Charlie tended bar. He had worked for the state once, was a movie theater manager for a while. He read a lot, sometimes took a class at the local university – in drawing, or piano. But mostly he tended bar.
It was a dark, smoke-filled place. Had a couple of pool tables, dart boards, a pinball game. Had that trivia game, the one where you answer on a remote control pad the questions that appear on the tv. Charlie was a pretty good bartender.
There were a lot of regulars came to Charlie’s place. Some to shoot pool, throw darts. Some came alone and sat at the bar. There were three young guys who came in to play trivia. Sometimes they brought a fourth. They were just out of college. They didn’t come in as often as they used to, but they were there tonight playing trivia, all four. They had two pads among them. Charlie liked those guys. They were funny. They were pretty good at trivia.
Charlie was washing mugs when one of the guys sat down at the bar and asked for a whiskey on the rocks.
“Drinking man’s drink,” said Charlie.
“Can’t drink beer tonight,” said the young guy. “I ate too much.”
Charlie poured the drink and resumed washing mugs.
“She new here?” said the young guy. He was pointing to a girl down the bar.
Charlie thought he looked like a kid. He followed the kid’s finger down the length of the bar to the girl at the other end. “Pretty new,” he said.
The kid raised his whiskey, then held it under his nose as he studied the new girl.
No, thought Charlie.
“Little while ago,” said the kid, “I asked her for a whiskey on the rocks. She asked me what I wanted it with.”
“Yeah?” said Charlie.
“I said ice. She said, don’t you want it mixed with anything? I said yeah, ice.”
“What’d she say?” said Charlie, smiling. The smile was mostly business, but he was curious.
Charlie said, “Gross, huh?”
“She said she didn’t know if they could do that.”
Charlie laughed. A sincere laugh, if sad. “She’ll get the hang of it.”
The kid sipped his whiskey. A slight grimace.
“What’s your name?” said Charlie, wishing he hadn’t.
“How ya doing, Charlie.”
Charlie whispered the name Mark to himself, and linked it to the freckle on the kid’s hand to help him remember. It was the business side of him did that.
He pointed to the tv. Names and scores on the screen. “You guys are Greedo, huh?”
“Greedo and Lando. Brando and Deniro sometimes.”
“All those names end with o,” said Charlie.
“Sometimes they’re Rommel. It depends who shows up.”
Charlie checked the high scores. They all ended in o, except Rommel and Stinky.
“They’re Stinky, too,” said Mark.
“How come they, not we?”
“I don’t really play anymore.”
“I’m sick of it.”
“It’s like a ref’s whistle, that thing.”
“A ref’s whistle?”
The kid nodded, slapping a pack of cigarettes against his hand. “Everything stops when it blows.”
“I see,” said Charlie.
The kid pulled out a cigarette, tapped the filter end on the bar. “You can be in the middle of something, in the middle of a really great story or something. Then a question pops up and everything gets put on hold until you pick an answer.” He put the cigarette in his mouth, struck a match, talked with his lips clamped. “Then there’s this silent waiting period until you see if you got it right. You start talking again, and before you know it the next question is up.”
“The whistle has blown.”
The kid blew smoke, drummed his hands on the bar, said “Exactly.”
Commotion over at the table where the kid’s friends were. They were yelling his name and pointing at the tv.
“I think they need help,” said Charlie.
The kid looked to the tv, read the questions, waited for the answers to pop. When they did, he held his fingers in the shape of a c.
Charlie stopped washing mugs, eyes on the tv. Answers dropped out one by one, until only c remained. Charlie said, “You were right.”
“That was easy. I had a whole semester of it.”
“I meant about the whistle.”
“Ah,” said the kid, nodding. He raised his glass in toast and smiled.
Charlie hung the mugs up to dry. “If you don’t like it, why do you play?”
The kid rubbed his neck and flicked ash.
Yep, thought Charlie.
“We used to get together and talk. Drink, laugh. Have fun. We used to go over to Wayne’s house and just hang out.”
Neither of them spoke. Charlie knew what was coming. He didn’t want it to. But the business part of him reached for the bottle as the kid pushed his glass forward. Charlie poured the kid his whiskey and said, “I think your friends want you back.”
The kid turned to look. One of them was motioning frantically for him to return. Another held his hands as if to say, what the hell are you doing? The third was looking up at the tv.
The kid signaled just a minute, then turned back to Charlie.
“Sometimes people drove by Wayne’s house just to see if we were hanging out on the porch. If we were, they’d stop and hang out for a while.”
“People know a good thing when they see one,” said Charlie.
“Nobody comes by here to see if we’re hanging out.”
Charlie nodded and shook his head at the same time.
Charlie said, “‘Course.”
“It’s not like they don’t know where to find us.”
Charlie hung mugs up to dry. “Guess you could go where they are.”
The kid held his glass of whiskey against his cheek like a cold compress. Charlie glanced down the bar to a balding, overweight man in his forties, drinking alone. The kid kept talking.
“It wouldn’t be the same without these guys. Those others, they came and went, you know?”
Charlie said he knew.
“On the porch, it always started with us. If anyone else showed up, that was fine. And when they left, that was fine too, because it was still us. It always ended with us.” The kid took a final drag off his cigarette. “We never go to the porch anymore.”
“This’ll blow over,” said Charlie. “Things change.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” said the kid, stubbing out his cigarette. “I think they already have.”
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