Friday, October 4, 2013

East Canton, Ohio

The bar I managed when I was eighteen was owned by an old woman named Hanna Novak. It was in East Canton, Ohio, which is about as glamorous a place as you might imagine. Looking back, I guess Hanna wasn't that old -- maybe in her sixties--but when I was eighteen that was old. Hanna had grey hair pulled back in a bun, arthritis that had turned her hands into knobby claws, and the upper body strength to carry kegs in from the beer truck. 

I was still on my way west after the thing at the school, but I was out of money and needed work badly. A help wanted sign leaned against the window. The woman who turned out to be Hanna was working behind the bar, a cigarette in the corner of her mouth. She wore a ratty tee-shirt that showed amazing sleeves of tattoos starting at her wrists and running all the way up to the ragged sleeves. No pictures, only swirls and jots of color. It looked like a parrot had exploded on her arms.

This was back in '89, I think. I'd never seen a woman with tattoos before, much less an old woman with tattoos. So I was a little intimidated. But I tried to act older than my age and experienced, which mostly meant that I shut my mouth and grunted a lot.

I remember Journey was playing. Don't Stop Believing was just blasting away. It had always been one of my favorite songs, so I took it as good luck. Hanna turned down the music, asked me if I was there for the job. She had a thick accent that sounded a little like Ivan Drago in Rocky 4. I said yes. She asked if I'd ever managed a bar before, and I said yes, of course. She asked if I could keep my mouth shut, and I didn't say anything. She gave me a little closed-mouth smile at that.
"You are big enough. You are Jewish? I only hire Jews." She showed me her teeth this time. I wished she hadn't. "Which thing is not easy in this town."

I'm not now, and wasn't then. But I needed the job.

"I do not pay so much," she said. "But beer is free, I pay cash, and I never ask about papers."

She turned the music up--anyone remember Warrant?--and took me around the bar, showed me where everything was. I had no idea what I was looking at -- I'd fake-IDed my way into Harry's back in upstate New York, of course, but I'd never been behind the bar. 

"You organize the way you want," she said, leading me back through the swinging doors to a hallway. "But you talk to bartenders first. My daughter will be here tonight, you can start with her." A  heavy door to one side was closed, with a padlock on a hasp. "This is basement," Hanna said. "This is not place for you."

I had no problem with that. "Here is office," she said, leading me into a wood-paneled room. "I keep books, money in, money out, yes? You do inventory and ordering. You do this before, in your other management job, yes?"  Of course, I said. "Good." She bobbed her head and showed me the list of suppliers and their usual ordering schedule. "This is most important part," she said. And pointed to a small black button on the desk. It looked like it had come off an arcade game. 

"Panic button?" I asked. "If someone robs the place?"

She shook her head.  "Is simple. Every day, I give you schedule. You follow schedule, you press button like schedule says. You press button, you cross off time. Yes?"

I must have looked confused. Her heavy brows wrinkled. "You do not want job?"

No, I wanted the job. I told her it wasn't a problem. 

"Good," she said, showing me the gray wreckage of her teeth again. "You start now."

She handed me a piece of paper. In one column was handwritten a few dozen times. In the other was a duration. 2:06 - 19 sec, 2:18 - 3 sec, 2:53 - 11 sec. Those weren't the real numbers, of course. There was never a pattern to the numbers, there's no way I could remember them. I do remember that the first one was only a few minutes away.

She crossed her tattooed arms and leaned against the doorway. Watching me. I asked her what she wanted me to do first. 

"Button," she said. "Always, button comes first."

So I waited, and I watched the clock on the paneled wall, and when the clock hit whatever time it was I pressed the button, and waited for the second hand to hit the right number.  When I was done, she looked at the clock, looked at me, and nodded.

"I go back to cleaning now," she said. "You look at inventory sheet, call distributors to get product, yes?"

I yessed her -- it was hard as hell to keep from giving her the accent back -- and went about the business of trying to figure out how to run a bar. When the next button-time came, I pressed it, and on the day went.


That night, Hanna's daughter Rachel came in. Pretty girl. Very pretty. Not too much older than me, with a great body, dark hair and serious eyes. She smiled at me for a second when Hanna introduced us--enough to make my pulse speed up, but not too long--and then got to work. 

I hung around all night, happy for the excuse to watch Rachel as I got a feel for the place. It was small but busy, and before long I was feeling completely overwhelmed and out of my league. What the hell had I gotten myself into? But I played stoic and vigilant, listened the music (Ratt, Dokken, Guns 'n Roses, LA Guns, a thousand more I can't even remember), and every so often I'd go back into the office and press the button.

For the next few weeks, the door to the basement stayed locked, and the music kept playing. Me, I kept pressing the button and crossing off times. I learned a little here, a little there. Asked for help when I needed it--and even when I didn't, because hey, Rachel was beautiful--and I got by.

One day, I came in to silence. I called out for Hanna, and found her in the office, cigarette going as always. To one side of her was a big ledger book. In front of her was a piece of paper on which she was jotting down the day's list. I'd never seen her drawing up the list before, so I stood there watching. She rolled three dice--a regular red six-sider and a ten-sided D&D die, believe it or not. Those were the minutes. And the hours, well, every hour had some entries already written. I imagine she'd already rolled for those.

I was dying to ask what the numbers were for, what the button was for. But I'd promised her I'd be quiet. She seemed like the type who needed that. So I sat down and waited. Watched her tattoos move as she rolled and wrote, rolled and wrote.

On her wrist was one tattoo that didn't seem to belong. It was just a series of what looked like numbers, faded blue ink just about lost in the fabulous swirling colors. After a while, she took a break, shaking out her hand.

"Can I ask you about the numbers?" I said. "Everything else is so colorful."

She quirked her lips at me for a moment, then shrugged. "If God forgives numbers, he forgives pretty ones, too. And if he does not . . . well, he is bastard then and fuck him, yes?"

I had no idea what she meant, but that was all she was going to say on the topic.

"Where's the music?" I asked. 

"Right now, we do not need," she said. "How do you like job?"

I told her it was fine. By that point I'd learned enough to fake it.

"You do good work," she said. "You surprise me with that. My daughter, she likes you too."

I blushed. 

"You stick around a while, yes?"

I nodded yes. I was still seeing those rat-things from the high school in my dreams, but being at the bar helped settle me down. Made everything seem normal, you know? As if that was just a thing that had happened. Or maybe hadn't happened. To some other guy. 

"I have package in basement," she said. "You bring up, you put in dumpster, yes?"

"I don't really like basements," I said. "I'm sorry."

She looked at me. Tapped her mouth with the eraser on her pencil. And then she nodded. "Okay, then. You go out, come back in one hour, yes? I pay you for time."

Something was going on, but it didn't concern me. I cleared out and came back later. When I walked back in, the music was playing again, loud as ever. The day's button schedule was laying on the desk. I sat down and marked the upcoming time. When I looked up, Rachel was in the doorway. She had a bruise under her eye, and a thin scratch along her cheek, but she looked happy enough to see me.

"Hey," she said. "What are you doing after work?"

"Same as always. Staring at Carson in the motel room until I fall asleep."

"You want to go out when I get off?" 

"At three in the morning? In East Toledo?"

She laughed. "Caught. Back to my place, I mean." 

To her place. Holy shit, y'know? I played it cool. "What happened to your cheek?" I asked. 

"This?" She touched it and shrugged. "My mom took you downstairs, right?"

I could lie to Hanna about the job thing because she wasn't going to check, and if I got caught out, well, there were other places to work. But there was only one Rachel, and we both knew she would talk to her mother. I shook my head.

"Nothing, then," she said. Her face closed off, just like that. "Banged into something, is all."

It felt like a door had slammed shut between us. I wanted to ask her more, but she just stood there, looking disappointed for a moment. And then she turned and left. I remember that moment like it was yesterday. It was like a knife in my heart. 

That night, I left at midnight as usual, then came back at three, when Rachel and Hanna were long gone. Hanna had given me the key to place a couple weeks before. Not to the basement, of course.

I left the lights off, felt my way through the dark to the office, and turned on the light. It shone down the hallway, a little, and I went to the basement door. It was locked, of course.

What had she wanted me to see? What had Hanna wanted to show me?

I went back to the office. The next day's schedule was already on the desk, right next to the button just as always.

I looked at it a moment. Then, in the silence, pressed the button.

Far away, someone screamed.

I let go of the button. The screaming broke down into high-pitched sobbing.

I swallowed hard. Thought about pressing the button again, just to check. But it wasn't a coincidence.

I found a short pry bar in a toolbox in a closet. Pried the hasp off of the wall.  Swallowed again, seeing again what I'd seen back in New York. And opened the door. The sobbing sound got louder.

Downstairs was pitch-black. I found the light switch. 

A young man was strapped down to a massive table. A kid my age. A blue-eyed, blonde-haired kid. Naked. An IV in his arm, wires leading everywhere. To his skull, to his chest, his back, his fingertips and toes. Down between his legs. Everywhere.

He looked at me -- looked through me -- with this expression of absolute terror on his face. Screamed. Screamed again. 

I went to him. Of course I went to him. Started pulling wires. Telling him it was going to be okay, we were going to get those psychos for what she did to him. I was going to find his people, he was going to be okay. He clung to me, and sobbed.

When I turned around, Rachel was standing there. Shaking her head.

"Alarm tied to the basement door," she said.

I was bigger than her. Much stronger. The kid was going to be useless, but I could still overpower her. Still get him out.


She looked ready to cry. "You're Jewish. You should understand."

"Understand what?"

"What they did to her. My mother. My grandparents. Her brother, her sisters." She swallowed hard. "What they took from her in Treblinka."

Fuck. The numbers. History class the year before had covered the Holocaust. The camps.

"You should get it, though, why she does this. It is a sickness,  I know. But you don't know how many times she tried to kill herself. Before she figured this out."

The kid was clinging to me like a cat.

"There have only been a few," she said. "The last one was here for six years. We got rid of the body this morning. She thought she'd be able to stop, that that would be the last one. But she couldn't. So she had me flirt with him. Bring him down here."

"We're leaving," I said.

"You can't tell anyone." She was desperate. "I'll get her to stop, I swear. I'll do whatever you want." She tugged at the collar of her sweater. "Whatever."

I wish I could tell you I shoved her aside, called the cops from the office phone, kept her there until they arrived.

I didn't. I led the kid past her, up the stairs, watching her all the while. I gave him my underwear, my sweatshirt and my shoes, and walked him to the door. Let him out, watched him run away into the night. And then I closed the door behind me.

They'd taken me in, gave me a job. Tried to make me part of their family. I couldn't just call the police.

So I started walking. Got back to my motel, got dressed, packed up my stuff. I called the police from Toledo the next morning, an anonymous tip that they might want to check out the bar. I don't know if they bailed or if they stayed, but I gave them a chance to get away. I owed them that much.


Here's the followup to the Dropout story. I think this narrator has more left in him. Let me know what you think!

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