by Leonard Schlenz
Mickey’s Tavern is a puzzling place. It’s a beer joint with a tiny touch of class, part saloon, part museum; it’s a morning hangout for feral hippies with gray ponytails, a veteran’s foxhole away from the cold reality of a drizzly city in November. On the glass shelves behind the bar sit mementos from the great sea battles, little basswood ships and carved sailors. They sit in front of a very large mirror that pretends to double the seductive assembly of spirits in Mickey’s little corner lot.
Like a lot of the older taverns, its old pine floors are baptized in a perfume of spilt beer, and you can still smell the Camel smoke from the fifties, and you don’t have to be real perceptive to sense the confessional resonance of a million regrets embedded in the plaster wall. The owner, Mickey, says the place has character; the neighbors call it blight, an eyesore that attracts the worst kind.
Like a lot of beer joints, you have three choices of draft beer, and you can buy a shot of just about anything, but you won’t be ordering a Mai Tai or a Tainted Heart or a Mojito there, unless you go behind the bar and fix it yourself. From the inside of Mickey’s the only reality is the distant evening traffic zipping home through the drizzle to the south of town, or now and again, the heavy west door whooshing open, letting in a burst of autumn setting sun. The regulars will look over at the squeaky door each and every time and squint into the sudden brightness as if they’re expecting someone.
It’s a special day, “Half price for everything except the good stuff,” Mickey says. The calendar date is circled. Drinks are always half price on that day, but this anniversary is an anniversary numbered in the tens, and so extra special.
A rabble of drinkers usually lingers inside the place from noon on. Today is not much different for them except that Mickey lights some candles; it’s a candlelight vigil, sort of, related to all those relics of war that line the altar behind the bar where Mickey wipes a glass mug with a rag.
The clientele; they’re working people, and people without work, and every now and then people in nice clothes who walk in by accident, but mostly they smell of gas and oil, asphalt or burnt rubber, or even the smell of dumpsters where a few of them have slept the previous night.
Darryl, Mickey’s sort-of partner, is especially nervous today. Because of the curse.
He doesn’t hear what anybody says because he sits there talking to himself, monitoring the door that lets in the traffic, along with the whiffs of tobacco smoke from those who linger outside in the cold. It’s a day of remembrance. Remembering when you could smoke in your bunk back in ’44, and how, now, you can’t smoke in your own place. But mostly, remembering those scary days waiting for the Zeros to come buzzing in with the sun behind their tails. This frosty day is a day of atonement, though Mickey and Darryl don’t quite know the extent of the atoning to be done.
Snuggled between the Bacardi and the Ballantine’s is the centerpiece of Mickey’s Tavern, a hunk of twisted metal no bigger than half a piece of burnt toast; it’s a piece of charred shrapnel from the frigate they called the Katz, pulled out of Darryl’s backside, a harsh reminder of the guts of the boiler room where Mickey and Darryl traded shifts back when. The shrapnel honors that one day when the Japs left the Katz burning and melting and badly punctured as she bounced like a giant discarded cork off the coast of Formosa. Darryl has told many a tale with the relic held gently in his hand, and when he’s a bit tipsy he swears it beats like a little heart.
Of course there’s more to the Tavern’s artifacts than a hunk of charred metal. There’s lots of old ship stuff from the big war, shell casings from the Army/Navy surplus store down the street that hold the pretzels, black and white photos of battleships and cruisers, a picture of two sailors, smiling for the camera, arms joined over the shoulders like woven rope… Mickey and Darryl at eighteen. It’s November and cold on South Broadway, but you can see from the pictures how hot and humid it was back then in the South China Sea, and that’s where their thoughts still float after all these years. In those old black-and-white photos.
On the east wall are yellowed articles from newspapers and some overhead shots on the cover of magazines… of big ships with big wakes. One of the regulars sets his mug on the bar and asks for a refill, and whispers, “What’s with Darryl? He seems more out of it than usual.”
Mickey just shrugs. It’s nobody’s damn business. A man pushing on in years can have his own special stresses, those which come from noise, for example, which occurs to him now because it is in fact getting noisier as the early evening evolves, and it’s not the sun but nightfall that lingers just outside the door. But that’s not it either. Darryl is talking at the mirror like it was a big screen TV. The war is in the mirror. He’s asked Mickey to see it too, but Mickey doesn’t see it. Doesn’t want to see it.
Crunching gravel starts the evening off; the clientele begins to ease their old roadsters into place on the gravel lot, and hike their choppers up onto their stands. Mickey’s Tavern can be a rough place. It’s best to stay out, go someplace else on Saturday night if you’re not a regular. And it’s understood that troubles are handled inside, without police, as no one would want Mickey to lose his liquor license. Dirty laundry is hung inside, not outside. Mickey runs a tight ship.
Darryl presides at the end of the bar; Mickey does the bartending. The poolroom clicks and clacks quietly like distant ack-ack fire, and outside, somebody tinkers with a chopper and it pops and grumbles, seeking that perfect pitch. Darryl rises from his stool and shuffles into the poolroom. “Where you goin’ Darryl?”
“Just seein’ if anybody needs anything,” Darryl says. He helps out where he can though he’s had no business interest in the tavern for years. Darryl is first in, last out. Though he’s old by some standards, he’s grizzled and greasy, not too old to stand under oil pans part of the day helping his boy in the shop. Mickey understands that when Darryl sits at the bar bobbing his head, looking into that mirror, he’s looking up at the sea.
It seems like yesterday to Mickey, the sinking of the Katz. The ship was cursed from the start. She should have been christened with holy water what with its faulty boiler and single-minded navigation. It’s an old story. Worn out after all these years. But it just wasn’t fair the others got to die. The boiler crew, Mickey and Darryl and Graves, survived the Japs, and then the sharks, but then Graves, even Graves just disappeared afterwards. Never wrote. No postcards from Waikiki. Nothing. Leaving just the two of them.
Or so they made themselves believe all those years. But this was a special anniversary, the end of the curse. Where the buck stopped. They’d only recently talked it through, and tonight Darryl says, “Enough already. We can’t go on with the lie.”
“Shut up, Darryl.”
“It’s not up to us anymore, Mick. Like they say, our comeuppance will arrive like a thief in the night and the thief is at the door. Seaman Graves is not in Hawaii. Never was.” Darryl looks into the giant mirror; all the action is above deck, the ack-ack guns reverberating below deck; he knows the silver fish are speeding towards them… “The Katz has come home to roost. We let him down. And you damn well know it.”
It’s a quieter night than usual. There’re no fights yet. Nothing to write home about as they say. Except for maybe a last note in the diary, a goodbye note, “Let it go Darryl. We suffered enough.”
“Look in the mirror, Mick. It’s calling us. The Katz is calling us back.”
And finally, Mickey, the owner of Mickey’s Tavern, begins to see, maybe not in the mirror like his old friend, but he sees; he is once again back in the belly of a frigate, huffing and puffing in the deep blue sea. Inside the Katz. In the warm blue sea. And those in the belly of the cursed beast tending to the boiler are the most at risk.
And from inside the perimeter walls, the entire footprint of Mickey’s beer joint, there is a bleating like the bleating of sheep, or to Mickey and Darryl the sound of melting metal groaning and men moaning; and the sweating walls surely are the bulkheads leaking.
But not entirely believing his own eyes and his own ears, Mickey says, “I think we’ve sprung a leak somewhere,” and him and Darryl both stand there with their mouths open like kids in a spook show, and they watch a small streamlet of water running down the wall from the ceiling next to the big clock that’s stopped. “Over there, too,” Darryl says. “Water’s trickling’ down that wall now. And what’s with the clock?”
Mickey shakes his head, “When it rains it pours. Ain’t that the damndest thing you ever saw… so is it raining outside?”
“Stopped a few hours ago, and as you don’t have an upstairs I don’t imagine there’s any plumbing up there which could burst.”
And then Darryl starts his mambo dance with the ghosts in his head, having ditched the boiler room with poor Graves trapped there, bobbing his head to avoid the imaginary strafing of a new wave of Zeros coming in against the sun, part of him wanting to go back for Graves…
“Why don’t you step outside and take a break, Darryl; see if you can see any way the water’s coming in from up there.”
“Hey, what’s with the water, boss?” It’s another regular who’s been hanging there for ten years, a big plumber with big hands, shaking his head and pointing to a little puddle starting to form near the dartboard.
“Go about your drinkin’, Leo. Mind your business. We’ll take care of it.”
“I’m a plumber, and it is my business, boss.”
Mickey takes a fresh mug from behind the bar and fills it, saying, “Here… on the house.”
The plumber shrugs and walks away, saying to his stubble-faced, skinny partner, “I told him, I told him. Not my problem.”
By now all thirty or so patrons are starting to notice the puddles on the floor. It’s widely assumed the restroom has run over again, and most have homes to go to and warm beds for the most part, and the water is not their concern, except one regular who’s walking unsteadily out of the poolroom with a cue stick pointed up. He has Chinese characters tattooed on his bald fat head and is crankier than the others and says, “Hey bartender… the shoes are getting squishy back there,” and another mumbles, his lips moving like slow honey squeezed out of a plastic jar, “Sure thing, Mickey boy, it’s gettin’ to be a regular swamp back there.”
“You don’t like it, y’all go somewheres else,” Mickey says, as Darryl is returning from outside shrugging his shoulders, and Mickey is starting to understand something the others, except Darryl, don’t, and he breathes in deeply, remembering the sweet sickening smell of men’s skin burned black in diesel oil in ’44; and he looks over to Darryl who’s quit dodging imaginary bullets for the time being, and they both stop to listen to the far-off screaming coming out of the walls where sharks munch down on cooked flesh, and dive bombers release their torment in wave after wave, and the bending ship shrieks as if the rivets themselves feel excruciating pain.
A voice in the crowd says, “You want I should open the door and let out the water?” It’s the plumber Leo, and he knows a bit about plumbing and he knows there’s no way in hell that water should be leaking down the walls like Niagara Falls.
“Nope,” Mickey says. “Just drink up and get out. All of you, outta’ here, we’re closing up.” Most of the crowd has left already and the water is a good three inches deep now. The last man slips and departs on his butt with the rushing water and the delirious hooting of his companions.
It’s just the two of them now and the floor is six inches deep in warm water and rising, and the lights start to flicker and the neon blue and red which encircles St. Pauli Girl turns dull as cinder. The jukebox and the girly pinball go next, their neon sputtering and dying with hardly a fight. All that remains is the fragrant candlelight. There’s enough light from the candles and the city outside to make out the steady stream of water rippling down next to the calendar, the calendar of U.S. Naval War Ships, and making slurping sounds, where little maelstroms no bigger than bathtub swirls find openings in the pine floor, beneath which is the cellar where the kegs are stored and boxes of liquor, and cases of bottled beer; and that’s where sits the old cast iron boiler built in the twenties. And now Darryl says to Mickey, “I sure wish I knew the words to that sailor poem.”
“Secure the west bulkhead!”
“No, that ain’t it.”
“Damn it, Darryl. This was your doing, now secure the west bulkhead!”
Mickey’s in charge; and Darryl follows orders like it was only natural for him, and he sloshes his way through the water to the door and pulls it snug, then bolts it. Out of habit he moves to the window, outside of which there’s actually a night-lit city he’d forgotten about, where his boy lives, and where his grandkids are probably home watching TV. He turns the cardboard sign from Open to Closed. He knows deep down that it’s not the Japs, but the Lord, that will have the better of this night. “I’ve got more candles,” Mickey says, and he wades through the water back behind the bar where he opens a cupboard and pulls out two big candles mounted in silver gravy boats. “Got a match, Darryl?”
“Course I got a match,” Darryl says, and he wades back through the water still flowing in ripples down each wall like a contrived water display, or some fancy artwork on a new slick marble building. The walls are still bleating; he pulls out his Zippo and lights each candle. The water is up to their knees. It’s warm, and he lights a Marlboro while he’s at it, inhales and holds it in his lungs for a while like it’s his last.
“Proceed to the boiler room. Get Seaman Graves out of there before it blows.”
“You know we could drown down there,” Darryl says.
“We are the boiler tenders, Darryl, so tend your boilers!”
Each takes a candle. Mickey leads the way through the dancing shadows. The trap door is next to the restrooms in the poolroom. Darryl holds Mickey’s candle while Mickey reaches into the shallow water and unlocks the padlock on the trap door. He tugs it upward, letting a river of water disappear into the darkness below. It takes both of them to lift it fully open and Mickey leans it against the wall.
“Maybe this time we’ll get it right,” Mickey says. He looks back into the bar area but it’s too dark to see much. A steady stream of warm water pours down the wooden stairs and Mickey grabs onto a rail with one hand and holds his candle with the other. “Here goes nothing… it’s slippery, Darryl… watch your step,” he says as he’s sucked straight down in a swirl of warm water and floor trash.
Darryl is old but he’s wiry and strong, and he grabs the slippery railing, “I’m right behind you.” Though it’s in two feet of water, the boiler is a monster of growling fire, sucking air and rumbling. But beginning to sputter. “The water’s already killing it,” Mickey says. “I’m not sure what there is to do here.”
The cellar is cavernous and dark, the air smelling of damp cement. Holding their candles upward they slosh into the darkness towards the diminishing glow and the warmth of the boiler. Empties float nearly three feet above the floor now and Mickey stands at five foot six, Darryl to slightly more. Mickey makes a pirouette with his candle, casting shadows on twenty thousand dollars of inventory, old doorknobs, and broken stools. He yells, “Graves? Graves? You in here, Graves? For god’s sake come on out.”
“Water’s coming fast now,” Darryl says, and they watch it wrap the wooden stairs in swirls, then they hear the thump of the trap door slamming shut, sucked inward by the rushing sea, and they listen as the water still hits the floor above like a tropical thunderstorm, and all the time running through every crevice of the old tavern down down down to the cellar, down to the timbers that brace the ship, both candles flickering.
“Don’t think we could lift that door again if we wanted to,” Darryl says. “And I think the boiler’s had it.”
And then he too shouts out, “Graves? Seaman Graves?”
“She’s a goner all right.”
“But what about Graves?” Darryl says, as a splash hits his candle and it sputters, sending up a smoky whiff of candle wax. He pulls out his Zippo but it’s futile to relight it. Mickey’s candle is dim as well and they shiver.
“People gonna’ wonder where all that water came from,” Darryl says with a hint of humor, and in the lingering flickering candle light Mickey sees a twinkle in Darryl’s eye.
They’re ready, as they have been for some time, since ’44, “Seaman Graves, are you there, Graves?”
Mickey’s Tavern is a watery tomb that smells of oil and fire, and the nauseating sweet smell of burning sailors, and now, above, they can still hear the faint sounds of strafing, the buzzing of dive bombers, and in their hearts they feel a blessed peace as they do their level best to do right by Seaman Graves.