It was an empty bottle of Wild Irish Rose that started us talking. I’d been sitting on a bench at a Rogers Park beach when a short, wiry guy in shabby clothes came wandering out of the north. There was a jumpy, rambunctious air about him even though he had a limp that made him skip a little bit as he walked, as if dogs were snapping at his heels. I wasn’t surprised when he nodded as he passed, but the empty bottle next to me on the bench hooked his eye and he slowed to a stop. With no small sense of drama he glanced back and forth between the bottle and me with great concentration, a mocking, quizzical gleam in his eye.
“That yours?” he finally asked.
Easing himself down next to the bottle, he began explaining, “‘Cause if you were drinkin’ this, I wouldn’t want to be sitting anywhere near you, no way.”
“Man, ’cause you’d be all boiled up. That’s what this shit does to you. You drink a bottle of this and your eyes look like two holes burned in a sheet.”
I laughed. He had a faint, charming drawl; a faded, unreadable tattoo spilled down his forearm like a blue stain and his eyes were small and narrow and looked like they belonged on a snake.
“When I was 15, 16, I’d go off in the shadows, you know, off in a corner like this.” He stood up, gazing all about him in a theatrical “Is the coast clear?” pantomime. Then, cocking his head back and putting his fist to his mouth, he swigged down a few imaginary liters in double time. Suddenly, he jerked his hand away and turned on me, hollering in a frighteningly loud voice “DO YOU WANNA FIGHT?”
For a moment I didn’t know whether to put up my fists or move on, but he had already fallen back to the bench with a dull thud and was running his mouth again.
“That’s what it does to you. The shit jacks you up. When I was on to drinkin’, if somebody said to me ‘Hey, L.J., you can whip those three guys over there,’ I’d go ‘You’re right, you’re right, let me go whip ’em.’ It’s a good thing I cut that shit out, you know; I had to or else somebody would have been dead or in the hospital.”
Judging by the strange twist of his mouth, I guessed that he’d left a few teeth scattered around the city as souvenirs of his drinking days. I asked what L.J. stood for.
“Little Jack. But don’t let that fool you, man. I may be skinny but I’m mean.”
“How long you been off drinking?”
“Been on the wagon about two years.”
“How’s it going?”
He shrugged. He was caressing the bottle, turning it over and over in his hands, gazing at the tiny red drops on the bottom longingly, as if measuring the possibility of his crawling through the opening to get at them.
“You sure this isn’t yours?” he asked with a suspicious edge to his voice.
“I told you before it’s not mine.”
He nodded. Then casually and without a word he flipped the bottle about ten feet into the air. The glass hit the sidewalk and exploded into hundreds of tiny pieces that lay gleaming on the concrete like a hemorrhage of diamonds.
“That was a stupid fucking thing to do,” he muttered. “Sometimes I’m a stupid fucker, you know? If I was a real man I’d clean it up with my bare hands, but I’m not.”
He looked at me challengingly, but I was staring at the pieces of the bottle. Already a black beetle was stumbling over the jagged, glassy boulders.
“You know what the most pathetic thing in the world is?” he suddenly demanded.
“The most pathetic thing in the world is a man who blames something else for his problems.”
He must have felt my interest waning, because he rapped hard on the bench with his fist to get my attention.
“Listen! It’s like the other night. I was with this buddy of mine and all he did was talk shit. My mama did this. My daddy did that. Booze fucked me up and made me beat my old lady. On and on. So you know what I finally said?”
I shook my head.
In answer, he held up his hand, rubbing his forefinger on top of his thumb in a slow, circular motion.
“You know what that is, don’t you?” he asked, and I shook my head again.
“That’s the world’s smallest phonograph playing ‘My Heart Bleeds for You, Motherfucker.'”