Draft With a Sprig of Mistletoe
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Draft With a Sprig of Mistletoe

By
Charlie Hudson

Kari shrugged off her jacket when she stepped into Clara’s Corner. Earl was behind the bar as usual, Daryl was in his more or less reserved seat and a man Kari had never seen was on the stool closest to the wall-mounted television. “Earl, what on earth are you doing open today?” Kari hung the brown leather and suede garment on the sturdy oak coat tree just inside the door.

“You want a draft?” Earl asked in lieu of an answer and held up a frosted mug. He wore a red sweatshirt instead of his typical blue chambray. A Santa Claus with a bottle in one hand and a This Bud’s for You inscription was spread across his wide chest.

“Hey Kari, Merry Christmas to you,” Daryl said with a grin and turned his head to catch the movement on the screen. “Well, if that sonofabitch don’t hang onto the ball they ain’t never gonna win,” he grumbled. He rubbed the top of his graying buzz in momentary frustration. A cigarette smoldered in the ashtray and he moved it away from Kari.

“They’re still up by a touchdown,” Earl said calmly and set the beer in front of the stool next to Daryl. The head was a practiced quarter of an inch without a drop trickling down the side. “Merry Christmas,” he added when Kari lifted herself easily onto the dark green padded seat. “You work today?”

The young woman clinked the iced mug against the long-neck bottle that Daryl offered and nodded. “I went home at Thanksgiving and volunteered for the Christmas shift. Most of the nurses have families or big plans and the holiday pay is good.”

She sipped the cold brew and inclined her head in greeting when the man at the end of the bar smiled politely. He had the look of a man that spent his time on the road, not surprised to find himself in an almost empty bar on Christmas afternoon. A full head of short black hair, no discernible beer gut, jeans and a red flannel shirt, but some kind of workman’s boot instead of cowboy boots. He was probably a field representative on a regional round.

“So what are you doing open?” Kari repeated and sniffed past the familiar fragrance of the popcorn machine on the counter behind Earl. “And what’s that smell?”

Earl waved a knuckle-scarred hand to the opposite wall. “Daryl smoked a turkey. I did up a pan of Clara’s baked beans and got some mashed potatoes and other fixings from the grocery store last night. We’re finished, but go make yourself a plate,” he said.

Kari swiveled the stool around. Two four-person tables had been joined together to hold the dismantled bird on a wooden chopping board with other dishes scattered close by. A roll had slipped from an untidy stack and looked as if it would fall to the floor at the slightest movement. Heavy-duty plastic plates, red and green plastic cutlery and a roll of paper towels completed the picture. Popcorn, pretzels, and packaged sausage sticks were the standard fare for Clara’s, although Earl had a delivery arrangement with Johnny’s Pizza across the street.

Kari turned back to the bar. “Too full. The ladies at the cafeteria went all out and I’m not sure I can eat for a couple of days. Now why aren’t you with Lillian and her family?” She knew his son was in the Army somewhere overseas.

Earl scratched above an eyebrow that resembled a fuzzy black caterpillar and poured another shot of bourbon into the short glass on the bar. “Aw hell, I was going with them to some fancy-dancy ski condo they booked and then I got to thinking. I don’t particularly care for that fella she married and the kids are all into them video games and stuff. It’s not like when they were little. I sure as hell ain’t skiing down no mountain and the more I thought about being in the same house with ‘em for a week, the more I decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. I went over for a nice dinner before they left and did the presents and what have you. A few hours is a whole lot easier to take than a few days.” He knocked back the whiskey without so much as a blink and looked over as the man at the end of the bar raised his hand.

“Then I thought, hey I might as well have Daryl come to the bar. We’d just do the turkey and everything right here, watch the games and if anybody else wanted to wander in, that was fine. The guy down there, Jimmy is his name, is staying at The Crossroads, took a walk and saw the lights on. Seems like a nice guy,” Earl said in completing his explanation. He extracted a bottle of beer from the bins filled with ice and the six brands he allowed in the bar; eight if you counted that he carried the light version of two of them. He twisted the cap off and slid it along the bar with precision. The man, Jimmy, caught it and nodded his appreciation of a honed skill.

“You call your Mama?” Daryl asked as he checked the screen to make sure the half-time show was still underway.

“At my first break. I thought I’d never get off the phone; the whole crowd was there. My oldest sister, Melanie, tried to talk them into coming to their place this year, but Mama is a firm believer in tradition. You’d think she’d be tired of messing with it by this time.” She felt another prick of homesickness in remembering the background noise as the telephone was passed from person to person. This was her first Christmas to not be in the middle of the holiday chaos and she’d missed it more than she thought she would. Oh well, she was a career woman now and there would no doubt be other holidays on her own.

“Clara was like that,” Earl said, “She had the same menu every year. Everybody knew exactly what they were supposed to bring and nobody thought about trying to change it. Christmas was her favorite time. I stayed out of the way and made sure the beer was cold and the trash was hauled out.”

Earl’s description reflected a person who could speak comfortably of the past in spite of losing someone he loved. Daryl had told her that he and Clara grew up as neighbors, married right out of high school and spent thirty-six years together before cancer took her. Earl sold the gas station they’d owned and bought the bar. It was easier on him and was something Clara had always talked about them doing. There was a series of photographs of her that hung on the back wall. Photographs that showed a strong woman who liked to laugh; pictures taken with the son, Dean, or Lillian in various stages and always in an outdoor setting.

“So how’s the job going?” Earl asked and interrupted Kari’s thoughts. “You still taking those night classes?”

“Uh huh.” She pushed her mug forward. Earl deposited it in the sink and pulled out a fresh one. “Penny Anders is the only other nurse with a Masters degree and I figure she’s going to get fed up and go somewhere else before Nurse Thomas retires. I might not be the most senior then, but I’ll have been around long enough.”

“Don’t count those chickens as hatched yet,” Daryl advised with a low chuckle. “I’ve known Ruby Thomas all my life and she’s so stubborn she’s liable to outlast all of you.”

The three of them laughed and Earl gestured to the television when the third quarter started with a roar from the spectators at a sixty-three yard runback.

“Hot damn,” Daryl slapped his hand on the bar. “Now that’s how to kick ass!”

Kari wasn’t a big football fan, although close up shots of the players’ tight butts was something she could always appreciate. She took the second beer and thought about a solitary afternoon in her nearby apartment. It was pleasantly cozy and she’d planned to catch up on some reading or watch classic Christmas movies. She’d declined an invitation for turkey sandwiches and other leftover goodies at a friend’s house. After a minimally staffed shift, she knew she wouldn’t have the energy to walk into a house with small children wired from a day of sugar-laced excitement. Her single friends were either out of town or entrenched in their own family traditions. When she’d driven along quiet streets and seen Earl through the front window of the bar, she’d felt a sudden desire for company.

“Well my Lord, would you look at this,” a voice called from the doorway. No one had to check to know it was Marlene Haynes. Her exuberant greetings were part of her trademark as the gushing real estate agent who consistently won the firm’s quarterly top seller award. “Why, what do we have going on?” she continued and waltzed in with her husband, Big Mike, trailing behind her.

In sequential motions that nearly blended into a single one, she handed her coat back to Big Mike, kissed Kari on the cheek, patted Daryl on the arm, blew a kiss to Earl, nodded hello to Jimmy at the end of the bar and perched on a stool. Daryl slid down one seat, no doubt to make sure that Marlene’s sure-to-follow chatter wouldn’t get between him and the football game. Earl had a scotch and water set down by the time her carefully toned, still proudly a size eight bottom settled on the stool. Big Mike ambled in with the same indulgent grin he always wore, nodded his hellos and stood behind Daryl and Marlene.

“Merry Christmas everybody,” he drawled and took the beer Earl handed over. He immediately fixed his gaze on the television set.

“Earl figured might be some folks at loose ends today that wanted a cold beer,” Daryl explained to Marlene.

She brushed her ash-blonde bangs with an index finger manicured to a Christmas red with faint red-on-red sparkles. It was, of course, the precise shade of poinsettias embroidered on her sweater. “Oh that’s right. Lillian told me you’d decided not to go to that darling little condo I found for them and I do say, Earl, that I bet you would have had a wonderful time,” she said brightly. “But now, Kari honey, what have you been up to?” she went on without waiting for Earl to respond. She lowered her voice by an octave when Big Mike said quietly, “It’s the game, sugarplum.”

Kari suppressed a giggle. Marlene was the only woman she knew that could burst into a room and completely dominate the scene without being obnoxious. It was more as if she simply had too much energy to keep it all to herself.

The women talked through the rest of the game, or rather Marlene enthusiastically caught Kari up on all the latest gossip while pumping her for tidbits of what was juicy at the hospital. She turned as the game ended with Daryl’s whoop of triumph and noticed the table with the remainders of the turkey.

“Mike, we’ve got almost a whole pecan pie in the car and half a chocolate cake and I think some of your Aunt Viola’s oatmeal cookies are in the blue plastic container. Everyone has to be ready for something a little sweet. Would you be a darling and haul all that in?”

Big Mike swung his empty beer bottle over to Earl and lumbered out good naturedly to do her biding. Earl twisted the top off a fresh one and had it ready when Big Mike returned with his arms laden. Marlene hopped down and took care of re-arranging the table. She called out choices and Kari laughingly helped distribute the plates. The man, Jimmy, politely declined initially, but Marlene delivered him a slice of pecan pie with a Well now, no need to be a stranger, smile. Kari suspected his life’s story would be revealed by the time he finished dessert.

The front door opened again and one of the older couples that lived in Kari’s apartment building entered hesitantly as Earl waved his big hands in welcome. He clicked on a switch and strings of tiny colored Christmas lights hung around the window frames glowed with red, green, and white. Marlene dropped quarters in the juke box, although she did turn down the volume in deference to in-between football games commentaries. Sounds of Hank Williams, Jr. twanged out into what was becoming a festive gathering .

Within an hour two more couples strolled in and somehow the clusters divided. The men gathered at the far end discussing serious things like who had the best chance of going to the Superbowl. The women grouped the bar stools into a semi-circle discussing the new beauty salon that opened downtown.

Kari made her way behind the bar to give Earl a hand as he moved back and forth between the groups. The nice thing about Clara’s Corners was that no one was going to be drinking anything complicated. Earl wouldn’t dream of having a blender and this was hardly a martini-drinking crowd.

Kari leaned one elbow on the bar and looked around in amusement as she sipped her draft. “I bet this wasn’t what you were expecting today,” she said when Earl dropped ice into his glass and splashed in more bourbon.

He surveyed the room with satisfaction and smiled. “Naw, but it’s nice to see folks having a good time.” He looked at Kari and his brown eyes twinkled with the intent of asking a nosy question. “You know, I been wondering how come a pretty girl like you hasn’t landed one of those doctors yet.”

Kari laughed at the predictability of his query. “The ones here are all married,” she said.

Earl bobbed his head in agreement. “Yeah, no sense in getting mixed up with that crap, but you’re not one of those don’t-need-a-man women libbers, are you?”

Kari rubbed the side of her cheek with her hand and shook her head. “Not the kind you probably mean. It’s just that I’m not in a hurry and oh, I don’t know, I guess I’m like a lot of women my age. I don’t want a man who expects me to drop my job the minute we get married and start having babies right away.”

Earl took a sip of his bourbon – he’d slowed down his drinking pace – and gave a small smile. “Oh yeah, that’s the business of wanting to ‘have it all’ I keep hearing about. What I don’t understand is exactly what that’s supposed to mean.”

Kari hesitated. “Well, you know, the deal about having a career that you don’t have to give up and a husband who’s supportive and having children, too. I guess as much as anything it’s not getting caught in the trap of rules about the man does this and the woman does that. It’s hard to find a guy who understands how important it is and a lot of us would rather spend more time being single than rush into anything. ”

Earl looked mildly confused. “Seems like an awful lot of demands to put up front, but maybe it’s different for folks now. Back when I was young you got married and then figured you’d find a way to earn a living, raise the kids and keep a house together. Lots of women, like my Clara, worked and didn’t think of it as a career. Hell, we were just trying to get by. Maybe getting by and having a career are two different things.”

He turned when Daryl called out for another round. Earl lifted his hand and grinned at Kari. “I’m not like some folks who think we ought to cling to old times and if you youngsters can find a better way, I say more power to you. On the other hand, it looks like there’s an awful lot of divorcing going on, so you may not have it licked just yet.”

She laughed, helped him pull beers from the cooler and draw drafts. He carried the drinks to the group and got caught in whatever the conversation was.

With gender and generational issues on hold, she topped off her mug and listened to the rhythm of voices in the room. Here they were, a few couples, the man Jimmy who’d been sitting in a alone in a hotel room, Earl, a widower, who didn’t seem to want to remarry and Daryl who’d been divorced two, or maybe it was three, times and her, a little homesick, but nothing she couldn’t handle. All of them drifted in for one reason or the other and found some unexpected holiday feelings.

“Kari honey, you look like you’re about a million miles away. Not down-in-mouth now, are you?” Marlene asked as she reached across the bar and playfully flicked Kari’s auburn braid that hung over her shoulder.

Kari smiled and leaned forward. “No Marlene, I’m not. I was just thinking how odd it was that we all came together like this.”

Marlene swept her hand to encompass the room and tilted her glass forward for a toast. “Well, that’s just how it goes sometimes. Fun things can happen when you least expect it and it is Christmas after all. Cheers!”

Kari had a quick mental picture of how her mama might be taken aback at the idea of Christmas in a bar, but Marlene was right. Everyone was having a good time and who knew what she’d be doing next year. Maybe she’d have found the perfect guy and be clustered around a new family or maybe she’d still be right where she was – single and comfortable with it. She let the word comfortable linger like the sweetness of the chocolate cake. Not over-the-top delicious as if the cake had been warm from the oven with a side scoop of French vanilla ice cream ribboned with hot fudge, but an excellent cake on it’s own merit. Comfortable might not be exactly what she was hoping for, but it was okay for now, especially for bringing in some holiday light.

She grinned at Marlene. “You’re right. Cheers and Merry Christmas!”

The End