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Small Town
by Lawrence Block
Morrow, 2003

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By the time Jerry Pankow was ready for breakfast, he'd already been to three bars and a whorehouse.

It was, he'd discovered, a great opening line. "By the time I had my eggs and hash browns this morning ... " Wherever he delivered it, in backroom bars or church basements, it got attention. Made him sound interesting, and wasn't that one of the reasons he'd come to New York? To lead an interesting life, certainly, and to make himself interesting to others.

And, one had to admit, to plumb the depths of depravity, which resonated well enough with the notion of three bars and a whorehouse before breakfast.

Today he was having his breakfast in Joe Jr.'s, a Greek coffee shop at the corner of Sixth Avenue and West Twelfth Street. He wasn't exactly a regular here. The whorehouse was on Twenty-eighth, two doors east of Lexington, right around the corner from the Indian delis and restaurants that had people calling the area Curry Hill. Samosa and aloo gobi wasn't his idea of breakfast, and anyway those places wouldn't open until lunchtime, but he liked the Sunflower coffee shop on Third Avenue, and stopped there more often than not after he finished up at the whorehouse.

This morning, though, he was several degrees short of ravenous, and his next scheduled stop was in the Village, at Charles and Waverly. So he'd walked across Twenty-third and down Sixth. That stretch of Sixth Avenue had once afforded a good view of the twin towers, and now it showed you where they'd been, showed you the gap in the downtown skyline. A view of omission, he'd thought more than once.

And now here he was in a booth at Joe's with orange juice and a western omelet and a cup of coffee, light, no sugar, and how depraved was that? It was ten o'clock, and he'd get to Marilyn's by eleven and be out of there by one, with the rest of the day free and clear. Maybe he'd catch the two-thirty meeting at Perry Street. He could stop by after he left Marilyn's and put his keys on a chair so he'd have a seat when he came back at meeting time. You had to do that there, it was always standing-room-only by the time the meeting started.

Recovery, he thought. The hottest ticket in town.

He let the waiter refill his coffee cup, smiled his thanks, then automatically checked the fellow out as he walked away, only to roll his eyes at his own behavior. Cute butt, he thought, but so what?

If he were to show up at a meeting of Sex Addicts Anonymous, he thought, nobody would tell him to get the hell out. But did it make his life unmanageable? Not really. And, more to the point, could he handle another program? He was in AA, sober a little over three years, and, because drugs played a part in his story, he managed to fit a couple of NA meetings into his weekly schedule. And, because his parents were both drunks -- his father died of it, his mother lived with it -- he was an Adult Child of Alcoholics, and went to their meetings now and then. (But not too often, because all the whining and bitching and getting-in-touch-with-my-completely-appropriate-anger made his teeth ache.)

And, because John-Michael was an alcoholic (and also sober, and anyway they weren't lovers anymore), he went to Al-Anon a couple of times a month. He hated the meetings, and he wanted to slap most of the people he saw there -- the Al-Anon-Entities, his sponsor called them. But that just showed how much he needed the program, didn't it? Or maybe it didn't. It was hard to tell.

Three years sober, and he started each day by visiting three bars and a whorehouse, inhaling the reek of stale beer and rancid semen. The bars were in Chelsea, all within a few blocks of his top-floor walkup on Seventeenth west of Ninth, and of course they were closed when he arrived for the morning cleanup. He had keys, and he would let himself in, trying not to dwell on the way the place stank, the odor of booze and bodies and various kinds of smoke, the dirty-socks smell of amyl nitrite, and something else, some indefinable morning-after stench that was somehow more than the sum of its parts. He'd note that and dismiss it, and he'd sweep and mop the floor and clean the lavatories -- God, human beings were disgusting -- and finally he'd take down the chairs from the tables and the stools from the bar top and set them up where they belonged. Then he'd lock up, and off to the next.

He hit the bars in what he thought of as working his way up from the depths, starting with Death Row, a leather bar west of Tenth Avenue with a back room where safe sex required not just condoms but full body armor. Then one called Cheek, on Eighth and Twentieth, with a neighborhood crowd that ran to preppy types and the aging queens who loved them. And, finally, a straight bar on Twenty-third Street -- well, a mixed crowd, really, typical for the neighborhood, straight and gay, male and female, young and old, the common denominator being an abiding thirst. The place was called Harrigan's -- Harridan's, some called it -- and it didn't reek of pot and poppers and nocturnal emissions, but that didn't mean a blind man might mistake it for the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens.

In his drinking days, Jerry might have started the evening at Harrigan's. He could tell himself he was just stopping for a quick social drink before he settled in for the night ...

Excerpted from Small Town by Lawrence Block. Copyright © 2003 by Lawrence Block. All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the publisher. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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