“They told me I’d be dead in a year and here I am drinking your ice cold beer.” He laughed, drained the glass, and ordered a second. “What do you make of that, Jack? That is your name, isn’t it?”
I nodded as I served up the refill.
“So, what do you make of it?”
“Doctors aren’t always right.”
“Who said anything about doctors?” He gave me a nod with a smirk that, in his eyes, said a lot. In mine not so much and yet more than enough. He grabbed the bowl of nuts, held it high in the air, tipped it back ever so slowly, and let a stream flow into his mouth. Didn’t drop one. He looked to see if I was watching. I was. It seemed important to him that I was. I don’t know what it is about those damn nuts. They’re just supposed to make people drink more but all they ever seem to do around here is make people act nuts.
“You ever kill someone, Jack?” I ignored him. “I said, did you ever kill someone, Jack?”
“That’s not the kind of information you share with strangers.”
“You think we’re strangers? Strangers have nothing in common. We may have been on different paths but we’ve been on the same road. I can always tell. You’ve killed. Not for sport. During the war maybe or breaking up a fight. You feel guilty about it. You wish things had turned out different.”
He placed his cellphone down on the bar and said, “You mind?” I shook my head. But instead of a call the bar filled with music.
“Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, Eroica. There’s ideas in here never heard before, Jack. I’m telling you. Like that? You hear that? That’s what I’m talking about. I don’t suppose you got any Chateau Saint Michelle lying around?”
“I don’t allow saints in here. They’re bad for business.”
He laughed. “Too bad. They make a nice Eroica Riesling. You got anything close?” I uncorked a bottle of white, threw in a little sugar. “Here you go.”
He took a sip. His eyes never left mine as he swirled the swill around his mouth once, then again before spitting it into his beer glass. “You should be shot serving up something that bad.”
I replaced his spit cup with a fresh pint as I said, “Men have been shot for less.”
He nodded, “I’ve shot men for less. Sometimes for no reason at all.” He looked to me for a reaction. I gave him nothing.
“You know Beethoven was going to dedicate this symphony to Napoleon but he had to dedicate it to the Prince or he wouldn’t have gotten paid. Politics. Power. Money. Nothing ever changes. Shot of Maker’s.”
As the empty shot glass hit the bar he continued, “So, anyway, Beethoven got paid from the Prince but gave the piece the title of Bonaparte. But once Napoleon declared himself emperor Beethoven got pissed and changed the title.” He downed his beer then turned up the volume. At one point he wiped a tear from his eye. He looked over to see if I had seen. Now, many a man comes to a bar seeking comfort. This man was not one of them. I kept my eyes on a shadow on the back wall that seemed to be moving in perfect time with the music. Outside the wind was blowing so hard pieces of garbage were hitting the window. They too seemed to hit in time with the music.
The thought crossed my mind that he had probably killed or tortured someone to this piece, playing at this level so no one could hear the chain saw or the screams. He was a big man with big hands. I had bats secured along the bar and I stashed a gun somewhere. Haven’t used either in years.
Another tear. “Where the hell is that gun?” I headed for the back. The music stopped. I stopped.
“Where are you going?”
I turned around and said, “I was going to get something to eat.”
“You got ribs?”
“Ham and cheese.”
“Jack, you know that stuff can kill yah. It shouldn’t even be called American. It should be called Newark.” He laughed.
I went in the back and looked for the gun as I called out, “Mayo?”
“Mustard. On rye.”
“Pickles.” The gun was nowhere to be found so out I went with two plates of ham and Newark and a jar of sour pickles. He took a bite. His face expressed disapproval but he didn’t spit anything out. I took that as a compliment.
“It’s nice having the place to ourselves, but you must have some regulars.”
“When do they typically show?”
He smiled as he tapped his shot glass. I refilled. He hit the volume. Beethoven filled the bar again. But this time, not so loud. “You ever see the movie ‘Psycho?’ ” I nodded.
“Do you remember seeing a record of Eroica in Norman Bates’s bedroom?”
“You have to notice those kinds of things, Jack. Being observant is how you outsmart them. That and staying one step ahead. I lied before. I’ve never killed a man for no reason. There was always a reason. What were you looking for back there, Jack, a gun?”
“Why would I need a gun?”
He suffered through a few more bites.
“The second movement is a funeral march. It was played when F.D.R. died. And at the service following the Munich massacre at the ’72 Summer Olympics. I’d like it played to commemorate my death.” He hit the phone and the music stopped. The room got so quiet I could hear his heart beating. Or maybe it was mine. He tossed the remains of the sandwich on the plate and slid it away from him.
Three more taps. Three more shots of Maker’s. Then his hands gripped the bar. I don’t know if he was pulling himself up or trying to keep himself down but finally he stood.
He was a giant of a man. His face was crisscrossed with remnants of every life encounter. The scars let you know that not every encounter was a win. He threw a huge pile of cash on the bar as he said, “You know that Newark cheese wasn’t half bad.” He picked up the jar of pickles. “You mind if I drink this juice? It’s supposed to prevent hangovers.”
I nodded. He downed the bottle in one gulp. The combination of bourbon, beer, cheese, ham, and sour pickle juice would have most men hitting the porcelain hard but not him. He just smiled. A smile that said no money was wasted on dental work. But a smile that was still oddly endearing. Like maybe you could have been friends as long as you never rubbed him the wrong way.
He held out his hand. I took it.
“Nice meeting you, Jack.”
“Nice meeting you.”
“Victor.” He headed for the door.
“You know Jack you should really find that gun because a bat isn’t gonna do shit if someone really wants to kill you.” He wasn’t gone 30 seconds before the shots started. I reached for the phone that he left on the bar and hit play. It was cued up to the second movement.
Kat O’Neill is an East Hampton blogger and author who has written for the stage, screen, and radio. “Uncle Jack’s Killer” is one of a series of stories, a number of which have been previously published by The Star.