by Michael Kingswood
It was a Thursday night, and the crowd in The Golden Harp was almost non-existent. Just Tim down at the corner of the bar farthest from the door, dressed as usual in plaid flannel and jeans and leaning over his half-full mug of beer like it held some deep dark secret, and Ramon and Larry in a table across the room from the taps behind the bar, heads bent over a game of checkers as the tournament they’d been playing against each other for twenty years reached its latest climax.
Those three were in here almost every night; and on Thursdays they almost always were the only customers who came through. Several times Hank had thought to just add Thursday to Sunday as a no-business day, to give himself a little more time off. But then he considered the way bald Ramon and silver-haired Larry had kept their game going for so long, and how Tim seemed to view this place almost like a second home, and Hank tossed that thought aside.
Besides, every now and then something interesting happened, even on a Thursday.
Didn’t look like that would be the case this time, though.
Hank took a rag that he kept hanging on a hook behind the bar and began wiping down the bartop for the sixth time that night. The pale grey granite, flecked with bits of yellow that almost looked like gold, was already spotless, almost gleaming. But he had to do something to make the time pass, and he’d already swapped out the keg of 805 that Tim had floated an hour ago, and it wasn’t like there were a ton of receipts to enter into the system and verify from the three customers he’d had all evening.
So wipe the bar it was, and Hank couldn’t help but smile and whistle to himself as he did it.
Yeah, it was a mindless, repetitive task, but it was his task to keep up his place, and if there was one thing he could relate to Tim about, it was that the Harp was more of a home to Hank than just about any place else in the world.
From the chintzy old plastic harp that was colored yellow but didn’t in any way resemble gold hanging over the entrance, which he’d gotten at a port call in Singapore back in his Navy days, to the brass taps that poured a rotating selection of his customers’ most requested beers, to the old-style jukebox in the back corner that was chock full of 80s classics and was currently playing “Raspberry Beret”, to the cracked brown leather of the booth seating where the checkers duo always kept their vigil, to the faded linoleum floor tiles, to the eternal odor of old cigar smoke—the only kind of smoking he allowed on the premises…everything here was exactly the way he loved it, and he had spent the last twenty-five years making it into his own little perfect place.
And turning a decent profit from it, too.
Yep, life didn’t suck.
Would be better with more customers, though.
Hank finished up his bar-swipe in front of Tim, who obligingly lifted his mug to allow the rag’s passage.
Tim grinned his gap-toothed grin, the remnants of some brawl somewhere that Hank had never gotten him to tell about. “Think you missed a spot.”
Behind him, from the vicinity of the taps, an electronic beep rang out.
Tim looked past him toward the coffee maker, and shook his head. “You’re the only bar owner I’ve ever met who don’t touch booze,” he said. For the eightieth time.
“That stuff will kill you quick,” Hank replied, then turned around, flipping his rag onto the top of the stainless steel cooling chests that held his selection of bottled beer for customers without the good taste to take it from the tap. He made a beeline for the coffee, the scent of the deep roast blend overpowering the lingering bar odors as he drew near to the big commercial-grade unit he had installed last year, on a whim.
Well, not exactly a whim. Ever since he got the thing The Golden Harp had gained a reputation for making the best Irish Coffees in town.
But Hank just liked it straight. Black and bitter, the way God intended.
He kept a small collection of mugs hanging above the bar, in a sequestered corner of the area where he hung the mugs belonging to his Beer Club patrons. He kept his smaller mugs carefully arranged; his own personal timeline. From the mug he used in High School to his first ship, and all the way up to now.
Hank pulled down one labelled USS SPRUANCE (DD 963), with the silver silhouette of an old, long-decommissioned ship of war on the side. He ran his finger over the image of the old girl, and grinned as remembrances of that first deployment, so long ago, came back to mind.
His eyes lifted, going toward the door and the cheesy harp, a keepsake from that deployment, and he chuckled, then filled the mug with the rich, aromatic brew that he liked best in the world.
Hank about dropped the coffee pitcher when a low-pitched voice that he didn’t know, but was somehow eerily familiar, spoke from above him and to the right.
“Tim’s right, you know. That’s really very offensive.”
“What?” Hank said, looking up toward the voice. He felt like every hair on his body was standing on end, and a rush of adrenalin ran down his spine.
But there was nothing there but the glass shelving where he kept the bar’s stock of liquor bottles.
For a second, Hank told himself it was Tim’s voice he had heard, and the guy was playing a prank on him somehow.
“I didn’t say nothing,” Tim said.
That was very definitely not the voice Hank had just heard.
Hand trembling, he carefully put the coffee pitcher back into its spot in the coffee machine and took a half-step back, away from the unit and the taps and the liquor bottles. His eyes flicked from side to side and up and down.
No one. Nothing.
Everything was just where it was supposed to be, and he didn’t see any speakers or anything, so…
“Hank, you alright?”
He turned halfway around and saw Tim leaning forward over the bar, his dark eyes probing and his face locked into an expression of concern.
“I…” Hank realized his other hand was shaking too, the one holding the SPRUANCE mug, and the piping hot Joe. Turning the rest of the way around more quickly, he firmly set the mug down on the bartop before he splashed scalding fluid all over himself. Then he placed his hands on the granite and took a deep breath.
He met Tim’s eyes and forced himself to chuckle. “I’m good. Mind playing tricks on me.”
“Ok.” TIm said it very slowly, like he wasn’t sure he entirely bought Hank’s story. Then he shrugged. “Well if you’re sure you’re alright.” He held up his own mug, which was now empty, and wiggled it meaningfully.
Hank really did chuckle then, and he nodded. Then he turned back to the taps, and the other chiller to the left of them, the one he kept at freezing to make his beer mugs nice and frosty.
Hefting a cool one, he set to filling it from the fresh 805 keg.
“Woohoo!” said a voice, coming straight from the tap handle. This voice was different. Higher pitched, with an accent that reminded Hank of California Surfer Movies. “Kawabunga, dude!” added the voice.
The mug shattering on the floor was the first indication that Hank had lost his grip on it.
“Hank, what the – ” Tim began, as Hank retreated until the small of his back hit the bartop.
The tap handle was still in the pour position, and beer was flowing. The drip tray quickly filled, and then the 805 overran and also began pouring onto the floor.
“Hey!” said the surfer dude voice. “What’re you pouring me on the ground for?”
Jesus Christ, what the hell was going on?
Hank surged forward and shut off the flow of beer, then jumped back to where he was again. Then he just stared at the tap handle, his heart thumping in his ears like a bass drum. Despite the cool AC-moderated temperature inside the Harp, sweat was beading on his brow.
Tim definitely sounded concerned now.
Across the room, the subtle sound of checkers faded beneath Prince’s singing, and Hank could feel Ramon and Larry’s eyes burning into his back.
“Bar’s closed,” Hank said, and was amazed to hear his voice come out clear and strong, without the slightest tremble.
“What do – ” Tim began.
“Closing early tonight. Go home.” Hank turned to give Tim a hard—or at least he hoped it was hard; he was too freaked out to be sure if he was doing it right—stare. After a second, he turned around to apply the same look to the checkers players. “All of you.”
Across the room, Ramon and Larry traded looks. Then Larry shrugged and grinned. “Guess we’ll have to start over tomorrow.”
From what what Hank could make of the board from where he was behind the board, Larry was losing.
Ramon snorted. But after a moment, he nodded. The two of them quickly put the game away back into its box, then they headed toward the door. Larry gave Hank a one-finger salute—the good kind—just before he left.
Tim waited a few seconds longer, looking at Hank with an expression that bordered between confused, irritated, and concerned. Then he nodded, and followed the other two out of the bar.
“Dude, that wasn’t cool,” came the surfer voice again.
Then the deeper voice spoke up. “Get ahold of yourself, Hank.”
Get ahold of himself. Yeah right. He was hearing phantom voices from his liquor bottles and beer taps.
“I need a vacation, that’s what I need,” Hank said under his breath.
And why not? He was closing early. Why not close up shop completely for a couple weeks? He had enough cash reserves to handle the overhead for a couple months, and it had been years since he’d taken a good, long, relaxing vacation in a warm and beachy place.
He would go, and chill. Meet a MILF or three on vacation and have a good old time. Knock the cobwebs loose. Because he was clearly losing it.
Yeah, that was a great ide –
“Vacation.” That was a new voice, more baritone than bass, and dripping derision. It was from the left-hand side of the liquor shelves. “Don’t be a pansy.”
“Jack, let me handle this,” came the first voice, from over to the right.
“And let you screw it up like you did in Memphis?”
“That wasn’t my fault, and you know it. If Fireball hadn’t – “
Hank was screaming, “SHUT UP!” and placing his hand over his ears before he even realized he was doing it.
He screamed long and loud, at the top of his lungs. By the time he finished, his throat felt raw. But at least the voices stopped speaking.
“Vacation,” Hank said to himself again. He turned and walked toward the end of the bar, where the granite had been cut and hinged so he could raise it up to allow passage out.
But before he could raise the hinge, the surfer voice came again.
“Dude, don’t go. You’re gonna miss out on some seriously awesome vibes, man.”
Hank closed his eyes and swallowed. He shook his head, willing himself to quit this; to stop imagining until he could get out of there and get a little rack time. He could leave in the morning, and –
“Hank, we’re here to help.” It was the first voice again.
“You’re a figment of my imagination.”
Baritone voice snorted. “Don’t flatter yourself, fat boy. You’re not that clever.”
Fat boy? Hank had been working out for years. He was in the thousand pound club, and he had recently started triathlon training, as a new challenge. Yeah, he had a little belly fat; but he was almost 50! It was hard not to have that, at his age. And considering his heritage; both his dad and grandad were blimps at his age.
He turned around toward the liquor rack and shoved his index finger in the general direction the voice had come from. “Screw you, buddy. I – “
Hank stopped himself, realized he was about to get into an insult competition with thin air.
“Well, finally something got a little spark in you,” said baritone again. “You ready to talk like an adult now?”
“Jack,” the first voice began, but baritone cut it off.
“Shut it,” said baritone, then somehow, even though he was looking at nothing but air, and the liquor shelves behind the bar, Hank got the feeling like the voice had shifted its attention away from him for a second, but now it was entirely focused on him again. “Jim’s a moron, Hank, but he’s right. We are here to help.”
“Who – ” Hank stopped himself. Was he really going to talk to the air like this? He must be losing it…
But a part of him piped up that if he really was losing it—or had already lost it—he was over the edge now. So might as well go with it.
Hank always hated that part of himself. Mostly because it was right more often than not.
“What are you?”
Baritone snorted again. “What, you haven’t figured it out yet? I’m Jack Daniels.”
“And I’m Jim Bean” said the first voice.
There was a pause, and Hank got the idea that the first two were waiting, increasingly impatiently. Then, after a very long few seconds, surfer voice piped up.
“I’m Firestone Walker. How’s it hanging?”
Hank just shook his head. “I really am losing it.”
“No, you just think you are,” Jack said. “I assure you, we are very real. And really here.”
“What do you want?”
There was a short pause. Then Jack spoke again, very slowly and dripping irritated condescension, like he—it?—was talking to a person he suspected was retarded.
“Like we’ve said three times now. We. Want. To. Help. You.”
“Help me. How?”
“This is a nice place you’ve got, Hank. But it could be better. Do better business.”
Jim piped up again. “Ever see Roadhouse?”
Of course he’d seen Roadhouse. It was required viewing, far as Hank was concerned. “What, you going to tell me you’ve got Patrick Swayze with you too?”
Jack snorted even more derisively. He seemed to like doing that. “Please. He’d have to pay us more than he’s good for to get me to agree to bring him along.” Hank got the distinct impression of a person shaking his head in annoyance. “Movie stars.” Oh yes, the derision was back, and how.
“Just think of us as your Cooler, dude,” said Firestone Walker. “Except without the fistfights.”
“What if I don’t want your help?”
Jim sounded aghast. “You would refuse? No one’s ever refused!”
“Hank,” Jack said, “you have to understand. We don’t do this for everyone. We’re always on the lookout for good prospects, though. And of all the gin joints in all the world, we walked into yours.”
“Because we think you’re a righteous dude, man,” said Firestone.
“Umm….thanks,” Hank said. “I guess. So what’s involved?” He wasn’t entirely certain he believed all this; he figured there was a much better than even chance that he had actually had a psychotic break and was making all this up in his head. He’d end up in the psycho ward.
But what the hell. If he was going to the psycho ward, might as well enjoy the journey getting there.
“Just follow a few pointers,” Jack said. “Some minor changes. And they’ll pay off big, believe me.”
Hank pondered that. His mind wandered back to Roadhouse. To watching it when he was young and being entranced by Swayze’s love interest. She was incredible.
“Do I get a hot doctor?”
Another pause, then Jack said, in a clipped tone, “No.”
Well, it was worth a try.
Hank took a breath. “Ok, what do you want me to do?”
* * * * *
It was amazing what a difference four months made.
It was Thursday night, and the place was packed.
Tim still sat in his seat at the end of the bar, and Ramon and Larry were still playing checkers in their booth across the way. But everywhere else were patrons galore, enjoying their booze and each other’s company and listening to music from the greatest music decade of all time floating out of the Jukebox.
Tears For Fears right at the moment, and Hank couldn’t help singing along to the lyrics and tapping his foot to the beat as he poured out four mugs of Modelo Especial to the newest members of his beer club: a quartet of football players from the University two towns over.
And of course they’d brought the cheerleaders with them. And other assorted tagalongs.
Jack had been right. The changes Hank had to make were small; almost insignificant. Partly in the area of decor, partly in the signage out front, and partly in liquor and beer selection—he had expanded it quite a bit. But mostly in marketing.
And the results were better, and had come sooner, than Hank could have imagined.
Thursday used to be a dead night. Now there were no dead nights. It was enough to make Hank think about maybe opening up on Sundays.
He can-x’ed that thought immediately. Not that he was a devout man, but he figured if God really did set things up the way the preacher men said He had, he probably took the seventh day off for a reason. And who was Hank to argue with that?
Hank placed the freshly-filled mugs down before the quartet of jocks sitting at the bar opposite his taps, then gave them a small, well-practiced shove to separate them and send them sliding across the granite toward each man’s waiting hand.
“Here you are, gents,” he said, then took the credit card the tallest of them handed him over, and opened a tab.
As he was working the register, he heard Jim Bean’s voice coming down from the shelves again.
“Looking good, Hank,” Jim said. “Glad we stopped by?”
Hank finished the keystrokes to open the football tab, then put the card up on a small shelf above his register computer, which he’d installed for just that purpose. He glanced up and to the left toward the liquor shelves, where Jim sat, and shrugged.
“Yeah it’s turned out alright,” he said, softly so at to not carry. “Guess I owe you guys a thanks.”
Hank went to turn back to his waiting customers, but stopped midway. He looked up at the liquor bottles carrying Jim’s name, and imagined he could almost see a grinning face looking back at him from those shelves. “Am I going to see you guys again?”
He got the distinct impression of a shrug. “We’ll stop in from time to time to check in on you. But no more intervention. It’s up to you from now on.”
Hank considered that for a moment, then concluded that was a fair deal. And one that he could get behind. Ever since he’d gotten out of the Navy he just wanted to go his own way, be his own man, and prosper by his own efforts and wits. And he’d managed it.
Managed it ok before Jim, Jack, and Firestone came around.
Managed it much better now, because of their advice. But he didn’t want to be a puppet.
He grinned. “Sounds like a plan. See you around, Jim.”
He had a vision of a broad, round face with a wide, toothy grin. “Not if I don’t see you first.”
And with that, Hank got the distinct impression that Jim was gone, and with him whatever link that may have existed that allowed him, Jim, and Firestone to come and give Hank a hand.
If was like a tiny bit of magic that Hank hadn’t even known existed had winked out.
It was sort of sad, in a way. And Hank felt the lack of it, in a manner he never could have conceived of before.
Then he finished turning around, and saw a different kind of magic, but one no less potent, in the grinning eyes of his customers. One and all, they were having a good time, because of being in Hank’s place and being in each others’ company.
And they were paying him good money to do it.
It was hard to not like that arrangement. It was just too perfect.
A collection of Michael Kingswood’s published stories are available here: