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Closing Time, Closing Day


Charlie Hudson

Edith, who never considered herself to look like an Edith, would have gone by her middle name except that it was Priscilla. Her mother, having been christened Beatrice Gertrude, had seen no reason her only daughter should have been spared the tradition of combining grandmothers’ names. Edith had neither daughter, nor any immediate prospect of daughter, yet was certain she would have the moral courage when the time to at least consider something in the current century.

On the other hand, the letter she’d memorized was, if not ample proof of tenuous moral courage, at least an indicator that she could be swayed in taking a stand.  Was capitulating to money much different from upholding silly family expectation?

Fancy letterhead, good paper stock, a formal correspondence to match an electronic notice that would be posted prior to close of business. We are pleased to announce the promotion of Ms. Edith P. Taylor to Vice President of Operations for the Atlantic Region. Ms. Taylor……

Delicious words, words she’d sacrificed nights and weekends for, words she deserved. She laid the letter down on the surface of the desk that was soon to be replaced along with the rest of the furniture. Her appointment with the interior decorator was set for Tuesday. Naturally no one expected her to maintain the old décor; a lavish refurbishment was one of several perks in addition to a healthy income boost. Vice President of Operations. And all she had to do for it was support a boss she despised, who sucked up to a boss she loathed, in a company that she disliked on more days than she didn’t.

“Ms. Taylor, I have Mr. Hernandez on Line One and if there’s not a problem, I’ll be leaving at five today.” The efficient voice of her administrative assistant efficiently broke through Edith’s musing.

She pressed the intercom button. “Thank you, Claire. Go ahead and switch to voice mail.  I’m not staying much later. ” Anyone who was important would dial her direct line, ring through to her cell, or pop up on her Blackberry.  Ah, the electronic chains of today’s busy executives. Perhaps the new toys that came with her elevated position were a better indicator of her status than a leather designer sofa.

The building would quiet early, in acknowledgement of Friday and multi-million dollar deals successfully closed earlier in the week. She strolled into her private powder room and made only minor adjustments to minimal makeup she wore. A tiny bit of  shadow to highlight sable eyes, not so much as a brushstroke to her flawlessly cut pageboy. She smoothed out her linen blend suit skirt and unbuttoned the top of her teal and cream striped silk blouse.

Part of her end-of-day ritual, whether daylight or pushing midnight, was to relish her seventh floor Bay view. She peered across the Harbor, then down to see the power elite that inhabited a mere one floor above her trickling out, luxury sedans idling with valet attendants holding doors open. She was still self-parking, albeit in a freshly painted, designated spot only two slots from the elevator. Not that she bothered to drive today. It was her favorite time of year – late September, sultry heat dissipated, messy winter weather months away. She loved the two block walk from her oversized loft apartment and often didn’t need her car for days at a time. A long expanse of revitalized urban life, all the necessities close by now that a Whole Foods Market replaced an aged furniture store.

Edith murmured goodnight to the security guard on her way out, passed the entry to her apartment building to cross into the section where renewal lagged behind. Dry Cleaners, bakery that closed each afternoon at two, scents of cinnamon floating out every morning at five a.m., Real Estate Office, and her destination. Mack’s Skipjack. Faded red brick façade and a wooden sign mounted on a cast iron bracket. The sign, with the trademark vessel floating on blue water, gold lettering arched around it was carefully restored periodically. It had been hung by the original owner, Skipjack Mack, Senior, and was purported to be made from a salvaged scrap of the Mary Grace.  Electric beer signs decorated large windows flanking the heavy front door.

“I may be getting too old for the sea, but I’ve plenty of whiskey days left,” was allegedly what he’d said when he, his brother, and young Mack, but not his beloved boat, survived a fire and spent nearly a day clinging to wreckage in the Chesapeake. Others said it was inadequate insurance to recover his losses, and the truth was probably somewhere in between. The result was a bar that anchored the corner, the kind of place where beer taps were topped with medallions rather than cutesy figures and martinis, when rarely ordered, were served in whiskey tumblers. Plank floors were darkened from decades of wear and no tablecloths adorned gouged and nicked square tables.  The big mahogany U-shaped, mirrored bar had allegedly been won by Mack Senior in a poker game.

“Edith, you gorgeous woman, you’re almost early.”

Russell called across chatter and music from a juke box that was older than Edith.  “Beer, wine, bourbon?”

She wove through knots of regulars, smiling greetings. A man whose name she couldn’t immediately remember slid over one stool to give her room without stopping his conversation with Christie from the bank down the street.

“Thanks,” Edith said anyway. “Cabernet, please Russell.”

“Coming right up,” he said with a smile. “How’s it going?”

“Good, really good.” Edith watched his hands, big hands to match his shoulders, hands that were better suited to grasping cases of beer than tapping on a computer.  At not quite six feet, his bulk was solid, not paunchy like Mack. Close cropped black hair with sprinkles of gray, burnt umber eyes that took in more than casual observers would think and an unerring ability to know when a person should be allowed to drink silently or offered a listening ear were much of what made Russell a bartender as they were meant to be. Hard enough to take no shit and possibly more understanding of human behavior than most practicing therapists.

He pushed a bowl of peanuts and another one of pretzels within her reach as he set her glass on a napkin. “Hey Drew, got a lady I want you to meet.” He raised his voice to attract the attention of someone wedged among a cluster of people from the office building half a block away.

Her immediate, “Oh no,” faded into, “Hmm…” when Drew extricated himself.  

Light brown hair cut rather than styled, slender, but broad enough shoulders, dark gray slacks, sky blue shirt and a loosened tie in swirled blues. Green eyes with short, thick lashes looked at her directly, his hand extended.

“Drew  O’Neill.” A nice smile, firm, polite shake. He held an almost empty beer glass in his ring-less, left hand.

“Edith is a great gal, works in that building you helped design when you were starting out.” Russell expertly pulled beer from four of six taps, not rushing dark Guinness that required a slower fill.

“You’re with Dynamic Solutions?” He put one foot on the black iron foot rail and leaned against the bar, his body angled toward her. Nice cologne and faint crinkled lines around his eyes. Her guess was late thirties.

She nodded. “And you’re an architect?” She swung sideways to face him, keeping the unspoken space of two people who aren’t sure yet how the conversation will progress.

“He’s a homeboy,” Russell interjected. “Terrific lacrosse player, too. He was just learning how to swing a stick when we moved into the neighborhood. Good to have you back, Drew.” Russell winked before he moved to a group signaling for refills.

“Yes to being an architect and as you can tell, I’ve know Russell a long time. Well, Mack and his family, too.” He glanced around. “I see he got the extra space he wanted.”

“That must have happened before my time. I’ve been coming here for almost two years. I live at Chadwick Lofts and found Mack’s when I was scouting the streets.”

“Great investment if you got in early, good now, too. Would you like another wine?”  

“Not yet, thank you.”

Drew beckoned Russell, settled onto a now vacant stool and pointed to the adjoining room. “The pool tables used to be in here. Old Mr. Solowski had a watch repair shop next door for decades. Little old guy, ran it by himself. Story was he was the only family survivor from World War II. Closed up every day at five, came here, drank two shots of whiskey and went home to a dinky room. Mack never charged him and he never had more than two drinks. Promised to sell Mack the space when the time came. I guess he was good to his word.”

“Sounds like you know the history.” She was trying to identify his cologne. Nothing designer and subtly enticing.

“Second youngest of five boys, no girls in the family. Ma got tired of us underfoot and would send us along. Said Pa was here often enough, that we might as well be, too. Mack Senior was still around then, telling stories, bitching about the Colts sneaking away in the dead of night. I learned to shoot pool, quote baseball stats, had many a bowl of crab soup and of course my first beer. Birthday parties, other celebrations.” He tipped his fresh glass at Russell. “Lot of memories and I’m sure going to miss it.”

Edith was surprised at Drew’s comment and the bartender’s face flashed dismay before he shrugged, recaptured an amiable look and turned at a customer’s hail.

Edith cocked her head, a gesture she knew would sweep her hair across one shoulder. “Excuse me?” Hardly brilliant repartee.

Drew shifted, a look similar to Russell’s, quickly gone in that male way that meant, This bothers me, but I’ll act like it doesn’t.  “Mack and Viv are finally moving to Eastern Shore. Most of their neighborhood is being bought up to make space for a couple of buildings like you’re in. I’m the lead on it.”

“Mack’s selling?” Christ, was she not able to string an intelligent sentence together?

“Yeah. They have two daughters and neither one was interested in the business. The oldest is a dentist in Annapolis and their youngest teaches school in Easton. An old cottage near there has been in Viv’s family for maybe three generations. She’s got big renovation plans and Mack is going to do a lot of it himself.” Drew mimicked Russell’s shrug. “They’ve worked hard – time for those golden years.”

“He has a buyer? Not someone who’s interested in keeping the place? It seems to be profitable.” Edith wasn’t sure why she’d lowered her voice.

Drew swept his hand. “It’s not trendy enough for what’s going on. You’ve seen it – a three block radius is making way for new things. If I remember correctly an investment group is buying. If they keep it as a restaurant, I imagine they’ll turn it into a sushi bar or something. The structure is sound, but other than the addition and whatever he’s done to keep the kitchen to code, it’s not much different than when I was a kid. ”

He gave her an appraising look. “To be honest, you seem a bit upscale to be a regular. And I mean that in the nicest way possible,” he added warmly.

Edith laughed. “I do clean up well.” He raised an eyebrow in that way she could never quite manage. “I grew up in Tennessee, always wanted to see the East Coast. Scholarships don’t cover all the expenses and I worked at a place very much like this while I was in college. Wonderful couple own it – still keep in touch with them. I admit I don’t bring clients here though.” 

He nodded, then leaned in closer, his arm not quite touching hers. Definite electricity. “Listen, it’s been great talking to you, but I’ve got a thing tonight that I can’t really back out of. Would you be interested in dinner tomorrow night?”

Edith took another sip before she smiled. It was a smile guaranteed to put him at ease. Victory cocktail party at her boss’s tomorrow. Granted, it was, in all likelihood, an excuse for his pretentious wife to let it be known she’d engaged the best caterer and show off whichever designer dress she recently purchased, yet despite that it wasn’t something she could cancel. “Unfortunately I have an obligation.” She rewarded his evident disappointment. “If you don’t mind dining late, I can break away by nine.”

“Do I pick you up or would it be easier for you to meet you somewhere?”

He got points for an immediate response. “Pick me up at my place. Let’s make it 9:15 to be on the safe side.” She scribbled her home phone on the back of a business card.

“If The Brass Horse is okay with you they’re open until midnight. If you’re running late, it won’t matter. Just call my cell and I’ll adjust timing.”

The Brass Horse? Nice taste, good choice. “I like a man who thinks ahead,” she said instead and took his card without checking at it.

 “Great, I’ll see you tomorrow.” Russell appeared much too quickly to have not heard the exchange. Drew ignored Russell’s attempt to refuse his money and flicked a two finger salute before he left. “Take it easy, Big Guy and give my love to Barb.”

The bartender’s smug look was potentially forgivable. She’d see how the date went. “Really nice fella and he’s done well for himself. Never had time for a wife, if you can believe, it a good catch like him.”

Edith delivered a non-verbal warning and he changed subjects. “Hey, you hungry?  Bet you ate at your desk again, didn’t you? A yogurt or bag of trail mix?”

“Actually, I had a regular lunch today,” she said, breathing hot oil smells from the small kitchen. “A bit of a celebration with a couple of co-workers.” She took the last sip of wine.

“You got promoted,” Russell said. “That VP job. Good for you and that calls for a drink on the house.” He was pouring before she could say no.

When had she mentioned the possibility of promotion? No doubt one night when she’d dragged in late, not ready to be alone, not wanting the clamor of frenetic, in places. The evenings when she needed familiarity of a neighborhood bar, softened light, old tunes since Mack’s view was if you didn’t like fifties and sixties music, you could go somewhere else.  

“Big bowl of crab soup and a fresh roll, then,” he said. “Take the edge off and not too heavy.”

“Sure,” she heard herself say as the after work crowd started drifting out. A handful of people would come in for dinner, another dozen regulars would stop by for pool, for drinks, for whatever sports game would be tuned in on the single wall-mounted television. Unless there was a party group, nights were light enough for the single waitress to handle the tables and to have elbow room at the bar. Hums of conversation, perhaps a bit more information about everyone’s personal life than Edith needed, exchanges of social nosiness that were given and taken in perspective. No doubt Russell would spread news of her promotion.

Sure going to miss this place. Drew wasn’t the only one.

“Funny, ain’t it?” Russell leaned on his forearms after casting an eye to ensure no one needed fresh drinks. “When Mack brought me in here, I’d been downsized from my job about six months, didn’t know what I wanted to do. I’d gotten a decent severance and Mack asked me to give him a hand when Viv got tired of tending bar, doing the books and keeping up with the house. I’d been coming in for years and didn’t know how I’d like it on this side. Now I’m serving second generation like Drew.” Nostalgia laced his words. “They were a lively bunch. His dad, Patrick, was a good man. He passed on about four years ago and we had a hell of a wake for him. Guess that was the last time I saw Drew. He’s been over in St Louis, I think. His brothers drop in pretty regularly.”

“Is Mack’s selling soon?”

The flash of cloudiness lingered longer, but she would have missed it had she not been watching closely. “Pretty close. Got to hammer out a few more details. Mack was willing to take a lower price to let me have it.” He shifted and glanced toward the kitchen. “Wonder what’s keeping your soup?”

Edith waved her hand. “I’m not in a hurry.” She hesitated. “You aren’t ready to own?”

He smiled wryly. “Timing is everything, as they say. You know that in your business. Can make a deal in a minute, can lose an opportunity if you’re not quick enough. We had extra bills the last few years what with getting the kids in and out of college, usual stuff with house repairs, had to finally replace my truck. Barb and I decided we’re too far along in life to be taking on debt.” The kitchen bell dinged. He straightened. “That’ll be yours.”

He returned with a heavy white bowl, a crusty roll nestled onto the plate, a pack of tiny crackers on the side. “Viv’s recipe is still one of the best in the city,” he said.

Edith stirred rich red broth, chunks of crab and vegetables melded together with a balance of spices. Mack’s menu was limited, a handful of items intended to satisfy hunger. Chili would be added soon, burgers, sandwiches and a crab cake platter always available. She suddenly remembered a discussion Russell and Mack engaged in about a raw bar.

“Wouldn’t be hard. Don’t need more than oysters, clams and shrimp.”

“Stinks everything up and draws cats, you don’t keep on top of it,” Mack had said. “Long as we got crab, that keeps people happy.”

A trio of older men came in and settled close to the television after nodding hello. Stubby, Red, and Whit – Edith never heard them give an order and Russell set glasses in front of them from long habit, one draft beer, a whiskey of some kind and a Budweiser – bottle only, no glass.

She savored the soup, mentally reviewing her closet for what to wear tomorrow. Not basic black. Her new crimson V-neck pencil dress and the vintage flowered wrap she’d found in Miami would be perfect. Simple accessories, either gold or ebony. The short conversation with Drew showed promise. God, it had been weeks since she’d been out for anything other than business or a social gathering. Oh certainly, she’d met eligible men invited by well-meaning friends. Marginally entertaining, no real sparks, no intention beyond a vague, Maybe we’ll get together sometime. A couple of long distance affairs hadn’t survived her brutal schedule and the last guy she’d considered to have possibility also turned out to be separated instead of divorced as he’d led her to believe.  

“I’ll get that out of your way. Have an extra wine tonight and enjoy the calm. Once people find out we’re closing, it’s liable to get crowded.”

“Give me some ice water, too,” Edith said, a stab of loss pricking her thoughts. No more Mack’s. A franchise if a restaurant. If it was a group buying, that would be their focus. Drew was right – extension of the neighborhood facelift could begin on this corner. Ah well, it was the world of business.

 “Russell, I don’t mean to pry, but if you could swing it, would you want this place?” She asked the question carefully. You never knew how someone would react when it came to money.

He poured her refill and added a lemon wedge to the water as he tried to disguise a tone she’d heard dozens of times – the moment when someone capitulated in hard bargaining.

“Barb and I talked about it a lot after Mack told us. It seems a shame to let it go and I know the business inside and out. Problem is that Mack’s dragged his feet on some things like upgrading the ventilation system, replacing the refrigerator upgrading the ventilation system, replacing the refrigerator. Nothing overwhelming, but it adds up.  Our nest egg isn’t enough to cover everything. We’d be looking at fifty thousand over what we’ve got minimum, could be as high as eighty. We take on that kind of debt and one slump could put us in a trick.” He wagged his head. “I can’t ask Mack to lower his price beyond what he offered. Rumor is the group buying it is going to put in one of those fancy coffee joints.”

“Hey Russell, need another round when you get a chance,” Stubby called out.

He lifted his big hands in a what-are-you gonna-do motion “Ah, what the hell. It’s been a good run. Better take care of the boys before they get rowdy.”

 Edith swiveled her stool, taking in the room. Fifty to eighty thousand, barely pocket change in deals her company made. An unreachable amount to Russell. Not much more than the price of the Mercedes convertible she’d targeted as soon as she knew the promotion was in her grasp. Color and model was where she was stuck – silver, black or white – the CLK or SLK? Visiting the showroom was on her priority list. Sauntering in to buy a high-end car helped rationalize staying in an organization she no longer cared for.

Come on, if she was being honest, she’d never cared for Dynamic Solutions. She was firmly implanted in a small, entrepreneurial company where bureaucracy was kicked aside in favor of nimble movement and suits were seldom worn. In their success, they came to the attention of big companies always prowling for acquisitions. She couldn’t really blame her boss when he revealed the rather obscene figure Dynamic Solutions tossed to him. He and his wife bought a horse farm in Cecil County, not a single employee was fired, and when the transition team urged her to accept an immediate raise as well as dangled upward mobility, she’d planned for it to be temporary – just until she found something better. Something smaller, more personal, less corporate. The perks though, weekly reviews of which multi-million and billion dollar contracts to pursue, and routine introductions to other Fortune 500 members.   Now, a VP. Why would she walk away? After all, her second career could be the fun one.

Laughter burst from Stubby, Red and Whit – Russell in on whatever the joke was. A trio of old friends, a burly bartender, a retreat as comfortable and worn as a pair of favorite jeans.

She pivoted again, silently calculating, trying to make sure her math skills weren’t being affected by wine. No, she wasn’t befuddled by booze, euphoric due to her promotion or mellowed by the prospect of an intriguing man. Her brain was functioning properly. She pulled a pad from her purse, wrote, “Buy a drink for the boys,” tore the sheet out and covered a $100 bill that she secured with the empty glass.

Edith waved to Russell and the room in general, music and conversation fading as she tugged the door open and stepped outside. She walked less than a hundred feet, dimmed windows of closed shops on this street contrasting with glowing florescence and traffic sounds across the far intersection. She paused, pivoted slowly and studied the Mack’s Skipjack sign pooled in light, satisfaction washing through her. She would come around early afternoon, sit down with Russell and negotiate a silent partnership.  After all, every VP had an expensive car – how many could claim part ownership of a great bar? She turned toward her building, smiling. Maybe she and Drew would drop by late for a drink tomorrow night and help close up.

The End