The bar was busy. It
was almost always busy now, which was unusual for any small bar in Montana that
wasn’t near Whitefish or Billings. Sure, the oil rig was working again, and the
workers there would stop in for a beer before or after work, but it was more
than them. People drifted in from all over. People whom D.J. thought really had
no business coming to a nothing bar in a flyspeck town, yet there they were. Some
came on purpose, others stopped to gas up their car, truck, or private plane,
but they all stopped in for a drink or a beer.
Being busy didn’t
make him change his prices any, or his selection, or his specials. Bottle beer
was $3, shots were $5, and during the week the shots were $2.50. Rail drinks
were $6, and there were no high-end mixed drinks or high-end liquor. Common
brands and common drinks for common people, even though uncommon people now
frequently came through the door.
Bar food was also
essentially unchanged and mostly snacks. A free basket of popcorn, a bag of
chips, pretzels, or nuts for 50 cents. For 2 bucks D.J. would microwave one of
the individually-wrapped hamburgers he bought at Wal-Mart, or you could have 2
of the frozen White Castle sliders for $3.
The only change was
the pizza. Frozen pizza, heated up in the toaster oven behind the bar, was now
officially offered on the menu, $5 for a personal size, $8 for a 12-inch. Cheap
stuff you could get anywhere that he now kept in stock at the personal request
of his best customer, Bud.
Bud came in every
day, typically before 5, sometimes as early as 3, and he was always the last
one out. Never drunk, never even tipsy or slurring, Bud would come in, wave or
say hello to D.J., then take his now-customary seat at the very end of the bar,
right near the bathroom. Until about 1992 there had been a cigarette machine in
that corner. Until 2015 there had been a pay phone over there, too. Now the
only fixture was Bud.
Bud first came in a
little over a month ago, when the business was struggling. He and D.J. had
played a few hands of cards. They both played well, but D.J. lost in the only
game Bud managed to get him to bet on. The next day, the customers started
pouring in, and Bud became a regular.
D.J. didn’t like
coming to work anymore. He was glad he had the business, which brought stability
to his life. His bills were paid, and he didn’t worry much about the future, at
least not the long-term future. He worried more about the short-term. He jerked
every time the door opened until Bud arrived for the day, and he sweated
lightly and gritted his teeth until Bud finally went home, or wherever he went
after he left the bar.
It was 3:45 and
already two customers were in the bar, sipping beer and watching World Cup
Soccer on ESPN. D.J. expected someone would want to change the channel soon,
but even soccer was better than daytime shows or CNN. The door opened, letting
daylight and a light breeze in. The light splashed across the back and side of
the face of Hank, a local regular. Hank was about 80 and a widower. He came in
and drank two glasses of beer a day, sitting at roughly the same table,
watching whatever was on, talking to whoever would listen. He sat down and D.J.
brought him High Life in a frosted mug. Sometimes D.J. brought him other brands
of beer to see if he’d notice. He almost never did.
want a sandwich or anything?”
“Maybe later.” He
nodded at the screen. “Soccer. You know they call that ‘football’ overseas?
That always made more sense to me. Our football, you don’t do enough kicking to
really call it that, they mostly throw it and run with it. With soccer they
kick the thing all the damned time.”
D.J. looked at the
screen, “Yeah. Still boring though. Field’s too big. They run and run, kick it
this way, kick it that way, stand around, and then every once in a while
someone takes a shot.”
One of today’s new
customers, a man in a tangerine-colored polo shirt and khakis, spoke from his
seat at the bar. Aside from his order, it was the first thing he’d said since
coming in. D.J. couldn’t quite place his accent. Not quite British. Not
“Still, it’s the
most popular sport in the world. When it’s the World Cup, it’s every country,
not like your World Series or Super Bowl or NBA Championship. There it’s just
you and maybe the Canadians. Two countries, yet you call it a World Series. The
World Cup is truly the world.”
“Yeah, guess so,”
Hank said. “I’d rather watch baseball. The teams might be American teams, but
they have guys from other countries in there.”
“Not many, and even
then, your football and baseball are just descendants of rugby and cricket.
When I came here from India, where we played cricket constantly in school, it
was clear that baseball is cricket with no pads, and football is rugby with
more pads.” He laughed.
The door opened
again and D.J. flinched. He heard a smooth, cultured voice behind him.
“Hello D.J.,” Bud
D.J. stifled a
shudder. He stifled many things, closing his eyes tight for a moment. He looked
down, walked behind the bar, pasted on a smile and looked at the figure walking
toward the end of the bar.
Bud looked to be
about 50, though he could have been 45 or 60. Thin, dark hair, medium
complexion. If he had to guess, D.J. thought he would have looked Spanish, or
maybe Iranian. Kind of like Freddie Mercury with better teeth. He was always
dressed well. Today he had on a grey suit with white shirt, matching black belt
and shoes, no tie. D.J. put a napkin and a basket of pretzels in front of his
“What can I get
“Red wine to start,
pizza later. Wait, scratch the wine. Jameson’s Black Barrel, splash of water.
Make sure the glass is clean and the water is cold.”
himself and shook his head slightly.
“Bud. I’m not even
sure I have Jameson’s. I might. I’m not sure what Black Barrel is.”
“Finer than the
regular. Triple distilled, single malt, very smooth. There’s a bottle behind
you - top middle shelf, left side, behind the Wild Turkey.”
Bud seemed to know
the bar better than D.J. himself, who first sat at this bar in grade school,
playing War with his grandad while the old man tended bar. Bud always knew what
was where, even if D.J. had never seen it before. This time was no exception.
The man in the
tangerine shirt spoke, “Did you say Jameson’s Black Barrel?”
“He did,” D.J. said,
holding up the bottle.
“I believe I’ll have
one of those, a double, neat.” He picked up his current drink, tilted it at
Bud, and said, “I salute your taste sir,” finishing the drink.
Bud nodded at the
man as D.J. placed the drink in front of him. Bud picked up the glass and
“To your health!” He
D.J. shuddered. Bud
smiled at him.
“Did you catch a
chill? Seems warm in here. But, as you know, I’m always warm.”
“No, I’m fine.”
Bud nodded. He
glanced casually about the room, at the faces.
“I know what you’re
thinking,” he said quietly
“Of course you do,
you’re the Devil,” D.J. muttered.
Bud put a finger to
his lips and chuckled lightly, “Ssh! I have a reputation to uphold! I can’t be
seen in a place like this!” He leaned forward conspiratorially. “You’re
wondering who’s next. Of course you are.”
D.J. frowned and
picked up a glass. He wiped it with a bar rag. “None of my business.”
broadened. “That glass is already clean, my friend. And of course you’re
wondering. You think about it all the time. Every day. You want to know.”
D.J. put the glass
down. Finding no way to busy his hands, he looked across the bar, checking
drink levels, watching for signs someone needed him. He found none.
“That’s just it. I
don’t want to know. I know what you do. I know why you’re here. I don’t want to
know the details. Just order your drinks and leave me out of it.”
Bud leaned back and
pursed his lips. He touched his hand lightly over where his heart would be if
he had one. “So hostile! And me, your best customer! None of these people would
be here if it weren’t for me, sir. None. Show some appreciation. Your credit
score is looking pretty good now.”
D.J. looked across
the bar again, then at Bud. “You’re wrong. Hank would be here. There are
others, but Hank would be here. He’s been coming here since the bar opened.”
Bud glanced at Hank,
smiled, and shook his head, “You’ve got me there. Good ol’ Hank. Not enough to
float your business on, but you’ve got him.” He raised his glass. “Here’s to
you, Hank!” he said loudly. Hank took no notice.
“I guess he’s lost
in thought. I don’t blame him. Want to know what he’s thinking?”
“Shame. He has a lot
to think about. How about the others? Penny for their thoughts?”
“Not worth it.”
“That’s right, you
don’t like to spend money on things you don’t need. Don’t like to gamble
either. Work for what you have and save for a rainy day. The mark of a good,
practical man. Just like the old man.”
“Leave him out of this.”
D.J. turned and
filled a basket of pretzels near the man from India. This was how the days were
now. Bud taunting him, D.J. not giving in. It was tiring, at least for D.J.
A few minutes later
he went to refill Bud’s drink.
“I’d like an ice
cube this time, friend. Just one. Fresh out of the bag, not the bin, please.
You need to clean that thing.”
“I know. Tomorrow.”
“That’s what you
said last week.”
Wednesday. I clean it every Wednesday.”
“Good for you.” He
lifted his chin. “Your friend there in the polo shirt. The accent you’ve been
wondering about is upper-class British, but not home-grown. Military brat,
raised in India. Hard to find those nowadays. I’ve always found the accent
charming, if not the people behind it. He speaks Bengali fluently, as you’d
imagine. The last night he was in India he raped a woman, then her 9-year-old child.
He knew he was shipping out the next day and would likely never be back. He
wanted a memory to look back on, something he had wanted to do and could never
do again. He took little enjoyment in raping the woman, she fought too hard.
But he thinks back on raping the boy frequently. He enjoyed the screams. It
made him feel powerful. He last thought of it 7 minutes ago. He’ll think of it
again in an hour or so. Whenever his mind isn’t focused on something else, it
goes back to that day. It’s his fondest day, more than his wedding, more than
the birth of his own child or any of his personal or professional achievements.
He’s quite proud of it, though he mentions it to no one.” He sipped his drink.
“The whiskey is quite good, you should try some.”
D.J. stared at the
man in the polo shirt and felt his face flush in disgust. Acid churned in his
stomach and seared the back of his throat. “Not when I’m working,” he said
absently. He dropped his bar rag on the bar, stepped out from the bar, and went
The midwinter air
chilled and refreshed him. He leaned against the wall next to the door and
wondered why he’d never smoked. For most of his life smoke filled the bar as he
played, then later worked there. He probably inhaled a pack a day second-hand.
As his wife used to say, as he stripped off his shirt and pants at the door
when he got home after work, he might as well pick up the habit and get the
benefit of it if he’s going to smell that bad every day. But he didn’t. And the
habit killed her just as it had his own father, and his mother-in-law. It was a
bad habit to have, where the benefit didn’t match the risk. But now he wished
he had something to do with his hands. Something to focus on that would make
him forget Bud’s face and his words, if for just a few seconds. Instead, he
breathed the night air and watched the sky turn from mauve to indigo.
A star poked out
from an indigo cloud and he focused on it. He didn’t know its name. He may have
looked at it a thousand times before, or none. He heard that many of the stars
in the sky are already burned out, or no longer burn as brightly, but they’re
so far away the light is only reaching us now. D.J. wondered if that star was
still burning. He suspected it wasn’t. The rest of the sky was too dark to
bother looking at, and he had a bar to tend. He opened the door and stepped in.
D.J. noted that
Hank’s glass was empty. The man in the polo shirt lifted his glass as D.J.
stepped behind the bar.
“Could I get another
“Sure, just a
second.” He brought Hank a bottle of High Life and a clean glass, bringing the
empties back with him. He tossed Hank’s empty bottle in the trash and put the glass
in the sink. A man and a woman walked in the door and sat at the bar. D.J. put
napkins in front of them. The man said, “Two beers. I’ll have a Heineken, Pabst
for the lady.”
“Got it,” D.J. said.
Polo Shirt pushed
his glass toward D.J. “As they say in ‘Rope’, there’s too much air in my
glass,” He chuckled lightly.
“I’m getting your
drink now. I know, you ordered first.”
“I’ve been waiting.”
D.J. flushed again.
He felt a single pulse in his forehead and gritted his teeth. “Not long,” He
put a fresh tumbler of Jameson’s down on a fresh napkin. “There you go.”
The man picked up
the glass. “I don’t like to wait.”
D.J. tilted his
head, thought of the man holding a boy up by the ankles, smiling as he pounded
into him, smiling as the boy screamed. He could almost see the room and smell
the hot, stale air. He made a fist so tight his knuckles cracked.
He heard a tap on
the bar behind him.
He turned. Still at
the end of the bar was Bud. He tapped his glass.
“When you get a minute.
With a twist this time. Lemon. Not really the way to do these things, but I’m a
rule breaker at heart. And I’d like that pizza now. Pepperoni. No rush.”
D.J. nodded. “Sure.”
He filled the other
drink orders, put the pizza in the toaster oven, brought Bud his drink with a
twist of lemon hanging on the edge of the glass. Bud squeezed it in and put the
lemon down next to the glass.
“Do you want him to
Bud lifted his chin
to point down the length of the bar. “Him. Our new friend the soccer fan. Do
you want him to die?”
“No. Not worth it.”
“I’m not asking you
as part of a bargain. I’ll do it for nothing. For all you know, it’s going to
happen anyway, tonight or another night soon. But I’m offering you my word as a
gentleman that it won’t. Though it could. And I’d do it as a favor to you
because honestly D.J., I like you. You may actually be my best friend. I like
you and I like this bar. The bar is quiet and you amuse and fascinate me. If
you want him to die, then tonight or tomorrow, whichever you prefer, he’ll die.
I can’t say he’ll go to my realm. That’s not up to me to decide. There are many
ways out of my realm, sadly. Forgiveness being one of them, then grace, and
certain other loopholes and conditions. He may escape eternal wrath. But his
time on Earth would be over. He would assuredly die. Badly, if you wish. Just
D.J. continued to
stare at the man, clenching his jaw.
“No. I’m not stupid.
How many songs, stories, and movies do there have to be for me to know you’re going
to screw me? There’s always the catch. The twist. The shock ending. He’ll save
the world or something, and if I say kill him, the world ends. Or he gets
killed, and some innocent guy goes to jail. Fuck it. No. I don’t need that on
my head.” The toaster oven dinged. “That’s your pizza.”
A moment later, he
came back with Bud’s pizza, sliced into neat squares, right on the cardboard it
had been packaged with. “Enjoy.”
Bud smiled. “Your
presentation is impeccable. The staff at Le Cordon Bleu should come here to
learn from you.”
“This is a bar in
Montana, not Chez Fou-Fou in New York. You want that, go there.”
“I am there. Or I
might as well be. I’m in many places right now, claiming many souls, tempting
many others, doing my work. But this place is more pleasant. I’ll stay, thank
D.J. grunted and turned
to fill more drinks. The bar was getting busy.
“I admire your
integrity, and your consistency. You are ever The Good Man. A rarity.”
“So you’ve said.”
A half hour later,
the soccer match ended. Polo Shirt paid his tab, rose, used the bathroom, and
left. D.J. grabbed the remote, addressed the room:
“Wheel of Fortune?”
A usual favorite. Receiving a significant number of shrugs and nods, he changed
“Good deal!” Hank
said. “Enough of that world football shit. Brazil, Korea, who gives a damn.
Boring as hell.”
D.J. put down the
remote. “You’re welcome.” He brought Hank another Miller and went back behind
the bar. Bud was done with his pizza. D.J. cleared the cardboard tray and
napkins, then wiped the bar.
“You still don’t
know. You want to know. I know you do. You want to know whom I’m here for.”
D.J. looked at him.
Bud dabbed the corner of his mouth with a paper napkin, probably for effect.
There was nothing there. “I don’t. I assume you’re here for several people.
They’re all bad guys, right? Shitheads and scum you’re parading in front of me?
Sinners. It’s what you always tell me. There goes the pedophile. What about
that guy?” He pointed at a man in a flannel shirt and trucker hat in the
corner. “Ax murderer?”
Bud glanced at the
corner. “Adulterer. All too common. Not even interesting. Truck stop waitresses
and a girlfriend in Topeka. He loves his wife, he just gets bored. He’ll have a
heart attack tonight. He’ll die thinking of the wife.” He looked up at D.J.
“Your Indian friend will grow old and never get caught. His wife suspects
there’s a dark part of him. She’s never seen it. He’ll never do anything again.
Physically. It’s all replayed in his mind, over and over.”
The bar was at about
peak, for mid-week at least. D.J. only recognized a few of the faces.
“Hank. I’m here for
Hank. Your regular, your friend, if you think of him that way, Hank, dies
tonight. And he’s almost certainly going to Hell. He hates what he did. He
thinks of it all the time, with regret. It’s why he’s here, why he drinks. To
keep the demons out. But here I am, the chief demon, and I’m coming for him.”
D.J.’s heart jumped
in panic that surprised him. He never thought Hank could do something bad enough
to go to Hell, nor that he cared about it one way or the other. He looked back
“What did he do?”
Bud sipped his
whiskey. “Murder. Hank killed his wife, 24 years ago. She had had health
problems for years. She wasn’t the woman he married. She couldn’t care for
herself or him beyond the ability to get dressed or wash herself, which she
didn’t do often enough. She could communicate, feed herself, but her quality of
life wasn’t what she wanted. One day he looked in her eyes and he knew. His
wife was gone, and the shell in front of him had to die before what quality of
life they had got even worse.”
“How bad was it?
He’s lived in this town forever. Nobody knew this.”
“It was a burden he
carried himself, quietly, dutifully. As a good Catholic would. She wasn’t
soiling herself yet – not regularly. Sometimes there were accidents. But he
knew, and she knew, those days were coming. So, one night, not long after he
looked in her eyes and saw only blank pain, while she was asleep and he was
spooned up behind her, he put a handkerchief around his hand, pinched her nose
gently shut, and put his pillow over her face with his other hand. She woke and
fought, as survival instinct kicked in, but she didn’t really damage him. She
mainly kicked against the mattress and pulled at the pillow and, when she found
it, the sleeve of his flannel pajamas. He still remembers that, it’s what he
thinks of most often. Her polished, pink nails curling around and pulling at,
then letting go of, his sleeve. He continued to hold the pillow on her face for
two minutes after her grip relaxed. He cried the whole time.”
D.J.’s throat felt
thick and his face hot, even though a breeze came in from the briefly opened
front door. He looked back at Bud.
“And you’re coming
Bud nodded. “Yes.
Tonight. It’s time. And because of what he did – despite all of what he’s done
or hasn’t done in the years since then or before then – because of what he did,
and the guilt that weighs on his heart, he’ll be in my realm forever.”
“That’s not right.
That other piece of shit is walking around but Hank dies and goes to Hell?
That’s not right!”
“The offer stands.
I’ll take the life of the piece of shit if you’d like, but I can’t guarantee
what his final fate will be.”
“No. I have to
believe that he’ll get his in the end, and I don’t want my word – some
bartender in Montana – to be what kills someone. But I want Hank to go free.”
“Leave him alone.
Hank did what he did out of love. He still loves her. He’s dying inside,
torturing himself, out of love. He deserves better. Take me.”
“Are you serious?”
“Let him go. Take
Bud stared at D.J.
quietly for a moment, expressionless. He tapped the nails of his left hand on
the bar hard, twice quickly, then, with a kind of finality, a third time. He
“Fine. The day you
die won’t change, but when you do die, at some point in the future, you’ll come
with me. Hank will also meet his prescribed end, but he’ll go elsewhere, due to
your selfless act of kindness.” He blinked and smiled weakly, D.J. thought
“So now what? Do I
have to sign something?”
Bud stood and put
several bills on the counter without looking at them. D.J. didn’t look at them
either. “No, a handshake or verbal agreement is fine, especially when it’s
heartfelt, as yours was. Now, I go home, or elsewhere where I have business.
I’m done here for tonight. We all have work to do you know, and yours is
serving drinks and cleaning the bar.” He turned to go, then turned back and
took a step back toward the bar. “Oh barkeep?”
Bud leaned toward
him. “The cash there is more than enough for my tab, but here’s your tip – a
bit of wisdom: As I told you, there are many ways out of Hell, including Grace
and Forgiveness. There are only two certain ways to go there forever. One is
Divine Judgment. The other is to volunteer. You’re a good man. A foolishly good
man. And you volunteered. Good night.”
Lass has been a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years, working
in all forms of media from newspapers and magazines to books and blogs. He has
written, edited, co-written, or contributed to more than a dozen books, and has
published 9 books of poetry, the most recent of which, American was one
of the Amazon Top 100 Books of American Poetry. His poetry has appeared in Every
Day Poems and The Albatross. His fiction has appeared in The
Albatross, KSquare, Electric Velocipede, Schlock!, Coffin
Bell Journal, and Black Petals. His short story, “Fence Sitter” was
nominated for Best of the Web in 2020.