by Steve Lindley
Art by Tom Pokinko
It isn’t that I don’t like old people. I just prefer that they go about their business as far away from me as possible. I mean, what is their business, anyway, the nonsense they’re always up to, shuffling around places you and I have to go while they don’t really have to be anywhere, just getting in the way, taking forever doing nonsense things like buying greeting cards for their nieces and nephews who don’t care if they get them anyway, or clogging up the grocery aisle looking to get free samples of cheese cubes on toothpicks or something just as bland that’s going to still be all over their lips while they’re giving their opinion on it, we’ve all seen that.
Now, Pam—she’s the cocktail girl works Friday and Saturday nights, which is really a good gig when you think about it, I mean, if you can afford to work two nights a week and take the rest of the week to yourself to have a good time. Though when you really think about it, what good does it do you if you can’t go out on Friday or Saturday night? Anyway, Pam, she tells me that I don’t like old people—and it isn’t that I don’t like old people—because deep down, way deep down in my psyche, I’m afraid of getting old myself. “Brad,” she says, smirking like a brat baby sister, and picking at my head like a monkey looking for lice or something, “I think I see one more gray hair today than I did yesterday,” she says. And I’ll tell you the truth, she’d be as likely to find a gray hair in my head as she would a lice—not that I have lice, or have ever had lice, or would even know what one looks like if I did. But the truth is, nobody in their right mind wants to get any older once they finally get past the point where they can buy their own cigarettes and their own liquor, and of course get behind the wheel of a car. But my problem with our seasoned citizens has nothing to do with me. It’s more practical than that.
You see, here’s my theory. We live in a world that functions. Me, I make your cocktails. Pam, she brings you your cocktails. You, you work all day, and then get dressed up and come here to a nice, fancy restaurant to blow off some steam and have some dinner and some cocktails. It’s all a nice, fluid function, and it rolls, snap, snap, snap, at a certain speed. Now, you throw some old geezer into the mix, and you’ve seen them, shuffling bent-shouldered with their shoes scraping and their shirts untucked, mouths hanging open looking more like they’re lost in a bus station than in a high class restaurant, asking everybody they see where’s the bathroom before they piss in their pants. The same guy on the highway who makes me late for work because I can’t get past his Olds Toronado the size of a motor home grinding along five miles under the limit with his right blinker going, then he’s taking fifteen minutes trying to get in here having issues with the revolving door, while you’re stuck behind him with your date in the rain, the two of you dressed sharp, unlike him, with your outfits getting drenched, and now he needs a bathroom.
And worse, he comes back from the bathroom, wet pants or no, and now he wants to join in the conversation, which is the worst thing that can happen to the conversation, trust me. You see, keeping conversation lively is my specialty, I mean aside from the mixology aspect of the job. Again, it’s that fluid function. I work the bar, keeping things light, giving everybody their fair share of getting into the chatter, snap, snap, snap. But then the geezer takes it on himself to wedge his opinion into the mix, with some crazy old take on the subject that hasn’t been relevant for half a century, and going on about it nonstop and dull as a chapter in a history book nobody would care to read anyway, about people he knew who died before anybody else was born, or things that don’t exist anymore but he thinks they should, like trolley cars, or pay phones, or cigarette girls and hatchecks, right—hatchecks, which was how this whole thing got started, and how I wound up with the name Matchmaker, which I don’t think is very funny, by the way.
He was wearing one of those hats when he came in, you know, those fedoras where if a young guy is wearing it he’s trying to make some kind of fashion statement, but if an old guy like him is buried under it, it’s only because he’s owned it since the days when men used to wear three-piece suits to go see a baseball game at Wrigley Field. And this guy, he might have seen the Bears play at Wrigley, too, that’s how old he was. You know the Bears really did play in Wrigley at one time, that’s how backwards things were back then, football played in baseball parks. What the hell were people thinking?
Anyway, I’m used to types like him crawling in maybe around opening, late afternoon, blue-plate special, for their daily allowance of four ounces of whiskey before they go home to watch Vanna flip letters, but this one, he comes in right in the thick of things, Friday night, when the hostess stand is mobbed and people are three deep at the bar. And by some lousy miracle of luck, he manages to find himself an empty bar stool that by all rights would have been put to better use by a real customer waiting for the next open dinner table, but, no, he snags it to himself, and sits his groaning ass down like he’s just gotten off of the last stagecoach from Yuma, takes off the hat, and plops it right down on the bar in front of him, in front of me, and in front of the guy next to him who has little enough of his own elbow room already.
Sure enough, it’s whiskey he orders, on the rocks, and I ask him if there’s a particular brand he’d like, knowing he’ll say no, the well is fine, which he does, naturally, him no doubt being on a fixed income which I’m sure he’d love to let me know if I gave him the chance, though I’d like to tell him that that if you’re on a fixed income you ought not be doing your drinking in a high-end establishment like this one. I mean, what is social security about if not like giving an annoying kid a couple of quarters, saying here, here’s some money, now go away? Anyway, I put his glass in front of him, kind of making a show of trying to work a spot for it around that hat of his, thinking maybe he’ll take a hint, and he does, picking up on the situation faster and sharper than I thought he would, because he gives me a glare and says real cold, “Is the hat bothering you?”
Of course, I tell him no because you know how places like this are, all pins and needles about customer satisfaction, and a complaint to management about me even coming from an old coot like this will get me written up. So, he looks to the guy next to him and says, “Is the hat bothering you?” and the guy is no help to me, getting all polite like a sheep and eyes down at the bar saying no, it isn’t bothering him, though it obviously is, or should be, anyway. Which leaves me out on my own, so I attempt to defuse the situation, telling the old man that I’m just afraid I or somebody else might spill something on it, and I wouldn’t want that to happen as it looks like he’s had it a long time, which it does, thinking maybe he’ll get the dig and maybe not. And that was when he pulls out a roll of bills as thick as a professional heavyweight’s fist, peels off a ten, drops it on the bar, and without bothering to look up tells me, “Well, if it’s making you afraid, why don’t you stow it in the hatcheck?”
Now, ordinarily at this point I’d let the matter drop because nothing good could come of it, but the bill’s a ten-spot, not the single I would have figured, or even a five, and I’m thinking that where that one bill got peeled off that wad others may follow. I mean, ask anybody in hard sales and they’ll tell you that while extracting a buck from the pensioners is as tough a game you can get, once you find their sweet spot they’re as easy a mark as a six-year-old kid with his or her lemonade money. Not that I would take advantage of a six-year-old kid with his or her lemonade money, or even this old man. I just thought that with him being a smart-mouth and me being a player, I might play him along for a bit and have some fun in the process while maybe getting him to peel another few tens off of that wad of his. I mean, you keep peeling the layers off somebody else’s onion, eventually you wind up with a good chunk of the onion.
So, I flash the old grump the nice, friendly smile I reserve for situations like this, pick up the ten and the hat, and make my way over toward the coat check, but not before being buttonholed by Pam, who, I don’t know how she does it, always manages to be right there when anything’s going on, the girl never missing a trick, and always is ready to play it funny as hell, which is why I’m always glad to have her around on Friday and Saturday nights in the first place. Naturally, she wants to know why I’m holding a hat, and I nod over toward the old man, and she says fine, but why is he over there and his hat over here, and I tell her I’m taking it to hatcheck, which is a slip of my tongue, as I mean coat check, but she thinks I’ve already got a game playing in my head because there’s only one person we know, other than this old man now, who has ever referred to coat check as hatcheck, and that’s old Trudy, keeper of the furs.
Now, Trudy, she fits in working with us in this restaurant like an old man with a metal detector fits in at a beach party, but somehow she’s been grandfathered in, excuse the pun, like some kind of rusty, cast-iron sink or something. It’s so bad that there are people—though not me, mind you—who say they built the place over her grave and she just rose up out of the ground and into the coat room and won’t leave now, which is not that cruel really, if you caught a look at her, usually just standing there not moving, like some kind of Madame Tussauds wax figure, just waiting for coats with a kind of lost smile on her dry face, and her cotton-candy hair, and her body skinny as a runway model but with bones instead of curves, making angles under her long, slinky dresses. There was a time when the management took the risk of actually letting her seat people, but the way she floated among the tables would scare the children, not to mention that whoever she was seating would die of hunger before she’d ever get them sat, to the point where I know I’d snatch up the bread off of whoever’s table we were passing just to have the strength to move forward. I mean, if it took me that long to get from point A to point B, I’d give up and slit my own throat right around point A and a half. So, there she sits in coat check, relegated to her cubbyhole where she can’t do too much harm, and the only one who has to listen to her go on with her bitching about how much better and sharper the clubs in the good old days used to be are the ones checking their coats.
Coat check being just off of the hostess stand, I have to push through the crowd to get to Trudy, and she sees me coming, and that vacant look on her face turns curious when I show her the hat, which she takes in her claws and examines like she’s one of those Brit appraisers on an “Antiques Roadshow” program, which is not unusual. It’s her thing, really, with the coat closet being her own little world, or what’s left of it, there not being a single fur or suede or leather that she doesn’t take from its owner like it was a baby being passed to her, holding it to her chest and cooing over it, running her bony hands along its fur and checking the label in the collar, asking the owner where they bought it and how long they’ve had it and what other stores they shop at and just about every other worthless detail you can think of, or even not think of, about coats. And sometimes some of the older ladies are happy to take up the conversation, standing there going on about things forever, or at least until somebody in line behind them gives them a light jab in the ribs, or Trudy gets carried away and starts talking about herself until they can’t stand it anymore, which she loves to do, about the classy places she worked in like after each world war or something, when clubs were clubs, and the music was performed by live bands, and champagne corks were popping at every table, and a man would buy drinks for a lady and light her cigarette. I always want to ask her what lady she’s talking about, but I don’t because management has warned us not to make too much fun of Trudy, her being so frail and in her own little bubble and all.
And frail or no, when Trudy spots the ten in my palm she can’t believe it, and I hand it over before she grabs my wrist like one of those old horror movies where the skeleton hand comes out and clutches your arm and doesn’t let go, her being a scrapper for a dollar probably since before George Washington’s face was even on it. And I tell her about the old gentleman and his ham-sized roll of bills, and she’s not sure if she buys anything I’m saying, but now you can see she’s curious about this guy, any guy who hands out tens to coat-check girls and owns a hat he bought back when men bought drinks for ladies and lit their cigarettes and popped champagne corks. But crane her neck as she might to get a view of him, you can’t see the bar from the coat check, so I wait until she finally has no choice but to shelve the hat and hand me its little, plastic token, and I turn and walk right into Pam.
“What are you up to?” Pam asks me, grinning all excited, and grabbing my arm and pulling me up against her close so she can whisper it just between us two with all the noise from all the bodies in the lobby all around us. And I don’t answer, but just give her a look that says, “We’ll see. . . .”
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Hatcheck by Steve Lindley Copyright © 2017 with permission of the author. All rights reserved.
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