Angie the barmaid was elbow deep into a sinkful of beer steins when she gave me a muted “Hey!” and nodded toward the end of the bar.
“See that old dude over there?” And it was fairly obvious which old dude she was referring to, a splash of white hair and a bent back, someone who I hadn’t seen at the Watering Hole before. “He’s annoying the piss out of me”, she continued. “Comes in here every once in a while, chugs beer and shots like he’s twenty years old and then starts in with the war stories. Can’t get him to shut up.”
It was obvious that he annoyed her, the splash of glass hitting water was sending up a fairly impressive surf onto the surface of the bar itself. But she wiped the bar with a towel and a similarly muted “Sorry!” and hurried off to schlep the next round.
With twenty or so people stretched around the big horseshoe bar, and a dozen conversations going at once, it wasn’t difficult for Stu and I to tune out one white haired old-timer. It was the after work anointing that mattered, the sipping of the frosty offerings from the long necked bottles that drew us, and a slightly out of whack citizen was more a matter to be expected than a surprise.
We spun out our hour in the usual way, the daily griping with Chief Mo and the others, the cracking wise with Angie. The ass-grabbing with Cookie, our fond moniker for the short order cook of the place. A brief glance at the overhead TV once in a while to update our daily news and weather. And the usual leisurely stowage of cell phones and keys when 5:30 rolled around and it was time to take our leave.
But Stu nudged me back onto my stool. “Hey, that old lad seems to be having a bit of a time.” Indeed, he was wandering aimlessly around the bar with glass in hand, eyes watering, a slight man with dress slacks clashing with a bright nylon windbreaker. It was Cookie who caught up with him, and took an elbow, and poked a question or two. And proceeded to guide the old-timer into the Men’s Room.
“Oh Jesus”, Angie said on her way past us with a clutch of beer bottles. “That old bird’s gonna go in there and have a stroke or something, I just know it. I’m sure glad it’s Cookie doing it and not me.” Cookie reappeared from the bathroom, paused a minute, started to go back in, thought the better of it and lumbered into the Kitchen instead.
Mo was insistent on buying “his boys” another one and we settled back for one more, so I missed seeing the old guy and his reentry. Again it was Angie, who missed nothing on her shift and kept us abreast of all things bar wise. “God, now he’s passed out in the booth! Why, I ask you why does Walter have to come in here and do this crap?”
Sure enough, the aged one had made it as far as the nearest booth and sat down, put his head on the table and appeared to be having a nice little nap. But if you looked close, you could see the trembling of hands and the fitful way his breathing hitched and hiccuped. Walter’s mind might have been taking a break, but his body wasn’t quite ready to.
There was something a little unsettling about it all. Something wrong about a 70 years plus fellow that had lost control and was left to his own devices in a booth of a bar. And Stu and I said as much as we passed him by, on our way out of the door and home.
It takes a few minutes for two mighty warriors such as Stu and myself to extricate themselves from the Watering Hole, with many waves and hugs and good-byes, to collectively haul our junk and ourselves into the seats of the truck and adjust prodigious bulk into seats. I’d just cranked the motor when the bar door creaked open and Walter reeled out into the afternoon sun.
“Oh no”, I said to Stu. “Look a minute would you? They let that old lad out of the place.” Walter had the classic heel and toe thing going on, weaving in a determined but wholly directionless way down the sidewalk and into the parking lot. There was a bit of a sunny afternoon breeze going on and it tousled his white hair this way and that, and he lifted his head for a second as though the wind was actually hurting him.
There was an immediate consensus. Stu opened his door with a “I’ve got him. I’ll get his keys and drive.”
“Check. I’m right behind ye.”
Stu caught up to Walter and had him by the shoulder, a big man supporting a very small and frail one. They wandered the parking lot in search of Walter’s car, with me trailing discretely behind in the truck. And I don’t know, there was a moment when the two of them were walking squarely into the setting sun, a moment when I realized why the two of us were doing this. Something about the bent of Stu’s head, the not unkind way he was holding onto Walter, the slow steps and the quiet questions.
We were taking Dad home. The one we’d had, and at different times, lost.
There was eventual weaving back into the bar itself, and in a minute or to, Stu reemerged. There wasn’t much emotion going on behind the black sunglasses as he slammed the door and sat there a second.
“Walter okay? What’s up?”
Stu sighed. “Oh, I guess he’ll be fine, he just couldn’t remember what kind of car he drove. Said it was a blue one, but there are twenty freaking blue cars in that lot. So I told Cookie and Angie to hold him and get him a cab, and they fussed a little.” He was grim, and I knew that whatever fussing had gone on did not, under any circumstances, last terribly long with my large Corporate Partner.
“Didn’t want anymore hassle, eh? Jeez, you’d think they might have cut him off a little earlier. Did he have cab fare?”
“He does now. I gave ‘em a twenty.” And Stu was silent.
There wasn’t much conversation at all on the short ride to Stu’s house. We pulled into his driveway and he pulled out his Thermos and cooler and paused, poked his head back in and said, “See you tomorrow, guy.”
Right. I will indeed.
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