Angus in the Middle
By Lucile Barker
Angus stood in front of the dresser mirror and admired his reflection. He smoothed his dyed black mustache and checked the roots on his forehead. He would have liked to check the back but he had broken his hand mirror. He couldn’t quite remember when, but he had stepped on it, while he was wearing his safety boots.
Not bad for sixty-six, he told himself, even though the eyeballs could be clearer. I’ll walk to Jimmy’s to the karaoke, keep the pudge off.
He placed the heavy black Stetson on his head. A real Stetson, inherited from his cousin, Andrew. It fit exactly.
Tonight he was wearing what he thought of as his Johnny Cash outfit, black country shirt, black bolo tie, and tight black chinos. He walked down the stairs and smelled pot from the first floor apartment. He sighed. He hoped that they didn’t get caught. He needed their rent money.
It was still light out on this warm May evening, but he had slung his leather jacket over his arm. He glanced at himself in the plate glass windows and smiled. Maybe tonight he would get lucky.
He turned to see Winston, guy was a complete pain, late fifties, skin the colour of a double double. A guy who thought he could sing. He was always cutting in on the women he saw Angus talking to. Winston was wearing a light cream colored suit that made his skin a shade or two darker. Angus knew he would never be able to keep something like that clean for over five minutes.
“Singing tonight?” Angus asked, hoping that Winston might have found something better to do.
“Gonna try new stuff,” Winston said.
Angus moaned inwardly, Winston already had enough trouble with the old stuff, going off key and getting lost in the middle of Michael Jackson’s I Want to Rock with You. More like Jackson Pollock, throwing volume toward a note instead of paint toward a canvas.
The casement window at the front of the restaurant was open to the street, letting in the evening air.
Marlene, the karaoke hostess, smiled at them. Angus knew that Jorge, the new owner of Jimmy’s Restaurant, had told her she’d be out if the drink sales didn’t keep up.
Well, he was doing his part, Angus thought defiantly, remembering his doctor telling him he should cut down on the alcohol. Well, screw him and his stupid liver scan. Now Winston, he was one of the guys making the problem here. He sat there with one or two diet pops all night whining that he was diabetic. But if someone was standing drinks, Winston would be right there with his hand out for a gin and tonic, not even a real man’s drink. Beer or rye for me, Angus smiled, walking up to the counter.
“New here?” he said to the waitress, who was picking at a cuticle and pouting.
“Yeah,” she said, staring down at the top of the cooler in front of her. “What can I get you?”
“Rye, straight up,” he said. “Think I’ve seen you around. You from the ‘hood?”
She looked up in disdain.
“No,” she replied, “But you might have seen me at Chez Martini’s. In the en-ter-tain-ment dis-trict. Before they went under.”
She said it phonetically as if Angus wouldn’t get it. For a second he felt anger flare. Then he took a chance.
“More of a Bier Market kinda guy myself.”
He had seen that joint advertised in one of the free newspapers and knew that they were still in business.
“My friend Jessica works there,” the girl said, almost challenging him. “She might be in later.”
“Usually went in the afternoons,” Angus said, “before the crowds get in.”
She shrugged and he took his drink back to the table that Winston had chosen.
Such a liar, I am, Angus thought. I can’t drink in the afternoon. I’m out on a job site, working my ass off or trying to sell the next job. And then I go home to a house I inherited and have to rent out most of in order to make ends meet.
He tossed back half of his drink in one gulp. Winston, who was going through the song list books, looked up and raised his eyebrows.
“Yo, take it easy, my man,” he said. “You don’t want to be under this table before the music even starts.
Angus nodded and sat. The new Jimmy had made “improvements,” covering the tin ceiling and dropping it down for a storage area. It made the restaurant more claustrophobic, darker. Angus wondered what they were storing up there. He had offered to bid on the job, but the Albanian guys who were running it, led by Jorge, had just sneered. And he knew that they stiffed the waitresses as well, which was why there was a new waitress.
“Golly, you guys are early birds tonight,” a cheerful female voice said.
“Ah, Sandra, as eager as we are,” Angus said.
“You sit here,” Winston commanded, his enthusiasm overflowing. “Got the books for you already.”
Angus wasn’t as enthused. She was older and pretty in a faded kind of way, but no cougar. Hell, I’d settle for ugly and desperate, he thought, and then pushed that idea down.
“You working for the Lynwood Clinic, now?” asked Winston, and she nodded.
“You know Lanie?” Angus asked, having seen them talking. She nodded again.
“What do you do there?” Winston asked.
“Stats,” she smiled. “Computer all day. Spreadsheets, projections. I hate numbers but I’ve ended up being the Stats-rat, counting the druggies and the alkies.”
Winston had glazed at the word “computer.”
“Need the book?” he asked, and pushed it toward her.
“Lots of Sinatra and Ella tonight,” she sighed. “I should try some new stuff.”
“New stuff is shit,” Winston said.
“Not new in age,” she explained. “New for me. I go on the net and listen and practice.”
“Nah,” Winston said. “You either got it or you don’t”
Angus and Sandra exchanged a look.
“Practice makes perfect,” said Angus, but Winston shook his head skeptically.
Angus spotted Lanie outside the window. She was leaning in, talking to Marlene, a slim white cigarette in her white fingers. Her red-gold hair was swept up and the light caught her freckles. He sighed. She was thirty-six, decades younger than he was. And she was a crackhead, hell, a crack ho. And every time he saw her, he felt like he was fifteen again.
He watched as she drifted into the tavern and saw him. She had a nearly triumphant look on her face. She cruised in, and he could see that the two months in jail off the drugs had done her some good.
“That answer your question?” Sandra asked and Angus couldn’t tell if she was being sarcastic or not.
“So I’m back,” Lanie said, standing in front of Angus.
“I see,” he said, and had to take another sip of his drink because his throat had gone dry.
“Wanna get me a beer?” Lanie asked, but it was a command.
For a second, Angus looked over at Sandra to see if it was okay. She was Lynwood staff, maybe she would know. She didn’t look up from the slip she was filling in. He was on his own.
“Want one, Sandra?” he asked, looking at her empty glass with the piece of lemon that had been chewed into oblivion in it.
“Thanks,” she said, finally looking up and smiling. “Soda water and lemon, please.”
“On the wagon?” asked Lanie, a sneer in her voice as she pushed into the empty seat past Angus.
“Like to sing a bit before I drink,” said Sandra. “Need to be sure where that range is.”
When Angus got back to the table, he could feel the icy silence. Only the noise from the filling up room drowned it out. Winston gave him a grateful look for the diet cola, and Sandra patted his hand.
“Hope that’s not domestic,” Lanie said, blowing at the foam.
“Hear they make it in the basement,” Winston said, glaring at her. It was Angus’s turn to be grateful.
Sandra took her slips up to Marlene and suddenly Lanie was turned on.
“Hey, you know I have absolutely no cash,” she said to Angus. “You couldn’t lend me fifty, could you?”
Angus shook his head. He had been through this before, and she was already into him for over seven hundred bucks. The profit from a bathroom reno, if he was lucky. And with Lanie there never was a payoff.
“Putting my slips in,” said Winston.
He looked as if he was embarrassed to be hearing any of this.
A chilly breeze blew in from the front and Angus was glad that he had brought his leather jacket. Marlene looked at the window and decided not to close it.
“Lanie, we can’t just go on like this,” Angus said. “I mean, you and I know exactly where that $50 will be going.”
“- going to get started,” Marlene’s amplified voice said. “In case you’re shy, I’m gonna get you started with a song by Janis, A Little Bit of My Heart -”
Marlene could belt it out and she could wail. No one could carry on a conversation when she was behind the microphone.
Winston did a passable song but Angus wasn’t watching. His eyes were following Lanie as she headed back to the table where Jorge and the other Albanian owners were sitting. He saw Lanie ask something and Jorge shook his head sullenly. As Lanie turned away, one of the Albanians shouted something at her and they all laughed.
It might have been in a foreign language but Lanie understood it. Angus watched the flush rising from her neck to her face. By the time she had gotten down to the table, it had died down, but he could feel the anger almost radiating from her. But she passed the table and went outside where a couple of new men were smoking. He watched as she cadged a cigarette from one, and as they chatted through two songs. He got up and sang Riverboat Gambler. He glanced around as he finished the song and she had disappeared, along with one of the men.
He watched as Sandra sang That Old Black Magic and they went through another rotation. He sang Hank William’s Kaw-liga. Still no sign of her. The man who had disappeared showed up and nodded to the first one, who walked toward the entrance to the alley. Angus changed over to straight rye at that point.
“You ready for a real drink?” he asked Sandra.
“Garden salad would be cheaper for you,” she laughed, “and much better for me.”
Lanie walked through the front door and her hair was now half up and half down. She ignored Angus and her former table, walked back to the Albanians’ table. She spoke to one beside Jorge who smiled with a huff and stood up. They walked out the front and two minutes later the man was back. Angus ordered another beer and rye for himself and a salad and a rum and coke for Sandra. He’d show that little upstart Lanie that he didn’t need her.
“What about me?” asked Winston, filling out another batch of slips.
“It might be an idea to slow down, Angus,” Sandra said, with a laugh to take the sting off it.
When Lanie returned she had a distant smile on her face. Sandra excused herself and headed for the ladies’ room. Angus saw his chance, but now there was a uniformed officer in front of the table, filling the space between himself and Lanie.
“You know you aren’t supposed to be in here, Elaine,” the cop said. “No premises where alcohol is sold. And you have a midnight curfew. You staying at Safe Haven?”
There was a silence.
The second cop, a woman, gave the first one an exasperated look.
“Where did you sleep last night?” she asked.
There was a shrug and someone moved, making the light hit Lanie’s hair. Angus felt that there were sparks coming off it.
“If you sleep rough and we catch you at it, we’ll have to take you in,” the first cop said. “Hey, Sandra, any emergency rooms up at the Lynwood?”
“Packed,” she said. “Too many kids whose parents take till the Easter report to figure out that their little darlings are using drugs or into the liquor cabinet. And now we have the ones who don’t eat as well. We’re done in.”
“I thought you were going up north to Orillia to see your son,” the woman cop said to Lanie and Angus jumped.
“Didn’t have the bus fare,” Lanie said sullenly. “Health and Social Services have moved him up to the Soo. He doesn’t know who I am anyway. Or who anyone is.”
“That’s the pits,” Sandra said, staring down into her drink.
“That’s CAS and Community Services for ya,” the male cop sighed, almost sympathetically.
“Look, Lanie, Safe Haven is open till eleven for intake and you have a midnight curfew. We can give you a ride over if you like.”
“I’ll get there,” Lanie said and walked out into the deepening night.
“All that guilt on top of everything else,” the female cop said.
“More dope in small towns than big cities now,” Sandra said. “Not a good place for her.”
“Inside her head isn’t a good place for her,” the lady cop said.
“I didn’t know she had a son,” Angus said, noticing that his glass was empty again.
“Oh, yeah,” Winston said, eagerly. “Big deal up north. She got five years for criminal negligence and drunk driving.”
A snowy night on an icy highway, a baby who wasn’t in an approved car seat, a teen single mother driving drunk. Elaine something. Beautiful in the news photos, long long hair. And a baby who was brain damaged, spinal injuries, so bad that he would never grow.
Angus reached for his glass. Hell, if he hadn’t lost his driver’s license, he’d be driving that way. Thirty day suspension because he hadn’t caused any harm. He squeezed his hand around the glass, remembering the indignity of having to have one of the guys on the crew drive the pickup to the job, higher insurance rates, the old tenants leaving because he had come home drunk once too often.
“Going to have to arrest her if she doesn’t toe the line,” the lady cop was saying.
“Nothing I can do,” Sandra said. “I’m just clerical staff. I do the numbers.”
The cops left and the singing rotation continued. Sandra switched pace completely.
“Material Girl, my ass,” Winston snorted when she got back to the table. “You did it great, but it should be Lanie singing that one. You wouldn’t know materialism from a blister from your second hand Birkenstocks.”
Sandra laughed and Winston sang some old slow Motown ballad that he murdered.
“I want to talk to you, Sandra!”
Lanie was back.
“I know you called the cops on me.”
“No, Lanie,” Sandra said with an air of exhausted patience. “I don’t have a cell phone and the pay phone is gone. It wasn’t me. I would kind of like you to be a success story.”
“You are such a hypocrite,” Lanie accused. “You ration every sip of each drink. You stick with all those old songs because they’re safe. And Angus, you’re an asshole.” Lanie’s voice was rising. “She’s after you.”
Sandra gave a comic moan and put her head on the table. Out of the corner of his eye Angus saw the Albanians stand and the waitress was coming toward Lanie. Jorge was on his phone, just like he had been when Lanie first came in.
Lanie spun toward the waitress. It wasn’t the glint of Lanie’s hair that Angus saw but the shine of a knife, small, but sharp as the pain he was feeling in his chest. A large hand clamped down on Lanie’s shoulder.
“I wish it didn’t have to be this way,” the lady cop said as Lanie was being led away.
“She never got to sing,” sighed Winston.
The man had some of his priorities straight, Angus thought.
Sandra sang After You’ve Gone, Angus did I’m so Lonesome I could Cry. He took a peek at the old slips to see what Lanie had chosen. If I Could Turn Back Time. Angus gulped and went outside for a cigarette.
We’d all like to sing that, he thought.
“Time for our last song,” Marlene chirped. “Everyone on your feet for We’re Here for a Good Time, Not For a Long Time.”
Then they were out on the street. Angus passed Winston a cigarette, even though he hadn’t asked for one. He slid on his jacket and adjusted his Stetson. There was a wind now, and it had a winter feel to it.
The cops arrived seconds after Marlene had finished loading her karaoke equipment into her van.
“I’d like to get one of those satellite systems,” Marlene sighed. “I’d be able to use a little car. But I just can’t afford it.”
The police were shooing away the customers. Angus, Winston and Sandra went to the other side of the street.
“I didn’t think that we were that noisy,” Sandra said. “Shit, these guys are SWAT.”
“Drug bust?” Winston asked, and Angus saw him pat the pocket where he usually kept a joint or two.
A cop on their side of the street heard him.
“Hell, no,” said the policeman. “Arms. You’ll hear about it on the news tomorrow. Gonna have to find a new place to sing.”
“There’s always The Yellow Brick Road Club,” Winston said.
“Too gay for me,” Angus said, as he shivered. He was suddenly glad that he hadn’t gotten the job putting in the false ceiling.
“Oh, really,” Sandra said. “Get over it. You’re such a phony. You lie to yourself about other people, too. I’m going inside.”
She headed to a side door beside a store front.
Angus started to walk home. It was too dark and too cold to look in the store windows. He didn’t chase Winston away. Winston had gotten him home a couple of times last winter when it was so cold that all the street corners looked the same.
“You gonna put that flower in water when you get home?” asked Winston.
“What flower?” Angus asked.
“One that a lady put in your hatband when you were being distracted,” Winston said. “Never gonna get either of them now.”
Angus half staggered to his door, fighting the lock when he finally found the key. The hinges creaked; he was going to have to do something about that. He heard muffled laughter from the downstairs apartment. He hoped they weren’t laughing at him. Maybe it was time for an eviction, toss all of them out, start over. But he hadn’t paid the heating bill yet, wait another month.
He peered in the mirror that he had used only six hours ago. He looked so much older now, an old fool dying his hair and pretending to be younger and more successful.
Lanie, Sandra, who needed broads like that anyway?
He tossed the Stetson on the dresser and it knocked over a bottle of cheap cologne, one of the discount store clones. It teetered, fell, rolled to the edge and smashed on the floor. The odor was overpowering. The wilted flower on the Stetson couldn’t compete with it.
He was already on the bed, too stoned to get up and clear the glass, to take off his Man in Black shirt. His boots were on the bedspread. He reached down and patted the half full forty ouncer of cheap rye sitting there. He took off the lid for a second and sniffed it to drown out the cologne. Then he did the lid up tight and put the bottle under his pillow.
Yeah, better than women, he thought. I’m gonna need that in the morning.