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B. D. FEIL


COCKTAIL LOUNGE

A cocktail lounge opened in our neighborhood. I noticed it the other morning walking back from the mall. It sits on the end of a short strip of stores, four in all, and takes the place of a gourmet food store my wife liked to browse through. They are all upscale stores as you would expect in our little suburb-a Queen Anne-style furniture store, a women's boutique, a hair salon that my wife went to every Thursday morning, and now the cocktail lounge. I was surprised at first that the review board would grant a lounge a permit. But there were no flashing lights out front, no large picture window to see in, no loud noises; indeed, the only clues that this was a business were the two potted trees on either side of the large oak door with cast-iron pulls and a simple white wooden sign with black lettering above the door: "Cocktail Lounge."

I saw that sign, those two words, for days before I decided to visit. Cocktail Lounge. Not Sam's Cocktail Lounge. Or Bill and Jane's Cocktail Lounge. Or The Shamrock Cocktail Lounge. Or The Kon Tiki Cocktail Lounge. Just Cocktail Lounge. The two words seemed quaint. There are bars these days or pubs or saloons or eateries or cafes. I've even seen the word "lounge" hung above establishments, usually in connection with bowling alleys. But it's been years since I had seen the phrase "cocktail lounge" and certainly not on a new place. Maybe I just haven't noticed.

My wife and I used to meet at a place called the Metro Cocktail Lounge before we were married. That was in New York in the fifties when we were very young and when men wore hats and women wore gloves. I miss wearing a hat, and not just because of the weather. My wife would take off her gloves as we slid into the booth at the Metro Cocktail Lounge, place them back-to-back, crease them down the middle, and arrange them on the table to the left of her drink. We would each order a drink and sit and smile at each other and talk about our days. Mostly, she would talk and I would sit and smile. We were very much in love.

That was when we were young and New York was the most electric place on earth. That was when we were both starting out in our jobs. That was before we married and before I got transferred here to Ohio by my company. My wife quit her job and never found anything she much liked, so she stayed home. Besides, I didn't think it was that necessary since I received a big raise with my transfer. And, of course, that was before I retired and just stayed put here in Ohio because New York wasn't the same as in the fifties and the Metro Cocktail Lounge was probably not there anymore. My wife always wanted to move back to New York after I retired. She might have enjoyed it, but I was certain she'd be disappointed by the changes.

After my afternoon walk in the metropark next to my house today, I just kept walking on to the little strip of stores. Dusk was coming later and later and my clock wasn't used to it. So I found myself stepping into the Cocktail Lounge when the sun was still high in the sky. I admit I felt strange and not a little guilty. It took a while for my eyes to adjust. It was nice inside. If that was what they were aiming for, they achieved it. It was very nice.

"Good day, sir. How are you today?" The host was a short man, well-dressed and neat with smoothed-back silver hair.

"I'm very well, thank you."

"May I take your jacket? Would you like a table or a booth?"

I paused for a second and started to say a table but surprised myself when my voice said, "A booth would be nice, please."

We walked past the bar and the bartender nodded at me and smiled. He wore a bright red vest and a skinny bow tie and was also very neat. There were no barstools, just tables and booths at the Cocktail Lounge. But I seem to remember that was the case with the Metro Cocktail Lounge, also.

"Betty will be with you shortly, sir. Enjoy." The host had a very sincere smile.

The place seemed more well-lighted than when I first entered. The paneling looked of solid wood, a rich dark reddish tone like cherry. There was a freshness in the air, not heavy with stale cigarette smoke, more like a hint of fresh pipe tobacco smoke. In a corner at a baby grand, a piano player played very softly, not looking at his keyboard or trying to catch the attention of a customer but looking off to some far point with a pleasant smile. I shouldn't have felt guilty by the early hour, either, because the Cocktail Lounge was half full of customers, most of them couples. Indeed, the entire clientele seemed well-dressed and very neat.

"Hello. What can I get for you today?"

This was Betty. She had a name tag on to confirm it. She wasn't young. But she wasn't as old as me.

"Well, gosh. I don't know. I guess I haven't been thinking about it."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to rush you, sir."

"No, no. Just enjoying myself. Came in on a whim after my walk."

"It's a lovely day out, isn't it?"

"Very nice. Very nice. Of course, I take two walks a day whether it's nice out or not."

"Oh, how nice for you. I always mean to, but I just collapse after work."

"Well, it's just a matter of setting a schedule and sticking to it. Of course, I'm retired now, so it's easier."

"Oh, how nice for you." Betty was plain. She looked nothing like my wife, and this place felt nothing like the bustling Metro Cocktail Lounge. Still, it seemed very nice, and Betty seemed like a very nice person.

"Well, here I am taking up your time. Let's see. I used to order a Manhattan when my wife and I would meet."

"All right. Would you like to try a Manhattan?"

"Sure. Why not? We used to meet at a place in New York before we were married."

"Oh, how nice for you."

Betty left and I sat and tapped my fingers to a tune I couldn't place. I think it was from a Broadway musical my wife and I once saw together. She loved the theater. We might have even gone to the Metro Cocktail Lounge afterwards. Betty returned with my drink.

"There you are, sir. Let me know how you enjoy it."

"So how long has this place been here? Darned if I just didn't notice it the other day walking back from the mall."

"Oh, a while, I guess. But I'm that way, too. Get to going and forget to lift my head up and notice things. It's a nice area. Do you live around here?"

"Yes, down the street. The stone ranch with the peony bushes and the three big oaks in the front yard. Next to the metropark. It won a Beauteous Citation from the board last year. Have you noticed it?"

"No. But I take the bus in. But how nice for you."

I sat and sipped my Manhattan and listened to a long medley the piano player was playing. Yes, that was it. The Manhattan tasted like I remembered it. I'd have to remember to drive out and get fertilizer this weekend. And maybe this year I should aerate. The shutters could stand scraping and painting, too. I could stay home and not walk one day and just do it. Or I could pay someone and not risk breaking my regimen. After all, you're retired, I told myself as I ate the cherry off the little plastic sword.

"Well, how was it?" asked Betty.

"Just fine. I enjoyed it."

"Can I get you another one?"

"Oh, no. I should be going. Things to do."

"Are you sure?" And Betty cocked her head in a mock-scolding manner. "I thought you said you were retired?"

I chuckled. "Oh, well. Things still need to be done."

"That's true." Betty gathered up my empty glass and placed a check in front of me. "Well, next time bring your wife for a visit."

"No, my wife's not with me anymore."

"Oh, I'm sorry."

"That's all right. Time catches up to everyone."

"Well, come again."

"Yes, maybe I will." I could make it part of my daily regimen, I thought.

I left money next to the check and got up. The bartender with the skinny bow tie and the bright red vest nodded and saluted me with a lazy index finger as I walked past. I got my jacket from the host and said good-bye. But when I stepped outside and started walking, I felt disoriented and tired. I was no longer used to cocktail hour. I walked home slowly, the sun still in the sky but lower and directly ahead of me now, setting into the sidewalk.

I could nap, but how much would that throw off my regimen? I could keep going past my house and take another walk in the park, but again, how much and for how many days would I feel the effects? To bed early, to bed early, I told myself as I shuffled home. But then I don't so much sleep anymore as listen. I've been listening for years. I started listening when my wife was still here. It was because of her that I started listening and stopped sleeping. I must have listened for her for years, afraid of what I'd hear.

I slowed my pace and concentrated on my feet and the sidewalk. I started to recognize some cracks and heaves in the pavement as I neared my house.

The longer she stayed at home after I was transferred, the more I noticed that this wasn't the same young woman I used to meet in the Metro Cocktail Lounge. On some days, I thought I detected a sweetness on her breath. I had read about the propensity towards alcoholism in nonworking women. Yet she never appeared outwardly drunk. Even when we went out to dinner she never ordered more than one or two glasses of wine. Still, I read things. And I noticed more. I watched for those moments when I would walk in on her staring out the window and wringing her hands or worse when her hands were still on her lap and the lights off. I would try to make as much loud conversation as I could, suggesting a walk in the metropark next door as if I had just realized it was there. "Be a shame to waste it. Come on, old girl!" Perhaps she was just thinking during these quiet times. But most of all I listened. I listened from my den while reading the paper or a magazine for the sound of glasses clinking or corks popping. I listened from my wood shop in the basement for cutlery being sharpened or for the fall of a kitchen chair being kicked away from under swinging feet. I listened while fertilizing the lawn for a scream from inside or a sudden, short, and final gunshot. Like I say, I read things.

I listened. But it didn't help in the end. I still listen now that she's gone, listen and don't hear anything but sleep even less.

I walk up the driveway and see a plastic bag of advertising flyers hanging on the front doorknob. Other than this, the place looks fine. The stones are still silver and white like the day I bought it. The lawn has never looked better, fuller, greener. And I keep the odd piece of litter at bay by policing all around the house two times a day: once, when I get back from the mall in the morning, the other, when I get back from the metropark in the afternoon. But today I kept going on to the Cocktail Lounge. I'm too tired to bend and stoop for a cigarette butt now.

I take the beg of advertisements from the door handle and the stack of mail from the mailbox and can see her postcard sticking out from underneath the Reader's Digest. I can never tell what day her postcard will come, only that it will every week. She has sent me many postcards since she went away. She was never the letter-writing kind. My wife sends postcards of all types of scenery and images around New York. And never the same picture twice: the Empire State Building at night, from above, from the sidewalk, in the setting sun; Rockefeller Center at Christmas, in the spring, from the rooftop gardens; the Statue of Liberty across her shoulder, looking up into her nostrils, through her spiked crown. She writes about the plays she's seen and the restaurants she's eaten in and the friends she's met.

My wife ends every postcard with "Hope you'll join me soon." I'm not sure what I'm waiting for. Maybe I'm waiting for a postcard of the Metro Cocktail Lounge before I can join her.

I let myself in the front door and let everything fall on to the foyer table. I'm tired. But it's too early to go to bed. Everything will be thrown off. And I don't like to turn on the TV before dark. Never have.

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