I finally have my own contracting outfit, Elite Edge Electrical. I’m doing well. I specialize in strip malls. I labor up and down the east coast. I did stray after a fellow named Phil Blaine I met at a Dayton, Ohio convention who needed help with some projects. His punctuality reputation was in danger. I got him back on schedule. My crew put in some long hours. On the last day on a site near the University of Findlay, I stop at a bar called The Pub Jeb Costello. Blue felt covers the pool table. Intricate woodwork borders the mirror, gargoyle at middle and one at each corner. The brass bar beneath my foot retrieves the familiarity of Rock’s back home: bar food in jars visible, lamb tongues, pig’s feet, ham hocks, and pickled eggs. I order a Heineken. Local news is on the TV, a story about a Cooper Tires employee retiring. The bartender is up in years, maybe mid-sixties. The thick-lensed glasses probably make him look older than he is. He has a walrus mustache. A couple of middle-aged men sit in a booth. Framed photos of old Cleveland ballplayers are plentiful. I recognize a couple from childhood card collecting, Larry Doby and Rocky Colavito. At the far end of the bar near the entrance to the restrooms are photos of the racetrack winner’s circle variety. I walk to them, carrying my glass and bottle that nearly drop when I see they all feature jockey Katie White and the mare Diana V, two from Marshfield Fair and the other at Thistledown in Randall, Ohio. I’d sent her the postcard framed beside them of Saratoga Racecourse. I remember drawing the arrow over the horse leading the pack. For a message, I wrote something like “You belong here.”
Hard to figure how I keep my wits about me when I turn to the woman pushing a broom. Maybe the years held me in check. No need for the track picture prompts to I.D. Katie. She wears a grey sweatshirt with a big rose on the front and jeans. Even with the eye patch that covers past her cheekbone, I know. I spot the horseshoe scar between nose and lip. Her earrings match it. Her hair is boy short. She still looks like she could make weight for a race. She squares off what she’d swept and disappears, limping severely, through a door to the back room. Returning with a dustpan, she finishes the task. I loudly clear my throat. She faces me, green eye wide and haunted. Almost a smile but it dwindles into uncertainty, probably what she saw on my mug when we first met at Bolton’s Lounge. She glances at me once more as she turns to leave. Looped in a belt loop is something of a scarf, made out of the silks she wore at Marshfield. Should I have spoken her name? A mailman plops his bag on the floor and guzzles a beer. His chatter tells me Jeb Costello himself is working at the bar. I order another beer, a shot of Jim Beam also. I ask Jeb about the sweeper. She lives in the efficiency upstairs, collects a disability check. She gets around okay despite her physical condition but she’s scrambled. He touches his temple. Sometimes she thinks my wife and I are her parents. Funny, we’re childless. I guess you could call Katie heaven sent. She hung her mementos without asking but okay with me. She doesn’t answer when folks ask her about them. A friend of mine owns horses at Thistledown. I took her in as a favor to him. She was riding Diana V – you saw the photo on the wall – clipped heels with the horse in front and went down. Katie’s lucky to be alive, in a coma three months. She pays the “good tenant” rent. I’ve had some lulus, believe you me. Don’t get me started. She lives on microwave food. She took it on herself to keep this place clean. I’ve offered to pay her but she said a Coke a day is enough. She doesn’t speak much at all, bewildered most of the time. Who wouldn’t be? She does her own shopping and laundry. She’s an inspiration. We have her over for dinner, eats like a wren. My wife likes musicals. She’s rents from Blockbusters. Katie’s now a fan; Carousel and Oklahoma are her favorites. After Sunday Mass at Holy Family, she has breakfast with us, loves pancakes, presented us with a jug of grade-A maple syrup.
I like Jeb which makes it easier to state my case. Jeb, I had a big bet on Diana V when Katie won on her at the Marshfield Fair. I parlayed that win into a considerable chunk of change. Call me nuts but I always wanted to share the wealth with Katie since she was responsible for the windfall that helped me start my business but she left town. From what you just told me I feel I can trust you to manage the proceeds if I cash out. Would you do that for me? You could make her life easier, upgrade her lodgings.
I expect him to ask where I’m from, or about my presence in Ohio but didn’t happen. The “this guy’s loco” in his eyes explain the omission, I guess. I’ll send a cashier’s check to you at this address. I’ll be waiting, he says and winks. Even if he has no faith in my offer, I am impressed that he doesn’t ask how much. He gives me his business card, a good sign. We shake hands. His grip is strong. The bar fills up. I gape at the photos again and think of a memory board at a wake. I buy a drink for everyone, then part, half wishing I’d rushed from work to the hotel bar and the tuxedoed piano player who didn’t play sappy all of the time.
I walk in the direction of the Ramada but soon backtrack. I duck into a bar that borders on dive to mull over my Katie reunion. A young, red-haired woman tends bar, lipstick and turtleneck sweater both pink, a class ring on a finger of each hand, stones red and yellow. A shellacked wooden sign hangs by thin chains from the TV shelf, burned into it: BARTENDER ON DUTY IS SUSIE. Most of my drink-mates are dressed shabbily; half of them senior citizens, all down on luck I reckon: lost souls in my eyes. I buy the bar drinks which brings grins of astonishment that are wonderful to see, and loud gratitude. I try to soak up their glee for myself but fail. I order a highball. Shortly, a tremendous sadness sweeps over me that is no doubt due and growing since seeing Katie in such a state. I sponsor another round and propose a toast to my savior, electricity. With wonder, my new friends take part, and joyfully, as if every raised glass is struck bottomless. Before Jeb’s, I would have been quick to tell these strangers my Katie story. I could always count on a bar stool turning into a confessional seat: she’d been my mistress. I’d talked my wife into naming our second born after her. My wife hired a slick detective and it was more the christening than the adultery that fueled the divorce. Maybe sending the money to Jeb will rewire me, an alimony that heals. I venture a glance that captures Susie’s traffic light rings. When I raise my head, I find the green in her eyes.