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The Merry Times.

In the summer of 19901 got Marty a job with a painting outfit I'd been working with off and on for ten years. Geordie, my boss, needed extra hands to help with a big contract painting a navy destroyer that was moored in Halifax Harbour for weapons and electrical refitting. Marty couldn't paint all that well but that didn't matter. The job amounted to slapping grey paint on the decks and hull and coating the bulkheads below in white. No previous experience needed. All that was required was the ability to mindlessly lay on the thick rustproof paint for fourteen hours a day, seven days a week.

Still, Marty soon proved he wasn't up to it. He painted valves shut, ran his roller over the bridge window and dropped a can of paint down the foreward hold. Once, he stepped backwards into a paint tray then walked down the corridor to the head to remove his boot, leaving a sloppy trail of white footprints, all of them from his left sole like evidence of the passage of a one-legged man hurrying to the urinals. After three days Geordie had seen enough and reassigned him. He gave Marty a box of rags, a five-gallon drum of degreasing agent and a pair of ear plugs, and led him to the engine room.

The engine room was a labyrinth of groaning pipes and roaring machinery. Even with the main engines off the cavernous room sounded like a freight train in a tunnel. There was oil everywhere, spat from endless rows of pounding pistons and oozing from a hundred gear boxes. It coated the bulkheads, dripped from the wiring and lay in treacherous pools on the deck.

It was Marty's job, Geordie told him, to remove every trace of the oil so the paint would adhere. The boss then left, happy that Marty, looking like he'd fell into a vat of battleship grey, was hidden from the navy brass that prowled the ship counting rivets and sniffing out rust.

To Marty, the reassignment was the best thing that could have happened. After looking around and concluding that the task was impossible, he crawled under a tank of diesel fuel, laid his head on a cushion of rags and slept off his hangover.

The night before, he'd closed The Merry Times Bar and Grill, a sports bar near the hotel where the crew was staying. We all ate supper there every night, washing down mounds of fried clams with quarts of Keith's like a bunch of regular Bluenosers. Most of us managed to drag ourselves out of the place by midnight, ready to pass out once we'd stumbled to our rooms, sufficiently liquored so that we wouldn't lay awake dreading Geordie's knock on the door at six in the morning.

But Marty always stayed until last call and usually longer, having ingratiated himself with the serving staff. Wherever he pulled up a stool, whether at his local back home or any of the hundreds of bars he'd graced from Vancouver to Montreal to, now, the Maritimes, he always made a point of getting chummy with the staff. Often as not a bartender or waitress was able to find the blow he needed to counter the dulling effects of the booze so he could drink all night and remain relatively coherent.

At The Merry Times he'd found that someone in Linda, a cheerful waitress with enough cleavage to hold a jug of beer between her tits if she ever wanted to carry more than two pitchers at a time. The entire crew was smitten with her, and the more she smiled at us and tittered at our advances the bigger our tips grew--figuratively, in Geordie' s case, who pronounced her a "class-A dick-straightenerrr" in his Scottish brogue. It was pathetic. Except for Marty and I, the men were all over forty and stood no chance of getting anything more from her than a peck on the cheek, which she occasionally favoured one of us with like a niece would her letch uncle.

None of us seemingly had less chance of scoring with Linda than our diminutive boss Geordie, or "wee Geordie," as his wife sometimes called him, snickering as he burned. But the little man from Glasgow, who had arrived in Canada thirty years earlier with only enough money for a cheap paintbrush, was not one easily discouraged. Within a year he had a crew of twenty painters working shifts round the clock in Montreal's finer hotels and taller office buildings, having secured reams of contracts by dint of his casual, working-class charm and gifts of the finest Scotch single malts to property managers. Now he would use that same charm on Linda, backing it up with hundred-dollar tips on twenty-dollar tabs lest she mistake his intentions. Linda, born with an inclination to separate men from their money just as sure as God gave her the rack to do it effortlessly, would mildly protest just long enough for him to slide a C-note into her tight pants pocket. Geordie, no slouch himself when it came to playing make-believe, would feign that his hand was stuck, all the while inching his fingers deeper into her pocket, over her soft thigh, moving as close to her cunt as he dared before yanking free with a great show of effort. With a practiced smile and a thank you, Linda would drop a girlish kiss on his bald head and bounce off, the eyes of a dozen slack-jawed painters following her.

The next two weeks brought more of the same. We woke hungover before dawn, painted until sunset and repaired to The Merry Times to get the sustenance and relaxation we needed to do it all over again the next day. Geordie continued to try to seduce Linda with his charm and lavish gratuities, the latter growing larger nightly to compensate for the former wearing thin hourly, at least with the painters if not Linda. We cringed with every lewd remark he directed at the young waitress, rolled our eyes every time he patted her plump bottom with his liver-spotted hand. And this from men who might have been specially chosen for their crude qualities to form a crew of the most base degenerates to ever step foot on a ship! Linda, naturally, was more than willing to indulge Geordie's unstinting advances. And as long as there was cash in his fingers, she allowed them to creep ever-closer to her crotch.

Marty kept to a routine of his own. By night he remained at the bar long after the rest of us had left, and by day he disappeared into the engine room to snooze until noon, when he would materialize in the galley refreshed and looking for lunch.

When Marty didn't show up for work one morning, Geordie sent me back to the hotel to bring him in. He wasn't in his room or eating breakfast in the coffee shop. I walked around the corner to The Merry Times, even though I knew it didn't open for another three hours. I tried the door and, as expected, found it locked. I went to the window, cupped my hands around my eyes and looked inside. Sure enough, Marty was standing at the bar, doing a shot of tequila with Barry the bartender. I rapped on the glass and they looked up. Marty grinned and waved and hurried to the door to let me in.

"Jesus," I said when I saw his face in the doorway, Marty shielding his puffy eyes from the daylight like a ghoul. "You're certainly in no shape to work."

He lurched forward and draped his arms around my neck "It's my big bro," he announced to Barry over his shoulder. He pulled me close and kissed my cheek. I turned my head and pushed him away.

"Do you know what day it is?" he slurred.

"Tuesday?" It was my best guess. There was no call to keep track of the days when following the same schedule day in and day out.

"No, it's my birthday, asshole," Marty said. "And there's no chance in hell I'm going to work."

I had forgotten that Marty was turning thirty, even though I'd bought a bottle of Chivas for that very occasion before catching my flight to Halifax from Montreal.

He tugged on my arm. "Come, celebrate with me. Thirty is a milestone, right?"

I hesitated, struggling with the temptation to go inside before pulling my arm free and backing onto the street. "They need me back at the ship," I said lamely. "We're painting the helicopter pad."

I hurried away before I could change my mind. I would have had one drink with Marty if I could have kept to that. But, like my brother, if I had one I'd drink ten. I would make it up to him that night, maybe spring for one of the "escorts" some of the guys ordered in now and then. Marty had always made a point of finding me on my birthday and celebrating with me; when we were living at opposite ends of the country, he never failed to mark the date with a phone call. Unfortunately, I rarely remembered to return the courtesy on his birthday. Now he was turning thirty, a "milestone," as he rightly described that 28th of June, and I was determined to make amends for missed opportunities.

Marty wasn't at the hotel when I returned from the ship that evening to clean up before heading over to the bar. Neither was he at The Merry Times. Barry, shaky from trying to match Marty drink for drink and line for line for eight hours, hadn't seen him since he'd called a taxi and left at ten that morning. Staying clear of the crew in the back, I ate a burger at the bar, drank a Keith's and hurried back to the hotel, hoping Marty would show up soon. I turned on the TV in time to catch the lead story (the latest report from the Gulf War) on The National, and sat back on the bed with a beer. I called the desk and asked the clerk to ring me when Marty arrived. I waited up until almost two, then fell asleep with my clothes on and a beer between my thighs. When I awoke the next morning the bottle was on the floor and I was soaked through to my underwear. I was showered and changed into fresh painting whites before I realized I hadn't pissed myself ...

As it turned out, Marty got back to the hotel before I'd drifted off, likely, I assumed, while the unreliable desk clerk, a pimply kid with nicotine-stained fingers, was out back having a smoke.

He'd staggered to his room and found the door unlocked. The room was lit only by a dimmed bulb in the bedside lamp, but to this day, despite the gloom and being blind drunk, Marty clearly remembers what he saw. Geordie was lying back on the bed, his pants around his ankles, his eyes shut tight in fierce concentration. Linda was kneeling on the floor in front of him, her head bobbing between his thighs. Geordie, suddenly sensing someone was there, opened his eyes and gasped in fright as he caught sight of Marty in silhouette, teetering like a zombie in the middle of the room. Marty, figuring he was in Geordie's room, turned on his heels and stumbled back outside. In the hallway he checked the number on the door against that on his key a half dozen times before he realized that he hadn't made a mistake after all. He briefly considered his options and dismissed them: he was too tired to go downstairs to the coffee shop and too drunk to head over to The Merry Times for a beer. Covering his eyes with his hand, he hurried back inside the room, took a sharp right into the bathroom, climbed into the tub, lay down and passed out.

The next day, Marty showed up for work three hours late. Geordie, who' d been anxiously wandering around the main deck all morning, hurried to meet him as he trudged up the gangplank and stepped onboard.

"You look awful, lad," he said, taking Marty aside. With a show of sympathy he put an arm around Marty's slumped shoulders and looked into his bloodshot eyes like a battlefield nurse. "We'll get some coffee in ya and you'll be alright."

Marty noticed a tall woman by the rail across the deck. She was trying to keep her long red hair from her face as she looked out over the windy harbour.

"Is that Elsie?" Marty asked, correctly recognizing Geordie's wife.

"Shhh," Geordie whispered, trying to appear calm. "She came in last night. Just after Linda showed up at the hotel bar!"

"Oh!" Marty cried, putting the pieces together. "That's why you and her were in my--"

"Shut the fuck up, man," said Geordie, digging his thumb into the sensitive recess at the base of Marty's neck, causing him to wince and awaken to the delicate nature of the situation.

"Okay boss," he said quietly.

"I'm giving you the day off," Geordie said. "With pay."

Marty was stunned. "You're kidding, right?"

"But I need a favour," Geordie said gravely.

"Here it comes," Marty thought, knowing that nothing good in life came without a catch.

"I want you to take Linda to the show on the hill this afternoon."

The upcoming Rod Stewart concert on Citadel Hill had been the talk of the town for the last week. Linda, a big Rod fan, had on several occasions mentioned that she was trying to get the afternoon off work so she could attend.

Glancing at Elsie over his shoulder, Geordie dug out his billfold and peeled off three hundreds. "She'll be in the hotel lobby at noon," he said, pressing the cash into Marty's hand.

"Alright," Marty said with a brief sigh. While grateful to have been given the day off, there were any number of things he would have rather done with the free time than spend it watching that primping poser Rod Stewart. For one, go back to the hotel and fix his headache with a few remedial drinks and several more hours sleep.

"I gotta take a leak first," he said, slipping the money into his pocket and heading towards midship, no doubt in his mind that he'd just taken hush money.

Elsie turned from the rail and Marty waved to her.

"That's fine, lad," the boss called after him with a show of joviality, immediately raising suspicion in Elsie, who'd never seen Geordie not in a grumpy way before noon. "You go free willy, then take the day off," he shouted breezily. "You'll be shipshape tomorrow." Suddenly realizing the unintentional humour in his remark, he laughed loudly, too much so for Elsie's liking.

We were all there around the table at The Merry Times that evening, except for Geordie, who hadn't returned from taking Elsie shopping in town. Marty had arrived two hours earlier and spent the intervening time supplementing the buzz he'd started with beers thrown back that afternoon at the show. Back in peak form, he was recalling for the boys the glories of his day--mincing Rod Stewart aside--lying in the sun on grassy Citadel Hill in the company of the voluptuous server, at the moment, sadly, absent. Linda had been given the whole day off to see the concert and do what she will afterwards, which, Marty intimated, had entailed taking him back to her apartment and treating him to her specialty. Just as she'd done, he noted, for the boss the night before.

What he didn't note, unfortunately, was that Geordie and Elsie had arrived and, not wanting to interrupt his flow, were quietly standing behind him waiting for him to finish. Neither did he notice the look of dread on the faces of the men, their frantic eyes signaling danger over his shoulder. Elsie turned to Geordie, looking for a denial, but his lowered head confirmed it was all true.

I had just returned from the washroom and was trying to get up to speed. When it suddenly occurred to me what was transpiring--Marty was giving an impersonation of Geordie the night before, as caught with his literal pants down, complete with groans and facial contortions--I leapt in to change the subject.

"How did Linda like Rod," I shouted over the laughter, making sure I got Marty's attention.

He turned to me and hesitated a moment. "I don't know," he said, a wry grin breaking out. "But she sure as hell liked my rod!"

A mouthful of beer exploded from my mouth and nose as the table erupted in roars. Marty, always appreciative of his own jokes, dropped his head on the table, pounded it with his fist and howled. Tom, the senior crew member and Geordie's closest friend, fell off his chair and lay on the ground, roaring and holding his side. Elsie turned and stormed out of the bar, Geordie chasing her as fast as his wee legs would allow.

Marty came by the ship the next afternoon, to say goodbye to me and the rest of the crew. When he had got back to his room after closing the bar the previous morning, he'd found an envelope on his dresser containing the pay he had coming and a brief note from Geordie informing him he'd been checked out of the hotel.

"Where are you going," I asked.

Marty shrugged. "Anywhere, I guess. I got almost two grand."

"Sorry it didn't work out."

"What the hell--I'd do it all again for half what I've got in my pocket right now." He chuckled, but there was little joy in it. "I guess I'll go hang around Montreal and see old friends before flying back to Vancouver."

I nodded. "Sure."

He punched me in the arm, right between the outer triceps and shoulder muscle where there's little meat over bone, a spot he always aimed for. It hurt like a bitch.

"Get the fuck out of here," I said, refusing to acknowledge the pain.

Marty turned and walked off. As he'd always done. As he always would.
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Author:Patterson, Greg
Publication:Antigonish Review
Article Type:Short story
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jun 22, 2009
Words:3409
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