“Good morning, Mr. Captain,” said Mr. Barnes, drolly.
“Good morning, Jack,” Mr. Captain replied. “What brings you here so early?”
“I’m not sure,” said Mr. Barnes. “No one’s in the office yet, and I’m expecting a big shipment, so I just thought I’d pass the time here, if you don’t mind.”
“’Course not, want some coffee?”
“Don’t mind if I do. Have you seen Gordy around lately?”
“Can’t say as I have, not that I mind. He’s nothing but bad luck. Oh I know he helps you out, and can’t help the way he is, really, but he can be a real pain. I expect the worst when he’s around. Not to mention the smell.”
“Don’t I know it, but he means well, and has been a big help, what with my boys being in school now and not being able to come with me to the office. I don’t know how I’d get along without him. I sure hope he comes around today, I’m going to need help unloading that big shipment of Valentine’s Day candy.”
Mr. Barnes looked out at the leaden sky on that cold crisp day and, as he often did, couldn’t help but wonder if it would be his last, although every day was a bonus as he’d been expected to die five years ago, having been diagnosed with a cancerous tumor on his adrenal gland. Because of it the sweat poured off him, even on such a raw day as this.
He felt awful most days, had just managed to get out of bed that day for the first time in what seemed like weeks, and only because he had to for that damn shipment. He’d cut way down on the traveling, especially during the rough winter months.
“How about a little taste, Jim?” He knew he shouldn’t but maybe it’d give him some strength.
“Sure thing,” Jim said, and fetched the CC of the shelf and poured a slug into Mr. Barnes’s coffee. He looked around and felt glad to be alive, safely ensconced in the familiar warm bar, a home away from home, really. Not that he ever drank that much, he just enjoyed the camaraderie, not to mention the food. Jim Captain was the best short order cook in Buffalo and he didn’t care who knew it. Mr. Barnes had been all over the east coast, and if you could find a better beef on weck or hot ham sandwich elsewhere, he’d sure like to know about it.
Things hadn’t been going so well on the home front lately, in fact things had kind of gotten out of hand. He’d neglected things and now they’d come to a head. How he regretted all those years on the road but what other choice did he have? He’d built up that business from scratch and given his blood sweat and tears to it and by God he’d made a go of it and now what was going to come of it? He’d taught his boys as much as he could about it but they weren’t ready and certainly had no head for business. All those years on the road and seemingly nothing to show for it but a nice house and a new Oldsmobile every other year. He had a lot of sweat equity in that business. He’d better contact his lawyer and make his terms known in his will. It made him tired just to think of all there was left to do. And then there was that candy shipment…
“‘Nother?” Jim Captain stood in front of him with the coffee in one hand and the bottle of CC in the other.
“Sure, why not?” Mr. Barnes replied, fishing a couple of Garcia y Vegas out of his suit jacket pocket, handing one to Jim, sticking the other in his mouth, then striking a match and lighting them.
“Here’s to better days,” he said, brandishing his cigar and taking a slug out of his coffee cup. “Boy, that’s good,” he sighed.
Strange day, he thought to himself. He’d gotten off on the wrong foot, that was for sure, and now the whole day was probably ruined. No one knew the trouble he’d seen. Strong silent type. Air Force, WWII. He’d been a flight instructor out at Lowery AFB, too old to see any real action. That was the argument that had precipitated his son Wesley’s leaving, or at least one of them, as it seemed there’d been a lot of them lately. He just couldn’t understand young people’s thinking these days. Hell no I won’t go they were saying, a mantra that was being taken up by an entire generation, and he just didn’t understand it- didn’t they know just how fragile and precious freedom was, to be guarded closely round the clock and fought for on every front? There’d been no question about it in WWII, why should there be now? And his own boys repeating this, right at the dinner table. Not to mention the drugs and hippies. What was the world coming to? He’d be god-damned if he’d have that in his own house, especially from two pimple-faced kids who didn’t know which end was up.
The door swung open and some of the regulars began straggling in. He’d get no argument from them that was for sure. They knew exactly what he was talking about, which was becoming a rarity these days.
But he had to admit that ultimately it had been a misunderstanding that had precipitated Wesley’s leaving, and he hadn’t had the strength to press the issue. He sure wished he’d come home, though, he couldn’t believe it had come to this. Good riddance to bad rubbish, Mrs. Barnes had said, typically, which made him feel even worse. Rory (his twin) tried to talk him into coming home, but he wouldn’t. That hurt Mr. Barnes no end, he wouldn’t even come home knowing how sick he’d been.
What could I have done to hurt him that badly? He had a pretty good idea but didn’t want to think about it. There was George Privitera, a friend from way back. Oh boy, it was going to be a long day of revelry, especially if he was here for the duration. These were his old stomping grounds, but he was still surprised to see him.
“What brings you here?” He asked.
“I had a feeling you’d be here,” George said. “Jim, I’ll have a J&B rocks. I heard you’d been sick, but when I called the house, Sally said you were at the office. The branch office I thought to myself,” he said, guffawing at his own joke.
Mr. Barnes felt a slight tinge of resentment at Mr. Privatera’s familiarities. After all, they hadn’t been real close since he broke Wesley’s snare drum that Christmas Day several years ago. Totally soused, scotch dribbling down his chin, he’d sure ruined everybody’s Christmas. Wesley’d never go near a drum set again and he’d been so excited just that morning when he’d seen them under the tree. The Privatera’s were old friends but that had been too much. Still, they went a long way back, to the days when he was single, and it was good to see him.
Mr. Barnes looked out the window and it seemed dusk was beginning to lower. No way he’d been there so long the day was gone. Where was Gordy? He looked at his watch, which had stopped. The skin on the back of his neck tingled. What gives, he thought.
Just then the door opened as a rush of air surged through the narrow bar, and a woman suddenly appeared who made Mr. Barnes start, as she was the spitting image of his Sally when she was young and they were very much in love, right down to the scarf, angora sweater, and shoulder-length bobbed hair.
He felt the need to talk to her immediately but hesitated, instead looked down the bar and called out to Jim Captain in his perplexity: “Jim, get down here!”
“What’ll it be Jack?” Mr. Captain asked once more, looking for all the world as if it was just a normal day in mid-February.
Mr. Barnes said, “Make it a Manhattan this time. Mix up a pitcher, will you?”
“Coming right up,” Jim Captain said.
Mr. Barnes stared straight ahead and said nothing. He’d wait to see what happened next. Naturally the young lady in question came over and sat down right next to him.
“Haven’t I seen you some place before?” Mr. Barnes inquired, and burned red the instant the words came out of his mouth.
“I highly doubt it,” the woman replied wryly.
Jim Captain sauntered down to their end again and inquired, “What’s your pleasure young lady?”
“Beefeater martini, up, with a twist, very dry- just wave the bottle over it.”
“Certainly, coming right up,” Jim replied with arched eyebrows, while Mr. Barnes tried to get his attention to indicate the drink was on him.
He returned shortly afterward with her drink and set in front of her, saying, “Compliments of the gentleman sitting next to you.”
“We haven’t met,” the woman replied, but, turning to Mr. Barnes raised her glass and said, “Just the same, thank you”.
Mr. Barnes, at a loss for words, stammered something unintelligible, at which point Mr. Captain rescued him by saying, “This suave gentleman is Mr. John Barnes. And you are?”
“I’d prefer not to say for now, if you don’t mind,” she replied. “Woman’s prerogative.”
“You’re the boss,” Jim Captain rejoined, with a slight nod, and went to the other end of the bar.
Suddenly there was a welter of activity at the entrance, and, along with several regulars who came in Mr. Barnes saw other familiar faces rush by: his brother Teddy (who’d been dead these ten years), his other brother Bobby (who’d been in California for a decade), his beloved mother Regina and father Arthur, Harry Brost (an old business partner), Pastor Catthau (an old nemesis, now the Grim Reaper?), and George Johnson, now extremely well off as an original stockholder in the Xerox Corporation.
Mr. Barnes was beginning to panic, and, sweating profusely, felt his equilibrium let go. It was not a good position he was in. Where was he- heaven? He highly doubted that, though it was sure beginning to seem at the very least like Old Home Week in there. Plenty of heavy drinkers, too. Nobody was going anywhere for a while, that was certain. He looked outside, saw the ominous leaden snow clouds moving into position above and thought once more, where’s Gordy?
Maybe he’d better go outside and watch for him. He’d never think to come in here. He slid off the barstool and saw he was very unsteady. Without looking back he sidled out of the bar, stood for a minute looking both ways then crossed Genesee Street. The wind was coming up and the snow clouds were amassing directly above him. It was going to start snowing in no time. That delivery should have been here by now, he thought. Maybe they got snow already in Rochester, that’s where it seemed to be coming from. No sign of him, so he went back across the street and stood outside the entrance of Jim Captain’s for a while, not certain he was ready to face what awaited him inside.
When he was ready he entered, and as he did the warmth and hubbub hit and took him aback, disorienting him a little. Everything suddenly looked extremely bleary and his stomach sank queasily toward his knees, sweat soaking his shirt. Maybe Jim would let him lie down in the back room. Suddenly he felt himself going down…
When he woke up, he was in the back room, sort of, up by the ceiling hovering over the proceedings, with a bird’s eye view, legs spread-eagled and arms akimbo like a parachutist against the sky. There was what appeared to be an intense and rowdy game of high stakes poker going on, with acrid tobacco smoke wafting up toward him, perhaps the accumulating cloud even enveloping him, as no one seemed to be aware of his presence. The aforementioned George, Harry, his brother Teddy were there- and Wesley! When had he arrived? Mr. Barnes was overjoyed to see him. My boy has come home, he thought. Now I can be at peace.
Instead, for some reason, he found himself becoming agitated, and, wanting to leave before the card game was completed, wished to descend, or at least escape the room unnoticed. But how?
He thought of the woman sitting at the bar and had the sudden urge to speak to her. He must. It was a matter of life and death. He looked over at the door and saw the transom was partly open and, moving as slowly as he could so as not to cause any stirring, slipped through it undetected.
So far so good. But what to do next? He was hovering right over the aforementioned woman, who was nursing her martini, fiddling with the swizzle stick, her head lowered like an eremite before an icon. He liked this new power he had, and certainly the vantage point, though he was afraid it might end at any minute and he would go crashing down atop some innocent bystander. The barstool next to her was still vacant so he alit on it before she knew what had happened.
“Can I get you another one?” he asked.
“Where’d you come from?” she asked, whipping her head around. “Better yet, where’d you go? I’m feeling rather fuzzy I have to admit. I hope you won’t take advantage of me, she said, coyly. My name is Jean, by the way.”
“I wouldn’t think of it,” Mr. Barnes replied, signaling Jim to get her another drink.” I’m glad to meet you Jean. I’m John Barnes, by the way. ”
“Well, aren’t you the proper gentleman, Jean said, with a toss of her hair. “But we’ve already been introduced. People sure come and go around here pretty quickly, I must say.”
“Really,” said Mr. Barnes, “I hadn’t noticed.”
“That’s because you haven’t been here,” replied Jean. “Stick around a while, you’ll see. You’d think there was a turnstile in that front door. Where did you go, anyway? I thought we had something going.”
Mr. Barnes, distracted, murmured vaguely,” Oh just across the street, to my office.” He felt a sudden urgency again, as if something was going to happen and he needed to get things settled, there was so much to do, but Gordy still wasn’t here and either was that candy shipment, and he had to talk to Wesley and Teddy before he (they) left, it was vitally important, though what it was he needed to speak to them about escaped him. He went to get off the barstool but Jean put her hand on his arm and said, “Stay awhile with me, I need the company.”
Mr. Barnes, ever the gentleman, readily obliged her, though the slightest bit uncomfortable at her forwardness. Then he remembered the reason he’d come out here was to talk to her, and his agitation abated.
“Where you from Jean?” he began.
“Cleveland, she replied. “You ever been there?”
Hmmm, same place Sal was from, he thought. “Have I,” he replied. “I lived there all through the thirties, off Eddy Road. Met my- had family there. Still do, as a matter fact.”
“Myself, I couldn’t wait to get out of that dump,” Jean replied, huffily. “And then to find out this place isn’t much different. Same dirty, cold, snowy lousy old city.”
“Gee, that’s too bad you feel that way. I kinda like both places.”
“You would,” Jean replied. “Give me California any day.”
“Have you been there?” I asked. “I have a brother out there, coincidentally, in San Diego. Always wanted to go out there.”
“No, I’ve never,” Jean said, sheepishly. “The weather wouldn’t be hard to take, though, I’ll tell you that.”
“You remind me of someone,” Mr. Barnes said, obliquely, although he knew exactly who he meant, but didn’t want to get into that right now. And the fact that she was from Cleveland cinched it for him, although he didn’t recall having this conversation before. Once again a sense of urgency was tugging at his sleeve and he barely heard her say, “Yeah, you said that already, but I bet you say that to everyone.”
He wanted to go back in the back room and see how that card game was progressing, see the fellows and Wesley (it seemed perfectly natural for him to be there, he’d brought both boys there every Opening Day for the Bisons) but didn’t want to abandon Jean again. How to manage that? And he needed to find Gordy too, before the day was through. No rest for the weary, he thought ruefully.
Suddenly he became distracted and then things began to whirl before him and he felt a stirring in his brain as everything began to coalesce and then jumble/jangle like a kaleidoscopic or cinemascope mélange and then he was sucked into a vertiginous vortex and found himself hovering once more just below the ceiling, monarch of all he surveyed, and then not, as he felt himself to be losing it, and then he was everywhere, mingling and mixing, tossing a beautiful word salad with such clarity he knew it couldn’t be his voice but he merely the instrument and then out of the blue there was Gordy, he’d finally arrived and simultaneously he saw the semi pull up in front of his office- the candy shipment was there- everyone was there, in fact, no one was missing, he saw his life in Panavision, rotogravure, replete with color and sound, yet it was much more beautiful, vivid, and harmonious than he ever imagined/remembered, and he added them all up and nobody was missing…
Wesley arrived home too late that frigid evening, the frozen branches of the tree above him etched against the moonlit sky, but just in time to see them carry Mr. Barnes down the front porch steps strapped to a gurney, his lifeless body wrapped in a white sheet, and Mrs. Barnes standing at the front door screaming at him into the still crystal-filled air, “Murderer! Murderer! Murderer!”