Malkin’s known Johnny all his life, but until today he’s never heard a word about Daisy.
It was always the same. Dingy orange light filtering through the windows, bent and twisted by the warped glass panes, the haze of cigarette smoke hanging in the air. Last strains of some old song fizzling out on the jukebox. Another dawn creeping up on a sleeping world and its weary inhabitants, waiting to pounce.
“Still here, Johnny?” Malkin, the grizzled old bartender, leaned on the sticky faux-wood countertop, a damp rag in hand. To look at him, one might say he was fifty or sixty – greying hair, tired eyes, wrinkles etched deep around the corners of his eyes and mouth. Not a happy mouth, that one. He wore his age like a shell, an armoured crustacean living in the intertidal zone between waking and sleeping, doling out intoxication to dull the world’s ills. By contrast, what could be seen of his companion, still perched dolefully on a barstool, appeared young. Tidy hair a deep auburn colour, thick fingers calloused and rough where they rested on workman’s jeans. Tiniest bit of stubble, but his eyes…
Malkin had seen lots of eyes in his time, both as a bartender and as a small boy trailing after his father’s apron strings. He remembered Johnny’s eyes, deep as the sea and black as ink, from as far back as his memory stretched, and his father had said Johnny had been there when he was a boy. ‘Course, that was way back when the bar catered to the workers and the dockmen – now Johnny would have looked out of place amongst the business suits and pencil skirts, if anyone could have seen him.
“Yeah. Seem to be.” Thick fingers tapped soundlessly on the wood. Malkin turned back to the bar, wiping it down with slow, steady strokes. Everyone was staggering off to bed or starting to stir from their dreams, but he was just winding down in the in-between time before the day got started. Just him and Johnnny and the stacks of glasses glittering on the drying racks.
“Anything new happening?” It was an old question; sometimes Johnny remembered things. Sometimes…
Malkin watched as the huge man heaved himself to his feet, the last dregs of the smoke undisturbed by his passage. He ambled over to the door, pace the slow, steady gait of one trying to make sure their feet connected with the ground even though their head was fogged with booze, and paused as his hand passed through the doorknob.
“I can’t leave?” The deep rumble of his voice lacked any violence; no matter how much he remembered, Johnny never seemed surprised to be dead, even on a bad day.
“But I need to get home. I should have…” He paused, his voice plaintive.
“I know, pal. Alice is waiting for you.”
“Alice…? No. Daisy.” Malkin frowned, hiding his face by ducking down to sort clean glasses under the bar. Never heard that name before.
“Daisy?” Alice, now, Alice Malkin knew. Or, at least, had heard of. Johnny talked about her a lot on bad days, although never much when he was lucid. Childhood sweethearts, schoolyard crushes and romance and a pretty little wedding with cheap bands. Drinks, on both sides, but passion like fire.
“Sure, Daisy. Prettiest thing this side of the river. Heck, probably in the whole county. Eyes like the ocean and black ringlets gonna make your heart melt. And her smile…” Johnny had drifted back to the bar, leaned on it with a ghostly elbow. He stared dreamily at a point just above Malkin’s head. “Ain’t nothing sweeter than that smile.”
He couldn’t help himself. “What about Alice?”
Johnny’s mouth twisted momentarily. “She’s… doing fine, I guess.” Black eyes focussed on his calloused hand, and he turned it this was and that as if trying to see it from every angle. The light steaming through the windows passed straight through, casting no shadow on the veneer. “How long…?”
A shrug. “Don’t know for sure. Longer than I’ve been alive.”
“Maybe not doing so well then. Dasiy, though… Hope she’s done fine for herself.” The silence stretched between them. “It’s her birthday tomorrow. Or today.”
“Oh? Going to get her something nice?”
“Not much I can afford, to be honest. It’s… not a good time. And…” Johnny looked around, eyes flitting from the brass light fittings to the ornate wallpaper and plush upholstered benches. “Shouldn’t be here at all. Can’t be affording it… although at least I ain’t affording it now. Cost enough when it was sailors and shantymen in here, not high-faluting folks. Is there some way to get me home?”
“Not that I know.”
“Thought as much. But I’ve got to get back… Or, I hope I got back. For her birthday. I’d made her a charm, a good luck charm to wear as a necklace.”
“I’m sure she loved it, Johnny.”
“Alice never… Ah, no, gotta not think about that. That’s over.”
“Over?” Malkin hung up his apron, surveyed the bar. Aside from Johnny’s insubstantial form sitting at the bar, the place was empty and spotless. Still smelled of smoke and stale alcohol, but short of burning the place to the ground there was no getting rid of that. “She left you?”
“I left her.” Johnny frowned, as if the words were unexpected. “Yeah… Yeah, I did. She… She hit Daisy. Ain’t no-one treating my baby like that.” His hands clenched and unclenched on the counter, a small muscle working by his jaw. Malkin waited silently as the sun rose, light turning from orange to white through the windows.
“Hope I got home in time.” Malkin sighed. He probably wouldn’t get any more out of Johnny; he sometimes fixated like this, looping around and around on a topic like water circling a drain.
“I’m headed home, Johnny. See you later.” Johnny raised a hand in an absentminded farewell, muttering about getting home under his breath.
As he closed the door, Malkin heard Johnny say “Gotta get home; fifth birthday’s a big one. Gotta be there for my little girl.”
“I hope you made it home, Johnny.”