“I see a traffic light and I break out in hives. They’re always changing. You never know what’s going to come next. One second they’re green. Then who knows what.” Roy nodded. A nod that said he had lived through that exact same horror countless times.
“I’m afraid of wind. Once it blew so hard I actually got something in my eye. It was terrifying. I couldn’t see for a whole 30 seconds.”
“I remember. That was when you started the antidepressants. You still on them?”
“No,” responded Roy. “It’s too depressing being on antidepressants. Every time I reached for a pill it reminded me of how depressed I was.”
Once a year, at precisely the same time, 3:45 p.m., Christmas Eve, Wayne and Roy show up. Wayne orders Maker’s Mark neat, Roy a gin martini with eight olives on the side. And then it begins. The battle of the phobias. Usually Roy starts but this year Wayne got a jump on him. They have been coming here for about 15 years. All the regulars stay away until exactly 5:45, when Roy and Wayne leave for dinner.
“I’m afraid of heaven.” Wayne nodded as he said, “I’m afraid of shellfish.” “I’m afraid of heaven serving only shellfish,” countered Roy. “I get depressed when I see a doughnut.” Roy nodded as he replied, “Who doesn’t? It’s like it’s missing a piece of itself.” Wayne nodded. “No moral center. No heart.”
Roy and Wayne met in the E.R. waiting room 30 years ago but after comparing maladies for a few months on a hospital bench they decided that swapping fears over drinks and dinner was a better way to go.
“I’m afraid of sitting.” Roy nodded as they both shifted on their stools. “But I’m more afraid of not sitting.” Wayne nodded. “I’m afraid of stooping. What if one time you go too low and you can’t get unstooped?”
“You mean like a hunchback?” “Exactly,” responded Wayne. “Only without the hunch in the back to make you interesting.”
“I dated a hunchback. She once served an entire Thanksgiving dinner on her back.”
“Why?” “To prove she could. She was never one to turn down a bet.”
“Why’d you break up?” “I bet her that she couldn’t find someone better.”
Wayne reached for a nut. Roy reached for a nut. Wayne grabbed two. Roy grabbed four. Wayne went to grab a handful, flipped the bowl and sent the nuts flying all over the bar. I slapped the bar with the rag and sent half the nuts flying back at Wayne and Roy. A gesture meant to intimidate but one that only made those two laugh.
Wayne scooped up some of the nuts as he asked, “She really served the whole meal on her back? Even the turkey?” Roy nodded. “Wow. Sometimes I wish I were a woman.” Roy nodded, “Who doesn’t?”
A sliver of a guy, who was planted at the end of the bar for a few hours now, drinking so quietly and so slowly that I almost forgot he was there, let out a whisper. I’m not sure he meant for anyone to hear but we heard. “I’m afraid of dying. A virgin.”
Wayne and Roy exchanged a look as Wayne slid his glass forward for a refill. “So what if you die a virgin.” Roy added, “That doesn’t mean there was anything wrong with you.” The guy looked relieved.
Wayne continued, “It just means that everyone who ever came in contact with you had really good taste.”
Roy and Wayne slapped the bar and each other in shared amusement over their humor and duet delivery.
The guy looked at me. I served him up a fresh pint. He didn’t make much eye contact at first. And I appreciated that. I thought someone should really tell him to keep certain things to himself but that someone was not me. Just when I thought he would drink up and go he said in a second whisper, “It’s the moustache, isn’t it?”
Now I don’t know a lot about moustaches but I know this. You have to be a certain kind of guy to pull off, or even want to pull off, an enormous handlebar. And this guy was not that guy. He took my lack of response as approval as he said, “So if it’s not the moustache, what is it? The hair?”
Why he would think beauty parlor talk and me would share a breath let alone a beer I have no idea. I shook my head as I headed to the kitchen. My absence gave Wayne and Roy free reign.
I won’t bore you with the abuse that poor guy took before they decided to help. I mean I would but I was fast asleep in the back. By the time I woke up they were gone. Maybe I should have felt guilty but all I felt was grateful.
After an hour or so the regulars rolled in. The inflatable Christmas tree sprung another leak and deflated in the corner. As I headed over with the duct tape Wayne and Roy burst in.
The regulars turned to me with a look that said, “What the hell are they doing here?” It was 8 and they should be at some restaurant annoying everyone else by now. The odd thing was that they were beaming like they had either won the lottery or out-jumped LeBron.
And then in he came. They looked to me and I had no idea why. They nodded in his direction. I took another look. Moustache was gone. Hair cut. Somehow they got him contacts or just made him lose the Coke-bottle glasses. So what if he couldn’t see he looked good. Even his clothes were nice. Who knew Wayne and Roy had taste, let alone heart?
“Jack, meet Carson.”
Carson extended his hand. As I took it he whispered, “Thank you.”
Thank you for falling asleep in the back and serving him up to Wayne and Roy, sure why not. I replied, “You’re welcome.”
Did Carson meet the woman of his dreams that night and alter his as-to-date fate? No. But the regulars were pretty decent to him and, as he left, he told me that it was the best Christmas Eve he had ever had.
I kicked Roy and Wayne out somewhere around 3 a.m. The last thing I heard Roy say as he stumbled down the sidewalk to hail a cab was, “Sometimes I have nightmares that I’m the pins at a bowling alley and the ball comes down and knocks me over.”
Wayne laughed and said, “Who doesn’t?” And then he hugged Roy and said, “Merry Christmas.”
Kat O’Neill, an East Hampton resident, has written for the stage, screen, TV, and radio. This story is one of a series of “Uncle Jack” tales published in The Star.