1999 First Prize Fiction
and Other Tales From Billy's Bar
© Copyright 1999 by Rick Sorensen
Chapter 1: The Snowy Evening
Driving the big rigs to the small towns in the Northwest is separate kind of work. I don't say lonely because you can be away from people, separate, without being lonely. I have my thoughts and my notebook to jot down ideas and stories I've heard. They become either short stories or poems. I was driving through the Northwest when I met him, Joe G., the loneliest man I ever knew. When you asked what he did, Joe G. said he was "in charge of things around the graveyard, and such" in that little town.
Beneath the shadow of the majestic Olympic range, that little town of his seemed as stable and permanent as the mountains themselves. Everybody in that old logging town "did" something; everyone had a neatly defined role. Although Joe G. filled his role quite well, there was always something about him that didn't ring quite true. He spoke like the rest of the town, except that in any long conversation, words and phrases crept in that betrayed him as a highly educated man in either literature or science or both. I went through that town, always stopping whether coming or going, for most of twelve years, twice a week. I always stopped at Billy's Bar, and always seemed to find Joe G. there in the early evening in conversation with the same group.
I had stopped there twice a week for three years before I was allowed into the private circle in the corner of the bar as a listener. It was five years before I hesitantly joined the conversations. During those years I had followed the code by laughing or being amazed at the right times. I always bought my round and sometimes an extra one, but, not too often because they didn't like show-offs in that town.
Later, after I was part of group, if it was late in the evening and I had stayed over for more than dinner in one of Billy's five rooms, I would belly-up to Joe G.'s table. I'd buy a round or two and listen to his private stories. When Joe G. was story-telling, the glasses at the table were never empty, and Billy even kept the chips, pretzels and cheese spread full and took care of a round or two himself without much fanfare. Joe G. really was not a drinker, and often talked on until a full beer got warm, then he'd order a new one, and sometimes wink, and say that Billy's got to eat too. That was the way of things in the town.
Joe G. said he was part Italian from the sole of the boot of Italy, and German from near the Swiss mountains, and Norwegian, and Oglala Sioux from South Dakota. His name was Giuseppi Gustav Olaf Eagle's Quill and everyone called him 'Joe G.,' which some of the ignorant thought was 'Georgie,' which caused him to ignore the uninitiated.
There was one night when an early treacherous snow started out as freezing rain leaving a coat of ice under several inches of wet snow. That was far too treacherous for the mountain roads so I pulled in early and planned to stay at Billy's over night until the roads were cleared. That night it turned out to be Billy, Joe G. and me all hunkered down over by the hearth with the whole place to ourselves. I had been bringing home a couple of cases of Jack Daniel's Winter Brew beer in the truck cab, so I went out and brought it in to contribute to the pot, so to speak. Billy made some home-made pizzas with sausage and roasted red peppers and kept the chips full as Joe G. talked.
Joe G. was a big man, whom the loggers would never arm wrestle, but he was real light on his feet and quick when he wanted to be, like when he danced sometimes. There was one night when this logger, a former Green Beret, named Bronk, got real rowdy because he was being teased about something that happened with some college kids. Well, Bronk started throwing loggers around like they were girl scouts until Joe G. got up and decided that it was time for Bronk to quiet down. Bronk didn't feel that way and was trying to set Joe G. down. But it seemed every time Bronk got real close to Joe G., Bronk just wound up on his backside. But Bronk kept getting up until Joe G. hit him once with heel of his hand right on the snout. His nose was broken and Bronk was out for half an hour. Joe took care of him like son and there were no hard feelings. Bronk always called Joe G. "Sir" after that and always moved aside for him.
That snowy night I asked Joe G. about it and around the third six pack he started talking about how he studied martial arts for years in Tokyo when he was a university professor and a Jesuit. That made me me and Billy both take an extra chug of the Winter Brew. Joe G. talked about being called back to Rome when he was a young priest. Because of his martial arts and good looks they made him a kind of enforcer for the Church. Whenever somebody high placed liked a bishop or archbishop needed protection from the locals, Joe G. went to stay there. It seems sometimes the trouble was woman trouble. Then Joe G. was given an identity and told to get the woman's mind off of the church big guy.
Joe was really good at it, and the Pope himself would hear his confessions and forgive him. But he couldn't forgive himself and one day he just got out of his robes and changed into jeans and left. He wound up here because the mountains called to him he said. After a long time he found this old logging town. He went to work in the graveyard because it was quiet enough to do his thinking. He said he liked the graveyard because he could tell his customers things and they wouldn't tell anybody
Then Billy suddenly asked if Joe thought the "rosebush" was all right in this bitter cold. Billy was worried because Joe always wrapped for it for the winter and this storm was early and might hurt it. Billy was more worried about that rosebush than I had ever him seen fret over anything. Joe G. got all distant and far away looking and quiet for a while. Then, very softly, he said he had already wrapped it for the year. Billy seemed to be real relieved. Joe said that he didn't think anything could have hurt that bush any way. He said he just did the wrapping because "it kind of seemed fitting somehow, to keep Miss Charlotte from the cold."
I wasn't sure what they were talking about. In all the years, I had heard only guarded references to "Miss Charlotte" or "The Rosebush." Joe and Billy exchanged looks and told me that I could never repeat the story. Then Joe spoke softly about the rosebush.
It almost weren't natural the way Charlotte loved her Daddy. Now don't get me wrong--I ain't saying that they was doing anything unnatural or sinful. No sir, it was just the opposite. The way she loved her daddy and he loved her was as if the good Lord had gone and decided to give them something special in each other that we other simple folk didn't have. It might have been because Charlotte grew up with just her Daddy who had to be Mamma and Pappa to her. Charlotte's Ma died in an isolated logging camp where Marcus, Charlotte's daddy, was working. In town, the child birth complications would have not been a big thing, but out there in the woods, well....Marcus was all Charlotte had left.
It was a pleasure to behold them two. I had dinner with them at least once a month. The three of us talked about books that the other town folk never read. Charlotte talked about her Far Eastern studies, and sometimes I talked a little about my life.
Then one night at dinner, Marcus was kind of pale like and not eating well. Before the evening went too far, I took him in my truck to Doc Billings, he was retired but helped us out for small stuff. Doc had me to take Marcus all the way into the city. For nearly six weeks I took Charlotte back forth to see Marcus. There was his operations and the chemotherapy and then his resting at home. It took a toll on us all but especially Miss Charlotte.
Agnes, that's Ms. Early the visiting nurse, said that it was a cancer eating at him and making him into the hollow tree trunk he became. I had drunk a few steins with Marcus, and I can tell you he had been a big man. He studied trees for the government and figured ways to grow them faster, so we all liked him--this being a logging town.
Well, as you can see, I ain't no peewee myself, what with me digging graves in this rocky soil and hauling them caskets around. However, Marcus was so big, it was like the big trees had sort of gotten into him. However, there was always a kindness about him. It sort of made me think of him being a huge old-growth tree with arms outstretched for the birds to nest in. Well, any way, he had a good mind, and was a kind man, and he was my friend.
When Marcus "passed" and became my business at the graveyard, he was so eaten up with cancer, it weren't no effort at all to pick him up. He was pale and so fragile looking, it was like his skin was thin rice paper stretched over bamboo. I went over to Billy's Bar and put down quite a few steins after I brought him over to my yard. Even Agnes said near the end she was able to pick him up and turn him for cleaning. The thought of that fine big man, who so many of us genuinely liked and respected, and one we had emptied many mugs with, being all eaten up like that, was enough to keep Billy's open and the draft pouring free past closing time.
Oscar and me fixed the body up as best as he could, and I found the best place for Charlotte's Dad. I had sort of been reserving it for, I didn't know what, maybe my own spot. But, I gave it to Charlotte, at a quarter of what it was worth, and told her the whole four-place plot was hers if she wanted to be buried there. Seeing how much she loved her daddy, I thought it only right that they be together. I wouldn't have done anything with the money but drink it down, or put it in the bank. This way, I always have a good feeling when I see that plot, especially after what happened. It was in the far corner, north side, with some lilac bushes from the Forster mausoleum on one side and a bunch of rose bushes from Grady and Pelham on the other sides. By the grave the pastor said that Marcus and Charlotte showed us there were lessons in love we all could learn but most of us learn too late. He talked on with words that gave most family folks a real catch in the throat. Me? Well, not having family, it made me feel how much I had missed because of the life I settled in. Any way, the way Charlotte behaved made us all talk to own kids about what loving your family meant.
Agnes and the church women took care of Miss Charlotte and put on a real fine food bag. Ol' Mose came with his cane and with his two idiot sons carrying two full kegs of his special recipe. The smart son was away in Washington, DC, but sent a telegram to Charlotte. That was real nice. Mose said he had been saving these kegs for his own funeral, but he thought Marcus deserved the best. Even Mrs. Early's mother, all bent with arthritis, made her dried tomato bread she hadn't made in years. Everybody fussed over Ol' Mose and Mrs. Early's Mom, and specially Charlotte. It was a special reception for Marcus and Charlotte. None of the ladies had an unkind word for each other and no man got stupid-drunk, not even Mose's boys.
Well, after the reception and services were over, Charlotte went over in the Pastor's car and sat by her daddy's grave until late that night when I brought her home. Charlotte sat by that grave from dawn to dusk for two whole months reading her daddy's journals. She would sometimes come to me ask me some real tough metaphysical questions and stuff about the East. I answered her as straight as I could without revealing too much. I guess that helped her grieving.
I had been having some real deep feelings for her, but it didn't seem the time to talk about those. Not that she would have ever had me after my past. And I still didn't know how I felt about being a priest, if I still was one. Then one day she up and said she was going to India where her daddy had worked before. He had done some special work there with a friend and she was going to find him. She closed up the house the next day, and came by to say good-bye to me and to give me a kiss on the cheek.
Charlotte came back a whole year later. She just showed up at my building in the graveyard carrying this special red and yellow rose bush in pot. She wanted to plant it by her daddy. I told her that would be okay and I promised I would look after it. But she didn't want any help to plant it. She gave me a real strange kiss on the cheek again and made me promise again that I would look after it and see it through the heat and the cold. All the time she was trembling like a bird with a cat looking at it. I tried to calm her and she seemed to get a grip on herself. Then, she went to the plot and sat there with the rose bush in her lap and I went about tending the east side plots. On my way back, I hollered over to her to take her home, but she didn't answer. She had said a real fine thank you and good-bye to me before, so I figured she had just gone to the old home.
Next morning Agnes went to see her and bring her home for tea, but she hadn't opened her daddy's house, and she wasn't at the boarding house. Mort, at the rail station, said she hadn't left and she had come with only a one-way ticket because he took it to get the baggage stub to get her plant. Any way, we looked around and she wasn't in town. As we were looking around town for her, we ran into Harry, the sheriff. He drove around in his big car looking for her, which I figure was just an excuse to be "big" in the big car. After looking a while Harry got a little concerned because we'd been getting some drifters through since the mill closing.
We traipsed on over to the cemetery because that's where I saw her last. Well, when we got there, Harry and me, we just kind of stood there looking at that plot until Harry sent me for the Pastor. I guess Harry just kind of stood there with that bewildered look he gets, until the Pastor and me came back. When we arrived, I pointed at the rosebush and told how the Pastor she made me promise to tend it and all her questions and how she was disappeared.
The Pastor went to his knees and prayed for a while. Then he stood up real firm and straight and said, "Nothing that beautiful and nothing that came out of such love could be Devil's work" and "the Lord's ways are His own."
So, we all knelt down and prayed with the Pastor a while. We just kept staring at that beautiful yellow and red rose bush that had taken root and wrapped itself completely around Marcus' headstone. You could see Charlotte's clothes and shoes at the base where it had took root. Her ring that Marcus was so proud of was around one branch. As the bush grows bigger and fuller every year, people say it looks more and more the way Charlotte did when she sat against the headstone.
After that night, I
always paid my respects to the rosebush, the way town folk did, whenever
I was in town. Late on those nights I stayed over, I always sat with Joe
G. and listened to his stories like the one about Bronk's "true love" or
John D., the strange teacher. But, those are stories for another night.
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