A Man Walks into a Bar

by Robert Barhite

I hate cops.

I grew up in Postville, Iowa, way up in the northeast corner of the state and not too far from the Mississippi River. Nothing much ever changed in my hometown. I went to the same red brick two story grade school built in 1908 which my parents attended, and we lived close enough to it that I could walk to school even on the coldest of winter days. Every Memorial Day and Fourth of July there were parades where people on floats tossed candy at us kids. You could leave your doors unlocked without a worry. It was a predictable, boring life.

Key word—was.

On Friday nights Dad would cram us–Mom, my two sisters and me—into our ugly mint green Ford Falcon and off we’d go to the Hi-Point Supper Club, which ironically was in the basement of the old Red Owl grocery store. My sisters hated the place after I teased them that the dark stains on the white ceiling tiles was from the blood that washed down from the butcher’s killing floor upstairs. I loved going there because the cottage cheese had fancy red paprika on it, and they could make a vanilla Coke long before it was sold in cans.

At the end of the long smorgasbord, next to the soup station which always served clam chowder out of respect for all the good Catholics in town, was a big booth with red padded leather seats where Dad always made sure we parked our butts.

Ever find an old picture at the bottom of a drawer? How over the years vivid colors fade and turn ghostly hues, yet you know how everything looked because you were there? That’s how I remember the night.

It was late October. I just turned nine. Dad got home late, late enough that the local news from Waterloo had just ended and “Wheel of Fortune” was well underway. We were starving, and when Dad opened the door we rushed past him to the car. I’m sure Mom just shrugged her shoulders and smiled as she followed us out.

I remember diving out of the car as soon as we parked, then barreling down the stairs to our booth, my sisters close behind. We ran through the restaurant with reckless abandon. The Friday night smorgasbord hailed the start of the weekend, full of Bugs Bunny cartoons, Strawberry Quick at lunch, and Hot Wheel races with my best friends Steve and Eric.

Dad and Mom, each holding a drink, eventually met up with us and none too thrilled with our epic bob and weave through the crowd. Our favorite waitress made her way over to us, and Dad placed our order even though she already knew it. It was about then that I caught a glimpse of a stranger at the bar, watching us. I distinctly remember how he looked because he wasn’t really old like my parents, yet he was so much older than my sisters and me. He had long black hair and a scraggly beard, and wore a black shirt and black jeans. He didn’t belong there.

In quick order the waitress brought my parents their refills, my sisters their chocolate milk, and I got my long-desired vanilla Coke. Dad watched the smorgasbord religiously to announce when it was time to go and begin our feast.

“Excuse me, sir. Are you a cop?” It was the stranger. He had sauntered over and stood directly across from Dad. I felt uncomfortable, like being called up to solve a math problem in front of the whole class. It was the first time I heard Dad called anything other than ‘chief’ or ‘officer’ or even his given name ‘Bo’ or ‘Mr. Leino’.

“Yes, I am.” Dad put down his drink. “Call me Bo. And you…”

“Quade. Glad to meet you.” But to me, Quade didn’t look glad. He sat down on the edge of the seat next to Mom, and I remember she shot Dad an odd look.

“I don’t want to sound rude, but I’m with my family. If this is business-related I’ll be glad to call one of my officers to help you.”

“Oh no, but thanks.” Quade looked across the table at me. “Hey, bud.” I followed Dad’s lead and just stared back. Quade simply shrugged and looked back at Dad. My sisters remained ignorant, too busy coloring their paper menus.

“Well then, if you don’t mind…” Dad nodded with his head towards the door.

“Just one quick question, officer. What’s the difference between doing the right thing and doing the good thing?” Quade looked at Mom’s salad, reached over and nonchalantly snatched a crouton.

“I’m not following you. If you have an issue, we can certainly discuss it after dinner, Quade.” I knew the tone in Dad’s voice. It was a tone all of us worked diligently to never hear.

“Well, sir, I promise it’ll take just a moment.” Quade leaned back in the booth like he owned it and we were the trespassers. “Let’s say it’s a spring night, maybe three in the morning, and you’re out on patrol. You see a teenager just walking and smoking a cigarette, not doing anything wrong except he’s out past curfew. What do you do?”

Dad eyed him up.

“Would you arrest him, or just keep on driving?” Quade continued. “Tell me, what would you do?”

I remember how quiet the place suddenly seemed. Everyone was watching, even our waitress, who stopped mid-stride on her way over to our booth.

“You need to leave. Now.” Dad was turning red. Mom slowly slid towards my sisters.

“Tell you what you would do.” Quade ignored him. “You’d arrest him. That may be the right thing to do. But it’s not a good thing.”

“Kids, go to the bar with Mom.” Dad looked down at me. Mom stood up, my sisters grabbed their glasses, slid out of the booth, and made their way to the bar. Mom followed. I stayed behind. Dad looked at me quite sternly, “I said go, now.” But I didn’t budge.

“I don’t mind if the kid stays. Matter of fact,” Quade said, “he really should.”

“Here’s the deal, Quade. You and I are going to leave quietly. Whatever you need to tell me you can do so outside.” Dad slid out of the booth, pulling me along the way. He stood up and glared down Quade.

Quade didn’t know who he was messing with!

“Now the good thing would be to keep driving, or just ask the kid why he was out. Maybe he was nervous about taking the SAT’s and needed to clear his head. Instead, you arrest him and call his dad, who then beats the crap out of him so bad that he misses the test. Beats him the next week, and the week after that.” Quade looked up angrily at Dad. “Breaks the kid’s jaw. His grades drop. He flunks. Goodbye college.”

I’ll never forget the look on Dad’s face. The color drained out.

“Luckily the kid turned out to be a decent thief.” Quade slid out of the booth, rose up and faced Dad. “You should have kept driving.”

Quade threw the first punch, which connected with Dad’s jaw, dropping him. He jumped on Dad and slugged away. Mom screamed. I expected Dad to throw Quade off and arrest him, but it took a few of Dad’s friends to pull Quade off him. Dad looked up at me. He looked defeated.

Dad’s friends had Quade pinned to the floor, and in a moment an army of cops showed up and took him away. As Quade was led past me I remember him saying, “I hate cops.”

We never went back to Hi-Point. Dad wasn’t the same. He was a broken, old man. He quit the force about a year later, bounced from job to job and ended up working at the turkey processing plant on the edge of town. Mom didn’t smile much anymore. My sisters seemed the same, but they were just kids.

I sit here in the cool September predawn, dew forming on my car windows. It’s been years since I’ve been back home. It’s a long drive from Montana, at least that’s the excuse I tell myself. The last time was for Mom’s funeral nine years ago. Dad died a few years earlier. My sisters, like me, moved away, and I haven’t talked to either well over a year.

I found out Quade’s been a frequent guest of the Iowa penal system. The last time he was in for floating bad checks. He did his time and got out a couple years ago. I heard he works the night shift at the Co-op Mini Stop on Highway 52, and lives with his sister just a couple houses down from where I grew up. Wonder if he knows that.

I see him down the street walking home. He still smokes, still has the long black hair.

Quade said he was a decent thief. Does he have any idea what he stole from me?

It’s my turn to steal from him.


Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing, SNHU Student