The clash of pool balls smacking together greeted Eve as she opened the heavy door. She knew which direction to go when she heard the familiar sound. The room was dim with the limited illumination from glass-hooded lights above the tables, so it was hard to see through the thick haze of cigarette smoke that hovered all the way up to the ceiling. Eve stood just over four feet tall, short for her 12 years, so the gray cloud lingered right above her hairline. Bud Light placards and Nascar signs lined the dingy walls adorned with deer head trophies there so long the hair looked mangy and antlers colorless and whittled away with age.
She stomped slush off her feet and scanned the room for the man she searched for so many times before. Eve hoped to spot him from just inside the door so she’d escape before she had to talk to any of the smelly old men further within this pit they made their sanctum. Familiar grizzled faces at the bar turned to see who’d entered, but none were any more welcoming than her dad’s would have been. J.T. was nowhere to be seen, so she resigned herself to approach Rick where he stood behind the bar serving cheap drafts to the regulars.
Passing Mr. Clemons on the way meant she must tolerate having her shaggy brown hair tousled by his thin, knuckly fingers. He stopped his game, squinted in her direction, and inquired, “S’at you, Evey? You is growin’ like a weed, girl!” Old Clem, as they called him, feigned swinging the pool cue at her rear end, but he was harmless enough. It was better to have Clem tease her than some of the other greasy geezers there.
As she got closer to Rick, she sensed his displeasure at her being back inside his establishment. He shook his head exaggeratedly and chomped on a cigar in the corner of his mouth as he wiped down the stained Formica top of the bar. Eve looked between the two slumped figures permanently affixed to bar stools in front of Rick, and stopped short of climbing onto the seat in between them. It was obvious neither one was J.T., and she was here for only one reason … to find her dad.
Eve knew the phone number of every bar in town and had dialed them all numerous times in the past before her grandma forbid her from doing so. Granny had gushed, “How does it look for a young lady to be calling all the taverns huntin’ down her daddy?” Now Eve just waited until she fell asleep before taking off on foot.
The State granted her grandmother guardianship when J.T. disappeared for one day too many and Eve overslept and missed the school bus. The principal’s office threatened to call Child Protective Services if Eve’s education was neglected any further, so she wound up living with Granny and being well taken care of, if not a little too much so.
Rick, whose stern eyes lurked below one long eyebrow stamped across his forehead, intimidated Eve. He stood menacingly by the beer taps, a green pine tree air freshener hanging from the ceiling behind his head. It didn’t help much, though, as the foul air in the bar still reeked of stale booze that had longed soaked into the wooden floors and used to make Eve feel like she could vomit. She grew used to the smell from many long afternoons spent spinning on the red stool tops while her father inflicted his “gift of gab” on fellow bar flies. Their days together ended when Rick bought the bar and prohibited children from coming in any more. A bar was no place for kids as far as he was concerned.
But her purpose was serious enough to allay any fear of Rick and make her stand up to him. The man scowled at her and said, “Eve, why’d you walk all the way down here in the cold? J.T. ain’t been in today.”
The waifish girl peered down at the water puddling on the floor, snow melting off her old scuffed shoes and culminating in a wide pool. It seemed she asked her laces more than she addressed Rick in asking, “Not at all?” She was obviously disappointed, as this was the last bar in all three in town where he could park his ass and beg some credit.
Her dad hadn’t been to Granny’s since before school let out for Thanksgiving, so she wasn’t able to give him her Christmas wish list yet. She was old enough to know Santa Clause only existed in the minds of little kids, but she got presents from her grandmother and sometimes even a cheap little something or other from her dad as well. He might be a no-account, but J.T. was sentimental around the holidays and usually good for an inexpensive trinket from the Dollar Store.
A loud burst of beer-soaked laughter erupted from the pool table behind her, and Eve jumped at the sound. She turned to see Clem’s opponent take some crumpled bills from the edge of the green felt with one hand and clap the aged man on his back with the other. Mr. Clemons seemed none too pleased to lose the game and grimaced at the man’s touch.
It seemed no one was having any luck at Rick’s.
Eve pulled a folded note from her coat pocket, surmising its delivery was as likely here as anywhere else, and tossed it meekly onto the bar. She queried, “Would you give him this when you see him?” The bartender nodded hesitantly and replied, “Sure thing, kid.”
Clem put aside his own grumblings to pat the back of Eve’s head a last time as she slowly passed on the way back outside, her gaze still downcast. Rick waited until the child was gone before opening the paper to help him decide whether he should have one of the boys go hunt up that no-good daddy of hers. Bad credit or not, J.T. was the girl’s father.
There were two stark lines scrawled on the page, “Granny is sick. Please come home.”
*This post was prompted by pine at Studio 30+.