A dreary day descended into a depressing cold November night as Dale Whitmer sat on his bare mattress. He was new to town, new to the area and new to temperatures that fell below seventy. His soul was having a hard time adjusting to his unsavory surroundings, much like the critics had a hard time understanding his film. Leaving the “soon to have heat” one bedroom apartment a broker had procured for him the day before would be a chore, but his stomach could be silenced no longer. His options were simple—shake off the frostbite and leave his arctic abode or stay inside and chew on his frozen breath.
Dale chose option A.
Quite convenient for his present circumstances was a neighborhood bar down the block named, Etonner. Since he wasn’t looking for surf and turf and had no interest in trudging several blocks in his Burberry London Black Wool Single Breasted Trench Coat, the only jacket he ever owned, the quaint establishment would have to do. From the outside he could tell this would not be a most reputable of places. The awning that hung in front was weathered and no longer a confident green. The face of the bar was made up of ancient pinkish bricks that had been leaned upon, Dale surmised by the countless deadbeats who frequented this hole in the wall. He could see the cops arriving on scene to take away one drunk after another who attempted to headline their own main event.
Dale opened the door and several heads, along with the bartender, turned to look for a familiar face. As if belonging to a hive, immediate recognition that his particular face bore no resemblance to a regular came over the group and they resumed their drinking and carousing. Fine by Dale, he was there for a burger and a blast of hot air, preferably several blasts.
He walked up to the bar, already regaining sensation in his hands and asked the bartender for a table. When asked how many, Dale held up an index finger with not a hint of dirt underneath the nail. The bartender told him to take his pick of the many open tables to his right. He was a man in his early forties, Dale imagined, most likely a gym teacher who looked to earn extra money to support his family. Of course no one told him to have five kids, or to buy a house a little beyond his means. You are a product of your choices and this man probably had little of his own growing up.
Having seen too many Mafioso movies, Dale chose the table in the corner and sat against the wall, surveying his surroundings. This was the definition of a neighborhood bar; a shit load of pictures of who he presumed to be long dead regulars hung above the bar in cheap brown frames. They were a lineup of drunks and their soulless eyes met his stare and held. A local version of the Terracotta Army, guarding their emperor.
He pulled his eyes from the series of dead figures and continued his visual tour. The requisite dart board full of holes and chalk scoreboard full of permanent markings hung directly across from him on the other side of the bar. Most likely used by lonely men with a drink in their hand, looking to pass the time in their meaningless existence. The surrounding tables looked temporary and Dale guessed on weekends this space was cleared to make way for what the owner hoped to be a larger audience full of people with nothing better to do except stand next to other strangers.
There were two televisions, one flat screen and one vintage picture tube, on either side of the bar. They were muted, with closed captioning scrolling across the bottom of the screen. Dale was surprised the older box was a color one and knew its presence was due to a lower profit margin than expected. The election was today, and the the monitors were tuned to different news channels, with the political leanings of the bar readily apparent by what channel was on what screen. Both sides flaunted the same types of talking heads, each expressing the outcome of the race in the appropriate amount of joy or despair.
The actual bar itself was one big wooden plank extending itself along the entire eastern wall. The stools lined up were half full, Dale estimated only regulars would come out in this weather during the week and also assumed that his staring was starting to freak out some of the occupants. With a cough he reached for the menu standing on his table like a mini sandwich board and stared at his options. He could have a burger, with or without cheese, a chicken sandwich, a roast beef sandwich, buffalo wings or chive blini with crème fraiche and quail eggs.
Sensing the confusion, his waitress entered his field of vision and Dale already guessed her back story. She once had potential, was beautiful and full of personality and would have made a great wife to a great guy. Except birth control wasn’t a priority until it was. She was estranged from the deadbeat, happening only after they confirmed their poor choices with another. One was in college, one was in high school. She was once again alone, forgetting the random nights she woke up next to someone else. And this pattern went on and on until the entirety of her dreams flowed back into the sewer of life.
She had no interest in his back story or his blank stare and openly wondered if he was ready to order. Dale, shaking the fairy dust from his brown eyes asked her about the last item on the menu, the chive blini with crème fraiche and quail eggs. From her smile, Dale wondered how often she had heard those words and the resulting speech definitely put his guess in the upper hundreds. If Dale was going to condense her second act monologue into a concise statement he would say,
“Her boss lived in France.”
Sensing an opportunity to experience true beauty amongst the thorns, Dale ordered the exotic cuisine, along with a Grimbergen and gave a smile to dismiss the waitress. With his order taken care of, Dale was free to continue on with his examination. Looking over the occupants on the left side of the bar, he saw nothing but sport-themed hats and wretched faces. Men he felt who took an interest in gambling, ignoring their lack of talent in the activity. How much money had been collectively lost by the deadbeats staring forlornly into their dollar drafts? The rent, tuition, perhaps even a wedding ring hocked in desperation. These were men who did not know their limitations and in that ignorance remained in a prison of their own making.
A chime rang and in walked a gentleman in a three-piece suit, with the Webster’s dictionary definition of a Windsor knot. His thinning silver hair had a clean part commonly found on Wall Street and Dale guessed one would not find a piece of lint anywhere on the man’s body. A man with such distinction had to be a man who possessed some type of power and a man who possessed some type of power was certain to abuse the notion. Dale knew the man was full of avarice, cruel to his underlings with whom he expected to ring every drop of their soul until the last nickel was found. This was a man who shut his lights on Halloween and complained of too much revelry on New Year’s. His contempt was such that Dale had to mentally restrain himself from accusing the man of gross misconduct there on the spot.
Despite his outward appearance, the man was demonstrative in words and action. Dale anxiously stared at his hair to see if all his movement would shake a hair loose from its polish. This eruption of emotion was probably a passing storm, his true fury reserved from his mouse of a wife and the children he acknowledged with a handshake.
At that moment Dale realized this was the first bar he had encountered in a very long while whose only sound originated from its occupants. There was no jukebox and the televisions were silenced. Yet, based on an acoustic anomaly, he had a hard time hearing the older gentlemen who was deeply distressed by some event. Ignoring his inclinations to move towards the volume, Dale mentally took a step back and concentrated on the two younger men on the other side of the bar, one whom was in the middle of a Shakespearean monologue.
Based on the similarities in ages, Dale surmised the guy on the left was not lecturing the guy on the right. Perhaps he was giving some worldly advice, most likely involving women. The guy on the right was probably heartbroken, the Lothario who had met his match with a Don Juan who possessed an extra large wallet. The guy on the right listened, Dale gathered, to his friend tell him that there were other women, women who did not base their affections on quantity, be it physical or material. He would one day find the girl who mostly appropriately fit into the various nooks and crannies of his life. Until then, the young man should buck up and keep his eyes up—if not to see his upcoming happiness then to avoid tripping on his self pity.
His eyes darted back towards the older man who had offered the wrong opinion and was furiously holding fast to whatever position he maintained with another man, who could say to have his judgment influenced by his friends Jack and Daniel. Dale was able to hear the bartender attempt to smooth things over by offering both men a drink on the house, to keep the peace and tranquility the bar had tried to cultivate in vain over the years. With begrudging smiles, the two men agreed to disagree and saddled up to drink whatever tonic was being offered.
The excitement had ended.
His waitress came over and draped a place mat in front of him along with a carefully polished set of silverware. Before he could ask, she informed him her boss insisted that whenever someone ordered the chive blini with crème fraiche and quail eggs they received the appropriate eating utensils as well. Dale picked up the fork and felt like he held a talisman, for it brought him back to his youth when he was a dishwasher at his uncle’s restaurant. Regardless of his familial situation, his uncle was a stern taskmaster who would inspect his wash no matter how busy they were. If a fork was not polished to his satisfaction, his uncle would dump it back into the sink. Dale was warned from the very beginning, if his uncle had to do that three times he would be fired on the spot.
Dale held the fork to his eye, determined to spot the flaw. Then, the knife. Minutes passed as his eyes marched across the surface and Dale did not find a blemish. To the surprise of his waitress, who had arrived with his beer, he dropped his fork on the floor. Waiting a beat, Dale leaned over to his left and picked up the now filthy fork, placing it on the far left corner of his table. With a certain satisfaction, Dale sat up and locked eyes with his confused waitress. Her mouth began to open until she thought better and walked away. He stretched out his arms, a mixture of fatigue and exhilaration, took a sip of his Grimbergen and smiled. Dale didn’t need to check the televisions to know the outcome of the election, he already declared himself the winner.