This is a bar. People forget things. Everything can’t go in the trash. Pop had already packed up the shrines. They went in a vodka box, separated in the sleeves meant for bottles, except for one shrine, left out on the bar when I got there. A shot glass. A Bruins/Penguins ticket from 1994. A pocket Bible with golden edging to the pages.
This mean anything to you? Hockey fan, but who? Been driving us nuts.
You’ve asked around?
Yeah, nobody remembers who this guy was.
Pop was shuffling now. Not that the regulars would have noticed—some of them couldn’t say if he had feet or hooves down there. He reached out now for walls and doorways.
Wednesday and Thursday made good on threats about a nor’easter. Pop and I made some additions to the throwaway pile. Nobody came in at the same time, and this meant I went through the same routine with a couple different people. They’d see me hauling a fridge out the front door and want to spit on me. Thinking I was a repo-man or something. Then they’d recognize me and take it back. I’d have to stop what I was doing for a while and have a conversation about how nobody drinks in a bar anymore, and why that is, and what would become of Harm’s Way.
You drink at home now: that was Roland’s theory. Where you can’t get pulled over. It’s safer. But only if you like your family.
Pop wasn’t going to accept any help pouring drinks but I wasn’t going to give him a choice at the party. It took everyone a while to get used to the idea that drinks were free. They kept patting their pockets. Pop let Roland, Oz, and Jeanne light up inside.
There were toasts in praise of my father. Gerry had written his down. I got a look at his handwriting and it was beautiful, like a note from an emperor. Gerry was eighty. The others not far behind. Only Gerry came in on Friday fully prepared to say his goodbyes. The others were still catching up, and for some of them, it followed the waterline. As a kid I used to think of this as the glow. There was a filament that slowly came on as people drank; it woke up what they were feeling.
Eduardo took it upon himself to try a sip from all the dusty bottles in the cabinet. I watched him take a mouthful of advocaat, lean over the bar, and spit it into the sink. Marlene wore a black dress beaded all over like armor. It was fine to bear a shoulder, the heat was cranking, that was a bill Pop wouldn’t pay.
They all chipped in and bought Pop a fish finder. Oz must have wrapped it in his garage; there were grease-stains all over the newspaper. Pop couldn’t get used to the fact that he didn’t have to keep washing glasses, so he kept washing glasses, and while he was doing this I asked him—fish finder?
I bought a boat, said Pop.
The bar closed on Friday. Gerry had his stroke the following Tuesday. Pop didn’t call me about it until Thursday night. He chose his timing. He didn’t want to obligate me to come back after I’d just been there. We’re talking about a five-hour drive.
Jeanne took charge of planning the wake. She and Gerry lived in the same apartment complex and they used to share rides to Harm’s Way. It couldn’t take place at her place.
None of the regulars had entered Pop’s home before, except for Roland, who’d stayed in my former bedroom for four nights about ten years ago, when his wife kicked him out. Roland pointed out updates that had happened since then. No more VCR.
There was no reason to buy anything to drink except beer, because Pop still had a lot of liquor from Harm’s Way. Jeanne bought the beer, the flowers, got the photo of Gerry blown up and framed, and brought some of his old clothes to see if there were any takers.
The toasts were good but not as good as the ones for Pop, because the timing was off, people weren’t drunk enough, and it felt as though they’d just done this a week ago. Nobody said anything about it making sense that the regulars would start dying off after Harm’s Way closed—until Eduardo did say this, he said, Hmmm, it makes sense…. His delivery was good, he sounded like a renowned detective.
I tried to keep drinks in their hands. If I didn’t, Pop would, and I wanted him off his feet. It took a few hours until the regulars settled down and found their spots, mostly on the couch. Marlene chose the kitchen table. Pop made his way toward the mantel, where the photo of Gerry watched over the room. Gerry would have wanted this, he said, and that was the whole toast. He reached into the pocket of his sweater, pulled out a shot glass and turned it over on the mantel. Then everyone walked up and added what they wanted to add. I watched Jeanne’s fingers as they slid a folded piece of paper under the glass.
I got a chance to talk to Gerry’s half-sister. She was the only family member that could make it, and she made it late, probably better for her sake, the regulars are best appreciated doing what they do best, which is drinking and giving each other a hard time. She didn’t know she should bring something. Didn’t know about the shrines. She was anxious about whether someone had told her and she had forgotten. She left around the time Jeanne asked Pop for the remote control and put on a basketball game. Gerry would have wanted it, she said.
Roland, Eduardo, Oz, and Pop passed out in front of Pop’s TV. Jeanne cleaned. Marlene helped. You could tell Marlene hadn’t dried a glass in a while. She didn’t have the natural movements. Each facet of each glass she had to check by eye. I can zip you home, I told her. Let’s get some of the others up, I’ll do a run.
Let them sleep, said Marlene. Mop the drool off in the morning.
Roland was snoring. The rest were silent, heads back on the big sectional, like kids sucked to the wall on the Gravitron. I imagined the blood sucked to the backs of their bodies, making them pale at the front. I wanted the blood to keep flowing through them without interruption.
Pop did the driving to and from the city. He didn’t like my car, wanted to take his truck instead, and this meant he was going to drive, not me, which was okay, I know he’s still a good driver, but it also meant he felt justified to give me a hard time for dragging him to this doctor and not even driving him there. I know it doesn’t make sense. There isn’t much you can do about inner ear problems, according to this doctor. Sometimes they clear up, sometimes not.
But you have to admit there are limitations.
Can’t run or shoot a basket anymore. That’s about it.
Have you fallen down?
What would you say if I moved in for a while?
I’d say there’s no room. Look at my living room.
The regulars were there when we left that morning. They were still there when we came back. In the last few days they’d made two liquor store runs and almost everyone had contributed to making a meal (not Roland, but no one expected it of him). Tonight’s meal was Marlene’s, pot roast, still sitting on the stove, she’d gone out.
For more Seagrams, maybe?
She hasn’t been here since Saturday.
Get your eyes checked, fool. She cooked what you’re eating.
She’s lucky. She doesn’t have to put up with this sorry excuse for a referee…. Look! He’s fouled her Marcus out of the game.
I got a call most Sundays from Jeanne, and she would fill me in on whatever Pop hadn’t, which was usually a lot, she likes an ear. Jeanne kept me satisfied that the house wasn’t going to burn down.
Pop let Eduardo build a coop for his geese in the backyard. These were not pre-existing geese; they were geese chicks Eduardo got from who knows who, because he’d always wanted to raise geese. Geese are fairly quiet—they don’t do the rooster thing at dawn. There weren’t a lot of neighbors around to complain.
Roland moved into my old room for the second time in his life. He seemed fine on the couch until he did something to his back, said Pop. Now he’s fine again. But there’s a bunch of your old stuff we had to get rid of. We found an old suitcase under your bed with some porno mags and bottle of whiskey. Oz drank the whiskey. He raised one in your honor. You steal that from the bar? Course you did, you probably cleaned me out of plenty.
I pulled a hey-mister for that bottle. It was Will’s idea.
What a rebel. Will’s idea. Well, it’s gone now so you don’t have to drink it. You know, you could have made one hell of a pool player? The world’s only endless supply of free games.
Jeanne got a space of her own. She stayed in the trailer in the backyard. It used to be my mom’s trailer. It was where she did her work, coordinating the arrival of the fair, and it used to live on the fairground, it was the only trailer that stayed there year-round, but then when there was no more fair, it came to the backyard, and it sat empty for at least twenty years, snow after snow on that roof, until Jeanne came. Whatever she cleared out of there I never found.
During one of Jeanne’s calls she made me take her through how to use a sports betting app she had downloaded. We got nowhere for a half hour and I toyed with the idea of driving there over the weekend and showing her in person. Then I got the idea that I probably shouldn’t do too good a job showing her. Nobody had any money. I knew Pop was floating the house to some degree. It raised questions, but I figured, they’re adults, they’ll figure it out, they managed to build a goose coop, and the geese were thriving, from what I heard. Only Roland was scared to eat the eggs.
Then one of the geese turned up one morning, scratched up and scared. Eduardo figured rats. Squirrels don’t scratch like that. Yeah, that construction site. They went down far laying the foundations, opened up a sewer, yeah. All of that jackhammering made the rats berserk. Pop? Didn’t you find a dead rat in your engine? Rats everywhere! Look at Snowy, she’s trembling!
Eduardo and Roland went down to the construction site. They were right, there were rats, and it didn’t seem like anyone was in a rush to come back and put a building there. They bought a bunch of rat traps at a discount from the hardware store where Roland still put in some hours, got loaded, and put the traps wherever they thought rats would find them.
Most of what I got I got second-hand. I didn’t know what kind of traps Eduardo and Roland set, but I pictured the big black ones that are set up like a Tunnel of Love. I didn’t know what my old bedroom looked like now with all my old junk cleared from the shelf, how many geese were in the coop, any of it, but I stayed in touch enough to get the gist. I could picture it, or at least some of it, and I thought I could fill in the rest. A footrest locking into position, the sure feeling of it under your heels. The fried potato smell of the kitchen, something that probably still had something to do with what my mom used to cook, if you want to get down to the particle level. Jeanne smoking a Kool with her smoking hand held out the half-open patio door; Eduardo trying to get a fat, white goose to eat out of his hand; Oz fiddling around with a vacuum that never worked right; Roland looking over at Oz’s shiny, spotty head with an expression anyone could mistake for hatred; and Marlene at the kitchen table, gazing into a middle-space between all this and waiting for someone to find her eyes and tell her what a chatterbox she is today.
One Sunday Jeanne called, completely shitfaced. I could hear Pop hollering something in the room. Don’t you dare…
Oz is on the moon tonight, my darling! You remember that daughter of his, the one who ran the hair salon—now she doesn’t run anything? The bitch tried to put him in a home! Now—what did she call it? A facility.
Don’t you dare try that on me!
She came in like she owned the place! Bags all packed and everything. No wonder her hair salon closed! She’s as bald as Oz! Miserable woman. Talking this and that. Oz needs this, Oz needs that.
I’ve got everything I need! Oz hollered.
That’s right, darling. We won. Shoved that half-bald bitch right out the door! Good riddance! Look, you know about these sorts of things…. You don’t think she has any sort of legal standing, do you? The Angel said he didn’t know.
He doesn’t know. What do you think?
She put a hand over the receiver but I could still hear the room roaring behind her. By the time she picked up again, she’d lost track of what she wanted to ask me about lawyers. Look, the Angel says hello, but I really need to get back to it now.
The Fourth of July fell on a Wednesday so I took the week off. Eduardo gave me an order for fireworks. Also during that call I got Pop on the line and told him if he wanted we could have a look at the boat together. I’d been prying information out of him about this boat for six months now. When he’d bought her. Where she was dry-docked. What kind of fishing he planned to do. The boat talk was my way of reminding him that he could still do something that made a little more sense. Really I didn’t care whether he ever got her in the water—your boat, you do what you want with her. But you don’t buy a boat without a dream.
We lit off the fireworks I brought in the front yard and in the street. Eduardo didn’t want to scare the geese. He could stand in the street and skip a bottle rocket off the pavement without worrying that it would hit a car, a goose, or another person. I heard some sirens but the regulars didn’t budge. You walk a few blocks over and you’ll find some activity, said Oz. The boys got bigger fish to fry. As a kid I probably would have loved these high-weeded yards and empty houses. Walk right in and decide what you want to do with a place. Now I feared arsonists. But the house had Oz. There was now a locked cabinet that contained his gun collection. It was in the corner where the Christmas tree goes.
They’d unpacked all the shrines and put them on the mantel. It wasn’t just Gerry’s anymore, it was everyone’s, all the dead regulars, even the Bruins fan nobody remembered. I’m not sure whose idea it was to turn the living room into a graveyard. This was different than the bar, they had to face these things while poking around in their breakfast cereal, but it didn’t seem to bother them. The dead were there but they weren’t there to make trouble.
I thought I’d see Marlene on the Fourth, but when she didn’t show I asked Pop about it. We were standing by the grill. Pop had a long set of tongs in his hands, ready to swat me away if I got too close. The regulars were standing around, too.
We told her she should come tonight—Jeanne, you called her, didn’t you? It’s not like we’re not in touch with her. She’s always welcome here. She might have something else going on, who knows. She doesn’t like it when we call your pop the Angel. No, she doesn’t. She never drank as much as the rest of us. No, she did. She could drink. But in all those years in Harm’s Way we never saw her really drunk. How do you explain that? I miss her. I miss her, too! She probably just wants to sleep in a real bed. Get her beauty sleep. She could use a little more of that. You could use a nice, long coma, Roland. She probably has a boyfriend. Good for her. You can be my boyfriend, Snowy. Get Snowy away from that grill!
Pop was watching the burgers and the dogs, or maybe the coals. Marlene’s welcome any time, he said. Go inside and check. There’s a bottle of Seagrams with her name on it.
This was true. They had taken to writing their names on their bottles with a marker. There was no point to it with beers, but for the booze they had a system.
At some point on the Fourth I went on a booze run with Oz. We took Oz’s car. It was a Crown Vic he bought at a police auction. Who knows who did the paint job, but basically they just spray painted over the white parts with black, and while Oz always talked about repainting it, everyone knew this would never happen because the current guys on the force all knew Oz’s car the way it was and that was its main virtue, you couldn’t get pulled over in it.
He drove past the liquor store I knew growing up, closed now, to a new one, where we saw two kids keying a car in the parking lot. Oz stopped short in the Vic, sprang out, and put the fear of god into these 12-year-olds. They were using a coat-hanger instead of a key. I’d have thought these kids would run, but instead they just stood rooted to the spot and took it, spit and all. They were both crying by the end. The one with the coat hanger put it in Oz’s hands. Then they booked it. I know that car, said Oz. I don’t know the owner but it’s a beautiful car, I’ve seen it around.
After we bought the booze and loaded it in, he took me around to the real shitty part of the neighborhood. They’re all boarded up right now, doesn’t look like there are people around. There are. They’re on the vampire schedule. Let’s face it, there’s no one left to complain. The smart ones move away. So what are we going to do? Not move away. Work? Jeanne tried driving for an app but it took her a week to get a fare. The guy didn’t like her. Gave her one star. Took her another week to get another fare. That guy gave her five stars, go figure, these things don’t say why. She quit the week after. The point is, what we’re doing, over at Pop’s, it makes a lot more sense than anything else. What he’s done for us, it isn’t so different than what he always used to do, it’s just official now.
I asked about money.
We all chip in what we can. Some of us could afford better than the cheap stuff.
I want to ask you a favor. You tell me if Pop puts that boat up for sale.
I doubt he will. She’s in the water. He found a place down by the canals.
Pop drew three bars on a notepad and put an X on one of them. The boat didn’t have a name, and the trim was common blue, so I had to get a couple more distinguishing marks out of him before I could be sure I could find the thing.
The docks were down an embankment where washouts had buried a concrete staircase. There was a chance I had smoked weed here in high school. Pop couldn’t be paying much to rent the mooring, least I hoped not, this stretch of the canals had clearly flooded before. A boat had sunk. It sat in the silt like a waterpark whale.
I stepped aboard the boat I thought was Pop’s. One of the cleaner ones, with nice round lines to her. She had a small cabin. I found some cans of tuna, a little hotplate, and a battery-operated radio I didn’t recognize from Pop’s house. I figured I might be on the wrong boat, so I stepped back onto the dock to have another look around.
Marlene was picking her footing down the buried staircase. Clutching a brown paper bag to her chest. I waited until her feet found solid ground again. She looked up and the bag slipped in her hands, but she recovered it, threw her eyes over at the boat, back at me, and asked whether Pop had sent me down.
I kinda talked my way into it, I said. What are you doing here?
I come down here and pump the engine sometimes. Make sure everything runs. It’s a nice place to be.
She nodded her head to the water and I swear I saw a condom float by.
C’mon inside, said Marlene. Have a drink with me.
She took a bottle of Seagrams out of the paper bag. There was only one mug around so we shared it.
There’s something you’re missing, said Marlene. And your father wouldn’t like me to say it, I’m sure. You know how he is about personal things. But you’re a big boy now, aren’t you, and you can keep a secret, can’t you. It’s no big secret, really. Pop and I enjoy each other’s company. You spend thirty years in a bar together there are bound to be some feelings. Pop was never very vocal—you know how he is. He’s never told the others. But there it is. Don’t you dare tell those freeloaders.
I doubt they’d care.
I want you to know this was never going on while your mother was around. It’s a recent thing only. I only met her the few times, but she always seemed like such an elegant person.
I couldn’t trace the overlap; later, I tried, but I’m convinced we were never all under one roof together. The closest I got was this image of Marlene the way she looks now and my mother the way she looked then, sitting on Pop’s couch and staring at a blank TV, which I know is a complete fabrication.
Let me turn over the engine and I’ll get out of your hair.
I’ll show you how, said Marlene.
It took a few tries, a few pumps in between, but the engine did get started, and when that happened she was grinning in my face, so it was like her grin produced the growl and the smell of oil and the vapors snaking up behind her.
I didn’t see Pop or the regulars again until Christmas. The day I was supposed to drive, I was up before dawn for no reason, so parts of my route were completely empty of cars. I missed an exit. I could see myself miss it and knew for some seconds that I could probably still swerve things right—but still.
They’d gone all-out on Christmas decorations. The house was wrapped in multicolored lights and there was an inflatable Santa with his sleigh in the front yard. The only other lights on the block were street lamps. I’d barely got myself in the door when Oz launched his sales pitch for the fish finder. This thing is worth $300 retail. Make me an offer.
There was a lot of Roland giving Eduardo shit about Snowy being on the menu for Christmas dinner, and a lot of Eduardo rattling Roland’s presents beside his ear and naming different types of coal: anthracite, bituminous, sub-bituminous, he must have looked these up. No idea where or why they found a tree so tall; the top quarter was pressed up against the ceiling, which made the whole thing look like it was about to bend down and tie your shoe. It was sagging with all the ornaments they’d all brought from their various closets.
I helped Jeanne make the eggnog. We made it from scratch, with a real batter beat from goose egg yolks. She poured in a bottle each of bourbon and rum, top shelf stuff tonight. Then she tasted it, said something was off, and added a quart of the store-bought stuff.
I stuck to the nog, while the others sipped on it in addition to their regular drinks, and they were eating all kinds of snacks, too, pigs-in-blankets, chips and salsa, a pre-made tray of cocktail shrimp, and some other shrimp Eduardo made a ceviche out of and nobody but he and I wanted to touch. People were plastered by the time Pop told me to set the table. There was far too much food: macaroni salad, lasagna, tenderloin, gravy, mashed potatoes, pickles, a Caesar salad with chicken, Jeanne just kept pulling things out of the fridge. None of the regulars wanted to sit down yet, so they didn’t, but I was hungry, so I sat down. Pop went and fixed himself a plate. Good thing we didn’t cook that goose.
Course we wouldn’t. The eggs are great. You can make an omelette out of one of them.
Pop grimaced at his whiskey. He started to get up from his chair and I told him, stay put, I’ll get you whatever you want, but he wasn’t having it, so he stood up, grasping his way along the chair backs until he got steady on his feet. He went into the kitchen, came back with a bottle of wine, and poured himself one. Merry Christmas, he said.
I’m going to have to take back your present. I got you a captain’s hat.
That’s alright. We’ll find a use for it. You know, there’s something you ought to know about the boat thing. Later on in July I went down to check on her. I was dreading it, because the stairs on the canal are difficult for me now. But I made it down, and when I got on deck I got this feeling someone had been on her. I thought it was probably kids. So I waited there. Ended up waiting all night. I didn’t want to try the stairs in the dark. You hear all the animal sounds, birds I’d never heard before, and the frogs, it’s a wilder place than you would think. Didn’t sleep too good. I heard later that regulars were about to call the Coast Guard on me. Anyway, around dawn I hear footsteps, wake up, and there’s Marlene. She sees me on the boat, I see her on the dock. I’ve never seen that woman look so happy in my life. Only time I’ve seen her look happier was the night my bar closed. We went in the cabin and had a drink. And we had a long talk. She had this dream and I had to sit there and listen to it. We were going to sit together on the other side of a bar in a place where no one knew us. There was going to be no one who needed anything from me. There was going to be…. Wait, I want to remember what she said. Rain on our roof. She had thought through all this and she could tell it to me with a straight face. I had to sit there and listen with no idea what to say. I don’t understand how she came to the bar every night. You know she was the one who convinced me to get the fancy dartboard no one used? I don’t understand how she did it to herself. Sat in that corner and watched me and knew I don’t know. This is hard to put to you. What can I say to her? I must have known at some point, but now I don’t know.
I didn’t know. That’s what I told Pop. We could have left it there and it would have been true. But I was drinking and I had words and what I wanted to talk about was Will. You remember Will. Will and I used to fuck back in high school. We were both still virgins and probably sixteen. We liked it. Then we got girlfriends. Then we moved away. But Will lives not far from me now and he got in touch out of the blue about five, six years ago. He says hello, by the way.
I say hello back.
I’ll let him know. So we’re at this bar and we’re running out of things to say about our current lives, and so we give it up. We go into what it was like. To be here, to do what we could and to have something ours and not theirs. Make a little space for ourselves among the people who didn’t care about us—I’m not talking about you, you were always good to Will, he had a rough go, he felt at home when he was here. It was feeling good to speak on things, sitting across from someone who had been there and could understand—and just when it was feeling so good, I hadn’t had a drink in a while and I was just the right amount of drunk and wondering why I didn’t drink more often, Will remembered that he hated me. Those were the words he used. I grew to hate you, he said.
I said, Will, come on. Will said: I hate all of you. All the oblivious ones. You have it so easy.
The moment I stopped talking I started doubting whether anything I had said applied at all to Pop. You’re a goddamn mystery, he said. I try to ask you a question—a direct question—and you bring out a whole box of questions yourself. What am I supposed to do with that?
He used my shoulder to steady himself up to standing. Then he bent down across my shoulders and kissed my face, over by my ear. A wine glass hit his arm and wobbled. Then he sat back down and started asking questions.
Someone knocked the bowl of eggnog over in the other room. No one expected the Angel to help clean it up, so he didn’t, I didn’t either, because I was with him and he was saying something I was trying to follow. There were dreams of being ripped apart, bludgeoned, sucked up into the sky at the speed of falling. But these were not death-dreams, he didn’t die, and sometimes to not die felt fine, and he woke up happy, and sometimes he woke up lost. He couldn’t remember whether there had been a time in his life when he was less oblivious. He talked about the roof and how he’d never given it much thought before it started leaking over Mom’s side of the bed. The rain had turned to heavy snow and it was sticking. We closed around the idea that Marlene should know.
If we were going to do this, we had to take Oz’s car. It was blocking Pop’s truck anyway. The Vic was heavy enough to tamp down the snow and keep us out of any real trouble. She had Oz’s smell in her, the hair oil smell. I was driving, and I was going to drive slow, but we were pretty giddy. We didn’t know what we would say to Marlene—we probably should have called first—but we’d said so much already, it’s like we’d practiced, we’d know what to say when we got there.
We found a good station that wasn’t playing Christmas music. We knew there was no possible way we’d get pulled over. I had to fight some urges. The pedal was flimsy under my foot. Then we hit a 4-way stop sign, quiet neighborhood, better neighborhood than Pop’s, plenty of lights on the houses, and I look over at my passenger, and he gives me a nod, so I go for it, even though the nod isn’t supposed to mean anything. I won’t get carried away and do anything crazy. Just a little juice. I’ve done this plenty of times, but not in twenty years and maybe not on snow this wet. The Vic’s tires are spinning and spitting snow up at the undercarriage. I can run my thumb along the edge and not get cut. This won’t end us. Maybe me, but not the Angel. The Angel can’t be killed. Will doesn’t know what hate is. The multicolored lights on the houses make these pretty warp-speed streaks while we’re in the turn, then snap back to the way they really are at the end. Dots again.
The Angel has to tell me that I shouldn’t stick around. I won’t, but I’ll watch him make his way up her walkway. See if he slips. Watch him stomp his boots on the dry concrete under the eave. After that it’s like waking up in someone else’s bedroom. A steering wheel that’s too large in my hands—and are the headlights really on, or did I drive all the way here in darkness?
Benjamin Henry DeVries’s work has appeared in The Baffler, Bodega, Silver Operation and elsewhere. He lives and works in Belgium, and is currently getting over a back injury (so please hit him up with any book recommendations that seem helpful for getting through pain). This story probably wouldn’t have happened without the song “Here Comes a Regular” by The Replacements (try playing it along with the story, if you’re into that kind of thing).