A drop of the hard stuff, p.5
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       A Drop of the Hard Stuff, p.5
 

         Part #17 of Matthew Scudder series by Lawrence Block
Page 5

  There was a message waiting for me at the hotel desk, the same message: Jack had called and would call again later. It didn’t say to call him, and I decided not to because it was late. Then I changed my mind and called him after all, and there was no answer.

  Saturday started out cold and rainy. I skipped breakfast and wound up ordering an early lunch from the deli down the block. The kid who delivered it bore an unsettling resemblance to a drowned rat, and it earned him a bigger tip than usual.

  I spent the afternoon in front of the TV, switching back and forth between a couple of college football games. I didn’t pay much attention to what I was looking at, but it was better than being out in the rain, and I figured I’d be in one place long enough for Jack to get hold of me.

  But the phone never rang. I picked it up myself a couple of times and tried his number. No answer. It was frustrating in a curious way, because I didn’t really have a burning desire to talk to him, but neither did I want to be haunted by an endless stream of message slips.

  So I sat there in my room, and when I wasn’t looking at the TV I was looking out the window at the rain.

  Jan and I had arranged to meet at a restaurant at Mulberry and Hester, in Little Italy. We’d been there a couple of times together and liked the food and the atmosphere. I was a few minutes early, and they couldn’t find our reservation but had a table for us, and Jan showed up ten minutes late. The food was fine, the service was fine, and I could have flavored the conversation by pointing out a stocky gentleman at the bar whom I’d arrested ten or a dozen years earlier.

  We might have walked around after dinner, but it was still drizzling and there was a chill in the air, so we went straight to Lispenard Street and she made a pot of coffee and put some records on—Sarah Vaughan, Ella, Eydie Gormé. It should have been just the ticket for a rainy October night, domestic and romantic at the same time, but there’d been a stiffness at dinner, a distance between us, and it didn’t go away.

  I thought, Is this it? Is this how I’ll spend every Saturday night for the rest of my life?

  We went to bed sometime after midnight, with an all-night jazz station on the radio, and lying together in the dark, we did each other some good. And afterward I felt something lurking in the shadows out there on the edge of thought. I turned away from it, and sleep descended like a fast curtain.

  Some months ago I had taken to keeping some clothes at Jan’s place. She’d turned over one of the dresser drawers to me, along with a couple of hangers in the closet. So I had clean socks and underwear to put on after my morning shower, and a clean shirt, and I left what I’d been wearing for her to wash.

  “You’re coming up on a year,” she said at breakfast. “What is it, a month away?”

  “Five, six weeks. Somewhere in there. ”

  I thought she’d have more to say about that, but if she did she decided to leave it unsaid.

  That night I met Jim Faber at a Chinese restaurant on Ninth Avenue. Neither of us had been there before, and we decided it was all right, but nothing special. I told him about my evening with Jan, and he took it in and thought about it, and then he reminded me that I was coming up on a year sober.

  “She said the same thing,” I said. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

  He shrugged, waiting for me to answer my own question.

  “ ‘Don’t make any major changes in the first year. ’ Isn’t that the conventional wisdom?”

  “It’s what they say. ”

  “In other words, I’ve got five or six weeks, whatever the hell it is, to decide what to do about my relationship with Jan. ”

  “No. ”

  “No?”

  “You’ve got five or six weeks,” he said, “not to decide. ”

  “Oh. ”

  “You get the distinction?”

  “I think so. ”

  “You don’t have to make a change when the year’s up. You don’t have to come to a decision. You’re under no obligation to do anything. The important thing is not to take any action before then. ”

  “Got it. ”

  “On the other hand,” he said, “what we’re talking about here is your agenda. She may have one of her own. You’re sober a year, it’s time for you to shit or get off the pot. That sound about right?”

  “Maybe. ”

  “You know,” he said, “that business about waiting a year, that’s just a general rule. Some people, they’re best advised not to make any major changes for the first five years. ”

  “You’re kidding, right?”

  “Or even ten,” he said.

  We took in a meeting at St. Clare’s Hospital. Most of those attending were from the detox ward, and their attendance was compulsory. It was hard to get them to stay awake, and almost impossible to get them to say anything. Jim and I had been there a few times; you rarely heard anything insightful, but it served as a good object lesson.

  I walked him home, and at one point he said, “Something to bear in mind. Something Buddha said, as it happens. ‘It is your dissatisfaction with what is that is the source of all your unhappiness. ’ ”

  I said, “Buddha said that?”

  “So I’m told, though I have to admit I wasn’t there to hear him. You seem surprised. ”

  “Well,” I said, “I never thought he had that much depth to him. ”

  “Buddha. ”

  “That’s what everybody calls him. And what he calls himself, as far as that goes. Big guy, must stand six-six, shaves his head, belly out to here. He’s a regular at the midnight meeting at the Moravian church, but he turns up other places as well. I think he’s a former outlaw biker, and my guess is he’s done time, but—”

  The look on his face stopped me. He shook his head and said, “The Buddha. Sitting under the Bodhi tree? Waiting for enlightenment?”

  “I thought it was an apple tree and he invented gravity. ”

  “That was Isaac Newton. ”

  “If it was Newton, it should have been a fig tree. Buddha, huh? Listen, it was a natural mistake. The only Buddha I know is the one at the Moravian church. Works the doors at one of those rough bars on West Street, if I’m not mistaken. You want to run that by me again? The source of all unhappiness?”

  After I’d seen him home I went home myself. I’d stopped at the hotel earlier, surprised that there were no messages, and I didn’t see anything in my box this time, either. I asked the fellow behind the desk and he said that there’d been one person who’d called a couple of times but hadn’t given his name or left any kind of a message. All he could tell me was that the caller had been a man.

  Jack, I thought, and he’d given up leaving messages because they didn’t do any good. I went upstairs, and I was hanging up my jacket when the phone rang.

  A voice I didn’t recognize said, “Matt? This is Gregory Stillman. ”

  “I don’t think—”

  “We met the other night at Sober Today. Jack Ellery introduced us. ”

  “I remember. ” Jack’s sponsor, the jewelry designer, with one of his creations dangling from his ear. “I don’t think we got as far as last names. ”

  “No,” he said, and drew an audible breath. “Matt, I have some very bad news. ”

  V

  THE MEMORIAL SERVICE for John Joseph Ellery was held Monday afternoon in the same church basement where I’d heard Jan tell her story on Thursday evening. There was no AA meeting scheduled, but Greg had been able to make arrangements with the church for the use of the room. As far as I could tell, all of the thirty or so in attendance had known Jack in AA.

  All but two, a pair of men in suits who might as well have been wearing blue uniforms. Cops, following the long-established routine of attending a service to see who showed up. I’d done that myself a few times, and couldn’t remember ever learning anything useful in the process. But that didn’t mean it never paid off.

  The service was nonreligious
, and there was no clergyman in attendance. When I arrived there was a tape playing quietly, something classical that I recognized but couldn’t identify, and when it faded out Greg Stillman got up in front of the group. He was wearing a dark suit, and had left the earring home.

  He introduced himself as Jack’s friend and sponsor, and spoke for five minutes or so, telling a couple of stories. There was a moment when he seemed on the verge of being overcome by emotion, but he stopped talking and waited and the moment passed, and he was able to go on.

  Then people stood up in turn and shared something about Jack. It was like an AA meeting except you didn’t wait to be called on, you just took your turn. And all of the sharing was about Jack. Aside from the anecdotes, the gist of it was that Jack had had a rough life and a bad drinking story, but that he’d found real hope and comfort in the program, and was genuinely reborn through the twelve steps. And, by the grace of God, he’d died sober.

  There’s a comfort.

  The service concluded with a song. An ethereal young woman with big eyes and see-through skin stood up in front of the room and said that her name was Elizabeth and that she was an alcoholic. She hadn’t known Jack very well, she said, but she had sobriety in common with him, if nothing else, and Greg had asked her to sing, and she was glad to do it. She gave an a cappella rendition of “Amazing Grace,” including one verse I couldn’t recall having heard before. Not long before I got sober, I’d heard Judy Collins sing the song on a record they played at a whore’s funeral. That would have been hard to improve on, but this version came close.

  There was a coffee urn—it was, after all, an AA crowd—and people gathered around it afterward. I turned to look for the cops, thinking I could see if they wanted coffee. I figured they wouldn’t take it without an invitation. But they had slipped out, and I headed for the door myself until I heard my name called.

  It was Greg. He took my arm and asked me if I had a minute. “A few minutes,” he said. “There’s a conversation we ought to have, and then I’ve got a favor to ask you. ”

  The next time I saw Jack Ellery he was dead.

  And that was at the viewing room at the morgue, where Greg and I looked for a long moment at the mortal remains of a man we’d both known. Then he said, “Yes, that’s him. That’s Jack Ellery. ” And I nodded in affirmation, and they let us out of there.

  Outside he turned up his collar against the chill and wondered if we’d get more rain. I said I’d missed the forecast, and he said he never knew what the forecasts meant. “They used to tell you what it was going to do,” he said, “and even if they were wrong a lot of the time, at least they gave you a clear-cut answer. Now it’s all percentages. What on earth is a fifty percent chance of rain? How do you respond to that, carry half of an umbrella?”

 
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