We skipped work that Friday and directly went to old Aberdeen street. Number 42 still looked like crap and the funny thing was, anyone would tell you that it had always felt that way. There just was something about that street that felt awkward, eerie, and that even before Nolt settled there. And number 42 was the worst. The first thing you saw as you came in was that strangely shaped bush which reminded me of a chimera. I had no idea why or even where that came from, but it somehow seemed logical that a guy like him should end up in a place like that. And he never did take care of his place anyway.
We knocked on the door three times and Jimmy wiped the window to see if he could spot the old man passed out inside. Every six months or so, Nolt would serve us that trick. He’d disappear for a time, playing possum as he’d say, and then we would have to get him back on his two feet. He generally passed out from too much booze, and most of the time it had to do with some crap he had done way back when. That was how he dealt with stuff, and I’m guessing how a lot of people from his era did too. He drank and drank and drank, and somehow it made him believe things would turn out for the best the next day. And yet over the course of twenty plus years, he never learnt his lesson. All he had the next day was a terrible headache, the overwhelming sensation of dying and being born at the same time. They got it wrong when they called cumming La Petite Mort – getting hammered was what it meant.
The following days we decided to meet and try our luck again. Saturday and Sunday gave us the same outcome. We really started to worry and some of us, well me at least, began to think the worst had happened. A lot of people we’d see at the joint often joked that Nolt had been suicidal all of his life. We never really knew whether or not that was true. In fact, most of his past was nothing but a hazy blur. The idea remained somehow somewhere that he had 1) at some point been a writer, and 2) failed and tried to recycle himself in a lot of different jobs – including that of a dick. Now I know this one might be a bit surprising but I got it from a mysterious man who stopped to have a chat with him a bunch of years ago. That was around the time the St Louis Blues still meant something, you know? And there I was, sitting in the back and minding my own business, when the man stepped in and got to the bar. They shook hands and talked for a while. For those who know me, you know I’m a rather polite and well educated boy, I prefer not to eavesdrop on conversation. I stepped up and went to sit at the bar next to them. Nolt looked at me and for the first time in my life I thought he looked worried. I tried to smile and wink my way into the whole thing but they kept staring. I had no other choice but to back off and go back to my sit. It was from there that I gathered that Nolt had tried his hand at being a PI, a dick as the other guy called him, and apparently failed hard. You were supposed to find her, Anna-Maria, the guy said, all you did was leave to end up here in this poor excuse for a place. Nolt wasn’t answering but his jaw was tightened and all clinched. I wondered how long it would take him to deck the guy. But he didn’t. She doesn’t want to be found, she has her reasons. Valid ones. Those were the words I heard, and I felt baffled. The Blues had just scored and I missed it, but I couldn’t care less. I knew the Blackhawks would go on to win the cup anyway, was there even a point?
There was no point. Nolt was gone. Or at least, he wasn’t there. We joked that he wasn’t all there sometimes you know, and those jokes really started to come back to me as some sort of cosmic payback. What if he had finally done it? Maybe he’d decided he’d had enough. After all, the guy lived like a hundred of lives. We all talked about it and decided to go to the pigs after a few days, in case an apb could make him reappear suddenly. I don’t really know why we, and by we I mostly me I, cared so much about Nolt. He’d never been friendly with any of us. If anything, he was a real jerk. But something told me to keep looking, so I did. I went to work the following days with my mind busy : I had ran out of ideas and ways to find him in two minutes, and that was days ago. We all know I’m not the sharpest tool in the shed, that’s not a mystery, but I felt I could really pull it off. And when you do commit to something and put a lot of you into it, you really feel bummed when it doesn’t work, ain’t that right? I sat behind my computer and typed in the numbers and the codes and scanned the bars and everything else I had to do to earn some money to avoid sleeping in the streets. Everyday was mostly the same, numbers and bars and scans and you never ever realizing that you’re essentially useless, failing to see you have a potential you could fulfill, trapping yourself in a circle that, in the moment, does not seem to be that vicious, but that is, ultimately, deadly. And by you, I mostly mean me.
The pigs said they’d try something. Call old friends, visit places. We don’t have to worry. I guess they say that all the time, but the fact remained : Nolt had been gone for over a month now. The bar had been closed all this time, the usual drunkards were getting restless, people told stories and on the bus an old woman cried. You may think this has absolutely nothing to do with anything, but I beg to differ. She started to cry at the exact moment we mentionned Nolt’s name, and as I approached to ask her if she was alright, she simply alighted from the bus. The driver pushed the right pedal with his heavy feet and I was propelled into another mystery that I couldn’t really understand. I felt tiny, diminutive, pointless. How could anyone bear to go through this life with that in mind? I was no good, but it made me smile. For a split second there, right in the middle of my self loathing, I began to imagine what Nolt’s life must have been like. Or at least, how he’d work things out. The only plausible solution to numb my troubles that day seemed to be lying in drowning in a sea of bottles.
I got hammered that night like I’d never done before. I thought I’d black out in the middle of street and get killed by a car or a bus or a deer on the loose. Somehow, I found myself in front of number 42, a bottle of whisky still in hand. I went to the door and knocked with the bottle, as if the noise and scent of liquor would awake the most likely to be dead guy. I thought I’d seen the door open in a matter of seconds when it probably took two minutes. The giant and roundish frame of the man came in and I heard some indistinct noises. He burped, or I did.
”What the hell are you doing out here?” he said.
“Is that how you’re thanking me?”
“Thanking you? For what? Annoying me at home now?”
I rubbed my eyes. He was really there, as if he’d never left.
“We’ve been worried about you. We came to see if you were okay.”
“You’ve been worried. That’s the best you can come up with?”
“I swear man. You just vanished.”
He didn’t answered to that one. The bottle I was holding felt extremely heavy and I was the verge of dropping it. He might have seen that because he immediately took it out of my hand and went to sit in his armchair, leaving me on the doorstep.
I sat on the ground and he watched me silently. There was only one armchair and one broken chair at the table.
“You don’t care for company, do you?” I grinned.
Again, he didn’t answer. So I decided to get to the bottom of it all, and asked away.
“So, where have you been all this time?”
Nolt sipped heavily from my bottle and sighed. I kept asking myself if he was preparing for a long tirade, expecting him to speak at any moment. But he kept silent. Something about him had changed – he was a jerk, true, but most of it came from his wit. He could tell you off in ways no one could, and that was part of his charm. Well, charm may be the liquor, but you get the idea. As he sat there, I felt nothing but melancholia, sadness, and the heavy silence weighed like ten thousand stones on my shoulders.
“So you let me in for a reason right? I mean why letting me in if it’s not to talk?” I tried again.
“Takes time” he said.
“Time” I echoed.
So we stayed there for God knows I long. I ate back every word I felt like saying and waited for his signal. Around me the room was spinning and it all swirled as if I had been caught in a very crappy washing machine. I did my best to remain focused, not to throw up on the floor which reminded me of all hospital floors.
“I’ve been away” he said, eventually breaking the silence.
I nodded, keeping my voice to me not to jinx it. It took him two or three minutes each time to utter a sentence, and part of me thought that it was because he tried to process something.
“I’ve been away because I had to see someone.”
“An old flame?” I said, suddenly fearing that my voice would scare him out of talking.
“No. Yes. I don’t know. Wasn’t like that.”
Silence fell down again and my heart raced like it had stolen something from heart police.
“It wasn’t like that” he said.
“Wasn’t like that. Okay, so who was it?”
“We’ve never had it. We could have. We would have been great together. I know it. Hell I knew it back in the day too. But I was too damn stupid to make the play.”
“Make the play.”
“Too stupid to gamble. Win some, lose some. It’s all the same to me now. But back then. No. I had no idea what would happen. And I hated it. Scared the shit out of me.”
“So you and her never got together? Cause you were scared?”
“She deserved a lot better than me anyhow. That’s what it was too. But I never got the occasion to say that. Was never really a wordsmith to begin with. Just look at how things went with the books.”
Nolt had completely stopped listening to me by that point – and that is if he ever did. I thought I would just sit there and listen to him, take mental notes of all the things he said and wait until he realized that I was there, awake, still listening. He’d probably beat the crap out of me afterwards, but I didn’t care. That one time I got the chance to solve a mystery. There was nothing else I could do, he said. I told the old man she didn’t want to see him again, and that he had to leave her alone. But he kept pressuring me. So I followed her track and talked to her. She’d learnt her husband was cheating, decided to leave and disappear. Classic case to crack, and my first big one really. But she had those eyes, and that fire. There was no lie in her fire. It just happened that way, I wasn’t on the make, it was a perfect storm. Can’t say I got cold feet, you’d have to be engaged into something to do that – and we weren’t. But it spooked me – what I felt. Too much for me to handle. I felt cold, I felt on fire. I felt tired, I felt rumbling. I wanted to have a drink, and yet she sobered me up. She gave me clarity, and my mind had never been so blurry. We talked day and night for weeks and weeks. I didn’t write shit during that period – I lived, that was all. All the material that came afterwards – everything’s about her. All I ever lost, it’s about her. There’s nothing more than that.
He went on further and further until my mind couldn’t take any more mental notes. I wish I had bought one of those tiny notebooks you carry in your pockets, I’d have been like a journalist recording things to write an article. Of course, no one would ever care if I’d write an article, and especially on a local drunkard turned barkeep. But I liked the idea of telling his story someday. It all ended when the first lights of the sun came up. Nick passed out mid sentence, never realizing that he’d basically gave away most of his life to a guy he probably hated more than his father. And God knows I know a lot about his father now. I decided to take my leave as silently as I could, with the firm intention of keeping this moment my own unbearable secret. It dawned on me, as I walked out of his house, that I liked my mysteries too.