Daughter finds solace, dad, in the local tavern
My father didn’t believe in jukeboxes. I swear to God. “Damned things are all part of the syndicate,” he’d say. When I was ten, I didn’t know what the syndicate was. I knew the word somehow, knew of it: The Dick Van Dyke Show was in syndication, Father Knows Best, too. But the word didn’t fit for me here.
“The mob,” one or another of my brothers explained. Mob was a word I did know. I was from just outside Chicago, after all. Jimmy Hoffa was still alive. I had this picture in my mind of some guy in a dark suit and hat pushing the jukebox away from the wall at Sullivan’s—the tavern around the corner—and opening some magic door in the back of the machine and a whole silvery stream of coins would rush out into his leather satchel. He’d close it all up when the stream went dry, push the jukebox back flush against the wall, maybe touch the sharp brim of his fedora or nod to Mr. Sullivan behind the bar and walk out of the darkness into the day, the door swinging shut behind him.
My dad hated the mob. They were dangerous in ways that I couldn’t even begin to understand; always behind something or other that was wrong witch society, he said. Drugs. Prostitution. Jukeboxes. Dad had been an early union rabble-rouser, a card-carrying communist, and even as a kid I knew that the mob was the enemy of men like him. Sullivan’s was his hangout. Half of the place was a package liquor store, a place where you could get milk, coffee, dishwashing liquid, bread, a six-pack of Schlitz, a pint of Jim Beam. With fifty-five cents and a note from my mom, I could go in and pick up a pack of Kents. The other half, on the opposite side of low-slung doors, was the bar. I spent a lot of time in that bar. We’ve all read these stories about little kids having to face the darkness of smelly taverns in order to drag their drunken mothers, their drunken fathers home, the kids hating the whole thing. But it wasn’t like that for me. Sure, sometimes my mom would send me to pick up a loaf of bread for dinner, and I’d have to round up Dad while I was there. Other times I’d go there on my own when he wasn’t home before dark. Still other times my dad would call the house from there and invite us all to join him. Mom might or might not go. Don and Allen were in high school and too old, too cool to be hanging out with their family. Roger (twelve, two years older than I) probably was unwilling to turn off the television.
But I’d go. I wanted to be there. I’d make my way down our street past the other clipped lawns and split-levels, past the hardware store with the three apartments above it, past the hot dog stand where in just a couple of years I’d sit at one of the read picnic tables and make out with a boy for the first time, and around the corner to Sullivan’s. There I’d push through the swinging doors, leave behind the bright lights and dusty shelves of the store, and step into the smoky darkness of the tavern.
Dad, in a suit coat and tie from a day at the office (having given up his causes in order to support his family), always sat at the bar, a beer in one hand, a cigarette in the other. He told stories and jokes to whomever would listen. “There were these two deaf-mutes…” (it was the sixties, remember) and he’d wave his hands wildly in some made-up, exaggerated sign language, ashes from his cigarette floating in the air, peppering the bright white front of his shirt. He’d order a round for his audience, “the usual” for himself. He’d talk as long as they’d listen. But sometimes there’d be no one to entertain, so he’d sit by himself and chew the inside of his mouth and squint through the smoke into the open space in front of him like he was looking for something, like he was working to figure something out.
When the tavern was crowded, I’d squeeze into a self-made slot next to my dad, push up against the considerable bulk of him. Six feet tall and 200-plus pounds, Dad made a good lean-to. When there was an empty spot, I’d lift myself onto the vinyl barstool, slide my elbows over the counter, ask for a Coke or a Squirt. “The usual,” he’d say and get a shot and a beer for himself. My dad would buy me sodas and BeerNuts and put his hand on the back of my neck. I liked the way it felt, this bellying up to the bar. I’d watch the plastic sky-blue waters ripple across the Hamms beer sign over the bar and admire the long elegant neck of the Galliano bottle that stood next to the shorter, clumsier bottles of house brands. I’d pretend not to while I listened to my dad telling a joke in a stage whisper to the guy next to him, try to memorize the way it went from traveling salesman to farm girl to the punch line so I could tell it to my brothers or my best friend later. It never mattered to me that most times I was the only kid there. I guess in a place like that, surrounded by grownups smoking and laughing and talking grown-up talk, I wanted to be something other than a kid myself.
And there was the jukebox. The flashing lights, the automatic arm flipping 45s onto the turntable. I’d watch the discs spin under the needle and I’d pore over the titles on the tiny slips of cardboard. G5…Lemon Tree. H7…Mr. Lonely. K8…Action.The jukebox stood where most jukeboxes do, next to the bathrooms. I suppose bar people knew that sometimes there’d be a line there, and those waiting were apt to pump money into the box. Or maybe the mob figured this out.
I’d lean on the juke, rest my palms on the glass, and look over my shoulder to my dad, hoping he’d get the hint. Sometimes I’d walk back and forth between the box and him and sing along with the songs. But he just wouldn’t get it. Finally, I’d have to ask for some money. I knew how he felt about jukeboxes, knew that he would tell me again: “Putting money in that box is like handing it right to the syndicate. My pocket to theirs.” But then he’d let loose a heavy sigh, clench his cigarette in the grip of his teeth, and reach into the jingle of his pocket where there was always a ton of change and junk. He’d pull up a handful of the stuff and dump it on the bar where I’d pick through the tobacco and buttons and lint for the dimes. And I’d take all I could over to the jukebox, where I gave my dad’s money to his enemy. The thing is, he let me.
I’d play something fast, imagine myself on American Bandstand or Hullabaloo and dance to the jukebox by myself. Women in pantsuits and high hair, women I never noticed anywhere in the neighborhood but here, would pass me on their way to the bathroom and tell me how good I was. Guys in sport jackets or shirtsleeves and ties or uniforms with their names sewn over the pockets would go by and say “Nice moves,” and “Shake it, baby.” Older guys. Guys as old as my dad.
I remember this one time. It was the kind of summer evening when the air hangs thick and unmoving and the sun takes its own sweet time going down, that kid of bright, hot early night that you’re grateful to get out of—even if it’s to be inside a bar with no air conditioning. Because at least it’s dark in there, and the darkness seems cool, especially when someone opens the door and the hot light of the slowly setting sun stings your eyes, heats up your skin. It was one of those nights when Mr. Sullivan plugged in the huge, old, freestanding fan and the tables closest to it filled up fast. The jukebox was right there, too, and I could feel the mechanical breeze blow against the back of my neck while I danced. It was the fan that brought the crowd to that side of the bar, I’m pretty sure now, but then I thought it must have been me. Those older guys leaned on the bar and watched me, or they sat around low tables and slapped their hands in time with the music on the wood tops. Sometimes they’d shovel a few dimes into the box and tell me to pick out whatever I wanted to hear, whatever I wanted to dance to. A man I’d never seen there before, thick dark hair and sweat rings under the arms of his striped golf shirt, slurred something to me as he went past. I didn’t get it, but he smiled drunkenly and said it again: “Give it to me, girly.” I, always the star, smiled back at the man and even as his
date, a bleached blond, blue-eyeshadowed woman in red yanked him away from me, I went on dancing. I could see my dad from there, watched him and the wavy reflection of him in the grimy mirror behind the bar as he made his arm into the trunk of an elephant for the punch line of one of his jokes, watched him slap a palm on the bartop when he laughed, watched him run a hand over his VO5-slicked combover and then throw back one of the small glasses of whiskey and draw his lips away from his teeth, wrinkle up his nose. And when no one was around him, when no one was listening, I saw him slump inside his coat, his bigness shrinking some, his eyes squinting into the space in front of him.
I don’t know if he ever watched me, but every night I wished he would. That’s why I kept my eyes on him while I jumped around and spun in circles and twisted back and forth. I’m not sure what I wanted him to see in me. Maybe I hoped he’d recognize the same thing I saw in him when he told his stories, a need for that devoted attention, a desire for a certain appreciation. Maybe I just hoped we could dance together. But when he’d push himself up from the bar and walk to the bathroom, pass by me, he’d look at me like it was a surprise to see me there dancing in the dark, being cheered on by a few strangers. He’d reach out and cup my chin, let his hand trail across my cheek, and then he’d keep walking to the men’s room. I felt the pull of his hand on me. I wanted to follow him, to move in such a way that his palm stayed pressed against my cheek. But he’d walk on, his hands to himself again, and the door would swing closed behind him.
All of this was before I got to be too cool to be seen with my parents, before I’d rather be with kids my own age and did most of my dancing at parties with my girlfriends or sweaty-palmed boys a head shorter than I, before my dad suffered a heart attack one night on his way home from work and died when he was fifty-five and I was just fifteen. Too many cigarettes, probably, and too much booze. Mostly, though, he had a weak heart, a family ailment that took one of his brothers, and more recently, one of mine.
And even though it’s been decades since Dad died, not a year goes by when I don’t remember how I could talk him out of his dimes, and the dances I’d buy with them. I remember how it felt to sit high on a barstool next to my father, and I remember the crackling cellophane bags of BeerNuts we passed back and forth to share. I especially remember the soft warmth of his big hand on my neck, the cup and pull of his palm on my cheek.
Maybe it was that same pull that brought me to a different bar two years after his death. Away at college, I’d leave my early morning freshman comp class and walk down Main Street to Joe’s where they served twofers (two-for-one drinks) from 10:30 until 4:00. It was a place not unlike Sullivan’s, smoky and dark with beer signs and BeerNuts, but this was a small town bar with pickled eggs and pigs’ knuckles in huge jars of brine where the Galliano should be, and it was hard to be there for any length of time without somebody playing that song about Lucille and the fine time she picked to leave. But even so, it became my place. And the regulars—Gene, the pickled-up farmer, a wrinkly guy in coveralls who drank shots of blackberry brandy; Ernie, a maintenance man from school, complete with uniform, who was partial to shells of PBR; Dorothy, a woman fond of Black Velvet and Coke and white silk blouses, a woman who danced the twist no matter what I’d play on the jukebox—would buy me drinks, and I’d buy for them.
A couple of years after that, when I went to rehearsals at the community theater located on the bad side of a small Iowa city, I found myself pulled across the street to a neighborhood place whenever I had time between my scenes. I’d order a vodka and grapefruit, talk to the bartender and the union guys—grubby and stinking from the packing plant down the street—and pick a song or two off the jukebox. After opening night of the play, the cast and crew went across the street to celebrate, and the bartender called out my name. “The usual, Patty?” The other cast members swiveled their heads to stare. “The usual?” they said. I nodded and smiled, loaded up the jukebox with coins and selections so we could dance all night if we wanted to. I was twenty-one and a regular, drinking my usual in a sticky-floored, smoke-filled tavern with a bunch of working folks. It was as close to home as I could get.
All through my twenties I worked in bars: waitressing, tending, managing. For years I’d hang out in them, and for years I’d dance in them. Only I didn’t grow up to be a drunk, and I didn’t grow up to be a stripper. I just grew up. I’m closer to fifty now than forty, closer to my dad’s age when he died than I am to my own when I lost him. I have a real job now, and a husband. I have less time and—let’s face it—less energy than I used to. But every once in a while I’ll find myself in a tavern for some reason, maybe to use the phone or the bathroom, maybe to meet a friend or grab a beer with a co-worker. It’s never Sullivan’s, though it might as well be. Sullivan’s isn’t Sullivan’s anymore. It’s still there, but different. Painted bright white outside and in, they serve meals on tables covered with oilcloth, and the jukebox is gone. Still, in this other tavern, I get that same feeling from way back then. That time, that place. It’s that sweet, I’m-home feeling. And I’m pulled to the jukebox. I read the titles, shovel in quarters and dollars. I stand with my friends and bounce on the balls of my feet. I want to dance, but—I’m sorry to say—like most adults, I’ve grown too controlled, too stodgy to let loose so easily.
And at these places there is always some guy, some older guy (as old as my dad was when he died), sitting at the bar telling stories, being charming, buying drinks, getting drunk. He’s someone’s father, I’ll bet. Sometimes he’s with his wife, but usually she leaves early, leaves him behind so he has to stumble home on his own. He doesn’t seem to notice when she’s gone. I’ll slip in next to the guy, order my drink, smile at him. Sometimes we’ll talk. How’s it going? Having fun? The bartender will watch and roll his eyes at me while the guy slurs over his answers and drops ashes down the front of this shirt. Sometimes the guy’ll buy me a drink. Sometimes I’ll buy him one.
When I’m at the jukebox, he’ll slide by on his way to the bathroom, or maybe he’ll follow me to the machine to give me money to play something. Anything. My choice. A single play is at least a quarter; nothing costs a dime these days. And I wonder if the syndicate still owns the jukeboxes now that they take real money, dollars and fives. There are different titles now (All I Wanna Do, Let’s Dance), and still some of the same (Lemon Tree, Mr. Lonely.) The discs are compact, no longer the wax ones you could watch fall into place and spin under the long arm with its needle. You can’t quite see how it works anymore.
Then sometimes, and these are the good times, the man will nod or bow a little bow. “Dance?” he’ll ask, and reach a hand out to me. And I’ll slide my hand into his, feel its warmth, marvel at its softness. And I’ll step close to him as the music fills in the space and time around us, and I’ll look up into the face of someone’s father.
“I thought you’d never ask,” I’ll say.
And then, finally, we’ll dance.
→“And These Are the Good Times” was originally published in 1998 by Sport Literate. It was awarded an Illinois Arts Council Literary Award and also an IAC Fellowship Award in Nonfiction.