Empty Seat

The following is a short piece I’ve been meaning to write for sometime.  I am fascinated by people, and increasingly try to pay attention to detail when I have the chance.  I had an enormous amount of “stuff” I wanted to fit in, but decided brevity of language, just as “Danny” has brevity of form, would do the subject justice.

When you enter the doors of the local VFW, you might confuse the scene with that of an actual battle, as the smoke billows so thickly from the bar it harkens to the days of napalm and incendiaries.  Instead, the culprits of this air strike puff contentedly on cigarettes of a variety of flavors.  No matter the state of your olfactory prowess upon entering, the sickly-sweet perfume of old beer, old smoke, and even older men wafts about as you move from the lighted entrance down into the dark clubroom.  Descending down a set of concrete steps, you move through a double-door breezeway and find yourself in a dim, vault-like square space—a pool table along one wall where in earlier times shuffleboard was all the rage.  A jukebox idly spits out samples from time to time, to entice the bar into feeding it dollars.  Sometimes the bartender will pop fresh popcorn to add that strand to the weave of smells.  A 21st century smoke eater spins around on a ceiling fan motor, bringing to mind the whisk on the end of a mixer, whipping the air to a froth.

            The ubiquitous TV drones from a corner or two, a bartender brings over a beer in a plastic cup, and one might rate a “How ya doing?” from a few of the patrons.  Increasingly, I’m greeted with “Where the hell have you been?” as my visits have become less than infrequent in the last few years.  The U-shaped bar forms a half-height barricade, complete with a firing step under its lip.  In the early afternoon it takes a few minutes for your eyes to adjust in the dim light, and these greetings seemed to float like disembodied crys until your vision caught up to your ears.  In years past Danny would be hunkered over the bar on the left.  He was gaunt, tall, clad in denim, cowboy boots, and a well-worn, off-white hat.  He would often offer his calloused and leathery hand, cracked with age and the elements, though no one who knew him would take it—his grip would purposefully crush your paw as he pumped your arm like he’d just struck oil.  To protest would elicit a question of your manhood, or your wife’s for that matter.  Danny constantly stood from his stool, and extended this same arm, in a sort of horizontal stretch, clenching and unclenching his fist during his sojourns at the bar.   That arm had left Danny once, victim of an open window on a pickup truck and a roadside post in the 1970s.  He constantly complained of pain, but I wondered if he was merely inspecting the appendage to ensure it wasn’t plotting to separate from him again.

            Danny was loud, obnoxious, and possessed his own vocabulary.  “Laripin,” “Skunk eggs,” “coyotes” (pronounced kiy, yoteez), and a variety of well-known “Dannyisms” flew into the heavy bar air like leaves in a stiff midwestern wind, supplied by the smoke eater.  Constant innuendo was his forte; “I know your sister!” he barked at regular intervals, until it became nothing more than background noise.  A steady stream of Marlboro’s and Schlitz was his only fare.  New visitors to the bar would find out he was “Living proof that the Indians messed around with the buffalo,” as he stoically related, finding amusement in providing strangers with an image of so unlikely an occurence.

It would be understatement to say Danny was tan—at the height of summer his skin took on a hue not unlike mahogany, with the exception that its grain was deeply crevassed, and intricate lines of laughter and pain ran from forehead to shirt collar.  His silver-black hair stuck straight down from under a large Stetson and the hat was marked with the oil and grime of labor, showing where he gripped it before wiping his brow.  His well-worked muscles strained to be contained under that brown skin—to say he was as skinny as a rail only fits if the rail were a 2 x 4.  Sinewy and straight, he hadn’t any extra flesh, demonstrating an efficiency of matter to make a physicist proud.  He instead lived and worked off the calories hops and barley provided him breakfast, lunch and dinner.

If you wanted to actually talk to Danny, you had to choose the right stool; if it was the left one you would get the ear that he could still hear out of, the other would exclude you from conversation—at least one in which the other participant could hear what you said.  When Danny announced his departure each afternoon, close to 4:00, he would lament the oppressive nature of the judicial system, and those sum a bitch officers who lay in wait for him.  Danny had established an elaborate route home, a 25-mile rally course to the south and west, using dirt roads, hardtop, and various types of subterfuge to circumvent the law.  Unfortunately, the truck he drove and his tall, upright figured capped with that broad-brimmed had marked him as clearly as if a forward observer had painted him as a target.

Danny last possessed a valid driver license sometime in the 1980s.  A stack of DUIs, accident tickets, and jail had opened a gap over the last twenty years that no amount of money or lawyers could fill.  A few years ago, I often took my Labrador pup out to Danny’s country place to romp around, and tried to train him to look for the elusive quail.  I only was in Danny’s house once or twice, and found the interior bare as his wallet.  A shredded sofa sat in the midst of a kitchen-family room combo, overflowing garbage bags of Schlitz cans, judging from the reek and cloud of insects far from empty, poured some of its contents out on the floor.

I quit taking my dog out to Danny’s as I became busy with other things, so I missed what he termed the Sunday morning “town meeting.”  Weekly, a friend of his would park his pickup in the opposite direction from Danny’s truck in that backyard, putting the two cronies driver door to driver door, in a green space that was really more of an overgrown patch of grass that gave context to the cornfield which loomed close by.  At around 7 am they would begin the meeting, swilling Schlitz while sitting behind unused steering wheels, sometimes talking, sometimes listening to the AM radio’s farm report.  Periodically they would open a door to relieve themselves of processed beer, commenting on the inequities of this world–they continued a conversation that they had been carrying on for decades installed there in an old Chevy and an even more older, decrepit Ford.

I had also not born witness to what the bar folk at the “V” have told me is a bad situation.  Danny no longer goes to work—he was a carpenter by trade for 40 years, framing houses around the area for his brother, who owned the business.  He built hundreds of houses, moved thousands of feet of lumber, year-round.  His current abode is not his; instead he rents it from the last scion of the homesteading days where land was as cheap as occupancy.  For sustenance Danny lives on the charity of those he drank with for all those years, and apparently took a liking to him.  They bring him a sack full of groceries sometimes, or a carton of smokes.  His truck rarely runs, requiring something other than alcohol or nicotine to function.  People celebrate that they can bring him happiness by dropping off a case or two of Schlitz—giving him some feeling of normalcy, no doubt.

“You wouldn’t believe it if you saw him.  He’s actually lost weight,” the bartender told me, after my last foray into the “V.”

“Really, did he have any to lose?”

“Well, you know Danny, he isn’t going to ask anyone for anything.  And all those years he came in here and would drop $50 on a round for everyone, when he really didn’t have no money to spend.  His cistern got contaminated too, so I don’t know how he is bathing.”

“Really?  What happened?”

“Somehow the cistern got poisoned.  After a couple weeks his daughter finally got him to go to the hospital.  He was hallucinating and getting sick.  They figured out it was contaminated with something, and it will cost a lot of money to get it fixed.  ‘Course he don’t have no money for the doctor, much less to fix that damn house.”

“So what’s he doing for water?”

“Using that stock-tank he has on the back of his truck.  I took him a bag of groceries the other day, and some beer.  He just don’t look good.”

“What is he now, 65?” I queried.

“Yep, but he sure don’t look it.  You just wouldn’t believe how bad he’s gotten.”

I guess I would believe it, but I must confess I haven’t gone to see for myself.  There was a time I went out to shoot the pigeons that nested in the buildings around his rented house.  I saw a snake in the rafters once, and learned that indeed they can climb like linear monkeys.  When he was there, or awake, he always went to bed with the sun, we would chat for a bit.  He’d tell me what he thought of my dog, or of the weather, or in his drawl mention the folks he disliked.  There is a small pond on the back of the property, with a little plywood duck blind sitting at one end.  He always told me I could come out anytime, just to make sure I didn’t shoot anything that wasn’t his.

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