Lou’s tavern was open all day and, “Mom won’t know.”
“Remember,” he said, his breath like old smoke, “This is our secret.” His wink sealed the deal. I was eight or nine, or perhaps as young as seven, beaming up at my father with shooting star eyes.
“Daddy’s little girl,” my mother used to say.
My father held the tavern door open for me as if I were the Queen. “After you,” he said, his charm close behind. All the men would perk up, hellos all around, hearty pats on backs. Then the, How ’bout those Yankees, or That Namath’s a bum, or Where have you been hiding, Dave? and the ha, ha, has…. We always had a seat at the bar.
“The little lady will have a Shirley Temple. Extra cherries.”
My father knew exactly how I liked it.
The bartender would say, The regular, Dave? before rushing him a scotch and soda or, on hot days, beer in a frosted mug. All these decades later, my father still stores a frosted mug in his freezer. It’s likely there has always been a frosted mug in my father’s freezer, even during the many years I didn’t see him.
It was dark in the tavern, though it was the middle of the day and I was giddy with our secret.
A strange, familiar place, thick with the stank of sour beer and the sharp sting of ammonia cleaner. The air cool and musty like a basement. Glistenings of light reflected off the shelves of liquor bottles behind the bar, carving shadows on the patrons’ faces. A jukebox lit up one corner of the bar, forever crooning bouncy tunes, sad tunes. My father would hand me a quarter. Say, Play my favorite. We need a little Frank in here, and I would run over, insert the coin, and choose, “The Best is Yet to Come.”
His friends would fawn over me, offer sticks of Teaberry gum, tell my father how lucky he was. Your daughter is going to be a real looker when she grows up. And my smile would spill out as I spun with my specialness on the slippery, red, Naugahyde high bar stool. Swerving left, right, swinging my legs, swirling with our secret, while my father and the other men hunched over the bar, whispering and chuckling with too loud laughs while flicking ash off cigarettes affixed to their fingers. Lou would scurry back and forth behind the bar, topping off shot glasses, rushing for refills — ice clinking, a shaker rattling. He’d toss in a lime wedge, a lemon twist, olives, a pearl onion. From time to time, he would plop another maraschino cherry into my glass as he hurried by.
For the princess, he said.
I would slurp small sips of my Shirley Temple’s sweet cherry tingle and watch my handsome father hold court next to me, animated, sharing a new joke. It was magical how, even in the dim light, the other men’s eyes remained padlocked to my father’s charisma, how they seemed to inhale his ebullience. All those men, propped on the edge of their stools, deliciously impatient for the punchline they knew would release an eruption of guffaws.
My father’s jokes did that.
And, when the laughs came, I would bask in my father’s glow, so certain of his solidness, of my singular significance. For, I was a still a child, not yet wise to joy’s fragility or how love can depend on expediency. Nor was I aware of the staggering incongruity of a pixie-haired girl, with thick-lensed blue glasses and band aided knees, perched on a bar stool at 11:00 in the morning on a hot summer’s day with a bunch of middle-aged men drinking their lives away. But, I won’t judge, even now, for during those moments with my father in the tavern, I felt more than merely ordinary—perhaps even extraordinary. Special is special, no matter the source. Maybe that was my father’s gift to me: an ineffable sense of worthiness which buoyed me, even after the liquor drowned the best of him and swept him away from me.
We never stayed long. My father would pay the tab, give me a few extra dollars to hand to Lou, and we would aim for the exit, enthusiastic goodbyes trailing us all the way there. The levity seemed to swoosh out of the tavern as the door closed behind us and we slammed back into the sun.
My eyes ached before readjusting to day. I would fold my hand in his, safe in our secret, imagining forever.
Catherine Stratton is a writer and filmmaker living in Hoboken, New Jersey. Her work has appeared in the Delmarva Review, the Tahoma Literary Review, Literary Mama, and The Woodhall Press 2020 Flash Nonfiction Anthology. Follow her on Twitter, @cathstratton.