There are Demma ghosts all over that place, you know, especially in the basement. I hated going down there, except for cleaning out the shoot at the end of the night. The shoot is an old wooden slide that glides beer bottles from the bar above into a big wooden bin in that haunted basement. No way I’d empty out that shoot by myself, so my older cousin took me down there again that night. Nicky would have been around thirteen or fourteen then, which would have made me about eleven. The two of us were little wise-guys, and eventually one of us set up an empty brown long-neck, maybe a Matts or a Labatts Blue, at the bottom of that shoot, and then we both took cover and waited. CRASH! came the next beer bottle, exploding our homemade land-mine all over the basement. I bet the ghost of old uncle Charlie got a kick out of that too.
After the war the original Demma brothers – Sammy, Jimmy, Tony, Carmen, Charlie, and my grandpa Nick – turned their old hang out spot into a restaurant called The Boat. Those boys went to hell and back, and then they found peace in the labor of restaurateuring and in the happy faces of their customers. Time took all six brothers, but that place is still standing, and back when I was a boy it was rocking.
Later that night, after dinner service, I sat down at a little table in the empty restaurant, and stared into the bar. The cigarette smoke filled the air like mist in a dream or in a foggy memory, and the blue and green neon beer lights shone nebulously through the darkness and the mist. That was when a bar smelled like a bar – the air thick and musty with alcohol and tobacco and breath. I’m sure there was music playing, but I couldn’t hear it over the roar – a steady howling of shouting drink orders and off-color jokes with their corresponding cackles. You never heard such cackling, but when he was on he was on – my old man that is.
They said he was a pain-in-the-youknowwhat, a sonuva-youknowwhat, and a little youknowwhat when he was a boy. He was a scrapper, a loud-mouth, and a fire-starter as a young man. When I was a boy they would tell me he was nuts, crazy, a lunatic. I thought he was smarter than anyone I’d ever met, but street smart – that is lighting quick on his feet with a razor sharp wit tinged with a constant stream of sarcasm. You never heard a joke he didn’t already know and told better than anyone you ever heard tell it. You know, the type of fast-witted street-smart kid that could make a Rhodes Scholar feel like a dumbly if he ordered his drink the wrong way.
Like I said, the bar was roaring that night. You see, Saturday nights were the night back then, the night to take your lady out for a prime rib and a few cocktails. The guys dusted off their blazers and sport coats and the ladies wore cocktail dresses and lots of make up. Some people went to the horse races up at Vernon Downs after dinner, and some stopped for drinks on their way home. People stood three deep around the horseshoe-shaped bar that night, laughing and smoking and drinking in a fog of their own bliss. Everyone was in love with their fat and happy state, and they hoped their night would last and last. I watched in awe from my table in the empty restaurant as my old man popped bottles, poured drinks, and worked his audience into a trance.
After a while, I snuck behind the bar to fix myself a Shirley temple. I found something to do, like wash the lip stick off the glasses and clean out the ash trays so I could stay out there a bit longer. By then everyone was all smiles and rosy cheeks, and they’d wanted to have some fun with me. One of them told me how I looked just like him and asked me if I was as nuts as he was, and everyone else laughed. Maybe I looked like him a bit on the outside, but on the inside I’m just like my mom, and I wanted to retreat back to the safety of my table in the empty restaurant. But I hung in there and tried to break their chops right back, except I wasn’t very good at it, and I just came off like an angry little kid, which was pretty funny to the drunk people, so they all laughed again.
Midnight came and went, and I was back at my table with my head in my hand staring into the red ice at the bottom of my Shirley temple, just like the last few drunks at the bar. I must have made a thousand salads and washed a million dishes since dinner started around five that evening, which felt like ages ago. I stared down the last few customers and barked at them, in my head, “You ain’t gotta go home, but you can’t stay here!” But they hung in there and ordered another.
Finally it was closing time, that is, time for my dad to head upstairs and count the money, and I tagged along. That upstairs office was second only to that old basement as the scariest places in the world in my book. There was an old metal desk with green padding on the top, a black metallic adding machine from the twenties, and a dusty old mattress with flowers on it from the fifties. At the desk there was a jar of something that looked like pomade. Dad told me people would use that stuff in the old days so they wouldn’t have to lick their thumbs when they were counting the cash. I opened the jar and preserved like a fossil in that ointment was my grandfather Nick’s thumbprint! I thought about how my dad was my age once, and he would have sat in that creepy old office while his father counted the cash after a long day of service.
When we came downstairs the bar was empty, except for a shadowy guy who had just slipped in the back entrance alone. The door closed behind him, and the room fell silent. I saw him more clearly as he crept closer, and he looked homeless or poor to me, and I got nervous. I thought about the cash we had just counted and thought we were done for. I froze.
“My man!” cried my dad, shattering the silence and scaring the daylights out of me. He popped a cold beer for the shadowy man, apparently a regular visitor, and then gave him a few dollars. On our way out, the shadowy man nodded to us while he broke down some boxes by the dumpster and nursed the cold-one that he took for the road. As we drove by him, I saw that same smile I had seen on everyone else’s faces that night.
God knows what time it was, but now I felt a burst of energy, that satisfying burst of energy you only get from completing an honest day of work. The August air fogged the inside of the windshield, and the hot air felt so thick I thought we were driving through a cloud. We rolled through the hills of Vernon, crept by the police speed traps in Kirkland, past Alfredo’s banquet hall and Zebb’s neon lights, and past hamburger alley and the Sangertown Mall in New Hartford. We hoped for good luck with the traffic lights as we headed east on Utica’s Memorial Parkway. Dad said he once made that drive in eighteen minutes, but it always took us closer to a half an hour, which feels like two hours when you’re eleven and it’s past midnight.
As we drove into East Utica, the thick August air stuck to the back of my eye lids. I saw the ghosts of my grandfathers as I blinked, but I wasn’t scared. I thought about how silly it was that I was afraid of ghosts and of that shadowy man in the bar. I blinked heavier now and rested my head against the warm opaque window. I saw flashes of rosy faces, and felt the warmth of the night take hold of me, and then I melted into carefree joy of a boy’s summer.
Categories: Short Stories