Harper dropped into a stool at the late-night-empty bar in JG’s Pub. The white shirt with tails out under his unbuttoned vest bartender was lost in space listening to Pandora Jacuzzi jazz while he pretended to clean a spotless back bar. Harper almost hated to bring him back. Almost.
“Hey, man.” He waited for the easy greeting to land. “You still have those badass onion rings?”
“Yeah. Same old black woman comes in early every morning when no one’s here.” He hadn’t turned away from the back bar. “Makes her own batter like it’s some kind of NASA secret. With my beer. Cuts the onions too fat. They’re usually gone after lunch.” He glanced up at the clock and over to Harper. “We still got some time to kill on a dead Wednesday night. I’ll go look for you.” He stopped about two thirds of the way down the bar. “Beer?”
“Negra Modelo. Ice cold, no glass.”
The beer slid down the bar and stopped in front of Harper just before the bartender banged through the flapping, spring loaded kitchen doors. A minute later he banged back, wiped the water and ice bits trail from the Modelo off the bar on his way.
“Found some. Dropped them in the fryer for you. Kinda late in the day for rings, bro.”
“Yeah, well…Women. Never a good time, you know?”
“Hell yeah, I know. Everything with a dick and a heartbeat knows.” Open vest and tails out measured Harper for possible pity-me or breakdown potential conversation, couldn’t find any of either. “Not sure what onion rings have to do with that.”
“She’d eat them. Most of them. Like I wasn’t paying attention. All loaded with peppered up ketchup…”
“I get it. Habits. Things you did together. I can’t do carousels. Same reason, mostly.”
“That might be a good thing. Grown men could get arrested riding too many carousels.”
The bartender snorted. “Man, the carousel thing? Goes back a looooong ways. High school long ways.”
“Yeah? Same with the rings. Not that I haven’t eaten my share since then. Ghosts shouldn’t keep you from eating onion rings.” Harper took a long pull on the beer that was so cold it made his teeth scream and scrunched up his face. “I guess we all keep those memory casualties in a jar somewhere, in here.” He tapped the side of his head with his index finger. “Like whatever those things are they bury memories in.”
The bartender knitted his brows, put his hands on the bar.
“No, no. Not those. The cans they can dig up with old newspapers and records and –”
“There it is. You dig them up and you think, well, that maybe you have all the answers about what you’ve kept in that capsule thing. The people. The times. But since you buried it you find out you’ve invented all kinds of shit about everything in there. Built yourself castles out of pieces of dreams.” Harper looked up, found the bartender’s face. “In truth? There they are, real people. With a million stories of their own. But they’re locked up. All that life shit, locked up inside them, just as bad as the time capsule. And here you are, you know, looking for a key to unlock either one and let them out.”
“You talkin’ the pucker-butt people? Because I see enough of that shit every day. Sold off their kid selves and the grownup dreams fucked them?”
“Nope. Talkin’ about the ones who forgot the fairy tale goes on and on, even after the dragons and the pirates and being shipwrecked and heartbroken all left them for dead on a desert island. It’s on and on, man. Till it’s done.”
“They had a choice, bro. Sounds like ‘Little Pink Houses’ advice.” He leaned against the back bar, folded his arms. “You’re on the wrong damn side of the bar for that. Besides, what you’re sayin’? Could be almost everybody.”
“It doesn’t have to be.” A high school kid in a dirty apron set the plate of rings and a ketchup bottle in front of Harper like he was the biggest piece of shit in his universe for getting a dish and the fryer dirty this close to closing, huffed off and banged back through the kitchen doors.
The bartender frowned in the direction of the kitchen, shoved his towel in a glass, set it on the back bar. “So you’re saying ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ has an extra verse nobody’s heard?”
“Like that, yeah. The dragons go on, good and bad. Sometimes you have to put on Sinatra even if you know it’ll make you cry.” Harper deferred on the steaming rings, lazily turned his beer bottle on the bar. “You got Sinatra on Pandora or whatever you’re piping through here?”
“Sinatra’s on the jukebox. That’s my gimmick for this place, jazz standards on the box. If nobody plays it then the overhead shifts back to random shit jazz on Pandora.”
Harper walked over to the fake digital Seeburg, pulled a dollar from the front pocket of his jeans, fed it and punched some buttons.
The bartender waited for him to get comfortable on the stool again. “Choice. Except You’re flyin’ solo, bro. Nobody here for you to dance with.”
“I brought a few with me.” Harper dunked a fat onion ring in a mound of ketchup, took a bite. “You have any pepper?”
The bartender rolled the lights down to where the table candles that hadn’t died yet, under bar lights and the neon jukebox were all that lit the room. A pepper shaker appeared in his hand from somewhere, landed on the bar with a knowing nod. “God bless the child that’s got his own,” he said.