I am in a bar. Not a nice one. A place that features low lighting, dirty beer glasses, and an unidentifiable odor.
The live music is allegedly country. But it sounds like a college kid sawing his guitar in half.
The man behind the bar is gray-haired. Tall and lanky. He has been tending bar for forty-three years, he tells me.
He has the easygoing personality every bartender should.
“Got my first bartending gig when I’s in my twenties,” he said. “Was either that or go to school to make Mama happy.”
Tending bar was an education in itself. The nightlife is no cakewalk. Bartending is a lot of hard work for mediocre tips.
He met a girl from a small Georgia town. A waitress.
“She and her boyfriend had just broke up,” he says. “Knew I loved her first moment I saw her.”
They hit it off. Things blossomed. They dated. He moved in. They married.
They lived outside Atlanta where he opened his own place. A bar and grill with country music on weekends. She worked the kitchen, he served beer.
They had two kids. They did family vacations at Disney. Little League games. They owned a Labrador.
But nothing in life lasts.
“She came home early one day,” he says. “And stayed locked in our bathroom all afternoon.”
It was bad. The doctor found something in her breast.
What followed was hell. He sold their restaurant for a pittance. He took care of kids while she laid in bed. He made sack lunches, cleaned house. Prayed.
He drove his wife to treatments. He read aloud from magazines while she sat connected to plastic tubes.
Treatments didn’t work. Neither did surgery. She was forty-three when she passed.
Afterward, he couldn’t pull himself together. He quit shaving, quit eating, he let his kids fend for themselves.
“One day,” he says. “My brother comes over. We had a come-to-Jesus meeting. He told me to quit feeling sorry for myself, get off my ass, ‘cause my kids needed me.”
He went back to working a bar in Atlanta. The money was nothing to write home about. He was still bitter at the world.
Then something happened.
“We were about to shut down one night,” he goes on. “And I met this lady who lost her son in a car wreck. And we just talked for hours. She was the first person who gave me hope.”
He’s met a lot of people with hopeful stories. People whose mothers have died, men whose wives left them, redheaded writers who ask a lot of questions.
He’s happy now. He got remarried last year. His children are grown, and he’d give a kidney to anyone who asked.
Today, he leads an ordinary life, he drives an average Chevrolet.
He will never make a newspaper or news broadcast because he is a regular Joe. He is every nameless American you’ve ever met. He is a survivor. And he doesn’t like the spotlight.
“Don’t know why you’re asking all these questions,” he laughs. “My life ain’t worth writing about.”
I’m not writing about your life, sir.
I’m telling my friends how beautiful you are.