I never wanted to be a bartender. I wanted to finish college, to become a professional with letters behind his name. But my brother got himself killed, and I got stuck behind the bar, wiping up other people’s drinks, listening to their bullshit, and wondering what my life would have been like.
It wasn’t my brother’s fault, and I don’t blame him. He was always a big, tough kid, and he wanted to be even tougher. The only way to do that was to join the United States Marine Corps, the toughest of them all. He enlisted before he graduated high school. He was a natural at basic training and mastered all the skills of a good soldier. When the graduation ceremony was held at Parris Island, his drill sergeant spoke to our father and me personally. The sergeant was a powerfully built redneck with a Georgia accent and a pair of hammers for fists. He told us that John Bonk was the best recruit he’d ever trained, and that the United States of America would be a safer place if more men like him joined the Corps.
After a few years, John was promoted to corporal and then buck sergeant. He sent home photos of himself with his men. They looked like a merry bunch, five guys holding machine guns and grinning. The pictures came from far off places like Singapore, Brazil, and the Philippines. Then the shit hit the fan in the Middle East for the hundred and twenty-second time in a century. John shipped out to keep the peace, to guard vital U.S. interests, to keep the savages one their side of an imaginary line in the desert.
Mrs. Kirzner, the neighborhood know-it-all, called that afternoon. She wanted to know if I’d heard. Heard what? I wanted to know. I was in my room, studying for an upcoming final exam. It didn’t take me long to figure it out when I saw the news. There was a solemn broadcaster, hiding his speech impediment behind therapy-perfected words even as he struggled to pronounce the name of some cluster of mud bricks that doubled for a town. He reported that the Marine Barracks there had been bombed. I knew John was dead before the official car pulled to the curb.
It was my job to accept the bad news. Our father, John, Sr., was at one of the new casinos in Atlantic City, one that would still give him credit. A tall man wearing his dress uniform informed me that my brother, John Bonk, sergeant, United States Marine Corps, had been killed. His remains were coming home in a box. They would arrive at Dover Air Force Base, where they could be claimed. The man expressed his formal condolences and the thanks of the American people for my brother’s service to the Nation. My first thought was back to the drill sergeant. I wondered how he felt about his legendary recruit getting killed by nothing more than a psycho with a truck full of dynamite.
I learned from the news that the guy with the truck full of TNT took his time driving the winding road that led up to the barracks. Then he put on speed to break through a two-by-four gate that wouldn’t have stopped a trio of nuns on their way to a holy day of obligation. The truck jumped the curb and slammed into the entrance. Milliseconds later, the explosion demolished the entire building.
My brother didn’t die in battle. He didn’t die making a last stand on an anonymous ridge, firing his machine gun, screaming curses to urge his men over the top while artillery shells pounded around him. No, he died in his sleep, his head crushed like a grape when concrete slabs collapsed on him. No movie star would be immortalizing John. There would be no Sands of Iwo Jima or Platoon to show the public a fantasy that was supposed to be his reality. There was a photo on page 3 of the Philadelphia Inquirer and a list of the dead at the end of the article.
College ended two days later. It was the day our father got back from the casino. He was broke and hung over. I told him what happened, that his oldest son was coming back in a bag. He grabbed the baseball bat kept behind the bar and ran into the street. I heard him scream he would kill any Arab he saw. There weren’t any Arabs living in Port Richmond, our Philadelphia neighborhood. He didn’t come back for two weeks. I had guessed it would take him a week to exorcise his demons, but it took him another seven days to run out of money and I had some bruises that needed to heal.
I opened the bar that afternoon and every one thereafter. I knew how to pour beer and mix the simple drinks liked by people who patronized the place. Growing up with the stink of alcohol in everything, the talk of beer and liquor was never far away. Recipes and ritual soaked into my brain by osmosis.
That first week, everyone from the neighborhood came by to offer condolences and sniff for a free drink. “John was a hero,” they would say, expecting me to pour them a drink in his honor and on the house. I loved my brother, but he was no hero. He died in his sleep, when the building fell on his head. And even if he had caught a bullet rescuing some stupid journalist from kidnapping terrorists, it wouldn’t have been enough for me to give away booze. I accepted sad words with a silent nod and went back to cleaning the glasses my father never bothered to polish.
On the night my father returned, I had lit a fresh pipe of tobacco and was watching the smoke curl up to the ceiling. It was a habit taken up sometime between high school and college and only done when I was alone. It was my private vice, something that smelled better than old beer. I sat in a ratty recliner, which had been mine since I learned to climb into it as a toddler. The sounds of my father coming up the stairs interrupted thoughts of John’s funeral.
My father was piss drunk and full of melancholy. He lectured me on the evils of the government, his hatred for the Arabs, how stupid the whole world was, and how nothing was fair. If my mother hadn’t died giving birth to me, he would have had a decent wife to look after him. If John hadn’t died, the bar would have been his. But since mom was gone, and John, too, it was about time I gave up dreams of all that bullshit they were teaching me in college and learn how to run a bar. He failed to notice the amber-colored rings under my eyes. His lack of sympathy didn’t annoy me, nor did his belated advice regarding the bar’s operation. I was already on my way to reshaping the place to my vision.
“And get rid of that pipe,” he finished. “If you’re going to smoke, smoke cigarettes. Be the Marlboro Man or something.”
“I’m not trying to be anybody,” I replied.
“Ah, sure you are. Borrowing money to go to college, playing the piano, keeping your nose in the air. You’re not fooling anybody. It’s enough to make your mother roll in her grave.”
He rambled on about my mother. If only she hadn’t died giving birth to me, life would have been different. A familiar refrain, it was his explanation for everything that was wrong with the world. She was the best woman he’d known. She was the only one who understood what it was like to be married to a man like him. He was right about that. The grass hadn’t grown over my mother’s grave before he ran through a parade of floozies and bimbos who thought a bar was a good business and that the man who owned it would be worth some money. They were more disappointed in him than he was in them. The mutual loathing manifested itself into a series of arguments that ended in shouted curses, slammed doors, and broken heels on the steps leading downstairs. One woman threw a bottle at him. It hit a window, went through the glass, and landed on someone’s car in the street below. A piece of plywood still covered the hole.
I took all this from my father without saying a word. I knew my father was a degenerate gambler, a heavy drinker, and a fool. Arguing was a waste of time. Long ago, about the time I conquered the recliner, I learned to ignore him and focus on the future.
I took an interest in schoolwork from the first grade and earned high marks from all my teachers. They encouraged me to go to college, and I won a few small scholarships. There was hope for me to escape the nature of my birth. No money or support came from the bar. With the casinos such a good investment, my father couldn’t understand why I spent money listening to some asshole teach me worthless shit. I worked various jobs, although never in the bar, and borrowed the rest. Four semesters later, things were going anywhere but toward a career behind the taps.
Then that truck exploded. It killed my brother and destroyed my future. I knew it, my father knew it, and there was nothing I could do about it. Maybe there was a chance for me to walk away, to finish school, to be something. For a few nights, I imagined my brother telling me to do just that, to walk away from our father, from the bar, and be a man. But that’s not how it went.
I wasn’t a victim like my brother. I was a willing participant, a volunteer. I took on a challenge to prove I could do anything the way my brother proved the same thing to that drill sergeant. And I did, too. I turned that bar into a source of pride. I made friends and money and stood up to people who needed to be put down. I screwed married women, committed burglary, and murdered a scumbag who deserved worse than death. It wasn’t the best of times, but it was never boring.