— A Short Story by Andrew Harkless
It had been more than twenty years since the last time I shared thoughts and stories while throwing back cold drafts at the neighborhood bar with my childhood friend, Danny. After a two decade hiatus we were both home in PA again…sadly.
The Bent Spoke still looked the same as the first time I had ventured in for an illegal drink. Back then, an older kid from the neighborhood bounced for the place. Terry had no reservations about allowing a seventeen year old football player through the front door after glancing blindly at my under twenty one ID.
I took in the stale air and dust-heavy neons—remains of cigarette smoking college students who used to pack The Spoke. Half their drinks sloshing to the beaten oak floor as they shuffled hip and shoulder-checking from bar to bathroom, again and again. Arriving at the U-shaped, wainscot skirted bar, I couldn’t help wonder if the current Friday happy hour crowd reflected a changing of the guard or if I simply didn’t recognize my middle-aged high school peers hunkering on barstools over the green laminate bar top.
It didn’t matter. They had abandoned me just as much by staying in our quaint, tired town as I had by scouring the globe for everything not found here.
I was early and took a vacant seat. A cute, youthfully perky bartender approached me after using her charms to accommodate what appeared to be a weathered regular three times her age.
“Hi there!” she chimed.
“What can I get ya?” She folded her arms across the bar top and perched her chin on top, still holding a temptress smile.
“Ahhhh…” Only one drink came to mind. “How about a 22 ounce Rolling Rock?” I asked, squinting to find the logo on the tap handles.
“We only have pints and we don’t sell Rolling Rock,” she frowned. “You from here?”
“A long time ago…back when they had 22 ounce drafts,” I sighed. “Just a pint of Bud Lite would be fine then.”
“You got it!”
I checked my watch in the nick of time before getting busted for taking the liberty of admiring her apple-like behind as she poured my draft.
“Here ya go! Start you a tab?”
“Please. I’m meeting someone.”
“What’s your name handsome?”
“No problem, Barry,” she winked. “I’m Sherry!” We locked smiles and then Sherry was on to erase any despair from the next customer’s day.
I sipped my beer while mentally recalling the last time Danny and I were here…and why. It was a long time ago, but I still remembered that day and our conversation, vividly. Having almost 30 minutes to kill, I replayed that conversation in my head—parts of it anyway.
That conversation started with a phone call two hours earlier, the reason for which, I don’t recall. I do remember there was something off about Danny during that call—something concerning. I could hear it in his voice. He was artificially, forcefully chipper instead of exuding his naturally sarcastic but amiable demeanor. Funny, I knew the reason. I had known for a long time. It was time someone reached out, so I had him agree to meet me at The Spoke. We met that afternoon in almost the exact seats where I sit now. We spoke (no pun intended) initially over a couple of drinks in our usual smart-ass vernacular—good natured ribbing. By the third kamikaze, our conversation turned demonstrative.
I turned sideways in my stool to face Danny as he sat facing the back bar, nervously stirring his drink. “So you say you met someone special, but…”
“But what?” he said, glancing quickly at me with a bashful smile.
“Well, you don’t seem very…happy?”
“I am. What do you want from me?” he snapped with comedic hostility.
“You said I don’t know this person. Have you introduced this mysterious lover to your parents yet?”
Danny squirmed in his chair. “I just can’t.”
“Sure you can. You have to,” I said, leaning forward and lightly placing my hand on his shoulder. “They love you; your brother loves you; your friends love you. Hell, Danny,” I tactfully scanned our surroundings with only my rolling eyes before finishing my sentiment, “I love you. You’re a good person.”
I could see the tears start to well up in Danny’s left eye.
“There are things you just don’t understand.”
“You ready for another kamikaze?” he asked, glancing quickly at me a couple times while feigning laughter to masquerade his emotions. “I’m ready for another shot. Bartender!”
“Danny,” I whispered, “look at me.”
“What,” he said, whipping his vodka tonic fast as a blender.
“Look at me.”
“What? I’m ordering shots,” he laughed.
“Okay! I’m looking,” he said as demurely as a fourteen year old girl. “Why do you want me to look at you?”
“I know,” I sighed. My brow raised and my lips clenched and rounded downward. “I’ve always known. It’s going to be all right…but you need to take the chance.”
Danny’s eyes blinked fast trying to restrain his tears, but it was no use. My eyes welled in response as he choked out, “Thank you.”
Everything was the same but different after his last two words. We stayed at The Spoke for the next couple of hours, talking, laughing, joking, while drinking kamikaze’s, vodka tonics, and 22 oz. Rolling Rocks.
“Barry. Barry! Hey, Barry, are you awake?”
The word awake, as well as someone’s hand on my back, brought me back from my daydream. I turned to find Jeremy standing beside me in a black suit and tie. I hadn’t seen Jeremy for almost as long as I’d not seen Danny. He looked remarkably well. Well as could be expected for someone who had just lost his friend, his lover, his spouse of nearly twenty one years.
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