A Good Bar
by Christopher Cleary
Before the bar door pulled closed, the large American flag at the mechanic’s garage across the street could be heard cracking and snapping from an invisible assault so cold that it hunched shoulders. The draft couldn’t penetrate the sole window that had been permanently sealed once smoking in bars was outlawed. Despite this ban having taken effect several years ago, the light fixtures of the tavern remained nicotine stained.
Dylan watched his father ring up beverages and the occasional cold cut sandwich prepared by his grandmother who operated from a closet kitchen for two hours a day at lunch. The register keys made a gratifying clacking, followed by a tittering receipt, a crisp bell, and the smooth, lubricated slide of a cash drawer as it attempted a quick escape from its slot only to be nabbed by the machine each time. The drawer was slammed shut, another order was taken, and the process was started over. The rhythm of the anachronistic register was hypnotic to the five-year-old.
“A bar is no place for a boy,” Cheryl chided Joseph, Dylan’s father and proprietor of the tavern.
“I know that,” he acknowledged without giving her much attention.
Joseph was displeased with the roll of the sleeves on his yellow and dingy flannel that was worn sheer thin. His years of experience rolling them tightly failed him. The folds kept loosening, resulting in the sleeves creeping their way down his forearms one at a time. He wiped his hands on his waist apron, reaffixed the sleeves, and came from behind the bar to place a couple of beef jerky sticks and a soda down on Dylan’s worn Formica table before anticipating each creak of the uneven floorboards on his slouching march back.
Dylan unwrapped a beef stick and pondered the pattern of his shirt. Each thin, horizontal white stripe was separated by an equally thin, colored stripe. Determining if a pattern existed and what it might be was much less of a challenge to process than the shame and disappointment that he heard in his father’s words. There were three different colored stripes on the shirt, and they alternated from red to orange to green.
Any bar worth its proof had at least one barfly. Dylan looked up from his stripes to see theirs order another beer. His father pulled the draft, slid a few bills off the bar, and played the register like a blues instrument: the key taps, the receipt titter, the distinct bell, and the quick slide action of the drawer. The barfly, Eddie, noticed Dylan’s trance.
“You like that register, huh?” he asked, his voice a whisper of mirth.
“Yeah,” Dylan said. He observed how the man’s countenance resembled a catcher’s mitt.
Eddie looked to Joseph, “Let Dylan ring up the next drink.”
With a beef stick in one hand and a fat, brown crayon in the other, Dylan’s face, eyes, and mouth all formed the perfect circles of a shocked smiley face. Not only had a fantastic possibility been revealed to him but the dream was on its way to becoming a realization.
Joseph frowned at his regular. “He can’t come behind the bar. Come on.”
“A bar is no place for a boy,” Cheryl reminded Joseph.
“What’s it gonna hurt?” Eddie said. “Come on, let him do it.”
Joseph began washing glasses. “No.”
Eddie proffered loud enough for everyone to hear, “The next round on me, you let him do it.”
Joseph’s life had been one long sigh. He knew that if it had been later in the day, too many customers would have been in the bar, and Eddie couldn’t have made such a proposition. There were just enough to make it feasible for him to buy the bar a round but still plenty to make considerable clamor in his support. At the offer of a free drink, even Cheryl urged Joseph with sweetness, “Let little Dylan ring up the drinks just once. The poor boy just sits there all day.”
Joseph considered the consequences of allowing his son to run the register. Short-term scenarios involved Johnny Copper walking through the door in the middle of the transaction. Long-term prognostications showed his son ending up like him, serving beverages to the offspring of his current clientele. Joseph watched as his son’s hopes rose. Cheryl’s motive was self-serving, but she was right. Dylan deserved more than a coloring book and beef jerky at a bar on a Saturday.
“OK,” Joseph held up his hands. “OK. Just this once. Eddie, put the money on the bar.”
Once everyone had their drinks, Joseph took the money and signaled for Dylan to join him. He pulled out a crate and set it in front of the register. Even so, his son still had to pull himself up on his toes. The patrons sipped their fresh beverages and watched the boy’s expressions in the mirror behind the bar while his father pointed out which buttons to push.
Dylan reached to push down the stiff keys. Purple numbers flew across the receipt as it rolled up on itself. The boy’s pleasure showed, and everyone there felt a happy, shared sense of accomplishment.
“OK,” his father said, ready to administer the final instructions.
“The big, green one!”
“That’s it. The big, green one.”
No one predicted the rapid series of events to follow. Even Dylan, who knew what was to immediately come next, didn’t foresee it. Upon depressing the big, green button, the bell signaled a brief warning before the cash drawer struck like an uncoiling snake. It smacked Dylan on the forehead and knocked him off the crate.
The face of his father and the stained ceiling came into focus, and Dylan grinned upon hearing a boom of laughter — the sign of a good bar.
Christopher Cleary is a public high school teacher in an Atlanta suburb. His novel Writing on the Wall was published in 2007 and his play The Harsher was published in the UK in 2020.
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