MIDNIGHT, MID-APRIL, AND A “MOMENT” AT THE LAST MILE

I said I was going to post something about “pain.” It was not going to be especially “painful” though perhaps a little provocative. I was hoping so, anyway. Why bother write about anything so serious as pain if you don’t intend to “provoke” a few deep thoughts on the subject — which can be painful.

But THIS — is getting painful: talking about something I don’t intend to talk about right now. In addition to which, It’s quitting time for anything on the painful side of time, meaning it’s getting near midnight. I had a painful day in my life, one in a series. I’m talking about emotions, the psyche, my soul….

I need to feel no pain.

Therefore, I’m going to head to that space deep in this blog from which I’ve been too long absent, but only briefly, for it is, as I said, quitting time, meaning Last Call –at The Last Mile, that dive deep in my imagination. For the purposes of this rumination, I shall imagine that, in defiance of the whole world’s draconian pandemic restrictions, The Last Mile (named thus by its former federal inmate absentee owner) has managed to stay open. (I wonder if said owner has dusted off somebody in high places?) In the past, I’ve introduced you to two of the “regulars” — Sticky Sammartino, offspring of a survivor of the infamous 1919 Boston molasses explosion) and Jackie the Crow Kantner (I’ve never before revealed his last name.)

The Last Mile, a place where a name change has been contemplated for a half century, is in a jumble of dense old woodframe houses in neighborhoods just a matter of yards –or, actually, mere feet –off Rte 1A in Revere, Massachusetts; just a billow of thick exhaust from the old hard scrabble city of Lynn. And as I enter the Mile tonight, past a dark window in which the neon signage is fluttering nervously (the “o” in Rolling Rock is blinking like an eye freshly doused with bleach), I see in the darkness near the end of the bar the woman named Athena Leroy. (Sticky and the Crow are not present, as it happens. Thursday is their book club night at their rooming house a few blocks away . I’ve been meaning to make it to that weekly event, if for no other reason than to see what books appeal to the residents of the Seaside Arms. I do have an invitation. The club night would be over by now, of course, and all its attendees retired to their various rooms in the Arms.

But I’m glad to see Athena.

“Thena,” I call out by way of greeting, glancing simultaneously a quick nod of greeting to Deano the bartender who normally wouldn’t be happy to see a newly arriving customer this late but generally doesn’t mind if it’s me. The Mile ( yes, that’s what we call it) never closes before 1 .a.m.. There are still three guys at one back table, a guy I recognize at Ben (an Haitian-American city public works maintenance man) sitting in his uniform at a table near the doorway to the boy’s and girl’s rest rooms. He’s on his cell phone (probably, if history is any guide, talking to his brother in Haiti.)

It is a moderate, mid-April night outside. (It’s tax day, though the pandemic has jumbled deadlines, even that one. The clock with Budweiser Clydesdales is showing dead midnight, both hands aligned under the horse’s hooves. The flat screen Sanyo is on but silent over the bar — some talking head is on the screen. (Deano usually only puts the sound up for sports, especially the Bruins). Athena (“Thena’ as you note I call her) has her long slender legs crossed and pointing my way. She has a red blazer on with the company logo over the breast pocket. She sells real estate in the daylight.

“Thena,” I say again, sitting down on the stool next to her. She has been nursing a Manhattan. “How’s business?”

I know the answer to that question. It’s a seller’s market. Business is great, from Revere to Wellesley.

Athena’s surname “Leroy” is, by the way, from two husbands ago. She’s Greek, from Lowell, and, to save my life, I couldn’t tell you her “maiden” name now. (Sorry for that sexist, almost antediluvian, thoroughly unacceptable moniker, if by chance you’re one of the legion of folks who take blanket offense at everything. So few people read this blog — I’m up to two now — I can’t afford to offend anyone.) Athena is the best looking sexagenarian I know, especially now that she’s let her hair go silver. She really ought not to be hanging around a bar this late, being only a moderate and strictly social drinker with a reputation to protect. It’s a mystery why she comes here, which could be said of many patrons, including me. She stops in to see Deano from time to time, having sold his sister a house in Swampscott. Deano’s always good company and Athena is, from time to time, a bit lonely. She’ll probably marry again soon, ending the current plague of solitude.

I can usually count on a few laughs with Thena. But tonight, she surprises me. She’s gloomy and silent. Maybe it’s the Manhattan speaking, and maybe she spent too much time lately around Husband Number Three before discharging him. He was Irish, dreary and fatalistic, lacking the consolation of all his lost faith, first in God, then in Buddha. She looks gloomy alright. The real estate market is through the roof! How can she be gloomy? (One answer, of course, would be that we aren’t our jobs.)

“Some grief, some misery is the portion of us all, “says Thena, philosophically, by way of “hello.” This is a cocktail of ancient Greek wisdom — and dark Celtic glumness. The sort of things Manhattans were made to sooth, I suppose.

Deano comes over to us. He knows I don’t imbibe and sets me up with my usual: bitters and soda. Seems ole’ Athena’s been mentally downing bitters.

“Winter’s over, I know,”she says. And I know it’s mild and lovely out, really… But, Greggie honey, I’m feeling cold and dark and dreary. I can’t figure it.”

Ah! The little black dog of depression. Considering possible sources, I recall that Athena had recently lost a pedigree toy poodle to old age, along with Husband Number Three (whose loss, unlike the dog’s, was her choice.)

“Well,” I say, drawing on my fragile memory of quotes from “The Waste Land”, April is the cruelest month, according to the poet.”

Quoting “The Waste Land?” In the Last Mile? How pretentious, and, offered as a cure for depression, how stupid!

“Breeding lilac out of the dead earth,” she says.

I’m shocked. I’m pretty sure she hasn’t gotten that quote right, but who knew my old friend Athena was ever anywhere near a book of poetry, the typical poem of which did not begin, “roses are red, violets are blue….” (I’m such a snob!)

“The vine still clings to the moldering wall at my place,” she says. “Every gust rattles my window pane.”

Wow! These are originals — spontaneous poetic products of the deepest gloom. Oh, my God! think I. Oh! This IS painful. And me having to hear it drinking only bitters!

“Life can be cold, and dark and dreary, honey,” she says. And, hearing this, I’m thinking her face, beneath a layer of make-up, confirms it

I sip my bitters. I notice Deano has made his usual “last call” pot of coffee.

“You need a nip of Deano’s brew,” I say finally, and, the muse suddenly lights gently on my shoulder, allowing me to transform that observation into a rhyme…

“And it will warm you through and through.”

Athena smiles then. If you must know, I think the sudden metamorphosis is of either metabolic or divine origin. Athena doesn’t even much like coffee. It’s as if she is emerging from hypnosis. The lights have gone on, suddenly. The elevator of her spirit has suddenly un-jammed near her pelvis and is rising rapidly to the top floor of her brain, loaded with bright thoughts. She re-crosses her wonderful legs like a seductress — like Eutychia, Greek Goddess of Happiness, sprinkling a powdery potion in the space between us where Athena can breath it into her very soul. It consists of all of what joy still manages to mitigate the evil and gloom beyond the walls of every long, dark gin mill such as The Mile — places otherwise redolent of only beer, disinfectant, boredom and exhaustion. I’m happy to say that it seems my words are the accidental and mysterious source of this sudden joy. Don’t ask me why. Does it have something to do with the soaking, boiling, fermenting nature of the steaming vision we might have at any moment of the invisible essence of happiness itself — percolating up from the depths of our own personal Inferno?

“Yes,” says Athena Leroy, gently, affirmatively, still smiling.

“I was talking about maybe a cup of coffee,” I say innocently.

“No, no, no,” says Athena. “I don’t need anything else to drink. Not coffee, not — anything. I’m — I don’t know — I’m not thirsty, not tired, not angry, not sad anymore.”

Well, I’ll be damned! This is when a soul says to itself, I’ll have what she’s having. And for a second, I confess, I feared Athena wanted — ME. But I shouldn’t flatter myself. I live in the swamps safely outside any portion of Athena’s romantic/carnal universe. And to tell you the truth, from her aspect, I was imagining she might now be a happy Ophilia, done with her Hamlet, ready to give up every real estate lead, every commission and blissfully head off to a holy cloister for the balance of her earthly life. Just speculation on my part.

But it was a different kind of moment for me. Just when I thought I might have some company, ole Athena takes her small purse off the bar, pulls out a twenty, lays it on the scarred old oak bar top for Deano (no doubt it includes her usual sizeable tip) and pulls a florid Covid mask out of the bag, a reminder of one of the factors , i.e., the pandemic, that is stealing humanity’s joy. (My mask is in the car and, as is his habit, Deano is letting me and every guy in the joint ignore this regulation, hoping not to get raided for his largesse by the Covid Blue Sockings.)

Athena slings the purse over her right shoulder, slides off the bar stool, pushes back her silver hair and loops her mask over both ears. Still smiling, she leans toward me, surprises me with a kiss on my forehead.

“You saved the moment,” she says. “I can go on now.”

And with that, she went on alright– walks in that statuesque Greek manner of hers (so incongruous in a Revere dive) out the front door. She always manages to park her Lexus close by, so I assume she is safe. Any potential mugger or, God forbid, rapist, would be scared off by that new aura, I believe. There are angels around her now., guiding her to her rest. (I think she lives somewhere in Beverly. She has a bit of a ride ahead of her. But she’ll plainly make the ride in peace, and, I’m guessing, wonderful silence in the smooth luxury of that conveyance.

“Did she drink much?” I ask Deano.

“That was it,” Deano says, picking up and indicating her empty glass with the cherry sunk in a thin residue of ice. “She’ll be fine.”

I sipped my bitters.”Deano, that was strange,”I say after a moment’s contemplation.” What do you make of it?”

Deano just shrugs and walks off. That table of straggler-bar flies is still by the back wall. I don’t look that way, but hear them now as they laugh uproariously at something.

There were scenes of rioting up on the TV screen. Athena Leroy was on her way home in our chaotic world, her midnight moment saved. (What are any of us doing out this late?) I’m glad the Holy Spirit or something allowed me to “save the moment” however unawares.

“This fragment I’ll shore against my ruin,” I think to myself.

“Strange lady,” I say to Deano as he comes over, as he always does, to grace me with some last-call bartender chatter, a special bonus The Last Mile affords sober people — and people, like me, Deano hasn’t seen in a while.

Dolce far neinte,” he says, reminding me that he is Italian. “Happy doing nothing, my uncle Geno always said. I don’t want to contradict Deano and tell him I think what’s up with Athena runs deeper than that. Something, not nothing, was going on there.

But I humor him. Deano, so capable of plumbing the depths of human motivation, didn’t seem to be in the mood for it tonight.

“You said it,” I say, laugh and polish off my bitters.

It’s time to go. I know I can’t get for myself whatever I or the Holy Spirit or the angels gave Athena. In some moment of grace, it may come my way.

And, pain? I’m happy to put that off — for another time.

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