Edwin Balder sat slumped over his stool in Rooney’s, his glass of scotch untouched in front of him. After seeing Natalie Chapple Presley making out with Charles Ramsdell at the intersection of Broadway and Lafayette Street, Edwin had wanted to do little else but go home and sulk in what was becoming the only place on Earth where he could find any comfort or solace. Clearly, he was not over Natalie, despite her heinous act of betrayal. Seeing her making out with Charles Ramsdell had only made matters worse.
Ramsdell of all people, Edwin thought, as his drink sat there. Natalie could’ve taken up with anyone. Why did it have to be their old literary mentor? Edwin slammed his fist onto the bar. Molly Brown, who’d given up trying to communicate with Edwin about an hour ago, sat still with her vodka and soda, texting Matthew Joy on her smart phone device. Earlier, when she’d asked Edwin if he wanted to talk, he waved her off, and said he’d be damned if he told his tale of woe to a woman. He said that if she wanted to be a credit to her inferior, malicious species, the least she could do was do him a favor and call a certain Lawson Thomas. Molly, feeling pity rather than anger toward Edwin Balder, took the number and did as requested. They had been silent ever since.
The thick, humid door on Rooney’s pulled open, and Lawson Thomas walked in with his usual look of caution. Of course, heads turned. Many of the denizens were of the beefy, racist persuasion but hardly ever saw an honest to goodness African-American in the flesh. They had to rely on the news blotters and their singular, condescend hatred of the current President of the United States in order to keep the fires of prejudice burning in their loins.
“Are you the friend?” Molly Brown asked Lawson, barely lifting her eyes from the illuminated screen on her phone.
“Depends on the day,” Lawson said. “Lawson Thomas.” He extended his hand which Molly took limply.
Lawson gave Edwin a look. Edwin shrugged and then waved him off when he smiled. It was his second chance to wave someone off, yet with the circumstances at hand, Edwin was unable to enjoy either of them.
“So are you guys cool?” Molly asked. Before Lawson or Edwin could answer, she downed the rest of her drink and got off of her stool to put on her plastic hot pink coat. “Take it easy, Edwin.”
The entirety of Rooney’s watched as Molly Brown exited the bar, allowing a small sliver of gray light to enter their dim, orange gloom, before they all fell into quiet conversations about the value and loss of a young “piece of ass,” as Edwin had hear her being referred to during Molly’s short time at the joint. A better man would’ve defended her. But Edwin Balder was less than a man at that time than he’d ever been before.
Lawson Thomas sat down and the bartender, some hobbling drunkard who worked the day shift, came down and took his drink order. “So Ramsdell, huh?”
“Must you say his name?” Edwin said, before slumping back toward the bar.
“It could be worse.”
“Natalie Chapple Presley has written a tell-all novel about me, and is dating my former literary mentor. How could it be worse?”
“I don’t know,” Lawson said. “Mary has me on this optimism kick and I thought that I’d test it out on you.”
“Consider it a failure,” Edwin said, as the bartender slammed down Lawson’s cranberry and vodka. He had a pull on his own scotch and water. “If you and Dr. Sour Bear plan on working on any other social experiments please leave yours truly out of them.”
“Duly noted.” Lawson had some of his drink. It was more cranberry than vodka. He looked down the bar at the bartender, in order to express his disproval, but Lawson’s eyes were met with several others starting back at him. “Lousy crackers,” he muttered, before turning back to Edwin.
“How did this happen?”
“They both teach at NYU now.”
“So? I get on the bus every day with the same toothless, old Russian hag,” Edwin said. “You don’t see me squiring her about Brooklyn, do you?”
“That’s different,” Lawson said. “Ramsdell and Natalie have a past. They’re colleagues now. Peers.”
“Don’t give me that hooey about peers,” Edwin said. He had more scotch. “Natalie Presley is a first, and most probably only time, novelist, and Charles Ramsdell is a washed up third-rate pugilist with the word. His plots are Mailer-light. His characters are fifth-rate Hemingway, and his prose is on par with Bukowski on a bender.”
“Yet he’s your literary mentor,” Lawson said.
“Was,” Edwin said. “Pardon my misuse of tense.”
Lawson had a pull on his drink. “Man, I don’t ever remember you liking Charles Ramsdell. In fact, if I think back on it, I get a sense of déjà vu in what you just said about him.”
“He was a teacher and I was a student. Is that not enough for mentorship? His services were there if I wanted them to be.”
“Didn’t you once say that reading Charles Ramsdell was like reading a bar drunk’s grocery list.”
“Yes,” Edwin said. “I believe that issue of the Washington Square News won awards.”
“It almost got you suspended,” Lawson said.
“Truth tellers always bear the burden of censorship in this backward thinking nation.” Edwin had more scotch. Then he laughed. “Of course, who’s the drunkard now?”
“I heard Ramsdell’s clean.”
“Of course,” Edwin said. “I’m sure that he’s found God as well. They all do in the end. The worst become the most moral. In fact, I’m willing to bet that Natalie and Ramsdell’s little dalliance on Lafayette was just a brief moment of religious revelry before they both headed off toward Saturday evening services.”
“Didn’t he give you a C,” Lawson asked.
“Are you here to help or hinder me?”
“He gave me a B minus.”
“Good for you, teacher’s pet,” Edwin said. He finished off his scotch, raised his glass, and shook it. “Barkeep! Another round over here!”
The bartender glared at Edwin but hobbled down the length of the bar. On the television the evening sporting events were getting started. Basketball. Hockey. It was hard for Edwin to tell which one was which. “Around here, we say please and thank you,” he said.
“To the roaches or the mice?”
The bartender pointed. “Don’t be a smart ass, or I’ll have you and your…friend…put out of here for the evening.”
“He’s sorry, sir,” Lawson said to the bartender. “It’s been a bad day.”
“Bad day, bad year, bad decade,” Edwin said. The bartender shuffled off to fix a new round of drinks. Edwin turned to Lawson. “Did you know about this?”
“What? Am I Natalie’s publicist? I’m your friend, dickhead. I haven’t talked to Natalie in almost two years.”
“Surely you know people.”
“I know the same people as you do,” Lawson said. “And I see them almost as regularly.”
“Oh, what am I to do?” Edwin put his head in his hands.
“Did you even get the book yet?” Edwin reached down and picked his bag up off the floor. “Strand. Cool.”
“Yes, too cool.”
“Have you read any yet?”
“I’d planned to tonight,” Edwin said. “If you hadn’t noticed, I was in the presence of a lady when you came in this joint. We were all set to have a fine afternoon in Manhattan when I came across that lustful scene on the street and it ruined everything.”
“So that was Molly Brown?”
“The very same.”
“What’s she like?” Lawson asked.
“She’s a little tart. But she was good company today,” Edwin said, as the bartender slammed down his new drink. Edwin took a good pull on it. “We’ll probably never speak again.”
Lawson had some more of his drink. “So what’s the game plan, man? You just going to go home and read the book, and let this go, like you should?”
“That’s exactly what I’m not going to do,” Edwin said. “I plan on reading the book, yes. I plan on reading the book so closely that Natalie Chapple Presley’s lawyers won’t know what hit them when I come a-barreling down the old street.”
“I don’t think you have a lawsuit,” Lawson said.
“Why not, Patrick Henry?”
“Because she’s changed it up enough. It doesn’t even take place in New York City.”
Lawson chuckled. “She doesn’t treat you that badly. In fact, I’d say she gives it to you both pretty evenly.”
“And you’ve read the entire book then?” Edwin asked.
“Enough of it.”
“And it’s a decent first novel, Edwin,” Lawson said. “It won’t win any prizes, but Natalie’s got talent.”
“Well, it’ll certainly have the lion’s share of litigation attached to it.”
“Why don’t you just let it go?” Lawson said.
“What!” Edwin shouted, attracting the attention of several bar denizens.
“Have you even called Arlene?”
“Do I look like a man who has the time to make house calls right now? My sanity hangs in the balance of destroying this book.”
“To what end?” Lawson asked. “The book is already out there. You and Natalie are the past. She’s with Ramsdell now. Shouldn’t you be trying to do you, brother?”
“Don’t swirl your ebonical sayings at me, brother,” Edwin said.
It was then that the door to Rooney’s swung open and Benny and Ivan stepped inside. Both were dressed in their New York Rangers hats and jackets. Ivan’s face was as redder than usual, and Benny’s eyes were slits. The two looked as if they’d already spent half of their Saturday drinking in one of the other drab public houses that lined 3rd Avenue.
“Hey, Eddie,” Ivan said. He staggered onto a stool to the left of Edwin. Ivan looked down at Lawson. “Was’up, bro?”
Edwin turned to Lawson. “Look, bro. A fellow traveler where dialogue is concerned. Should I leave and let you two converse in your native tongue?
“Shut up, Edwin,” Lawson said. “I’m not hanging around if you’re going to get belligerent.”
“Belligerent? I’m just tryin’ta be down, bro,” Edwin said. “What’s wrong with that?”
“Hey, guys,” Benny said, coming over. He slapped Edwin on the shoulder then staggered back and pulled a few dollars out of his wallet. “Anyone want to hear some jukebox music?” Benny tapped Lawson on the shoulder. “What about you, bro?”
“I’m cool,” Lawson said, sinking down into his drink.
“I’ll play you something anyway.” Benny staggered over to the jukebox and began feeding dollar bills into the machine.
“This place creeps me out,” Lawson said to Edwin. “Let’s go get a couple of tallboys and go back to your apartment.”
“For what purpose?” Edwin asked. “So that we can stare at Natalie’s book? Take in my sparse surroundings? Or perhaps we could listen to Molly Brown ride her little boyfriend like a show horse, all to a hippity-hop symphony?” Edwin finished off his scotch and raised his glass toward the bartender for another. “I’d rather stay here and rot.”
Music came from the jukebox. Rap. 2Pac. “Yeah, bro!” Benny shouted to Lawson as he continued pumping dollars into the machine.
Lawson shot down the rest of his drink and got up from his stool. “I’m leaving. This scene is tired, man.”
“I’m staying,” Edwin said. “I have a new drink coming and my friends have arrived.”
“Suit yourself.” Lawson put his coat on. “You can’t let it get this way, man. The past is the past. Live now. Call Arlene.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.” The bartender slammed Edwin’s new drink down and he took a long pull. “Give my regards to Sour Bear.”
Lawson left the bar, as Benny staggered back over. Voices murmured and subtle slurs were thrown around. “What’s that dude’s problem?” Ivan said. “We like everyone in here.”
“Yeah,” Benny said, taking Lawson’s seat. “We’re open minded.”
“That’s what I keep trying to tell him,” Edwin said.
Then they all had a drink.