Through my early years on West Taylor Avenue, I remember spending many lazy afternoons resting my elbows on the windowsill of my upstairs bedroom window and watching the comings and goings at Bernie’s Bar across the street, naming the pigeons and noting their arrivals, departures and rivalries. If I didn’t know the names of the regular patrons, I made up names for them also, like Scarecrow, High Water Pants, Lady Red Shoes.
On my twelfth birthday, my parents gave me a wristwatch, and I began logging how much time patrons spent inside Bernie’s. Mr. Stolowitz, the retired railroad conductor who lived down the block, held the record. One Saturday afternoon I timed him staying for over four hours. Most patrons stayed just over an hour. I counted how many times the Schlitz beer sign blinked in a minute, sometimes catching myself mindlessly counting the blinks into the hundreds if my attention wasn’t drawn to pigeons or patrons.
Weekday afternoons were best. After school, my mother allowed me two cookies before expecting me to go to my room and begin my homework, which I did, but never before checking out the activities across the street. When it rained, people dashed from cars or came running down the sidewalk with umbrellas; all with the same urgency; all with the same destination. The bricks turned a rich dark terracotta, the electric signs in the windows appeared brighter, and the pigeons, with gestures of reluctance, huddled together on the second story windowsills under the eaves.
Most of the patrons were men; occasionally a woman went in with one of the men, but no woman ever went in by herself. That puzzled me, so I asked my mother why I never saw a woman go into Bernie’s unless she was with a man. My mother wanted to know why I was watching that place, and asked if I didn’t have anything better to do. I pressed the question, and she told me no self-respecting woman would go into that place alone. Over the years, I discovered that my mother’s way of answering my questions on most topics was to repeat my observations back to me, adding little information. I had lots of questions about girls and women, but, for the most part, I didn’t ask my mother.
As a teenager, my attention shifts from mere observations of the patrons to the bright red neon “Cocktails” sign in the long front window. I am sure that cocktails are the big draw; more people are going into Bernie’s for cocktails than those going in for Schlitz beer. My father keeps Schlitz beer in the refrigerator and always drinks one when he comes home from work. Schlitz beer isn’t anything special. Cocktails are the attraction.
Just before my fifteenth birthday I go through a growth spirt, leaving me an inch taller than my father. That summer, my bedroom window observations become daydreams, become plans. I steal a cigarette from my father’s pack while he is napping on the sofa. The pants, the shirt, the sweater and my leather church shoes, are carefully selected and in place.
On Tuesday afternoons my mother always goes grocery shopping for at least two hours. As usual, before leaving, she calls up the stairway, “Floyd, I’m going to the grocery store. Take out the garbage while I’m gone. Don’t forget.”
“I won’t forget, Mom. Bye.”
From my window I watch her disappear up the block, small grocery cart in tow. Without a wasted moment, I change my clothes and step out the front door. After making a casual survey of the block in both directions, I light my cigarette, tuck it between my fingers and cross the street.
Bernie’s door is bigger and heavier than it looks from my bedroom window. I push it open and walk straight to an empty stool at the near end of the bar. The dimly lit interior hangs heavy with cigarette smoke and greasy cooking odors. Lady Red Shoes and her usual escort, Scarecrow, are at the other end of the bar, his wide-brimmed hat resting on the stool next to him. I feel their eyes checking me out as the bartender comes my way.
“What’ll you have?” he asks, placing a small square napkin on the bar in front of me and sliding an ashtray my way.
“I’ll have a cocktail,” I answer, taking a puff on my cigarette.
“What kind?” The bartender asks. His voice is soft, but carries an edge of annoyance.
What kind? There are kinds?
“Ah… I’m not sure,” I stammer.
“Well, maybe you should come back when you are sure,” the bartender suggests, with a knowing smile.
“Yes, I’ll do that,” I reply, slipping off my stool.
“Good. I’ll see you then,” the bartender calls after me, as if I were one of the regulars just moving on for the afternoon.
I cross the street, realizing with an added twinge of embarrassment, I left my cigarette burning on the edge of the ashtray. The bright red “Cocktails” sign, up close at street level, now a mockery, remains a stronger allurement than ever.
That afternoon, I watch for my father to come home from work. After hanging up his cap and jacket in the hall closet, he greets my mother and goes directly to the refrigerator for a beer. I meet him in the kitchen, his beer in hand.
“Hi, Dad. Getting your afternoon beer?” I ask.
“Yeah. You been helping your mother today?”
Bernie’s is looming in my mind like my personal Mt. Everest. Screwing up my courage, I ask, “What about cocktails? Do you ever drink cocktails?”
“You mean like a martini or fancy pants drinks like that? No. Give me a beer any day,” he answers, heading for his living room recliner.
Martini. The word reverberates in my head before coming to rest in a special corner of my memory. Martini it is.
Leon Kortenkamp is a San Francisco Bay Area writer and artist. He holds a Master of Fine Arts degree from the University of Notre Dame. His recent writing includes short fiction illustrated with brushed-plate monotypes. His work has appeared in Flash Fiction Magazine, Curbside Splendor, Ploughshares, Dime Show Review, Crux Literary Journal, Pilgrim Literary Journal and Harpoon Review among others. He grew up in rural Iowa, and memories of those formative years are often reflected in his work. He is a deacon in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, and a professor at Notre Dame de Namur University in Belmont, California.