The 11 O’Clock Blues: A Rendezvous Thanksgiving
BUZZZZ! Then again – BUZZZZ! The front door to the Rendezvous Bar & Grill swings open. But only after you get ‘buzzed’ in. Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the buzz is coming from –the door, the busted Schaeffer Beer sign or the soused patrons. It’s early. But since it’sNovember, it’s dark out. Just about six-thirty, in the p.m. Just dark enough. This ginmill has seen many ups and downs since the end of Volstead, and many owners. They used to serve food: I- talian. Nice sandwiches. Now it’s just bad eggs and crackers. Back in the day a woman would not be allowed in unescorted and a gentleman had to remain such no matter the level of his consumption. That was the birth of the buzzer – only the select few were allowed to enter. Not so much anymore. Now it’s used to keep the unknown riff-raff out. The known riff-raff, well, they’re always welcome.
Right now, 1963, seems to be a less than favorable swing of the pendulum of time and taste. Johnny, the cheapest bartender in the known universe, stands behind the chipped mahogany, rubbing his puckered hands on his apron. This has become his vocation – and the apron’s prime regret.
One of the patrons bellows, “Johnny! The TV!”
Johnny trots over and bangs the smoke stained black and white TV that sits above the phone booth with a broomstick until the picture and sound are right again. Sadly, whenever the phone is used, or jostled, or thought about, the channel inexplicably changes. Hence the sign – NO PHONE CALLS DURING THE FIGHTS – EVER! But the TV, usually off, except for the fights of course, has been on every moment the bar has been open since the 22nd. Ever since they killed Jack. Killed the president, in that God-awful place, fuckin’ Dallas.
BUZZZZZ! Like that famous dog to that famous bell, the men at the bar snap their gazes to the door at the sound of the buzzer – always wondering who might come in. Mayor Kowal? Lana Turner? Elijah? Always hopeful, ever disappointed. And, tonight, even more so since it was just Mitch. Mitch, the stevedore, and his seven-year-old boy. Mitch nods to the fellas and they nod back. Not a lot of hats on those heads. Only a couple. Not a lot of men have worn them since Jack chose to forgo his. Yeah, JFK did to the fedora what Gable did to the undershirt way back when he made “It Happened One Night”.
Johnny ambles over, “The usual, Mitch?”
“Sure. And a pop for the kid”
Johnny begins to mix a Kessler whiskey with some ice and soda water.“Needed to get out for a bit,” says Mitch.
“So you bring the kid with you?”
“Had to. He wouldn’t let me leave without him. Pitched a fit.”
“This him? This the famous One Nut Wonder?” “Not tonight, Johnny.”
Johnny nods, contritely.
“Sorry, Mitch. Been sour for days now.”
Mitch understands. So has he. So has his city. So has his country. So has most of his world.They’ve all been sour since fuckin’ Dallas.
“What’s your name, son?” asks Johnny as he hands him the pop.
Mitch nods to the boy, giving him the go ahead.
The men smile, as if it were a new exercise. They’ve had very little reason to do so – as of late and for most of their lives.
Johnny looks to Mitch, “Have a good day?”
“My wife’s family came over.”
“Jesus! As if you weren’t suffering enough.”
“Wasn’t that bad.”
But it was. Mitch downs his drink, Johnny goes for the refill.
One of the fellas down the bar demands the attention of the crowd, banging on the bar and pointing frantically to the TV.
“He’s talking! Turn it up!”
Everyone looks up and Johnny trots over to do just as demanded. On the TV is the black and white image of Lyndon Baines Johnson, the thirty-sixth president of the United States of America. And has been for less than a week.
“All of us have lived through 7 days that none of us will ever forget. We are not given the divine wisdom to answer why this has been, but we are given the human duty of determining what is to be, what is to be for America, for the world, for the cause we lead, for all the hopes that live in our hearts.”
“Who is that?” asks the boy.
“That’s the president.”
“I thought J.F.K. was president?”
“We talked about this, son. The president was killed last week.”
“I know. I remember. But why is he president now?”
Mitch looks to Johnny.
“This kid. This kid and his questions.”
“Pipe down!” says the lush down the bar. They all turn their attention to Lyndon. “Let all who speak and all who teach and all who preach and all who publish and all who broadcast and all who read or listen-let them reflect upon their responsibilities to bind our wounds, to heal our sores, to make our society well and whole for the tasks ahead of us. It is this work that I most want us to do: to banish rancor from our words and malice from our hearts; to close down the poison spring of hatred and intolerance and fanaticism; to perfect our unity north and south, east and west; to hasten the day when bias of race, religion, and region is no more; and to bring the day when our great energies and decencies and spirit will be free of the burdens that we have borne too long.”
Mitch, choking on his own life and losses, looks down at his son, and then lifts him onto the bar. He looks deep into the boy’s eyes and whispers with urgency.
“I want you to remember this week, son. I want you to remember everything about it. What you heard. What I said. I want you to remember your mother crying. I want you to remember the nuns praying at school. What the father said at church today. This is, this is important. All of this.”
Mitch points to the TV.
“I want you to remember.”
“Again, with the questions. Because, son, this is when everything changed.”
“But why did someone kill President Jack?”
“Because some people want to kill hope. And Jack, he was hope. He was nothing but hope.”
This, coming from Hank, one of the regulars. One of the drunks. He battles on. “Notin’ but a load of hooey! Lyin’ to the whelp like that, Mitch. Why not tell him the truth! Kennedy was justanother stinkin’ politician!”
There are angry rebuttals from all. But that don’t stop Hank.
“Don’t matter which side of the aisle they come from, they all just want to serve themselves theprime rib and line their pockets with our dollars. God-dam crooks! The lot of ‘em. And thatKennedy! Worst of the bunch! A thief from a family of thieves!”
Hank pushes himself up off the bar, totters towards a wary Mitch and his son as Johnny teeters on the edge of jumping over it.
“Keep your trap shut, Hank.”
“Free country, at least for now. Just tellin’ the kid the truth.”
Johnny, reachin’ under the bar for his Louisville, moves closer.
“Take it home, Hank. We don’t want that here. You’re scarin’ the kid.”
“Fine, the hell with you all! And the kid, he should be scared. All this hope hooey!”
Hank stops in front the boy, waggling his raw finger in the boy’s face.
“Mark my words, kid. Hope, like your dad was talkin’ about, is just about as rare, and asdangerous, as an honest politician!”
Mitch has had enough! He pushes Hank away.
“Get going, Hank. Now.”
Hank, knowing Mitch could use him as a bar rag if he had to, shrugs, ambles to the coat rack, puts on his hat and coat, then reaches for the door. Before leaving he has to have one more word, of course.
“The hell with ya all. Bunch of Little Lord Fauntleroy’s, you are. Surprised you ain’t niggers andspics and kikes! Just like Kennedy liked ‘em.”
And he’s gone.
The boy, shaken, looks up to his father.
“Dad, why, why was he so mad?”
Mitch cant’ answer that, even though he knows. He just doesn’t understand it. And he hopes he never does.
“Watch the president, son.”
The boy nods and they look back at the TV.
“Let us today renew our dedication to the ideals that are American. Let us pray for His divinewisdom in banishing from our land any injustice or intolerance or oppression to any of our fellow Americans whatever their opinion, whatever the color of their skins--for God made all of us, not some of us, in His image. All of us, not just some of us, are His children.”
Johnny lifts his glass, “To Jack!”
Everyone in the bar complies. Then...
The heads swing, Johnny hits the button, the door opens and in walks the affable and ample Mickey holding a brown paper bag.
“Saw Hank mumbling through the parking lot. What’s with him? Anyway, got the turkey sandwiches! Who wants one?”
Mitch looks down at the boy, seeing the want of turkey in his face.
“Didn’t you have enough at home? Oh, for the love of... Mickey, one for the boy!”
Mickey tosses a sandwich to Mitch and Mitch passes it to the boy who smiles and rips open the wax paper, digging right in. Mitch looks at his son, the mish-mash of humanity around him, down at his scared stevedore hands, then the image of LBJ on television, realizing...something.And he smiles, for the second time in a week. An ironic smile, but a smile nonetheless.
“I’m sorry, son. I was wrong.”
As bits of turkey spew, “About what, dad?”
“Hope, son. There’s always hope.”
LBJ comes to the end of his address.
“On this Thanksgiving Day, as we gather in the warmth of our families, in the mutual love andrespect which we have for one another, and as we bow our heads in submission to divine providence, let us also thank God for the years that He gave us inspiration through His servant, John F. Kennedy.”
With that Johnny, finally, turns the TV off.
Jeff Wilbur writes, occasionally. Drinks copious amounts of coffee. Smokes some cigarettes now and then and rides his vintage Honda 750 religiously. After 20 years in Hollywood, 15 of which he worked as a TV writer, he moved back to Buffalo where he currently works in a drug and alcohol detox – a step up in terms of the quality of folks he encounters on a daily basis from his former place of residence.