The bar sat a half block off Broadway. It was the proverbial hole in the wall--a restaurant, ostensibly, but the three or four booths along the back wall were never occupied except for a tourist or two who foolishly wandered in at lunch time, and the occasional rat that could be seen foraging in their wake and discouraged anyone else from looking at a menu.
That stopped no one from coming there or from drinking. It was packed every night with the cream of young actors and struggling wannabes, gay and gay-willing. Legend had it that it was here that Michael Idole had met the producer who made of him, in quick succession, bedmate and the biggest stage star of the decade. Whether there was any truth to the tale or not, I wouldn't want to guess, but enough people believed it to flock here every night.
I was not an actor, I was a writer, but I liked the theater well enough, and pretty actors too. I had an idea that if I hung around long enough, sooner or later I'd pick up a really good story and in the meantime, I was occasionally rewarded with pickups of other sorts. They were looking for producers, but like the jackal who decides in the morning he will have a camel for lunch, and seeing his shadow at noon decides a rabbit will do, there was always one who decided, as the shadows of night shrank before the light of dawn, that a writer would do.
They were all of them beauties, too, you hardly saw anyone in the place who was not--except one. He sat alone, every night, at the far end of the bar. He spoke to no one. He seemed to have no money to pay for drinks, and his appearance certainly supported that idea. Most nights, though, Harry, the bartender, bought him one or two, sometimes more. Bourbon, neat, I noticed. I wondered why Harry bothered. Of course, in a bar of this sort, you bought the occasional drink for one or the other of the best looking young men who lined the bar, to keep them there--bait for the others, like me. The recluse in the corner, though, seemed more likely to discourage business than add to it. No one spoke to him. No one came near him, except Harry with that occasional drink.
Finally, one night, curious, I asked Harry about him.
"Nick? Pathetic, isn't he?" he replied. "Would you believe, it wasn't so long ago that he was the most beautiful boy in the place, everybody wanted him, and he was the one everyone agreed was destined for real stardom?"
I looked from him to the life-battered man in the corner. "What on earth happened?" I asked. Harry shrugged. My writer's curiosity was aroused. "Would he talk to me, do you think?"
He shrugged again and walked to the end of the bar and said something to the man sitting there. I saw them both glance in my direction, the derelict's eyes sizing me up for a long moment before he said something and nodded. Harry came back to where I was standing.
"I told him you wanted to buy him a drink," he said.
I hesitated, but by now I was genuinely intrigued. I strolled to the end of the bar and sat down beside the recluse.
"You're a writer, Harry tells me," he said, without so much as a glance in my direction. His voice was tremulous. It seemed to come from some secret place deep within.
"Yes," I said, "For Broadway Baby. Ever read it?"
"I've seen it," he said, unimpressed. He picked up the empty glass in front of him and turned it around in his fingers. I signaled to Harry for a refill. It came, and he took a decorous sip from it. Usually, he drained a glass in one or two long swallows. I was encouraged.
"You're looking for a story." He made it a statement rather than a question.
"Yes. To be honest."
"'And I'm afraid of dying when I sleep alone.'"
It took me a moment to catch on. "Baudelaire?" I asked.
"Mallarme. But it should have been Baudelaire." He did look at me then, and smiled, but the smile was mocking, sardonic. "I will tell you a story, if you like," he said. "But you won't use it."
"Why don't you let me be the judge of that," I said.
He only continued to smile at me in that dismissive way. He was silent for so long, I thought after all he had changed his mind. Then, finally, looking away from me and into the depths of his glass, he began to talk. His voice was low, not much more than a whisper, so that I had to lean toward him to catch his words. Up close like that, he smelled of infrequent baths and unbrushed teeth and clothes worn too long. His scratchy voice was flat, with no inflection, as if he were reading a playlist...