Gunner the barkeep looks up as I come into his mountain bar. He nods and goes to work on my usual. I shake him off like a pitcher rejecting a catcher’s signal. He stops and looks quizzical for a second and then leans back against a cooler.
The “usual” is a Manhattan. When I first wandered into his bar about a hundred years ago and ordered a Manhattan I got the same quizzical look.
“You know how to make a Manhattan?” I asked.
“Are you lost? This ain’t Manhattan.”
“Clearly. See ya.”
We stared at each other for a moment. I’m not sure who smiled first, probably me. Gunner is huge and I’m a lifelong non-combatant.
“So you want a Manhattan or a Perfect Manhattan.”
“Manhattan on the rocks with bitters, no cherries.”
“You don’t have to tell me how to make a Manhattan.”
“Yeah I do, here in the High Country most barkeeps forget the bitters. It’s a couple ounces of good bourbon, a couple ounces of decent sweet vermouth, and three splashes of bitters.”
“That’s more than a double.”
“I got money.”
As you might have guessed, Gunner doesn’t show up as Mr. Congeniality in his high school yearbook. In fact, he didn’t make it into his high school yearbook. He dropped out and ended up in the Army. Spent a tour as a door gunner. Came back pissed off. Stayed drunk for months. Fought in bars. Hit bottom someplace in Montana. The local sheriff, who had lost his son, took him in and got him straightend-out—or as straightend-out as Gunner is going to get.
I sat down at my regular spot near the far end of the bar. If you love mountain bars you don’t sit at a table. You sit at the bar and talk to whoever will talk to you including the barkeep. Sometimes you sit quietly by yourself and think great thoughts or laugh at your most recent injury. Other times you feel sorry for yourself remembering a love lost, or an opportunity missed, or maybe you just watch the crowd in the mirror behind the coolers.
“So after all these years, you’re not having the usual?”
“Okay, I’m game.” Gunner says. “What do you want?”
“Got a soda with a twist?”
“Make it two twists.”
“Get out of my bar.”
“No, but you may lose your permanent seat if you keep this up.”
Another friend of mine was a highly functioning alcoholic. We competed against each other and sometimes side-by-side for one book publisher after another as sales and marketing types. Regardless of whether or not we were on the same side, we would often find ourselves in the same town, and end the day in a bar telling lies and laughing. What I didn’t know was that while I was having my first drink of the day, he had started his day with a hit of vodka.
We both married other publishing people. We socialized as couples and the drinking continued, but at some point five or six years ago he began a downward spiral, starting with maybe the fifth time he had been fired from a publishing house. There were times when I didn’t see him for six months or so. His wife left him, so he ended up on public assistance and tried to dry out. Never successfully. Most don’t. I’d meet him for lunch every once in awhile, and the spiral downward continued.
He’s been in and out of skilled nursing centers, emergency rooms, and acute care hospitals for the last three months. I see him when he is coherent. He has nearly died of septic shock twice, due to a foot lesion and infection associated with type-2 diabetes. The surgeon went looking for the infection in his leg and ended up removing his right hip bone and a couple inches of his femur. I do what I can as a friend. It’s not much.
“So you want to talk about it?” Gunner asks.
“When did you become a shrink?”
I told Gunner about my friend. He listened and was quiet for a moment.
“So you think you might be a drunk too?
“Yeah, something like that.”
“And now you are going cold turkey to prove you aren’t a drunk?
“So is this forever.”
“No, a month or so just to prove something to myself.”
“I’ve been sober 12 years.”
“ I know Gunner, it’s damned amazing.”
He got me my soda with two twists and reluctantly slid it to me.
“Gunner, you have a real name?
“Does it matter?”
Alan Stark is a freelance based in Boulder and Breckenridge who lives with a blue-eyed woman and her dog.