Old Man and the Lion: Chapter 1

When he had first bought Dilly’s Bar some eight years ago, he had a custom sign made up. It said, “This Parking Spot is reserved for Bob the Bartender. Violators WILL be towed.” For a few months after, he parked there and by the time he was ready to turn off the lights and go home for the night, he would come out and usually find some kind of new damage to the car he had at the time. Key scrapes along the side, flat tires, even vomit spewed across his hood and windshield, and once a broken window. Whoever had broken the window had actually stolen the crappy factory installed AM/FM cassette player. Bob removed the sign, tossed it in the trash, and began parking his car as far away from the entrance as he could.

Bob had looked at the bar primarily as an investment, his key to financial independence after 25 years in the Army. He didn’t have much family as he had been an only child and his parents had passed away while he had been in the service. His father had no living relatives that he had ever spoken about and his mother had a married sister that he was Christmas Card friendly with but hardly close to.

Bob himself had never gotten married, never really even came near to it. Every time he had gotten used to a place and started making friends, Uncle Sam would transfer him to someplace new and he would have to start all over again. Bob wasn’t exactly unfriendly, but those who knew him would describe him as “cautious” in his personal relationships. That pushed some people away, but that was alright. It meant that usually his life was quiet and uncomplicated.

Well, as uncomplicated as the owner of a place like Dilly’s Bar could expect. In many ways that investment was what he now thought of as an albatross around his neck. He couldn’t remember the last time he had had a real vacation. Day in and day out (except Mondays, they were closed on Mondays) it was Dilly’s Bar that got him up in the morning and kept him going all day long and into the evening.

Dilly’s Bar sat in the middle of an area in the city that the politicians’ liked to call, “in transition.” What it was in transition to was a mystery to Bob. Judging from pictures on the wall from the previous owners that Bob had never bothered to take down, the area had always been a dump in the shadows of the Factory.

It was a mixed industrial/residential neighborhood with most of the housing and the few shops originally commissioned by the owners of the Factory. Built most likely to take advantage of the workers that flocked to the region when the Factory had first opened. If you worked at the Factory, you got Factory housing (with a certain percentage taken from your paycheck for the privilege) and credits for the Factory stores (also taken out from your paycheck). Lose your job? You had 24 hours to vacate before you would be vacated by Factory Security.

As time had gone on, the maintenance for the houses became more than what the owners of the Factory thought they were worth, so they offered them up for sale with the current occupants getting first crack. The homes themselves were no great shakes, most were two-story, three bedroom, one bath affairs with the more luxurious models having a 1⁄2 bath attached to the master bedroom. Some had a detached garage, others had large sheds, and none were going to make the latest issue of “Amazing Homes” magazine centerfold anytime soon.

To the Factory owner’s credit, they weren’t asking very much so typically the current residents jumped at the prospect. The loans were secured from the Factory Bank, so if by chance there was a default they got to sell it again. Since they had already more than paid for themselves with the extorted percentage taken out of the Factory’s workers wages so long ago, it was all gravy.

With scores of the Factory’s workers being laid off however, many of the homes now stood vacant, with sometimes rusted and desperate looking “For Sale” signs parked out front near cracked sidewalks and fading aluminum siding.

If a place like Dilly’s Bar had a heyday, it had been long time ago. It sat at one end of a rectangular two-story building with three other commercial enterprises. On the opposite end was the former Factory Bank. It no longer was known by its original name but had been purchased by one of those franchised banks that also seemed to change names every so often depending on who was buying up the former’s assets. It was robbed at least twice a year with the perpetrators probably netting no more than a thousand dollars from the three teller windows that sat behind thick security glass. The thieves were usually caught and most times they were local boys whose prospects for honest work in the area were slim to none. Much like their chances at life after finishing whatever sentence they received for their crimes.

Next to the bank was a small grocery store whose owner was a thin older man named Gary from whom Bob bought most of Dilly’s supplies. Bob would put in an order for napkins, paper plates, various fried snack foods, pickled eggs (a big seller for Dilly’s though Bob could barely stomach the smell of them), frozen French fries, hamburger and hot dogs, rolls for both, and a few of the other sundries that a bar might require on any given week. There was a Costco’s across town where Bob could have gotten much of this a little cheaper, but Gary the Grocer always came through with whatever Bob needed and that saved him the time of having to actually drive there.

Dilly’s beer, alcohol, and other beverages were delivered every other Wednesday from a distributer. This distributer was always hinting to end their business relationship if Bob didn’t start ordering more, but would be more than slightly threatening if Bob made any noise about using someone else. The distributer on occasion implied that he was well connected, but Bob had trouble believing that organized crime would give a damn about a two-bit bar in a neighborhood like this.

The store right next to Dilly’s Bar was a dry cleaner owned by a Korean named Park. Bob during his military career had once been scheduled for a two-year deployment to Seoul, Korea, but the powers that be decided his talents would be better served at an Army Reserve base in Oklahoma and he never got the chance to go again. Bob was not sure if Park was the dry cleaner’s first or last name, but that’s what he always answered to so Bob couldn’t see where it made much difference. Park and his wife ran the store with the help of their teenage daughter who when not pressing shirts and pants, sat at a table in the back studying.

Bob always took his shirts and pants there to be pressed and cleaned mostly just because it was convenient. He had however earned Park’s gratitude when he had stepped outside of Dilly’s one afternoon as a group of boys were threatening his young daughter.

They were calling her every filthy name they could think of and she had just stood there with her head bowed and tears flowing down her cheeks. Bob stepped back into Dilly’s and got the baseball bat he kept behind the bar. When he walked back out he didn’t say a word, he just stepped toward the group of four boys holding the handle of the bat in one hand and the business end cupped in the other. The four boys sneered at him and talked about how he couldn’t touch them without going to jail since they were juveniles, but stepped away from girl nonetheless and moved on down the street.

Park’s wife came running over and comforted her daughter while streams of Korean sang down upon Bob. He presumed he was being thanked and said, “You’re welcome.” And then went back to Dilly’s. When he returned to pick up his cleaning the next day, Park came from behind the counter and shook his hand and thanked Bob again for helping his daughter. He refused to take Bob’s money for the dry cleaning, but when Bob pressed a five-dollar bill into his hand and told him it was for their daughter’s college fund, Park relented. This became a long-standing ritual between the two men.

Dilly’s Bar itself was no more remarkable than any of the other stores in the small strip. There were no windows to let the sun in on those quietly and sometimes desperately drinking. The main door that led into it had a small diamond shaped stained glass window of red and blue.

There were a bunch of tables and booths on the floor and along the wall. The men’s and women’s bathrooms were further down toward the back through a hallway that also led to the Emergency Exit. The bar itself ran nearly the length of the opposite wall. Behind the bar, a countertop with lower cabinets and above that, a 4-foot high mirror with shelves for the first, second, and third tier booze Bob dutifully poured out each night, though truth be told, he hadn’t had to replace any of the first shelf bottles in some time. A large ice- maker and a cooler for bottled beer and a few of the mixers that were needed were there as well. A pass-through window was there to move food from the kitchen to the bar.

The bar was made from real wood and laminated many times to cover up old scratch and burn marks. It was very old, probably installed back when Dilly’s was first opened and had cut outs for ashtrays no longer needed since state law prohibited smoking in restaurants and lounges.

A clock was hung near the ceiling in the middle of the back of the bar and off to the left someone had put one of those fake plastic steer horns. Bob sometimes used it to hang a baseball cap off of it. The horns didn’t seem to have much other use, but considering that it had been a long time since any cattle had been associated with this town that Bob liked to think he enjoyed the absurdity of it.

The tables with plastic red and white checkerboard tablecloths and napkin holders more or less filled the space in between. At the far wall from the entrance under the bullhorns sat a jukebox whose tunes hadn’t been changed in many years. It was filled with an assortment of late 70s to early 90s rock and roll, a few country songs that no one at Dilly’s liked, and even a couple of tunes from the old masters like Frank Sinatra. The plastic covering the top front of the device was cracked and faded, obscuring the titles of the songs and what buttons needed to be pushed to make them play.

None of this made any difference since it was set to automatically play the rock and roll tunes that most of his customers preferred. The speakers had blown out long ago so Bob had disconnected them and hardwired some used Bose Baby Advents he had picked up at a yard sale. These sat on a small shelf just above the jukebox.

There used to be a pool table not far from the jukebox, but after three of the pool cues had been used to bash someone over the head, Bob took it apart and put the pieces upstairs in storage.

If you turned to look at the bar from the front door, at the far corner was the entrance to the kitchen. Inside, there was an industrial dishwasher, a grill, four burner gas stove, and oven combination, a freezer, a refrigerator, a deep-fryer, and a pizza oven. The pizza oven hadn’t had a work-out in some time, but the grill and deep-fryer got steady use on the weekends with burgers, hot dogs, and fries.

A stairwell went to the 2nd floor that Bob used more or less for storage. In that upstairs area, a large stand-up freezer was off in the corner that hadn’t been turned on in years and as such, sat empty and unpowered. It was so large that Bob could never figure out just how it got up there but he wasn’t willing to pay however much it would be to have it removed. A large dumbwaiter made it pretty easy to get whatever supplies Bob had upstairs down to where they were needed but usually he just trudged up and down the stairs with the few items he took from there.

When Bob had first taken the bar over from the previous owner (who also wasn’t Dilly and didn’t know where the name had come from either), it had a more varied menu, heavy on the pastas and a pretty good pizza.

For awhile, Bob had a cook and a waitress who worked the odd hours of 11:30 in the morning to 2:30 in the afternoon, and then from 4:30 in the evening to 11. As work dropped off in the Factory, so did the food orders until one day the cook took off for greener pastures and the waitress just stopped coming in.

Needing some help, Bob hired a 30-something woman named Lana who informed him during his interview with her that she was a lesbian and that there would be no extra- curricular activity involving the two of them. Bob who hadn’t been thinking anything of the sort anyway assured her that this would not be a problem.

Lana turned out to be pretty nice, a great help not only on the floor, but behind the bar and kitchen as well, and on the rare occasion when things got busy, she would call in her girlfriend to take up some of the slack. She also had a great pair of boobs that she emphasized with tight, low-cut shirts. That sure didn’t hurt the tips she got either. She could be a natural flirt and seemed to have the uncanny knack to know just how much she could get away with while not actually encouraging her customers to think they had any shot in hell of sleeping with her. She also didn’t tell them she was a lesbian and Bob was smart enough to know that she didn’t want it to be common knowledge.

As Bob the Bartender locked his car up (like it would make any real difference), he turned and looked at the business he had once thought of as his salvation.

“The outside walls need painting again”, he thought not for the first or last time, “The outside walls ALWAYS needed repainting.”

The Factory saw to that. It used to be worse when all three shifts were running. Factory chimneys belching out smoke 24 hours a day, 6 days a week. It was down to a single shift now and no one worked other than maintenance on the weekends.

The air was certainly cleaner, not that clean air was much comfort to the hundreds now unemployed. Business was down too for Dilly’s, but fortunately for Bob he had been thrifty during the so-called good times and had a bit socked away.

Still, there was enough business to cover expenses and the monthly note to the bank that he would owe money to for more years than he liked to think about.

Bob stood by his car door and looked toward the rear entrance to the bar. Since moving his car to the back end of the building, this was the entrance he used most. A security video camera was mounted just above the door and watched the rear entrance and parking lot. Not so much to help protect his car, but to see if anyone was waiting outside after he closed up and had the nightly cash and the few credit card slips in a locked box to deposit the next day. He hadn’t gotten ripped off yet, but did on two occasions call the police when the camera showed some men standing outside. When the police cruiser had pulled up, the men had scattered away into the night. That’s not to say that they were there to rob him, but why take that chance? Bob had used his fair share of various guns and ammunition while in the Army and while he felt they did have their uses, they weren’t anything he particularly wanted to have to carry now.

Bob began to think about how much of his life was now centered on time. What time Dilly’s Bar opened (1PM, it always opened at 1PM since closing the kitchen) and what time it closed (2AM, it always closed at 2AM). He thought about the day his monthly note was due on the loan he took out to buy Dilly’s Bar (always on the 17th). The rent on his apartment, the checks he wrote to Lana (every other Thursday) for her continued employment, and his alcohol distributer (every other Wednesday).

However, what he was thinking about right now as far as time goes was a little more immediate. The walk from his car to the rear entrance of Dilly’s took him approximately 35 seconds and it took just around 15 to 20 seconds to unlock the three deadbolts for the door. He did a quick scan in front and behind him as he walked to the door. He didn’t think of himself as paranoid, but justified it as better being safe than sorry. Bob didn’t always think about these things as he walked toward the door, but today was special. It was Friday.

As the last deadbolt clicked open, he pulled on the door handle and stepped into Dilly’s. He turned back toward the door, pulled it shut, and unlocked the safety push bar. This would hold the door closed from the outside, but allow easy exiting in case of a fire or some other natural or otherwise disaster.

The thought of a natural (or otherwise) disaster for this part of town almost always made him laugh. It would most definitely be an improvement he thought darkly, but he wasn’t laughing tonight.

He could deal with the smoke from the Factory, the dirty walls, the sinking revenues, and what seemed sometimes like a bleak and hopeless future. All of that could be quantified, almost like a Geometry equation. You started at Point A, found your way to Point B, and Point C? Well, that was tomorrow’s problem. But tonight, tonight was Friday night at Dilly’s Bar. And Friday Night at Dilly’s Bar was always the dreaded unknown. Each Friday Night at Dilly’s Bar could lead to many possible destinations, but it was never where most decent people wanted to go.

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