I"Francis, come to bed."
"Soon." He didnít look up.
"Jesus Christ, Alice, Iím working."
"I wish youíd work this hard on us."
He looked up. He composed his reply and returned to his work saying nothing.
"Youíre an ass," she said as she left the room.
"I love you," he said as he closed the door behind her. Then he settled in his chair and wrote:
"Itís finished." He felt his insides glide hearing himself confess it. "Itís over. I want out. Iím telling her itís over. Iím telling her I want to be with you."
"You mean it, Eddie? Really?" Her forehead wrinkled over her swollen eyes and she wrenched his hand tight between hers, as if it could stop him from changing his mind.
"Itís you," he said. Gazing at her in the cold December moonlight, her shiny black curls tumbled and tucked by her ears, her frosty eyes capped by the perfect twin arcs of her brows, he was certain a more beautiful girl never lived.
The door opened.
"Francis, come to bed."
"Iím coming," he said, and he put down his pen and turned off the light.
* * * * *
"Francis, get up," she said.
He rolled away from her.
She pushed him. "Francis, get up. Get up it snowed." She said it all at once like that.
"Honey wake up."
There was no use pretending he didnít hear her.
"How bad is it?"
"I donít know. The plows are out."
"Christ, just tell me how much snow there is."
"I donít know. Seven, eight inches?"
"Is school canceled?"
"I donít know yet."
"Are you getting up?"
"I guess I have to."
"I can shovel."
"No, Iím getting up," he lied.
* * * * *
When he woke Alice was gone. She would be back at three from work, and now it was only eleven, which gave him four hours to work. He looked out the window The snow had stopped and it was raining and everything looked black and muddy He liked the rain. At first the snow was fine because it made things look clean by covering the patches where the grass didnít grow anymore. But when it melted everything was crusty and filthier than it ever was before. He went into the study and sat at his desk and it was very quiet, except for the rain. He liked when he could see grass peek through the pockmarks in the snow where the rain had melted it most. He hoped it would rain all day.
"Itís slow tonight, Eddie."
"I noticed. Where is everyone?"
"Itís Christmas Eve."
"Can you get me a beer?"
George drew a draft. "Is everything okay, Eddie?"
"Sure," he said.
"Okay." He pushed the beer across the bar to him. "You know she came by earlier. Looking for you."
"She looked worried."
"Itís a hell of a thing to be alone on Christmas Eve."
"Yeah," he said. He sipped his beer.
"Christ, like I donít know what itís like?"
The phone rang. He answered it.
"Hi. Itís me."
Francis rubbed his eyes and looked at his watch.
"Francis, are you there?"
"Did you just get up?"
"A little while ago. Iíve been writing."
"I shoveled for you."
"Oh?" He pulled aside the curtain and looked outside. "Yes." Sheíd cleaned the snow off his car. He suddenly felt ashamed "I overslept."
"I didnít want to wake you."
He coughed. It was cold standing by the window and he could see his breath plume in the air. He rubbed his eyes again.
"I couldnít tell if you were there."
"Iím here," he said.
"My car wonít start," she said. "I canít get home."
"Are you sure?" He scratched behind his ear.
"Can you come get me?"
He noticed that he needed to trim his fingernails. "Whatís the car doing?" he asked.
"Nothing. It wonít start at all."
"I was writing." He looked at his watch. Eleven forty-five. "Is school canceled?"
"Yes," she said.
"So what exactly is the car doing?"
"Francis, I donít have any more change!"
"Donít yell at me."
"I didnít say I wasnít coming. Christ."
"Iím just cold," she said.
* * * * *
He walked home. It was snowing steady in big wet flakes, and he stopped walking for a moment to watch the snowflakes fluttering past the streetlights like winter locusts. It seemed too warm to be snowing and the flakes felt cold as they melted and ran down the back of his neck. He was drunk and he noticed everything He closed his eyes and listened to the sound of the snow falling.
"Are you hungry?"
"I said are you hungry."
"Not even a little soup?"
"No." She hadnít knocked and so he didnít look up at her.
"Okay," she said. She softly closed the door.
"What do you want for dinner?" she said.
"Iím not hungry," said Eddie.
"Are you sure?" she said.
"Iím sure," he said.
"You got to eat something," she said.
"Jesus fucking Christ," he said.
"Eddie!" she said.
"What?" he said. She said nothing. "What?" he said again.
"Where have you been?" she whispered.
"What?" he said.
"I said where have you been? Where have you been all night, Eddie?"
"Iím going downtown," he said.
"For a bit," he said.
"Do you have to?" she said.
"Itís just for a bit. I wonít be long."
"Why do you have to go?"
"I wonít be long."
"Why do you have to go tonight?"
"Itís just for a bit," he said.
"Okay," she said.
* * * * *
Outside the air was clear and cold and the moon was full and white and the sidewalks ran glassy with black ice. The rain had melted most of the morningís snow, and what it hadnít rinsed away mounted high and frozen along the curbs and gutters in salty piles left by the plows. The walk downtown was short; Francis Einstein walked briskly and tried to forget the cold.
She hadnít asked for this, not any of it. And she never complained about a goddamn thing, nor did she regret it as long as he was happy, but he was never happy. The problem, he told her, was that she remembered too well how it used to be, in the beginning, and that sheíd never be happy again until she surrendered that silly romantic optimism.
What was hilarious was that it was true, she should have known better. She must have known then, for it all seemed so goddamn ridiculous now. Surely she hadnít expected him to remain faithful to anything but the writing. The goddamn fool. Fucking Christ, her too, for that matter, for ever believing that his efforts would shame her, that their goddamn poverty was poetic. He couldnít lie all the time, who lies all the time? But then of course, lying was his goddamn profession.
* * * * *
Francis lit a cigarette at the bar.
"You shouldnít," said Pete, sliding a beer over to him.
"I know," said Francis. But there was something about the flavor of tobacco and beer. Francis pulled out a miniature leather-bound notebook and wrote "smoke and beer" in it. He put it down on the bar, replacing it in his hand with the cigarette, and took a long steady pull, holding it in his mouth for a moment and then he chased it down with a cold swallow of stale draft beer. It was the same with cigarettes and coffee.
He crushed the glowing butt of his first cigarette into an ashtray and immediately lit a second, tugging on it softly as it took the match while looking up at the television screen suspended above the hard liquor shelves behind the bar. A game was on.
"Whoís playing?" he said.
"Notre Dame and S.C.," said Pete.
"Tied, going into the half."
"Southern Cal by seven."
"Huh." Francis sipped his beer. He looked up at the screen. It was sunny in Los Angeles. Francis ordered another beer and a shot of Southern Comfort. There were many attractive women performing in the half-time show. Most of them were blond and suntanned, much like the stereotype.
"Did you walk here?"
"Huh?" said Francis.
"Youíre not driving?" said Peter, wiping a wine glass dry.
"No." The television cameraman held his focus on one particularly astonishing woman. "Pete!" said Francis. "Hey, Peter!" he said. "Now thereís an acrobat!"
Peter looked up. He looked back down.
"Californiaís really something," said Francis. Heíd never been, but he figured heíd go one day.
An old man from the table in the dark corner of the bar paid his bill and left. The open door blew hard cold air across the bar chilling everyone left behind, and Pete hurried to the door and closed it. Then he returned to his place behind the bar and resumed the task of polishing glasses. "Itís not so bad here," he said.
Again the wind shook the door, but this time it did not open. It was very cold outside, and Francis was not eager to walk home.
"You like a white Christmas, donít you?" said Pete.
"California," said Francis. "Who here drinks wine?"
"Youíre not the only one here," Peter said.
"You know where they make that wine? California." He rapped the bar with his mug.
"Watch your acrobats."
"Barkeep, I do believe my glass is empty."
Peter refilled his beer mug. Francis drained it.
"Let me tell you about Christmas," Francis bellowed. "Nobody should have a monopoly on holidays."
"Itís early for you to be drunk, Frank."
"A manís got to drink to keep warm in a meat locker like this."
"For Christís sake, quit crying in your beer, Frankie."
"I donít have a beer. If your head wasnít pushed up your ass youíd see that." He instantly regretted it.
Pete poured a beer into a fresh frosted mug. "Drink it and get out."
"You know I didnít mean it." The second half of the game had started and Notre Dame was driving.
"I donít want to hear it, Frankie. You come in here and start drinking, you bring everybody down."
"Itís the holidays."
"Canít I just sit in the corner?"
Francis relinquished his barstool and moved to a table in the corner.
* * * * *
Just for a bit, he said. Just looking for material, he said. Heís looking for something all right. Did he really believe she was that stupid? Donít ask questions. Goddamn son of a bitch. There was plenty of material at home, how much does he need? Donít ask questions.
She shivered; the apartment was freezing. They agreed to keep the thermostat low when he quit his job to write full-time, and so they were always cold. And the bastard kept the dial in his pocket because he didnít trust her to keep it where he wanted. Well, you wouldnít, would you? heíd say. Well, fuck you.
He was right, she would have turned it up. And why shouldnít she? Because then we canít afford the bill and then they turn it off completely. Or perhaps youíd prefer to pay the heating bill and come up short on rent and live in a box on the street? Or pay the heating bill and the rent and then have nothing left for food and then weíll starve. Or maybe shut up and put on a fucking sweater. Donít ask questions. The son of a bitch probably cranks the heat all day.
* * * * *
There was a window in the corner where frigid wisps of wind slipped through the cracks along the pane. Francis turned up the collar of his coat and blew on his fingers to warm them. He counted the whiskey glasses in front of him Seven. He then began to methodically calculate the amount of alcohol heíd consumed that evening, at home and then at Jackís. He determined that a saloon was no place for complicated arithmetic.
She was dressing in the bathroom while Eddie lit a cigarette, because thatís what one did. He didnít understand why she wouldnít let him look at her afterwards, or he thought he did, but it was ridiculous and so he figured it was something else. He scooped some ice cubes from the champagne bucket by the bed and dropped them into a glass tumbler.
"Are you making me a drink?" she called from the bathroom.
"You want one?" he said.
"Whatever youíre having."
He poured them each a drink, he drank his, and then he poured another.
"There are quicker ways to kill yourself," she said, stepping out of the bathroom.
"Go fuck yourself," he said. He was beginning to feel a little philosophical.
"Youíre an awful drunk, arenít you?" she laughed. She primped in the mirror.
"Why wonít you let me look at you?"
* * * * *
He kept a pair of pliers in the toolbox beneath the bed. He wasnít coming home anytime soon, and she wasnít going to freeze all goddamn night. Alice Einstein walked from the kitchen through the living room toward the bedroom, stopping by the hallway mirror to look at herself.
The name, he loved that. It was funny at first, to have her name a punch line. Then it bothered her, and then after a while like most anything else, she didnít care anymore.
But she could not bear how heíd fashioned her face.
She began to weep. She was never a particularly vain woman, but standing before the glass she found it extraordinarily difficult to compose herself in light of the remarkable abuse her face had suffered because of him. Her eyes were pink and dull and her cheeks sagged like cargo pockets, framing two cold-cracked lips caked with inexpensive drugstore cosmetics. He never hit her.
She would be warm, at least. She walked into the bedroom, and kneeling before the bed she discovered the toolbox. She worked the latch and lifted the lid and found a pair of needle-nosed pliers. She did not know they were called needle-nosed pliers because she was not permitted to use his tools.
She walked over to the thermostat and gripped the shaft that held the control dial in place and turned it clockwise. When she heard the furnace click downstairs she felt a tiny surge of adrenaline and giggled.
She walked back to the bedroom to replace the pliers. Again she worked the latch and opened the lid. She was already warmer. She placed the pliers in the box and closed the lid. She drew the bedskirt aside to slide the box beneath the bed and noticed several more boxes, unlike the toolbox in shape, which she had never seen before.
* * * * *
"Last call, Frank," said Pete.
"Because itís late and because youíre loaded."
"Youíre a fine bartender, Pete."
"Truly, I mean that. Sincerely. Youíre okay."
"No, Pete, youíre the best," he said. "Iíll have another whiskey."
"Oh, I donít know."
Peter poured an undersized shot of whiskey in a glass and brought it to Francis.
"Youíre okay by me, Pete." He swallowed it.
"Are you able to walk, Frank?"
"Oh, Iím able." He wiped his forehead. "Christ, itís hot in here."
"Iíll see you, Frankie."
"Who won the game?"
"I figured that."
"So long," said Francis, and he sighed and turned to face the cold.
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