This piece is part of the #52essays2017 challenge where I will share one essay a week in 2017. To learn more about this challenge or to participate, check out writer Vanessa Martir’s website and post about it.
Ken is telling me another story about Texas. This one is about the small town grocery store that his parents ran when he was growing up near Lubbock. He worked there bagging groceries, perfecting his manners and dreaming of becoming a pilot. He’s told me this story before, but hearing Ken tell stories is as satisfying as the savory-sweet crispy corn fritters we are sharing at the bar. It doesn’t matter if he repeats himself. I always get something new from listening.
Sometimes it is the look in his eye when he recalls his parent’s love-filled and long-lasting marriage. Other times it is a turn of phrase as he describes one of his impossibly numerous friends. “Marty. Now there was a mean hombre.” Tonight, he is showing his mischievous side. These stories are some of his best. I lean in to make sure I can hear him over the classic rock as Jessy catches my eye. I don’t even need to say anything. I just nod and incline my head toward Ken and in two minutes the he’s brought me another beer and Ken another glass of Chardonnay. The conversation is not interrupted but Jessy smiles at me.
I’m smiling too. I relish the feeling of being a single woman in bar after work, sitting by myself, yet feeling completely safe. I love that I am buying a man a drink. We are together in that way that people at a bar can be, comfortable and yet still strangers. This man is my friend. Someone I care about and who I worry about when I don’t see him for a couple weeks. All the staff at the bar look out for Ken. Several of the other regulars would probably throw a punch for him if anyone ever messed with him. That is, if Ken wasn’t the one throwing the punches. Ken is 86.
I don’t know any more about Ken than what I’ve learned in these occasional hours spent decompressing from a day at work. Ken, of course, is retired, so he mostly comes in after a day of golf. He’s usually dressed to the nines in a starched Hawaiian shirt or wearing a linen jacket. You can see the sharp dresser he must have been when he ran events at the Las Vegas Convention Center in the 1960’s and 70’s.
I had been thinking of him since I got back from my trip. I had been into the bar three or four times and kept missing him. Jessy told me he had asked about me, but he was there on Friday and I came on Thursday or we just missed each other, or he was feeling under the weather. I heard through a couple of the bartenders that he had needed eye surgery, which had me concerned. Ken was, for 86, in great shape. He still drove and had an amazing memory. He was fit. All that golf, a daily trip to the gym, and the Mediterranean diet that he swore by. But still, surgery can be dangerous for any of us. I was overjoyed when he came in the door. It took him a minute to recognize me in my usual spot, but when he did, his whole face crinkled into a grin.
Eleven years of living in the city of Las Vegas and I can’t count a handful of people I could call friends. It is a hard city. Every day I work to preserve its history and help people research it – but my heart is behind a cold piece of glass that I put up after I moved here to start my life over. It took eight years just to find a decent bar that didn’t revolve around sports on TV, silent gamblers staring at video poker screens, or overpriced cocktails for tourists. I enjoy this bar, with its slightly older crowd, the Louisiana cooking that attracts Southerners, and the quirky manager that the bartenders are constantly warring with over policies and petty insults.
I can’t remember when I noticed Ken first. But, I think Jessy was serving me a beer one night when he overhead me talking about the International Hotel with a friend. The hotel is now the Westgate, and used to be the Las Vegas Hilton, but only folks who knew Vegas in the 1960’s remember the International. It was where every important event in Vegas took place back then, including star-studded shows from the likes of Peggy Lee, Barbra Streisand and Elvis himself. Ken, of course, was a big mover and shaker orchestrating the action and running the business side of the conventions. We’ve been friends ever since his ears perked up at the mention of that old name from his past.
Ken says that he likes that I am a “young” person who cares about history and stories and the past. I tell Ken that I like hearing my history through the voices that aren’t in textbooks or bestsellers. Maybe we are both a little bit lonely. Ken apologizes for repeating himself. I apologize for getting interrupted by text messages. Neither one of us needs to apologize for either of these things.
Someday I might move away from this town I don’t really feel is my home. Someday Ken, who epitomizes so much of quintessential Las Vegas to me, may no longer be able to tell his stories. Until then, we will keep running into each other in this corner of this bar, enjoying the hours, the stories and rare comfort of companionship.