In “A Tale of Alcoholism,” a new short story by Ernie Mannix, a woman tempted to break 15 years of sobriety discovers that at the King Cole bar in New York City’s St. Regis Hotel, the spirits don’t just come from bottles. – Ed.
A Tale of Alcoholism
by Ernie Mannix
Realizing that she had been walking for hours, the soft light of the St Regis Hotel called out to her tired legs and beckoned her up the short flight of steps and into the small but regal lobby. The winter evening, though mild, had chilled her significantly, to where she sought refuge in the beautiful old hotel and the tales of the famous bar inside.
Yes, maybe tonight was to be the night. Maybe there was a tale of her own here to be told, with a drink or two to wash it down. It would be her first drink in fifteen years, an idea she had kicked around for months now—the idea that quite possibly she was no longer an alcoholic.
Letʼs be fair, life had given her the heave-ho of late. Her disgusting husband left her for another woman, leaving just the bills, the insanely expensive East Side apartment, and all those damned happy photos. Her job had grown impossible with her boss doubling her workload, and the commute out to the Island (although going against rush-hour), was a nightmare at best.
Arriving in the lobby, she quickly made her way to the ladies room to adjust herself and right her looks after her long and chilling walk. The bathroom matron greeted her with an old-world, pursed smile, as if she knew what she had come for. Erica, though a bit deflated, smiled back politely before looking into the mirror, and in that mirror she saw what sheʼd become: a woman in her early forties, bored by life in Manhattan, and so very lonely.
She squinted her eyes slightly and raised her chin. She assessed her looks and sought to adjust and primp accordingly. Every woman has a tool bag for better looks, some have Burberry, some have Gucci, and some poor souls even have Coach. She leaned in closer to the mirror, exhaled slowly and noticed that fog from her breath revealed a previously finger-scrawled curse word.
Some silly drunk must have done that. Normal people wouldnʼt do that in this fine place, she thought to herself.
Exhaling again into a more relaxed and less guarded look, she focused deeper into the mirror, past the foul word into the place where her thirties were still alive in her eyes. Her damned forties were playing around there too, etching their funny little lines and drying out her stubborn unruly hair. Another chin raise, a rekindled fiery mindset, a shake of her head, and off she went in the direction of the hotelʼs bar.
I wasnʼt so bad; I was just young… in my twenties. To hell with it, for what Iʼve been through; I deserve it.
Years ago sheʼd always stopped counting at two drinks. After that numbers didnʼt matter. Her thoughts wrestled and kicked up the dust of unpleasant alcohol-laced memories: the lies, the pain of being yelled at for the lies, the shame and remorse—the steps in the ugly dance of alcohol. The dance where your heel slips off the dance floor throwing you onto your ass… which brings on the hysterical laughter… and youʼre the only one laughing… laughing at the people trying to help you up off the floor, laughing at their stupid shoes, the bad music and the son-of-a-bitch bartender that wonʼt let you stay until your song plays on the jukebox.
It was as if her husband were here reminding her as he did, that she still was alcoholic, politely telling her helpful short tales of all the embarrassing, drunken moments from her tipsy past… the tales of his wounds. There were stories of the parties that didnʼt end well, the lost keys, dented cars, obnoxious flirting and all the exhausting, endless, broken promises. No matter… he wasnʼt here now and for sure, that bastard had lost the right to critique her and her past drinking. He was the bad guy now, and certainly had no further business reminding her of anything.
“Welcome to the St. Regis, Miss”, the handsome tall attendant announced. Nodding slightly in acknowledgement, she asked, “Whereʼs the bar?”
“Ah, yes, the King Cole Bar… itʼs straight ahead… youʼll see the large Maxfield Parrish mural.”
As she stared at his striking face, she thought, would you like to come join me, handsome?
It was a liberating thought, one that she hadnʼt had in years, and with her husbandʼs recent departure, it was a thought that she hoped would take flight. However the young man didnʼt seem disinterested or interested, he just seemed warmly professional as the job required.
Erica hadnʼt been to a bar alone in years, sheʼd go with her husband and have food and sodas while he drank whatever he wanted. He was a normy; one of those jackasses that could have one drink and not even finish it, or have four and know enough not to get behind the wheel of a car or use heavy machinery. Boring—what a righteous bastard of a man.
Walking towards the King Cole Bar, she passed the elegant dining room. The one that Marilyn Monroe, and Salvador Dali used to frequent, the one where sophisticated New Yorkers dined quietly and wouldnʼt even notice or care if Marilyn or Salvador happened to be seated right next to them. Seated around the room were several smart couples, a group of wildly dressed European ladies, and a small, obviously wealthy, smartly dressed elderly man. (Isnʼt there always one of those in a good New York restaurant?)
As she reached the entrance of the bar area, she was reminded of the daily meditations and slogans that fed her years of abstinence. Her numerous sponsors and sober friends ran through her mind from ear to ear peeking out above her tamed hair and poking out of her phone lists and notes in her so- shameful Coach bag.
Sobriety is so many things, not drinking is just one of them, she thought. Iʼll still have my rigorous honesty, my good way of living—my honor.
She stopped abruptly and sized up a seat directly in the center of the bar.
Before she could seat herself, a waiter appeared out of nowhere and kindly and efficiently pulled out the chair for her, then carefully pushed it back in after she was comfortably seated. He was handsome also, and this time she did notice that he smiled and gave her just a little bit of an extra look.
That was promising… maybe I am successfully keeping my forties at bay.
Righting herself and preparing for her adventure, she leaned back slightly in the comfortable chair and took it all in. Yes, indeed there it was; the historic and much talked-about mural by Maxfield Parrish— the artist that was commissioned and paid a very tidy sum by none other than Jacob Astor himself in exchange for his work. Maxfield Parrish was the first artist to manufacture his art in a multi-layered process; however, unlike Warhol, he himself created and labored on every single part of the process.
Parrish was as good of a businessman as he was an artist—quite a combination for finding your way into the publicʼs eye. He was so successful in fact that he overexposed himself and his art with his work on endless advertisements, prints, calendars and paintings of girls on rocks, girls on swings, waterfalls, sunsets and dreamy ultra-blue hyper reality. However, here right here behind the Jack Daniels, single-malts and Belvedere, resided one of his greatest… a truly enveloping feast for the eyes. Jacob Astor was the original owner of the St. Regis, the same Jacob Astor that died on the Titanic. Legend had it that it actually was him depicted as King Cole right in the center of the mural. Legend also has it that Parrish mocked him, and if you look closely youʼd see that the King appeared to be indeed quite flatulent—yes, he was passing gas.
Old ghosts, sponsors and husbands… tonight, right here in this famous old hotel, my fifteen years of not drinking will come to an end.
“Cheers to you, luv! Congratulations on your determination!” the man with an English accent exclaimed. He had taken the seat next to her without her noticing. “You can do it, Luv! You donʼt need any help at all!”
The intrusive man was older, about 75, wearing a beautiful white suit and a deep blue scarf around his neck.
He had short-cropped gray hair, a receding hairline, thick glasses and a pleasant, cheeky smile. His accent was not the type thatʼs full of kings and proper maidens. It had a disarming lilt, somewhat familiar and delightfully singsong like.
“Iʼm sorry, are you speaking to me?” Erica asked.
“Oh yes, lovey, I am most definitely speaking to you and you alone.” Erica looked to the bartender…she hadnʼt ordered her drink as yet, but with this guy hounding her, she might very well be forced to order a double. She held her hand up and called to him, but the barman looked past her and paid her no mind.
“Oh, heʼs busy, sweetie… heʼs a union man I understand. I think everybody in this old joint is union. At least it was that way when I hung out here in the seventies. I used to throw some real good wobblers in here. Got tossed out a time or two, but being a crafty devil, I always conned my way back in. When I took to baking cakes at home, I quit traipsing around and gave this place the shove-off. But heck, tonight, lovey… Iʼm back here to celebrate with ya.”
Quite perplexed and somewhat amused, Erica just stared at the man. He wasnʼt of the exact age group that she had in mind in her search for the new man that would fix everything.
“Celebrate with me? What do you mean… celebrate what? I donʼt even know you.”
“Well, thatʼs a shame dearie… time marches on I guess. Now look here; you have that face on… you know; that face that says, Iʼm-a-gonna-do-some- damaaaage.” The last few words were sung in a raspy rollicking tone followed by a smokerʼs cough. “Sorry, ʻbout the crap singing, sweet… thatʼs one Iʼve been working on recently.”
Now, fully perplexed, amused and with one foot bordering on charmed, Erica asked, “Youʼre a musician?”
“Hell, I guess so. I give it a whack or two now and then. Used to be at it pretty hard in the olden days, but now I do just what I can do. Enough about me… letʼs talk about your situation, shall we? I mean, if youʼre gonna end your golden days, your hard-earned place in the peaceful place… you might as well go out flaming, right?”
Erica softened and patronizingly smiled, as if she were done with this comedian but didnʼt want to offend him.
“Winston, Doctor Winston.” He quickly answered.
“Okay, Dr. Winston, I thank you for being so open and friendly with me, but I have to tell you that youʼre scaring me a bit. I just came in here for a…”
She couldnʼt get the words out. They got stuck in her parched throat, so she tried again.
“I came in here for… a…a quiet… drink.” As the words left her mouth,tears formed in her eyes
“You were saying lovey? A drink, a quiet one… one that will soothe, right? Bring you happiness, yes? Bring back your man?”
“How do you know about my man… my husband? Are you from his lawyerʼs office… did he have me followed?” Tears now dropped down Ericaʼs face as Winston scooted his chair closer.
“No, Erica, nothing like that, luv. Iʼm just able to read a sad face, thatʼs all, even if that face is hardened and hell-bent on hurting herself, the sadness shows through. You were out walking around for hours and hours in this damp weather. Youʼll catch cold, luv! Erica sweetie, youʼve got to find a new apartment. Start over… there are far too many ghosts in that old place, and most of them are you.”
She looked at him and his face no longer held irreverence, for it was soft and serious now.
“Erica, you canʼt drink any more than I can, luv. I gave that crap up decades back. You may not believe me, but I used to get into some pretty sticky situations all hopped-up on the booze. Nasty stuff when itʼs in the wrong people.ʼ
There was a pause and stillness in the air. Erica released her fear of the man and she began to think that something else had happened. She was afraid that sheʼd already turned a terrible corner.
“Doctor Winston, I didnʼt mention my name to you… and you knew mine.”
“Look love, Iʼve got to go to the john, so-to-speak. You wait here ʼtil I come back and I will tell you all about it. Itʼs simple, sweetie. Nothing to be frightened of at all, lovey. You sit here and think on things, Iʼll be back in just a few.”
Erica watched as he walked across the room. He had his hands in his pockets and a large smile on his face. Dr. Winston then turned to her, waved, and slowly disappeared around the corner.
“What can I get you?” the bartender asked.
Startled, Erica spun back around in her seat.
“Who was that man?”
“What man?” the barman politely replied.
“That English man with the white suit… he was just here talking with me.” The bartender gave her a somewhat strange look in reply.
“Iʼm sorry, Miss, I didnʼt see anyone here with you. You just sat down a few seconds ago. Perhaps this man was with you out in the lobby?”
Erica was too stunned to respond and didnʼt want to whittle down the bartenderʼs tolerance for crazies or drunks; however, she needed to ask him one more very important question.
“Mister… please tell me that I havenʼt had a drink. Did you pour me a drink?” Her tears welled again as the words left her shaking mouth.
His pause was excruciating and the silence deafening. The bartender, the consummate professional that had seen all kinds of people in this great metropolis, obviously knew that he was dealing with a troubled woman. His look turned very caring and human, and with a soft merciful tone, calmly said, “No, dear lady. You have no worries… I gave you nothing and you havenʼt had a drop.”
Some peace slowly returned to Ericaʼs face. She stared at the barman for a few seconds then released her tense breath.
“Oh, dear… thank you.” Wiping her tears and quickly getting out of the chair, she then continued in a lighter tone.
“Iʼm so sorry to take up your bar space. I just donʼt feel like drinking tonight, thatʼs all. My apologies. Itʼs such a lovely mural.”
“Yes it is Madam. No apologies needed. Thank you so much for coming to the King Cole Bar, and best of luck to you.”
On her way out, she passed by some enclosed display cases with artifacts and mementos from the last century at the St. Regis. There were old keys, some vintage hotel stationary, pictures of Jacob Astor and of the many celebrities that frequented the lovely old hotel. There was Marilyn in the fifties, Salvador Dali in the sixties, and last but not least, an old photo from the seventies of a very famous former Beatle. He was smiling at the camera, decked-out in a lovely white suit and a deep blue scarf.