News from the Hood
If you’re familiar with the saying, “No man is an island,” you’ll embrace the concept of this story. Should the adage seem foreign to you, that’s okay. As you read the story to come, I think you’ll get the message.
All of us, whether we realize it or not, have favorite places. Whether we live in a sprawling suburban tract home or in a high-rise building on a traffic-congested city street, we make frequent trips to nearby locations and consider them our personal “go-to” places.
Many city dwellers live within walking distance to churches, schools, grocery stores, taverns, clothing stores, movie theaters, and restaurants. And such a destination is featured in this story.
Discover the common denominator that draws a panoply of patrons to a specific in-town establishment known as The Legless Horseman. And find out why it ranks so high on their list of favored places.
Enough now, let’s get on with the story…
1. Give us this day
My wife, Norma, is always busy around the house or at the park; she takes people on walking tours of the city. I hit retirement age six years ago and started up my own window cleaning service. That’s how I get most of my exercise, and my 11 customers give me all the work I can handle. The money I make isn’t all that much, but it supplements my income from Social Security.
By the way, my name’s Clyde Ferguson; pleased to meet you.
One of the things I like about my little business is that I have plenty of time to spend on my own. And a favorite haunt of mine is right here: a corner tavern called The Legless Horseman.
The young man behind the bar expertly sweeps a bar rag across the mahogany in front of me. “You want French fries with your sandwich?”
“You make our windows sparkle, Clyde. Great job.”
“Thanks, Mike. I’m done for the day, and it’s barely noontime. I like Saturday mornings in the city. It’s nice and peaceful; seems like everybody’s quiet and happy.”
“Well, that’s true. I like a laid-back Saturday morning too, at least until something out of the ordinary rears up and takes me by surprise.”
As if on cue, the wide front door of the tavern swings open. With the echo of a siren in transit somewhere, a white-haired man in a dark suit and vest comes in and walks straight to the bar.
“Mike, I need an inordinately stout beverage, larger than my usual. Barney Woods just passed away.”
2. Exit, stage right
“Coming right up, professor; I’ll make you a triple vodka with soda water, a dribble of grape juice, and a twist of lemon; that okay?”
The professor glances my way. “Good morning, Clyde.”
“G’d morning, professor.”
We’ve known each other for years, and he’s never told me his real name. Everybody calls him “professor.” A scientific type, he teaches graduate students about parasites and other bugs that make most folks cringe. He holds a tenured position at the college on Truman Avenue.
I sip from my water glass and wave the white-haired academic over to a seat next to me. “What happened to him, professor? Barney’s our age, and we’re not that old yet. How’d he die?”
“Well, yes…he is, or was, our age. He didn’t succumb to any of the normal maladies or even a catastrophic disease. He died in our building. You do know that we live in the same apartment building?”
A colorful drink is placed in front of my friend. The barman says, “Here you go, professor. Drink up. This one’s on me.”
“Well, you may find this difficult to believe…” The professor closes both eyes and takes a hefty swallow of his drink. “…he was running an errand for his wife and had gone as far as the elevator door on his floor…”
3. A game of cribbage
“Felicia Graham called my wife after trying to console Doris, Barney’s widow. They play canasta on a regular basis with a few other residents of the building. From what I can gather, here’s how it happened:
“Dee-Dee says they need a sack of kitty litter, and she asks him to go to the Shop ‘n’ Save on the corner. He figures he’ll get that little job out of the way and grabs his coat. While he’s waiting for the elevator to arrive, she calls after him, ‘Get another bottle of milk too, Barney.’
“A bell pings, and the door whooshes open. Barney turns toward her voice, wriggles into his jacket, and shouts, ‘More milk…Okay.’
“He steps backward through the open door…tips upside down, and free-falls about 27 floors to his death. As we speak, they’re scraping him up from wherever he landed.”
Mike spies the lemon peel in the empty glass. “Like a refill, professor?”
“Please. Thank you.”
I push my plate aside, not a crumb on it. “I’d like an Irish coffee, Mike, if you don’t mind.”
There’s more traffic noise from the street, and the front door clicks shut. An elderly gentleman wearing a white turtleneck and a double-breasted blue blazer approaches the bar.
“Hey, all, sad news. Barney Woods is dead. I need a drink. You won’t believe it, and I’ll tell you all about it; I still can’t believe it myself.” His hands tremble as they rest on the bar.
The barman waves a hand. “G’d mornin’, Rabbi. Take a deep breath and calm down. We’ve already heard. Have a seat and relax.”
Rabbi Shaughnessy is a diamond merchant in the jewelry district downtown. Nobody knows why he’s called Rabbi. He pulls a handkerchief from a back pocket and blots a droplet that’s about to let go from the very tip of his nose.
“You want your usual, Rabbi?”
“Yes. Southern Comfort and Squirt. Only this time, go short on the Squirt and long on the comfort.”
The Rabbi’s cheeks and forehead, usually bright pink, have lost their healthful appearance and now belong to a gray-faced man in late middle age. I see him glance toward a corner table, and when he looks back, moisture glistens in the corners of his eyes.
“Barney and I are partners in tonight’s cribbage tournament.”
Mike leans across the bar. “We may reschedule the tournament, Rabbi, in honor of Barney’s memory. It’s incredible how much he enjoyed the game.”
The Rabbi presses both elbows against his sides and crosses his arms over his chest. He shudders in a full-body quake, from the inside out.
A thought strikes me. “Do you know if they need help lifting him from the elevator shaft and out of the building? Perhaps we should go find out?”
4. The plan
The barman delivers Shaughnessy’s drink. “Which floor did he stop at?”
“Yes, I wondered that too,” the professor adds.
I tell ‘em, “If it’s the lobby, they’ll need to take him out the front door. That won’t be good. Perhaps he went all the way to the basement? That’d be better. They can back their wagon to the back door in the alley.”
Fresh drinks appear before each of us, and Mike says, “These are on the house, gentlemen, and I’ll have a taste of the dew myself. In honor of our old friend; here’s to Barney.”
We raise our glasses toward a light fixture hanging overhead, and I notice a few dead flies lying against the inside of the dusty globe.
“To Barney,” we say in unison as two more patrons arrive. The voice of a high-heeled Boston Brahmin calls from the doorway, “Good afternoon, gentlemen. Barney Woods is dead.”
I check my watch and see that it is indeed a little past noon. The lady behind the dialect wears a tailored gray skirt and an exquisitely cut jacket. Her white silk blouse has ruffles, and a blood-red ascot adorns her neck. The man she’s with sports a French beret, polyester slacks, and a cast-off army fatigue jacket.
Mike, glass still in hand, speaks first. “We know, Webby. We just drank a toast in his honor.”
Minerva Webster, Attorney at Law, nods, adjusts an errant strand of white hair, and slowly takes a seat at the bar. “He’ll be missed.”
“Yed, I mid him ahreddy,” comes the response from under Moses Rhinehart’s beret.
Moe is a bassoonist in the city symphony. The last time he weighed himself, in the subway station, the scale’s fancy needle stopped at 146 pounds; there’s not much meat on his six-foot-six frame.
Mike peers at Moses. “How come you’re talking funny, Moe?”
Webby pipes up, “He has a terrible cold; I met him on the street a few minutes ago, and I could hardly understand what he was trying to say.”
Moe removes his beret and leans back on his stool. He aims his nose toward the ceiling, inhales deeply, snaps his eyes shut, and fires a rocket-propelled sneeze and a cloud of virus-laden mucus shrapnel directly into his upturned hat.
“Oh, by goodneth, I’ve god it bad. Nothin’ worse ‘n a kowd.”
“Oh, hell,” Webby says. “Mike, please set up a round of Calvados for everybody, and put it on my tab. We’ll toast Barney with the good stuff.”
The professor stands. “Yes, and hold on for just a minute. I’ll make a quick trip to the loo while he’s pouring. I shan’t miss this moment to toast our friend. I’ll be right back.”
Mike lifts a tall bottle from a mirrored shelf, removes its stopper, and pours an inch or two of topaz-colored liquid into a brandy snifter for each of us.
He sets a snifter on the bar in front of the professor’s vacant seat. “A round of Calvados for all, counselor, and this round is on me. I liked Barney; he was a kind man and a good customer.”
A half-hour later and with a few drops of brandy remaining in our glasses, the professor says, “What’re we going to do now? We mustn’t sit here and drink ourselves silly. Shouldn’t we do something? How’s Doris; is anyone attending to her? What’s happening with Barney’s body? What’s going on, and can we help in any fashion?”
Webby looks up. “Easy there, proffy boy. Abby’s with Dee-Dee now.”
Abigail Caruthers, Minerva’s life partner for the past 30 years, is well-known to us and liked by all.
We all pause in thought, and Moe unleashes another sneeze into his beret.
Mike leans across the bar and hands a small, white box to the musician. “Lord-a-mercy, Moe, have some tissues.”
“Danks. I god a derrible gowd in by head. But I’m better off dan Barney. He’d dead.”
Mike takes away the empty brandy glasses. “I wonder where they’re taking him.”
Webby responds quickly, “He’s on his way to the coroner’s office by now; they need to determine the cause of death.”
An exclamation erupts from the doorway, “Hell’s bells you say; the cause of death? You all nuts? It was death by sudden stop after an uncontrolled descent 27 floors to ground level. No doubt about it. And I got no medical degree either.”
Charlie, the custodian in Barney and the professor’s building, makes his way to the bar. Mike positions a snifter of Calvados in front of him.
“Thanks, Mike. Barney’s dead.”
Mike points at Minerva. “Webby said that everything is under control.”
The professor waves a limp hand in the air. “We’ve all heard the news, and now we’re trying to figure out what to do.”
Minerva adjusts her ascot and clears her throat. “Barney wants no funeral or period of mourning. His final request is that he be cremated as soon as possible, and he wants his ashes put in an urn for Doris. I know these things; I drew up his will.”
She takes a tissue from the box in Moe’s hand and very softly blows her nose. “Set up another Calvados for everybody, Mike.”
“Ha,” Charlie says. “I can’t help but think about the adventure I had with Barney last winter. He asked me about a personal problem.”
5. Field expediency
“What was that? What kind of a personal problem?” I ask.
“Well, during the horrible ice storm we had…when nobody could go anywhere and the cabbies, police, and EMS were practically out-a-business? That’s when Barney told me he had a terrible case of penile itch. He asked me if we had a doctor in the building; he needed some professional advice.”
“No doctors live in our building. Barney said not to worry; he’d put his version of medicinal field expediency to use and treat the itch himself.”
“What’d he do?”
“Well, he’d read in an old medical reference book that garlic oil relieves an itch and that a strong antiseptic is an often-acceptable treatment too.
“He asked me to walk with him through the storm to the Shop ‘n’ Save. Well, I didn’t want him to face the blizzard alone, so I agreed. When we got there, he steered a shopping cart up and down the aisles for a while until he came upon a wide-mouthed jar of minced garlic.”
“‘Aha,’ he said, and put it in his shopping cart. Farther on, he found a large bottle of strong mouthwash; you know, the yellowish kind that makes the insides of your mouth go all puckery when you swish it around. He added that to his cart too and grabbed a jug of milk and a box of doughnuts on our way to the checkout counter.”
“What about his penile itch?”
“I’m getting to that; hold your horses. About an hour after he got home, the itch was so bad and he was squirming around so much… he couldn’t take it anymore. He dropped his trousers and shorts right there in his kitchen, uncapped the jar of minced garlic and held it at crotch height. Just as he was about to push his dowser into its oily depths, Dee-Dee screamed at him:
‘BARNEY!! What the HELL are you doing?’”
Moe can’t help himself, and he grins from ear to ear. He tilts back his head, and his pent-up laughter morphs into a strangled snort. An iridescent mucus bubble eases out of one nostril and balloons to a size that makes his eyes cross, then it bursts with a faint pop.
Webby adjusts a paper napkin under her glass. “Dammit, Charlie, what about his penile itch? Get to the point.”
Moe turns his face in Minerva’s direction. “Uhh, good wund Webby. He god a idchy dicky, add you say ged to da poind. Hah.”
Charlie grins at all of us. “Well, he told me that later that same day, his missus leaves him alone. She goes down to the Crenshaws’ on the 17th floor for a few games of canasta. That’s when he gets that old-fashioned gold-colored mouthwash from the bathroom.”
“What’d he do with it?” Webby whispers.
“He finds a bright pink, insulated, spill-proof travel mug in a kitchen cabinet. He uncaps the bottle, pours enough of the strong stuff to fill it up halfway…then he sticks his dick in it.”
Everyone in our small group gasps simultaneously. No one speaks. The entire tavern becomes as quiet as the floor of an abandoned gold mine. We’re all lost in thought.
Charlie puts his hands on his hips. “You know the famous Russian Cossack dance, where the guy does squat-jumps…and kicks out one leg and then the other? Well, Barney dances like that until his legs give out.
“When the storm clears, he sees his doctor…who prescribes an ointment that cures the itch. Of course, that’s all history now; I’ll miss Barney.”
Everyone nods, and for a fleeting instant the image of a dancing Barney flashes through our minds.
I can’t help myself, and the words tumble out of my mouth, “It seems so incredible…that any one of us…all about the same age…can sit here, with a bunch of friends…alive and well…laughing and talking away…and then suddenly one of us isn’t here anymore.”
The Rabbi interrupts, “We need to take up a collection for Dee-Dee. Moe, lend me your hat for a minute, and I’ll pass it around. We’ll all put some money in the hat.”
“No, Rabbi,” Mike says, “she doesn’t need Moe’s germs. And we’ll do better than that.
“I have an enormous Courvoisier bottle in the back room. I’ll make a sign that says, ‘RIP Barney.’ I’ll set the jug with the sign attached on the bar. That way, everyone who comes into the tavern will see it and hopefully donate some cash.”
6. Neighborhood kids
The day of the cremation, before we all head home, we hand his missus an envelope with $4,300 in it. She takes the cash and says, “C’mon all you people, Barney’s going to buy us all a drink at The Legless Horseman.”
Life insurance will cover all Barney’s final expenses, she tells us. So, after paying for our drinks at the tavern, she does something special with the leftover cash. She gives the balance of the money to a neighborhood group that Barney started. It helps kids; it’s called “KWP” …kids without parents.
Most of us see Barney again…when we peek at his ashes in the porcelain urn Doris keeps beside the cookie jar.
And now, whenever I bump into a kid in the corner store, my thoughts turn to Barney and that he never, not even once that I recall, mentioned his mother or father.
(The story, News from the Hood, was published several years ago. it remains one of my favorites.)