During the war Alex was a Teletype operator with the US Army Signal Corps in England. At a rate of 97 flawless words per minute he relayed intelligence reports of German troop movements, locations of enemy aircraft and naval vessels, and even the goings on in the Fuhrer's high command--all of it extremely Top Secret stuff. Sometimes Alex read what he typed, other times he thought of something else as he kept his machine chattering along. It was a great duty assignment. He was always on the move from one RAF base to another. Two weeks here, three weeks there. All over England.
A reporter from Stars and Stripes did a profile of Alex. There was something pretty strange going on with that particular Signal Corps Teletype operator. Which was that not too long after Alex settled into a new duty station, the one he'd just left would be hit hard by the Luftwaffe or the V-1 buzz bombs. This happened too many times to be just a coincidence. Where Alex was, the bombs weren't. Luck of the Irish. That was it. Luck of the Irish.
Back in Youngstown, Ohio, a columnist for the Vindicator picked up the story and started keeping score. Our boy Alex on the move in England. Good copy. And thus Alex became a hometown celebrity for a while. His mother, Josephine, clipped out those columns and put them in an old cigar box where she kept his V-mail letters home, and regularly showed them to her friends who came over for their weekly card games. "Our Boy Alex. That's my son," she'd say.
* * *
The steel mill job was waiting for Alex when he returned from the war. He resumed his duties as a shipping clerk. During The Depression a steady job like that was the most important thing a guy could ever have. He knew it, everyone knew it. He was lucky. But after the war, well, what can you say? One day you are in Piccadilly Circus celebrating the great Allied victory, knowing you are a part of history. The girls are kissing you, handing you bottles of champagne, because you are a hero! And then the next day you're back in a crowded, crummy office, filing invoices.
Those days in England were gone, and he'd brought very little of it back with him. A few souvenirs, which now were in the bottom drawer of his dresser. A Zippo, with an English coin on its shining chrome surface. A Nazi officer's dagger, with a yellow handle and a woven silver cord. A couple dozen black and white photos of that celebrating mob at Trafalgar Square on VE Day. Very small prints, not more than two by two inches. During the war you had to conserve everything. Someone told him there was silver in photos, that's why they cut back on the size.
Alex worked all day at the mill, then after punching out he went straight to the Avalon bar. Just the scent of whiskey took him right back to those days in England. After a few shots, he could close his eyes and once again be gliding along, with a girl in his arms, on the dance floor at the USO. Glenn Miller. Tommy Dorsey.
Valkyrie unsuccessful. Stauffenberg, Olbricht, and two aides shot. Others to follow. In The Mood. Chattanooga Choo-choo. Pardon me boy. Bring the girls here another round, huh? I love chaps in uniform! Even Americans!
On the London streets at night the moving, shining blue lights of the whores. They used flashlights with a blue filter. The blackout. They did it standing up, against an alley wall. Come on, luv. Come on now.
Alex told the guys at the Avalon about off-duty time in London. Jesus. It was an eye-opener, that's for sure. For one thing, you always had money in your pocket. You also could get your hands on plenty of cigarettes, and chocolate bars, and nylon stockings. You name it, you could get it. The young, beautiful women who worked at the factories and munitions plants were nearly starving. "Put two and two together and you'll get what I mean," he'd say.
Bringing back memories of England was not the only reason he drank. He had plenty of reasons. One time at a funeral Father Clandillon told him, "Alex, if I went through what you went through, I'd drink too!" That was the most comforting thing Alex had ever heard in his entire life. It was the truth. He'd been through a lot, which most people never really understood. All they knew was that he was a lucky man during the war. And that's for sure.
He didn't talk about his father, who fell down the stairs and died of a heart attack. Or about his brother, John, who was in an insane asylum most of his life, until he died, screaming. Stanley, another brother, who died of stomach trouble. Then his mother, oh. She died not too long after he got back. One death after another, like it would never stop until they all were gone. During the war millions died all around him, but his experience of death came mainly from the messages he typed on the keyboard of that top secret crypto Teletype machine. Those intelligence reports.
Alex never talked about that thing with Veronica. At the train station, she promised him that she would wait for him, no matter what. In boot camp he stood in formation at mail call and heard his name called out. "Quinn!" And he broke ranks, ran up, and got those fragrant letters, two, three, four of them at a time. In the chow hall he'd read her sweet lines. I will love you forever, Alex. Nothing will ever stand between us. All those tender words on thin, crinkly paper with the smell of lavender. She begged him to write back, and he did for a while.
Until one day in the orderly room he sat with his pencil poised over the paper wondering what in hell he could say. The words would not come. It wasn't that he didn't love her, he did. Very much. But he wasn't good at writing. Why? He didn't know. Maybe it was because he preferred to say things face-to-face. It always came out better that way.
In England he stopped writing altogether, and then finally so did Veronica. He figured when he returned he'd straighten it all out. Or maybe he wouldn't need to. Maybe he would run out of luck and not get back at all. Who knows? Don't you know that a war is going on?
When he thought back on it, the problem with Veronica had to do with the scent of incense and the Latin words of Father Clandillon at mass at St. Augustine's. That's what kept running through his mind when he made love to her for the first time, in the back seat of her father's Packard. That's why it was over so quickly. It wasn't right, it was out of whack. The sensation was too surprising, too intense, too overwhelming, too quick a rush. No, it's not that he was religious. He wasn't, deep down, even though he'd been an altar boy. He never told anyone his entire life, but to him that stuff at St. Augustine's was just a lot of mumbo-jumbo.
But then on the other hand, Father Clandillon chanting Latin, and the scent of the incense, and the deep vibrations of the organ at a high mass paralysed him. There was something infinitely powerful there, but he didn't think it was Jesus or God or the Holy Ghost or The Blessed Virgin Mary. So what in hell was it?
It was a tangled, jangled confusion, of being pulled in ten directions at the same time. He sat at the bar at The Avalon and drank, and thought about this stuff. He thought hard. It made his head ache. "Hell, bring me another shot," he'd slur slowly. "I can't figure this shit out, honest to God I can't."
All right, he fell in love with Veronica, he wanted Veronica, very much. But at the very same time she was disgusting. That was the mystery he could never understand. He loved her. She made him sick. What sense did that make?
But then in England, it was simple. He'd go into London, have a few drinks, find a girl, and they'd make love. Then his buddies would carry him back to the barracks, a happy man. Why was it easy there, and so hard back home with Veronica? What was different?
Well, for one thing in England he wore the uniform of the United States Army. During drill, everyone stayed in step. Left, left, your left-right-left. By the right flank, HUH! There was something awfully comforting in being a small member of a large group, everyone doing one thing at the same time. Maybe that was it. They all did it. So why not him?
He grew a moustache like the one Clark Gable wore. As a matter of fact, Alex resembled Clark Gable very much. Like Gable, Alex was charming. And like Gable, he knocked them over. It was the uniform. That's what made it so easy in England. But once he got home and took the uniform off forever, well, he was back to square one.
* * *
Mike, Alex's brother, had a bright idea. He sat down with Alex and laid it all out.
"The Serviceman's Readjustment Act," Mike told him. "The GI Bill. You can get a loan. What do you say we both get loans and we buy a business?"
"What kind of business?"
"The Bouquet Bar, out on the West side."
"Yeah, a bar. Think about it, Alex. We can run a bar, you and me. Then we won't have to work in that mill anymore."
Things like that always took a while to penetrate Alex's brain. He needed time to think it over. Meanwhile, Mike kept at him. "What do you say, Alex? Huh? What do you say?" Alex wondered what in hell would happen if the bar went bust and they wouldn't be able to repay that loan. "What'll they do," he asked himself. "Put us back in the fucking Army?"
Mike always came up with bright ideas like that. Little Mikey was the youngest, the favorite. When she was alive Ma loved that kid. Mikey could do no wrong. Alex wasn't thrilled with the idea of going into business with his brother. Why? It didn't sound right, that's all.
Mike kept hounding him. Finally Alex said, "How about I get the loan, put it into the business. You run it. I keep my job at the mill. You give me a percent of the take."
* * *
At the Avalon the big shot glass next to Alex's beer had a thin white line halfway up, to mark where a single ended and a double began. He always ordered a double, knocked it back, then worked on the beer. The guy next to him was talking about Easter dinner. Sweet potatoes and ham with cloves and pineapple, that's what the old lady was going to cook.
Alex remembered. He huddled in the back seat of a Jeep, riding in a convoy somewhere in the south of England. The long column stopped. He got out. Sergeant O'Brien was pissed. One of the mess trucks' axle was broken.
"Corporal Quinn!" O'Malley shouted.
"Take your bayonet and punch holes in those cans."
Alex looked inside the truck. A whole shitload of canned ham. He turned to Sergeant O'Brien. "Why not just leave it, these people are starving."
"No way," O'Brien said. "I don't have authorization to hand over US Government property to civilians. Now do it, Quinn. On the fucking double."
What was wrong with that guy? Alec wondered.
"Well, his name was O'Brien, wasn't it?" someone told him.
"So, asshole, he's Irish. We're in England. Do you want me to spell it out for you?"
"Yeah? My name is Quinn, and I'm Irish too."
* * *
At two thirty one morning Mike finally got the stragglers out. Overflowing ashtrays and empty beer bottles and glasses covered all the tables. In the men's room the two urinals were backed up. Cigarette butts floated on dark yellow-brown pools of piss. Someone had puked into the sink.
But Mike was in no mood to grab the broom and the mop. He poured a shot of Seagram's 7 into a glass of draft beer, took a couple long swallows. Alex sat at the bar, staring at the Pall Mall that burned between his yellowed fingers. He raised his head slowly. Turned toward Mike. Focused. Then grinned.
"They shoulda let them have the ham," Alex said.
Alec looked down at the surface of the bar. A vague pattern of overlapping pale white circles, made from the bottoms of wet glasses. He slowly put the soggy end of the Pall Mall to his lips, and drew in.
"Forget it," he said, breathing out.
Then, Alec felt himself being pulled along, out the door, and down the sidewalk to the car. Mike shoved him into the front seat. Alec heard the door slam hard. Something must have crawled up Mike's ass. He got that way a lot. Always angry.
Mike is yelling something. Alec tries to make out the words.
"You can't hang out here like that, Alec. It's bad for business."
What? What is bad for business? What the fuck is he talking about?
"If you want to get drunk, then go home. Or go to some other bar. It looks bad when you pass out, you know?"
"Me? You're talking about me?"
"Who the fuck else am I talking about?"
He's talking about ME.
"Hey, Mike. I'm your brother!"
Alec tried to keep Mike's head steady in his vision. But the car moved forward violently, and then it slowed down too quickly. It was hard to keep sitting up straight. He wanted to lie down, close his eyes.
"It's bad for business," Mike said.
"Business? Business? I'm your fuckin' brother, Mikey. I'm your flesh and blood. Your brother."
Alex was going to tell him more, but then…nothing.
It could have been worse. When Mike lost control, the car hit a tree just a block from the house. The Chrysler rode halfway up the trunk of that massive oak, and stopped at a 45 degree angle, rear end resting on the pavement. On impact, Alec's face went right through the windshield. A direct hit, right in the middle. When they pulled the car down they saw an oval hole with a ragged white edge laced with red.
At hospital a couple days later Alex's sister, Jane, told him all about it. She said that Mike was in a room down the hall. Just a couple bruises, broken ribs.
"He'll be okay. And you'll be okay too," Jane said. "You were out for a while. Coma. You got your teeth knocked out and your face cut up. And a concussion. They say the scars won't be so bad."
"You two should be dead now, Alex. You know that? When are you going to learn? Next time you might not be so lucky."
"C'mere," Alec said.
"C'mere," Alec repeated.
Jane bent her head down toward his.
"You gotta bring me something to drink," he whispered.
Jane quickly stood up straight. "Oh, for Christ's sake. Is that all you can ever think about?"
"Please," Alex said. "You've got to bring me something to drink."
"No, I'm not bringing a bottle in here, and that's it."
Alex closed his eyes. Jane saw his tears welling out.
"Please," he whispered.