Caution: The Consumption of Ginger Ale and Beer Nuts Could Be Hazardous to Your Health

     “Ya know, I only vaguely remember the face of the first girl I kissed — I think it was my cousin, what’s-her-name — or the name of my first grade teacher. And since my parents divorced when I was, I don’t know, three maybe, I have no memories of the three of us ever living together in a happy home ... like the Ricardos or the Nelsons ... you know, Ozzie and Harriet? From what my grandmother told me, my parent’s married life was more like the Cramden’s — he was one funny son of a bitch, that Ralph. ‘One a dese days, Alice! One a dese days! Bang, zoom! Straight to the Moon!’ I loved that show, you know, The Jackie Gleason Show? Once, I laughed so hard, I shot hot chocolate out my friggin’ nose. I always wondered, though, what Alice saw in Ralph. She was a babe. And Ralph had this double chin and a beer belly like my Uncle Bob and oily black hair like my Uncle Johnny. Anyway, after my parents divorced, my mother and me moved in with my grandparents.”

     “But some memories from long ago are sharp, like a movie filmed in Panavision and Technicolor. I can see the faces, hear the voices, and almost smell the people and places. Memories of my first barfight — not as a participant, but as a wide-eyed five year-old with a ringside seat — are like that, vivid, like it happened just yesterday.”

    “I’d seen other barfights before, but only on TV. Cowboys wearing clean white hats and bad guys wearing dusty black hats would punch the shit out of each other until the sheriff came in and dragged the bad guy off to jail.  And sometimes my grandfather let me stay up late and we’d watch the Gillette Friday Night Fights on Channel 4. When the two fighters really started to mix it up my grandfather would be on the edge of the sofa, bobbing and weaving, yelling, ‘Knock the bum out, for Christ’s sake!’  Usually the two fighters were evenly matched — unless Rocky Marciano was fighting. By the third round, most of his opponents found themselves flat on their backs, staring up at the ceiling, wondering what the fuck hit ‘em.”

     “Anyway, this particular fight took place in the Skipper, a friendly and convenient neighborhood bar at 548 Main Street. To say it was convenient would be an understatement; we lived just upstairs, in the apartment right over the bar. On busy nights you could hear the voices of the people down below through the floor of our living room. The laughter from the Skipper mixed with the laughter coming from our TV when we watched I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners.”

     “I spent a lot of time in the Skipper — with my grandparents and my mother, of course — so I was a familiar face to George, the owner, and Dan the bartender. My mother and my grandparents went down just about every Friday and Saturday night, most Sunday afternoons, sometimes on a week night or two after shopping at the A&P, or whatever, or when Uncle Bob and Aunt Mary came over on a Saturday afternoon, or when my Uncle Johnny and his girlfriend Nancy dropped in. Sometimes my other grandfather would drive in from the city — New York City — and we’d all go down for drinks. So I was on a first name basis with most of the regulars. To me, the Skipper was like a roomful of uncles. On slow afternoons, Tony the cook would sometimes give me a slice of Italian bread with butter. If he was in a really good mood or it was a really slow day, he might make me a cheese sandwich.”

     “To keep me entertained while she drank and joked with her friends, my mother would dump me in front of the Skipper’s big black and white TV, give me a ginger ale and a bag of beer nuts, and tell me to stay put. One night, when my Aunt Mary wasn’t looking, I finished one of her drinks, the one with the cherry in it. I got dizzy and fell asleep. Uncle Bob had to carry me upstairs to bed. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my very first drink.”

     “Anyway, my mother made a lot of friends in the Skipper. Guys bought her drinks and made her laugh. Once in awhile some guy would piss her off, though, and she’d tell him to get lost. One night Uncle Bob almost got into a fight with a guy who wouldn’t leave my mother alone, you know, wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, but the two of them backed down when Dan yelled over and told them both to ‘Knock it off!’”

     “Uncle Bob and Aunt Mary sometimes argued, usually after they’d had too many beers, but they never hit each other. Uncle Johnny and his girlfriend fought too, but they’d make up in a corner booth where they thought nobody could see them.”    

     “The Skipper’s large black and white TV sat high on a shelf at the back of the bar, in between the men’s room and the back door that led out to the alley where the beer trucks made their deliveries – sometimes I thought the TV was a little too close to the men’s room, if you know what I mean, especially on summer afternoons.”

“Anyway, only Dan was allowed to change the channel on the TV. He was a big guy with arms like he coulda lifted a beer truck with one hand — I think my uncle said Dan was in the Marines during the war. Dan was a friendly guy, for the most part ...  as long as you behaved yourself. One day a guy at the bar complained a little too loud about having to watch the Dodgers on TV — the Yanks must have been out of town. Dan gave the guy a ‘Shut yer yap and drink your beer’ kind of look, and the guy clammed up.”

“I remember Dan always wore a white shirt with the sleeves rolled up and a white apron — to keep beer off his pants, I guess. The place always smelled of old beer so maybe he didn’t want to bring the smell home with him. Sometimes my mother smelled of old beer the day after a long night at the Skipper.”

“Anyway, I remember it was a warm Saturday afternoon — the day I witnessed my first barfight. My mother and grandmother were out shopping for shoes or something and my grandfather must have been working overtime, so I was home alone. Bored, I went downstairs, walked into the Skipper, ordered a ginger ale and a bag of beer nuts, and sat in my usual booth in the back — Dan must have thought my mother was in the other room or something.”

     “I remember the big fan over the back door hummed as it sucked out the smoky air and smell of old beer. The usual afternoon crowd, the regulars, sat at the bar sipping their beers — ‘nursing’ their beers my grandfather called it. Some watched TV, others traded small talk with the guy sitting next to them. Some just stared out the front window, watching the cars go by out on Main Street. My grandfather used to joke that some of the regulars looked like they didn’t have two nickels to rub together.”

     “Anyway, there I sat, minding my own business, nursing my ginger ale, munching from a bag of beer nuts, watching the Yanks on WPIX — they were at home, playing ... I don’t remember who, but it didn’t matter, the only question was how many runs the Yanks would win by. Didn’t seem fair, with the Yankees line-up and all — I mean, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Hank Bauer, Whitey Ford, and Phil Rizzuto? The other team shoulda stayed in bed.”

     “Anyway, like I said, I was sitting there minding my own business when the sound of a door banging open made me jump. I almost dropped a beer nut in my soda. I turned around just in time to see a big, Ralph Cramden-looking guy, wearing dark trousers and a dirty white shirt with the sleeves rolled up, march in, yank a skinny, Ed Norton-looking, bookkeeper-type of guy wearing a light-blue suit off his barstool, yell something about a wife, and punch the Ed Norton-looking guy in the face, sending him flying across the room into the Wurlitzer. When Ed hit the Wurlitzer, the needle skipped to the end.”

    “Ralph picked Ed up off the floor, cocked his big arm, and was about to send the little guy on another trip across the room when he stopped, mid-punch, apparently mesmerized by the changing of the record. But when the needle arm came down and Chuck Berry began to sing ‘Maybellene, why can’t you be true ...’ Ralph remembered why he was there and punched Ed once more, sending him across the room again, this time into the wall.”

     “Anyway, the big guy repeated the punch-Ed-around-the-bar routine at least four times that I remember. After the first punch, Ed made no effort to defend himself. Blood dripped from his lower lip on to his white dress shirt and tie. He was limp and glassy-eyed — like some guys looked when they had too many glasses of beer.”     

     “The regulars sitting at the bar just watched - holding on to their glasses of beer, of course,  in case Ed went flying into the bar itself. Nobody moved to help Ed or stop the fight. Either they didn’t care or were used to watching barfights. I wondered why Dan didn’t stop the fight, though. He could have taken either one of them out with one punch. Maybe he didn’t want to get any blood on his white apron. Or maybe he thought that’s what cops are for, you know, breaking up barfights.”

     “After Ed’s second trip across the room, I remember putting down my soda and holding up my little fists like I was ringside at the fights, cheering on Sugar Ray Robinson or Rocky Marciano. ‘Knock the bum out for Christ’s sake!’ I yelled.”

     “In the middle of the fight, the guy at the end of the bar said he couldn’t hear the game over the racket and was gonna turn up the volume, but before he was even halfway off his barstool, Dan shot the guy a hard look and he sat back down.”

     “Anyway, George must have called the cops because out of nowhere, three big bruisers in blue rushed in and pulled the big guy off Ed, who was about to take another trip across the room. The cops dragged Ralph, struggling and shouting, “Lemme go! I’m gonna kill the bastard!” into a waiting squad car and drove away.”

     “Funny, although Ralph struggled all the way to the squad car, I noticed the cop’s hats never fell off their heads. How do they do that, I wondered? Was that something they learned at the Police Academy? Shoot a .38, swing a Billy-club, and keep your hat on while breaking up a barfight?”

     “Anyway, Ed, bloodied and woozy, got up, straightened his jacket, calmly brushed off one sleeve, fixed his tie, wiped the blood off his face with the bar towel Dan tossed him, sat back down on his bar stool, and ordered another bottle of Rhinegold like nothing happened. Ed held the ice-cold bottle to his purple and puffy eye — which was starting to look really ugly. In their struggle to get Ralph into the squad car, though, the cops forgot all about Ed. Or maybe somebody told them Ed hadn’t started it. He was just sittin’ there minding his own business when the big guy came in and beat the snot out of him.”

    “’Didn’t seem fair,” I heard one guy say, one of the regulars sitting at the other end of the bar. “’The big guy must have outweighed the little guy by a hunnerd pounds. It was like watching the Yanks and ... I don’t know, any other team in the American league.’”

    “’Sometimes it just ain’t your day,’ said the guy sitting next to him.”

    “’Sometimes you’re the fly, sometimes you’re the swatter,’ said Dan, wiping down the bar.”

    “’He probably shoulda stayed in bed,’” said another regular.”

    “’Yeah, his own!” said the guy sitting next to him, laughing. They all had a good laugh at Ed’s expense, but Ed said nothing. Just held that bottle of Rheingold to his eye. At the time I didn’t think it was all that funny, one guy beating the shit out of another, a guy who was just having a beer, minding his own business. Know what I mean? ”

    “Anyway, I asked Dan where they were taking the big guy. ‘To jail,’ he said with a forced frown. ‘And if I ever hear you swear again, that’s where you’ll be going.’ I was hurt by Dan’s comment. I always behaved myself.  Never got into fights ... at least not back then ... never once spilled my soda. And if I dropped a beer nut on the floor, I picked it up and put it back in the bag.”

    “I walked back to my booth, sat down, took a sip of my ginger ale and resumed watching the game. I was worried about what Dan said, but only for a moment. Mickey Mantle was walking up to the plate — that other team was fucked.”  

    “Later that night, over supper, when I told my mother about the fight — swinging my arms and punching an imaginary Ed for emphasis — she almost had a friggin’ cow. My grandmother sat there, stunned, mouth open, fork halfway to her lips - my grandfather was working a late shift at the loading dock, I think. I was sure he’d seen a barfight or two in his day and wouldn’t have reacted like these two. Women, huh?"

    “’I thought I told you to stay inside when we have to go out!’ my mother yelled. My grandmother, who had resumed eating, added that a bar was not a fit place for little boys. ‘There are strange men there ... and liquor,’ she said. ‘Then why do you spend so much time there?’ I asked. My answer was a hard look and the threat of a slap.”

“At the time I didn’t understand what their friggin’ problem was. I behaved myself. I sat in my usual booth in the back, watched TV, drank my ginger ale, ate my beer nuts. It was the adults who got out of hand, for Christ’s sake. The Skipper was my favorite hangout. I had friends there who gave me quarters to put in the jukebox. And I was the shuffleboard champ. I was a regular, just like my mother and my grandparents ... and Aunt Mary and Uncle Bob and Uncle Johnny and his girlfriend Nancy — and my grandfather who sometimes drove in from the City. George, the owner, didn’t give a rat’s ass if I sat in the back and watched TV ... or maybe he just didn’t notice me, the little kid in the back booth. Anyway, all I wanted ... all I ever wanted was to mind my own business, watch the Yanks on TV, nurse my drink and munch on beer nuts, know what I mean? But sometimes people get a hair across their ass for no reason and ... well, things sometimes get out of hand, know what I mean?”

    “Anyway, after that I was only allowed in the Skipper with my parents or some other adult, which still added up to, I don’t know ... three or four times a week. Sometimes more. These days, I can go as often as I want, anywhere I want ... and drink whatever and as much as I want.”

     “Wallace!”

     “Gotta go. Good talking to ya.”

     “Yeah, same here.”

 

“Docket number 257606. The charges are drunken disorderly and aggravated assault, your honor.”

     “How do you plead?”

     “Not guilty.”

 

 

 

About the Author: Mike Mulvey teaches American Literature, has an MFA in CW, and has had over two dozen short stories published. In 2013 he was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He lost.