The old school bus lurched and lunged its way down M-65, liberating wild and crazy children at every stop. Ours was next, and I couldn’t wait to leap from my seat. Before even the bus had stopped rolling, I was making my way towards the door.
“Stay sittin’ down until we come to a complete stop!” Mrs. Phillips bellowed from the driver’s seat.
“Sorry ma’am” I stated as I grabbed my sister’s hand. We waited for her to crank the door open, and then we cleared the two steps in one giant leap and landed on the gravel shoulder of the road, right next to the rusted tin mailbox. I reached inside to grab the pile of letters and sale papers and stuffed them into my book bag as the yellow bus pulled away, leaving us standing in a cloud of rich, black exhaust fumes.
We ran to the back door of the big, obnoxious, parrot green building. We were excited because it was Friday and we had the entire weekend to do as we pleased. As I threw open the old screen door, our dog Sally, a beautiful German Shepard /Collie mix, jumped up and down in a frenzy. A quick hug and a pat on the head and then we skipped down the long hallway and up the stairs to our bedrooms with Sally’s nails clicking behind us. As we climbed I counted….17 steps dragging our book bags up and 17 steps down, lugging our laundry baskets behind us. The last four stairs up, always felt like quicksand, and left me panting when I reached the top. Always 17 stairs and yet, still I counted them, every day, every time, going up and coming down.
The Flying Duck Bar flickered on the weather worn plastic sign out front. We had moved to this quiet little farming town, shortly after the Detroit riot of 1967. My parents, enjoying the spoils from a long awaited injury lawsuit, decided it would be our only chance to get away from
the crime and desperation of the dying city. Together, they had spent sleepless nights trying to decide what course to take, and what direction our lives should go. My father, however, had ideas of his own and without consulting my mother, signed a deal to purchase an old, and failing tavern in the small town of Posen Michigan, population 408. That unexpected purchase, almost resulted in a divorce for my parents that summer. It did eventually cause their split; it just took four more years for that to happen.
“It’s like diabetic buying a candy store!” my mother had exclaimed to anyone who would listen. She had been dead set against the Flying Duck from the start, due mostly to the fact that my father had a fondness for Stroh’s beer, matched only by his addiction to Viceroy Cigarettes. “It’s a recipe for disaster” I’d overheard her telling Aunt Pat on the telephone. Like it or not, the deal was done, the papers signed and here we were, two years later struggling to keep the bar, their marriage and our crazy little family together.
On this day though, all seemed right in the world. I headed into the bar through a door that led from the hallway, through a dimly lit stockroom, overflowing with cases of Black Label, Pabst Blue Ribbon, Old Milwaukee and of course, dad’s favorite, Stroh’s-Bohemian Style beer. Along the back wall were half full cases of empty cans and bottles. They gave off the bitter aroma of sour beer. I always scrambled through the room, holding my breath like an Olympic swimmer, rushing to burst through the second door and into the bar itself. It wasn’t much better
when I gulped in the air on the other side. Overwhelmed by the pungent stench of stale cigarette smoke, I usually waved my hands in front of my face, while coughing loudly at my mother behind the bar. She’d roll her eyes and quickly stash the ashtray with her own cigarette
beneath the bar where I wouldn’t see it. The smoke would continue to swirl around her as she washed glasses and gossiped with the locals.
Nicotine had forever stained the once white curtains to a dingy shade of yellow. They hung across the windows keeping the light of day out and the dark of night in. The fake wooden paneling on the walls, added to the dreary, dismal feel of the place. I think perhaps, it felt a bit like purgatory, for the men trapped inside. Stuffed and mounted deer heads lined the walls. They were covered with a thick coat of dust and their marble-like eyeballs had lost their shine, yet they held their heads high and still looked proud and regal to a kid like me.
Every day, after school, I would do my usual walk around the bar to see what had changed overnight. I’d first stroll past the pool table running my fingers across the cool, green felt. My eyes scoped the floor beneath the table, scanning for quarters dropped by the drunken farmers. Most days I would find one or two which I would hold up, proudly, for my mother to see. She would smile and give me the thumbs up and I would make my way over to the Wurlitzer jukebox in the corner. It’s flashing lights called to me, like the penny slot machines at the casino enticed little old ladies to drop purse loads of coins inside. I’d pull my new found bounty out of my pants pocket and drop it into the slot. I loved the sound of the quarter plunging through the maze of mechanical springs and levers until finally dropping into the change bin at the bottom with a solid plunk. I would spin the dial that flipped all of the song titles, reading them slowly one by
one, hoping to find something new to play. I always went back to the same selections though. A-12- Sweet Caroline, R-27-Candida and F-17, my top personal favorite, Sugar Sugar, by the Archies. I would so delight in watching the 45 records spin around and around until the machine
slapped the one I’d chosen onto the turntable and set the giant arm and needle onto the edge of the disc. Neil Diamond’s voice would begin crooning through the fuzzy static of the worn out record, and I would continue my survey of the room, cheerfully singing along.
Every now and then, the front door would open and the bright light of day would splash into the room. Everyone seated at the bar would turn in unison, squinting into the bright light to see who had dared to intrude on their solitude. My mom would yell out a greeting from behind the bar, almost always attaching a name to the salutation. It was usually a farmer coming in off the fields, sweaty, tired, crabby and thirsty. She knew without asking what most of these men drank and had it open and waiting before they sat down. They would drop a stack of quarters on the bar pinching out just enough to cover the 25 cent shell of beer and the 75 cent whiskey chaser. Everyone would look up from the bar as my mother made her way over to the ancient cash register on the back counter. She meticulously poked at the old buttons and stepped back as the drawer groaned open. The coins were graciously dropped into their slots and the drawer was closed with a muffled thud. Good service, however, did not insure a good tip. I could often hear my mother sigh as she took her place back behind the bar at the sink, washing yet another dirty glass.