Barkeep! Another Round For Me an’ My Pals
“Old man Bechter was a bit daft,” said James Simmons in a voice far too loud for causal conversation. “He and my Granddad had ’em a couple of go ’rounds.”
Simmons’ audience, a group of four visitors from colder climes East of the Mississippi, were listening to him discourse on the early history of the Inn Situ. Simmons was a masterful story teller, especially after the first couple of beers. Trouble was, most of his stories were tall tales, long-winded yarns and speculation.
Joe didn’t mind too much. The flights of fancy were good for business; brought the tourists around to see the place, and kept them entertained enough to eat and drink up some of their vacation money in his establishment. And, other than being overtly nosey, Simmons was mostly harmless.
“This place, when it was first built, used to be just planks nailed over rough-hewn studs. Daylight showin’ through the joints and all. My Grandaddy, a card carryin’ smart-ass, used to say the darkness showed through, too—it was just easier to see the daylight.”
Joe smiled from behind the bar. At least part of that was true. The place had been a bit on the drafty side when it was first built. Not that he remembered that, but he had heard some of the stories from his dad on more than one occasion. His favorite was the one about Albert Simmons almost burning the place down during the winter of ’37. Seems James’ grandfather was not the expert on heating stoves and fireplaces that he thought he was. But the bit about the darkness showing through too was a comment straight from old man Bechter’s mouth if Joe had ever heard one.
Rumors said Joe had developed the talent of being able to hear almost any conversation anywhere in the place. If somebody complained about slow service or less than perfect food, he immediately made it a point to go over, introduce himself, and offer to make it right. Simmons was fond of saying, “The walls may have ears, but they ain’t as good as Joe’s.”
Joe could have quickly dispelled those rumors if he had chosen to. It wasn’t his hearing that enabled that talent. It was his eyesight and his insight. His eyes, through almost three decades of practice, had grown accustomed to penetrating the gloom at the back. His insight had been honed from the beginning on the whetstone of customer opinion when he started busing tables at twelve.
Simmons was older than Joe by about a dozen years. He had run for mayor a few years ago and had been soundly defeated. Mostly because Simmons knew little of diplomacy and tact and nothing of organization. His general contractors office sat on property that abutted “the Cave”. A state of disarray was an understatement to describe it. Excess construction material, tool sheds and digging equipment were strewn randomly around the half acre lot. From the trash dumpsters at the back of the Inn Situ, you could see several large, uncovered holes freckling the lot around the main office of Simmons’ Construction, but because they were outside of the city limits, and because the holes were on private, fenced in property, they were allowed to remain open.
A wonder he hasn’t fallen in and broken his neck after a couple of the nights he’s had here, Joe thought.
Simmons was speaking again.
“You see all them artifacts nailed up there on the walls, clutterin’ them shelves? See the tag on each one that reads ‘REPLICA’? You can read most of ’em from right here where we’re sittin’.
“My Granddad told me ol’ man Bechter fancied himself an archaeologist. ‘Cept he never found nothin’ of any value, so he hung them pieces on the walls and put them big signs on ’em to remind himself he never found nothin’.
“Some people say this place is haunted. They say at night when the smoke hangs near the ceiling just right they can see what looks like spirits driftin’ through the air. Me? I think if you’ve had enough to drink you can see just about anything.”
His audience laughed appreciatively.
“Speaking of which…
“Hey, Joe! How ’bout another round for me and my out of town pals, here?
“There was this one time I thought I saw somethin’ that damn near scared the stuffin’ out of me, though. To this day, I’m not sure if it was real or imagined. I had been out on a job all day, hot, sweating my kiester off. Get’s like that here in the summer time, you know? So, I come in from the job site, just after dark, looking to get somethin’ to eat and a beer to slake my thirst.”
Joe delivered the beers and returned to the bar, his attention focused on Simmons. This sounded like a story he’d never heard the man tell.
“Sedona, if you don’t know, is one of them places that just ain’t like the rest of the world. There’s things that happen here that don’t fall into any logical explanation. The Indians that were here for thousands of years say it is a sacred place. Hell, over there at Cathedral Rock, just comin’ into town, some people say that you can feel the presence of God. Hear the angels singin’.
“But the land this building sits on is even more weird. And there’s more stories about here then there.
“So, anyhow, I got me my beer and some grub and I’m not payin’ a whole lot of attention to much of anything else.”
He paused, sipping his beer, stoking his audience’s anticipation. He waited until those listening began to fidget before continuing his story.
“Like I said, I was just sittin’ here eatin’, and somehow, without me noticin’, this soldier walks in and sits down at the table beside me. He looked like he’d had a pretty rough day, dirt on his face and hands, you know, dirty uniform.
“I offered to buy him a beer, but he held up his hand and shook his head no.
“‘I just want to sit here for a minute’, he said. ‘Maybe tell you a story if you can spare the time.
“‘I grew up down the hill, in Peoria. Used to come up here once in awhile with some friends and a fake ID on the weekends, following my brother’s band. I joined the army at 18 and got shipped off to Afghanistan after basic.
“‘Most days were monotonous as hell. There wasn’t much going on where we were stationed.Then one morning, I got assigned to patrol. We’d gotten reports of possible insurgents in the area and the CO wanted to make sure we were still secure. Or at least as secure as possible.
“‘So, we set off headin’ west, just before dawn. Didn’t see nothin’ for about 30 minutes.
“‘Then, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, there’s bullets whistling all around, guys screamin’ from gettin’ hit. And the blood! Oh my God, I never seen so much blood!
“‘We fought back, but we were outgunned and stuck pretty much out in the open. No cover to be had, anywhere.’
“His voice trailed off and his eyes stared blankly at a spot in front of him, lost in those awful memories of that day.”
Simmons stopped, sipped his beer again.
“‘Damn!’ I said. ‘That must have been really bad. How’d you manage to survive?’
“‘I didn’t’, he responded. ‘Took one, square in the chest. I was hoping to make it home for my kid’s birthday next month, but guess that’s not gonna happen now. Anyhow, thanks for listening. Guess it’s time I was on my way.’
“Next thing I know, Joe over there’s askin’ me if I want another beer. I couldn’t remember finishing the first one. Somehow, time slipped by on me. It happens in here.
“I figured I must have fallen asleep from the long work day and had one of them vivid dreams. I left, hoping I hadn’t snored too loudly.
“When I turned on the news that night, the lead story was about a boy from Peoria that had been killed in a firefight in Afghanistan. They had a picture of his mom and dad there on the TV, and then a picture of his wife and a young child, but I cut the sound before they could say anymore.”
Simmons’ voice trailed off. All at the table sipped their beers, as if on cue, not knowing what to say or how to respond to his story. Some doubted its veracity. Some, not wanting to appear as an outta-towner and missing a private joke, nodded as if they’d been there that night sitting at the same table and involved in the conversation. For long moments, typical of such conversations in the Inn Situ, not one of them moved to disturb the silence.
Joe had ceased listening to all other conversations and was focused solely on the story that Simmons was relating. He had never heard this one. More than that, he could not readily recall the night Simmons was talking about.
Odd, he thought. Not at all like the other tales he’s told in here. Wonder how long he was working on that one?