Staring At the Sun As If Through a Smoke Hole

Miriam Buskirk pulled her mother away from the front room of their cabin and said, “Joshua just sits there staring. He sits so closely and stares at the fire. He lays in the fields at noon and stares at the sun. He stares at the river. He hasn’t said but five words since he got back and I couldn’t understand a one of them.”

Her mother Amanda put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder and quietly said, “The poor boy has been living with the savages for nine months. Who knows what they did to Joshua, or what horrors he’s seen. For all we know he saw them kill your and his poor father, my beloved Marcus, and that’s enough to make anyone act queerly when they come back to civilization.”

They both turned when they heard the creak of the chair across the plank floor. They watched as sixteen-year-old Joshua Buskirk rose from where he’d been sitting for the past hour and shuffle toward the door. So close had he been to the flames, they had scorched the skin of his face red. With his head down, he mumbled something into his linsey-woolsey shirt and stepped out into the midday sun.

“There he goes again, Mother. How long do you think this will go on?” Miriam said.

Amanda Buskirk, watching her son disappear over the rise toward the east, seemingly to go meet the sun before noon, said, “Until it doesn’t I guess. At least I don’t worry as much about him running back to the Mohawk again. But just running…?” She left the remainder of that sentence to hang in the breeze from the open doorway just as Joshua disappeared again over the hill.

Joshua strode through the tall grass and wildflowers over the hill and plopped down in the bare spot he had made there after a fortnight of rejoining his mother and sister. As he leaned back, he was proud to see how he still hadn’t given up the beaded moccasins he wore when he returned to the Buskirk farm after traders sent out by the Great Patroon, Van Rensselaer, found him in the village of Ossernenon. 

*  *  *

“We thought you were dead, boy,” the fur trader Markus Eikenboom said to Joshua when he was allowed to speak to the boy. But Joshua was silent. 

“Don’t you know your own tongue anymore, boy?” Eikenboom said to even more silence. “Where is your father, son? The Patroon will want me to buy back his freedom, too.” 

Joshua turned and walked back to the lodge of the family that had adopted him, only saying one word: “kanién:tara.”

“What does that word mean?” Eikenboom asked his Mahican guide.

“River,” was his reply.

*  *  *

Joshua lay on his back and stared into the white disc of the sun as it crossed over the hilltop and moved what little shadow he threw from west-leaning to east. If his mother had let Miriam follow him, she would have seen him blinking as the sunlight teared in his eyes. When she had watched from afar, Miriam had told her mother, “Joshua just lies there like he is dead, Mother.”

After that day’s morning had passed into afternoon, Joshua arose from his place beneath the surrounding high grass and made his way down to the swift-flowing Schoharie Creek. It ran past the Buskirk farm on its way to marry with the river the Dutch had named for his people, for he still thought of the Kanien’kehá:ka as his family. Most especially since the death of his father.

That’s the one part of his old life with Miriam and Mother that stuck with him after he and his father were captured by a Mohawk hunting party while the Buskirk men were setting their own trap lines almost a year before. After the Mohawk warriors brought Joshua and Marcus to Ossernenon, each was suffering from the pace, rough treatment and, especially to Marcus Buskirk, the general arrogance of their captors.

“I am surprised these savages have not yet killed us, Joshua,” his father said on their first night in Ossernenon. 

“Perhaps they will let us go if we just do as they ask, Father,” Joshua said in the glow of the fire in this section of the longhouse where his captors’ family lived.

“Do not, under any circumstances, lower yourself to the level of these savages, Joshua. They are fit only as providers of furs to the Patroon and will be someday be subjugated to our strength soon enough. We should let them know we will not be cowed by their haughty and violent ways.”

“But the one they called Shawátis seems to have treat us better than the other men. Perhaps we can convince him to…”

“Enough, Joshua! We are Christian men and, as such, tower over these animals. Why, with but one dozen militiamen, I could wipe this valley clean of their pestilence,” Marcus Buskirk hissed. “And should I make my escape, that is exactly what I intend to do.”

Joshua stared at the flickers of sunlight on the Schoharie, lost in its hypnotic dance, as if it was how the light twinkled in the eyes of Shawátis’ children. Then he clenched shut his eyes and tried not to see that day when his father, sent out to gather squash and beans with the women, picked up a rock and brought it down upon the head of Shawátis’ oldest son, who was not quite Johua’s age, and had been guarding the women from any intruders from the forest. Marcus then ran from the field and headed for the river, leaving Joshua behind with the other boys, who were learning to make bows from one of the elders.

After a group of the men chased down and brought Joshua’s father back to the village, Marcus Buskirk’s face showed signs of a severe beating, though he was still alive. Not so Shawátis’ son, who had fallen dead from the blow Marcus had delivered.

“I should kill this man who took my son from me,” Shawátis said. “Or perhaps I should kill his son. Or even both, my grief is so deep.”

The men agreed and said the white man deserved any of those punishments. But then the grandfather of Shawátis’ clan stepped forward and said there might be a better way to solve this dilemma with some sort of natural justice.

“Let us make these two fight for the right to live. The boy has grown strong in our family in the months since he came to us. The man has grown more and more of a problem. If, Shawátis, you will agree, we will allow them to fight and then the victor will be allowed to stay, The loser, should he survive, I will leave to your best judgment.”

The men all yelled their consent, since their’s was a warrior society, enlightened and noble, but warriors nonetheless.

“Cannot war father,” Joshua shouted in his broken Mohawk. But Shawátis nodded in approval of the elder’s proposal. As the crowd of warriors pushed the Buskirks to the fire at the end of the longhouse, Joshua didn’t recognize the man through the flames as his father. 

It wasn’t the face swollen and bruised from the beating at the hands of the warriors. It wasn’t the ragged woolen clothes his father never stopped wearing in the months since their capture. It was his eyes, enraged, unknowing, mad, the eyes of a man who had killed a child earlier that day and looked like he would do it again. And then that man jumped through the fire at Joshua.

Knocked back onto the hard-packed dirt floor of the longhouse, Joshua looked up and blinked at the sun shining down into his eyes from the smoke hole in the roof. And then there was that face again.

“You’ll be better off dead than living with these savages, Joshua,” he heard his father say. Marcus Buskirk wrapped his hands around Joshua’s neck and squeezed. Joshua grabbed at his father’s arms to break his grasp. He scratched at the crazed eyes to no avail. Reaching back over his head, Joshua felt the cubby in which his Mohawk family stored firewood. He grabbed a piece of the kindling and swung with whatever strength he had left. His makeshift club found its mark on the side of his father’s head and the older Buskirk, still aching from his previous beating sagged.

Joshua scrambled to his knees and out of the longhouse, gasping and wheezing as many of the longhouse residents followed him into the sunlight. Not far away he could see the Schoharie and for a moment he wondered if his mother, somewhere downriver, knew if he still lived.

He felt his father’s fist on the back of his head and all went dark for a moment. Face down in the dirt, he dimly saw his father’s boots walking next to him and he saw the rough hand in the ragged sleeve pick up another rock and expected to hear the sound of the rock on his skull and that would be it.

But the sound of a rock hitting bone did not proclaim Joshua’s death. Rather it was the end of Shawátis’ war club coming down upon Marcus Buskirk’s head that cracked through Joshua’s foggy consciousness. He saw the men lift the body of the raggedy man who once loved him, often disciplined him like an Old Testament elder, and had just tried to kill him as Abraham would have Isaac, but for the intercession of God. And now God had interceded in Joshua’s death at the hand of his father.

“I did not like that man and I should have killed him when we caught him trapping in our country,” Shawátis said. “A man who would kill a child, one who was protecting his little sisters, is not a man, is not someone who should live with civilized people. I am sorry, young Yoshoo, but he had to die. Now, if you wish, you may join my family.” 

Joshua pondered this each day since he had been returned to his family’s farm on the Schoharie. Every day, just as he had in Ossernenon. But here it felt different, as if he really didn’t belong there anymore. The widower Cornelius De Groot from the farm just downriver from the Buskirks’ had already been sniffing around Amanda for months, according to Joshua’s sister, even with the fate of Marcus still unknown.

A dugout canoe lurched upstream from around the bend in the creek. In it, three young Kanien’kehá:ka were paddling their way back from the mouth of the Schoharie where it emptied in the Mohawk River.

Joshua raced to the river bank, waving and shouted, “Kwe. Hánio kén:thon, iatate’kén:’a.”

The young men looked up to see the white boy greeting them and asking them to come near. Curious, they paddled closer, yet stayed in deeper water.

“Where are you headed, brothers?” Joshua asked.

“Home to Ossernenon. Aren’t you..?”

“Yes, I am the son of Shawátis. Could you take me with you upriver?” Joshua said.

“If you wish,” said the young Mohawk in he bow of the dugout. “Where is it you need to go.”

“Home. To Ossernenon,” Joshua said before he waded into the Schoharie, looked once more at the sun as it began its decline over the hill, behind which his mother placed another log on the fire.

Well, so much for writing a story a day in May. Lost my mojo, as you probably can tell from this very fast free write first draft I began this rainy afternoon. There was no prompt that I know of. I just needed to write a story. So I did. Maybe. Hey, it’s a true first draft. Check your Hemingway quotes for what these are worth.



Morning still hadn’t wiped the fog from its eyes and neither had I.

Standing there on the train station platform under the yellow lights shining from the ceiling, everything around me looked like I was seeing it through a bottle of corn syrup. Welcome to sunny Italy in January, I thought. Next time come in the spring, Gary.

The train horn blew and I heard the man chant the names of Italian towns in a litany that reminded me of serving Mass as a kid. I felt like I should rap my fist against my chest like I’d do when Father Tremblay would recite, “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.”

When the train clanked, rumbled and rolled to a stop, I climbed aboard the old-style passenger car and found my compartment. Opening the door, I saw a young woman already seated inside.

Buon giorno,” I said, smiling, as I tossed my bag into a shelf above the seat on the right.

Buon giorno,” she mumbled, looking up from a book and not being too impressed by the gray-haired guy with the horrific American accent disturbing her morning.

I knew very little Italian, which made this Grand Tour of mine a little dicey. I knew good morning, buon giorno, good evening, buono sera, and prego, grazie, ciao, and perhaps most importantly, Dove si trova il più vicino Starbucks? That means something like “Where is the nearest Starbucks?” I learned that in three languages for three major reasons–getting some coffee that tasted of home, free wifi, and always knowing where to find a bathroom without asking for, you know, a bathroom. The travel agents lie when they tell you everyone in Europe speaks English.

“Are you headed to Trieste, too?” I asked my young traveling companion, trying be a friendly American and once again prove my theory.

She raised her brown eyes from her reading, frowned and shook her head no.

“No engleski,” she said in some language that definitely wasn’t Italian.

“Well,” I laughed, shaking my head yes and raising my palm in surrender, “that’s okay, dear. I’ll be able to fritter away the couple of hours to Trieste. You go back to your reading.”

She smiled and returned to her book. She was a pretty girl, mid-20s, dark hair, huge brown eyes behind her cool Euro glasses. She dressed like so many girls I’d seen on this trip, from London to Brussels to Paris, Provence, Tuscany and now headed to Trieste. Bulky sweater, long scarf looped around her neck, black leggings, and Uggs or some other winter footwear. Her boots rested beneath her seat and she had drawn her legs up under bottom her in that way girls do. My wife Gina sat that way on the sofa.

“God, I could use some coffee,” I thought aloud. I found I did that a lot these days and the habit had followed me to Europe. “Can I get you a coffee, a cafe, young lady?” I asked, tipping my cupped hand to my lips in pantomime. She smiled and shook her head no again.

Nevertheless, I returned from the coffee bar with a pair of medium coffees, some sugar and those little tubs of creamer. If she still didn’t want it, I’d drink it. I saw she had put away her book and was looking out at the snowy mountains in the distance now that we had escaped the fog.

I placed the coffee in a cup rest and nodded to it. Again, she demurred. So much for absorbing more local amity and culture, dammit.

“Looks like I’ll be wired for sound and looking for the bathroom in the station when we get to Trieste,” I said, grinning. I held out my hand, “I’m Gary,” I said, pointing to my chest with my left index finger.

She took my hand in one of those fingers-only girl shakes and said, “Regina.”

I nearly wet myself right there.

“That’s my wife’s name. Regina.”

She gave me with a quizzical look. I reached into my jacket and pulled out my wallet and opened it to a picture of I’d taken of Gina on a visit to New York City. I remember her face beaming, standing there on Broadway, pointing to the marquee above, which shouted “Cats.” I also remember my frowning and stewing that I didn’t want to sit for two hours in a theater watching a bunch of prancing gypsies in various feline-themed Union suits. And I hate cats. I’m a dog kind of guy.

“My wife,” I said much too loudly in the way Americans think people who don’t speak English are deaf. “Mi, ummm, mi mo…mo…mi moglie. I think that’s Italian for ‘wife’.”

“Ahhh… supruga,” she said.

Young Regina held her palms up and made like she was looking right and left for something.

“Huh? Oh, where is she?” I pointed to Gina’s picture, frowned and shook my head no.

“Well, it looks like neither of us understands a damn word the other says,” I said. I could feel the difference in our momentum and realized we were slowing as we were rolling into our next stop. Out on the platform, folks were climbing off of and onto trains and in about five minutes we were cracking along again at top speed.

“American,” I said, pointing to myself and then to her, putting on what I hoped was a questioning expression.

Hrvatski,” she said, which really drove home our language barrier. What the hell is a Hervatski, I wondered.

“Ohhhh-kay,” I said. “Well, Regina, we’ve got another couple hours to go, but this trip is going to be a bitch, communication-wise, so, uhh…” I smiled and pulled out my Kindle and she smiled and pulled out her music player with a set of those big noise-canceling headphones and sat back, her eyes closed. This girl had ridden the trains before, I thought. Within fifteen minutes, the train had rocked her to sleep.

“You’d fascinate Gina,” I whispered. “She always was up for adventure and meeting new people, trying new things.” I remembered the first time she tried to foist Filipino cuisine on me. Crazy half-gestated duck eggs and other things that didn’t look the least bit palatable. I ate roast pork and a flan-like thing. But, in England, I’d eaten frigging kidneys. Yesterday, I’d choked down some piece of a goat I did not want identified. Neither the goat nor its part.

I closed my eyes and felt the train rock its smooth rock, but the damn coffee wouldn’t let me sleep. Out the window I saw trees blur by and I jumped when another train blew by ours. You think you can reach right out there and touch the other one, they pass so close.

I lived like that for a long time, full-bore and balls to the wall, not recognizing what was going on around me, just in front. Today I realized those are windows across from me, but there’s no way you can recognize anyone sitting there, maybe sucking on a coffee or a Red Bull, wishing he or she was still in bed bumped up against–or bumping up against–that warm form in the port-side sheets.

You just see a whoosh of silver-gray flashing its own sheets of strobe-light what-ifs and maybes. And you try not to look too hard at it because it just ends up hurting your eyes or something.

I had enjoyed my stay with my sister-in-law.

“Is she still your sister-in-law even after your wife dies?” Funny the things that go on in your head when you’re really alone. I even said them out loud now.

I had determined to take the trip I had promised Gina all those years I had been too busy or too something to actually do it.

“She passed away, you know. Died,” I whispered to my sleeping traveling companion. “Uhh, morto.” I was pretty sure that would sound like something people in this part of the world would recognize for death, and, if she was awake, this Regina would have looked at me like she didn’t understand. My Regina looked at me that way sometimes, too.

“Gary, when are you going to slow down?” she’d say. “You’re going to work yourself to an early grave, and I can’t imagine what would happen to me if I lost you to that stupid job.”

“That job put us in this house and keeps you in it and in some beautiful clothes and a fine car, Gina. I’m only doing this for you, babe, so you can live the way you should live. Comfortable, not wanting for anything, happy,” I said.

“Sometimes comfortable isn’t enough, Gary. Maybe I want you! That would make me happy.”

“You’ve got me, Gina. Soon as I retire we’ll take the trip, sweets, I promise,” I said. I’d always say, putting her off for another year. And then, six months before I was scheduled to retire, there was to be no other year.

Dope that I was, I never understood what she meant. Now I knew too well. Even I felt guilty about that.

Across the compartment, Regina stirred, and the mouth of her bag gaped open. Even though she was a kid, young enough to be the daughter we never had, other than her phone and tablet, she looked to be a words on paper girl. She was reading a real live book. And there in her bag I could see what looked like a small journal, like Gina kept. I never read Gina’s, of course. not until after she died. Took me three months to even lift it off the nightstand.

Now I keep a journal. Not like those profit and loss things I kept as a young accountant. This was a different kind of accounting, keeping records of what turned out to be real loss. I wished I could share some of it with young Regina over there. But kids like her wouldn’t relate to it. She’d think I was some crazy old coot writing in a book in which I kept my thoughts and conversations with Gina. I had a lot of catching up to do, hon. I pulled out the journal, the new one Gina had started before she died, and opened it in my lap.

Looking up at sleeping Regina, I whispered, “I hope you never have to write such a story, kid.”

She stirred a little and I thought she was waking.

“Sometimes, Regina, the book ends much too quickly. It’s climax gets ripped from its back pages before you get to The End. It sucks when you’re left to guess at the ending. You wonder all the what-ifs. I never was good at imagination and, what did Gina call it? Spontaneity.”

I closed our little book—Gina’s and mine—and looked out the window again. I had no idea what the hell I was looking at. I grabbed that other coffee cup from its holder and took a sip. The Euro brew was cold as I imagined those mountain streams in the distance were. But at least now I tasted it, instead of gulping it down. Like I used to gulp every bit of life.

Another train sped by and the flash of the sun on its windows burst across our faces, I’m sure waking Regina. That’s how you’ll look at your life will look someday, young Regina, I thought. I closed my eyes and kept them closed until we rolled into Trieste.

Story #8 of my Story-A-Day quest. Today’s prompt was for a Cinderella story structure. Something with a try, fail, try, fail, try, fail, and final change to the protagonist. I tried, I really did. But this is what happened. I can’t complain. Knew it would happen eventually. What was it old Lodge Skins says at the end of Little Big Man? “I was afraid of that. Well, sometimes the magic works. Sometimes, it doesn’t.” Today, a different magic happened. I think that happened for Gary, too.

Memories Are Fireproof Things

Burning Old Memories by Gerla Brakee

Burning Old Memories by Gerla Brakee

I noticed the smoke coming from the chimney as I turned the corner. Smoke from Eddie’s backyard grill I could understand, but not the thick grey smudge climbing like ivy into the street side oak out front.

I hustled my way to his front door and knocked, Eddie never did give me a key, even if I was his lone living relative. He’d changed the old locks anyway. After my third bout of rapping on the door, its frame and the glass, I heard Eddie call from inside.

“Go ‘way. Nobody home,” he said from the living room. I could see his head poke up from behind Mom’s floral couch, the one she left Eddie and me when we got her house and it contents in her will. I sold Eddie half of my half.

“C’mon, Eddie, open up. What the hell you doing in there,” I shouted through the old mail slot. I could smell smoke coming from within.

From behind the old lace sheer curtains on the door window, I could see the fuzzed up image of my big brother coming my way, feel his stomping tread on the floor all the way out to the front porch. I knew this wasn’t going to be an easy visit.

Eddie unlocked the door, opened it about ten inches against his foot and gave me a look like I was his third Jehovah’s Witness at the door that day. I wasn’t, but I was still mighty interested in my brother’s well-being. It was my job now.

“What the hell do you want? I told you I was busy,” he said.

“I tried calling you to say I was coming over, just to say hi and see how you’re doing. You never answered or returned any of my messages.”

“I been busy. Besides I told you I didn’t want to see you over here. It’s my house now and I’ll decide who to let in,” Eddie said. He started closing the door, not slamming it for a change, but this time it was my foot that braced against its bottom. I gave it a hard push back into the foyer, knocking Eddie back with it.

“God damn it, Charlie, I think you broke my nose,” Eddie said.

“You’re lucky I don’t break your neck,” I said, trying to maintain the self-imposed adult demeanor I’d developed in helping Mom with Eddie, as well as in defending my brother and his issues for most of our lives.

“I got a call from Melody that you’re not speaking with her these days either. What’s going on, man?”

“Nothing that concerns you…or her. Now get the hell out of my house.”

“Still a piece of mine, man. And I want to make sure you’re not destroying that piece. Now what the hell you bring in the fireplace on a 85-degree day in July?” I said.

“I told you. None of your business.”

“I pushed past Eddie in the foyer and strode into the living room, where that smoke I was outside was also clouding the room from the fireplace up to the ceiling.

“One, you shouldn’t be burning anything, at any time. Two, I closed the flue back in April, so that’s why it looks like a fog in here. It’s a wonder you haven’t keeled over from carbon monoxide. Three, open the fucking windows so we can get this smoke out of here so at least I don’t die today. And finally, four, What’re you burning, anyway?” I said.

“None of your business, little brother. None of anybody’s business now.” Eddie said. He pouted and stomped around the first floor opening the windows and back door.

The room looked as neat as ever, Eddie being a fastidious guy, even if sometimes his mind left most of its toys out for us all, mostly Eddie, to trip over. But there in front of the hearth, an old cardboard box stood tipped on its side, piles of old black and white and faded Polaroid photos scattered in an arc along the floor as if they were marching their way into the fireplace.

It was the box of family photos Mom kept on the top shelf in her closet. I hadn’t seen it for years. Never looked in the closet after she died, except to give her clothes to Goodwill. That’s thrown Eddie for a loop, like we were erasing Mom from the place like we erased her from the world by burying her.

“Now what’s the deal, Ed. This isn’t like you at all. It’s okay to go through Mom’s pictures, of course, but what’re yu doing during the damn things? What if I wanted to see them?”

“No.” Eddie’s face turned red and his eyes looked like they would burst into tears at any moment. “You don’t want to see these people anymore. And I really don’t. You don’t know what I do.”

I kind of doubted that, since I was the only member of our family to ever go to college and Eddie, well Eddie went to his school, but no further.

“Talk to me, bro. We’re in this together, right? With Mom gone, we gotta work together to make it through. Now what is it you know that I don’t?”

Eddie picked up four or five more photographs off the pile and tossed them into the shrinking fire. As he picked through some more, I grabbed them from his hand and said, “Stop this. What’s going on?”

He nodded at my hand, in which I now held three photos of Mom and Grandpa, Grandma and Grandpa and one of all of us at some Christmas back I don’t know when.

“There, ya see now?” Eddie said.

“No, just pictures of Mom. Why’d you want to burn pictures of Mom. I’d never expect this shit from you.”

“You don’t get it, do you?” Eddie said and kicked a little book, its cover a faded pink with a rainbow drawn in the lower right of its cover. The top corner read: Missy Bruno. Mom.

“Open it. Open it anywhere and read. I found it in the attic. In a little chest stuck in the corner. You’ll see.”

I could see the pages had been pulled back and the dust freshly smudged by I assume Eddie. I looked at the page that was opened by Eddie’s kick. It read:
D came in agin last night. And he did it agin. I asked him why. He said cause he loves me. But I cant tell M cause she wouldn’t understand and be upset with me. That’s what D said. Confused.

“The whole fucking thing is full of that stuff,” Eddie said, calmer but still angry. “I’d kill that old bastard if I could get my hands on him.”

I finally got it.

“Are there any more of these?”

“Lots. Burned them.”

“They all say the same thing? That Grandpa abused Mom?”

“Yeah, and a lot more.”

“Like what?” I said, not really sure I wanted an answer.

“Like about me. About Grandpa. Him, mom and me. And you.” Eddie said, and then his eyes finally let go, and not from the smoke.

I spent the next few nights with Ed. Got us both settled. And we burned every one of that bastard’s pictures. But memories are fireproof things. Not sure Eddie and I can bury those along with poor Mom.

Here’s the first of my stories for the Story A Day may challenge I crazily accepted the day after I completed Poem A Day April. I may not share them all with you, but I figured I’d give you this first draft (and I mean totally untouched by editorial hand, no time) of a story I was prompted to write in 30 minutes. Just made it. I write fast, but unfortunately these days I think much too slowly. Product of the muck of too many memories, maybe.

The Man in Black ~ An Albany Story

Stunning small snapshot of interior of a pub

Stunning small snapshot of interior of a pub (Photo credit: whatsthatpicture)

From time to time, I post short stories I’m fretting over. Really, until I let them go to some unsuspecting journal, they’re all Works in Progress. And, after their editors reject them, they still are!

This story is my Albany-centric twist on the Hemingway classic “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”

It’s a little more than 1,700 words, but hang in and I hope you like it. My fiction group colleagues did. They know me as more storyteller than a poet.

The story’s working title is…

The Man in Black

Beams of morning sunlight with squared corners ran through the window and onto the floor of Pauly’s Tavern on Central Avenue. The morning crowd never noticed the specks of dust floating in the box-shaped ray crawling closer to the window as the sun rose in the sky. They only noticed mahogany and glass as drinks sank to the bottom of their mugs and tumblers.

The college kids called Pauly’s an old man’s bar, and in truth, the morning crowd skewed closer to Social Security age than 21. Thorough checking IDs for the age of patrons was not Phil Papandrea’s problem, working daytime as he did. 

Barely a head raised when the scraped and scratched wood and glass door opened and the shadow of the old regular called Johnny stretched across the worn oak floor. Phil looked up, though, and noticed it looked like Johnny already had a head start on the other patrons.

Johnny ambled on long, unsteady legs to a stool at the far end of the bar, upon which the morning Times Union lay. Phil always left it there to save Johnny’s spot, one as sacrosanct in Pauly’s as the place on the shelf behind Phil where they kept the cognac no one ever ordered.

“Morning, Johnny, how we doing today?” Phil said.

“Ummph,” Johnny said, as Phil reached into the cooler beneath the bar and pulled out a green can of Genesee Cream Ale, popped the top and poured it into a glass.

“Here you go, champ,” Phil said, sliding the glass in front of Johnny.

Phil then walked down to the sunny end of the bar where a new member of the morning crowd was nursing a boilermaker and the New York Times crossword.

“Hey, Phil,” Ed Burley whispered, “what’s with the cans for the old guy? You’ve got Genny on tap.

“Aw, it’s just something we do for old Johnny. He buys his own beer up at Oliver’s Beverage store and we keep it cold for him here. Otherwise, I don’t think he could drink here.”

“Yeah, but…um…why?”

“Because he’s Johnny No-Cash. Can’t you see?” Phil said, in no way explaining other than to point out the jet-black toupee and black shirt and pants Johnny wore that gave him the look of a cartoon version of the iconic American singer.

“We let Johnny slide because the boss loves him. He lets him live upstairs and helps clean the place up at closing,” Phil said. “He’s pretty harmless unless you hassle him. Most of the college guys think he’s a hoot.”

“They don’t bother him?”

“Not too much. In fact, some of the Siena boys took such a shine to him they brought him golfing with them. Let him ride in the cart and caddy for them,” the bartender explained.

“I heard the other day he had problems. I mean besides what you keep under the bar,” Burley said.

“You mean trying to kill himself?”

“Yeah, well, that was something different. He’d been in here drinking all day and afternoon and some punks came in from St. Rose. I was off by then. They thought it would be fun to play with his hair,” Phil said, and jerked his thumb toward Johnny.

“It didn’t end well. He was so drunk and angry chasing his hair while they played keep-away, he fell and pissed himself. Johnny is anything if not fastidious about how he looks. A bunch of regulars stepped in, but Johnny was embarrassed and had to be carried upstairs crying like a baby.”

“Nasty punks,” Burley said. “Was that when he did it?”

“No, when Pauly closed he went upstairs and found Johnny passed out in his bed. Checked on him and he seemed okay. When I got here in the morning, cops and EMTs were already out front.”

“Who found him?”

“Believe it or not, his niece. Found him in the bathroom with a rope around his neck. Pulled down the ceiling lamp. She keeps tabs on him since he’s got no one else after his daughter died,” Phil said.

“Aw, man. really? Man, what happened to her?”

“OD’d. Right down on Judson Street. It’s said Johnny was in fair shape then, had a real job and real money, but that just drove him off the edge.”

“Phil!” Johnny boomed from the other end of the bar, rapping his empty glass on the mahogany.

“Keep your shirt on, champ. I’m coming.”

“Instead of playing slap and tickle with that guy, you might want to see if you can serve the drinking customers?” Johnny said.

Phil took Johnny’s glass and filled a new one with another can of Genny.

“You slept at all, champ?” Phil asked Johnny. “Been going all night?”

The man in black either did not hear him or just flat out ignored the bartender.

“Pauly told me to look out for you. I don’t need the boss getting pissed at me if you decide to keel over.”

“Fuck you. Go check on 39-Across down there,” Johnny mumbled into his glass.

“Careful, champ. No one’s bothering you. No need to get testy.”

Johnny stared ahead at nothing and silently sipped his beer.

Phil returned to Burley, poured him another boilermaker and wiped the bar.

“You say he had a real job?” Burley said.

“Yeah. Was a manager type with Price Chopper, I heard. But the thirst was in him and then his daughter…”

The sun had mopped itself from the floor and the bar glowed in the reflection of the light on buildings across the street and flashed from the windows of each passing car and bus.

“Woe Ho, Philip!” came the greeting from Frankie Noonan, the beer delivery guy, several cases of long necks piled on his cart in the doorway. “Comin’ through, gents.”

As Frankie reached the end of the bar, where it hinged upward allowing bar staff and deliveries entry, Johnny banged his glass again.

“Phil!” he roared.

“Easy, Johnny. I’m coming. Would you mind scooting over a couple stools while Frankie delivers his goods and hauls out the empties?”

“I would,” came the cold reply.

“No, seriously, Johnny, you gotta move so we can get our delivery.”

“Yeah, c’mon, buddy. I’ve got eight more stops to make today. I won’t be long,” Frankie said.

“Told you, no. Phil, where’s my beer?”

“Unless you move over, Johnny, I ain’t serving you any more. You’re being a nuisance keeping me from taking care of business here.”

“What’s the problem, old dude? I’m just trying to do my job. I won’t take long. Promise,” Frankie said.

“Go round,” Johnny said. “Phil, you want me tell Pauly you’re pissing off paying customers? You think he’d like that?”

“I don’t think he’d mind me kicking your ass out of here while his beer’s getting warm and undelivered,” Phil said.

“Another Genny, now,” Johnny said.

“That’s it, you’re outta here. I’ll let the boss settle with you when he gets here. Until then you’re not going to be my problem anymore.”

Phil slid over the top of the bar and grasped Johnny’s shoulder and pushed him to the door, the old man resisting, but unable to overcome the bartender’s strength.

“Just you wait, punk. If I was 20 years younger….”

“Yeah, and about 20 beers lighter. Out,” Phil said and pushed Johnny out into the bright sun on Central Avenue.

After Frankie made his delivery, Phil went back to talking to Burley, who was beginning to show his liquor, too.

“Which way did he go?” Phil asked Burley.

“Down Central.”

“He didn’t go ’round the corner here?” Phil asked.

“Nope. Headed that-away.” Burley pointed east.

“Okay, he didn’t go back upstairs then. Fuck.”

“What’s a matter?” Burley said.

“Aw, Pauly just has a thing about the old guy. Worries for some reason. Doesn’t want him going to some ghetto joint for his hooch. Or drinking himself to death on the street. Guess he reckons it’s better the old bastard does it in a neat place like his.”

“Yeah, but he can buy his Genny at some store and find a quiet place to drink in the neighborhood,” Burley said. “He’ll be okay on a nice day like this.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Phil said. “It’s just that the boss worries.”

“Sure,” Burley said, “he’s got a nice old-fashioned place here. Not too many around anymore. I guess Pauly figures he needs a crazy old drunk as part of the decor.”

“Must be.”

“I guess I’ll be headed out,” Burley said with a grunt, slipping off his stool. “Thanks for the entertainment, Phil. You really should get a band in here during days, though. These passion plays don’t play so well with this crowd.” He pointed to the quietly buzzing mid-day drunks.

“Yeah,” the bartender said.

“Look, you know as well as I do that God looks out for the likes of Johnny No-Cash. Else why would he still be coasting up and down the Avenue and will more than likely be darkening your door tomorrow. I’ll bet he’s back right after you go off shift.”

“You know, you’re probably right. I’ll tell Pauly when he gets in. Let him worry about his old mascot,” Phil nodded.

“Sure, see ya tomorrow, Philip, my boy,” Burley said, oozing out into Central Avenue.

He looked west up Central and then down in the direction he last saw Johnny. Burley smoothed the narrow old tie onto the front of his shirt. He crossed Central and walked south on Quail Street, stopping in a bodega run by a Pakistani guy for a six-pack of Genesee Cream Ale.

“Thanks, my friend! Have a lovely afternoon and evening,” Burley said.

He walked two more blocks south, sweating through his dark suit just as the cold cans of Genny sweat through the paper bag in which he carried them.

Burley stopped at the park on the corner of Madison Avenue and found an empty bench in the shade. The light was good and the shade was cool. Over on the basketball court young black men were running up and down in a loud shirts-and-skins game of run-and-gun.

Burley, pulled a can from the pack, popped the top and took a long, cool draught of ale. Cops would be by to hassle him about drinking in a public park, but not before the black kids got into his face over why an old white dude was sucking down beers watching them play hoops.

Until then, though, he hummed and occasionally quietly sang “Because you’re mine, I walk hmm..mmm…” 

©Joseph Hesch 2013