Bolger was not a friend of mine, but we had known each other for over twenty years, starting when he was married to his first wife and I was married to my only wife. I drank with him every couple of months at his café/bar, and it was there that he regularly held forth in a loud voice, repeating his favorite stories about himself to his audience of customers–how his shirt had caught fire in his café’s kitchen, causing him to rip it off with his so-called bare hands; how hot grease had spilled on his legs and burned through his trousers and he’d collapsed in a chair where his spirit had left his body, walked to a doorway and turned to gaze at his sizzling flesh; how when skydiving his parachute had tangled in the static line and his reserve chute failed to open, forcing him to unpack it with his hands and toss it up in the air but too late to keep from crashing to the ground, where he claimed he’d bounced ten feet in the air.
I always sat with Bolger at his designated table just inside the front door of the bar, a place of honor reserved for those closest to him. For years he’d been trying to convince me to write his biography, though I’d never written for publication but only in a journal that I confessed to him I’d be ashamed for anyone to read. Bolger said he’d dictate the book to me and he trusted me to portray him in the exact way he wanted to be remembered. He enjoyed what he referred to as his fame in town, but he feared that after his death he’d gradually be forgotten. Bolger said that if I presented him in a disparaging way I knew he’d beat the hell out of me and he knew I’d want to avoid that result. He roared with laughter and squeezed my head in the crook of his elbow. Son, he howled, though we were almost the same age and though he knew I didn’t like him using his nickname for me. There were other things I didn’t like about Bolger, including his loudness, drunkenness, womanizing, and megalomania. I seldom mentioned to him any of the sources of my distaste, and I only rarely took the floor when I was with him. When I did speak he didn’t hesitate to interrupt me to greet people and hug them, and I’d hear his voice booming above the background music and ambient bar noise, his laughter cascading over the merriment of everyone around him. He’d come back to the table without acknowledging the interruption and fill me in on the people he’d spoken with, showing no memory of whatever I’d been saying to him. Bolger was consistently rude to his staff and he thought they respected him for his dominance, even those who outwardly resented it. He would snap his fingers at a passing server or hostess and order both of us another drink. If someone brought a drink with ice in it to the table, he would send the drink away. How long will it take you to remember this, he’d scold, no ice in any drinks at my table. He didn’t like hearing the tinkle of ice or to think of it melting in his glass, and the space ice occupied in a drink irked him. The servers often gave him a hostile look when he spoke to them curtly or snapped his fingers at them, but he didn’t let himself be fazed. He would meet their look with one of his own, if he cared enough at a given moment to be bothered. Bolger had told me several stories of workers who’d tried to steal from him, which tended to happen more frequently near holidays. According to Bolger he’d confronted men with hams and quantities of beef concealed under their coats and he’d had fistfights with two of them in front of staff. He needed to make an example of them, he said, and confrontations and fighting were in some cases what the situation called for. He’d won both fights and had never failed to make a worker back down in conflicts that did not escalate to blows. Bolger liked to tell me that he controlled everything about his environment. He wanted to be inside the head of everyone who worked for him, he wanted them to hear his voice and to feel his grip. They had to feel him inside and outside or all hell would break loose, Bolger believed, he needed total control of everything around him to feel comfortable. Bolger argued that the total-control principle would apply to his biography, a book that would serve as a monument to his life and that he envisaged with the title Bolger, with the letters in italics, he fittingly said, since he seemed to picture himself living his life in italics. Only he could know how the book should be written, he told me, only he could know what should be in the book and what should be left out. Bolger did not want to read and did not want others to read details about his sex life, he often said at his designated table; he didn’t want to expose the dozens of married women he’d bedded, for example, and besides it would be bad for business and he’d rather not deal with a siege of threats. He knew I’d respect his reasons for withholding a thorough account of this side of him, Bolger said. His main concern about me as a biographer, he told me, though I’d consistently shown no interest in writing the book, was that I’d feel lingering loyalty toward his first wife and hold the circumstances surrounding the end of their fifteen-year marriage against him. He admitted that he’d made a mistake on that one, without specifying what he wished he’d done differently, but he still failed to see why she couldn’t accept the affair she’d found out about when there had been over a hundred other women she hadn’t known about till he’d told her, Bolger declared with an utterly straight face. He’d tried to explain, he said, that being with other women was an essential part of his nature and she shouldn’t be angered by it, but she couldn’t embrace what he saw as the fully realized Bolger. His second wife couldn’t accept this part of his nature either, which didn’t seem to surprise him as much, and his third wife reacted with aggression whenever she learned he’d been with another woman. For a long time he refused to divorce his third wife, because he knew that if he did he’d end up married again and divorced again. He contended that he cared less about his wives’ anger over other women than about whether they would skin him alive, as he put it, in a divorce, not to mention, he added, what his own lawyers would see fit to charge him for their services. He couldn’t take having his skin ripped off again, he said, even though his third wife liked to express her aggression by assaulting him in his sleep. Bolger walked into the bar one day with two black eyes and a swollen nose after his third wife smashed a five-pound bag of ice on his face while he was taking a nap. I saw the black eyes myself and I asked him what had provoked the attack. I was bad, he confessed, and I thought he seemed somewhat proud of his injuries. He said that on another occasion she’d slugged him with her purse while he slept and another time with her fist. Bolger held firm on sticking with his third wife until he changed his mind one night when he awoke with a knife at his throat. His wives couldn’t trust him to be at the bar with women hanging all over him there, said Bolger, as if the truth of his appeal to legions of women was self-evident. He and I were both in our mid-sixties and he’d confided that he supplemented his virility with a prescription drug. He said he didn’t need the drug to perform but that it made him feel more powerful. Bolger informed me more than once that he’d bedded over a thousand women and I didn’t ask how he counted them, if he wrote their names on a legal pad or if he entered them on some computer software or if he knew the names of all of them by heart along with locations of moles and birthmarks. I didn’t ask him to estimate the number who were customers or if he ruled out wives of men he traded stories with, but occasionally a woman came into the bar that I could tell he’d been intimate with. He’d been with a long list of female staff, he told me, sometimes in his office with the door locked. Did he want other staff to know he was in his office screwing a young woman? I wondered but didn’t ask. I didn’t like asking questions that would cause him to add details or embellish his narratives, sexual or otherwise. He never tired of the sound of his own voice, and he saw me as a person who didn’t speak up enough. People wouldn’t respect me as much as they should unless I spoke up more, Bolger said. Verbally swaggering, Bolger told me he said and did whatever came into his mind at all times and he didn’t care what anyone thought or how they reacted, and almost everyone respected him for speaking his mind and having things his way. On a trip the four of us took to Mexico, I’d been in the front seat of our rent car with Bolger driving while his first wife sat in back with my wife, the two of them talking nonstop and barely paying attention to us in front, their friendship the catalyst for our time together as couples. It annoyed him that I said I preferred not to drive in Mexico, a sign of cravenness unworthy of my gender as he saw it, and when I said as we rolled slowly through a town square that I didn’t want to eat street food in Mexico, he pulled the car over and went to a stand to buy a hamburger and had the vendor cut it in two. He rushed back to the car and handed me half. Eat it, he said. I shook my head. Eat it, he repeated and bit into the burger. It’s good–eat it, he said again. Isn’t it good? he asked as I took my first taste. Son, he shouted, jabbing me. Just as he’d forced the hamburger on me in Mexico, Bolger kept pushing drinks at me in his bar, though I left some of them untouched on the table, even pouring two or three into a nearby plant just to get rid of them. I couldn’t imagine how his body could have endured all the drinks he’d consumed in his life. The skin on his face had become increasingly dark, particularly around his eyes, his mustache increasingly gray, and his back had begun to curve in a way that suggested a question mark and subdued his strut. How many more drinks could he absorb, his body seemed to be asking him, but his voice still boomed out of him and his belief in his importance remained unchanged. I thought of the mass of people as the sales force, I’d told Bolger on a night when I’d had more to drink than normal, the people in the sales force seeing it as their mission to sell an idea or self-image or a version of their past, the effort extending to the deepest parts of their own awareness and existence. He saw people as customers, I said to him, and in my opinion that represented the fundamental difference between us. In fact we are all members of the sales force, he answered, but we’re also customers. Whether you like it or not, you can’t separate these things in people. In your case, you don’t want to see yourself as being in the sales force or as a customer, he lamented, and I don’t think you even like to hear yourself talk. You’d rather listen to me, although I doubt if you agree with a thing I’m saying. I saw at once that my view of people as members of the sales force would stay with Bolger and that he would see it as symptomatic of my deficiencies as a man, just as he saw my aversion to eating street food in Mexico as symptomatic of a squeamishness that would keep me from growing into the actualized man he’d become. How could I hope to control my environment, I thought he thought, unless I accepted being in the sales force? Those who did accept their sales-force position would surpass me without noticing that I existed, how could I make any sort of impression on anyone or anything unless I made an effort to enhance my status in the sales force? I didn’t like what I saw when I saw myself through his eyes, and I invariably felt relieved when I abandoned his designated table, taking the opportunity to flee when he interrupted himself to greet an incoming couple or group. I always left his bar fed up with him, talking back to the memory of his face. What did I have to do with Bolger and why did I listen to him? I pondered a reasonable explanation for my visits, and he must have too. He sometimes asked me if I had something to confess to him, and he’d stare at me as if his eyes could pry out the words that he thought might be forthcoming. Whenever he asked me this question I denied having a confession to make, but he appeared unsure whether to believe me. I finally asked him what was on his mind about what he thought I had on my mind. I’d come into the bar late and Bolger’s face had begun to sag, but the weight of the day’s drinks did not interfere with his power of speech. He asked if I ever had any inkling that his first wife had been interested in me and had used me as an example of how he might behave better if he ever chose to improve himself. She liked being around a quiet man, she’d said, though she had to know when she married Bolger that she was forming a union with a loudmouth. Though Bolger believed he was entitled to have sex with any number of other women, what he admitted to me was his suspicion that I’d slept with his first wife, not while he was married to her, I didn’t have had the guts to do that, he commented, but sometime after their divorce and probably after mine. He fantasized that she may have been the one to initiate contact, but he wanted to hear the true story from me, man to man. I replied that I hadn’t slept with any of his wives or ex-wives or any other woman he’d slept with, as far as I knew, and his first wife had said nothing to suggest she was ever attracted to me. You don’t have to worry about what I’ll do if you admit it, Bolger said, what she does is up to her. I don’t follow her or ask around about her business, but you come in here and look me in the eye and drink with me and I want to know who I’m drinking with, who’s listening to me and what’s underneath the way you listen. The bottom line is that you think I’m some kind of animal, don’t you, you think I’m like some wild dog or a bull trampling through everything that gets in my way. I think the reason you don’t want to write my biography is that you don’t have the nerve to write what you want to write and you don’t want to write what I want you to write. You don’t want to see a book that you wrote about me being sold in this bar and to be responsible for whichever version would be in its pages. Maybe it was a bad idea asking you to write the book, your outlook is too limited to see my life the way I do. Do you really think I don’t know what you see when you look at me? Do you want to hear why I think you come here? Either you want to confess that you slept with — or you want to listen to me long enough to convince yourself over and over that you can’t stand the sound of people talking, especially not me, and you get so disgusted by what comes out of my mouth that you can last maybe two months in virtual seclusion, limiting contact to trips out for food and passersby who look at you without really seeing you personally. You can’t avoid speaking to people from time to time, but you’re not at ease speaking or listening to them and you look forward to your stretches of silence. You sit with your journal, waiting for something meaningful to show its face, until you get bored and creep out of your hole to be around people again. You don’t want to be alone all of the time, but you prefer it most of the time, so you come to me for your people-revulsion fix, Bolger said, his mounting characterization of me based on conjecture and snippets of comments I’d made to him in years past. You confirm your worst fears about people when you come here to listen to me, and you leave exhausted and wanting quiet. I have served my purpose. Does any of that sound familiar to you? Had Bolger told me off to trigger a confession about sleeping with — or to browbeat me into admitting why I didn’t want to write his biography? He stared at me, waiting for me to speak, giving the impression that his eyes would not release me. But I had nothing to tell him about sleeping with his first wife and nothing to reveal about fearing which version I’d choose to write in an imaginary book about him. I didn’t like it that he wanted to push me into a corner, to dominate me through provocation, but I also didn’t want to leave without answering him. I’d listened to his thunder for twenty-plus years and I’d never had a serious confrontation with him. Why not? What did I fear would happen? I told Bolger that in my opinion he wasn’t biography material, almost no one would want to read a book about him, and if anyone did his enemies might be as likely to read it as his admirers. The release of a biography might cause social media to light up with stories from people he’d intimidated with violence or threats and he’d probably seem more outrageous to others than he’d ever imagined. I felt no inclination at all to write a book about him and no desire to be with any woman he’d ever been with. I thought the most important thing he did not understand about his first wife was that she wanted to be loved in an uncompromised way, just as he did. I then confessed that I did not like the sound of my voice or his and that I was exhausted when I left his company. I did retreat into a period of relative solitude, I said, waiting for the noise of his voice and the inevitable repetition of its content to subside in my memory, though in time the silence became tedious and the urge to hear other voices returned. The best reason I had come up with for why I listened to Bolger was that I wanted to understand him, to believe that he wanted something more than control of everyone and everything within his reach. I wanted to see something redeeming in his relentless need for conquest, but I hadn’t found it, I said straight into his more or less expressionless face, and I could only listen to him for so long before his voice overwhelmed my curiosity. The food in his café was widely known to be terrible, but his drinks were known to be tasty, and I appreciated his apparent hospitality, though I suspected that, like anything else he did, it contained a self-serving motive, perhaps to have a book written about him or to learn information about —‘s sex life or a deep-seated need to sell his image of himself. Bolger didn’t flinch once as I spoke and when I finished he chuckled. Son, he bellowed and squeezed my shoulder with his non-drink hand. I think I’ll visit with some other members of the sales force, he said. He stood and walked away, joining acquaintances at the bar as if nothing had happened. I waited a few minutes, not wanting to leave too quickly, to act out my fear that he’d decide to retaliate. As soon as I did leave, listening for footsteps behind me but hearing none, I began to wonder if I would ever go back and, if I did, how he would react when he saw me and if we would sit at his table and have a drink.
I went three months without entering Bolger’s bar, but I heard his voice immediately when I returned, his chute tangled in the static line once again, his body bouncing off the ground, landing him in a hospital bed for weeks. I sat at his table and ordered a drink, and after a few minutes he noticed me there and came over. He shook my hand but did not sit down. I called her, he told me. She said you had nothing to confess. She didn’t like it one bit that I asked her, and if she ever speaks to me again it won’t be because she started the conversation. She asked what it had to do with me. I told her that if you did have something to confess I’d ask you that question. But bottom line, I know she wouldn’t lie to me. He smiled as he watched his words sink in. I’ve spent countless hours drinking in that chair, he said. Are you sure you want to sit in it? He gave me a look before leaving me alone at the table, and I sat there considering why he would believe her and not me and why he would trouble her with his question. Would he have seen my sleeping with her as a challenge to his superiority, a convoluted threat, an expression of an undermining desire that may have been there for almost as long as we’d known one another? And why did he care now? Answers to my questions were beyond my reach and perhaps beyond his. Bolger circulated at the bar, his voice and laughter filling the air around him, his romance with himself undiminished.
One month later, he died from a stroke.
Photo by Sam Howzit