“Oh, dear dad,
Can you hear me now?
I am, myself, like you,
—Pearl Jam, ‘Release’ Ten (1991)
Though all bars more or less, smell like a bar, Garrett’s Tavern has its own particular odor, one that hasn’t changed a single iota in several decades. The air is a toxic mixture of chew spit, cheap cigarettes, stale beer, and old sweat. I’ve never been to a back-alley dog fight, but I imagine it smells quite a bit like Garrett’s.
The room is narrow and dark, the bar itself running the length of the wall on the left-hand side of the room, with high-top round tables lining the wall on the other side. Other than an ancient juke box in the corner, and a few video poker machines at the end of the bar, there are no games or distractions strewn about.
As I walk towards the far end of the room, I look at the large mirror behind the bar. The use of the large mirror is an age-old trick. They are used to give a small room a sense of depth, to make everything appear larger. Unfortunately, this particular mirror is cracked along its whole length, with a few random splinters spraying off here and there, running towards the tar-yellowed edges of the glass. The result is a fun-house effect that makes the dark room feel even smaller.
I take a few deep breaths and look up towards the ceiling, trying to shake a sudden sense of claustrophobia. I never used to feel this way. I’ve turned into a goddamn mental case.
The ceiling is an old drop ceiling, filled with worn acoustic tiles, many of which are stained with rust-colored splotches. One tile near the doorway is severely dimpled from a water leak. It looks like a pimple ready to burst. One day, during a cold rain, the whole tile is going to break, showering some unlucky bastard with god knows how many years’ worth of grime.
There are maybe fifteen or twenty people littered throughout the bar, each of them seemingly commiserating in a lonely corner. Despite the current appearance, I have seen this place alive and full of action at times, usually, in the form of angry political debate, or dirty, personal gossip. For whatever reason, this particular evening has not encouraged that kind of merriment.
It doesn’t take long to spot Marvin. Though I expected him to look older and a little more beaten down by the years, I’m still a little shocked to lay eyes on him now. He seems grizzled beyond my expectation. In my youth, he had always worn a mustache, but the hair on his face had grown into a full, straggly beard that reaches down his neck in wild patches.
He doesn’t look up as I approach, hovering instead over the top of a high ball glass, like some ancient oracle perched over an altar. I sit on the stool next to him and raise my hand at the bartender, pointing towards Marvin’s drink and holding up two fingers. The bartender scowls, but nods his head in affirmation.
“I thought I’d find you here,” I say, fumbling to get the conversation started. He nods and takes a slow sip from his drink. “How have you been?” I ask.
He sets the glass on the bar and wipes a brown streak of drool away from the corner of his mouth with his sleeve. “Been gone for three years, and that’s what you want to ask me?” Though he says it with a snarl, the words don’t have quite the edge he had hoped, his voice cracking slightly under the pressure of the moment.
“Not really,” I say, “but I was trying to be polite.” The bartender comes down to our end of the bar and drops the drinks. I throw a ten dollar bill on the bar top, which the bartender swoops in a single motion as he places the drinks. “And it’s five years, not three.”
He looks at me with an inquisitive, sidewise glance. “Really? Doesn’t seem like that’s possible.”
“Well,” I said. “I guess time has been flying, with all of the excitement.” I look around the room to see if anyone is paying attention to this heartwarming reunion, but everyone seems to be sulking over glasses of dark liquor or a sweating bottle of beer. A few talk lazily as they stare blankly up at the television screen, the one accoutrement in the bar that looks like it was purchased within the last decade.
For most of my life, I’ve felt something more akin to hatred than love for this man sitting before me. To see him now, though, I don’t feel much more than pity. He looks every bit the broken, lonely drifter you would expect to see when confronting a man of his circumstance.
Leaning against the bar, next to my father’s stool was an old, hickory walking stick. The walking stick was topped with a perfectly smooth marble orb. It had belonged to my grandfather, an enchanted object that had always fascinated me as a child. I remember grabbing it, and running around the house like I was conducting a great orchestra, or leading a battle charge.
My grandfather had been a great man, infinitely kind and always present. In short, he was the exact opposite of my father, a fact which made me resent him all the more.
I nod towards the cane. “I see you’re carrying around Grandad’s cane.”
He looks at me a bit confused before dismissively waving his hands. “My knee is acting up again, that’s all.” I was not surprised to hear him scoff at the question. Marvin Kauffman has never been a man prone to overt sentiment. I doubt he’s ever laid eyes on an object that he considered enchanted in the whole of his life.
“So, why are you here?” he asked. For all his faults, one of my father’s redeeming qualities has always been a willingness to be direct and blunt.
I take a deep breath, and then jump in feet-first. “I’m in trouble…”
Immediately, he begins to laugh, a loud, brash belly laugh that elicits passive glances from almost everyone in the bar. This is what I’ve been expecting. It only took him a few seconds to confirm my lowest assumptions.
“That’s fucking priceless,” he says, catching his breath. “You run off to school, leaving your family in the dust, and now you’re crawling back. Priceless.”
I stand up and grab him by the shoulder, turning him towards me. As much as I wanted to beat the hell out of him when I was growing up, I would have never laid hands on him like this. He was never a big man, but he was wiry and dangerous. I’m sure there were many men who underestimated him over the years due to his size. If the town rumor mill is to be believed, those men wound up in a hospital more often than not.
Time, though, has a way of equaling everything, eventually. He is no longer firm and muscular, and I’m no longer the weak, young boy that I once was. If anyone was going to be underestimated in this situation, it was me. The old man may have had more experience, but I’ve learned a few things over the past few years as well. I don’t want to fight him, but if that’s the way he wants things to go, I’m not afraid.
“Let’s get this straight,” I say, pushing my face a few inches from his nose. “I didn’t leave any family here because you aren’t family. My family is dead.” I pull back away from his face and let him think for a brief moment. “The only thing I need from you is an invitation. A referral. That’s it. You don’t want to give it to me, that’s fine. I’ll figure another way.”
He stops smiling and leans back in the barstool, staring up at me with an inquisitive glare. “What the hell are you talking about? What kind of referral.”
I lean over and take the last gulp from my glass on the bar, the scotch burning a warm trail down my throat and settling into my stomach. “I need to talk to Gil Grady.” I intentionally stare in the opposite direction when I say the words, painfully aware of how ridiculous it must sound. I spent twenty years harshly judging him for his association with Gil Grady, lecturing him on the evils of the Grady Empire, questioning every decision he had made in his whole, pathetic life. Now, I am here, asking for an invite to the Grady table.
I wait for the inevitable burst of laughter and derision, the whole of my body filling with profound regret at even having walked through the door. How could I be so stupid as to think he would help?
To my surprise, I hear nothing but silence.
I turn to look at his face. I’m not sure what I expected to see, but when I look in his eyes, I’m taken back. It takes me a while to place it, to decipher his cryptic gaze. I have to cut through years of cynicism and anger, but it’s there, burning like a coal in danger of extinction, but burning all the same. It’s a look I never thought I would truly see in Marvin Kauffman’s eyes. He is afraid.
“You can’t,” he says, pausing to take a hard swallow. “I won’t…”
I was prepared to yell and scream, to fight if I had to. I had several grandiose speeches already prepared, speeches that questioned his terrible parenting, his worse life choices. Speeches that questioned him as a man, challenging his very core.
In my mind, though, these speeches were predicated on a visceral reaction to him, an angry lashing out against laughter or a firm stand against condescension. I wasn’t expecting him to actually care, and I certainly wasn’t expecting a genuine reaction.
“I need to speak to Grady,” I say firmly, unsure of my next move.
“Why the fuck would you…What’s….” He grabs my shoulder and spins me around towards him. “What is going on?”
I take a deep breath. There is a pack of Marlboro Lights sitting on the other side of the bar. It’s been a few weeks, and I’ve told myself that I’m quitting, but right now, those cigarettes are all I can think about. I reach across the bar, grab a cigarette, and look up the bar for a lighter. A pink Bic is sitting a few feet away from the pack. In spite of it all, I find myself chuckling to myself. Whistler’s words floating back to me, one of many little life mini-lessons. An aphorism from a deranged modern sage.
Always, always choose a pink lighter. Nobody steals a pink lighter. Blue or black? You’re fucked, someone is taking that thing the second you lay it down. Not pink, though. That one stays.
I light the cigarette and look around to see if anyone is going to protest. I know the smokes aren’t the Old Man’s. He’s never smoked anything but Parliaments. Nobody seems upset by my petty theft, so I turn back to Marvin.
“I can’t tell you what’s happened,” I say, “but I’m in trouble, and it’s the kind of trouble that only a man like Gil Grady can deal with.” Marvin reaches into his pocket and produces his own pack of cigarettes, Parliaments, just like I thought. He lights a smoke and breathes deeply, exhaling a long puff of smoke that seems endless.
I remember sitting at the end of this bar when I was a kid. He would blow smoke rings at me, and I would try to catch them in the air. Given the modern sentiment, it’s easy to vilify him as the worst kind of parent, dragging me to this bar, exposing me to an environment like this. The truth is, though, those were about the only times he actually felt like a father. He was brining me to his world. The equivalent, I suppose, of a normal father taking his child to the office. Marvin Kauffman’s office just smelled of stale booze and cigarette smoke.
Finally, he speaks again. “There’s nothing that man can help you with,” he says with resolve, “and I won’t expose you to him. You don’t have to trust me, I know I can’t ask you for that anyway, but you’re going to have to find some other way.”
I’m surprised how quickly I’m willing to accept his response. I was prepared to literally fight him, but there’s nothing much to be said. For one thing, he had never been one to change his mind. To call him as stubborn as a mule is a ridiculous understatement. For another, he actually seemed to be motivated by something other than spite.
It all leaves me completely blank. I don’t know how to deal with something that approaches compassion.
Rather than fight, he orders two more drinks and we sit sipping on Johnny Walker in stone silence. If there was a constant that we shared between us, a bond that somehow hadn’t been severed by years of anger and resentment and separation, it was this. Right here. The ability to sit in complete, unaltered silence.
Most people can’t handle silence. Give them a fifteen second pause in a conversation, and they are reaching like babbling fools trying to fill the gaps. Like my father, I have always been a man that is willing to let a silent moment settle. I’m not sure, but I think that’s one of the things that first made Whistler trust me. He was always so willing to talk, so eager to expound his wisdom, that he could appreciate a man that respected a silence.
After I finished the drink, I got up to leave. “I’ve got to go,” I say waving my hand back at him.
“Do you need a place to…”
I hold my hand up, presenting my palm. “I’m good,” I said. “Don’t worry about it.” In truth, I had no idea where I was staying, but the last place I wanted to crash was Marvin’s depressing little hovel.
I turned and slowly walked towards the door. I hear him call from behind. “Maybe I could help you,” he said. “You never know...”
I keep walking as though I didn’t hear him, and the heavy steel door slams behind me with a clang.