Stop wasting my time.
You know what I want.
You know what I need.
Or maybe you don’t.
Do I have to come right flat out and tell you everything?
Gimme some money! Gimme some money!
- Spinal Tap
The time has come to leave our young (and not-so-young) lovers for a bit and spend a little time with our friend, James Bulstrode. All our stories will collide a bit down the road thanks to the re-emergence of a man from Bulstrode’s distant past. And I think I’ve hinted around at this past for quite long enough.
So, let’s leave Tré and Rosie looking gorgeous and sipping cocktails at some fabulous club. Let’s leave Brooke listening raptly as Teddy expounds upon some depressing topic or another. Fred is pining for Mary. Celia and Gio are lying on the couch, legs and arms entwined, watching Animaniacs. And Will will have to remain a cipher as we are head into the Lightweight Group offices to pay a visit to Bully. He generally thinks of himself as “Bully” when he’s in a good mood. And he’s in a really good mood.
Just that morning, the long awaited phone call from an elder at Fourth Presbyterian had come with an invitation to coffee. His nomination to the session was imminent. In the meantime, his protégé, Tré, was developing a solid plan and soon the rebrand of the Lightweight Group would begin. By this time next year, his picture would be showing up in newspapers. By this time the following year, his name would be gracing one of those blue honorary street sign.
He was interrupted from happy imaginings of Bulstrode Boulevard when a most unwelcome visitor entered the L.G.E. offices: a skinny, rat-faced, greasy-haired, middle-aged man by the name of Karl Rafferty who wore hard living and resentment like a weathered old suit; uncomfortable and poorly fit, but all he had. The second Bulstrode saw him, his carefully constructed persona started to pop and peel away like paint beneath turpentine.
“Hiya, Bully,” the skinny man said, in a hard, flat Chicago accent.
“Rafferty,” Bulstrode whispered, suddenly afraid.
His past was roaring up all around him.
In 1965, the year where it all began, Bultrode worked as a bartender at The March and was not as you know him now.
Back then, Bully was the not only the kind of guy who went to see The Beatles at Sox Park; he was the kind of guy who saw something in that show that made him stop cutting his hair. He was charming, bordering on rakish. He smiled all the time. He flirted. He was the kind of man that other men liked and that women liked. He was cool.
He was a great bartender.
If this were one of his shifts, you’d find him grinning knowingly at someone from behind the bar. Wearing a starched white shirt, with the sleeves rolled up, a skinny tie tucked into black pants, he mixed sidecars and old fashioneds, grabbing bottles confidently and pouring without looking. He flirted with the girls and jollied up the guys. He was quick with a light and a chuckle. He grinned and flirted and mixed drinks and sang along to You Lost That Loving Feeling and did all he could to make people like him.
He was nice enough to the down-on-his-heels barback named Karl Rafferty. So long as Karl did the dishes and kept the beer stocked, Bully was friendly.
His regulars loved him. “Hey, Lightweight,” they’d say. “Pour us another one!”
They called him “Lightweight” because of a counterfeit he’d worked one night while in front of rather than behind the bar. You see, Bully never drank to excess. He never lost control. But on the night of this counterfeit, he’d found himself in front of the bar rather than behind it, and The March regulars were determined to drink with him. Everyone wanted to buy him something. So Bully decided to fake inebriation as a defense against the drunken insistences of his sometime patrons. After two beers, he affected a slight slur. After three, he reeled a bit. His regulars thought it was hilarious that this fellow who mixed drinks so expertly was so inexpert at handling them. They found his low tolerance charming and ingratiating. They loved him even more. They loved calling him “Lightweight.”
The March, thanks in no small part to Bully’s ample bartending talents, was the most popular bar in the neighborhood. And this neighborhood made up the lion’s share of a ward that a certain bookish native son with family money and good pedigree hoped to represent as alderman.
And thus it was that Judge Charles Ladislaw, Teddy’s uncle and Will’s grandfather, made the fateful decision to host a fundraiser at The March. Well, rather, the decision was made for him. Judge Ladislaw was running for alderman out of a sense of weary obligation, having fielded countless appeals from would be political players who had money and connections but lacked the sterling Ladislaw reputation and family name. They planned to put him out in front. They planned for him to be mayor.
The party was scheduled and various city bigwigs and monied interests were invited. Judge Ladislaw kicked off his campaign at The March. Everyone who mattered was there.
The Judge arrived with his wife, Ellinore, an hour or so before the party was due to begin. He was quickly enveloped by advisors, eager to coach him through the list of the people whom he should be careful to engage and those he should avoid. Platforms and projects were delineated; talking points were honed.
That’s when Ellinore, bored, made her way to the bar.
Ellinore was a pretty woman, but fadingly so and prone to tempering her loneliness with a kind of calculated blowsiness. She smiled a wry smile at Bully and asked him for a Gibson. As he mixed it, she pulled out her cigarette case and adjusted the strap of her dress as it slipped down over her shoulder. Of course, her dress strap had slipped down over her shoulder. It always did. Bulstrode smiled warmly and allowed a heavier than normal pour of gin. He liked the way her dress strap slipped down her arm.
“So,” he said, setting the drink in front of her and lighting her cigarette. “What’s a nice girl like you doing mixed up with Chicago politics?”
Ellinore laughed and her husband’s people shot her a warning look. They were worried about Ellinore and had entreated her husband to speak to her about her behavior at the party. He was to urge her to keep to a two drink maximum. But this was a distasteful a prospect for Judge Ladislaw. He was content to leave Ellinore to her own devices while he was handled by the grasping crowd that he’d somehow let take over his life.
If he’d had his druthers, Ladislaw would have passed this time sitting quietly in his study reading Gibbon or Homer and sipping a brandy. But somehow he’d gotten caught up in this and now it was something that would just have to be done. Eventually the night would end and he could go home.
Ellinore was happy, though, to be out, passing the time with this handsome young man and his ridiculous haircut.
“Everything is politics,” she said. “Surely you know that. Bartenders know everything. Ipso facto, you know that everything is politics. We’re all just part of the machine.”
“Not everyone,” he said gently. “Not everything.”
The March was hazy with calculation and machination, and it’s hard to know if Bully was being genuine. But I think he probably was. There was something about Ellinore that made him sad. At that moment, when it seemed like the rest of the room was busy either ignoring or tolerating pretty, blowsy Ellinore, he might not have been looking at her as a mark. At least initially, I think Ellinore engaged in Bully a kind of lingering capacity for kindness.
Ellinore was so surprised by his gentle response that she was momentarily at a loss for words. She looked at him over the rim of her glass and found him looking right back at her.
A young man interrupted their moment when he walked up behind her and planted a dry kiss on her cheek. “I’m here, Aunt Ellinore,” said a very young Teddy. “As requested.”
“Hello, Teddy,” she said. “And it was your mother who ordered this command performance, not I.”
“Well, Mother thinks it’s important that I be involved in family business,” said Teddy. “Since Grandfather died, I’m sort of the paterfamilias.”
“Yes,” said Ellinore. “Sure. Now just… have a drink or something.”
“I’d like a draft of beer, please,” said Teddy, without looking at Bulstrode. He took a seat at the far end of the bar, pulled a book from his pocket, and opened it. Bully grinned at Teddy’s poorly managed pomposity and drew the beer. Ellinore smiled.
As the party went on, Ellinore did a modicum of wifely duty. She smiled when introduced, hooked her arm through her husband’s affectionately, made plans to meet political wives for tea at The Drake, and kept her blowsiness to a minimum. But she glanced at the bar every so often. And when she did, and Bulstrode noticed, he smiled back at her, cheerfully conspiratorial. Ellinore was delighted.
It didn’t take much past that for the affair to begin.
A few nights later, Ellinore stopped in on her own and plans were shortly made for a liaison at Bulstrode’s tiny apartment.
The affair went on for years. The longer it went on, the more besotted Ellinore became. It was she who loaned Bulstrode the money to buy The March. And The March continued to make money under his ownership. Bulstrode moved from behind the bar and started spending more time in the office than the front of the room. After a bit, he borrowed more money from Ellinore and combined that with his March profits and bought another restaurant. Ellinore used her husband’s political connections to grease the wheels for liquor licenses and zoning approvals.
And during those heady years of property accrual and infidelity, Judge Charles Ladislaw died suddenly of a heart attack.
And then Ellinore got sick.
And Bulstrode got a lot more restaurants.
And Karl Rafferty, who’d been there the whole time, went to jail.