A story by R.C.PeterGabriel, all rights reserved.
“Hi, I haven’t seen you in here before,” stated the bartender with a smile. “I’m Peg. What can I get you?”
I hadn’t really thought that far ahead. All I knew was, that I needed a drink and this was the first bar I came to. I glanced around somewhat self-consciously, only to decide that it was a nice place. Well lit, with nice décor and classic rock music playing softly in the background. I only noticed two other people. They were occupying a booth across the room. I didn’t think it was that unusual, seeing as it was two o’clock on a Tuesday afternoon. The pair had papers spread out on the table and were obviously in some sort of debate about the details of their contents.
I returned my eyes to Peg and realized that she was assessing me as much as I was trying to decide if I could get comfortable here (bars really aren’t my thing). I sized her up and decided I liked the look of her. She was attractive in a girl next door kind of way; pretty but approachable. I put her somewhere near my age of forty-four. Not because she looked it but because she had a presence about her that said ‘my wisdom exceeds my perceptible age’. She wore a confident smile below a pair of intelligent eyes that I could tell were capable of seeing through any pretense. Her posture said ‘take your time, I’m here when you’re ready’. Her clothes were tight, suggesting a very nice body while maintaining her modesty in a ‘look but don’t touch’ kind of way. As I met her eyes after only a quick survey of the landscape, I realized that I probably didn’t need a drink so much as needed to talk to someone. My life was about to change dramatically. For better or for worse was yet to be determined, but definitely in a life-altering way.
“Gabe. Bourbon on the rocks, please.” I ordered with a dismissive wave of my hand while hoping I could bare my soul to this stranger and I knew she would expect me to order something. Peg set down the high-ball glass that she’d been polishing and started to reach for the Buffalo Trace, but altered course and reached up for a bottle of Woodford Reserve hidden behind some Jim Beam instead.
Her smile broadened as I raised an eyebrow. “It’s nice to meet you, Gabe. Don’t worry the first one is on the house. Besides, I can tell you’ll be nursing it. You might as well enjoy a drink while you unload whatever is weighing you down. I find that if you’re not distracted by bad flavor you’ll be more honest with yourself.”
I accepted the glass as my mind went blank momentarily. I think it was a necessary reset allowing me to order my thoughts. If I was going to vent, I’d need to make sense. At least enough to explain my situation.
I took a sip a minute or two later, finding the vanilla, oak, and caramel notes sliding around my tongue and delighting my pallet far more than expected. I smiled to myself as the smooth heat slid down my throat and couldn’t help but look up from my glass to toast my new confidant. “Very nice. Thank you.” I could already tell that I was going to end up telling her everything.
“You’re welcome … Now before you begin telling me the real reason you’re here, I have a few rules.” She paused to make sure I was paying attention. “This is my bar, so if you don’t like the rules you can leave through the same door you used to come in. I know you came in here thinking you needed a drink, but that was your first lie. That one was free. If you lie to yourself again you pay full price for the drink and it doubles each time after that until I own your house. If you lie to me you settle your bill on the spot and leave. I will probably interrupt with questions; if I do you’ll answer them truthfully before continuing your story. The last rule is that once you start, you don’t stop until you’ve unburdened yourself, no matter how long it takes. I don’t want you leaving here drunk and depressed. If you leave drunk, I can get you an Uber but I can’t protect you if you leave both drunk and depressed.”
I chuckled, and then looked into her eyes while asking, “What happens if it takes me three days to ‘unburden’ myself?”
Peg lost her smile with a shrug and a quiet sigh, but somehow retained her air of wisdom. “Well Gabe, you must have quite a problem on your hands if you think it might take three days to get off your chest. If it does then you come back tomorrow at eleven and take up where you left off at two am. Two is when we close, eleven is when we open, and you keep coming back until you’re done. Just remember my rule about finishing what you start.”
“Maybe I only have another forty minutes left on my lunch,” I said glancing at my watch.
A glint of mirth flashed in Peg’s eyes as she regained her smile. “Gabe, if you’re going to test me, at least make it a challenge.”
Her hands were busy polishing another highball glass, so I looked to where her head nod had indicated and saw the edge of a monitor a few feet down from where I was seated. I had to nurdağı escort rise up and lean over the bar to see that it showed several views of the parking lot, before changing to interior views. I watched the interior views change several times before sitting back on my stool. There had to be at least two dozen cameras secreted away, so I gave her a questioning look.
Peg took a slow deep breath before explaining. “You pulled up in an old work truck that isn’t hauling any tools, hasn’t seen a dirt lot since our last rain two weeks ago and has a square of good paint on both doors where a company sign used to be. You’re in good shape with muscles obtained from years of hard work instead of in a gym, but they’ve softened just a touch. My guess is that you hit the gym occasionally to stay fit but don’t want to build. The near-permanent farmers’ tan that all construction workers seem to get has faded away for the most part. Again a guess, but I say at least five years out of the daily sun, maybe a year or two longer. Your clothes are clean but were in style close to ten years ago. You obviously don’t get out much socially even though you’re a very good-looking man and could easily find a date.” She paused her list of observations to glance at my hand. “Your pupils didn’t dilate when I mentioned dating even though they did when you were checking me out when you first came in; which means that you find me attractive but aren’t looking. You also didn’t hide or play with your wedding ring but you stiffened slightly, meaning that your issue is about a woman but not your wife.
“We’ll get back to that, but troubles about women are an after-work thing. Men don’t go drinking at lunch in order to forget that type of problem so they can perform at work. At least not unless they already have a drinking problem. If you had a drinking problem you certainly wouldn’t have had only one taste of your drink. I’m going to say that you’re retired and have already had your lunch. You recently received troubling news and decided to go for a drive and picked my bar at random.
“Did I pass?” She asked with a hint of ‘try to deny it’ added to her smile.
I nodded and raised my glass slightly in her direction before taking another sip. “You nailed it. I’m retired. Sold my business but kept the truck. That was just over six years ago. It’s also just before my son and I moved here. If it wasn’t for the cashier at the grocery store, or my next-door neighbors, the only people I’d ever talk to would be my son and his wife.”
Peg studied me for a few moments while I studied my drink. “I’m sorry Gabe. When did she die?”
I glanced up to see compassion on Peg’s face. “Almost seven years. How did you know?”
“You sold your business, and moved without your wife, but are still wearing the ring. You still have feelings for her, probably still love her … How did it happen?”
I took a hard pull from my glass, swallowing before my throat could constrict. It tried to anyway and I was forced to take a few minutes before I could answer. “Car crash. She died instantly. My son Peter was ejected.”
Peg waited patiently, picking up another glass to polish as I continued haltingly. “He uh … was in a coma for almost three weeks. Besides the head injury, he had four broken ribs, a broken wrist and his pelvis was crushed. The guy who hit them … tried to … he uh … he tried to flee the scene … he … ran over my son in the process.”
Peg handed me a couple of extra napkins to dry my eyes and I used them without looking up at her, being too embarrassed by my weakness. I took a few minutes and composed myself before continuing. “Fortunately it happened on a busy street and an ambulance was dispatched within moments. One of the witnesses followed the driver and led the police right to him. He was texting his wife that he wanted a divorce because he was sleeping with her sister … Forbidden fruit is always the hardest to resist.” I wasn’t sure if I said the last part out loud or not because I was trying hard not to show my pain.
I finished my drink. It was several minutes later when I noticed that Peg had refilled my glass. I shook my head and looked up at her. She had been leaning on the counter behind her and pushed herself upright. “I’m truly sorry Gabe. I take it that your son is okay though since he’s married.”
“It’s taken him a lot of time, but he does alright considering. He will always walk with a pronounced limp and he still has sudden pains that put him down for a few hours at a time but for the most part, he’s recovered. He has a decent job as a sports writer, drives a nice car, and lives in a nice house, yadda-yadda.
“I noticed you didn’t mention ‘has a nice wife’. Is she the woman that you’re having trouble with?”
“Truthfully, yes. But that wasn’t a very hard of a guess, Peg. I only have three women in my life at the moment. You, the cashier, and my daughter-in-law … the nurdağı escort bayan first two guesses don’t count”. I added the last with a self-deprecating snort.
She could probably sense that I was getting defensive and took a different tact. “What’s your relationship like with your son?”
“Getting better, at least it was. We didn’t speak much about anything except his recovery for a long time. He blames himself for his mother’s death. He said that he had just turned the radio way up and that she was reaching to turn it back down when they were hit. I keep trying to tell him the traffic cams showed the other driver running the red while texting but he thinks that if she hadn’t been looking at the radio she might still have avoided the crash.
“Even though he blames himself, it doesn’t keep him from trying to help me get over her loss. He and Trista are over almost every night. He keeps trying to push me out the door to meet people. I’m sure he means well …”
“But, he should be living his own life and not trying to change mine.”
Peg looked over my shoulder and nodded. “I’ll be right back.” I watched her snag a couple of beers and took them to the booth. She returned with their empties after a brief conversation and then resumed speaking to me as if she hadn’t left. “It sounds to me like he loves you and is only trying to help.”
I snapped at her before I could stop myself. “Don’t you think I know that?” I took another swig of my drink regretting having opened my mouth. “I’m sorry, Peg. I’m just feeling a bit raw at the moment.”
“No worries, Gabe. Go on, you were saying?”
“We used to be close when he was young. He thought I walked on water. I coached his little league team, and the two of us designed and built a treehouse that was nicer than some homes. We always had at least a half dozen of his friends in our yard, playing or doing whatever. Half of them would come to me with their math homework. His mom was always baking them cookies or inviting them to eat dinner with us. She was his homeroom mother every year. You know the mom that organizes all the classroom parties and finds drivers for the field trips. Then when he entered Junior High, she organized a community theater and was trying to start a food bank. The city completed the food bank a year later and the theater was renamed in her honor, the ‘Arleen Helf Community Theater’. Her loss affected far more people than just my son and I.
“Anyway, we both internalized our grief and really haven’t been able to connect since. Not for lack of trying, it’s just that we’re both different people now.”
“You’re still grieving her death too, aren’t you?” Peg asked.
I had to ponder her words for a moment before answering. I realized the question was meant to push me further along the path I had chosen when I walked into the bar. “I don’t think I am, at least not much.” I finally said.
Peg looked disappointed in me, then pulled out a folder labeled ‘Bar Tabs’. I watched as she wrote my name at the top of the first page and then wrote ‘WR $9’ in the left margin. Next to it, she made two hash marks on the same line. After that, she wrote ‘doublers’ on the next line but didn’t put any hash marks next to it. When she was done she simply looked into my eyes, waiting for me to continue.
It took me a few moments to realize that she was telling me that I had just lied to myself. “Okay, I guess I’m still hurting, but not as I had been.” She had seen right through me. “I just haven’t talked about it with anyone for a long time and some of the old wounds reopened.”
“That’s better or at least close to the truth. People never truly get over a loss like that, even if they think they have. It reshapes who you are. You already stated that both you and your son are different people now.”
She set down the glass she had just finished polishing and picked up another while letting me think for a few minutes. Finally, she prompted me with, “So Gabe, tell me about your son’s wife.”
I hadn’t realized I had finished off my drink for a second time until I found myself watching Peg refill my glass. I was grateful for something to concentrate on other than Trista. I was afraid that in my softened state that I would gush like a teenager. I knew that if I had already consumed the third drink I probably would have, so I made a note not to touch it, as well as to try to describe her without sounding like a letch. “Well … she’s an old soul but only twenty-one years old. Peter, met her during his sophomore year of high school. She was only in the eighth grade at the time. The junior high sits next door to the high school and he had to ride his chair past it to get home. He was still relearning how to walk and had to use the chair for any real distances.
“Anyway, I remember the day they met as if it were yesterday. He came in and told me he had met the girl that he was going to marry. escort nurdağı I, of course, assumed he had a crush on some senior cheerleader but I tried not to dismiss his feelings; especially since it was the first conversation we had had since the crash, that didn’t revolve around rehab or household chores. He said that she was cute but that he could tell that she would be beautiful someday, that she was nice, compassionate, funny, and even smart for being so young. He told me that she was the first person that he had met that didn’t want to start a conversation with a ‘can I help you’, or ‘what happened to your legs?”. She told him that she lived near us and asked if she could walk home with him, never once asking about the chair. They became friends and when she started at the high school, her parents allowed them to start dating. They got married the day after she graduated and is working over at First National Savings.”
Peg interrupted. “Gabe, you’re telling me what happened and what Peter thought of her when he met her. What you aren’t telling me, is what you think of her.”
I took a pull on the drink that I was trying not to drink and then looked at Peg shaking my head. “You’re not going to let me skate this by are you?”
“Nope” she replied simply as her smile grew.
“In that case, I might as well drop the bomb. As predicted by my son, Trista grew into a devastatingly beautiful woman with just the right amount of curves in exactly the right places. She’s compassionate, intelligent, witty, full of energy, and even a great cook. What he didn’t predict is that I would fall completely in love with her. Nor did he predict that she had already fallen just as hard for me.” I emptied my glass as Peg looked on in contemplation. There didn’t seem to be any form of judgment on her face, which surprised me. Not many people can handle the thought of a forty-four-year-old being in a relationship with a twenty-one-year-old, especially since the twenty-one-year-old is the forty-four-year-old’s daughter-in-law. I waited several minutes expecting Peg to say something about my robbing the cradle or from the one person that needed me most, my son. She remained silent.
“Aren’t you going to say something judgmental?” I asked after the silence had become uncomfortable.
Peg, smiled gently and shook her head. “It’s not my place to judge you, Gabe. That obligation belongs to God. I’m just here to help you talk through your troubles so that you can decide what path your life will take.” She waited for me to continue for another minute or two but I didn’t know how. “How did it start?” was how she finally prompted me.
I thought about the question and had to try to find an actual starting point, I couldn’t find one so I just shrugged. “When she started coming over, I guess. Even before they had started dating, Trista simply started doing things for me. Nothing big mind you, but any time I asked Peter to do something, Trista would jump up and say that she would do it. It was obvious that she felt comfortable around me, but it took me several months, maybe even a year to suspect that she liked me as much as she did Peter. It was probably at least two years before I was sure. Even then I dismissed it as a crush because I didn’t think that there could be any possibility that a seventeen-year-old could have any feelings for a forty-year-old. Not that it would have made any difference, I was barely getting used to the idea of being without Arleen. Even after I was sure that she liked me, I made sure that I didn’t encourage her.
“Anyway, Peter started encouraging me to date and Trista would look almost pained but would compliment my looks or say how nice I was and that any woman would be lucky to have me. She started saying things like ‘If you see someone you might like, don’t think about it, just go for it’ and ‘you can have any woman you want, just go for it’. That went on for a year or so until she started to shorten her mantra into ‘just go for it’. She started looking me in the eye with a look on her face that any hormonally charged young man would have known meant that she was indicating herself, but she was nearing graduation and the wedding was coming up.
“At the reception, Trista started calling me Daddy. It surprised me but I didn’t say anything at the time and later it just didn’t matter. As soon as they were back from their honeymoon, her hugs started lingering just a little too long, and then she would kiss me on the cheek and say ‘go for it, Daddy’. Sometimes Peter would hear her and assume she was encouraging me to look for a date and therefore add his ‘Yes, go for it, Dad’.
“Six months later I realized that she had never hung on Peter like a woman in love should, so I started observing their interactions a little closer. You’d have to be extremely obtuse not to see that he was and is completely enraptured by her. He dotes on her almost to the point of smothering. His whole life seems to revolve around her. Trista on the other hand seemed very hesitant to express any affection in return. I wondered if it was just that they had started their relationship when she couldn’t really touch him much because of the wheelchair. It didn’t take long to realize that it had nothing to do with the past, it was that Peter just doesn’t ‘do it’ for her.