“Knock on wood,” Charles chuckled, rapping his knuckles on the bar and fumbling for the light in his pocket.
The bartender, Dan—Danny as he was known by regulars at The Poodle Dog Lounge—had just finished another of his perpetually optimistic “if/then” arguments on how the ’Boys were destined for the playoffs.
But Charles knew better. He’d seen—and heard—it all before.
Still, Danny is a good kid, Charles thought.
I was a good kid once, too. But that was before.
Before the long days. Before the late nights. Before Linda.
His hand passed to the next pocket of his stained microsuede jacket, fingering every familiar crevice, the seams surprisingly intact. Sure, the cuffs were frayed and the smell of smoke—black and white—lingered permanently, but the coat held its own.
And to think what that Injun sold it for. It’s funny what booze’ll do to a man.
The door screeched open and light poured in, illuminating the ever-present stream of dust and particleboard wafting from the over-cranked A/C. A young couple stumbled through the entrance. Charles caught the glint of what he thought was a Volvo keychain.
Their giggles dying down, the fresh meat came to a standstill a few feet in. Scoping the scene, they began to whisper to one another.
Charles hated that.
“Why can’t people just say what they mean? I mean, this is America, God damn it! Land of the free speech, home of the bravado, and all that crap,” he’d say. But Linda wasn’t listening.
Linda never listened.
The newcomers reeled around, herding themselves toward the door. Above it: a half-rusted exit sign next to which the word “only” had been carved, alongside a rough caricature of someone’s rear end.
“That’s a real pain in the crass,” Charles used to joke with Buck, the previous barkeep, who couldn’t help but groan.
Buck had passed a few years back. Charles was sorry he couldn’t make the funeral, but he’d poured one out while watching the game. There had been a lot riding on “that one.”
Fuck the ’Boys.
“Fuck, that’s bright,” came a cry from the shadows as the tourists took their leave. “It’s like the land of the rising sun in here.”
Pat, the patron—that’s what Charles called him anyway. He’d never known Pat’s given name. But he didn’t need to; they’d shared drinks and stories and Marlboros—none of that American Spirit shit. They’d shot pool together. They’d swapped life lessons with Buck. Hell, they’d bled together. Pat; Pat was a blood brother.
The hinges swang shut. “I didn’t know!” Charles thought he could make out one of the outsiders chirp at the other.
“That’s the problem with kids today,” Pat bemoaned. “They can’t tell if they’re coming or…” he broke into a half cough, half laugh, half gasp. Then he turned the tank nozzle half-a-notch, or thereabouts.
Pat knew. Pat was wise beyond even his years.
There was a special place in Heaven just waiting for Pat: a stool with his (real) name on it. Pat was one of the good guys.
“I hope he outlasts us all,” Charles had toasted once, before tossing back a shot of Jack with the boys, while some sissy onlooker sipped his Scotch.
He’d cracked the glass on the first slam and cut his finger. “Amazin’ how the littlest cuts’ll bleed forever and a day.”
He’d soaked the back half-seat of Linda’s pickup straight through to the foam. But the man had problems of his own.
“Where the hell is my light?” he muttered aloud, having reached his limit on time spent without the lucky striker.
The lighter had been a gift from his father. Stainless steel. Emblazoned with an eagle—an eagle killin’ a snake, nonetheless! God bless America.
His father had been a true American, a red-blooded American. A patriot, as the French would say. And dagnabbit if he hadn’t been willing to do whatever it took to preserve that way of life, including swapping a fat cash cow or two (who could count?) with that dirt farmer from down south for that fine fire-starter.
“Aha!” he proclaimed, finally finding the prized heirloom behind the two empty glasses in front of him. “Sneaky bastard, ain’tcha?”
It was there. It was always there. It had always been there.
It was there to light candles on his eighteenth birthday. It was there to fan the flame of Lord knows how many cigs on his first tour. It was there to stoke the celebratory stogie when his first-born was… y’know.
It was there on the Fourth, when the kids needed to fire up the roman candles to burn out each other’s eyes.
And it was there when that first “LATE:” notice came; for all the overnights; the 12-minute “lunch” breaks; the 5 a.m. “happy” hours.
It was there at the end. It was there to burn the papers she had signed—and made him sign. It was there. It was always there.
Just like The Poodle Dog. The Poodle Dog was always there. The Poodle Dog had always been there.
For birthdays. For holidays. For that promotion. For funerals.
Chuck crossed himself, or rather, backward-J’d himself, forgetting where the fourth tap should land.
“Aww, to hell with it.” And with one, two, three strikes came the flicker of flame and the sweet release. Paradise in his lungs—his haven on Earth.
“Hey, hey… Charlie! …You can’t do that in here,” Dan chided from across the bar, one eye on Charles, one eye on the girl he was (over)serving, and another on the front door.
What? Does he think Serpent Co. is about to bust the joint?
“Since when?” Charles inquired, earnestly.
“Since so-and-so said so… whenever… awhile ago.”
“Oh, come on, Danny boy! Be a team player. You’re a good guy.”
“It’s Donald,” spat back the young buck, rolling his eyes and snatching the smoke. “Danny only works Tuesdays. And those things will kill you anyway.”
“Knock on wood.”
Written by: Josh McGonigle
Photograph by: Chris Boyles