Ten Dollar Bill
by Robert Rorke
We came down to breakfast Sunday morning and found Himself slumped on the kitchen floor, back against the white enamelled oven door. His head was hanging down, dark hair hiding his right eye. Mom leaned against the sink, sipping a cup of coffee in her pink flannel nightgown, and looked down at him, as if trying to figure out how she was going to lift him—or if she was just going to leave him there.
He was conked-out. If you screamed in his ear, he wouldn’t have heard you. We’d found him passed out before, usually at the kitchen table, but never on the floor. Did he fall off the kitchen chair? He was like one of those guys you saw on the Bowery. How do you come home like that, so drunk you just collapse? I didn’t want to see any more and almost went back to my room until Mom hustled him upstairs.
I waited with my sisters in the dining room for the okay to walk in. Mom put the coffee cup down and waved us over. I went first.
Mom lit a cigarette on the gas burner and took a long drag on it. “She’s all yours,” she said, pointing.
As shocked as we were to see Himself in such bad shape, the bigger surprise was the dog. She was reclining next to his bent left leg, a tricolor collie blinking at us in the most bewildered way, as if she were waiting for us to tell her what she was doing here, in our kitchen. She was very striking, even beautiful. Her coat was mainly black. Her forelegs were brown, paws and chest white. Her snout was longer and narrower than most collies, with a thin stripe of white in the brown. It gave her a slightly aristocratic air. She was going to need it in this house.
Like me, my sisters were half-asleep. Ringlets of damp hair stuck to their necks and temples.
Maureen, the eldest, immediately knelt to pet the dog. “Look at you,” she said into the collie’s confused, melancholy face. She looked up at Mom. “Where’d she come from?”
“Your father brought her home from a bar. Where else? Who wants coffee?”
The aroma of a freshly cooked pot filled the kitchen. I raised my hand. “I do.”
Maureen glanced at Dad. “He’s really smelly, Mom.”
I didn’t plan to get that close. A thread of drool hung from his lip, pack of Pall Malls crushed in his shirt pocket. I checked the clock over the far wall of yellow cabinets. Eight a.m.
Maureen gently unbent Dad’s leg to free the collie. Now his legs were spread out in front of him, blocking the way to the sink. Standing on his other side, Mom poured coffee into cups she took from the drain board and passed them over his head to Dee Dee, who put them on the table. Then she passed out Tupperware cereal bowls.
“Let’s get her some water,” Maureen said. Mom filled a cereal bowl and passed it to Maureen. The collie lapped up half of it and then reclined on the floor next to Himself, crossing her front paws. Master and pet, in repose.
“Ooh, she’s such a lady,” I said. “Definitely not the saloon sort. What did he say when he brought her in?”
“What was there to say?” Mom said, flustered. “He opened the door at five o’clock and said, ‘I’ve got something here for the kids.’ I looked into the front porch and there she was.”
Having the collie there made it possible to overlook my father, as if he were a sofa too cumbersome to move.
“Well, she’s pretty and that’s nice,” said Patty, the second sister. “What’s her name?”
“I don’t know if she has one,” Mom said, wiping her glasses on a hand towel. “I think that’s up to you kids.”
We all looked at her.
“Well, we could name her after the bar where he found her,” I said.
Maureen shot me a baleful look. “Like what? Dew Drop?”
“We are not naming her Dew Drop,” said Patty. “Don’t be such an ass.”
“No, I think we’ll name her Queenie,” Maureen said.
She was always so pushy. “Hey, who says you get to decide?” I asked.
Mom took a ratty leather harness off the closet doorknob and handed it to Maureen. “Before you start arguing, why don’t you get dressed and take her out for a walk? Your father swore she was housetrained.”
We threw our clothes on without taking showers first and walked the dog together, the five of us. Me, Maureen, Patty and our two youngest sisters, Dee Dee and Mary Ellen. I helped Maureen put the harness on the dog and felt the hairless skin under her coat. Himself was grumbling on the kitchen floor.
“Go on now, while I get him up to bed,” Mom said.
The block was empty except for other dog walkers. It was a cloudy day with a raw, wet breeze. The Black Beauty, Himself’s vintage Pontiac, struck a lopsided pose in the driveway, its fancy back end, with a two-tone Continental kit, nudging the orange berries on our neighbour’s firethorn bush, its grille breathing on the alyssum plants around the border of our garden. Maureen held the leash and guided the collie into the street. The dog trotted along and Maureen, long brown hair lifting off her back, kept her eyes peeled toward Snyder Avenue for oncoming cars. It was uncanny, how she knew which way the collie was going to move. She pulled the leash to her, stopping the dog when a car approached or even if another animal appeared in her path. You would have thought she had been doing this for years. When I tried, I held the leash too loosely, and the dog almost walked into a passing Dodge.
We took the collie across Snyder Avenue where a dirt path ran along Holy Cross Cemetery. Gina Martinucci was already there, walking her dog, a camel-colored mutt named Muffin. She lived across the street. Not one pimple on her face. I’d known her as long as we’d lived here, almost ten years; she’d never looked so pretty. She was wearing a bright green raincoat, her wavy brown hair cascading to her shoulders. Not one pimple on her face. Next to her, I felt grubby in my blue corduroy pants and sweatshirt. And I wished I’d combed my mop of hair.
Gina was obviously ready for church. She sang and played lead acoustic guitar at the St. Maria Goretti folk mass (I hadn’t been to church since starting high school; maybe I needed to go back). There were almost as many girls in the Martinucci house as there were in mine, and one son, also the eldest child. The big difference was that her whole family was involved in the church: her mother sang in the choir, her father was in the Holy Name Society. Rumor had it that the Martinuccis said the rosary together—something we would not do in a million years.
“My God, is that your dog?” she said. “She’s beautiful. When did you get her?”
“This morning,” I said. My sweatshirt was not warm enough for the crisp air.
Gina gave me a strange look. “This morning? You’re kidding. Wow.”
“It was a surprise.”
She bent down to pet the collie. “How old is she?”
I shrugged. “We don’t really know.” I sounded like a first-class doofus.
“What?” Gina said, glancing up. “Well, she’s not a puppy. Where’d you get her?”
This encounter was getting more awkward every minute. I glanced at the flower arrangements on the graves through the cemetery’s wrought-iron fence. Piles of raked red, yellow, and brown leaves colored the dying grass.
“Our father brought her home,” Patty said finally.
Gina stroked the collie’s black fur. “Really? I mean, was she a stray?”
“The dog belonged to a friend of my father’s who couldn’t take care of her anymore,” said Maureen, standing next to me.
Gina was beginning to get it, her knit brow registering the weirdness of this meeting. “Oh, that’s too bad. So I guess you didn’t get to name her. It’s more fun when they don’t have a name.”
“You’re right,” Maureen said. “We were told her name was Queenie.”
I wanted to step on her feet. It was such a frigging stupid name.
“Queenie,” Gina said, trying it out. “Well, that’s different. I guess there enough Princesses around.”
“And they’re all German shepherds,” I said.
Muffin and Queenie were sniffing each other out, the collie ever so standoffish. Maureen didn’t even grip the leash. Gina ran her fingers through the collie’s thick coat again. “She must be shedding everywhere. I’m constantly picking up hair.”
“Yeah, it’s a real drag,” Maureen said, rolling her eyes. She started to lead the dog away. “Come on, Queenie.”
When my sisters were out of earshot, Gina told me, “Her coat’s a little dull. You should give her a raw egg once in a while. Makes it shiny.”
I caught up with my sisters after Gina left. “Why did you tell her we got the dog from daddy’s friend, of all things?”
“Why do you have to broadcast our family’s business all over the place?” Maureen said, letting the dog drag her ahead as she sniffed the ground.
“What did I say? We have a dog. We don’t know how old she is, and we don’t know where she came from—except some bar. Which I didn’t tell her.”
Maureen remained stone-faced. “You didn’t have to tell Gina Martinucci anything. She thinks who she is.” Finally, the dog squatted and peed.
Even though they met under the most unlikely circumstances, Queenie seemed to like Himself most of all. Whenever he sat in his chair, a rust-colored recliner, the dog ran over to him and leapt into his lap, offering her neck for a good rubbing. He always obliged and the dog moaned appreciatively.
“Daddy, why doesn’t she ever bark?” Dee Dee asked. That was Queenie’s thing: to almost bark, moaning when she became excited but never really opening her mouth to let the full sound out. “It’s like she wants to but doesn’t know how.”
“I don’t really know,” he said with a yawn. “I think she may have been beaten when she did bark.”
“Poor Queenie,” Dee Dee said.
There was no question that the arrival of the collie was a blessing in our lives. We could all take care of her. Dad set up a schedule for the care of the dog. Queenie was walked five times a day; I had the late shift. Soon we wanted the dog outside with us all the time. If there was no one else for Dee Dee and Mary Ellen to play with on the block when they came home from school, they could run her up and down the sidewalk between our house and Snyder Avenue or try in vain to teach her tricks, like how to catch a ball. And Queenie was always good company, whether you wanted to hang out on the stoop or walk two miles around the perimeter of Holy Cross.
There were only a few things she hated: baths, firecrackers, and bars. I discovered that one night when Dad called home, asking for money to stay out and drink. That had been going on a while, the staying out, maybe an entire year. Nights in neighborhood bars like the Dew Drop and the Brooklyn Inn or even Harkins, a bucket of blood in Park Slope, got longer and longer and sometimes ended the next day. It had us all on edge because we never knew what mood he would bring home. The morning he brought the collie counted as a good mood, but some of the others were ugly. Last week he summoned us to the kitchen table at the crack of dawn after being out all night about talking on the telephone too much—even though we never got a bill since he worked for Ma Bell. No matter what we did, there was always something wrong with it and we learned to walk on eggshells around him. Or avoid him altogether.
Mom was using her lowest possible voice as she talked to him on the phone, sitting on the telephone bench on the staircase landing; I knew she didn’t want to give him five cents. Then she hung up, called me over and asked me to give her the pocket book on the dining room table. She took a ten-dollar bill from her change purse and handed it to me.
“Take this to your father,” she said evenly.
I finished my French and geometry homework and was ready to watch “The Avengers.” Diana Rigg in a leather cat suit doing karate on the bad guys, then changing into something sleek at the end of the episode for a martini with Mr. Steed. Never missed an episode.
Mom knew from my expression I didn’t want to go, but I didn’t say anything. I went where I was told, though she didn’t have to tell me where. I knew: the Dew Drop. “He says to take the dog with you.”
Queenie, napping in front of the television, didn’t look like she wanted to go anywhere. “Why do I have to bring her?”
Mom bit off her words. “It will take ten minutes. Do me a favour and take the dog.”
Maybe I’d make it back in time for the second half-hour. Emma Peel would be kicking the villain-of-the-week in the teeth by then and the show would really get good. Maureen could tell me what I’d missed.
I walked up Church Avenue, heading towards Nostrand. Our neighbourhood was more black than white now. The streetscape I knew was changed forever. Roti shops had replaced grocery stores. Guy’s hair salon, with its sun-bleached pictures of women with blonde beehives and champagne bouffants taped to the windows, was now called De Hair Wizzards and advertised weaves, wigs and Afros. Himself wanted me to bring the dog for protection in case I ran into any trouble, but I didn’t think I’d have any problems. Now that it was colder, the corner boys who usually hung out in front of the bodega on New York Avenue drinking Colt 45s were gone. The few guys I did pass sidestepped me as if they were afraid of the collie. Little did they know she barely barked; it was hard to imagine her biting anyone.
The Dew Drop was on the corner of Church and Fairview Place, six blocks from home. Queenie trotted along at my side under a dark blue sky, her coat shiny in the moonlight (I’d taken Gina’s advice and mixed a raw egg into her Alpo). I wore a red-and-black plaid jacket that used to belong to my Uncle George; the sleeves were a little long, but had a great scratchy feel I always associated with old-time wool. He moved to Germany last summer. As a parting gift, he gave Himself a copy of The Big Book, a present from one recovering alcoholic to another on his way down. The book had vanished, hidden somewhere in our house, I was sure, probably unread. I needed no further proof than the morning he brought home the dog, unconscious on the kitchen floor.
As I approached the bar, something strange happened. Queenie pulled at the leash. I looked down at her and said, “What’s wrong?” I took another step and she dragged her hind legs on the sidewalk, claws on her forelegs scraping the concrete. I stopped. She gave me a frightened look. She knew more about this place than I did. I didn’t know what to do, so I bent down and pet her.
I glanced at the bar. The window was decorated with green shamrocks, decorations someone forgot to take down; it was already October. Or maybe every day was St. Patrick’s Day at the Dew Drop.
We went back to the corner and crossed the street. I walked the collie down to the corner of Martense Street and crossed back over. “Come on. It won’t take long,” I said, as if she could understand me. When we were near the bar’s side exit, she allowed me to tie the leash to a No Parking sign and I stayed with her a minute.
I was hoping I could make this quick, give the old man his ten bucks and scram. I entered the bar through the side door, hands at my side, not knowing what to expect. First surprise: It was a mixed crowd. I couldn’t even imagine Himself drinking with black guys, especially the ones here with Afros, when he was always making jokes about blacks, but I guess in the smoky confines of the Dew Drop, racial tensions were set aside as long as everyone could watch the Mets game. They’d won the World Series last year and were still the city’s favorite team, giving hope to underdogs everywhere.
I was the only minor in the joint, sure I stuck out like a sore thumb. Standing on tiptoe, I saw Dad sitting on a red stool. Probably itching for this ten-dollar bill, thinking about it every time he saw the foam slide down the inside of the empty pint glass next to him. He was talking to some middle-aged white guy with a sharply receding hairline and a cigar sticking out of his mouth. The TV set was poised above the far right end of the bar. They were complaining about first baseman Ed Kranepool. I knew that name from listening to my parents watch the game at home. Dad always called him lard ass.
I stood behind him, took the bill out of my pocket and placed it on the bar in front of him. I leaned in. “Mom said this was for you.”
He turned and shot me a look. “Hey, who’s this?” the man sitting next to him asked, and I reached out to shake the hand of someone I didn’t really want to meet.
“You haven’t met my son, the scholar?” Dad said, poking the shoulder of a guy next to him. “Nicky, can I buy you a drink?”
Mom didn’t say I was going to have to stay. “Uh, maybe a quick one. I’ll take a ginger ale. I have the dog outside.”
One of the Mets scored a home run, and he shouted to everyone, in the booming voice we heard him use to cheer on the Giants, his other favourite team, “Seven to four, top of the eighth. We are home free.”
When he was wound up like this, Dad was hard to resist. He called the bartender over. “Charlie, give me another beer. And a soda for my son.”
Charlie was an older white man with liver-colored lips and thinning brown hair slicked back with some old-time tonic with a medicinal odour like Vitalis; when he spoke, his nicotined teeth flashed garishly from the right corner of his mouth. I bet Dad had known him for years, from one place to another as he stopped in for a quick one after work. Charlie slapped another foamy beer on the bar.
So this was Himself’s inner sanctum. A private world of men playing the away game from their families. Some customers were older than Dad, guys with thick-lensed eyeglasses, pudding skin, and chin lines lost to jowls, but many looked like they were about the same age, early- to mid-thirties, still slim and well built. All eyes were on the television screen and the all-important game. I sipped my soda, trying to seem natural though the smoky air was bothering my eyes; it was hard not to rub them.
Compared to some of the joints I would later retrieve Himself from, this place wasn’t terrible. The décor was standard: a jukebox, a pool table, dartboard, neon signs advertising Rheingold and Pabst Blue Ribbon. Two photos over the walnut case that housed the bottles of liquor and liqueurs caught my eye; they seemed so out of place. One was John F. Kennedy, in a fake gold frame, the kind we used for our school pictures, lined up on the fireplace in the living room. The other was Martin Luther King Jr. The owner wasn’t stupid; he wanted to keep his changing clientele happy.
Dad was telling the guy sitting at the next stool—his name was Molloy, Joe Molloy—what a fantastic student I was. “This kid got one hundred in Latin, I kid you not,” he said. I remembered more the lecture he’d given me about my mediocre algebra grades on the same report card.
“I’m lucky I can speak English,” Molloy said. He got up to take a leak and I took his seat.
The ginger ale tasted kind of flat. I drank it anyway and gestured to the dog when I finished. The side exit was open now, and Dad glanced at Queenie resting on the sidewalk.
“She’s some watchdog,” he said with a wink. “Best game of poker I ever won.”
“I was playing cards here with Tommy Sullivan and Phil Cooney and Joe was flat broke. So he put his dog up as ante. You see, he’s the owner and she was kind of like the bar dog.”
The bar dog. I wished he had the sense that she did about coming here. “And you won the game and the dog.” I couldn’t even smile.
Dad gave a hearty laugh. “That’s the way it goes sometimes.”
I wondered how long Queenie had lived here. We didn’t even know how old she was. I rubbed my eyes and looked at the guys sitting on the stools. How many of them would go home after the Mets had won? Most, probably. So why couldn’t Himself do that?
Standing up, I glanced at the singles on the bar, the change from our drinks. I was feeling nervy. “So I guess you’ll be home when the game’s over?”
He did a double take, as if I’d cuffed him on the ear. “What did you say, Mr. Flynn?”
For the moment, I forgot about Emma Peel. “I want to take another driving lesson tomorrow. We haven’t gone out in a while.”
He’d given me my first driving lesson in The Black Beauty, inside Holy Cross Cemetery. I crept along the winding rows in the ancient Pontiac—it was new in 1958—driving ten, twenty miles an hour amid the rows of granite and green. By some fluke, I learned to parallel-park there, on the first try. Since then, we’d branched out, taking the black-and-white tank to the Brooklyn Terminal Market, which had no yellow lines, just huge spaces between the vendors. “I don’t want to get rusty.”
“Yeah, well. We’ll see what we can do about that.”
As saves go, I was proud of myself, although my knees were shaking. An appointment with a car he could make. Spending the night with his family, he was on the fence.
Queenie looked fairly miserable out on the sidewalk, panting in the dark, but I wanted to see if I could get Himself to come home. It was the top of ninth, the score unchanged. I ordered another ginger ale, chipping away at what was left of that ten-dollar bill. Tom Seaver, the cute Met my two eldest sisters had a crush on, was pitching so that was a good sign. He could knock out the other team and when he did, the guys in the bar cheered as if they were out at Shea Stadium. Then they started to leave, settling up, shaking hands with the bartender, and going on their way.
I stood and nudged my old man. “Come say hi to the dog.”
I went outside. Queenie jumped on me when I untied the leash, thinking we were finally getting out of there. When she settled down, I pet her under the collar, rubbing the white hair under her neck, which she loved. Then Himself joined us on the sidewalk and she got excited all over again. She was ready to go. I wondered if he was too.
“Want to walk us home?”
He stopped petting Queenie and looked up at me. “Why? You afraid of the dark?”
“Game’s over, Dad. Your team won.”
He stood, looking down at the sidewalk with his hands in his pockets, as if giving serious thought to my proposal. “You go on home, Nicky,” he said. “I’ve got to talk Molloy about something.”
When he raised his head, his eyes were full of regret; he knew what I was up to and he was still going to let me down. I wondered how much of that ten-dollar bill was left—enough for one more drink? Maybe he had to talk Molloy into giving him a free one. A buy back, they called it. Except that my mother was doing the buying here. He was doing the spending.
He left me on the sidewalk with the dog. I was a fool to think I’d convince him to come home. Voices came from the TV set inside the bar, sportscasters falling all over themselves about tonight’s game. I stood there like a jerk, looking at the mannequins in the window of Bob and Betty, the children’s clothing store across the street. A stock boy from the Big Apple dragged tied-up cardboard boxes to the curb for garbage pickup tomorrow morning.
I had him, then I lost him, like an image that slips out of focus in the lens of a camera. All the elements were there to give me a clear picture of what I could expect the next time I was sent to get him. And the time after that. The corner bar, the sound of my own footsteps as I walked up the street, the kid taking out the trash, as I would do when I had my own after-school job, scooping thirty-one flavours. A lingering sense of futility, and the lonely certainty that these missions would end only when I grew up and moved away.
I took the dog and headed back down Church Avenue. She pulled at the leash with the same force she showed when clawing the sidewalk. Home, that’s what she wanted. Me too. Neither of us belonged here.