Beer and Confession
by John O'Toole
The false warmth of Indian Summer always struck me as stuffily oppressive, like being locked in a closet for three weeks. That was about how long the temperature had held in the seventies that autumn, I in my grey winter coat -- "The Old Lady Special," as my sister Alice called it -- on my way from our apartment building on Lakewood over to the Broadway and Rosemont bus stop to meet her that evening on her way home from work, the two of us having planned to pick up some groceries at the Jewel Food Store for supper. Our little shopping cart squealed and rattled behind me as the trees on Lakewood, then east along Rosemont, stirred and rasped like plump women on a crisp, blue bedsheet. The buildings, mostly two-flats, mostly grey or brown, with an occasional white streak or colored facade shocking as vandalism. Grass gowing up through cracks in the sidewalks like stuffing from a mattress, groped by rusty dead leaves. The walks warped and badly cracked; someday someone would break a hip or an ankle, and THEN perhaps they would fix them. Tricycle rolling riderles down an incline as I passed it. Too much greenery for early November. Bursting out of gangways, stone planters, even windows. Reminded me of MEN, with their hairy ears and nostrils.
Approaching the bus stop that miserably balmy afternoon, I wondered what sort of scandalously flirtatious anecdote my vamp of a sister would regale me with that night. Boy-crazy, that one. Always had been. Wonder she had never gotten married and abandoned me. Or at least "shacked up," as the kids say these days. That Alice was a virgin like myself I had no doubt. But honestly, the way that gal carried on, batting those false eyelashes and swiveling those fifty-nine year old Wonder Bread-hips of hers, her "flower," if you will, would not survive to see sixty.
As I reached the corner that evening she was yelling something decidedly gay and feckless at the driver on her giggly-jiggly way off the bus. Why on earth she thought herself God's gift to men was God's own guess because, apart from my freakish height and Frankenstein brow, the woman looked just like me. Same bug-eyes, same hook-nose and throw pillow-lips (Black Irish, we were, a bit of Arab in the mix), and don't you know that Alice didn't know it down deep? Underneath the mascara, the rouge, the slasher movie-lipstick, the ridiculously kinky hairdo that made her look like someone had dropped a curling iron into her bath. Underneath the beauty parlor glam, Alice knew that we both looked like the old maids we were, and, I might add, deeply resented the fact.
Though you wouldn't have known it that evening, the two of us waddling on over to the Jewel, shopping cart in tow like a whiny child, Alice babbling endlessly about her latest whorish carryings-on, this time with the bus driver, a "nice colored fellow" who, having succumbed (as they all do) to her pouty, perfumed, eyelash-batting charms, had told her his entire life history -- born to Mississippi sharecroppers, hitchhiked to Chicago, worked lugging cow carcasses at the Union Stockyards, landed the bus driver job, now studying refrigeration repair at night school -- all this while my sister's big, fat, corn-fed buns had blocked the front exit, forcing fellow passengers to bang on the busted rear door.
After this recounting, however, (a temporary respite in her recent, scary, utterly uncharacteristic low spirits), Alice fell silent, grim as the banker's-grey suit on a corpse. Didn't much care what we picked up for supper, which I felt personally felt as something of a betrayal, as she knew full well that I, my chronic unemployment fating me to a life of soap operas and forbidden cigarettes (the grey plastic patch on my left eye -- glaucoma -- a harbinger of strokes to come) so very much looked forward to our suppers together. Alice the cook, though that night, like so many others of late, she would no doubt not be whipping up her yummy corn fritters or pounding her chicken-fried steak with a hammer (upper arms vibrating like shimmying sea cows), so that I would have to rely on my admittedly beloved Stouffer's Welsh Rarebit, or chipped beef on toast. I was certain that Chef Alice was in no mood for haute cuisine that night when, the two of us emerging from the Jewel, shopping cart laden with an extra sixpack of Canadian Ace and a carton of Salems for the poor gal, she announced through pouting lips that she had something to confess to me, and would do so after supper, a third can of beer under her belt, a Salem Long protruding from her Black Irish kisser.
Approaching our building, I was suddenly overcome with a panicky need-to-know NOW. I mean, Lord save us, what on earth WAS it? Had she lost her job? Bad news from the doctor? Had something awful happened to our little nephew Mikey (whose overnighters the both of us so ardently looked forward to, the young scamp watching fifties science fiction movies at two O'Clock in the morning and sneakily playing with himself beneath the quilt on our Inflatabed). But Alice was resolute about the precise timing of her earth-shaking announcement, and so in we went, on aching feet, the two of us, into our narrow, brownbrick triplex with the greenery-choked planters and the cracked and peeling, grime-white window trim, the homey abode sandwiched like a slender gal between two limestone bruisers full of rowdy neighbors we had never had the slightest inclination to meet.
Much to my surprise, the minute she hit the kitchen, the old gal got her pots and pans out and started in on her famous beef stew. Not for that evening's supper, mind you; the requisite three hours of simmering would have left us both famished. Simply for something to do, I concluded, something to take her mind off her troubles, off the big expose that would soon regurgitate forth from those frankfurter-lips of hers. Either that or as background to its necessary premise, which turned out to be quite lengthy as she thwacked up an onion, diced up tomatoes, hacked away at carrot sticks and floured up the stew meat. Yours truly seated demurely at our oilcloth-covered kitchen table, a Zwiebach at the ready for dunking in my decaf, my ears yawning wearily at the umpteenth retelling of the Saga of Billy O'Boyle.
Billy, the new serviceman at Manson Monotype, a greasy, pimply-faced moron, shirt untucked, belly smeared with donut jelly or egg yolk or God-knew-what, who was constantly monopolizing Mr. Hillman's time, Hillman their boss, Alice his executive secretary, Billy stretching out on Hillman's desk - on his DESK - with a toothache or a belly ache or his latest imagined slight from the foreman of this or that printing plant whose monotype machine he, Billy, had been sent to repair. Even Mr. Hillman admitting that Billy usually left the damn machines in worse shape than he'd found them in. An admission that, coming from Mr. H., was truly astounding, considering all the bullflop he'd put up with from Billy, which had led Alice and several of her coworkers to conclude that the young serviceman must have been Mr. H.'s illegitimate son from a secret liason with one of the gorillas at Lincoln Park Zoo.
The stew meat was sizzling on the skillet when Alice finally joined me at the table for a Salem. And a before-dinner beer, most unusual for her. I dunked my Zwiebach into my lukewarm coffee. A sodden corner of the luscious toast broke loose and landed on the front of my sweater. I was picking it off when my sister told me something that I at first mistook for the Big Revelation itself. She told me, in words as well as worried little menthol smoke signals, that her stubby little fingers had just that past week typed the wrong sales figures into Mr. Hillman's monthly report to the Home Office in Philadelphia. An error which might well have gotten Hillman chewed out quite roundly, if not fired, had it not been for Alice's meticulous proof-reading, after which she had made the dumb mistake of leaving the report on her desk, her intention, of course, to retype it after lunch. Well, as luck would have it, who should come along during our gal's lunchbreak but snoopy old Billy O'Boyle, who, after going through Alice's files, no doubt in search of angry letters about his so called "service calls," happened to come across the faulty sales report and, with the eagle eyes of the severely subnormal, caught the grievous errors and tucked the letter inside the torn inner pocket of his ill-fitting red and white-checked Sears sports jacket. Not only that, he then proceeded to find and destroy the notes she had used, in Mr. Hillman's own chicken scratch, so that should Alice turn down Billy's subsequent offer to return the letter to her in exchange for her "favors," she would be unable to retype the letter with corrections.
And though poor Alice did not at that time reveal to me whether or not she had taken Billy up on his blackmail proposition, the mere though of my dear sister, vamp though she was, caught in such a horrible situation, robbed me of any appetite I might have had left that evening after dunking three quarters of a box of Zwiebachs. So that each savory chunk of flour-browned beef, if such had been our dinner rather than canned spaghetti on toast, would have ended up squeezing down my hypersensitive gullet like a big greasy gob of stewed rat meat. How heavenly that first after-dinner beer tasted, its soothing bubbles blasting open my sorely impacted esophagus as we sat on our itchy purple sofa that night, the flowers printed on our wallpaper harshly exposed by the TV light like faux-innocent faces caught in flagrante, as it were, in a motelroom.
Alice so intent on chugging beer that once or twice she forgot to removed the Salem from underneath her big Saudi Arabian nose and had to light a fresh one.
"So DID you?" I finally blurted out, no longer able to contain the raging horror in my soul.
"Did I what?" said Alice.
"Did you...did you take him up, I mean, on his offer?"
"Uh huh. I did indeed. In the stockroom after lunch." About to pop another can of Canadian Ace, my sister thought better and set it aside. She then proceeded to spend an infuriating five minutes or so staring at "CSI: Miami" on our old Zenith console. Then, muttering something that sounded like "Lord, help me," she fished from her crimson bathrobe her cut-crystal rosary (the closest thing to diamonds she would no doubt ever own). "His breath smelled of tunafish salad," she announced.
I turned off the TV. We sat in the dark, smoking our Salems and drinking our beer. A balmy night gust whipped the trees against our windows, against the wall behind the sofa. Sounded like an angry mob attempting to break in. I would, of course, still nag her about being such a hussy. Somehow, though, it would never be the same.
About the author:
After living most of his life in Chicago, the location of many of his stories, John O'Toole moved to Los Angeles, where he is now Cataloger of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Southern California. He studied playwrighting at Chicago Dramatists Workshop, where three of his plays were staged. He has had or will have stories appearing in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Wild Violet Magazine, and Muse Apprentice Guild, in which his novel "Loftus" is currently being serialized. His poems have been published in numerous journals here and in Ireland.