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A Man of Discretion


Harry Buschman

Johnny Kelliher stood with his back to the bar, his lower body angled outwards. His weight was supported on his right leg, while his left was bent at the knee and poised delicately on the toe of his shoe. He held a double shot of malt liquor in his right hand which he swirled ruminatively. His head would occasionally take refuge in a cloud of cigar smoke, affording him the privacy of personal reflection.

If his head had been visible, his watery blue eyes would have betrayed acute embarrassment and growing worry. He realized he had developed an insatiable thirst this evening and his pockets were empty. He waited until his smoke screen had cleared somewhat in order to better survey the room. Surely, he thought, there must be someone here anxious to hear his tales of adventure and listen to his inside stories of the neighborhood. A receptive ear in the St. John's Saloon had often satisfied his thirst in the past - tonight would be no exception.

His practiced eye fell on Felix Montgomery sitting in the corner. Yes, Felix would do nicely. Felix went on to college after high school -- Kelliher remembered hearing he was a journalist now. Imagine! Yes, married too, as he recalled. Felix was at a table by himself. He had the afternoon paper open in front of him and was straining to read it in the weak light of the chandelier.

If a man is in need of a drink or two, it is not a good idea to appeal to a friend while carrying a drink in your hand. Kelliher was a past master of bar room protocol and he quickly downed his malt liquor, left the glass on the bar and sauntered over to Montgomery.

"What a surprise! It's good to see you, Felix. My ... it's been a while now, hasn't it though." Even an ear unpracticed in the lilt of a Dublin brogue would have no trouble hearing the Irish passing over Kelliher's tongue.

Montgomery looked up from his paper and squinted at Kelliher through black framed spectacles. "Kelliher, is it? My, it must be ten years." He made as though to rise from his seat at the table, but Kelliher touched his shoulder gently.

"Don't get up, Montgomery. I'll just sit over here." He pulled a chair out from the table opposite and sat quickly. "You're looking fit, Montgomery. Man of letters I hear. Splendid. Splendid. You've worn the ten years well."

"I'm with the Telegram, Kelliher. Since the first of the year."

"Yes, and married too I'm told - connubial bliss and all that. Any youngsters at the hearth side?"

"We have a little boy. He's ten months now."

"Think of that. How pleasant it must be. We should drink on that."

"Yes," said Montgomery. "My treat of course." He waved to the bartender and called for two whiskeys

"If you insist," smiled Kelliher.

Montgomery diluted his whiskey with one half water, but Kelliher raised his glass of Irish straight. "To the little lady, and to the little nipper as well, my friend. You must have a picture to show, Felix."

Felix shifted his position and dug in his back pocket for his wallet. Kelliher noticed it was bulging with business cards, official looking identification paraphernalia proving he was a legitimate journalist, and what looked like a generous supply of greenbacks. Then he extracted a photograph in full color of a woman holding a child. He passed it to Kelliher proudly.

"Lovely, Felix. You must be in seventh Heaven. I sometimes wish ... " he paused and sighed expansively. "But, the life I live, you know." Kelliher was unimpressed with the mother and the child in the photograph, women and children bored him. On the other hand, Felix Montgomery, as well as being the source of a drink or two, could be a source of income in the future.

Felix put the picture away reverently. "What sort of life is that, Kelliher?"

Kelliher twirled his empty whiskey tumbler suggestively and Montgomery signaled the bartender. "Sub Rosa, old man. Sub Rosa." He leaned across the table and removed his cigar. Catching Montgomery's eye he slowly blinked his own left eye slowly and deliberately, as though it were a shade on a parlor window.

Montgomery watched Kelliher's eye disappear and then re-emerge. He was puzzled by the significance of the wink. He felt he should understand its import, but it was difficult to imagine anyone trusting John Kelliher with a secret.

"You work for the government, Kelliher?"

"In a manner of speaking, Montgomery." Double whiskeys arrived. Montgomery folded his newspaper and pushed it aside. Kelliher leaned forward again and looked left and right, his watery blue eyes, (now slightly red rimmed) were half covered by his upper lids. "As a journalist, I understand many of you fellows are ... er ... always in the market for unimpeachable sources of information."

"Do you know of any, Kelliher?"

"You would travel far before you found a more knowledgeable and discreet source of information than old John Kelliher, Felix."

Again, Montgomery diluted his whiskey with an equal amount of water, while Kelliher watched. "You're in a sensitive position, Kelliher? With the government perhaps.? The police.? Insurance fraud? Bunco?"

Kelliher took cover in the smoke of his cigar. For a moment Montgomery could see nothing of him but his red necktie. "I am intimate with the goings on at the 6th precinct, Felix." Montgomery could see Kelliher's cold blue eyes peering at him from deep inside the cloud of smoke.

It didn't surprise Montgomery in the least that Kelliher was intimate with the 6th precinct. He knew for a fact he was hauled in there recently and kept ten days before his hearing. He probably learned a lot in those ten days. Not the best qualifications for an unimpeachable source however.

Kelliher sensed he was not getting through, and he feared his spotty reputation may have preceded him. It might be better, he thought, if he went a little slower.

"I'm a neighbor of the 6th precinct, Felix. Just across the street ... why I can see right into the squad room from my bedroom window. There isn't much that goes on in the 6th that I don't know about."

With that said, Kelliher withdrew from his pursed lips what was left of his cigar, drained his whiskey and put his glass down decisively. He stood, dusted the ashes from his checkered coat and tapped his temple with his left hand in a gesture meant to advise Felix Montgomery to think it over carefully.

"Enjoyed talking to you, Felix. Good to see you doing well. We should keep in touch more than we do -- we're not getting any younger you know." As he backed away from the table and replaced his chair, he smiled to Felix and touched his temple again ... "Discreet, Felix ... discreet and impeccable."

"I'll bear it in mind, Kelliher."

Kelliher buttoned his coat and slowly walked to the door. As he left he nodded to his friends with the same condescension displayed by a great actor to an appreciative audience. He was surprised to find that night had arrived; it meant he had spent all afternoon in the St. John's saloon.

It was the high point of his day -- every day. It never occurred to him that time spent in St. John's saloon was wasted. He felt it was a place to gather strength, to make plans. The more time spent in planning, he felt, the less chance there was for mistakes. Precipitous decisions had always led him to disaster, like that business with the twenty television sets and what the police said was a stolen van.

He thought he did a good job with old Montgomery, he was sure the Telegram could use him and it would be a steady source of income. All he had to do was supply a little gossip from the 6th precinct squad room -- why, if he opened his bedroom window he could hear all he had to hear. Who was getting out and who was going down and who was being dragged in kicking and screaming.

With buoyant step he mounted the stairs to his rooming house. He thought it might be a good time to sit by his bedroom window and get the latest from the station house across the street. Then he might freshen up a bit and see about supper. It was his routine to patrol the streets keeping a sharp eye out for old acquaintances, particularly those who may have hit it big recently. He would trade on old friendships, mutual experiences and the brotherhood of the way things used to be. The old school ties with the graduating class of PS 27 might bend but they would never break.

Yes ... those were the days ...

Like a witch straight out of Macbeth, Mrs. Carbonezza stood in the doorway, barring the entrance to the inner hall with her arms folded. Her eyes were set like burning coals in a face made of a fine mesh of wrinkles. Her mouth was a firm straight line and Kelliher knew at a glance there was going to be an ugly scene. She unfolded one arm and pointed a bent and bony finger directly at Kelliher's nose.

"Hand over y'key y'deadbeat. Y'haven't paid y'board in three weeks." She turned the hand over to display her empty palm.

Kelliher glanced at it quickly and tried to look on the bright side. "I have good news, Mrs. Carbonezza -- very good news. For both of us, in fact."

"I don't want good news," she shot back. "I want sixty bucks is what I want. You gimme sixty bucks y'get'cha key, otherwise y'sleep in the park along with the rest of the deadbeats."

"But I'm a consultant to the Telegram, Mrs. Carbonezza. Just hired today. Have no misgivings, the rental on my humble room will be paid with my first pay check." Kelliher considered brushing the old lady aside but he knew from experience she was not as frail as she looked -- besides he was sure the precinct cops across the street would be over in a jiffy if they heard a commotion.

Damn! He was frustrated and his soothing words seemed to have no effect on her. She stood between him and his door, arms folded, legs wide apart and her narrow slit of a mouth formed soundless words. Kelliher was certain she had been talking to herself all day -- building up a case against him. He thought it would be best if he gave her his key. "There are some necessaries, Mrs. Carbonezza. My shaving gear. A change of linen ... "

She snatched the key from him and pointed to a brown paper bag on the floor by his door. "There," she said triumphantly, "In there is y'razor and a toothbrush. There's also a dirty pair of long johns -- is that what y'mean by linen?"

Kelliher reached down and picked up the bag, keeping his eye on Mrs. Carbonezza. He wanted to say something -- he wanted to leave feeling he had won the argument, but he could think of nothing to say ... "Goodnight, Mrs. Carbonezza -- I shall not take up residence with you again."

"Damn right you won't -- you phony!"

She was relentless. Left him no quarter. It was useless to try to save face. One insult would follow on the heels of another -- it was best to leave quickly.

He left without looking back, but as he reached the sidewalk and turned to walk to the corner he saw Mrs. Carbonezza's small fiery figure standing in the doorway. Then, with a start, he realized he had nowhere to go, his pace slowed but his mind was racing ... where to go ... where to spend the night.

For the first time in his life he was confused and he felt vulnerable. There were no clear cut escape routes; he wasn't sure of anything -- anymore. It was very dark now and he felt lost, as though he was in a strange town. He found himself back at the St. John's Saloon - inside somebody put a quarter in the jukebox. It was a song he never heard before. He didn't want to go in there.

He stood with his back to the wall and slowly slid down to a sitting position. Someone would come along, he was sure someone would come along.

©Harry Buschman 2004

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