Tab Is Cleared
Geoff Higgins stood behind his bar on Christmas Eve and polished a beer mug. It was over seventeen years ago when he had purchased the taproom, and he had taken a gamble with the purchase. The neighborhood was poor, and had, if not a high crime rate, one that made the police take more than their fair share of interest. The gamble paid off. Over seventeen years, the quality of the neighborhood improved. Condos and townhomes were built, and office and business complexes were established. And the crime rate, while not disappearing, shrank dramatically.
Geoff had improved his bar, as well. He expanded into the next storefront and added a small dining area. He hired waitresses and a cook, having his kitchen serve snacks and sandwiches. A more professional crowd began to frequent the bar, along with his regulars. And he improved the quality of his beer and liquors, as well as offering standard fare. Things had been good. Geoff was now considering selling the bar. He had an interested buyer, and he would make a substantial profit on his investment if he sold. He was thinking of retiring and heading to warmer climes.
One thing had not changed in seventeen years: the Christmas holiday. Christmas Eve was very slow, and Geoff always closed early. After his third Christmas, he had stopped opening on Christmas Day. For some reason, there was just no business.
Now, it was three-thirty in the afternoon, and the place was dead. The cook was reading a paperback in the kitchen. The one waitress was examining her fingernails. There were two couples present. One couple was at the bar, sharing a carafe of wine. The other couple was sitting at a near table, eating sandwiches and sharing a pitcher of beer. Down at the far left, Frank, a regular, was sitting, perched on his usual stool and staring into a half-empty mug of stale beer.
Geoff stared out the closest picture window into the failing, late December light. It was bitterly cold outside. Traffic, both pedestrian and vehicular, was almost nonexistent. Geoff turned and gazed at Frank. Frank had been showing up twice a week for about ten years. He always looked sloppy. His clothes were always wrinkled, and he consistently needed a shave. He would always order a ham and swiss on rye with a mug of beer. He would run up his tab, and then pay it off. The routine never varied. Geoff went back to polishing a clean beer mug.
"Yo, Geoff!" Frank yelled. "How about freshening this Coors for me?"
"Your tab is too high, Frank," Geoff responded, after moving a bit closer. "Cut it down a bit, okay?"
Frank said nothing. He finished what was left of his beer in one gulp, put on his coat and hat, and waved good-night to no one in particular. Then he headed out the door. Geoff watched him head down the steps through the window. Then he cursed under his breath. "Damn! Looks like Frank slipped on some ice. Tomorrow after church I am going to have to clear that stuff before someone breaks their neck."
After a minute or two, Geoff saw Frank helping someone back up the steps. He led a young woman into the bar, carrying her suitcase, and had her sit at a table. Frank rubbed her hands and then headed to the bar.
"Coffee still free, Geoff?" Frank asked.
Geoff watched as Frank got a coffee for the girl. Geoff knew her; she came in for a drink once in a while. Her name was Karen something-or-other. She worked days as a pharmacy tech, and some evenings in the local convenience store. She was a nice girl.
"Can I use the phone and directory, Geoff?" Frank asked.
"Use your cell."
"I don"t own a cell. They"re a pain in the ass. It"ll be a local call, I promise," Frank responded.
Geoff picked up the phone from behind the bar along with the phone directory and set it in front of Frank. He moved to the waitress, starting a small conversation and keeping an eye on Frank. He saw Frank make a few calls, and then head over to the window to watch the street.
After roughly ten minutes, Frank headed back to Karen and picked up her suitcase. The pair left the barroom and headed outside. Geoff meandered over to the window, greeting his guests enroute, curious about what was happening.
Outside, in the gathering darkness, Geoff saw Frank speaking to a cab driver standing next to an idling cab. The two talked. Frank reached into his pocket and appeared to pull out some cash. He counted out money and handed it to the driver. Geoff saw the driver take Karen"s suitcase and place it in the trunk, and then help the girl into the car. Then he headed away. Frank turned and came back to the bar. A very smug expression settled on Geoff"s face.
"How about a beer, Geoff?" Frank asked, after taking his usual seat. "It"s Christmas time."
"What about your tab, Frank?"
"Listen, Geoff," Frank started, after taking a deep breath, "some bastards stole Karen"s wallet while she was waiting for a cab. It had all of her cash and credit cards. She needed it to get to the airport, to catch a plane to go to Tempe to spend the holidays with her dad. Now she got no money. I used almost all my cash to hire a cab for her."
"How much you have in your wallet, Frank?" And Geoff"s face was wearing a sly smile.
"One stinking quarter."
Geoff grabbed a clean mug and drew a beer. The sly smile was now a full-fledged grin. He set the beer in front of Frank. Then he fished in his pocket for some change and pulled out a quarter, setting it in front of Frank next to the beer.
"Merry Christmas, Frank. Your tab is cleared."