“Hey there, Sam.” The broad bartender wiped his paws on a musky, faded blue rag that Sam could smell from five feet away. “What can I get you?” Samuel bellied up to the old wooden bar with a grimace. He was wet from the rain but had barely noticed until the draft of the bar’s curiously strong air conditioning caught him. It had rained on and off for the better part of the last week. Mostly he was just tired of his hands being wet, a pet peeve of his. He ran the right one through his dark rain slicked hair and worried idly that it might be thinning.
“Bookers, rocks.” He sighed; the man should know his order by now. His long six-six frame slumped awkwardly atop the creaky barstool. Sam rubbed his hands on his pants but they were sopping too. Every night that he was in the seedy saloon he told himself he would sit in a booth the next time. But people who sat in booths alone were losers, he thought. Psychopaths or cross dressers or evangelical Christians or something of the sort. His tight damp face curled into a frown. Who was he to categorize someone as a loser? He was no better himself.
“Alright,” Dan interrupted his thoughts by sliding the eight-ounce glass across the small expanse of marked wood. The sound was like a green ocean crashing. “Here you are. Sorry to make you wait.” He stomped away leaving Sam perplexed. He had not waited at all; this was actually unusually quick service. A melancholic thought erupted in his mind – maybe he had not noticed Sam come in, perhaps to him it is as if Sam never leaves. That is what happens with regulars in low-lit bars, they hardly ever truly leave. Sam stared down into the glass, dwarfed by his large fist. The ice cubes danced and swirled a beautifully crafted routine – an unfortunate waltz.
Dan owned this bar. From what Sam had overheard the last year (overheard because he does not partake in the bar discussions) is that it was his father’s. His father was an old drunk who was not much of a father at all. He consumed as much as he sold. He died young, leaving the bar to his only son. His sisters got their house and the responsibility of taking care of their mom until she passed away a few years ago. Dan got the bar. Upon first blush he slapped a black and red Wal-Mart bought For Sale sign on it and thought very little about the dive. He had bitter memories of neglected Sundays when he was just a boy, before he became the stout broad shouldered man he is today. He’d sit in the sticky booth and play card games with himself or read old Hardy Boys books his mom checked out of the library for him. He was utterly alone in a bar of adults, unlike his sisters. His sisters were always out shopping or getting pedicures. Dan would have rather grown up to be a burly man with nice nails before enduring another Sunday at the bar.
One Sunday night after every bar in the area was shutdown, including his own, he received a call from an old high school friend who was now a cop. There was a reported break in at ‘his’ bar. He scoffed over the phone as nothing about the bar was truly his but he agreed to come down. Four in the morning he trudged in wearing an old sweatshirt squeezed over his shoulders, beat up jeans, and his house slippers. The front door hung at an angle as he opened it. The place was a dump, truly. His slippers clapped and then peeled from the floor like clammy flesh on flesh. Jeff turned down his walkie talkie to inform him that the only thing lifted was a bottle of Crowder’s Whisky. Dan nodded appreciatively, shrugging. They shared in some minor talk before he walked the familiar officer out, clapping and pealing the whole way. When he was finally alone he felt the tidal wave. Dan’s giant chest heaved as he stumbled to a dilapidated wooden chair. His long head pressed between his knees, he tried to breathe. Dan could not swallow, his Adam’s apple climbing up to his teeth. They chattered with the same voraciousness that his long sausage fingers trembled. Crowder’s was the only thing his father drank, it seemed. He might as well have had an IV of it. He had never met a soul besides his woeful gasbag of a father who drank the stuff. His mother called it battery acid. Why would someone break into the shittiest bar in town and steal Crowder’s? That night, after he had shattered every bottle in the bar, he laid in bed until sunrise and thought of his father. The tide had turned, the next day the For Sale sign disappeared.
That was Dan’s favorite story to tell, called it his ghost story in his gruff voice. Sam always thought maybe it was simply insufficient police work. He could not imagine how shitty the bar must have been if this was the cleaned up, revitalized version. The place was still a dump. It probably would always be a dump. His ice cubes had begun to shrink. Sam rushed his long grey lips to the sweaty glass and took a long draw of whisky into his mouth. He swished it for a few moments, liquid swashing up the sides of the cavernous mouth, before it burned a path down his lengthy throat.
Sam had no ghost stories, nor did he really have exciting father stories. His dad kept to himself, which is where he learned it. He was a dentist in a Midwest town who never called in sick. On the weekends he drank coffee and read James Patterson novels. That was Sam’s father in a nutshell. His mother cooked and baked and volunteered locally. They were common folk. They certainly wouldn’t like this place. He had not seen them, or even talked to them for that matter, in some time. He took another long sip of whisky and sighed. Why had he moved here? There was nothing for him here, but that was what he wanted all along: nothingness.
Sam lived in an old converted garage adjacent from a big blue farmhouse an old couple had occupied for decades. He had planned on renting an apartment. His first day into town, his Camry ambling down small overgrown two lane roads, he saw a small hand crafted sign. Alone? 1BR/1BA for $300. The sign had stickers of hearts and smiley faces, the kind of thing you’d pick up at a dollar general. It was made with care. He U-turned the car and slowed in front of the sign to read it again. Alone? 1BR/1BA for $300. Beyond the small yard sign he saw a little white haired old lady in a rocking chair. Across her lap was a woven blanket with purple, blue, pink, and white swirling. She placed her knitting needles down and raised her hand into a slow wave. Impulsively he maneuvered his car down the gravel driveway and turned the key. The wind smacked him as he stepped out of the car.
“Hello,” Sam said with a wave. After being alone in a car for so long his voice sounded foreign. The old lady slowly stood and knocked on the screen door behind her.
“Hi there, like our sign?” Her proud face, wrinkles hardening and lips curled, exposed the artist behind the sign. The dollar general shopper.
“Love it.” Sam said with a small chuckle as a tall older gentleman appeared behind the screen door. His pointed nose and strong jaw created a commanding presence before he uttered a word.
“Rich,” the older man said as he bounded down the stairs and presented his hand. Sam placed his hand in Rich’s grasp and gave it a firm squeeze.
“Helluva grip, Samuel. This here is my wife Rosie.” He gestured over his wide shoulders. She had already sat back down and resumed her knitting.
“Ma’am,” Sam nodded. She smiled and returned to her work, her hands weaving the sticks to and fro with precision.
“Well,” he crossed his arms over his chest. “Would ya like to see the place?” Though Sam was not quite sure if he wanted to see the place, his interest unknown to even himself, he nodded politely. To his surprise Rich led him to a small building behind their farm style house. “This here used to be a garage but we converted it for our grandson. He is off to college now, playing ball. We don’t want it to go to waste so…” He trailed off as he retrieved keys from his breast pocket and slide the right one into the small hole. The living space wasn’t much. A small kitchenette, what you would see in an extended stay hotel, a small TV with a VCR (Sam tried his best to not laugh), a couch, a small wooden table, murphy bed, lots of books on two bookshelves, and a space heater. The floor remained chilly cement from its prior identity as a garage but lying across most of it was a brown shag rug. The place wasn’t much but Sam took an immediate liking to it.
“So,” Rich shuffled the toothpick in his mouth to the side. “Whatcha think of the place?” He was spinning the key ring around his finger perfectly. It never stopped spinning.
“I love it!” And that was that. He took his things from the Camry, mostly trash bags of books and clothing, and moved in on the spot. The Milton’s were trusting, unflappable people. They never bothered him except to invite him over for dinner every so often. Sam usually accepted more times than not. Rich would tell tales of fighting in the war. Rosie would brag about her grand children. Sam never talked much. They tried to learn more about him by asking question here or there but they were always met with terse, compact answers. “No, not married. “Insurance sales.” “Iowa.” “Only child.” “Read and watch baseball.” Rich, at some point in the evening, would tell Rosie to “stop pestering the boy.” And that would conclude the grilling. Sam lived a solitary life, which he preferred.
So he sat at the dive bar drinking his whiskey and sighed once again. He was always sighing. But that day he had a reason. He had been laid off. Never in his young thirty years of life had he been fired or laid off. But that day his boss called him in and said they had to make some cuts. His ears immediately began to burn. The one who had been there the longest got to keep their jobs, so there it was: the axe. The worst part was when he offered for him to do freelance temp work for them “at a fraction of his former pay.” Sam did the only thing he could think to do, he calmly stood up, walked to the door, and told his boss to go fuck himself. It seemed like a lot to expect graciousness when laying someone off. He packed his things, including all of the company owned office supplies at his desk, and left. The boxes sat in the trunk of the Camry like monuments of his failure. They sat in the same car that sailed down the small streets that day with some amount of hope. Sam had done the math; he could continue his current lifestyle for two years without finding a job thanks to savings and a severance package. That math included one drink five nights a week at this bar. But he knew he wouldn’t be coming back.
Sam felt sadness; an unfortunate waltz took place in his whisky-wet stomach. He finished his drink and left cash under the sweaty glass. No one said goodbye to him or even noticed him rise to leave, just like every other night. Pulling into the driveway he noticed each light in the large house had been turned off for the night, it was eleven after all. They were early risers so you could count on them to be in bed by nine.
After turning off his car everything became incredibly still. The only sound to be heard was the whistling of the wind and the crunching of his shoes on the pathway. It was so quiet that the sound of a gunshot would be nothing short of deafening.