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 above the cluttered dresser. A towering, fat woman of forty, she admired her black-dyed curls and smooth, white complexion--like Cass, her pretty mother. How come, in spite of her good looks, the bar was all she had? She suddenly remembered Cass 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. 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 someone else. Who was it before that? Buttoning her blouse, she shook her head impatiently. Why drag up the past? If she stopped depending on the bar for her social life and got a respectable job, 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, pausing 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 door. Outside, it was eerily dark, the heavy clouds threatening snow. Maggie headed along Amsterdam Avenue and turned the corner to Broadway. Shivering from the cold, she longed for the comforting Scotch but soon reached the cozy This 'N That with its orange lamp, cartoon posters, and pool table--the room festive now with tinsel streamers.
Wee Willie, the janitor, was sweeping. He was a big, ugly ex-boxer wearing red turtleneck sweater. 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 on the bar and awaited the regulars--as though welcoming familiar guests to her home.
The Odd Couple entered first: a tall mustached Black nicknamed, "The Red Baron," and Tuck, his diminutive roommate with blond ponytail. Celebrating 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, spreading 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 nails 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."
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.
She brushed him aside. "Quit pestering!"
"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 towel and poured beer as Richard entered with George and Joe-the-Pro, an ex-actor. Richard, an ex-writer, was Maggie's favorite. Tall and blond and wearing a peajacket, 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 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, frowning, turned to George, who whispered something. Then, with a sly grin, he 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 Richard's elusive answer, she removed his hand from her red-satin blouse and glared at him. "Screw you! How come after Wally's been dropping by here for years, he don't invite me? I got bad breath or something?"
Joe-the-Pro exchanged a glance with his companions and extended his glass dramatically. "Darling," he told Maggie, "your teeth are like stars--they come out at night. And 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 Chris-sakes, cut that out!"
Maggie roared with laughter. Gee, they did care about her, she thought, pleased at Richard's apparent jealousy. She let him fondle her breast.
"Hey, you clowns," George said, "quit kidding around and let's shove off 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, they marched toward the door.
Maggie was having so much fun she hated to see them leave. "Coming back later?"
"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 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 her mother 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 Cass 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. "Yeah, yeah, it looks nice, okay? Now leave me alone; I wanna sleep." It seemed as if Cass 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 Cass had no time; she was probably worn out. Being a dance hall hostess was no picnic!
Feeling uneasy, as though there were other things, too, she didn't want to remember, she stared at the snow drifting lightly past the A&P. But suppose people at the 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 bodice emphasized her heavy bosom. She proudly inspected the gown. Boy, when they see her in this, won't they be impressed! There were 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 dress. Goddamn, she really was getting fat. Despite her girdle, she barely squeezed into size twenty-two.
Shoving aside dresser jars, she carefully reapplied makeup: heavily outlining her 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 the ebony curls into a tidy ball atop her head. Finally, she splashed on perfume and checked her appearance in the full-length mirror. So she was a little plump, she thought, shrugging. Any real man would appreciate a 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 slit. What the hell, she was a knockout! Quickly she finished and hurried outside.
Juggling an umbrella, Maggie stepped gingerly along wet streets so she wouldn't ruin her glamorous beaded pumps. Wally's apartment was only four blocks but despite her shivering she wished it were 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 Harlem 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 to recall 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--like 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 foyer.
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 laugher. 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 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 sport shirt 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 large studio apartment with its lighted tree at the bay window opposite a double bed. In the room's center, gathered around a long, makeshift dinner table, the guests stared at her. She hesitated, feeling awkward. Suppose, they thought, like Cass, 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, she grabbed him with an affectionate squeeze. "C'mere, you little sexpot. Aha, now I gotcha!" Playfully she dragged him down onto 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 conversation..."
Ignoring him, Maggie rose, grinning at having everyone's attention, eager to meet the guests staring at her open-mouthed. She tugged at the girdle riding up under her breasts. "Well, how's about introducing me?"
Blushing deep red as he straightened 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 her hand. "Hiya, I'm Maggie. What's your name?"
"Tom," he responded coolly and sipped his drink.
In the heavy silence her arm thudded to her side. She waited; nobody said anything. Bewildered, she looked 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 velvet jumpsuit. Relieved at a solution, Maggie sashayed to the sofa drawn up at the table and happily squeezed next to Richard at the end. Smiling, she slid her hand between his thighs. "Hiya, gorgeous, having fun?"
"Until you came," he muttered, face flushing as he removed her hand.
"Whaddya mean?" she said, surprised and hurt.
"Forget it." He stared, embarrassed, into his 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 kidding? 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, grimacing.
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 quiet settled over the room. Maggie stared in anguish at the decorated tree with its pool of gifts.
Returning, Wally placed the bottle and glass on the table and studied her with sympathy. "Maggie, I...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 friendly face. "Ge-gee, you don't mind my...my..."
"'Course not," he said cheerfully. "Enjoy your drink 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 sipped her Scotch, savoring its hot sting in her throat. Then, 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. "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 over 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. In the emptied room Maggie stared into her glass, remembering that other night she'd been left alone, when her mother ran off with the gambler. She'd begged and begged, but Cass couldn't stay. "Kid, can't you see that this guy's gonna help me?" Cass said, grabbing a dress off the door hook. "Soon as we make money in Las Vegas, I'll send for you." Maggie nodded. Cass would have, too, if she hadn't smashed up the gambler's car and gotten killed. But then... did she know for sure her mother would have sent for her? Maggie poured more Scotch. If Cass said she'd send for her, that's what she would've done!
The bottle finally drained, she left Wally sleeping in the armchair and lurched outside, her coat open, umbrella forgotten. 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, scolding herself as she floundered along. She shouldn't have gone where she didn't belong! Look at the fun she'd had this afternoon--not like the crap she'd taken 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 snow. If only her mother hadn't run off, maybe things would've been different... She shook her head sadly. Cass did the right thing by trying to get ahead. Besides, it happened a long time ago. She had to forget it.
Makeup smeared and hair askew, she staggered 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 behind.
He hugged her tightly beneath the wet coat. "Where yuh been, Babe? I missed yuh!"
"Be at my place in an hour," she muttered, hiccoughing, and staggered out.
Around the corner, where the bar's occupants couldn't see her, she plopped on the slushy curb and finally began crying. She shook her head in bewilderment. Even that night in Harlem, 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 bawling 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 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, patting her curls, she hurried home to freshen up for her new love affair.