February 10, 2009

Creative writing class – Black Leather Gloves

The man at the bar was wearing black leather gloves. I’d watched him for a half hour while he slowly worked his way through one beer and then started on another. He never took the gloves off. Occasionally he wiped the condensation clinging to the glass away with his glove which he then dried in turn on a large white handkerchief that he took from a pocket beneath the flap of his overcoat. But his hand never touched the glass itself. Sometimes he’d smoked a cigarette, extinguishing it half smoked before it damaged the leather.

When the barman asked him if he wanted a refill, he’d not spoken. He’d nodded, his face shadowed beneath the hat he was wearing. The glove had gone into the pocket again, sorted out some coins and then pushed them onto the bar top for the barman to sort through. In the same way, his change had vanished back into the pocket, unlike so many of the bar’s habitual visitors who would leave a pile of money in front of them while they chatted or watched the television. He either guessed that the barman would sometimes take the coins claiming them as a tip from unwary customers or else he just wanted to break every last contact with the man.

That was what made me watch him. The bar was reasonably busy with its early evening custom. No cigarette smoke yet made its presence felt by creating a low ceiling of haze as it might later. The regulars were stopping off on their way home for a beer and a chat before facing the rigours of domestic life with the stress of dealing with wife or children. They would probably claim disingenuously that they were letting some of the traffic get home ahead of them, but really it was a quiet place in their lives where they could get away from the hustle and bustle of the outside world. In a quiet world, the man at the bar was a study of a still pool in a gently flowing stream.

There was a kind of space around him. A fence that no one broke through. A sign that didn’t say “Go Away” but more like “Do Not Disturb”. The barman understood that. Over the nights that I’d used the bar myself, I’d observed that he saw all sorts come and go. The ones that cheerily greeted him every night, got a beer then sat and watched the sports programmes on their own before giving him a friendly wave on the way out having said nothing else to anyone for an hour. Some would chew over the merits of the Dallas Cowboys’ offense with him having had the same conversation the night before, and the night before that. He could quickly see what people wanted or didn’t want just by looking at them. I knew that he watched everyone. Not in a sinister manner but in the way that a good host does. There was never any trouble, at least at this time of day: his customers weren’t drinking to get drunk. They were just bridging the gap between being at work and being at home, two situations with their own kinds of stress for the working man.

But the man with the gloves was different. He wasn’t sinister. Not in a dangerous manner, anyway. Perhaps he looked sinister momentarily as he looked at his beer from beneath the hat, his face shadowed and therefore ill-defined to the casual observer. He was an unknown quantity in the bar. I’d spotted several of the regulars looking at him with a slight degree of unease as they passed. He’d not laid claim to his part of the bar in a territorial kind of way, he was just where he was. Troubling no one else but, even so, unusual, out of the ordinary. I couldn’t tell if he was tanned but the clothes looked tailored, the shoes expensive. I was able to spot a mis-fit straightaway.

I wasn’t in the bar enjoying the brief hiatus from the rain outside or the journey home. My ex-wife probably would have said that the bar (choose any bar) was my second home. Maybe she would have been right but for now it was also my office. I sat in the corner facing the bar, able to watch everything going on while I waited for my client to come in. A new client wanting my help with something. I set out my office on the table in front of me while I waited: pens, pencils (the clients usually took one with them), a pad of paper, my license and a pack of cigarettes. I didn’t smoke but my clients would usually have one of those, too. The man at the bar certainly wasn’t my prospect. A man waiting to meet someone checks everyone moving around, even when they are trying not to, like a man waiting for his own execution. Not the man at the bar: I’d watched him hunched, unmoving for some time. He wasn’t deliberately wasting time, using it up while he waited to be somewhere. He just had nowhere else to be. He was just existing while he waited for something to happen in his life.

Is that how it was with my friend at the bar? Was he the jetsam of a broken marriage? Was there a outraged wife at home or had he been the one to walk away from the anger and distress? What about children? Perhaps there were children wondering if their Daddy was ever going to come back to them, to mend the gaping wound suddenly torn into their lives. Life washed around him. People came and went but he took no interest in them, and they took none in him except to walk around him. No part of him touched the world, the gloves took care of that. And the hat and the over coat ensured that no one could reach into his space.

The phone call by my client to my digs had been brief and unrevealing. We’d agreed a time and a place. Well, I told him where to meet me and he’d accepted. He’d been nervous and unforthcoming. He’d probably never gone to a stranger before to ask for assistance as his life fell apart. That’s when people come to me when it’s almost too late, and sometimes when it already is. I specialise in people: I find people, or I find out secrets about people that they would rather keep hidden. I am a curtain twitcher (a service old ladies will perform for free), a professional stalker. Fifty dollars an hour plus expenses (with two hundred up front) to find out the darkness in people’s lives. A wife who strays because the husband is undemonstrative, yet shoulders the blame for a marriage that ends. Or the daughter who runs away with a boyfriend because parental acceptance is not forthcoming. Or a new employee that the business proprietor thinks may be stealing from the till or just to find out the truth about an unlikely insurance claim. Most of them are people who just want to be happy most of the time but the rules of society get in the way. Or cases so trivial to society at large that the police just won’t be interested in spending any time on them. But I seem to have a skill in disappearing in plain sight while I observe. It is the one thing that I seem to have been good at in my life.

I don’t do this job to judge people. Though people judged me enough in the past. From one job to another. I was just looking for somewhere to get by and pay the bills. But finding people who don’t want to be found – unless they are unexpectedly inheriting a large sum at which point you become their new best friend for the day – well, it isn’t the best paying job. And I can’t meet clients in my room in my boarding house, it’s small and it’s a mess. And it doesn’t satisfy the preconceptions of prospective clients. So I come to the bar, get a drink, meet them and talk over the wreckage of their lives. Which is probably what the man in the gloves is thinking about: why he is there, still sipping his drink, looking at no one.

People are just a job. A way to survive. It is not as I expected it to be. I watched all those old films. And some of the new ones. Women who need my services want someone found. I never had one come onto me like they do all the time to Philip Marlowe or Jim Rockford, let alone find me all consumingly attractive. Not even the ones who think they need to play the femme fatale. And the cases are never as involved as the ones Hercule Poirot faced and solved with a twirl of his Belgian moustache. I have never solved a murder. At least not in a big case like the fictional guys did. Maybe I have found out something and then passed it onto the police after they’d lost interest but allowed to pull the case files out and have another look. I bought a gun once, not long after I got into this. I got one license then the other. I’ve never fired it, not even for practice. It’s in a drawer in my room, locked away. Sometimes I get it out and look at it. Then I clean it and put it away again. I have no interest in facing someone with a gun. Probably the reason I couldn’t have joined the Army like the school recruiter suggested I should have as he’d hunted amongst the not so star pupils trying to make his quota. But the army wasn’t a place to be right then anyway and I couldn’t have lived with that kind of discipline. Or around guns. Someone did once pull a gun on me, someone who wanted to be left alone. What would a handgun have done for me, then? I left him alone, walked away. Maybe Bogart would have shot him without giving it another thought, his cigarette casually hanging from his lip and then delivered some sort of philosophical eulogy over the corpse but I’m not a hero. I just let people live out their lives.

I come into people’s lives and then I leave. Maybe for fifty bucks an hour I’m not really ever in their lives. They ask me to do something and then I go away. I come back later with an answer, and then I leave, melting back into the noise that exists outside of their immediate existence, the blur that we all ignore daily while we are lost in our thoughts or while we interact with one person at a time. Sometimes they argue with the bill but it’s just like someone would argue with the barman here over the price of a sandwich and then they move on with their own life. I’m just happy to get something so I can send it back to help out in caring for my daughter.

I could empathise with the man at the bar with the black gloves. He touched nothing, and nothing touched him. He kept the world away from him by the thickness of the gloves, wiping off the unfortunate detritus that that life brought him. Right then, his life included just that barman who drifted in and out of it just like I do with my clients, while I wipe off what gets left behind myself. My client would want answers, not the kind that are found in the bottom of a glass of questionable beer but something that told him the truths in his life and tie up a loose end in his life. He would want answers, not wise life altering advice like they give in the movies. Usually they want something black and white but all I can show is that life is full of grey and questionable decisions, mostly arrived at by chance rather than logic.

Like the man in the black leather gloves, I drift.


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