"I Stoke the Fires"
"I would love to tell you that this happened anywhere but at a hotel," said Andrews with a resigned sigh and his signature nonchalant smirk. "It seems such an obvious and cliché setting for this type of story. But, I'm committed to telling you only the facts, and as it were one of those facts is that it happened at the Clement Hotel."
It was near 11:30, or slightly past, and nearly all of the other patrons had gone. One couple, newlyweds from the looks of it, stared into each other's eyes from a corner table in the back, and at the other end of the bar a disheveled fellow in an old suit with his tie half undone watched the ice melt into his whiskey sour. Other than that, the only three people in the place were Andrews, John Avery, and myself.
The three of us had met earlier in the evening for dinner, and discussed what you would expect from three old friends who hadn't seen one another in a long time. Had we heard about the changes in the old neighborhood? Who had died or moved away? Whose business was about to go public?
Afterwards, satisfied and contented by the meal but still with stories to tell and not yet ready to head home, we agreed on a nightcap. It was Andrews who recommended the bar at this particular hotel, praising the bartender's acumen for mixing a Manhattan, as well as her other assets.
Somewhat to his embarrassment and much to his disappointment, Andrews' bartender wasn't working that night. We didn't mind too much however, as the bearded man behind the bar was heavy-handed with the bottle and poured a smooth drought. He was good at his job, never letting a glass sit empty for too long, and adhering to the custom of covering our fourth round, which we decided would be our last.
We had exhausted most of the old stories and inside jokes, and in truth I was feeling a bit of an itch to get home. I had told my wife I wouldn't be much later than 11, and even though I had called to amend that time frame, I knew I would soon be testing her patience the later I stayed.
Andrews' wife had called once since we'd been at the bar. At least I think it was his wife. He looked at the number, hit the silencer, and stuffed the phone back in his pocket. That was Andrews. Who knew how he got away with it? But then again, that was a question we'd been asking since we were kids.
The conversation had turned to various hotel experiences around the time our last drinks arrived. Andrews, as usual, did most of the talking. Inspired by our surroundings, we traded tales of the nicest places we had stayed on business, as well as on vacation, and conversely told horror stories of the worst. The hearty laughs elicited by these anecdotes drew raised heads from the other end of the bar, where the pathetic looking patron and the bartender had been talking. They just as quickly went back to their casual discourse, and it was not long after that Andrews let slip that he had a yarn sure to top the rest.
It's always fun to guess how much of Andrews' many adventures are actually true. More than once he's been caught sneaking parts of someone else's experiences, or even an obscure movie plot, into his narratives. Predictable as ever, he swore that what he was about to tell us was, "absolutely, completely true." A dubious way to begin any story, let alone one told by our old and dear friend, Andrews.
"I've never really told this story before," Andrews said, "because I doubt anyone else would believe it." He paused, and then added with a chuckle, "Especially given the source."
"Fair enough," I joshed back. "But if it has to do with that redhead from Chicago, you actually have told us that one before. More than once."
"And we don't believe that one, either," chimed in Avery.
Another laugh, followed by another glance around the place. We were seated around the left corner of the bar, the end nearest to the wide entryway that spilled into the hotel lobby. Andrews sat on the left, with myself on the right, and Avery in the middle. The stools were comfortably cushioned leather with a curved seat back. The overhead lighting was neither too bright nor too dim, and the red carpeting lent a relaxed, lounge-like feel to the room. Behind the bar, a mirror stretched from one end to the other, and in the reflection, I could see the newlywed couple figuring out the tip on their bill as they prepared to leave.
That sight, combined with a quick check of my watch, told me it was now or never to hear Andrews' tale.
"Alright, alright," said Andrews as I pressed him with the lateness of the hour. "I promise it's worth the wait, and it'll give us a chance to finish up."
He said this last part while gesturing with his left hand, which held a half-full glass of ice and vodka tonic. I took a fairly hefty quaff from my own pint glass, although I was beginning to feel full from all the beer and from the thick and perfectly succulent steak I had eaten a few hours earlier.
Avery's drink was already a memory; he always drinks too much too quickly. I suspected he might be considering checking in for the night rather than drive home. Avery had never married. Despite a penchant for delivering the best punch lines we'd ever heard, his introverted nature had prevented him from ever making that singular connection with a woman, or anyone else for that matter. As far as I knew, Andrews and I were the only real friends he had.
So at last Andrews, extroverted enough for the three of us, was ready to begin. The bartender had crept over in our direction, and he would stay to listen along with Avery and me.
As to the narrative that followed, of this much I am certain: I have shared a lifelong friendship with Andrews, and have known him to roast a few rich chestnuts over the years. Yet his is a talent solely for drama, not deceit. Something will inevitably betray the fiction, whether his dancing beryl eyes or that sly boyish grin. On this night however, I watched with increasing disquietude as the trademark badge of confidence abandoned the man while he gave his account, and an invasive pallor conquered his face.
What will follow from this point is Andrews' story as he told it, or at least as best I can remember it told. To this day I believe every word of it.