9 – Chicken Scratch
Unnerved by the incident, I avoided the May Way for a while after that, hoping that a little time away might make it safe to return and have the My Way be what it was before.
When I did go back, I picked a Saturday, a night I thought Peggy would not be dancing and yet I could somehow work my way back into Wolfman’s good graces.
The whole plan fell apart when I saw Peggy on the stage and she saw me and howled.
“You stood me up, you son of a bitch!”
Wolfman gnawed on his cigar so hard I thought he might swallow it.
I pretended not to hear Peggy and settled on a stool somewhat up the bar from the stage.
“I’m talking to you!” Peggy yelled.
I sighed and nodded, taking hold of the bar Mary quickly put in front of me.
“Well?” Peggy asked.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” I said.
“You can tell me why you left when I told you to stay.”
“Your boss told me to leave so I left.”
“WHAT?” Peggy said, glancing sharply at Wolfman.
“Didn’t he tell you?”
“He did not!”
Wolfman motioned for Peggy to dance; she gave him the finger.
Then Wolfman yelled. “How many times to I have to tell you to dance?”
“Can’t you see I’m busy here?” she yelled back.
Wolfman gnawed some more on his cigar and glanced at the clock.
“I know what Goddamn time it is,” Peggy yelled.
“Then dance, bitch.”
“I’ll get to it in a minute.”
“You’ll get to it now or you’ll get out,” Wolfman said.
“All right, all right,” Peggy said, and went through the motions of dancing.
Mary leaned over the bar towards me.
“I tried to warn you when I saw you at the door,” she said.
“What the hell is Peggy doing here dancing on a Saturday?” I asked.
“She’s on vacation. She’s been here every night this week. She says she’s raising money to buy her Super Bowl ticket and she’s driving the boss nuts.”
“Should I leave?”
“It might not be safe right now.”
“What do you mean?”
“She had a fit the other night when she found out the boss chased you away.”
“You mean she knew?” I said glancing up at the stage at Peggy, who once more seemed to ignore me.
“Sure she knew.”
“Then why is she blaming me for standing her up?”
“Maybe she figured you should have put up more of a fight,” she said. “Peggy’s pretty stuck on herself and figures everybody ought to be, too.”
“I didn’t come here to get into a fight.”
Mary patted my hand.
“Just sit here and endure her for an hour or so. Let her get her wrath out, then you can leave.”
“And if she doesn’t let me.”
“The boss knows the score. The drinks are on him for you and her. Just make sure she doesn’t drink more than two.”
“Who said I’m buying her any drinks?”
“You will,” Mary said, once more patting my hand. “It’ll be okay, honest.”
I started to reply, but Mary was gone, off to the south end of the bar, pausing briefly to speak in Wolfman’s ear. He nodded slowly, his face and expression clouded by cigar smoke.
He gave me a stiff nod I didn’t fully understand. I nodded back.
Madonna’s “like a Virgin” came on the juke box. Peggy turned her attention to my side of the bar.
“At least you’re being sociable tonight,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You’re not hiding your head at one of the tables.”
“You said for me to sit at the bar, so I’m sitting at the bar. Did you have some place else you wanted me to sit?”
“No,” she said. “You’re right where I want you, although…”
“You still owe me a drink.”
I glanced at Mary, Mary glanced at Wolfman, Wolfman nodded, and Mary rushed to make the drink. She deposited it near Peggy’s feet on the stage, and then Peggy promptly ignored it.
“Is that all?” I asked.
“For now,” Peggy said. “Just don’t move.”
I sipped my beer and watched her dance. Tension around the bar eased. The expected explosion had not occurred and perhaps never would.
I even took some interest in Peggy, recalling the stripper I used to sneak into the Capital Theater to see as a kid, the back stage guard taking pity on a 14-year-old overwhelmed with hormones.
Mine was not the only drink Peggy had acquired, as other men around the bar curried favor with her – glasses piling up in a low row on stage, identical except for their melting condition, Vodka and tonic and a slice of lime floating in each.
She paused between songs and drank them in order.
She might as well have drunk water for all the effect they seemed to have on her. She claimed later that she sweat out all the alcohol.
Apparently concerned Wolfman might take away drink over his imposed limit, Peggy drank them quickly, keeping the glasses mostly out of sight from where Wolfman sat. So that from his point of view it might have seemed the glass she lifted from time to time was the same glass as the last time. She drained a glass between each song, pausing only to wipe her mouth with a bar napkin before returning to her dancing.
At some point, she took closer notice of me, sneaking looks at first, then more boldly staring at me with open curiosity.
I’m something of a chameleon, tending to alter my appearance to suit the environment. In the village I looked like a hippies, at college I looked like a jock. Here, I had the ragged look of a working slob, which I had become – jeans, work shirt, sneakers and longish, unkempt hair.
She seemed oddly satisfied with what she saw, casting a smile or two my way each time our glances me, although these smiles still had the flirtatious warning that she intended to punish me for what’d I’d done. Still, her glances and smiles had one overriding message: “You keep looking at me, boy. I’m the only thing worth looking at around here.”
Each time I tried to open my notebook, Peggy’s tongue clucked, and I looked up to find her glaring at me – this easing only when my hand slid away from the cover.
I could feel the threads of her web weaving around me, and felt her unspoken demand for my unquestioning adoration.
Eventually, I ceased all effort to do anything but stare up at her.
This spell broke when the music ended and she slipped off the stage, pausing to finish the last of her drinks while still out of Wolfman’s full view.
Although Marry had seen Peggy acting this way before, this deviated somewhat from the usual routine Mary called “feeding.”
“She gets this way whenever she falls in love,” Mary told me later.
“In love? With who?”
“Who do you think?”
“Let’s put it this way, she sees potential in you. This is why the boss is so concerned. He doesn’t mind her torturing her mice, he just doesn’t want her taking them home as pets. Bad things happen when Peggy falls in love.”
“Bad things happen to who?”
“To everybody – especially Peggy.”
“So Wolfman thinks I’ll hurt her?”
“Not in the way you think,” Mary said. “Although I’ve seen her here with some assholes. No, he sees you hurting her in other ways that might be worse.”
Mary didn’t get to explain this last, but I caught the general drift.
But any chance to leave was lost when Peggy returned from the ladies room, making her way passed the pool table towards the bar.
She looked a little confused as if she had lost something since going into the rest room. I didn’t realize until much later that she and the knock out barmaid, Jan, frequently snorted gifts from patrons who hoped to get sex later after closing.
Then, she peered in my direction through the haze of smoke, squinting to pick me out from the crowd of men at the bar and the decorations Mary had put up to “cheer things up” in the doldrums after Christmas.
When she found me looking back, Peggy gave a slightly sour smile. Her confusion ceased, although she looked annoyed as she marched up to the man seated beside me.
She tapped him hard on the shoulder.
“Excuse me,” she said in a tone that sounded more like a bark than apology.
The man turned, frowned, and asked, “For what?”
“I want you to move,” she said.
“I said MOVE!”
The man, after another brief moment, finally got the point and scrambled off the stool, staggering to the next available slot somewhat down the bar.
Peggy hopped up onto the still-warm stool and propped her head in her hands with her elbows on the bar to start at me.
“Now what?” I asked.
“Now you buy me a drink.”
I lifted my hand to signal Marry who had already anticipated the request. She hurried over to put down the glass in front of Peggy, as well as a fresh beer in front of me – even though I hadn’t finished the first one.
I already felt light-headed as if I had consumed more drinks than the bar tab could account for.
“So,” Peggy said after she had lighted a cigarette and let out the smoke in an exaggerated sigh. “What exactly do you write about in here?”
“Stuff,” I said.
“What kind of stuff?”
“Look, buster,” Peggy said, straightening up so that she could look at me square in the eyes, her sharp forefinger poking me in the chest. “We’re not going to get anywhere like this. What exactly do you write in this book of yours?”
“Observations,” I told her.
“What kind of observations?”
“About people mostly.”
“About me?” Peggy asked.
I didn’t speak. I didn’t even look at her or at the note book.
Instead, I stared down into my beer and my hands that gripped it, finally lifting the bottle to take a long swig.
“I’ll take that as a yes,” Peggy said. “Show me.”
The whole bar seemed to close in on me.
No one looked at me except for Peggy, but that felt all the worse.
With all the other men staring at the dancer on the stage, I felt utterly isolated.
“I don’t think this would be the appropriate time or place,” I said finally.
Helpless to do anything else, I opened the book to the place where I had jotted down notes about her from some previous visit here, sketches filling in the places the writing had not.
Peggy squinted down at the writing, struggling to make it out in the dim and flashing lights of the bar.
“You can read this chicken scratch?” she asked, lifting the notebook with both hands, holding it close then far away.
“But the writing is so small.”
“There hard-covered book are very expensive,” I said. “I write small so I can fit more into them.”
“Fine,” she said, thrusting the book at me. “You read what it says about me.”
“You can’t want me to read this stuff in here,” I said.
“You wrote it in here, didn’t you?”
“Writing is different from reading.”
“You wrote it about me. So I have a right to know what it says, and since I can’t read your chicken scratch, you’re going to have to read it to me.”
I wanted to dispute her claim, but she glared at me and I let out a long sigh, and in a low voice, started to read.
“I can’t hear you,” Peggy said.
With an even wearier expulsion of breath, I read a little louder, not overly loud, just loud enough for Peggy to hear, although she had to lean closer to catch what I said.
Horror spread across her face with the same impact a stone might have made thrown into the center of a pond as she reacted to a word-picture I had painted of a dancer who looked to me like a child trapped inside the invisible box of men’s desire, her hands beating at the walls to escape.
I stopped reading partly because of Peggy’s stare, a hard, serious, perhaps deadly stare I’d never seen her give before.
“You wrote that about me?” she asked, her voice so cold the words cracked as she spoke.
“Yes,” I said.
On the stage the other dancer’s feet pounded the warn wood. She looked more like a cheerleader than a dance, lacking only the pom-poms.
“How dare you!” Peggy muttered through clenched teeth.
“I didn’t mean to offend you,” I said. “But you insisted I read it.”
“But you wrote this stuff about me.”
“I write a lot of things about a lot of people; it’s what I do.”
“It’s a disgusting habit,” she said, spitting out the words.
“I’m sorry. I won’t read any more if that’s how you feel.”
Again, I mumbled, “Yes.”
“How much more?”
“I couldn’t tell you the number of pages.”
“PAGES?” Peggy howled, drawing more than a few glances from around the bar. “You’ve written pages about me?”
“In that book?’
“Give it to me.”
“I want that book.”
“Don’t argue with me, just hand it over.”
“I can have someone take it away from you,” she said, glancing in Wolfman’s direction. He was already looking back at us.
“You could,” I admitted. “But it wouldn’t be right. I have every right to compose if I wish.”
“Not about me.”
“That kind of thing can get you in deep shit,” Peggy said in a low voice. “That’s like being a Peeping Tom into someone’s soul.”
“Then it makes sense to you.”
“What do you mean?”
“The words say something that struck you as true.”
“I never said that!”
“Then why are you so upset?”
“Because someone might believe it’s me,” Petty said in a hurried gush of whispered words. “And around here, anyone that seems too soft gets hurt.”
“I can’t believe that.”
Peggy started at my face, really looking at me this time, her gaze working over the details like a police detective, searching for clues as to what might have been going on in my mind.
“Read me more,” she said.
“I don’t think I ought to.”
“Read me more,” she growled, “or I’ll get James or Thomas to do something bad to you.”
“I don’t think they would do that.”
“If I ask them, they would. They’d do anything I ask, even kill you.”
This time I stared at her. Peggy’s eyes showed no sparkle or mocking humor this time.
I sipped my beer, drawing the last of the foam from the bottom, then put the battle down, then carefully gathered the change Mary had left me.
“I think I’d better leave,” I said and slipped off the stool.
“Don’t go,” Peggy said, catching my arm. “Please.”
“I don’t take kindly to threats,” I said.
“I was kidding,” Peggy said, letting out an unconvincing laugh. “Can’t you tell when a girl is kidding?”
“Usually I can.”
“Well, then?” she asked,
motioning for me to take my seat again.
I sagged, but didn’t sit.
“Look, Peggy, I said. “I’ve had a hard day. So I’m in no mood for games.”
“I said I was sorry. What more do you want?”
“Eight hours sleep,” I said. “Let’s just call it a night. All right? No hard feelings. I’ll come see you dance some other night.”
“When do you dance again?”
“I’m on vacation. I’m doing a week’s worth of work so I can afford to buy tickets to the Super Bowl. Come tomorrow and bring your notebook, I want to hear more of the pretty poetry you’ve written about me.”
“It’s not exactly poetry.”
“Well, whatever it is, just bring it with you. Promise me?” Peggy said, her fingers digging deeper into my arm.
“All right,” I said. “I promise.”
Good,” she laughed releasing me. “I’ll see you tomorrow – same bat time, same bat station.”
Then, she lowered her voice.
“Stand me up again and I’ll have your eyes you, you understand?” she said.
She patted my shoulder.
“Go get your beauty sleep, Alfred. You’re going to need it.”