The Bottle and the Cloth: A Pheonix Tale by Liam Sweeny

“Don’t ever get old, Wally,” Bucky Roscoe spoke through carbonated gasps. It was a Saturday night, the thirteenth of November. A yearly tradition for the past ten years, old Bucky Rogers would spend the night at the corner of the bar under the television, drinking cheap beer and unloading the year’s sins like tears on Walter’s shoulder. He never came to the bar empty-handed.

Bucky owned a string of New York night-clubs in the thirties: opened the first one the day FDR repealed prohibition. Bucky lived the life; saw it all, and did more than half of it. He had a string of kids, only knew two of them. They found him; he didn’t go looking. They had to find out because of half of their DNA matched. They wrote that half off shortly after meeting with Bucky a couple of times. He had that effect on people.

Bucky and Walter meet at Walter’s previous gig down the street. He had the same shtick then, just followed Walter down the street with it. The sins used to be juicy; lately they involved short-change temper-tantrums and stolen parking spots.

“This is my last go, Wally,” Walter poorly tolerated Wally: Bucky he let go on it.

“You said that last year.”

“But this year I got the cancer.”

Walter put down the glass he was drying. “I’m sorry to hear that, Bucky.”

“Doc says it’s all over,” Bucky pointed to his chest, “Says I got six months.”

Walter was silent. He didn’t know what to say. Bucky pulled out a prescription bottle, held it up to the light.

“Doc says I can’t drink on these. Fuck him.”

“Did you take them already?”

“Doubled the dose, yessir,” Bucky said, “Don’t worry, Wally: I loaded up on Captain Morgan before I left the house. So don’t hold the tap.” He pushed forward his empty glass. Walter filled it, looked in every direction but Bucky’s.”

“So you mean to die in my bar, is that it?”

Bucky ignored Walter, looked around the lounge. “Hey Wally, I got one for ya’. One I been holdin’ back for just this moment.”

“Ya’ got what for me?”

“A sin,” Bucky said, “A good one. Well, a bad one.”

Walter sighed, leaned over the bar. “Go ahead Bucky.”

Bucky checked the lounge again, his movements jerky from the liquor, the pills.

“I killed a guy.”

“Ya’ did, did ya’?”

“I’m fuckin’ serious, ya’ putz!” Bucky slapped the bar. Then he leaned in.

“Sorry Buck’, go ahead.”

Bucky pointed a finger straight ahead. His bloodshot eyes fluttered, then came to rest.

“1942,” he said, “I just opened the Hopper, and the Madison Club had a record year in the tills, ya’ know?” Bucky took a swig. “Lotta’ young guys getting’ ready to go to war trying to catch some bon voyage tail; place was beautiful.”

“One night this dame comes into the place; man, Wally, she was gorgeous! What I wouldn’t give to have her, but she had her hooks into one of the sailor-boys. A regular, as far as regulars went. She became one too, a regular.” Bucky cleared his throat. “One night she came in with the biggest rock I’d ever seen, and I was pullin’ green then. Turned out sailor-boy came from New York social royalty. They had plans to get married when he got back from the war.”

Walter listened patiently, thankful the bar was dead that night.

“He had a cushy job on an aircraft carrier,” Bucky continued, “The marriage was all but a sure thing.”

“Did you love her?”

“Yeah, sure; whatever passed for it in those days,” Bucky said, “But I didn’t kill him for love.”

“How’d you do it?”

“He always drank a fancy brand of vodka, no one else would order it; too expensive. One night he’d had a few; I filled the bottle with rubbing alcohol. He died after he left; it was in the paper.”

“Did they suspect you?”

“Kids drank themselves to death all the time back then. It was ruled accidental.”

Bucky took a deep swig of his beer. He swayed back and forth. Bucky Roscoe was going to die that night, probably fall right off the bar-stool. He hiccupped. Walter had to get him talking again.

“So what did you kill him for,” he asked, “if not love?”

“Oh, I don’t know; I was young, successful, hittin’ the top of my game. But it was built on sweat and labor.” Bucky said. “That kid had it all, born with it; I spent many a year wondering whether it was the girl or the rock that made me do it.”

“I see.” Walter mulled over Bucky’s confessional. Bucky mulled over his beer.

“Wally, I ain’t been down the street in a while, but I need a favor…”

“And what’s that?”

“Give me the Last Rites.”

Walter rubbed the back of his balding head. “”Jesus, Bucky… I haven’t been a priest since I left Saint Mike’s.”

“Once a priest, always a priest,” Bucky said, “C’mon, Wally, you’re all I got in the God department.”

Walter fidgeted, picked up a dry glass and wiped it anyway.

“C’mon, pal…” Bucky swayed with the smoke in the air. Walter darted his eyes around the lounge.

“Fine, Bucky.” He said. “I have a Bible and some oil downstairs. Let me go get it.”

Bucky laughed. “And you said you weren’t a priest no more…”

Walter went down to the basement, to a small fire-proof safe. The Phoenix Hotel kept all their valuables in it, including a Bible that had been used by the Masonic lodge that occupied the second floor in the 1790’s. It was worn and dusty, but it was purely symbolic; Walter knew the Sacrament.

When he got back upstairs, Bucky was passed out at the bar. He called his name a couple of times, no luck. He pressed his two fingers to Bucky’s neck: no pulse. A hand in front of his mouth: no breath. Walter told Jeanne, the bar-maid, to call an ambulance. Then he rested Bucky’s lifeless head to the side.

“Through this holy anointing,” Walter whispered, forming a cross with olive oil on Bucky’s forehead, “May the Lord in His love and mercy help you in the Grace of the Holy Spirit.”

Walter anointed Bucky’s palms. Better late than never, he thought.