Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Opinion of the Week, from the NYT Opinion section, swear to God, Guy Walks Into a Bar...


SHE was about 19. No older. Maybe younger. An insurance company would have given her 60 more years to live. I figured a more accurate projection was 36 hours, or 36 minutes if things went wrong from the get-go.

She was blond and blue-eyed, but not American. American girls have a glow, a smoothness, from many generations of plenty. This girl was different. Her ancestors had known hardship and fear. That inheritance was in her face and her movements. Her eyes were wary. Her body was lean. Not the kind of lean you get from a diet, but the Darwinian kind of lean you get when your grandparents had no food — and either starved or didn't. Her movements were fragile and tense, a little alert, a little nervous, though on the face of it she was having as good a time as a girl could get.

She was in a New York bar, drinking beer, listening to a band, and she was in love with the guitar player. That was clear. The part of her gaze that wasn't wary was filled with adoration, and it was all aimed in his direction. She was probably Russian. She was rich. She was alone at a table near the stage and she had a pile of A.T.M.-fresh twenties in front of her and she was paying for each new bottle with one of them and she wasn't asking for change. The waitresses loved her.

There was a guy further back in the room, wedged on an upholstered bench, staring at her. Her bodyguard, presumably. He was a tall, wide man with a shaved head and a black T-shirt under a black suit. He was part of the reason she was drinking beer in a city bar at the age of 19 or less. It wasn't the kind of glossy place that had a policy about under-age rich girls, either for or against. It was a scruffy dive on Bleecker Street, staffed by skinny kids trying to make tuition money, and I guessed they had looked at her and her minder and made a snap decision against trouble and in favor of tips.

I watched her for a minute, and then I looked away. My name is Jack Reacher, and once I was a military cop, with heavy emphasis on the past tense. I have been out nearly as long as I was in. But old habits die hard. I had stepped into the bar the same way I always step anywhere, which is carefully. One-thirty in the morning. I had ridden the A train to West Fourth and walked south on Sixth Avenue and made the left on Bleecker and checked the sidewalks. I wanted music, but not the kind that drives large numbers of patrons outside to smoke.

The smallest knot of people stood next to a place with half a flight of stairs leading up to its door. There was a shiny black Mercedes sedan parked on the curb, with a driver behind the wheel. The music coming out of the place was filtered and dulled by the walls but I could hear an agile bass line and some snappy drumming. So I walked up the stairs and paid a $5 cover and shouldered my way inside.

Two exits. One the door I had just come through, the other at the end of a long dark restroom corridor way in back. The room was narrow and about 90 feet deep. A bar on the left at the front, then some upholstered horseshoe benches, then a cluster of freestanding tables on what, on other nights, might have been a dance floor. Then the stage, with the band on it.

The band looked as if it had been put together by accident after a misfiling incident at a talent agency. The bass player was a stout old black guy in a suit with a vest. He was plucking away at an upright bass fiddle. The drummer could have been his uncle. He was a big old guy sprawled comfortably behind a small, simple kit. The singer was also a harmonica player and was older than the bass player and younger than the drummer and bigger than either one.

The guitarist was completely different. He was young and white and small. Maybe 20, maybe 5-foot-6, maybe 130 pounds. He had a fancy blue guitar wired to a crisp new amplifier and together the instrument and the electronics made sharp sounds full of space and echoes. The amp must have been turned up to 11. The sound was incredibly loud. It was as if the air in the room was locked solid. It had no more capacity for volume.


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