Tuesday is burger night at Stenny’s. If you sit at the bar, a burger is $5. Whoever is bartending usually makes sure the regulars get fries for free. Joanna, Matt, Leigh, and Jim are all happily munching.
Twenty minutes earlier, Jim—who’s a bit of a foodie—was quizzing bartender Stephen about the type of meat in the burger. “Is it chuck?” he asked. “Or maybe it’s sirloin? I’ve always wondered.” Stephen, who was in the midst of making a Bloody Mary for Leigh, answered, “What it is is five dollars,” which shut Jim right up.
“Oh, look who’s here,” Joanna says. “Ernie.” Ernie is a retired printer whose fingers are still stained with ink; that is not the oddest thing about him.
He stops behind the foursome and says, “Always a pleasure.” It is typical for him to begin conversations this way; those not used to it think they must have had a lapse of consciousness.
“Hi Ernie,” Joanna says. “Want a piece of burger?” Joanna is enjoying her burger and could easily eat every bite, but it is part of what she calls The Ernie Routine.
“Burger?” Ernie says, almost like he’s unfamiliar with the concept. “Sure, thanks.” Joanna cuts a piece and puts in on a paper plate that Stephen, hearing this conversation, had handed her.
“Here you go, Ernie. Enjoy it.”
“Thank you Joanna. Always a pleasure.” Ernie ends conversations this way too. He heads down the bar, where he will be offered pieces of burgers three more times, making for a satisfying and free meal.
“Do you think he even owns another jacket?” Leigh asks. Ernie always wears a lime green sports coat, circa 1972; rumpled does not begin to describe it.
“Matt and I saw him at the White Valley once,” Joanna says. “He was wearing a jacket that looked exactly the same, but it was maroon. So maybe he has different ones for different bars.”
They all hear a booming voice which they recognize as Big Mouth Ralph.
“Not tonight, please Matt,” Joanna says. “I’m not in the mood.”
Joanna is referring to Matt and Ralph’s penchant for talking politics. They are on such different sides of the fence that there might as well be no fence at all. Matt, usually mild-mannered and friend to all, has a sharp shift in personality if he drinks more than two of his no-vermouth Beefeater martinis; he will then eagerly engage with Big Mouth Ralph, who is always primed for battle.
“He usually starts it,” Matt says.
“I don’t care who starts it. It’s awful and uncomfortable for everyone.” In actuality, Joanna—the most apolitical of creatures—is speaking just for herself, as most people enjoy the Matt & Ralph show. She has been known to get up and leave when the two of them start, leaving Matt to find his own way home.
“Hello all,” Ralph says as he approaches them.
They all greet him without much warmth. Other than politics, he talks primarily about his family, none of whom they have ever met. They have varying degrees of interest in hearing about strangers, from none (Jim), to a wee bit (Leigh), to only if drunk (Joanna) to more than most people (Matt).
“Did you hear the news about my daughter?” he asks now.
“Yep, that’s great!” Joanna says. She has not heard the news, but takes a chance that it’s something good, as it always has been in the past—she was promoted to partner at her law firm, she came in first in a triathlon, her 6-year old was just inducted into MENSA.
“I am so proud of her. Really stepped out of her comfort zone this time,” Big Mouth Ralph says.
Matt thinks it’s not nice of Joanna to pretend she knows, and is about to say I haven’t heard the good news, what is it? when they hear loud and angry voices at the other end of the bar.
‘What the fuck?” Leigh says.
“I think that’s Ben and Kiki,” Jim says.
They can’t hear many of the words that are being said, but a few rise above the din. None of them is very nice and some are downright vile.
“What’s that about?” Joanna asks Stephen. Stenny’s bar is engineered in way that allows the bartenders to hear everything; almost like they have a superpower.
“Ben said something negative about Helen Keller, Kiki told Ben he was a misogynist, and then Ben told her she was a See You Next Tuesday, but he used the actual word. It went on from there.”
“He sort of proved her point with that word,” Joanna says. She herself curses often and fluently, but that’s the one word she will not use.
“Not the first fight they’ve had,” Jim says. By this time, the arguing has stopped, as Kiki has left by the back entrance, slamming the door behind her. Ben is talking affably to Ernie, as if nothing unusual has happened.
“Wait, aren’t we all missing the main point?” Matt asks.
“What’s that?” Joanna says.
“What objection could Ben possibly have to Helen Keller?”
“Hmm, good question,” Leigh says, eating her last fry. “We’ll ask him later.”
IF YOU ENJOYED THIS CHAPTER FROM MY IN-PROCESS NOVEL, CHECK OUT MY COMPLETED NOVEL “BUTTS IN THE SEAT,” A SATIRIC LOOK AT OFFICE LIFE. ONE REVIEWER SAID: “AMUSING, ENTERTAINING, AND PROVIDES THERAPEUTIC VALUE.”