Bar Food

by Judy Voss

          “Get that thing away from her,” Jenny pleaded, looking at Mitch, sitting across from her at the small bar table. Fair-haired Jenny with her flashing brown eyes usually got what she wanted.
          One of the two TVs in O’Brian’s Bar changed from the Cubs game to news, to some TV evangelist, then back to the Cubs game.
          “Mitch?” Sheldon O’Brian, bartender and owner, looked to Mitch for a response.
          O’Brian Bar regulars, Jenny and Mitch, were recently engaged, but beyond that only-have-eyes-for-you stage. They usually tolerated a lot of background noise to mask their intimate conversations, but found the changing channels distracting.
          Mitch looked up when Sheldon said his name. He nodded. “Yep, I’ll have another,” he said, indicating the lite beer in front of him. Mitch, his pointy nose holding up black framed glasses hiding dull green eyes, tried again to follow the changing TV screens.
          Sheldon sighed. “OK. I’ll deal with her.” He approached Ginger and grabbed for the remote control. He missed. Ginger winked at him and remained firmly rooted on the bar stool.
          “I’m the remote queen,” Ginger proclaimed, once again circling the stations. “That’s what my ex always called me.”
          “You’ve had enough,” Sheldon told her as he lurched again for the controller.
          Ginger planted the controller under her low neck shirt, between ample breasts.
          “C’mon, Ginger,” Sheldon said. “Give it up. You’re disturbing my customers.”
          “Nope. I am the remote queen,” she repeated.
          Sheldon, frustrated, charged at her, fishing down her shirt for the remote.
          “Lower!” Ginger shrieked, looking him in the eye.
          “You’re leaving now,” he said, tugging her off the bar stool and shuffling her towards the door.
          “I have to pee!” she said loudly.
          Sheldon hesitated. Ginger escaped from his grip and headed back to the bar stool.
          Mitch, looking for his drink, got up. He bumped into Ginger.
          “Oww!” she said retrieving the remote and waving it at Sheldon.
          Mitch dodged around her. “I’ll get the door for you,” he said. “It’s the least I can do.”
          “You’ve got that right,” Jim Schroeder muttered. He sat slumped, two bar stools down from me, talking to his drink.
          As Sheldon recaptured Ginger, she wacked him on the head with the remote. He ignored the pain and one-armed her around the waist. He snatched the remote with his other hand and pushed her out the door.
          Mitch let the door slam shut.
          “Mitch is right about something?” I asked Jim, finishing my beer and motioning to Sheldon.
          “Another?” Sheldon asked.
          “Yeah, the usual,” I nodded.
          O’Brian’s Bar was one step up from a dive. It had that smoky beer smell, the sticky stained bar, and dim lighting through windows that hadn’t been washed since the fifties. At night the TVs at each end of the bar were turned to either sports or news, depending on which regulars were around. Most of the night light came from the TVs and the rest of the ambiance came from dim overhead bulbs with fake Tiffany stained-glass globes over them.
          Though O’Brian’s was often referred to as SO’B’s, I found Sheldon to be an excellent host. Sheldon wasn’t much to look at with his blue jeans hanging south of his waistline under a messy apron, and his frizzy gray hair parted in the middle, but he offered pretty good advice. His expertise included love, sports, health, religion and minding his own business. I came to O’Brian’s mostly for entertainment, listening to the regulars and, of course, to see the Cubs games.
          This Thursday evening the Cubs were losing to Montreal. “But only by a few runs,” said Sheldon. He flicked through the TV stations, heard various grunts, saw a warning glance from Jenny and returned to the losing game. “It’s tough to be a diehard Cubs fan,” he grumbled.
          Jim Schroeder, now working on his second martini answered, “Once a Cubs fan, always a Cubs fan.” Jim smoothed his tie down the front of his suit and pushed his blond hair back from his forehead. His brown eyes held a forlorn look. “Our cross to bear. Deal with it.”
          Sheldon looked down the bar. “I’ll get your beer,” he told me. “Al? Earl?” he asked the two regulars sitting on Jim’s other side, “Another for you guys?”
          Both nodded. Al Montez, an all-around car mechanic, and Earl Larkin, owner of the bait shop down by the dock, kept their regular bar stools warm.
          I was skeptical when I heard Earl repeat to Al, “That’s right. It’s female appendix problems.” Earl, sitting with his hat turned backwards over dark, curly hair continued. “She needs something looked at or fixed. She didn’t go into details.”
          “I guess I didn’t know there was a difference between a girl’s appendix and a boy’s appendix,” Al replied. Al, wearing his customary rumpled red plaid shirt, had a habit of wiping his hands together as if he were rubbing in hand cream. He was doing this now as he continued with Earl. “This is the first I’ve ever heard of that. That’s all. I didn’t say I didn’t believe you.”
“Don’t give me a hard time,” Earl said. “I miss her at the bait shop. I swear the worms can tell she’s away. I’m even hearing that the fish won’t bite. Everything’s off.”
          “Well, sorry!” Al said, completing his hand wiping on his shirt. “Females just aren’t like cars. A car part breaks down, you buy a new one, put it in. The car’s as good as new. It’s back on the road and you never knew anything was wrong. I like cars better.”
          Jim, in some kind of funk, uttered something about Earl’s worms and the little love birds, but I couldn’t catch it. He was still looking over at Mitch and Jenny. He sighed and stirred his martini vigorously. Swirling the olive and toothpick created a strong current in his drink. “I just don’t get it,” he said. “Look at him.”
          I followed his gaze to Mitch returning to the table, bottle in hand. His black framed glasses didn’t help much in the looks department. He didn’t have much of a neck to speak of either, but what little there was led to a round, lumpy body.
          “Still losing?” Mitch asked Jenny, sitting back down and studying the TV screen.
          “Of course,” she answered, still annoyed.
          Jim cleared his throat. “One time Mitch and I were talking about sports cars,” he said.
          I nodded that I heard him.
          “Mitch hinted that he had a Corvette,” Jim continued. “But last week I saw him from my house. I live about three blocks from here.” He interrupted himself, waving his hand with the toothpick in a northerly direction. “He was parking his car and it’s a Volkswagen Beetle. I think he was hiding his car. I’ve seen Jenny park her Mini Cooper, so that might be her idea of a sports car. But a Beetle? That’s his idea of a sports car? He parked it on my block and walked over here. I was right behind him as he came in the door. I think he was snubbing me. First thing he did was to order a lite beer from Sheldon.”
          “And that was for Jenny?” I asked to be polite.
          “No,” Jim answered. “Jenny drinks brandy Manhattans. That’s another thing they don’t have in common.” Jim sighed. “I think the only thing they have in common is the Cubs logo on their T-shirts. Maybe he’s some sort of closet Casanova?” he wondered. “No! Mitch is such a loser.” He sighed again.
          We looked over at Mitch, then at Jenny, then back at each other. We shrugged.
          Sheldon brought my beer and returned within moments, carrying a basket of pretzels. O’Brian’s only served two types of food — peanuts and pretzels. He served them in old baskets, the kind sold at garage sales. On a good day, each food group was served separately. But most of the time, there were many stray peanuts in with the pretzels.
          “I know you prefer pretzels,” Sheldon said as he set the basket down in front of me. “Since it’s customer service week, I cleaned out the peanuts for you.”
          “Customer service week?” I asked, taken off guard.
          “Yeah. It’s where I pay special attention to my customers,” he said. “Starting with my regulars.”
          “Why?” I asked.
          “I heard about it on Ellen,” he answered. “Thought I’d give it a try.”
          I said nothing as I looked from Sheldon into the overflowing basket of pretzels.
          “I’m wanting to improve my customers’ experience here,” he continued, “so they begin to see O’Brian’s as a,” he stopped to choose the right word. “A kind of paradise,” he finished.
          “Paradise?” I pulled the basket closer to me, not quite believing that O’Brian’s could make the leap to “paradise” status. I must have looked doubtful.
          “Ellen’s word,” he said and turned to go back to his end of the bar.
          I rummaged through the pretzels, my fingers finally reaching the bottom of the basket. There, I found the two peanuts I expected to find and quickly put them in my mouth. “Paradise,” I said to his back.
          “You hungry?” Jim asked us, sitting up in an effort to change his mood. “What’ll be? Chinese or pizza?”
          “We had pizza already this week,” Al reminded.
          “Yeah, but that was Monday,” Jim said. “It’s been awhile. I could stand it.”
          “Too soon,” Earl answered, agreeing with Al.
          “It’s pizza, then,” Jim said, ignoring them. He took out his cell phone, hit speed dial and ordered in a hushed manner.
          Trying to decide which food choice to order for dinner was usually a long, drawn out debate. I was a bit surprised when Jim hit the button for pizza so soon after the subject came up.
          He’s either in a hurry or hungry, I thought. Hungry. No one is ever in a hurry at O’Brian’s.
“Pizza with extra cheese and mushrooms, fifteen minutes,” Jim announced as he snapped his phone shut and put it away.
          Waiting for the pizza usually left us edgy. It always took more than fifteen minutes.
          “How’s business, then?” Sheldon asked Jim.
          No one really knew what Jim did for a living. On the odd nights that Jim wasn’t around, we speculated. A while back, I took part in the discussion. “Jim works in insurance,” I had guessed. “He dresses better than us, and his hands are smoother than ours. So a desk job seems right.”
          Al said, “Sales. Because of the martinis. You have to know how to hold your liquor in order to sell.”
          “Sell what?” Earl had asked.
          “Bits and pieces of stuff. I donno,” Al answered.
          Earl guessed gambling. “Jim’s a fancy dresser,” he reasoned. “It’s that slick type of dressing that fits casinos.”
          “Even though there’s no casinos within fifty miles of here,” Al muttered. “And you’re stereotyping,” he pointed out.
          We all were. But after enough brews, gambling began to make some sense. We had ended sticking with our own guesses.
          Sheldon didn’t care what Jim did for a living as long as it earned him enough to pay his bar tab. Sheldon periodically asked “How’s business?” Periodically Jim ignored the question by changing the topic.
          He did so now. “Let’s hear the news,” Jim said, pointing to the TV. “I want to find out what’s happening to that guy who got beat up for having three wives.”
          Since the Cubs were now down by six points, Sheldon switched over to the news without any more grief from the regulars. Sheldon punched the remote to turn up the volume.
          A picture of Gus Hardy appeared on the screen beside the newscaster as he reported Hardy in critical condition. “Tonight he’s guarded at The Cook County Hospital,” the anchor stated. “Police are looking for his third wife who emptied their bank accounts and disappeared. In our earlier newscast, we reported that Hardy’s other two wives ganged up on him and beat him after discovering they were both married to Hardy.” He paused to look up at the camera. “Authorities are investigating the possibility of a fourth wife. Now let’s turn to weather. Tracy, tell us the good news about this weekend.”
          “OK,” Jim said to Sheldon. “I don’t need to hear about the weather. If I want to know about the weather, I’ll look out the window.”
          Sheldon wiped his hands on his apron and switched the channel back to the Cubs game. A collective groan came from the scattered tables and the bar as the score appeared on the screen. The bar got noisy then as the crowd talked about what the Cubs needed to do to win. Al and Earl argued about the pitcher. Sheldon was all for shooting the umpire.
          “As if any of this would really change the Cubs,” Jim noted.
          “Where’s Billy with that pizza?” Al asked. “I guess he’s peddling as fast as he can.”
          “He drives now,” Earl corrected. “No more bike delivery. He got a car last week. A beater. Maybe he’s got car trouble already.”
          “That’s right,” Al remembered. “He wanted me to look at it before he bought it, but I didn’t have time. Poor kid. Maybe I can fix it for him.”
          The door opened and Jim muttered, “It’s about time.”
          But it wasn’t Billy who came through the door with the pizza. It was an older guy, holding a large pizza box in both hands, looking around. He stepped in, hesitating. He put the pizza box down at the end of the bar and shoved his cap back on his head. He pulled the check from his jacket pocket and waved it, looking to see who was paying.
          “Smells good!” Al said.
          I suddenly realized I was hungry. I noticed I’d been feeding on the nearby drink garnishes. Several cherry stems were lined up in front of my beer. I pushed them away as the aroma of pizza overpowered the smell of orange wedges.
          “I’ll take that,” Jim said a bit loudly.
          “Where’s Billy?” asked Sheldon.
          “Not around tonight.” The man said. “I’m Dan, and I hope you have exact change. You’re my first stop and I don’t have many singles.”
          “Ah, singles,” Jim said, glancing again at Mitch and Jenny as he reached for his wallet. He leaned on his left cheek as he pulled the wallet out. He searched through the bills and drew out a few. Dan picked up the pizza box with one hand, then placed it in front of Jim. Dan gave Jim the check.
          Jim took a long look at writing on the check and gave Dan the money. Dan said, “All right, then?”
          Jim answered, “Just fine. Thanks.”
          I noticed as Jim put his wallet away he gave Earl a calculated look. But all he said was, “Who’s hungry?”
          Sheldon opened the box. We peered at the pizza.
          “It looks different. It’s thicker,” said Earl.
          “But runny,” echoed Al. “I can’t tell where one piece leaves off and the next one begins,” he said, truly puzzled. “Someone give me a knife.”
          Earl reached into his right shirt pocket and drew out his Swiss Army Knife. He pulled out the nail file, realized his mistake and pushed it back in. He pulled out the right blade next, wiped it on his jacket sleeve and handed the knife to Al.
          Jim and I frowned. We knew that one of Earl’s favorite expressions, whenever he voiced a decision, was “fish or cut bait.” I was wondering how Earl used that knife as Al inserted it into the middle of the pizza.
          “It’s hard under the cheese,” muttered Al. “It’s got a brick for crust.” He pushed heavily on the knife, working his arm wildly back and forth. He worked the first piece away and let it sit to cool down. The cheese topping spilled over the first piece, settled heavily on the cardboard box, and sealed it there. Al resumed his aggressive back and forth motion on the second piece. He tried a 60’s dance twist with his wrist and pushed ferociously harder on the knife.
          Suddenly the knife cracked through the crust, and a slim wedge of pizza with extra cheese and mushrooms became air born. It took on a life of its own as it flew out of the box and headed across the room towards Mitch and Jenny. It landed on Jenny’s forehead, cheese side down.
          She screamed and jumped up. Her chair scraped the floor, tipped backwards and clattered as it fell. The pizza worked its way down her face, rather quickly, considering the sticking power of cheese.
          At her chin, the slice gathered momentum, slid towards her T-shirt and settled on the Cubs logo. Here, the crust separated from the cheese and mushroom topping and landed on top of her shoe. Jim, shocked, gave Jenny a woe-be-gone look.
          I saw that not too many of the bar crowd even noticed. The pace of the Cubs game had picked up, and the noise of the television drowned out Jenny’s drama. They probably assumed she stood up to cheer the Cubs on. That happened occasionally.
          She stood seething at Al, all keyed up. She turned to Mitch and demanded “Just what are you goin’ to do about this?”
          Under normal circumstances Mitch was not the quickest of men to pick up on social nuances. But I saw that Mitch had followed the flight of the pizza and I could tell that he knew this situation was more than a nuance.
          “Jenny, honey,” he stalled, “those mushrooms look like a moth.”
          Jenny glanced down at her right breast where Mitch was pointing. “A what?” she said. The Cubs were being unusually active and the television was loudly broadcasting the fans’ reactions.
          “Those mushrooms, the ones hanging on your right – uh – side. It looks like they have legs and I just haven’t seen that on mushrooms before,” he said. “On a pizza,” he added.
          “Mitch, damn it,” she said, “just hand me a napkin and tell that man at the bar he owes me an apology.” She glared at all of us at the bar, picked at the pizza toppings with one hand and grabbed her own napkin with the other hand.
          “Yikes!” Al said. “Wow.” His eyes were very large as he gaped at Jenny.
          “That’s your apology?” asked Jenny, pizza and sarcasm dripping.
          “Oh, I am sorry,” Jim said, taking over responsibility for the situation. He slid off his bar stool and stood at attention, facing Jenny. “I would never hurt you, Jennifer Green.”
          I thought Jim was being unusually formal. Maybe it was martini manners, but if so, I’d never heard them before.
          “Mitch, please,” Jenny ordered. “This man called me by my first and last name and I don’t even know his whole name. Mitch, you gonna’ do anything about defending my honor? Am I God-damned alone here or what?”
          Mitch, too, now stood and faced Jenny. “Sure,” he said. He cleared his throat. “Of course. Your honor, of course,” he assured her. “What do you want me to do?” he asked.
          “I’ll defend your honor,” Jim blurted out.
          “You keep out of this,” Jenny shot back and deepened her glare.
          “I don’t know how to tell you this, Jennifer,” Jim said. He was beginning to breathe in short gasps. “But you’ll have to know sooner or later. So I’ll just come out and say it.” Jim looked at Mitch who was still standing uncertainly.
          I saw Earl pick up his Swiss Army Knife and aggressively wedge a slice off the pie. I had forgotten how hungry I was.  Watching as Earl freed the slice, Al motioned and asked “For me?” Earl nodded and went to work on the next slice. Sheldon was leaning back against the liquor cabinet, arms folded. Earl held out the next piece for him, but Sheldon shook his head.
          Earl motioned to me, but before I could say yes, Sheldon said, “Don’t eat it. It don’t look right.” I stopped reaching for it, intrigued by Sheldon continuing to look out for me. A momentary hush made me focus back on the bar crowd.
          I saw that Montreal made the third out. The ballpark was quiet as the teams were changing places. The bar crowd lost interest in the game and, instead, noticed Jenny. She was still staring at Jim. “So, then, what do you have to say for yourself?” she demanded.
          “Yeah!” Mitch said emphatically. “Answer her!” he finished and sat down, relieved.
          Jim’s face, bright red, puffed up as he took several more short breaths and gasped “Mitch is cheating on you!” He now looked imploringly at Jenny, “And I love you!”
          Jenny gasped and clutched her hands to her heart. Some of the cheese stuck to her hands as she brought them down to the table. She placed them in front of her palm side down. She leaned over so her eyes were level with Mitch’s eyes.
          “Is this true?” she shouted. She looked at Mitch steadily. I read her expression as though certain suspicions had just been confirmed.
          “He don’t love you,” Mitch fired back.
          “He’s cheating,” Jim said again and stopped to look at Earl. Earl was raising the slice of pizza up to his mouth and was about to take a bite. “Earl, he’s cheating with your wife. It was Mitch who put your wife in the hospital. She doesn’t have appendix problems. She and Mitch had kinky sex. She’s in the hospital getting straightened out,” he finished.
          “Kinky sex?” asked Jenny, flushed and frowning.
          “You didn’t know?” asked Jim anxiously.
          Earl lowered the pizza. He put it back in the box and picked up his Swiss Army Knife. He slid his thumb and index finger along the blade, scraping off the cheese.
          “No, I didn’t know,” said Jenny.
          “Me neither,” uttered Earl.
          “It’s not true!” shouted Mitch.
          “A few things are fallin’ into place,” declared Earl. “You got any proof, Jim?”
          “I’ve got proof right here,” Jim said waving the check for the pizza. But then Jim looked at Jenny. “You’re engaged to Mitch. How could you not know?”
          “I don’t know about sexual matters,” said Jenny primly. “I’m a virgin.”
          A loud crack distracted us all. A Cub had just hit a grand slam, driving the ball high across the field, deep into the bleachers. Sheldon was speechless.
          Jenny, the thirty-something self-confessed virgin began to cry.
          Three Cubs on base trotted home. The batter followed, and the score was tied.
          “You don’t have any proof,” Mitch declared, glancing nervously at Jenny, then at the door.
          “Dan just handed it to me,” Jim said picking up the piece of paper in front of him. “It’s not a check. It’s a report.” He straightened up, looked at Sheldon and announced, “I’m a repo guy. I repossess cars. I have a bunch of guys in the field who help me track cars down and bring them back to the dealer when folks don’t pay,” he explained. “Dan is my best field guy. We arranged for him to get me this report tonight,” he said. “Under cover.”
          “Mitch,” he continued as he turned to face Mitch again. “Yesterday Dan tailed you test-driving a repossessed Chevy Corvette from one of my dealers. You picked up Earl’s wife. The details are here in black and white. You have more mileage on you than a ’96 Dodge pick-up truck. It’s all in his report.” Jim waved the pizza check.
          Only it wasn’t a pizza check. I saw that it, indeed, was a report with neat typing on it.
          Mitch saw this too and looked at Jenny.
          “Well, Mitch?” she asked, now staring wretchedly at him.
          Mitch slowly stood up and caught sight of Earl. He turned and made a run for the door. Earl took up the chase and rushed past Jim and Al, waving his Swiss Army Knife.
          As they reached the door, Billy opened it up on his way in. Billy dodged the two charging men, and the door banged shut behind them. Everyone was now looking at Billy. He cleared his throat and proclaimed “Let’s party! I brought you all a pizza. I’m celebrating my new car!”
          More noise from the TV erupted as Jim stepped over to Jenny and helped her scrape the rest of the cheese and mushrooms off her chest. As he wiped her hands, he held them and looked deeply into her eyes.
          “I’m not very hungry,” Jenny whimpered.
          Al, perking up, asked Billy, “Can I see your car? I was feeling kinda bad about not
          takin’ a look before you bought it.”
          “Hey, sure,” said Billy, setting his pizza down. “It’s right outside. C’mon I’ll show you. It’s real classy.”
          Al and Billy walked to the door and opened it again. Over their shoulders, I could see Earl chasing Mitch outside. Mitch was moving fast for a man who seldom took action. I thought Mitch’s dark side would be a topic of bar room speculation for a long time to come. The door slammed shut.
          Sheldon brought Billy’s pizza over and set it down in front of me. He opened the box, turned it around and offered me a piece. “We should eat it before it gets cold,” he said.
          Billy’s pizza was perfect. Pre-cut to make the pieces easy to pick up. Not too gooey. Jenny and Jim, beginning to smile at each other, joined us at the bar for a slice.
          This Thursday night at O’Brian’s was shaping up to be a pretty damn good night, I was thinking. Sheldon even spotted me a beer to celebrate. After all, the Cubs won their game.

© 2020 Judith Voss  All rights reserved.

Click or tap here to see Judy Voss’s profile.

Use the “Leave a Comment” form below to submit comments on this piece.


One thought on “Bar Food

Leave a Comment

%d bloggers like this: