Back out on the wooden planks of the store fronts I have but one place to go before heading back home, the tavern to see Walter. Just as I’m about to reach Walter’s that’s when Luke, the sheriff, steps out his door and is now squarely in front of me, but facing the street. Luke is a pain in the ass type of personality—must come with the territory. His clothes neatly hang from his body. A large hat rests upon his head that is pulled down to just above his eyebrows, a look that I find irritating and overhanded. His boots are weather-beaten and loud upon the wood planks. He must have heard my footsteps approaching because he turns to say high as he rubs his eyes. His pale blue eyes settle upon me with a lonesome authoritative glare.
“How goes it Joseph?’
“It goes and it comes.” I say.
“Any trouble out there beyond Jacobs Pa….” and his voice trails off.
He knows Jacob was my dad and Luke isn’t much older than me so he knows how my mom and I got pushed to the outskirts of town and into that shack shanty of a rat hole that killed my mother. He knows my past; he doesn’t know me.
“Any problems at your cabin with anyone?” he finally comes back with.
“Things are as good as one could hope Luke.”
“Take it you’re still out there looking for your dad?”
I take it you’re still an asshole? I think to myself. “Until I find him or what happened to him,” I say. “Well Luke, keep the people safe around here I have to be getting on.”
“You take it easy Joseph and be careful out there. You never know who’s lurking in that forest out there, be it a man or a beast.”
I know Luke is acting his part as sheriff, but I also know it’s just that, an act. He cares as much about me as the wild dogs he shoots on the edge of town ‘to keep the townspeople safe’ he always says but I know better. Hell, half the town does. He’s a sad man who wears his badge proudly, a little too proudly. He has been known to let his title go to his head in situations that he has no business of being involved. Another lonely soul looking for something to hang his hat on I suppose.
His parents had been mill workers their entire lives before they both passed away some years ago. Luke was left to himself for a few years drinking and loosely holding on to his mill job until one day he decided to get his life back together. And where does one get their life back together? Caleb and the church are always waiting for the next poor soul to stumble in with the desire to improve their life and have no way of doing that themselves. I’m sorry, but those people annoy the hell out of me, it’s the ones who have always been a part of something bigger and better, and have the strength to change themselves, that I can muster some respect for.
Finally! The tavern doors are within reach.
The door to Walters is just a door; I always thought it should be one of those old western swinging types but times change. Actually, time continues on its ever constant rate, and it seems that only styles and acceptance change but people, on the other hand, never do. Their faces may change; their histories may change, but the senses and emotions they use to experience their world will never change. Beauty never changes but what is beautiful will always continue its cycle of alteration. Never the less I still wish that the door was one of those old western style doors. I guess that makes me a willing participant in the endless cycle of change and a willing participant in life, but only somewhat one might say.
The smell is always the first to hit me. A rock made of roses. Roses of an acquired taste but roses none the less. The walls are clothed in smoke and the floor a rickety old thing that does its best on a day to day basis. The ceiling is open, and the rafters hang frozen in time, never to budge under the weight they constantly hold. The tables are scattered in random happenstance arrangement. There seems to be no noticeable order within the place at all except maybe for the bar itself. Long and lean, the crafted centerpiece of the entire room sits near the back wall and commands every bit of the attention it receives, beautiful thing to behold indeed. The flickering lanterns do more than their share to keep light and sight within the windowless walls. A pale yellow burns from their glass enclosures.
Then there I am in the midst of smoke and laughter. Conversations long dead but still hanging on. Stories being exaggerated for no rational reason because everyone knows the truth and those who listen intently listen nevertheless. The allure of memories being remembered so they can be forgotten, if only for a while. Senses being heightened and emotions being dulled or the other way around or possibly both—that’s the splendor and the cruelty of the tavern. If heaven and hell were ever to meet, it would take place in an atmosphere like Walters tavern. The good and the bad but mostly the middle of the road, that truce that keeps people crawling back for more and more of the same. A place where good allows evil to roam and evil allows good to reign, where little white lies do their best to outnumber the dark ones, but of course, if only for a while.
I fumble my way into my usual corner table with my back against the wall and the orchestra of humanity playing out in front of me. I run my hand through my beard for no particular reason other than to give me something to do. Walter’s behind the counter vending the needs of all who enter and behind him hangs the largest mirror in Hapsburg reflecting all the emotions that each and every patron wishes to forget about. The mirror is worn around its four corners showing its age to all who notice. Looking into its reflections, I wonder which side of it is the true reality, which man is real, and which room is actually the realm of the living.
With bottles of this and that scattered in no particular way sitting on the back counter just waiting to be turned up then down to release its contents into a glass of happiness, a glass of forgetfulness, and a glass of content. Walter gives me a quick glance and gestures with a finger that he’ll be over in a minute with what he knows I want; a shot glass and a half bottle of whiskey. Comfort in familiarity, familiarity in habit, habit out of necessity. Necessary for god knows what reason. We have to fill time with something I guess.
Walter is the picture of weariness and longing. A longing that permeates his entire being, it controls his gestures; it controls his expressions, and it moves in silence behind his eyes. Walter has been in and out of my life for so many years I can hardly remember a time when his presence wasn’t there. After all, his home brew has led me down many roads of sanity and lucidity. He stands about my height, so our eyes are always level as we move about in our usual dance of understanding. Hell, if it weren’t for his lack of a beard, we could almost pass as brothers, a detail that hasn’t lost it’s power on the people of Hapsburg.
After a little while of going through my mind, I wonder how much of Walter’s specialty I can get back to my cabin with my unexpected new wealth. Finally, he shows up at my table and places my half empty bottle and a half clean shot glass down in front of me. With a quick look around, he sits down on the other chair across from me and turns it a little sideways so he can still see most of the room. He rubs the back of his neck and asks how the cabin’s holding up.
Fine I say and pour my first drink. Words will spill out easier with some liquor in my system as if I’m a fountain fresh with rain water that is working its way over the fountains edges.
“Are the dogs still gathering in greater numbers by the day or have you finally succumb to what I would have done months ago; kill the bastards?”
I could lie to him and say no such thought had ever crossed my mind, but he knows better than that. And, even though those damn dogs have a forever supply of annoying at their disposal I can honestly say I would never hurt any of them and I think they feel the same way as long as we stay out of each other’s way.
I shake my head, “ I can’t say that the situation has reached that point, but each day brings new views on what is circling a man’s life.”
It seems that every time a few more show up a few more go missing, so I guess they keep each other in balance I tell him, sort of like people do.
Why should dogs be any different?
After a quick silence and another shot, I ask him about his Local 88. He says he got a fresh fill ready to go out and asks how much I’m looking to get. Telling him the amount I’m willing to spend and given my hike back home I settle on four jugs. He says that would be fine yet it’s a lot of weight to carry so far. I push the advice aside and ask him if he has it already jugged and corked.
“Of course, who do you take me for; I’m a businessman or as close to one as someone of my disposition can be.” Walter says with a wipe of his brow and an itch of his nose.
Pouring my third drink Walter tells me I can pick up my purchase around back after I’ve finished. Around back because Walter’s Local 88 isn’t for everyone, only for those he considers worth the time it takes for him to make it. Why he considers me one of those I’m not quite sure, but it probably has something to do with my father’s disappearance. At least that’s all I can guess.
“I’ll be around after a few more shots, got to rest my legs a little,” I say.
With my last shot poured and in hand I see Caleb walk in and make a beeline to my table. Caleb’s an alright fellow even though he’s the preacher of Hapsburg. The soul saver for a town that has no soul—a disheartening trail to blaze if you ask me. Such a choice in life must attempt its best to sway people away from the realities of life and fill them with fairytale hopes of paradise, a job that is in my eyes, at best, a lie hidden behind a smile, and at worst, just a lie to fill people with hollow hopes. I keep that thought to myself, of course, because Caleb was one of the few in town that took the time to look for my father all those years ago. I never asked him or anyone for that matter to help me in looking so those who did help I try to remain friendly with.
“In town to get supplies?’ he asks.
That’s the only time I’m in town I tell him.
“You know Joseph if you ever want to talk about anything, anything at all, I’m always here to help if I can. I know the frustration that life has the habit of dishing out.”
“Like a knife grating a chalkboard,” I quietly mutter.
Appreciate it Caleb but I can manage, always have. I tell him. Before he can get too settled in I down my last shot and let him know that I’ve got to be heading back before the darkness wins once again.
“Thanks for the offer Caleb but as you know I have a tendency to work life out on my own.”
I stand and grab my bag and start for the door as Caleb moves on to the next table, on to the next painter of grim dreams that when finished turn into reality.
Once outside I make my way around back where Walter has already set out my four jugs. Smoking his pipe he smiles, and I hand him my money and he offers some thick rags to wrap a couple of the jugs in to keep them from breaking on my way back. I thank him and pack my bag with the next few days of happiness and solitude and shake his weathered hand, a hand that has worked hard to get where it is. With a final nod, I turn and begin my journey home and just as I’m about to turn the corner of the taverns back wall I hear Caleb’s voice mixing with Walter’s. Poor Walter’s the next soul to save, I think to myself.
“Did he mention anything to you about Jacob?”
“No” Walter replied. I just ask him about those dogs, and he wanted to know about my 88. “What about you—you didn’t bring it up did you?”
“No, not directly at least, I just asked why he was in town and that if he ever wanted to talk about anything that I was available anytime. Someone should talk to him.”
“Remember what happened the last time someone tried that?” Walter said. “Poor Edward got one of his teeth knocked out, so feel free to talk to him all you want Caleb. Feel free to be the salt in the wound.”
“He needs to talk to someone. Out there in woods all by himself isn’t healthy. A man could lose his grip on reality. The world could seem like it’s turning against him.”