It’s twenty minutes, maybe a half hour, from my office to Mandelbaum’s. My office is in the Languages Building—excuse me, the Randall J. Simonson Foundation Languages Building. You lose points if you forget to name the benefactor. The university knows which side its bread is buttered on. Oh, you bet it does. When there’s butter. Hell, when there’s bread.
By the time I got to the bar, I needed a beer a lot more than I had when I set out. Somebody a couple of blocks from the campus side of Mandelbaum’s had walked in front of a car. Not just any car, either. A Lincoln Navigator. Dead, of course. Never knew what hit him, I hope.
Cops and paramedics couldn’t have pulled up more than half a minute before I walked by. They’d thrown a sheet over him, but it was still pretty bad. Worse than you see on the news, ’cause the news cleans up the gore or cuts away. You didn’t only see it there. You could smell it, all thick and rusty. Made my stomach turn over.
A couple of little animals or birds were scurrying around the edge of the pool. I couldn’t tell what they were up to—maybe scouting for chunks of meat in the soup. Believe me, I didn’t check it out too close.
The woman who’d been driving the Navigator was talking to a cop. She was sleek and blonde and middle-aged: plainly part of the one percent, not the ninety-nine. Things like this weren’t supposed to happen to people like her. But one had. She still sounded stunned, not horrified. “I couldn’t do a thing, Officer,” she was saying. “Not a thing. He didn’t even look. He just walked out in front of me—and bam!” Bam! was right.
When I walked into Mandelbuam’s, Victor drew me a Sam Adams and slid it across the bar. Then he eyed me and said, “You okay, Stan? You’re kinda green around the gills.”
So I told him why I was green around the gills.
“Oh, Jesus!” He pointed to the beer. “On the house, man. That same thing happened to me last month. Still creeps me out—I’ve woke up from nightmares in a cold sweat, like, two or three times. Mine was a gal.”
“Makes it even worse somehow,” I said.
“It totally does.” Victor nodded. Then he did it again, in a different way—toward the pint of beer. “So get yourself outside of that right away. It’ll take the edge off. Then have another one, slower, and you oughta be good to go.”
“Sounds like the right prescription, Doc,” I said, and set to work on the first part of it.
There were only a couple of other people at the bar, but it was early yet. Things would perk up. They always did. Mandelbaum’s is a good place. It’s half town, half gown, you might say. Not a meat market bar, though there are a gay one and a straight one within a few blocks. Mandelbaum’s is more like a permanent floating cocktail party. You run into all kinds of people there, some fascinating, some . . . well, not so much.
But you do hear some out-of-the-ordinary answers when you get around to asking, “So what do you do, then?”
I started talking with somebody who came in a little while after I did. By then, I was halfway down the second Sam Adams. I definitely had a little buzz. I wasn’t smashed or anywhere close—I’m a big guy (six-three, two-twenty—oh, all right, two-forty, but I am gonna start working out again RSN). Still, the alcohol put a transparent shield between me and that poor damn fool dead on the asphalt. Smashed on the asphalt. Puddled on the asphalt. I might need one more to firm up the transparent shield a bit.
“So what do you do?” he asked.
“Germanic languages at the U,” I said. “Specialize in Gothic.”
“In what?” he said.
Which was the same thing everybody said, including my mother. Well, except for a few who said Never heard of it. But the ones who came out with that were usually less interesting than the other kind.
“Gothic,” I said again. “Oldest Germanic language that got written down. Bishop Ulfila translated the Bible—most of it—into Gothic in the fourth century A.D.”
“That’s a while ago now.”
“Anybody still speak it?”
“Not since the eighteenth century,” I told him. “Some of the Goths settled in Italy. The Byzantine Empire conquered them in the sixth century. Some settled in Spain. The Arabs conquered them in the eighth century. A few stayed behind in the Crimea. They were the ones who lasted longest.”
“If no one still uses it, what’s the point to studying it?” he asked.
That was the other question everybody came up with—also including my mother. But he didn’t ask it in a snarky way. He sounded as if he really wanted to know. So I answered, “You can learn a lot about how the younger languages grew and changed if you compare them to one that didn’t grow and change so much. And I have fun doing it.”
“There you go!” he said. “If you can get paid for what you get off on anyway, you’re ahead of the game. I do it, too.”
“Do you?” He’d listened to me. The least I could do was pay him back. “How?”
And it turned out he was a farrier. I found out more about shoeing horses and horseshoe nails and trackside gossip than I’d ever imagined. He didn’t just work at the track. He had a regular business with the horsy people in Woodlawn Heights, which is where the horsy people mostly lived.
After we’d talked a while longer, it also turned out he’d watched somebody get clobbered by a car—by a pickup, as a matter of fact. He’d seen it happen, poor guy. I told Victor. By then, I was most of the way down my third beer, so letting Victor know seemed uncommonly important.
He clicked his tongue between his teeth. “Must be something going around,” he said. And he also let the farrier—whose name, I haven’t told you, was Eddie—have a free one. Mandelbaum’s is a class joint.