There are three over-sized concrete steps to navigate before I reach the threshold of the doorway that I always trip over. It’s been there every day, just like me, for the past 30 years and I still trip over the same wayward chunk of rubber. This skid-clunk is my trademark. Snickers here, pockets of chuckles there; they blend nicely with the Rolling Stones’ Paint it Black, vibrating from the jukebox.
I try not to take it personally.
Jimbo is playing video poker to my left, and he gurgle-grunts his welcome to me while slurping his beer—probably a Bud Lite draft since the time is 6:00am: the early-bird happy hour is under way. Bud Lite on tap is cheapest buzz in Mug-Z’s. There’s a stale-beer-musk quality to the air, leading me to believe that it’s time, and been time, to clean the taps.
The soles of my Nikes stick to the tile flooring as I make my way toward the bar and the bartender, Frankie. I know it’s Frankie for two reasons: 1) He always works the midnight shift. 2) He’s the only bartender who marinates himself in Obsession cologne― like a cherry in a Manhattan.
My bar stool is the third one from the left. I like it because it’s one of the few with its vinyl seat intact. Others stools I’ve been forced to sit in when mine was occupied were ripped, causing the foam poof out. It’s uncomfortable because when the foam isn’t evenly distributed my butt can’t get a proper grip. Plus, I can’t help but pick at the stuff because it’s there.
Frankie is right in front of me when I sit down: there’s no mistaking the combination of Obsession and Camel cigarettes. For whatever reason, the Camel manufacturers are proud of their tobacco’s “Turkish blend.” In my mind’s eye, the stench is comparable to the olfactory assault of a garbage truck morphing with a gardenia plantation. Frankie chain smokes; one after the other. The gravel (more like pebbles with a sand-chaser, these days) blends with his Jack Daniels voice to create a crunchy gurgle. When his sister stops by to visit, she’ll yell at him about both the cigarettes and the booze. The tears in her voice are loud. Their father died of cancer, as did most of their other deceased relatives. Although one uncle was shot to death—right here in the bar! We’ll never get the real story on that, which is fine.
The chrome arms of the chair are martini-chilled to perfection: the AC is always on full blast during Frankie’s shift. When I finally scoot up to the bar and get situated, Frankie commences to build my breakfast: a Southern Comfort Old Fashioned with extra fruit. I figure that even though the orange slices have likely been in the fruit tray for well-over 20 hours, the possibility exists that they may still contain a dewdrop of Vitamin C, which is beneficial for me.
Frankie’s muddling the cherries, soda, sugar, fruit and bitters now. He’s on the eleventh muffled thump of twenty-seven. A person can screw-up an Old Fashioned if they muddle too much, or not enough. Frankie knows what he’s doing, but I count anyway. I’ve often wondered if Frankie counts his muddles, or if his wrists and hands are on auto-pilot.
So, I lean my elbows on the bar (mother would not be proud) and wait. The person who sat here last must have been drinking Margaritas: my left elbow is sticky and embedded with grainy pellets. Rose’s Lime Juice is the gummiest goo an elbow can encounter in a tavern—especially when it’s half-dried onto the varnished wood.
There’s the ping of the ice cubes tumbling into my glass, then the glug-glug-glug of my Southern Comfort: My insides grow warm and fuzzy with anticipation.
The first sip of the first drink of the day is the best: sweet, cold fire that sets my tongue a-tingling like the Fourth of July sparklers of my childhood—before the accident that blasted my brother’s arm into the air and smoldered my world black.