This one should be good. “Did I ever tell you about the time I killed my Grandfather?” Mark asks with a grin. Earlier tonight, with more urgency, he had asked me to run the container of empty brown bottles to the recycling bin.
“Nope,” I laugh, pouring Kettle One over a tall tumbler of ice. I haven’t laughed in hours, though usually when Mark and I work together we have fun. Tonight was not a good night, and I’m feeling more anxious than usual to get the last sloppy drunk out of the building and sit with Mark for a few drinks of our own.
This particular night had been longer and more irritating than usual. I was moody from the very beginning of my shift, when Spencer’s friends came in. He and the kids he grew up with are now, though fun-loving and good tippers, a group of young elitists. They grew up together in our town’s most expensive area, known for its hilly acres and gated entrance. Each had gone away for his four years of college before returning home to take over the family practice or business. Spencer wasn’t with them tonight, and I knew I could forget about him. His friends flirted with me tonight, and I knew he must speak to them about me with the same emphasis he might speak of an appetizer he liked from his favorite menu.
Mark watches as I poured V8 over the vodka. “This is the grandfather who practically raised me and my brother. I mean, the old man was at every. last. one of our soccer games-every one- took us to all the practices too. Took us and picked us up. Right, and he didn’t know the first thing about soccer, our dad taught us how to play soccer, but it made Pap happy, you know, to be involved somehow. Yeah.” Mark pauses, relaxing his face with a fluttering upwards glance, and lifts his beer before continuing. “Yeah. And if it wasn’t soccer, it was fishing. The fucker lived to fish.”
Mark has a unique way of talking about people. For him, calling his grandfather a fucker is not different than calling him a saint. A good bartender leaves emotional embellishment out of his stories. Most people have some ulterior motive in telling a story. They’ll attach personal sentiment to a story to inspire the listener’s pity for the speaker. Or they tell a biased version that allows them to portray themselves in a righteous light. Mark doesn’t do any of that.
He keeps talking, about his grandfather fishing, and then about the time his grandfather was arrested when he was caught teaching Mark driving lessons at age 11. This story is taking longer than usual. Finishing my first drink, I nod at Mark to show I’m still listening and move back behind the bar to build another one.
At this point my mind is wandering, and I remember that The Sad Lady had been in earlier that night. The Sad Lady has thinning hair, bleached strands teased violently in hopes of achieving an illusion of thickness. She always wears a smear of blue eye-shadow, a dry ocean wash magnified behind coke-bottle glasses. I’ve always avoided talking to her, afraid of her bad luck with men, and the heavy flesh surging beneath her too-tight jeans. I always give the appearance of being in a hurry when delivering her gin and tonics, afraid that a conversation with her might invite her plague into my own life. Mark talks to her though. Tonight she was at her worst, because the man she’d left the bar with last week had turned out to be married. Her cat had been missing for six days. Her mother had called. “Sometimes,” I had watched her say to Mark, looking up from the bubbles she had inspired with her straw, “I know there’s no point, and I just want this life to be over.”
I added more Worcestershire sauce this time and more Tabasco too. The flavor’s always good, but never spicy enough for me. I glance at Mark, who’s paused to sip from his Guinness. “One night I had been out all night partying. Now this was… ooh, 9 years ago? And I came home at about 5, and Anthony said to me, ‘hey man, your mom called’, and I’m thinking, ‘yeah, so?’. You know, because I’d been out all night, just doing lines left and right, offa mirrors this long--cuz in those days, there was plenty of that shit to be had, not that I still would even be interested--but this town was like a ski resort in those days, there was so much blow. Anyway, Anthony knew I was all fucked up, but he had to tell me. Yeah, so my grandfather had drowned while I was out getting all fucked up.”
I raised my eyebrows at Mark and waited for him to continue. “I knew he hadn’t really killed his grandfather”, I thought as I remixed my Bloody Mary. I ground pepper on top and added more Old Bay. Mark’s always telling me to try adding Guinness to thicken it up, so I tip some of his draft into the shaker.
It burns my throat, and Mark waits for my coughing to subside before he continues. “He had a lot of heath problems when he got up there in years. He had just had a tracheotomy, and so was missing the flap that keeps the fluids you drink from flooding your lungs”, Mark opened his mouth and pointed to where his grandfathers flap should be. “Anything he drank had to be mixed with this stuff that thickened it, so it wouldn’t fill his lungs. Or the fucker would die. But I didn’t know that-I had been in Florida for a month with my girlfriend, and this tracheotomy business happened while I was gone. But the hospital’s on the way home from the airport, so I stopped in to see Pap on my way home. And we’re sitting there, and we’re talking. But I mean really, he’s whispering, can barely make a sound, and I got my ear-literally!- right next to his mouth, like this” and Mark bends down and puts his ear to my face, “because he’s so raspy and shit. I can not hear a word he’s saying!
“So I offer him some water, and the bitch’s eyes just light up! He reaches with both hands for this big glass of water, and just chugs it, and when he’s done, I fill the glass up again and he drinks all of that too. And then I can hear him just fine. And we talk. I mean it was like I was a kid again, asking him for advice, and he’s givin’ some real insight for the first time in years-because the fuckers goin’ on 80, at this point, and hasn’t really been making much sense in years. I spent about three hours with him that day, and, yeah… It was a great visit, and we were both happy, I mean really laughing and understanding each other. And that night he died.”
I’m staring at Mark as he walks around to the other end of the bar to pour himself another beer. He calls over to me, “My whole family knows that I gave him water, and they’re glad. We all thought it was better this way. I don’t regret it a bit.” The Guinness keg kicks as he pours his draft. “Shit,” Mark said, and goes back into the cooler to change the keg. I feel the straw in my mouth and take a large gulp of my drink.
It ignites the path of my throat, oozing along in one blazing lump, but I sit motionless, and a spicy tear rolls down my cheek and into my Bloody Mary.
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