by Peyton Breckinridge & William J. Conaway
Copyright William J. Conaway, 1989
Episode 4 – GRIST FOR THE MILL
If I could explain what happened last night to my partner McGinty, maybe he would understand why the take was so bad. All I know is, that in the beginning at least, it was a normal night.
Cherryville is just a ordinary town in this part of the country—beer only, although I do keep a couple of bottles of Bourbon under the bar for dark beer. and even the three strangers sitting in the first booth weren’t really strangers, just salesmen that came by once in a while. Orville, as usual, took them on at the pool table and made some drinking money, but with no hard feelings. it was something to do with the other stranger that came in.
Now, I’m not trying to tell you about a mysterious stranger who turned the town upside-down. As I remember, he was a pretty quiet sort that wandered in and had a few beers. There must have been something he did because things changed after he pushed open the door. I do remember that he came in, not in the apologetic way an outsider will usually come into a neighborhood bar, but with a kind of confidence you don’t see very often. Not pushy, just confident.
About in his middle forties, dressed pretty well, hair cut in a city-cut, but not flashy. He just came in and picked a stool next to one of our regulars; Al, I think. The reason I think it was Al was that pretty soon they were talking about the War in Korea, and that’s what Al talks about mostly. Somewhere after Pusan and Inchon Al got this sort of strange look. Now, I’ve seen Al look strange, but this was a strange look. I know I served them three rounds of beers, and I heard Al telling about freezing his ass off with his buddies and all, just as he always does. I remember that, for once, he quit before the army headed for the Yalu. Al likes to talk about how they could have gone right into China, kicked ass, and all that. Instead, came a point where he just quit talking, finished his beer, paid his tab, and left. Well, Al can get moody sometimes.
Then this guy moves over a seat and begins talking to Alice Mae. She’s an easy kind of drunk—doesn’t cause any trouble, just gets kind of sloppy sad. Stares into her glass like she could find something there she can’t find anywhere else. Alice likes to drink alone and everyone in the bar knows that. They leave her alone. He moves over next to her and before you know it she’s talking to him like he was her long-lost brother. Of course I hear them talking and I listen—after all, she doesn’t talk all that much. I’m interested in what she has to say.
You know what she said? It was about her only kid. About how he was queer and didn’t write her. How she was ashamed of him—not because he was queer, but because he didn’t communicate with her. She loved him anyway and would even go to New York just to be with him, but he didn’t want her to. She cried some—but then, Alice Mae did cry quite a bit anyway. I sort of lost track of the conversation because it was about then that those salesmen wanted another round. I was busy drawing their beers. When I got back where I could hear, Alice had finished off her beer and stuck a ten in the empty glass and was hauling herself up and pulling down her dress. She had some kind of dopey look on her face and seemed kind of drained. Out she went and this guy wanders over to where the salesmen are sitting.
They were joking, telling mostly stories I’ve heard more times than I want to. They were in one of our horseshoe booths and he just slid in next to them, not interrupting, just listening.
It wasn’t ten minutes they all got up and left. I didn’t know exactly what he was doing, but he was running off my customers. I didn’t know how, but he damn sure was. There wasn’t any loud voices and he wasn’t being obnoxious or anything like that, he just seemed to have this talent to run off my customers. OK, he wasn’t doing anything, but I kept watching him anyway.
Sure enough, he goes over to one of the two people I’ve got left in the place—Joe Small. Joe comes to the It’ll Do because his wife is a nag and he’s got to have someplace to go. Besides, this is a good bar, no real hustling, no pressure, just a quiet sort of a place… Joe isn’t a whimp, just a nice guy that needs a little time off for good behavior. Pretty soon this stranger is buying Joe a beer and now they’re talking like they were old classmates at a High School reunion.
I’m curious by nature. I went over and started cleaning the table where the three salesmen had been sitting and where I could hear what was going on. Do you believe this? They were talking religion! Joe, as good a Baptist as we had in Cherryville, was saying some things that would have him put out of the First Baptist Church as quick as the Board of Deacons could find a quorum.
Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion, Joe included. I didn’t care. Sure, it was a little strange, him getting worked up that way, but nothing worse than some of the things you’ll hear in a bar. I go back behind the counter. Two minutes later Joe comes up and pays his tab and leaves.
That leaves Orville, who doesn’t have a game, the stranger, and me. The rent is due in a week, but I tell myself that sometimes you have slow nights.
Then this guy comes up and orders another beer and asks what kind Orville is drinking, and orders him one too. Then he moves over to the pool table and drops two quarters in the slot. Orville goes over and I see a couple of bills go on the side-board.This stranger wins the lag and puts a weak break on the rack. Orville tries to hide a shit-eating grin. Before you know it, the stranger is back for more change and two more bills are on the table.
Same thing happens. Well, I’m getting a cut from the table so I guess I can’t complain. Anyway, it’s Tuesday night, which is always a little slow. He comes up for two more beers but, before I can draw them, Orville comes by the bar, says good night, and waltzes out the door. I know Orville. He’s makin’ drinking money, enough to last him to Sunday, and getting freebies to boot. What the hell’s going on?
“I’m L.C. Watsmith,” the guy says, pulling up a bar stool, “looks like you’re having a slow night.”
“Oh, you know. Some nights are kind of slow.” I say, wondering what he wants.
“Pretty town.” he says.
“Born here,” I say, “been here most of my life, I guess it’s all right.”
“You lived here all your life?” he asked
“Oh, I went back east for awhile,” I started in then talking like I knew this guy all my life. “I followed a pretty little piece I was in love with.”
“Is that so? What happened?” he asked, kinda like he really cared.
“Ended up with two kids right in the middle of Philadelphia, wife gone God-knows-where. Had to leave them with her folks—wasn’t making much tending bar—and ended up right back here.”
“A good town?” he asked.
“Like I said, it’s all right. You know, quiet. I think a lot about that girl. Hell, I even think about Philadelphia. I haven’t heard from my kids since I dumped them. Guess I probably belong right here with all the other losers who don’t have the guts to get the hell out.”
“Must be some good things about Cherryville?”
“Mister, I’ve screwed every available piece in this town and some that supposedly ain’t. I’ve become a Baptist, an Elk and helped out with the Little League, I’m a member in good standing with the Chamber of Commerce, give blood when the Mobile Unit comes to town, and know EVERYBODY. I get by, I’ve got no place to go and no-one to go there for. Sure as hell, I’ll end up getting buried in Cherryville with the God-damned preacher telling every other poor son-of-a-bitch gutless as I am what a credit to the community I was. They’ll all go home, have their fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy. Maybe, if I’d been some brighter, I wouldn’t have let that woman get away. Maybe I’d still have my kids—maybe.”
“There must be something in Cherryville worth staying for, isn’t there?” he asked.
I wiped a couple of glasses and thought. The water cascaded over and over on the neon sign next to the door. The vinyl seats were cracked and the bar was empty.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“I’m a writer.”
There it was, a writer, so it was all just grist for the mill.