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Closing Time
By Paul Skenazy

He was Sol. She was Madge.  Her husband was Phil, with a smile, who worked the bar where Sol came every night to drink, next to Madge's diner where he ate. “Madge & Phil’s: Eat, Drink, Linger”--one neon sign across the two separate doorways. He'd usually start his night with a burger and fries or BLT in the diner, shift over to the bar for three or four hours and end it back at the diner with toast, maybe eggs and sausage.  Morning by then:  one a.m. when Madge and Phil would close up, put on their jackets and walk off together to their car, parked behind the grocery a block away. Phil would have his arm around Madge’s waist, both of them tall and broad, both swaying from side to side as they walked, their hips touching and separating so when Sol turned to look he’d see the street light flicker between their heavy bodies. Sol headed in the other direction, to the apartment he called home, and one more bourbon from the bottle that always stood on his bedside table.

It went on like that, night after night, year after year. Every night but Mondays and the two weeks in February when Madge and Phil visited friends in Florida and closed up, or when Sol was sick and stayed home nursing himself with hot toddies. Madge would be there with a pat on the shoulder when he came in, ready to help him off with his coat, hang it up, and take his order. Phil would have his first drink poured and waiting for him when he walked through the swinging door to spend his time in the bar. He never talked much, they never asked much.  They noticed the weather, told him about a special on the menu, wondered together who’d win an election or the pennant. Phil followed the horses and tried to get him interested, but he just shrugged and couldn’t quite understand the excitement of the races themselves, let alone the odds and betting systems. But there was always a stat sheet or two around the barroom and some talk with a regular about the odds. Madge and Phil never asked Sol what he did, so he never told them about his job. It didn’t seem to matter to them or him that he woke at seven each morning, went to his bank, stood behind the counter and smiled at people while they instructed him to put money into one account, take it from another. He had his regulars too, a few of them. Like the woman with the wisps of white hair and her silver cane who came each Thursday when they opened with her weekly checks from her son:  “I love that way you count with the bills folded between your fingers. You’ll have to teach me that sometime,” she’d say, every time.  And the teenage girl who puffed impatiently through her nose, with her deposit slips filled out and her checks signed. And the other faces he registered, week after week, who must have recognized him, though they passed across each other’s days without a nod.  He never asked Madge and Phil about themselves either, though over the years he listened as Madge told someone about growing up in Georgia, which accounted for the soft slur he’d sometimes hear in her voice; or he’d overhear Phil brag that he put himself through college behind a bar is how he learned to pour a hearty shot’s worth of liquor without measuring.

Sol had his own tables:  a small one with two chairs in the front window at the diner, and a little round one in the darkest corner of the bar. He’d carry a newspaper in with him sometimes, but mostly he just sat, stared, moved the salt and pepper shakers or napkin holder this way and that if he felt fidgety. Phil had three TVs always going in the bar. Mostly sports, at least the busy hours, when the bar would fill with groups of young guys—young to all three of them at least—after work.  And when Phil got himself some flat screens there were the couples who’d come in to watch a playoff game—girls who knew more about tackle slants and cross dribbles than Sol would ever understand.   Sol would look up occasionally after a yell, watch the replay, then turn back to his beer and bourbon, sitting quietly.  The first year or so he’d get up when Phil called “Last round,” carry his glasses over to the bar, pay his tab, nod goodnight to Phil and leave through the bar. Until one night when Phil held his hand up in that way we read as protection, or resistance, poured him a short shot, and said, “Stick around.” So he did, and that was that. When Phil switched to the news channels and started wiping down the bar, Sol got up, got the broom from where it leaned against the far wall, and started to sweep. Phil came behind him with another cloth, stopped him, and said, “Table tops first.” That was all that passed between them for invitation or instruction. From then on, Sol knew what to do.  While the drone of the announcers went on overhead, accompanied by fires, weather reports, sports highlights or politician’s faces, he helped Phil clean the tables, stack the chairs, sweep the floor.  Then the two of them moved back through the doorway to the diner, where Madge joined them at the counter for a late snack.  By that time, she’d finished her own cleaning and stacking with one of the sequence of waitresses and cooks she hired over the years. She’d be waiting with food in the warmer, and Sol ate what she laid out for him. Phil brought her a brandy, and a pint of Guinness for himself. After they closed the door, Madge’d raise herself on her toes to kiss Sol lightly on his right cheek, Phil would offer a handshake, and they would go their separate ways.  


When he stopped drinking one November, Sol disappeared without a word. Madge kept the RESERVED sign on his table for a couple weeks, then put it away and let whoever wanted sit there. Phil asked a couple regulars if they knew anything about Sol, but few of them remembered him at all, or just as the guy in the corner who nursed his drinks for hours.

It was three months later, a week after they returned from their annual trip to Florida, that Sol showed up again, a shy smile on his face. Madge gave him a hug and rushed him into the bar for Phil to see before she let him sit down.

“I’m sober. AA. Screwing up at work. Odd looks when I’d count wrong, mess up the figures. That’s not me. My nightcap at home turned into two or three. More.”

A pause, as if trying to decide something.

“It got lonely watching the two of you going off together every night.”
Quiet.

“I took time off. AA helps. Here to tell you, apologize, thank you. Bunch of steps at once.”

They smiled. Said they were glad to see him, sober or not. Said they missed him. Said they were happy he did what he had to for himself. He nodded back, squeezed Madge’s hand when she offered it, bent over and gave her a kiss on her cheek and said he’d love one of her burgers and fries if she didn’t mind. 

It was on the house that night. He started coming in again, first one, then two or three times a week. Sometimes before his AA meetings, for a sandwich, sometimes after, just for a cookie and a glass of milk, which he discovered he liked before bed.  He knew Madge loaded the plate with a few extras—some grilled onions for the burgers, fries almost burned the way he liked them, an extra cookie or two.  He never said anything to her about it, and she didn’t make a thing of it either:  just a smile when she put his plate down, and a smile back at her when he looked up from the paper, to notice.  She was the one who always served him, he noticed that too, even while he watched the shifting crew of waitresses move through as they earned their way somewhere else—came, did their time, disappeared.  Until Connie, a wispy little thing, who seemed to have nowhere else to go. 

He carried two or three papers around with him now, all the time, and sometimes magazines as well. Saturdays he’d sit for three or four hours in the diner working his way through a pile he’d carry in, as if catching up. There’d be the  “RESERVED” sign on his table in the front window, where he could watch people going by, trudging through snow and sleet in the winters, hunched over against the cold, or munching a bagel or piece of pizza or wiping ice cream from a kid’s face come spring and summer.  Or just strolling along, holding hands with someone.

After a couple months, almost casually, Madge asked him if he was seeing anyone.

“No. Got a cat though, little thing someone deserted behind the bank. “Mosey” I call her. She sleeps at the bottom of the bed.”

“No woman, huh?”

“No.  It’s OK.”

A couple weeks later, Madge asked why he liked sitting there in the diner, with the bar next door. They could both see the sign from outside reflected in the angle of the window.

“The taste.”

She looked confused.

“The sourness, the foam.  The smell, you know, through the door.”

“You’re not tempted?”

“That’s what I smell.  The temptation. The memory.  The maybe.  I like to sit in that.”

He paused for a minute, then went on:

“And the fact that you guys let me.  There’s that.”

She nodded at him, smiled back, gave him her usual pat, and left him alone there, with his newspapers, his passersby, and his quiet.

If it wasn’t busy, Madge would wander across to the bar—“to catch the scores,” she’d explain if he happened to look up when she came back in.  One day she came over excited and started telling him about the no-hitter heading into the 8th. He shook his head side to side and put his finger up in front of his mouth in that “silence” signal everyone seems to understand from the crib. 

“No news, please.” 

That phrase stopped her, then made her laugh. 

“No news?  Are you kidding?  What do you read the paper for then?” 

He looked down at the stack in front of him, his empty plate covering one side of an open double sheet.

“Curious what matters to people.  The papers are old. Like this one’s from two weeks ago Thursday. I keep them folded for awhile, least a few days, sometimes a week or two. Found life’s better after the fact.”

He let his fingers slide over the print.

“What matters. Curiouser and curiouser.”

Which probably explains, those days Sol waited for his news, why he didn’t know Phil had died until he saw the obituary.  It was a Saturday and he’d not been to the diner for more than a week. Madge wasn’t around and Connie came to take his order. She brought him a coffee and French Dip. He figured Madge was off shopping or something, which happened sometimes.  But there it was, when he got to the back of the second section, a picture of Phil, smiling but dead now, of a heart attack Wednesday morning.  It was a short piece, a little story of his life, or whatever part of it whoever wrote the obit decided to remember: college at the university downstate, time in Vietnam and medals, wedding to Madge Foster Harris. Two children, both married and living somewhere else, one grandchild. They owned  the bar and the diner twenty-five years. Name of the mortuary.  No flowers, please.  Donations to the Heart Association. 

Sol got up, left his newspaper open on the table, walked to the counter, paid Connie, and left. It was quiet in the diner that afternoon, so the table stayed vacant, the newspaper stayed open all day. It was still there that night, when Connie finally got around to cleaning up, folded it, dropped it in the garbage, and shut the lights.

It was six weeks before Sol came back.  By then Madge had moved behind the bar and Connie was running the diner.  Sol’s table was occupied by a young couple sitting over a malt and a sundae, so Sol sat at the counter while he ate a cheese and tomato sandwich. Then he went through the swinging door to say hello to Madge, who smiled at him as she poured him a club soda.  He found his little table in the corner and stood up only to get a refill on the soda, his pile of newspapers like folded napkins in front of him. The TVs were on, baseball season, a horse race somewhere. People moved around him without noticing he was there, Madge was mostly quiet behind the bar, a few regulars he recognized were at tables or atop their customary stools. He stayed until closing time, when Madge shut off the TVs and he went behind the bar, picked up a cloth, and helped her clean. Madge didn’t say a word, just looked at him quietly, smiled a thank you when they were done, and he walked out the door while she turned off lights. A few nights later he came back, and this time Madge just gestured for him to come behind the bar and fill his own glass when he wanted a refill. So he took to stopping most nights after AA, not even bothering with the diner anymore.

It was a long time, weeks and weeks of hand squeezes and little kisses on the cheek at the door as they went their separate ways, before the night Madge held onto his hand when he tried to pull away and then hugged him, tight. And he hugged her back. And walked her to her car and kissed her on the lips for the first time before he said goodnight. And longer still before he got in to the passenger seat. That night they drove together to his apartment to pick up Mosey and then to the house she’d always called home and eventually could again.

 


Paul Skenazy Photo

Paul Skenazy is retired and writing stories after thirty plus years teaching literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He’s written books and pamphlets on James M. Cain and other noir writers, revised and edited a posthumous novel by Arturo Islas (La Mollie and the King of Tears), and edited a book of interviews with Maxine Hong Kingston. “Closing Time” began as a 500-word response to a photograph of an open newspaper atop a small table seen through a window. The table led to a diner, the diner to owners, the owners to a bar, the bar to a drinker. Places insist that way, turning into lives. 

 

Winter 2012 Issue

Essays
Wallace Baine
Don Rothman
Karen Ackland

Poetry
Carolyn Burke
Farnaz Fatemi
Gary Young

Fiction
Clifford Henderson
Micah Perks
Paul Skenazy

Interview
Julia Chiapella

Love Letters Project
Wallace Baine
Lauren Crux
Stephanie Golino
Neal Hellman
Cheyenne Street Houck
Erin Johnson
Wincy Lui
Elizabeth McKenzie
Alyssa Young

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