Excerpt of All The Flowers Are Dying by Lawrence Block
(Page 2 of 4)
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Which was why he'd asked me to meet him for dinner, in a room full of ghosts.
It had been over thirty years since I put in my papers and retired from the
NYPD, and shortly thereafter I'd retired as well from my role as husband and
father, and moved from a comfortable suburban house in Syosset to a monastic
little room at the Hotel Northwestern. I didn't spend much time in that room;
Jimmy Armstrong's saloon, around the corner on Ninth between Fifty-seventh and
Fifty-eighth, served as a combination of living room and office for me. I met
clients there, I ate meals there, and what social life I had was centered
there. I drank there, too, day in and day out, because that's what I did back
I kept it up for as long as I could. Then I put the plug in the jug, as the
old-timers say, and began spending my idle hours not at Jimmy's joint but two
blocks north of there, in the basement of St. Paul the Apostle. And in other
church basements and storefronts, where I looked for something to put in the
empty places alcohol used to fill.
Somewhere along the way, Jimmy lost his lease and moved half a block south and
a long block west, to the corner of Fifty-seventh and Tenth. I'd kept my
distance from the old place after I sobered up, and I avoided the new one for
a while as well. It never did become a hangout, but Elaine and I would drop in
for a meal from time to time. Jimmy always served good food, and the kitchen
stayed open late, which made it a good choice after an evening at the theater
or Lincoln Center.
I'd been to the service, at a funeral parlor on West Forty-fourth, where
someone played a favorite song of his. It was "Last Call," by Dave Van Ronk,
and I'd first heard it when Billie Keegan played it for me after a long night
of whiskey. I'd made him play the song over and over. Keegan worked for Jimmy
back then, tending bar on weekday evenings; he'd long since moved out to
California. And Van Ronk, who wrote the song and sang it a capella, had died a
month or so before Jimmy, and so I'd sat there listening to one dead man sing
a song to another dead man.
A week or two later they had a wake for Jimmy at the bar, and I went to
that and didn't stay long. Some people showed up I hadn't seen for years, and
it was good to see them, but it was a relief to get out of there and go home.
One night in the summer, after the lease had been sold, they closed things out
by letting everybody drink free. Several different people told me to be sure
and show up, and I didn't even have to think about it. I stayed home and
watched the Yankees game.
And here I was, in a roomful of ghosts. Manny Karesh was one of them. I'd
known him in the old days on Ninth Avenue, and he'd never moved out of the
neighborhood. He dropped in at Jimmy's just about every day, to drink one or
two beers and chat up the nurses. He was at the wake, of course, and he'd have
been there for the final night, but I don't know if he made it. He told me at
the wake that he didn't have much time left. They'd offered him chemotherapy,
he said, but they didn't hold out much hope that it would do any good, so he
couldn't see any reason to subject himself to it. He died sometime that
summer, not too long after the bar closed, but I didn't hear about it until
the fall. So that's one funeral I missed, but these days there's always
another funeral to go to. They're like buses. If you miss one, there'll be
another coming your way in a few minutes.
"I'm fifty-eight," Joe said.
"That's plenty old enough to retire, but too young to be retired, you know
what I mean?"
"You know what you're going to do?"
From All the Flowers Are Dying by Lawrence Block. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.