LATE ONE NIGHT . . .
“I’ve often wondered,” Mick Ballou said, ” how it would all have gone if I’d taken a different turn.”
We were at Grogan’s Open House, the Hell’s Kitchen saloon he’s owned and operated for years. The gentrification of the neighborhood has had its effect on Grogan’s, although the bar hasn’t changed much inside or out. But the local hard cases have mostly died or moved on, and the crowd these days is a gentler and more refined bunch. There’s Guinness on draft, and a good selection of single-malt Scotches and other premium whiskeys. But it’s the joint’s raffish reputation that draws them. They get to point out the bullet holes in the walls, and tell stories about the notorious past of the bar’s owner. Some of the stories are true.
They were all gone now. The barman had closed up, and the chairs were on top of the tables so they’d be out of the way when the kid came in at daybreak to sweep up and mop the floor. The door was locked, and all the lights out but the leaded-glass fixture over the table where we sat with our Waterford tumblers. There was whiskey in Mick’s, club soda in mine.Our late nights have grown less frequent in recent years. We’re older, and if we’re not quite inclined to move to Florida and order the Early Bird Special at the nearest family restaurant, neither are we much given to talking the night away and greeting the dawn wide-eyed. We’re both too old for that.
He drinks less these days. A year or so back he got married, to a much younger woman named Kristin Hollander. The union astonished almost everyone—but not my wife, Elaine, who swears she saw it coming—and it could hardly fail to change him, if only because it gave him a reason to go home at the day’s end. He still drinks twelve-year-old Jameson, and drinks it neat, but he doesn’t drink as much of it, and there are days when he doesn’t drink at all. “I still have a taste for it,” he has said, “but for years I had a deep thirst, and the thirst has left me. I couldn’t tell you where it’s gone.”
In earlier years, it was not that unusual for us to sit up all night, talking the hours away and sharing the occasional long silence, each of us drinking his chosen beverage. At dawn he’d don the bloodstained butcher’s apron that had belonged to his father. He’d go to the Butchers’ Mass at St. Bernard’s, in the meatpacking district. Once in a while I’d keep him company.
Things change. The meatpacking district is trendy now, a yuppie bastion, and most of the firms that gave the area its name have gone out of business, their premises converted to restaurants and apartments. St. Bernard’s, long an Irish parish, is the new home of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
I can’t remember the last time I saw Mick wearing that apron.
This was one of our rare late nights, and I suppose we both felt the need for it, or we’d have gone home by now. And Mick had turned reflective.
“A different turn,” I said. “What do you mean?”
“There are times,” he said, “when it seems to me that there was nothing for it, that I was destined to follow the one particular course. I lose sight of it these days, because my business interests are all as clean as a hound’s tooth. Why a hound’s tooth, have you ever wondered?”
“I’ll ask Kristin,” he said, “and she’ll sit down at the computer and pop up with the answer in thirty seconds. That’s if I remember to ask her.” He smiled at a private thought. “What I lose sight of,” he said, “is that I became a career criminal. Now I was hardly a trailblazer in that respect. I lived in a neighborhood where crime was the leading occupation. The surrounding streets were a sort of vocational high school.”
“And you graduated with honors.”
“I did. I might have been valedictorian, if they’d had such a thing on offer for young thieves and hoodlums. But, you know, not every boy on our block wound up leading a life of villainy. My father was respectable. He was—well, I’ll honor his memory enough not to say what he was, but I’ve told you about him.”
“All the same, he was a respectable man. He got up every morning and went to work. And the road my brothers took was a higher one than mine. One a priest—well, that didn’t last, but only because he lost his faith. And John, a great success in business and a pillar of his community. And Dennis, the poor lad, who died in Vietnam. I told you how I went down to Washington just to see his name on that memorial.”
“I’d have made a terrible priest. I wouldn’t even find a welcome diversion in molesting altar boys. And I can’t imagine myself kissing asses and counting dollars like my brother John. But can you guess the thought I’ve had? That I might have taken the road you took.”
“And become a cop?”
“Is the notion that outlandish?”
“When I was a little boy,” he said, “it seemed to me that a cop was a wonderful thing for a man to be. Standing there in a handsome uniform, directing traffic, helping children cross the street safely. Protecting us all from the bad guys.” He grinned. “The bad guys indeed. Little did I know. But there were lads on our block who did put on the blue uniform. One of them, Timothy Lunney was his name, he wasn’t so different from the rest of us. You wouldn’t have found it remarkable to hear he’d taken to robbing banks, or making collections for the shylocks.”
We talked some about what might have been, and just how much choice a person had. That last was something to think about, and we both took a few minutes to think about it, and let the silence stretch. Then he said, “And how about yourself?”
“You didn’t grow up knowing you’d become a cop.”
“No, not at all. I never really planned it. Then I took the entrance exam, which back then I’d have had to be a moron to fail, and then I was in the Academy, and, well, there I was.”
“Could you have gone the other way?”
“And drifted instead into a life of crime?” I thought about it. “I can’t point to any innate nobility of character that would have ruled it out,” I said. “But I have to say I never felt any pull in that direction.”
“There was a boy I grew up with in the Bronx,” I remembered, “and we lost track of each other completely when my family moved away. And then I ran into him a couple of times years later.”
“And he’d taken the other path.”
“He had,” I said. “He was no great success at it, but that’s where his life led him. I saw him once through a one-way mirror in a station house, and then lost track of him again. And then we caught up with each other some years later. It was before you and I got to know each other.”
“Were you still drinking?”
“No, but I wasn’t away from it long. Less than a year. Interesting, really, the things that happened to him.”
“Well,” he said, “don’t stop now.”
© 2011 by Lawrence Block