Do You See What I See?
The old man beckoned me into the back room with a hurried, flippant wave. I had been cleaning tables and bar-backing for a week and he barely did more than grunt at me when I had done something right, and he just fired me evil glares when I mis-stepped. I wasn’t worried about being fired when I spilled a tray of beer bottles I was more afraid for my life. I had seen the old man come out the smoky back room and splinter two wooden canes on the door frame and rattle off a string of expletives that would make a porn star cringe, but somehow I had escaped his wrath. Fortunately to that point I answered to the bartender and just avoided the man they called Old Grey Bear.
I had seen the men that filtered in and out of that room throughout the night, they came when the bar was open and when the bar was closed, and they were the type that scared most people and I could tell he scared them. The Texas Hold 'em and Omaha poker game never seemed to stop it only ebbed and flowed, and it wasn’t unusual to see a guy walk in on my Tuesday shift and walk out when I returned for work on Thursday. The bartender told me the old man wasn’t so much a bar owner, as he was a guy who owned a bar so he could play poker and that’s all he did.
But I only watched the comings and goings, from a distance, as the only piece of advice I was given by the bartender was not to EVER go in there and the knowing look he gave me when he said it was chilling.
So, when the old man sternly stomped his cane and saw me pass by the half-closed door I froze in my tracks. He looked over his reading glasses and peered at me like a big cat in thin cover eyeing a limping member of the heard.
It got worse, “Boy! In here. Now!” he bellowed.
I swallowed hard, stole a glance back at the bartender, who shrugged helplessly, and I walked into the back room. The acrid cigarette and heavy cigar smoke hung like a fog over the room. It wasn’t so much poorly lit, as it was just the smoke captured the light in its thickness and made it feel like the last intact room of a house ablaze.
The old man flipped his cane upward, grabbed its base, whipped it behind him and in one quick motion captured a wayward chair with its hook, and pulled it to him. He pounded on the chair with the shaft and glared at me, “Sit.”
I tried not to look at the other men, but all eyes were on me. A well known local politician nodded like I was holding a baby for him to kiss not like I was spotting him sitting with the other thugs at the table. They included several guys who looked like they had gotten their fortune from pharmaceuticals, but weren’t pharmacists, and they eyeballed me with disdain. I scanned a couple of other familiar faces, I couldn’t quite place, and before I could look any longer, the old man pounded the chair again, “I said SIT!”
I had never said a word to the owner, this old man, a combustible pitbull of rage, who could probably take most 20 year olds in a fight even though he was 80 something, and suddenly I was seated next to him in a game that featured stacks of hundred dollar bills, more money than had ever passed in and out of my pockets in my lifetime.