At four-fifteen on a cold, dry Christmas Eve a nervous
middle-aged man in an expensive overcoat walked
bare-headed into the Midtown Tap Room and stood at the
near end of the bar with his membership card in hand,
waiting for the afternoon barmaid to get off the phone.
She was about forty, heavy in a square way, with a shiny
face and dishwater blond hair that looked like she'd got
shitfaced and decided to cut it herself. He knew she'd
noticed him coming in, but she was taking great pains to
pretend she couldn't see him. To do so she had to stand
at a peculiar angle, leaning her hip against the back bar
and looking off toward the back door so that she was
facing neither the lawyer nor the mirror behind her. lawyer nor the
mirror behind her. neither the lawyer nor the
mirror behind her.
The only other drinker at that hour was a small, very
slender young man in a fully buttoned jean jacket who sat
leaning with his elbow on the bar, his cheek resting on the
heel of his wrist with a cigarette between his index and
middle fingers, its ash end burning dangerously close to the
tip of his oily pompadour. His eyes were closed and his
The lawyer unbuttoned his overcoat and stood there for
a minute, listening to the barmaid's phone conversation.
She had just the start of a drinker's rasp, and if he were just
hearing her on the phone and not looking at her he'd have
thought it sounded sexy. She seemed to be having some
kind of roommate trouble involving a fender bender, a borrowed
car, and no insurance, and it didn't look as though
she'd be noticing him anytime soon.
He couldn't remember ever seeing the Tap Room in
daylight before, if the failing gray light filtering through the
grime on the front windows qualified as such. It was a deep,
narrow old building with a battered pressed-tin ceiling and
a long oak bar. On the brick wall behind the bandstand
hung a huge black-faced clock with fluorescent purple numbers,
and running the length of the opposite wall was a row
of red Naugahyde booths. All of this was festooned with
cheap plastic holly and mistletoe. Around the walls seven
feet or so from the floor ran a string of multicolored Christmas
lights, unplugged at the moment. This is my last look
at this place, he thought, mildly surprised at the idea. He
hadn't been out of town for more than two or three days at
a time in fifteen years.
A squeal from the barmaid interrupted his reverie. "Jesus
Christ, Gary, you set your hair on fire!" Young Gary
looked up in cross-eyed bewilderment at the hiss of the wet
rag she was patting against his smoldering forelock. He protested
weakly and unintelligibly as she snatched his cigarette
away from him and ground it out in the ashtray, then
put the ashtray behind the bar. "It's obvious you can't be
trusted with these anymore," she said as she confiscated his
cigarettes and lighter. He started to say something in his
own defense, but stopped and closed his eyes again, resting
his cheek back down on his hands. "You'll get these back
tomorrow," she said. "You want another drink?" Gary nodded
yes without opening his eyes.
Now she looked up at the newcomer, feigning surprise.
"Oh, hi. Didn't see you come in." She gave his membership
card a perfunctory glance. "What can I get you?"
"CC, water back." She turned without a word and busied
herself making his drink, following it with another for
Gary. "Is Tommy in back?" the man said as she set the
"Nope. He'll be in tonight."
"Could you give him this for me?" He handed her an
"Sure," she said. She took the envelope from his hand
and turned it over a couple of times as though looking for a
set of instructions.
"Tell him it's from Charlie Arglist."
"Charlie Arglist?" There was genuine surprise in her
voice this time. She lowered her head, cocking it to one
side, giving him a close look. "Charlie, is that you?"
"Yeah . . ." At that moment he was certain he'd never
seen the woman before in his life.
"Jesus, Charlie, it's me, Susie Tannenger. Wow, have
you ever changed." She stepped back to let him get a better
look at her. The Susie Tannenger he remembered was a
lithe, pretty thing, at least six or eight years younger than
he was. He had handled a divorce for her about ten years
earlier, and in the course of the proceedings her husband,
a commercial pilot, had threatened several times to kill
She came around the bar and gave him a hug, a hard
one with a discreet little pelvic bump thrown in. Her ex
had had good reason to want to kill him; he had taken out
his fee in trade, at her suggestion, on his desktop.
"Isn't life funny? Are you still a lawyer? Hey, Gary,
check it out--this is the guy that did my first divorce!"
Gary looked up, focused for a split second, then grunted
and returned to his private ruminations.
"Charlie, this is my fiance, Gary. Shit, I didn't even know
you were still in town; we gotta get together sometime."
"Yeah, we should do that." Charlie knocked back his
drink and set a five-dollar bill on the table. "Well, I got
some Christmas shopping left to do. Nice to see you again,
She swept up the bill and handed it back to him. "Your
money's no good here, Counselor. Merry Christmas!"
"Thanks, Susie. Same to you." He went to the door. It
was getting dark outside, and Susie hadn't yet turned the
overhead lights on. From that distance, in that dim, smoky
light, he almost recognized her. "And a happy New Year to
you both," he said as he pushed the door open and stepped
out onto the ice.
When the door closed Susie sighed and looked over at
Gary, whose head had migrated down to the bar and who
had started to snore. "There goes the second most inconsiderate
lay I ever had," she said.
Who gives a shit if I say good-bye to Tommy or not anyway?
Charlie thought. He was warm and dry behind the wheel of
the company car, a brand-new black 1980 Lincoln Continental,
the finest car he had ever driven. He was headed
west with no particular destination in mind. It was dark and
overcast, one of those days where it was impossible to tell
whether the sun was still up or not, but as yet it hadn't
started to snow. He passed the Hardee's across the street
from Grove High, watched the kids hanging around in the
parking lot the way he had when he was in school, back
when it had been a Sandy's. His kids wouldn't go to Grove,
close as they lived to it; they'd be assigned to one of the
newer and presumably nicer schools farther east. Good for
them; fuck all this nostalgia crap. He pulled a flask from the
inside pocket of his overcoat and took a long drink. Now
might be a good time to stop by the Sweet Cage; the afternoon
shift would be ending, and there were a couple of the
daytime dancers he wanted to see one last time. It was a little
after four-thirty, and he had nine and a half hours to kill.
Charlie had both hands resting on top of the wheel, trying
to screw the cap back on the flask, when he caught sight of
a police cruiser just behind him to the left, gaining slowly.
He quickly gripped the steering wheel with his left hand
and lowered the flask in his right, spilling a little bourbon
on his pant leg.
"Ah, shit . . ." He looked down at the stain, just to the
right of his crotch. "Looks like I pissed my fucking pants."
He looked up as he felt the car swerve, catching it at the
last possible moment and swinging back into the right-hand
lane. The black and white pulled up alongside him
and Charlie looked calmly over. The cop on the right rolled
his window down and Charlie did the same.
"Road sure is icy, Counselor," the cop shouted, his face
pinched against the cold wind.
"Sure is, Officer." He tried to remember the cop's name.
"You're doing forty in a school zone, you know."
"Shit. Sorry." Charlie let his foot up off the gas, and the
cops slowed down with him.
"Never know who's gonna clock you around here, Mr.
"Thanks. That's one I owe you."
"Merry Christmas, guys." He held up the flask and drank
them a short toast and they accelerated away, laughing and
waving. That was a lucky fucking break, he thought. He
switched on the AM radio and rolled the tuner knob between
thumb and forefinger until he found an adenoidal
police reporter giving quick but detailed accounts of a fist fight
in a tavern, a foiled daylight burglary, and a rash of car
thefts at a local shopping mall. He closed his report with a
message from the chief of police admonishing shoppers to
lock their cars and take their keys. He was followed by an
equally adenoidal country singer's bland, stringy rendition
of "The First Noel." Charlie took another sip and wondered
who the hell burgled in the daytime, on Christmas Eve yet.
Excerpted from The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips. Copyright © 2001 by Scott Phillips. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.