Born Here, Die Here
Regis had just finished his drink when Davy came in pushing Gino in a wheelchair. All the guys in the bar made a loud roar, and Gino waved like the fucking president before Davy set him over at a table by the television. A couple of the guys left their stools and came over to slap Gino on the back, lean down and talk to him for a little bit, before going back and hunching over their drinks again. Some continued yelling and laughing. It was like a goddamned resurrection, the most interesting thing to happen in the bar in weeks.
“Christ, Skip, can you get me another one?” Regis said, shaking his glass.
Skip took the glass then nodded over toward the table. “How long’s he been gone for?”
“About a month, give or take some days.”
Regis shook his head and gave Skip a look. “You don’t know? Shit, you been bartendin’ here for fifteen years. Gino comes in every day.”
“His wife died last month.”
“I know that part, genius. Why’s he in a wheelchair?” Skip asked, setting down Regis’ new draft.
“Had a mild stroke about three weeks ago.”
“And he’s in a bar?”
“Yeah,” Regis said. “Ain’t his money any good?”
“To each their own,” Skip answered.
Davy came over to the bar. Regis didn’t like Davy. They’d known each other since grade school. They’d both worked for Gino in the corner store during high school and college; Davy sweeping floors while Regis ran the deli and innocently flirted with Francesca. They’d both sat at Gino’s table drinking jug wine and talking about football while slurping down plates full of Francesca’s prized carbonera pasta. They’d both been married around the same time, but didn’t attend each other’s weddings. Regis was happy to hear about Davy’s divorce, and then felt chagrined nine months later when Paula dropped the bomb on him. Davy’s life seemed to run parallel to Regis’ in some perverted manner. And here they were almost thirty years later, out of love and luck, sucking away the lonesome hours at the same bar their fathers and uncles used to drink at after their jobs at the brewery. Regis didn’t like Davy because he’d grown into the bar kiss-ass, the guy who went on sandwich runs for pocket change, who drove you home if you had more than him; Davy was the kind of asshole who picked you up at the hospital after you had a mild stroke. He was a good guy and everybody said so, and that was another reason why Regis didn’t like him.
“Hey guys,” Davy said. He nodded over toward Gino, who was vacantly staring at the television. “See what the old man can do?”
“He’s a wonder of mankind,” Regis said.
“That he is, Reg. Two weeks ago he was still laid up. But now we got him this wheelchair and it seems to be working.”
“Me and a couple of the guys.”
“You should’ve come by the hospital to see him,” Davy said.
“I got hired on this job and....”
“How’s he doing, you know, with Francesca and all?”
“He still can’t talk about it.”
Regis nodded. He always liked Francesca. Back then she’d been a beautiful olive-skinned woman in solid colored, round-necked dresses, a New World woman playing the part of Old World bella for her husband, who could please the lady customers with gossip at the cash register, and flirt with the male customers coming in to get something that their wives forgot. In the bar she could put them down with the best of the guys. Scotch, whiskey, shooters of beer; it didn’t matter. Francesca would drink booze and laugh while Gino talked with bookies and other bar flies, pumping quarters in the jukebox to hear her Louis Prima songs or her blessed Dean Martin. Most of the time she was the only woman in a place full of old blue collar men drinking away the hours after work, teaching their underage sons how to do the same. Regis’ dad called Francesca the grand dame of Liberty Avenue.
Regis looked over at the Power Poker machine. Later on, it was Francesca’s favorite tavern diversion, something to drown out the monotony that she said was life with Gino after he closed the corner shop and retired. She used to spend hours playing it while Gino held court with the group of them, talking about the old days Lawrenceville and the characters that used to walk into the store off the street, a time when the baseball team wasn’t so bad, and the city was still covered in soot. Gino loved to talk about the old names: Frankie Kunkle, Jimmy Wrobleski, and all of the others who were gone.
Francesca called them dumb ghosts. Regis figured that Gino’s diarrhea of the mouth was another reason why she spent so much time alone at that machine. It kept her sanity. And after Francesca died, Regis played that machine for two hours straight just thinking about her, about the past, losing forty dollars in the process. He couldn’t bring himself to go and see Gino, even though he’d been like a father, well, maybe an uncle to him. He couldn’t bear to see Francesca cold and lifeless in her casket. There was enough lifelessness sitting in the bar, or out on the street. Regis skipped the wake and the funeral too, opting to spend the day in the ‘Round Corner with Skip talking his ear off about the horses, going home when he knew the regulars, and maybe Gino, would come. Regis couldn’t rectify the past with the present. He missed the Gino and Francesca that he knew. They added something to the bar, he always thought. It wasn’t class. Nah, this joint was beyond class. They added kindness.
“Have you heard from Paula?” Davy asked. The name still stung Regis. Why ask that? He thought. He and Paula had been divorced for three years and had no kids. Why would he hear from her?
“I think she’s living in Harrisburg,” Regis said mechanically, looking through Davy to where Gino sat almost motionless.
Davy glanced back. “Maybe he’ll talk to you about things.”
“Nah,” Regis said, taking a pull on his drink. “You know, Gino. He’ll talk about everything except what he’s got buried in the basement.”
“Still, you should go over and sit with him for a few.” Regis looked over at the poker machine and then turned to meet Davy eye to eye. Christ, how he hated him. Who made Davy McNally, Gino’s benefactor anyway. “He’s been asking about you since the hospital.”
“Yeah, I’ll probably stop over,” Regis said.
Skip handed Davy two tall drafts. “Good,” Davy said, then walked back over to the table to sit with Gino. Then there was two of them staring blankly at the television.
“That fucking guy,” Regis said.
“Davy?” Skip said. “Davy’s all right.”
“You don’t know him like I know him.”
“He does things for people. Things he don’t have to do. I know that. And it makes him okay in my book.”
“Sure. We got our own Jesus Christ right here at the ‘Round Corner.”
Skip leaned over the bar. “You don’t have to say that. You don’t need to take his name like that.”
“Right, Skip. Because you’re so religious. That’s why you’re open on a Sunday afternoon.”
“Hey, I went to church this morning. What did you do, Reg?”
Regis finished his draft. “I cleaned a fucking bank all night, so that I could come here and spend my dough and keep you and your wife in the lap of luxury.” He threw down a few more dollars and pushed his glass toward Skip.
“Yeah, ‘cause I’m getting so wealthy on you drinking all of this green beer,” Skip said, refilling the pint. “I think I’ll go and buy that yacht now.”
“Good,” Regis said taking his pint. He took a good pull and then walked over toward the poker machine. He thought about putting a dollar in and starting up a game, but money was scarce. And if he won Skip probably wouldn’t pay out today anyway. So Regis took a couple long pulls on his pint, set the rest down on a counter, and made to leave.
“Regis,” Gino said. His voice already thick from Italy sounded garbled with whatever stress the stroke had put on him.
Regis turned to look, and there was Davy beckoning him over. “Sit down, man.”
Regis sat and no one spoke. Davy nursed his draft and Gino let his sit, content to stare up at the game on the television. The voices of the announcers boomed down on Regis’ head. They came at him like echoes, distant, hollow voices, saying nothing of value. He looked at the scratched wood of the table. If nothing else, Regis thought, he should’ve gone to the funeral. The cask would’ve been closed at the funeral. Suddenly, desperately, Regis needed another drink. But when he got up, Gino lightly grabbed his hand.
“She said she didn’t want to be burned,” he started. “She said, Gino, I was born here and now I’m gonna die here.” He paused for a few minutes, his face contorting, searching for words that had been lost. “She said be sure you put me somewhere nice.”
“And did you?” Regis asked, his voice growing tighter.
Gino nodded. “I found a big oak tree in the cemetery. She’s there.”
“That’s great.” Regis patted Gino’s hand and then rose. He walked over to the bar, his body feeling like lead. When he got there, Skip eyed him up. “Another draft, Skip.”
“Where’s your glass?”
Regis just shook his head. Skip sighed and grabbed a new pint from a row of glasses then set about filling the new draft. “How about a shot of Imperial as well.”
Skip nodded and got Regis a shot. He set them both down and took a few more dollars from Regis’ pile of bills. He held a five up and winked. “Now I can get that new wing put on the mansion as well.”