Friday Nights at Bumble’s

photo by Tony Brock

(Photo credit: Tony Brock; Source: spitafieldslife.com)

It’s been Maggie, Carny, Irv and me, Livia, every Friday night from almost the start, but maybe that’s the problem. Going on twenty years, believe it or not, meeting at Bumble’s Bar and Grill. Maybe it’s the rain that’s helped drive us there. But back then Irv could still hear and see great. Maggie was barely into her twenties. She had a spirit that could knock you off your feet, lively and smart, a joke readied for any occasion. Now she listens more and fusses over her miniature dog like it’s–pardon me–she’s royal, feeding it chopped liver and boiled potatoes or whatever it is now. Miss Molly’s her name. Would that I were Miss Molly; I’d  never want for anything. Don’t get me wrong, I like pets well enough and have had a few. But now I have “late-onset allergies” the doc said. It seems the specter of aging is trying to hunt and hog-tie me. So far I’ve run faster. But a shaggy dog or cat might do me in right now.

Carny was the only one new to town. He was the sort of man who might bring you lunch and a rose at work because it was Monday. He smoked a pipe and was more quiet than I expected. He said there was too much talking when he was a travelling salesman. And he had a complicated name when he arrived: Sebastian Leonard Pettingrove. He went by Lenny but we already had two of those at Bumble’s so that had to change.

So when I noticed he started complaints with, “I tell you, life–what a circus!”, I nicknamed him Carny.

“What? Why carnivals? I don’t like carnivals, never have. A circus is another thing but too much going on in too many rings. Carnivals are for kids, aren’t they.” He had a habit of making firm statements.

I was embarrassed. He was a well-made man, barrel chest and square shoulders. He had the brightest eyes, a graying head of hair. His cap was perfect; it rarely came off. Well, sometimes  it did but that came much later. Right then it was all I could handle to  look him straight in the face for more than a second or two.

“Well, I don’t much, either, but I can’t very well call you ‘Circ’, now, can I? Would you rather Sebastian, then?”

His wide brow wrinkled as his eyebrows shot up. I thought I’d made a mess of it but Irv and Maggie backed me up, saying it suited him, lightened things up.

“Okay, I’ll take that. Sort of silly but…maybe that’s good!”

He ordered me a fancy drink. I felt redeemed.

“You should set a wedding date right away.” That was Irv for you.

“Why would you say that?” Maggie chimed in. “You’re going to scare him away when he needs good friends. Right, Livia?” She had a fresh-faced guy at her side then and he rolled his eyes at us. He didn’t get Irv at all, which was a fatal flaw. “But Irv is a professional so he might have a point.”

Carny was puffing on his pipe and glanced the other way, as if he wished there was another table but it was crowded. We didn’t know then that this was the last thing he’d want to hear. He turned back to us, blew a couple soft puffs of smoke up to the rafters.

“If you can take a teasing at the start about name like that, you’re likely suited.” He sipped his steaming coffee with eyes closed, as though it was the best cup ever. Later, before I took him home, he’d have one beer. He was a man of moderation except for sharing good will.

Irv was the unofficial matchmaker of the town. Everyone said he made a better plumber by far but he had called thirteen marriages in nearly twenty years so he had the right to weigh in. Ten held so far. He loved doing it. He had never married, though. Said he’d gotten close enough to it through matchmaking.

Love from a distance, I thought, has its points.

“But when you see two people who are good for each other and it all works it feels like you’ve done right, you did a good deed. But when it doesn’t work out, that’s a sad day for all. Nobody wants a wounded heart.” He spit into his glass discreetly. “Besides, never knew a woman who liked chewing tobacco. I use it to focus sometimes, like when I’m caught way under a sink, trying to not think about when it was last cleaned.” He shrugged. “But you know, fixing a bad pipe is good. I like making things better for others.”

True. You could count on him to warm up a room just by saying hello. He stopped to talk to strangers, never left a person unnoticed. Carny saw right off that he didn’t let the night end on a sour note.

“It’s a talent to be so optimistic. The man is generous with kind words, Livia.”

We were finishing dinner at my place. I thought Carny was a smart man but I had other things on my mind. He’d been around for two or three months by then.

“Irv was a friend of my pop’s before he passed, and after that he came by and asked if he could join my group. ‘What group?’ I said. ‘Whoever finds a chair fits in here. Besides’, I told him, ‘it’d  be our honor.’ Irv took the place he liked, his back to the wall so he could see the action.”

Carny helped me with the dishes and gave me a hug when he left.  Irv’s magic was working. But it turned out that Carny still had to get his divorce papers. It all worked itself out like Irv predicted, two years later.

Much is different now. Can’t help but be, I guess. Time does things to people. Maggie got sick with a painful nerve problem and had to quit waitressing. Irv is going deaf and doesn’t match make often–it’s an old art, fading fast. And Carny’s touchy lately, daily. Turns out he’s got wanderlust. He can’t decide if he wants to travel around a bit on his own or wait until I retire. I have my factory job supervising a bunch of people. Work and I were made for each other. Maybe Carny is just restless. A change of pace, new scenery might do him good.

But will he really come back? I miss him thinking of even a small trip. I get a tug when he walks by, and a shiver when he stares out the window.

I do know what he’s feeling. I feel it, too. The shortening of time, like I’m accordioned by it, squeezed by each minute and can’t shake loose. I want to stretch life out, make it all last longer. I want more surprises than the usual.

These Friday nights, see, are so alike. Same people stopping by to join us, rotating weekly specials that cost too much. Same ole talk. The various kinds of rain. What the neighbors are up to. What the cost of even chicken is these days. And was I still thinking of putting that incompetent (and nameless) employee on notice? Too, the crowds are getting rowdier at Bumble’s since several houses were made into rentals for college kids. Sometimes I like the bustle. Others, it goes against my grain.

But Maggie called me last night. Irv is turning seventy-seven this Friday, four days before I turn fifty-six. We celebrate it every year together at Bumble’s.

“Do you think he’s up for a party?” she asked.

“Of course he is.”

“He’s seemed distant lately; spacy is a better word. He’s more forgetful. It worries me. Maybe all the people and activity are getting to be too much.”

“He’s almost eighty! If Irv forgets occasionally, he deserves that much. Hopefully he recalls the best of things. Does he seem bothered by forgetting? Has it caused him trouble yet? No.”

There was a long pause. “You don’t have to get snappy, Livia. I want to do what’s right for you both. I’ve been your friends a long, long while.”

I could hear the hurt. And I felt that feeling again, as though time was catching up to us and making life harder for all. “Please, let’s plan it as always. You get the balloons or cupcakes and I’ll get flowers. Carny will do something, not sure what.”

We assembled at seven, just as wind-driven rain slammed the place. The owner and all the regulars pulled up chairs. There were German chocolate, red velvet and plain white cupcakes with single candles on Irv’s and mine, all courtesy of Maggie. Balloons were bouncing off the ceilings, green and gold ones. My orange and yellow mums and zinnias were festive.

Irv stood up and got his speech out of the way.

“I’ve said it every year: being this age isn’t much different from being twenty or thirty except I’ve lived a lot longer and have the good and bad stories to prove it. Stick around for the stories later.” He enjoyed the cheers and applause, then sat.

I raised my glass. “I’m going to quit celebrating birthdays the year I retire. But one more time, thanks for hanging out with me the last twelve months!”

Someone said that would be the day I’d need a funeral since I was a workaholic. That wasn’t news. Everyone grabbed a cupcake before they remembered to sing “Happy Birthday”. Irv’s candle sputtered a little, then went out before he blew on it.

Then Carny stood up. He took off his cap–that made me nervous.  He stood up tall. He cut a figure even in his old blue sweater and baggy jeans.

“I could think of nothing to get you two, sorry, and I ran out of time.” He made a sad face. “Life–what a circus it can be…”

There were groans and a few chortles.

“Instead, I thought how I hated being a salesman, even making great money. Then after I left a failed marriage and that job and moved here for some peace you all welcomed me right away. And how you, Irv, helped me get a decent office position that lasted until I retired last year. You had faith in me when you didn’t even know me long. You’ve been a true friend.” He cleared his throat. “And you’ve all shared your good company every Friday with me. Maggie, how often have you taken us to fabulous church potlucks or, even better, trusted me to walk Miss Molly? We’ve had good morning phone chats since you’ve been at home. You remember all the little things in life.”

“Okay, okay, get on with it, Carny,” someone called out, but was shushed.

I sat riveted to my seat, heart all revved up. Was he going to announce he was heading out on an adventure? Was he going to forget it was my birthday as well as Irv’s?

“And Livia.” His grin reached right inside me. “How you changed my life. Not just my routines. Not just things like making me get exercise or buying me good music or saying the right things when I’m a bit low. No, with you I just want to be a much  better person.”

I thought I’d faint. It was pretty personal. I knew he loved me. But what was he was going to do?

He pulled an envelope out of his pocket and looked at Irv, Maggie and me. He waved it around like a thing for all to admire, then handed it to me. No one said a word.

I opened the envelope with trembling hands, pulled out the contents and laid them on the table. My mouth fell open. There was a collective gasp when I held them up.

I stood up. “What have you done, Carny?” I could barely see him through the flood of tears. “Four plane tickets to Hawaii! Are you nuts? You’re blowing your wad on us all?”

“Yeah, so much for travel on a shoestring. I want to have a good adventure with my friends and girl at least once.”

He scooped me up in an embrace. The pub was buzzing and a few pounded the tables to draw more attention.

Irv’s eyes were round as the mums. He kept shaking his head, a funny smile overtaking his wrinkled face. I knew he’d heard it all. And I knew he’d always wanted to go to the islands.

Maggie? She said she’d have to think it over, but unless Miss Molly could come, too, maybe her aunt could take her for a week. And then, shocking the whole place even more she let out a small but deliriously happy scream.

What a gift, that my Carny knows just how to relieve a little boredom, shake up the fates. And when we get back Bumble’s will be here, same as ever.

(This photo prompt was shared on www.particiaannmcnair.com.)

Morning Walk

Irvington walk 2-12 042Benjamin had resolved to not look at the sidewalks and ground so much. His mother reminded him daily. He had the habit of examining a tiny alteration in the sidewalk or the curve of downy feather, a twig that had been snapped by others’ feet and now lay forlorn. He admired stones. He saw things others did  not, in fact, whether it was a last starling gathering up steam for the group gossip or the muddy tip of a grey cat’s tail as it slunk home after a night of stealth and thrills.

He wanted to keep the neighborhood clean, too. It was like a hobby, picking up shards of broken glass or a dropped business card, the pamphlet that never made it into a mailbox, the lost sock of a toddler. He thought about the sock a bit. It was late September and he imagined a chubby pink foot turning pale then bluish as the parent, innocent but carelessly so, rushed the stroller back home. Only then would the loss become apparent. So the blue and white striped sock went into a box, one of many where he stored all finds until his mother sneaked in and tossed some of it. She didn’t fully support Benjamin’s need to collect oddities, remnants and cast-offs. He didn’t like her invasion of his space.

“Why do you think nature casts them off?” his sister, Vi, asked impatiently. “Nature sheds feathers, leaves, dandelion fluff and so on when they aren’t useful. They aren’t special! People do the same, of course, but no, you have to pick up what they just let go.”

Benjamin gave her his best superior look which wasn’t hard since she was just eleven and he was going to be thirteen in two days. He knew he was not like other kids. How could he not? He carried a toad around in his jacket pocket when he was four and named it T. Troll. The preschool teacher who discovered T. Troll (T. for Ted but no one asked) found Benjamin smart and sweet, but thought it alarming that he had this relationship with a toad. Talked to named toad often, and knew many things about it she did not. His father told him this story when Benjamin skipped second grade. He was appreciated by a handful but bullied or tolerated more often. Ninth grade was not likely to be any more pleasant than all the others. Perhaps less.

Meantime, it was an ordinary Wednesday morning. He was passing the Gunderson house on his route to the bus stop when he first spotted the beer bottle. He stopped and examined it but didn’t touch it. It was a brand his parents didn’t drink, likely one of the local microbrews the city loved to boast about. He didn’t, as a general rule, take home bottles unless they were unusual or he planned on throwing them away. He had only ten minutes to get to the bus. He glanced at the big house. It took up the whole corner on the south side of the street. Mr. Gunderson was a doctor and he was fussy about his yard. Benjamin found it disconcerting to let it clutter up the grass but he went on.

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On Thursday morning he was studying a slug making its painstaking way to the Gunderson’s fence when he stole a glance at the spot where the bottle had been. It was undisturbed. He bent over it, admired the colorful label and wondered if there might be a way to peel it off but the bottle was none too clean. That was going too far. He readjusted his backpack and ran to the bus stop. He thought about that bottle all day, why it was still there, who had dropped it, if it had beer in it. Who in the neighborhood enjoyed a beer only to toss the empty on grass? Well, moss to be technically correct. It had to be a passerby but not a homeless one; they found and kept them.

Friday was his birthday and arrived sunny and clear; leaving for school felt like good for once. He had tentatively made a friend the day before, a new guy from England who liked math as he did and cycling and, best of all, amphibians and insects. Benjamin didn’t cycle much but he was willing to if needed. He had hope for the first time that the year might be okay.

As he neared the Gunderson’s he hurried, the paused. The bottle had not budged. No one else had thought to remove it. He thought it was time to take action so he picked it up and peered inside, the sour smell of beer wafting up his nose, His upper lip curled. This was what kids at school often talked about, how alcohol made all the difference. He had even been asked to a beer party by the joker behind him in biology but he’d declined. The kid laughed, relieved. The being asked was what counted he supposed; he was the youngest in ninth grade.

But what if? Benjamin wondered. What if he went and a beer was offered and he was the only one who had never drunk a beer? Not even tasted one? They would be able to tell by the way he hesitated. And then they would make him drink it and the nasty stuff would spill on his shirt, maybe make him sick. He didn’t drink because he was not allowed. It wasn’t that he always did what he was told. But it seemed reasonable to him. He could have a drink when twenty-one. He had other things to do until then.

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But he stood there and felt the morning sunshine and heard the wind in the high branches so he wiped the mouth of the bottle, put the bottle to his lips, let cool drops of beer roll onto his tongue. He spit it out. It tasted ten percent less than terrible and nothing to be excited about. He was about to toss the bottle when he caught sight of someone at the brick wall of the Gunderson place.

“Benjamin, I can’t believe you drank that.” Mr. Gunderson cast a large shadow with his six foot, two-inch frame.

“Oh, no sir,  just found the bottle, and then, well…”

“Not so good, huh?”

Benjamin stood up taller and lifted his eyes to the man’s head. “No. Not good at all.”

“That’s what I like to hear. You may learn to appreciate it as an adult. Or not. Hand that over so I can get rid of it. I’ve been meaning to put it in the trash. And better eat a mint on your way to school.”

Benjamin picked up the bottle and gave it a toss; it landed right in Mr. Gunderson’s hands and he smiled.

“Have a good year, Benjamin. I expect great things from you one day. Tell your dad I said so. Don’t worry, I won’t tell. You all should come for dinner.”

“Yes, sir.”

Benjamin watched him amble across the yard and disappear. He wondered if it was possible to retrieve the bottle later. Keep it as a souvenir. If his potentially new friend asked him if he had ever tasted beer, he could say yes. He would pull it out of his closet and show him. On the other hand, it sure stunk. Benjamin took off down the street at a gallop. He didn’t want to be late.

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