[Digging through my prison journals, I found quite a few fictional stories I’d written and completely forgotten. For curiosity’s sake, here’s one I wrote in the county jail, only about two and a half months into my eleven year incarceration. It is dated 5 December 1993 and takes up handwritten pages 164 through 172 of what are now known as my Incarceration Chronicles. I find it amusing today that back then I used to include copyright notices on everything I wrote, including my journals. One note I’d like to make about the county jail at that time: Mom and my girlfriend were permitted to regularly drop off paper, envelopes and stamps for me. After my transfer to Lorain Correctional Institution in early 1994, I would no longer be allowed to receive such gifts, and so I became a bit less prolific there, for better or worse. I present the following short story unedited, more as a historic relic than as literature.]
(c) 1993 John Brian M.H. Burroughs
It was a cold, damp October afternoon. The few old shops that remained on Broad Street since the big Mall was built on the outskirts of town were just being cleaned up and closed. It was five o’clock.
Len had just made it to the cobbler’s in time. He strolled down Broad Street wearing a long, gray-black cloth coat buttoned all the way up to the collar and carrying under his left arm the package that contained his newly-heeled dress boots. He was about thirty years old, with jet black hair which was close cut on the sides and back and fuller on top. He was well-groomed, with short sideburns and a goatee. The wind toyed with a stray lock on his forehead.
Oblivious to all the hustle and bustle around him, he passed City Hall, crossed at the crosswalk, and stepped into the the first bar he came to, The Wet Whistle. There were three working stiffs on stools at the far end of the bar by the idle pool table, two nursing cans of beer and the third a glass. An elderly man and woman sat at a square table by the wall on the right. The bar was on the left and Len took the second stool from the front door, setting his package next to him on the floor.
“What’ll ya have?” asked a deep, abrasive voice from behind the bar.
“Scotch and soda,” said Len.
“What kinda Scotch ya like?”
“Johnny Walker red.”
“Don’t have it. Sorry. We got Dewar’s, J.B. and the well Scotch.
“No Johnny, eh?”
“Nope. Sorry.” The bartender was friendly enough, but he looked and sounded like a grizzly bear would if grizzly bears tended bar and talked. He was quite plump, and his face was all beard, except for a little nose and big brown eyes. And he wore a baseball cap with a picture of a pick-up on it. Under the truck it said, “Ride This.” He grinned, and his teeth became visible through his thick beard.
“Well… Dewar’s, I guess,” said Len.
When he brought over Len’s drink, he set it on the dark, wooden bar without a napkin. “Two dollars.”
Len gave him three and said, “Keep it.”
The bartender went to the other end and joined the three working stiffs in their conversation. Len could see them talking, but couldn’t hear them with the jukebox playing; and he wondered if their caps were the same as the bartender’s and whether it was true that wearing hats all the time contributed to premature hair loss. He never wore a hat.
He finished his drink and before the empty glass was back on the bar, the grizzly was heading toward him. “Ready for another?” asked the bear.
“Maybe just one more,” answered Len.
The bartender gave him another and got another dollar tip. “Thank ya,” he said.
Thank you,” said Len, then the man with the big beard nodded and returned to his friends.
Len tasted his drink. The first one was good, he thought, but this one was better — nice and strong. He took another drink, and this time he held it in his mouth about ten seconds before he swallowed. “Mmm,” he said, then he noticed the jukebox had stopped playing.
He stood up and unbuttoned his coat. He saw a couple of jackets hanging on pegs by the door, so he took his coat off and put it with them. Then he picked up his drink and sauntered over to the jukebox. He had never heard of most of the songs on it. He put in four quarters for five selections, then punched in one song and went back to the barstool with his empty glass. The bartender was waiting for him.
“What the hell.”
“That’s the spirit”
“Make it a double.”
“Awright,” said the grizzly. He grinned again. “From outa town? I ain’t seen ya before… I don’t think.”
“No. I’m a native. I just don’t go to bars much. The last time I was here, it was called Tim’s Place.”
“Man! That was a good fifteen years ago at least. Here ya go. Four dollars.”
Len handed him a twenty. “Sixteen years today. That’s how long it’s been since I had a drink.”
“Ya don’t say. Sixteen is your change.”
“Keep one for yourself.”
“If ya don’t mind me askin’, what’s the big occasion?”
“It’s my sixteenth wedding anniversary.”
“That so? Congratulations. Wife don’t like ya to drink?”
“Len downed his drink and pointed at the glass. The grizzly made him another without a word.
“I guess you could say that,” Len finally said.
“If ya don’t mind me askin’, where is the little woman?”
After a moment of hesitation, he replied, “She passed away yesterday.”
“Sorry. How’d it happen?”
“I don’t feel like talking about it.”
“Sorry. Let me know if ya need anything.”
The grizzly turned and started toward the other end of the bar. “See ya’ll later! he yelled to the elderly couple, who were leaving.
“Bye, Bob!” returned the man.
The bartender waited on his three friends and began conversing with them again.
Len took a sip of his drink. Damn, he thought, that’s about all Scotch. He was feeling light-headed now, but it was the best he’d felt in a long time. Now he wanted to talk about it, and the grizzly bear seemed as good a selection as anyone. “Bob!” he called.
The bartender returned to Len. He saw that the Scotch and soda was still about full. “What can I do for ya?” asked Bob.
“Do you wanna know why my wife died?”
“Ya feel like talkin’ about it?”
“She killed herself. Sleeping pills.”
After several seconds of silence, Len s
aid, “You forgot to charge me for this one.”
“It’s on the house.”
“Thank you, Bob.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Len took a sip. “You wanna know why my wife killed herself?
The bartender opened an icy bottle of beer and took a long drink.
“Love,” Len said.
“Yes indeed. Love. Romantic, eh? Except the love wasn’t for me, but my best friend Carlton.”
“She loved me, but not like she loved him.” He continued, “But she couldn’t leave me. She didn’t want to hurt me, she said.”
“She told ya about it?”
“In her note,” said Len. “She didn’t want to dishonor me, she said, so she didn’t let anyone know. She even told Carlton she loved me and not him. But she didn’t want to live without him and she couldn’t leave me. She didn’t want to hurt me? What the hell does she think she did?” Len sucked down his drink. “Another double, please.”
“Are ya sure?”
Len nodded and Bob fixed one more Scotch and soda. Len paid for it, while a young woman walked in the door. She took a stool four down from his.
“What’ll ya have, Steph?” Bob asked and grinned.
“Hi, Bob! Uh… I guess I’ll just have a Lite, please… with a glass.
“At yer service, Steph,” said the bartender as he took a can of beer out of the cooler. Then he opened it, poured half of it in a tall glass and set both before her. “A dollar forty.”
“Here you are,” said the girl as she handed Bob a dollar bill and counted four dimes into his hand.
Len had been watching her. She had sholder length blonde hair, full of body, and deep, sparkling blue eyes. She took off her jacket, laid it out on the stool and sat on it. She had a slight tan and wore no make-up. She didn’t need any. Her lips were round and full, and she wore a plain but pretty navy blue dress with big white buttons.
While Len was watching her sip her beer, grizzly Bob finished his and waited on two of the working stiffs. The one who was drinking out of a glass grabbed his jacket from one of the pegs by the door and left with a wave of his hand over his head. Bob and the others waved back from the end of the bar.
Len finished his drink off, then stood up. Whoosh! Suddenly the liquor hit him twice as hard. He considered sitting back down, then got himself together and went back to his original plan. He walked past the girl. She looked at him and he nodded his head. He passed the two stiffs in baseball caps. No, he thought, theirs are different from Bob’s. Then he went by the pool table and into the men’s room.
After he urinated, he went to the sink. He put his hands on the counter and rested his weight on them, while he looked into his eyes in the mirror. Damn!” he said to himself, “I am lit!” Then he washed his hands, spalshed water on his face and dried with a couple of paper towels. He looked at his eyes again. “That’s better.” He remembered that he had forgotten to flush the toilet and did so. Then he went out and back to his stool. The two men were gone and Joe was talking to the girl. She didn’t look at Len when he went by this time.
A fresh drink was already at his spot when he sat down. “Joe!” he interrupted, “how much do I owe you?”
“Nothin’. It’s on her.”
Len looked at Steph and said, “Thanks.”
She gave Len a kind glance, then took another sip from her glass. Bob opened another for himself and drank half of it at once.
After a little while, Bob said, “Mondays are always slow, but this is worse than reg’lar. Not that I don’t like yer company, but I think I’ll close up early and spend some time with the wife this evenin’.” He gave another toothy grin, then emptied his bottle. “But ya can have one more if ya wanna.”
“Uh… thanks, Bob,” the girl said and finished her beer, “but I’d better get going. I feel like a walk in the park. I love it after it rains.
“Awright, Steph,” the grizzly said. “Ya want one more?” he asked Len, who had just sat down his empty glass.
“No, unless the lady would care for another.”
“Well,” she said, “maybe I’ll have one… but I’m tired of beer. Give me a shot of cinnamon schnapps, please.”
“The same for me, Bob,” said Len, “and one for yourself if you like.”
“Awright. Don’t mind if I do.” Bob set up three jigger glasses, grabbed a bottle from the shelf and poured the schnapps. It looked like blood in the dim light. Len paid for the shots and gave the bartender a dollar for himself. Then they all raised their glasses.
“If ya don’t mind,” said Bob, “I’d like to make a toast to my pretty Stephanie.” He grinned through his beard.
“To your wife at home, Bob,” she replied with a smile.
And for some time after they had gone their separate ways in the cold October air, the blood kept them feeling warm and alive.