Number Three


by Bill Armstrong

She said she'd meet me at four o'clock at Seattle Bean on Second Avenue in the eighties. I got here around five of four and got a cup of coffee and took a stool at the counter by the window. I figure it must be 4:15 by now, though I don't wear a watch. There's still a collection of them in my top bureau drawer, ones my father gave me for birthday presents every year from when I was fourteen until I was at least 35. My dad finally gave up on the watches, but he still asks me when I'm going to quit fooling around playing this rock and roll nonsense and get a haircut and a real job. Some things never change. But enough about that. This story is about Cindy.

I met her a few weeks ago at an afternoon meeting in Soho that I have been going to for years. After the meeting she said hello and we chatted, flirting a little I guess, but I didn't think it was any big deal. Then yesterday she comes up to me after the meeting and asks me if I'd like to meet her for coffee sometime. She asks me for my phone number and gives me hers.

So last night she calls me and asks me to meet her today. Now no woman in her right mind approaches strangers in New York City, let alone gives them her phone number and meets them for coffee. But in AA everything is all trust and love and open sharing-it's like it's 1967, the summer of love, all over again. When Aldous Huxley said Bill W. was the great social architect of the 20th century, I doubt this is exactly what he had in mind.

And this Cindy-I don't even know her last name-is a good looking woman. She has long dark brown hair, and lots of it, in curls-not big hair, more class than that, but lots of curls and lots of hair. She's got big brown eyes and a cute nose. A knockout figure. And she's in her thirties. There's no cradle robbing here. She's a grownup.

I'm sitting at the counter in the espresso bar thinking about the mysterious Cindy, and listening to the Neil Young tape that's playing. I'm pretty sure it's his first album, but I can't quite remember the name of it. It sounds incredibly good. I have to admit this Seattle Bean place is pretty hip for uptown. The coffee is excellent, and I like the scene. It's kind of high-lo and it works. The decor is hard-edged: black, white and grey, with these amazing ceiling lights that look like they're out of, I don't know, a Boeing factory. But there's a funky poster of Seattle and this ancient, folksy music, and the staff is young with the grunge look-plaid shirts with the tails out, messy hair, baggy hip-hop jeans. Come to think of it, a lot like we used to dress in the sixties.

I take in the street scene, which is real close on the other side of the plate glass window. It's snowing hard. There's at least an inch on the ground. Across the street the big Paprika-Weiss sign, with its white lettering on a bright red background, looks nice in the snow-romantic. Makes Second Avenue look like Budapest or Vienna or something.

A short, wide Hispanic man-he's wearing a white linen napkin on his head to keep off the snow so he looks like some strange nun-is shovelling the sidewalk, scraping it, really, with his shovel blade. I love the way they do that: scrape the snow down to a smooth, thin layer so it can freeze overnight into a sheer glaze. It's been happening all winter long, in this incredible New York winter. It's been like the old days, like the sixties. Snow and then more snow. It seems everything's like the sixties today.

A woman, in what I'm pretty sure is a raccoon coat, walks by with a toy dog on a leash. A Pekingese. It occurs to me that the animal-or rather, animals-that make up the coat aren't much different than the one she has on the leash. The Pekingese is about the same size, shape and coloring as a raccoon. When I was a kid upstate one of our neighbors had a pet raccoon, had it for years. 'Moxie' I think it was called. "Moxie" would come when called, stay and even go up on its hind legs to beg, just like a dog.

Anyway, the Pekingese stops and pees on the post at corner of the bus stop kiosk and then it squats and drops a pretty good-sized pile of shit for such a small dog. I can see it steaming on the pavement, cooling as the snow hits it. The woman reaches into her purse and takes out a small, transparent plastic sandwich bag. She turns the bag inside out and puts it on her hand like a rubber glove and then she reaches down to the pavement and picks up the pile of fresh steaming logs in her almost bare hand. And although I have never done this myself, I'm quite certain that it must feel as close to the real thing-that is, picking up a pile of dog shit in your bare hands-as say, fucking with a condom. She deftly slips it off her fingers: Voila! A bag of shit.

This is incredible to me. I mean this woman probably doesn't even ride the subway because it's too dirty, and yet she has a more intimate daily relationship with animal shit than a stable boy. A stable boy uses a pitch fork.

The woman walks to the corner and daintily drops the bag in the trash can.

A fat old man waddles by and sits down on the bench outside the window. He is wearing a black coat, black hat. He lights a big cigar. If this were the village I'd figure him for a don. We're only inches apart, and because I'm sitting on a stool, I'm looking down onto him, and can see the huge hairy wart on his right cheek in vivid relief. Even though we're so close, with the glass between us, he isn't even aware of my existence.

The counter girl goes outside to smoke a cigarette, and stands shivering in her shirtsleeves in the doorway under the awning. She talks with the old man, unlikely partners in addiction, this pair. The girl has on bright red lipstick which seems out of character with the loose hair and grunge shirt. The filter of her cigarette is smeared with lipstick-it's something that always gives me the blues, reminds me of being on the road, of bars and cocktail lounges and drinking. My mother used to do it too, she'd leave ashtrays filled with lipstick-smeared butts all over the house, but I guess that's something a lot of moms did in the 'burbs in the sixties. For some reason I have the sixties on the brain today. But it makes me sad because Mom was always trying to quit smoking, always lighting up and saying she'd quit tomorrow, quit next week. I'd tell her she had it backwards: go ahead and smoke tomorrow, smoke next week, I'd say, just don't do it today. But the concept baffled her, and she never did get it. Even now I can remember her wheezing-a quiet mousy sound deep in the lungs.

The counter girl stamps her cigarette out under her heel and comes back inside. The old man gets up and walks down to the corner, crossing the avenue on the light change. The light changes again and the taxis go by in a blur, looking good against the snow. Real yellow. For some reason the rushing cabs make me think of time, and thinking of time makes me remember why I'm here, and that Cindy is very late.

I ask the counter girl what time it is and she says 4:35. I'm about ready to give up and leave, and I'm a little irritated. What was this about anyway? But I'm thinking all's not lost: for the price of two tokens and the coffee, I've seen a fairly entertaining matinee, and verified that they do have good coffee and music here in the hinterlands. And I'm blown away about how good that Neil Young album is. It's been a long time since I've heard it, but it's still close to my heart, close to the heart of everybody my age, I guess. "Cinnamon Girl." "Down by the River." "Cowgirl in the Sand." The songs still ring true. I should get the band to sit down and listen to this, maybe work out a few covers.

Then Cindy shows up, coming in the door in a flurry of snow.

"I'm so sorry," she says. And looking at her watch, "God, I'm so late."

She gives me a peck on the cheek as if we are old pals.

Off comes the hat, a loose black wool beret-like thing, snow flying and melting immediately on the floor in tiny puddles. Off comes the scarf, soft purple alpaca, lush and sexy. Cindy shakes out her beautiful head of hair, and smiles at me. The gloves, and then the coat, a baggy green barn jacket, come off. And there is Cindy, whoever she is, ready for my appraisal, in a tight black top which tells me all I'd ever want to know about the curve of her bust, and tight black stretchy leggings which hold no secrets about the shape of her legs either.

On her feet she's wearing a pair of red high-top sneakers, which I'm sure are soaking wet by now, but that may be a small price to pay for the right image; I get the distinct feeling that the whole outfit is for my benefit because I live downtown. And I'm flattered. I don't remember her dressing so young at the meetings; sometimes it can look like a joke on a woman her age, but she pulls it off.

"Don't worry about being late. I was having a good time watching the snow and listening to the music."

"What is this music?" she asks.

"It's an old Neil Young album."

"Oh. This place is great isn't it?"

"Sure, I like it."

She goes to the bar and orders a Mochaccino. I admire her leggings from the rear.

She comes back with the coffee and a pistachio crostino.

"I'm sorry I'm late. I got stuck on the phone."

"Really, it's okay. I'd forgotten how much I loved this album. I may have to buy the CD. So I got something out of it," I say, mostly to be polite.

"I guess everything happens for a reason," she says.

I try not to roll my eyes. Tell it to the mother whose baby was killed this morning in East New York by a stray bullet from a drug dealers' shoot-out, I think.

She sits at the counter, swinging her legs around toward me. There isn't that much room along the wall of stools.

"I'm so glad we could get together. You know I really liked what you shared the other day."

I have no idea what she's talking about; I rarely remember what I say in meetings. Sometimes I think that's the whole point; like it's automatic speaking-from the subconscious.

I pretend to understand.

"You said something like your worst day sober is better than your best day drunk." She is leaning close to me, intense, looking me directly in the eye with her deep brown eyes. Her perfume is in the air.

"You can't give me credit for making that up."

It's one of the oldest cliches in the book.

"Well, I'd never heard it before."

"How much time do you have?" I ask.

"I celebrated ninety days yesterday. I can't believe it, ninety days without a drink. I'm so happy. I never thought I'd make it. I'm proud of myself."

"That's wonderful. Congratulations," I say.

So that's it, I think. Ninety days is a milestone. A coming of age. Once you have ninety days without a drink you're allowed to speak on the podium about your experience, you become a full-fledged member of the fellowship. It's the greatest achievement in any alcoholic's life. But it isn't a lot of sobriety, and it makes me uncomfortable. There are twelve steps to recovery, and the wags have it that the 13th step is seducing newcomers. It's generally considered sleazy.

"I can't believe how much better my life is already. The promises are beginning to come true. I've a new found freedom. I'm really learning to live one day at a time. I've met so many new people who are so open and honest and caring. I've found so much love...." she is going on at rapid clip.

I can barely keep up, but it's infectious; her enthusiasm puts me in a good mood despite my cynicism. She leans closer to me and our faces are just inches apart. I'm drawn into her aura. It smells good, looks good, feels good. And it reminds me of the sixties again, the talk about openness and sharing and freedom and love.

And as she speaks I look at her mouth. I'm allowed to look. I stare at her lips and I'm intoxicated by them with their pale pink lipstick and sexy M shape. And I cannot help but think that they must be wonderfully expert at many things besides talking. And then I realize that our knees are touching and pressing together. The inside of her knee is warm against my leg. And I'm dizzy with her presence. I hear Neil Young's sad, sweet, romantic voice in the background singing "Everybody knows this is nowhere" and now I remember that's the title song on the album. "Everybody Knows This is Nowhere."

Cindy's body language is so articulate, I'm now sure she has decided to celebrate her ninety days in very specific way, and that she has, for whatever reason, chosen me to be a participant in this adventure. And I wonder what I'm going to do. I know that it's not 1967, no matter how much it seems like it, and there's no such thing as free love. And I know that I better decide soon if I want my brain to do the deciding, because Cindy has just slipped her knee a little further up my leg and the contact, even through our clothing, is hot and intense. Little electric shocks are shooting up my leg and communicating directly with that part of me which makes decisions without any regard for the consequences.

"I was thinking about going to the sober dance tonight at Butterfield . . . I was wondering if you'd like to go . . . " she says.

Of course, I'd love to dance with her...and more. Cindy's so open-like a fresh blossom, almost like a virgin. Open and trusting and eager to rock and roll. I can let her take me home and together we can re-invent the wheel. God knows it would be fantastic. Or I can do the right thing and tell her I don't work the 13th step. I'm thinking I don't have to make a final decision now, I can just go to the dance and decide later what to do. But part of me knows that if I spend the evening touching, smelling and spinning in rhythm with Cindy the decision will already have been made.

Just then the counter girl goes by again on her way out for another cigarette. Once outside, she lights up and inhales deeply, tilting her head back a little and drawing her cheeks together. Then she exhales dramatically and the huge cloud of smoke mingles with the snowflakes swirling in the air. I see the bright ruby impression left on the filter tip and it makes me sad again, but for some reason it helps me make my decision. Maybe I'll sleep with Cindy tomorrow, I think to myself, or maybe next week, but I'm not going to do it today. And then, before I'm really conscious of what I'm doing, I can hear myself telling her that although I'd love to go to the dance with her I can't go tonight.

Copyright ã 1999 by Bill Armstrong


Bill Armstrong's novel Cold As Ice was published by Electron Press in March 1999.

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