The Passing of Willie Monahan
Part 3 - The Odd Man
by Harry Buschman
Willie was dead a day short of two months and not yet out of our minds. We never let a day go by at the Hollow Leg Saloon without the mention of his name, nor did any of us forget the promise we made never to sit on the third stool from the door.
There were a few among us who considered erecting a plaque in his name to hang by the coat tree, and we even went so far as to leave an empty jar on the bar with a coin slot in the top to collect money for a suitable memorial. A noble thought, and had we been more dedicated to the project I’m sure it would have been done by now, but a casual glance inside the jar reveals more copper than silver. We are obviously more dedicated to the drinking life than to the memory of one who has passed on – that is why we are here in the first place, and we take consolation in the fact that had it been one of us, Willie would be just as remiss as we are.
I don’t want to leave the impression that we are maudlin in our grief. Our mention of his name is always spiked with humor; something he might have said or done that never fails to bring a chuckle of remembrance and a toast all around. It always ends with a ...
“Gee, I sure miss Willie.”
“Yeah, me too.”
But that’s as far as it goes, and when you consider that most of us have reached the age when faces and names are easily forgotten, Willie could not have asked for more, at least not from such as us in the Hollow Leg Saloon.
We have better things to do than mourn, and we take comfort in the fact that Willie couldn’t ask for more picturesque surroundings than his vantage point on the hill of Evergreen Cemetery. There he rests beside his mother and father in the landfill from which he can watch the sun set on the Gowanus Canal. There he waits patiently for Judgment Day, a whiskey glass and a five dollar bill between his bare feet – ready to run for the bar when it opens with the first blast of the trumpet.
We know his life with Lillie had its ups and downs, but that’s all water over the dam, or under the bridge as the case may be. There were shortcomings on both sides I am sure, making one wonder why a little foresight before marriage wouldn’t be a good thing. But love is like falling downstairs, I think – all that’s on your mind is getting to the bottom as quickly as possible. Sadly, we are one less than we were before, and as I look around me here in the smoky interior of the Hollow Leg Saloon I sense the absence of a member who must be replaced somehow. There are eight of us now, (counting Clancy the bartender) where there was once nine. Nine, I think, is a better number than eight – better even than ten. Charlie Spivak, our resident poet could probably explain that in literary terms, but all I know is what I remember from my wasted days in architectural school. An odd number of arches in a facade presents a visual opening in the center inviting passage through the colonnade of a temple, and that’s the way it should be. When I begin thinking about things in this manner I know it’s time to turn my glass upside down and say goodnight to the Hollow Leg Saloon – at least until tomorrow.
To say I slept restlessly last night would be an understatement. I sat up thinking, not of Willie so much, but of the 'gemutlichkeit' – I know of no other word that fits the aura of warmth and friendliness that pervades the Hollow Leg Saloon in the late afternoon. It is as though the ghosts of 130 years of drinkers have come to pass the time of day with us. Their voices can be heard in song and story, and now Willie’s voice can be heard loud and clear above them all. May they sing forever! They are great company ... none greater than Willie Monahan. I finally got to sleep vainly trying to think of a replacement for him.
I dropped in to the Hollow Leg after my duties at the ‘Guardian’ the next afternoon. Spivak was there, (already on his third) so was Ed Donahue and Lotte – bless her heart. Clancy the bartender was well into the story of the difficulties his father faced during the prohibition years. It’s a story that, by now, should be put to bed, but so long as Clancy tends the bar it will never be.
“... they’d test the beer every week, me father said – and an hour before they’d come he’d get a call from the revenooers office that they were on their way. He’d run down to the basement, see – then he’d disconnect the valve from the good stuff to the one percent, then – oh hi there, stranger – what’ll you have?”
“The usual, Clancy – how’s everybody? You too Lotte.” She took a firmer grip on her horse’s head cane and growled at me. Being a woman, she hates being noticed here at the Hollow Leg, she would like to be invisible if she could, poor soul. There must have been better times for Lotte. I know for a fact there have been three men in her life – one of them important enough for her to marry. It was ... if I recall – a Walter somebody, who left in a bloody huff after the birth of their second daughter. Then there was a Charlie – a plumber if I’m not mistaken – he left his bag of tools as a legacy after a lucky weekend in Atlantic City. Who was the third? Something to do with stolen cars ... I can’t rightly remember – except that he’s gone too. It hasn’t been easy being Lotte. We should treat her with greater respect. Looking at her staring into her gin as though it were a crystal ball I can sense there must have been better times. Soft summer nights – moments of ecstasy and abandon. Let us hope so, it would be tragic to think that these are the best years of her life.
Charlie Spivak sat on the stool next to the one on which Willie once sat. He smiled secretly to himself from time to time as though listening to the words of some long dead poet. Charlie’s our contact with the literary world and never at a loss to quote a line or two from Keats or Shelley to punctuate an event of the moment. He will roll up his eyes and make quasi quotation marks with his fingers – an affectation that will someday drive me mad. It would be helpful if the quotation fit the incident, but it is always misapplied – as when he stated Willie had “shuffled off this mortal coil.” He did no such thing! What he did was to drop dead in the middle of the Monday night football game.
Bob Hollister stood with a beer in his hand, it being a little too early in the day for him to drink bourbon. He was looking closely at the old yellowed photographs that hung on the wall next to the toilet door. Bob is the sentimental sort and loves to live in the past. To a greater or lesser extent it is an affliction all of us share, but Bob seems to be rooted there with both feet firmly planted. Even when his head appears in the doorway of the present, it will suddenly duck back again into the past.
“These pictures are great, Clancy – this one here, the one with the soldier?”
“That was my grandfather’s first bartender, he lost his kneecap at Gettysburg – wore his Union uniform all life long.” Clancy, while he doesn’t live in the past, can’t resist lecturing anyone who will listen, so long as the subject is the Hollow Leg Saloon. He has taken great pains to preserve many photographs of the place from its very beginnings 130 years ago when it stood alone on an unnamed street in the middle of Toad Hollow. He dried his hands on a towel and came out from behind the bar. He put on his glasses and hurried over to stand next to Bob ... “Now here, see this one? There’s curtains in the windas upstairs, you can see them blowin’ out,” he turned to Bob and in a confidential manner nudged him gently in the ribs. "Those were the days when grampa would let girls operate up there. Sometimes I look at that pitcher and wonder if somethin’ was goin’ on upstairs when it was taken – y’know? Even now there’s rooms up there, y’know?”
“Gee,” Bob said, obviously impressed. “You ever go up there, Clancy?”
“No. I did when I was a kid. Before my father put in the trap door and the plantin’ boxes on the stairs,” he raised his head to look in that general direction ... “it was spooky, lemme tell’ya. Dark and spooky – smelled of mice, it did.”
You might wonder why, except for the spirits, anyone would waste an afternoon in the Hollow Leg Saloon. The clientele is about as dull as you’ll find at a senior citizen’s picnic and it’s rare thing to hear an intelligent word or one you haven’t heard before. Nobody talks of today or tomorrow – we’re mired in yesterday. It was Willie Monahan, the youngest of us, who taught us the beauty of today ... with little thought for tomorrow. I was about to bring up the subject of odd and even numbers again when in walked Dennis O’Dell.
Dennis is our mortician, and since his father died, he is the sole proprietor of O’Dell’s Funeral Home. It was the very same O’Dell who mortified and buried Willie, and barring natural or man-made disasters, he will bury all of us. I couldn’t remember him dropping in the Hollow Leg in the afternoon, but then, I’m not here as often as the rest of the crowd. It occurred to me that Dennis O’Dell might be a logical contender for our odd man. He was Willie’s age and best of all he had a steady job – which can be of some importance when the Social Security checks are overdue and a man has a dry throat.
Dennis is a small man, smaller even than Willie was. Clancy’s bar stools are a stretch for him and he had to step on the bottom rung before his rump cleared the cushion. He did it with a minimum of fuss – I’ll give him that. He is pale in complexion and somewhat scarce of hair. Were it not for the fact his eyes are always open, he resembles many of his clients, and when speaking to him you get the impression he is studying your face for future reference. I have never seen him in anything but a black suit, white shirt and a tie of celestial blue – he has no leisure time and I think he dresses for work day and night.
I tried to break the ice. “It’s good to see you Dennis. May I congratulate you on the job you did on Willie Monahan, he never looked better.”
He turned to look at me and smiled. “Mr. Monahan was a textbook subject,” O’Dell refers to the dead as Mr. or Mrs. “Pull up a stool,” he said, “what are you drinking?”
I held up my beer as evidence. “Just a beer, Dennis. I have to get back to the paper.” O’Dell is one of our steady advertisers. “It’s rare to see you here, Dennis.”
“Both slumber rooms are empty.”
“Ah, well,” I observed, “winter’s coming.” Then I thought when winter did come we probably wouldn’t see much of him and perhaps the consideration of Dennis O’Dell as the odd man wouldn’t be a good idea after all. He looked at me sadly and shrugged a bit as he contemplated the head on his beer.
“Yes, I suppose it is – I love it here at Clancy’s place, you know.” He made an all-inclusive gesture with his hand which then found its way to his glass again as though it had eyes of its own. He lifted his beer in salute to the Hollow Leg Saloon and then drained it down. He reached under his coat tail to get a handkerchief from his rear pants pocket and daintily dabbed his lips. “If I could,” he said, “I would spend more time here.” He looked at me joylessly. “The life I lead – there is nothing sadder than watching them go one by one – no one to share it with.”
“I never thought of it that way.”
“No one does, no one. The dead don’t care you know. It doesn’t matter to them – it matters to us.” He grew more animated. “Willie could have been a Saint or a house plant. There’s no difference once you’re gone.”
I thought to myself, Dennis is as nutty as a fruit cake, but he’s certainly the right man for the odd man. Think of the discussions we could have! The mysteries of life and death!
“It’s for the living,” he went on. “Whether he parted his hair on the left or the right – whether he should wear his glasses. Think about it a minute.” He signaled to Clancy for another round. “Give me one Goddamn good reason why a dead man needs glasses!” It was a subject that apparently meant a great deal to him.
“It might help if you leave the eyes open ...” I ventured. He looked at me me as though I had lost my mind, then he turned and looked at the bottles on display behind the bar.
“It’s too much for one man,” he said quietly. “Do you know I’m 53 years old and I’ve never been married – I have no heirs – at times like these when there’s no one stretched out in the slumber room, I am the loneliest of men.”
I was about to continue the conversation when I was jabbed sharply in the small of my back with Lotte’s cane. “Move over,” she said “I’d like to have a word with the Doc.”
You don’t argue with Lotte when she’s in this mood, nor would it have been wise to point out the fact that Dennis O’Dell went to embalmer’s school and not a college of medicine. I moved over two stools, for to move over one would have put me in the third stool from the door which will forever be Willie’s seat. I had no intention of overhearing Lotte’s conversation with Dennis O’Dell but Lotte’s voice would carry in a gale, and because of her lack of teeth she tends to be sibilant in her speech – spraying the room with a gin flavored aerosol.
“I just wanted to tell’ya what a fine job y’did on Willie Monahan, O’Dell. I had my doubts when I seen him stretched out here on the floor, but you sure know yer onions.”
“Thank you, ma’am.”
She leaned a little closer to him and made every attempt to keep her voice down. Clancy, who was listening in as I was, turned the television down a bit so we could hear.
“I been meanin’ t’ask you, ever since the layin’ in, er – I’d like t’sign up y’know. Pay up front I mean.”
I don’t think O’Dell got it right away because, as he mopped the front of his shirt with his handkerchief, he stared blankly at Lotte as though he didn’t understand her.
“C’mon O’Dell! I wanna pay now fer when I die.” She banged the edge of the bar with her cane in frustration. “Dont’cha get me, Dummy. I got nobody t’handle the details when I go.” She began to count on her fingers. “I need a plot. I wanna pick a nice knotty pine casket – I love knotty pine – I’ll need flowers, and I gotta nice powder blue taffeta dress I never wore yet. Then there’s Father Stan -- the hell with him and his sailin’ away stories – I want Bishop Jaeger over at the Diocese.” She had one finger left over and she stared at it with knitted brows. “Oh, I almost forgot! A stone! I’d like a nice stone. Not a big one – but tasteful y’know? It should say – Here lies a lady, Lotte Gemstone by name, a credit to her neighborhood ... and ... I got it writ down home on paper, I’ll bring it to ya.”
The lunacy of the request gradually dawned on O’Dell and he began to laugh. It began as a chuckle and in trying to stifle it he began to choke – he was forced to cover his mouth with the gin soaked handkerchief.
“What are y’laughin’ at dummy? I got nobody. If I don’t do it nobody’s gonna do it for me.”
O’Dell, in the middle of his laughter, suddenly realized the poignancy of it all and tried to recover. “Sorry, Lotte – didn’t mean to ... don’t know what came over me. Why don’t you come over in the morning, we can go over the whole thing and we’ll draw up a contract for you.”
I looked at the Budweiser clock on the wall behind me, although it was still early I thought I’d get back to the paper and do my Golden Years column. I had enough of my friends at the Hollow Leg Saloon for today – there wasn’t a whole one among us. For one reason or another each of us could be declared certifiably insane ... and yet, the world in which we lived had made us that way. We were like wind-blown trees that grow crookedly on a barren moor, the human result of an unfriendly environment. We are beautiful only in each other’s eyes, to anyone else we are ugly and misshapen.
“Have a pleasant afternoon, everyone – I’m on my way back to the mines.”
“Hold up a minute,” said O’Dell, “I’ll walk back with you.”
I was looking forward to walking back alone, it would have given me a chance to think about the column and I wanted to forget Lotte’s performance at the bar. Nevertheless, I waited outside for O’Dell to catch up. We walked slowly in the clear fall weather. The wind gusted up Westwood Avenue and the leaves fell like rain. We commented on the inexorable passage of time and the coming of the holiday season. O’Dell’s Funeral Home is a block further on than the newspaper office and before breaking off, we stopped under an ancient maple, now golden in the afternoon light. It is a tortured tree, pruned daily by the delivery trucks that park at the curb – it has always reminded me of the hanging tree in Great Expectations. Today, however, it reminded me of the old gang back at the Hollow Leg.
“You gonna do right by Lotte, Dennis? She’s putting a lot of faith in you.”
“Oh,” he grinned broadly, you don’t cheat neighbors, I’ll keep my end of the bargain all right.” He cleared his throat as we stopped at the front door of “The Guardian.” “ ... er, did you know Mrs. Monahan?”
“Barely. Met her at the funeral – I don’t think she approved of me, or anyone else that Willie hung around with.”
O’Dell picked up a maple leaf and studied it carefully. He put his hand on my arm to keep me from going inside and seemed to reach a decision. “I suppose she had good reason – I found her very attractive.”
“Really? In her fifties I’d say.”
“Some women have an ageless beauty – like ... er ... Marlene Dietrich, or ... or ...”
He ignored my clumsy attempt at humor. “I bought her an engagement ring,” he said tentatively. “It was all new to me, you see – I’m not used to the proper thing.”
“She turned me down.” He looked down the street in the direction of the funeral parlor. “She said – she said, she could never marry the man who buried her husband. I don’t understand, you know – what’s wrong with me?”
It was getting out of hand and I wished he’d leave. “I don’t know, Dennis. Maybe you should let a couple of months go by, then try again.”
“She’d be such a help at the home ...”
“I’d forget about that part of it, Dennis – I think that’s the nub of the problem.”
He sighed deeply, “I just don’t understand.” He turned his back on me and walked off slowly in the direction of the O’Dell Funeral Parlor. He stopped once and I thought he was going to turn around and come back, so I quickly ducked inside.
I made my way to my desk and hung my baseball cap on the nail someone hammered in the wall years ago. As I turned on the computer and watched it go through the motions of booting itself up, I asked myself – “We can bid the physician heal himself, but what will we bid the undertaker?”
Needless to say the Golden Years column was tinged with melancholy. Unlike some writers who, like Harlequin, can laugh on the outside while they cry on the inside, I am as transparent as glass and my weaknesses show through. My co-worker and confidant, Stacey Pomerance must have seen through me. She came over and sat in the rickety side chair next to my desk and asked me what was wrong. Stacey is twenty two years of age, as blond as only a natural blond can be and is blessed with two of everything.
“S’matter Pops.” She crossed her legs – my heart skipped a beat and a glow of warmth ran down my spine.
“The Willie Monahan thing, it’s done something to me. Did you ever have an operation, Stacey? It’s like when something’s been taken out of you that you know will never grow back.”
“You mean the guy who dropped dead in the bar down town?”
“He was a dear friend of mine.”
“If you don’t mind me sayin’ so, I’ve seen some of these friends of yours,” she shook her hand as though she burned it, “Sheesh – what a crew. You’re not gettin’ any younger y’know, maybe you ough'ta turn over a new leaf.”
“Be gentle with me, Stacey – I’ve come a long way. Why do you know ...” I was on the verge of launching myself into an old man’s monologue, but I looked at Stacey and realized there was no defense. My misfit friends back in the waiting room no longer had anything to offer. A man more at home with the dead than the living, another who talks to dead poets that no one else can hear and still another who dreams of corseted ladies in darkened rooms.
“A new leaf you say?” I looked out at the falling leaves that drifted past the window. “I’ll give it a try, Stacey – maybe tomorrow.”
Part 1 - Part 2