Madge just shook her head and waddled over to the three lever tap with Bill Watson’s empty glass. She made her way like someone who had worn out long before her body had; but when her body finally did wear our, it was still a bitter disappointment. She’d say time and again to anybody who’d listen that she never intended to be a bar owner. The Moose Head was her husband’s deal; he’d wanted to open a place even before he retired from the mill; and after the fiasco with the pension fund, since he’d have to go back to work anyway he figured he might as well work for his damn self. Madge had been okay with it primarily because he only wanted her help with the books and she rarely had to work the bar. It also got him out of the house and out of her hair, and gave her time to spend with the grandchildren and work on her sewing. It also helped that their son, Harold Jr, was sending them money once a month from Minneapolis; he was successful and he wasn’t married (though Madge still didn’t understand why), so he didn’t care to help out. Madge had never told her husband about the money, of course; and he never asked since she was in charge of the family finances.
“Poor bastard,” Bill Watson repeated like he was talking aloud to himself. “That’s just what he is.”
Madge filled his glass from one of the two working taps and waddled back across the length of the bar to where Bill was sitting. Most days Bill was her one and only customer. That was especially true in the winter, when the farmers had no reason to come into town and it was too cold for anybody else to linger longer than they had to; sometimes it got busy on Thursday or Friday afternoons – which meant that maybe a handful of people showed up instead of just Bill – but the bar had long been a place where old men (who were all friends of her Harry’s) could safely sit and talk the way bullshitting way old men talk without having to worry about the interruption of their wives or the impatience of the younger generations. The younger and noisier crowd went up the street to Mitch Bausendorfer’s place. She was tired and knew she would only be more tired by the time she closed the bar for the night; in fact, she hadn’t felt right all day. Normally, she would have had somebody cover for her; but there was no one who could. She’d had to let go of Thom, who tended bar for her husband. She also had to let go of one of the cooks; the only one left was that underage girl Kimmy – who had the night off – that Madge kept on account of her condition. The girl was pregnant, unmarried, and not even out of high school. The father, naturally, was nowhere to be found. And after Kimmy couldn’t work anymore, Madge figured on closing the kitchen.
“He knew what he was getting into with her,” Madge sighed and set the glass down in front of Bill; she was self-conscious of her hand shaking and spilling a few drops on the worn wood counter top. She wiped her hand on a bar towel and continued. “That woman wasn’t nothin’ but trouble from the word go.”
“Yeah, sure was,” Bill nodded. “But wasn’t YOU the one hired her?”
“HARRY hired her,” she corrected him. “Right before he couldn’t run things no more.”
“Ah, yeah,” Bill agreed and took a penitent sip of his beer. He’d been Harry’s oldest friend and best customer; once upon a time Madge even thought of marrying Bill. But that was years and years ago, when she was younger and Bill wasn’t such the crusty old drunk. Besides, she’d stood as Maid of Honor for Hilda, his wife and her childhood friend. They’d all grownup together, the four of them, in Havensham. That was a lot of years. Sometimes she thought it was too many, considering what she had to show for them. “But YOU fired her ass, didn’ ya?”
“I never wanted to own no bar,” Madge announced. “But I ain’t about to let some whore turn Harry’s place into a brothel.”
“Oh, don’t I know it.” Bill smiled like he was remembering something with great fondness. “But what’s wrong with a pretty girl trying to make a living?”
“Hah. That’s just like you Bill. Dirty old goat; you get a sniff of somethin’ young and you lose what little brains the good lord gave you. What if I told Hilda what you said?”
Bill snorted and chuckled. “She’d appreciate the break. She don’t like me hangin’ ‘round the house anyway. You know,” he paused to take another drink. “I wish somebody’d TOLD me retirement was so damned DULL.”
“Poor, poor you,” Madge spat. She didn’t try to cover her bitter tone.
”So,” Bill changed the subject, “you gonna close the place or what?”
She shrugged and didn’t answer. Her son had been telling her when he called earlier in the day that she needed to either close the place or sell the place. Her daughter Coletta, though, wanted her to keep it open and wait for business to pick up. But Madge knew that business wasn’t going to pick up; all the younger men who drank all the beer and all the liquor wanted to be where all the young pretty girls were. And all the young pretty girls were up the street at Mitch Bausendorfer’s, because he didn’t care what anybody did as long as there wasn’t a big mess to clean up and as long as nobody called the cops. Every day that she got up to open the bar, Madge thought about closing it down; but Harry’s bar gave her someplace to go and something to do and it also gave her something to bitch about.
“Have you seen Ricky lately?” Madge asked.
Bill shook his head and frowned. “Nah. He don’t go out much. Well he CAN’T really, unless somebody drives him. And since Lizzy, he hasn’t really had anybody.”
“He can hire somebody,” Madge said. “His insurance’ll cover a home health aid. It’s good insurance. He got it through the mill.”
“Huh. Ain’t as good as it used to be.” Bill drained his glass and held it up, signaling that he wanted another. “She still shouldn’ta done him thataway.” He shook his head and grimaced. “Cruel. It was just cruel.”
Madge picked up the glass and started towards the tap. “Everybody knew she was after his disability check,” she said. “Even Ricky knew that.”
“He said he loved her.”
“Good lord! Love. Maybe so. but that don’t mean she loved him. And that don’t give him the excuse to take leave of his senses.”
“Still nothin’. He should of knowed better. He knew what kind a girl she was. Hell. Before she sunk her claws into Ricky, she’d a laid down and spread her legs for anything with button fly.”
“Still NOTHIN’.” Madge filled the glass and kept an eye on it as she made her way back to make sure she didn’t spill too much. “And even after she moved in with Ricky, she was still whorin’ around with those boys down at Bausendofer’s.” She snorted. “That ain’t no kind of woman to move into your house.”
“You know what I heard,” Bill leaned in like he was telling a secret when Madge arrived with his mostly full glass of beer. “I heard he got him one of them … pumps ... you know?”
“Good lord. All the good that done him.” Madge scoffed. “He wasn’t gonna feel nothing anyway.”
Madge shook her head and didn’t answer. Men, she thought. Don’t know nothin’.”
Bill drank two more beers before he left. Madge carefully washed the glass he’d been using and put it away. There were no other dishes to wash. She wiped off the counter top and went around to the other side of the bar to make sure all the stools were straight. She cast her eyes around the empty bar room and sighed. The cloth on the pool table was still torn from New Year’s Eve when Mary Taylor’s husband (The durn fool, Madge thought) drank too much Evan Williams and decided to dance on it. Of course Mary had apologized the next day and promised that her husband would repay the damages; but he’d been laid off from the chicken plant for a year and hadn’t found steady work since. The juke box was lit, but still broken. The walls were covered with hunting trophies: deer heads, a fox, some raccoons, and the above the bar, the big moose head that had given Harry the idea for the name. Sometimes all the dead eyes staring down at her gave her the heebie jeebies. Moose Head. She’d always hated that name; but it was useless to argue with Harry. He’d gone off on one of his hunting trips and when he came back he announced to Madge that he was going to sink their money – what little they’d had – into a bar. “It’ll be great,” he’d told her. “Things are going to be fine. You’ll see.”
Things were fine too, she supposed. Until Harry came down with the cancer. She watched him die for a year; towards the end, he wasn’t even awake and the doctors had to tell her when it was time to pull the plug and let him go. Sometimes when she was alone in the bar, Madge allowed herself to feel the things she didn’t normally let show; like anger. Some days and nearly every night she was so mad at Harry she could barely see straight. Mad because he’d opened his stupid bar with what little money they’d had left. Mad at him for dying first. The anger well up in her and caused to shake uncontrollably; she shook so much she had to sit down until it passed. A few times she allowed herself a shot of peppermint schnapps – just to settle herself down. But when the anger subsided, all she wanted to do was cry and cry and not stop until there were no more tears and no more emptiness and no more her to sit around and worry about whether she should have the hardwood floors of The Moose Head stripped and revarnished.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this, Harry. Not at all.” Madge looked at her watch. It was only 8:30. She was supposed to keep the bar open until midnight; but she wanted to go home. Well, not so much go home as much as she was tired of sitting in the bar. She told herself she’d sweep the floors in the morning and maybe look for a realtor. Or maybe she’d let Harry Jr. handle it.
She locked the cash register even though there wasn’t enough money in it to worry about. As Madge waddled out from behind the bar, she pulled on her coat. It had been Harry’s old field coat, but the cancer shrunk him so that towards the end it fit him more like a large tent. Walking past the bar, she noticed the small brass plate where Bill had been sitting. The plate read “In Memory of Skip ’07.”Skip Saunderson had been one her son’s friends; he had died in Iraq. When news of the death hit Havensham, her husband decided to put the plaque there, hoping that might convince their son to come home and help them with the bar. It didn’t, of course. Young Harry liked his life in Minneapolis and he could mourn Skip just as well from there. Madge thought of Skip’s mother, Carol Ann; she’d been devastated by the death of her only son. For a moment, Madge allowed herself to feel lucky; she had only buried an old man, not her son. After Skip’s funeral, Carol Ann sold the house and moved in with her daughter, who lived in Florida. Madge thought about closing the bar, selling the house, and moving to Minneapolis. She didn’t want to live with Harry Jr. permanently; only until she found her own place. No grown man would ever find a wife if he lived with his mother; and she sure thought it was past time for him to get married and have a family. But things worked different in the city, she supposed.
Madge braced herself for the cold and switched off the lights on her way out the door. Then she walked out into the February night. Before she turned to walk to over to her car, she looked up the street at all the life going on at Mitch Bausendorfer’s bar. The rest of Main Street was quiet and the laughter and music emanating from the bar echoed through the streets. “Good night, Harry,” Madge said. Then she waddled to her car, not bothering to lock the door behind her.