November 6, 2011

Waiting for Grinch


The wind was whipping a cold rain down the street and the temperature was dropping by the minute. The sun had set a few hours earlier, not that it mattered much. Normally I do what I can to avoid going out on a night like that. It’s hard to hold my hat on and smoke at the same time, and the wind tends to whip the cane around, playing hob with my sense of direction. Tonight was a rare case, though. Grinch was in town. I hadn’t seen him since he took me to that soccer match a year and a half ago.

            After reading about him in the books and the columns, people still ask me if he is real, or just a character I made up. Even Grinch’s wife claims he’s a fictional character. She’s a sweetheart, but seems to think I have a bad influence on him. Funny thing is, my ex-wife said he had a bad influence on me. Maybe they’re both right. In any case, yes, he’s very much real, and very much alive.

            I locked my apartment, tapped down the sidewalk through the storm, and found my way to the front door of the bar. When we’d spoken on the phone earlier, I wasn’t sure if he meant that he’d meet me at eight, or if he’d be leaving his hotel in Manhattan at eight (which meant an hour-plus trip down to Bay Ridge). I decided to play it safe and got there about ten to eight, figuring that would give me a chance to find a seat at the bar, maybe get a beer in me before he showed. I’d had one earlier at home just to keep the shakes under control, but they were starting to creep back. It was late for me.

            I was relieved when I stepped inside to find the place quiet. Almost . . . too quiet. I’d been expecting a boisterous jackass crowd, but it was nearly empty. The weather might’ve had something to do with it. A bigger factor, though, was that it was also the last night of the World Series, and this was quite possibly the only non-sports bar left in Brooklyn. That’s why I came here. They only had one small TV mounted above the bar, and they never turned up the volume.

            I found a seat and ordered a beer from the perky twenty-one-year-old bartender. A few seats away, a waitress was complaining to the bartender about what a slow night it was. It was a relief to me, but I said nothing. Then they started comparing horoscopes.

            Four men sat at a table behind me. One of them was talking much too loudly, bragging in unconvincing tones about what a great job he’d done singlehandedly putting together a haunted hayride attraction somewhere in Brooklyn.

            “I got bands, I got food brought in from Mulberry Street, I got rides for the kids. It’s all the best, y’know? Got about a hundred and fifty actors—kids from the local acting schools. A professional designer is making the costumes, and another professional is doing the makeup. Whatever kinda costume you want, they’ll make it right there. We got a whole tent just for changing and makeup. I got sets built. All the best ones, y’know? All kinds. A Pirate’s Cove, stuff like that. Nobody’s seen anything like it done on this scale before. It’s a huge hit every year . . . ”

            It went on and on as the others at the table chuckled appreciatively at this blowhard who was very proud of his own accomplishments, and couldn’t shut the hell up about them.

            I’d heard people like this before in other bars (unless it was the same guy following me around), and it always left me wondering: is this really how people get ahead in life? By telling everyone they meet how great they are until finally encountering someone who buys their line of bullshit? If so, maybe it was something to consider—though I suspect I’d plunge a scissors into my trachea before I got very far.

            I kept working on my tall mug of pilsner.

            “You’re awfully quiet down here,” the bartender said. “Is everything okay?”

            I didn’t want to point out that I was there alone, and wasn’t the type to join other people’s annoying conversations uninvited. In short, if there’s no obvious excuse for speaking, I don’t. Instead I only said, “I’m just waiting for someone, but I’m afraid I might’ve made a mistake about the time.” I briefly outlined the situation.

            “Maybe he’s just trying to find a parking spot,” she suggested, apparently having not heard the bit about Grinch taking the subway down there.

            “Yeah . . . maybe,” I said.

            The waitress a few stools down again complained about how slow it was, how bored she was, and how much she wanted to step out for a cigarette. A smoke sounded like a good idea. I finished my beer and ordered another.

            The men at the table behind me settled up their check and left. For a moment the bar was silent, except for the light sound of German pop music playing quietly over a distant speaker.

            “Am I the only person here now?” I asked.

            “Yes!” the waitress said. “So please don’t leave.” Then she again threatened to step outside for a smoke, going so far as to step into the back room to retrieve her pack, but still she didn’t make a move for the door.

            “I stopped smoking in the house when my dad quit,” she said. “It’s an awful habit anyway. It turns the walls yellow and makes everything stink. Hair, your clothes, everything.”

            That was enough for me. I slid off my stool. “Don’t worry, I’ll be back, “ I promised. “After listening to you I just really need a smoke.”

            Leaving my hat behind I tapped toward the door. It was about twenty to nine. Guess I did misunderstand him.

            We were getting older. Grinch and I. I could feel it, certainly. Especially after this past year. We’d met, Christ, almost thirty years ago. He had kids now who were approaching our age when we first started talking back in Madison. So much mayhem followed crammed into a very few years. The world had changed so much since then. Now he was in New York with one of his kids, who was looking at local colleges. Jesus.

            Weird thing about Grinch, though. Talking to him on the phone his voice hadn’t changed at all since back then. And somehow he seems to have maintained the same level of crazy electric energy. I have no idea how he’s managed that.

            Outside the wind and rain had died down, but the streets were empty. It was the first real cold of the season. I began to wonder how drunk I’d be by the time he showed. I’d sent him subway directions, and there was always that chance he’d picked a fight along the way, or made a crass comment to the woman sitting next to him, or pulled the emergency brake just for fun.

            I kept smoking and paid no attention to the approaching footsteps. If I had, I would’ve recognized them. Those hadn’t changed, either.

            “Ah-Misss-ter Knipfel,” an unmistakable voice said.


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