Just Henry

(Inspired by a little old man completely out of place in a Hartland bar. Could be me someday!)

He’d been coming to the bar for three weeks before I even learned his name. Each day he sat at the stool tucked between the front window and the oval oak bar. Soon enough he became as permanent a fixture as the weathered flooring or overhead beams. And so far he had not said more than a handful of words to me in the dozen times I worked the afternoon shift.

“A coke and a can of Bud. Unopened,” was all he said as he slipped a crumpled five-dollar bill over the shellacked grain of the wooden bar.

“Yes sir,” I said as I picked up a clean glass and reached for the chrome handle of the tap that dispensed the soda. As it was filling, I grabbed the can of beer from the nearby cooler. I viewed the old man in the mirrors that lined the walls and studied the mass of disheveled gray curls that framed his face. The long corkscrews of hair hung limply over his ears and spilled out over the collar of his faded blue shirt. The natural oils of his hair glistened in the muted sunlight that filtered through the windows and he absently ran his gnarled fingers through the slick hair.

I remained silent as he methodically reached for the drink set in front of him. I measured him up against the usual clientele of the bar that for the most part was working class rednecks looking to get drunk or laid. And that was in no particular order. The other regulars consisted of young professionals one step out of college with pocketfuls of money just itching to be spent on an assortment of chilled shots of liquor.  Yet day after day the old man sat silently at the bar and never acknowledged the steady parade of youth that set foot between the thick doors of the bar.

“Anything else?” I asked the old man tentatively. “And by the way the name is Nick,” I said as an afterthought.

He looked at me through narrowed eyes as if considering the consequences of beginning a conversation. When the wrinkled fingers stopped stroking the condensation on the glass, he spoke in a voice that barely rose above a whisper.

“I’m fine. And I’m just Henry,” he said as I strained to hear his voice. I waited for more information but quickly realized the tiny revelation was as deep a commentary as I was going to get. I took a deep breath and looked at the aged blue eyes that until then I hardly noticed.

“Nice to meet you, Henry,” I said and nodded my head. When his attention returned to the glass, I surmised that the conversation was at an end. One more lonely soul makes a hundred this month, I thought as I returned to my duties.

I had worked at the bar for the past four years and initially imagined myself as a part-time student moonlighting as a bartender. I fantasized that I was a fledgling “writer in training” who was observing life from behind a wooden divider. But as the years droned on, I was now unsure of my exact status. My writing output had dwindled to an occasional handwritten copy of the early stages of a novel that I soon recognized was only an exercise in drivel. In the absence of writing productivity, I admitted grudgingly I was becoming more than adept at whipping up a mean apple martini in a personal crusade to numb the masses. But after awhile the crafting of the “perfect” drink did little to ease the feeling of personal disdain that seeped into my very core.

Henry and I didn’t talk anymore that particular day but as time passed we gained a modicum of comfort from each other’s presence. I had long ago tired of the usual moronic chitchat that a veteran bartender becomes skilled at in the course of his duty. I’m certain I had told the same jokes and stories to hundreds of people and after awhile the faces were as blurred as if I had gone on a three-day bender myself. That was with one specific exception.

Henry had taken to coming to the bar directly after the noonday crowd had marinated itself in a cocktail or two. He always sat at his usual spot in the corner surprised me on a rainy Tuesday he spoke without any kind of prompt.

“A coke and a can of Bud, Nick. Unopened. And maybe a beer for yourself too.”

I had made it a personal vow to not drink at the bar so that I didn’t wind up another drunken writer wannabe …even if the romantic idea of becoming a brandy-soaked legend like Capote or Hemingway was somehow sadly appealing. I temporarily ignored my personal code of conduct and poured myself a draft before settling in near the sole patron of the bar.

“Thanks.” I said as I took a sip. “I don’t usually drink in the bar. I don’t want to get any bad habits.”

He studied me as a slick curl slid over his right eye and caused him to squint slightly. “I can see you’re a good boy,” he said without emotion. “I hear you talking nice to all the riff-raff that come by this place. Present company included.”

I struggled to respond when the relative outpouring of words poured out unexpectedly. We traded sips of beer and soda that seemed to act as a bonding experience and the tension eased as I warmed up to the stranger on the other side of the bar.

“You’re not riff-raff,” I told him. “You’re ‘just Henry’.”

He smiled at my attempt of a joke. “You remembered my name,” he said. “Somehow I’m honored.”

I shrugged in silent reply. “It’s a gift I have. Maybe my only one.”

“I doubt that,” he said as he fiddled with the loose change on the bar. “I may not know much but I know a good person when I see one. A good person with an old soul.”

I finished a pull on my beer and didn’t immediately respond. Actually, I didn’t know how to respond was more like it. I sat mutely for a moment and considered any number of comebacks but was interrupted by a group of construction workers that entered the bar with animated voices. I knew they were off work because of the rain and I stiffened myself for a stream of men of the same ilk. I excused myself from Henry in order to serve them an assortment of shots and beer. And I watched out of the corner of my eye when Henry slipped towards the door. I wanted to say goodbye to the old man but before I was able mouth a response the door shut behind him. And I was left to ponder his last remark solely with the company of another horde of faceless men.

I started to look forward to seeing him and by his own subdued smile surmised he had come to feel the same way. I learned he had moved into town a few months ago and had no idea how long he would stay. “My momma once said I had a ‘bit of gypsy’ in me,” he explained. “But this ‘ol gypsy is tired of moving. Real tired,” he said as he got a distant look in his eyes.

“Where are you from originally?” I asked.

“Oklahoma. Most goddamn forsaken place in the universe.”

“What did you do there?”

“Drove a truck. I nearly lived on the road for forty years,” he explained. “Now I’m nearly as worn out as a rusted eighteen wheeler. And if I was a horse they would shoot me.”

I nodded and smiled at his joke.

“Do you still have family back there?” I asked.

His mood darkened as if I had unknowingly tore open an old wound. I watched him finger the glass when the half empty soda suddenly demanded his full attention.

“No,” he finally said. “At least I don’t think so.”

“You don’t think so?”

I may have overstepped my bounds, but the words were already on the table. He looked at me with eyes that suddenly appeared weary of the conversation but surprised me when he answered the question.

“My wife’s been dead over ten years and I haven’t seen my son for just about as long. Last I knew he was somewhere in California. And I just ain’t the beach-farin’ type.”

“I’m sorry, Henry,” I said. “I didn’t know.”

“How the hell would you?” he said without any malice. “The fact is I’m an old man you just met a few weeks ago. And one of these days I’ll be replaced at this stool by someone else.”

Part of me knew he was right and I envisioned the multitude of nameless patrons that drifted through the doors on a daily basis. Yet, the gnarled root of a man that sat before me was destined to be more lasting in my memory.

“Henry, can I ask you a question?”

“Shoot,” he replied.

“You once said I had an old soul. What made you say that?”

“Your eyes. They look like mine. They’re tired and they have a sadness that years of hurt build. I know from experience.”

I considered his words and was transported to thoughts of my own fractured childhood. I painfully replayed the car accident that had destroyed the life I had come to know. The accident seemed like only yesterday but the screech of tires and the sound of crashing vehicles still haunted my dreams. And I nearly squeezed my eyes shut to help block the memories of my father’s lifeless eyes staring back at me on the day of my sixth birthday. Even now, there wasn’t a day that went by that I didn’t feel the pressure of the safety belt that kept me strapped in the back seat. A safety belt that still limited me from truly taking a full breath.

“Nick, are you okay?” he said in an attempt to break me from my trance.

“Fine,” I said. “But I have to get back to work.” I felt guilty at dropping the old man so brusquely but I needed some space to collect myself. As I absently wiped down the length of the bar with the wet rag my balance slowly returned. When I looked back to Henry’s corner, I was surprised to find his barstool suddenly empty. But for the first time since I had met him, I was glad he was gone.

Henry still came by a few times a week but since our last meeting the conversations had become more stilted. He had unknowingly dredged up an emotional train wreck that I had walled off since my childhood. I had buried it deeply but now every time I saw the old man a bitter taste rose up in my throat. I barely saw my mother anymore and in many ways that was the easy way out; at least I was able to control the pain that haunted my past. And standing behind the bar I was able to keep my distance from anyone and everyone, with the sole exception of an aged drifter that nursed his soft drink day after day.

Time drifted by until a dull November afternoon when Henry walked in and sat at his usual location. The dreary backdrop of early winter was evident from the window and the mood of the season matched the old man’s demeanor. I acknowledged him as I dried off a few tumblers but he barely looked up to reciprocate.

“Hi Henry.” I said as he settled into his seat. “Can I get you a coke?”

He nodded without a word and I retreated to get his usual drink.

“And the Bud too. Unopened.” he said a few seconds later.

I paused for a moment and turned back to face him. And I spoke. “Can I ask why, Henry? I mean you never even drink it.”

He took a few seconds of his own. Then he replied. “It’s a reminder. And a punishment.”

I looked at him quizzically and carefully set the two drinks in front of him. He examined the beer can and stroked his fingers on its smooth surface. I could tell he was in a far away place that only he could speak of.

“Do you know it’s my anniversary?” he asked. “It would have been fifty-five years today if my wife was still alive. She’s been gone twelve years now.”

“I’m sorry,” I said as I struggled for a response. I had no idea what to say next, but fortunately Henry spoke again.

“I don’t think she ever knew I loved her. And I never told her so in all the years we were married because I was too busy driving or out drinking with the boys. Dumb son-of-a bitch,” he said as he stared at the can of beer.

“Maybe she knew,” I said. “And maybe you didn’t have to say it. Sometimes people just know.”

He looked at me as his eyes misted up and I hoped for another customer to enter the bar and allow me an escape from the uncomfortable scene. The tension was nearly palpable when a sad smile crossed his face.

“Maybe,” he replied. “But I’ll never know for sure. That time is gone.”

He looked over my shoulder as if he was looking at a room filled with ghosts. I shivered and imagined a bar full of his drinking buddies toasting their old friend as they drank away the day’s cares. But I also felt Henry’s shame when his eyes averted mine and he stared blankly into space.

“Have you ever tried to reach your son?” I probed.

“He’s as gone as my wife. And the plain truth is I don’t blame him for forgetting about me. I think I was a worse father than I was husband. I believe my boy probably remembers the back of my hand more than my face.” Even a bartender is speechless on occasion and this was one of those times. I fiddled with the bar rag once again and watched him run his hand through his tangle of hair. Henry spoke again before I had said a word. “I was watching a prison movie last night,” he said out of nowhere. “Shawshank something or another.”

“Redemption,” I said to complete the title.

“I think that was it. And one guy said something so right that I even wrote it down. First time anything has made sense to me in a long time.”

“What did he say?”

“It don’t really matter. Not much does anymore,” he said with finality as he stood up. “I’m sorry, Nick. I need to go.”

“But what about your drinks?” I asked. “You didn’t even start on them.”

“Keep the beer for yourself. I don’t need it no more. Take care, Nick.”

I watched as he slowly made his way to the exit and pulled open the door. Little did I know that was the last I would hear of him until a week later when the mailman dropped off a small parcel at the bar.

“Registered letter for you, Nick,” he said in a flat voice. “You’ll have to sign for it.”

I inked in my name and examined the thin envelope. I opened it and slipped out the small paper that was inscribed with simple handwriting:

Nick,

Thank you for your kindness. Do with my things as you wish.

Henry

I fished a key from inside the envelope and recognized the return address on the envelope as a small studio apartment above the nearby True Value store. I placed the key in my pocket and must have turned it over at least a hundred times. When the shift was over I walked slowly toward my destination unsure of what I would find. I climbed the back stairwell and slipped the key into the lock before I cautiously swung the door open. I drew in the musty smell and viewed the humble furnishings that dotted the small living quarters. A small end table sat in the corner and I bent down to look at the framed picture that rested squarely in its center. I was drawn towards the proud eyes of a curly, dark haired man with one forearm draped over the shoulders of a woman and the other holding a small child securely in his arm. I fingered the small crack in the glass and nearly toppled the picture when a voice sounded from behind.

“It’s really all he left behind,” said the landlord. “That and some clothes. And a note. It’s a shame an old man would kill himself with just about only the shirt on his back.”

“Kill himself?”

“A single gunshot. Who would’ve guessed it?”

I grunted a non-response as if a fist had landed a blow to my gut and grasped the small piece of folded paper he handed me.

“I found this paper on the TV. Does it make any sense to you?” he asked.

I unfolded the paper and read the nearly illegible writing:

Get busy living or get busy dying.

 

I refolded the sheet as the landlord studied my movement. “Can I keep this?” I asked him.

“Are you related?”

I took another long look at the picture before I answered.

“Yes,” I said. “I’m family.”

I quit my job as bartender that same day and when I left took one last look at the stool where the old man used to sit. When I stood outside the wooden door, I felt a closure of my past that now seemed trivial in hindsight. I strode through the town until I reached the cemetery and had no trouble finding the simple marker that stood as a gravestone to the man I had come to know. I stood over it as the sun fell from the sky and shadows littered the abandoned grounds. I set down my backpack in the dead grass and pulled out the cracked picture and leaned it up against the marker that bore his name. When I stood up, I opened up a can of warm Budweiser and I raised the beer to the heavens and made one last toast.

“Here’s to you, ‘just Henry’,” I said as I raised the can towards my lips. “Time for me to get busy.”

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s