Charlie’s Bar

“Wiping the back bar, he wondered if the Customer was joking. No one would walk into a pub and just confess he was going to kill a man.”

Glasses

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Whisky.

Scotch or Irish?

Irish. I need to kill a man.

The bartender raised a bottle of Jameson’s; the bar separating him from the man. His patron sat on the stool, head bowed to his cupped hands as his black duster dripped rainwater on the floor. The Customer looked at the glass, said nothing, as the bartender poured the whisky. He poured it neat. The Customer looked like he could use it, and the bartender wanted to make him happy. Kill a man. The bartender assessed the Customer from the corner of his eye and saw a dark lump sitting at the bar like a gunslinger from a movie. Tired, angry, just looking to do a job. The bartender set the bottle on its shelf, got the man a glass of ice water, and then backed away a few steps.

Wiping the back bar, he wondered if the Customer was joking. No one would walk into a pub and just confess he was going to kill a man. That’s a pretty sad excuse for a joke. In these days of school shootings and terrorists, it wasn’t funny. He went to the other end of the bar and asked his only other afternoon patron, one of those sulky well-dressed hipsters working on a laptop, if he’d like another. The young man looked up as distracted as he was distracting in a bar like Charlie’s and said he would. Nice and simple. No jokes.

The bartender went to the taps and tipped the glass to pour the beer. Charlie’s Bar was a Western establishment with thick floors, walls painted in several whatever-was-on-sale colors, and an old tin ceiling with bullet holes. It was legend in the village of Ruxton Springs. The place was worn and redolent of old beer, sweat, sex, and vomit. That mildew smell that settles in the back of the tongue rather than the nose. It was the bar that was magnificent: a solid trunk of oak carved with intricate designs of whales, ships, and sailors with harpoons that was completely out of place at the edge of the Rocky Mountains. The back bar was anchored by two wooden masts with flying sails cut and polished out of oak, between them a huge leaded mirror with shelves that held gin and vodka on either side of a large selection of whisky, and various colors of mixers. Beneath that, taps with several types of domestic beer. Dick, the bartender and owner of the establishment, had just installed a few taps for those locally made craft beers that his older regulars thought were bitter swill but briefcased professionals and the younger crowd on Japanese sport bikes happily gulped down at $5.50 a glass. The moody, hip young man wanted a $2 PBR.

As Dick poured it, the Customer looked up from his whisky. I need another, he said.

Be right with you, mister, said Dick.

Sad morose clientele. A typical late afternoon at any bar in America. If people had someplace they needed to be, they’d be there. At least it was easy to keep track of the tabs. The Customer stared at his empty glass.

The bartender carried the beer to the hipster at the end of the bar. In all the years he had owned Charlie’s, pistols shoved in his face, fists to his kidneys, knives tossed on the bar in anger, he kept his cool, and he ran a tight ship. The Customer had reckoned his soul.

You okay? the hipster asked.

Just the cowboy at the end of the bar, said Dick.

The hipster said, Looks like the dude could use a drink. Dick weighed the Customer with his eyes as the hipster continued, Wonder what’s his story.

I suppose I should ask, said Dick.

I’ll be here for a while, said the young man. I’ve got a lot of code to check and a lot of emails to answer. Let me know if there’s trouble.

Dick nodded and strolled back down the bar. He poured the Customer a double.

On the house, he said. The Customer nodded.

One of the town’s colorful street extras, a homeless man that smelled vaguely like shit and tuna, came through the door. He wore a trash bag as a rain jacket and shivered in the cold. Dick reached behind the bar and brought out an old raincoat.

Hey, Gus, said Dick. I picked this up for you at the Salvation Army. Why don’t you put it on?

The homeless man limped over to the bartender and cautiously took the rain coat. He slowly lifted the trash bag over his head and for a moment didn’t know what to do with it. Dick took it from him and then looked at the smiling hobo in his bar.

Ah, he said, that looks good.

The door opened again and Melissa, the evening server, came in from the rain.

Afternoon, Melissa, said Dick. Don’t Gus look good in his new raincoat?

Yeah, he looks boss, she said.

She tossed her wet, red hair away from her face, removed her jacket and shook the rain from her body. Her breasts swayed back and forth, and her round ass did a wiggle as the Customer averted his eyes and saw Dick ogling her.

I do like the ladies, Dick said with a wink.

Me too, said Gus.

Now, Gus, I told you not to be talking about my girls, said Dick. Why don’t you go outside and give that jacket a try?

Gus nodded and slumped out the door.

He’s not a bad guy, said Dick to the Customer. Haven’t we all been down on our luck at some point?

The Customer smirked and sipped his whisky. I’ll drink to that, he said.

Melissa came around the bar and asked Dick if he thought it would remain this slow.

No, said Dick. It’ll pick up.

Then he gave her a swat on the butt and told her she’d have to work for a change. She leaned over the counter revealing her cleavage.

Get you anything? she asked the Customer.

He shifted in his seat and lowered his chin so only his beard and greasy gray hair peeked from under his hat.

I’m fine, he said, shy from the closeness of the pretty lady. She sauntered off to the young man at the end of the bar with Dick’s leering eyes following her until he settled on the Customer.

I’ve seen you in here before, mister, said Dick.

Been around.

Yeah-yeah, you like the heavy metal music.

Yep.

You look more like a country music fan.

Got a soft spot for Reba. That’s it.

Well, mister, I got a girl coming in here next month that will knock your socks off. She sounds like Reba but plays those rock-n’-roll chords, if you know what I mean.

The Customer nodded.

Music is how to draw a crowd, said Dick. I bought this place from Uncle George Olson when I got out of the army about 20 years ago. He ran it for about 50 years. He had his regulars, now I’ve got mine.

You must’ve been a young man, said the Customer.

Dirty-one, Dick said with a wink.

Where’d you get the money? the Customer asked. Rob a bank?

Uncle George financed me. No banks.

The rich will kill you, said the Customer raising his glass.

He took a full swallow of whisky and winced.

That’s good, he said. Those bankers are nothing but thieves and liars.

Dick gave a nervous look in the direction of the hipster who may, or may not have been in finance, but had money. Not that he’d blame the Customer if he killed a banker. Many had it coming.

Yeah, said Dick. After the war Uncle George bought it that way from Allan Ford and Ford bought it from Charlie Butler. Of course, back in Charlie’s day, it was called Jane’s Place after his dead wife. Some say she was a crazy old witch. What brings you in today?

I told you. I need to kill a man.

Dick stepped away from the bar. He eyed the big bat he kept under the counter and mentally measured the distance to the register, which held a small pistol.

Sure, Dick said. Who doesn’t want to kill a man every now and again? Given free rein, I can think of three, maybe four.

You got a wife? the Customer asked.

Dick laughed. Never married. You?

The Customer took a nourishing sip of whisky and licked his lips. Divorced.

Bitches, said Dick. He reached under the bar to rinse out his rag and felt the bat. Outside the loud drip of rainwater poured off the roof and splashed on the sidewalk without rhythm or chorus. Dick looked at the Customer and saw him staring at the mirror focused on a ghost, he supposed, only the Customer could see. Turning from his reflection, the stranger stared for a few cool seconds at the young man at the end of the bar. Nothing said. They summed each other up and exchanged nods like men do. Dick kept rinsing out the rag until the Customer tapped his finger on the edge of his glass.

Another.

A double?

The Customer shook his head. No.

Dick poured. One more swirled around the bottom of the green bottle. He’d have to bring another Jameson’s up from the basement before the evening rush. Being a barkeep, he had seen guys like this before. Full of rage at how life had turned out. Some guys took it out on deer and elk at hunting season. Some sought solitude in fly-fishing. For others it was radical politics, and for others still, it was the burning need for retaliation.

The Customer stood up, placed one hand on the counter, and the other under his jacket. The hipster looked up from his screen. Dick stepped back.

Whoa, where you going? Dick asked. I just poured. Drink your drink, mister. I’ve been a bartender for a long time, heard a lot of stories. I’m better than a shrink and only half the cost.

The Customer hovered for a beat, reluctantly nodded, and then sat back on the stool. He fired a look at the hipster until the man turned back to his laptop.

Your divorce, asked Dick, does that have something to do with the man you’re going to kill?

Don’t know him, said the Customer.

Dick stepped closer to the bar. So why kill him?

After the divorce, I bought her out of the house, the Customer said. I’d raised two kids there. It’s not much. Just a thousand square feet over in Colorado Springs with a vacant lot to the east that looks over the city. Then a wealthy man bought that lot. He wants to build a house into the hillside just a few feet from my porch.

He emptied the glass. Dick lifted the whisky bottle but the Customer put his hand over the top of the tumbler. He had had enough of the brown lady, so Dick set the bottle on the bar. The Customer took a long drink of ice water and shivered the chill away as it settled in his gut.

A week ago, a rich young man approached me with a promise to buy the other guy out, he said. I just had to kill a man. An investment in vengeance, but I’d get my quarter acre. The Customer traced the initials of some forgotten person on the bar.

The only thing that can stop a rich man, said Dick, is a richer man.

The doors to the back kitchen swung open and Melissa sashayed in with her tight jeans and revealing top. She wanted to know how much to prep for the night.

We sell a lot of pizza on Tuesdays, said Dick.

I’ll thaw out a few skins, said Melissa.

She turned and started to leave. Dick smacked her butt. She gave a little jump, then his hand grabbed her ass, and slid into her crotch as he sniffed her hair. He gave a peccant chuckle through his skinned teeth. Dick grinned and watched her go.

You do indeed like the ladies, said the Customer. Can’t keep your hands off them.

He took a drink of ice water.

All the ladies want it, Dick said. Especially that one.

And if they don’t?

Dick laughed, Mister, when a woman says no, she’s just playing hard to get. A man has got to dominate. You take her by the hand or by the titties and just show her the way to heaven.

The rich hipster at the end of the bar pulled out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. He slipped away from his barstool and started for the front door.

Dick stopped him right away. You leaving?

I just want to smoke, said the young man.

Dick pointed to a door near the back. Not out front and not inside; out back on the deck, he said. It’s got an awning, so you won’t get wet.

The hipster nodded, slipped a cigarette in his mouth, and walked through the door leaving the Customer and Dick alone in the bar.

You like the young ones. Early 20s, pretty, said the Customer. Naïve.

I don’t get your meaning, said Dick.

The Customer held his empty, blood-red water-glass before his eyes. You understand me, he said.

I think you’re done, mister, said Dick.

The Customer set his glass on the bar with a sharp hollow bang of plastic on wood. Dick jumped. Then — cool like — he leaned on the bar with an eye on the door. The hint was obvious. Time for the man intent on murder to leave and get to his business. The Customer stood up and set his hat on the bar, his hair sticking to his face, blue eyes sharp but determined. He glanced at the grandiose bar with its wood carved sailing ships and hunter’s hand on the harpoon ready to strike the giant sea beast.

Gus walked through the door looking wet and resplendent in his new raincoat.

Dick said, Hey, look at my man, Gus. That working out okay?

Gus nodded. The bartender went to the till and opened the drawer. The pistol lay neatly above the 10s and 20s. He took out a couple of tens and handed them to Gus. The drawer remained opened. Ready.

You go over to Mountain View Café and get a bowl of that soup Maisie is making. It’s good stuff. Keep the rest.

Gus smiled and walked out. Dick went back to the Customer, his grin turning harsh, his shoulders tight. He leaned over the bar with his hand grazing the neck of the bat.

The Customer took a step back. His coat parted revealing the shotgun tucked inside that came out faster than Dick could grab the bat. The blast into the bartender’s face shattered the air knocking Dick and the remains of his head against the back bar into the taps. Beer flowed to the floor. The shotgun went back in the Customer’s coat. He put his hat on, walked out the bar, and into the dark rain as the thunderstorm kicked up to a gale. Lightning crashed and rattled the windows.

Gun smoke hung in the air and drifted up to the lights hanging from the ceiling.

The rich hipster came back into the bar; his sport coat pulled tight around his shoulders. The tang of the blast smacked the tip of his nose. He looked at the empty bar and lit another cigarette. He was satisfied with his investment. Melissa came from the kitchen, went to the register, and removed the pistol Dick kept there. She set it on the bar, careful not to step in the blood and beer pooling on the floor. She called the police with a tale of a robbery gone bad, the boss pulled his gun, and well …

She poured the last of the whisky into a glass and gave it to the rich young man.

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