“Except for you, this doesn’t look like a milk-drinking crowd,” Pinky eased his wiry limbs into the padded booth. “Thought you quit drinkin’? What you doin’ in this place?”
Old Timer wrestled a pack of Camels from his hip pocket. “Ain’t had a beer for 2 years, that’s the truth.” There was one smoke left, but by the time his arthritic fingers fished it out of the pack, it was wounded: split in two and leaking its cancerous guts from the middle. Oh well, the waitress would fetch him a pack from the machine. “Just cause I ain’t drinking no more don’t mean I can’t hang around with the boys, now, does it? I can’t stop coming to my bar. Been here every Friday night for nearly 27 years. First place I stop after cashin’ my check. Only difference is, don’t blow half of it on the Brown Bird before I leave, like I used to.”
Wild Turkey. It had nearly been the death of the old man, before his wife finally snatched the bottle from him. She’d threatened to move back to Kansas City and live with their daughter if he didn’t give it up. Life without his liquor was damned hard. But living the last of his years having to fix his own supper and wash his own skivvies would have been a lot tougher, he figured.
The waitress wiggled between their table and the next, picking up Old Timer’s empty glass and adding it to the collection on her tray. “Can I get you something?” she asked Pink. “We ain’t makin’ no money on O.T.’s milk shots…I need to round up some real business around here…I got a car payment due next week, ya know.”
“Hey now, don’t be makin’ fun of a man’s drink,” Old Timer slid her a ten-spot. “Bring me a pack of smokes, would you, Lucy? And get my friend a Budweiser.”
Hips swaying and tray perched above her head, the girl snaked her way through the crowd to the back bar.
“Bonnie said I would find you here, O.T. I got a favor to ask.”
Old Timer eyed the young man sitting across from him. “What’s she doin’, spying on me?” He eased back into the booth, bracing his aching bones against the vinyl. “I’ve only been retired two months, and already she’s tracking me down every time I leave the room to scratch myself.”
Pinky knew this wouldn’t be easy. The old man would play it for all it was worth. The waitress brought his beer and set Old Timer’s cigarettes in front of him with a pile a quarters for change.
“About that retirement, O.T. How’s it going?” Pinky asked.
Old Timer grinned broadly, a mouth full of wayward, nicotine splashed teeth winking from behind his lips. “Oh, it’s great. I got a lot more time to go fishin’ now, so I don’t have to miss church with Bonnie no more to take the boat out. Hell, they’ve even got me passin’ out the snacks for communion. And I’m not havin’ to take all those pain pills for my back. I’m not missin’ goin’ up and down those ladders, that’s for damned-sure.”
Pinky swigged from his beer. “Well, it’s good to hear you’re enjoying your time.”
“Yeah, yeah, that I am.” David Allen Coe crooned in the background, and O.T. tapped the table with his thumb in time with the beat.
“How old was I when you started working for Dad, O.T.?” Pinky asked.
Old Timer gave an exaggerated sigh. “Well, let’s see here, son. It was the summer before that nasty hurricane that knocked down the lights for four days…Alicia? Yeah, that was in ’83…you were just a fly on a brown cow’s butt back then.”
Pinky nodded, waiting for the song to end before he spoke.
“You know, O.T., things just haven’t been the same since you retired,” Pinky said.
“Really?” Old Timer cocked a bushy, gray eyebrow at Pinky. “I thought No-Show was handling things pretty good.”
“Well, he can handle his own paint brush, but he can’t run a crew like you can,” Pinky nearly laughed on his own words. His dad had made him rehearse that line before he left the office, and he didn’t think he would be able to spit it out. Truth was, No-Show was doing a great job.
“Ah, ya know, he’s young, got a lot to learn.” Old Timer pulled a toothpick from his waistband and slid it between a couple of jagged, gapped teeth. “How’s Bleed comin’ along?”
“Okay, I guess.” Pinky couldn’t believe his dad had put him up to this. They didn’t need Old Timer. They should have fired him five years ago when his eyes went bad. He hadn’t been able to paint a straight line since, and he refused to wear his bifocals on the job. He was always screwing up because he couldn’t see worth a damn.
Just that spring, they’d had to replace nearly $1,200 in windows at a house where Old Timer had worked. He’d used an Exacto blade to remove tape from the glass and scratched every one of those windows all to hell. Before that, it had been spilled paint thinner on carpet, white paint on the red bricks of the mayor’s house, and a brand new wooden floor buckled when Old Timer forgot to hook the washing machine hose back in after moving it for a $75 sheetrock job.
But his dad had always had a soft spot for the guy, said he was old school. He never called in sick, and never took a smoke break before lunch. He had a real work ethic, not like some of the young kids who stumbled in half-stoned on Monday mornings, or didn’t come in at all. Old Timer might have been a poor painter, but he was there when you needed him.
And now that he was home all the time, Bonnie was about to pull her hair out. She had called Pinky’s dad, begging him to put O.T. back to work, even if it was just part time. She couldn’t stand him following her around all day, whining about how useless he felt not having a job anymore. He missed all of them desperately, though he would never admit to it. Couldn’t they find something for him to do?
“So, what’s that favor you was gonna ask me?” The old man eyed the younger one suspiciously. “Need to borrow the power washer? Your Waggoner on the fritz again?”
“No, no, we just…well, we thought…we were hoping you might come back to work.” There, he had said it with a straight face. His dad would be proud.
“Oh? Well, I don’t know about that…” Old Timer shifted in his seat. “I’m kinda used to being home now, son. Been getting’ lots and lots of projects done. I don’t know what Bonnie would do without me around to help her, what with that bad hip and all.”
Pinky muffled a smile. Bonnie would probably dance a jig, bad hip or not.
“Dad said you wouldn’t have to do any ladder work, O.T. He’d like you to just supervise the crews, make material runs, keep an eye on things for him,” Pinky explained. “But it’d still be full-time work.”
Old Timer wiggled and licked his lips in contemplation. “Well, I guess if your dad needs me, I could make some concessions with my time. He’s been good to me all these years.”
If you only knew, Pinky thought, taking another swig of beer. “Yes, well, you’ve been good to us, O.T.” Pinky reached across the table, extending a shake.
The old man pumped the boy’s hand several times, then eased back into his chair. “So, when you gonna take over the business and give your old man a proper rest? He’s nearly as old as myself. Ain’t he made enough money to turn it all over to you yet?”
Pinky laughed at that one. “Well, he says he’s gonna retire one of these days, but it’s hard to do, so they say.”
Old Timer nodded, unwrapping the new box of Camels and tapping it on the edge of the table. “So they say.”
“You’ll be in Monday then?” Pinky asked, “We still got employee meetings in the morning.”
“Still got the donuts?” Old Timer asked.
“Then I’ll be there.”
Pinky rose from the table. “It’s good to have you back, Don.”
Old Timer hardly recognized his given name. He smiled, the cigarette wavering on his bottom lip. “It’s good to be back, son.”