Johnnie’s Bar has been serving whiskey in downtown St. James since the Irish laborers built the railroad through here. Even from the outside, Johnnie’s looks foreboding, with its big neon Stag Beer sign over a doorway into cold, smoky darkness. It’s the kind of place that makes you hear your mother’s voice: “I better never catch you going in there.”
“Don’t worry, Mom, I’ll never go in there.”
But in life, a young boy’s perspective evolves. Moms just don’t understand that places like Johnnie’s have the elixir that can subdue frightful images of devils and demons, dioxin and death.
Or bring them out.
Soon I was immersed in the culture of the locals in the low light of this tavern, a delightful throwback to the days when the barroom was filled with rail passengers and conductors and brakemen and engineers laying over.
Hours later, having dipped liberally into John Barleycorn’s reserves, I paid my bill and threw down a liberal tip, and walked out the door.
I was walking to the edge of town, preparing to hitchhike home, when I saw a single car, a sleek silver hearse approaching. It was going my way, but in reverence to its passenger, I showed no thumb, instead placing my hand over my heart and bowing my head. As the hearse passed, it slowed to a stop. Its backup lights told me that the hearse was coming back for me. Even significant whiskey impairment couldn’t dull my panic. As the hearse drew nigh to my startled face, the passenger window rolled down and the voice from the driver’s seat called out.
I swallowed hard and leaned into the hearse’s open window, expecting to meet the Grim Reaper. Instead, I saw the familiar face of an old friend from high school.
“What are you doing way down here?” he asked.
“Son of a bitch!” I think I shouted, as a feeling of relief washed through my veins.
For reasons of good taste and legal advice, I’ll protect the anonymity of the driver and his pallid passenger. I have no idea who his passenger was, since the casket was closed. Suffice it to say the three of us had a pleasant ride to my destination, and two of us had a great conversation.
“So long, buddy, and thanks for the ride.” I hopped out and he drove away in the general direction of his passenger’s final stop.
–from Coastal Missouri
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