Charley Hubbs stared at the placard outside the tavern. It read LIVE CLASSICAL MUSIC AFTER EVERY CUBS GAME. Classical music and the Cubs? What an odd pairing. Had hell frozen over? No, the Cubs had not won the World Series.
A gravelly voice shook him out of his stupor. “Coming in or not?” A bear of a man stood guard on a stool. With his arms crossed, his bulging biceps looked like they could pop right through his thick black leather biker jacket.
“I think –” Charley stuttered, “I will.”
“Got ID, buddy?” The putrid smell of cigarette smoke permeated the air.
Charley dug into his pocket and pulled out a money clip. There it was – sandwiched between a stack of Ben Franklins. The only proof of identity he had.
The bouncer leveled one eye on the California driver’s license and the other on Charley. “This real?”
What was real anymore? Charley couldn’t be sure. “Do I look like I’m under 21?”
“Not really,” the bouncer said benignly. “You look like you’re lost.”
Auto racing memorabilia, old movie stills and antique paintings decorated the tavern’s walls. Muddy Waters played on the jukebox. Behind the bar, a woman sat on a stool, reading Albert Camus’ The Stranger.
Straddling up to the bar, Charley studied the woman. He couldn’t say she was his type – but he couldn’t say she wasn’t. She looked like no one he’d seen before. Caribbean blue eyes contrasted with pure white skin and short dyed-black hair. Skin-tight black jeans wrapped her long, shapely legs. A black half-T-shirt, emblazoned with the words LICENSE TO SPILL, exposed a pierced navel.
“The sign outside, it said live classical music.” Charley took a stool at the bar. “So where are the musicians?”
The bartender set the book down on the bar. “That sign is to keep out Cubs fans,” she said. “We don’t really have classical musicians playing here.”
“It didn’t work,” Charley said.
The bartender tilted her head.
“The sign,” Charley continued. “It didn’t work. I’m a Cubs fan. Been a fan since I was a kid but I’ve never seen them play at their home ballpark – until today. It was –” He paused as he tried to find the right word. “Unforgettable.”
The bartender shook her head as if she’d heard the same wretched tale hundreds of times before. “Oh, no,” she said, “please don’t tell me you’re one of them.”
“One of whom?” Charley asked.
“The die-hards,” the bartender spit out, like she was coughing up a hairball. “One of those nuts who follows the Cubs like they’re a religion, waiting for a championship like the coming of Christ. It’s crazy. I see ’em all the time. It’s a sickness, an infectious disease that’s being spread across the country by WGN.”
Charley reflected on the game he’d just seen. As a kid, he had only heard the sounds of the ballpark crackling through his transistor radio. But after nine innings in the left field bleachers, he understood why fans kept coming back, even though the Cubs hadn’t won a World Series since 1908. The ivy clinging to the outfield wall shimmering in the warm September breeze. Harry Caray waving his microphone in the air. The shirtless post-frat party boys and the pretty girls clad in halter-tops swaying back and forth in unison in the bleachers, punching out their fingers in tandem “One … two … three strikes you’re out.” The smell of hot dogs, beer and sunscreen blending together into an intoxicating elixir. The sound of Ronnie “Woo Woo” Wickers – “Cubs Woo! Cubs Woo!” The playful banter between the bleacher sections. A chant from the right field bleachers of “Left field sucks!” met by a combative chant from the left field bleachers of “Right field sucks.” It was much more than a ballgame. It was a feast for the senses. And Charley ate up every bit of it.
“Guilty as charged.” he said.
The bartender continued to shake her head and flipped a rag over her right shoulder. She planted her hands on her waist. “I think all Cubs fans are in dire need of a lobotomy.”
“Sorry,” Charley said. Why am I apologizing? “I hope you won’t hold it against me. I could really use a beer right now.”
The bartender steadied her gaze on him. “No, I won’t hold it against you. If I did, I’d never get any business in here. What can I get you?”
“Something on tap,” he said, as his eyes scanned the choices. “How about that one, the one with the goose?”
“That’s Honker’s Ale. It’s brewed here in Chicago, Goose Island Brewery. It’s good.”
“You sold me. If I’m going to be a Chicagoan, I suppose I should drink like one.”
“So, Die-hard, do you have a name?”
“Charley,” he said. “Charley Hubbs.” That was the name on the license on him, so he assumed it was his.
“Hubbs … hmmm …that would explain it.”
“You’re a victim of the ex-Cub factor.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
The bartender looked at Charley like a teacher explaining algebra to a student for the first time. “You share the same last name as an ex-Cub – Kenny Hubbs. He won Rookie-of-the-Year for the Cubs in 1962. He died two years later in a plane crash. Tragic story, actually.”
Charley smiled. He was warming to this spitfire. “For someone who dislikes the Cubs so much, you sure know an awful lot about them.”
“I don’t really dislike the Cubs. What I don’t like is the silly mystique that seems to surround them – the blind loyalty of their fans. My father was one of the die-hards. He was actually one of the old Bums, the Bleacher Bums. True story. That’s why I know so much about the Cubs. I learned it all from my father. The problem was, I think my father cared more about the Cubs than me. Imagine that, caring more about a baseball team than about your only daughter. It’s pathetic, really.”
“You seem to have come out all right.” Charley surprised himself with his flirtation. Then he realized. “You know my name. I still don’t know yours.”
“It’s Marla,” she said. “Marla Collins.”
Charley choked on his beer. “You’re kidding me, right? Your name’s not really Marla Collins.” While most of his recent memories were hazy – at best – he still had his childhood ones. He flushed with memories of juvenile lust. Marla Collins had been a ballgirl for the Cubs in the early 1980s and a favorite of Cubs’ broadcaster Harry Caray, who had an eye for beautiful women. Marla lost her job with the Cubs organization after she posed nude for Playboy.
“Sorry to disappoint, cowboy. That was just a test to see if you really are a die-hard. My name’s Elizabeth Parker. Most people just call me Lizzy, or T.L.”
“Short for Thin Lizzy. After the band, you know – ‘The Boys Are Back in Town.’” She played a little air guitar for emphasis.
“Well, Lizzy, or T.L., you’re certainly one of a kind. I mean that as a compliment,” he hastened to add.
“Compliment taken,” Lizzy blushed. “Looks like you could use another Honker’s.”
“Sure,” Charley said. “Why not?” He paused for a moment as he considered what he was about to do. “Lizzy, I know I just met you,” he said, “but I’m kind of in a bind here. I need a place to stay and, well, you’re the only person I know in Chicago.”
“Well, Charley Hubbs, you’re more daring than I took you for. Are you asking what I think you’re asking?”
Charley choked on his beer. “No,” he cleared his throat. “You think I’m asking to stay … with you? Believe me, I’m not that presumptuous at all. I just need help finding an apartment, and I thought…well, I thought you might have some ideas on where I could start. I’m kind of lost here.” Lost. That was an understatement.
Lizzy shook her head. “Boy, just when a girl thinks she’s got a hot one, caution is thrown to the wind and stops the flames from spreading.” She paused for a moment, and then said, “Check out The Reader. That’s the newspaper piled up in that corner by the window. That’s where everybody looks to find an apartment in Chicago.”
When Charley returned to his barstool, he laid the paper down in front of him. As he started to turn the first page, Lizzy blurted, “Section Four.”
“Huh?” Charley’s brows curled.
“Section Four. That’s where you’ll find the apartment listings.”
“Oh, thanks. I seem to be saying that a lot – thanks, that is. You’ve been very nice to me.”
“Well,” Lizzy smiled, “you look like a lost puppy, and I’m a sucker for puppies. Especially lost ones.” They exchanged timid smiles. “So … do you even have any idea where you want to live?”
“Not a clue,” Charley sighed.
Placing both hands on the edge of the bar, Lizzy peered into Charley’s eyes. “Chicago’s broken down into neighborhoods,” she said as if on autopilot. “Where you’re at now is called the Wrigleyville neighborhood. But it’s also called Lakeview, which is what it was originally known as before the yuppies started moving in and started calling it Wrigleyville, after its most famous landmark. Lakeview extends much farther than Wrigleyville. South of Lakeview is the Lincoln Park neighborhood and north of Lakeview is Andersonville and Ravenswood. To the west of us is an up-and-coming neighborhood, Southport. As far as you’re concerned, I’d limit your search to those neighborhoods. I assume you want to stay close to Wrigley?”
Where to live? Such a seemingly simple question. So why did it not seem that way? Maybe because no question seemed simple to him anymore. Maybe because he knew so little about himself. Maybe because the answer to the question was built upon the presumption that he had begun to live. But with a big chunk of his memory gone he couldn’t say that he had a life. “If I was drawn here by Wrigley Field,” Charley finally stuttered, “I guess I should take that as a sign I was meant to live here.”
“It’s a nice place to live,” Lizzy said. “Put that paper away. I know a guy who has a place for rent. It’s not far from here. It’s small, but it’s cozy. It’s a good place to start a new life.”
A new life. Yes, she’d hit the nail on the head. That’s what he needed.
“Think it over,” Lizzy said, “I’ve got a customer down at the end of the bar. He seems a little –” After raising her brows and widening her eyes, she finished her sentence. “Impatient.”
Charley hadn’t noticed anyone else walk into the bar. But maybe that was because Lizzy had held his attention captive. He glanced over at the gangly creature at the opposite end of the bar and as he did the man suddenly looked down and scribbled on a pad of paper. Had he been watching Charley? A tingle ran down Charley’s spine. There was something familiar about him. Was it the scraggly beard? No, it was something else. He couldn’t put his finger on it. But hesensed that he had seen this odd fellow before. But where? He barely remembered anything from the recent past. So why would he have the feeling that he remembered such an unusual looking man in a bar he had never been in before?
Charley watched Lizzy pour the customer a cup of coffee. Mid-pour the man said something that nearly caused her to miss the cup, and she stole a glance Charley’s way before returning her attention to the customer. He talked to Lizzy. She didn’t so much as nod. She merely listened. Charley sensed wariness in her eyes. He strained to hear the man, but the jukebox music drowned out his words. Then the man leaned over the bar and cupped a hand over her ear. Lizzy’s eyes grew wide and then she stepped back in a blank gaze. Another step back and…she collided with a shelf lined with bottles of liquor. The shelf collapsed, and Lizzy, slipping on the spilt liquid and broken glass, fell backwards, her head crashing into the brick wall.
Charley leaped over the bar, and raced to her side. She was unconscious. He bent down and lifted her head from the floor. Blood trickled from the back of her skull.
“What the hell happened in here?”
The bouncer’s voice startled Charley. What had happened? “She fell,” he said. “Call an ambulance. Now!”
The bouncer nodded and moved for the phone on the wall. “I need an ambulance at the Gingerman, 3740 North Clark. There’s been an accident.”
After he hung up, the bouncer turned to Charley. “Is she going to be okay?”
Charley shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“How the hell did this happen?”
Sirens blared in the distance, distracting Charley for a moment. “She was talking to, I mean there was a customer, a man, a strange-looking man…he was talking to her. I don’t know what he was telling her…I couldn’t hear what he was saying…but she seemed scared or at least unnerved. Then he whispered something in her ear… she stepped back… and –”
Charley stepped to the side as paramedics burst through the door.
The dark cloud had followed him. He saw it now, as a paramedic barked into a radio and another administered to Lizzy. He felt so…hopeless. But when the two police officers entered through the door, he turned cold. He supposed it was standard procedure. But something didn’t feel right. When one of the officers questioned the bouncer, that uneasy feeling strengthened. Had the bouncer motioned his way?
Sure enough, the officer was now headed over. Keep calm, he told himself. After all, he had nothing to hide. Or did he? He still hadn’t pieced together his past. What if he did have something to hide?
The officer smelled of stale coffee. “The bouncer says you witnessed the accident?”
“I did. I told him what I saw.”
“Yeah, he gave me the story you told him.”
What did he mean by story? He noticed that the officer’s eyes kept straying. What did he see? Charley followed the officer’s eyes, down to…his hands. Now he saw what the officer saw. Blood. Splattered all over them.
“Where is this other customer you told the bouncer about, the one with the beard? What happened to him?”
Charley’s attention veered as he watched the paramedics carry Lizzy out on a stretcher. “I’m sorry, what did you say?”
“You said the victim had been talking to another customer just before the accident. Where did he go?”
Charley’s eyes widened. Where did he go? “I…I…I don’t know. He was here –”
“And then he wasn’t?” the officer said, arching his brows.
Charley desperately tried to collect his thoughts. “Surely the bouncer can tell you.”
“That’s the funny thing,” the officer said. “The bouncer doesn’t recall seeing another customer enter the bar.”
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Copyright © 2014, Randy Richardson. All rights reserved.