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Christmas at McKinney’s

December 23, 2017

Christmas Eve is a time when many people throw around words like magical and miracles. It’s a time when people stop taking stock of their own world and venture out to meet the needs of others. That being said, I was never much of a Christmas person. My father was a drunk and my mother was so scared of angering him that my version of a good Christmas was one in which neither one of us got beaten. That all changed on Christmas Eve of 2016. See, here in Salem Heights, MI, we don’t have much in the way of entertainment. Our town has a population of 400 and after the tree lighting ceremony on the 5th of every December, people scatter to wherever their families live and we end up with about 87 residents every Christmas. Most of them stay home Christmas Eve, but people like me, Tom Lloyd, Burt Arnold, and Chester Moran all head to McKinney’s Bar. It’s a real small place on the edge of the town limit run by a good man by the name of H.T. McKinney. Much like Tom, Burt, Chester, and myself, H.T. doesn’t have family to go back to. His wife died in a horrible car accident back in ’07 and ever since then he lights a fire in the fireplace at McKinney’s and allows us old timers to drink for free, and share our friendship for the holidays.

At any rate, in 2016, Christmas Eve fell upon us and Salem Heights thinned out. I made my way to McKinney’s where H.T had already stoked the fire so it was burning hot and bright. Chester was in the corner of the 10 stool bar and Tom was next to him staring into his customary 12 year old scotch.

“Merry Christmas, Ted!” H.T. yelled as I walked through the door.

“Merry Christmas, H! Thanks as always for the hospitality. That wind sure is blowing a storm out there, I’d hate to be stuck in this weather.” At the sound of my voice, H.T’s little eight year old Shih-Tzu Tessa came barking around the corner. “Merry Christmas to you too, Tessa Bo Bessa!” I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out a small piece of jerky. After all the years of coming here, I have learned that if you don’t come with treats for the beast, she will pretend you don’t exist. I watched Tessa trot back behind the bar with the jerky hanging out of her mouth.

“How’s it hanging, slick?” Chester chided from the corner.

“Ask your wife, she knows.” I responded. Chester cackled and returned to his beer. Chester had never been married and as far as I know, had never had what us old timers would call a steady. In fact, if you had told me that he had never seen a woman in a state of undress, I wouldn’t be surprised. Chester was married to the bottom of whatever beer stein sat in front of him. He wasn’t exactly an alcoholic, but I think it’s fair to say that he had a habit of confronting his demons by drinking them.

“Merry Christmas, Ted, and Bah Humbug!” That was Tom.

“Merry Christmas to you as well, Tom, I see you are in peak holiday spirit.” We both laughed at this and then I sat down next to him.

“What’ll ye be drinking tonight, Lad?’  H.T. said in his faux Irish accent.

“Rum and coke, my friend, seems like a good night for that.”

Outside the wind started howling and the snow began to fall. These Northern Michigan winters are no joke and the weather service was calling for at least a foot and a half of the white stuff plus 40 mile an hour winds.

“Jesus,” Tom started, “that wind sounds like my ex wife in bed.”

“Who are you kidding Lloyd! The only sound your ex wife ever made in bed with you was laughter.”

“Fuck you, Chester at least I’ve been in bed with a woman” Tom retorted.

Chester cackled again and then returned to his beer.

H.T. brought me my drink and topped it off with a handshake. “It’s good to see you, Ted.”

“Jesus, H, you act like you haven’t seen me every night for the last 15 years.”

“I know, Ted. It’s just good to see you.” For a moment, a brief, startling moment, H.T looked like the saddest man I had ever laid eyes on. “Now drink up ya asshole!” Suddenly his eyes were filled with life again.

 

PART 2

As the night went on, stories were shared, laughter filled the room, and at one point Chester made his case to be the next Josh Groban by standing on the bar and belting out the worst version of O, Holy Night that the world has ever been subjected to. He closed his performance by accidentally stepping off the bar and crashing to the floor cackling the entire time. The hours passes and first Chester left and then Tom left leaving H.T. and I alone with Tessa the Barbarian Shih-Tzu. H.T. brought me another drink and once again that look of unending sadness filled his eyes.

“H…what’s going on with you?”

“Ted, you started out as a customer, then you became a friend, now you are the closest thing to family I have.”

“I appreciate that, H, I feel the same way. What’s going on?”

“This is the last Christmas Eve at McKinneys.”

“What? What are you going on about, H? Is it money problems? We can help with that!”

“It’s not just money, Ted. Yeah I’m sixteen thousand in the hole, but I was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer last week. They think I’ve got a couple months left.”

My jaw hit the ground. There are some things in life that are so unexpected or so jarring that words fail to come and this was one of them.

“Jesus, H. I’m so sorry, is there anything I can do?”

“I just want to spend the last few hours of Christmas Eve in this bar with you and Tessa. I’m going turn the closed sign on and we can drink in peace. Not that anyone ever comes in here after 9 on Christmas Eve, but still. I do need to ask one favor of you, Ted.”

“Anything, H. You name it I’ll do it.”

“Will you take care of Tessa for me? I wish I could leave the bar to you as well, but as soon as I’m gone, the bank is going to take it. I’m sorry, Ted.”

“Of course I will take Tessa. Don’t worry about the bar, it’s not the building that matters, just the memories that took place inside.”

Almost immediately after I spoke, the bar door was flung open. A man in a white suit and long white hair stood in the doorway.

“I apologize, I hope I wasn’t interrupting anything, it’s just the weather outside is not conducive to driving and I saw the lights on. Is there any chance of staying until the storm dies down a little?”

I could see H silently curse himself for not shutting the bar down sooner. Then, a softness appeared in his eyes.

“Absolutely you can join us, friend. Merry Christmas, here at McKinney’s the drinks are free on Christmas Eve.”

“I thank you so much for your kindness. Although I will take a water if you don’t mind, I’m not one to indulge in drink.”

H got the man his water and watched as he sat at the far end of the bar. He did not speak nor did he focus his gaze on us. Instead, he seemed intent on staring a hole through the water glass.

After a few minutes of awkward silence, H moved back down to my end of the bar and we talked the talk of two men with no care in the world. After close to an hour and a half, the stranger spoke up at the end of the bar. “Excuse me sir, I thank you for your hospitality. With that being said, I need to speak to you, alone.”

H shot me a glance and I felt my muscles tighten. My fight or flight was suddenly on high alert.

“You can speak freely here friend, anything you need to say to me, you can say in front of my friend here.”

Without warning, the man’s arm shot out and rested on H’s shoulder. H.T.’s eyes widened for a moment and then whatever had taken place between them, passed.

“Ted, I need to talk to this man. I can’t explain why, but he’s right, it needs to be alone. I’m sorry.”

“Are you sure? I can go out back and wait just to make sure you’ll be okay. We don’t know this guy.”

“It’s okay, my friend. I need you to trust me. Go on home and I’ll see you tomorrow. I love you brother.” As he said that last part, a look spread across H’s face that I had never seen before. It filled me with instant sadness though I knew not why.

“Love you too, I’ll see you at 9 tomorrow morning.” With that I walked out of McKinney’s and into the cold, unforgiving night.

 

PART 3

The next morning I trudged through the snow to McKinney’s and was shocked to find the County Coroner’s vehicle there. I walked up to Hiram the coroner and asked him what had happened.

“We got a call this morning around 8 a.m that H.T. McKinney had just passed away. Damn shame, especially on Christmas Morning.”

I stumbled slowly towards the door my mind reeling. How was this possible? I had just seen him a few hours before. Then my mind went to the stranger. Something had happened, an argument or maybe even a robbery. Maybe he was killed in cold blood. I wheeled around and asked Hiram what he thought the cause of death was.

“Honestly, Ted? I think he died in his sleep. They found him in a chair by the fire sitting there peacefully. He did not suffer.”

I stumbled back towards the bar trying to reconcile my emotions with the information I had just been given. The next hour was filled with paperwork and condolences and things no one ever wants to deal with. Finally I was alone in the bar with Tessa who seemed a step slower. I guess it’s true that dogs are more aware than we give them credit for. After mourning in front of the fireplace and crying into a bottle of rum, Tessa and I left the bar. I walked around the front where the fresh snow hadn’t been violate by boots yet. Tessa was bounding by my side eager to get back into the warmth of a house. As I turned the corner to the far front of the bar, I heard a voice calling after me.

“Excuse me, sir!”

I turned around to see the man from the night before standing behind me.

“I am sorry for your loss, sir. It is my duty though, to give you this.” The man with the white suit and the long white hair handed me an envelope. I opened it and inside was the deed to the bar as well as sixteen thousand dollars. I looked up to ask the man what this was all about, but he was gone.

That was ten years ago, since then I have taken over the ownership of McKinney’s Bar and in the spirit of my friend H.T., drinks are free every Christmas Eve. As for the man in white, I don’t know who or what he was, it took me a long time to admit that I wasn’t crazy, because when we were in front of the bar the day H.T. died, he didn’t even leave a bootprint in the snow. It was almost like he was never there at all.

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