“Hi, Slim, how’s it going?”
“Good. How’s Betsy? Home doing the ironing?”
“She’s fine.” I laughed at the thought. Actually she had taken the van to Massachusetts to visit her folks. “Chloe?”
“Out doing her thing.” I kept my thoughts to myself about that as he made his way down the line of bar stools saying hi.
It was lazy Saturday afternoon at the Mount Royal Tavern, the watering hole for MICA, the Maryland Institute College of Art, and for Bolton Hill and whatever wandering barflies happened to land there. This was an artists’ bar primarily, but not exclusively. It attracted a varied mix of patrons, but each element seemed to come in discrete waves, like layers of ore at least on weekdays. For instance, early each morning Betty would open up and serve breakfast and coffee or beer to an assortment of workmen: construction workers, plumbers, and the like. She often came in earlier, it was rumored, to serve Russell, his blow job. I hope he left a tip.
Patronage was slow during later mornings while deliveries were being made, but around noon business picked up as people from all around came for lunch, which was tasty here; Betty was a good cook. Word had gotten around. Some of the bartenders also made great chili and good pizza and other specialties of the house. Generally, the wave of students didn’t descend until the afternoon, after classes and from then on until 2 am closing the place buzzed. Evenings had their goodly share of after work martini sippers and a spectrum of intelligentsia. People.
For Slim, the specialties were the girls. He worked as a jack of all trades, but picking up girls is what he did off duty. That is what he was known for. His wife, Chloe, was a beautiful woman, about his age, 30 or so. Both were artists in different genres. I don’t know what hers was, but the only work of his that I had ever seen was old post cards and photographs that he had gotten at flea markets, then tinted or distorted in one way or another. I don’t know if he had ever sold any. I think she was an Institute graduate, but didn’t know if he had ever attended.
I didn’t like Slim; he irritated me. It wasn’t that he preyed on young girls; there was a new crop of freshmen ‘Tooties every year. It was that he had no imagination. The Tavern is a small place, intimate even. There is no way, given enough time, that you’re not going to overhear the gist of what most of the regulars regularly say. It was Slim’s line, his pitch to his conquests-to-be that got to me; it never varied. If those girls ever compared notes about his propositions to them, they would boycott. But I guess it worked well enough for him, because he kept coming in and doing the same ’ol, same ‘ol and often enough got lucky. Apparently Slim and Chloe had an arrangement that worked for them. Of some interest, perhaps, but none of my business. They had divided Baltimore between themselves and this was his hunting grounds. I have never understood such relationships.
Was I jealous? Distantly, maybe. What man doesn’t enjoy a mental orgy? In actual fact, no. I had been living with Betsy for three years. Monogamously, for there had never been reason not to be, having withstood the inevitable temptations. I knew what was good and good for me and I wouldn’t have risked it for another notch on my crib. Betsy was beautiful, the woman I had always wanted. When we first got together she was 19; I was 38.
I turned back to the old lady I had been chatting with about everything and nothing in particular. As long as she avoided politics and religion I could pretend to give her the veneer of my attention. She seemed to have no problem avoiding that minefield. I trusted no politician and respected no religion, but had self-invented a primitive form of avoidance of meaningless confrontation. I would get up and move down the bar. Civil rights, however, got me in some tight corners; I couldn’t tolerate bigots. I came to drink beer, be among friends and ease off from the tension of a hard week.
Bill came in and stood next to me. As John handed him his beer he asked, “What’s on the menu? I’m hungry.”
John replied,“No specials today.”
Bill asked me if I was hungry. I said I was.
“Visiting her parents. Where’s Patty?”
“Didn’t want to come. She might come down later.”
“Want to go to Martick’s?” This was a Baltimore original; a gourmet restaurant in a slum. From the street it looks like an abandoned row house. It had a boarded up front door. High on the right side of the jamb is a small button. Push that and Maurice comes to the peephole and decides if he’s going to buzz you in. He goes out and buys all his groceries, cooks everything himself and may or may not have any serving staff. He might even wash his own dishes. Very strange, but excellent food, and relatively cheap. He has food du jour, whatever he has chosen for that day, but no standard menu. One might score steamed clams or lobster, Crab Imperial or Beef Wellington, Steak Tartare or Lamb chops on a given day but there was never any way of foretelling what might be offered. No one has ever seen him refer to a recipe; maybe he doesn’t need to.
“Sounds good. Let’s see if we can get a carload.”
Brownie said he’d come, then Roberta. Slim caught wind of it and joined in. We could squeeze one more in. The Olsons said they’d like to come, but would join us in their own car. Mary Biron said she’d like to come. We packed into Bill’s car and were soon there; it was only a couple of miles away.
If you knocked, you’d stand there forever. Bill did the ritual, and we were admitted.
The specials were crab cakes with French fries deep fried in duck fat, and leg of lamb with mint jelly and creamy mashed potatoes. Both came with Maurice’s version of Caesar salad.
This was a somewhat scaled down version of the MRT, but with the kitchen closed off in the back instead of at the rear of an open bar. The bar arrangement was much the same with draft taps, bottles, the expected. He had no help today; when he was cooking, the bar was untended. He was efficient, but tended to be in no hurry. A bit reserved, he preferred to become your friend first before he would be your buddy.
There were twelve or fifteen diners and drinkers already in there. A couple of guys, but mostly ‘Tooties or a reasonable facsimile.
For some reason it seems that the hottest girls hang out with the scraggiest boys. The guys were outnumbered, a switch on probability. There were small tables, now empty, along the wall, under high windows, but there was just enough room at the bar for all, our preference. Slim took the last empty bar stool down the line, next to a petite, very pretty blonde on his left. I slid in next to him. Mary Biron was on my right, in conversation with Bill on her right. This left me looking into the mirror at myself. We had been served our drinks, and Maurice had taken our food orders.
The doorbell rang. From the kitchen Maurice called,” See if we know them.”
I peered out the peep hole. The Olsons, Dave and Connie. “They’re with us.”
“Buzz ‘em in.” I did.
They said hi around and took one of the tables.
I took my seat. Slim had begun his speech to the blonde at his side. “Do you go to MICA?” I did not want to, but could not help overhearing his broken record.
“No, I’m at Towson State.”
“Are you in the art department?”
“Phys Ed. Are you an artist?”
“Sure am.” He dressed to look like one. Slim had a curious accent, drawl you might call it, that seemed homemade. It was southern, but had a lot of hillbilly in it. It could be Tennessee or the mountains of Mississippi. I know there are no mountains in Mississippi, but it was nothing I could affix to a state or even a region. I have heard it vary from almost non-existent to campy. “Sure aam.” As in Maaam with two syllables.
“What sort of art do you do? Are you a painter?”
“Sorta. It’s kinda hard to describe. I do things with photographs.”
“You’re a photographer?”
“No, I don’t take the photographs. I find them and I sometimes tint them, or paint them. I color them. Sometimes I treat them with chemicals to sort of redevelop them. Sometimes I burn at them to sort of char parts of them. I alter them.”
“Sounds fascinating. I’d love to see some. Do you have any with you?”
“Not at the moment. They’re very fragile. I don’t usually carry them around.”
“Are they in any galleries where I could see them?”
“Do you teach at Maryland Institute?”
“Not anymore.” Or ever.
I winced at that in the mirror.
“I would really like to show them to you. And my other work.”
“I paint, too. I’m a painter. Oils and acrylic.”
“I’d love to paint you. Do you model?”
“I thought so. I woulda bet on it. You’re really beautiful.”
“ Would you be interested?”
“I might be. Do you pay?”
“I’m afraid not. I might give you some of my work, though.”
“I’d have to see it.”
“I’m serious. I really want you to model for me. You’re a natural.”
“Do you really think so?”
It was working. My crab cakes arrived. Mary and Bill were deep in conversation. I was trapped. I asked Maurice if he’d mind packing my food to go. He did.
“Slim,” I said. He turned.
“Do you like me?”
“Sure, Jack, I like you a lot.”
“Well, I don’t like you at all. You’re a fucking broken record. I can’t take any more of this.” I paid my bill and headed for the door..
“You leaving? “Bill asked.
“I’ve lost my appetite.” I said goodbyes and left. It was still early afternoon. It took me less than an hour to walk to the Tavern in the heat. My seat next to the old lady was still vacant, or vacant again. I sat, ate and continued our conversation without content. At least I had my appetite back.
“Looks good, “ she said.
“Where’d you get it?”
“We went to Martick’s?”
“How come you came back alone?”
“Something disagreed with me.”
“Not the food, I hope.”
“Nope. Food’s fine. Better than fine.”
“I’ve never been there.”
“You should go.”
“I’ve heard of them. They have a good reputation. But I don’t have a car.”
“Neither do I at the moment.”
“Yeah, I heard you said your wife was in Connecticut.”
“I’m back to hoofing it.”
“Do you have any children?”
“Two grown sons. You?” I didn’t really care. I was eating, trying to, the salad was messy and the fries, although to die for, were greasy. The crab cakes went down first. They were easy. I was washing it down with plenty of beer.
“My kids are grown, too. Two girls and a boy. Two women and a man. That’s what happens.” I figured she was sixty, maybe sixty five. I wasn’t interested in more small talk. Definitely not sports, which was blessedly absent from the conversation. In an art college bar I’m most likely to feel at home. In my element. I’m a sculptor, a writer, a poet. Those things fascinate me. I can’t talk and listen enough about writing, reading, literature, movies, most art forms and genres. I can more than hold my own talking construction, architectural restoration, landscaping, lots of things. Fishing, camping, the water . . .
The beer I’d had too early in the day for me was making me sleepy. I was finding it harder and harder to fake interest. And I was pissed at myself for popping off at Slim. Not liking him was no excuse. He had committed no offense to me. The conversation that offended me was addressed totally to someone else. Although not whispered, it was not intended for my ears. None of my business. I had been rude under any circumstances; I don’t like rudeness. More and more, I was longing to go home and sleep it all off. I had one more beer for the road. I didn’t need a six pack. I had beer at home and, moreover, was in no mood to carry anything. I chugged it and got up.
“Would you do me a favor?” the woman asked.
“Would you please walk me home?”
“If it’s on my way. Where do you live?”
“North and Mt. Royal. The high rise.” The old folks’ home, what was later to be known as an assisted living or senior citizen community as we entered the age of euphemism.
“I can do that. I live just the other side of the Howard Street bridge.”
“Would you mind?”
“No. Happy to oblige.
She was feeling the heat more than I was, although she was not especially overweight. We were both smokers and had probably filled an ashtray between us as we talked. We walked slowly, leisurely even. Although I noticed no tension between us I was taken completely by surprise by what happened next.
In front of her building she asked if I would like to come up for a cup of tea. Not a drink or to see her etchings- a cup of tea. I said, “No, thanks, I’ve got to get home.”
“You don’t have to get home.”
“I want to get home.”
“You’re coming up to have a cup of tea with me.”
“No, I’m not.” I turned and started to walk away.
“Yes, you are.” She grabbed my arm. I snatched it away and walked clear of her. She followed me. “If you don’t come up I’m going to start screaming ‘rape’ and running after you.”
“Go right ahead.”
“Your word against mine.”
She started hollering, “Rape! Rape! Rape!” and I started to run.
I ran faster with her running right after me. Jesus Christ. This was some bad shit. I ran faster; she kept up with me almost all the way across the bridge. The Howard Street bridge is at least a city block long. I was getting winded, but not tired; my adrenalin had kicked in and I was running even faster, while she had started to lag behind. Not much at first, but she had started to run out of gas. Not so much that she wasn’t sidelining part of her energy into crying “Rape . . . rape . . . rape. . .”
I ran really hard across the Howard Street intersection and was out of her sight after turning the corner. Immediately after the first building was an alley. I didn’t know if it was a dead end or went through, but I ducked into it still unseen by her and dropped down behind some trash cans squinching down as small as I could. I shrank myself into invisibility. I could hear her run by panting, feebly still crying “rape . . rape . .”
I stayed there the longest time. I wasn’t in a hurry. I lived only a block away. I would go home only when I felt it would be safe. I wanted a cigarette in the worst way, but didn’t want to risk the smoke being seen.
It was sinking in and I felt really scared. Close calls do that to me. Afterwards.
As I tried to calm down, I wondered if maybe I shouldn’t put Slim onto her.
®Copyright 2014 Jack Scott. All rights reserved.