Father Time 1977, by John Thompson

Darlene dangled an extra Maraschino cherry over her mother-in-law’s Old Fashioned, but Patty pulled the glass away.   Darlene ate it herself. “Hey, these things aren’t half bad.” She picked another from the jar, her long curved fingernails matching the cherry’s brilliant red dye. “I don’t get to make too many fancy drinks. It’s mostly shots and beers.” After gulping another, she set the jar on the bar near Patty. “If they order something fancy, I usually card them.”

Patty reached for her Marlboros. “Believe it or not, I was still getting carded in my thirties.”

“Oh, I believe it,” said Darlene over her shoulder as she went to serve another customer at the end of the bar. “You still look young for your age.”

She had to agree with her daughter-in-law, but Patty sipped her drink and snuck a peek in the mirror. Her youthful devotion to the sun had turned on her. She didn’t want to be a mother-in-law, not yet. Mother-in-law was too close to grandmother. She was only forty-eight, for Christ’s sake.  She’d been married by eighteen, had Mark and then Eddie before she was old enough to even be in a bar. But she didn’t drink then, he did, and he also chased other women and that’s what Patty couldn’t take. What had bothered her then, and what, till this day, still bothers her the most, is that none of the other woman were as pretty as she was. Not a goddamned one. To be beat at her own game would be one thing, but to be beat at something she didn’t understand—well, that was far worse. She didn’t love the bastard anymore; she hadn’t loved him for fifteen years. Raising two boys alone, without support, not one dime, took care of that. But he never did explain why she wasn’t enough.

Darlene drifted back and wiped the worn mahogany in front of Patty’s glass. “I’m glad you decided to keep me company.” She set a bag of peanuts in front of Patty. “Can you believe Eddie? Who the hell works on New Year’s Eve?”

“Well, you’re working, aren’t you?” Patty’s instinct was to come to her son’s defense, though she knew there was an outside chance Eddie wasn’t really working. The apple hadn’t fallen too far from the tree. Like his father before him, Eddie could bend the truth a little. He was lovable; he could always make you smile, and make you forgive him, but he couldn’t be trusted. “I’m sure he’ll be back as soon as he can,” she said and took a peanut.

Darlene helped herself to a peanut, too. “I just wish they hadn’t made him deliver all the way down to Maryland, that’s all. I hope he gets back before midnight. I’ve got a surprise for him.”

“Oh yeah, what’s that?”

“It’s a surprise. I’m not telling till Eddie gets here.” Then she snatched another cherry from the jar.

Patty knew Eddie and Darlene had only invited her to the bar because they didn’t want her to be at home, and alone, on New Year’s Eve, but she wouldn’t have come if Eddie hadn’t worked. Now that she could tell herself she was the one keeping Darlene company, it was okay. When Darlene reached for the cherries again, Patty pulled the jar away. “What are you doing?”

“I don’t know. I can’t stop eating them,” said Darlene with a giggle. “Let me get you another drink.”

“I have to pace myself,” said Patty, but she didn’t stop Darlene from taking her glass.

Darlene mixed the Old Fashioned. “There’ll be some single guys in here later on.”

Patty smacked the bottom of her Marlboro pack. “Spare me.” She pulled a cigarette out of the pack with her lips and Darlene reached across the bar with a lighter. “You know what my philosophy is?” said Patty. “When a boy gets to be about this high,” she held her hand above the bar about two feet, “they ought to.” She chopped at the bar with the side of her open hand. “Whack!”

“Ouch!” said a young man at the end of the bar.

Patty and Darlene laughed. “I calls ’em like I sees ’em,” said Patty. “Get them while they’re young.”

“She’s tough,” he said to Darlene and downed the rest of his beer.

There had been a few other young men at the bar when Patty first came in, but they’d all left to go get out of their work clothes and get ready for the big night. “Another beer?” Darlene asked.

“Sure.” He counted his money and moved down the bar, stopping three stools away from Patty. She could see him now between the legs of the paper Santa taped to the bar’s mirror. He looked about half her age, mid twenties, maybe older, handsome, clean, but his hair was a little unkempt and he had a plastic hospital band on his wrist. Patty didn’t want to turn and look directly, so she contented herself with peeks in the mirror, through Santa’s legs.

“Here ya go, Frank.” Darlene slid the beer across the bar and he grabbed it, looked through the mirror back at Patty and smiled. She nodded politely, but he snickered and Patty looked away annoyed. What in the hell’s his problem? When she looked again, he was still staring, and even more irritatingly, was now laughing. Patty ignored him and sipped on her Old Fashioned, but when her gaze went back to the mirror, he was still at it. She turned around altogether and faced down the empty bar. Finally, he got up and went to the men’s room and Patty waved Darlene over. “Is that guy okay? He keeps staring at me in the mirror.”

“Maybe he likes you.”

“No, I mean it, Darlene. He’s looking at me funny. It’s making me nervous.”

“Oh, Frank’s all right. He’s a little wild sometimes, but he’s nice enough and smart, too. He always wants me to put Jeopardy on, but he’s the only one who ever knows any answers.”

“Questions,” corrected Patty.

“What questions?”

“Never mind,” she said. “He keeps staring at me with this shit-eating grin. I don’t like it.” Patty sipped her drink. “And he’s wearing a hospital band, for Christ sake. What’s that all about?”

Frank came out of the men’s room and Darlene said, “I’ll talk to him.”

“No,” said Patty, but Darlene went down the bar and started whispering to the young man. Patty tried not to look. At least, she tried not to be obvious, but he caught her glancing in the mirror. Frank laughed out loud and pointed. Patty felt her cheeks flush. Darlene stooped and put her head down at Frank’s level, then turned and looked back to Patty in the mirror. Patty pretended she had no interest whatsoever in what was going on down there.

Now Darlene laughed out loud. “Oh, my God! Frank, you’re right.”

When Darlene came back, still giggling, Patty said, “What the hell is so funny?”

“Well,” said Darlene trying to keep her composure. “From where he’s sitting, it looks like you’re giving Santa a blow job.” She pointed to the paper Santa Clause taped to the mirror.


“You know,” said Darlene and she cupped her right hand to her lips and bobbed her head.

“Stop it.” Patty grabbed Darlene’s arm. “For God’s sake. I know what it is.” She could tell her cheeks were now fully flushed. “That’s sick.” She peeked around Darlene and saw Frank smile between Santa’s legs, so she slid her drink to the next stool and moved away. “I guess this is what I get coming to a dive like this.”

“Frank didn’t mean nothing. And that’s really what it looked like.” Darlene appeared ready to laugh again, until Patty glared. She wiped the bar, barely able to contain herself.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” said Frank.

Patty saw, in the mirror, that he had turned his head and was looking directly at her. His calling her ma’am, like she was some kind of old maid, didn’t help matters any.

“I didn’t mean any disrespect. I just have an odd sense a humor sometimes, that’s all.”

“Forget it,” said Patty, gazing at her hands. They were dotted with liver spots that gave her age away more than anything else about her.

“Come on, ma’am,” said Frank. “Let me buy you a drink to make up for it.”

“Don’t call me ma’am,” she said, spinning on the barstool to look him in the eye. “That’s what you can do for me.”

“Okay, okay it’s a deal. Now, how ’bout that drink?”

Patty ignored him.

“Darlene, my dear,” said Frank, “another round for Santa’s little helper.”

She watched him through the mirror as he moved down the bar and stood behind the stool that she had just vacated. He offered the hand with the hospital band adorning his wrist. “The name is Francis Alexander McCoy.”

“Do tell,” she said pointing to his identification bracelet, and then shook the hand. “You’re pushing your luck, Mr. McCoy.”

“May I sit down?” He was much taller than he had appeared while slouched at the bar.

Patty looked to Darlene, who didn’t seem the least bit concerned; in fact, she shrugged her shoulders like, come on, it’s New Years, let’s all get along here. “It’s a free country,” said Patty.

He slid onto the barstool. “Since we seem to be the only two revelers so far, we might as well get acquainted, eh?”

Darlene came back with Patty’s drink and a beer for Frank. Patty gave Darlene an if-this-gets-weird-I’m-going-to-kill-you look.

“And a shot of Jameson,” said Frank. He sipped his beer and smiled at Patty’s reflection in the mirror. “Darlene says you’re Eddie’s mom.”

“That’s right.”

“Nice kid, that Eddie. Too bad he’s got to work tonight, huh?”

“Yeah, it’s a shame,” said Patty, shaking her head, not at Eddie’s absence but at the way Frank had called Eddie a kid. He must only be twenty-seven or twenty-eight, himself.

Darlene poured the Jameson and waited as Frank lifted a five from the fold of his wallet. Darlene slipped it into the register without pulling any change. Patty figured Frank had come up short, but since Darlene was giving her the Old Fashioned, anyway, what did it matter? Patty asked him, “Aren’t you afraid to sit there? Now, you’re the one with your head in Santa’s lap.”

Frank shrugged. “What the hell? I’ve been getting the shaft at Christmas one way or another all my life.”

Patty spoke to his image in the mirror. “You had one of those Christmases, huh?”

“One of those Christmases! Oh, you might say that.” He gulped his whiskey, and then sipped some beer. “See this?” He pointed to the plastic hospital band.

“You were you in the hospital over Christmas?”

“Went in Christmas Eve.”

“Oh God, that is awful,” she said, but the truth was Patty was a bit envious. At least he’d had a legitimate reason for a lousy Christmas. “I hope you’re feeling better.”

“By the minute,” he said, and then he finished his beer with a flourish and waved Darlene over. “Darlene my love, I have a little cash flow problem. The banks were all closed by the time I got out of the hospital. How about cashing a small check for me?”

“You know I can’t do that. Brennan would kill me.” She pulled a cherry from the jar.

“Darlene, these are extenuating circumstances, and it’s New Years Eve.”

“I’m sorry Frank,” she said, pointing to the sign above the register. NO CHECKS, NO TABS, NO LOITERING. “I just work here.”

“Oh well.” He slid his empty beer glass over. “I should have enough for one more.” He dug into his pocket for change, and then slapped seventy-three cents on the bar.

“This one’s on me,” said Darlene as she picked up his glass.

Poor bastard, thought Patty. What a way to start the New Year. “Get him another whiskey, too. On me.”

“Bless you both.” He stood and bowed from the waist. “My faith, as Zorba the Greek would say, in the female species, is restored.”

Darlene got the drinks and said, “Eddie should have called by now.”

“Don’t worry,” said Patty. “I’m sure he’s all right.”

“He told me he’d call when he got there. If he doesn’t start back soon, he’ll never make it by midnight. I wanted to surprise him at midnight.”

“Ladies. May I propose a toast? Darlene, get yourself a drink too. On me,” he winked, and then held his whiskey glass high and waited while Darlene poured herself a glass of soda water. Patty raised her glass along with Frank grateful he’d interrupted Darlene, who was sounding the way she used to sound with Eddie’s father. Patty would just as soon not revisit those times.

“May the coming year bring both you lovely ladies pleasures beyond your wildest dreams.” They clinked glasses and drank.

“I’m going to call down there at the depot and see if they know what’s up with Eddie,” said Darlene, walking towards the pay phone at the end of the bar.

Patty turned to Frank. “What was the matter?”

“With what?”

“Why were you in the hospital? I mean you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want. I don’t mean to be nosy. I just—”

“Oh, no problem. It’s no secret. I was in detox.”

“You’re kidding?”

“Not really.”

“From drinking?”

“Among other things.”

“My God, what are you doing in a bar?”

“Well, let’s just say, I’m not here to listen to the piano player.”

Darlene slammed the phone. “Nobody’s answering.”

During the next hour and a half some of the bar’s regulars stopped back to prime the pump with a drink or two before heading out to New Year’s parties elsewhere. Darlene had quit worrying, out loud anyway, about where her Eddie was. She was too busy pouring drinks and making change. At one point, with a boisterous crowd at the bar toasting one another, slapping backs, giving holiday kisses, Patty was actually glad she’d come to Brennan’s. She’d even taken a personal check from Frank for twenty bucks, which he was spending freely, insisting on buying her drinks, too, even if it was with her own money. They began to talk like they’d known each other for a long time, maybe even intimately once, in some other time or place, and now magically, their paths had crossed again in Brennan’s, on New Year’s Eve. Old Fashioneds could do that.

“Those seven days in the detox changed my life,” he said, finishing his latest beer.

“It apparently hasn’t changed your drinking habits,” said Patty signaling Darlene to get them another round.

“No, but my thinking, my whole outlook on life has changed.”

Patty chewed on ice and tipped her glass. “To life.”

“You ever hear of Zorba the Greek?”

“With Anthony Quinn.”

“Yeah, that’s it.” Darlene put a fresh beer in front of Frank. “Get yourself a drink, darling.” He shoved his last bill forward.

“I loved that movie,” said Patty to Frank’s reflection in the mirror.

“I’m in the detox, see. And the fog is lifting, so I’m looking through magazines and shit when I come across some paperbacks with the front covers ripped off. I don’t expect much. Most of the crap they leave for you to read in detox is for your own good. Know what I mean? AA stuff and all that. Anyway, it turns out this one book was Zorba the Greek.

“That movie was so sad,” said Patty. “They stoned that poor woman, and slit her throat.”

Frank moved his face close and guided her chin away from the mirror with his finger so she looked him in the eye. “I can hear Zorba whispering in my ear right now. ‘Boss, boss,’ he says. ‘Here’s a real woman. To let her go to bed alone tonight would be a sin against all women, against God himself. Boss, don’t make me ashamed.’”

Patty knew she should shake off his hand, but she didn’t.

“You must take this woman or be the shame of all men.” He grabbed Patty’s arm, firm but without being threatening. “Dance.”

He stood her up and guided her from the barstool and then snapped his fingers, slowly circling her, like Anthony Quinn in the movie. Frank gradually quickened the tempo until he was going faster and faster. Patty was aware of the others in the bar; they might have been laughing, but she didn’t care. As he circled her, she was the center of the universe. She was all women, and this crazy bastard was all men. He stopped and took her in his arms. “Tonight, of all nights, you, precious woman, must not go to bed alone.” Then he kissed her. Perfectly. Startled, she moved away and reached for her drink. It had been a long time since someone had kissed Patty with such passion. Frank sprang back onto his stool.

Only Darlene seemed to have noticed. “All right!” she said. “Let’s liven this joint up a little.”

“That’s the whole point,” said Frank, and then loudly in his best Anthony Quinn voice, “To life! Another round for me and my Bouboulina. We’ll need our strength tonight, eh?”

Darlene took their glasses.

Patty tapped a cigarette from her pack. “Not so fast, Zorba. This woman plans on being asleep by one o’clock, all by her lonesome.” Frank lit her cigarette and she said, “But I gotta hand it to you, those lines almost worked. You learn anything else from that book?”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “From now on, I’m gonna take life by the balls. What else is there?”

Patty shrugged; she had no idea.

Darlene came back a few minutes later chewing a Slim Jim. She topped it off with a Maraschino cherry and went to the phone again. “Jesus,” said Frank. “That’s as bad as pickles and ice cream.”

“Oh God,” said Patty, knowing instantly what should have been obvious to her all evening. She was going to be a grandmother; that was the surprise Darlene had for her and Eddie. “Oh Jesus.” She watched Darlene open another Slim Jim after hanging up the phone again.

Midnight approached. By then all the other customers had gone off to New Year’s parties elsewhere. It was just Patty, who said she’d stay with Darlene, who waited for Eddie, and Frank, who waited to see if he could be with Patty.

“Turn on the TV,” Frank said, slurring now. “It’s getting close to the New Year.”

Darlene turned it on and flipped the dials.

“Find Guy Lombardo,” said Patty.

“He’s dead,” said Frank.

“No shit.”

They settled on Dick Clark and a New Year’s Rockin’ Eve, but it just didn’t feel right to Patty. “Goddamn,” she said to no one in particular. “How does Dick Clark not get old?”

Frank was sure to kiss her again at midnight so Patty went to the ladies room to freshen up. She hoped the coming year would be better, but she had wished the same thing last year and almost every year for as long as she could remember. Only in this coming year, she’d be a goddamn grandmother. She applied fresh lipstick and looked herself in the eye and decided right then and there to let Frank come home with her. Why shouldn’t she? Why should she be alone on New Year’s Eve? Why should he? Frank is right. We should live, while we’ve got the time. She finished with a touch of blush, smacked her lips at the mirror, and then pushed the door open.

On the television the ball over Times Square was dropping. Ten… nine… eight. Frank was slumped at the bar. She touched his arm. “Hey, it’s almost time.” Five… four. Frank was out cold. Three… two… one. Darlene slammed the phone’s receiver. Patty watched the crowd in Times Square explode with cheer, then hug and kiss each other. Darlene poured herself a shot of whiskey this time. “Goddamn that Eddie,” she said, tears streaking mascara down her cheek. Frank, in what seemed a peaceful sleep, drooled spittle across his forearm onto the bar.

Some rock band Patty didn’t even recognize belted out Auld Lang Syne and Patty’s own mascara began to run. “For the baby’s sake,” she said to Darlene, “pray for a boy.”



John Thompson’s stories have appeared in various literary journals, including Bayou, Breakwater Review, The Stone Hobo, Raven Chronicles, Marathon Literary Review, Specter Magazine, The Monarch Review, Drunk Monkeys, and the anthologies Working Hard for the Money: America’s Working Poor and Best of the Bellevue Literary Review. His stories have been read at InterAct Theatre’s Writing Aloud, and earned Special Mention in Pushcart Prize XXXI.   He no longer frequents establishments like Brennan’s.

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