There is nothing I enjoy more than a good book, a good beer and a good bar. I am blessed that way because my wife loves to shop and while she shops, I surround myself with goodness in the back booth of a local bar.
Not long ago and about the same time my wife vanished into an antique store in a small Wisconsin town, I appeared at the door of the local tavern. After a few steps inside, the bartender stopped me.
“Stay clear of that guy back there,” he warned.
My eyes had not adjusted to the dark. Besides myself and the bartender, the only other customer I could make out was a very old man with white hair that curled down to his belt and a beard that corkscrewed onto his lap. He could not have weighted a hundred pounds.
“You mean that guy?” I asked.
The bartender looked around. “You see anyone else?”
How could I? This was the darkest, dingiest bar I had ever been in but it was not without its charm. I held up my book, indicating that I intended to read, not to bother anyone.
He nodded approvingly and asked me what I’d be have. I ordered a tall beer and after he poured it, I groped my way to a booth in the back, keeping a respectful distance from the old man.
I found a small lamp mounted to the wall that provided all the light I required and I settled in. The old man seemed settled too, he also had his nose buried in a large book.
We’d have no problems.
Near the bottom of my second beer, the door banged open and a middle-aged guy carrying a motorcycle helmet stepped in.
The bartender delivered his same warning.
“You mean Merl?,” the guy said.
“Yeah,” the bartender said, “I mean Merl.”
“Hell, he’s a sweetheart.” the guy said, “I knew him years ago. Back in the day, I used to ride down here every weekend… Say, how come it’s so dead? This place used to jam!”
The old man looked up from his book.
“Hey, do you remember me?” the guy asked.
A swift look of recognition crossed the old man’s face. It vanished just as quickly.
“You do remember me, don’t you? How about my buddy Chopper? Do you remember him? He had that Harley with pipes so loud, you could feel them in your chest from two miles away. God, I miss him! Poor guy, he has some kind of medical condition now.”
In a voice as soft as the rustle of oak leaves in an autumn breeze, the old man asked, “How have you been, Ronnie?”
“Ah, you know,” Ronnie said, “wife, kids, job. Don’t get out much.”
“Do you enjoy it?” the old man asked.
“Wife, kids, job?”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way,” Ronnie said, “but I do miss raising hell.”
I think the old man smiled. It was hard to tell. His skin was thinner than rice paper and his lips crinkled more than smiled – but a twinkle flashed in his gray eyes – almost like the sun piercing through a cloud.
“Hey, what’re drinking?” Ronnie asked him.
“What I drink,” Merl said, “hasn’t been served in years.”
The bartender shrugged in agreement.
Turning to me, Ronnie asked, “How about you?”
“Nope,” I said pointing to my near-empty glass, “I’ve hit my limit for driving.”
“Geez,” Ronnie said, swiveling off the bar stool and heading for the door, “if no one’s going to drink with me, ain’t no use in sticking around.”
When Ronnie cleared the door, the bartender turned to Merl, almost pleading. “Give him a break, he’s a family guy now.”
The old man waved him off.
The bartender returned to his rummaging behind the bar and I went back to my book. I had just a few pages to read and half a glass to drink. It was a race of sorts. I always tried to time my reading and drinking. Ronnie had thrown me off my game and that annoyed me. My irritation caught the attention of the old man.
He allowed me to finish my reading, then when I put down my empty glass, he asked, “Do you like old books?”
“Sure,” I said.
He held up a large dusty tome. The pages were as brown and soft as parchment and the print was handwritten in graceful calligraphy. I was stunned that anyone would bring a book like that to a bar.
I couldn’t read the title but I recognized the script. “Is it Gaelic?” I asked.
The question pleased him. “Not all of it,” he said, “Some Gaelic, some German and some Latin. It is a book of spells.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“Do you remember our friend mentioning a fellow named Chopper?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Chopper was more a toad than a man. His motorcycle croaked with an intensity and persistence that was most annoying,” he said, ”so I ended it with this spell. He pointed a long fingernail at a title that read ‘Perpetum Flatuence’”
I strained my limited knowledge of parochial school Latin, “Forever Farting?” I guessed.
“Yes, that is exactly what it means,” he said, “Mister Chopper now makes this beloved BLAP-BLAP-BLAP sound without the aid of a motorcycle.”
Without looking up, the bartender said, “I warned you about him.”
That is when it struck me. Merl was Merlin. A wizard who valued a good book, a good bar and a quiet afternoon as much as I.
“And as for our boisterous friend, Ronnie,” Merlin said.
The bartender interrupted, “Please tell me you didn’t just do something.”
“No. What I did, I did long ago,” the old man said, “it took a love-potion, half for him, half for a waitress who worked here and POOF! Wife, kids, job for Ronnie and blessed peace for me.”