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Authors: Ivan Doig

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The Bartender's Tale

BOOK: The Bartender's Tale



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Copyright © 2012 by Ivan Doig

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

Published simultaneously in Canada

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Doig, Ivan.

The bartender’s tale / Ivan Doig.

p. cm.

ISBN 978-1-101-59683-8

1. Fathers and sons—Fiction. 2. Bars (Drinking establishments)—Fiction. 3. Life change events—Fiction. 4. Montana—Fiction. I. Title.

PS3554.0415B37 2012 2012017498


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


To Mark and Lou Damborg,

friends over many a magical meal and beyond


the best bartender who ever lived. No one really questioned that in a town like Gros Ventre, glad of any honor, or out in the lonely sheep camps and bunkhouses and other parched locations of the Two Medicine country, where the Medicine Lodge saloon was viewed as a nearly holy oasis. What else was as reliable in life as sauntering into the oldest enterprise for a hundred miles around and being met with just the right drink whisking along the polished wood of the prodigious bar, along with a greeting as dependable as the time of day? Not even heaven promised such service. Growing up in back of the joint, as my father always called it, I could practically hear in my sleep the toasts that celebrated the Medicine Lodge as an unbeatable place and Tom Harry as perfection of a certain kind behind the bar.

Which was not to say, even the adherents comfortably straddling their bar stools might have admitted, that he added up to the best human being there ever was. Or the absolute best father of all time, in ways I could list. Yet, as peculiar a pair as we made, the bachelor saloonkeeper with a streak of frost in his black pompadour and the inquisitive boy who had been an accident between the sheets, in the end I would not have traded my involuntary parent for a more standard model. It is said it takes a good storyteller to turn ears into eyes, but luckily life itself sometimes performs that trick on us. In what became our story together, when life took me by the ears, what a fortunate gamble it was that my father included me in his calling. Otherwise, I’d have missed out on the best seat in the house—the joint, rather—when history came hunting for him.

I turned twelve that year of everything, 1960. But as my father would have said, it took some real getting there first.

who was my father’s housekeeper when domestic matters underwent a surprising turn and I was the result, long since had washed her hands of the two of us and vanished from our part of Montana, and for all I could find out, from the face of the earth. “She up and left,” was his total explanation. “Pulled out on us when you were a couple of months old, kiddo.” Accordingly, he handed me off to his sister, Marge, and her family in Arizona, and I spent my early years in one of those sunbaked Phoenix neighborhoods where saguaro cactuses had not yet been crowded out entirely.

It was not an easy existence. My cousins, Danny and Ronny, were four and six years older than I was, and infinitely more ornery. Aunt Marge was loyal to me—or at least to the checks my father sent for my support—but she took in laundry and ironing as well as running the household, and so her supervision of her unruly sons was sporadic at best. None of us saw much of the husband and father, Arvin, a fireman who usually was trying to catch some sleep in the back bedroom or on shift at the firehouse. My enduring memory of that period of my life is of the big Zenith console radio saving my skin the same time every afternoon, when the bigger boys took a break from tormenting me and we all slumped down on the living room floor to tune in to serial adventures far beyond what Phoenix had to offer. So I survived, as children somehow do, and occasionally I was even reprieved from Danny and Ronny. A time or two a year, my father would show up and take me off on what he declared was a vacation. We saw the Grand Canyon more than once.

As time went on, my situation started to slip drastically. Ronny was about to become a teenager, and turning meaner along with it. Among other stunts, he liked to grind his knuckles on the back of my head when Aunt Marge wasn’t watching. All the while, copycat Danny was just waiting for his turn at me. The saying is that what does not kill you strengthens you, but sometimes you wonder which will happen first.

By the summer I turned six, I was desperately looking forward to the first grade, when I would be out of Ronny’s reach at least that much of the day. It all culminated one hot afternoon when we were sprawled on the rug in the living room, listening as usual to
The Lone Ranger
. Ronny was alternately mocking Tonto—“Why it never your turn to sweep the tepee, Kemo Sabe?”—and spitting sunflower seed husks at me, Danny was giggling at such good fun, and I was wincing at how cruddy a life it was when a person had to put up with relatives like the pair of them. Then, more dramatic than anything on the radio, there was a thundering knock on the front door, which brought Aunt Marge rushing to see what it was about.

She opened the door to my father, head and shoulders above her even though she was a large woman. “Hey, Marge. How’s tricks?” I was too surprised to jump up and run to him as usual. Seeing him materialize in that doorway—he looked like he always did, his hair slicked back and his lively eyebrows cocked, although his usual blinding white shirt was unbuttoned at the neck in concession to the Arizona heat—challenged my imagination more mightily than the masked man and his faithful Indian companion ever could. What was wrong? Why was he here, suddenly and unannounced?

The perfectly bland answer confounded me as much as the question. “I came to get the kid.”

Aunt Marge laughed in his face. “Tom, you can’t drag Rusty off on some dumb vacation right now. He starts school pretty soon.”

That did not seem to perturb him the least bit. “Last time I looked, Montana has schoolhouses.”

She was speechless, although not for long. “You don’t mean you’re going to try to raise him! That’s crazy!”

“Yeah, well, that’s one description of it.” My father’s wallet now entered the conversation, a riffle of bills as he counted out more money than I would have ever dreamed I was worth. Thrusting the wad of cash into her nearest hand and adding “Much obliged, Marge,” he peered past her to our three gaping faces amid the unheard palaver of the radio.

In that moment, my life stopped being cruddy. Maybe I was imagining, but I thought I heard a scared gulp out of Ronny as my father sized up him and the sunflower seed shrapnel. Then he was looking at me as if we were the only two in the room. “Let’s grab your things and hit the road, kiddo.”

of Phoenix in one of those tubby Hudsons made after World War II, which maybe accounted for its family resemblance to a tank. I could barely see over the dashboard of the thing, in contrast to my father, who just fit under the car roof, tall even sitting down. By then I was catching up with the full implications of what had happened and was thrilled through and through with my escape from those stinker cousins. But was he? Every time I stole a look at him, he was squinting at the highway ahead as though something more than driving was on his mind. Surely he wouldn’t turn the car around and deliver me back to Aunt Marge’s madhouse, would he? Would he? Squirming in the passenger seat as the desert whipped past—he drove the way Montana people did in those days, as though the speed limit was merely a suggestion—I badly wanted to look however far ahead to when our trip would be safely over. “Daddy, how long—”

“Cripes, let’s get rid of that word right now,” he muttered, fishing out a cigarette and punching the lighter on the dash. “Makes both of us sound like we’re still dealing with diapers.”

Cautiously I tried again. “Father?”

“I’m no priest, am I,” he said gruffly.

“Wh-what should I say?”

He lit his cigarette and waved the lighter as if extinguishing a match. “Don’t sweat it. We’ll think of something.”

There matters stood until we pulled into a gas station in the first little town. As luck would have it, past the pumps I spotted a cheery enameled sign for Orange Crush soda, my favorite, and blurted: “Uh, Pop, can I please have some pop?”

He shot a look at me across the space of the front seat. His eyebrows went up in what seemed to be fresh consideration of his passenger. “Didn’t I tell you we’d think of something?”

together a little on those “vacations,” but this trip was beyond anything even a daydreaming type of child like me ever imagined. Half of a state might go by in an afternoon, with Pop giving the Hudson’s gas pedal no mercy. Interstate freeways hadn’t yet bisected the West, and the highway went through towns, so that you felt you were visiting each one. Pop would slow whenever the road became a main street and ask, “Need to take a leak?” I almost always did, and he would aim for a sign that said Mint or Stockman or some other saloon name in plain tubular neon—this was 1954, take into account, before everything began flashing like Las Vegas—and in we would go. “My kid’s got a quick call of nature,” he’d tell the bartender, and be sure to buy a couple packs of cigarettes or some gum or candy bars for me to give the bar a bit of business, while I went to the toilet. On our way out he would always say, “Nice joint you have here,” even if the place was gloomy as a funeral parlor. I suppose I learned something about professional courtesy from those stops.

To pass the driving time, Pop was trying to follow the fortunes of the Great Falls baseball team. They played in a Class D league—about one step up from picnic softball—and we took turns twiddling the car radio dial to pull in their games. I practically squinted an ear at first, trying to figure out what I was hearing. “Why are they called the Slick Tricks?”

He told me that wasn’t the case, fishing in his shirt pocket to toss me a matchbook. “Here’s where the name comes from, see?” Back there at six I already could read, and had not too much trouble with the fancy red script lettering that blazoned GREAT FALLS SELECT—MONTANA’S BEST BEER!

“I sell oceans of it,” he spelled out further for me. “Seems only fair to root for the team.” It sounded like they needed it, against the Pocatello Cowpokes. The broadcast signal faded in and out, as the Selectrics—as they proved to be—also seemed to do.
“There’s a grounder through the infield, one runner is in to score, here comes another. Seven to two, ’Pokes. The ball has eluded the Great Falls center fielder . . .”

“Damn,” said Pop with a frown as the Selectrics wavered off the dial to their fate. “It’s real too bad they don’t live up to the beer.”

Nights were a time neither of us was quite prepared for. Auto courts still existed then, and after parking the Hudson in the garage stall as if putting the horse in the barn, the two of us had a cabinlike room and all evening ahead. With that in mind, before pulling in for the first night, Pop had let me buy my fill of comic books at a drugstore. His own reading preference turned out to be paperback mystery novels, usually with a cover showing a beautiful blond woman in a bad situation. But we both read restlessly in the unaccustomed company of each other. My head was too full of what-ifs: What if I didn’t like Montana, which I had not seen since I was an infant? What if they didn’t have a desk for me, surprise newcomer that I was, when I started school? What if I didn’t like living with Pop, or he with me? What if he didn’t know how to cook? What if he didn’t even have a house, just the saloon? What if he had met some woman and I was going to have a new mother; there must be some reason, mustn’t there, why he had whisked me from Aunt Marge’s after all this time?

Worst of all, what if he changed his mind at some point and delivered me back into the clutches of Ronny and Danny?

It was a boggling amount for a six-year-old to think about, all because the human mystery across the room, who happened to be my father, had appeared like a white-shirted genie in that Phoenix doorway. Somewhere in any of us is the memory of how it was at that age, elbow-high to the almost incomprehensible world of parents. In my case, one newly materialized parent, almost more incomprehensible yet.

After a long enough spell of trying to stick with his book, Pop got up and prowled the room. Television had not yet invaded everywhere, and the radio on the bedstand when he tried it seemed to carry only the 50,000-watt station in Del Rio, Texas, broadcasting lovelorn country songs and constant commercials for quack cures. He clicked that off in no time and went over to his suitcase to see what it had to offer. It appeared he must have packed in a hurry, or maybe not unpacked from some other trip; what I glimpsed were primarily mussed white shirts. However, he rummaged a bit and came up with more detective stories, and under those, a deck of cards. Eyebrows lifting, he looked over to where I was flipping the pages of a Plastic Man comic book and eating a candy bar.

“You know how to play cards?”


“Gin rummy?”

“What’s that?”

“How about pinochle?”


“Okay, cardsharp, you tell me.”

“Old Maid.”

“I don’t have a deck like that.”

“I do! You sent it for my birthday. Along with
My Friend Flicka
, remember?”

“Oh, yeah, sure. Aren’t we in luck.” He sighed. “I suppose it beats solitaire. Okay, one game.” He thought it over as I scrabbled in my suitcase for the cards. “Hey, if anybody ever hears about this, we played cutthroat poker, got that?”

“Sure! I won’t forget! Cut-rate poker. Here’s my deck, Pop.”

He did the shuffling and dealing, since he was countless years better at it than I was. And here was another strange thing, engraved in memory: time suspended itself as we studied our cards, drew from each other’s hand, took turns discarding, over and over. I see us yet in the dresser mirror of that boxy room, civilly playing cards on the kind of nubbly bedspread used before artificial fabrics came along. My father was a figure to behold, by any standard. The long, big-shouldered body, as if the whole world was meant to look up to him the way I did. The skunk streak in his black hair; expressive, thick eyebrows, just as dark with a little silvering in them to match. A widow’s peak starting above the temples, pushed by the forehead’s set of lively wrinkles. Deep-set eyes, of a surprising light blue. Eyes the color of sky and active eyebrows can do you a lot of good in dealing with people, and his fit him as if made to order. But it was the lines in his face that told the most about him. History sees to it that certain countenances become visages of an era. Lincoln and Grant and Lee of their time. Mark Twain and Teddy Roosevelt of theirs. The man on that unlikely magic carpet of bedspread with me that night was etched with the Thirties, with that deeply creased survivor’s look so many times photographed as the image of the Depression generation. Hollywood further put that kind of face into our national memory by casting its most believably gaunt leading man, Henry Fonda, as Tom Joad in
The Grapes of Wrath
. My time-scarred father was no movie star, nor was he a Dust Bowl Okie, but his face was a badge of the decade as surely as if printed on a coin.

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