The Bar and Grill Pt. 02byRehnquist©
Here's Part 2. If it took too long, I'm sorry. For those of you who commented on Part 1--or even bothered reading it, for that matter--thank you.
It should go without saying that if you haven't read Part 1, you should do so now.
Again, any and all comments are most appreciated.
The next morning at seven found me at Uncle Jack's doorstep.
"You look like shit," he grumbled, holding the door open for me.
He, of course, looked like he'd been awake for three hours, which he probably had.
"Got a few minutes?" I mumbled, walking past him.
"Coffee's in the kitchen," he said, following me into the home.
It hadn't changed since they'd moved back after his retirement. Looking around, I expected Aunt Aileen to poke her head out of the kitchen and rush over for a big hug and wet kiss on the cheek.
Funny, I thought, but his home was still a home all these years after Aunt Aileen's death. Mine already felt like just a building with bathrooms, and Nina and the girls were still there when I'd left. Sleeping peacefully.
Uncle Jack waved me toward the kitchen table while he poured me a cup of coffee and topped his own off.
He was settled and sipping his coffee before I spoke.
"I'm getting divorced."
He nodded, sipping his coffee.
There must be something about military coffee that prepares men for swallowing molten lava in great gulps. I could barely slurp the smallest amount after blowing on it, but he was nearly halfway done with his cup before he spoke.
"So she's finally gone back to him." Somewhere deep in his chest a rumbling rose up that passed for a laugh. "Poor bastard."
"Him or me?"
"Him, of course," he said, surprised I had to ask. "You're the lucky bastard."
Seeing the dismay on my face, he softened his voice and marched on.
"I know it doesn't seem that way right now. I know this sucks. You feel rejected and lost and all that sad shit. Like you'll never get laid again. She's cast you aside, so now you're damaged goods."
He sipped his coffee before continuing.
"The thing is, you'll get over it. Pretty quickly, too. And you'll move on with your life. You'll find someone else, someone to start a family of your own with. Then all of this will just be a pathetic little learning experience. Sure, you'll wonder now and then how they're all doing. What're those little goddamned monsters of hers doing and how they're getting along."
I raised my head up to defend the girls, but old Uncle Jack was on a roll and he cut me off.
"It's not their fault they're monsters, Tim. Jesus Christ, boy, don't you see that? It's her fault. And her husband's, for that matter. But it doesn't change what it is. Who gives a shit who's at fault? Either way, they're still monsters. Monsters that will only get worse and make your life even more miserable."
He put his now empty mug down to the side and leaned over the table, staring me down before continuing. He smelled like Old Spice. Just like Dad, Uncle Jack was an Old Spice man. For some reason, this memory perked my attention and helped me focus in on what he said.
"Think about this, Tim. Don't answer right away, okay? Think first."
"Every day toward the end of your shift. You know, just before you have to go home. Know what it's like? We're just picking up and starting to turn out the plates. Can you see it in your head?"
I could see it. The rush of adrenaline as we get the first dinner rush caught up before I take off.
"You always dawdle," he said. "Ever notice that? You always try to come up with just one or two more things that need to be done before you take off. Right?"
He was, and I nodded.
"You ever wonder why that is?"
I tried to smile. "Because I don't want you to fuck it all up."
He slammed his hand on the table top, jarring the smile from my face.
"I'm serious here," he said. "So think about it for a minute. Don't just answer, but think about it. What're you thinking that last half hour before you leave to go home."
He swiped his mug from the table and stood to get more. Turning back with his full mug in one hand and the coffee pot in the other, he looked at my still nearly full mug before topping it off to near overflowing.
"Figure it out yet?" he asked as he sat back down.
I shook my head.
A sad smile came over his face. "Because you don't want to go home, Tim. That's what it is."
I started to say something, but he raised his hand to silence me.
"When I was in the Corps--when I was working any job, for that matter--I could never wait to get home. I wanted it more than anything in the whole damned world. Not just after the long cruises, but those times we had regular shore duty with nine to five jobs. I still couldn't wait to get home."
He leaned into me again and fixed me with his words. "And I loved my fucking job, Tim. I lived and breathed the goddamned Marine Corps."
I nodded. He'd been mopey for months after they finally forced the mandatory retirement he'd managed to delay for three years.
"And yeah, there were times I worked late, too. But only if I had to get something done. Otherwise, I was home as quick as I could get there. Because I wanted to be with my wife and my kids."
The impact of his words drove home. He didn't even have to say it, but I was prepared, and even agreed with him, when he did.
"You dread going home, Tim. And not just because you love working in the kitchen so fuckin' much. No, you dread the stress." A brief smile played over his lips. "Maybe not so much on Thursday nights, huh? I can guess what that's about."
I tried to smile with him, but the impact of the realization froze me. How had I never seen this?
"When those little girls are there, you worry about what you're going home to, don't you?"
I nodded without thinking.
"Because no matter what they do, you're all but forced to just shut the hell up and deal with it, right?"
I kept right on nodding.
"And it galls you, don't it?"
"But they're her kids, Jack. She's supposed to love them more than-- "
"And you're her husband," he said. "She's supposed to make them respect you. Make 'em listen to you and mind you. But she doesn't do those things, does she?"
"But they've been through-- "
"Big fuckin' deal," he thundered. "I'm sorry, Tim. Life's unfair, the world's unfair. It's not their fault, either. But they've been dealt a shitty hand with a couple of self-centered parents. And now those same parents expect everyone to bow down and kiss those little girls' asses because they're hurting. Don't work that way, and you of all people know it."
What could I say? He was right.
"Nina's been playing the victim--and encouraging the girls to follow right along with her--for so long she forgets that she's the one who started all of this mess. And now the girls expect everyone to be so goddamned . . . so . . . well, you know what I mean. They expect to get away with murder and expect everyone to just smile and pat their heads and tell them it's okay. Don't worry about it because your family broke up and we don't really want to force you to deal with it."
He gulped the last of another mug of coffee before finishing. The man's belly must be a cast iron cauldron to drink so much scalding coffee so quickly.
"No, Tim. You didn't want to go home because you didn't want to deal with the bullshit. And you felt guilty--you still feel guilty--because you've bought into Nina's load of shit. You actually believe you need to tiptoe around those little girls for the rest of your life because of what they've been through. But hey, here's a fucking newsflash: How about you and Nina just start raising them to be responsible little girls? Who'll maybe grow into responsible, well-adjusted young ladies?"
Uncle Jack stood and took my still half-full mug away from me and poured it into the sink.
"And here's another idea. How about you tell Nina to quit her fucking moping around and just learn to be happy with the bed she's made for herself? Time for her to quit crying about a bunch of shit she did four, five years ago and start living in the present."
He turned back to me and finished.
"Sorry, Timmer, but you weren't really her husband. You never came first in her life, you know it, and you've always known it. Sure, she has kids and they've gotta come first. Fine. But that doesn't mean you need to be treated like shit in your own home by a couple of snot-nosed little brats. And by a wife who really looked at you as nothing more than a shoulder to cry on and comfort her and tell her she was pretty and it would all be all right."
Uncle Jack slumped before finishing. I guess so much talking had really taken it out of him.
"Think about it for awhile, Tim," he said. His voice was softer now, sad. "Give it some time and really think back on what you had with them. Ask yourself if she treated you as well as you treated her. Or if she even tried to treat you as well as you treated her and the girls. Think about the last time she comforted you rather than the other way around. The last time she noticed you had had a bad day and just gave you a back rub or a hug to make you feel better."
I swayed in my chair. I didn't need to think about it. Uncle Jack was right: My marriage had been completely one way. I'd spent my every waking moment trying to make sure she was happy, but she'd rarely noticed my down moods unless they somehow clashed with her upbeat moods. When I'd been stressed, she'd always get pissed off and tell me to get over it.
"And when you've thought all of this through," Uncle Jack concluded, "ask yourself two questions. First, do you really give a shit that she's gone?"
He leaned in for the grand finale. "And second, why were you so willing to put up with this for so long and still think it was undying love?"
My eyes went wide at that one. Game, set, match in two simple questions.
What the fuck was wrong with me?
I decided to stay extra late at work that Friday night. I wanted to make sure Nina and the girls had plenty of time to get moved out, and I didn't want to see them--any of them--when I got home. Nina would just make a scene, and I didn't want to have to say my goodbyes to the girls. This was their happy day, the day all three of them had been waiting for for so long. No sense in ruining it with any tearful farewells or anything.
Fine. I was a pouty fucking coward. Sue me.
So I worked an extra long day, cooking from open to close, and sat at the bar having a few beers while the kitchen and dining room staffs did their clean up chores. Two sips into the second bottle of Lite, Clara approached me.
"Heard about Nina," she said.
Clara stood there for a minute, fidgeting nervously. Then she stunned the hell out of me by leaning over and giving me a tight hug.
"You call me if you need anything, hear?" she whispered into my ear. "Anything at all, you just call, Tim Franklin."
"I will," I managed to gasp out through the tight hug.
When she broke the hug, Clara's eyes were misting.
I tried to smile, but that seemed only to upset her more. Without another word, she nodded, turned, and left.
For the first time in a day, I felt sorry for someone else more than for myself. Poor Clara seemed really broken up by this, and I couldn't figure out why. It's not as if she ever really liked Nina or anything. To the contrary, she'd always been cool around Nina.
"She thinks the world of you," the cool voice behind me said. I knew without turning that it was Nicole.
"She talks about you like you walk on water," the voice continued. "That's why she started me here without even asking you. She knew you'd never say no. Knew you wouldn't even need to hear the whole story to let her bring me on."
I swivelled the barstool around to face her. She, too, seemed concerned. For the life of me, though, I couldn't picture her actually leaning in and hugging the breath out of me.
"Want a beer?" I offered.
She shook her head. "Thanks, but I've gotta get home."
"You living with your mom and dad?"
She nodded, her face turning to stone as she did so.
"Gertie watches your boy while you're here?"
The mask dropped briefly, a faint smile playing over her lips and her eyes when she nodded.
"Alistair," she said. "His name's Alistair."
I grinned. "Your family has a knack for . . . um . . . different names, don't they?"
She stifled a laugh. "Yeah, I guess we do. But I didn't name him. His daddy did."
"The fella in Frontier City?" I said, regretting the question before the words had left my lips.
Her eyes went wide. "No," she said, her voice little more than a whisper. "My husband."
The questions raised by this must have been written all over my face. Really, folks, I'm not very good at bottling up my emotions and keeping my mouth shut when I should.
But Nicole ignored my reaction and with a tight "'Night now," and a brisk nod of her head, she was gone.
I watched her go. Husband? I thought. She's married? Divorced? Then there was that brief thought intruding that embarrassed me even as I thought it. He left that incredibly perfect ass?
Knowing the upcoming weekend shifts were mine, I soon decided to finish my beer and go home. It was almost eleven, and there was no way Nina would've waited around with the girls this late.
Walking into the kitchen from the garage, I spotted the manila envelope in the middle of the counter straight away.
I ignored it while I fed Ernie and got myself a beer. Then I picked the envelope up and took it and the beer into the adjacent living room, plopped on the sofa, and opened the envelope as Ernie plopped onto me. There were two letters inside.
"I know you won't believe me, but I really am sorry. I love you still, and this is the hardest thing I've ever done. You were right, though. My mind was made up. Steve wanted to get back together, to try to be a family again, and I couldn't pass up the chance to again offer Emily and Nadine the family I took from them.
"I'm only sorry that you are being hurt in the process.
"I wanted to talk with you again, but it's getting late and I know you're not going to come home. I don't blame you since that's probably what I would do in your shoes.
"I met with an attorney this morning and told him what I wanted him to do. He agreed to draw up all of the paperwork to get this done as quickly and easily as possible. I'm only asking to keep the things I've already moved out today along with my car, retirement and checking account balance. I'll also be responsible for the credit cards in my name. You should be getting this paperwork in the mail next week. The attorney told me that if you sign it and get it back to him, we'll be divorced in a month or so. After what you said last night, I'm pretty sure this is how you want it to be. Fast and painless with a minimum amount of drama.
"In closing, I again want to apologize. My days with you were filled with love and happiness. You did nothing wrong and everything right, and I hope you never beat yourself up over this. It is not your fault, and you could not have done anything to change this.
"I know you don't believe this now, but I will always love you.
The other letter were handwritten farewells signed by Emily and Nadine. Cute, but I doubted they were all that sincere.
"So there you have it, Ernie," I said, looking down at his wagging tail and happy brown eyes. "It wasn't my fault. Shit just happens, right?"
Ernie continued wagging his tail as he trotted along beside me back to the kitchen.
He even wagged his tail while I threw the letters into the garbage can along with my now empty beer bottle.
He wagged his tail the most, though, when I gave him a dog treat before crawling into bed.
Within ten minutes, the tail wagging was over and Ernie was snoring on the pillow next to my head.
"I want to be you, old sport," I said to him before falling into a troubled sleep.
Bright and early Monday morning, I pulled into the parking lot behind the Bar and Grill. Nicole was already there, though, standing outside the kitchen door in the drizzling rain.
"Why didn't you wait in your car?" I said as I approached.
"I don't have a car yet," she said. "Aunt Clara couldn't give me a ride, and Mom and Dad are out of town with Alistair."
"You walked?" I said, unlocking the door and holding it open for her.
She nodded as she passed me inside.
Christ, her parents lived down the road from me, at least four miles out of town.
"What the hell is wrong with you, girl?"
"I'm on time, right?"
I shrugged. "Still, it's raining and all. Why didn't you call me? I'd have given you a ride."
"You've got problems of your own."
I don't know why, but her leave-me-alone-and-let's-get-to-it attitude was pissing me off.
"Yeah, well now I've got another problem, don't I? I've got a cook who's soaked to the goddamned bone and not dressed in any condition to put in a ten-hour shift, don't I?"
She started to say something, but I cut her off.
"Take these," I said, tossing my car keys at her. "Go home and get into something dry and get on back here. We're both early, so it's not going to put us back any."
She looked at the keys, then back to me. "Twenty minutes," she said.
I nodded. "See you then."
I went over the weekend receipts and order lists while she was gone. And true to her word, she was back in less than twenty minutes.
"Here's my numbers," I told her, handing her a slip of paper. "You need a ride--anywhere, anytime, even if it's just to get some diapers or something--you call me, okay?" Her face was impassive. "I start giving you all these extra hours and duties, I can't have you getting sick on me or getting kidnaped or anything. I live just down the road, so it's not a big deal. Okay?"
She pressed her lips together and stared at me for a moment before answering. "Okay."
I sighed. "Good. Now let's learn how to make soup, shall we?"
She smiled for the first time that day, and we got busy pulling ingredients from the cooler and the pantry.
August is always a great month for corn chowders. It's common sense: Corn and tomatoes are reaching their peak in August, and I can get both for next to nothing from the local farmers. Therefore, the first soup Nicole learned to make was corn and sausage chowder.
Nicole knew her way around a kitchen, that much was obvious. She could peel and chop garlic and onions almost as well as any short order cook and far better than your average homemaker. She also had a working knowledge of how to make broths, dice vegetables, grill sausages, and saute aromatics. The only time I threw her for a loop was when I started opening a big can of creamed corn.
"Canned corn?" she said.
I nodded, smiling.
"I thought we used fresh everything here. Nothing from a can."
"Rules are made to be broken, little girl," I said. "And this is one of those times to break that rule."
"It's the best way to thicken the chowder while boosting the corn flavor. If we use cream or cornstarch, that'll only take away from the sweetness of the corn. We'll use a little bit of cream at the end, but not much."
She nodded, and we got the rest of the soup made.
I showed her how to blend a hot liquid--always keep a towel over the top or the whole thing will explode scalding liquid all over--and strain it through the chinois back into the pot. Next, she learned how to eyeball how much cream to add and how long to simmer it all to get just the right color and consistency. Finally, we sliced the grilled bratwurst and slid all of that into the pot.
"That's it?" she said when we were done.
I smiled. "What about garnish?"
She chewed her bottom lip, giving the matter some thought. A few times she started to say something, but stopped herself. Coming up with nothing, she turned to me with right eyebrow raised.