“You can’t sit here.”
“What’d you say, old timer?”
He was a grizzly in a Packers jersey, with wrists the size of my neck. If you fuck this up, I thought, he’s going to kill you and use your femur as a toothpick.
“I sai . . . I said you can’t sit here,” I stammered.
“Look, pal . . .” he stood up from the barstool that groaned under his weight. He was about a foot taller, and at least twenty years younger than me. He spoke down from on high with menace behind grinding molars. “I been standing in that corner by the fucking piss-stinking toilets of this shit-dive bar since I got here in the middle of the first quarter. It’s now the fourth quarter, and I’m going to sit down and drink my beer, and eat my food, and watch the end of my damn game.”
He plopped back on the bar stool and turned his attention to the TVs over the bar, teeth tearing Buffalo wing flesh from bone. He dropped the discards back onto the plate in front of him, the growing pile looking like the exhumed remains from the basement of some prolific chicken serial killer.
“But that’s Donny’s seat.”
“Ain’t no one sat in this seat the entire time I been here, old man,” he said without looking away from the television.
I stared away from the goon, forcing myself not to blink, letting tears fill my eyes before I turned back to face him.
“I . . . you can’t sit . . .”
He slammed his pint glass on the bar with a thud, and turned to face me.
“Buddy, in about two seconds, I’m about to knock your fucking teeth out your fucking . . . wait, are you crying?”
I lowered my head to avoid prying eyes.
“It’s just . . . that’s where Donny always sits.”
“Your friend can find another seat, or if he can’t find a seat, he can stand over by the toilets, like I hadta. No point in crying over it.”
“He can’t . . .”
“And why the hell not?”
“. . . because we put him in the ground this morning.”
Silence after the bomb drop. It’s what I liked to hear.
“We been coming here for years, after the Thursday night shift,” I said, as the young bartender looked over, disapprovingly, wiping down a pint glass. “Couple months back, he told me he got some bad news from the oncologist . . .”
I glumly nodded my head.
“We was all we ever had, y’know? No family, neither one of us ever married. Just him, and me, and a shit job down at the factory, and Thursday night beers. I was the only one at his services this morning. Couldn’t even afford to pay for a marker to memorialize his time on this earth. Ain’t that a thing?
“So I’m memorializing him the only way I know how,” I added. “. . . and saving him his regular seat at the bar. You do whatever you’re going to do, young man, but by God, that’s Donny’s seat, at least for tonight . . .”
The behemoth in the football jersey was quiet for a moment, and then gathered his plate of bones and his pint of beer, and vacated the barstool. “Sorry for your loss,” he said quietly.
A few minutes went by, and the lummox called the bartender over to his reclaimed standing-room-only spot by the toilets, across the bar. After a few brief words, the bartender came over to where I was sitting.
“He says your tab’s covered,” the bartender said. “But you knew that already.”
“Thanks, Donny,” I said to the kid.
“Did ya hafta give me cancer this time?”
“Why do ya do it?” he asked.
“Free beer tastes better, I guess.”
“So, last week, it was the stockbroker, and this week it was the Aaron Rogers fan,” he counted them on his fingers. “And the time before that was the trucker. I’m tellin’ ya, Carl, you’re living dangerously.”
“Ain’t no better way to feel more alive, my good man.”