“Santa Claus walks into a bar,” Paul said the words slowly. An opener like that and you have them smiling right away. People know a zinger is coming. Except Paul didn't have a punchline, and after ten years he didn't think one was forthcoming.
He got lucky and found an empty parking space right across from Drake's Bar and Grill. The official-police-business placard on the visor let him ignore the parking meter. Paul's business tonight was about as personal as you could get, but being a cop should have its perks.
In a few hours, college students would fill East Carson Street for one more night of debauchery before heading home for Christmas with the family. It was early though, only six p.m. and relatively quiet. Of course, you could still find trouble if you went looking for it. Paul wasn't looking for trouble. He was looking for a skinny, bald probation officer named Ivan Guskov and he knew where to find him.
Ivan sat on the same barstool as always. He wore his usual monkey-brown corduroy blazer with a green plaid scarf looped about his thin neck. He looked over his shoulder as Paul walked toward the bar and his face broke into a wide grin. Paul knew from that smile he was right on time.
They'd become friends through work and bad habits. Paul helped bring in a few of Ivan's clients over the years, and they discovered gambling and drinking were pastimes they both appreciated more than they should. These days, Paul might still put fifty down on the Steelers, but he'd given up the booze. He had Ivan to thank for that.
Paul took a seat and stared into the gold-flecked mirror behind the bar. Ivan sat beside him, looking out of place with no drink. They made an odd pair. Ivan's hatchet face and narrow frame contrasting with Paul's coarse pugilist's features and linebacker shoulders—a run-down Laurel next to a Hardy gone savage.
The bartender looked barely old enough to drink. Paul hadn't seen him before. It wasn't surprising. Paul only came by once a year.
“Um … you're Paul Drazdzinski, right?” The bartender asked, sounding flustered. “Mr. Drake said you were um—” He swallowed and tried again. “So, what'll you have?”
Paul smiled like only a twenty-five-year-on-the-job cop could. The bartender flinched. “What's your name, kid?”
“Eddie, Eddie Donneley.”
“And you obviously know who I am.”
“Yes, sir. Mr. Drake described you. Said you'd be here tonight.”
“Where is the boss? I didn't think he ever left.”
“Helen, his wife, she's not doing real well. You know, the cancer.”
Paul had not known but nodded anyway. “Give me a Jamison's neat and some cranberry juice on the rocks.” When the drinks came, Paul slid the whiskey in front of Ivan and took a sip of the cranberry juice.
“So, you're the guy—” Eddie started.
Paul cut him off. “Listen, I'm not here to relive old times or tell you a funny story.” The kid flinched again. Paul felt bad. “It's okay.” He pulled a twenty out of his wallet and laid it on the bar. “I just want to rent a couple of stools for about …” He looked at his watch. “Another twenty-five minutes or so. I don't want any conversation. We'll be fine.”
Eddie glanced toward where Ivan sat and back to Paul. Then he nodded and walked away.
Ivan laughed silently, his shoulders bobbing.
Paul took another sip from his glass and cut his eyes toward Ivan. “Okay, so maybe I am here to relive the past.” The cranberry juice had a bite, but not the kind Paul craved. “Isn't it time for you to take a piss, you degenerate-gambler.”
Ivan slid off the barstool and headed for the can. He threw back an insult that Paul couldn't hear followed by a hand gesture he understood just fine.
Eddie, the bartender, pulled a pitcher of Yuengling and glanced nervously at Paul in the mirror.
Paul thought about smiling at him again but didn't want to make the poor kid cry. Besides, He seemed nice enough. Paul sometimes wished he and Maggie's marriage had a child to show for it, instead of just painful memories and a divorce decree. I'd have probably screwed that up too, he thought. Paul shook his head, imagining a houseful of kids that flinched when their old man smiled.