Another iron-gray, drizzly day, early winter cold. It was late afternoon, before the off-work rush, when I walked into the tavern. Three men were at the bar—four if you count the bartender. But who counts them? They’re just part of the furniture, exceptions in the occupancy limits, always having a quick exit path, and most likely a baseball bat within easy reach. The building was one of those three-story clapboard glued down growths that fill gritty, big-shouldered, working-class neighborhoods. Thin face-fronted old houses lined up close together, like bricks on end waiting for the mason or the coroner. At one time, this had been a house on the corner. The corner houses were always larger. Three concrete steps took you inside to the oldness with embossed tin plate ceiling tiles, twenty coats of sloppy paint clinging to the undersides. Dark glass windows hid but the neon beckoned, shouting old school—a comfortable fit for this neighborhood of dirty shoes and stained coveralls—a proud place.
I claimed a table in the back—my preferred location in public places—against the wall, watching who came, who went. At the bar rail, a four seat separation between two of the men and the third. All three nursed heavy, clear glass mugs of draft, munching the free pretzels. Two buddies swapping stories, one stranger close enough to overhear. Two without jackets. One red plaid shirt; one green, stressed suspenders. The other, the loner, wearing a still-damp slicker dripping water, adding to the wetness beneath his stool. No intention of nesting here. From my place of late lunch, early supper, I could hear a story cranking up like a diesel train, hissing air brakes as they disengaged.
Red Plaid’s words rolled out, not caring where they landed. “I tell you it was the creepiest goddamn thing I ever experienced. I was downtown, going up to see my brother. You met him once. Got that fancy car, married that looker—works in one of the tall shiny ones, on the fifty-eighth floor. Anyway, I was in the lobby, waiting for the elevator. About five of us. I was minding my own business, you know. The doors opened, and the landers strolled out. Like the gentleman I am, I stepped in first to hold the door open. Stood by the button panel. The last guy in was talking on his phone… Had one of those hands-free rigs, ya know, like Johnny’s. Rude, I thought. ‘Floors,’ I called out. I punched in the numbers.”
The story’s volume increased, chugging forward. “The phone guy was going to the top; me, just two floors down from that. Get this, he didn’t stop talking or try to hide his conversation. ‘What did you do with the body?’ the guy said, plain as day. I mean right there in front of everyone. What did you do with the body? I mean, man, what’s that all about? Anyway, the guy listened for a bit, then said, ‘Woodchipper, good idea. No big parts. Into the river?’ I figured this guy was playing a prank or something. So, we get to the first stop. An older lady gets out and the doors shut. The next words outta this guy’s mouth were, ‘Tenth floor, old woman, flower print dress, orange, and red.’ He described the woman who just got off. I was about to lay into this guy, verbally ya know, when someone reached around me and pressed the button for the next floor. Ding! Just like that, the button pusher got off in a hurry. And, as God is my witness, the phone jerk said, ‘Eleventh floor, blue jacket, Nikes, long hair.’”
Green plaid interrupted. “What happened to those two? Did you ever find out?”
“No, never did. And it gets worse. So, one other guy and me left, besides the nut job. Next stop twenty-first floor. The other guy bowed up and told the talker to quit being a jerk, his exact words, ‘Quit being a jerk.’ Well, the talker turned on him, away from me, stared him down. I didn’t see his face, but it musta been something. The other guy backed down, quick like, looked up, watched the numbers change, stepped as far from that kook as possible. I’d taken up position, ya know, thought he coulda taken him, woulda helped if it came to that, ya know, restrain this nut. Nothing but silence, dead fucking silence until we got to the twenty-first floor. The last guy hurried out. As he did, the talker held the door-open, told the guy at the other end of his call, ‘Special pickup, twenty-first floor, a deader.’ Then this guy leans outta the elevator, all crisp and casual-like. Pulls a gun and shoots down the hallway. Left-handed. I heard a thump, a thud. Sounded just like on TV when a body drops. Then the guy pushes door-close, turns to me and says, ‘Don’t do anything stupid fella.’ He called me fella. Damn, he called me fella. Then he put the gun back in a shoulder holster. Now ya know, this had all happened in a minute or so since we left the lobby, not that I was timing it. Not enough time for the cops to respond to the first lady getting off if there was even anything to respond to.”
“What did ya do?”
“I tell ya, got my hackles up, stood toe to toe with him, not going down without a fight. I figured being close in, he’d have trouble getting his gun out.” The story paused. Red Plaid took a long draw on his mug, set it down, licked the foam from his lips, continued. “Well, the guy pushed me away. He was stronger than he looked. Pulled his gun, pointed it right at me. I was looking down the barrel. It looked huge, ya know.” Red made a gun shape with his left hand, pointing at Green.
Green Plaid demanded, “How did you get away?”
Red took another swallow, held his mug chest-high between them, swiveled on his barstool. “I didn’t. The guy shot me dead.”
Green roared with laughter. “Fuck you, Danny! Good one, buddy, good one. You gotta tell that to Ernie, and I wanna watch.”
As the men’s merriment fell away, their fellow barstool rider pulled his ivy cap down, flipped up his collar, unsaddled, and moved toward the door, lightly brushing his hand against the backs of Red and Green. A few seconds later, I followed him out. I’d been tracking him all day; knew he would be in a foul mood. He doesn't care for people making light of his profession. No, Death doesn’t like that. Not one bit.