A character study about a barmaid
trapped in a job since sixteen
who tries to turn her life around.
(Roger Williams College)
Ever since she was sixteen, Maggie Murphy had worked in the small Broadway bar--unable somehow to quit. One Christmas, preparing for work, she thoughtfully studied her reflection in the oval mirror above the cluttered dresser. A towering fat woman of forty, she admired her black-dyed curls and smooth, white complexion--like Marge, her pretty mother. How come, in spite of her good looks, the bar was all she had? She suddenly remembered Marge brushing her dark curls and pushing her away. "Kid, I ain't got time for kisses. I gotta land another husband!"
Maggie felt a sharp pang. Repressing it, she painted her nails a glowing red. She couldn't blame her mother for ignoring her. Landing a husband was rough! She sighed, her glance skimming the rumpled bed. She was unhappy because she didn't have a man. Last year, there was Eddie, real handsome with red hair. She frowned. A moocher, spending all her money! Then, two years ago, there was Jack until he found somebody else. Who was it before that? Buttoning her red blouse, she shook her head impatiently and smoothed her flowery skirt. Why drag up the past? If she stopped depending on the bar for her social life, she'd make friends and get married, instead of sleeping with bums. Yeah, it was time to smarten up. Tomorrow, she'd quit for sure.
Brightening, she donned coat and high-heels, and paused before the Scotch on the dusty foyer table. No more of that stuff! She clumped determinedly down the tenement stairs and past the wreath-decorated lobby door. Outside, it was eerily dark, the heavy clouds threatening snow. Maggie headed along Columbus Avenue and turned the corner to Broadway. Shivering from the cold, she longed for the comforting Scotch, but she soon reached the cozy This 'N That Bar with its orange lamp, cartoon posters, and pool table--the room festive now with tinsel streamers.
Wee Willie, the janitor, was sweeping the wood floor. He was a big, ugly ex-boxer wearing a red turtleneck sweater over blue jeans. Beaming at Maggie's arrival, he dropped the broom and eagerly patted her behind. "Hey, Babe, when are we gonna make it?"
She glanced at his dented nose, whitish scar, and twisted mouth. "I still ain't interested," she said, shuddering. With a clean rag she polished the wooden bar until it gleamed. Then, as usual, she folded her arms over the bar and awaited the regulars--as though welcoming familiar guests to her home.
The Odd Couple entered first: a tall-mustached Negro nicknamed The Red Baron and Tuck, his diminutive roommate with blond ponytail. Celebating the holidays, Tuck had outdone himself in wine-colored velvet knickers, cape, and boots.
"Hiya, Mistah Fashion Plate!" Maggie said, grinning. "Who's the big designer today?"
Tuck shyly pivoted, speading his cape to reveal a matching vest. "Givenchy," he said softly.
She whistled her approval. "This Givchee deserves a treat. Tell 'em the fuck's on me! Ooh, what I said..." Coyly she pressed red-lacquered nail against scarlet mouth. "Like in television--bleep bleep." She poured drinks. "Two bleep-bleep Bourbons coming up!"
A cue stick clicked ominously in the corner. "Get over here, Bubbala."
His smile fading, Tuck hurried to the pool table.
Maggie sighed and cleaned the sink. Poor Tuck was lonely. He could use a friend like her.
"Gee, gimme a break, huh?" Wee Willie said, tugging at her arm.
Impatiently she brushed him aside. "Quit pestering me!"
"Just cause I ain't much to look at, don't mean I ain't good in bed."
"Huh, just wants a lay--like all the others! I said I ain't interested. So get lost."
She quickly dried her hands on a paper towel and poured beer as Richard entered with George and Joe-the-Pro, an ex-actor. Richard, an ex-writer, was Maggie's favorite customer. Tall and blond and wearing a pea jacket over khaki pants, he was lots of fun but never asked her out. If she wasn't a barmaid, she thought, a nice guy like that might marry her.
George, an ex-drummer who now drove a cab, studied his companions with his solemn owlish eyes. "No horsing around this time, or we'll be late for Wally's party."
Surprised at the opportunity to meet people outside the bar, Maggie stopped wiping the liquor shelf. She folded her arms on the bar and smiled coyly, fluttering her false eyelashes. "Say, I ain't been to a shindig since I don't know when. Think Wally would mind if I crashed it?"
The men glanced at each other and busily sipped their beer.
Annoyed at their pointed silence, she exploded. "Well, speak up! Cat got your balls?"
Richard frowned. He turned to George who whispered, "Make her think it's dullsville, and then get her mind off it."
With a sly grin, Richard reached for the heavy breast looming over his glass. "Sweetheart, don't get your bowels in an uproar over the party. You'd be bored to death."
"Ha, I'll bet!" Angered by his elusive answer, she removed his hand from her red-satin blouse and glared at him. "Screw you! How come after dropping by here for years, Wally don't invite me? I got bad breath or something?"
Joe-the-Pro extended his glass dramatically, trying to distract her with humor. "Darling, your teeth are like stars...they come out at night. Your eyes are pools...cesspools."
The men laughed, but Maggie. who usually enjoyed their joking, pursed her lips, unsoothed.
"C'mon, Maggie, you know we all love you," Joe-the-Pro said finally. He stretched upward to offer her a pacifying kiss. With a drink stirer, Richard goosed the wiry fellow straddling the bar, and Joe-the-Pro jumped, squealing, "For Chrissakes, cut that out!"
Maggie roared with laughter. Gee, they did care about her, she thought, pleased at Richard's apparent jealousy, and she let him fondle her breast.
"Hey, you clowns, quit kidding around and let's shove off," George said impatiently. "Or there won't be any dames available at the party!"
"That's right!" Richard said, grinning at Maggie. "Okay, men, duty calls..."
Playfully linking shoulders, the trio marched toward the heavy oak door.
Maggie was having so much fun, she hated to see them leave. "Comin' back afterwards?"
"Natch," Richard said, and raised his arm. When he lowered it, the trio burst into their usual song:
Bloody Maggie is the barmaid we love.
Now ain't that too damn bad!
Standing by the large plate glass window, Maggie wistfully watched the men cross the street, pass the A&P, and disappear from view. What the hell, why not crash the lousy party? She had the guts. When Marge ran off with that gambler, didn't she quit school to work in the bar...She frowned. After Pa died in the war, it seemed like Marge had no time for her. Like when a boy made fun of her polka-dot dress, and she'd stayed up late waiting for her mother to come home and give an opinion.
Marge had just shrugged and said, "Yeah, yeah, it looks nice, okay? Now leave me alone. I wanna sleep."
It seemed as if Marge never had time--like she didn't want to be bothered. Maggie shook her head, refusing to find fault with her mother. Well, no wonder Marge had no time. She was probably worn out. Being a dancehall hostess was no picnic!
Feeling uneasy, as if there were other things, too, that she didn't want to remember, she stared at the snow drifting lightly past the A&P. But suppose people at Wally's party figured she had nowhere else to go--like she was desperate. Desperate, ha! She tossed back her head defiantly. Everybody in the bar loved her. They thought she was pretty, and a barrel of laughs. Why, she'd be the life of any party!
When her shift ended at ten, Maggie rushed back to her uncleaned apartment and rummaged in the bedroom closet, tossing clothes on the bed until she dragged out her sexiest dress. The ankle-length sequined skirt unzipped to the crotch, and the plunging lace neckline emphasized her heavy bosom. She proudly inspected the gown. Boy, when they see her in this outfit won't they be impressed! She noticed grease spots near the hem. She rubbed at them with spit and stopped. Aw, forget it. Nobody would notice. Sucking in her stomach, she struggled into the tight gown. The wide band pulled uncomfortably at her waist. Goddamn, she really was getting fat. Despite her girdle, she could barely squeeze into size twenty-two.
Shoving aside dresser jars, she carefully applied her make-up: heavily outlining her dark eyes, coating the false lashes, and repainting her mouth a vivid, purplish red. She powdered her face until the white skin was smooth as alabaster, and with a red velvet ribbon, she gathered her ebony curls into a tidy ball atop her head. Finally, she splashed on perfume, and checked her appearance in the bathroom's full-length mirror. So, she was a little plump, she thought, shrugging. Any real man would appreciate a sexy broad like her. Unzipping the skirt, she fisted hands on hips, and twisted this way and that, admiring her butterfly-stockinged legs peeping through the skirt slit. What the hell, she was a knockout!
Juggling an umbrella, Maggie stepped gingerly along the wet streets so she wouldn't ruin her glamorous beaded pumps. Wally's apartment was only three blocks, but despite her shivering, she wished it was farther, her stomach knotting with fear. How should she behave at the party? She wouldn't be a hostess, like in the bar, but a guest. She remembered her mother entertaining boyfriends in their Bronx apartment--like that gambler. They hadn't wanted her around. Aw, she was just a kid then, and shy. At the party she could tell jokes, make 'em laugh! Nervously, she tried recalling a joke; her mind went blank. After loosening up, she'd remember some. But suppose it didn't matter what she said? Suppose, they, too, didn't want her around...
She'd reached the modest brownstone. Trembling with doubts, she hesitated, longing to return home. C'mon, she coaxed herself, this was her chance to prove she could be liked outside the bar. Act confident--as if she owned the joint! She'd be so fascinating, they'd have to like her! Reluctantly, she climbed the stoop and paused in the wallpapered hallway.
From the end apartment, she heard bursts of laughter and applause, followed by Joe-the-Pro shouting, "Hey, Wally, you should be on the stage. There's one leaving in five minutes!" Another burst of laughter. Then, Joe-the-Pro shouted, 'Okay, everybody, settle down, and good old George will lead us in Christmas carols!" There were enthusiastic replies of, "Let's sing! Let's sing!" Their voices, accompanied by a piano, drifted softly through the hallway:
Silent night, holy night.
All is calm, all is bright.
'Round yon virgin, mother and child...
Impetuously Maggie pressed the mailbox buzzer. The singing faded as the guests quieted to greet the new arrival. Terrified by the sudden stillness, she waited for Wally. Her heart thumped so hard, she was sure of an attack, but seeing him emerge, she pulled herself together. Smiling and waving, she shouted, "Hiya, Wally! Surprise! Surprise!"
An ex-comic, now a shoe salesman, he stood there staring: a chubby, round-faced little man wearing a floral sportshirt over dark trousers. Flustered, he opened the hall door. "Uh...nice to see you, Maggie." He finally composed himself. "Come on in."
Deeply relieved at his welcome, she stooped to kiss his cheek and exclaimed joyfully, "Wally, you old bastard, I busted your party!" With bright smile and swaying hips, she followed him into the studio apartment with its lighted Christmas tree at the bay window opposite a double bed. In the center of the large room, gathered around a long, makesift dinner table, the guests stared at her. She hesitated, feeling awkward. Suppose, like Marge, they thought she was dumb and ignored her? Sparkle! Shine! Don't give 'em time to think about it!
As soon as Wally hung up her coat in the foyer closet, she grabbed him with an affectionate squeeze. "C'mere, you little sexpot. Aha, now I gotcha!" Playfully, she dragged him down on the bed, where they wrestled vigorously while he struggled to extricate himself.
George shook his head, groaning, "Oh, boy...there goes our party. No more songs. No more conversation..."
Satisfied she had everyone's attention, Maggie rose, grinning, eager to meet the guests staring at her open-mouthed. She tugged impatiently at her girdle riding up under her breasts, and turned to Wally. "Well, how's about introducing me?"
Blushing deep red as he staightened his trousers, Wally stammered, "Uh...uh..."
What the hell, she'd do it herself," Maggie thought. She turned to a blue-suited man, intending to greet each guest in turn. Beaming, she stuck out a hand. "Hiya, I'm Maggie. What's your name?"
"Tom," he responded cooly, and sipped his drink.
In the silence, her arm dropped heavily to her side. She waited; nobody said anything. Bewildered, she looked about for Richard. They'd had such fun in the bar--he'd help her out of this fix. She spotted him beside a skinny blonde wearing a black velvet jumpsuit. Relieved at a solution, Maggie sashayed to the sofa that had been pulled up beside the cloth-covered table. She happily squeezed next to Richard. Smiling, she slid her hand between his thighs. "Hiya, gorgeous, having fun?"
"Until you came," he muttered, his face flushing as he removed her hand.
"Whaddya mean?" she said, surprised and hurt.
"Forget it." He stared, embarrassed, into his empty coffee cup.
Stunned, she scanned the disapproving faces and frantically searched for something funny to say--determined to smash the icy wall surrounding her. "Are you kiddin'? This party was like a goddamn funeral. It needed a live wire like me to wake it up. Wake the funeral--get it? Ha! Ha! Ain't that a scream?"
The faces, reddening, turned away.
"Who is she?" whispered the blonde beside Richard.
"A raunchy barmaid," he muttered with a grimace.
A sharp pain knifed Maggie. She swallowed hard and shivered, suddenly feeling cold. She shouldn't, but maybe one little drink, just to warm her up...She clapped her hands. "Hey, Wally, how's about some Scotch?"
"One Scotch coming up!" Smiling awkwardly, her host exited into the kitchen. An uncomfortable silence settled over the room. Maggie stared in anguish at the tree with its pool of gifts. Returning, Wally placed the bottle of scotch and a glass on the Santa Claus decorated tablecloth and studied her with sympathy. "Maggie, I...uh...well..." he finally patted the ball of curls. "Honey, we're real glad you could spend your Christmas with us."
She stared up at his smiling face. "Ge-gee, you don't mind my...my..."
"'Course not!" he lied cheerfully. "You drink up and have a good time."
She yearned to tell him what a sweet guy he was but found herself blinking back tears. Afraid she'd slobber all over him, she gulped her Scotch, savoring its hot sting in her throat. Finally, brightening, she shouted, "Hey, Tom, wanna hear a good dirty joke? I know some beauts!"
George shook his head. "Jesus!"
The blonde rose abruptly, a pained expression on her face. "I hate to be a party-pooper, but it's late and I..."
Richard jumped up and fumbled with her coat at the closet. "Let me get you a cab."
The blonde smiled. "Okay."
Confused, Maggie watched Tom rise next, followed by George and Joe-the-Pro, and everybody else drifting toward the clothes closet. "It is getting late," Tom apologized to Wally, who looked disappointed as he distributed coats.
"Say, I hope the party ain't breaking up on my account!" Maggie called anxiously from the empty sofa. No one answered. Still fighting tears, she downed another drink, accidentally spilling liquor olver her sexiest dress. Goddamn stiffs, who cared about 'em anyway? She and Wally would have their own party! '
She poured more Scotch, while her yawning host, waiting for her to leave, dozed off in an armchair. Maggie stared into her glass, and remembered that other night she'd been left alone, when her mother ran off with that gambler. She'd begged and begged, but Marge couldn't stay. "Kid, can't you see that this guy's gonna help me?" Marge had said, grabbing a dress off the door hook. "Soon as we make money in Las Vegas, I'll send for you." Maggie nodded. Marge would have, too, if she hadn't smashed up that gambler's car and gotten killed. But then...did she know for sure that her mother would have sent for her? Maybe Marge was glad to be rid of her...like she'd been a noose around her mother's neck. Maggie poured more Scotch. Aw, if Marge said she'd send for her, well then that's what she would have done!
The bottle finally drained, Maggie left Wally sleeping in the armchair, and lurched outside, her coat open, her umbrella forgotten. Her head spinning, she hesitated in the swirling snow. What the hell, why not get a nightcap at the This 'N That? Make her feel good, seeing the old place again...
Wobbly in the slippery snow, Maggie grabbed at street lamps for support, and scolded herself as she floundered along. She shouldn't have gone where she didn't belong! Look at the fun she'd had in the bar this afternoon--not like the crap she took at the party! At Broadway she slumped against the A&P to catch her breath, and felt her world tightening around her--as if something indefinable was trapping her in that bar, never letting her escape. She stared through the falling snow. If only her mother hadn't run off, maybe things would have been different...She shook her head sadly. Marge did the right thing by trying to get ahead. Besides, it happened a long time ago. She had to forget it.
Her makeup smeared and hair askew, she lurched across the street to the crowded This 'N That, and slammed open the door. Ignoring the customers, she headed straight toward Wee Willie who jumped up from his stool. He stood poised under the flickering orange lamp, his arms outstretched.
Yearning now for affection, Maggie sought his embrace, trying not to flinch at his ugliness while he fondled her breasts and buttocks.
He hugged her tightly beneath her wet coat. "Where you been, babe? I missed yuh!"
"Be at my place in an hour," she muttered, and staggered outside.
Around the corner, where the bar's occupants couldn't see her, she plopped on the slushy curb, and finally began to cry. She shook her head in bewilderment. Even that night in the Bronx, when she got the telegram about her mother dying, she'd just stared at it, unable to feel anything. Yet, here she was, Maggie thought, forty years old and crying her heart out, like a kid, over a stupid party!
Emptied, she wiped her face with her coat sleeve. C'mon, the bar wasn't that bad, she reassured herself. She still had the customers who thought she was fun. Shivering, she buttoned her coat. Yeah, and there was Wee Willie. She'd feel a lot happier, having a man again...She forced a bright smile. Then, she patted her curls and hurried home to freshen up for her new love affair.