E
Apr/May 2001 ē Fiction

Manhattan Evening, Eighty Degrees

by Richard Hollins


"You must think Iím an absolute mutt," she says, and he looks up.

"Not at all," he replies, and those three words start the whole damned thing.

Hamilton has his place at the long, blonde wood counter. Itís a slow night, and the bar feels safe and cool. In his hand is a sweating Corona, Mexican beer, displaced like him. He isnít ready to go home.

He wishes sheíd come. He misses her, but beneath even the jagged black hole she has left in his trip to New York, is something more worrying. She hasnít answered one of his calls.

Hamilton rubs his face, feeling stubble and dead skin. Claudia wonít forget this. He imagines her coming in from wherever she has been, deleting his messages one by one from the answering machine, then calmly fetching a peppermint tea. He wonders if anyoneís with her. An eye for an eye, is her credo.

The bar is not full. Three twenty-somethings have the booth behind him, two boys with steel bolts punched through their eyebrows and a straight, Waspish girl Hamilton wants to lick whipped cream off. Two other tables are taken by couples, on their way to dinner or a show in the theater district, a minute down Broadway from this West Fifties bar. By the door, three older guys hunch over their drinks, making points with little stabs of their hands. He envies them, to have got this far with friends and certainties intact.

Hamilton crushes lime into his eighth Corona. Two stools down is a woman heís ignored for an hour. She looks his way, now and again, trying to grab his attention along the edge of the bar. If he talks to her, thereíll be consequences: heís drunk, itís unseasonably hot and itís his last night in New York. Staring ahead, he sips his drink.

But in the edge if his vision he can see her, rummaging in the cramped interior of her bag. Something keeps getting in her way. Then she finds it, a lipstick, and with her compact mirror she smears on a fresh coat. Claudia hates that, grooming in public. She thinks itís cheap. For once, Hamilton agrees with her. Cheap, he thinks. And then the woman turns to him, with a smile full of fat, white, American teeth and says, "Why wonít you talk to me? You must think Iím an absolute mutt."

He looks at her properly for the first time. She must be his age, mid-thirties, but she seems a little frayed. Her coated lips are strips of raw meat. Her hair - frankly, it scares him. A rat colored bouffant, aggressively lacquered. And the short sleeved trouser suit! Jesus Christ! Give him a woman who looks good in jeans. Give him his wife. And then he remembers that his wife is not with him, is doing God knows what with God knows whom, on the other side of that cold, cold ocean, and he thinks what harm can there be in two people conversing, lonely in a cool bar in hot New York.

"Not at all," he replies, and he turns to the barman. "Iíve had enough of this Mexican stuff. Give me something American. Mix me a cocktail."

"Cocktails!" she says. "Hey, letís have Manhattans."

She pulls her stool over, and he pays.

"Francine," she says.

"Kurt," he replies, and her eyes narrow, trying to read between the lines of his face. Even so, heís pleased with his choice. A tough name. A movie starís name.

"Kurt," she says. "That suits you. Well Iím very pleased to meet you, Kurt." And they shake. He grips her small hand and feels the bones of it. She has a pleasing handshake, firm and positive, and she gives his fingers an additional squeeze as she leans into him.

"Whereíre you from?" she says. "London?" Kurt nods. "So how are you liking New York?"

"Itís New York," he says. "Whatís not to like?" But what can he tell her? Itís like asking his opinion of breathing. He feels right in New York. He thinks of Saturday afternoon in Bryant Park, watching two sunbathers in black string bikinis, virtually naked in midtown Manhattan. Such nerve, he loves that about New York, suchÖ. chutzpah. He thinks of the bright, peaceful galleries, so bloated with culture another Picasso will make him go blind. He thinks of the view from the roof of the World Trade Center, looking out to Brooklyn and Jersey while Manhattan crawls silently a quarter mile below. He thinks of the nuthouse that is night in Times Square. Oh, he loves it, all right. New York overwhelms him. But heís too far gone to tell her any of this.

"New Yorkís great," he says. "Great."

Francine picks a cigarette from a pack on the counter. "Iíd like to be just about anyplace else," she says, blowing smoke. "Iíve had it with this town. Take me away. Take me to England." She rests her hand on his knee. "Youíll have to excuse me," she says. "Iím a little drunk."

"Me too," he replies, and with her hand inching up his thigh, he orders two more Manhattans.

An hour later, they are out in the dark and quiet of the cross-town street. Hamiltonís twitchy. Francine is fun but thereís something about her, a hint of complications. Itís there in her eyes, in the movement of her hands, in the way she draws on her cigarette and exhales. He should kiss her cheek and hail her a cab. And he would, but for one thing. Minutes before, heíd tried to phone Claudia from the back of the bar. Forty rings, and no answer. Itís 2 a.m. in London, a Tuesday morning, for Christís sake. Where is she? Whoís she with? An eye for an eye, she always says. Flurries of cabs shark past them on Broadway, dipping on their springs as they head downtown. Warm wind eddies round their clothes and hair. Hamilton is in no mood to be left alone. This is Claudiaís fault. If she were here, this couldnít be happening. He hopes her precious career is worth it.

Hamilton is still amazed by this, Claudiaís insistence on practicalities over romance, still stung that she chose to work through the weekend instead of coming with him. He knows how hard sheís worked on her project, he knows her boss has mentioned promotion, again, he knows that sheís at a critical point. But she could have spared him three days. And people have made bigger mistakes than surprising their spouse with a trip to New York. She should have been thrilled.

But Claudia was furious. "You canít go," she said. "Support me, for once. Iím serious." But Hamilton is tired of seriousness. He needs more triviality in his life.

As he leaves the bar, Hamilton wonders how itís come to this, that he and Claudia have so little in common. Heís certain itís not him thatís changed. Claudia seems to be pulling in a different direction and he feels belittled by this, put down. Where is she? What the hell is she up to? The answer, heís sure, is that thereís more to this than his trip to New York. Hamilton has new information. When Claudia didnít answer, he called her mother and sister, trying to track his wife down.

"All Iím willing to tell you," her mother said, "is that sheís not here with me."

Her sister called him a fuckhead. "You canít see whatís happening," she said. "Can you?"

Though Hamilton thinks that he can. He understands how it works Ė late nights in the office, high pressure, a deadline looming. People form bonds, things happen, spouses are cut adrift. It happens all the time. And the irony is that if he went home right now and caught her with her ankles crossed behind some hairy guyís neck, she would still have a reason why it was Hamiltonís fault. Well, he should give her something to really complain about. And so it is with a sense of righteous indignation that he steers Francine in the direction of his hotel.

Itís a pleasant stroll, a couple of blocks down Broadway. This close, Hamilton can smell her perfume and the powdery, slightly metallic tang of deodorant. As they walk he gazes up at the buildings and mentions that he loves the way New York sitcoms show off the city between scenes, that incredible skyline across the water. Francine grabs him by the hand. Itís a sign, she says, about the two of them.

"Seinfeld," she says. "I love that show. I cried for a week when it finished. A week." She shakes her head. Then her face lights up. "Hey," she says, "do you want to hear me do Kramer?" And while pedestrians veer round them, she does it right there and then. Itís the worst imitation Hamiltonís ever heard, so awful he laughs. And then Francine laughs too and that sets him off again and by the time they turn into West 54th Street, Hamilton has a pain in his ribs and Francine's supporting him, the smell of her all over his skin.

And waiting on the hotel steps is Douglas, the beautiful young doorman. No one has ever made Hamilton feel so uptight and English, so old and unnecessary. Douglas makes him jealous as hell. His face is regal, his body loose and tigerish, his manner easy with everyone. Most of all, Hamilton would love to have that ease. People Ė total strangers Ė open up to Douglas. Even Hamilton has confided why he traveled alone. And he regrets it, as they near the door. He wonít get past Douglas without a smart remark, and maybe more Ė the doorman has a bible in his pocket. Douglas smiles an unreadable smile, as he watches them approach.

"Hey!" he says. "She made it. I knew she would. This is your ravishing wife?"

"This is Francine," Hamilton says. "Sheís a friend."

"Francine! An honor!" Douglas says, and he takes her hand and kisses it, lightly. Hamilton is disappointed to see that sheís charmed.

"Better go," he says. "Catch you later, Dougie."

"Douglas, man, Douglas. You and me," he says, "we should talk." And Hamilton knows itís not about calling him Dougie. Itís part of Douglasís job, after all, to point him in the right direction.

"Sure," he says, and he tugs Francine inside, turning left for the lifts and cutting off most of the lobby. Hamiltonís pleased - he managed Douglas, this time - but he also feels vulnerable, as if any second Douglas will call him back and vilify him for this crime. And in truth he feels ridiculous, sneaking Francine into his hotel, Francine with her raw meat lips and nails chewed down to the quick. His spine feels cold and hypersensitive - watched - as they wait for the lifts.

The arrow swings slowly and Hamilton sneaks a look at Francine. Itís a sign, sheíd said. A sign of what? That she sees a future for them? Already? That canít be true, though it scares him. He remembers when he realized he had a future with Claudia. It was a simple thing. He said we. He recognized then that they were joined in a way that mattered. Lately, though, theyíve lapsed into me and you, and we is used only in questions - Where are we going wrong? What can we do about this? Itís a shame, he thinks. No. Itís more than that.

The lift clatters to the twelfth floor and spits them out. Away from the lobby, with its low retro furniture and long desk in granite and steel, the hotel is exhausted. Twenty watt bulbs hide the cracks and dents and the wearing passage of ten million feet. The bulbs are almost too weak to cast shadows. Hamilton feels a long way from the safe, bright lights of the entrance, as they fumble their way towards twelve twenty two.

He slips his card into the lock. He sees the green light and hears the confirmatory thunk and opens the door into the fetid fug of his room. The maid has turned the air conditioner off and the room is hot and thick with the smell of sweat-stiff clothes and the mousy odor of trainers heíd left under the bed. He crosses the room and snaps the a/c on. The old brown veneered unit adds its rattle to the roar of others up and down the airshaft the room looks onto. Through the window he sees the rooftop water tank, silhouetted against the New York sky. He turns and faces her. What now? Hamilton has always thought that if he reached this moment, heíd be facing someone younger than Claudia, smarter and better looking. Francine is none of these things. And then something occurs to him. He will never have sex with a woman more appealing than his wife. Still, he has to go through with this. An eye for an eye is a game for two.

Though suddenly, heís nervous as hell. Itís a long time since heís done this. His hands feel disconnected from his brain, as he opens the Kentucky bourbon theyíd bought on the way. Fetching glasses from the bathroom, he pours them two fingers each.

"Cheers," he says, and they clink glasses and swallow the whiskey down. Hamilton coughs and reaches for her glass.

"Sit," he says, "sit," and he waves at the bed, handing Francine an inch of the liquor. She giggles as she falls on the edge of the mattress and Hamilton drops on the other side. He keeps one foot on the floor. The air conditioner is working well now and as the air chills and the whiskey descends, Hamilton warms to Francine. The last light of the day is receding from the room and the near-darkness flatters her. And though she scares him, heís itchingly curious. He canít remember how another woman feels.

Francine reaches over and touches his forearm. "Are you trying to get me drunk?" she asks. "Because itíll do you no good. No good at all."

"Youíre already drunk," he replies, and he passes the bottle. She smiles, and pours them two fingers more.

"Hey," she says. "Why are you so far away? Donít you like me? Come get your drink." She pats the bed between them.

"I like you just fine," he says, "but I really need the bathroom."

He hauls himself upright and stands, swaying slightly. Francine holds out her glass. "Pour me another," she says. "Pour me a big one." He plucks the bottle from the bed and dishes out a stiff measure, landing plenty on the carpet. Then he turns for the door.

"So youíre married," she says.

He pauses, squinting against the chemical light of the bathroom. "Whyíd you say that?" he asks, over his shoulder.

"The doorman. He thought I was her."

"Heís confusing me with someone else. Iím not married." The words bounce back from the tiles. "Separated," he adds. Heís surprised by how truthful this feels.

"I am," she says.

"What?"

"Married. To Marty."

"I see," he says.

But what Hamilton sees is that tonight cannot be about Marty. Tonight is supposed to be about him. He closes the door but can still hear her, over the rattle of the air conditioner. Martyís tied up in himself. Heís afraid of emotions. And, she guesses, heís under-endowed."

"Really?" he says.

"Sure," she replies. "But what the hell do I know? Iíve only seen one." And she laughs like she canít believe it herself.

One! Hamilton's is pointing at the bowl. It doesnít look much, foreshortened. How much is she expecting? How much does she want? He feels dizzy, panicky. The strip light strobes slightly and the bathroom commences a slow, elliptical spin. He clutches the basin while Francine talks on, recounting some tale about a present Marty misunderstood.

"I wanted to try it, and Martyís never been big on that sort of thing. So as heís unwrapping it Iím laughing and kind of excited and then - BAM! - Iím on the floor and my goddamn teeth are in pieces." But Hamilton doesnít hear any more, as he empties his stomach into the lavatory bowl. When he resurfaces, Francine is silent.

He flushes, then washes his face.

Then the phone rings, twice.

Claudia.

He stumbles back to the bedroom, leaning on everything, and there is the phone, on its cradle, unanswered. Claudia must have hung up. He stares at the phone, and then, for a time, at Francine. She is naked. She has arranged herself for best effect in the soft yellow lamplight, draped half on her side and half on her back, her right hand under the pillow, and then passed out. Her body is fine, a completely unexpected bonus.

He wants her there and then.

But Hamilton sees suddenly, with absolute clarity, that heís right on the brink. He has a glimpse of the future and itís long, cold and dark, and waiting at the end, a disease that slowly crushes the breath out of him. No one will be there to hold his hand. The alternative is an endless summer of gin and tonics in the garden and family barbecues with his children whooping under a spraying hose somewhere in the middle distance. He wants a little girl like him and a boy resembling Claudia. He can be big and forgive her. They can talk and get some things off their chests. They can patch things up. But there isnít much time. He wants Francine out, before Claudia calls and his life goes through the shredder.

Bending over, he strokes Francine's arm. She doesnít stir. Her breathing is even and sheís deeply submerged. But he needs to be rid of beautiful, fuckable Francine, so he strokes her again. He sits on the edge of the bed and squeezes her bicep. He grips her by the shoulders and shakes her lightly and says, "Come on Francine. Come on." She doesnít stir. So he raises his hand. A little sting on the cheek is all thatís needed. And as he raises his hand her eyes flick open and - BAM! - something connects with his jaw and heís flat on the carpet with her heel on his chest.

That something was the butt of a gun.

Itís a gun, a real gun, and itís pointing at him. Itís the first heís seen, compact and brutally attractive, Pony Pocketlite stamped on the barrel. Francine must have slipped it beneath the pillow, a little insurance against him. And sheís mad now, screaming, purple faced, stumbling back a few steps as if she canít keep her balance.

"What the fuck are you doing Iíll blow your balls off you prick don't touch me Iím married what made you think oh you son of a bitch you bastard to think that you STAY WHERE YOU ARE...."

He freezes, one hand in mid-air, mid-crawl for the door but she really canít help it. He hears the fearsome crack, and his only thought is that heíll make every front page and news program in England. Itís the perfect story - sex, booze, guns and death in a tired hotel room in hot New York.

This crosses his mind in the time it takes the bullet to exit the Pony Pocketlite, traverse five feet, ruffle his hair and kick up clouds of plaster from the wall, which settle in his mouth and eyes.

No one comes running.

Francine lets the gun slip to the floor and Hamilton sobs quietly on the worn, dirty carpet, a noise like feedback in his ears. He must be a sight, with his face of wet streaked dust. Francine joins him, still naked, and they cry together, two lonely people in a cool hotel room in hot New York. They climb into bed and cling together all night. He doesnít sleep.

At seven he gets up and packs, Francine still sleeping, and as he pulls the door to he pauses and puts his head round the door one last time. She opens her eyes. They look at each other for a second and then she says, "Bye, Kurt." He smiles, then lets the sprung door swing shut.

Douglas is on the steps. He gives Hamilton a hooded look, full of questions and disapproval.

"Donít worry, Douglas. I never strayed."

"Man, Iím pleased to hear that. You should go home, sort things out. Need a taxi?"

Hamilton nods.

Douglas helps with the bags and Hamilton slips him the tip, still embarrassed after three days of handing out money. Douglas looks at the sky as he stuffs the note, unexamined, in his pocket.

"Looks like a hot one," he says. "Real hot."

Hamilton slides into the cab. "Douglas. See you."

"Yeah. You take care now, Martin, you take care."

 

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