May 23, 1980
He’s changed. He’s grown old so quickly, shifting from pervading mood of neo-adolescence to senile; from social view of never growing up to over the hill in one vast leap.
He sits at the bar, a jealous gull clutching his drink as he eyes the other men, competitors for the attention of the women here, looking as if each other man will steal any girl he might attempt to get before he can get her.
His laughter is less hearty than it once was, sounding contrived.
He coughs, stutters and sips his drink; his talk low, confused, filled with stereotypical diatribes he’s built like blocks since he was a kid.
He’s an old man at thirty-something, fingers gone yellow from two decades of cigarettes.
But I saw his heart grow dark at 21, signs of something wrong which I just couldn’t put my finger on at the time.
I remember us being at Dave’s house in Paterson when I was baby sitting for Dave so he and his wife could get some time out, and remember Hank going to the refrigerator asking me for soda.
“It’s not mine,” I said, paying him little attention and more to the TV and the kids.
“Don’t be like that, damn it,” Hank said, slamming the refrigerator door.
“I told you,” I said. “It’s not mine. But if you want to take it, take it, but don’t ask me.”
This was the fall of 1972. I was still wounded from my breakup with Louise. But I kept seeing something in Hank that I hadn’t seen before, something selfish.
He knew I would be spending the night here in Dave’s flat. He could have just as easily stopped at the store for soda and chips on his way down the hill from Haledon.
I kept thinking he wanted me to make it okay for him to take the soda. Yet it was more than that. His attitude suggested that he had a right to the soda.
A small thing. But this was Dave’s house, not mine, and I didn’t feel comfortable with it, and this small thing snowballed into a lot of small things during the next few years as he and I struggled over similar things.
Now, eight years later, he seems completely different from the person I met in the theater or the one I sang songs with through the streets of Greenwich Village during the summer of 1968. The change that started with the soda is now complete, the metamorphosis turning him into some dark, gnarled and pathetic barfly, bent and weary, balding and hard, but hard only on the outside, not inside him.
“Is that your new girlfriend?” he asks after she has taken off for the powder room – if anyone dared call the dismal commode of the Suburban Lounge in Montclair anything so nice as that.
“Yes, I suppose,” I say.
He laughs a knowing laugh. “Psychological,” he says flatly.
I look at him. “What?”
“How much your new girlfriend looks like your old girlfriend, Louise.”
I hadn’t really thought about it. Maybe she does. But blonde is blonde, and it may make them seem similar.
I think of Louise and smile.
Hank misunderstands my attraction. My new girlfriend was brilliant and intellectual; Louise was warm, sexy, but never intellectual.
It bothers me that Hank can’t see the difference. But I have learned over the long years that I can never win and argument with him once he has made up his mind about something. So I nod.
Let him think what he wants.
The girl he is with returns, and he is once more locked up in a protective mode, looking to build a mote around her so that none of the other men can approach. Everything and everyone is a threat in this world.
Pauly is up on the stage behind the bar and grins at me, nods at Hank.
He knows Hank is dying, too. I can see the look of recognition in his eyes, a slow death, a slow closing down, like crushing out a cigarette that doesn’t go out all at once, one sense at a time, till all that survives is the deep darkness and the distorted memory and strained blurry light.