THE MAYOR OF JOESTOWN
by Nancy Lines
As the car began losing speed, all the lights on the dash lit up, leaving no question there was a serious problem under the hood. It was more than just a dead battery. Ann aimed the car toward the curb and coasted into a long, open spot. There were few cars parked on either side of the street because many of the buildings were boarded-up or razed, scattered among vacant lots full of debris and waist-high weeds.
This was the kind of neighborhood where only the poor and the elderly still lived. They could not afford to move, so they stayed in apartments that grew more rundown by the year. Ann had not seen a grocery store – or a store of any kind, except liquor stores – and no schools or medical facilities for blocks. When she drove down this street as a shortcut, she always drove quickly and made sure her windows were up and her doors locked. Now she regretted taking this route, although to stall on the freeway would have been more dangerous.
The only business nearby that appeared to be open was a tavern. The tavern windows were painted over, but through the peeling paint, she could see lights on inside, and she could hear faint music from a jukebox. She had to call Joel. She had left her cell phone on the kitchen counter—at least, that’s where she usually left it –so she headed for the tavern with the red door and black lettering announcing this was “Joe’s – An Uptown Bar.” She thought “Joe’s – A Nowhere Bar” would be more fitting now.
Hopefully, she could call Joel and wait here for him to pick her up. He would be irritated and would find some way to blame her for the dead car. Either she had waited too long to get the oil changed, or she had blown off the routine maintenance. Take your pick. Joel was a master at figuring out how all their problems were her fault.
It was much too hot to wait outside, and with no air conditioning and being afraid to leave a car window open, she would have to trust her luck in the tavern.
The bar was surprisingly dark inside, considering it was mid afternoon. Although it was cooler than outside, the air was anything but refreshing. It was more than stale smoke and stale beer. The air had a chemical top note that burned her nose and made her eyes tear. She thought it was probably decomposition of the building’s insulation and walls. She wanted to get out of there as soon as possible, but Joel was not likely to change his schedule just because she wanted to go home.
As soon as her eyes got used to the layers of dust floating just below the tiled ceiling, she could see there were more patrons than she would have imagined from outside. A pool table had pride of place in the center of the room, and three men, all in their late 40’s or 50’s, with pool cues in hand, glanced up as she entered. She noticed apprehensively that she was the only woman in the bar. A couple booths were occupied with other older men, who had bottles lined up on the table, indicating they had been there for quite a while. Didn’t any of these people work?
The bartender nodded to her as she walked toward the bar. He put down the grimy rag he was wiping the glasses with and flipped a paper coaster in front of an empty barstool.
“What can I get you, young lady?”
She appreciated the insincere compliment, but all she wanted was a phone.
“My car stalled out down the street, and I don’t have my cell phone with me. Do you have a phone I can use to call someone?”
He motioned to a wall-mounted phone at the end of the bar past the pool table.
“It’s for local calls only.”
A man sitting at the bar near the window, blocked by a layer of white paint, watched as she dialed. She supposed he was harmless enough, and the bartender was a burly guy, capable of handling most of the customers that might cause trouble. The pool players went back to their game, and the conversations in the booths resumed as if she were not there.
Joel, of course, did not answer his phone. She left a message, reading the phone number off a label pasted on the handle of the phone and gave him directions. She had not seen a phone like this for years, but this one was probably necessary for calling taxis when someone was too drunk to drive or, even, walk home or to make a flimsy excuse why he would be late for dinner again.
She sat on the barstool near the bartender. She felt she needed to order something to justify using the phone and taking up space while she waited for Joel, so she asked for a bottle of beer, which seemed the most sanitary choice. At the end of the bar, she watched a neon sign that showed fireworks arcing over a city scape. She remembered a Coors beer sign her father had in their family room, which was very similar. Her mother made him take the sign down when the religious relatives came to visit.
The bartender went back to polishing glasses with the dirty cloth, oblivious to the conversations going on around her and, apparently, totally uninterested in her broken down car.
An older man, who had been sitting in one of the booths with a couple other men his age, sauntered over.
“Welcome to Joe’s. I’m the mayor of Joestown, right , Joe?”
The bartender nodded absently. He had probably heard this line many times before.
“Right,” he said, without raising his head or even his eyes.
“I’m Sal. What brings you to our fair town?”
Ann wished she could be invisible until Joel got there. She didn’t want to get into a conversation with a drunk. She assumed everyone in the bar was drunk because of the number of bottles on each flat surface.
“My car died. I’ve called my husband to come and get me. He should be here soon.” She wanted to make it very clear someone knew where she was and was on his way to rescue her, although she could never think of Joel as a rescuer.
“Well, you are safe until he gets here, isn’t she, Joe?”
Joe grunted again. She wondered how long it would take him to graduate to a clean rag for the glasses.
Ann sipped on her beer to have something to do to avoid conversation with Sal, although he seemed to be a nice enough guy, probably just lonely, undoubtedly an alcoholic. Who else would be in a bar in the middle of a deserted neighborhood in the middle of the day. As one of her friends put it, “It’s the kind of bar where you go to get drunk.”
“Would you like me to take a look at your car? I’m not a mechanic, but I might be able to figure out the problem.”
She could think of nothing she would like less than to be outside in the boiling heat with a man she just met.
“Thanks, but Joel will be here soon. He’ll probably have the car towed.”
Sal sidled up to the stool next to her and ordered himself another beer.
“Can I get you another drink?”
“Thanks, but no. I’m not really a drinker.”
“I’m not much of a drinker either, right, Joe?”
Joe smiled and nodded again. He was definitely not the kind of bartender you would tell your troubles to.
“My last car was like that, too,” Sal said. “Couldn’t depend on her to get me to the end of the block.”
Ann could tell Sal was not going to go away. He seemed harmless.
“So what happened to the car?”
“Let my ex-wife take it. Didn’t matter. I had lost my license anyway. Bum car to a bum wife. Seemed right.”
Ann didn’t think asking why Sal had lost his license – or his wife — was necessary.
“How do you get groceries without a car? I don’t see any markets nearby.” She was genuinely curious how people like this lived. Where did they shop or go to the doctor? She hadn’t even seen a church.
“Oh, Joe serves tacos on Tuesdays and chili on Fridays.I get by.”
She had a lot of questions, but she didn’t want to get too involved. This life was as far from her comfortable suburban life as she could get. Her first impression of Joe’s customers, based on the fact that they were in a bar in the middle of a work day, was they were unemployed, maybe living on welfare. She hated to be judgmental, but the customers in Joe’s were not the kind of people she would normally come in contact with.
She sneaked a look at Sal while he was taking a long draw on his beer. He was thin, and he had the look of someone that never got any sun on his skin. He had an alcoholic’s broken veins on his nose and cheeks, and his eyes were rheumy beneath gray brows. His sparse hair was combed back from his forehead and poked out around his ears and overlapped the collar of his shirt. He looked like a man that lived alone.
“I don’t see a kitchen. Where do they make the tacos and chili?”
“Joe and his wife live upstairs. He’s been really good to me.”
That explained it, Ann, thought. Joe could keep this place going because he probably owned the old building and had no expenses except taxes and utilities.
“Do you have children?”
“No, not yet.” Ann answered. She wanted to say “Not until my husband decides we are ready,” but she wasn’t going to go into detail about her personal life with a stranger.
“How about you?”
“I’ve got two boys, but they don’t have nothing to do with me after their mother died. I wasn’t around much when she got sick, and they’ve never forgiven me. And then I got married to the piece of trash that divorced me. They hated her. They were better judges of character than I was.”
The telephone rang, and Ann hopped off her stool to answer it, sure it was Joel, but Joe beat her to it.
“Ed, it’s your wife. She said to send you home for supper.”
Ed made no effort to leave, ordering another beer.
“What did your wife die of?”
“She had cancer. I wasn’t as strong as she was. I couldn’t watch while she died. I was here, and she was all alone. My sons said I was a coward – and a drunk. Can’t say I blame them. I got what I deserved with that last one, though. She was a pip.”
The telephone rang again, and Joe answered it, raising his eyebrows in the direction of one of the men at the pool table, who vigorously shook his head no.
“He’s not here.” He hung up the phone with an annoyed click.
Ann wondered if Joe did that all day, relay messages the drinkers ignored and lied about them being in the bar.
“Do any of the wives come in here looking for their husbands?”
“Nah, they don’t bother. They know their men will come home eventually. Joe don’t let us stay too late.”
Ann wondered if some of the times she called Joel and he didn’t answer he was at a bar, not wanting to go home. Maybe he was having an affair. At this point, she wasn’t sure she cared much. She was also not sure why she stayed with him. Probably it was her fear of being alone, being financially responsible for herself. Although she worked from home doing “overflow” typing for three attorneys with small practices, she wasn’t sure she could support herself. She had never had much self-confidence, and Joel’s constant belittling had etched away what she had like acid on stone.
Sal finished another beer while she was still slowly sipping hers. She ordered another, not out of any desire to drink it but as kind of an act of rebellion. When Joel found her here, sitting at a bar, drinking out of a bottle, he would be furious and embarrassed. Damn him for leaving her here on her own.
One of the men at the pool table put more money in the jukebox and then went back to where he had been sitting on the corner of the table. A slow bluesy song oozed out and filled the room. It was the perfect song for this sunless place.
Sal got up and slowly began dancing by himself, hands held lightly at his sides, swaying and turning. Ann was amazed at his grace, the sweet sadness of his movements. He extended a hand to her to join him. She slipped off her stool and danced near him, not touching but turning as he turned. Sal nodded at her and continued his swaying to the rhythms, Ann following his lead. She seldom danced because she felt awkward. Joel said she had no rhythm and was stiff as a mannequin, so she let him dance with their friends when the occasion came up while she watched. Now, she felt free of judgment. Sal smiled at her as she twirled for no reason, and she smiled back.
The telephone on the wall rang again, but Ann made no attempt to answer it.
“Ed, it’s your wife again. Get your ass home!”
Ed, head hanging like a dog, finished off his drink, threw a couple dollar bills on the table, and headed for the door.
“See you, Joe, Sal.”
A Bill Withers’ song “The Love that Made Me Laugh Made Me Cry,” one of Ann’s favorites, began playing, and Sal continued his dancing. She sat back on her stool and watched Sal, his eyes closed, moving to the music as if it filled his head and drove away all other thoughts. He looked weightless, like he could float away. Whatever he was remembering was making him almost happy.
When the song was over, the pool players resumed their play, and the sounds of balls bouncing off each other and the thunks as they went into pockets echoed throughout the room. Just then, Ann heard a thumping sound, as if someone were banging a broomstick or stomping against the upstairs floor near a set of stairs. Joe looked up and then motioned to Sal, who slid off his stool and went around to the other side of the bar. Their movements were so choreographed, it was apparent these were roles they both knew by heart.
Joe climbed the stairs and in a couple minutes came back down, carrying a plate covered with aluminum foil and set it before Sal, who was now sitting on a stool near the sink. After he went back upstairs, Sal peeled back the foil and sniffed appreciatively.
“Meat loaf night! Queenie is a good cook. I’ll be glad to share with you.”
So that was the deal: in exchange for a good hot meal, Sal watched the bar while Joe had supper with his wife. The whole silent arrangement spoke of the trust, if not the affection, between the two men. Sal ate his meal and then rinsed his plate in the sink for Joe to take back upstairs after his break. Ann wondered if Queenie ever came downstairs or if this was Joe’s private place.
The telephone rang a few more times, but now it was Sal who rushed to answer it. Each call was a wife or girlfriend asking him to send her man home or asking if he was there and then pretending to believe Sal when he said no.
Sal scooted his stool to where he was facing Ann. He looked like a man content with his life, which Ann found impossible to believe. This little, circumscribed life in a dingy bar with deadbeats and alcoholics?
“What did you do for a living, Sal, when you were working?”
“I was a barber.” He grinned at her. “I can still do a mean haircut if you want one!” Ann wondered why Sal’s own hair was not kept trimmed.
“Why did you stop? Where was your shop?” She thought he would say it was in one of the boarded-up buildings along the street.
“I always wanted my own shop, to be my own boss, but the time was never right. I worked for other barbers or rented out chairs in their shops. I saved, but then I had to put the boys through college, and by that time my wife had cancer, and all our money went to the doctors who couldn’t save her. Didn’t stop the bastards (excuse my language) from charging me thousands of dollars, though. Then, I just didn’t care anymore.” He gestured, his hands encompassing the whole of the bar. “This saved me.”
“Do you live upstairs, too?”
Sal laughed. “No, but Queenie makes me stay the night if I’m too far gone to make it home. I sleep on their sofa.”
Ann was amazed that there was no embarrassment in his tone, no apologies.
The telephone rang again, and she moved to answer it. It must be Joel this time. She had been here for a couple hours. It would be just like Joel to leave her here to teach her a lesson. But again Sal was first to the phone. From where she sat, she could hear a woman’s angry voice.
“Jimmy, your wife says if you’re not home in ten minutes, she’ll feed your dinner to the dogs, and you can sleep with them, too.”
Everyone, including Jimmy, who was playing pool, laughed. He walked over to Ann and politely offered her the cue.
“Why don’t you take my place. I’m gonna let the pretty lady teach these rookies how to play pool!”
“Come on,” Sal said, “I’ll help you out.”
Ann had played pool at her friends’ houses, the friends with swimming pools and “game rooms” with pool tables and pin ball machines. She didn’t play well, but she knew how to hold a cue. Joel said if they stuck to their financial plan (his, really, she didn’t have any input), they could have a house with a pool and game room, too. The problem was, Ann thought, she was the only one that stuck to the plan. Joel claimed he had to project a certain image to his customers, so he bought expensive cars and clothes and joined the right clubs. As he reminded her many times, you have to look prosperous to become prosperous. And when they were finally as prosperous as Joel wanted to be, he said they could finally start thinking about having a baby.
Ann was beginning to wonder if she was the “right” person to further Joel’s success. It seemed sometimes as if he were ashamed of her. If he saw her today, drinking a bottle of domestic beer, playing pool with a bunch of rummies, he might conclude she was the one holding him back. She ordered another beer.
She and Sal finished the game where Jimmy left off. Mickey won, but the players next on deck let Ann and Sal take their turn. Sal was amazingly sure with his shots. They lost, nonetheless, but Ann wanted to keep playing, so she placed a quarter on the side of the table, which meant she and Sal would play the winner of the next game. Sal nodded and patted her on the back.
“Atta, girl. We’ll get ‘em next time.”
Sal brought her a fresh, cold beer. Ann didn’t remember if she had drunk this much beer at one time since college. Even then, she didn’t drink much because she got sick easily. She really didn’t like the taste of alcoholic drinks, but today it tasted good. Maybe it was the company.
A man came in and took an empty booth near the back of the bar. He was dressed in a suit and looked completely out of place here. A few minutes later, a woman, about the same age, came in and joined the man at the back booth. Without their asking, Sal took them each a glass of beer and took their money to put in the cash register.
“They meet here every day, same time, for years. They’re both married. They don’t cause no trouble. They don’t bother nobody, and nobody bothers them.” He said it proudly, as if this was part of the reason Joe’s was special. He explained the bar had its own rules, and as long as everyone obeyed the rules, they were safe and accepted here.
When it was time for Ann and Sal to play the winners of the last pool game, the telephone rang again. Sal answered and then held the phone out to Ann.
“What’s going on there?” Joel asked impatiently. “Doesn’t sound to me like this is an emergency. Can’t you call a taxi so I don’t have to leave work? You have enough for a taxi?”
“And the car? Do I just leave the car here?”
“Have it towed! Our insurance covers that. You can manage that by yourself, can’t you?” His voice dripped with disgust.
“Right. I can manage by myself. I’d hate to inconvenience you.” She slammed the receiver on the phone. Everyone in the bar looked up to see what was going on.
“Everything okay, little lady?” Sal looked concerned and, surprisingly, protective.
“Everything is fine. I think it’s time for me to go home. I’ll just call a cab and have the car towed. My husband is too busy to come to get me.”
Sal looked doubtful but didn’t say anything. He dialed a number he knew well and ordered a cab.
Ann rummaged in her purse until she came up with her insurance card with the number for a towing service. The towing company promised to be there within a couple hours, but knowing Joel was not coming to pick her up, Ann saw no reason to wait.
Joe was back at the bar. Sal announced he was going to stay with Ann until her taxi arrived.
Joe nodded at Ann.
“You can use our phone anytime.”
When the taxi stopped in front of Joe’s, Sal opened the cab door for Ann and then squeezed her hand.
He smiled, and she smiled back.
“Thank you,” she said.
As he closed the taxi door, Sal looked briefly down the street. Ann thought maybe he was ready to go home for the night, but as the taxi pulled away from the curb, Sal hurried back through the red door. He looked relieved. He was, indeed, going home.
About the Author:
Nancy Lines had one long essay published in an area newspaper, and a short story based on a true event is being reviewed by a national military magazine.