There I was, everything changed, but everything still the same. I couldn’t swing solo rent on the mid-town love nest I had shared with Jill and, hypnotized by the delusion of ever-after, I had given up my old rent-control bachelor pad. That left me with two immediate alternatives: sleep in my car; or head back to where it all began.
So, I’m standing on the front porch of my Mother’s house with all my camera gear and two taupe-colored king-sized pillowcases from the set of sheets Jill had left behind – one of the few things Jill had left behind — stuffed with my clothes and I gotta ring the bell like a door-to-door salesman because I’ve lost the key to my boyhood home. Mom opens the door, sees all my stuff, looks me up and down and says, “Oh, Tommy, what have you done now?”
Mother really liked Jill, and that just compounded the problem of explaining the how and why her recently married son had become no longer so. Throughout my tale of woe, she declared repeatedly that Jill was ‘the best thing that ever happened’ to me. Over the following days, Mother assumed the role of Cupid’s Counselor and set to work devising numerous scenarios where true love could win out in the end.
I finally explained to her that Tommy and Jill sitting in a tree, k- i – s – s – i – n – g, ever again, was an i – m – p – o – ssi – bility. She shook her head slowly and said, “Tommy, nothing is impossible. You should do whatever it takes to reconcile with Jill, before it’s too late.” I asked her if that included surrendering my life and work to the whims of another person. She looked at me like I was a foolish child and sighed. “What’s the difference, Tommy, you’d still be getting paid to take pictures.”
When she dropped that bomb, I started to question my sanity.
I spent a lot of sleepless nights lying on the twin bed in my old room, eating Rice Krispies and watching Star Trek reruns until 3AM. I nearly fried my brain trying to sort things out, until it finally dawned on me one night during a huge Klingon war, that I should abandon my search for The Lost Chord. The simple truth lay right in front of me. I had jumped into love with my eyes closed like a man leaping off a tall building without a parachute. You dance to the tune, you’re gonna pay the piper. That didn’t make it all better, it just gave me a piece of Love Boat wreckage to cling to until I drifted to shore.
I don’t know how long I would have floundered in the sea of heartbreak if my friend Bernie hadn’t grabbed me by the arm and jerked me back into the real world. Simple things like beer and brats after work and all-night poker games on the weekends helped fill my lonely hours. Bernie even tried to rush the healing process by fixing me up with his cousin for a double-date twilight double-header. She was sweet, but being with her that night just got me hammered by the truth: I wasn’t over Jill; The good part of Jill; the disappointment of Jill.
Three months into my misery, Bernie called me at the newspaper late one Friday afternoon. I was filling in for my editor, racing towards a deadline and not in the mood for his happy-bear energy. But Bernie went on and on, raving about some ‘unbelievable‘ new place. I couldn’t get a word in edgewise to say I would call him later, so I tucked the phone between my chin and shoulder and half-listened while I sorted through a stack of glossies chronicling the last eight hour’s tragedies. Bernie continued blathering, undaunted by my indifference.
“…awesome food, a great crowd, good-looking ladies. And Tommy, the kicker is perfect. Everyone in the place is zoomin’ everyone else.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I said.
“You know how you go out and meet women and tell those little white lies and sometimes out and out bullshit to try and impress a lady?”
“Yeah, so what’s new about that?” Though not as big an offender as some, I knew exactly what he was talking about—it’s all part of the wonderful game. Still, Bernie had managed to pique my interest. “Where is this fabulous new place?”
“Tucked away on the East Side, 13th Street, right behind the newspaper’s press plant, as a matter of fact.”
“I can’t believe there’s any place over there worth a shit,” I said. “It’s just a bunch of old warehouses.”
“There’s a few artists lofts and galleries over there now,” Bernie said, “some of that urban renewal going on.”
“If it’s near the press plant, then I probably already heard about it here in the newsroom.”
“Maybe, maybe not. It’s kinda new, Tommy, and they don’t advertise. It’s all word-of-mouth.”
“Alright, so what’s the name?”
“Yeah, well get this…”
Bernie took a long pause, just the way he does when he’s trying to impress you with something he knows that you don’t. And like so many other times past, his annoying little tactic got my attention; I stopped shuffling photos.
“Yeah, well get what, Bernie?”
“The Liar’s Club.”
As I stared out across the newsroom, pondering the possibilities of such an establishment, our receptionist—nicknamed Cindy Lou Who—drifted into my field of vision, flirting her way across the newsroom after a cigarette break. The guys who didn’t know any better went dopey and smiley and attempted to look self-important when she glanced their way. And they all tried to covertly watch her wiggle and jiggle by, except for Peter Walker. Like some lecherous Junior High School dork, he actually dropped his pencil onto the floor as she passed so he could lean over and get a good, long, drooling look at her shapely rear end. I was sitting in a roomful of potential Liar’s Club Charter Members.
“The Liar’s Club, huh?” I finally replied, watching things in the newsroom return to what we called normal. “I just bet the place is packed.”
That went right over Bernie’s head and he continued his pitch. “Yeah, the whole point is everyone is having a great time bullshittin’ everyone else. I was there last night. It took me awhile to get in the swing of things, but I managed.”
I thought it probably didn’t take Bernie too long to ‘get in the swing of things’. He wouldn’t get off the phone until I promised to go there with him that evening.
The warehouse district behind the press plant looked as forlorn and deserted as ever and Bernie had no problem finding a place to park on Preston Street. I figured this was going to be a losing proposition, another dive with a resident drunk at the bar and a bunch of weirdos that you wouldn’t want to meet in the light of day. What the hell did I have to lose though? I could still make it home in time for Star Trek.
“You’re gonna love this place, Tommy,” Bernie said, before he hopped out of the car.
I opened my door and encountered a malt liquor bottle shattered in the gutter at my feet. “Yeah, Bernie, looks like you picked a winner.”
We walked about thirty feet up the sidewalk before a lighted alcove abruptly appeared in the brick wall to our right. Tucked inside the niche was a round-top, oak plank door with a little speakeasy window.
“Here we are, Tommy,” Bernie said, like a kid showing his best pal a brand-new toy. Then he opened the door, stood aside and bowed. “Proceed, my liege.”
The 8×6 foyer smelled like brandy, leather and cigars. A large wooden love seat, massive arms studded with iron rosettes, fronted the left wall. To the right sat a cigarette machine stocked with Marlboros and brands from around the world. Plenty that I’d never heard of. An illuminated brass and wood plaque hung on the wall above:
~ Welcome to The Liar’s Club ~
~ Feel Free to Be Who You Want to Be ~
We stepped through the inner doorway and into another world. The air was charged with the energy of people having a great time. A three-deep crowd at the big mahogany bar jostled for position and waved their cash like distress flags. The ones lucky enough to already have their drinks mingled around leather-upholstered booths and round, solid oak, pedestal tables, all filled to capacity. Big, old, coolie-hat metal lamp shades—suspended ten feet above the floor with their cords disappearing upward into darkness—cast a pleasant glow throughout the room. The décor was medieval-pub-for-lawyers; down, but rich.
“See, I told you,” Bernie said, with a smile of satisfaction on his face and a punctuating elbow to my ribs.
I had to admit, he had pegged this one. “Come on, Tommy.”
Bernie tugged me by the arm as we made our way through the crowd along the bar and since I’m in the neighborhood of the newspaper, I’m looking for a face I might recognize, somebody I work with, but I didn’t see anyone even vaguely familiar. I wondered how all these other people had found their way here.
Halfway down the bar, this beautiful blonde waves to us. “Hey, Bernie…over here.” I look at her and think, Wow, way to go, Bernie.
We elbowed our way over to the bar and Bernie says, “Tommy, meet Doreen.”
“Nice to meet you, Tommy,” she says, smiling from ear-to-ear. “Guys, this is my friend, Andrea.”
Doreen gestures to the stool on my right, and I look down and just see the top of her friend’s head while she is rummaging through her purse. Then she looks up at me and I look at her, a raven-haired heartbreaker with dark green eyes that went straight to my brain like two cruise missiles and made a mess of it. We exchanged pleasantries and then Andrea suggested we all find a booth and settle in. I tried not to look like a man who was starving. Or drowning.
Then Andrea sort of just raised her hand a bit and the bartender dropped what he was doing and made a beeline over to take our orders. I couldn’t figure out he had even seen her subtle gesture let alone pay attention to it amid all the chaos. “How’d you do that,” I said, more like wondering out loud than expecting a reply. Andrea turned and gave me little smile that sent a 9 volt buzz from the top of my head down to my socks
After we got our round of drinks, we headed into the room adjoining the bar. The larger- than-expected space had more booths and tables, all filled and with people milling around them. On the back wall, four tall wingback chairs partially obscured a massive stone hearth fireplace where cedar logs crackled as they burned. The occupants hidden inside the chairs burst into laughter at someone’s good joke. The first booth magically vacated and we claimed squatter’s rights.
“Tommy,” Doreen said, resuming our barstool conversation, “do you work at the University with Bernie?” Well, I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about and I look at Bernie like one of us is crazy. Then I notice, hung above the fireplace mantle, a smiling devil mask winking in the dancing firelight and remember Bernie’s phone call and where we are—The Liar’s Club. I got myself ‘in the swing of things’.
“Oh, no. I work at…Time magazine. I met Bernie when we profiled him in a past issue.”
Bernie’s eyes lit up and Doreen nodded in approval; it looked like believing the bullshit was as much fun for these two as dishing it out. Then Bernie proceeded to further enthrall Doreen by prattling on about his alter ego. I had heard enough hooey from Bernie to last me a lifetime, I wanted to find out something—anything—about Andrea. Even if it was a lie, I had to hear her voice again. I turned to her and she was gazing at me with an expectant look. That was a good thing, I already had her attention.
“So, Andrea, what’s your line?”
“I’m a curator,” she said, keeping her eyes fixed on mine.
“Really. At one of the museums here in the city?” I asked, trying to recall the newspaper’s current monthly Arts Calendar so I could further the conversation.
“No, I manage a rather large, private collection,” she replied, in an assured, measured response, like an angler letting out line for a hooked fish to run.
“So, is it paintings, sculpture, traditional, modern?”
“It encompasses an assortment of contemporary and classical pieces in different mediums.”
“Eclectic,” I say, in a studied, authoritative voice.
“Yes, eclectic,” she says, smiling in agreement and reeling me in with her beautiful, clear eyes.
Before I can say another word, a big guy in a dark Italian suit walks up behind Andrea, bends down and gives her a lingering kiss on the cheek. That broke the spell.
“Here you are,” he says in a thick East European accent, eyeing the rest of us suspiciously. “I’ve been waiting for you at the bar.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Andrea said and patted the big lug’s hand that lay on her shoulder while he looked at me like I was some kind of bug he would just as soon crush. “Let me get my coat and we can go.”
I slid out of the booth and stood next to it. Andrea followed. “Everyone have a great time this evening,” she said, and then glanced up at Mr. Spiffy. “I know, I will.” Then she looked at me. “Tommy, I hope to see you again sometime.”
“I look forward to that day with anticipation,” I replied.
When she offered her hand, I bowed and kissed it.
Boy, I was on the fringe, talking and acting like a character in a nineteenth century novel while Jack the Ripper hovered over me, but it made Andrea smile.
I couldn’t take my eyes off her as she rounded the corner and disappeared into the bar. She reemerged out of the crowd, headed toward the front door, wearing a long mink coat with her jet-black hair cascading over her shoulders and her arm entwined around the arm of her towering escort. Bernie started talking again. He sounded like he was a mile away.
“So, Tommy, you wanna get something to eat?”
Eat? My guts felt like they were full of sand. I turned around and saw Doreen all snuggled up with Bernie and knew I was ‘three’s a crowd’.
“No. I’m going home.”
“Yeah, you two have a great time.” I downed the last of my scotch. “I’ll see you later.”
I maneuvered through the crowded bar, pushed my way out the front door and then stood lonely on the curb, basking in another busted, post-Jill Friday night. A small group spilled out behind me and laughed up the sidewalk. They passed through swirling vapor rising from iron grates along the gutter and disappeared into a nearby alley like so many phantoms. I listened to their voices fade until their chatter had been totally subsumed by the swoosh of distant traffic.
I was still staring after them when a lone figure in a trenchcoat walked out of the same alley and approached me through the mist. It turned out to be a woman that was part of the group that had tumbled out of the door after me. A kind of deluded hope rose in my heart; I envisioned this woman returning to make my acquaintance, drawn back to me by some irresistible force.
She got close, gave me a quick flat smile and then hurried back inside The Liar’s Club. I watched the door close behind her. Well, I decided I’m not about to follow her back inside and I’m not going back to my Mother’s house at ten o’clock on another Friday night, no way.
For some strange reason, I got the urge to be at my desk at the newspaper.
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