Marco Etheridge

Old Talk

The message had a patina of such age that it gave me pause. Forget the fact that it had actually found me. Had it really been two decades? Yet when I saw his face it was as if those years did not exist, nor the six thousand miles between now and then.

It was all so simple, so unexpected, as if we were still squatting in the same rat-trap building above the industrial park. His email was straightforward and short. Hello Dimitri. Sonya gave me your email. I will be in Vienna for a short business trip. Any chance of meeting up for a coffee and a bit of the old talk? Best, Daniel.

I rattle along on the U-Bahn, riding the U-4 train into the old city. The U-4 line runs below the city streets, following the course of the Wienfluss, the Vienna River. 

The Karlsplatz station is a city under the ground. I thread my way through the crowded broad stone halls. I pass the noodle stand and the hat shop, the bakery and the noisy Opera Toilet. Tourists hand over seventy cents for the privilege of relieving themselves to the blaring strains of Verdi or Mozart. Further up the tunnel they could piss for free, without the arias but in the company of the Viennese.

The escalator tops out into a blaze of sunshine and flocks of pigeons. There are flocks of tourists as well, clustered round the hulking Renaissance Revival of the opera house. I run the gauntlet of upraised selfie-sticks; dodge the opera ghouls trying to sell tickets to the tourists. Once across the open space, I disappear into the narrow streets of the old city, walking to my café. 

There must be some trick of the brain, a sort of visual overlay that memory produces to alter and protect us from the present. I see Daniel turn into the narrow passageway, scanning the tables of my café. My eyes see a middle-aged man in a good business suit, hand raised and smiling. My brain interposes another image; a lean young man in a dirty jean jacket, running, throwing a look back over his shoulder. We are in a back alley in Seattle and it is raining. Then the image is gone, and I am standing beside a table in a quaint café in Vienna, shaking Daniel’s hand. We settle at the table, smiling, wondering.

With a slight turn of his head, Daniel scans the length of the cobblestone passageway. He nods, his lip curled up on the right, same as always. Then he is smiling, the voice as familiar as my own.

“This is good; it suits you Dimitri. Two ways in and out, nice and small so you can see everything. Just like old times.”

“C’mon Danny, that was a long time ago. It’s just a good café, that’s all.”

The Italian waiter appears, quick and quiet for a big man.

“What are you having, Danny?”

“Just coffee, black. I know that’s a crime here but…”

“Yes, the Viennese like their milk; not a problem.”

Due caffè doppio, per favore.”

Certo, molto bene.” The big man disappeared into the bar.

“You speak Italian now?”

“No, that was the extent of it. Learning German is bad enough. Besides, I think our waiter speaks about five languages. His English is perfect. He lets me order in Italian to humor me.”

Daniel’s eyes are on mine, the same eyes from my memory. The face is a little heavier, sure, but the smart-ass smirk is the same. Just sitting there, smiling, as if we met here every day.

“Okay Danny, I suppose I should ask how you found me, but the better question is why?”

Then he’s shaking his head, smiling that crooked smile. It’s the same smile he had when we were planning some stupid scam that was going to go horribly wrong.

“The how is easy, D. You leave a trail of ex-wives behind you. I just had to talk to the last one in line. The why is simple: I wanted to say hello. Sonya sends her best, by the way.”

“Shit, you didn’t talk to Ronni, did you?”

Danny was laughing out loud now; laughing at me, like always.

“No, pal of mine, I’m not into pain for pain’s sake. Besides, I think she’s long gone somewhere down in the Southwest. When I got tapped for this Europe trip, I figured I’d look you up. Sonya was easy enough to find. And she’s pleasant company, unlike some of your other exes. She gave me your email and here I am.”

The waiter appears, placing silver trays on the table: double espressos, glasses of water, sugar in paper tubes. He vanishes with a nod.

“You mind if I smoke while you tell me what you’re doing here?”

“Do your worst. That’s one of the things I love about Europe. Everybody smokes. I saw it in Germany last year. The Germans smoking away like chimneys, the American tourists waving their hands and coughing; the Germans laughing and smoking even more.”

I lean back in my chair, clipping a cigar while listening to the sound of his voice.

“Which brings us to why you are in Vienna.”

“All in good time, D. After you left Seattle, I got sick of the same crappy jobs. You know, a few years clean, starting to think of better things than warehouse work.”

“Let me guess, you went to school to become a drug and alcohol counselor?”

“Please, as if the world needs another one of those deluded do-gooders. No, I didn’t set out on a quest to save the rest of the suffering addicts. But I did go to school for mechanical engineering. I ended up getting a job with a firm that deals in high-tech fittings. Hydraulic stuff, gas fittings, fancy shiny bits that get used in aerospace and laboratories. Austria, Germany, that’s where lots of the high-end gizmos are made. So here I am, a simple salesman on a simple business trip. Boring stuff compared to the exotic life of an ex-pat.”

Exotic, that’s what they always think. As if one city isn’t pretty much like another. As if moving somewhere changes anything except the language that you hear in the street.

“It’s not like the movies, Danny. The Old Timers used to say a geographic doesn’t change anything except the view. When you get there, you’re the same person you were before. The sons of bitches were right about that, like they were about most things.”

“Yeah, the crusty old bastards. Now we’re the crusty old bastards.”

“True enough. The three steps to becoming an Old Timer: Don’t drink, don’t use, don’t die.”

“From what Sonya was saying, things are good for you. At least as far as she knew. Married to a cute Austrian girl, writing, living in Europe. That’s a far cry from the old days.”

I want to laugh at Danny’s version of my life, but it isn’t funny, even coming out of the mouth of one of my exes. True, I am married to a cute Austrian girl. Maja is so much more than cute. She is smart, funny, wicked, and well-read. She is also the best proof-reader I’ve ever met; precise and patient with a language that is her second tongue. Yeah, a writer’s dream, and bad luck for her.

Maja trying to encourage me, driving me further into one of my sulks. Maja worrying about me, far too smart to believe my lies. She is simple and direct, without drama or hysterics; something that could not be said about me.

“No, Sonya’s got it right. Things are good with me. Maja is amazing.”

I push it away, think of something else. Then I imagine Danny chatting up my ex-wife, which causes me chuckle aloud.

“What’s so funny, D?”

“I just had the image of you and Sonya comparing notes, that’s all.”

“I hate to disappoint you, but you were just a small part of the conversation. Your ego and guilty conscience are getting the best of you. It was good to see Sonya. She seems to be doing really well. Sonya is a fine woman. If I didn’t bat for the other team, I might have made a play.”

“Yeah, you two would make a cute couple.”

“You’re a funny man, D. Anyway, I’m all settled down now. Life is good. I found Mr. Right. Well, that’s not exactly true. I realized that I was already with Mr. Right, if that makes sense. Michael and I had been together for some years and things were going really well. I woke up to the fact that I was struggling with it, struggling with success. That old addict crap rearing its head again. You know, that I was a loser, that I didn’t deserve any of this. There I was, two decades clean and I’m still not worthy, right? It took a bit of work to get past; some therapy, a lot of talking with my sponsor. I finally got to the place where I could accept that I already had exactly what I wanted, and that is was okay for me to have it.”

“That stinking thinking is a bitch, Danny, no doubt. There should be some time limit on it, but there’s not. It always seems to be there, lurking in the shadows. Still, I’m glad to hear things are going well for you. And I’m glad to hear that Sonya is well. It’s been some years now since I’ve seen her. She never did anything wrong by me, you know? That was all my fault, the stuff that went down between us.”

“Of course it was, Dimitri. But water under the bridge, right? Speaking of which, are you in touch with any of the old tribe?”

The question stops me as I reach for the ashtray, my cigar hovering in the air. A flash of forgotten faces crowds my memory, each face waiting for me to answer.

“You mean besides you? There were a couple that got into the program later on, cleaned up, at least as far as I remember. But I haven’t talked to any of them in years, not since I left Seattle. Why do you ask?”

“I was up there not long ago; up in Fremont. You wouldn’t recognize it. Gentrification has taken a heavy toll on the old neighborhood, My Friend. It’s like someone took a bright, shiny city and dropped it on top of the old hood. The streets are the same, but everything else is different. To tell you the truth, it was disorienting.”

Then I can see it, the last time I was in the old neighborhood. Everything was new and trendy; hipsters with open laptops hanging out in sleek coffee shops. There were restaurants where the food looked safe to eat. Disoriented, yeah, that’s how I felt; lost in a cityscape I had once known so well. Barely a trace of anything familiar, as if someone had taken an eraser to the whole place.

“I remember feeling the same thing. It must have been about fifteen years ago. I was living in Portland then, or maybe it was Reno. Anyway, I had to make a trip up to Seattle and I ended up going through Fremont for some reason. You know that they moved the old squat? I mean, they moved the whole damn building, tavern and all. Carted it a few blocks away and set it down again, like so many Lego blocks. It freaked me out. I had to get out of there.”

“It was the same for me. I mean, right there on the corner, that’s where Loopy shot that kid’s boom-box, right? Weren’t you there for that one?”

“That’s where it happened, but that story is one of those that got away from me. I’ve told it so many times I convinced myself I was actually there, but I wasn’t. I saw the kid, same as Loopy, across the street by the bridge. Poor bastard was just listening to his tunes, you know, not bothering anybody. Loopy, he walks across the street and I go into the tavern. Before I can even order a beer, there’s a pistol shot, loud as hell. I run back out the door and here comes Loopy, laughing, trying to stick that forty-one bulldog revolver back into his boot. That kid was running like hell up 34th, heading for Ballard. Loopy shot the kid’s boom-box right off the wall; blew it into the industrial park down below.”

“Then you two just went into the tavern and had some beers?”

“Yeah, we had a few beers, and everyone laughed about it. Just another night in the hood.”

“What ever happened to him? I never even knew his real name. Did he have one?”

“Yeah, he had a name: Leon Crane. He’s been dead for years. He got clean, sort of; white knuckling it. Moved over to Vashon Island, living like a hermit. He had a little house or cabin or something. He lasted about two years, then he shot himself with that same forty-one magnum.”

Danny let a low whistle slide through his teeth.

“That’s a damn shame.”

“Yeah, I always liked Loopy, unlike some of those other sorry bastards.”

“Sorry bastards like Robbie Blanchard?”

My eyes snap up at the mention of that name. I catch a look in Danny’s eyes; something guarded.

“Yeah, D, he’s still around. I saw him a few years ago.”

“Robbie Blanchard, the cocaine king? That annoying little shit is still alive?”

“Yes, and he’s not as annoying as he used to be. I ran into him at a Mariner’s game, standing in line for some garlic fries. He took a fall, a bad one. Got popped with a big load of coke and wound up doing four years at Monroe. Robbie got into the program while he was in the joint, and he stayed in it after he got out. He’s been clean ever since. We had a pretty good talk, all in all. Robbie knew a bit about some of the old tribe. It’s not good news Dimitri.”

“It never is. So, what’s Robbie’s news?”

“It’s about Bonnie. She’s dead.”

It’s the strangest thing, your brain knowing something that your heart won’t acknowledge. Those words slam into me like an unseen hammer. She’s dead. It doesn’t matter that my brain has known it for years. My heart is failing me, falling and falling. Just like it did when I was with her.

“I’m sorry, Dimitri.”


I’m blinking like an owl, trying to sort out where I am.

“I’m sorry to be the one to break it to you. I know she was, you know, important to you.”

“It’s okay, Danny, it’s not your fault. Bad news is bad news. Besides, it was thirty year ago. I always figured she was dead. No one could live as hard as she did and still be breathing.”

I take a slow pull on my cigar, let the smoke wreath my head. I can hear another conversation, me telling Danny how scared I was. I look through the smoke and he’s watching me, waiting.

“Do you remember me telling you about Bonnie, about being scared shitless? Do you remember what you said to me?”

“I said a lot of crap back then, Dimitri. I’m sure it was bad advice, whatever it was.”

“No, no, I can hear you saying it. You said something like, something like…”

And then the light fades like a cloud is going overhead, but the day is still sunny. I’m not at a table anymore and I’m not smoking a cigar. Danny is sitting on a wooden crate, the toes of his dirty converse pushing against a scarred wooden floor. We’re back in our stinking room in the squat and I’m listening to him drone on about how I’m messing it all up. His voice is going on and on like he’s saying something important, but it’s just gibberish.

“Hey, Earth to D, Earth to D, come in D. You just dropped ash all over yourself.”

The sun is shining again, and I have, in fact, dropped cigar ash into my lap. I rise from the chair, brush myself off, drop back into my seat. The wicker groans a bit at my clumsiness.

“Damn, Dimitri, you scared me. I thought you were having a stroke or something.”

“Sorry Daniel, I guess it was the shock, you know? I always figured Bonnie was gone, like all the others; hearing it as a fact, that’s something else. I swear, just for a second there, I saw the two of us back in the old squat. It was just you and me, sitting there talking about this.”

“I remember it, Dimitri, how scared you were. But at the same time, you were so crazy about her. Yeah, what was it I said to you? Something about how you got it good here and you don’t even know it. This girl Bonnie, you haven’t ever talked about a girl like this. What are you so afraid of anyway? Man, I say you plunge headlong into this one. You’re gonna die anyway, just like the rest of us. I say go for it full-on, roll those bones and to hell with the rest.”

“That was it, word for word. And I said that’s how it’s going to shake out, except that it’s my bones that are going to roll. You talked about how pointless it was to be afraid; that there were three possible outcomes: She leaves you, you leave her, or one of you dies.”

“You forgot the fourth option: You both die.”

“No, I remember that one because I said the same thing to Bonnie. It was later, after you and I had talked. I told her the four options and she just laughed that scary laugh of hers. She grinned at me, a wicked grin, more of a leer. She said, Honey, you up for a little murder-suicide? She meant it too, I’m sure of that. She was hell on wheels, that girl.”

Daniel was laughing now, laughing and shaking his head.

“There’s a good answer for that one. You should have told her that she had to go first.”

“I think I tried that line. She said, That ain’t how this one’s going down, Sugar. She was a piece of work. Damn I loved that Girl. I thought I was living like my heroes, my dark Bukowski phase. But I was just a voyeur. Not my Bonnie; she was the real deal. I was a transient tenant in that world. Bonnie, she was the landlady and the Madame.”

“Come on, Dimitri, was she really that tough? As I remember her, she wasn’t much bigger than the small end of nothing whittled down to a fine point.”

“Danny, she was every bit that tough and more. She had a mean little thirty-eight revolver with the sights filed off. It was a snub-nosed barrel, no need for aiming. She said what was the point, she worked up close and personal. Dynamite in a small package, that’s what she was.”

“Wait, didn’t you two end up in the hospital over something she got you into? I seem to remember something like you both getting the crap stomped out of you.”

“You remember correctly. We were over at the Blue Eagle, on Harbor Island across from the steel mill. What we were doing there I have no idea. Tough place, full of guys just off their shifts at the plant. She was feeling frisky, itching for some trouble. I remember I was pissing and moaning, worried about getting hurt. She laughed at me. She said, Hurt don’t last long, and it lets you know you’re still alive. It turns out we were having this discussion in the wrong bar at the wrong time. Watch this, she says. Throws a full bottle of beer at a table full of steel workers. Once she had their attention, she screams, This punk called you fat assholes a buncha faggoty bitches and I agree with him one hundred percent! Then she pulls a sap out of the back pocket of her jeans and laughs out loud. She’s yelling, Ollie-Ollie-in-Come-Free Boyos! That wall of meat smashes into us and she’s swinging that sap for all she was worth. Bonnie, she was worth a lot. Took out a couple of those big bastards before they knocked us down and put the boots to us. We were ten days healing up from that one.”

“So, you healed up and you stayed with her, right?”

“I did. I stayed with her right up until the day I crawled up those creaky wooden stairs at the old Fremont Hall. Do you remember those stairs? The Twelve Steps painted on the risers? I always hated them, even after I was clean a year.”

“Of course, who could forget that? It’s all gone now, sorry to say; pushed out by the tide of gentrification. They moved it up north, up on 89th and Aurora. Hell, that’s not Fremont; it’s like Greenwood or something. And it’s not important. Sorry, I’m stepping on your story.”

“No worries, Danny. But you know the rest of it, the same old thing. I couldn’t take anymore. The booze, the dope, all the ripping and running; that shit wore me down until there was nothing left. I was ready to take the big leap off the Aurora Bridge.”

“Later on, after I was clean for a while, I knew a girl that did just that. She left a night-owl meeting at the Fremont Hall. I guess she got pissed off by something one of the old timers was saying. Anyway, she stands up in the middle of the meeting, tells them all to go to hell, and stalks down those damn stairs. She walks up the hill and out onto the Aurora Bridge. Someone found her later that night, or what was left of her. It’s a hundred and fifty feet from the bridge to the pavement.”

“Jesus wept, I heard a lot of sick stories around those tables, but I never heard that one.”

“Yeah, I think it was before you came through the doors. But before that, I was still out there, hitting bottom hard. I was wondering whether it would be better to take the long leap, or swallow Bonnie’s pistol. Somehow, I found myself going up those stairs instead. I can’t tell you how that happened. What I do know is that it was a bona fide miracle. I went into that first meeting and something clicked. I didn’t want to die, not in any real sense. I kept climbing those rickety stairs, day after day. But that doesn’t have anything to do with Bonnie.”

“Then that was it between you two?”

“Yeah, that was it. Bonnie had no more use for me after that. Sitting in those AA halls wasn’t her idea of a good time. The last time I saw her, she looked me up and down, shaking her head like a mother over a lost child. It was like I’d failed her somehow. I never saw her again. I doubt she gave me a second thought.”

“You’re wrong, D. Bonnie died out in Billings with no next of kin. The cops started calling the numbers in her book until they got to me. I guess I was the first person to give a shit. I drove out there, saw to the arrangements and such. Her worldly goods were one duffel bag and an old leather satchel.”

Danny reaches into his expensive leather messenger bag, pulls out a tattered manila mailer. The thing is covered with stickers and stains. My name is scrawled across the front of it. He lays the battered envelope on the table and pushes it across.

“I found this in the satchel.”

I lay my hand on it and an electric shock runs through me. I know what’s in it. Bonnie and I clowning in a photo booth black-and-white, poems written on beer coasters, locks of sable and blonde hair braided together.

The bottom falls out of my chair and I’m pinballing back and forth in time, a kaleidoscope of years lost, and a life gained. Waves break over me; of memory and guilt, of forgetting and not being forgotten. It’s too much, too deep. Then I am washed up on a rocky beach like the castaway that I am. I open my eyes.

My old friend Danny is sitting across the table from me, doing his best to ignore the tears coursing down my cheeks. Daniel eyes me long and hard before he speaks again.

“Dimitri, are you unhappy with your quiet, peaceful life? We’ve both been clean a long time, you longer than me. If you want that kind of crap in your life again, it’s easily accomplished.”

There it is, laid out clean and unadorned. Twenty years since I’ve seen Daniel and he is still not pulling any punches. What’s worse is that he’s right, the son of a bitch. I’m standing in a field of my own high cotton, and yet I want to go find some darkness to dance with.

“You’re saying I could hook up with a crazy bitch and get my ass stomped, thus finding the light that I am missing? That’s the best advice you’ve got?”

“Are you missing the light, Dimitri? That’s an interesting choice of words. Look, I’m sorry that Bonnie is dead. You got two of the four options; she left you and one of you died. I know you loved her, D, but you’re the one who is still alive. If you had stuck with Bonnie, do you think that would be the case?”

I wave away the absurdity of the thought, ignoring the peril of scattered cigar ashes. 

“As far as advice goes, I don’t have any; good, bad, or indifferent. Love is dangerous at best, and downright bone-crushing awful at worst. You know that better than anyone. But it’s the only game worth playing. From what I hear, it sounds like you’ve hit the jackpot here, but maybe that’s all bullshit. Which is it?”

There it is: the stark choice. Do you choose the light or the shadow? Are you in the game or out?

“No, it’s not bullshit, Danny. My life is good, really good. Sometimes I lose track of that. I’m not proud of it, but it happens. I guess I just need a reminder every now and then. Today you were the reminder. Thank you.”

Danny waved his hand to push the thanks away.

“Nothing to it, D. What do you say we have another of these fine coffees, and you can tell me all about the good life in Vienna?”

I nod my head, raise my hand toward the waiter behind the plate glass window. New coffee trays appear, the old ones whisked away. My old friend and I talk about new times as the afternoon shadows grow longer. When I ask for the bill, he insists on paying. It all goes on the expense account, something unthinkable in the old days. Then we rise from the table and I guide him to the taxi stand near the Albertina. We say our farewells under posters touting exhibitions of Egon Schiele and the Impressionists. Our parting hug is good, solid, just as it should be. The taxi pulls away into the snarl of late afternoon traffic. I answer Daniel’s wave with one of my own.

The sidewalk is shadowed by the grey stone buildings. Above the shadows the spring sky gleams a brilliant blue. I begin to walk, slipping past the shoppers, past the tourists consulting guidebooks. The sun catches me as I cross the wide boulevard of the Opernring. I pass the Secession Museum, the white Art Nouveau temple of Gustav Klimt. A wide swath of open space marks the course of the Wienfluss; the clustered maze of food stalls and cafés that make up the Naschmarkt.

The fish kiosks are in a narrow aisle shadowed by green awnings. Piles of seafood glisten on beds of ice under the glare of overhead lights. Using my best schoolboy German, I order half a kilo of the finest salmon fillet. While the fish monger wraps my treasure, I check the time.

Maja won’t be home for two hours. Cradling the cold package in my hand, I hurry off to catch the U-4. When she bumps her bicycle over through the garden gate, I will be there to greet her. The heavy steel of the old bike will be between us as I kiss her. The gravel of the garden path will crunch under the tires as I wheel the bike to the patio. Maja will unstrap her helmet, freeing a cascade of sable hair.

The apartment will be full of the aroma of good food, and the smell of a hot skillet ready to sear the salmon. She will ooh and ahh over her favorite meal, press herself against me in the tiny kitchen.

We will sit side by side to eat our dinner. My hand will stray to her lower back, as it always does. Maja will ask me about my day, ask me question after question about Daniel; where we went, what we talked about. I will answer her questions, telling her the things she most wants to hear. I will tell her that Daniel is doing well, that it was very good to see him; that he is happy and in love. Maja will like that.

Marco Etheridge lives and writes in Vienna, Austria. His short fiction has been featured in many reviews and journals in Canada, the UK, and the USA. Notable recent credits include: In Parentheses, The Thieving Magpie, Ligeia Magazine, The First Line, After Happy Hour Review, Scarlet Leaf Review, Dream Noir, The Opiate Magazine, Cobalt Press, Literally Stories, and Blue Moon Review, amongst many others. His non-fiction work has been featured at Jonah Magazine, The Metaworker, and Route 7. Marco’s third novel, Breaking the Bundles, is available at fine online booksellers.