excerpt: A Note from the Undergroundby Kevin Bartelme
Master tile mason Robert O’Rourke settled his considerable bulk on the stool adjoining young Maurice, his assistant, and hailed: "Landlord!"
The crumpled bartender turned away from the television set mounted at the end of the bar where several early morning denizens of the Pearl of Erin were attending the final countdown for the launching of the space shuttle Discovery and padded over to be of service.
"Can I get you something?" he offered in a voice that crackled like crushed cellophane.
"A double shot of Jim Beam for myself and a draft beer for this gentleman. He’s not particular. Any swill will do."
"We serve no swill in this establishment but I’ll see what I can do," the old man rasped.
"That’s very obliging," said O’Rourke, "and you shall be rewarded for your efforts in this life or the next…. or possibly the one after that."
The countdown stood at twenty seconds when the bartender set down the whiskey and beer in front of O’Rourke and Maurice.
"First time in three years," he croaked nodding at the television.
"A momentous occasion indeed," O’Rourke agreed. "The question— can America get it up?— will shortly be answered."
The bartender pondered this observation as he rejoined the hushed clutch of spectators at the end of the bar.
"Go get ’em, boys!!" an old veteran seated right down the bar from O’Rourke bellowed as the countdown reached five and fire exploded from beneath the space vessel. The old veteran’s rheumy eyes gleamed with excitement and his red nose shone like a beacon as the Discovery lifted off and began its twisting ascent into the firmament. The crowd at the far end of the bar cheered as one and toasted the brave astronauts. O’Rourke looked decidedly sour.
"Listen to them, Maurice," he said. "They remind me of condemned men looking out their prison cell windows and cheering on the carpenter who is building the gallows to hang their ass! I prayed last night the damn thing would blow up right there on the pad and take out half the state of Florida with it but Allah has not heeded."
"What’s that you say, buddy?" The old veteran leaned toward O’Rourke and bristled.
O’Rourke turned. "I said Allah has not heeded."
"I heard what you said, you sonuvabitch!" the old veteran snarled and shook his fist. "I’m a veteran! If I was ten years younger!
"But you’re not," growled Robert O’Rourke, "so you can only sit there and scratch and jabber like your simian relations."
Maurice noted that this exchange was drawing attention from the far end of the bar and placed a hand on O’Rourke’s shoulder. "Time to leave," he advised.
"Perhaps you’re right," said O’Rourke.
"You know what he said!!" the old veteran bellowed. "Do you know what this bastard said?!"
Maurice and O’Rourke hurried out the door leaving the rising ugly clamor behind for the din of the traffic outside on Eighth Avenue.
"Are you trying to get us killed?!" Maurice sputtered. "You can’t put down that kind of shit in front of the nuds!"
"You’re right, Maurice. It must have been the whiskey talking."
Maurice looked back over his shoulder nervously as they turned the corner onto 39th Street and was relieved to see that no angry mob was pursuing them.
"Now what have we here?" said O’Rourke as a disheveled, scabrous bum who reeked simultaneously of formaldehyde and rotting garbage lurched into their path and urgently proffered a wrinkled sheet of paper.
"A canvasser for the Kit Kat Club, no doubt," said O’Rourke and took the offering. The bum weaved off into the street where a truck screeched to stop in time to avoid flattening him. This narrow brush with mortality seemed to greatly agitate the bum. He stood in place waving his arms and squawking unintelligibly as the truck driver pulled on his air horn. At the conclusion of his address, the bum reeled to the opposite sidewalk and continued on his way.
"A man with a mission," said O’Rourke respectfully. "Now read me what this says, Maurice. I don’t have my glasses."
Maurice adjusted to the crabbed scrawl of the message and this is what he read:
HEY YOU MEN
YOU LIKE TO FUCK A LADY WHO HAD NICE FAT ASK HOE NICE FAT COOLER. THERE A LADY I NO LONG TIME. YOU WILL LOVE FUCK HER TODAY. SHE WILL NOT RAT ON YOU OR WILL NOT TELL NO ONE SHE WAS FUCK. SHE WITH A MAN HE LIKE DICK TO. HE DRESS NICE SUIT SMOKE ALL THE TIME. HIS NAME IS TOMMY. SHE WEAR GLASSES BLACK DRESS WHITE SHOE NO SOCKING. WHEN YOU SEE THEM WALK UP SAY HELLO TOMMY CAN I SITE NEAR YOU. HE WILL MOVE OVER SOME. GO SITE CLOSE BY HER. PUT YOUR ARM AROWN HER. I NO HER GET HER GOOD HOT. TELL RUB YOUR DICK. TOMMY WILL WALK BUT YOU SAY TOMMY YOU COME TO. YOU TAKE IN OLD BUILDING WHERE YOU COULD FUCK THEM. WALK SLOW KISS LOVE FUCK COOLER PUSSY BABY HOE. ALL YOU WANT. FUCK TOMMY IN HIS HOE FUCK KISS LOVE 1 HOUR OR 2 HOUR. GOOD LUCK. YOU WILL LOVE IT RIGHT HERE. GO MAN GET YOUR DICK HOT.
Maurice looked up.
"Astonishing," said O’Rourke. "I find myself very much moved. Perhaps if we hang about we can get a glimpse of this courtship procedure. We shall purchase beer in the bodega over here and stake out the block."
"You don’t actually believe…." Maurice protested.
"I have an instinct about this one, Maurice. It must be the same feeling a big game hunter gets just before the lion emerges from the tall grass."
At that very moment, as if O’Rourke had conjured them, a well dressed man and an expensive looking woman appeared across the street. The woman’s blonde hair was pulled back in a chignon with a big black bow. She wore dark glasses and a black dress. The man was tall and urbane in a blue blazer and ascot. His hair was slicked back, he was eggplant tanned and he smoked a cigarette.
"Look!" O’Rourke pointed out excitedly. "Could it be?"
The man and woman stood together but did not speak to each other as they looked up and down the street anxiously. Soon a gentleman they seemed to know approached. The new arrival’s furtive manner, seedy clothing and ghastly pallor suggested a life misspent on the shady side of the street. Nevertheless, the elegantly dressed couple was obviously delighted to see him and, after exchanging a few words, they all three adjourned down a garbage-strewn alley and disappeared into a loading bay.
O’Rourke was awe-stricken. "Do my eyes deceive me, Maurice? I can only imagine what indecencies are being committed in that loading bay at this very moment."
"I’ll bet you can," said Maurice.
"Go fetch us some refreshment." O’Rourke handed Maurice two crumpled bills. "I will remain here on watch."
When Maurice returned with two cans of beer, each in its own tiny paper bag, the woman and the two men had not reappeared in the alley.
"They are certainly taking their time," said O’Rourke. "We can only hope that our informant was exaggerating his stamina."
Maurice looked at his watch. "We’re supposed to be on Barrow Street in forty-five minutes."
"You know, Maurice, I saw something like this many years ago when I was in the navy. I was stationed on Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay where I worked as a weatherman. Every so often the fleet would put in and the sailors would be housed in barracks while their ships were fumigated. Now, you know, Maurice, there are a lot of terrible jobs in the navy, a deck ape on an aircraft carrier, for example, or a shell loader on a battleship. The worst job by far, though, is machinist’s mate, the poor devils down in the engine room. These engines are so huge that they have no casing and the giant pistons must be constantly hosed down with torrents of oil. The clangor is deafening; the heat is excruciating. It is, in short, a hell on earth."
"Water," Maurice corrected.
"Quite right," said O’Rourke. "Now, when a ship put into port, these machinist’s mates were rounded up and forced to leave their dark nether world for the light of day. I would watch them as they emerged from the hatchways and blinked in the sun. They were as white as grubs that live under a rock. Their long, stringy hair— quite startling on a man at that time— shimmered with grease. No amount of soap could wash out all that engine oil."
"What do you mean ‘forced’?" Maurice interrupted. "Weren’t they happy to get out of there?"
"They were not," said O’Rourke. "The engine room had taken over their souls. Their dedication to their infernal machines bordered on worship. Given the choice, they would never have left the oily mist of that cavern far beneath the deck. They looked upon the world of sunlight and fresh air with sullen hostility as they came down the gangplank and faced all the curious eyes gawking at them as if they were creatures from another planet.
"One of these gawkers was a certain Miss Quint, the maiden daughter of the base commander. Miss Quint was in her mid-thirties and no looker but she had an attractive air of desperation about her. No doubt, there were plenty of men on the base who would have obliged Miss Quint, but she only had eyes for these oleose machinist’s mates. Nostalgie de boue, I believe the French call it.
"On some pretext or other, she lured three or four of them into her car and took off for San Francisco where she had a special arrangement with a motel owner on Lombard Street. What happened in that room I can only conjecture, but when Miss Quint returned her bedraggled charges to their ship the following day, she fairly glowed. As they lurched and staggered up the gangplank, she stood on the dock for all to see, waving and blowing kisses. Nine months later she dropped a litter of grease monkeys. Little devils they were too."
"What did her father think about that?" said Maurice.
"Commander Quint? The man never had a thought in his life."
"Here they come," Maurice observed. O’Rourke looked over his shoulder as the unlikely trio emerged from the shadows of the alley.
"The time has come, Maurice. We must complete our investigation."
"What do you mean?" said Maurice dubiously.
The couple parted company with their furtive companion and walked off in the direction of Seventh Avenue.
"We must act quickly!" said O’Rourke. "Follow me!"
"Leave me out of this." Maurice threw up his hands and backed away.
"Your lack of curiosity amazes me," said O’Rourke and hurried off up the street after the couple. Maurice reluctantly followed at a circumspect distance.
O’Rourke quickly overtook his quarry. "Alright, Tommy," he said softly, "I think we better have a little talk."
To O’Rourke’s delighted surprise, this brazen gambit caused the elegantly dressed man to stop dead in his tracks. His tan faded as the blood drained from his face. The woman looked on curiously, chewing gum with her mouth open.
"Wh— who are you?" "Tommy" stammered.
"I want to be your friend, Tommy," said O’Rourke. "I want to be her friend too."
"I— I don’t understand."
"I think you do, Tommy."
"You’re not the police, are you?" said the man.
"Oh no," said O’Rourke.
"We— we don’t want any trouble," the man stammered. He reached into his pocket and pulled out several tiny glass vials and shoved them at O’Rourke. Each contained a small white crystal. "That’s all of it. I swear."
O’Rourke looked at the vials, then back up at "Tommy". "What do you take me for?" he demanded indignantly. "Do you really think you can put me off so easily? Back in your pocket with those things!"
"Who are you guys anyway?" said the woman. She had not failed to notice Maurice standing nearby. O’Rourke was surprised by her frank Long Island accent. "You look like artists to me."
"Artists!" O’Rourke blustered. "I’ve been called a lot of things in my life but that is the lowest! We are the very antithesis of artists! Artists create surfaces to illuminate; we create surfaces to be wiped clean. The artist seeks out uncomfortable truths; we cover up and sanitize the grim underlay of the world. Cosmetology is our business."
"You do make-up?" said the baffled woman.
"Yes, that’s it precisely. An important job it is too. That silly spaceship orbiting the earth at this very moment could not return without a layer of ceramic pancake to cushion its re-entry."
"Tommy" was looking more and more bent out of shape. "I don’t understand any of this," he complained.
"And you never will, from the looks of you," said O’Rourke.
"We do tile," Maurice explained. "The space shuttle is covered with tile."
"That’s right," said O’Rourke, "but enough about us." He turned to the woman. "We have it on excellent authority that you put out. Him too. My informant assured me that you’d be nice to us."
"Put out?! For a creepy old fart like you?" the woman guffawed. "You must be crazy!"
"Creepy old fart?"
"What are we doing talking to these nuts?" said the woman. "Let’s get out of here."
She took the well-dressed man by the arm and pulled him along.
"Is it a matter of money?!" O’Rourke shouted after them as they hurried off down the street. "I’m very reasonable! What are you laughing at, Maurice?"
"You must have missed something in the instructions."
"I admit I didn’t follow them to the letter but, at my age, I have neither the time nor the inclination to engage in protracted foreplay. Do you suppose I should have played coy?"
"You could at least have taken the drugs."
"And done what with them?" O’Rourke retorted. "Have you become an aficionado of crack? No, it is far better that we walk away from this encounter unsullied by the sordid traffic in narcotics. Just say no! I say."
These were the last words Maurice uttered before he was grabbed from behind and pinned against the building wall by a beefy, young man in a blue windbreaker and jeans. At the same time, O’Rourke was pushed up against a parked car by two more undercover cops. One of them, a tall black man, quickly patted him down and went through his pockets.
"Where is it!" he barked.
"Where is what?!" said O’Rourke.
"Don’t get smart with me, fatso!"
"Not only do you visit violence on my person," O’Rourke complained, "but you publicly humiliate me by calling attention to my unfortunate glandular condition."
"Your glandular condition is going to get plenty more unfortunate if you don’t give it up," the cop snarled. "Maybe your friend’s the one who’s holding."
"He’s clean," said the cop who had Maurice pinned against the building.
"I’m sure this is all a misunderstanding," said O’Rourke. "I myself am a lapsed member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and my associate is a Young Republican. We have nothing but the greatest respect for the law and the brave boys in blue who enforce it."
The black cop tapped O’Rourke on the chest. "Now you listen to me, you mick bastard, and you listen good. If I ever see you or your friend on this block again, I’m going to shove a sack of potatoes right up your ass. You hear me?"
"Yes, of course, officer. We were just leaving anyway. Are you coming, Maurice?"
O’Rourke and Maurice hurried away toward Seventh Avenue, leaving the three plainclothesmen staring after them.
"Did I ever tell you the story of the two nights I spent in the Bergen County Jail, Maurice?" asked O’Rourke as they rounded the corner.
"No you didn’t," said Maurice, "and I’m not in the mood to hear it right now."
"Yes, I can understand that. I hope you don’t blame me for that little imbroglio. If I’d taken your advice and kept the drugs, we’d be on our way to the hoosegow."
"If you’d taken my original advice we wouldn’t have gotten involved in the first place," Maurice countered.
"Where is your curiosity?" said O’Rourke. "Don’t answer that. Let us not recriminate. We are still free to walk the streets and get in even more trouble. Can I buy you a beer?"
With that, O’Rourke and Maurice adjourned to the nearest watering hole, a small bar frequented by Puerto Rican crack pushers, and quite forgot their appointment on Barrow Street.
This has been excerpted from Kevin Bartelme’s novel O’Rourke, Another Slop Sink Chronicle. He Lives in Manhattan.
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