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Rook


A thick, humid day gave way to rain in the evening which intensified all through the night.

In the morning when Spence steps from his car, where he had slept upright behind the wheel, the air is dry and much cooler than the day before. Tongue of cotton swabbing and wrinkled suit. Tie tossed into the back seat at some point. His back aches. He is too old to be sleeping in cars, he decides.

He stretches, steps around to the curbside of the blue Volvo and opens both front and back doors, steps between them, shielded from view. He stretches, unzips and relieves himself, watching for pedestrians or passing patrol cars. It is early. He has the immediate environs to himself. The bar across the street, where he had over-imbibed the night before, is closed. It will not reopen until 4 p.m.

Back into the car. The key still in the ignition. All he gets is click, click, click. Lights and the radio left on overnight. No-one around to offer a jump. An expired AAA membership. Calling a garage would probably cost most of the cash that he is carrying. He hasn’t a clue where his cell phone is anyway. Maybe in the bar.

Nothing to do but walk. Spence doesn’t know the neighborhood well but he knows it can go from safe to dicey within a block. He wishes he had a change of clothes. Despite the poor condition of his suit, it is expensive and gives off an incorrect impression that he carries meaningful money. In a few blocks he comes across West Side Pawn. Open at ten. A pawn shop is an indication of decline. He may have ventured in the wrong direction. He looks at his watch, a Christmas gift from Jill that also broadcasts false fortune. 7:25 a.m. He is about to turn around, retrace his steps and head back to the Volvo when he sees a man exiting a building a block ahead. Signs of life from what appears to be a bar. He presses on.

As he draws closer he sees the sign. Rook. Picture of a black bird like from the card game. As he reaches the corner to cross the street, waiting for the light to change, he hears a voice behind him.

“You could buy me a drink.”

He hadn’t noticed the woman seated on the bench at the bus stop. A hooker most likely but, if so, given her condition, new to the trade. Clean and with a bright, wholesome smile. A tiny waist, he notes, as she rises from the bench. An hourglass figure though a lot of sand has settled to the bottom. Spence looks her over, trying to guess her age. He could easily err by a decade or more.

“Come on,” he says, crossing the street with the changing light without waiting for her.

Light on her feet, she skips after him. Grasps his elbow like a Prom date when she catches up.

Spence leads her to a bar stool rather than to a table. They sit at the bar with three old guys who look like they haven’t left the Rook in years.

“Whassup Sandy?” says the old bartender.

“Dan!” she responds.

Sandy orders a shot and a beer. Spence only a beer. A little too early for whiskey, though back in the day he’d often greet the morning with a Plain Dealer breakfast – a raw egg plopped into a glass of beer – after working the night shift. The total comes to $15. Spence hands Dan an American Express card that may or may not be valid. The silver haired bartender, who walks with a pronounced limp, frowns and shakes his head. Spence takes a crumpled ten, a five and three ones out of his pocket. Dan is gleeful over the tip. An uncommon occurrence, Spence surmises.

Sandy downs the whiskey in a single gulp, wipes her mouth with the back of her hand.

Spence excuses himself to go to the bathroom for a discreet place to check his funds. Two twenties, a five and four ones. Enough for a few more rounds or a battery jump but not both. On the way back to the bar he notices a pay phone, a rarity these days. He slips in the change and calls Jill’s number. She doesn’t answer, the call goes to voice-mail. Spence doesn’t leave a message. He knows he hasn’t much to report that would elicit interest or sympathy at this time in the morning.

When Spence reclaims his stool he sees Sandy with a fresh shot. He’s guessing it’s on his tab. As a test, and because he wants another, he orders a second beer. Dan doesn’t ask him to pay at the point of delivery. There’s the answer.

###

Another unanswered phone call to Jill. He leaves a message this time about his stranded condition and the number of the pay phone. Jill’s parents are in town. Spence is, no doubt, the main topic. The potential son in law, once considered a promising asset due to his good job is now an object of doubt and derision. His failure to make good on the marriage proposal fresh in their minds. Fancy footwork in his rope-a-dope relationship strategy. After he got fired, Spence moved in with Jill until he could get back on his feet. That was four months ago. The job search is not going well because a hunter needs both sufficient prey, weaponry and motivation. He spends most of the day driving around the rundown Near North neighborhood, exploring a city that had been a mystery. Jill’s job and apartment are in the ‘burbs. She refuses to deal with the dangers and inconveniences of the urban core, where “they” live, although she never explicitly says who “they” are.

Spence has been scouting the drinking establishments where “they” live. Dives, like The Ruby and Rook, where the booze and food are cheap and the characters plentiful. Funds are chronically low. Spence has sold off stereo equipment and most everything else of any value. Jill grows increasingly reluctant to extend loans.

###

Spence checks his watch again, is about to tell Sandy that he needs to be on his way, whatever way that is, when the thought occurs to him.

“I’ll be right back,” he says. He studies Sandy’s face as he lifts himself uncertainly from his stool. Acne scars on her cheeks like constellations. Like a target at a BB gun shooting range. Punctuation without sentences. Indications, perhaps, of deeper scars within from a pustular adolescence.

“Where are you going?“ Sandy asks with alarm. Dan looks at him with equal concern.

“Here,” Spence says, emptying his pocket to settle for the drinks, removing suspicion and buying Sandy another round. “Give me 15 minutes,” he says.

Spence exits the Rook, crosses the street where he sees a girl on the bench in Sandy’s previous position with the same lonely but hopeful visage. He walks the block to West Side

Pawn.

###

The pawn guy seems fidgety and uncertain as he hands Spence the money.

Spence returns to the Rook sans watch but with two crisp one hundred dollar bills in his pocket. Much less than the timepiece’s value but more than he expected. No one has has phoned during his absence, he is told.

He noticed that the girl on the bench has moved on.

Dan places two upside down shot glasses in front of Spence and Sandy.” Ben has your next round,” he says pointing to an elderly gentleman at the other end of the bar who wasn’t there when Spence left. The old man doesn’t turn when Spence says “thank you” in his direction. The old man stares at the shelves of cheap whiskey behind the bar as if communicating telepathically with old friends. Ancient Age. Jim Beam. Old Overholt.

Sandy walks over to Ben. Plants a kiss on the old man’s cheek. He smiles and pats her on the rump.

Spence thinks about the girl who was sitting on the bench across the street. Younger and prettier than Sandy. “Do you have a roommate?” he asks Sandy.

“How did you know?”

“Just a hunch.”

“She’s upstairs. She’ll be gone in a little while.”

They redeem the shot glasses for their gift drinks. Spence goes to the restroom, steadying himself with the juke box on his way. After he’s through with business, Spence dials Jill’s number but hangs up after the first ring. A slurred noontime conversation will not further his ambitions.

###

Yet another drink? Phone a garage while he still has sufficient funds? Try to reach Jill one last time? Spence’s muddy mind fails to give traction. He loads the jukebox. Sometimes decisions are made for you. He turns from the jukebox in time to see a tow truck pass by dragging a blue Volvo. He sighs.

“We’ll have one more,” Spence says to Dan. To Sandy he says, “After these do you want to go upstairs?”

She smiles and and awaits her drink.

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