A drop of the hard stuff, p.4
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.4

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 4

  “Ah, Matt from the Old Neighborhood,” Greg said. “Now long since leveled and paved over, and far better in nostalgic recollection than ever it was in reality. I wish someone would run a highway through my own old neighborhood. Or divert a river through it. ”

  “Somebody did that,” I seemed to remember, and he said it was Hercules, as a way of cleaning the Augean stables.

  “He had Twelve Labors, we have Twelve Steps,” he said. “Who ever said staying sober was easy?”

  Jan was heading over, and I was ready to grab her and get out of there. I suggested to Jack that it might be simpler if I called him, but he said he’d probably be out most of the day. I told him I’d probably be back at my hotel in the late morning, and if he missed me then he could try me around two.

  New York’s Little Germany was on the Lower East Side until the General Slocum disaster of 1904, when a ship by that name burned and sank on the East River, with thirteen hundred of the neighborhood’s residents on board for an annual excursion. Over a thousand of them died, and that took the heart out of Little Germany. It was the end of the neighborhood, as surely as if you’d run an expressway through it. Or diverted a river.

  The residents moved out of Little Germany, and most of them wound up in Yorkville, in the blocks centering around Eighty-sixth and Third. It wasn’t just German, there were Czechs and Hungarians as well, but they’d all begun moving on in recent years, and the rents these days were too high for new immigrants. Yorkville was losing its ethnic character.

  You wouldn’t have known that inside Maxl’s, where Jan took a long look at the menu and ordered sauerbraten and red cabbage and potato dumplings, which she called by their German name. The waiter, who looked pretty silly in his lederhosen, approved her choice or her pronunciation, or perhaps both, and beamed when I said I’d have the same. His face registered shock and dismay, though, when he asked what kind of beer we wanted and we said we’d be fine with coffee. Later we’d have coffee, he suggested. Now we would want good German beer to go with good German food.

  I had a sudden sense memory of good German beer, Beck’s or St. Pauli Girl or Löwenbräu, strong and rich and full-bodied. I wasn’t going to order it, I didn’t even want it, but the memory was there. I blinked it away, while Jan made it clear that he wasn’t going to sell us any beer that evening.

  The ambience was touristy, but the food was good enough to take your mind off it, and we had more coffee afterward and shared a gooey dessert. “I could do this every night,” Jan said, “if I didn’t mind weighing three hundred pounds. That fellow who looked like he took a beating, I think he said his name was Jack?”

  “What about him?”

  “You were talking to him. ”

  “I’ve mentioned him. ”

  “From when you lived in the Bronx. And then you wound up arresting him years later. ”

  “That’s close,” I said. “I didn’t make the collar, I was just there to view the lineup, and when he went away it was for something else. I never told him about that lineup, incidentally. ”

  “I asked him what happened to his face. I wouldn’t have said anything, but he brought it up, said he didn’t always look this handsome. You know, making a joke of it, to clear the air. ”

  “I met George Shearing once,” I recalled.

  “The jazz pianist?”

  I nodded. “Somebody introduced us, I forget the occasion. And right off the bat he reeled off three or four blind jokes. They weren’t terribly funny, but that wasn’t the point. You meet a blind man and you’re overly aware of his blindness, and he’d learned to get that out of the way by calling attention to it. ”

  “Well, that’s what Jack was doing, so I went ahead and asked what had happened. ”


  “He said he blamed the whole thing on the steps. He slipped on one of them and landed flat on his face. I guess this meant something to his friend, because he rolled his eyes. I would have asked him which step, but before I could say anything he was thanking me again and making room for the next person in line. ”

  “Nine,” I said.

  “As in Step Nine? Or is that German for no?”

  “He’s been making amends. Or trying to. ”

  “When I did,” she said, “what I mostly got was hugs and forgiveness. Along with a couple of blank stares from people who couldn’t figure out why I was apologizing. ”

  “Well,” I said, “you and Jack probably associated with a different class of people, and had different things to make amends for. ”

  “I threw up all over a guy once. ”

  “And he didn’t punch you in the mouth?”

  “He didn’t even remember. At least that’s what he said, but I think he must have been being polite. I mean, how do you forget something like that?”

  I reached for the check, as I generally do, but she insisted we split it. Outside she said she was exhausted, and would I be heartbroken if she went home alone? I said it was probably a good idea, that I was tired myself. It was Thursday, so I’d be seeing her in two days. I hailed a cab, and when I held the door for her she said she’d drop me at my hotel, that it was practically on her way. I said I felt like walking off that dessert.

  I watched her taxi head south on Second Avenue and tried to remember the last time I’d had German beer. Jimmy Armstrong had Prior Dark on tap, and I found myself remembering the taste of it.

  I forced myself to walk two blocks, then caught a cab of my own.

  Back in my room, I got out of my clothes and took a shower. I called Jim Faber and said, “What the hell’s the matter with me? She said she was tired, and I was going to be seeing her Saturday. ”

  “You thought you’d be going home with her tonight. More or less took it for granted. ”

  “And she asked if I was all right with it, and I said sure, that was fine. ”

  “But that’s not how you felt. ”

  “I felt like telling her to forget about Saturday, while she was at it. That way she could get plenty of rest. All the fucking rest she wanted. ”

  “Nice. ”

  “And thank you very much, lady, but I’ll get my own cab. But what I said was I felt like walking. ”

  “Uh-huh. And how do you feel now?”

  “Tired. And a little silly. ”

  “Both appropriate, I’d say. Did you drink?”

  “Of course not. ”

  “Did you want to?”

  “No,” I said, and thought about it. “Not consciously. But I probably wanted to, on some level. ”

  “But you didn’t drink. ”

  “No. ”

  “Then you’re okay,” he said. “Go to sleep. ”

  Not counting our Bronx boyhood, that was the third time I saw Jack Ellery—once through one-way glass, and twice at meetings.

  The next time I saw him he was dead.


  I WENT OUT for breakfast at the Morning Star Friday morning, and went straight from there to the Donnell Library on West Fifty-third. In the restaurant the night before we’d talked some about the General Slocum disaster, but I’d been uncertain exactly when it had occurred and how many lives had been lost. I found a book that would answer all my questions, including some that hadn’t come to mind until I started reading about it. Just about everyone involved had been grossly negligent, from the owners and line management on down, but the only one who went to jail was the captain, and his sentence struck me as awfully light for the enormity of his actions.

  As far as I could tell, nobody bothered to bring a civil suit, and I thought how the world had changed in three-quarters of a century. Nowadays people filed a lawsuit at the drop of a hat, even if it was somebody else’s hat and it hadn’t been dropped within half a block of them. I tried to decide whether the country was better or worse for all that relentless litigation, and I chose to postpone my decision, because something I’d read was leading me to another book on a
nother subject.

  That took care of the morning, and I went straight from the Donnell reading room to the Sixty-third Street Y, getting there just in time for the 12:30 meeting. It broke at 1:30, and I stopped at a pizza stand for a slice and a Coke, which would do me fine for lunch, although I didn’t suppose it would bring a smile of delight to the face of a board-certified nutritionist. It was around 2:15 when I got home, and there were two slips in my message box. The first call had come at 10:45, and I’d missed the second one by less than ten minutes. They were both from Jack, and both times he’d said he would try again later.

  I went upstairs and called his number on the off chance that he was home now, or that he’d acquired an answering machine. He wasn’t and he hadn’t.

  I stayed in the room until it was time to go out to dinner. I had no reason to go anywhere and I had a book to read, so I wasn’t there specifically to wait for his call, but that was probably a factor. The only time the phone rang it was Jan, confirming that we were still on for Saturday night. Then she asked if I’d walked all the way home the previous night, and I took a breath before I answered. “I walked two blocks,” I said, “and then I said the hell with it and flagged a cab. ”

  We established when and where we’d meet, and I hung up and wondered at my first impulse, which had been to say yes, that I’d walked all the way home from Yorkville. And what else? That my feet were sore and my calves ached? That I’d been mugged and pistol-whipped en route and it was all her fault?

  But instead I’d paused for breath and told her the unremarkable truth, and she’d passed up the chance to remind me I could have saved a couple of bucks by sharing her cab. I suppose you could say we were both making progress.

  Friday night I went to St. Paul’s. I saw Jim there but he complained of a headache and went home at the break. I joined a few others for coffee afterward, where the chief topic of conversation was a member who’d just come out as a lesbian. “I knew Pegeen was gay,” a man named Marty said. “I figured it out about ten minutes after I met her. I was just hoping I could get lucky before she figured it out. ”

  “While visions of threesomes danced in your head,” somebody said.

  “No, I’m an uncomplicated guy. I just wanted to nail her a couple of times before she turned into a pumpkin. ”

  “But your Higher Power had other ideas. ”

  “My Higher Power,” Marty said, “was clueless. My Higher Power was asleep at the fucking switch. ”

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