On Night at Ehin’s
ONE NIGHT AT EHIN’S
Lynn S. Eckerle
I never figured out what brought Annie all the way up here to Gould City. Most down-staters come to the U.P. when they’re on vacation, and then, only if they’re camping or going to the casinos. But Annie came to stay. She bought a little place out on Highway 2 that gave her a glimpse of Lake Michigan through the pines.
She started coming into Ehin’s Tavern six months or so after I took a night job bartending. My old Ford pick-up had a steady rattle and was leaving large greasy spots on the driveway. I needed the extra cash.
Annie showed up every Friday around eight o’clock, ordered a Millers and punched up Janis Joplin on the jukebox. It didn’t matter how much I asked her not to, she’d play Try Just a Little Bit Harder at least once every Friday night, and sometimes, she’d play it again before she left for home. While she sat there listening, she’d end up staring into space with a lost, far-away look in her eyes.
Towards the end of the song, when Janis would yell try at the top of her lungs, it made the hairs on the back of my arms stand on end. There’s no other sound like the grating, raw voice of Janis Joplin, let me tell you. It felt like a rusty wheel running up and down my spine when she sang. But that was Annie’s song. Whenever it played, I’d look around to see if she was there, even when I knew she wasn’t.
After she’d had a couple of beers and listened to her song, she would make sure to tell me goodnight. I suspect when she left the bar she went straight home, though she never said and I didn’t ask. Not once did I see her take up with any of the men. She always left alone.
I tried working my way around to asking her out a couple of times, but she got this closed up look and I’d work my way round to something else. That was the way she wanted it, and as long as I didn’t make her turn me down, I still had that chance somewhere down the line. Why I thought she might take up with somebody like me, I’ll never know, unless she had a soft spot for guys whose Sunday best is a new flannel shirt and a clean pair of work boots.
One Friday night, it was towards the end of September, I was tending bar as usual when Annie called me over. She leaned forward a bit, pushed her hair back, and tried to whisper over the jukebox. “That guy over there….”
“The one in the Packer’s hat?” I asked.
“No, not him. That other guy, the blond with the mustache.”
“What about him?”
“He ever been in here before?”
“Couple of times. Why, you interested?”
“Just see if you can catch his name for me, would you?”
I thought Annie was finally getting around to taking up with somebody. It galled me, but I did the right thing anyway and asked, “Do you want me to tell him you’re asking?”
“No,” she shouted over the music.
“I don’t have to catch his name,” I said. “That’s Damian Wister or Woerner or….”
“Wickham,” Annie said.
“Yes, that’s it. Wickham. How’d you know?”
She waved away my question and took another drink of her beer.
“He bought the Donaldson place in April,” I said. “You know him?”
“No. Well, I used to,” she said.
“Old boyfriend of yours?”
“Sort of.” Annie shrugged one shoulder and ran her fingers through her hair. The dim lights shimmered along the length of it as each strand fell back into place.
That was one of Annie’s quirks, pulling her hair back like that. And when she did, I wanted to feel the silkiness of it in my hands, bury my face in it. She shouldn’t do that thing with her hair.
“You know, I always thought I might run into him again,” Annie said. “I never figured it would be way up here in the middle of the North Woods. This seemed like the perfect place.”
To hide, I thought, and finished drying the mug I’d been holding for the last five minutes. I set it on the counter behind me and said, “Go over and talk to him.”
The regulars at the other end of the bar were getting restless so I opened three beers and said they were on the house for making the guys wait so long. I stayed and talked to them a bit but kept my eye on Annie. She took a peek at this guy Wickham every now and then. I didn’t know whether to be relieved that she didn’t go over to the guy, or jealous that he could still make her so antsy.
After half an hour of her looking and him not noticing, Wickham pushed back his chair and walked over to the men’s room. When she saw him stand up, Annie turned away.
Wickham stopped at the jukebox on the way back to his table, dropped in a dollar and punched up a song. When Janis started to sing So I don’t lose, lose, lose, lose you, my gut dropped clear down to the basement.
I watched Wickham pick a couple more songs and then he sat back down with his friends. He waved his beer bottle at me, making a large circle in the air, asking for another round. When I turned back, Annie’s stool was empty. Her bottle of Millers sat there half full and her change was still on the bar.