“I think that’s a good idea, Tommy, hurry on home to Betty and the kids. It’d be better to face up to her now.”

Tommy sighed. “Yeah, you right man. It’s gon’ be a couple nights on the couch, but I’ll get past it.” He took the credit card from Shawn’s outstretched hand, returning it to the empty slot in his wallet and turned to leave. “Thanks again for all your help, man. You real easy to talk to, man. S’good to meet you.”

Shawn smiled. Success. “It was good to meet you too. Hopefully next time we see you in here, it’ll be under better circumstances. Drive safe out there in that storm.”

Pausing at the door, Tommy agreed. “Yeah, it’s really comin’ down out ‘ere, like cats and… oh, ‘scuse me.” 

Tommy stepped back, allowing a broad shouldered, hooded man to pass through the doorway before slipping out behind him. After the door shut behind him, muffling the steady drum of raindrops, the only remaining sounds in the bar were the chatter from the table of Marines and a TV commercial about a Memorial Day sale at some used car dealership in town.

The new guy stopped at the entrance to peel back his soaked hoodie and wipe the water from his forehead. He’d never been in Ernie’s Bar before; even with a rainsoaked beard and matted hair, Shawn would recognize him if he was one of their regulars.

Getting new customers was rare; Ernie’s Bar wasn’t exactly in the heart of civilization. Two in one day, though, was almost unheard of. Shawn’s smile grew; getting to know new customers was the best part of the job. It was why he’d quit the more lucrative world of nightclub bartending and come to Ernie’s a year back – the ability to actually connect with his customers, figure out their stories, where they came from, what makes them tick.

And with newcomers, what made them decide to come to an out-of-the-way dive bar for the first time. 

As the new guy stood by the door, taking in the room (and, as Shawn figured, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dimly lit barroom), Shawn took some time to jot down some mental notes:

Roughly 6 feet tall with somewhat of a dad bod: not necessarily out of shape, but the soaked hoodie clung to his frame, revealing the spare tire around his waist. 

A small, black line on his ring finger: married. Most likely with kids.

Seemed to be in his work uniform, the bit of shirt visible underneath his hoodie matching the navy color of his pants. 

He’d need more information to fill in some gaps, but as he did with every new customer, Shawn was able to get a decent profile on the customer before he ever stepped to the bar. A voice in the back of his head wouldn’t let one particular question die, though: why would a married father be in this backwoods bar on a Monday afternoon in his work clothes?

After a few more seconds studying the room, the stranger made his way towards the bar, his heavy footsteps accented by squelches from his soaked boots. Eschewing the middle of the bar, where pretty much every other new customer went, he instead went to the end of the bar furthest from the register. He chose the last stool in the back corner which was situated next to a wall adorned with old photographs. The photos, now nothing more than part of the bar’s décor like the neon signs for now-defunct beer brands and old license plates, were from years prior when the owners used to encourage their regulars to tack up photos of themselves to liven up the décor.

Shawn could count on one hand the number of customers who sat back in that corner since he’d arrived – and none of them were new. Those who did go back there did so when they weren’t in the mood to be bothered and wanted to drink alone. With this guy not knowing the place very well, Shawn just assumed he picked the first place he saw and sat down.

As New Guy pulled off his hoodie and hung it on the back of his chair, Shawn made his way over. “You… look like a margarita kinda guy.”

The stranger looked up, his face unchanged. “No thanks. Coors Light, bottle if you got it.”

“Not a margarita guy, got it.  We have Coors in bottles, $3.50 apiece. Got some ID on you?”

The man pulled a thick, leather wallet from the back pocket of his blue Dockers uniform pants that matched his uniform shirt and handed over a North Carolina license. Shawn noticed three boys’ names tattooed on the man’s forearm as he took his ID. 

“Thanks… Lucas,” Shawn said as he handed it back. “Is it Luke, or Lucas?”

“Lucas is fine.”

“Well, welcome to Ernie’s Bar, Lucas. We don’t get many new folks through our doors.” Shawn paused, leaving room for Lucas to join in the exchange – which he declined. “Opening a tab?”

Lucas pulled a $5 from his wallet. “No. And keep the change.”

Shawn pulled the bottle from the fridge, popped the top and slid the bottle to Lucas. A seasoned bartender, Shawn knew when to press and when to back off. Almost everyone wanted to talk about something, there were just those who opening those lines of communication was much easier than others. Lucas wasn’t in the mood to chat, that much was clear.

Still, Shawn gained two additional pieces of information: not only was Lucas a father, but he had three boys named Cooper, Martin, and Parker. Confirming that he was a father on top of being married helped solidify Shawn’s working theory. 

Whenever a married newcomer came in, especially if they had kids, it was almost always to gain a bit of respite from the constant back and forth that often accompanied spousal spats. Given that Lucas was still in his uniform, and it was the middle of the afternoon, he was probably getting out of work and wasn’t ready for the night of bickering that awaited him at home.

Best to just give him some time to decompress after work, drink his first beer in silence. 

From the opposite end of the bar, Shawn watched as Lucas just sipped his beer and looked at his phone. Occasionally, he’d get a message and tap away at the screen to respond, but for the most part it appeared that he was swiping through Facebook or some other social media platform where the design allowed – and encouraged – endless scrolling.

As he scrolled, Lucas seemed to grow more distraught. Well, more… something. Shawn couldn’t quite place it, but it was obvious that whatever he was looking at affected him. His other hand moved to cover the lower half of his face, and his eyes glistened a bit more in the phone’s light than they did initially. 

Shawn’s hypothesis might have needed a revision. The facts didn’t fit… if it was just a fight, he’d be texting more frequently and more urgency, more frustration in his actions. Yet, while he occasionally texted, it was in a calm, even methodical manner. He didn’t seem angry. He seemed… sad, heartbroken. 

Shawn entertained the idea that maybe him and his wife had split, but that didn’t make sense either. The sadness wasn’t accompanied by anger, it seemed, meaning whatever he was experiencing wasn’t fresh. It didn’t add up… until he thought of the names on Lucas’s forearm.

Of course, Shawn though. That makes perfect sense.

Noticing the empty Coors bottle, Shawn took the opportunity to open a dialogue. “Another Coors?”

When Lucas looked up, his eyes bloodshot, he saw that Shawn had already placed an opened bottle in front of him. “This one’s on the house. It just seems you need it more than we do. Problems at home, I take it?”

Lucas’s expression shifted from completely blank to one with a hint of confusion.

Shawn elaborated. “I’ve been behind this bar for a year now, seen many folks come and go. You learn to read people. And in your situation, most fathers would be upset. Well, all real fathers would be, anyway. The boys may be with her for now, but you’ll get to see them, still a part of their lives. It’s not like they’re gone forever. And who knows? Maybe this’ll be good for everyone, you know, get a fresh start and all.”

Lucas squinted at Shawn, tilting his head as he asked, “and what gave you those ideas?”

“Well, I don’t think they’re so much ideas as insights. Something’s bothering you, that much is clear - as if you’ve lost something dear. The work clothes and wedding band tell me that you’re married and that you’d stopped on the way home from work when you stopped in today. The main reason new folks stop in this bar is to get away from something, to avoid going home… and at first, I thought that you might have had a fight with your wife and was avoiding her. But with how distraught you are, it couldn’t have been a simple fight. You wouldn’t be tearing up over a simple marital spat.

“And then there’s the names on your arm… people don’t get names tattooed unless they mean something. Like the names of their kids.”

Shawn paused, giving Lucas a chance to absorb what he’d said as well as correct any misconceptions he’d made. Lucas sat silently.

“If I had to guess, I’d say your wife moved out over the weekend and took the boys, something you didn’t want to happen – which is why you still have the ring on. But you knew this was coming for a while, so you’re not mad at her – but you don’t want to go home to an empty house. So, you’re here.”

Lucas stared past Shawn, lost in thought, and for a bit he didn’t respond. Shawn waited without adding anything to his previous statement, knowing that he’d just pulled the Band-Aid off and Lucas would need time to process.

“You picked all that up just by watching me?” Lucas asked before downing another gulp. “You are very observant, I’ll give you that at least.” He turned and faced away from Shawn who figured he needed to wipe away the tears that he’d been holding back. 

“What’s done is done, my friend. It can’t be changed. All you can do now is…”

“What happened to the piano?

It was Shawn’s turn to be caught off guard. “Uh, we’ve never had, I don’t think we’ve ever had a piano, not as long as I’ve been here. And I’ve been here just over a year. Maybe you’re thinking of a different bar?”

“Nah, there used to be a piano right here,” Lucas responded, pointing at the corner near where he sat. “Take a look.” Lucas pulled a tack of out the Photo Wall, catching the falling picture. He held it out for Shawn, displaying a piano with four younger guys standing and sitting around the instrument. 

“Well, I’ll be damned. I guess we did have one.” For a moment, Shawn actually suspected that Lucas had been to Ernie’s before and he’d just never noticed him. Seems he’d see the piano in the picture on the wall. “I’m not sure when they got rid of it though, sorry. You play?” 

“No, I was never any good. But it’s probably best that they got rid of that thing. It was never in tune, even when they brought in a professional tuner.” For the first time, Lucas cracked a hint of a smile.

“Wait, huh? I thought you had never come to the bar before.” 

“I’ve been here plenty of times, actually. Just never by myself.”

“But earlier, when I said…” Shawn wasn’t sure what to make of this new piece of information.

“I said you were observant. I didn’t say you were right. Look, thanks for the beer, but if it’s all the same to you, I’d like some time to myself before Sandy gets here.”

“Yeah, alright.” Shawn didn’t know what else to say. His mind was racing, trying to reconfigure and reorder the facts in his mind, including this new one, to try to make sense of Lucas’s situation. His original theory made no sense, as its foundation was built on the premise that this was Lucas’s first trip to Ernie’s. 

When had he come to the bar before? It had to be over a year ago, as Shawn was sure he’d have remembered Lucas. Right?

Shawn looked back to Lucas, trying to get a closer look at his face. Could the beard be throwing him off? Lucas was looking down, making it hard to make out his face. What was he staring at so intently? His phone rested on the counter in front of him…

The photo. The impression left by the dust on the wall was still left unfilled, meaning he never put it back.  Was Lucas crying? Sure enough, the tears had begun to fall on the picture’s face.


The door chime sounded out, pulling Shawn out of his thoughts. A middle-aged woman, one he’d never seen before either, came into the bar. It was quickly apparent that she was with Lucas when she scanned the room and took off in his direction after seeing him.

“Is that them, honey?”

“Yeah… that’s them.”

Both of them studied the photo, going over each detail. Lucas’s wife didn’t interrupt his moment, letting silence settle over their small corner of the bar. When he finally returned the photo to its original place, she spoke.

“How are you holding up?”

“I’m ok… can we just go? I think I’ve gotten everything I can out of this little trip.”

“Of course, let’s get out of here. It doesn’t feel right coming here without them.”

After the couple made it out to their SUV, Shawn walked over to pick up Lucas’s empty bottle. He also stopped and took a closer look at the photo. Four men, each of them with closely trimmed hair and clean-shaven faces, were hamming it up for the camera. One of them, upon closer inspection, was obviously a younger version of Lucas.

As the realization of what he was looking at hit him, the same commercial came on from earlier telling anyone who would listen about the sale they were having this Memorial Day.

June 10, 2023 03:53

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Martin Ross
20:35 Jul 19, 2023

I admire those who can write in a variety of genres and tones — your three latest stories are well-wrought, well-told examples of dystopian sci-fi, western-tinged fantasy, and modern character study. Hope you’re looking at possible anthologies to shoot for — terrific stuff, and great turn here.


Michael Martin
21:40 Jul 19, 2023

This is one of the best comments I've gotten on here. I often doubt the quality of the work i put on here, its wonderful to hear that you enjoyed reading these pieces. Thanks!!


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