Ballad / by Frank Morelli

I’ll tell you a story.

About John Grant.

A man who walked into a bar.

He was reeling. Eyes bloodshot. Shirt stained with yellow mush. A trail of snaily slime on the collar and a crumbled mass of orange gunk on a rolled-up sleeve. Probably pumpkin pie. He always ate pumpkin pie. Couldn’t get enough of the stuff. Crammed it down, slice after slice, until he felt sick and never wanted to eat it again. But then he’d have another slice. Then the pie was gone. Then he’d start drinking.

First it’d be beer. Then Beefeater’s, or whatever else was on hand—anything flammable enough to burn them away. The memories. Ones that made him want to scream in a dark hallway, or put his fist through a mirror, or lie flat against the floor and not move until his breaths stopped coming. Memories of her.

When the bottles were dry it’d be to the bar. His second home. Or maybe his first.

Good, old John Grant. They called him Barroom Jack. Created the nickname myself after I poured him a drink on a fiftieth consecutive night.

I said, “Don’t you have some place to be?”

And he said, “No.”

I said, “What about the wife? She wait up?” And he said, “She left. A year ago. Took the kid.” I said, “On account of the drink?”

And he didn’t say anything at first. Just took a deep swallow of his whiskey and looked at his wrist where a watch used to be. Could still see the imprint where the sun had not touched skin for the last eleven years. He loved the watch and he loved her. But he needed the cash.

He said, “You got any pumpkin pie? She made good pumpkin pie.”

I said, “This is a bar, not a bakery.” His eyes flashed silver like frightened minnows when they break the surface of a choppy sea, and suddenly he wasn’t sure if he’d outrun the Kraken rising up from the deep. But the panic showed for that instant alone, and only in the tension of his jaw and the slight pitch of his eyebrows.

He collected himself. Stared down at the wrinkled menu. Ran a finger along the center crease. Traced bubbles in the lamination. Pretended to read about frozen chicken fingers and low-fat quesadillas.

Then he ordered another whiskey with the glass still half full in front of him. As I pour, my reflection stares at me in the spit-shined brass of the beer tap—John Grant—a damp rag in my hand and wet shoes on my feet. Each night I fill the carousel of glasses with rocks. Adorn them with maraschino cherries or flimsy umbrellas. Pour a few fingers of scotch. Think about the good old days. Back before I opened this goddamn place. Before my life was measured in dimes and nickels. Before she made me choose.

What ever made me think they sold pumpkin pie at a place like this? How ridiculous of me.