by William R. Soldan
He’s first through the door every morning, straddling the stool on the end. Captain’s his name. Might really be Henry or Frank. He looks like a Henry or a Frank, but looks like a captain, too. Cotton fiddler cap with embroidered anchors and a braided cord. Navy blue pea coat. He rents the apartment above the bar, and sometimes he’ll still be wearing his flannel pajamas and house shoes. But always the cap and coat. I’m doing okay money wise, but since no one’s waiting for me at home, I pull twelves, six to six with Sundays off. Captain’s always here.
“You know what you oughta do, young guy like you?” he says to me at least once a week after he’s drained his draft or sits sipping a shot of Sambuca, the biting smell of licorice and decay wafting from his toothless gums like death. “Oughta take yourself down to Florida. Lotta rich old women down Florida, just want someone to tell ’em they’re beautiful, maybe rub their feet once in a while. Warm, too. Grow your hair out a little, though. Women like something to run their fingers through.”
We’ll have a laugh, and he’ll still be sitting here when the night bartender comes in to relieve me, playing dice or cribbage with anyone loaded or lonesome enough to sit nearby.
He dies just before Christmas. Up there for days before his empty stool raises questions. Then it’s the smell. We thank God it isn’t summertime.
Boss offers me a crisp Franklin to clean the place out, since Captain has no one to claim his things. I smear Vick’s under each nostril like I’ve heard they do at the morgue. Helps a little, but it’s still sour. Had a rat die in the wall once, smelled like that.
Place is piled high with boxes, photo albums, shelves of canned food. Stew. Beans. Enough ravioli for a Doomsday bunker. Walls checkered with picture frames. Happy young families and kids running around. On closer inspection, they’re photos that came with the frames. The albums, too, filled, page after page. People cut out of magazines and newspapers. A ship in a bottle rests on the portable television. A map of Florida hangs on the wall, pins dotting its coast.
Takes me three hours to pitch everything into the dumpster. All but the ship and the map. I imagine he’d want me to have them, after all those early mornings and long dim days.
Later, it starts to snow again, fat flakes sifting down like feathers or bits of white ash.
I’ve lived in the north my entire life but have never gotten used to the cold. Winters run long, bone deep. Keep you braced, as if waiting to take a punch. And there’s the growing absence of things, people. I lie on the couch thinking about the old man, the captain, alone. Think of how maybe I’ll let my hair grow long, drive toward warmer climes, tell someone they’re beautiful.
William R. Soldan is the author of the story collection In Just the Right Light. He holds degrees from Youngstown State University and the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program. His work has appeared in venues such as Elm Leaves Journal, Bending Genres, Ghost Parachute, and The Best American Mystery Stories 2017. His second book, Houses Burning, is being released by Shotgun Honey Press in 2020. If you’d like to connect, you can find him at williamrsoldan.com or on the various social media platforms (Facebook: Bill Soldan, Instagram: billsoldan82, and Twitter: @RustWriter1).