by Brian Phillips · May 6, 2010
At Pharaoh’s they were coming out of the trenches again, thousands of them, pouring down the side of the crumpled napkin, running in waves down the polished grain of the bar. The guns roared down on them from the batteries on the mirror-shimmering gin shelf and their lines broke and they fell in piles, but still they kept coming. The officers pressed down on their helmets and screamed, urging the men forward. The barrage blew huge chunks out of the level wood and whiskey and bodies and shards of broken glass and scraps from somebody’s old racing form went spinning. Everything was spinning, the cheap chandelier and the armies and the old man and the faded curtains with the mock-Egyptian print. Sam’s jaw was crushed against the back of his wrist on the bar and the ragged lines kept coming.
“Say, what’s with Raggedy Andy?” a woman’s voice said behind him. “He crazy or something?”
“Let him alone, he’s dreamin’,” said Pharaoh Mike behind the bar.
“He ain’t bad at it,” she muttered, and he felt the scrape of the bar stool sliding back as she sat down beside him. “Far as dreaming goes, I figure he’s some kind of prodigy.”
“I don’t know, he gets like this sometimes. What can I say, he’s my customer.”
“You got just the one?”
“I ain’t got many,” said Pharaoh Mike.
Sam raised his head with difficulty and rubbed at his sore jaw. On the bar they were starting to kick the ball around. He could see them through two colored globes that were strange lights reflected in his glass. Once they started kicking the ball around he knew it was over for him so he pawed at his eyes until they disappeared.
“That’s a good trick,” the woman’s voice said. “See, the mummy awakes.”
“Lady,” Sam said hoarsely, turning his hung head in her direction, “was I talking to you?”
“Fella,” the lady replied, “you were talking to everybody.”
She was a brunette with a nervous mouth. She had short hair and she had it in waves and she had big eyes and dark circles around them. She was wearing a sleeveless dress and one of the straps was off her shoulder and even further off her shoulder was a fur stole. The stole wasn’t cheap for Pharaoh Mike’s but it wasn’t much for anyplace else. Sam caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror over the bar and figured he wasn’t much for anyplace, period.
“Don’t worry, Sammy,” the Pharaoh reassured him. “You didn’t say nothin’, really.”
“Say, that depends,” said the woman. “Anybody speaks Chinese, you might have said an earful.”
“This is Chinatown,” Sam said, wincing.
“It’s all the same to me.”
Sam held out his glass and Pharaoh Mike refilled it. The woman pulled her stole around her arms and sniffed as if with offended dignity. “And they say chivalry ain’t dead. Ladies first has its limits in this place, I guess.”
Pharaoh Mike apologized and poured her a drink. Just then Ralph, the waiter, put his head in at the door to survey the terrain for new customers. Not seeing any, he went back outside with his cigarettes.
“Quiet kind of operation you got here,” the lady said, apparently to her drink. “I guess the inmates may as well be on a first-name basis. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”
Sam was coming back himself, but slowly. “I’m old-fashioned,” he said. “I say my name when I introduce myself.”
“Couldn’t tell if you were listening. Mine’s Cora.”
Sam cocked his drink toward her and made his introduction. Something was skirting around the edges of his mind, but he couldn’t get a grip on it. He felt a twinge. “Say,” he said. “Shouldn’t you have a man with you?”
“I did have, somewhere,” Cora answered. “But he wasn’t so substantial. I took him on the subway and he fell through one of the gaps.”
Sam scratched his face. Whatever was bothering him was still bothering him, but it wouldn’t come clear in his mind. Can’t remember what I’m forgetting, he said to himself. Sounds like a song. Then the Pharaoh put down the glass he was drying and peered around at the clock. “Say, Sam,” he began, after a thoughtful hesitation. “Didn’t you say you was bound for meetin’ some of them kickball types at ten thirty?”
There it was. Sam put his head in his hands. “Yeah, Mike. Why?”
“It’s ten forty, Sammy.”
And there it went, then. Well, there hadn’t been much to it anyway. Sam finished his drink and let his head sink back toward the bar. On the shining wood they were kicking the ball around; there they went on the field between two empty bottles. Five of them made a W and started angling toward the goal. Sam was starting to call out instructions to the defense when Cora’s hand on his shoulder made them disappear.
“I’ve got a car outside,” she said, “if you feel like making a run for it.”
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