by William Flannigan
The outside of the place oozed. It was an old brick building, built in the 1930’s and nobody had cleaned it since then. The red neon sign never stopped blinking the word OPEN. Really, the sign should’ve read CLOSED. OPEN gave the impression that everybody was welcome, that wasn’t the case, you had to earn the respect to make it into a place like that.
The door to inside the bar was the real centerpiece. The grime of 70 years of beer, blood, vomit, heartbreak, betrayal and deception stuck to the door like lamb’s blood. It protected against those of the town that would pass judgment on the slimy dealings inside. It was a heavy door, unlike the other bars in town. The bars where people talked, ya know? Nobody talked there. Poison dripped into the ear wasn’t welcome. The tiny porthole window that broke up the plain red façade of the door was no longer tinted. Somebody was bashed into the window once, long ago. He shattered the original, dark tinted antique glass. That man had a big mouth. He learned from his mistake.
Inside the place smelled like stale beer and cigarette smoke. The customers liked it that way. It was a private sort of place. But, nobody watched the door. Membership required ill repute and shady dealings. This was the kind of place where whispers only came from squeaky barstools and judgment was only handed down when a man ordered a vodka tonic instead of the house drink, Jack and Coke (double). If a noise became louder than the jukebox, it usually meant trouble. Lastly, the only thing fouler than the toilets were the folk the dive attracted. But, at least they were honest in their depravity.
I sat at that bar. The couple who sat beside me was a prime example of the attitude in the place. Their routine was etched in stone or maybe painted as some ancient hieroglyph. It was lost but never forgotten. The process was as old as humanity. Little changes over time when dealing with human affairs. They came in every Thursday, hand in hand, “Budweiser, please. What do you want honey?”
“Rum and Coke, with a lime”
“And a rum and Coke, with a lime”
They talked, mostly about old high school friends. He’d brush her long blonde hair from her face. She’d smile and pull his baseball cap over his eyes. Little Red Corvette was her favorite song, he’d play it on the jukebox and they’d dance. Every Thursday they’d take off their wedding rings for a couple hours and pretend that their spouses weren’t at home dealing with screaming kids or leaky faucets or any other of the little annoyances that come with having your own home. For a couple hours every Thursday they’d entertain ideas of running away together. She wanted to go south where the cold didn’t make her sick to her stomach. He wanted to trade in his pickup truck for a Camaro. For a couple hours every Thursday they opened up and let the other in. And I watched quietly.
I can only recall my parents happy together, once. They weren’t public or open about their affection for one another. To see my parents kiss was incredibly rare. It’s as if they were trying to keep some public persona of independence and strength, they didn’t need each other. As if they would be criticized by some public panel on their personal integrity as human beings. Lashings for anybody who is too dependent on somebody else! It was an odd treat to see my parents be together.
When I was seven or eight, I woke up in the middle of the night (in those days “middle of the night” meant ten o’clock). I rolled out of bed with my stuffed mouse, Marcus and tip toed to the stairs, careful not to creak any boards. Marcus was my sidekick in crime and I often played spy with him. Even then I was convinced I was never getting the whole truth. I didn’t like anything being kept from me, I was a big boy I could handle it. I was aware that people changed when they thought nobody was looking. Sometimes I would watch my dad watch television. He didn’t know I was watching, which made me feel safe and sneaky all at the same time.
I heard music coming from downstairs in the living room. I slid down the stairs, feet first, one step at a time until I came to the landing. I watched what happened that night between two rails in the staircase. My face pushed right up against them, hands wrapped around their lathed forms.
I watched as my parents danced on our new blue carpet, just installed the day before. They had the old brick fireplace rolling and an old jazzy record spinning on the turn table. My father, grey beard, blue eyes, jeans, white socks and loafers, took my mother’s hand and twirled her. My mother, in her overalls and t-shirt, leaned in and kissed her husband. That was the only time I saw my parents happy together. It may have been the last time I saw honesty from either of them. After that night they tried to use me in their arguments.
I can’t blame my mother for her reaction. After all, when faced with the news that your husband likes to get a little rough with his son, the natural reaction is disbelief and denial, right? I didn’t know it was anything out of the ordinary. I saw the beatings as a consequence of my bad behavior. It was my fault when I flushed a whole apple down the toilet or that I was constantly mouthing off (I had a wonderfully rich vocabulary for a seven year old). Once she said, “What happens in this house stays in this house.” So I listened to mom. I kept mum. I didn’t talk about it and neither did she.
There was a time when I actually enjoyed the beatings. It was the only attention I could muster from my father, a bull of a man, who worked 50 hours a week. He would sleep all day. The front porch was his preferred place, if it was nice outside. He’d prop his feet up, sit back in his old lawn chair and fall asleep with a cigarette in between his fore and middle finger. That way he could pretend to watch over me and get some rest at the same time.
Once, I admit, I purposely hit him with a wiffleball while he dozed. He promptly dragged me inside by the arm and slammed the front door. He then took his belt to me for several minutes. He left welts that day, not bruises. Not yet.
Later that week, after another common incident of abuse, I visited my aunt. I used to wait at the front door, sometimes for hours, for her to pick me up in her minivan. Our door was an old wooden thing original to our house. It had a big brass doorknob and brass fixtures and locks. The deadbolt always made this squeal when it was turned over into the lock position. It had a large glass window through it, making the door half a window. My mom always made sure to clean the glass anytime we had guests on the way. Finger prints and smudges were not permitted, not as first impression. Mom wasn’t there that afternoon and dad was sleeping. So I stayed at the door, looking out its spotless window. I didn’t want to miss her. Maybe she wouldn’t come to the door or maybe she would forget about me. I had to wait. My aunt’s house meant I could play with my cousins and eat potato chips and hot pockets and get lost in the woods and play with their dog, Fugi (he was a kindhearted and huge Akita).
She pulled up and I ran out in my usual fashion. Little Red Corvette was playing on her stereo. She always played that song, it was her favorite. I sat down in the passenger seat and she looked at me, eyes wide and mouth agape.
She drove me to her house, sat me down and asked me a question, “Where did that come from?”
“What?” I tired playing it off.
“That huge bruise on your face”
I thought for a moment. I never lied when somebody asked me a direct question, it was never in my nature. I wasn’t even particularly good at it. I knew if I was caught I would be severely punished. Honesty. Always. But I didn’t want to break Mom’s rule, “dad was mad at me and he —“
“He—“, I didn’t want to break the rule.
“Did he hit you?”
“A board” I didn’t know what else to call it at the time. A board? A stick? It would later be called an “ash axe handle” as was written on the police report. He hit me several times with it one afternoon. One blow happened to strike me in the face, leaving a bruise across my cheek in the shape of an “ash axe handle”.
That was the moment my parent’s divorce became imminent. My family forced my mom to kick him out and cut him off. My Mom clung to the idea of her spotless door and now it was smudged with the prints of a victim. Over the following weeks I stayed with grandparents, aunts, friends, anywhere that wasn’t home.
I wasn’t old enough then to understand what was happening, only that I was the one responsible. He tried to buy himself back into the family during Christmas time, but that didn’t last. He used to write letters to my mom, I’d secretly read those while she was working. He’d say things in writing that he couldn’t say in person. The letters didn’t last. He’d send me birthday cards, that didn’t last either. I was personally responsible for my own fate and the fate of my family, at least that’s how I felt. Never again.
The night was quickly coming to an end in that dive bar down town. Men and women paired up, the bartender closed tabs and the OPEN sign flickered and fizzled out. The man and the woman kissed, hugged and said their goodbyes. He left first, like he always did. The heavy metal door slammed behind him. She watched him leave then she sat in the barstool beside me.
“How’s everything going?” she said, chipper like.
“Fine, still writing” I sipped my rum.
“Oh yea? How’s that coming?”
“Yea, just fine. “
“Well, I should be going” she said, “Your uncle will be expecting me soon. He thinks I’m working late tonight”
“Alright, have a good one”
“Remember, what happens at the bar—“
“Stays at the bar, I know”
“Have a good one, thanks again” She put her wedding ring back on, tipped the bartender and swung the old door open.
I would’ve told my uncle what was happening, but I didn’t want to cause any problems. Hopefully she would tell him in her own time. She had two kids, a job and a house to worry about, maybe mum was preferable.
It’s interesting how our public lives rarely reflect our private. Maybe honesty is best kept behind closed doors.
I walked out of that damned heavy door that night, last costumer to leave. Outside there was a dog, a mutt. He pranced around the garbage cans and sniffed through flower beds until he found a garbage bag that was unprotected by a metal can. He tore into it with his paws and teeth and seemed to find something he liked. I yelled, trying to scare him away. He turned for a second, acknowledged my cry and then he turned back around and kept with his grubbing, unashamed.
Will Flannigan is a senior English major at Kent State University. He’s always had a passion for the arts. Will is currently acting as special features editor of Buzzbin Magazine, a Canton, OH based arts and entertainment magazine. Will hopes to bring his passion for the arts into the classroom one day as a high school English teacher. He cites his former English and Theatre teacher Beth Kraft as one of his biggest inspirations. Lastly, Will is to be married in August 2012 to his fiancée Alison Cleland.