The Oak Tree Pub is the type of bar that you picture when you hear a joke beginning "A horse walks into a bar..." A dusty little dive, where the neighborhood guys congregate after work for a quick beer on a hot afternoon before they go home to the wife and kids, and any time the Red Sox are playing. The decor is mid-century scavenged, the ambience just this side of grim. On this particular afternoon, Bill, the owner and principle bartender, has strung up the same battered Christmas lights and bent tinsel honeycomb bells that he has been hanging since he got them on clearance when Woolworths' closed. He's also wearing the sweater he bought at the same sale. Margie, his daughter, looks on, occasionally snapping her bubble gum and desultorily polishing the bar with butcher wax. A radio just under the TV plays Christmas oldies. The TV and the girl are the newest things in the bar, both added ten years ago in an effort to compete with the shiny new sports bar out on the highway. As Bill puts the stepladder away, Margie leaves off her polishing and begins filling the small wooden salad bowls with pretzels and peanuts. Neither speak as Theresa Brewer sings about dancing around the Christmas tree.

Bill glances at the clock. Ten to four. The first shift from the hospital will be coming in, followed by the factory workers. The eagle flies on every other Friday now, and this is an off week, but the regulars will soon be in. Most of the wives budget in the husband's Friday beer, those who don't have to put up with the sulking. They make sure hubby gets his ten spot the following week. Peace at any price, and the price of a couple of brews is cheap enough.

The door opens with a gust of frigid wind blowing the first customers into the room. Margie pastes on what passes for a smile and starts drawing draft Buds.

By four thirty the joint is passably full, and it's just getting loud. Not oh-no-Price-is-pitching- when-will-the-Sox-get-some-decent-PITCHING-for CRISSSAKES?!?! loud, but the high hum of slightly boozed up conversation between tired men looking forward to the weekend off.

The door opens again and a older man walks in. Bill recognizes him after a minute. Jake Roblewski, used to work at the factory as a maintenance guy. A plumber, he would do odd jobs in his off time, until his arthritis got him so bad. Now he's living off his pension until the Social Security kicks in. Quiet, pleasant guy. Utterly unremarkable. Even his own kids couldn't pick him out of a police line up.

He walks up to the bar with a funny look on his face. Bill gropes for the word. Exalted. That's it, exactly. Bill steps over, whispers to Margie to get another keg from the stock room. She sighs longsufferingly, rolls her eyes, but goes. Bill sighs himself, but in relief. The last time he saw a man with that same look in his eye was just after the war. The guy, a vet, came in, ordered a beer. After he finished it, he went into the john and ate his gun.

"Hi, Bill", Jake says.

"Hi yourself, Jake. Long time no see. How you doing?" Bill waits, cringing inwardly. He really doesn't want to clean up after another suicide. Took two weeks to get up all the blood out of the cracks in the floor tiles.

Jake gives Bill a slightly pixilated grin. He seems stunned.

"They bought it." He waits. Bill is confused.

"Bought what? You sell your old Toyota?" Jake shakes his head.

"Naww! Ha, nobody'd buy that old junker. Naw...my book. Doubleday bought my book!" He breaks into a happy grin.

Bill is still confused, but at least he figures Jake's just flipped out. Not planning to off himself sitting on the commode. Gradually, he gets the story.

Jake had been an aspiring writer, years ago. Apparently, he wasn't very good at it, but he kept plugging away all these years. In between his regular job, overtime and his side jobs, he wrote. Even after Marie walked out, leaving him with three little kids to look after, he wrote. Nights after putting them to bed, while he did a load of laundry, on his lunch break. He wrote. He put all three through two year college courses and his youngest, Anthony, most of the way through a teaching degree, pulling doubles when he could, extra work whenever he could squeeze it in. Scholarships did for the rest.

Even after his arthritis crippled his knees, and started in on his hands, Jake kept writing. After forty years it finally paid off.

As Jake relays his story, the chatter in the Oak Tree gets quieter, and quieter still, until his light tenor voice is all you can hear.

"And so I submitted my manuscript to Doubleday, and I get a letter today. I figure that it's just another rejection slip, but it's a check! For eight thousand dollars! A fortune! Wait'll I tell the kids!"

The nondescript man, in his grey jacket and faded work pants, is alight with joy. Blazing with it.

The Oak Tree crowd slowly fills with something unfamiliar to most of these tired men and the few women present. A warm feeling. A feeling of pride in one of their own "making good". And with that pride, a sense of hope, that just maybe tomorrow or next month or a year from now, things might be a little better than today.

After a few rounds of celebratory drinks, Jake goes home to telephone his kids and the rest of the crowd slowly thins out as people go home to tell the amazing news.

Later, Bill and Margie are cleaning up. Bill looks around as Margie puts away the mop and bucket. She shrugs into her coat and stands next to the door, waiting.

"Dad. Dad? Are you ok?" Bill is still looking around at the bar, and Margie is beginning to get a little worried. Bill turns and smiles at his daughter as he puts on his own jacket.

"Y'know baby, I was just looking at these decorations. I think it's time we got some new ones, don't you? And maybe spruce up the place a little, new coat of paint or something. Whad'ya think, kiddo? You wanna be in charge of the decorating? After all, this place is gonna be yours someday."

Margie feels a smile creep softly, slowly over her face.

"I'd like that a lot Dad. We can go over the figures tomorrow, if that's good?" Bill nods.

"Yeah, that sounds just about perfect." They exit, locking the door behind them.

"Hey Marg. You wanna stop at Angelo's and get a pizza on the way home?"

"Yeah, Dad. That'd be great. I was just thinking, we should get new booths. The old ones are really beat."

"Oh baby, that's a lot of money. How about recovering the old ones?"

"Daaad! It's gonna cost just as much if not more. Listen, I gotta price quote on six new booths..."

And the snow falls softly on the street, and on the cars, and on the man and woman walking up the cold street, joyfully arguing about upholstery.

And it falls on the roof of the run-down duplex, where a quiet, gray man speaks into a telephone to his daughter, who begins to weep with joy for her father's life's reward.

June 17, 2020 02:52

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