One-Armed Sam was not a discriminating man when it came to drinking. He showed up about six months ago and never left.
Well, he went home at night, but as I unlocked the door in the morning there he was. His greeting was always the same. “Whatever you have on sale, Jack. That’ll do me just fine.”
I could have responded with, “This ain’t a discount store, Sam.” But I didn’t. Partly because he only had one arm. Mostly because I was going to throw the stuff out anyway.
Stag’s Breath. Old Pulteney. Yukon Jack. Early Times. Old Forester. McAfee’s Benchmark. Russell’s Reserve. Since I had left several cases out in the sun I was pretty sure that all had seen better days, but then I guess so had Sam. Whatever I poured he welcomed.
Angel’s Envy was the last bottle. And when it was done, One-Armed Sam died. No one knew at first because his eyes were open and his fingers were still wrapped around his empty rocks glass. The only clue that something was wrong was the smile.
It was just assumed that One-Armed Sam had no teeth because his cheeks were hollow and his mouth only opened wide enough to drink. But there they were. They weren’t pretty but I’ve seen worse.
“What the hell, Sam. Did something fly up your ass with a feather?” barked Mary.
“It’s the first love. Reflecting on the first love can always choke a smile out of an old man. Unless, of course, he married her,” laughed Jimmy.
“It’s just indigestion!” yelled out Butch. Sam’s head hitting the bar put an end to the speculation.
We never did learn how One-Armed Sam got his nickname. He didn’t talk much about personal stuff. He wore an old jacket. But he never pinned up the empty sleeve, so most people didn’t realize that he was missing an arm.
That suited Sam just fine. He did say he had a kid.
But the only thing he ever said about his son was that the kid had bought him a nice pair of slacks once. The only problem was that there was only one pocket and it was on the wrong side.
If One-Armed Sam talked at all it was about Ronald Reagan. “He saved 77 people from drowning when he was a lifeguard, Jack.” Now I’d be more impressed if he did that when he wasn’t a lifeguard but I kept that thought to myself.
A few weeks later he said, “He wrote love letters to Nancy, calling her Nancy Poo Pants.” That didn’t even warrant a thought, so I just shook my head.
A month or so later Valentine’s Day came around and Sam showed up seeming a bit off. I never took him for the emotional type but a day celebrating those who have love can do funny things to those who don’t. I see it every year.
So, I brought him over a plate of the special. Usually just the name makes people feel better even though they never eat it. Well, that’s not exactly true. They never eat more than one bite.
Sam had stopped talking about Reagan. To me, anyway. He seemed to be a man lost in his own reflections. That can be a tough place to get lost. Some men find their way back. Many don’t. Sam gestured me over.
I refilled his glass and turned to leave. But as I did he grabbed my arm and said, “Don’t go.” I didn’t. After 15 minutes or so he looked up at me, and I realized we had never really made eye contact.
He had pale blue eyes, eyes that looked like they had lived a lifetime in a short time. Not that Sam was a young man. He was old. But his eyes looked through you like you had stolen their time.
Sam whispered, “He said that ‘Valentine’s Day is for ordinary luck.’ He said he had a ‘Valentine Life.’ And he did, Jack. Reagan had a ‘Valentine Life.’ Not just a day. A whole life. It goes that way for some people.”
A few weeks after One-Armed Sam died his son came into the bar. He was the spitting image of One-Armed Sam except for the second arm.
He asked where his dad sat. I pointed to a stool in the middle. Even if the bar was empty One-Armed Sam never wanted to be in the corner or at the end. There was something about the middle that suited him. Even if he was in the middle of no one.
The son took up his dad’s favorite spot and ordered a pint. He drank in silence as his eyes roamed the bar. His hand gently glided around the edge of the worn leather seat where an arm of Sam’s had never been.
I pretended not to notice and he seemed fine with that. He tapped the bar for a second pint. As I served it up he said, “He loved Ronald Reagan. Did you know that, Jack?”
I shook my head.
“Oh, he did. Not that he voted for him. But he loved who he was when he was not a politician. It was almost like he envied his heart. When he was a Democrat my dad liked him. He supported F.D.R. and the New Deal. It was General Electric that made him switch. He toured as their spokesman. My dad said it made him more conservative.”
“He was chubby as a kid. And he got the nickname Dutch because of his Dutch Boy haircut. I bet he was glad to replace that with the Gipper.”
He laughed. A laugh that lingered too long and then abruptly stopped like a stalker who suddenly got bored. I took that as my cue to give him some time, but as I headed for the back he reached out and caught my arm just like his dad had done months earlier and said, “Don’t go.”
He finished his second pint in silence and as he stood, extended his hand. “My dad was happy here.”
He let go of my hand as he slid over an envelope. “He left a note the morning he died saying he wanted you to have this. You’d never know from looking at him but my dad was a rich man, Jack. He was great with numbers. Even calculated his last day. He knew he was going to die and you are the person he wanted to spend his last hours with. He could have afforded the best of everything, but this is where he wanted to be.”
He looked around again at the bar and at me, shaking his head subtly in disbelief. I guess I could have been insulted, but I wasn’t.
“Reagan was on the basketball cheerleading squad. Funny, right? I think my dad respected a man who was confident enough to play quarterback and lead a cheer. I never did either.”
He laughed again. But this time it didn’t linger. He silenced it before it had a chance to continue as if he resented the laugh for pretending that there was amusement in the conversation.
He tossed a hundred-dollar bill on the bar and headed for the door.
“Your dad told me how he lost his arm. He said it wasn’t your fault. That it was an accident.”
He responded without missing a step, “Yeah, I know he thought that. He also believed the kid who shot his dad’s arm off wouldn’t remember which side needed the pocket when he was buying him a nice pair of slacks.”
The door closed with a whisper as if the wind thought it needed to cushion the blow. I opened the envelope. Inside was a check for a hundred thousand dollars and a note that said simply, “Thanks, Jack.”
I ripped up the check, stuck the note in my pocket, and poured myself a whiskey. The last thing Sam had said to me about Reagan was that it was rumored that he was the first choice for Casablanca but that wasn’t true. It was always Bogart.
And though I know it killed him to admit it, he did. “Bogart was the right choice, Jack. He was the right choice.”
As I threw back my whiskey I glanced at Sam’s old spot and said, “Yes, Sam, yes he was.”
Kat O’Neill is an East Hampton resident who has written for the stage, screen, TV, and radio. A number of stories in her “Uncle Jack” series have appeared in The Star.