I made it home just fine today, despite the two rum and sodas. I was supposed to work a double, but it was only 10 hours. I needed the rum and sodas because I wasn’t ready to go home after the double that wasn’t. Because it had been a day that felt like ten. Which led me to stop at our sister bar, where I sat for several hours on the other side of that bar, laughing with those I serve every single day.
“Can we eat outside?” he asked me, two days ago, which surprised me because I only ever saw him working on the AC or the freezer or the walk-in or anything and everything that needed fixing at our bar, never as a customer.
“Of course,” I told him. “Any table. It’s quiet.”
Within minutes, it wasn’t at all quiet. I was slammed–good slammed, not weeded.
“Just water,” he half smiled. “Take care of the other tables. It’ll be at least 20 minutes before the others get here.”
As I morphed into a whirling multi-armed octopus, slinging beer here and lunch specials there, he sat, seemingly content to sip his water. His guests arrived just as the madness had cooled from a boil to a simmer.
“Do you have a high chair?” he asked.
High chair? Here in my little land of draft beer, rum and Cokes, and vodka-OJs–all before 9 a.m.? Right, a high chair.
“High chair?” I asked him in a pleasant but sarcastic are-you-joking tone. Seriously, you know where you are pal. Come on, a high chair?
“Never mind, I guess not,” he said as if realizing where he was for the first time in a half hour. “No problem.”
Good, I smiled back.
“Let me tell you about the lunch specials,” I said to the cute young woman and her two children who had joined him.
“No, wait, RG. Let me introduce you first,” he smiled. I am sure I had never seen him smile so broadly, ever. “This is my most favorite ever niece Anna and my absolute favorite nephew Chris,” he beamed. “Oh and my sister, Kristin,” he smirked.
“Really nice to meet you,” I said to the three. “Favorites, eh?” I laughed to the kids. “Very cool.”
“Forget the specials, here’s what we need,” he said, serious again while spontaneously evolving from the nice guy who worked on all things electric to just another pain-in-the-ass customer who had blindly mistaken my bar for a family-friendly restaurant.
“No kiddie cups, right? Never mind. We need two hot dogs, lots of fries, and they want lemon in the water. Lots of them. And when you bring the lunch, lots of ketchup. It’s a food group to these two.”
Wonderful. Got it. Oh please.
“More lemons,” he said every time I walked by his table.
“More ketchup?” he asked every other time I walked by, waving the tiny cups into which we portioned the giant vats of the stuff every morning.
Fine, I thought. You tell my slightly temperamental cook why we ran out of lemons so your “favorite” neice and nephew could make “lemonade” out of 42 Splenda packets and the last slices I scarfed from his line. And might as well tell him I also took his one huge bottle of ketchup and surrendered the greasy thing to your table.
Ketchup oozed into beer for the table next to his. Lemons faded into whisky and ginger at the bar. The ketchup also known as a food group became just another Bloody Mary for the couple at the picnic table on the deck. I dropped his check. I glared at the mess on the table. I didn’t expect much of a tip. I didn’t get much of one.
“Trouble you for some water?” he asked yesterday, extending his bear paw of a hand toward me.
“Sure,” I told him. His huge frame was dripping sweat, which was not surprising given the muggy 80s outside and the lack of AC inside, which he was there to fix.
“Got it?” I said, handing him the slippery plastic cup.
“Thanks,” he said, then turned to head back outside to continue troubleshooting a unit that likely should be replaced.
“To Franklin!” toasted the boys at my bar today.
“Rest in piece,” said one about their friend.
“Okay, don’t rest up there!” laughed another.
To whom they all clinked beer mugs, to a man I had never known.
“Bill AC died last night!” a quiet woman suddenly said from her corner bar stool, which rendered my bar suddenly silent.
“Bill?” I said, confident she had her facts wrong. Rumors and reports of various deaths are so often greatly exaggerated in these parts.
“Yes, Bill,” she almost whispered. “I just got a call from his neighbor.”
Bill? Not-much-older-than-me Bill?
“But I thought I saw him drive by here this morning,” I said, which was the truth, because I wondered at the time if he and the sister and kids would be torturing me again today.
“Midnight last night,” she said, wiping a tear. “Give me a rum and coke,” she added, pushing her almost-full mug of beer toward me.
But I saw him drive by today, didn’t I? But he was just a big burly guy who loved his niece and nephew. He was the appliance whisperer, to hear tell from others of his talent for nursing the most rusted-out anything back to working order.
“But I thought I saw him just this morning, in his car,” I said as I gave her a new drink.
“You didn’t,” she sobbed, then left her drink untouched and unpaid.
God. Oh God. Not big pain-in-the-ass Bill who loved his niece and nephew. Not because I knew him at all. Not because I even liked the guy. But just because. Because he was too young and too good at what he did. Because I thought I saw him drive by this morning, and maybe he did, you know, a final drive by.
Most of my customers are former vets–Viet Nam, Korea, Kuwait, Beruit, Iraq. I don’t know if AC Bill was. I just know he could breathe life into any broken appliance. I just know he was a pain in the ass the one day he was my customer, and now I wish I had thought a little nicer of him. My God, the guy is dead. Yesterday here. Now, just dead.
“Shake it off, RG,” said my co-worker and good friend who knows all too well about life in service to one’s country. “You gotta learn real quick to shake off this kind of news and move on,” he counseled as he bought me a rum and soda.
I turned to my right and watch the two Nam vets kid one another. I turned to my good friend on my left and stared at him. “But, I just keep thinking about the last thing I said to him. ‘Got it?’ Stupid, I know, but I just keep remembering it.”
My friend stared back at me.
How many inane last words did he remember?
I looked at the Nam vets he patiently drives anywhere and everywhere they want to go every day and any day.
So many last words.