She visited him at the Cleveland House Hotel every night for the next month. When she walked across the dingy lobby, old men too drunk to speak stalked her with jaundiced eyes….”
by ed markowski
After the horse races, the man and woman walked arm in arm up the muggy stairwell to the four-room flat they rented behind the rail yards on Marathon Avenue.
A train whistle filtered through a tattered screen above the kitchen sink, where a grey cat crouched, licking at the last of the macaroni and cheese the couple had eaten for dinner.
Sitting at a blue formica table, the man leaned forward to remove his boots and socks. “Pour me a drink,” the man said, crumpling the losing wager slips into a ball. “My nerves are coming on again. Make me something strong, something that’ll relax me,” the man said, wiping a fresh line of sweat from his forehead with a dishrag.
“Bourbon or vodka?” the woman asked, opening the icebox, and undoing the top three buttons of a chambray shirt that slid back from her thin, tanned shoulders.
“It doesn’t matter. Jesus Christ, just pour me a goddamned drink. Something strong and cold, how many goddamned times do I have to say it?”
The woman took two glasses from the cupboard, filling both with bourbon. Ice crackled. A housefly buzzed against the window screen. Sitting opposite the man, she switched on a small porcelain lamp, reached across the table, and ran her fingers through his hair. “Why are you so nervous?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” the man said, pushing her hand from the top of his head. “I don’t know why.”
“Are you upset because you lost money on the horses tonight?”
“No, not that. I’m used to losing money on the horses,” the man said. “What’s two hundred dollars? I’ll make it back next week.”
“You haven’t won at the track since April,” the woman said, flipping the pages of a desk calendar. “Are you sure it’s not the money?”
Sipping his drink, the man turned his back to the woman. Downtown neon floated through the living room window tinting the hardwood floor a pale green. “It’s not the money,” the man said. “The odds have to be with me after tonight.”
“Did something happen at work last night? Are they pressuring you again?”
“No, nothing happened at the warehouse last night. All the trucks were loaded by nine. We sat around after that. They talked about the past. They talked about what they were. They talk about what they were and who they were every night.” He turned back to face the woman. “That’s what they talk about,” the man said, pitching the ball of wager slips at the cat.
“Tell me what you talked about. Tell me what you were, and who you were. Tell me something about your past,” the woman said, rolling the wet glass across her cheek before dropping it to her lips.
“No,” the man shouted. “Look Mary, all that matters is now. All that matters is right here in front of us. The bottle, the glasses, the cat, the lamp, the calendar, this table. And us. I can’t bet on yesterday’s winning horses. The past doesn’t matter, Mary, the past doesn’t exist.”
“I’d like to know something about the man I love. Is that so bad? Is that asking too much?” the woman said, finishing her drink, and pouring another.
“You know enough.”
“I know that you’re from Alabama. I know that you came here looking for work. I know you love to play the horses. And I know that you’re a quiet man. Other than that, I don’t know a thing about you.”
The man rubbed his chin and closed his eyes. “And you know that I’m not chasing strange stuff at the honkytonks, like the other assholes at the warehouse.” He shook his head and smiled. “That’s all you really need to know now, isn’t it?”
“Come on Phil, you didn’t drop out of the sky that night,” the woman said.
They had met six months before, on a Monday night in January. She had closed the restaurant early. After scrubbing the grill, she turned to fill the mustard bottles on the lunch counter. He was sitting at a corner table, brushing snow from a black watchman’s cap.
“We’re closed,” she said.
“You forgot to lock the door.”
“The cook’s gone home.”
“Well then, I guess I can rob you. I guess I can steal all your money pretty lady,” the man said, winking his eye.
“Look mister, I don’t have time to play games. What do you want? Maybe I can help you,” she said, staring down at him.
“I’d like a cup of coffee. That’s all. Black. It’s cold out there. Hell, I’ll take the dregs,” he said, lighting a cigarette.
She made him a cup of instant, then she sat down and told him how her grandmother had come to be named. “She was born in Mississippi, on a cool night on the delta. So, they named her Delta Cool.” Then she told him how her father had moved the family north, “little by little and mile by mile.”
He smiled and nodded and listened for two hours, saying only that he too had southern roots, and that he had come north looking for work. He wrote his address on a napkin, and thanked her for the coffee. When she unlocked the door to let him out, he laughed and said, “Don’t forget to keep it locked pretty lady, or I just might rob you next time.”
She visited him at the Cleveland House Hotel every night for the next month. When she walked across the dingy lobby, old men too drunk to speak stalked her with jaundiced eyes. And young men too drunk to stay silent serenaded her with crude howls and slurred sex talk.
When they made love, he apologized for the coughing and arguing in the room next door. She imagined all the bums in the lobby masturbating to the music and rhythm of their hungry movements.
The night the cops raided the fifth floor, she invited him to share her flat. It was small, but he would fit. A quiet, handsome man with southern roots and a leather suitcase. A man who was so easy to talk to.
“So, what did you talk about? You must have said something about your past,” the woman said, dropping another ice cube into her glass.
“I told them about wrenching truck engines at a garage in Arkansas. Mountain View. It was a nice place. Otherwise, the job didn’t pay much. Then I told them about coming north, and meeting you.” He fanned his face with the dishrag. “There, I told you something about my past. Are you satisfied?”
“Who did you love in Arkansas?”
“Don’t ask,” the man began, then he said, “Nobody. I didn’t love anyone.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Believe whatever you fucking want to believe,” the man said, slamming his fist against the table. He refilled his glass and stared at her. “I don’t care what you believe. I don’t care.”
“Well Phil, if you didn’t love anyone, who loved you in Arkansas?”
“Maggie,” the man said, grabbing at and missing a silver moth that circled the lamp.
“Was she beautiful Phil? Did Maggie love you the way I love you?”
“Yes, Maggie was beautiful,” the man said, rubbing his eyes. “And she never asked me who I was or who I loved when I lived in Alabama. She never asked stupid fucking questions when I needed to drink and be quiet.”
“Why did you leave her? Why didn’t things work out for you and her?”
The man leaned forward into the lamp. His eyelashes brushed against the flowered shade. A train clattered through the rail yards. “Her husband broke out of prison. He was doing time for armed robbery and attempted murder. He was on a work detail out on the Interstate with three other men. They jumped the guards, and ran off. He came back to Mountain View. She got scared and moved down to Texas. Some small town called Bandera, I think. That’s what they told me anyway,” the man said, backing away from the lamp.
“That’s sad Phil, that’s real sad honey.”
“Things worked out the way they were supposed to. Now don’t ask me any more goddamned questions.”
The woman set her glass on the sink, undid two more buttons, and walked to his side of the table. “Maybe this will help you relax and cool off. Maybe this will help you forget about Maggie,” she said, pressing her breasts into his back and massaging his shoulders. “Let’s sit in the living room Phil. I want to tell you why I love you.”
He pulled the knob on the television set. Black and white silhouettes argued in a corner of the room. A booming voice called out, “Alice, I’m sick and tired…” He set the bourbon on the coffee table, and fell to the couch.
The woman sat beside him, hooking her bare legs over his jeans. Her tongue followed the downward curve of his neck. The man was still.
“I love you Phil,” she whispered. She ran her tongue up his neck, stopping at his ear, and she whispered, “I love you because you’re handsome. I love you because you’re strong. I love you because you play the horses. I love you because your hair is black. I love you because you’re quiet. I love you because you’re smart. I love you because you’re loyal. And, I love you because no man has ever moved me in and out of bed the way you move me. Make love to me Phil, make love to me all night long.”
The woman kept on whispering, “Make love to me. You won’t have to think about who you were. You won’t have to think about Maggie , or Bandera, or Mountain View, or Maggie’s husband. Just fuck me Phil, make love to me until the sun comes up and you won’t have to think about anything at all.”
The man heard Mary whispering. And he heard a train, he heard a train moving through the hot muggy night, moving through the rail yards, rolling south, graceful and fast, like a horse he thought, just like a winning horse.
Ed Markowski lives and writes in Auburn Hills, Michigan. Much more from Ed Markowski can be found in the Vault of Smoke.