It was getting to be about that time. After a few minutes, John, Danny, and Bump all took off. That left Gruf and me. We moved into the same booth where I’d just had my showdown with the Bitch, because the booth benches are considerably softer than the wood chairs at the tables. Mary topped us off for one final cup of coffee.
When I worked nights as a delivery driver at Carlo’s Pizza, Gruf was my boss. He was Carlo’s night manager. In the daytime, I guess you could say I’m Gruf s boss. We have a little carpentry business we call Now on Deck. I’m the carpenter and contractor. He’s my “manual laborer,” as we both like to say because we think it’s funny.
After hearing me whine about paperwork, Gruf also stepped in to take care of the books for Now on Deck. He has a four-year college degree in accounting and was already doing the books for his dad’s bar, Smitty’s. That’s where the two of us were currently working days. We were doing a major renovation job on Smitty’s Bar.
That morning in Brewster’s, Gruf stubbed out his cigarette and drained the last of his coffee. Then he ran his fingers through his glossy black DA. He fixed his ice-blue eyes on me and smiled. “Okay. Ready to go?”
I said, “I’ll meet you over there. I’m gonna go get my hair cut off.”
He raised his eyebrows at me. “Okay. See ya.” Forty-five minutes later I walked into Smitty’s Bar through the beat-up old back door. It feels funny walking in there before the place is open. You feel like a burglar or something, walking in when the beer signs and spotlights are turned off and the bar’s all dark and shadowy. All the action that time of day is in the kitchen.
The only two people in the place at that hour of the morning, besides Gruf, were Gruf’s dad, Smitty Ridolfi, and his day cook, a skinny, geeky guy named Benny Jepson. Benny wears his black-rimmed glasses adhesive-taped together across the bridge of his nose and is always on the lookout for a chance to talk about the Internet.
Smitty and Benny were in the kitchen, working briskly and quietly. Benny was making hamburger patties and Smitty was tearing up heads of lettuce into a big, white plastic tub.
Smitty looks exactly like Gruf, only older. He’s a tall guy with a lean, strong face. He wears his snow-white hair in the same long, wavy DA and he’s got the same ice-blue eyes.
Benny looked up and saw me standing in the doorway. He wrinkled his nose to adjust the way his glasses were riding and said, “Holy shit, Terry. What happened to you?”
I ran a self-conscious hand over my bald-feeling head. It wasn’t bald looking, though. I’d told the girl to cut it just long enough so none of my scalp showed through.
When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t like my mustache anymore, either, so I had her shave that off, too. My head felt so weird I didn’t think I’d ever get used to it. It was like reaching up to feel my hair and finding somebody’s short-haired dog there instead.
“Got a little trim,” I said, grinning. “And call me Twees. It’s my new nickname.”
Benny got a puzzled look on his face.
Smitty looked me over. His grin made papery wrinkles at the corners of his blue eyes. “I bet you felt every drop of that cold rain out there.”
I laughed and nodded. It had already occurred to me that maybe I should’ve waited until the warm days of spring to make such a drastic change. I could already see that I was going to need a hat for the first time in my life. And I’d already started to wonder what kind of hat wouldn’t make me look like a total dweeb.
I said, “Where’s Gruf? Over in the New Part?”
They both said, “Yeah.”
I walked past the dark bar, turned right, walked through the big darkened hall where the three pool tables were, and approached the double doorway to what we were now calling the New Part.
The New Part had been, until recently, a huge, unused, closed-off mess known as the Old Part. Once we had it renovated and open, it would double the size of Smitty’s Bar.
The back section of the New Part was now a brand-new, state-of-the-art, high-efficiency commercial kitchen, with every shiny stainless-steel appliance a restaurant chef could ever dream of. Gruf and I had stripped the old room down to its carcass and rebuilt it, painted it white, installed the stainless-steel cabinets, put up the stainless-steel shelving, installed the appliances with the occasional help of the manufacturers’ techs, and laid the shiny white tile during an intense three weeks in October.
Then we went to work on the rest of the New Part. We cleaned out the decades of junk that had accumulated there and stripped the structure down to its skeleton. We tore out the shitty old plywood flooring down to the shitty old subfloor. We tore out the cheap old paneling and the raunchy old ceiling.
As soon as we finished building the new waitress station, we planned to turn the entire room into a large formal dining room, with wainscoted walls, thick carpeting, brass lighting fixtures, heavy oak booths and tables, and sexy captain’s chairs.
I should go back a ways and explain how all this craziness got started. See, at first Gruf just wanted to persuade Smitty to let us build a large deck onto the back of the building, with an outdoor waitress station that looked like a gazebo and wide stairs leading down into a large three-court volleyball pit.
During the time that Smitty was considering that idea, Kenny Carlo decided to start franchising his pizza stores. The first one sold was Carlo’s—Spencer, since it had the biggest volume. The couple that bought it were currently being trained for the takeover at the home store in Fairfield.
When Smitty heard that news, he put his cards on the table. Once the new owners took over Carlo’s— Spencer, he wanted Gruf to quit Carlo’s and take over running the bar so he could retire. Gruf agreed, so Smitty gave the go-ahead on the deck and volleyball pits.
Then the two of them started talking about the future of Smitty’s Bar in general. They had a bunch of late-night heart-to-hearts. Gruf had a lot of big ideas. Smitty listened. Eventually, Smitty agreed to go large.
Gruf and I were still working nights at Carlo’s while we waited for the new owners to come in. The plan was, we’d help the new owners get settled and help them train a new set of employees. Then we’d make the jump to Smitty’s, taking most of the old Carlo’s employees with us.
That morning I stood in the double doorway and looked back toward the brightly lit area where we were building the new waitress station. Gruf was already hard at work. I watched as he marked his cutting line on a piece of drywall. He made his last measurement, marked it quickly with his pencil, and tucked the pencil behind his ear.
I said, “Jeez, you look like an old pro doing that. You look like you’ve been hanging drywall for twenty years.”
He’d only been my “manual laborer” for a few months, but he was picking everything up really fast. I took a lot of pride in how fast he was learning.
He walked around me, checking out the haircut. When he got back in front of me, he nodded. “I like it. Looks good.”
“It feels freaky. Gonna take a while to get used to. Plus, I’m gonna hafta wear a hat when the weather’s cold. What the fuck kind of hat am I gonna wear?”
He said, “Get yourself one of those black knit caps. Those things look cool. You’ll look like a guy that works on the lakes.”
Well, there ya go. I nodded and looked around. “Where’d we hide the radio?”
He glanced around, too. “It might be back in the kitchen.”
I nodded. Smitty sometimes stuck it back on a counter in the new kitchen to prevent one of the barflies from walking out with it. I found it sitting back there, brought it out, and turned it on, and we got to work drywalling the divider that would close off the waitress station from the dining room.
Once the divider was up, we leveled that section of floor by belt sanding the humps and shimming the outer joists. Then we laid five-eighths plywood and did the prep work for the tile before we broke for lunch.
We washed up in the kitchen sinks, took a minute to look over what we’d accomplished so far that morning, and walked out to the bar. Now it looked more like Smitty’s, with the lights on and the barflies hovering over their beer mugs.
I made a quick call to the lumberyard for delivery of the plywood for the dining-room floor. Then I slid onto my usual bar stool next to Gruf. Our French dips were sitting on the bar waiting for us, along with my iced tea and Gruf’s High Life.
We ate in silence for a while. I began to look up and around while I chewed. Now that I’d put in so many hours working in Smitty’s, I knew most of the regulars by sight, if not by name. The unemployed and disabled ones were there every day. Today almost all the other regulars were there, too, since most of them were laborers and it was raining.
I began to notice something unusual. Normally, most of them sat alone, quietly drinking and smoking, staring off into space. But today, I noticed they were sitting in twos and threes and talking quietly. Now and then, one of them would slide off his stool, walk up to somebody else, and have a few words. I noticed they didn’t look too happy. I also noticed that more than one of them glanced our way as they talked. I began to wonder what was on their minds.
After lunch, Gruf and I laid the tile in the waitress station and rolled it good. Then we moved the front pool table out of the way and went out back to wait for the lumberyard truck. The cold rain was beginning to clear off, but the parking lot had standing puddles, so we dragged out a couple of pallets and set them near the back door to take the plywood.
The truck came after about ten minutes. The driver off-loaded the plywood with a winch, I wrote him a check, and we carried in the first of the plywood sheets. We were starting back for the second load when two guys I didn’t know came in carrying the next sheets. Gruf and I backed up against the wall so they could pass. I looked after them in amazement and turned back to the door in time to see the next two guys coming. These two I recognized as regulars.
Out by the stack two more guys were loading up. I looked at Gruf. He was grinning. “Looks like we got us some volunteers.”
Needless to say, with eight guys working, it didn’t take long to get the stack carried inside. Gruf and I brought in the last sheet. The other six guys were
standing in the dining room, looking around squinty-eyed and critical. Smitty had walked back, too.
I said, “Thanks for the help, guys.” I caught Smitty’s eye. “Next round’s on me.”
Smitty winked at me. “Next round’s on the house. Come on, boys. Let’s get outa the way.”
We got busy tearing out the old subfloor. After a lot of tedious shit we got the joists level and were able to begin laying the plywood. We were about half-finished when I happened to glance around toward the double doorway leading back into the bar. One of the barflies was standing there. He wasn’t one of the ones who’d helped us, but I’d seen him around almost every time I’d been in Smitty’s.
Judging by his wet hair and rosy cheeks, I guessed he’d just walked in.
He’s kind of a blurry-looking guy, average height, midforties, long brown hair parted wide to the side, skinny, droopy shoulders. His fuzzy green eyes watched us from under his raggedy brown eyebrows with the expressionless stare of the acid burnout.
Gruf saw me looking, turned around, and smiled at the guy. “Hey, Mule. Whad’ya think?”
Mule’s smile was sweet. Shy. He gave Gruf a tentative grin and took a baby step into the room, looking around.
Mule said, “Sure looks different.” He gave out with a nervous little chuckle.
We both joined him in looking around the place, nodding. I said, “That’s for sure.”
Mule nodded. “That’s for sure.” He produced another little chuckle and took another tentative shuffle step into the room.
A second guy appeared behind Mule. I knew this one’s name. He’s called Tiny. He’s huge, taller than Gruf and me, even.
We’re all tall. Gruf, Danny, Bump, and me. We range between six-four and six-six. The only one who isn’t tall is John Garvey. He’s a brawny five-eleven.
But Tiny is enormous, and he’s a very tough-looking guy. Which I had made every effort to stay out of his way, because he’s so big he looks like he could kill a guy with a careless swat. He has long, greasy, sand-colored hair, always has a few days’ beard on his wide face, and has the same vacant burnout expression in his eyes as Mule. That day he also had the same rosy just-came-in-from-outside cheeks.
Under their dirty Carhartt jackets, they both wore ratty old faded flannel shirts randomly buttoned over gray T-shirts, filthy Carhartt pants, and knee-high green rubber boots. I remembered somebody saying that Tiny installed septic systems. A bunch of Ohio Lottery instant tickets were sticking up out of Mule’s jacket pocket.
Gruf said, “Hey, Tiny. How the hell are ya?”
Tiny didn’t smile or hardly move beyond the tightest possible nod. His eyes darted around the room like bright lights were flashing at him.
Mule glanced over his shoulder at Tiny and said, “It sure looks different.”
Tiny’s eyes brushed across Mule and went back to darting around the room.
Gruf cocked his head and studied them. Then he said, “Come on back and have a look at the new kitchen.”
He picked up his Coke and led the way through the kitchen doorway. Mule and Tiny came across the new floor toward me like they were afraid it might cave in on them or something. For that matter, as big as Tiny was, this actually could’ve happened to him before.
As they passed me, Tiny gave the top of my head a rough open-palmed noogy and said, “Shouldn’ta cut it.”
I opened my mouth to agree with him. Big as Tiny is, offhand I can’t think of anything I would ever disagree with him about. But by that time he was already in the kitchen and I realized no answer was required.
I set my nail gun on the counter frame, picked up my iced tea, and followed them.
I wondered why Gruf had turned on the exhaust fan, which operates with an efficient, state-of-the-art whisper. Not like the deafening, rattling exhaust fan in the kitchen over at Carlo’s. When I saw Gruf’s hands go to the back pocket of his jeans, I knew why. He was going to burn a bowl with the boys.
I leaned on the nearest available counter to watch. I was curious what Mule and especially Tiny would be like when they got high.
I leaned back against the counter because I don’t do the weed anymore. I don’t do the weed and I don’t do the booze, because overindulgence in those two recreational activities a year or so ago were what caused me to go nuts in a bar one night, trash the place, pound on a few guys, and land in jail. For me, jail was an effective wake-up call. I’ve been sober as a judge ever since.
The bowl went around once. Then Gruf tamped it down and relit it. He said casually, “So. Whadda you guys think about the changes around here?”
They both stared at Gruf’s hands as he got the bowl going again. The bowl went around another circuit. As Tiny passed it back to Gruf, he said in a low mumble, “Somma the guys wanna know what it’s gonna be like.”
Mule shifted uneasily in his worn, out-turned work boots, and I remembered all the whispered conferences around the bar during lunch. I began to realize that this was some kind of unofficial barfly delegation, and now I saw that Gruf was aware of it. I drank a slug of my iced tea and watched them with even more interest.
Gruf shrugged. “Bigger. Newer.”
He sucked on the bowl a couple of times and handed it to Mule, who took a deep draw with his eyes squeezed tightly closed and passed it to Tiny. Tiny made a production of tamping it down with a split, dirty thumbnail and relighting it. He took a couple of deep draws and handed it back to Gruf.
Tiny mumbled, “Somma the guys wanna know if it’s still gonna be their bar.”
Gruf looked at him closely, reading between the lines, took a draw, and passed the bowl to Mule.
Mule sucked deeply. Still holding the bowl, he said, “Listen to this. This was the funniest thing. One time, me and my one brother Robert cut school and we were down by the tracks behind the feed and grain? Remember where the train tracks used to be, down behind the feed and grain? And Robert, he goes—”
Tiny put one heavy hand on Mule’s shoulder and reached for the bowl with the other. He said, “Not now, Mule.”
Gruf said, “What’re you saying? Some of the regulars are worried the bar’s gonna get too fancy?”
Tiny nodded, taking a drag. “Fuckin’ yuppies in here, actin’ all stupid.”
Gruf said slowly, “Well, I hope all the boys know this’ll always be their bar. Fuck, they’ve been supporting the place for all these years.”
Tiny passed the bowl to Gruf and said, “Hard for a man to relax and enjoy his beer if there’s a bunch a fuckin’ yuppies all flyin’ around actin’ all stupid.”
Gruf nodded and took a deep draw. “I see what you mean,” he said, nodding. “Yeah, I see your point. Listen. Lemme think about this. I’ll come up with something. Okay?”
Tiny cocked his head and gave Gruf a suspicious look. Gruf reached over and punched Tiny’s arm.
I almost shit.
But Tiny grinned at him.
Gruf said, “You tell the boys to give me a few days to think about this. And tell ’em not to worry. I’ll take care of them. Okay? Tiny?”
Tiny nodded, shook Gruf’s hand, and elbowed Mule. Mule staggered sideways.
Tiny said, “Tell Gruf thanks for the bowl.”
Mule grinned shyly and said, “Thanks for the bowl.”
Tiny was already shuffling back out toward the bar.
Mule started after him. Then he stopped and looked up at my head. “Shouldn’ta cut your hair.”
He didn’t wait for my reaction. He just hurried out after Tiny.
When they were gone, Gruf grinned at me. “The regulars are getting their shorts in a twist. This is trouble.”
It did seem like trouble at the time. But everything’s relative. The problem with the regulars at Smitty’s was just a little crease that needed smoothing out. The real trouble was lurking right around the corner.