The outside sign had lost its luster, rain and snow outlasting wood and paint. There was a curve of what once was maybe an S, nothing but a mini crescent moon now. Arnold Heymaker didn’t really care, only the NEON in the window blinking OPEN did.
Arnold or Arn, as his landscaping crew co-workers called him, was a regular at the rail though he never talked. He often passed the bartender walking his dog up near the wood fence palisade that separated the apartment buildings from private homes, squalor from scented bathrooms. Arn didn’t reach down and say in a respectful little coddling voice…”nice little doggie.” No, he didn’t say a word because, as a kid, he was bitten by a Dalmation. He bought a piano later in life to slam the black and white keys, crush his fear of Dalmations, of dogs, but it didn’t do a damn thing. He crossed the street when a dog neared. The bartender never asked why.
Arn always tapped the bar’s wooden door four times before entering, a symbolic gesture of three bases and a plate, a cycle, a completion of one’s long journey, a return home, this watering hole, a place where he never had to speak because the bartender knew exactly what he wanted.
He slipped in quietly and doffed his green baseball cap towards the bartender. There was an elderly couple at the rail, right beside a man with a mustache and an afro bowl of curly hair. He held a slab of wood in his hand. It resembled an ass slapper used by teachers or priests of days gone by. It was a cribbage board.
Arn sat far enough away to not be invited into the game, but close enough to hear their talk. They skipped all formalities and slipped into a rumor about a preacher doing double duty as an A ball pitcher three towns over.
“He’s got it,” beamed the bartender.
“Not overpowering, I bet,” replied the man with angry gruff in his voice. “Has that pinpoint control, right?”
And with that he flung his cribbage cards in the air and abruptly ended the game. The bartender sighed, a reminder sigh to himself, that he’d seen this behavior before, a mask on a different face that signified – I’m drinking past bar time tonight.
Arn peeked at the card flinger, his slouched back somehow still sturdy on the stool, eyes staring at the tall bottles of booze below the mirror or at nothing at all, alone in his thoughts, gripping a Moosehead with both hands like it was a buoy, the same hands that probably once held a bat or gripped a ball, batter or pitcher, it didn’t matter. The dream had dried up.
But Arn could see with each ensuing sip this guy took, each gulp, and new bottle that he didn’t care anymore. His memories of whatever had happened were a ship fading fast into the horizon…..like a long ago girlfriend, revisited on only the drunkest of nights high on wine, but this guy didn’t go for wine and this couldn’t be about a girlfriend because he showed no interest in the jukebox beside the bathroom. He was a beer drinker and he had a job to do – get drunk, forget, and enjoy the nothingness.
Arn turned and faced the front. He noticed a stack of napkins and a glass filled with colored toothpicks. He thought about Steve Dalkowski, especially that minor league year Dalkowski walked 207 batters in 104 innings and also struck out 203, a hit or miss sensation, must have had every fan eager for the next pitch, to see if Dalkowski might throw one over the backstop for a souvenir and had every home plate ump wanting to cut out, retire early, and collect their pension.
Arn put both hands on the rail and wondered why the church hadn’t crowned Dalkowski patron saint of drunks? After all, the one-time pitching prospect who earned the nickname “white lighting” claimed to not remember a big chunk of his life, too much drinking the culprit, and yet, Dalkowski is still alive, 80 years and counting!
Arn thought about the car crash and what he’d lost. He turned his head shyly and looked at the card flinger a second time, then at the bartender. He cleared his throat.
“Bartender,” Arn said with a crackle in his voice, from lack of use. “A round of beer for all of us and three shots too.”
It was the first thing Arn had said in weeks.