Pop looked out the large front window of the Twilight Bar, wiping his hands on an old stained towel. Life on the streets had changed a lot over the decades since he and his then, young bride Helena, bought the place. He’d watched the people move through their daily lives with a curious eye, wondering if they had ever imagined a different existence. It was as if they were following the paths of a silent, sightless leader, with no direction and no idea of where it would all end.
From the very instant he signed his name to the documents that made him owner of the old bar, he’d seen a variety of styles, beliefs, and ideas pass through his doors. From the sixties with the free love movement, flower power, the first man in space, and Woodstock, to the seventies disco craze, bell-bottom pants, and protestors against Viet Nam. The eighties arrived with a renewed sense of energy, and everyone thought they had the answers to life. He saw the invention of the first cellphones and the introduction to home computers. Microwaves were the new must-have, and the yuppie replaced the hippie.
The millennium brought in a new wave of attitude with the creation of the internet, and ideals far higher than any mortal could reach. Money was exchanged through unseen wires from one country to the next, and everyone was addicted to the latest electronic device. He watched his regular customers grow from young men and women with stars of a bright future, to middle-aged workers with the frown lines of reality to shadow their dreams.
The styles and music had changed over the years, from miniskirts and the Beach Boys, to hot pants and Led Zeppelin, to leisure suits, and Lady Gaga. But the one thing that stayed constant through every generation and every new craze, were the prejudices of mankind.
Money had become more powerful than blood, and those who weren’t able, or willing to produce it, were cast aside like yesterday’s rubbish. The streets were littered with society’s orphans who couldn’t make the cut, while their brothers passed them by with little more than a disapproving glance.
Pop knew his bar wasn’t in the mainstream of Friday night club-goers, but he didn’t care. He always managed to bring in a good-sized crowd, and people still found their way to the centuries-old building, despite the distance they had to walk. He didn’t have strobe lighting, or outrageous music, and everyone who danced on the old wooden floor kept their clothes on.
Once a person found the Twilight Bar, they found an honest, unbiased ear to listen to their problems, and a friendly smile to warm their journey home. He served his drinks, and made a few burgers on the back grill, along with microwave burritos and nachos, and always had a hefty supply of peanuts and pretzels to go along with the beer.
Everyone was welcome in his place, with no bouncer to approve their entrance, and no line of hopeful customers waiting for the rewarded golden ticket of acceptance. Pop served a wide variety of beer, including those imported ones the younger crowd preferred. He mixed a few exotic drinks now and again, and always had a special bottle or two of something old and expensive to serve when asked. His place wasn’t fancy, but it was homey and comfortable, and he always managed to have a deposit for the bank the following day.
The old man listened to the icemaker in the back kick on with a grunt and a clunk as he watched the image of the girl across the street. Watching her had become a daily ritual over the past several weeks. Unlike most girls around his place, this one wasn’t selling her body for a few bucks, or even offering a bag of powder or pills to those who could afford it. She was different. She sat on the top rung of the bus bench’s wooden back, reading a book. Once the seven-fifty bus arrived, she’d get on it and leave, then return several hours later, only to repeat her actions the next day. She never came home with anyone, and she never left with anyone. She was always alone, and always had her nose in a book.
Pop knew she had a room in the old building across the street, but he doubted she had much else. The abandoned bookstore had once been a refuge for the homeless and those hiding from someone, or something. About a decade ago it was purchased and converted to cheap one room apartments. Most of the folks who lived there were part-time workers at the factory down the street, with the occasional whore or dealer mixed in for good measure. It was a hard life and they barely scraped enough cash together to buy a meal every couple of days.
But this girl was different. She always wore the same jeans and pullover green shirt, sometimes with a jean-style jacket, others with just a backpack. Even though she looked like everyone else around the place, there was a certain aura about her that made her stand out. There was something in the way she held herself, that denied her the right to fit in with the neighborhood.
The girl was young, Pop estimated her to be in her late teens, early twenties maybe, but not much older. She had long blonde hair that hung across her left shoulder in a thick braid, and she was thin, but not skinny like the women who walked the streets. She never talked to anyone, and was never approached by those looking to find twenty dollars’ worth of entertainment. Maybe it was the book she was reading, or maybe it was because she didn’t bother to look up. Regardless, she kept to herself.
Every day, Monday thru Friday, that girl sat outside and read a book until the bus arrived. The weekends were different. She’d catch a later bus, always before noon, and disappear for hours. She returned nightly, and he wouldn’t see her again until the next morning. It had been this way for the past three months. She was like a clock for him to start his day, and even though he watched her through the large window, he doubted she ever looked up to see him.
Pop saw the bus pull up, blocking his view of the girl, and heard the air brakes gasp. He watched her shadow move along the row of seats, taking her usual position in the back. The bus drove off with a black puff of smoke, and just like the girl, this was his signal it was time to start his day.
He tossed the rag to the end of the counter, and began filling bowls with peanuts and pretzels. It wouldn’t be long before the nightshift ended, and the dozen or so workers would stop in for a drink before going home. They were always hungry after a long night of working in one of the three factories that occupied the space around the bar. Despite the typical breakfast hours, Pop found himself making burgers as he served the morning’s first glasses of beer. It was a routine he’d had for the past fifty-five years, and it was one he wasn’t about to quit, despite his age.
Just like the city, a lot had happened to him over the decades, as well. In less than a week, he had gone from a recent high school graduate with a new bride on his arm, to the owner of this well-known establishment. He’d been a very lucky eighteen-year-old man, and he knew it. If it hadn’t been for the accidental meeting with the former owner, he’d never have known about the Twilight Bar. He would, most likely, be one of the men who visited this place every night after work.
As it was, George Scott was at the courthouse paying his taxes, the same day Pop was there to pick up his marriage license. While they were waiting their turn with the clerk, they began talking. Pop told him about his upcoming wedding, and he told Pop about the Twilight Bar. Pop - known as Jack Lawson back then - and Helena Kemper were getting married, despite her father’s insistence that her new husband wouldn’t amount to a hill-of-beans. He had no prospect of work, but he was proud and determined to support his bride. He was strong, intelligent, and wasn’t afraid of hard work.
George was the third owner of the building, following in his father’s footsteps, and his grandfather before that. Over the hundred and ten years the family had owned it, a lot had happened. They saw the Civil War tear apart the country and mourned with the world when Lincoln was killed. They survived two world wars, and managed to avoid taking sides during the 20’s gang wars. They kept their doors open while the stock market crashed in 1929 and carried on when the place was nearly destroyed by fire, around the turn of the century. George laughed when he told Jack about his mother making bootleg whiskey in an old bathtub at home, and how they supplied liquor to New York during the strict prohibition period.
Jack listened to the old man for nearly an hour, and by the time it was his turn to pay for the license, he was convinced he wanted to buy the place. George told him he was getting tired and didn’t have the heart to go to work every day, but it was all he knew. He started working with his father as a boy, cleaning up the spittoons and urinals, to serving the drinks, and finally taking over when his father died in 1902.
His grandparents were Scottish immigrants, who started the bar shortly after arriving in New York, at the start of the Civil War. It had been a family business his father inherited and then left it to George. George had two sons of his own, one a lawyer, the other a priest, and neither wanted to follow in their father’s footsteps. He continued to keep the place running, but only because he didn’t have the heart to close.
Jack had saved a thousand dollars from the jobs he held during the past four summers, and from selling his old 1932 DeSoto. He talked it over with Helena, and instead of putting the money toward a house, they used it as a down payment on the bar. The purchase price was five thousand dollars, which he managed to pay off the first eight years of owning the place. Unfortunately, the bar wasn’t a goldmine and he had to learn the trade on a trial and error basis. The place never made a lot of money, and most of what he brought in the first few years went to keeping the bar stocked for customers.
Helena agreed to live in the secret apartment that had been built to hide the runners during prohibition, saving them the cost of rent, or the indignity of living with either of their parents. After the bar was paid for, and they began to show a profit, Jack bought a small house for Helena. They were never able to have children, which left his wife lonely and depressed, but she managed to occupy her time with crafts, which she sold to smaller shops around town.
Life seemed to be perfect for the couple, until one cold Saturday night when he returned home, to find his wife dead. She had suffered a heart attack, and died, mercifully, in her sleep. Since then, Pop had devoted all his time to the bar. Like George, it was all he knew.
The tinkling of the bell above the front door brought the old man out of his memories, and he looked up to the three men who entered. They smiled tired grins to the man, and called him by name, then sat down at one of the twelve tables. For Pop, the day was starting, just like all the others, and he eagerly embraced it with a pitcher of beer in one hand, and a bowl of pretzels in the other.
Night fell across New York, with the heavy grey clouds that promised the humid rain of autumn. Pop wiped the counter as he listened to two of his regular customers debating the recent presidential elections. He listened and commented on the men’s discussion when needed, but for the most part, ignored what they were saying.
The soft tinkle of the bell across the front door chimed when it was opened, fading in with the jukebox playing a disc from Pop’s country music collection. For Pop, that bell was a part of his subconscious and he heard it despite the music, or the hum of voices. He looked up to the young woman who moved through the Friday night crowd of customers and sat at the end of the bar. She took her backpack off and set it on the stool next to her, and ordered a beer when Pop approached her.
“I don’t want to sound like a hard-ass,” the old man began with a friendly smile, “but are you old enough to be in here?”
Without a word, the blonde took her wallet out of her jacket pocket and handed him a driver’s license. He looked it over carefully before handing it back to her and moving to the silver tap. He smiled and reached for a glass, then filled it with the dark liquid.
“The name’s Pop,” he told her when he set the glass down in front of her. “At least that’s what people call me.”
“Nice to meet you,” the girl said, picking up her glass and placing it to her lips.
“Are you hungry?” Pop asked a moment later. “I can make you a burger or heat you up some nachos.”
“Thanks, but I’m good,” she answered.
“You’re not from around here, at least not originally. Your license said you’re from Michigan. What brings you to New York?”
“You mean, what’s a nice girl like me doing in a place like this? That’s kind of an old cliché, isn’t it? Even for you, I’d have thought you could come up with a better pickup line than that.”
Pop laughed, bringing the conversation of the two men at the other end of the bar to a momentary halt, as they turned to look at him.
“Well, Cassidy, you’ve got me there. I’m an old man, and I’ve heard them all, but it wasn’t a pickup line. You’re young enough to be my…little sister,” he chuckled, reaching for the rag and wiping up after a couple of women who had recently left. “So, what are you doing in these parts? I’d think a girl like you would want the fast-paced life of the clubs in town.”
“I’m not into that kind of scene, and how did you know my name?” she asked setting her drink down and frowning at the man’s friendly grin.
“It was on your license.”
“Oh,” she said with a soft blush.
“So, you haven’t answered me.”
“I wasn’t aware I had to submit to twenty questions, for a beer.”
“You don’t,” Pop said, a frown creasing his aging face.
He watched the girl look down into the foam in her glass. Now that he saw her up close, he knew for certain she didn’t belong here. Not only was she beautiful, but there was something about her that made her less like one of the neighbors, than he had assumed from her perch on the bus bench.
Pop drew a deep breath and turned to the shelf on the wall behind the bar. He took down an old ceramic plate and began assembling the fixings for his nachos. He started with a layer of beans from the container in the small fridge beneath the counter, then layered on the chips, shredded cheese, and cooked beef from a second container. When he finished, he had a masterpiece of meat, beans, lettuce, tomatoes, sour cream, olives, and cheese.
He glanced to the woman as he set the concoction in the microwave and pressed the button. She rejected the companionship of a large man, known to others as Jumbo, and continued to stare into her glass. He had the feeling, she preferred her own company to that of other humans, and it made her seem even more out of place.
Taking the nachos from the microwave, he set them in front of her, and smiled when she looked up.
“They’re on the house,” he told her, then turned his attention to the customers who had just set down at the bar.
Cassie watched the old man pour drinks for the two men, then accepted another order from a man at a nearby table, who asked for a pitcher of beer. Pop returned a few minutes later, and smiled when he saw her eating. From the sounds of growling coming from her end of the bar, he knew she was hungry. Considering the people in the area, he could only assume it had been a while since she’d eaten anything. Nachos may not have been the best option for supper, but it was better than letting her starve.
“So, what are you doing in New York, Miss Michigan?” he asked again, terming her by her birthplace.
“The name is Cassie,” she said with a smile, “and I’m here for school.”
“Yeah? What are you studying?”
“Journalism,” she told him, taking a drink from her beer.
“That sounds like a lot of fun,” Pop chuckled.
“It is…or at least it will be when I’ve finished.”
“How much longer do you have?”
“Two years, if I can get through it.”
“What’s holding you back?” Pop asked, pouring another glass of beer for a customer, and accepting the money he was handed.
“Everything,” Cassie said with a deep sigh. “I have a scholarship to pay for my classes, but I don’t have money for a place to stay, and my job laid everyone off this morning, so I don’t have a job, either.”
“I thought you were living across the street?”
“How do you know where I was living?” Cassie frowned, causing the man to blush softly.
“I’ve seen you a time or two, waiting for the bus. I open early so the night workers can get a beer and something to eat before going home to bed. So, what happened to your apartment?”
“It wasn’t much of an apartment. More of a room with a toilet and shower.” Cassie paused as she drew a deep breath and placed another chip in her mouth. “I came back from job hunting to find my room ransacked. I kept my money hidden in a loose floorboard, and they found it. Now, I have no money to pay for the place, even as cheap as it is, no job, and nowhere else to go but back to Michigan.”
“You know,” Pop said, leaning his elbows against the edge of the counter, “I could use some help around here. It doesn’t pay much, but it comes with a free room.”
“Thanks, but I don’t know enough about beer to serve it, and I’m not in the habit of bartering for a place to sleep. Besides, you’re not exactly my type.”
“I wasn’t offering my bed to you,” Pop laughed.
“I didn’t mean to insinuate…” she paused, feeling the heat of her embarrassment staining her cheeks.
“Relax,” Pop told her. “I wasn’t propositioning you, though I’m sure you’ll be hearing a lot of offers around this place. A pretty girl like you won’t have to look far to find someone willing to warm your sheets. And you don’t need to know beer to serve it. The customer tells you what they want, and you bring it to them. It’s that simple. Listen, hang out until things slow down and I’ll show you around the place, and explain the job.”
Cassie watched the man walk away, wondering if it was possible to take him up on his offer. If it meant she had to have sex with the guy for a job, she knew she wasn’t that desperate - yet.
The next two hours ticked by as she watched the customers come and go, and rejected another half dozen offers to buy her a drink. Cassie was impressed by the way the customers treated the old man. They joked with him, laughed with him, and called him by name. She’d heard the tenants of the building across the street talking about him, more than once. It seemed like someone was always getting a burger or a beer from the old guy, at no charge. She knew the old man cared, she just didn’t realize how much people thought of him, until now.
Cassie watched Pop fix a small bucket of hot soapy water and dunk the rag he’d been using into it, then began wiping the counter. She didn’t know what possessed her to come in here tonight, but she found herself sitting down before she realized it. She’d been upset and frightened when she got back to her room to find the door open. Everything she owned, that wasn’t in her backpack, was gone. Her two changes of clothes, along with three thousand dollars, even her toothbrush was stolen. The manager told her not to worry about the rent. She could work it off, but she wasn’t desperate enough to sell her body for a flea-infested bed.
The noise of the evening had mellowed significantly, and all but a young couple had left the bar. They had twenty minutes before he had to kick them out, but they looked intent on their conversation, and he wasn’t willing to interrupt them. They were either on a secret rendezvous, or hopeful lovers discussing their plans for the rest of the evening.
Cassie watched Pop clean up after the customers. He washed the bar and the stools, dipping the rag into the water several times. He moved to the tables and chairs, washing each one before placing the chairs upside down on the tables. He set the bucket behind the counter and walked into the back, then returned with a push-style floor sweeper. He slid it around the floors, cleaning up the pretzels and nuts the customers had dropped.
The old man straightened his back and watched the couple stand from the booth they had been sitting at for the past two hours. The young man thanked him, tossed a few dollar bills to the table, and walked to the door. His arm wrapped protectively around the woman’s waist as they left the bar, disappearing down the street.
“Well, that was some night,” Pop said, walking to the door.
He stepped outside and pulled on the strap for the metal gate that covered the front of the building, protecting the glass. He locked it in place, then stepped back into the building, closing and locking the front door. He flipped off the open sign, then turned back to see Cassie. She had a curious, almost suspicious expression in her eyes, making him feel a sense of protection. He smiled as he moved to the counter and sat down next to her with a deep, tired sigh. He had never considered hiring help for the place, but the girl needed work, and he didn’t want to see her give up school because of a bit of bad luck.
“I can’t afford to pay more than two hundred a week,” he told her, knowing he made at least that much in tips alone. “The job comes with all the nuts and pretzels you can eat.” He paused and chuckled at the smile that pulled on her lips.
“You can have burgers and burritos, nachos too if you can learn to make them my way. I will work around your school schedule because that’s more important than the job, and you can stay here, rent free.”
“Here? In the bar?” she asked with a frown.
“This old gal has been around a long time, and has a few secrets people don’t know about,” he chuckled. “During the prohibition, the former owner put in an apartment for the bootleg runners. Nobody knows about it, and it’s a safe place to stay. My wife and I lived here after we were married. There’s a bed, even a bathroom with a shower. All the comforts of being at home.”
“I grew up in a seven thousand square foot, six-bedroom Victorian house,” Cassie said with a smile.
“Well, almost all the comforts of home,” Pop laughed. “There are some rules, and I won’t waiver on them.”
Pop adjusted his position on the stool as he studied her features closely. He may be willing to hire a woman he knew absolutely nothing about, and allow her to stay in his bar, but he wasn’t going to allow her to rip him off. For all he knew, she was a homicidal lunatic.
“I won’t allow drugs on the property,” he continued a moment later. “No guests are allowed in your room, and I won’t have you feeding all your friends when I’m not here. No private parties, and no solicitation of any kind.”
“I’m from a small town in Michigan,” Cassie told him. “I don’t do drugs, and I don’t have many friends. My life is school. Those few friends I do have, live on the other side of town, and I don’t solicit anything, especially my…assets,” she paused for a moment and drew a deep breath.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” she continued, “I need a place to live, and a job if I hope to stay in school, but I only came in here for a drink. I’m willing to work, and I’m not afraid of long hours, but school does come first. I’ve worked very hard to get that scholarship, and I’m not willing to hand it in without at least trying to find a way to survive.”
“Then, we’re in agreement,” Pop said with a smile, reaching out to shake her hand. “You can wipe down that last table, and I’ll make us a couple of burgers. I’ll show you to your new suite once the floors are scrubbed.”