed. He always looked as though something reminded him of a joke, and the light in his blue eyes hadn’t dimmed any. But his beard, still hanging from his long jaw like an oriole’s nest, showed some gray now, and his age showed at the corners of his eyes. And it was a night to notice such things.

  “I didn’t see you last night,” he said. “Of course I didn’t go over until we closed up shop here. You’d probably headed for home by then.”

  “That would be—”

  “The big fella’s place. You’re friends, aren’t you? Or have I got it wrong, as I so often do?”

  “We’re close friends,” I said. “I didn’t realize you knew him that well.”

  “I don’t, not really. But he’s part of the neighborhood, isn’t he? I doubt I’ve been in Grogan’s a dozen times in as many years, but I made sure I got there last night.”

  “Paying your respects,” Elaine suggested.

  “And watching my neighbors take advantage of the open bar. A sight guaranteed to raise or lower your opinion of the human race, depending where it was to begin with. And, you know, being present for the end of an era, and isn’t that the most overused phrase at our command? Every time a sitcom’s canceled, someone proclaims it the end of an era.”

  “And once in a while it is,” she said.

  “You’re thinking of Seinfeld.”

  “Well, yeah.”

  “An exception,” he said, “that proves the rule. As is the shuttering of Grogan’s Open House. A fixture in the local landscape, and soon enough the building will be gone and no one will remember what used to be there. Our town, forever reinventing itself. I heard they made the owner such a good offer that he was willing to risk Mr. B’s wrath for selling the building out from under him. And I also heard that Mick owned the building, no matter whose name might be on the deed.”

  “You hear lots of things,” I said.

  “You do,” he agreed. “I’m pleased to report that the era of hearing things is still going strong.”

  For longer than I’ve known him, my friend Mick Ballou has been the proprietor of Grogan’s Open House, a Hell’s Kitchen saloon at the southeast corner of Tenth Avenue and Fiftieth Street. The place began as a hangout for the neighborhood hoodlums, or at least that segment thereof who pledged some sort of undefined allegiance to the man himself. In recent years it has attained a certain degree of raffish respectability, even as the neighborhood has gentrified around it. The new people who’ve moved into refurbished tenements or new high-rise condos like to stop in for a draft Guinness and point out what may or may not be bullet holes in the walls.

  Mick has always tended to hire Irish lads as bartenders, most of them fresh transplants from Belfast or Derry or Strabane, but a Northern Ireland accent never kept a new man from learning how to make a Wild Mustang or a Novarian Sunset. The new crowd liked bellying up to the bar next to old neighborhood regulars, and a man who’d worked half a century as a subway motorman would be transformed in the telling into a desperate character with blood on his hands. The old fellows didn’t mind; they were just trying to make a glass of beer last until the next pension check arrived.

  “Don’t come on the Friday,” Mick had told me. “’Twill be our last night, with the whole of the West Side sure to come out for it. An open bar until the taps run dry, and there’ll even be a bit of food.”

  “And everybody’s welcome but me?”

  “You would be welcome enough,” he said, “but you would hate it, as I expect to hate it myself. I won’t have Kristin there, and wouldn’t be there my own self had I any choice in the matter. Come on the Saturday, and bring herself.”

  “Friday’s your last night,” I said.

  “It is. And the following night there’ll be none but the four of us. And haven’t our best nights always been after closing time?"

  We walked down Ninth and over Fiftieth, where the last of the Street Fair vendors were dismantling their booths. “Like nomads in Central Asia,” Elaine said. “Packing their yurts and heading for richer grazing.”

  “A few years back their flocks would have gone hungry here,” I said, “or been prey for the local wolves. Now they sell T-shirts and Gap knockoffs and Vietnamese sandwiches, and the block association spends the fees installing security cameras and planting more ginkgo trees.”

  “And look at the ornamental light posts,” she said. “Like the ones we saw in Paris.”

  Grogan’s came into view as we neared Tenth Avenue. The tavern occupied the ground floor, with three levels of rental units above it. All the apartment windows facing the street had big white X’s on them, indicating that the building was scheduled for demolition. No light showed behind the X’s, and Grogan’s looked to be dark as well. I wondered if perhaps Mick had changed his mind and gone home, and then I saw one light glowing dimly through the front door’s little window.

  We hesitated at the curb, although there were no cars coming, and Elaine responded to my unvoiced thought. “We have to,” she said.

  Kristin unlocked the door for us. A light glowed softly in a leaded glass shade hanging over a table way in the back. There were four chairs grouped around the table, the only chairs in the room that hadn’t been put up on top of other tables. Mick wasn’t at the table, and I didn’t see him anywhere else, either.

  “I’m glad you’re here,” she said. “So’s himself.” She rolled her eyes. “‘So’s himself.’ Listen to me, will you? He’s in the office, he’ll be out in a minute. And now that you’re here—”

  She arranged a cardboard closed sign so that it covered the window. “Double duty,” she said. “Tells them we’re closed and keeps them from seeing there’s a light on.”

  “All the world sees you as a Jewis
h-American Princess,” said the former Elaine Mardell. “Yet it’s clear you were born to be an Irish saloonkeeper.”

  “A wee village pub in Donegal,” Kristin said. “On the wind-swept shores of Lough Swilly. That’s our favorite fantasy. The funny thing is I think I could actually enjoy it well enough. And so could he, for three weeks tops. Then he’d want to put a match to the adorable thatched roof and come home.”

  She led us to the table. Her drink was iced tea, and we said that sounded good to us, too. Mick’s bottle of twelve-year-old Jameson was on the table, along with a glass and a little water pitcher. The Jameson bottle is clear glass, so I could note the color of its contents. I still like the color of good whiskey. Or of bad whiskey, for that matter, because the color doesn’t say anything about the quality. All it tells you is that you’ve got a thirst for it.

  Before Kristin was back with our iced tea, Mick had emerged from the office in back, a paper bag in hand. “I had the devil’s own time finding a bag to put this in,” he said, “as if it would have been a hardship to tuck it under your arm and carry it unwrapped through the streets. We’ve no place for it in the house, and himself made the mistake of admiring it.”

  I knew what it was before Elaine got it out of the bag, a 9x12 framed Irish landscape.

  “It’s Conor Pass in the Dingle peninsula,” Kristin said. “It really looks like that, too. I think it’s the most beautiful place I’ve ever been.”

  “It’s a hand-colored steel engraving,” Elaine said. “There was no color printing at the time, so there were people who added color one at a time by hand. There’s a lost art for you, but then so’s steel engraving.”

  “The few arts not yet lost,” Mick said, “have their heads on the chopping block, waiting for technology to lop them off.” His hand moved first to the bottle, then to the water pitcher, then back to the bottle; he picked it up and poured a small measure of good Cork whiskey into his glass.

  “Quite the affair last night,” he said.

  “I was going to ask.”

  “Oh, it was a right hooley. They paid their twenty dollars at the door and for that they got to drink until the well ran dry. ’Twas for the help, you know. I had four men working, and they got to divide just over eight thousand dollars.”

  “Not bad for a night’s work.”

  “Well, it was a long night, and that crowd kept them hopping. But they had their tips on top of that, and the tips are decent when the drinks are free.” He’d had his glass in his hand, and now he took the smallest sip from it. “I stood at the door taking the money, and being asked the same fucking questions all night long. ‘Wasn’t it terrible that the greedy landlord sold the building out from under me?’”

  Kristin laid a hand on his arm. “When all along,” she said, “the man himself was the greedy landlord.”

  “I was the best landlord that ever lived,” he said. “Three floors above me packed full with rent-controlled tenants, and the heat bill for the building was higher than its rent roll, and I never even bothered putting in for what rent increases the law allowed me.”

  “A saint,” Elaine said.

  “I was that. If the Creator were half the landlord I was, Adam and Eve would never have left Eden. My lot would be late with the rent, they might not pay for months on end, and I gave them no trouble. If there’s one thing that’ll save me a bit of time in Purgatory, it’s how I treated my tenants. And then, as a final sweetener, I gave each of them fifty thousand dollars to move.”

  I said that was generous.

  “I could well afford it. Don’t ask what Rosenstein got them to pay for the building.”

  “I won’t.”

  “I’ll tell you anyway. Twenty-one million dollars.”

  “A nice round sum.”

  “The sum,” he said, “was to be twenty million, which is rounder if not so nice, and then Rosenstein went back to them and said his client was fond of the old English system, and preferred guineas to pounds. Are you familiar with guineas?”

  “You don’t mean Italians.”

  “A guinea was a gold coin,” he said, “back when they had such an article, and it was the nearest thing to a pound sterling, but with twenty-one shillings instead of twenty. So a price in guineas is five percent higher than the same in pounds. I suspect the notion died out when decimal currency came in, but there was a time when your carriage trade liked prices in guineas. Rosenstein told me he didn’t really expect this to work, but that it wouldn’t be outrageous enough to kill the deal altogether, and we could always back off and take the twenty. But they paid us in guineas after all.”

  “And that small lagniappe paid off your tenants.”

  “It did.” He put his glass down. “You’d have thought they’d won the Powerball, and in a sense they had. Of course there was one wee fucker, fourth floor rear on the left, who thought there might be a toy or two left in Santa’s sack. ‘Oh, I don’t know, Mr. Ballou, and where am I gonna move to, and how’ll I find something decent that I can afford, and all the expenses of relocation.’”

  I could see the shadow of a smile on Kristin’s face.

  “I looked at him,” Mick said, “and did I settle a hand on his shoulder? No, I don’t believe I did. I just held him with my eyes, and I lowered my voice, and I said I knew he’d be able to move, and move quickly, as it would be unsafe for him and his loved ones to be in the presence of men whose job it was to knock things down and blow them up. And in the end his was the first apartment vacated. Can you imagine?”

  Kristin clasped her hands, looking like Lois Lane. “My hero,” she said.

  It’s not impossible to take me by surprise, but I can’t think of anything that did so more utterly than Mick’s announcement of his upcoming marriage to Kristin. It was at Grogan’s that I learned of it, after some preliminary speculation on what happens after you die. I’d been bracing myself for bad news when he asked me to be his best man.

  Elaine swears she saw it coming, and can’t imagine how I didn’t.

  Kristin came into our lives when her parents left theirs, the victims of a particularly horrible home invasion. The madman who orchestrated it wasn’t finished; he wanted her and the house and the money, and it didn’t stop him when I spiked his first try. He came back a few years later, and didn’t miss by much.

  I got Mick to babysit her, confident that no one would get past him. They sat in the kitchen of her brownstone. They drank coffee and played cribbage. I suppose they talked, though I couldn’t guess what they talked about.

  That’s the same house in which she discovered her parents’ bodies. She went on living there, because she is far tougher at the core than you’d think, and she lives there now as my friend’s wife, and if they’re as unlikely a couple as Beauty and the Beast, you lose sight of the disparity after a few minutes in their company. He’s a big man, hard and forbidding as an Easter Island monolith, and she looks to be a frail and slender slip of a girl. He’s forty years her senior. She’s a child of privilege, while he’s a Hell’s Kitchen hoodlum who’s killed grown men with his hands.

  And she settles her hand on his arm, and beams while he tells his stories.

  There was a silence, with an unasked question hovering. Elaine broke the one and asked the other. Did he regret the sale?

  “No,” he said, and shook his head. “Why should I? I could run it a thousand years and not take twenty million dollars out of it. And if it’s a neighborhood institution, and enough people felt they had to say so last night, well, it’s one the neighborhood’s well off without.”

  “There’s history here,” I said.

  “There is, and most of it misfortunate. Crimes planned, oaths sworn and broken. You were here on the worst night of all.”

  “I was remembering it just now.”

  “How could you not? Two men in the doorway, spraying bullets as if they were watering the flowers. One tosses a bomb, and I can see the arc of it now, and the flash before the sound of it, like lightning before thunde
r.”

  The room went still again, until Mick got to his feet. “We need music,” he announced. “They were supposed to come this afternoon for the Wurlitzer, the truck from St. Vincent de Paul. The creature’s not old enough to be valuable or new enough to be truly useful, but they said they’d find a home for it. If they get here tomorrow or Monday they’re welcome to it, assuming I’m here to let them in. On Tuesday the building changes hands, and what’s in it belongs to the new owner, and most likely goes into a landfill along with the bricks and floorboards. You haven’t any use for it, have you? Or a two-ton Mosler safe? I didn’t think so. What would you like to hear?”

  Elaine and I shrugged. Kristin said, “Something sad.”

  “Something sad, is it?”

  “Something mournful and Irish.”

  “Ah,” he said. “Sure, that’s easily arranged.”

  I remembered an evening some years earlier. Elaine and I on our way out of the Met at Lincoln Center, the last strains of La Boheme still resounding. Elaine in a mood, restless. “She always fucking dies. I don’t want to go home. Can we hear more music? Something sad, it’s fine if it’s sad. It can break my fucking heart if it wants. Just so nobody dies.”

  We hit a couple of clubs, wound up downtown at Small’s, and by the time we got out of there the sun was up. And her mood had lifted.

  Irish songs on the ground floor of a Hell’s Kitchen tenement may be a far cry from jazz in a Village basement, but it served the same purpose, drawing us down into the mood as a means of easing us through it. I don’t remember exactly what Mick selected, but there were Clancy Boys and Dubliners cuts, and some ballads of the 1798 Rising, including a rendition of Boolavogue with a clear tenor voice backed by a piper’s keening.

  That was the last record to play, and it would have been a hard one to follow. I was put in mind of the Chesterton poem, and trying to remember just how it went when Elaine read my mind and quoted it:

  For the great Gaels of Ireland

 
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