Old Vine Zin, Part 1
Esther rests the weight of her head on my arm, not sleeping. Light and shadow trace strange animals across her bedsheet curtains.
I say, “I want to take you somewhere.”
“Somewhere?” she asks.
“Dinner. Maybe a movie.”
“You mean a date.”
“We can call it whatever you want.”
A full minute passes.
“Why now?” she asks.
“We don’t have to,” I say, kissing the top of her head.
She sits up and pulls her robe from the floor.
“I’ll just be a second,” she says, disappearing into the bathroom.
Someone’s air conditioner drips water onto a garbage can below. Esther’s apartment, as always, is stifling.
She returns and hovers by the door. “There’s a lot you don’t know about me.”
I prop myself up. “I thought that was by design.”
“You’d break this off, if you did.”
I stand but she waves me back. I wait for her to continue, she doesn’t. “All I’m talking about is dinner,” I say. “We can sit at separate tables if you want. No talking. Just wave every so often so the other one knows we’re there.”
A soft laugh escapes her lips, cloaked in tears. She lets me wrap her in my arms. Sighs into my shoulder.
“Champion,” says Conor, popping into my office as I’m packing up to leave. “High time we grabbed a drink.”
“Love to,” I say, “but I’ve got plans.”
“Walk with yeh,” he says. “Got a bit of business, needs touching.”
Our walk to the restaurant could be characterized as him yammering and me bearing it. I’m more than a little anxious as to whether Esther will come, whether being around other people will change the way we are together.
Conor nods approvingly at my choice of venue and immediately swipes us two stools by the bar. He starts to order for me and I stop him, instead asking the bartender for a glass of Old Vine Zin.
“Grand,” says Conor. “Make it a bottle.”
I check the time and glance at the entrance.
“So is’t the missus, you’re meeting?” Seeing my puzzled look, he adds, “Winchester mentioned something.”
“Do you two just discuss me, or…?”
“Fair question perhaps, but no. ‘Fraid I’ll be needing his services meself.”
I drop my cocktail napkin. “You mean —?”
“Aye,” he says. “Should’ve known better than marry a devout.”
The bartender returns, uncorks the bottle, offers Conor the first taste. My boss points him my direction, joking about the limits of the Irish palate. I focus just enough to make sure it’s not rancid.
“Yer health,” says Conor, toasting.
“What happened?” I ask.
He drinks, staring off. “Time, I suppose.”
I swallow the urge to mention his parade of women. “What about your son?”
If his eyes could get any bluer, they do. “Live with his ma. And quite well, mind yeh, what she’s asking.”
I signal the bartender. “Could my friend get a shot of whiskey?”
“Bless yer heart, Champion, but don’t make me do it alone.”
The bartender pours one for each of us. We cheers, tap our glasses on the bar, make eye contact, and swallow.
Conor pats me on the chest, takes inventory of the other patrons.
“Another?” I ask.
“Read me mind.”
One becomes three in short order. After each round he thanks me as though I distilled his medicine myself.
“Man is an animal,” he says. “Fierce creature, blood pumpin’, hunger at the heart. Women don’t understand, see? It takes man to understand another man.” He squeezes my hand, draws me into a tight hug. “Love,” he says in my ear, his breath fresh as day. “Without fire there can be no heat and without heat there is no life.”
We separate and linger at a close distance. He pats the side of my face with his palm and we each return to our wine.
“I’m going to use the restroom,” I say, stomach in knots.
The men’s room is three stalls deep, all of them vacant. I take refuge at the sink, stare into the mirror, splash water onto my face. Avoid asking certain questions. In time, my heart stops beating against my throat.
No sign of Esther, when I exit.
Conor’s ordered us another round of shots, we’ve barely touched the wine. “I don’t know that I should,” I say. “My date will be here any minute.”
He studies me. “Thought yer face had colour to it.” He downs his shot without ceremony. “Did have a bit of business to cover, ‘fore I let yeh go.”
I take my stool.
“Nothing mad like, but you’re on official warning for yer behavior.”
“Can’t think I haven’t noticed yeh cutting out, missing meetings.”
“My work’s getting done,” I say.
“Recent episode, lashing out.”
No stopping it — I laugh. “Did that twerp complain to his father about me?”
“Conversation’s you and me, no one else.”
I swirl my wine, it tries to escape the glass. “First, I’m forced to hire the kid. Now, we’re here talking.”
“Skipping over, ossified, when it happened.”
The situation, at last, presents itself. I proceed with caution. “I had one beer with lunch,” I say. “You serve me more than that pretty much every time we have a meeting.”
Conor’s face falls. “Warning means shite. No paperwork. Verbal equivalent of a lackluster fuck.”
I take my shot, capsize the glass.
“Champion,” he says. “My guy, understand? Protect yeh some but yeh’ve got to avoid the unnecessary. Do the job. Collect the money.”
“And what if I don’t care about the money?”
He takes my hand again. Is this just a thing men do in Ireland? “Agree with yeh,” he says, eyes locked on mine. “Kid’s a piteous fecker for running off his da. But we’re building something, you and I. Understand that, don’t yeh?”
We’re close enough for me to smell his cologne. Woodsmoke and earth.
He runs a thumb over my knuckles. In a soft lilt, he says, “Not anyone told about me wife. Bleeding American ways, rubbing off. Irish don’t show emotion.”
Past him, I see Esther enter the restaurant. She’s wearing a long flowy dress embroidered with wine-colored feathers. I extricate my hand and wave her over. Conor downs his wine.
[To be continued]