‘You can set your watch by them,’ said Joey. ‘Every July 4th. Same time. Same booth. They’ll order the specials, open cards and hold hands over dessert. Man, that’s a New York love story.’
According to Joey, the couple had been meeting once a year at the Spring Street Lounge since forever.
‘The old guy once told me he fell for her by the jukebox,’ he smiled, swiping a cloth over the copper counter. ‘Fireworks exploding outside and in.’
He tapped his watch. ‘They’ll be here soon. Seven. On the dot.’
Joey’s stories of Little Italy mobsters, gang brawls and limos prowling the street, were a perk of my job. After Mum died, I found photos of her posing in front of New York landmarks wearing yoga pants and Bo Derek braids. Several featured her outside the Spring Street Lounge where she’s clowning with a couple of Springsteen clones and a russet haired woman holding a baby. Having never seen her that jubilant, I flew here searching for the mother I never really knew. When I stood outside the bar and saw the sign on the window saying ‘Staff Wanted,’ I took it as a posthumous sign.
Joey, the manager, said my British accent would be catnip to New Yorkers. The Lounge was a SoHo legend and tourists seeking Mean Streets scenes bantered with yellow cab drivers and steel toe capped builders. I loved it when they asked questions like, ‘Hey you met the Queen?’ or ‘Is there a bridge over to Ireland?’
I was serving beers to a bunch of tattooed students when Joey dug me in the ribs and whispered, ‘That’s him.’ An old grey bearded guy wearing a suit jacket was pushing through the Independence Day scrum. Joey left the bar to greet him. I’d seen Joey, flexing baseball biceps, throw out a mouthy jock twice his size. The solicitous way he took the elderly man’s elbow was touching.
The bar was sauna hot with sweaty punters waving Stars and Stripes flags. Occasionally, bodies parting like the red sea revealed the man seated at the table. He’d propped two envelopes against the menu and sat rifle straight, eyes glued to the door. With every creaking opening, his smile waxed and waned. In between, he checked his watch and mobile. Joey, mixing Manhattans in a cocktail shaker, said, ‘Never known her to be this late. Don’t say she’s stood him up after all these years.’
The giant clock over the optics ticked the minutes. People ebbed and flowed, shouting over the music and slamming down shot glasses. Amid the jollity, the old man looked out of place and uneasy. At eight thirty, Joey said, ‘Go ask if he wants to order. His lady was English. Your accent might cheer him up.’ I doubted this but taking my pencil and pad, shouldered my way through the throng. The man had his head in his hands. I coughed. When he looked up. his complexion paled to cement grey. Two fat tears rolled down his cheeks and nestled in his beard like twin diamonds.
‘Are you ok?’
‘Yes, yes. I’m sorry,’ he mumbled, ‘You’re just so like…….……’ His voice trailed off as if lacking the energy to finish the sentence.
I shifted from foot to foot before asking if he’d like to order. He interrogated my face for long minutes while I waited, pencil poised. Then he straightened his shoulders suggesting a decision had been made. ‘Bring me the special and a bottle of house white. Two glasses please.’
I did as I was bid and watched, bemused, as he poured wine into both glasses. When I returned with his meal, he said, ‘Would you do me a favour?’
‘If I can.’
‘Join me for ten minutes. Joey won’t mind. I sure could use some company.’
Listening to strangers was part of my job but the bar was heaving. Yet Joey said, ‘I’ll hold the fort kid. Go talk English to the poor sap.’
His food was barely touched. When I asked if I could remove his plate he shook his head and pushed a quarter towards me saying. ‘Would you indulge me further by putting Dancing In The Dark on the jukebox?’ I looked round to see Joey give a big thumbs up.
Artie Shaw’s mellow big band chords worked magic and smooching couples shuffled in circles, arms limp across shoulders.
The banquette’s sticky plastic cooled my thighs as I sat opposite him. He pushed the envelopes towards me. ‘Would you mind opening these?’
What next? Hold his hand? ‘Please,’ he implored. ‘It would mean a lot to me tonight.’
The card expressed typical anniversary sentiments. Love on the front. Love on the inside and ‘Forever yours. Gerry.’ I propped it between us. He nodded at the other. I ripped it open. Photographs fluttered out. Posturing lads. A red head with a baby. And my mother in blonde braids outside the Spring Street Lounge.
‘Why have you got photographs of my Mum?’ I placed my hands palm down on the table to stop them shaking.
‘You’re her living image. She’s dead, isn’t she?’
Tears threatened. I nodded and his hand covered mine as the song faded. I wanted to shake it off but the warmth was comforting.
‘They were taken the day we fell in love.’ He pointed to the other woman. ‘This is the woman I betrayed. Laurie, my wife with our son Eric. Your mother was her friend. She understood I
couldn’t leave them.’ His lips trembled. ``We met every year. But she never told me about you.’
I thought back to summers spent with gran when mum went away. The reason was sitting opposite me in the Spring Street Lounge. I scrutinised his features for clues to the question Mum would never answer. Outside, fireworks illuminated the New York night.