Chapter Ten

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I arrived early at the Palace. Mickey stood behind the long wooden bar and nodded at me. He didn't, however, pour me a drink despite his knowing perfectly well what I liked. No matter what I do, the men in my life are endlessly contrary.

I took two steps forward and pivoted right. I sat on a stool opposite my favorite short Sicilian and smirked at him without saying a word. My silence was a form of avoidance therapy that Mickey particularly disliked. Maybe it was an Italian thing.

Mickey was in rare form. I saw it from the beads of sweat beginning to accumulate on his forehead. He was in classic pick-up attire. Black silk shirt, black chinos, black loafers no socks. And he would have been an open-all-night babe-o-rama had it not been for three strands of hair. These particular three had offended me before, but it wasn't their fault that Mickey thought that they actually covered the three-quarters of his head that was bald.

Usually I find his hair amusing. Just gazing at those three paltry strands lacquered into place reminds me that we all have our petty fictions—the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves to keep us from jumping off a bridge.

Mickey merely smiled back. Not a pleasant smile, but I'd seen worse. "You oughta try something different," he said.

Great. Now, my height-challenged bartender was going to tell me how to solve all life's problems with some quick fix. Pasta boy now sold Amway.

"For instance?" I said.

Mickey nodded. Like Karlson, he thinks that I'm going to do what he says just because he says it. "New drink," he said.

"I don't drink alcohol," I said. "What else you got?"

He produced a glass bottle that looked as if it had dressed itself amid a road show production of Hair.

"I'm supposed to drink this?" I said.

He read the label. "It's called Strawberry Peace Sit-In Punch." He patted my arm. "Do you good."

Without another word, he put ice into my usual Coke glass and poured. The ice crackled, and the beverage fizzed quietly. I took a sip.

The candy-pink liquid tasted like sweetened Strawberry Crush with floating fruit fibers. It had no buzz, a little fizz, and no kick. What good was it? Then again, I persisted in my own ruts while challenging everyone else's.

"You like?" he asked.

I took another sip of my new drink. If Mickey was trying to slip me a trendy fruit drink, something was going on. Knowing Mickey, I suspected some scam or other. He preferred the "real" drinking customers, those who actually liked alcohol, because he could mark up the drinks 200 percent. My diet sodas didn't make him much money.

After my second sip, Mickey hadn't waited around for an answer to his question. He owned the bar, so he was off at a side table making sure everyone was happy. One particular young woman seemed especially satisfied as she patted Mickey's hairy bicep three times while he delivered the drinks.

Mickey's new deal was beginning to come together for me. The fruit drinks, the chick, and the label on the glass bottle in front of me started to make sense.

When Mickey came back, I grinned at him. "Cute girl," I said.

He didn't look at me and made a studied effort to wash the glasses he usually ignores while they soak in the sink. The truth might be out there, but right now the answer I wanted was behind Mickey's eyes.

In time, he gave me what I sought.

"I suppose the Coke people cut you a good deal on their new product?"

He didn't say anything.

"And the Fruitopia ingratiated you with the Doc Marten crowd."

I leaned up and over the bar to take a quick glance at Mickey's footgear. His combat boots had neat yellow stitching along the soles.

Every trend got to Rockford eventually. Doc Martens with their bright yellow stitching simply took a tad longer to get here, and the trend stayed longer than most. I much preferred Birkenstocks, myself.

As I thought, Mickey's boots were brand spanking new. He was tight-fisted, so if he spent money, he expected to get something out of it.

"Nice shoes," I said. "Have you told her how old you are?"

Mickey shook his head at me and hurried over to the cute girl's table. She apparently needed her drink topped off.

He had not been amused. I think it was something about the sweat glistening on his earlobes that clued me in. Not that he said anything; Mickey isn't one to argue even in his own place. I'd feel the burn later. Mickey (Michelangelo Moria to newbies at the bar) is Sicilian. If they didn't write the book on revenge, they at least edited all the volumes. The payback for this was going to be hell, but I refused to think about it.

Emily Dickinson wrote: "Hope is the thing with feathers. . . ." I'm with Woody Allen, the guy who wrote Without Feathers way before his notorious sex scandal, in loco parentis, marry a girl, and have a baby incarnation.

I don't believe in that thing with wings.

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