The worst thing about owning a bar is that you have to see people every day. Today it was Mary T. and Les. As I opened the door I said, “Don’t you two have someplace better to go?” They laughed as they pushed their way in. I said, “Why don’t you join a gym?” Mary T. said, “What do we need with a gym when we can sit here?” I served up their usuals.
One sip down, Les grabbed my arm and whispered, “Ladders are no good, Jack. If you need to climb a tree or fix something use a rope.” I nodded. “Seriously Jack, name one thing you can’t fix with a rope.”
I said, “A poker game.”
“Name something else.”
“A broken arm.”
“Name something else.”
“A ceiling fan.” Mary T. said, “What the hell do you have against ladders anyway?” Les thought hard like it was the first time that he had ever given the question any thought. “I don’t like them,” he finally blurted out. “They’re hard. They don’t forgive easy. And you can’t trust them. They could fold at any time.”
As Mary T. choked back her gimlet the door flew open. Pushed by someone who wanted to make a point. He walked up to the bar and, without even taking one look around, said, “How much you want for the place?”
Mary T. laughed, but figuring he might be the next one pouring the drinks, Les extended his hand and said, “Les. With one s. But it still counts toward less is more.”
He said, “Nice to meet you Les with more.”
Les said, “You know, ladders have a history.”
He said, “Everything has a history. What’s yours worth, Jack?” He extended his hand. “Murdoch Jones.” Then he took out a business card and slid it toward me. “There’s a number on the back. You tell me if it’s enough.”
I served him a pint, and myself a whiskey. He said, “You know that whiskey you’re drinking is crap. If you like whiskey I can get you the world’s strongest next time I go to Scotland. It’s distilled four times to 92% alcohol, 184 proof.”
I said, “Do I look like I need stronger whiskey?” He laughed.
Mary T. slid her empty glass towards Murdoch. Les slid his empty glass toward Mary T.’s. Murdoch nodded.
As I worked on the refills Les worked on Murdoch. “Which ladder do you think is the most famous?” Murdoch thought for a moment and then said, “The one that was used to take Jesus down from the cross.”
Les laughed. “Sorry Murdoch, but that’s wrong. Common mistake. The most famous ladder was the one used to kidnap the Lindbergh baby. That’s why you can’t trust ladders. They have no loyalty. You know if we didn’t have stairs we’d all be forced to use ladders.”
“Nice talking to you, Les.” Murdoch turned back to me. “Just think of all the things you could do if you sell this place, Jack.”
Mary T. said, “Jack loves puppets.” Murdoch said, “I never would have figured you for a puppet man, Jack. But you’re in good company. Oscar Wilde liked puppets, too. He said they never argue, they have no crude views about art, and they have no private lives. They’re the perfect dinner companions.”
Mary T. said, “You hear that, Jack? I’d pay to see Jack having dinner with a bunch of puppets. I wonder who would pick up the tab.”
Les said, “You know what could be fun is playing dead. I read that you can get a lot of free dinners and maybe some bit movie parts if you’re really good at it.”
Murdoch laughed. Les rescued a fly from his drink. As he dried it off with a cocktail napkin he said, “If I only had more time I’d pursue my passion. I’ve always wanted to be a mime. Hey, Jack, maybe you and I could be mimes together.”
Murdoch stood, threw a 20 on the bar. “I’ll let you three hash this out. Lot of good suggestions, Jack. If none of those pan out there’s always golf.” He extended his hand to Mary T. and Les and said, “Nice meeting you both.” Mary T. used the hand to pull him close and land a big wet one on his lips. As he headed for the door she called out, “There’s more where that came from.” Murdoch laughed, “You’ve got my offer, Jack. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
An hour later Charlie comes in crying. Charlie owns the hardware store two doors down. The last time I saw him cry was when Home Depot opened up on Flatbush. He put his head down on the bar. Les went over and patted him on the back. I served him up a Scotch neat and moved the nuts. Nothing worse than soggy beer nuts.
“Did you hear?” Charlie whispered. “Hear what?” asked Les. “Murdoch’s dead.” Mary T. put her finger to her lips remembering their kiss.
Charlie said, “He was my ticket out of here.”
“What happened?” asked Les.
“It was one of those freak accidents. Something flew off a passing truck and hit him in the head. Killed instantly.”
“Whoa. Tough break,” said Les. Charlie nodded. Mary T. said, “What flew off?”
The color drained from Les’s face. Mary T. downed her drink and Charlie’s Scotch.
I said, “Did he ever tell you why he wanted to buy up the block?” Charlie nodded, “He was going to build a high-end mall.”
Les said, “I love high-end malls.” Mary T. nodded. And just then the ceiling fan screeched its way to a dead stop. Les looked up, terrified. I headed for the basement. Les said, “Jack, where are you going?” I yelled back, “To get a ladder.”
Before I was halfway down the stairs I heard six feet running for the door. I came back up, grabbed a bottle of Jack, two shot glasses, and headed for the corner seat.
I took Murdoch’s card out of my pocket, turned it over. The offer was three times what this place was worth. And it was obvious he would have gone up. I poured us both a shot as I tossed the remote control for the fan onto the bar.
As our glasses clicked I said to Murdoch, “A high-end mall. What the hell is that? And, just for the record, I hate puppets.”
“Uncle Jack’s Ladder” is one of a series of “Uncle Jack” stories by Kat O’Neill, whose work has been published previously here. She has also written for the stage, screen, TV, and radio. Her recent endeavor is a blog for moms called Giggles N Grit.