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Oddly Familiar
forioscribe
 Betty & Bully

Some big men are scary. This one made me feel comfortable, right from the beginning."Don't I know you?" he said. It wasn't a pick up line, it was a simple question. He looked familiar. I'd seen him before somewhere.
"Could be," I said.
"You're Mike Quinn's wife. Betty."
"Yes."
"I'm Walter. Everybody calls me The Bull. Or Bully. I used to go to St. Xavier's with your husband."
His voice was deep, resonant. I wondered if he sang.
"Hello, Bully.”
We shook hands. His hand was huge, but held mine gently. He asked me if I'd like another drink. I said sure, why not. That's how it started. Just like that.

But I'm getting way ahead of myself.

Three months earlier I was just waiting. I knew that a second pregnancy usually goes quicker than the first, and I told Mike before he went to work that I had a feeling I'd have the baby that afternoon, and I wanted him to be ready to come right home to take me to the hospital. He kept saying, "Sure. Don't worry about it."

Around two in the afternoon I felt the contractions picking up so I called the electric company. They told me Mike wasn't there; he'd called in sick. Where was he? Nobody knew.

I called a cab.


It was over before I knew it. Dr. Tamarkin held the baby up by its ankles, gave it a spank. It made a coughing sound, and then started screaming. That tiny, twisted, bluish-bloody face with the wide-open mouth. My baby was trembling all over, screaming. A constant screaming. It was angry the moment it came out of my body.
"Ah, it's a boy," one of the nurses said.

Tommy.

That name I picked out of a hat. All the names I suggested earlier were no good to Mike. He didn't want the baby named after himself. He didn't want the baby named after his father, Sean. Nor after my father, Patrick, and certainly not Jack, my brother. So it was Tommy.

I was dozing when I heard the commotion in the hallway through the heavy, closed door of my room. "I wanna see my son, OKAY?" Mike shouted. "And I wanna see him right NOW."

All that scuffling and grunting and banging shook the walls. They told me later he took a swing at an intern, and it took three of them to get him pinned to the floor until the cops came. Then, the next day, when Mike got out of jail, he came in, unshaven, filthy, and red-eyed. Still wanted to see his SON.

That should have done it. But I guess I needed something more.

Two days later Mike drove Tommy and me home from the hospital. He carried my suitcase and I carried Tommy. I put the baby in the new crib, and went into the kitchen and put on the teakettle. Mike said he needed to get back to work.

After I drank my tea, I went to the bedroom to take a nap. I pulled back the covers, moved the pillow, and there it was. A hairpin. Not mine. This one belonged to someone else.

I picked it up, wondered what to do with it. I thought: Maybe I'll put it next to Mike's knife and fork, at the side of his plate of meat and potatoes, and sit across the table from him and watch his face. I'll let him do all the talking, which is how things went anyway.

Mike and his girlfriend, in my bed.

Why here?

Because he's stupid, that's why. He figures he can get away with anything.

But then why should I give a good goddamn about what his reasons were?

Tommy wailed. I got up, went to the other room and picked him up. His legs kicked out, stiffened against the blanket. He howled. He waved his hands, chubby fingers spread apart. I carried him to my rocking chair. He could hardly catch his breath with his howling. I unbuttoned my blouse, offered him my breast.

His mouth clamped down on my nipple. He kept his little eyes tightly shut. He sucked and shuddered. He did not look up at me with big eyes, like Roberta did, before she died. He kept his eyes tightly closed, as if he didn't care who I was.

I put him back into his crib. I called a baby sitter. I had to get out.

So there I was, at The Harbor Lights bar, talking to this big guy Bully.

From the beginning I compared them. Bully was big, muscular. Mike was skinny. Bully was self-confident, comfortable in his own skin. Mike was tense, jumpy, waiting for the next kick in the balls.

Bully ordered a shot of Seagram's Seven and a glass of club soda. I figured he'd toss back the shot in one gulp, and then quickly order another. But no. He slowly raised that drink to his lips and paused, like he was enjoying how it smelled, then he took a sip.

I liked that bar. The neat rows of whiskey and vodka and gin bottles on glass shelves. The chrome spouts on their tops gleaming in the dim light. The bartender's white shirt and black bow tie, sharply creased tan trousers. He was alert; he kept his eye on his customers, ready to bring refills without them having to wave to get his attention.

Something strange was happening to me and I was either too tired or too beaten down to care. I had enough of everything. Mike. His mother buzzing in his ear all the time. Accusing me of allowing Roberta to die. If I'd been a better mother, she told Mike, it wouldn't have happened. Did Mike ever stick up for me?

I was sick and tired, totally fed up. Didn't want to think about that stuff anymore. It was better to think about this guy Bully. He was different. He didn't stress certain words the way Mike did. Mike always wanted his words to punch you in the face. "I wanna see my son, OKAY?"

Bully didn't need to punch anybody in the face. Jesus Christ almighty. Can you imagine it? A guy without a grudge.

I asked Bully point blank: "You're married, aren't you?"
He didn't hesitate. He didn't blink. He didn't say, "uh…" He just said, "Yes."
"So what are you doing here?" I asked, leaning forward.
"Maybe the same thing you are."
"Which is?"
"Trying to forget."
"Forget what?"
"She got pregnant. We got married. It was a big mistake."
"Whose mistake, Bully?"
"Our mistake."

Nothing he said surprised me, nothing.
"So what were you doing when your son was born?"
"I was sitting in the waiting room," Bully replied, "looking at the tits of some island women in National Geographic."
I grinned. "You weren't drunk."
"No."
"You weren't beating up on interns."
"No."
"While your wife was in the hospital, did you take a bar maid home and screw her in your wife's bed?"
Bully reached over and put his large hand over mine. He shook his head. "No. I haven't cheated on her. Yet."
"But you will."
"I don't know. It depends."
"On what?"
"On who asks me."
"You need to be asked?"
"My old man told me once, 'Don't ever go where you're not invited. And don't force an invitation.'"
"A smart guy."
"Yeah. And he got lots of invitations."
"Like father, like son?"
"I sure as hell hope so."
We laughed.

A tall man in a brown suit came to our table. He nodded at Bully, and leaned over and talked in his ear. Bully leaned his head to the side. I caught only a few words, but I understood. Bully nodded, and the man left.
"Don't tell me you're a bookie!"
Bully smiled. His white teeth were perfectly even. "Okay, I won't tell you."
"But you are."
"It's a living."

Bully explained that no matter how bad things get, people always manage to find a quarter here, a half dollar there. He took over his father's business. Nothing elaborate, just something small and steady.
"But you didn't write it down."
Bully tapped his temple with his forefinger. "I keep it all up here."
"So how old is your son," I asked.
"Three months."
"You're kidding."
"No, three months. He was born March 1."
Jesus. The exact day my Tommy was born. That called for another drink.
Bully told the waiter he was still good.

His son and my son born on the same day. But even that wild coincidence didn't surprise me all that much. Like everything else that evening, it was oddly familiar.

We talked some more. Bully's deep quiet voice fit in perfectly with the dark calmness of that bar. Unhurried, sure, reassuring. He told me he once was middle linebacker for the Steelers, until he got hurt. He swung in his seat, pulled up his pant leg. Thin white surgery scars criss-crossed his hairy knee.

Then Bully stopped talking, and we looked at each other. I don't know where the words came from, I just said them out loud. Clearly, calmly. Matter of fact.

"My son's with a baby sitter at our apartment right now," I said. "But I'm not going back. Ever."

Bully nodded. There was a look of recognition on his handsome face. Those big blue eyes. That smile. He understood me perfectly. He understood himself.
"Want some company?" he said.
"Sure."
"Let's go then."

My skin tingled as we walked to the parking lot. I wondered: Is all this real? Am I me? There was his car. A brand new white Cadillac. What else would a bookie drive? He opened the door. I slid in. Soft white leather. A scent of richness, of newness. He got in, started the engine, and then slowly pulled out of the parking lot.

Somehow I expected that he'd gun it, make the tires squeal. Like what Mike would do--if he had a brand new white Cadillac. But Bully drove at exactly 35 miles per hour, which was the number on the speed limit sign.

When we got to the highway, he moved it up to fifty. Exactly the speed limit. He never went any faster. Just drove along at a steady fifty, all the way to New York City.




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i love that photo! love his sheepish look and carefully drawn moustache, and i love her slick dark motor oil lips. an observation: most of the women in your stories seem to always be running away. upsetting the normal order of things. leaving. kicking people out of their lives and themselves. it's an eyeopener for me, perhaps because i usually take refuge in the idea that i'm unlikely to get a crack at hurting anyone else because they usually are out to hurt me first. is it partially an exercise on your part, to understand womens' point of view as a writer? or does it have to do with other concerns? at any rate, i appreciate it as a way of expanding my view of the possibilities between humans.

Thanks for your comments and continued interest, I appreciate it. I gave up any hope of understanding women a LONG time ago. These days I settle for merely reporting what I've seen. Plus I've always seen fiction as a mirror, one that we've got to always keep carefully polished.

what's happening with vittoria, anyway? does she go into deep-freeze when you're not actively writing about her, or is she in there percolating in your head, or what?
another way of asking what is the writer's relationship to long-term characters?

Now that I've completed Book II of Vittoria's Island I need to let it cool off for a while before I decide what comes next in Book III. Meanwhile my US agent is busy peddling Book I. Turning to the stories has turned out to be a good change of pace.

I've been into a deep exploration of Vittoria's character & lifestory & island of birth for the past several years and it looks like she--and it--still has a lot more to tell me!

does a character or a story ever go dead on you suddenly?
and do you have a way of reviving them?


Yes, I've got a great number of embarrassing fiascos in my storyfiles. Every now and again I go back and see if I can find a way to get one working. Sometimes cutting the first two or three paragraphs makes a significant improvement, since I tend to wordiness and have a pathological need to "explain" everything. Ditto endings. It's all a matter of patience, and pig-headed determination.

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