I met Cliff for a beer at the Brickyard yesterday. That’s a bar on the south side of what would be downtown Olathe, if Olathe actually had a downtown. The Brickyard sits across the street from a tow lot and is conveniently adjoined to a liquor store. There is a thrift store just to the east. Behind it is a rundown apartment building. Cars that were made in the 80’s and 90’s sit parked in front of most of the apartment doors. I wouldn’t say the area is bad, exactly, but it’s definitely working class. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
I could smell stale cigarette smoke even before I got to the front door. It was 2:30 in the afternoon and the place had been open for just an hour. Cliff was already sitting at the far end of the bar when I walked in. He was the only customer. He was wearing his cowboy hat and a sheepskin coat, and he fit right in with the the life-size John Wayne cutout that hung on the wall behind him.
The Brickyard is a private club, and the only reason for that is so people can smoke. Cliff is a member, so when we meet there I am his guest. A membership costs $10 and it is good for a lifetime. I have no plans to buy one. Cliff likes the Brickyard because Leslie tends bar there. She only works on Wednesdays. Cliff likes Leslie because, with just a modicum of coaxing, she will lift up her shirt and show him her boobs. The first time I went there she did this twice, and I have to say her boobs were quite spectacular and worth every penny she paid for them. She was justifiably proud.
As I settled on a stool I saw that a different bartender was working today and Cliff did not look happy. She had me sign in as a guest and, when she went to the back room, I asked Cliff what happened to Leslie. He said she had quit and was working at Tanners now. He thought we should leave and go there, but Tanners is not a place that would appreciate Leslie for her unique approach to customer service, and I was certain if she indulged in any boob-flashing there she would only do it once. So I explained that to Cliff and we decided to stay put.
The new bartender was Leslie’s opposite in just about every respect; plump and short with mousy brown hair and boobs that had started to droop with age. From her face I guessed she was about forty, and from her eyes there was a hint that not all of those years had been easy ones. She wore a black tee-shirt that was a bit too small and jeans that were a bit too tight. From the gap between them the flesh from her waist spilled out over her belt loops, and I thought to myself that it really does look like a muffin top.
We made small-talk with her for a little while. She told us that Olathe was her hometown and she had recently moved back after being out west for several years. She had lived in Nevada mostly, so she and Cliff talked about biker bars and gambling joints they both knew. I didn’t have much to contribute, as my knowledge of Nevada is limited mainly to the Las Vegas Strip, so I just listened. Eventually she tired of us and went to tend to her other duties. Cliff asked me what was new, so I told him that Ginny had died, and an already depressing afternoon went downhill another notch.
Ginny was a co-worker we had both known and liked. She fought a rare form of cancer for two years, but it finally got the better of her. We reminisced with some “Ginny stories” for a respectful time, and then Cliff brought up Rick, another friend and co-worker who had died of cancer last year. Cliff said he admired Rick because he worked right up to the day before he died, approving time cards and doing other mundane job duties. I had not heard that before, and my first thought was that Rick had wasted the last hours of his life. But then I remembered that he would have been weak and bedridden, with no hope of going skydiving or bungee jumping or any of those other ridiculous things that people who are not actually dying think should be on a bucket list, so I thought maybe he did it to occupy his mind, and then it made some sense.
Cliff said he thinks about dying a lot now that he’s retired and doesn’t have a job to divert his attention. It keeps him awake at night sometimes. He believes he is too old to “build anything” new, and waiting to die has become the purpose of his life. It sounded like unhealthy thinking to me, but I might feel the same when I’m sixty-seven. It occurred to me his attitude may hold a clue as to why so many men die soon after retiring, but that was about as far as I got with it.
After a while Cliff went over to the jukebox and put in a $5 bill. It’s one of the new computerized jukeboxes, all digital, like a giant IPod. It is truly a technical marvel, except that today it was not living up to its potential. It played Cliff’s first song and then erased the rest of his credits. Cliff and the new bartender stood in front of it for several minutes pushing buttons, but it came to no avail, so they gave up and she refunded his money. A short time later the jukebox came on by itself and played the rest of his songs. No one could figure out why. It was just that kind of day.