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We Meet Flick, the Friendly Bartender
I felt like a spy. It was the first time I had ever ridden a cab in my own hometown. When I had left it I was definitely not a cab rider. Now taking cabs was as natural as breathing or putting on shoes. I could see the cab driver giving me the eye in his rear-view mirror. He was wearing the standard Midwestern work uniform of lumberjacket, corduroy cap, and a red face.
"You from out of town?"
He caught me off guard. I had forgotten that out of New York people quite often spoke to other people.
"Uh . . . what?"
"You from out of town?"
"Ah . . . yeah, I guess so." Making one of my famous instantaneous decisions, I opted for being from out of town.
"Yeah, well, I could tell. Where ya from?"
"New York. Now, that is."
He mopped his windshield with a greasy rag. The cab's heater was making the windows cloud up. Outside I could dimly see the grimy streets lined with dirty, hard ice and crusted drifts covered with that old familiar layer of blast-furnace dust; ahead of us a long line of dirt-encrusted cars carrying loads of steelworkers, refinery slaves, and railroad men to wherever they spent most of their lives. He went on:
"Yep. New York. Me and my wife went there once. For two weeks. We saw the Fair. I sure don't see how anyone can stand to live there."
We continued to rattle through the smoky gray Winter air. I watched a giant gas works drift by our port side. On the starboard a vast, undulating sea of junkyards rolled to the horizon.
"It's okay to visit."
I guess he threw that in so as not to hurt my feelings.
"Oh, you get used to it."
He blew his nose loudly into a red bandanna and laughed juicily.
"Yeah, I guess a guy can get used to anything. If he's gotta." A crossing gate banged down in front of us, its flashers angrily blinking off and on. A warning bell clanged deafeningly as a giant Diesel locomotive swept across our bow, towing a short string of smelly tankers. Four brakemen clung to their sides, yelling to one another as they roared past.
"What was that?" I shouted.
"I SAID A GUY CAN GET USED TO ANYTHING." He bellowed back.
The gate went up. We were off again. I fished into my briefcase, at last finding the onionskin on which I had written, for my own use, a thumbnail description of the town I was now riding through, my own despised hometown. As we roared and squeaked on, I read over what I had written:
Hohman, Indiana, is located in the extreme Northwestern corner of the state, where the state line ends abruptly in the icy, detergent-filled waters of that queen of the Great Lakes, Lake Michigan. It clings precariously to the underbody of Chicago like a barnacle clings to the rotting hulk of a tramp steamer.
From time to time echoes of the Outside World arrive in Hohman, but they are muted and bear little relevance to the daily life of its inhabitants. Theirs is a world of belching furnaces, roaring Bessemer Converters, fragrant Petroleum distillation plants, and freight yards. Mostly, their Social life is found in Bowling halls or Union halls or beer halls, not to mention dance halls and pool parlors.
Theirs is a sandy, rolling country, cooled, nay, frozen to rigidity in the Winter by howling gales that got their start near the Arctic Circle, picked up force over the frozen wastes of Lake Michigan, and petered out in downtown Hohman, after freezing ears, cracking blocks, and stunting the Summer hopes in many a breast.
In Summer the process is reversed, and the land lies still and sear under the blazing Midwestern sun. This is where the first faint beginnings of the Great Plains can be found. A gnarled cactus plant, rolling tumbleweeds; an occasional Snowy Owl. The residents of Hohman are hardly aware of this, although their truculent pride in being Hoosiers is seen everywhere.
Under the soil of most backyards, covered with a thin, drifting coat of blast-furnace dust and refinery waste, made fragrant by the soaked-in aroma of numerous soap factories, lie in buried darkness the arrowheads, stone axes, and broken pots of the departed Indian. Where the tribes danced in Indian summer now grow Used Car lots and vast, swampy junkyards.
Not far from downtown Hohman lie the onion sets and cantaloupe vines of the Dutch immigrant farmers, and then the endless, mile-after-mile monotony of the Indiana cornfields. To the West the sand dunes ring Lake Michigan almost to the border of Michigan itself. To the North--the Lake. And to the West and North--Chicago.
It is a place people never really come to, but mostly want to leave. And leave they do, to go to the fabled East or to the unbelievable California coast. They rarely talk about where they have come from. There isn't much to say. At night in Hohman the rabbits still hop through the backyard gardens. The trains thunder through the dark on their way to somewhere else. The sky is always lit by the eternal flames of the Open Hearths and blast furnaces.
Nothing much has changed, probably least of all those who were born and. formed by the Northern Indiana mill-town existence.
Oh yeah? I answered myself. I have never been a fan of my particular style of Official Writer-ese, but, after all, it's a living. It's a hell of a lot better than working in the Tin Mill, which we were now passing.
We were getting into painfully familiar country: ragged vacant lots, clumps of signboards advertising paint, American Legion halls, bowling alleys, all woven together with a compact web of high tension wires, telephone poles, and gas stations.
Home is where the heart is. In fact, not more than two blocks from where we now waited for a light I had spent the festering years of my childhood.
I got out of the cab at the intersection and headed directly for Flick's Tavern, the tavern whose floors I had helped to clean as a tot, and where I had learned a few of Life's seamier lessons. Flick himself had been an old boyhood sidekick who had taken over the tavern from his father, long since passed away. I hadn't seen him since my Army days.
It was a cold, early December day and a few plastic wreaths were in evidence. The sign hanging out over the sidewalk read:
Flick's sense of humor obviously was still operating.
Inside I instantly saw the place had changed little. The bar was longer, the jukebox bigger; there was a color TV hanging from the wall, but the air was as gamy and rich as ever, if not more so, a thick oleo of dried beer suds, fermenting bar rags, sweaty overalls, and urinal deodorants. I breathed in a deep gulp to clear my brain, kicked some snow off my Italian shoes, and sat down at one of the stools near the window.
Down at the far end of the bar I saw a white-shirted back banging away at what appeared to be some sort of ice cabinet. He glanced up in the gloom and called out:
"What'll you have?"
"I'll be right with you."
He went on working. Through the window I could see a Used-Car lot where once, I recalled in the dim past, a stand of willows had grown. It was midaftemoon, between shifts, so the tavern was empty. I looked back down the bar just in time to see the white-shirted figure draw a stein of draught, topping it off neatly with a good head. He sat it down in front of me.
"How the hell are you, Flick?" I went right at him in a frontal attack.
"Uh . . . okay. How're you?"
"Don't you remember me?"
He looked at me in that long, wary Bartender stare, suspecting, at first, a touch.
"Yep, it's me. Your old buddy."
"Fer cryin' out loud! What the hell're you doing back here in Hohman, Ralph?"
I will now lightly pass over the ensuing sickening scene of boyhood companions meeting after years of elapsed time. Back-slappings, hollerings, and other classical maneuvers were performed. I told him why I had come back, about the piece I was supposed to do for an Official magazine on The Return Of The Native To The Indiana Mill Town. He snorted. They don't think of Hohman as a mill town. It's just Hohman.
He had drawn a beer for himself and another for me, broken out a bag of pretzels, and we began to do some really good, solid Whatever-happened-to . . . ?, Did-she-ever-marry . . . ?, When-did-they-put-in-the-bowling-alley-down-at. . . ?, and all the rest of it. I could see that Flick was wearing a bowling shirt, white, with his team name stitched over the pocket. Bowling is the staff of life, the honey of existence, the raison d'être for most men in Hohman. Flick was no exception.
"Did you ever learn to control that hook, Flick?" I remembered him as a wild fastball bowler who lofted a lot and who had a wicked, uncontrollable hook.
"I'm getting my wood."
We sat for a long moment, sipping our beer and looking out into the gray, gloomy day. A big red Christmas wreath hung over the cash register.
"Are you gonna be around for Christmas, Ralph?" he asked.
"I hope so."
He had reminded me of something that had crossed my mind a few days before. The Christmas season does things like that to you.
"Flick, do you remember that BB gun you used to have? That 200-shot Daisy pump gun?"
"Your BB gun."
"Hell, I still got it. It comes in handy sometimes."
"You won't believe it, Flick, but the other day, in New York, I'm sitting in the H & H . . ."
"The H & H?"
"The Horn & Hardart. The Automat."
"Oh yeah. I heard about those. You get pie right out of the wall."
"That's right, that's the H & H. Anyway...."
"You know, I've never been to New York. I'd like to go there some day. I hear it's a rough place to live, but . . ."
"Anyway, Flick, I'm in the H & H and this lady comes in and sits down, and she's got a button that says 'Disarm the Toy Industry' on it."
"Disarm the Toy Industry?"
"I guess she meant BB guns."
"Fer Chrissake, it's getting nuttier and nuttier." Flick's native Indiana humor struck to the core.
"Anyway, Flick, I'm sitting there talking to her, and I suddenly remember that BB gun I got for Christmas. Do you remember?"
"No kidding, Disarm the Toy Industry? Oh boy . . . ."
From the Trade Paperback edition.