There are some fascinating folks out there in the bars. Going to one of my father’s gigs was always prime people watching.
Tonight’s gig is at the Crow’s Nest, on the outskirts of town. The crowd is boisterous and tobacco addicted. It is blue jeans and flannel, teased hair and red cowboy boots.
The outside of the building does nothing to prepare you for its inside, and the first thing you notice, on entry, is how very large it is. A long, wooden bar, backed by mirror to the ceiling, runs the length of the room. Eighty, ninety people sit there easily, denim-clad butts on leather-and-duct-tape stools.
The Crow’s Nest smells like exactly what it is. Having absorbed the exhalations of decades of smokers, the head of the moose mounted firmly in the center of the mirror behind the bar is matted with nicotine residue and dust.
The other side of the room is one long, deep wall of booths. Tables are packed into the center of the room in no particular fashion, a mish-mash of big round ones and long, rectangular ones.
The floor is a pattern of black-and-white tile; and years of weather, heels, and the occasional mishandled keg have left it cracked and missing pieces.
The whole place needs a good scrubbing.
At the back of the place is a stage. Four pool tables take up space on the far corner between it and the last two booths.
Dad’s drums are already set up, and we pull in about 8:45.
The band goes on at 9:00.
We sit in the booth nearest to the stage. The place is almost empty.
“You kids want something to drink?” Dad doesn't wait for our answers but turns and shouts toward the bar.
“Hey, Joe! Get these kids a couple of Buds, would ya? Ha! Ha!”
“Ha! Ha! You got it, Paul!”
Everyone loves my dad.
He turns back to us.
“No. Seriously, you kids want something? Pearl? You want a Shirley Temple?”
A Shirley Temple is one of my father’s running gags. One afternoon last summer, he had taken me into a bar while I traveled with him on one of his sales routes. When the bartender asked if the little lady would like a Shirley Temple, I went red with pleasure. He must think I’m old enough to drink! Blushing, I explained to him that I wasn’t old enough to drink, but could I have a Cherry Coke instead?
There was just a moment’s hesitation and then both men burst out laughing.
Eventually, the bartender had to turn away, bracing himself with one hand on the cash register. My father just put his head on the bar, his shoulders shaking with laughter.
“How ‘bout it? You want a Shirley Temple?”
“Ha, ha, Dad,” I said. "I’ll just have a Coke. Thanks.”
He opens his mouth, but I beat him to the punch. “Not a Cherry Coke, Dad. Just a Coke!”
“What about you two?”
Kevin orders a root beer and Karen orders a 7-Up.
The front doors open suddenly; and as if a bus has pulled up, people pour in. Potato Processors’ second shift is off for the night and ready to party. Some go right to the bar, some stake out tables.
It's Happy Hour.
“You wanna play some pool?” Kevin says.
“Me, too,” Karen says.
“Take her with you,” Mom says. “Don’t lose her.”
Kevin is one year younger than me, but we are pretty much of the same build, a worrisome concept from both our points of view. He puts his hands on his hips and faces Mom sullenly.
“How we gonna lose her between this table and that table?” he asks. He has been getting belligerent lately, and Karen and I tease him that he's moody because he will soon be a woman.
“Don’t get lippy with me, Kevin Scott,” Mom says. “Just keep your eye on her.”
Kevin closes one eye and aims the other at Karen, staring intently.
Mom waves irritably at him. “Go on,” she says, as she pours quarters into Karen’s hands, “Now get outta here before I call the cops.”
The Kountry Kittens take the stage and the lights in the bar dim as Karen and I find sticks, carefully rolling them across the table, looking for straight ones. Kevin plugs Mom’s quarters into the table. We decide on Cut Throat so we can all play.
A voice comes over the amplifiers.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. You, too, Joe –“ there is a loud guffaw from the bar – “and welcome to the Crow’s Nest. We’re the Kountry Kittens.” A large woman with a sweet voice, Joanne – or is it Judy? – she gives a big, saucy wink to the audience.
She purrs into the mic: “How ‘bout a little CCR?”
The band launches itself into Proud Mary and Kevin has to yell to make himself heard.
“I’m breaking!” he shouts.
And just like that, the bar has changed: the lighting, the music, the way the cigarette smoke hangs in blue, low-lying clouds.
Kevin pulls his stick back and breaks. The balls scatter about the table. None of us can really play, but it doesn’t stop us from hogging the table for the next hour as we take hundreds of shots to drop the 15 balls.
Kevin is using the bridge stick and balancing on one leg in a show-boat shot he calls The Deal Breaker when Karen points out our first weirdo of the night.
“There’s a guy over there staring at us,” she shouts.
“Where?!” Kevin and I yell. We turn circles, scanning the crowd.
“Over there,” Karen points with her stick at a man on the other side of the room, sitting at the end of the bar. He is openly staring at us.
“It’s your husband!” Kevin hoots at me.
We squint at him, curious. There are five big tables between the pool table and the bar, and the dim light makes him hard to see. A tall, scrawny man, he is wearing a cap, the kind you get at a feed store or truck stop; and whatever his last haircut had been, it was long past its best stage. The same could be said of his moustache. He raises his drink and nods at us in what I’m sure he considers a jaunty fashion.
“Ish!” Karen proclaims.
“He’s gross,” I agree.
“Hey," Kevin says. "You gonna play or what?” He casually brushes the 12 into the corner pocket.
“Hey, ya dink!” I yell. “That was my last ball!”
Kevin grins at me. “Then you’re not playin’, are ya?”
I go back to the table, furious.
“What’s the matter?” Mom has to shout over “Happiest Girl in the Whole USA” to be heard. I slump into the booth. “Kevin cheating?” she screams at me.
“He’s a dink.”
“Ah, who cares,” she yells. “Let’s have a toast.”
I raise my glass.
“Here’s mud in yer eye,” she shouts.
“Hear, hear,” I shout back.
We clink glasses.
We both lean back into the booth, stare at the stage, watch Dad play.
It isn't long before Kevin and Karen return to the booth. Kevin has won, and Karen is calling him a dink, but it's hard to understand why over the din of the bar. It may have something to do with the way Kevin is shaking his clasped hands over his head, the wicked grin on his face. Karen is jumping up and down, trying to pull his arms down. Kevin is laughing. Mom finally steps in, pulling Karen to her and sending Kevin over to my side of the booth.
Settling down, we sip our drinks and stare at the crowd.
From the stage: “We’re going to take a little break,” Joanne/Judy purrs. “Don’t you go away now.”
And here comes Dad, sweaty and smiling, from the stage. “I’m going to get a beer. Anybody need anything?”
Everyone orders another round and Dad goes up to the bar.
“Good God,” Mom says. “Would you look at this table? Pearl, run up to the bar and get a wet rag, would ya?”
“Oh, go on. It won’t hurt for long. Go on, now.”
Oh, for crying out loud, I have to go up to the bar and ask some busy adult for a rag.
I stand up, contemplate the grand weave through the tables to the other side of the room. The place is crowded now. Choosing the right direction, the clearest path, this is crucial. Make a wrong turn, and you’re facing a wall of elbows and bellies.
I jostle through the chairs and find myself blocked. This table clearly works together. The matching shirts, company logo over one breast and the wearer’s name over the other, is the first clue. The second is the matching logo-ed caps. They are arguing the merits of Ford versus Dodge.
I skirt to the right, dodging, if their shirts can be trusted, Mike, Lou, Ed, T-Bone, and Hootch. From there, it is an easy side-step past a lot of plaid button-downs and industrial-sized belt buckles to the bar. It is packed, and I have to walk to the middle of it before I find a spot to step up to.
Joe appears immediately.
“What can I get you, Paula?” He calls Karen and me “Paula”. He calls Kevin “Bud”.
“Um. Could I have a wet rag, please?"
He chuckles. “Sure. Why not.”
He reaches under the bar and hands me a heavy, wet bar towel. He winks at me. “You going to clean up?”
“No,” I sigh. “My mother is.”
I can’t resist raising the rag to my nose, and I close my eyes as I breathe in. It smells like a swimming pool.
When I open my eyes, Joe is staring at me. He has a concerned look on his face.
Embarrassed, I turn back to the walk through the crowd. Loud and smoky, the room seems to boil with activity.
I hand my mother the rag and she folds it into quarters. Taking the cue, Kevin, Karen and I all pick up our glasses. There are a number of things about our mother that are given: she couldn’t tolerate a snot-nosed child, she relished the idea of pulling a deep sliver from your flesh, and she couldn’t sit still if there was work to be done.
She runs the rag over the table four times, folding and refolding to its cleaner sides.
When she finishes, we set our glasses down together. THUMP.
“OK! So! One more round!” Dad is suddenly at the booth, a tray balanced on one hand. He sets drinks in front of each of us.
He turns to Mom. “You think you’ll be staying until close?”
“Well I don’t know how much excitement we can stand,” Mom muses.
Kevin slumps into the dark corner of the booth. “She started cleaning,” he mutters.
Dad nods. “’Nuff said. Back to the sticks.” He leans over and kisses our mother on the cheek and is gone.
Kevin sits up suddenly, pointing toward the bar. “Weirdo Alert!” he exclaims. “Weirdo #1 staring again!”
Karen and I crane our necks toward the bar where Weirdo #1 has his stool turned in our direction. His back to the bar, his whole body faces us. He smiles, raises his glass at us again.
“Ish!” Karen squeals.
Mother turns from the stage to look at us.
“What are you squealing about?”
“Weirdo at the bar, 11 o’clock,” Kevin says.
She peers over her drink at the man on the stool. ”Looks like a charmer,” she says.
There was the sound of Judy/Joanne blowing into the microphone.
“Pool table’s open,” Mom says. “Here, your father left you this.”
She holds out two quarters. Kevin and Karen both make a grab for the coins.
“Grabby, ain’t ya?” she says. “Here,” she hands them to me. “Make sure they have a good time.”
“You want me to keep an eye on ‘em, too?”
“Nah,” she says, sipping her drink.
We leave the booth as the Kountry Kittens strike up “Cab Driver”.
“Cut Throat!” Kevin shouts. Karen and I search for our sticks as he shoves quarters into the table.
I am testing the weight of a stick – I like them heavy – when I am poked in the ribs.
“Hey!” I shout. I pull my shirt out to inspect the blue chalk circle that now there.
Angrily, I turn to Karen. “What’d you do that for?” I yell.
Karen points to the pool table, where Kevin is concentrating on the solid-stripe-solid arrangement of the balls in the rack.
Fast approaching the table is Weirdo #1.
We run to the table as Kevin straightens up.
“ – help but notice you,” Weirdo #1 is saying.
“What?” Kevin yells.
“I said,” he shouts, “that I couldn’t help but notice you.”
“Yeah?” Kevin yells. He frowns.
“Yeah,” the man shouts back. He leans casually on the pool table, Don Knotts playing James Dean. “So you wanna dance?”
Kevin’s jaw drops. He turns to Karen and I, his mouth open, his eyes wide. I am speechless.
Her arms flail at her sides excitedly. “He’s not a girl! He’s a boy, ya weirdo!” she shouts.
“What?” the man yells.
Kevin makes a strange noise and the spell is broken. We bolt to the booth, where we descend on our mother like a wet sleeping bag. Karen’s voice carries the best.
“Mom! Mom! Weirdo #1 went over to Kevin and he was racking the balls and we couldn’t hear what the guy was saying and Kevin said what and the guy said I noticed you and Kevin said yeah and the guy thinks he’s a girl!”
Karen is hopping from one foot to the other in excitement.
Kevin looks like he is going to be sick.
“What? What? Slow down!” Mom says. She looks from one face to another. “I’m going to set my drink down and you’re going to tell me what you’re talking about.”
She sets her drink down. Karen continues to hop.
“OK,” Mom says. “Go.”
Karen explodes out of the gate. “Mom! Mom! Weirdo #1 went over to Kevin and – “
“Shut up!” Kevin screams. “God!”
But Mom has already grasped the situation. She looks at Kevin, cocks her head to one side. “Some guy asked you to dance?”
Kevin nods, miserably, looks at his feet.
She was silent for a moment. “Well,” she says. “And what did you say? Did you tell him you’d love to?”
Kevin lifts his head, starts to shake his head “no” and stops. “Heeeey…” he says, angrily. “That’s not funny!”
“’Course it’s not!” Mom shouts. “What makes that bar fly think he’s got a chance with a fine-lookin’ boy like you?”
Mom slides further into the booth, pats the spot she has just left. Kevin sits down next to her. She puts her arm around him, kissing his cheek tenderly. "Time for a haircut, isn't it?" she murmurs.
Mom's eyes shine as she gazes at her boy. “Shall we go home?”
Kevin smiles. “Can we have ice cream?”
“I don’t see why not,” Mom says.
Kevin stands up.
Mom finishes her drink, grabs her purse.
“Wave good-bye to your father, chillins. I think we've had enough for one night.”
1 hour ago