Surprise!

It was quiet when I got in. There’s something almost cathedral-like about McStew’s in the slow hours. The light filters in through the stained glass, and every echo sounds like a kneeler being slammed down. How many windbaggy dreams were offered up? How many resolutions? How many times had someone come in full of new love and then — five maybe ten years later — dragged his sorry in broken and beaten by betrayal: either his lover’s or his own? 

How many times had I called a cab or connected with Uber because somebody couldn’t stand his or her life any longer and thought oblivion by alcohol isn’t too bad? How many times had real prayers been whispered? I recalled seeing lips moving. I even recalled catching myself in the mirror behind the bar, praying about the girls or the bills or forgiveness for Antonio, or just to make it through a long night. The cathedral of McStew’s. When I die, they’ll hold the wake there. Same if I ever get married. 

Having said that I will only add this. It wasn’t spiritual. Hey, I’d gotten it on a few times over the years with some guys back in the kitchen. Not proud of it, but I am just trying to tell it straight. Went to confession for it, too. Sweet forgiveness.

That day when I returned from vacation Spindles was there, of course. As well as…. 

“She’s back!” Babs announced.

“You can’t get rid of me that easy,” I said. Then, I saw a pile of dishes at the end of the bar, a stain mark behind the sink that had never been there before. 

“I’m gone for a week and the place goes to shit.”

“Were you out, Cheryl?” Spindles asked.

“I heard you got a job, man.” I said. 

Spindles winced, turned the bill of his cap toward his beer. “Not yet. Rough out there. These are bad times.”

“Have another beer, my man.”

It was a lot of “How was the vacation?” “Is the new apartment taking shape?” “How are the girls doing?” “Is Hannah ready to graduate?” “You ready to turn 40?” Answers: “Great.” “Yes.” “Good.” “Yes.” “No.” In five minutes it was as if I’d never been away. 

“I see you had yourself a little vacation, too,” I said to Babs, pointing out some bar scum at the corners. Babs is my friend but McStew’s is bread and butter, for now. I want people to know that the cleanest bar in Philadelphia resides on a scruffy little corner of Fishtown. 

“The taps are all hooked up,” Babs said. “I was just down there.”

“I take back every rotten thing I ever said about you.”

“Don’t overextend,” Spindles said. 

I inspected the kitchen. Not bad. Then I went down the cellar. As I ducked through the doorway, it felt as if I’d walked into a damp, warm bar-rag. The two overhead light bulbs hung like baby ghosts too tired to flutter away. I swiped a spider’s web and crept over to the kegs. Everything hooked up, just as Babs said.

I could hear water running. I swear sometimes that they must have built McStew’s over a stream but Mickey says it’s the screwy pipes.

The gamey, fishy smell settled into my nostrils, reminding me of a school field trip to a farm. Barns are not always pleasant places. Mickey swears that there are no critters down there. 

“Just make sure the rodents who ain’t there have plenty of poison to gnaw on,” I told him. “And no traps. This isn’t Wild Kingdom.”

Over in one corner was an office. It was supposed to be my office, Mickey built it special for me about 10 years ago. I’d been thinking of leaving and it was one of his bribes. This is the dance he and I sometimes have. I stayed when the old fart broke down and paid for my health benefits. 

I never use that office. Gives me the creeps to be down there. 

Laying against the far wall were about five slabs of sheetrock, and they’ve been there for about seven years. I smiled at them when I turned to go upstairs, and that’s when I saw it. It must have been the way the light from one of the bulbs hit it, just the slightest spark. I thought maybe it was a snake or something and I almost screamed. No, it wasn’t moving. It wasn’t alive. I stepped closer, got a better look.

“Hello,” I said. It was a piece of ribbon, brand new. “What have we here?” I tilted one of the slabs of sheetrock forward. 

There, tucked behind it, were streamers and decorations and party favors. A big sign said “Happy Birthday, Cheryl!” 

“Those suckers,” I thought. “They really think they can surprise me?” 

I took out my keys, squinted as I searched with my fingers for the one I hardly ever used. There. I went into the office, turned the light on. It worked. We hadn’t had a good bulb in there for ages. Another sign something was up. Felt under the desk, no key. I had taped it to the underside myself. I searched around on my chain for a small one that I’ve used maybe twice. 

“Do I even still have it?” I thought. I’m a thrower-outer by nature but, for some reason, that doesn’t apply to keys. I have three or four old sets in my drawer. I can’t bring myself to chuck them. 

“Where the hell is that key?”

There it was. Tiny, it looked like something Hannah uses to lock her diary. I unlocked the desk drawer. 

“And hello to you, too.”

It was all right there. The invitations, the food order, Hannah’s playlist. Half of Fishtown was going to be there. 

“Why isn’t the other half coming? Not as if they got something better to do.”

There was even a note; Babs must have written it to herself for some reason.

“40 Is Only A Number!”

I thought, “Sweetie, you have no idea.”

I stood there carefully shuffling through it all, finding out the day and time. Mickey had agreed to close McStew’s for that Saturday; first time that’s ever happened. 

When I finished rooting around, I covered my tracks. Put everything back just as it was. Locked the drawer, locked the door, backed away. 

Upstairs, as I began wiping down the kitchen stove, I wondered if I should let them know that I knew. I glanced through the door, out to the bar. Babs was bustling about, getting ready for the night. I didn’t want to disappoint her and the rest of them, including my princess daughters, Hannah and Debbie. But on the other hand I wanted this to be a hum-dinger and nobody can throw a party like me. Would it be pushy to take over?

Maybe it would be my last hurrah at McStew’s. Or was it a funeral, the final nail in the coffin of the past. Would it be forgiveness from Antonio? Would the memories of my addiction days, memories that still made me wince in shame, dry up, blow away? A birthday party would be something of a charade anyway. 

I was going to turn 40 years old. I was never going to turn 40 years old. I was wiping down the shelves, feeling like Mr. Miyagi rubbing down clockwise, and then counterclockwise, trying to reach enlightenment, but just getting a bit pissed off that nothing seemed to have been done while I was away, and disappointed in myself for scheming how to take over my surprise birthday party.

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