When someone bought Frank a drink he took a cigar instead, and his bartender brought the Antonio and Cleopatra box kept in the glass cabinet with the cocktail glasses. The box opened to the picture of the lovers — Antony in armor and Cleo reclining like Venus next to a slave with a feather fan. Frank read history and marveled at the way their love encompassed kingdoms and their story made the cigar taste sweeter and deeper.
Sometimes he did take a drink, and the bartender would pour the scotch below the one-ounce line of the shot glass. He drank — or sipped really – never finishing because drinking wasn’t the point. He drank with certain people, one or two big spenders, liquor salesmen, but always with Joe, whose last name never passed his lips even though they’d been doing business for years. Joe owned the juke box and cigarette machine, and once every two weeks he pulled up in his Buick and with a couple of pass keys took out the coin boxes and dumped the quarters onto a booth table. He and Joe would slide them into paper rolls and fold the ends over and tap each end to keep the coins tight. Each roll held forty quarters – ten dollars worth — and they stacked them like cord wood, then divided them equally, after which, as a sign of good will, Joe passed him a roll from his half. When this was done he – Frank Cimorelli, owner in 1960 of a bar in Newburgh, New York – would nod to his bartender who brought water chasers and shot glasses and the bottle of Chivas Regal and poured shots for both men below the one-ounce line. They would salute and sip but not finish because drinking wasn’t the point. These moments celebrated who they were, their labor, their common background. Their English laced with old world dialect was the most powerful of bonds — language limited and secret, something between them rolling off their tongues, in separate words and sometimes complete sentences when the subject required discretion, like taxes, black people, police, money, but not women, women were private.
Joe spoke in dialect about business and how the blacks were ruining the town, and Frank nodded but did not repeat the slurs. He never used those words not only because they were offensive but because the woman he was in love with — as he was once in love with his present wife – was of that color. He knew that if he wiped Ruth with a washcloth and turned her white then she’d be just a human being with aging parents and a kid in private school who might or might not know how she made her money.
On working nights Ruth took her place in the middle of the bar with empty stools on either side to make it easy for men to approach. Frank watched her leave with one after another, two and sometimes three a night, and she would look at him each time as if to say, Just shut your mouth! Frank knew it was not only color that condemned her. He’d been in the war and had seen the same with women who spoke the language he shared with Joe and how they did the same to survive.
Frank had declared his love to Ruth as Antony with a wife back in Rome might have declared it to Cleopatra, and in love she and Antony made war and dealt kingdoms like cards until it all came crashing down. Frank’s love had its own fault lines, tainted not only by color but with the knowledge that the woman he loved could make five hundred a night for selling what she gave him for nothing. Sometimes it was one thousand a day for boat parties on the Hudson River, six women and three high rollers, the women sitting in a row on deck chairs in a kind of sexual gauntlet with the men going down the line and helping themselves to anything in any way they wanted. Once Ruth began, “On the boat there was this game…” but Frank covered her mouth with his hand as anger and sorrow mixed like club soda poured over whiskey. And why did she tell him things like that? Because she wanted him to know the worst, and fair enough it had to be.
Frank called for a cigar and sat there with the water chasers and the unfinished shots and his forty extra quarters. Joe was gone by then and through the cigar smoke Frank saw the lovers in their opulence dealing kingdoms like cards and how it all came crashing down and how he couldn’t let that happen to him.
Vincent Panella is a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and the former Writing Specialist at The Vermont Law School. Three of Vincent Panella’s books are a memoir, The Other Side, Growing up Italian in America, a novel, Cutter’s Island, (Foreword winner); and Lost Hearts, a story collection, recently reviewed in Ovunque Siamo by Laurette Folk. His stories have appeared in The MacGuffin, Paterson Literary Review, WIPS Journal, The Carbon Culture Review, Voices in Italian Americana, The Long Story, and Main Street Rag. His website is vincentpanella.com, and he writes for vermontviews.org under the heading The First Glass.