The guy pretty much travelled with his own black cloud weeping rain over his head. You get that kind in here sometimes, more often than I would care to remember. What ever his story was, I could tell that life was treating him badly.
He sat at the bar, head down, nursing his drink. Sometimes he sat and stirred the ice around with the straw, staring into it like it had the answer his troubles. Sometimes he took a deep and gloomy swig from it, showing no sign of enjoyment as the amber liquid hit home.
“Can I freshen that for you, sir?” I asked him after a while.
“Sure. It’s late, though. Guess you’ll be wanting me to go home.”
I looked around the bar and it was mostly empty by now. In the corner a couple of girls were deep in conversation, occasional volleys of laughter erupting through the air. They were nearly done. A fancy redhead was fixing to leave with the guy she came in with. He was holding her coat and didn’t look like he had a care in the world. Not much trade that time of night, that part of the week. Not as much as I would like most of the time.
“We have a while to go yet, sir. Take your time.”
“If you told me to go home, I wouldn’t know where to go anyway. Not now. Not any more. Nowhere to run to and rest my head. It’s all gone... Huh! Listen to me! Pouring out my tale of woe to a bartender! How much more clichéd can you get?”
“I’m a good listener,” I said, picking up glasses to dry and put away.
“Yeah? Well, listen away. It ain’t that long ago that me and my brothers came out here, seeking our fortunes...”
“There were three of us, each more pig-headed than the last. That isn’t a bad thing necessarily. You need to be stubborn to get ahead in business sometimes and our business was construction.
“We started small, but the business grew. At first it was an extension here or a store remodeling there, but soon enough we got a decent reputation for a job well done and for the right price. Is this boring you?”
He paused and looked up for a second, but his small, red-rimmed eyes didn’t seem to see me. Behind them, he was somewhere else, maybe in Hell.
“Not at all, sir,” I replied.
“Then I’ll continue. You want to know how to get ahead in construction? Work hard. We worked damn hard. We did everything together, from starting work at our sites before dawn to sitting in bars like this together with our crews. We’d stay to close the place, talking business, talking dreams, and then roll into our beds ready to start again the next morning. As time went on, we got bigger and better projects, commanded more and more crews and the pay packets got bigger too. Want to know how to get further ahead in construction? Hell, any business? I’ll tell you what we thought.
“My brother Curly was the dreamer. He reckoned that we ought to take a few risks, get ourselves noticed more. He had some wild ideas, let me tell you. He reckoned we could build houses out of sticks if we needed to, although no-one does that out here. Heck, he had this crazy design for a house made out of straw. Did you ever hear the like? But nope, it was something real. Cool in the summer and warm in the winter, he said. More than solid enough and he’d live in the first we built to prove it. That way we’d show folks that we could build anything they wanted.
“My brother Porky was the wheeler-dealer. He reckoned he could get us the job of building a whole development of luxury houses out in the Valley. If we put in the hours and made a big show of it all, that could be our ship come in for good. He’d even live in the house made of sticks that Curly had designed. We just needed to get the bribes together to win the contract. You do know that’s how it works often, for the big contracts?”
“It’s a dirty world we live in, sir.”
“You’re telling me! Well, as for me, I was happy enough with life as it was. I was the staid one. I had a car and a place to live. I had a wardrobe full of clothes and enough spare cash to go out to a fancy restaurant or bar if I wanted to. I’m good for my tab, incidentally.”
“I don’t doubt it, sir.”
“I hemmed and hawed and then one day, she walked into my life. I guess you think I’m going to blame the dame now, right? Not entirely. Not hardly, even. But she was something special, my Petunia. The finest set of hams I ever did see and the curliest tail. More than just her looks captivated me and I wanted her to be mine. Suddenly I was just some average joe with a car that wasn’t good enough for her, lousy clothes, a house too small. I wanted to be able to give her swimming pools, diamonds, champagne, the muddiest wallows, the top trough at the Ritz every night... If we got the contract for the houses, I might stand a chance and so I cast my lot.
“Want to know how to keep really far ahead in business? Don’t get greedy.”
“We greased the right palms and submitted a stellar set of plans and we got the contract sure enough. Months of work followed and if we were destined for the high life, we weren’t living it just then. We built our own houses first - wooden for Porky and the straw wonder for Curly. Me, I plumped for good old-fashioned brick, playing it safe. Since the houses were meant to be exemplars and because my mind was tending that way anyhow,as well as the five bedrooms and three bathrooms I had a pool dug. Not that I was going to get to use it any time soon, seeing as we all heaved ourselves into our beds at midnight most nights, straight off the sites. Is there time for another drink?”
“You can probably guess that I never got to use my pool at all. Anyway, the sacrifice seemed worth it. Rich folks saw our houses and snapped them up, some of them even wanting theirs built in straw. We were going to do well. Trouble is, we didn’t reckon on Wolf.
“Wolf pretty much runs the show out that way and he has the lifestyle to prove it. He has the fleet of fancy cars, the beach house in Malibu, the château in France, the string of ex Mrs. Wolfs... We had never tangled with him before, most of our jobs being out on the other side of the city. He could have bought and sold us, us who had pooled all of our capital, filled all of our lines of credit to get this one job. One of his managers dropped the ball and that meant that the contract had gone to us and man, was he wild! He huffed and puffed and howled when he heard, so I’m told.”
“That sounds most unseemly, sir.”
“Sure it was! Except we were much too busy to pay him any mind. It was our contract and we were working flat out to fulfil it. All three of us. We needed to keep our creditors happy too before the big payday. We didn’t have time to be making friends or worrying about who had decided to be our enemy. That was the second big mistake.
“You see, guys like Wolf don’t take well to being gainsaid. In fact, guys like Wolf have the time and resources to make their displeasure known and real. I know it was him, but you just try getting a cop or an attorney or anyone to take the case... Anyway, he got into our site one day or paid someone to, just when we were about halfway through. Sabotage and dirty tricks.
“The first we knew of it was when the straw house fell down. Any fool could see that explosives had been set, the way it went, but the fire chief wouldn’t have it. Poor Curly never stood a chance getting out. That was the writing on the wall for the straw houses. Who would want one if it was going to fall down?
“Porky fared better. His wooden house collapsed not long after that - seriously undermined foundations which went against our design, but try getting anyone to listen to that. Porky got out anyway, came and stayed with me for the time being. We were in mourning, but we had something to claw back, or so we thought. Maybe we could break even and ship out. So what if the straw and wooden houses hadn’t worked out? Most of our dwellings were made of good, solid brick, right?”
“Tried and tested is the best way, sir.”
“Sure. Except then there was the earthquake. Just a 4, nothing major, except for us. One house had cracks in the walls. The portico fell down on another. It didn’t look good. Porky shot himself, left me a note to let me know that a while back he had skimped on labor and building materials, bought in cheap and under the counter from Mr. Wolf. The idiot... You probably read about it all in the papers. No-one wanted our houses any more and our creditors folded. The development went to Wolf Construction and I was ruined. As a kicker, just today he married her, my lady, my Petunia, just to twist the knife. I doubt she’ll last long, but... Another drink? My last before I hit the road.”
“I’ll make it your last, sir.”
Indeed it was to be the poor fellow’s last drink. I owed him that.
It can be hard to make a living in this city and there are many Wolves around.
Besides which, this Wolf was hungry and bacon had walked into his den.
I’m the paw that wields the straw that stirs the drink after all.
This week is an intersection round. My partner-in-crime is the glorious michikatinski, whose entry can be found here.