A few gifts for Peggy
I must have looked like a delivery boy – one of those classic characters from a 1930s black and white comedy films complete with shit-eating grin, arms loaded down with packages and waiting for someone at the bar to stick a foot out to trip me.
I had everything but the bow tie, uniform and silly hat.
I had spent hours at home with Scotch Tape, wrapping paper and ribbon to package everything, box after box, glittering under the bar lights looking fancier than they really were, a late delivery by Santa that nobody at the My Way expected to get, least of all, Peggy.
These boxes were piled so high I barely got them though the door and I was not quite sure if I had dropped one of the smaller ones on my way across Main Avenue from the parking lot. Once through the door, I then had to navigate the narrow space between the café tables and the bar stools, bumping into the juke box when I inadvertently turned the wrong way, then into the backs of some of the regular patrons, only to bounce back against the cigarette machine, the video poker machine, like I was the ball in a pinball game, hoping that all of this eventually accumulated points to an eventual winning score.
I couldn’t actually see directly in front of me so nearly ran into a drunken patron who was staggering back to his stool from a visit to the rest room in the rear.
Some of the stanch regulars glared at me as I passed them, grim expressions grinding out their displeasure at disrupting their world with this obvious alteration in their otherwise normal routine.
Even some of the irregular patrons looked up in surprise, faces still flushed from watching one of the dancers, annoyed at having their attention drawn away by me and my packages.
All squinted at my trying to figure what this was all about and growing even more annoyed by the fact that they couldn’t.
Mary, filling a glass full of beer on the far side of the narrow oval bar, looked up, foam flowing over the rim of the glass and onto her fingers.
“Oh no!” she moaned.
She deposited the glass on the drain, the intended patron raising his hand to object to its lost as she rushed around the island to reach me on the other side, following along with me on the inside of the bar until I reached a vacant stool.
“Are you out of your fucking mind?” she asked, struggling to keep the volume of her voice down so this came out something like a croak.
I put the packages on the bar near the stage and slipped onto the stool.
The first dancer eyed me strangely as well as she concluded her set, slipped down from the stage, giving me an angry look for distracting the patron at that critical time when she had to make up her mind which one she intended to sit with.
“What do you men?” I asked Mary.
“I mean,” Mary said, pushing out the words between clenched teeth, “If the boss sees this, he’ll put you out permanently.”
“But they’re gifts for Peggy.”
“I know they’re gifts for Peggy,” Mary said, clearly exasperated. “That’s the problem. God only knows how she’ll react.”
“I hope they’ll make her happy.”
“Happy?” Mary said, looking even more puzzled at which point Wolfman howled from his end of the bar.
Mary glanced at my face.
“Get this stuff out of here while there’s still time,” she said.
“No way,” I said. “It took me some time to assembly this collection and I’m going to make sure Peggy gets it.”
Mary started to respond, but Wolfman howled again, and then Peggy appeared out of the ladies room, both events making Mary sag.
“It’s your funeral, Al,” she mumbled and hurried off.
Peggy hadn’t noticed me yet. She was too full of her usual routine, her nose uplifted as she passed the pool table and its collection of taunting thugs.
She never acknowledged them or their taunts, but she always seemed pleased by their attention.
She snarled at Wolfman’s minions who giggled when she reached the gate into the bar to undergo Wolfman’s usual inspection.
At this point, she paused, frowning over Wolfman’s odd reception. His minions giggled, but in anticipation of Wolfman’s explosion. And he looked about ready to explode, too, but seemed determined to hold it back, looking straight at her for a moment and then slowly, turned to look at me.
Sure, I could have grabbed up those boxes again and tried to escape. Perhaps somewhere in the back of my brain that thought even registered a little. But by the time I became of aware of it, Peggy saw me – her gaze following Wolfman’s to where I sat.
She stared, her frown turning into something even odder, a bewildered look. Gone was the arrogant queen high on herself and the cocaine she had snorted in the ladies room, replaced by an astonished look that left her mouth hanging slightly open.
The music selection from the previous dander stopped, plunging the bar into yet another silence, one filled only by the shuffle of stools and the cough of nervous men.
Peggy’s mouth closed as eh squinted hard at me, one of her painted eye brows rising high onto her forehead like a question mark. She clearly saw the packages piled high on the bar and had to have known I had brought them for her, and I could see – even though her face was half hidden in shadow – an odd smile rising onto her lips.
She said something to Wolfman I could not hear.
Mary, who had worked her way up the bar again to a point a few feet from me said, “It’s too late to do anything now, Al. This might blow over yet. I’ll get you another beer.”
I didn’t know what to expect to happen next.
Nothing really did – not at first.
Mary dropped another beer in front of me then hurried to the cash register from which she extracted five quarters – and delivered these to Peggy, who still stared at me, even as the coins jingled in her hand.
Peggy continued to star even as she began her march down the outside of the bar to the juke box. But she didn’t linger there the way she usually did, punching out the all too familiar tunes she wanted to dance to, then she hurried back to the gate where Wolfman let her pass inside and to the stage.
Perhaps for the first time in her life, Peggy was actually speechless.
Other men had given Peggy gifts before, of course, drugs, tickets to concerts or other bribes they thought might get her to bed down with them. But no one apparently had packaged their gifts up in Christmas wrap and carried them into the bar for every one to see.
In a world where nearly everything followed predictable patterns, where nearly everybody said or did largely the same things with only minor variations, this gifting was a stunning departure, and it even managed to stun Peggy, who bumped into Marry as she climbed onto the stage.
Wolfman could not longer contain himself and snorted, then let out a long invective about Santa Claus and Peggy’s getting starry-eyed over some fucking boxes, and how if she doesn’t pay attentiuon to her dancing, she and the boxes would wind up on the street with the winos and the pimps.
If Peggy heard any of this, she showed no sign. She danced no faster nor slower than she had before, and she continued to glance my way, at me and the boxes, looking very much like an intrigued kitten who could not resist being drawn to a string, struggling to maintain an air of indifference, but clearly unsuccessfully.
Her frustration, however, showed with each glance at the closk, as if she could not hurry time so as to end her set and let her come down to investigate what these boxes were all about.
Time conspired against Peggy.
Half way through Peggy’s set, Mary scooted over to where I sat, touched my hand with her pink painted fingernails pressing every so slightly into my flesh. She motioned with her other hand for me to lean over the bar, which I did, and her paint painted lips came close to my ears.
“The boss says for you to leave,” she said.
“But I have to…”
“He wants you to leave and this time it’s for good.”
“I’m banned? Why?”
“The boss doesn’t want men romancing his dancers.”
“I’m not romancing anybody.”
“That’s not the way he sees it,” Mary said, keeping her voice down even as she backed away from my ear. “It’s one of his rules. No romances. No boyfriends. No sex in the bar. Dancers are here to dance. That’s all.”
“Are you telling me dancers can’t have boyfriends?”
“Sure they can,” Mary said. “They can have all the boyfriends they want, all the lovers they can handle, they can even have husbands, just not in the bar. It keeps down the fights.”
“I’m not anything to Peggy,” I said, glaring down to where Wolfman sat.
He glared back, his cigar frozen in one place although it glowed intensely orange as he pulled hard on it, smoke swirling around his head as if he was the one on fire, not the cigar.
“Just go, Al,” Mary pleaded. “The boss can be very mean when he needs to be.”
I sat there for a very long moment and then said, “All right, I’ll go. But can I leave the packages?”
“I suppose,” Mary said with a shrug. “As long as you’re not here when Peggy gets down. The boss is peeved enough to have you escorted out, and his boys are never gentle.”
I slipped off the stool, dropped some money on the bar, then slowly turned to leave.
“Hey!” Peggy roared from the state. “Where the hell do you think you’re going now?”
I stopped, my shoulders hutched. I could feel her stare at my back like the point of knife. I would also feel Wolfman’s stare, and struggled to figure out which was more dangerous.
“Let the fucking asshole go,” Wolfman shouted. “Tell him to pack up his fucking presents and leave. This ain’t Christmas any more.”
Mary shut off the juke box again, Madonna’s voice grinding to a halt mid-word.
Once again, an uncanny silence filled the interior of the bar and again the men stirred and coughed uncomfortably.
I did not turn. I did not look at anybody – not Peggy, not Wolfman, not Mary or any of the other men. I just stared at the door, wishing I had managed to reach it before all this exploded.
“But I don’t want him to leave,” Peggy shouted, her voice sounding shrill. Her reflection showed in one of the side mirrors.
“Well, he can’t stay here,” Wolfman said. “You know the rule about boyfriends.”
“He’s not my boyfriend.”
“If he brings presents, he is.”
“Loot’s of people giving me things,” Peggy yelled. “That doesn’t make them my boyfriends.”
“Drinks are okay. Shit from Bloomingdale’s ain’t.”
“For Christ’s sake. You don’t know what’s in those boxes any more than I do. Stop acting as if the guy just bought me a mink coat.”
“If it ain’t mink, then it’s something worse, lace maybe.”
“You’re fucking jealous. That’s what this is all about.”
“I am not.”
“Yes, you are,” Peggy howled. “I know the look and you got it. That’s why you’re always giving me such a hard time about the men who come to see me. You don’t mind me hurting the newbies, but God help the man who you think actually wants to get me in bed.”
“Stop it,” Wolfman yelled.
“I won’t. And you can’t make me.”
“But I can make him leave,” Wolfman said. “A rule is a rule and he’s got to go.”
“If he leaves, I go with him.”
This last startled me so I actually turned to look at her.
Wolfman seemed as stunned as I was, and it took him a moment to respond, and finally he did.
“Fine,” he said. “Go.”
Peggy snorted, snatched up her tips from the corner of the stage, climbed down, marched along the bar to where Wolfman said. She didn’t even stop. She just gave him the figure as she passed through the gate, and rushed passed the pool table to the ladies room, from which she reemerged a moment later, carrying her street clothes. She walked up to where I stood, stopped, glared back at Wolfman.
“You know where to reach me
when you want me back,” she snarled, then glanced at me. “What are you waiting
for, an invitation.”
I started towards the door.
She grabbed my arm.
“Are you forgetting something?” she asked, and tilted her head towards the pile of boxes still on the bar.
“Oh yeah,” I said, and grabbed them up, performing the same precarious balancing act on the way out as I had coming in.
Mary switched back on the juke box as Wolfman sent one of his minions to pound on the ladies room door to roust out the other dancer.
“You’ll come crawling back!” one of the regulars mumbled as Peggy walked by.
“Never,” she said indignantly, and shoved the door open, holding barely long enough for me to slip through with her presents.