Stories From “Mean Grey Old Morning”

Bill Burkett
7 min readMar 30, 2024
Amazon books

Interlude Lounge

It was a quiet little bar, dim, and the drinks were good. It seemed to draw much of its trade from the hotel patrons who walked in from the connecting door amid a brief blaze of lights from the lobby chandelier.

A woman, nicely dressed, sat on a bar stool, sipping her tall drink. Her back was erect as a drill sergeant. Most men who came through the door gave her the quick–once over, saw her aloofness, and gave her a miss. Not this guy. Suave in his Navy blazer with a phony crest, grey slacks and loafers that almost glowed in the dark he slid right in beside her with a toothy smile.

Her head inclined approximately one millimeter.

He fiddled with the coaster the bartender put down on the way to get his drink. Then he picked it up and read the words.

“These are sayings from Poor Richard’s Almanac.” He had the studied, mellow tones of a radio broadcaster, and made it sound like a pronouncement.

“How nice,” she said softly. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“Yep, sure are! Look, here’s one: ‘three can keep a secret if two of them are dead,’ what do you think about that?”

“Interesting observation.”

She tilted her glass and drank elegantly. Her every movement was elegant. More than one set of male eyes watched those movements, more or less covertly. He thought he was making headway. You could almost see his chest puff.

“Benjamin Franklin, you know,” he said.

“Excuse me?”

“Benjamin Franklin,” he confided. “One of our Founding Fathers. He was Poor Richard, did you know that?”

She tipped off the rest of her drink and stood in one smooth motion.

“Yes,” she said. “I did know that.”

The lobby door swallowed her before his lips could unsmile enough to cover his teeth. The bartender put his drink down on the coaster.

“Say,” the man in the blazer said, “couldn’t we get a little music in this place?”

Irish Eyes in Portland: 1966

She didn’t believe I was a writer.

In those long-gone days it seemed that being a writer was something sexy, and men said they were writers as a way to score with women. I met her in The Embers, in Portland, Oregon. I was on a three-day pass from the Army. I was still very young toward women. The liquid courage of bourbon propped me up, and I asked almost all the unattached girls to dance. I asked her friend first. When we came back to her table, she challenged me about why I didn’t ask her to dance first. Sober, I would have panicked, but the bourbon answered for me with a courtly bow, and an offer to mend the oversight immediately. When I led her to the floor, she fitted into my arms best of all the women I danced with that night.

I called her Irish right away.

It might have been the eyes, luminous and lovely in the subdued nightclub lighting. It might have been a vagrant memory that Mike Hammer had called a girl Irish in one of those hard-boiled Mickey Spillane detective stories I was reading then. For whatever reason, she liked the name. And she liked me. I moved to her table. After that, I danced with only her.

She didn’t believe I was a writer. I was stung. I wasn’t about to tell her I was in the middle of my two-year draftee hitch in the Army. It was not cool to be a GI in the flower-child and Vietnam era.

Come back to my hotel room if you don’t believe me, I said, and I will show you my typewriter and my manuscripts. She had a merry laugh that made her eyes sparkle even more. Nice try, she told me. I was stung again. I was very young toward women. I hadn’t meant that at all. Well, maybe I had.

When the lights came up at closing time, she left with her friends, but with a promise to call me the next day. They lived across the Columbia River in Washington State. The other side of the moon, if you didn’t have a car. I wandered back to my hotel, disconsolate and alone. I wasn’t particularly surprised at this; it was the way I usually returned from such forays. I knew she wasn’t going to call me.

But she did. She called me from the hotel lobby. She had taken a bus across the river to see me, because her friend with the car had to work. She came straight up to my room, marching purposefully, to call my bluff.

In those days a guest in a good hotel could always get the use of a typewriter. I had a big office model to work on, with half a novel scattered all around. I had been pounding away on Chapter 27 when she called. My editor at Doubleday had been urging me not to let the momentum from sale of my first novel die, just because I was stuck in the military.

She handled the typewritten pages almost reverently. She sat in front of the big Royal typewriter and played with the carriage return, reading the interrupted last line I had typed. So you really are a writer, she said. I leaned toward her. She stood up into my arms.

It was a long, tender kiss. My blood was drumming when she broke for air. Her color was high and her eyes sleepy. By god, I was going to get laid, if I could just figure out what to do next. But I didn’t know what to do next. I hesitated too long.

Long enough for her to say those awful words: “You’re so sweet.”

How could I fondle her breasts then? I didn’t think it would be sweet. I was extremely young toward women.

She eased out of my embrace and examined my battered old B-4 bag, bedecked with torn and stained travel tags, European and U.S.

“My, you do travel a lot, don’t you?” she said wistfully. “I’ve always wanted to travel.”

My head was spinning slightly. I had a mild hangover. She smiled at me and said something like poor you, and came back into my arms. We cuddled for a while. Then kissed some more, long, gentle kisses that began to heat up. I could feel the snare drums in my blood begin their tattoo again. My hands slipped down her back…

She leaned back, and put her fingers to my lips. “No. There will be other girls, in other towns.”

Not with my luck, I wanted to grumble. But she took my silence for assent.

“We can’t do this,” she said. “You’re not looking for permanence. For a” — she hesitated — “wife. Are you?”

That cooled my blood right down. A few sweet kisses and we were talking wedding bells? Hell, I thought this was the era of the Pill and free love. Couldn’t we wait to select the bridesmaids until after I got laid?

But of course I couldn’t just out and say that, or anything like that. It would hardly qualify as sweet, would it? So we talked. Or she talked. And I listened. The afternoon wore on. I learned about her Dutch ex-husband, and her Greek lover, and the several men since then. One of them she had seen walking on the sidewalk in front of this very hotel, when she had a car that was running, and she just pulled over and picked him up. She spent the weekend in bed with him. The kind of stories you tell somebody you happen to sit next to on an airplane, and know you will never see again. My unworthy, unsweet thought was, well what the hell’s wrong with one more, then?

She fixed me with those lovely eyes. “There’s something I must tell you.”

Uh oh.

“I’m cold,” she said.

I blinked and looked around. She half-laughed. “Not like that, silly. Your arms are warm.” she sobered. “I mean I don’t like sex.”

What the hell was there to say to that?

She said after her last “experience,” when she still had failed to achieve the elusive orgasm, she decided to just give sex up. Just like that; like she was talking about going on a diet. I was far too young toward women to suggest I might be able to help her accomplish what this coterie of others had not. And forever too young to not give a damn.

I suddenly felt the need for fresh air, and she agreed. We walked the rain-swept downtown streets arm in arm, heads together, and anyone would have thought us lovers. So much for appearances. She loved to pause and gaze at the travel-agency posters in the windows. She yearned to travel abroad, and intended to. We went into a café to have coffee, and sat for a long time, smiling at each other over all the shared intimacies. It felt comfortable, and edgy, all in one.

She liked the fact I smoked a pipe. “You should buy a pipe to commemorate our day.” She talked like that; maybe she wanted to be a writer too, though she never mentioned it. “Or to commemorate Portland,” she added. “You could have a pipe for every city. Every girl…” Her voice caught slightly, and then she forged ahead. “Every time you smoked your pipe, you’d think about that city.”

Before too long she had to go; she worked a swing-shift somewhere. Partings are never easy. The bus was already waiting when we got to the corner. Her lovely calves flashed beneath her dark raincoat as she ran to catch it. She turned at the door and called something out to me, but it was lost in the swish of passing tires.

Then she was gone.

A road not taken. But I still have my Portland pipe, Irish.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.