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 then.
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.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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