Short Story by: Bill Rayburn
The long bar seemed to go on forever until, finally, way down by the door marked ‘For Leakin’, it curved smoothly to the right, ending abruptly by disappearing into the wall. Its rich mahogany, faded to the shade of dark rum, looked naked when not draped with drinkers, and was as scarred as the loser in a prison fight. Worn to a smooth, varnish-like finish by the elbows and forearms of three generations of Motor City drinkers, the wood looked as soft and inviting as the thick flowing mane of a buxom redhead.
Behind the bar and running its entire length, an ornately framed mirror reflected a fraudulent impression of a larger room. The bottom third of the mirror was partially obscured by a tiered battalion of bottles. Navel-gazing solitary drinkers, confronted with their image in the mirror and fueled by whiskey, would trek down to the catacombs of the soul, where doubt and fear received their mail. The vanity of the self-absorbed, Richie’s old man had once called it.
Perched haphazardly in front of the bar stood a rag tag collection of unmatched stools. Shabby and in various states of disrepair, they were clustered in twos and threes, their morning position a byproduct of clandestine conversations the previous night that had required a sudden shift in the seating arrangement. Some had stuffing protruding from the seat pads while other seats issued a gritty ball bearing sound when rotated, and virtually none had four legs of the same length. These rickety misfits fittingly reflected the clientele whose rear ends they supported, and simply added to the charm of the place.
Up front, in the opposite corner by the front window, stood a grandfather clock, just to the right of the door. Situated under a huge poster of Marilyn Monroe, it rested exactly where it had been first situated, five years ago. Frozen for eternity at 3:30, am or pm, take your pick, its impotence as a timepiece had prompted Richie’s declaration that, at The Dainty, time did indeed stand still. Made of solid dark oak, it loomed like a bear on its hind legs, standing ten feet tall, its inert brass entrails exposed through the thick glass door that was padlocked when Richie bought the thing for fifty bucks. It was festooned with carved messages, including one marriage proposal. Richie’s own pocket knife, attached to the clock by a chain, encouraged patrons to leave their mark.
The interior of The Dainty was done in dark wood paneling which, if exposed to the more harsh light of a brighter establishment, would perhaps be described as shabby. Small patches of dry rot had begun to appear and drunken dart throwers, though pure of heart, had nonetheless inflicted a million tiny wounds with steel-tipped daggers intended for a more forgiving cork surface. But in the dimly lit world of The Dainty, the darkness provided a necessary cloak to hide scars, for structure and man alike.
Anchoring the front of the room, squatting just to the left of the thick wooden door that scraped and groaned with each entrance, was Richie’s prize possession. It had cost him a helluva lot more than fifty bucks yet, for every carved message on the oak time piece, there were ten beautiful memories of lovers twirling on the polished tile to the sounds from the glittery Wurlitzer jukebox. Two plays for a quarter, though Richie had a switch back of the bar, next to the hidden shiny nightstick, that afforded him the luxury of bypassing songs not to his liking. His musical manipulation occasionally presented him with an irate customer, to whom the door would be shown.
Richie was a Monarch, ruling his kingdom with autocratic control. Democracy happened somewhere outside.
It was snowing lightly now. The round clock above the bar did work, and it read 8:30. Richie had removed the ‘Closed” sign from the window at 8:00, but he didn’t anticipate seeing anyone till at least nine.
However, today could be different.
It was Christmas Eve.
McGovern’s Den of Antiquity, known for years simply as The Dainty, had served the citizens of Detroit for 36 years. 42-year-old Sean McGovern opened the bar in 1933, nurturing a loyal clientele, figuratively feeding and watering them until he had a customer base that kept the bar full and profitable year ‘round. He’d borrowed the money to come to America and open a bar from his parents, who remained back in Dublin, steadfastly refusing to join the growing number of Irish families matriculating to America. Sean’s original plan was to go to New York, where his Uncle Shamus would provide some housing until he sprouted his sea legs in the bar scene that was then burgeoning in Manhattan. He soon grew frustrated with the process however, as getting a liquor license was much more difficult than he’d been led to believe, and finding a location to his liking was proving fruitless. He’d been told that with the abolition of Prohibition, it would be fairly easy to set up an establishment. After six months of spinning his wheels, and not wanting to dip further into his nest egg in pursuit of what was appearing to be a dead-end endeavor, he went to Detroit to talk with a man Uncle Shamus knew who was considering selling his restaurant. After negotiating what he felt was a fair price, Sean made the permanent move to Detroit, getting a loan to subsidize the conversion of the restaurant to a bar.
It proved to be a very resilient investment. The Dainty not only survived The Depression, it thrived. And when the war cast its shadow on America, The Dainty proved to be a meeting place for many people, where rumor and fact alike were swapped. Though a pall hung over the country, laughter could still be heard rolling out of the big door in the warm summer months, its timber ever so slightly tinged with irony. It was during the comparatively tranquil fifties that Sean almost lost the bar, as the industrial age turned people’s focus from leisure activities to productivity. This paradoxical decade spawned one of his legendary quotes, know as Sean-isms:
“A bar full of happy people don’t stay full very long.”
Sean had worked seven days a week for most of the 31 years The Dainty was open until his death in 1964. The 6' 6" Irishman had succumbed to a heart attack one night as he tried to break up a fight between two women. Richie had been behind the bar as well that night and accompanied his father to the hospital with 3 or 4 other regular customers. Sean died without ever gaining consciousness. There would be no maudlin Irish good bye.
With an ancient straw broom, Richie swept around the chairs, not bothering to move them for better access. When he ventured into open space, he grabbed the big push broom from behind the bar.
Like his father, he was a big man, balanced by a wide, thickly-muscled set of shoulders that often reduced his nightstick to prop status. Thin, awkward legs fell from an ever-expanding waistline and led to an incongruously size 15 shoe. He looked like two men, cut in half and hastily reassembled in a room where vision proved elusive.
Five years ago, when his dad had died, Richie considered selling the bar. He didn’t think he could run it alone. At his dad’s wake, numerous admonitions from
The Dainty’s regulars, conveyed through thick, meaty hands that grasped the back of his neck, squelched that idea. He then realized Sean would never rest peacefully if, for any reason, The Dainty closed down.
It was snowing harder now. Through the front window Richie could see that cars had turned their lights on and that wiper washers had begun their fruitless efforts at clearing the cloying, wet snow from windshields. The huge door groaned and Tim McGee shuffled in, his silhouette against the open door made bigger by the bulky, three quarter length wool coat he wore. Richie nodded and continued counting the previous night’s receipts on the bar.
Tim had been coming to The Dainty since his return from Korea, his uniform plastered with medals. The war had prompted his conversion from beer to scotch, a transformation that would likely prove fatal. Richie watched him sit heavily on the closest stool to where he stood. He finished counting the cash and stuffed it into the canvas bag the bank insisted he use for deposits. He got up slowly, hefted the Dewar’s bottle, and looked at Tim. The nod was barely perceptible.
Tim’s close-cropped black hair was sprinkled with melting snowflakes. His angular face was flushed, a condition the uninformed might attribute to the weather. Richie knew that the permanent whiskey bloom of broken red vessels that fell from Tim’s thin, pointy nose was, as his father once pointed out, the road map of Ireland. The accompanying blue eyes seemed incapable of holding anyone’s gaze for more than a few seconds. Tim knew that most appraisals would find him in contempt of all things civilized. The narrow jaw bore an uneven stubble growth, the unintentional result of another shaky encounter with a razor. He’d lost weight since the war, slowly succumbing to the cigarettes and scotch. Two huge bony hands, prominent veins wrapping around the nine remaining fingers like jungle vines, seized the glass as soon as Richie set it in front him. Richie took the proffered five, rang up the sale, placed three ones in front of Tim, and sat down. Their eyes met. Briefly.
It had become a dilemma for Richie, balancing the duality of friend and bartender. There was an odd allure to watching Tim drink with apparent impunity, free of ambivalence, and it occasionally had a corrosive affect on Richie’s drinking.
It was too early for his vodka, so he drew himself a draft from the tap and returned to his seat. In acknowledgment, Tim touched his glass to the tall aluminum milk shake mixer from which Richie drank his beer.
The wind had picked up and was starting to sling the snow sideways. The temperature was dropping, as frozen bits of ice now clicked audibly against the front window. It was 9:30.
Tim nodded. His wife was sick with cancer, turning all holidays sour for him.
“How’s Mary?” Richie knew more of the travails of Tim’s life than most.
“Shitty. As usual…”
“I’m sorry. You gonna keep her at home?”
“May as well. She ain’t gonna get better in a hospital. Just poorer.”
Richie nodded grimly. “I guess her folks been there a lot, huh.”
“One a reasons I’m here for breakfast,” he said, taking another sip.
“You get a tree?”
Tim looked incredulous. “Not this year, mate. In fact, not ever.”
Tim looked at his best friend. “I ain’t told you this story?”
“Don’t think so.”
With a sigh and a gesture with his empty glass, he began.
“It was Christmas day, 1950. We were twenty miles out of Seoul. There was this young kid with our platoon, ‘bout 18, from Nebraska, somebody said. Younger than that, you ask me. Anyway, this kid was havin’ a tough time, it bein’ his first Christmas away from home. I mean, we were all havin’ a tough time, but he was shook up. You could just tell. The rest of us at least tried to hide it.”
He took the fresh drink from Richie and continued.
“We were in a hot zone but hadn’t seen much action yet. A couple of us went on a recon for a tree, and we stumbled on this tree that, I swear to Christ, is a perfect fuckin’ Christmas tree. I have no idea how it grew in that shit hole, but there it was. So we hack it down as best we can and tote it back to camp. Well, this kid, he couldn’t believe it. He was laughin’, cryin’, and huggin’ us. We got it propped up on a plank of wood, and suddenly somebody opens fire on us. Not just one shot, but a fuckin’ barrage. When that kid hit the ground, it wasn’t by choice. He was dead ‘fore we could scramble to him. Had a neat round hole in his forehead the size of a quarter. It looked so harmless.The back of his skull was about five feet behind him, scattered in a five foot circle...nobody else was hit.”
Richie stared at him. “Jesus Christ...”
The twenty fifth of December was a confusing day for Richie. His entrance into the world that day in 1930 was tragically coupled with his mother’s exit. He could never disassociate that hellish irony from the surrounding merriment.
Sean had waited until his son’s 18th birthday before telling him that his mom’s death occurred during his birth. The boy had not taken it well, having previously swallowed whole his father’s tale, told to him when he was six, of a car accident days after he was born. The sudden revelation of his unwitting role in her death had forced a total realignment of his emotional world. In addition, he suddenly doubted everything his dad had ever told him. He would never again feel that life held the potential for fairness.
A little after ten, Brendan McPhail pushed through the front door of The Dainty. He stood there quietly, letting his eyes adjust to the dark, stomping twice to shed the acquired snow. Most men 5'3" would be immediately categorized as short, but his enormous girth gave him a horizontal dimension that momentarily distracted the eye from his vertical deficiency. Atop his almost cube shaped body sat a
perfectly round head, shiny as a cadet’s boot on top, yet framed on each side by wildly sprouting strands of curly brown hair that had yet to be introduced to a comb or barber. The folds of flesh that fell down his face in subtle waves gave little indication as to what he may have looked like as a boy. Tiny, darting eyes peered out with a look of constant amusement, as if the physical mask created by his obesity hid only great treasures.
“Hey stranger,” Richie called out from behind the bar. “Ain’t seen you in a while.”
Brendan waved and nodded at Tim. He hesitated, then chose a stool near the center of the bar, folding his beige overcoat in half and setting it on the seat to his left.
Richie finished drawing a mug of beer and slid it down the bar with the understated flourish of a pro. The glass came smoothly to a halt directly in front of Brendan, who grinned and hoisted it to the ceiling.
“Richie, you are a rogue and a scoundrel. Don’t ever change.” He took a huge swallow and carefully set the mug down on a gnarled cardboard coaster. He turned toward Tim, who was once again staring into his glass. “The morose one, deep into his soul and scotch. How the hell are you, Nine-Fingers?”
With as much good cheer as he could muster, Tim responded. “Fuck you and that piece of shit fish wrap you slave for.”
“My good, sad friend. You religiously read my column, as does the troglodyte behind the bar. The best sports section in the free world is published just down the block and, if it weren’t for your limited intellect and seeming inability to traverse a three-syllable word, you’d also appreciate the rest of the fish wrap.”
Tim grunted in semi-acknowledgment and pushed his half-filled glass away, but not toward Richie.
“What’s in store for today, Brendan? I haven’t read it yet,” Richie asked.
The scribe took another long swallow, which emptied his mug. Richie refilled it instinctively.
“I wrote a piece about Bing’s drop-off from last year, when he won the scoring title.”
“Yeah?” Richie asked, eyebrows raised. “I think he’s havin’ a pretty good year. Hell, the Pistons would be lost without him.”
“He’s scoring eight points a game less. He’s lost it.”
“Are you nuts? I watch every game that’s on, right here!” Richie exclaimed, gesturing to the 13-inch black and white TV elevated above the opposite corner of the bar. “He’s just passin’ the ball more. He ain’t lost a thing.”
Brendan shook his head. “Listen, his legs are gone, making his jumper unreliable. He’s through. I say trade him before the secret gets outside of Detroit.”
To his left, Brendan heard Tim chuckle. It had a derisive timbre. Through the mirror Brendan and Richie exchanged glances.
Richie changed the subject.
“So what brings you here this morning?”
“The cheerful ambiance, of course. ‘Tis the season, and all of that. Hey McGee, wanna throw some darts?”
“Not in this lifetime. And Bing has not lost a step. But you have.”
“My skills are nationally recognized and I will be employed long after Dave Bing is dropped off by the authorities at the city limit.”
Tim turned on his stool to face Brendan. “What the fuck are you so cheerful about? Happy people piss me off. You’re startin’ to ruin my day.”
“I can only imagine what catastrophic circumstances could further darken your morbid outlook on life.” Brendan sighed and shook his head sadly. “It’s Christmas Eve, for Christ sake.”
Richie got up to refill the sportswriter’s mug.
“Tim, tell him your Christmas tree story.”
Brendan raised both hands, palms out. “No, no and no. A thousand times no. All his stories begin and end with death...”
“Like life itself,” Tim mumbled.
“Life doesn’t begin with death...”
It was Richie’s turn to interject. “Oh no?”
Brendan looked at them both. “Jesus, you guys are depressing. Drive a man to drink.”
“Too late,” Tim said, draining his glass and climbing off his stool. “You know, it’s the vaguely pleasant people like you who drive the rest of us to drink. A couple of good, deep emotional scars would do wonders for your character.” He was grinning as he disappeared behind the door of the head.
“Rare form,” Brendan said, tilting his mug toward Richie.
“Christmas, man. Not a good time for him. How about you? Big family gathering tonight?”
“Yup. The dreaded in-laws and various other family members, best described as freeloaders. And you? The usual?”
“Yeah. Make the call to Dublin, then lights out. I just don’t see the point, you know.”
“You’re always welcome to join...”
Richie interrupted, hollering at Tim as he emerged from the bathroom. “Just got the first one, T.M. If you hadn’t pissed him off with the ‘lost a step’ crack, he might have given you one too.”
Brendan smiled knowingly. The cumbersome burden of Irish pride and stubbornness would send these two men in the opposite direction of any offer that bore the whiff of charity. Not that they were not sentimental men, as Brendan knew both men held that capacity. They simply were much more comfortable giving then receiving.
“Not a chance,” Brendan said. “Mr. Black Cloud and his nine digits will not ruin Christmas for my family. I will, however, drop him off at the cemetery later for his special brand of holiday cheer.”
Both Tim and Richie laughed.
Tim sat down and pointed toward the tap. “Let me have one of those pussy beers numbnuts down there is havin’.”
“McGee, there’ll be a long line of people anxious to piss into your coffin.
Scotch has your liver looking like a piece of coral. You’ve probably got the life expectancy of a fly.”
Tim laughed so hard he began a coughing fit that lasted several minutes, during which Richie walked over and punched up a song on the Wurlitzer. He was back behind the bar by the time Sinatra’s ‘Drinking Again’ started.
Once Tim regained control of his voice, he fired back. “Not bad, for a hack. But you aren’t exactly the authority on good health. Look at you. You’re...shit...you’re almost square. You’re hair is empty in the middle and, as I always suspected, so is your fuckin’ head, and you ain’t exactly a teetotaler.”
Brendan finished his beer, wiped his mouth methodically, loosened his tie, and turned toward Tim.
“Listen, Prince of Fucking Darkness. You look at a kid licking an ice cream cone and you see disaster. Black cats eye you warily. Open ladders close at your approach. You may not have been born under a bad sign, but you sure as hell have lived under one. The closest you’ve come to a sexual act since the war was to get laid off. You don’t shower. I mean, flies leave fresh dog shit to follow you.”
Tim and Richie were almost in tears.
Brendan gestured with his hand, as if to say ‘your turn’.
Tim composed himself, wiped a teary left eye, and turned to Richie. “You can always tell the Michigan grads. They’re the ones who pick their nose just to show you their ring.”
He swiveled back toward Brendan. “Don’t talk to me about sex, turtle bowl breath. You completely misinterpret why your wife shudders during sex. That was a nice little end run you pulled to avoid the war. You should write an essay on your Korean War experience. Call it ‘Great Canadian Tavern Drinking Songs’. Your greatest dream is to die on your own fucking arms.”
“Stop for Christ sake! I’m gonna piss my pants.” It was Richie, and he was already heading for the bathroom.
When he returned, Brendan had moved over three stools, next to Tim. He gestured to Richie for two more beers.
“How’s the wife?” he asked quietly.
Tim shrugged. “The same. It’s been a three year fuckin’ funeral. She’s ready to die.” He took a deep breath and sipped his beer. “So am I.”
After a quiet five minutes, Richie leaned his elbows on the bar in front of them, interlocking his hands.
“You won’t believe what this fucking guy did yesterday.”
“Who,” Brendan asked.
“I have no fucking idea. I’ve never seen him before. Anyway, he comes in, it’s about 4:30; bar’s half full. It’s twenty degrees out, but this guy’s sweatin’. He orders four shots of my best scotch, all at once. I line ‘em up. Bang! He downs all four in about ten seconds.
“‘Damn’, I say. You sure as hell are in a hurry.’ He says, ‘You would be too if you had what I have’. So I figure he’d been to the doc’s, you know, and got some bad news. So I ask, ‘What do you have?’ He looks at me, smiles, and says, ‘Fifty cents’.”
Brendan and Tim roared.
Richie shook his head. “He was out the fuckin’ door before I could grab him.”
“I got a joke,” Brendan announced.
Richie filled his silver cup with beer, nodding toward him.
“A guy is accosted by a hooker down on 12th Avenue. ‘How about a blow job for fifty bucks, honey?’ ‘No way,’ the guy says, ‘I’m married’. The hooker says, ‘So.’ And the guy says ‘So my wife will do it for forty’.
The door groaned once again and in came an enormous black man. In 1969 Detroit, the sight of six foot five Theotis Ellis often provoked anxiety among whites. However, Theo knew he was always welcome in The Dainty. He’d been a regular since 1960 when, after selling his auto repair shop in Alabama, he’d brought his family up north to go to work for General Motors. He wasn’t making any money with his own business and his wife had proven quite fertile. Two young boys and one on the way made it necessary to go to work for the white man.
A thick mustache ran the exact length of his upper lip, propped above an assemblage of huge yellowing teeth so uneven as to resemble a very untidy picket fence. GM’s dental plan had been enjoyed by management only. His round face was a dull, dusky shade of black, a pigmentation that made him invisible at 4:00am, yet visible at 5:00am. He removed his silver Lions knit cap, crusted with sleet, revealing an unkempt, thriving afro. His hair was a byproduct of laziness. Theo couldn’t care less about black power.
He settled his 330 pounds on the stool next to Brendan, folded his hands in front of him, and looked at Richie.
“Breakfast, or lunch?” Richie asked, hefting the vodka bottle in his right hand, rum dangling from his left. Theo pointed to the right, and Richie set down the rum and plucked the tomato juice can from the mountain of ice beneath the bar.
Brendan nodded at Theo and Tim slapped the hulking black man on the back as he returned from the juke box. Theo stood, shed his heavy grey overcoat, shaking it to remove the snow, and draped it over the back of his stool.
Standing on the assembly line had prevented him from maintaining a physique that had once led the Grambling Tigers in tackles. The middle third of his body had ballooned, giving his rickety left knee reason to be crankier than usual.
The wind whistled outside, the eerie howling filling The Dainty. ‘Gimme Shelter’ cranked up behind them, muting the wind somewhat. Tim rapped his knuckles on the bar to the song.
With his Bloody Mary in front of him, Theo turned to Brendan.
“Dave Bing has not lost a step,” he said quietly, though his eyes twinkled with mischief.
“How you been, Theo?” Richie asked.
“Okay. Tryin’ to stay warm, man.”
“Yeah, for the rest of the year.”
“No shit? With pay?”
“Unions are the way to go,” Tim said, sipping his beer. “How’s the family?”
“Christmas is when a hard workin’ man goes broke, I’ll tell you that much. Six kids and a wife are bleedin’ me dry.”
Brendan nodded. “I’ll drink to that. If kids weren’t a tax write off, I’d have misplaced mine by now.”
The two fathers touched glasses.
The eyes of the two childless men connected also.
The Stones finished up and the Caribbean lilt of Harry Belafonte filled The Dainty. Theo’s head bobbed to the music as the four men enjoyed their breakfast.
The temperature outside continued to drop, causing thin sheets of ice to form on the road–the most dangerous of driving conditions–and Richie wondered if the boisterous afternoon crowds of past Christmas Eves would materialize. Theo finished his drink and pointed to the tap. All four men were now drinking beer.
Christmas Eve was all about pacing.
Brendan read aloud from the paper, quoting his column. He was quickly hooted down.
“Say Richie,” Theo asked, crooked ivory flashing dully. “Remember when Sean threw out that guy in the Santa suit, ‘bout six, seven years ago?”
Richie smiled, the memory providing a flood of inner warmth he hadn’t felt in days.
“Yeah. The guy was asking for donations for some charity. After he’d hit on everybody, he sat down with the money and ordered a drink. Guy was big, too. Lot bigger than dad. ”
Theo nodded. “Didn’t need no help tho. Dragged his ass right on out and dumped him in a snow bank. Whole bar cheered.”
Tim grinned and pointed at Richie. “I remember you standin’ behind the bar, holdin’ that fuckin’ nightstick, just watchin’. I think you were too fuckin’ shocked to move.”
Richie filled three more mugs from the tap and placed them on the bar.
“My old man didn’t need backup.” He stepped back and saluted Tim smartly. “On the house, fellas.” He raised his cup, “To the old man, God rest his soul.”
Theo continued. “Man, I remember the first time I walked in here. Thanksgiving Day, 1961. Had a fight with the old lady and needed a drink bad. This the first place I come to. Didn’t look like much from the outside – still don’t – but man, there had to be fifty people in here. Sean come around the bar, led me to a stool, and bought me my first drink. You was standin’ there like you ain’t never seen no Negro.”
Richie laughed. “I hadn’t. At least not in here.”
Brendan set his paper down. “That was back when blacks and whites got along.”
“Here we go,” Tim snorted.
“My old man didn’t cotton to racists,” Richie said proudly.
“No pun intended, I’m sure,” said Brendan.
“Man,” Theo interrupted, his deep voice sounding tired. “I never gave one shit ‘bout them big issues. Keepin’ my own yard clean keeps me busy enough. People should be judged one at a time.”
“Content of their character,” said Brendan.
Theo pointed his long, bony fore-finger at him. “‘
© Copyright 2017 Bill Rayburn. All rights reserved.