Christmas Eve At Shorty’s
By Bruce Jenvey
Walt Shuster stared blankly out the windshield of his Buick at the oncoming traffic. In the early evening darkness, he could only see their headlights as they briefly lit the spitting snow and reflected off the wet pavement before them. Then they’d rush past, hurrying on their way home or to last minute gift shopping along the way. After all, it was Christmas Eve.
But Walt was taking his time. In fact, this less than familiar road qualified as ‘the long way’ home for him. Here it was, Christmas Eve and rather than join the rest of the world as they scurried around and dashed home to their loved ones, tonight, of all nights, he was taking his time, trying to delay the inevitable. Arriving home would mean having to tell her the news of the day, that come Monday, he no longer had work to go to, no business to open and no means of income. It would mean admitting failure to the woman who had been the love of his life for well over thirty years, and facing that was something he wanted to put off for as long as he possibly could.
He was on the edge of town somewhere between the lights of Main Street and the quiet courts of the subdivisions when this narrow country road took a sleepy turn. There, isolated in the curve, he came across a brightly lit clearing filled with hanging lights, flashing neon, and a solitary building, that, if the neon was to be believed, was ‘Shorty’s.’
He slowed the Buick and let it drift off the road into the area of bare gravel that served as the parking lot. He sat there for a few moments and finally thought, why not, before turning off the engine. As he crawled out from behind the wheel, a gust of cold wind caused him to clutch his open top coat a little closer as the wet snow pelted his face and hands.
But Shorty’s stood there, warm and inviting. It was a rustic old roadhouse with a solid, log cabin construction that looked like it could face any winter storm and over the years, it probably had. The bright lights visible through the fogged and frosted windows looked as cheery as some Christmas card, at least the ones he liked best anyway. As he climbed the wooden steps to the front door, he smiled at the garland wrapped railing and the wreaths that hung askew in the front windows. Despite the best efforts of the cold wind, even more garland clung to the flashing neon arrow above his head that sequentially pointed the way to the front door. Walt reached out for the handle but was surprised to find the door standing slightly ajar. Probably the last one in failed to latch it tight, he thought. He gave the door a nudge and slowly stepped inside.
He was immediately welcomed by the warmth of the room, not just the temperature which quickly had him removing his top coat, but the true warmth of his surroundings. His wingtip shoes echoed on the heavy floor planks with his very first steps. A dark, polished woodwork filled the room, the likes of which he had not seen in so many years. It covered the walls and continued down into the booths that lined the near side of the room and the tables that filled the floor space. The wood only gave way to the intricately embossed tin ceiling above his head that reflected the red and green lights strung around the tavern.
The opposite wall was dominated by the bar itself, again, in the same dark wood and polished to look more like a fine piece of antique furniture than a barroom fixture. A collection of brightly colored taps were mounted near it’s center, each decorated for the season, wrapped with glittering tinsel and bright ribbons with bows. Behind the bar, a large mirror reflected even more of the holiday lights, adding to them the colors of the many bottles that lined its glass shelves.
In the far back corner of the barroom, a group of office revelers had pulled one of the tables over to join the corner booth. Together, they consumed their share of Christmas spirits as they did their best to share a Christmas carol.
Walt took a deep breath and savored this warmth, this atmosphere, allowing it to take the edge off the disappointments of the day. He closed his eyes and became aware of all the scents around him at once. He could smell the candles on the tabletops, the wreaths hanging in the windows, even the alcohol in the glasses from that booth at the far end of the room. He could smell the ladies’ perfumes and the polish used to keep the woodwork so bright. Just as he was ready for a second, intoxicating breath, a warm and cheerful greeting startled him back to the present.
“Welcome, Stranger!” Walt opened his eyes to see the bartender now at his post. He was a robust man, about his own age but with a carefree smile and a sparkle in his eyes. He wore a full apron with a small sprig of holly pinned to the bib. He gently wiped the bar with his towel as he smiled and spoke again. “Yes, you! Welcome Stranger, what can I do ya for?”
Somehow surprised by the obvious question, Walt hesitated before he responded.
“Why, I’ll have a drink…”
“Got lots of those here,” the bartender answered with a smile as he motioned to the large collection of colorful bottles on the wall behind him. “Anything in particular?” Walt chuckled softly at himself as he slowly moved over to the bar and took a seat on one of the stools.
“How about a bourbon and branch?” The bartender suggested.
“Yeah… that sounds good.”
“Not many people order that anymore, but I’ve got you covered!” The bartender slung his towel over his shoulder and produced two glasses filled with ice. Then, he pulled a fifth of bourbon from underneath the counter and poured both with a generous amount of the whiskey before topping them off with splash of clear water from a sealed bottle.
“One would have been enough,” Walt observed.
“It’s Christmas, so no, I’m not going to let you drink alone, friend.”
“It’s Walt, and Merry Christmas to you,” he said as he picked up one of the glasses.
“Merry Christmas, Walt,” the bartender said as he picked up the remaining glass and touched it to Walt’s in a casual toast. “Believe it or not, I’m Shorty!”
“You?” Walt said in surprise as he took his first sip and set the glass down. “You don’t look much like a ‘Shorty’ to me.”
“Long story, Walt. It’s a nickname I earned, and deserved, back in high school. But like my sister, after graduation, we both grew a full foot taller.”
“Swear to God! But… the nickname stuck just the same. When I opened up this roadhouse, I couldn’t call it ‘Tom’s Place’ because no one around here would know it was me, ya know?”
“The name’s Tom, Tom Keech,” the bartender said as he extended his hand to Walt. “But please, everyone calls me Shorty!”
“Well, glad to meet you, Shorty. This is a nice place you’ve got here. Feel like I’ve walked into an old movie.”
“Yeah, always felt it was warm… cozy. I like it that way.” At that moment, the carolers in the back reached hard for notes they would never find, drawing Shorty’s attention away from their conversation. “Hey! Hey!” he shouted above their revelry. “In tune back there! Try it in tune, people!” And then he laughed and smiled at his guests in the back before returning his attention to Walt at the bar. “They’ll be the last to leave tonight!” he added through a smile that never faded.
“Hope they get home okay…”
“They got dropped off here. They’ll leave the same way. But right now, this is where they want to be.”
“They’re certainly having a good time…” Walt added as he felt a faint smile start to find his own face.
“You’ll have to excuse them, they just don’t get out much. But what about you? I see that ring on your finger. It’s Christmas Eve, don’t you have someplace else to be?”
“Yes… I do…” What smile Walt had found, faded as he looked down at his wedding ring.
“Things… kinda rough there?” Shorty asked with a sympathetic nod.
“No, no. Just the opposite! I’ve been blessed, really. I’m married to the best friend I’ve ever had.” He took another pull from his whiskey and thoughtfully stared at the ring on his left hand. “She’s been my biggest supporter… always has. Whatever hare-brained idea I had, she was always onboard.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“My last hare-brained idea hasn’t worked out so well…”
“And what’s that?” They both took a moment to sip their drinks before Walt felt like continuing.
“Ever read ‘The Valley Gazette’?”
“Sure! That’s that little community paper with all the ads in it. They drop ‘em off free here every Thursday.”
“Well, not anymore…”
“I’m… me…” Walt said tapping his finger on his chest. “I’m ‘The Valley Gazette.’”
“That’s yours?” Shorty sounded impressed.
“It was… until this afternoon anyway…”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, they pulled the plug and closed us down.”
“But that paper’s been around for years. People love that thing! Lots of ‘em. All those little stories about the local stuff…”
“Well, let me tell you, every free paper needs lots of advertisers and they’ve all been slipping away to the Internet and those web coupons… And I don’t know anything about that stuff.”
“Things been tight?”
“It’s been getting soft for the last few years, really. But this last year has been more than I could hang on to. You cut back, you let a few people go, but you still fall behind with the print bill and then you start bouncing people’s paychecks…”
“Well, that’s not good…” Shorty nodded sympathetically. He reached under the counter and refreshed both their drinks before either had reached the bottom of his glass.
“Earlier this afternoon…” Walt paused and took a solid sip from his fresh drink. “Earlier this afternoon… the printer pulled the plug. The issue they just dropped off… well, that’s the last one there’ll ever be.” He raised his glass in a farewell salute as Shorty followed suit.
“So now what?”
“So now, I have to go home and tell the love of my life… that I’m a failure.” Tears started to form in Walt’s eyes and his voice started to shake but he fought all the harder to hold on to what dignity he had left. “Like I said, things have been hard the last few years. And every year, every New Years, I promise her that the worst is over, that things will surely be better in the new year… That we’ve been through hell and surely, the next year will be our year. But things just never get better... They only get worse and worse and now… now there’s nothing left to hope for.”
“So you’re sitting here instead of having to face her.”
“Yeah, that’s about the size of it.” Walt picked up his glass and took yet another large sip. “I just don’t know how to tell her… how she’ll take it. We’re still a few years away from retirement age and pretty much everything we had was sunk into the Gazette.”
“You know, I think you need to give her some credit. She’s been with you all these years…”
“Yes, yes she has… though,” Walt looked at Shorty with a good-natured dose of suspicion. “I don’t remember saying how long we’d been together.”
“I’m a pretty good judge of character, Walt.”
“Is this where the bartender earns his therapist’s reputation?”
“Seriously, I can look at a guy and tell in pretty short order if he’s on the level or not. Always been able to do that. A guy like you? Women our age would consider you a real catch. You? You’ve been married a long time. I can tell.”
“But how would—” At that exact moment, the revelers in the back of the room again reached loud and wide for the chorus to the carol.
“Hey! Hey!” Shorty again tried to shout above their singing but Walt cut him off.
“No, no… let ‘em go. They’re having fun and besides… they’re starting to sound like angels to me.” He smiled at the thought.
“Really?” Shorty laughed out loud. “Good bourbon can do that to you!”
“And I thank you, Shorty.” Walt said as he again raised his glass to the bartender.
“So, what are your plans now?”
“That’s just it… I got nothin’. You know what the unemployment picture is out there right now. And most of the young people they hire so cheap to manage these days, they don’t want someone my age working for them.”
“Afraid of us old codgers?”
“Afraid of gettin’ shown up!” Again the men laughed and raised their glasses to each other.
“So, you’re a pretty creative guy. A guy like you knows how to make things happen.”
“And how do you know that?”
“I told you, I’m a pretty good judge of character. I like you Walt Shuster!”
“Wait…” Walt paused in realization. “I never told you my name was Shuster. I just said I was Walt. How’d you know that?”
“I read it in the paper, Walt. Your name’s all over ‘The Valley Gazette,’ remember?”
“Oh yeah…” he said taking another sip off his bourbon. “Good memory you got there, too, Shorty.”
“You know, you need a change of pace. Something new and different. Something you’ve never done before. It’ll keep you young.”
“Like whatever you want! Look at me here! I was at a crossroads in my life just like you when I found this place. So see, it’s never to late to find a new dream… or hare-brained idea.”
“Looks like it’s worked out pretty good for you,” Walt said as he again admired the walls and woodwork. “Enough business here to hold it all together?” Again, he looked at the office revelers in the far corner.
“On any given night, this place is really hoppin.’ It stays pretty full, really. Just is tonight is Christmas Eve and everyone but your ‘angels’ back there have all gone home to their loved ones… just like you should.”
“You’re probably right, Shorty… Gotta face it all sometime.” Walt felt the reality of his situation wash over him again.
“Listen, Walt. Like I said, you’re a smart guy, you know how to make your own way in the world. I’m sure something will turn up for you and… it’ll change your life. You just never know when opportunity will come strollin’ right through the door.”
“My very own Christmas Angel, huh?” Walt’s tone was filled with doubt and sarcasm.
“Like I said, I’m a really good judge of character, Walt Shuster.”
“Well, what do I owe you for the drinks?” he said as he rose from his stool and reached for his top coat.
“Oh, don’t worry about it… it’s Christmas!”
“No, no Shorty. We’re not going there. I can still pay my own way.”
“I know you can, Walt. But consider it my Christmas gift to a great new customer. I hope to see you back in here a lot in the future.”
“I’ll probably be back, sure. But you still have ends to meet here, too. House payment, car—”
“Actually, no, Walt, I don’t.”
“No, I live up there,” Shorty nodded towards the ceiling of the barroom. “With my wife.” Walt slowed as he slid into the sleeves of his coat.
“Really…” a smile crossed his face. “Talk about convenient. I didn’t notice the second story when I came in. So no car either?”
“We live up there… no need for a car.” Shorty replied with a wise smile.
“Well, still, I can pay for my own drinks. Tell you what, I’m going to use your rest room—”
“Back through that doorway and down the hall.” Shorty motioned toward the rear wall.
“And when I get back, you have that bill all totaled up and I’ll pay you. And I’ll thank you for your time and conversation, too.”
“I’ll be right here, waiting for you, Walt, ready to wish you a Merry Christmas when you get back.”
Walt made his way past the empty tables toward the hallway off the rear wall. As he passed by the table of revelers, they only paused long enough to raise their glasses and toast him ‘Merry Christmas’ before again breaking out in song. Their happiness made him smile and he enjoyed the moment all the way down the hall to the doors marked ‘Bucks’ and ‘Does.’
When he had finished in the restroom, he stood before the small mirror over the sink. As he dried his hands, he studied the lines in his own face and the gray that now streaked through his hairline. He wondered if somehow, Shorty could be right, that it was time for a change and that he indeed, still had some fresh tricks somewhere up his coat sleeve. It was an intriguing thought, and one he hoped was real. After all, Shorty was a good judge of character, right?
At that moment, the small restroom was plunged into darkness. Christ, he thought, What a time for a power failure! He stood there as his eyes struggled to adjust to the darkness but so little light came in through the glass block window behind him, he found himself still groping for the doorknob. At last he found it and he opened the door expecting to better see his way with the help of the candles on the tables and whatever light would find its way in through the front windows.
But there were no candles on the tables and very little light found its way in through those windows. It was barely enough to feel his way through the shadows of the furnishings. And it was cold. The warmth he had felt when he entered was now gone and he was glad he had his coat on. It was also very quiet. The sound of Christmas carols had disappeared. His eyes searched the darkness for the revelers in the back booth, but they too, were gone.
“Shorty?” he called out into the darkness, but there was no answer. As he made his way closer to the bar, what light filtered in from the outside reflected off a fine layer of dust on the floorboards. The same floorboards he remembered being spotlessly bright just a few moments before. He groped for the edge of the bar nearly tripping over one of the stools in the process. “Shorty!” He slammed his hand down on the counter trying to get some response from the man who had just shared drinks with him, but again, there was only silence. Although he had just washed his hands, he could now feel the grit on his palms where he had touched the counter’s dusty and neglected surface.
As he stood there, trying to make sense of this impossible turn of events, red and blue flashing lights suddenly filled the room. Through the window, he could see their source, a light bar mounted on the roof of a police cruiser just outside the door. Next, there were heavy footsteps on the wooden stairs. And as the door opened, the bright beam of a high-powered flashlight hit him in the face. The light paused briefly but then quickly scanned the room and as it did so, Walt followed the beam with his eyes.
The Christmas decorations that had brightened his mood when he first walked into this room were gone. In their place were now just so many cobwebs hanging silently over dust-covered surfaces and dulled finishes. Also gone were the colorful liquor bottles that had lined the glass shelves in front of the mirror that was now, far too fogged and cloudy to even reflect the flashlight’s beam. With no one else in the barroom to be seen, the bright light again fell on Walt and he squinted under its intensity.
“You can’t be in here, sir,” came a younger man’s voice from the doorway… at least, younger than his own. When Walt raised his hand to shield his eyes, the man with the flashlight allowed the beam to find the floor. As his eyes again adjusted to the darkness, he could see the outline of a sheriff’s deputy standing in the doorway. The flashing lights from the cruiser outside pulsed through the room and reflected off the deputy’s badge and the buttons on his winter waistcoat.
“Sir? This is private property, sir… you can’t be in here.” The deputy waited for Walt to respond but the older man was still trying to grasp the incredible events of the last few moments.
“Was the door open again?”
“Why, yes… it was.”
“Kids!” The deputy let out a deep sigh of frustration. “You have to understand, we chase a lot of teenagers out of here. We try to watch the place pretty close, but it’s become a real attractive nuisance in the area. Did the ‘For Sale’ sign bring you in?”
“This old place has just been sitting here since it closed. The sign finally went up just a couple days ago. But you really should make an appointment if you want to see it.”
“When did it close?”
“Oh, been about… five years now.”
“Five years,” Walt echoed thoughtfully.
“Everybody knew this place.” The deputy relaxed his guard some and took another step into the room, closing the door behind him. “This used to be the place around here.”
“If this place was so popular, why did it close?”
“My Dad passed away.”
“Yeah, Shorty was my Dad. This was his place.” The deputy slowly stepped up to the bar and gently rested his hand on the dusty counter. “I spent a lot of time here as a kid… worked my way through college right behind this bar.”
“No kiddin’.” The smile started to return to Walt’s face.
“Working side by side with my Dad,” the deputy said fondly.
“I told you this was a busy place in its day,” the deputy said with a measure of pride. “We really used to pack ‘em in… so yeah, I still keep a pretty close eye on this place when I can.”
“So you’re Tom Keech’s boy…”
“Yeah, Allen… Allen Keech,” the deputy extended his hand.
“Walt Shuster,” he accepted the handshake.
“Not many people remember his name was really Tom. Everyone just called him Shorty. You knew him?”
“Shared drinks with him…” Walt said, still in a daze. The deputy paused at these words and studied Walt’s face.
“My dad never drank with the customers… not here… only with a few close friends.”
“Bourbon and branch…”
“Well, only a friend of his would know that.”
“What happened… if I can ask…”
“After my mom passed away, he just wasn’t the same. Sometimes, he’d talk to her right here in the barroom like she was still waitin’ tables. Anyway, wasn’t too much longer and we lost him, too.”
“My sister and me. We like to say, he lives ‘up there’, with her now.” The deputy nodded towards the ceiling with exactly the same motion as he had seen Shorty do just a few minutes before. It made Walt smile. This was certainly his father’s son.
“You know, I’d believe that…”
“After they both were gone, we closed the place.”
“But it was a thriving business.” Walt questioned.
“Yes, it was… but it was his business and it just wasn’t the same without him. Besides, my sister has a career and a family and I like what I do… so… we closed it up.”
“Tough decision, I’ll bet.”
“It was. And we’ve been watching it just sit here ever since. We couldn’t decide what to do with it, so, we’ve kept the taxes up, my sister still renews the liquor license even though there hasn’t been a drink poured here in years. We keep the heat just above freezing so the pipes don’t burst, but this year, we decided it was time. Time to move on and let someone else have a crack at it. So… my sister put up the sign. Really, I think we’d just like to see it open again.”
“You mean the economy? I know. We’re going to have to be real generous on terms just to get someone to take us serious.”
“It’d be a real, hare-brained idea.”
“That’s what I told my sister… but we just can’t let it sit here forever.”
“Be a shame, nice place like this.”
“Well,” the deputy chuckled, “you certainly have an eye for potential. But then, the sign did bring you in here.”
“You never know when opportunity might walk right through the door.”
“My Dad used to say that, too.”
“Yeah, he did… So what would it take? I mean, to turn the lights on in here again.”
“Well, obviously,” the deputy said looking around the room again. “Some elbow grease is in order…”
“That’s the easy part.” Walt said waiting to hear what the younger man would say next.
“I already told you, we’re pretty much open on terms. Taxes are current, liquor license is still valid… We can start a transfer easy enough. And stock,” he pointed to the empty shelves along the clouded mirror. “All that stuff and a lot more from the back got boxed up and it’s sittin’ in my garage. As long as it’s sealed, it doesn’t go bad. It’d be more than enough to get the place started again.”
“You’re making it pretty simple, there, Allen Keech.”
“Well, for you…”
“You knew my Dad, you’ve seen this place the way he had it.”
“Pretty trusting there, young man. I just met you.”
“But it’s clear you were friends with my Dad, and you know… my Dad was a pretty good judge of character.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard that…” a tear formed in Walt’s eye.
“Listen, it’s Christmas Eve. Why don’t we both go home and think about it. The phone number on the sign is my cell phone. Give me a call on the 26th …and we’ll talk. Deal?”
“Deal.” Walt nodded and slowly made his way to the door. As he stepped out onto the snow covered porch the deputy followed, locking the door behind them. It seemed darker now, no flashing neon lights or floodlights in the parking lot. A single streetlamp lit the curve for passing motorists but it was enough to find his way back to his car. As he climbed into his Buick, the deputy doused the flashing lights on his cruiser and with a wave, left him sitting alone in the parking lot.
The wheels were turning in Walt’s head as he sat there, eyeing the cold, dark roadhouse. The hare-brained schemes from Christmases past flowed through his memory, fighting for attention with the hare-brained schemes of Christmases yet to come. But with every moment he sat there, the new was taking the place of the old, the future looking brighter than the past. And this year, he was certain it would be.
He made the decision to write down the phone number from the For Sale sign and pulled a pen from his coat pocket. But when he opened the glove box for some paper to write on, something slid out of the compartment. He turned on the dome light to see an object, wrapped in red ribbon with a large bow now sitting on the open glove box door. As he picked it up, he realized it was a book. Not a new book, but one well worn around the edges. He pulled the leading edge of the bow and allowed the large red ribbon to fall away. Beneath its covering, he could now read the title: The Complete Bartender’s Bible. He smiled as he briefly leafed through the worn and dog-eared pages but returned to the inside cover to write down the phone number that could make it all happen.
As he closed the book and laid it on the seat next to him, he smiled at the quiet old roadhouse and softly said aloud, “Merry Christmas, Shorty…” Then, he turned the key in the ignition, moved the gearshift into Drive, and pointed the Buick directly home.
And Merry Christmas to you and yours…
Copyright © 2012 by
About the Author
Bruce Jenvey was raised in rural Michigan with a great interest in history, popular culture, and the paranormal. After twenty years in the advertising industry, he founded Great Lakes Cruiser Magazine and spent the next decade traveling the region as both historian and journalist.
Today, Bruce is the author of My Father's Ashes, the award-winning Angela’s Coven, and the Cabbottown Witch Novels
as well as other tales of the paranormal.
Copyright © 2016 by Bruce Jenvey