Ephraim, my neighbor, wasn’t much of a musician. But he could strum a guitar and his voice didn’t stray too far off track. That made him good enough for a part-time gig at the Dew Drop Inne.
There must be one of those pun-named bars in every town. Some have the extra “e” to make them sound classy and some don’t. Other than that, they’re all pretty much the same – dumps.
This one, it belonged to Sal Margioni, had an Irish theme courtesy of some four-leaf-clover decals and a sign for Killian’s Red, which Sal didn’t actually serve. He did make a bad Irish coffee using Instant Maxwell House and RediWhip.
Sal’s own Irish roots could be traced back to Napoli on his father’s side. His mother he described as a Heinz 57 American with a little Oneonta. Nobody ever told him that was a city; most of the customers at the Dew Drop wouldn’t have known the difference; the rest of us just kept it as a joke. Occasionally somebody would bring in a box of Oneida Biscuits, and we’d all smile – being sure to offer Sal one.
“You guys really like these things,” he’d comment. “Me, I prefer a pretzel with my beer.”
Actually, I never saw him eat a pretzel, but we all saw him drink that beer – glass after endless glass of Miller tap. Sal’s beer gut had reached a size that was beginning to hamper him behind the beat-up bar. Some days he had to strain just to reach the handles to draw those glasses. His stained white shirts and checkered suspenders seemed to stress with the effort of keeping his not inconsiderable body contained.
Sal was neither jovial nor talkative. “Enjoys yourself,” was his mantra. Beyond that, he avoided words.
Ephraim’s singing was certainly not the center of enjoyment or attraction. It wasn’t a source of income either. Sal didn’t pay him but did allow him to put a jar on the table next to him. We, mostly to fit in, would drop change in the jar. A draught was a buck sixty, so Ephraim got a lot of forty-cent tips; they added up to his own hard-hitting consumption of Budweiser.
If there was a center point to The Dew Drop, it was the pool table, one of those coin-operated deals that always seem to come with warped cues and uncooperative balls. Most of them also come with a local hustler; at the Dew Drop, it was Jonny Scott. Jonny was easily the champion of the bar; most of us didn’t bother to play with him, not even for fun. So he had to wait for new marks who thought they could play. In neighborhood joints like the Dew Drop, there aren’t many new marks so Jonny’s pickings were pretty slim. He would have done better if he occasionally blew a game so the rest of us might take him on, especially after we had few under our belts. But the kid couldn’t ease off. It killed him to miss even one shot.
A few times it was suggested that he try hustling somewhere else, somewhere where there might actually be a few guys who could play; but Jonny wasn’t going anyplace. He was like the rest of us, a regular. Once you’ve found a home, you don’t leave it easily – especially when that home is the only one your mind can wrap around.
Most of us regulars had come from someplace, some other home. I guess that’s true of everybody – we all come from somewhere. The thing about the people who make a neighborhood bar their home is that we don’t want to acknowledge that somewhere. It’s like we’ve been cast adrift on the ocean and come to rest on an island, not some lovely deserted oasis with palm trees and dancing girls, something more like an island of floating debris.
My own journey? That’s a secret. I will admit that once I had a family. No, they aren’t dead. I am. At least to them.
My accent? You decide. Wherever you say, I’ll own it. Like I said, there’s a Dew Drop in every town so what does it matter?
Ephraim on the other hand, he had a story, and he was willing to tell it. One afternoon, before we headed out for the Dew Drop, he shared it with me.
Not surprisingly, it started with his name. That tells you right off that he was from some kind of Bible sect. In this case the Amish, right out of Pennsylvania.
Ephraim was the younger of two sons; the older was Emanuel. Their father’s name was Joseph. Ephraim was the obvious name, just like it was all from the good book.
It was an embarrassment to his father, that he only had the two boys. “A good man should be blessed with many sons,” he had told Ephraim and his brother many times.
It was also an embarrassment – a much greater one – when Joseph’s wife, Asena, gave up on the marriage and the faith and went off with a Mennonite to open a pie shop in Des Moines. Why Des Moines? That Ephraim couldn’t answer.
He had visited her once on his own journey, but Asena had told him nothing beyond a simple statement that she was happy, happy with her husband, Joshua, and happy with her faith, which was now Lutheran. She was not so happy with their daughter, but that was not his story to tell.
After Asena left, Joseph became bitter, not that he sounded all that sweet from the get-go. The two boys were worked hard. Worse, they were constantly criticized and ridiculed. Emanuel, the older boy, courted their father’s approval, married young, and settled down to a life of farming, crafts, and prayer.
Ephraim, who perhaps was more like his mother, left home at sixteen.
There’s a popular belief that Amish teens go through a rite of passage, something called Rumspringa, when they go off and try the normal world. For most Amish, that’s just not true. It certainly wasn’t for Joseph, who – when told of Ephraim’s intent – declared his son dead. That was an end and shut of it.
At some point, Ephraim had sent his brother a letter. It was returned with “You are dead to us!” printed in a large block across the page. There was no way to tell whose hand had done the writing, but the message was clear. I know this because Ephraim had kept that letter. It was pinned to the wall of his room, his only decoration.
“Why Albuquerque?” I asked him.
“Why Des Moines?” He laughed wryly. “Once you drift, you drift. Where you land, you land.”
“Would you go back? I mean if your father…”
“If Joseph would permit?”
“Ok, yeah. If Joseph would permit?”
“To your home. To where you belong.”
“You don’t think I belong here?”
“As much as any of us.”
“Right, as much as any of us.”
We went to the Dew Drop to seal the conversation with a beer. One draught led to another. Ephraim picked up his guitar and started to strum. One of the other regulars got the tip jar from behind the bar and set it next to him. Dropped in a quarter, a dime and a nickel.
Sal called out, “Enjoys yourself,” and drew himself another glass.
Jonny asked, “Anybody want to shoot a game?” There were no takers.
Before he started to sing, Ephraim whispered to me, “See, I’m home.”
“Yeah.” I lifted my glass.
(c) 2010 (Originally published in Palo Verde Pages)