A Closing Conversation
“See ‘ya tomorrow sweetie!”, Gina said. Heck held up his right hand in a wave gesture without turning around. The alley door closed behind him, then he turned around to lock it with his key and faded into the downtown setting sun.
It was 45 minutes past closing time, which meant it was 7:45. Most bars, pubs and taverns keep later hours, but Heck’s business was only open 8 hours a day (11:00-7:00). They served a pretty hefty lunch crowd and then the day drinkers start trickling in. Of course, the doctors, nurses and staff at Children’s Hospital make their appearances as well… after a stressful shift. It’s known to the RN’s affectionately as “The Recovery Room”.
Maddie was finishing a text message and then slid the phone into her back pocket. “I just cancelled my date, I’m not in the mood for a late dinner, drinks and pretentious conversation. Besides, I’m just too fucking tired to be polite”
“Girl, that’s the third date you’ve broken in the month I’ve known you”, Gina said while rolling her eyes.
“I know right? It’s like I just don’t have the desire to date, or maybe I’m just not impressed with anyone these days. Is that normal?”
“Maddie, if you’re looking for dating advice… you’re asking the wrong person”, and then they both laughed while each wiping down tables adjacent to each other.
Gina started mouthing the words, “We’re closed” and this caused Maddie to turn around in time to see two millennials in slim-fitting suits pulling on the door.
“Oh shit… I forgot to turn off the sign. Damn it!”, Maddie blurted.
Holding her forearm up like a fullback shucking a tackler, she hustled through the swinging doors that separated the kitchen and office from the bar. She opened the electrical panel and promptly flipped the breaker where a red permanent maker had it identified as “- SIGN”. The task complete, Maddie returned to the bar area.
“I need a good glass of wine”, Maddie said.
“No honey… what you need is a good drink. And I’m pouring. Kill those other lights… we’re done. Jameson on the rocks okay with you?”
“Oooh… I feel important when the boss asks me to have a real drink with her.”
Gina rolled her eyes once more, “I don’t think of myself as anybody’s boss. I’ve been the so-called ‘Boss’ since Heck bought the joint 6 years ago.”
Gina pulled two glasses and dug the scoop deep into the ice bin. She turned around and tried to locate the Jameson, but it was difficult to find in low light. “God, I love the sound of ice dropping into glass… does that make me an alcoholic?”
They both laughed and Maddie said, “I’ve heard Heck say the same thing!”
“Well, I probably stole that line from him”, Gina said as she started to pour the Irish Whiskey over the ice. “Say when.”
“When!”, Maddie chirped, but Gina disregarded and filled it full.
“If we do this right, we’re gonna need Uber”, Gina said.
“So, Heck won’t mind us drinking the inventory?”, Maddie asked as she raised her glass.
“Nah… he’s cool like that. Besides, it’s a perk of being the sole manager of NC’s for the last 6 years!”
“That reminds me… Oh shit that’s strong”, Maddie placed the glass on a napkin and grimaced as Gina scrunched her nose and smiled at her. “That reminds me, I wanted to ask Heck if he named the place because of his ex-wife… but I wasn’t sure if it was something I should bring up.”
“You mean you don’t know the story behind it?”, Gina asked.
“Well I assume it was because of an ex or something. I mean he’s not married anymore right?”
“Oh no honey… he’s enjoying living too much to go down that road again.”, said Gina.
They both raised their glass and toasted to that comment. It was getting darker out, but it wasn’t quite nighttime yet. Darkness wouldn’t fall on this June evening for at least another 10 to 15 minutes.
“Yeah… he does seem like he has his shit together. Now that’s someone I wouldn’t break a date with. I mean I know he’s older and my boss and everything, but he’s gorgeous… has his shit together and has an amazing sense of humor. I’m not too sure about his name though… that may have to be worked on”, Maddie chuckled.
Gina patted Maddie on the top of her hand, then pulled out a cigarette. “Girl… you may be too old for him!” They laughed again. “You know, he didn’t always have his shit together? If you had met him 7 years ago, you wouldn’t recognize him today.” Gina lit the cigarette and handed it to Maddie, who took a drag and promptly handed it back.
“Do tell”, she almost whispered, as though it was backroom gossip.
“Well his first name is Arthur, but he’s gone by ‘Heck’ since he was a boy. His mother taught high school English and thought ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ was second only to The Bible. He was actually named after Arthur “Boo” Radley. But his dad never agreed with the name… and started calling him Heck.”
“What the living f…”, Maddie tried to get it out but Gina kept talking.
“Heck Tate was another character in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, I think he was the judge or sheriff or something. Anyhow… he’s gone by ‘Heck’ since he was in little league baseball. He’s about 8 years older than me, but my oldest brother played football with him in high school.”
“Was he cute then too?”
“Oh yeah… and a piece of shit player too. But all that changed when he met Deb”, Gina answered.
“So, this place isn’t named after his ex-wife after all then?”
“Well technically Deb was never an ex, although that was potentially down the line I guess. You see… Heck worked out of town a lot back in those days. He was on a business trip up in Cincinnati when he got the call. Deb had been killed in a drunk driving accident.”
“Oh my God, that’s awful. She was drinking?”
“Uh… probably… but the guy she was having an affair with was definitely drunk when he plowed his car into a concrete overpass on I-65 at 2:00 am. She wasn’t wearing her seat belt. It was rumored that she was taking care of business while he drove, but I don’t know that for sure. They both died instantly.”
“Oh wow… did Heck know about the affair?”, Maddie asked as she cupped her hands around the glass and took another drink. This time she didn’t grimace.
“He knew their marriage wasn’t exactly a picture of romance, but he had no idea it had come to that. He took it pretty hard. Actually, that’s an understatement. He took it to a whole ‘nother level!”
Gina was a two-fisted drinker and could hold her liquor as well as most men. She poured once more into her empty glass, not adding fresh ice this time. She tilted the bottle toward Maddie’s glass, who waved it off. Maddie was not in Gina’s drinking class. Gina took a drink and crunched a half-melted piece of ice that managed to sneak into her sip.
“He was a Regional VP of sales for some company based out of Georgia. They gave him the usual bereavement time and he took some vacation time as well. But I don’t think Heck ever had any intention of going back to work. I think he was hell bent on self-destruction.”
“Well, I can’t say I’d blame him. That’s some crazy shit right there.”
“Maddie, you don’t understand… he was a completely different person. He drank morning, noon and night. He dropped weight, his cheek bones were sunken, he was a shell of what he was before and what he is now. We begged him to go to counseling, go to church… anything we could think of. We just knew without help, he was going to wind up dead. Either he was gonna drink himself to death or point a pistol the wrong direction. It was just a matter of time.”
“Did he quit his job?”, Maddie asked.
“Oh, hell no… they fired his ass. I mean he quit his job in the sense of he quit working… showed up drunk when he did go into the office, but they fired him about 6 weeks after the accident.”
“After they fired him, he opened up this place I guess?”
“Not exactly. He was going through the life insurance payout on Deb like a hot knife through butter. He’d run up two-hundred-dollar bar tabs at bars all over town. Not to mention without a cash flow coming in, he was paying the mortgage, utilities and all his credit card bills that she ran up before the accident.”
“I mean how… how do you come back from something like that?”, Maddie said… and said it more as a statement than a question. “This place is the dopest pub downtown. If he’d ever stay open later like the rest of the bars, he’d make a killing!”
“Oh, I know… but this place brings in enough that he doesn’t have to mess around with late hours. You may not be old enough to remember, but this place use to be called Ham’s Pub. It was okay. It did a decent business, but nothing like what it does now. Heck took out the two pool tables to make room for more dining. Ham’s really didn’t have a lunch crowd. The doctor’s and RN’s didn’t give a loyal business to Ham’s like they do here now. Most of their business came after 9:00 pm. Anyhow, Heck knew the owner. I’m not sure how they knew each other, but they were semi-friends.”
Maddie pulled a cigarette out and lit it. She pulled another out and handed it to Gina. She also slid her glass toward the bottle after taking one last gulp. Gina filled it with ice and poured once gain. Maddie giggled and said, “God, you’ve got me chain-smoking and gulping whiskey… you’re a bad influence girl!”
“One night, Heck really tied one on. I mean he actually passed out at the bar, face down on the counter with his ass still on the stool. I heard he had been mixing pain pills with Maker’s Mark and it just wasted him that night. The management staff called the owner, and they decided to pull him into the office with a blanket. Everybody liked Heck. No one wanted to see him dead or in jail. We all wanted him to get help. They moved his Lexus to the parking deck over at Children’s so it wouldn’t get towed from the night time parking area the following morning.”
Gina paused to sip her drink. The air conditioning unit stopped running. With no crowd noise and the humming of the air conditioner silent, it was eerily quiet. Maddie was hanging on every word at this point. She had often wondered about Heck… but in the single month she’d worked there, she had learned absolutely nothing about his personal life.
The closest thing to getting personal was when Maddie asked why it seemed “Moving Out” by Billy Joel seemed to be played daily on the jukebox when the afternoon crowd wandered over from Children’s Hospital. No matter what was on the TV, or what was being served by the staff, everyone always stopped what they were doing to sing one line out loud… to the top of their lungs. “He works at Mr. Cacciatore’s down on Sullivan street – Across from the Medical Center!”
Gina continued on, “So Heck wakes up the next morning and finds a bar tab receipt on top of his shoes, which they had taken off for him. At the bottom of the receipt it said, ‘Moved your car to parking deck – Jim will be in at 9:00 to let you out’. So Jim, the owner comes and lets Heck out, gives him a pep talk about getting his shit together, but has no idea where the staff moved his car. Heck is wandering the bottom level then makes his way to the crosswalk. That’s where he met Kara Lynn.”
“Ah… the ex?”, Maddie asked as she swallowed more Jameson. She had apparently acquired a taste for Irish Whiskey in record time.
“Not at all. Kara Lynn… two words spelled with a ‘K’. Kara was only 11, but smart as a whip and very mature. She’s the only person I know who wasn’t intimidated by Heck. She absolutely adored him from the start.”
“Don’t tell me any creepy shit!”, Maddie interrupted.
“It’s nothing like that. I mean I’m sure she had a girly crush on him like most girls do at that point just before or at the onset of puberty. She had lost all her hair from chemo, and sometimes wheeled herself to the crosswalk before one of the nurses lassoed her back to the ward. Anyhow… so his head was hurting, he couldn’t find his car… and here’s this kid asking him if he was looking for a black Lexus.
Heck said, ‘Yeah… how’d you know?”
“Because it’s my hobby. I check out the cars on the upper decks and study y’all as you come across the crosswalk. I’m right a lot more than I’m wrong. I had you pegged for the Lexus or the Dodge Caravan with the plastic bag and duct-tape over the side window. It was a toss-up”, Kara Lynn replied.
“Well where’s my Lexus at then?”, Heck asked her.
“It’s parked 3 spaces down from the Caravan, close the the Level 2 elevator. You can thank me later… I’m Kara Lynn.”
“Well thank you Carolyn… that’s most helpful. I’m Heck”, he said.
“My name is Kara Lynn with a ‘K’… two separate names. My name is not Carolyn!”
“Your name is ‘Not Carolyn’? Gotcha… thanks ‘Not Carolyn’, I was about to give up and call a cab.”
“Well you probably should trade the Lexus in on a truck… it’d be more your style. And what the heck kinda name is Heck?”, Kara Lynn giggled as Heck waved and attempted a smile.
“Then Heck went to his car and drove home and started another binge”, Gina added.
“Heck was surely trying to kill himself. It was a slow suicide though. He was probably on the verge of it when he got a random message on a social media account. He had not read an email or checked a message in months… so why he checked this message when his phone dinged… is anybody’s guess.”
“IN DIRE NEED OF CHEESEBURGER AND FRIES – EMERGENCY! – KARA LYNN (NOT CAROLYN)”
“He was probably drunk, but I guess he felt he owed her a favor for helping find his car. He drove up to Children’s Hospital and brought her a big juicy burger from Five Guys… and a bag full of fries too. When Heck asked her how on Earth she found him on Facebook, she chuckled and said, ‘There aren’t exactly a lot of Heck’s out there!’ Like I said, she was bright beyond her years. She was already an old soul”, Gina explained.
“This is starting to make soooo much sense now”, Maddie said. “Where were her parents?”
“Turns out, Kara Lynn’s dad had overdosed on heroin the year before and her mom was a meth addict and had lost custody. Her grandparents had custody and they were pretty old. Kara’s Leukemia had her pretty much living at Children’s by this point. Heck went there every day for the next month. He got into this habit of stopping at the gift shop and always buying a stuffed pig. They had them in so many different colors… they probably still have some… if he didn’t buy them all. It was kind of a joke I guess. There were probably 25 or 30 of them throughout her hospital room. Heck would usually show up in the late afternoon and stay into the evening. Kara Lynn asked him to never work a job at night, because she liked him being there in the evening. That’s actually how a lot of the nursing staff and doctors first got to know Heck. He’d always pretend to be sober, but Kara knew. It’s like she had this sixth sense when it came to Heck. It’s kinda crazy though. Here is this little girl fighting so hard for life and there’s Heck, trying so hard to end his. Really ironic don’t ya think?”
“Oh wow, so that’s why he never keeps the place open late? And the pig thing, is that why there’s a box of pigs in his office?”, Maddie asked.
“Have you noticed that certain people or couples come in here for lunch with one of those pigs?”, Gina asked back.
“Yeah, there was one yesterday… and two last week I think.”
“Those pigs are given to parents of patients by the nurses. The families that aren’t well off usually… but not always. The RN’s know that sometimes parents need a good meal other than hospital food or sometimes they may even need a stiff drink. Anytime someone brings in a pig… everything’s on the house.”
“That’s so beautiful. I’m crying. What about Kara Lynn? Is she in remission now?”, Maddie asked.
“No… she passed away about a month after Heck started coming to see her. Heck lost it. But not in the same way he did before. He sobered up and got his proverbial ‘shit together’. When he heard that the owner’s of Ham’s were selling and moving to Florida, he took what was left of the insurance payout… and bought this place. He still drinks on occasion but he hasn’t been drunk once since he opened NC’s. He even traded his Lexus on a pick-up truck.”
“Kara Lynn’s passing… it changed him… I mean it basically saved him?”, Maddie both asked and confirmed at the same time.
“No doubt. He would not be here today had it not been for that feisty little girl. He loved her like nobody’s business… and it changed him profoundly. You know… he told me something that I’ve never shared with anyone else who works here. You know… the nurses called Heck when Kara took a turn for the worse. They actually called him before the grandparents… at Kara’s request. Heck told me his last visit with Kara Lynn… she made him promise that he’d live. That he would clean himself up and LIVE. He told me he gave his word to this little girl and Heck’s as good as his word. Even when he was a raging alcoholic… he might have lost some dignity… but he never lost his integrity or his word. Heck was with her when she passed.”
Maddie removed a napkin from the holder and patted the slow rolling tears from both cheeks. “Oh my God that is a beautiful story. I was hoping you were gonna tell me something that made me like him less, and now I just love him to death!”
They both smiled. Gina pulled a napkin as well… blotting a rogue tear traversing down her own cheek. They each swallowed the last of their Jameson, dunked their glasses into the bar sink and headed out the door. As Gina locked the door, Maddie turned around and looked up at the darkened sign and smiled.
“Not Carolyn’s Daytime Tavern”, it read.