McGovern had been running the Salvation Army store on the highway for about three months. At fifty-two, he resembled an imp, except that his eyes could flash deadly in a second and his nose had been flattened out on the bridge as if it had been smashed by a frying pan, which possibly it had, compliments of one of his three ex-wives.Sitting behind the counter near the front door, McGovern waited, brooding, scheming, then caught himself and tried to discipline his thoughts in a positive direction. He was arrogant, and he knew it, but he also knew enough not to be arrogant when he couldn’t afford to, and now was not a time of great luxury.
He turned on the color TV propped up by the side of the counter and stretched back on a vinyl bar stool, swiveling around to gaze down at the back of the store. For a moment, he imagined that he still owned the bar in Union City and he almost expected to see the hovering smoke and hear the laughter of the women in their fine cut dresses, glasses clinking, life, party, action. Instead, he stuck a Lucky in his mouth and looked at the rows of discarded jeans and jackets and slacks running down to the back of the store.
Lighting his smoke, he smiled, partly in disbelief, but also in the comfort of the acceptance that he was starting again.
“You want me to start filling the hampers, Gov?” asked Andy, his assistant, whose wrinkled neck and narrow head resembled that of a rooster, as he came shuffling up the center aisle with a broom.
“No hurry,” McGovern said. “Relax. Have a coffee first.”
Andy leaned the broom up against a rack of shirts; a lost soul, McGovern thought, who did indeed find salvation in the store.
McGovern got up, scooping a rag off the counter and wiping it across the glass cover of a brass serving cart. Two had arrived that morning, twenty-five dollars for the pair. Should be no problem getting rid of them, McGovern reasoned, as he finished wiping down the second cart.
“It’s okay, go on, have yourself a coffee.” He waved Andy toward the back. Andy shrugged, then smiled, shaking his head, and slowly walked back toward the Mister Coffee that was on the table next to a clump of twenty or so brand new white Gucci pump shoes.
Stupid people are too stupid to know they’re stupid, McGovern decided. Stupidity, in McGovern’s opinion, was the overriding factor in choosing the location for the store. No one knew about it. The store was on Route 17, which in itself wasn’t bad, but it was tucked away in the back corner of a large building that included a carpet store, a pizza shop and a woman’s health spa. The health spa stood out with prominent Day-Glow lettering across the door, as did the carpet store, which even had a sign on the highway before the turn, but the Salvation Army store had nothing, no indication that it even existed.
McGovern was lighting another cigarette when the phone rang. He turned on the stool and caught it on the second ring.
“McGovern, thrift store,” he said.
“This is Mr. Osgood.”
McGovern sounded cheerful over the phone, though, of course, Osgood couldn’t see his sudden frown.
“I meant to catch you this morning before you left,” Osgood said.
“I leave pretty early.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Have to catch two buses to get here.”
“I realize that.”
“Gotta get here on time. Wouldn’t do to keep the customers waiting at the door.”
Osgood cleared his throat. “We realize you’re doing an admirable job, Billy, and don’t think we don’t appreciate your efforts, but frankly we’re a bit concerned about how much business you’re doing.”
“I’m doing the best I can, Mr. Osgood.”
“Yes, yes, but that doesn’t change the situation.” Osgood paused. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to take another fifteen dollars a week for your rent.”
“The decision is final, Billy. I’m sure you’ll understand. We have a budget to adhere to like any other enterprise and we have to trim where we can. Keep up the good work and I’ll talk to you later.”
McGovern was too stunned to slam the phone down so he just sat with the receiver lying across his palm. Forty-five dollars a week, he thought. They’ve got me down to forty-five dollars a week. All he wanted was to save up enough to put down for a room for a couple weeks while he looked for work.
Then it came to him. “The straight and narrow,” he laughed. That was it, Osgood didn’t trust him. Osgood and the others assumed that he was pocketing a share of the profits from the store. The raise in rent was to compensate for presumed losses, and to warn him that they were watching; watching and waiting.
True, he had been tempted, it was so easy, but he didn’t. Nobody saw the stuff that was dropped off at the store except him and Andy, and Andy didn’t pay any attention to such things.
Everything was accounted for by weight, in bulk, specific pieces were never kept track of; that’s how McGovern got the color TV, he simply set it up for his own viewing and no one in the warehouse ever knew. He could have turned around and sold it at his own price at any time, but he didn’t, he didn’t and they raised his rent anyway.
He was sick of it. Someone was always over him, telling him what he had to do or else making it clear what would happen if he didn’t.
“Hey, Andy,” he called out. “Did you ever consider the moral question?”
Andy looked up from his coffee, then started up to the register where McGovern was sitting.
“The moral question, Andy. I want you to consider the moral question and give me an answer.”
“What moral is that?” Andy asked.
“That’s what we’re about to find out.”
Andy stood before McGovern, his brow wrinkled in concentration.
“Here goes,” McGovern said. “You and I are equal partners.”
“We are?” Andy said, confused.
“For hypothetical purposes,” McGovern said.
McGovern lit a cigarette, exhaling impatiently. “Let’s pretend we’re equal partners, okay?”
“You mean like in a game?”
“Yes, Andy, we’re pretending. In the game, you and I are equal partners and we own a candy store.”
“Do we sell Lotto?”
“If we want.”
“Well, I think we should. Maybe we could win and buy another store.”
“That has nothing to do with the moral question,” McGovern said. “You’re getting off track.”
Andy lowered his head. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s okay. Now, will you pay attention and listen?”
“You and I are equal partners in a candy store and an old woman comes in to buy a piece of bubble gum,” McGovern said.
“How old is she?” Andy asked.
“Old enough,” McGovern snapped. “Maybe ninety.”
“And then what happens?”
“You’re behind the counter,” McGovern said. “The lady buys the gum and hands you a dollar. She thinks it’s a dollar, but when you take it, you see that she accidentally gave you a hundred dollar bill.”
“A hundred dollars?”
“And she thinks it’s only a dollar?”
“Right again,” McGovern said. “Now for the moral question. What would you do?”
Andy hesitated, raising his hand to his chin. He thought for a moment, then his face brightened and he looked up at McGovern.
“I’d tell her the mistake and give her the right change,” he said.
McGovern laughed. “That’s not even an option.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I said we were equal partners,” McGovern said. “The moral question is whether or not to tell your partner, the old lady doesn’t even enter into the equation.”
“Oh,” Andy said, but McGovern could see that poor Andy didn’t have a clue.
Christ, this is what I’ve come to, McGovern thought, as he sent Andy to the back to separate shirts into lights and dark colors because there was nothing else to do.
Still, the Salvation Army store was a long way from the bridge.
McGovern had ended up living under the bridge in Jersey City shortly after he got out of prison where he had served close to five years for knifing a buddy. A punctured kidney, an “internal slicing,” but McGovern wished he hadn’t been drinking so much and lost control. He should have waited and stuck Eight Ball outside the bar where there were no witnesses.
He did his time and came out with nothing. He remembered thinking about calling his daughter, whom he’d had no contact with in seven years, but he bought a pint of wine instead and that began the downward spiral, the unrestrained spiral that eventually landed him in “Death’s Den” under the bridge.
“Death’s Den” was the last stop before the grave, or if you were lucky, the hospital, the nut house, or another trip to jail. McGovern joined the wine gang that lived under the bridge, where they were all united in horror, the horror that was inexplicable to the uninitiated, killing from within, tearing away spirit and hope shred by shred until all that remained was the warped shell of what once was, what one would like to remember but couldn’t retrieve.
McGovern had been there, and he didn’t want to forget, but he also didn’t want to accept where he was at the moment. Toward the end, there was no love or feeling, emotions long since replaced by a halfhearted instinct to survive; but the desire to live, in McGovern, was still a shade stronger than the despair facing the empty bleakness that lay ahead once all dreams were buried with no hope of resurrection.
McGovern looked up as a black Plymouth passed by the glass doors to the store. Smoothly, it reappeared in reverse Then the driver swung back and parked in a space across from the store.
A blond in her early twenties stepped out on the passenger’s side. She was wearing a pink summer dress and a breeze lifted the hem up and out, the girl laughing as she caught the rising ends and scooted around the front of the car to greet a man in brown slacks and a plaid shirt.
Arm-in-arm, the couple entered the store. McGovern remained seated. He thought he recognized the man but he couldn’t place him.
“How you doing?” the man asked, and McGovern nodded indifferently.
“I never knew this place existed,” the man said. He was in his mid-thirties, clean shaven, with a jumpiness, McGovern recognized, the jumpiness that came from not yet suffering ultimate defeat but knowing the potential was always just moments ahead.
“I didn’t mean it that way,” the man caught himself. “I just meant that I never knew the Salvation Army ran regular stores.”
“As regular as you can get,” McGovern said.
The man laughed, a relieved, self-conscious laugh.
“Millie here likes to browse,” the man said. “You know, antique shops and flea markets, any old place.”
“What’s she looking for?”
“Damn if I know.” The man turned to Millie. “Honey, what the hell are you hoping to find?”
Millie giggled, swaying a bit in place like a little girl, but with much more provocative offerings.
“I don’t know but I’ll know when I see it,” she said, running her index finger invitingly across her bottom lip.
“See what?” the man asked.
“Whatever.” Millie laughed. Then she pirouetted around and started down the center aisle toward the back of the store, casually eyeing the merchandise.
“Women.” The man rolled his eyes. He pulled a pint of bourbon out of his inside jacket pocket, uncapping it. “Can’t . . . “
“I know,” McGovern interrupted.
“Live with them, can’t live without them,” the two men laughed in unison.
The man in the brown slacks raised the bottle of bourbon in toast, a friendly gesture, but one of mortal danger to McGovern. The man apparently didn’t see, or chose not to see, or saw and didn’t care about the white sign in bold red lettering above the counter which said, “No alcoholic beverages allowed on the premises.”
McGovern always got a kick out of the word beverage. He’d been shot, stabbed, clubbed and beaten, and yet it was a beverage that almost killed him.
The man passed the pint toward McGovern. McGovern leaned forward automatically, then reached for a cigarette just before his hand touched the lovely brown shaded bottle.
“Not today,” McGovern said to the man, standing with the still inviting bottle.
“Suit yourself,” the man said, and drank again before McGovern, who was tempted by the thought of the warm beverage flowing down his throat, instantaneously registering a euphoric glow in both his belly and his brain.
He was surprised that he was letting the man drink in the store. In the past, McGovern had denied entry to people who even had a trace of alcohol on their breath, and he had never let anyone who was actually drinking inside. But that was before he was paying fifteen dollars more a week in rent. One phone call and the store no longer looked the same, or at least McGovern didn’t think of it the same. Maybe he had only been fooling himself but he thought of it as his store, and in his own way, he loved it.
“Name’s Jimmy Sax,” the man said, extending his hand to McGovern.
They shook hands. The man took another drink. He looked at McGovern, hesitated, then drank again.
“Don’t I know you?” he asked.
“Can’t say.” McGovern knew the man now, Jimmy Sax, Bobby Sax’s younger brother from Union City.
“I can’t believe it,” Sax said. “I know you, Billy McGovern. You’re Billy McGovern.”
“You’re not telling me anything I don’t know.”
“But you are. Billy McGovern. We all thought you were dead.”
“In a way, I guess I was.”
“Last I heard of you was maybe ten years ago,” Sax said. “It was in the papers, something about your wife stabbing you.”
“My ex-wife,” McGovern corrected.
“I would hope so,” Sax laughed.
“I was asleep,” McGovern said, “and that crazy bitch stabbed me in the chest.”
As McGovern spoke, it didn’t seem real, it was as if he was talking about someone else, no Flora, no violent fights, the drinking, the slapping her around cause she was always in his face, not wanting to have a good time, Flora came first and everything he did was somehow wrong.
“What a bitch,” McGovern said. “I felt a pain shooting through me and I opened my eyes and saw the kitchen knife buried and sticking out of my chest. I don’t know how the fuck I managed to get to the hospital, but I did.”
“What happened to her?” Sax asked.
“Yeah, was that your wife?”
“Well, what happened?”
“She was arrested for attempted murder, my murder, but they judged that she was not criminally responsible for her actions.”
“You’re telling me.”
“Where is she now?” Sax asked, half the pint gone.
“Who the fuck knows?”
“Or cares, I bet,” Sax said.
McGovern looked at Sax and suddenly didn’t like him. He cared about Flora, she was just fucked up. He cared about a lot of people, but they were fucked up or he was fucked up, it was never that easy.
“During the divorce proceedings,” McGovern said, “the judge ruled that Flora was entitled to interim support because of our long standing marriage.”
“What does that mean?” Sax asked.
“It means that the court expected me to compensate someone who almost killed me.”
“You mean alimony?”
“I’ll be damned.”
“I almost was.”
Stupid fucking law, McGovern thought. He thought so drunk and he thought so now. Spiritual improvement, as they spouted at meetings at the Salvation Army, didn’t mean taking the blame for everything, as far as McGovern was concerned.
Millie came waltzing up the far aisle. She wasn’t carrying anything but didn’t seem disappointed.
“No luck?” Sax asked.
“There’s a lot of stuff, a lot of good stuff for some people, but nothing I wanted,” she said.
Some people. McGovern thought. Who the fuck was she to say some people? The charm between her legs might make her better than some people, in her eyes, for a time, at the moment, but it wouldn’t last. And a dime a dozen hustler like Sax, all trimmings and no soul, was not a good investment for the future, not if you didn’t want to end up like some people.
“Millie, I’d like you to meet Billy McGovern,” Sax said. “He used to be kinda of a luminary in the neighborhood when I was growing up.”
Millie brightened and waved, and McGovern noticed that when she bounced up on her toes you could almost see her panties beneath the flap of her dress.
“You knew my Jimmy,” she said. “Aren’t you proud of all he’s done?”
“Very proud,” McGovern said.
He glared at Sax, who looked away, taking another slug of bourbon. Sax knew that McGovern knew he was handing Millie a line. McGovern didn’t know the specifics of the fabrication, but he didn’t have to, punks like Sax existed on a shaky foundation of fabrication justified by easy money.
McGovern had been there, living the life of a lie, though he never thought of himself as a punk, but realized that others who knew him at different points over the years might have disagreed. Still, within his hollow framework, as the alcohol led to more delirium, burying him deeper and deeper under consequences, McGovern truly believed his character remained intact beneath the layers of external defeat.
He was raised a Catholic, and though he had turned his back on the church after his penance as an altar boy, he knew right from wrong, and never hurt or took advantage of anyone who didn’t have it coming. At least, that’s the way he saw it; the unnecessary pain he may have caused undeserving others while under the influence, well, at a certain point, he was out of control. Sent reeling out of control, he thought ruefully, by a beverage.
Accept things the way they are, he repeated to himself. He could feel the perspiration covering his brow and the dryness in his throat. He poured a cup of coffee from the thermos on the counter, his hand trembling.
He raised the cup and drank, the coffee lukewarm, and smiled at
Millie, devouring her with his eyes. She smiled back, which McGovern took as complicity, but in the game of power and control, he recognized that Sax currently had the stronger hand.
McGovern drank more coffee, simply because it was there and he
needed something to desperately fill the emptiness. He wanted to take Millie in the back room, lay her down right on the table there, standing between her sturdy youthful legs, experienced but innocent legs, as she lay on her back, expectant and smiling. He imagined reaching down with excited fingers, taking hold, flipping the dress back over her head and slipping her panties down, down to her ankles, then off and free over her high heels.
But that wasn’t really it, he thought. He wanted fifteen years back, to be Sax’s age again, and to have a bottle of bourbon; a bottle of bourbon, with all its false but tantalizing promises and allure. The bottle of bourbon could bring him many Millies, but, in truth or imagination, the bourbon was the thing.
And, yet, McGovern knew, knew too well, as he watched Andy coming up from the back of the store, that the return of lost youth, if it was possible, if one believed in fairy tales, coupled with the free flow of bourbon, or gin, vodka, whiskey or rye, would inevitably flash forward him right back to where he was now, maybe even worse.
Andy scowled when he saw Sax with the bottle but didn’t say anything.
“How long have you known my Jimmy?” Millie asked.
“As long as I can remember,” McGovern answered.
“I haven’t known him that long,” Millie said, and seemed perplexed when McGovern and Sax both laughed, and then she laughed, too.
Sax was beginning to show the affects of the bourbon. His face was flushed and there was a slight sway in his stance.
“McGovern here’s the only man who ever fired me from a job,” Sax said, a slur in his delivery.
“What?” Millie said, and laughed again.
“Yep, he fired me. As a bartender.”
McGovern slid off his stool.
“Do you remember that, McGovern?” Sax challenged. “I didn’t forget. You fucking fired me.”
“You probably deserved it,” McGovern said.
“Deserved it?” Sax turned to Millie, who was no longer smiling, and spread his hands out in appeal, the bottle still in one, only now with only a couple swallows remaining.
“I’m ready to go, Jimmy,” Millie said.
“The man’s a hypocrite,” Sax cried, wheeling around and pointing at McGovern. “I was nineteen and he fired me for taking a drink. One lousy drink. The fucking hypocrite. He’s fucking drunk out of his mind and he fires me.
“Now look at . . . “
McGovern’s fist stopped Sax in mid sentence. McGovern was smaller but his knuckles were bony and hard and connected squarely with teeth and lip, and the surprise and momentum were enough to send Sax sprawling.
On his back, Sax wiped away blood and the remainder of a tooth, then quickly covered his head as McGovern came at him with the stool raised over his head.
Millie screamed as McGovern brought the stool back and around. He wasn’t aware of anything. Pure instinctual rage, and then Andy’s harsh, raspy voice, “For God’s sake, Billy, don’t,” and the familiar lost voice was enough to disrupt the downward arc. The swinging stool bypassed Sax’s head and crashed against the glass cover of one of the new brass serving carts, shards of silver shattering across the room.
Stooped over, McGovern grunted, then tossed the stool away. He was breathing heavy. Then he heard the sobs.
Standing up, he saw Millie, in her pink dress, crying, a spear of glass sticking out of her leg just above the left knee.
McGovern stumbled back toward the counter, leaning against it. Andy was on his knees, a first-aid kit on the floor next to him. Millie’s sobbing subsided as Andy soothingly removed the glass and carefully dressed the wound.
Sax was on his feet, wobbly, no fight in him. He pushed Andy out of the way and yanked Millie up toward him. As he dragged Millie out of the store, she managed to glance back and wave to Andy, a girlish smile beneath her tear stained face.
“You gotta control your temper, Gov,” Andy said, slowly picking himself up off the floor.
He walked over by McGovern and grabbed a broom. “We can’t afford anger any more.”
“I know, I know,” McGovern said, lighting a cigarette. “But sometimes you can only take so much.”
“That’s when you have to turn it over to Him,” said Andy, not looking up as he started sweeping.
“Him?” McGovern asked playfully.
“The Father.” Andy continued sweeping up the broken glass. “The Father who art in Heaven and looks over all of us.”
Andy then launched into a well meaning mechanical sermon as he continued to work, but McGovern wasn’t listening.
Andy was sweeping up the last of the glass, as McGovern nudged the bottle of bourbon with his foot until it was safely behind the counter.
“You want me to make a new sign?” Andy asked, holding up the piece of cardboard with “2 for $25″ marked across it.
“Don’t worry about it,” McGovern said. He’d already decided he’d ask fifty for the remaining serving cart and settle for forty. After all, he was starting again.