My Aunt Beulah served cocktails at the American Legion from 3 to midnight. When I was 7 or 8 years old, I would sit there with her in the afternoon, until my mother got off from work. In the daytime, the Legion was mostly empty.
A few guys, the regulars, sat around under a sagging American flag, laughing about nothing — old men who’d been to places called War and Your Rope. They drank cheap gin, played cards and flirted with Beulah. The Cubs game would blare from the black and white TV, and Jack Brickhouse’s voice would blend in with the jukebox music.
One of the old boys had thick scars on his face and arms, and only one leg. He wore his empty pants leg folded up neatly and safety-pinned to his thigh. He would tell a variety of stories about how he lost his leg, depending on what he was drinking.
If he was swilling Old Style, he’d blame a traveling salesman who’d run his pick-up into a ditch. Oh, the heat that day! The tornado that blew in out of nowhere! The pulling and pushing to get the truck out! The terror when the makeshift winch broke, and the truck keeled backward, and his leg was crushed.
On a gin and tonic day, he would say it was all Madeline’s fault. Madeline, a big-boned, dark-skinned girl who apparently hypnotized him with some body part I didn’t recognize. She’d sucked up his soul (or something) and then sucked up some other man’s soul, too. The subsequent fight involved a knife, a hammer and a Chevrolet. Good-bye leg.
But if it was a Johnnie Walker day, I would shut my eyes and try not listen. Johnnie Walker days were cold and icy, with a million fires exploding in the snow. He had to put mud on his face on Johnnie Walker days, and eat the tails of dead frozen things, and be so quiet until even his heart sounded like thunder. There were Frogs, and sour Krauts, and running until he couldn’t breathe anymore. But no place to hide.
I liked the Old Style days.
Aunt Beulah would pick me and put me on a bar stool. She’d wrap a clean white apron around her middle and lean towards me with a wink. “What are you drinking, Missy? I’m sure one of these fine gentlemen will run a tab for you.”
They’d all raise their glasses. “Give the little lady whatever she wants!”
I would tilt my head. My aunt said a woman should always make a man wait. “A Shirley Temple sounds just fine in this heat,” I’d say. Or “A Pink Lady Lemonade, if it’s not too much trouble.”
I would acknowledge my admirers only after ordering my cocktail, just like she taught me. “Get the money first, gal,” she would whisper. It was her philosophy of life.
One sip of my drink. Then turn my head toward the men at the bar. “Thank you so much, gentlemen.” Now turn my back. Count to 5. Glance back over my shoulder. One last smile.
My mother got off early one Tuesday afternoon and came to pick me up. I was sitting on top of the bar with my ankles crossed, my pink ribbons fluttering at the end of my braids, with four grown men clustered around me.
That was my last day at the Legion.
Still, I’d already learned everything I needed to know about life at that bar:
Don’t walk away from your cocktail.
If you can’t be interesting, just be quiet.
Buy a round when it’s your turn.
Watch where you step.
Try something new once in a while.
Don’t gulp. Sip.
And most importantly, if you don’t like the vibe, get out fast. You can spend a lifetime waiting for it to improve, but it won’t. And you’ll just end up like Beulah, slammed against the pink bathroom wall by a guy named Rock, and nothing but sad stories to tell.