[A bit of southern, rivertop non-fiction, though the names have been changed to protect the guilty. This is the longest post I’ve ever done or am likely to do again. At twice the usual word count, I realize that to post this is a risk, but hey, if you’ve been reading RR for any length of time, you are not a typical reader of the Blogosphere. You have more than the average attention span, not to mention the ability to recognize decent writing (wink!) when you see it… Please enjoy…]
Matt McCloskey had been tending his bar for 35 years. He lived on the building’s second floor and, with exception of his wife who scrubbed the floor and tables six days a week, had worked the business by himself.
On the drab and peeling face of the establishment, the words RIVERTOP BAR & RESTAURANT arched above a gravel parking lot. The bar-cum-restaurant was situated in the curve of an obscure road and drew farmers and various denizens of the hills to the allure of beer and words with friends.
By early afternoon, Matt had not yet switched on the power for the jukebox. A window, broken from a weekend tussle, wore its aging cardboard pane. A stuffed grouse flew as always just above a taxidermied trout. The creatures’ habitat, an anemic green wall paint, led the eye to a bathroom door for “Bucks” (with a sign that read “Wood For Sale”) and to a doorway for “Does” (with a fading sign prohibiting the use of foul language).
For 35 years the short and stocky barman had worked the place and never felt what he was feeling now. Old Ben Newgate, thin and wiry as a sapling with his leg-brace and handcarved walking stick, may have noticed Matt’s altered state but didn’t show it. As if nothing special was about to happen, a handful of friends tossed a steady stream of jokes and insults at each other. Matt, sitting crosslegged on his stool behind the bar, was chewing a cigar stub, as accustomed, but I could see the specter of anxiety on his lined round face.
His smoky blue pants, matching jacket and shiny zippered boots, were worn for a reason. It would come– the long-awaited interview!
Kyle Everson, a reporter with The Cawtakarp Times, was scheduled to arrive in minutes and her article would land him in the valley papers. I asked Matt how he felt about being interviewed. He smiled and bared his dentures, turned and ambled toward the television. “She’ll be late,” he said. “Probably scared to come inside.”
I thought of how, after two years of steady patronage, I had finally become a friend. One day Matt handed me a glass of dregs and stated, “On the house.” I knew I had arrived. Old friends got the bottom of a keg for free, while relative strangers had to pay for it. At no other time did anyone, ever, get a free beer at the Rivertop Bar & Restaurant.
Matt turned down the volume of the TV. Long before, I had learned that in here the TV could be blaring in obligatory fashion but the customers would rarely give it a glance. The local gossip, news, comedy, and put-downs were typically strong enough to relegate the tube to something like a mumbling and obsequious customer alone with his schizophrenia.
Kyle’s slender form soon cut boldly into the room. All eyes fell upon her. “Hello,” she said. “I’m Kyle Everson… Matthew McCloskey?”
I wondered if this blonde-haired reporter imagined hushed obscenities from the men who sat behind her but, if so, she kept her poise and moved easily to the bar and sat beside the jars of fat green pickles and pinkish hog knuckles. Matt introduced her to his customers. “Old-timers, mostly,” he said. “Been here since I opened up the place.”
Kyle ordered a Coke and then commenced the interview by asking if rowdiness was a problem here. “Naw,” answered Matt. “Most of my customers are nice and quiet.”
“Not when they’s under the affluence of incohol!” cackled Benjamin.
Matt confessed. “I gotta throw out a few every now and then.” He jerked his thumb toward the kitchen door through which came sounds of a large dog trying to paw its way past an obstruction. “That,” he added, “will keep anybody at his seat.”
It was time to show off the bullet hole in the woodwork of his bar. Since the wide aperture appeared, he had taken to holstering a .38 beneath his jacket. He spoke proudly of the ragged hole, as if for the first time. “I have trouble once in a while with hippies. They smoke that marijuana out there, or get drunk and litter up the parking lot. Sometimes I get disrespective of them.”
“I don’t understand them young cats nowadays,” mused Ben Newgate. “That stuff they smoke– it don’t make yer heels kick up like that tasty corn likker do. Whoops!… Shouldn’t a said that in front of a newspaper woman!” Everyone laughed and watched Benjamin struggle to his feet and then lurch toward the men’s room.
Kyle ordered another Coke and, then, buckling from persistent ribbing from the guys, changed her mind and asked for a beer. Matt handed her a “Lite” and said, “On the house.”
A congratulatory cheer rang out from the customers. Someone shouted, “Christ, I been drinkin’ here for 30 years and never once…!”
For 35 years Matt had been proprietor and never had a word about his business come to print in the local papers. Sure, there had been some mention of the infamous curve in which the restaurant was nestled– of how the cars, trucks and buses had spun off the road and tumbled into a stone wall. Matt and his wife had made their share of calls to state police and rescue squads for assistance to the dazed and injured travelers. “Accidents used to happen every dang time it rained. Sloshed-over gas and oil coated the road, and when it rained it was slicker than hell,” said Matt.
“You don’t mind that they’ve rerouted most of the traffic from your business?” asked Kyle. She knew the restaurant’s location was like an oasis drying in a desert of the modern world. For years the restaurant had been a salient feature of the main road looping through this mountain range. Then a four-lane road was slung across the ridge above the restaurant and nearby hamlet. It gave the valley dwellers safer, more efficient access to the cities beyond, and it gave the urban dwellers an open road to the mountains when they sought a respite from the summer heat and madness. The Rivertop never benefitted from their visits.
“Oh my business really depends on old friends and customers,” replied Matt. He exchanged an over-chewed cigar for a bright red pipe and then lit it. Thinking that Kyle would soon be taking photographs, he doffed his spectacles. “My friends come back no matter where the road is,” he added. “I got second generations coming in here now. Sons of fathers who are friends of mine stop by. It’s a quiet place and folks like it that way. This place is all I know.”
A man in his 60s entered the bar and sat beside Kyle. “Hey, you’re with the newspaper aren’t you? Is it possible to advertise for a wife in your paper? I got social security and a good pension. Hey! You’re not married are you?”
“Off it Henry!” protested Benjamin. “She’s probably got a husband big enough to fight bear with a fly swatter.” He rose from his seat and balanced on his braces. “Didja hear the joke about the newlyweds who….”
Kyle began to look uneasy, slightly out of the control she liked to have. Matt complained. “Alright guys… she’s gonna think you’re a bunch of dirty old men.”
“We’re not dirty old men,” quipped Henry. “We’re just vulgar senior citizens!”
Kyle reached for her camera while Matt McCloskey rocked from his stool and pulled a veteran black cowboy hat from beneath the bar. He twisted back into his seat and slapped the cowboy hat firmly on his head.
For months I’d known that cowboy hat as an integral part of Matt’s daily wardrobe. Its curled and pointed front had given visual balance to the square-rimmed glasses and the all-seeing eyes. But today the hat had been mysteriously shelved and then procured as if with an afterthought.
I turned to face the large windows of the Rivertop Bar & Restaurant, the woods that edged the road, the home of bobcat, bear and ghost of American chestnut tree. I saw the quietude and then the face of an urban menace growling everywhere beyond. Here, for now, humanity and wildness bought each other drinks.
Two weeks after Matt’s interview, I dropped in to see him. I had read Kyle’s feature article, “It’s Off the Beaten Track But Going Strong,” in The Cawtakarp Times and thought it pretty good. Matt was jubilant and already had a copy of the full-page article framed and hanging underneath the taxidermied trout and grouse.
One photograph was interesting, if not a bit absurd. It showed Matt standing underneath his cowboy hat and offering a porcelain cup of coffee to the viewer. The cup, distorted hugely past proportion, outsized Matt McCloskey’s head with hat and all.
Matt was smiling as he lit a new cigar. After 35 years of working in one place, he was noticed by the papers, and the article shone like a star.
“Did that article drum up any new business for you?” I asked.