The Stoneleigh Hotel, on Maple Avenue, has a pair of ancient stone lions lying at its front door. Ninety years ago, it is said, these lions guarded the entrance to the commercial center of Dallas, the Cotton Exchange. Perhaps they were fierce when young — a subtle, feral warning to the traders who played dangerous speculations with King Cotton. But time made the lions benign. And now instead of warning they welcome, their faces and their leonine brows worn down, one thinks, to understanding, after all these years, of what an amusing creature a human is, coming and going, going and coming.
The Lions Den is, therefore, the bar at the Stoneleigh; a dark interior with funny little red lights that twinkle dimly near the ceiling, so that you are tempted to sit and look at them for hours, speculating whether they are hooked up to some electrical relay that makes them blink, or if they were improperly installed and merely blink from a poor contact. The Den is a funny sort of place to begin with. The front area of the bar seems to be part of the hotel’s entrance hallway, and the back section definitely winds up in the kitchen. A newcomer, walking into the Den, can’t tell exactly where the bar begins or ends, and he feels awkward, sitting at a table back among diners or drinking a martini near the front while little ladies with blue hair come peeking along the hall, staring quite directly into the drinker’s face.
But you get over that rather quickly, finding a table under the funny red lights or sitting stuck out in the dining room and thinking nothing of it. You even find a sort of protection in the way things are strung together. According to how you are feeling, you can take a table close to the bar, with conversation and noise, or disappear into the shadows or around some corner (the Den is full of corners) away from the crowd. The Den becomes, in that beloved phrase used so much by our society which fears domesticity, “a home away from home.” You come to expect certain people to be dropping in there at certain times, and you get to thinking that a specific table in a specific corner is, by God, yours, and when you want to be alone or secluded, everybody should know it. Which, often as not, is exactly how things work. The Den is nearly always sympathetic.
The mid-afternoon crowd at the Den is about what you find mid-afternoons in most Dallas bars — respectable middle-class bars. It’s salesmen out of work, temporarily, night people who will go on to work somewhere else, and maybe a pair of lovers who don’t really have any business being with each other, but what the hell — that’s what mid-afternoon bars are for.
About 5 p.m. the really cute people begin coming in: advertising executives and copywriters, East River wetbacks who find something strongly New Yorkish about the bar, semi-young sports on their way to jog or play gentlemen’s soccer, a lot of the so-called media crowd and the good-looking women who associate themselves with those types, or are those types themselves. That’s the way the Den looks until that most indefinite hour of the restless day: 7 o’clock. Then the flacks, the hypes, the gentlemen joggers, and most of the other cute people peel off to go home or somewhere else, and a lull drops over things, and if you happen to be sitting there, nose in your third scotch or your fourth Coors, you begin picking up on another group. Mostly men, men edging into, or in, or past middle age, whatever middle age is. And they’re usually nice looking, seeming to be well off, or at least comfortable financially … but if you keep looking, maybe just a little bit melancholy.
“Heartbreak hotel… that’s the Stoneleigh,” a veteran of the Den, a divorced lawyer, says. “They come here first. It’s a halfway house, a therapy center for men leaving home. A certain kind of Dallas man.” Maybe they’ve thought about splitting for a long time. Most of them have been married for 10, 20, even 30 years. But when they make up their minds, have it out that ultimate time with their wives, or vice versa, they move out of home and into the Stoneleigh.
The hotel manager, at the table, looks around, observing, not counting, and sighs, “I guess we have half a dozen with us right now. Sometimes we get a dozen at the same time. The Stoneleigh’s the first stop on the road.”
“The road to a new life,” someone else at the table says, who’s been living at the Stoneleigh for two or three weeks. But the veteran won’t buy his remark. “Heartbreak hotel,” he says again, “give it a few more days.”
After 10 years with a woman, even a real bitch, a man misses her — misses marriage: the process, the procedure, the certainty. After 20 years, it nearly kills him to split. A whole life left behind, and a future that wears a zero or a question mark. In the Den you start to look around at that 7 o’clock interval. Finding new faces becomes a habit. You see someone you know two, three nights in a row and you get over the shock of thinking, “Why that’s the last couple I’d have thought would break up.” And sometimes the new face comes over to your table thinking the same thing and asks, himself surprised, “What are you doing in here?” thinking that everybody he sees in the Den is like him. “I come here all the time,” you tell him, adding, probably to rub it in, “I work around here, you know.” He shakes his head as if dazed when he realizes some of the customers are regulars without his particular irregularity.
Sometimes the topic doesn’t come up that first time you run into a new Stoneleigh man. Sometimes it waits until the second or third time he comes to your table or you join his. If there are too many others around — particularly if some of them are women — it won’t be brought up. But when he gets you alone it surfaces with a rush. He wants to talk, he must talk, to someone who understands, someone who knows him, someone who might, just might, be here in the Den someday for the same reasons.
“I … I still love her … but” he always says first, smiling; half-embarrassed, half-defeated, half-relieved. “But” is followed by a dozen different reasons, all of them soon familiar:
“She wouldn’t accept the fact that I kept moving and she couldn’t. We used to fight like hell, then one day we just decided there wasn’t any sense in either of us having to take it like that. We fell out of love. The kids are gone so the marriage wasn’t needed. We got to be too familiar with one another. I never did love her, I discovered.” After 10 years? After 20? 30? “Sure, you can live with a woman 20 years and not love her. Don’t make me sound like a bastard. Lots of men marry women they don’t love. Women marry men they don’t love, don’t they?” some admit it was another woman or other women. “I’d been married 15 years when something in the ol’ male genes started me lookin’. I realized I wasn’t happy with my wife. I moved out. Of course, it wasn’t that quick or easy, but in a few words, that’s the way it was.”
Not all of them go that way. More than one man, married for years, didn’t want the split. He was comfortable with what he had. She insisted they separate, after she got into Women’s Lib or Consciousness Raising, or started seeing a shrink. He’d move back home if she would let him. He’s begged, too. But she’s determined the divorce will go through. She persisted, she won.
Years can’t be torn off your life the way months are torn off a calendar.
“Don’t let the big talkers fool you,” says an older member of the Stoneleigh transients. “We’re all hurt. We’d go back if we could. I would.” He quits looking at you while he’s talking, and you can see he is remembering, or hoping.
But there are big talkers, and they scorn the wistful at the bar — men they do not know, as it often turns out. The Stoneleigh men are not, by any means, acquainted with each other. “She caught me,” a better than well-off North Dallas society figure admits. “She caught me by means of my bankbook. Mine, you notice I said. She opened my personal bank statement one month and discovered a couple of checks made out suspiciously. Hell, made out to another woman.” He takes a sip of a bloody mary and laughs, “Of course, you could say she had some reason to be suspicious, or she wouldn’t have opened my bank statement to begin with. She never balanced her own in 20 years. I didn’t think she knew there could be anything in it to catch me with. Chalk up one to wifely intuition. And I guess I didn’t really care. I wouldn’t have sent two big checks like that through if I’d really cared.”
They don’t actually sit around and talk about it like that. You have to get closer, have to, frankly, pry a little. Unless you happen to be a close friend, or a near-acquaintance, as the phrase goes. Some of them try to play the youth game. They change wardrobes, hairstyles, and lifestyles. They tell you, “Don’t worry about women. There are plenty of women. Don’t let your age bother you.” One of them says breezily, “Come on up to my apartment. Had it done by a decorator. Wild pad. Got one with a kitchenette. They run from the sixth floor up. I share housekeeping some nights.”
Now and then one blames his wife. She was the one who threw him out, you are finally told, after a strong marriage, lots of money and children. But the money didn’t matter very much, after a while. And for a switch, age hit him harder than it did her, once they reached their 50s. He came down, she went out. You feel sorry for him. You don’t know what to think about her. She’s not in the Stoneleigh. “Well, after all, they get it all, you know. They keep the house, the kids, the support money. Why move to the Stoneleigh? Moving out is not a ladies’ game.”
“See him?” one tells you, one night after the cute crowd has left. “See him? He’s a genuine prick. I mean, what he did to her. You know her, don’t you? How cute she is? After four kids, yet? Well, he brought this absolute whore home with him and shacked up with her in their bedroom, then made sure she came back from Houston early and found them. The kids all standing in the door watching while daddy climbed out of bed. He planned every line in the scenario.” You find out later that the speaker is now dating the prick’s ex-wife.
Years can’t be torn off your life the way months are torn off a calendar. Some of the torn-apart couples make it back together once or twice a week. “She helped me decorate my suite,” he says. “She’s got the best taste of any woman I know.” But the marriage isn’t about to mend itself. In bed we laugh, in bed we cry, and born in bed, in bed we die. Marriage is like a bed — marriage, which is so inextricably rumpled and wrestled with in bed, which cannot survive without bed, and, often as not, within bed. Marriage, ultimately, falls or is sustained by the bed-springs, and the cause of a failed marriage almost invariably is found among the bedclothes.
“You’ve been married for a pretty good while, haven’t you?” one of the Stoneleigh men asks. Sure, plenty long. “Well then, you know how it gets to be … hurting yourself by hurting her more; wondering what it’s doing to the kids … and to you every time you reset the calendar window on your Rolex.” These marriages haven’t gone up in the first smoke of a newly ignited flame, they didn’t dissolve under the first downpour of tears, or jar apart with the initial discovery of adultery. Old marriages, most of them, have gone through all that passion, those tears, the sidebar romances and affairs that 10, 20, or 30 years almost always bring. These separations are more like death.
“We’re used to top-drawer people. Actors, opera singers, artists, names … big egos and big talents.”
“You know, I’ve done pretty well with my life,” he starts explaining and defending. But you know all that. You are ready to admit it and so is anyone else. His name is too well-known in Dallas business or professional circles, and he’s not lost any of the drive and ability that elevated him in there and up there. But now he’s living at the Stoneleigh. This is the slow, terrible realization: that an entire part of life has been lost, has been lived uselessly and in vain, has been deformed, thwarted, killed, missing to everything but recollection. Part of him is destroyed, no matter what he may do hereafter.
“It’s the way we run the hotel,” the manager says. “The Stoneleigh’s always been a place where you are protected, you know what I mean? We’re used to top-drawer people. Actors, opera singers, artists, names … big egos and big talents.” (He points to some photos of Maria Callas you’ve never noticed before, hung high up in the shadows.) “That’s why they come to the Stoneleigh first. It helps ease the shock. You move out of a 200-grand home, splitting (he looks around) from a 200-grand woman, and the Stoneleigh’s a cushion. You know what I mean?”
They don’t gather at the bar by appointment. They don’t all gather at the same time or at any one spot. But they gradually make it a habit to drop in for a drink around that 7 o’clock lull. Sometimes, particularly if they run into a business acquaintance, or a friend from that other life, they stay a couple of hours, or even until the bar closes. Sometimes — after a month, maybe — they share a table with a woman, a woman they’ve just met in most cases. It’s not really a pickup if she’s in the Den. Now and then some meet their ex-wives or soon-to-be ex-wives for a drink. The Den’s the living room. Maybe, from habit more than anything else, she’ll go on up to his suite with him and spend the night. One couple celebrated their divorce of that morning by spending the night together.
Then, three or four months or a little longer, and you notice someone’s not there — you haven’t seen him for a while. You mention it to the bartender or another of the Stoneleigh men. “I guess he’s moved out,” you are told. Generally speaking, it’s only a few months more until you read in the News or the Herald that he’s remarried. Or she is. Maybe this one has something he missed, all those 10, 20, or 30 years. Maybe this time there will be something new that should have become old to him. On the other hand, maybe he’ll miss the Stoneleigh. Maybe he’ll be back.
The old lions, with their softened stonefaces, watch the humans come and go, go and come. The lions, it occurs to you when you study their 90-year-old features, seem to get sadder and sadder.