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Holiday

 At the end of a long winding road, there’s a bar. It sits at the top of a hill and should be known for its spectacular view of the bay — but it's winter in San Francisco, and tonight all you can see is fog. Still, it’s a pretty nice place. The fire in the fireplace is real, the drinks are generous, and the bartender is always ready to listen.   

I should know. My name is Pete, and I’ve been tending bar here forever. Like all little neighborhood dives we have our regulars, but I won’t be seeing any of them tonight. It’s New Year’s Eve, and those folks have chosen trendier venues. We’ll stay open, though, for what Manny calls the Lost Souls Club. Any minute now they’ll be rolling in with the fog — the cold, the lonely, the bereft — and those who simply don’t have anywhere else to go.

Manny straightened the string of multicolored lights on the mantelpiece and threw some more logs on the fire. A bright flurry of sparks swirled up the chimney and into the night.

“A pillar of fire,” Manny mused, stepping back to admire his handiwork.

“To pierce the pillar of clouds?”

“Something like that,” he grinned. “Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” I said.

It wasn’t long before the door creaked open and our first customer wandered in out of the gloom, tendrils of mist curling around his legs.

“Sure is cold out there,” said the man, wiping his boots on the mat. “At least it’s stopped raining.” He stuffed a grimy wool cap into the pocket of his coat.

“Here, let me get that for you.” I took the dripping, battered garment and hung it on the coat rack, leaving him shivering in a threadbare flannel shirt and a pair of corduroys that had seen better days. He took a seat by the fireplace as I poured him a brandy.

He dug into his pocket and slid a couple of dollars across the bar.

“Please,” I said, handing the bills back to him. “Keep your money. It’s New Year’s Eve. I’m Pete, by the way. Good to meet you.”

“You’re very kind,” said the man. “I’m Ted. Ted Smith. Pickings have been pretty slim today. Not the best weather for panhandling.”

“I can imagine.”

“Panhandling,” he muttered. “Can't say I'm proud of it. It’s not what I thought I’d be doing with my ‘golden years,’ you know?”

“You do what you have to do," I said. "Sorry I can't offer you a meal. I sent the cook home at nine.” I pushed a bowl of peanuts toward him. He ate them with great deliberation, clearly hungry but not wanting to appear so.

“I had such big plans when I came home from ‘Nam. I went to trade school, got married, had a kid. Made a good living as a carpenter.”

“Good honest work,” I said. “My friend here can relate, right, Manny?”

Manny stopped wiping tables long enough to give a thumbs up.

“I mean, I managed — or thought I did. But every night I was back in the jungle with bullets flying past my head. My wife took off the day my daughter turned eighteen and I haven’t seen either of them since.” Ted drained his glass. “At least that’s one thing I can count on. My family may have left me, but the war never will. And now I’ve got cancer. Happy New Year to me from my pal Agent Orange.”

“That’s rough, man. I’m sorry.”

I had just poured him another glass of liquid consolation when the glare of a single headlight shone through the window, followed by a low grinding noise and the clatter of broken machinery.

“What the…?”

Manny reached the parking lot just as a large man shoved his way through the crumpled door of his Cadillac, frantically searching his pockets and cursing a blue streak.

“Are you the manager? Somebody call the police! I can’t find my goddamn phone!”

“I just do maintenance,” Manny said, ushering the man into the room. “The manager is…”

He pushed Manny out of the way and blustered toward the bar. “I don’t need a janitor, you blathering old fossil, I need the police! It was a hit and run, I tell you! Did you see what they did to my car?”

“Calm down. Here, have one on the house.” I led him to a chair and poured him a shot of bourbon. “Manny, go take a look at his car, will you?”

“I usually don’t drink,” said the man, downing the whiskey in one gulp. “Debauchery is a sin.”

“So I’ve been told,” I said. “Another?”

“Got any Booker’s?”

I took a bottle off the shelf and showed him the label. “This one’s gonna cost you.”

 “Son, do you know who I am?” He pulled out his wallet and flashed a big wad of bills in my face.

“Should I?” I poured his drink, plucked a twenty from his hand, and opened the cash register.

"My name is Wilford Van Pelt.” He puffed himself up and uttered the name as if it should be followed by applause.

“Wilford who?”

“You gotta be kidding. Everybody knows me.”

I looked over at Ted, who shrugged and went back to sipping his brandy.

“What do you know, you lazy bum,” Wilford snapped, straightening his tie. “Get a job. God helps those who help themselves.”

Ted said nothing — just turned away and stared into the fire.

“Not even God can help that Caddy, may she rest in peace,” said Manny, wiping the grease from his hands with a rag. “I’m afraid you’re stuck here for a while, Pastor. Pete, call the man a tow truck, will you?”

“Of course.” I pulled out my phone and dialed.

“See? See? He knows who I am.” Wilford pointed a stubby finger at Manny.

“Of course I know you.” Manny walked to the bar, picked up the remote, and turned on the TV. “Wilford S. Van Pelt, televangelist. Owner of twenty megachurches scattered all over the country and a media franchise worth upwards of sixty million dollars.” He turned to the local news network. It was running clips of Wilford preaching fire and brimstone from the pulpit. The ticker at the bottom of the screen told of a fatal collision between a speeding Cadillac and a bridge abutment.

“What the hell is this shit?” Wilford squinted at the screen.

“Looks like you had a little accident,” said Manny.

“That can’t be my car. My car’s right outside!”

“Hit and run, Wilford? I think that bridge would beg to differ,” Manny chuckled. “Where do you think you are?”

“Are you really that stupid? Somewhere outside Lincoln, Nebraska. I’d just left a big fundraiser in Omaha and was heading to my Countdown to Christ rally when some jerk crossed into my lane and…”

“No, that’s not right,” said Ted. “We're in Lawrence, Kansas.”

“What are you squeaking about, deadbeat?” Wilford scoffed.

“I was sleeping under a tree in Broken Arrow Park when it started to rain. I figured I’d better find some shelter, so I started walking. I wound up here.”

“What a load of crap,” said Wilford. “Delusional, all of you.”

“Now, gentlemen,” I said, pouring them each another drink. “Let’s be civil. What if I said you’re both right?”

Wilford swirled the bourbon around in his glass. “I’d tell you you’re full of it.” He pulled a fat cigar from his pocket and bit off the end. “Anyone mind if I smoke?”

He took a matchbook from the basket on the bar and lit his cigar.

“Golden Gate Grille? That’s a stupid name for a bar.”

“Not in San Francisco,” I got up and opened the door. “See for yourself.”

Wilford followed me to the parking lot, where he could see the distant lights of the bridge glowing through the fog. “Hey, where the hell is my car?”

“Nebraska.”

“I don’t know what you guys are playing at, but I have things to do. I need to get out of here. Now.”

“No worries,” I said. “I called you a tow truck.”

“What do I need with a tow truck? Some asshole stole my car.”

“A ride is a ride,” I shrugged. “It’ll be here soon.”

Wilford watched the story of his demise scrolling across the TV screen as he paced back and forth, muttering oaths and refusing to believe what he saw. It wasn’t long before the tow truck appeared, its flashing lights bathing the interior of the bar in their bright orange glow.

 “Speak of the devil,” Manny grinned. “Your carriage awaits.”

“About damn time,” said Wilford, buttoning his topcoat and heading for the door. “Can’t wait to see the last of this place. You’re all batshit crazy.”

“Pastor?” Manny grabbed a rag off the bar and tossed it to Wilford.

“What’s this for?”

“You might not want to touch that doorknob. It’s hot.”

“What? I… you mean…? You can’t do this to me! Do you know who I am?”

“Yep. I do.” A fetid blast of warm air flooded the room as Manny ushered Wilford, still protesting, into the waiting vehicle.

“I get it now.” Ted stood and went to the window, placing his hands on the glass. He blew a long breath onto the pane, but no condensation formed. He turned and smiled at me. “I fell asleep under that tree…”

“And you never woke up,” I said. “Peaceful. Just like you wanted.”

“Imagine that. And all this time I thought I’d get mugged, or shot, or hit by a car. Cancer didn’t even get me.”

“Imagine that.” I poured out three snifters of brandy. “One for the road?”

“Why not? I’m not driving,” Ted raised his glass and touched it to Manny’s and mine.

We basked in the glow of the fire for a long time, not speaking and not needing to. Soon there came a soft scratching at the door.

“Pete? Am I gonna have to leave too? Like the pastor did?”

“Well, yeah,” I said. “Everyone has to move on sooner or later.”

Ted started toward the door, then hesitated as the scratching became more insistent. “Sure wish I could do it all over again, you know? Knowing what I do now?”

“Maybe you will.”

He reached out and touched the doorknob tentatively with his fingertips.

“It’s fine,” I said. “Go on.”

He opened the door, and a huge shaggy dog of uncertain parentage bounded in.

“Berkeley?” Ted’s eyes widened in disbelief.

The dog ran to him, planted its massive paws on his shoulders, and slathered his face with kisses.

Ted embraced the furry creature, then turned to me with tears in his eyes. “Is this Heaven?”

“It’s whatever you want it to be,” I replied.

“How is this even possible?”

“You've earned it,” said Manny. “Many times over.”

Berkeley took a couple of laps around the bar and raced into the parking lot in a frenzy of excited barking.

“You’d better get going,” I said. "Before that goofball wakes up the whole neighborhood."

Ted followed the dog out the door, closed it behind him, and headed down the road toward the bay.

“I love it when that happens,” Manny smiled. “Anyone else on the schedule?”

“A few."

“Guess I’d better throw some more wood on the fire,” said Manny. “Hey, it’s almost midnight on the east coast. Want to watch the ball drop?”

“Sure,” I said, changing the channel.

“Ten, nine, eight, seven,” the crowd in Times Square chanted over the strains of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”

“Turn it up,” said Manny, settling into a chair and cracking open a beer. “I love that song.”

“Don’t get too comfortable,” I said. “Here they come.”

I stood at the window and watched as a procession of headlights climbed slowly up the hill.

“Six, five, four,” sang the crowd as fireworks began to bloom over the Manhattan skyline. “Three, two, one.”


 



 

 

January 04, 2020 04:46

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6 comments

Royalty Beans
16:20 Jan 14, 2020

I love the description of the setting at the beginning!

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Chien Noir
20:38 Jan 14, 2020

Thank you! I've been told description is not my strong point, so your comment means I'm finally improving in that area. .

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Samuel Blue
15:51 Jan 10, 2020

Really great premise. I loved the symbolism of the bar being the last stop.

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Chien Noir
21:19 Jan 10, 2020

Thank you so much for reading! I am very new to writing fiction, and your comments are much appreciated.

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Elaine Leet
20:51 Jan 07, 2020

I loved the ending!

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Chien Noir
22:15 Jan 07, 2020

Thank you for reading! I've had this story in mind for a long time, and this prompt finally gave me the perfect ending I'd been searching for.

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