An original story written by yours truly for us headbangers to get into the holiday spirit. Merry Christmas to all! – HOM
Here’s the one I wrote last year: http://www.headofmetal.com/2016/12/22/a-headbangers-christmas/
The heavyset glass slid toward Luke Hooper’s waiting hand with a sound like a bowling ball being rolled down its alley. The handful of ice clicked like bowling pins, the whiskey and ginger ale fizzed like the hum of a scoreboard.
“Drink up and Merry Christmas,” came the gruff but not unkind voice of the bartender.
“Thanks Tim, you too,” Luke replied, but his gratitude only reached Tim’s back as the sole barkeep at Caligula’s was on his way down-bar to serve the next guy a large Jack and Coke. Luke took a long first drink of his whiskey and ginger. It was strong and went down smooth. The flavor tingled in his nostrils with the faint wood and smoke of the bar.
Why he was in a bar on Christmas Eve, he wasn’t really sure. Or was he?
Moving away from his family to start a new job in a new city that he wasn’t really sure he’d like had not been easy. Everything had seemed unfamiliar and strange to him. The way the locals talked, what they were interested in, what they ate and drank, and of course what they listened to.
It was why he had sought out the familiar wherever he could. Last Christmas he had seen his favorite metal band in this bar, Winter’s Bane. Their songs, so many of them gong back to his high school years, fortified him against this backdrop of unknown in which he found himself. That, at least, was familiar to him.
It was why he was drinking this. Luke’s favorite drink, whiskey and ginger, was another comfort of which he had precious few. Even if mixed poorly or out of proportion (which this one was certainly not), it would still taste delicious.
It was why he was going to attend Midnight Mass later that evening, even though his heart wasn’t in it. Even though he couldn’t stand it when his dad had dragged him to it back home. Even though he would rather sleep–but it was what his family used to do, and in the absence of any good live heavy metal shows in town that reminder of home would have to do. Winter’s Bane couldn’t play in Caligula’s bar every night of the year, could they?
So if you asked Luke why he was there, he would have said, “Got some time to kill before Midnight Mass.” And he would have been correct…on the surface.
After another long drink, he raised his eyes to the bejeweled tier of bottles stacked behind the bar against the wall-length mirror. Someone had lined the different levels with multicolored Christmas lights. The green bottles of gin, the blue bottles of rum, the clear and golden bottles of bourbon, all talked back to each other in their respective colors.
You might have mistaken the Caligula’s bar for a long hallway as you looked down it from the entrance. The main bar countertop was squeezed in so tight that there was no room for bar stools–standing room only. Showgoers could stand perhaps four deep at the bar before their backs hit the wall. Then they would have to push through to the back, where there was more open space for the stage area.
Of course, this bottleneck setup made things chaotic before and after shows as the crowds would ingress and egress all at once. Luke chuckled as remembered Tim the bartender trying to keep order in his barking voice, “One entrance! One exit! Keep to your right! Your other right, the bar’s closing! One entrance! One exit!”
It was the kind of no-nonsense voice that commanded respect and compliance, no matter how buzzed or combative you were. It had to be that way, for Tim’s voice to be heard across a crowded bar or over the band of the night’s amplifiers. Its gravelly nature spoke of many nights of shouting drink orders as he handed them out, telling others that their favorite expensive liquor was “86’d,” and that the stage was “straight back, follow the noise…NEXT!”
The level of fizzy elixir in Luke’s glass had dipped below the halfway mark. But for two other bar patrons, their personal levels of patience and civility had been drained to the bottom. Fueled perhaps by a few too many, their voices’ volume began to rise, their tone becoming angry.
One of them straightened up so brazenly he almost fell over. “Can’t do anything right, can I?”
“No, you can’t!” cried his companion.
“Knock it off!” Tim’s interjection was like the crack of a whip. The pair were stunned into silence, unaccustomed to being interrupted.
“It’s Christmas Eve,” he reminded them. “Give it a rest for one day of the year.” Tim grabbed a green festive-looking bottle from the shelf behind him and began pouring two short glasses from it. “How bout a shot?” he asked.
The thought of more imbibing was repulsive to the man’s companion, and she made a furious beeline to the “ONE exit” in a huff, swinging her arms, clenching her fists in a mincing walk. Her opponent barely had time to grab both their coats and slap a few bills on the counter before he was right behind her, and they blustered out into the cold evening. The door released a bit of heat from the bar, giving Luke a quick snapshot of the lit-up storefront across the dark street–then slammed shut in a moment.
Who knew if they would “give it a rest” wherever they were going, but it wouldn’t be at Caligula’s! As soon as the door slammed shut, the half-full bar broke into laughter. Luke smiled too; he couldn’t help it, even though his father would have disapproved: “They’re in a lot of pain, son. It’s not funny.”
Tim still stood there, his eyes following the pair of customers out the door, still holding both short glasses containing about two fingers’ worth of inviting, golden brown liquid.
“Well, who else wants one? On the house for Christmas Eve!” he announced with a joyous mouthful of a toothy grin.
“What is that?” Luke called down to him.
“Something from the old country!”
“What old country?”
“I don’t give that out,” Tim shot back. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth!”
Luke smirked and downed the rest of his current drink with a practiced tilt of the head. Though he had come to Caligula’s enough to know Tim’s name, the guy was infamous for never revealing his origins, age, or anything else. Good luck getting to know Tim, seemed to be an unofficial rule.
“The man’s a legend!” cried another bar-goer. “Thank you sir!” said another as he accepted a glass.
Tim filled and distributed those sparkling-clean short glasses so quick you wondered if there was magic involved. There wasn’t, though he had help from others who passed to their Christmas Eve companions out of reach of Tim’s grisly hands. Everyone got one, even the pretty girl occupying a solitary high table toward the back. Luke noticed she barely glanced up in wordless acknowledge before returning her nose to her tablet.
“Cheers fellas, go home happy,” Tim raised his glass and clinked it with as many people as extended their own glasses forth in solidarity. Luke got up and took a few steps to join the well-wishing, the merry clink of glass like the sound of bells.
No one knew exactly what they were about to drink, but the gesture was so unexpected and generous in these peoples’ experience (even for Christmas Eve) that it was gladly accepted. For those who strove, worked, and asked, only not to receive, a free drink with no questions asked made them feel like kings.
“Down the hatch,” Luke remembered his father’s words to him from childhood, and down it went.
If you could distill Christmas into a taste, surely this would be it. The scent of herbs and pine hit Luke’s nostrils first. It tasted a bit like schnapps, but the liquor had a taste that seemed equal parts mint, smoke, and resin. The flavor sent Luke’s mind back to Christmases past, of learning how to chop wood for the fireplace with an ax almost as big as him, of sipping his first egg nog while camping with friends before a massive fire in a barrel, the smell of his family’s Christmas tree as they called to him to come join them and do his part to decorate, all this in a whirlwind as the elixir nestled and curled up in the pit of his stomach in a warm glow.
Luke downed it quickly, tapping out the last few drops onto his tongue before looking over at Tim and saying, “That’s good.”
Like slipping on your favorite robe on a cold morning, warmth spread throughout Luke’s body from his stomach outwards. The mood in the bar seemed more joyful, the lights brighter, the other customers’ voices more melodious. They wondered at the unfortunate couple who had missed out on such a drink, and indeed wondered whether they would still fight if they had stayed for just one more. Luke leaned his elbows on the worn bar-top, let his mind and eyes wander, and took it all in.
“Hey, aren’t you gonna be late?” Tim asked as he made his round to collect Luke’s empty glass. He had nearly forgotten what time it was, about Midnight Mass, or even if he had mentioned that to Tim when he came in. Had he?
A glance at his watch revealed it was nearly a quarter to. “Thanks for the reminder,” he said, and closed out his tab.
Luke reached under the countertop in front of him to grab his coat off a hook, feeling strangely light at heart as he hadn’t felt in a long time. And yet he had been drunk enough times to know this wasn’t purely a function of alcohol despite the ambrosial Christmas drink.
He pulled on his coat. “Hey, Tim…”
Luke couldn’t be sure why he felt compelled to ask only a casual acquaintance what he was about to–any more than he knew why he was in a bar on Christmas Eve. But ask he did.
“Do you believe in Christmas? The whole story, I mean?”
For a response, there was no flippant comeback from the bartender, no laughing, no shaking of the head. Instead, those calloused hands fished in the depts of his oversized work shirt to retrieve a carved ebony crucifix that hung around his neck, with the outstretched arms of Christ in enamel. It was as large as a pair of glasses.
And what surprised Luke even more, such that he remembered it on his walk to church that flurry evening and for a long time thereafter, were Tim’s words upon making this revelation:
“…Never comes off.”
Written by Matt P