I came up from the bottom of a deep, dark slumber, unsure of where in the world I was. I sat up and put my feet on the floor. Nighttime covered the city outside. I glanced at my watch. 8:30. I’m in Bob Randall’s office. I fell asleep waiting out a headache. I shook the cobwebs from my head. Wisps of dreams floated away. They involved Jill and Bernie’s cousin and hockey and The Liar’s Club and – at the center of them all –Andrea. Man, Jill had not been swept out of the attic of my life, I didn’t need to start harboring any fantasies about Andrea moving into the master suite downstairs. I startled myself by stating out loud, “Forget it, pal.”
Sometimes, the only safe place to be is in bed under the covers and to hell with the rest of the world and everybody in it. I stood up and headed that direction.
As I walked down the sweeping steel staircase into the lobby, Gus raised his head from his copy of Soldier Of Fortune and gave me a sly smile. When I reached his desk, he said, “Your lady friend stopped by while you were upstairs.”
Grouchy and groggy, I snapped back, “What lady friend?”
Gus looked hurt, like why in the world would I be pissed off at him?
He sat up straight in his chair and addressed me with that formal old-fashioned tone he used sometimes.
“Why, Mr. Bruschi, a good looking, dark-haired lady. Said she was a friend of yours.”
I consciously softened my tone, no sense putting Gus through the wringer over my Gothic drama. “Why didn’t you buzz upstairs for me, Gus?”
“Oh, she made a point of saying she didn’t want to disturb you while you were working. She said, ‘please tell him to meet me at the club’.”
“Meet her at the club? What club? She didn’t leave her name, say anything else?”
“No, sir. Just said for you to ‘meet her…she would be waiting…at the club’. That’s all she said.”
Knotted with frustration, I blurted out, “That ain’t all she said, I can guarantee you that.”
The closest thing to anger I’d ever seen out of Gus colored his face.“Well, you’re welcome, Mr. Bruschi.”
Then Gus went right back to reading his magazine, our business and cordial relationship finished as far as he was concerned.
Yeah, I was in rare form, I had managed to get sweet, old Gus upset for no good reason other than I couldn’t get a grip on my love life. I stood there a few moments and watched Gus ignore me. I wanted to apologize, but I decided to let it lay and headed out the door.
Outside the newspaper building, I stood stupid like a mule on the sidewalk.
I finally noticed the wind had come up and zipped the collar of my windbreaker snug to my neck.
“A dark-haired lady…meet her at the club…”
I could scratch my head and play dumb until doomsday, but I knew exactly who and where—and why not?
If she could be all over the map, end up in dozens of news photos and waltz through my dreams, it would be no big deal for her to find out where I worked. Maybe she really did need my help.
I walked into a headwind the entire four blocks down behind the newspaper press plant, past various abandoned trucking docks, until I turned right onto Preston Street. The area looked deserted again, not a soul in sight. I walked up the street and occasionally checked over my shoulder. Now that I was on my way to a rendezvous with the Woman of Mystery, things seemed a little creepy. Deep down inside, I wanted to blow this off and head back to my Mother’s house. But just like the proverbial cat, curiosity was leading me by the nose to wherever it goes. A glow popped out of the brick wall: the lit alcove containing the heavy round-top wooden door of the entryway to The Liar’s Club.
I laughed, just the place for me after all, the only club that would ever count me for a member.
I paused in the foyer, straightened myself out and stepped into the bar. The place was packed, just like last night, and the contrast with the ghost town outside was nothing short of disconcerting.
I slowly worked my way through the crowd down the length of the bar, figuring She would be perched on a stool waiting for me. But I found no Andrea, no Bernie, or anyone else familiar—until I saw the backside of a blonde that looked an awful lot like Jill, heading toward the ladies room. I started to follow her, but a hand on my shoulder turned me around.
“Bernie…” I said, jolted back to some kind of reality.
“Hey, Tommy,” he said, all smiles. “I was wondering how long it would take you to get your butt down here.”
“How did you know I was coming?”
“Oh, I’m with Doreen and…” he winked at me, “Andrea. We’ve got a corner booth tonight. We’ve been waiting for you.”
The list of jams Bernie had helped me get into since Junior High flashed through my mind like a bad movie. “How did Andrea find out…did you tell her what I really do?”
“I haven’t told her anything about you,” Bernie said. “She said she asked you to join us here. I figured…” he shrugged, “you two had met up again.”
“Met up again? Like she ditched her gorilla of a boyfriend and we had some secret rendezvous late last night, Bernie? Like I’d be dumb enough to look cross-eyed at that guy, let alone try to make time with his girlfriend?”
“I don’t know, take it easy.” Bernie looked me over with concern and lingered his gaze on my moccasin-covered bare feet. Then he took me by the arm. “Come on, Tommy, let’s get you a drink.”
We squeezed our way into the adjacent room. Doreen waved to us from a booth. Andrea sat opposite Doreen, only her jet-black hair visible to me as I approached.
“Hi, Tommy,” Doreen chirped as we arrived.
“Hi, Doreen,” I said, then turned to Andrea.
Her eyes drilled right into me again.
She smiled and patted the empty booth seat next to her.
“Sit down, Tommy.”
“So, Tommy,” Bernie said, while he nestled in next to Doreen, “out two nights in a row, that’s a personal best for you, lately.”
“Yeah, I guess. Actually, I was over at work.” I settled into the booth, my mind and body swirled with a combination of apprehension, curiosity and desire as I looked straight at Andrea and said, “Thought I’d drop by here.”
“I’m awfully glad you did,” she said, sounding like a schoolgirl with a smoldering secret hidden just beneath her innocent demeanor. I nervously glanced away. The same scene as last night played out in the room: the lights down low, the tables and booths all full, people laughing and socializing in the tall wingback chairs in front of the big stone hearth. The glow from the fireplace danced on the walls and animated the winking, smiling devil mask that hung above it.
I bet you know the answers, my saucy friend…
A waitress stepped into my field of vision and broke my mesmeric stare.
“Here you go,” she said, placing a drink in front of me.
“Scotch, single malt. Right, Tommy?” Andrea said, with a small question mark.
“That’s right, I usually drink—”
“Try this, see how you like it.”
Andrea picked up the snifter and handed it to me; heather and salt air filled my nose, soothing warm honey and rich malt danced in my mouth.
“That is fine,” I said, unable to recall tasting anything as good.
“Do you know what it is?” Andrea teased.
“I…don’t have any idea.”
“Don’t worry, you have all night to figure it out,” she said, then smiled with intimate reassurance.
That broke the ice and we went from there.
The hours unfolded like a dream, mysterious and intoxicating. A soothing, sonic tapestry flowed from the house sound system. Tobacco smoke swirled in the room like finest incense. And each successive sip of my scotch exceeded the rich quality of the one preceding. Whenever Andrea touched my hand or shoulder or brushed her leg up against mine under the table, a wonderful sensation of attachment followed, like a wispy web that wrapped itself around the spot of contact. My apprehension faded away to the point that I didn’t care if I had seen her in every crime and accident picture ever published by the newspaper. And so it went.
Like Cinderella at the ball, last call from the bar brought me to my senses. I hit the backlight on my watch—3AM.
“Shit, I missed the last bus. Guess I’d better call a cab.”
“I’ll take you home.” Andrea touched my hand and one of those silky little threads slowly entwined each of my fingers. Looking into her beautiful green eyes, I couldn’t say anything else but, “That’d be great…thanks.”
I stood up, felt the effects of all the countless drams and lightly grabbed the edge of the table. Andrea slid out of the booth and pulled her coat up off the seat.
“Here, let me help you with that,” I said, sounding like a volunteering Boy Scout.
She smiled at me through a knowing expression. “Thank you, Tommy.”
I pulled her coat up over her shoulders and caught a whiff of the perfume in her hair—it was like a match to my dry timber. Andrea turned around and gave me an impish wink.
“Goodnight, you two,” she said to Bernie and Doreen, “have a wonderful rest of the evening.”
“Thanks, same to you,” Bernie said. He shot me a conspiratorial look and whispered loud enough for all at our table to hear, “Tommy, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
I could hardly believe Bernie still said things like that.
“Okay, Bernie. I’ll be seeing you.”
Andrea put her arm through mine, just like she had done last night with Mr. Spiffy, and a bunch of those silky threads wound tight around it. She nodded at me to lead on, but I didn’t feel like I was doing the leading.
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