The Man in Black ~ An Albany Story

Stunning small snapshot of interior of a pub

Stunning small snapshot of interior of a pub (Photo credit: whatsthatpicture)

From time to time, I post short stories I’m fretting over. Really, until I let them go to some unsuspecting journal, they’re all Works in Progress. And, after their editors reject them, they still are!

This story is my Albany-centric twist on the Hemingway classic “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

It’s a little more than 1,700 words, but hang in and I hope you like it. My fiction group colleagues did. They know me as more storyteller than a poet.

The story’s working title is…

The Man in Black

Beams of morning sunlight with squared corners ran through the window and onto the floor of Pauly’s Tavern on Central Avenue. The morning crowd never noticed the specks of dust floating in the box-shaped ray crawling closer to the window as the sun rose in the sky. They only noticed mahogany and glass as drinks sank to the bottom of their mugs and tumblers.

The college kids called Pauly’s an old man’s bar, and in truth, the morning crowd skewed closer to Social Security age than 21. Thorough checking IDs for the age of patrons was not Phil Papandrea’s problem, working daytime as he did. 

Barely a head raised when the scraped and scratched wood and glass door opened and the shadow of the old regular called Johnny stretched across the worn oak floor. Phil looked up, though, and noticed it looked like Johnny already had a head start on the other patrons.

Johnny ambled on long, unsteady legs to a stool at the far end of the bar, upon which the morning Times Union lay. Phil always left it there to save Johnny’s spot, one as sacrosanct in Pauly’s as the place on the shelf behind Phil where they kept the cognac no one ever ordered.

“Morning, Johnny, how we doing today?” Phil said.

“Ummph,” Johnny said, as Phil reached into the cooler beneath the bar and pulled out a green can of Genesee Cream Ale, popped the top and poured it into a glass.

“Here you go, champ,” Phil said, sliding the glass in front of Johnny.

Phil then walked down to the sunny end of the bar where a new member of the morning crowd was nursing a boilermaker and the New York Times crossword.

“Hey, Phil,” Ed Burley whispered, “what’s with the cans for the old guy? You’ve got Genny on tap.

“Aw, it’s just something we do for old Johnny. He buys his own beer up at Oliver’s Beverage store and we keep it cold for him here. Otherwise, I don’t think he could drink here.”

“Yeah, but…um…why?”

“Because he’s Johnny No-Cash. Can’t you see?” Phil said, in no way explaining other than to point out the jet-black toupee and black shirt and pants Johnny wore that gave him the look of a cartoon version of the iconic American singer.

“We let Johnny slide because the boss loves him. He lets him live upstairs and helps clean the place up at closing,” Phil said. “He’s pretty harmless unless you hassle him. Most of the college guys think he’s a hoot.”

“They don’t bother him?”

“Not too much. In fact, some of the Siena boys took such a shine to him they brought him golfing with them. Let him ride in the cart and caddy for them,” the bartender explained.

“I heard the other day he had problems. I mean besides what you keep under the bar,” Burley said.

“You mean trying to kill himself?”

“Yeah, well, that was something different. He’d been in here drinking all day and afternoon and some punks came in from St. Rose. I was off by then. They thought it would be fun to play with his hair,” Phil said, and jerked his thumb toward Johnny.

“It didn’t end well. He was so drunk and angry chasing his hair while they played keep-away, he fell and pissed himself. Johnny is anything if not fastidious about how he looks. A bunch of regulars stepped in, but Johnny was embarrassed and had to be carried upstairs crying like a baby.”

“Nasty punks,” Burley said. “Was that when he did it?”

“No, when Pauly closed he went upstairs and found Johnny passed out in his bed. Checked on him and he seemed okay. When I got here in the morning, cops and EMTs were already out front.”

“Who found him?”

“Believe it or not, his niece. Found him in the bathroom with a rope around his neck. Pulled down the ceiling lamp. She keeps tabs on him since he’s got no one else after his daughter died,” Phil said.

“Aw, man. really? Man, what happened to her?”

“OD’d. Right down on Judson Street. It’s said Johnny was in fair shape then, had a real job and real money, but that just drove him off the edge.”

“Phil!” Johnny boomed from the other end of the bar, rapping his empty glass on the mahogany.

“Keep your shirt on, champ. I’m coming.”

“Instead of playing slap and tickle with that guy, you might want to see if you can serve the drinking customers?” Johnny said.

Phil took Johnny’s glass and filled a new one with another can of Genny.

“You slept at all, champ?” Phil asked Johnny. “Been going all night?”

The man in black either did not hear him or just flat out ignored the bartender.

“Pauly told me to look out for you. I don’t need the boss getting pissed at me if you decide to keel over.”

“Fuck you. Go check on 39-Across down there,” Johnny mumbled into his glass.

“Careful, champ. No one’s bothering you. No need to get testy.”

Johnny stared ahead at nothing and silently sipped his beer.

Phil returned to Burley, poured him another boilermaker and wiped the bar.

“You say he had a real job?” Burley said.

“Yeah. Was a manager type with Price Chopper, I heard. But the thirst was in him and then his daughter…”

The sun had mopped itself from the floor and the bar glowed in the reflection of the light on buildings across the street and flashed from the windows of each passing car and bus.

“Woe Ho, Philip!” came the greeting from Frankie Noonan, the beer delivery guy, several cases of long necks piled on his cart in the doorway. “Comin’ through, gents.”

As Frankie reached the end of the bar, where it hinged upward allowing bar staff and deliveries entry, Johnny banged his glass again.

“Phil!” he roared.

“Easy, Johnny. I’m coming. Would you mind scooting over a couple stools while Frankie delivers his goods and hauls out the empties?”

“I would,” came the cold reply.

“No, seriously, Johnny, you gotta move so we can get our delivery.”

“Yeah, c’mon, buddy. I’ve got eight more stops to make today. I won’t be long,” Frankie said.

“Told you, no. Phil, where’s my beer?”

“Unless you move over, Johnny, I ain’t serving you any more. You’re being a nuisance keeping me from taking care of business here.”

“What’s the problem, old dude? I’m just trying to do my job. I won’t take long. Promise,” Frankie said.

“Go round,” Johnny said. “Phil, you want me tell Pauly you’re pissing off paying customers? You think he’d like that?”

“I don’t think he’d mind me kicking your ass out of here while his beer’s getting warm and undelivered,” Phil said.

“Another Genny, now,” Johnny said.

“That’s it, you’re outta here. I’ll let the boss settle with you when he gets here. Until then you’re not going to be my problem anymore.”

Phil slid over the top of the bar and grasped Johnny’s shoulder and pushed him to the door, the old man resisting, but unable to overcome the bartender’s strength.

“Just you wait, punk. If I was 20 years younger….”

“Yeah, and about 20 beers lighter. Out,” Phil said and pushed Johnny out into the bright sun on Central Avenue.

After Frankie made his delivery, Phil went back to talking to Burley, who was beginning to show his liquor, too.

“Which way did he go?” Phil asked Burley.

“Down Central.”

“He didn’t go ’round the corner here?” Phil asked.

“Nope. Headed that-away.” Burley pointed east.

“Okay, he didn’t go back upstairs then. Fuck.”

“What’s a matter?” Burley said.

“Aw, Pauly just has a thing about the old guy. Worries for some reason. Doesn’t want him going to some ghetto joint for his hooch. Or drinking himself to death on the street. Guess he reckons it’s better the old bastard does it in a neat place like his.”

“Yeah, but he can buy his Genny at some store and find a quiet place to drink in the neighborhood,” Burley said. “He’ll be okay on a nice day like this.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Phil said. “It’s just that the boss worries.”

“Sure,” Burley said, “he’s got a nice old-fashioned place here. Not too many around anymore. I guess Pauly figures he needs a crazy old drunk as part of the decor.”

“Must be.”

“I guess I’ll be headed out,” Burley said with a grunt, slipping off his stool. “Thanks for the entertainment, Phil. You really should get a band in here during days, though. These passion plays don’t play so well with this crowd.” He pointed to the quietly buzzing mid-day drunks.

“Yeah,” the bartender said.

“Look, you know as well as I do that God looks out for the likes of Johnny No-Cash. Else why would he still be coasting up and down the Avenue and will more than likely be darkening your door tomorrow. I’ll bet he’s back right after you go off shift.”

“You know, you’re probably right. I’ll tell Pauly when he gets in. Let him worry about his old mascot,” Phil nodded.

“Sure, see ya tomorrow, Philip, my boy,” Burley said, oozing out into Central Avenue.

He looked west up Central and then down in the direction he last saw Johnny. Burley smoothed the narrow old tie onto the front of his shirt. He crossed Central and walked south on Quail Street, stopping in a bodega run by a Pakistani guy for a six-pack of Genesee Cream Ale.

“Thanks, my friend! Have a lovely afternoon and evening,” Burley said.

He walked two more blocks south, sweating through his dark suit just as the cold cans of Genny sweat through the paper bag in which he carried them.

Burley stopped at the park on the corner of Madison Avenue and found an empty bench in the shade. The light was good and the shade was cool. Over on the basketball court young black men were running up and down in a loud shirts-and-skins game of run-and-gun.

Burley, pulled a can from the pack, popped the top and took a long, cool draught of ale. Cops would be by to hassle him about drinking in a public park, but not before the black kids got into his face over why an old white dude was sucking down beers watching them play hoops.

Until then, though, he hummed and occasionally quietly sang “Because you’re mine, I walk hmm..mmm…” 

©Joseph Hesch 2013

Dessert at L’hôtel du ciel


Angel Food Cake [154/366]

Angel Food Cake (Photo credit: timsackton)

The moments of sadness in life
always end, just as the shorter
moments of joy end even sooner.
That’s just the nature of our days
until we leave. And when we do,
we expect a something else,
hopefully a something better,
a something forever — Heaven,
Valhalla, Tian, whatever your Hereafter.
Some blissful Eternity is our reward,
the fabulous prize and parting gift,
for being a good human during
your finite moments of dawn to dusk.
It will be the eternal dessert you earned
for eating those damned Brussels sprouts,
eschewing sin and sorrow until
there’s no tomorrow. No more moments.
But perhaps some judicious maneuvering
of the little green orbs upon my plate
might garner me at least a warm slice
of après dîner approbation in
L’hôtel du ciel. Garçon, un moment!
Menu di dessert, s’il vous plaît!

A Lesson from Mollie


Mollie (Photo © Joseph Hesch)

In our old days, driving southwest on I-88
somewhere between Albany and Oneonta,
my dozing young retriever Mollie would jerk
to wakefulness and jam her nose through
the gap in the passenger side window.

You’d hear her snort-snuff-snort
and see her body quiver all electric
in excitement over something I couldn’t see –
more than if she’d inhaled the arresting aroma
of a maverick hamburger a little kid dropped.

My Golden girl had picked up the pungency
of hamburger on the muck-caked hoof, though –
a dairy farm just behind the roadside trees.
With Mollie, it’s always scents before sights,
her canine early-warning system.

Yesterday Mollie snort-snuff-snorted
along a scent trail in our backyard head-first
into the chain link fence and then
into its fencepost. In her slowed-down age,
scents before sight had new meaning.

I never had such seeming prescient sagacity
with which I could sniff out upcoming instance.
Instead, I too-often raced headlong into
cowpies of woe on my way to I-knew-not-where.
Mollie and I have slowed down to sniff out more life.

Scents before sights, Joe.
Sense before sight.

Charmed, I’m Sure

A Five Sentence Fiction

“Don’t you think he’s charming?” my wife Elizabeth asked as she watched walk away handsome Father Lucas Bender, who had just concluded a five-minute heart-to-pitter-pattering-heart bit of small talk with her.

“He’s okay, I guess, but I still don’t buy his phony schtick,” I said, my mouth full of a cube of provolone and a slice of pepperoni I’d grabbed from the buffet during St. Michael’s Church’s open house for the parish’s volunteer workers.

“What do you mean, Brian…haven’t you noticed how much larger the crowd is at Sunday Mass since he arrived?” Elizabeth hissed.

At the sound of Father Bender’s boyish laugh, every woman in the place looked up, their eyes zeroed in on the far corner of the room, and blinked – I swear I could hear them all blink — to see their 40-something pastor brush his fingers along the upper arm of 23-year old parish secretary, Zoe Calabrese, who giggled a little girl giggle and rested her fingertips upon his chest.

“Ohhh,” Elizabeth oozed, her hooded eyes returning from that little tableau to stare dully into her drink, “how…charming.”

Whipped up in response to Lillie McFerrin’s Five Sentence Fiction prompt, “Charmed.”

Chapter Two

Wrinkled paperWe all start life like a clean sheet of paper,
pulled from some familial ream.
Smooth and clear and ready for the writing,
the drawing, the composing of
an artistic undertaking called a lifetime.
So often, though, comes a day life bends
and crumples us into hunched-over balls of failure,
destined for tossing in with other throwaways.
Settled into my downward trajectory
of the arc to the trashcan I was, my sheet
a mass of idle doodles, manic scribbles,
ragged erasures, when a revelatory breeze
skittered me off the wastebasket rim.

I bounced up, uncrumpled, laid myself
flat here on this desk and recollected:
We sheets of humanity may get
all wrinkled and raggedy, but we still
have a clean second side.
I looked past the creases and furrows,
taking a lesson from the wisdom of
Side One’s first-draft bleed-throughs.
My sheet’s a wee tattered, but it’s full
of smudged and crinkled knowledge,
and all this space left to freely mess.
Not a make-good sequel, just Chapter Two.

Intercranial Homesick Blues


I always dreaded this Dust Bowl day some swirl of wind
would come along and blow its amnesic powder
to hide my footprints, the trail to where I found
something like dreams I might craft into
three dimensions of reality to decorate houses
with clear paths to their doors of would be or should.
Houses like yours. I could find it anytime,
from anywhere, but mostly in the dark of night,
the soporific moments before sleep dropped
its smothering blanket of emptiness over us.
Or the path would reveal itself in that penumbral period
before dawn, when I would awaken to my toys
strewn there across the bed.

But maybe it was something else filled in the cracks
which always let in the darkness that revealed
the phospherescent glow of this Neverland called
Imagination. I would drop pieces of bread behind me,
if I could, to find my way there again,
but contemptible light would always make off
with all my leavened markers. I am lost now,
on the outside in this wretched real world
and cannot find my way to a place I wish was home,
my doors of  could be or should. And home,
this imagined place of love, tranquility, wonder
and fear, is where what passes for my heart is.

With apologies to Bob Dylan for the title, and great thanks to my friend Kellie Elmore for helping me find my way back home from a weary wandering in the desert of lost imagination.

#FWF logo

Mother’s Day

English: Mother's Day card

English: Mother’s Day card (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eighty-something year old Moms
tend to give their middle aged sons
ancient history lessons,
even on Mothers Day. A word, a photo,
a memory, she dropped them all
like a cup of tea. And he picked them up.
The photo was of a chubby 5th grader,
alone, flying his crazy black hair
and a goofy gray grin at half staff,
there on the front stoop, a stain of
something on the front of his shirt.
His fingernails were dirty and
he had smudges on his hand, no doubt
from scrawling or drawing something,
from his perfectly cultivated
amber waves of imagination, a look
of skeptic wonder on his face.
He hasn’t changed too much.

Still the pudgy-feeling little guy, stain
worn like a badge of honor over his heart,
smudges of gray on the heel of his
age-twisted hand and head.
He cultivates this self as he tends
the wretched patch out back.
Perhaps one day they both might
bear some fruit, something more than
weedy promise and seedy emotion.
Farmer or poet. They’re the same
to him now. Each a singular effort,
trying to grow something out of
tiny near-nothings.
He put that photo away. Mom’s
absent-minded lesson learned.
You are who you are, kid, but you
can be loved no matter who that is.
Once again, Mother knew best.


This Voice

I will whisper hidden secrets in your ear

I will whisper hidden secrets in your ear (Photo credit: HAMED MASOUMI)

Can you hear this voice?
I can only whisper in the light,
speaking aloud in words I breathe
to you or build upon paper and pixels.

Only in the silence of night
and bare dawn can I express
what I see in my dark recall,
eyes open and hawk-alert,

hunting in my heart for that
you’ll never see until I tell you,
whisper it to you when day comes
and I retire to the shadows of sunrise.

An upside down way to live,
but I love this breathing life
of whispers, where before existed
nothing but silence and groping blindness.

Shared With the folks at dVerse Poets Pub on Open Link Night.



Haunted (Photo credit: Doom64)

To many, I am only a ghost,
something from their past
that occasionally returns
to bump and drag my chains
quietly across their memories. Even
in their presence, I am little more
than a see-through aggravation.

You are a ghost, too,
something from my past
that is always there
to bump and drag my chains
across my sleepless memory. Though
you’ll never return to my presence,
you’re as real as words on paper.

I’ve never been afraid of ghosts,
but their haunting…this haunting…