A Memoir by Ryan Matthews

It’s a gray October day. I open the car door and make a dash through the parking lot, dodging the droplets of falling rain. I pass by a red neon sign — “BAR” — that flickers and fizzles as I approach the entrance. I pull open the door and enter the dimly lighted tavern. 

The smell of beer is so heavy that the air seems drenched with tap ale. The establishment is filled with all the noise and chatter of a neighborhood watering hole, music from the jukebox frequently playing tunes like “ I Can’t Get Started,” and “Those Were the Days.”

 In the background there are sounds of the billiard balls crashing as they meet, racing around the pool table. The hazy smoke curling from cigarettes creates ribbons that dangle above the patrons’ heads.

“Rudy, hit me again,” echoes from a women sitting at the end of the bar. She sits, legs crossed, perched on the stool; one leg dangles in the air while her three-inch heel is hooked on the bottom rung of the barstool. She sits poised with a just-lit cigarette held between her pointer and middle fingers. Reaching into her purse for money, she slaps a quarter on the bar.

“Rudy, make sure it has a good head on it. The last one was a little flat. And wait for Willie to get out of the can before you draw his. You know he likes the brew ice cold like a bitch’s tit.”

“Okay, Red,” replies Rudy. He draws her ale from the tap into a frosty glass and with a good head on it pushes it toward her. She lifts the glass, and with the first sip, like always, there is a bit of foam left on her lips. She sits coiled, sipping on her brew. Often she is the only woman in the place.

The eyes of most of the men were drawn to the spiked heels of the redhead, her gams long, lean, and porcelain-like, as they were barely ever touched by daylight. Her slim lower body was clothed only in heels and a scant covering of short black shorts. Her silhouette in the dim light drew the attention of men as they made their way to the bartender.

Like a Gypsy, Red created a style of her own. Her bodice was covered by a long-sleeved blouse that billowed at the cuff; a modest covering, as her chemise was buttoned to mid chest, its collar bejeweled by glittering purple, silver, and red faux gemstones. 

At the top of her head a hive of red hair had been teased, sprayed, and hand-shaped into place. The dim taproom offered a flattering hue of yellow that obscured the furrows of time that ravaged her face.

Some called her Red. Others called her barfly. I called her “Dede.” You see Red was my mother’s mother, and no one ever called Red “Grandma.” 

I was only 12 years old and had to spend the afternoon in a booth in the corner of the bar drinking cokes and eating pretzels. There I sat alone, banished to that booth, as minors were not permitted to stand near the bar, as I had been repeatedly told. Hours passed and I sat until my elders ran out of cash or became so ossified that the bartender cut them off and we were sent on our way.

As I said, I was only a boy, not yet a teen. Frequently intoxicated, both of them cut off, Willie and Red would make their way to the car with me. Once at the car I would be handed the keys and told, “You’re the wheel man tonight.”

The three of us would get into the car, me behind the wheel. It was a 1960 Buick Electra, its ragtop worn, rust along the fenders and the whitewall tires no longer white, yet I felt like a king in the driver’s seat. 

So in the wee hours of the morning, me at the helm, we turned onto Old Montauk Highway. I was the designated driver, navigating the single-lane road, thankfully with little traffic, it being late at night and off-season. Somehow I handled the roadster, having Red at my side offering encouragement as we sped into the dark on the poorly lighted Route 27A. 

We never had any trouble on those intoxicating sojourns home.

I am sure that many of you reading this will think that’s crazy. Alas, I must admit it was crazy. Although I do look back at times with a smile and say to myself, those were the days; with Red and Willie anything was possible.

Only years later did I come to terms with the effects of alcoholism on the lives of the adults around me. 

Ryan Matthews, a Bridgehampton resident, retired from a mortgage banking career.