If I only knew the time, he thought, I would know it all. Standing behind the bar on a slow holiday weekend he would wax philosophical.
Something outside would catch his eye and the thought would skip away. Like how the awning of the place retracted with one of those poles you slipped through a ringlet and cranked. The owner fussed with those poles twice a year. Once when winter thawed across the sidewalk down to the storm drain. Once when she dropped her first snowflakes. You cannot let that fabric freeze with precipitation on it or else it rips when wind catches it right. People like predictable weather. It’s a reason to live in Pennsylvania.
“Heyo kid,” said a man pulling up to the bar.
“Heyo,” the young barkeep said. He pulled a tumbler out and scooped ice to fix the man’s whiskey cola. The man did’t take a straw. Personal reasons, nothing to do with sea turtles.
I might not need to know the time, the barkeep thought as the man began to speak his empty words about third shift and divorce and the wickedness of the storm that’d passed through that morning that left week-old leaves still clinging onto sapling twigs torn from the parent branch and landscapers’ freshly laid mulch in streaks across the shaded lanes. Maybe a generality will do.
“I said ‘you know what I mean?’ kid,” the sole customer in the joint said.
The barkeep looked at him and scoffed through a smile. “You outta quit that job and take that mouth of yours to the radio station. Pitch them on a show about pathetic bastards on the brink of middle age, what’dya say?” The guys that come in alone during the day just to drink and make talk usually like to have their chops busted. The barkeep’d seen this pattern emerge and hadn’t been shy to take the piss out of them.
“Say that ain’t a bad idea, kid,” the man said. “Another,” pointing to the browned ice.
The barkeep made the drink. He stayed right next to the bar for a while longer than was natural after he set it on the oak.
“Ya got a face for radio and a mouth that wouldn’t listen even if someone were to tell it to quit. Hell, just last week I went in the back for ice came back five minutes later you were still talking to me.”
The man frowned and stirred at his drink with his forefinger. The nail was splotched black from days old blood trapped beneath.
“Hell of a storm came through this morning,” the man said, recycling the topic from his initial rant to see if it sounded better loosened by the double shot of whiskey.
The barkeep pushed off and walked to the end where he’d placed the newspaper. The owner was away for the holiday. Everyone was away for the holiday. The time, if he could learn it, would tell him what he needed to know so he could get on with it. They didn’t mention the time in the paper. Dawn, it said.
“What you doing, looking at the funnies?” The man grinned as he clamped a wad of ice between his molars, a styrofoam snapping screech calling the barkeep’s arm hairs to stand at attention.
The barkeep thought about throwing him out. He thought about locking the front door and sitting there next to it as the others who couldn’t afford to get down the shore for the weekend knocked to let them in. No one makes money this weekend, not at a landlocked joint.
Ice tinkled in the glass. The jarring sound of the man’s silence was amplified by the connotation in the ice. Nails run down a chalkboard to those responsible for getting the glass refilled.
The barkeep grabbed an empty glass and fixed the drink as the man gripped about using the same glass. The barkeep kept just enough space in the new one and took the man’s dirty ice and dumped it in.
“You twerp,” the man told him.
The barkeep took the empty glass and set it by the sink.
“What has got in you today?” the man asked.
“I’m working something out,” the barkeep said.
“What’s needing worked out?”
“The time the tree fell,” the barkeep said.
On the yard across the street lay an oak tree uprooted.
“Mighty wind blew through here this morning,” the man said.
The branches on the tree were long. If it fell differently, the tree could have entered the bar by force. Instead, all it did was tear up the awning and snap the aluminum poles.
“Bet your owner isn’t happy,” the man said, shaking his head at the downed tree beyond the windows.
The owner didn’t know. The barkeep hadn’t called him yet. He would want to know the time. He would want to know it all.