. BOOZE AND FROGSKINS
Goddammit, but they wouldn't leave him alone. Charlie stood in the bathroom, looking at his wrinkled, ruddy, burn-scarred face in the mirror over the sink, and mumbled to himself. His daughter Anne was listening to the rock-and-roll crap again, and his wife Joline…well, she didn't have to say anything
, goddamn her.
But she's right, he said to the mirror, you are
a selfish sonovabitch. Then he ran his large hands through his thinning gray hair. Satisfied, he opened the bathroom door and stepped into the kitchen, which was next to the bathroom. It was a 1930's railroad apartment.
Joline sat at the newly purchased red Formica table and glared at him.
"I'll be back later," Charlie muttered, avoiding her eyes, and walked stiffly out of the apartment into the hallway.
"You're a selfish sonovabitch
," Joline shouted after him. "Go ahead then and get drunk, let your daughters know what they have for a father…"
Charlie started coughing halfway down the hallway stairs, but he didn't stop to rest until he was outside. The street stank of garbage because collection had been reduced to once a week, thanks to the new Republican mayor. It was one of those warm Indian summer days in late October; somewhere in the '50s, although it seemed warmer than that. But even with his jacket on, Charlie was cold…he was always cold. He didn't know how he was going to get through another hard winter.
He stopped near the edge of his building, which was a red brick six-family, and started hacking again, coughing and wheezing and spitting up that whitish-yellow phlegm. Then the spell was over, and he took a deep breath. He hadn't even needed his asthma inhaler. He still had the tickle in the back of his throat, but that would stay with him all winter. It was the dry air, Joline had always said. The dry air…
Anyway, he wouldn't cough anymore for a while, he told himself as he lit a non-filtered cigarette. He watched the neighbor lady across the street bundle her baby into a carriage. She lived with her bastard child and Hell's Angel boyfriend in a tiny ground floor apartment next to an empty bar. The boyfriend wasn't a bad sort: big, fat, and always smiling through crooked teeth. He called his girlfriend "Momma", which was what Charlie called Joline.
Suddenly, Charlie started to cough again, and he let his cigarette drop to the ground. The emphysema was worse this year: that's
what kept him from holding down a decent job.
But fuck the emphysema, he thought when he stopped coughing. He felt in his pocket for another cigarette. Fuck everything. He had fought in the goddamned war.
He had a right to get drunk.
* * *
Charlie always kept a bottle of wine and a few cans of beer hidden in the cellar below Nathan Isaacs' office. He had a key to the office, which was on the ground floor of an anvil-shaped brick building; the office was situated next to a small bookstore. On the window of the office door was painted in large block letters and in the lower left hand corner was painted in much smaller letters: BEST REALTY, LTD. Although Nathan liked to keep up the pretense that he was still in practice, he had retired to Florida, both physically and spiritually. His son Stephen took care of his upstate income properties, which supported the whole family. Charlie was certain that Nathan had salted away enough money for himself and didn't need the income from the properties. But the old man took a good share of it for himself, nevertheless.
NATHAN ISAACS, ESQ.
As Charlie paused in the narrow, crowded office before going down into the cellar, he remembered the old days when Nathan had four other lawyers working for him, and his offices had taken up the entire second floor, which Nathan had converted into furnished rooms for middle-income transients. But instead of letting Charlie have the work, he had brought in "professionals" to convert the offices into furnished rooms. After all the money I've saved the sonovabitch, Charlie thought, the humiliation still grinding away at him.
Nathan could afford to hire "professionals"…he could afford
to let them overcharge him, the Jew bastard!
Now Charlie didn't have anything against Jewish people. His best friend Avram Kanckle was Jewish, and Charlie had grown up with him. Avram became a millionaire. But goddamn, Charlie had been a good friend to Nathan. He deserved better than this. Nathan had promised
him that he'd never have to worry about money. Well, Nathan was even tight with his own son.
Now that was unusual to see among Jewish people…
Charlie went down the cellar stairs, past the bathroom and the metal shower stall he had installed. It had been his idea to build a furnished room at the other end of the cellar, which had windows. The added income would help pay Nathan's expensive winter heating bills. But the fire marshal had told Nathan's son that the room couldn't be inhabited unless a fire wall was built around the old converted furnace. Well, Charlie had offered to build the goddamned wall, but Stephen demurred, saying, as he always did, "to wait until we get some money in." Like father like son.
The cellar, which was filled with oddments, plumbing accessories, sheets of wallboard and marlite and paneling, old desks, chairs, couches, office equipment, cardboard files, bed frames, and moldering mattresses, consisted of six rooms. With the exception of the furnished room, bathroom, and furnace area, the cellar was filled with all the junk Charlie had collected for the firm over the years. Charlie boasted that he could find a use for everything, such as the boxes of used carpet squares at the foot of the stairs, and thereby save…and make…money.
But fuck that. Let them pay a premium rate now, Charlie thought. He'd keep his ideas to himself.
He passed the cubby where breaker-switches lined the low-ceilinged wall; it looked like the control room of a space-ship in an old 50's movie. Charlie noticed that one of the black breaker toggles had snapped to the off position, breaking the neat double row, and he switched it back on: someone was using too many appliances upstairs. Then he checked the furnace. It was hissing away cozily, but he made sure there was enough water in the boiler because the automatic feed didn't work. A new mechanism would cost over two hundred dollars, and Charlie had advised Nathan and Stephen that a new one would foul-up just as this one did. So they paid him to check the water-level. It was the least they could do, the bastards, he told himself.
Then he retrieved his already opened bottle of sauterne, which he had hidden in the drawer of a desk with three legs, which, in turn, was hidden behind a section of sheet-rock that had been water-damaged and was curved and bent, as if it were kneeling. He'd have to get rid of all this stuff one day, he told himself, before the whole fucking building goes up in smoke.
Nathan would like that…he'd make some more
He suddenly felt guilty for harboring such thoughts…after all, Stephen always tried to do right by him. Taking a sip of wine, he apologized to Stephen, as if Stephen was sitting right there with him in the furnace room. He raised his bottle and then spilled a few drops on the floor in Nathan's honor. "And to you, too, Nathan. You're a cheap Jew-bastard, but I love you. That's more than you've ever done for me."
He got up and paced back and forth in the crowded cellar hallway, maneuvering around the piles of junk. He looked into his work room, with its shelves neatly filled with jars and tins of nails and screws and bolts and washers. There were several five-gallon drums of paint along one wall. Arrayed upon his workbench were the various tools that he had bought for the company. He had always thought of himself as part of the company, as if...