by Dr. Jim Freim
( © 2012 All Rights Reserved. Please email me to request
permission to use all or part of this short story. Thanks! )
Once or twice a year and once or twice too often, Mom dragged me off to Wisconsin to check up on Gram and Gramps. Their small, narrow two-story house was covered with drab gray asbestos shingles like all the houses in this old neighborhood. The house was sandwiched between two small green patches that passed as the front and back yards. Gramps could cut both with a push mower in 10 minutes. The tilting garage hadn’t seen a car in years and one rusty hinge held a split and twisted wooden garage door. Long ago reshingled to match the house, the garage contained Gramps’ “stuff” that Gram had banished from the house.
Visiting in the summer was bad, but visiting in winter was “wurst.” The house had a strange smell, a cross between limburger and my rotting, weeks old gym gear. In the winter with closed windows, Gram insisted on her specialty, liver and onions! I’d rather eat outside on the screened in porch and freeze at 12 below than gag to death. Even Gram’s apple pie smelled like liver. Being an altar boy, I figured God was awarding me extra points for the penance I was doing and maybe, keeping my fingers crossed, I wouldn’t need to serve as many masses to be saved.
Exploring the house never took more than a half-hour, tops. Every visit, I hoped to find something new, a treasure or hidden passageway, but I never did. The basement was of great interest with old furniture, piled high boxes, and especially, the coal bin. Although I hopefully investigated the bin every visit, I never did find a decaying body buried under the coal. Instead, I was forced to while away my time, inventing new ways to amuse myself, just like I had to do at home. We had just got our first TV, a black and white model, that only got one station in our corner of New Mexico. My Dad said he needed to check up on his commander, some guy named Eisenhower. I hoped that Gram and Gramps would get a TV, but no luck.
The only items of interest were Gramps’ cut out deer. Every winter visit, Gramps took me into the garage to show me his latest. Sliced from very thick, heavy-duty, cardboard that was a close match to their natural fur, the deer were life-size, realistic, and complete with antlers. The yard was too small for the Santa’s sleigh and eight reindeer, so Gramps staked up just three at Christmas. A rope linked them as a team and the lead deer had a hole in his nose to hold a red bulb. Gramps concentrated hard and never spoke while carving a new Rudolph. I loved to watch, but no questions, no helping, and no playing as Gramps proudly sliced, trimmed, and whittled the all-important head. I thought Gramps face beamed brighter than Rudolph’s nose. When he was done, he would hold up Rudolph and ask, “How does he look?” and I always answered, “The best, the very best.”
The gathering place was the kitchen. Always. I reckoned all German families gathered at a huge round oak table that sat next to the refrigerator. As soon as we sat down, Gram started emptying the contents of the icebox, as she called it, onto the table. Regardless of the time of day or whether you had just stuffed yourself on ten Fudge Marshmallow cookies, the fridge was coming out. All of it. Gram looked like a whirling robot I had seen in a science fiction magazine. She would bend and grab something from the refrigerator, spin around, reach out and drop the plate on the table. She bent, spun, and dropped until the table was full. Great heaping platefuls of cold cuts, summer sausage (yaa!, even in winter), milk, stacks of white bread, and lots and lots of cheese. Strong tasting orange blocks sat next to the white soft pie shaped pieces. Cheese curds, those things that squeak when you bite them, were lumped with Swiss cheese slices. Ah, life in Wisconsin! Mayonnaise, pickles, mustard, and butter. Always butter. Somehow, the butter was royalty, centered on a large plate, as though Gram was honoring its presence and she always dropped it in the middle of the table. I just knew that Jesus had Gram’s ice box when he fed the multitude of five thousand people.
When the fridge door finally closed, she would turn to the table, hold her arms wide like she was blessing the room and say, “Eat, come on, eat.” And looking at me, “You need to eat. You’re too skinny.” And she always ended the skinny sentence with a hard look at my Ma.
Ignoring the gigantic heaps of food straining the table’s stability, Gramps announced he was going grocery shopping. I couldn’t imagine what else we could possibly need. I knew about the starving children of China because they were mentioned at every meal when I hesitated to finish Ma’s overcooked meat or the smashed peas that had been cooked in milk. I knew we could feed all those children, off this table. I wondered how much it would cost to ship Gram’s fridge to China.
Nevertheless, Gramps was going shopping. “I need to get some milk and bread,” he would say. He and Gram would argue, but Gramps persisted. He’d grab his long black overcoat that hung on a worn wood peg by the back door and leave, muttering, “They’re going to be here a few days, we need extra.”
“No, you can’t go,” was Ma’s answer to my perennial question of “Can I go?” No amount of whining or complaining would change that order. Finally, at the ripe age of nine, I resisted asking. Appearing disinterested, I left the room, snuck out the front door, and in two blocks I caught up to Gramps.
Startled, he raised his voice in a tone I had never heard. “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be at the house.”
I was speechless and frightened. I was about to say a nine year old sass, but resisted. Besides, who cares if I watch you buy another loaf of bread. I looked down, dejected. I was pondering my dragging shoe lace when Gramps cradled and slowly raised my chin.
When our eyes met, he gruffly asked, “How old are you?”
I was puzzled, maybe you need to be a certain age to buy bread and milk in Wisconsin. But I was encouraged that he had not sent me home, as I expected. Hoping for the best, like when I answer questions in school, I smiled and eagerly responded, “Nine. A very old nine. Heck, I was nine way back in January.” Without waiting for Gramps’ answer, I added, “I’ve been grocery shopping lots of times.”
The silence was death to me. I was turning back toward the house when Gramps grunted, “Ummm”. I spun around; he was staring at me. His sternness eased to a grin and finally to a broad smile. With raised eyebrows and a Christmas twinkle in his eyes, he asked, “Okay, but can you keep secret?”
I nodded aggressively.
“A Big Secret,” he admonished.
Oh boy, something to tell the guys. “Yeah, Gramps. Of course.”
In a gruff tone that he used when I would ask a question during the Rudolph carving, he said, “You can’t tell your Mom or Gram.”
Wow, the easiest type of secret to keep, as I thought about the things I had ‘neglected’ to tell Ma. “Sure, Gramps, I’m really good at keeping secrets” as my head bounced up and down like Sister Cordia, my third-grade teacher, who answered her own questions with a bobbing head.
Gramps started walking and I fell in step. Blocks passed in silence. We left Tayco Street and turned left onto Main. I was about to tell him that the grocery store was to the right, when Gramps abruptly stopped and looked at me. I didn’t say a word. I figured he was having second thoughts and was about to send me home.
We walked a few more blocks before Gramps stopped and looked up at the building. I followed his eyes. Although the wood had cracked, and the red paint was faded and peeling, I could still read, Cozy Bar. Oh my God! I started to tingle. Are we going to a bar? A bar for Christ’s sakes! I didn’t mutter a sound, not the least little whimper of excitement, for fear that Gramps would change his mind.
For what seemed like an eternity, he stared at the sign. Whatever he was thinking, he never said. Gramps shrugged his shoulders, took my hand, and started towards the door.
I broke free, sprinted past him, and pushed the door open. In my excitement, I didn’t realize that the door had slammed on Gramps and he let out with a new word.
Feeling bold, yet tentative, I slowly stepped inside and peeked, like a wary child going into a doctor’s office. Like a standing cigar store Indian, I stared into the room, thinking, Holy Shit. I glanced around but could see little in the darkness. Nevertheless, I nodded my head, took a deep breath, and exhaled like a conqueror. I’ve arrived!
I wrinkled my nose at the strong smells of cigarettes, BO like my Dad, and a couple of odors I couldn’t figure out. The bar had a damp and wet smell like a Wisconsin basement that never dries out. I didn’t care; I smiled. The reek of beer was worse than the time I had accidentally forgot to close the tapper to the keg in our spare refrigerator. We were leaving for three days at the lake when Uncle Ray asked me to run inside and fill his coffee cup with beer. I was so excited to be allowed to get a beer that I forgot the tapper. Most of the keg of Pabst Blue Ribbon emptied onto linoleum, dribbled down the stairs, and soaked the new shag carpet, which ripened while we were gone. I caught hell for that one.
I didn’t see the man waiting to leave as Gramps grabbed my arm and dragged me to the bar. My eyes adjusted to the dim lights. I could see all of the room, but the only thing I wanted to see was the bar. Six men sat on tall stools, leaned on the bar, and looked in our direction. All of them were wearing plaid shirts like they had just come from fishing.
The man closest to us must have been my Dad’s age – but he didn’t have gray hair. His shirt was red and white checked squares like Mom’s picnic cloth. The colors were so bright the shirt must have been new. He was hunched over, holding his glass. Most of his plaid belly was shoved under the bar and his feet rested on a gold colored tube. He pulled himself back on his stool and turned towards us. “Hey, Bill, a little late today,” he said in a friendly voice. Soft and clear like the people on the radio.
I was wondering who was Bill, when Gramps answered, “Yeah, my family is here.”
I gave Gramps a look of discovery — I never thought of him having a name. My friends had names. Joe. Sam. Frank. But not Gramps, he was just Gramps.
“Oh,” the men said in unison as though everyone understood Gramps’ answer.
Using his hand on the back of my head, Gramps pointed me towards two empty bar stools.
I scrambled up the stool like I was climbing the playground monkey bars. I put my feet under my butt so I was a little taller. I sat up straight and grasped the edge of the bar with both hands in a wide grip. I squeezed the cushy edge and then ran my hand over the shiny wood top of the bar. Smoother and brighter than any wood my Dad had sanded and varnished. My hand seemed to glide. When I looked up, all the men were smiling at me.
Gramps settled onto the stool in the same way he sat down on his favorite chair in the living room. “This is my grandson, Jimmy.”
“Jim,” I corrected.
Everyone was smoking, like my Mom and Dad. One of the men was smoking a cigar and when he saw me watching him, he blew a thick, white ring of smoke that hung in the air like a powdered sugar donut. The smoke was so strong, I coughed.
The room was about the size of my classroom. The bar, with two curved ends, covered one long wall of the room. Gramps and I sat on the curved end near the door. A handful of round wooden tables filled the rest of the room. A man and woman sat at the table farthest from the door; they must not have known Gramps since they never looked up.
The bartender, a large bald man wearing a white apron, came to Gramps. He had bushy eyebrows and I wondered how you could have that much hair above your eyes and none on your head.
“The usual, Bill?” He used a white towel to wipe the top of the bar in front of us.
“Yeah,” Gramps answered.
He dropped what looked like one of mom’s brown coasters in front of Gramps, and then turned to me, smiled, and placed a coaster in front of me. I was staring at the coaster, when he asked, “Master Jim, what would you like?”
Man, I’m going to get to drink! With wild thoughts remembering all the beer I had seen my uncles, mom, and dad drink, I wet my lips and turned to Gramps. “Can I have a beer?”
He answered for me. “I think a coke is best.”
“A coke,” I murmured, but several men heard me and chuckled.
The man in the picnic colors told Gramps, “I think he wants a beer.”
I was thinking of the taste of beer Uncle Ray gave me last summer and I decided a whole bottle would taste even better. I was about to ask Gramps again, but changed my mind when I saw his face.
The bartender must read faces also. “Okay,” he said and turned away.
As I followed him, I noticed the back wall. All mirrors. And four large wood columns that went from the floor to the ceiling. Maybe they held up the roof like in church.
But the bottles! I’d never seen so many bottles of booze. I didn’t know that many existed; there must have been a million! They stood on stair steps so each bottle was visible. And the lights. Each bottle looked like it swallowed a Christmas bulb. They were mostly brown, but several were clear, a couple green, and one or two were red. All I had ever seen were the two or three bottles my mom kept “hidden” under the kitchen sink.
The bartender poured some brown liquid in a very small glass. I had seen that tiny glass under our sink. Mom used it for measuring. He replaced the large brown bottle and brought the small glass and a tall glass of beer to Gramps.
I leaned towards the bartender; “Do you know the names of all those bottles?”
He wiped his hands on his apron, smiled first at Gramps, and then smiled at me.
“Most of the time.”
“Wow.” I stared at all of the bottles. “Wow.”
“Your coke is on the way,” he said. He returned to the middle of the bar. He dropped a few cubes of ice into a glass that was the very same size as Gramps’ big glass. All right, I thought. He filled the glass from a hose, hidden under the bar. A hose for christ’s sake and he wasn’t watering the grass.
My mouth stuck open when he placed the coke on the coaster.
“Here you are.”
“What else is in that hose?” I spit out.
“All types of sodas.”
Before I could ask him how, one of the men called, “Frank.” He turned and left.
I stared at the coke. Incredible — coke from a hose.
“Well, are you going to drink it?” Gramps asked and nodded at my glass. His smile was kinder than I had seen before.
“Oh, sure. Yeah.” I grabbed the glass and was surprised that the outside was wet and slippery. It almost slid through my hands. Gramps looked at me and we simultaneously sipped from our large glasses. I placed my glass on the coaster just like he did.
A lighted sign hanging in the middle of the mirror mesmerized me. The sign must be the bartender’s favorite to get that special spot. A bear was under the word Hamm’s. I don’t know how it happened, but a waterfall, beside the bear, appeared to move. And every so often, the word Hamm’s stretched and was spelled with lots of m’s.
I jumped when I felt Gramps’ hand on my shoulder. “You’d better drink up,” he said. “We have to go in a few minutes. I’m going to the bathroom and then we’ll leave.”
I watched the bartender. He certainly was friendly; he talked to everyone. Looked like an easy job to me. Fill glasses and talk with people. When he started to talk to me, all the men looked my way.
“Where you from?”
“Roswell. In New Mexico.” I said.
“And what grade are you in?”
“Fourth, next year.”
“You look hungry.” He placed a small tin bowl on the bar. “Try a few.”
I looked at them, uncertain what to do.
“Go ahead, they’re beer nuts.”
Beer nuts, I thought. Wow. I shoved a handful in my mouth. They didn’t taste anything like beer. Unless I missed something, they were peanuts. Plain old peanuts. “Why do they call these beer nuts?”
The bartender grinned. “Because you eat them with beer.” As if reading my mind, he leaned closer to me and whispered, “There’s no beer in them.”
I nodded my head as if to say, I knew that.
A white haired man called the bartender and I had an opening. No was looking my way. I grabbed Gramp’s glass, but the bathroom door started to open. Shit, I put the glass down, missing the coaster. Whew! When Gramps passed the couple at the table, they called to him. He turned and said hello. I grabbed his beer and downed a mouth full. Yes! I thought. I was setting the glass down when Gramps looked in my direction. He didn’t yell so maybe he didn’t notice.
When he returned to his bar stool, he smiled at his glass, but said nothing.
“Bill, you want another?” the bartender asked.
“No, we need to get back to the house. They don’t know Jimmy is with me.”
The bartender’s expression changed. The smile faded and a look of uh oh said it all. “Good luck,” he muttered and several of the men nodded simultaneously and grunted.
I looked at Gramps and sensed his concern. “But I snuck out, Gramps. They probably don’t know where I am. And besides, they won’t miss me anyway.”
He was solemn. “They know where we are.”
I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I stared at my glass. The remaining coke just covered the ice cubes. Why would Ma or Gram care where I was? Hell, I was only drinking coke. Other than the ice, it’s still coke. No naked ladies and no foul language. But maybe I better add a few extra details for the guys.
Gramps interrupted my thoughts. “Time to go.” He got up from bar stool, picked up the dollar bills, and left the change.
I stared at the remaining coke and realized this could be my only bar visit for years. “Why can’t we stay?” I pleaded.
“Come on, we need to go,” Gramps ordered.
I squeezed the glass with both hands and quickly downed the few swallows. As I placed the glass on the coaster, the bartender appeared.
“Hope to see you again, Master Jimmy.”
“You bet. Me too!” I’ll be shopping with Gramps, I thought.
Smiling at the bartender, Gramps gently patted me on the back and then took my hand. We walked through the door together.