Coming Home—Thomas Johnson
Miller went back to the bar after his discharge from the Army. Going home excited him with memories of his friends sitting around a table filled with pitchers of beer. He enlisted in the Army two years after he graduated the university and he did not return until his hitch ended. His friends were still there at the old bar when he showed up to ask for a job.
Bartending would be easy. All Miller would have to do is take orders and pour beer. Students arrived for lunch and again after class, with lulls in between. Miller wrote down their orders and handed out their drinks. It didn’t require much.
Going without work was impossible for Miller. Unemployment drove him to the Army, and he’d be damned to go without a paycheck again. He knew he could count on the old bar when he moved back home—the same remodeled gas station since the Seventies, staffed by the same old bartenders, and serving the same old regulars. The Clash shot a music video there once, but only the long-timers remembered. All the time between his studies, his years without work, and his years in the Army seemed distant, and now, telling someone he graduated with how he ended up as their bartender became Miller’s only fear. He didn’t want to explain how things got this way. He was supposed to be a journalist, or anything, really, but not a bartender. The war had been on so long by now that no one cared to ask what he’d done in the Army. All the things he thought would make him cool and interesting did not matter and he felt separated from the people he knew and the students he served.
In the Army, Miller had been somebody. He held rank because of his degrees, and after his enlistment ended, he’d hoped to get the professional job he’d always wanted. When employers interviewed Miller, though, they would always ask him about the military. He grew tired of trying to convince people he wasn’t just another veteran, but all anyone saw was a soldier. It was the opposite of his time in the Army, where he was often singled out. He sang to himself to pass the time. The sergeants started calling him “radio” and would signal him to sing for the platoon during long training exercises in the field. Everyone he met along the way said he didn’t belong in the Army. He didn’t mind. He never intended to make a career of the service. And now that he was out, he was ready to work, just like he had been ready to serve. But no one would let him. He hadn’t realized he would never get to leave.
After only a couple months working the bar, Miller got a job in advertising. He was excited. He would write copy for clients. The office sat on a hill overlooking a parking lot, and he could see the city’s skyline. There at a cheap desk he sat day after day writing things that would appear on many social media channels. Come by to receive a free car wash with any purchase. It wasn’t exciting but he didn’t mind. Any time the office took a phone call from a client, the manager yelled. That he minded. The yelling wasn’t necessary. It was easy to write new copy. It didn’t require yelling and he didn’t like the way his team conducted business. When people clicked a homepage or a website, account executives raised the rates charged to clients. But their clients never reported increased business. It felt like lying. Miller returned home each day exhausted but didn’t know why. It wasn’t hard work and he didn’t like that he made the same money tending bar doing something he didn’t enjoy. It didn’t make sense.
One weekend, Miller’s manager demanded he log in from home and work. Miller didn’t want to. He realized he didn’t have to, either. He didn’t have to do anything. It was a new feeling. He took a long walk that night. The next day he put in his notice and returned to the bar.
He took on the worst shifts in the schedule. Summer came and the students went away, leaving the bar empty most days. The bartenders started drinking on the clock to pass time. The owner gave them reduced prices and they kept their own tabs. Miller did not hear of any new jobs and started hanging around the bar before and after his shifts. He noticed that nothing had been dusted above eye level, not beer bottles or the television cables or even the ceiling fans, and sheets of grey dust covered everything. There was a leak in the cooler room that caused water to pool up in the corner. It looked like every piece of equipment needed replacing. No one cared. The staff kept putting drinks on their tab. It was money they’d never see.
The bartenders themselves were all different sorts and came here from all manner of misfortune. Occasionally someone would ask Miller what he was doing there. He didn’t want to lie but he didn’t know what the truth was anymore. No one ever knew how they ended up here, exactly. One day a cook named Smith called him into the kitchen.
“You see this here?” said Smith. Smith pointed to the grill. “All I have to do here is throw down frozen burger patties on a flat top.”
“We’re a burger joint,” said Miller.
“Burgers ain’t cooking,” Smith cried. “I’m supposed to be a cook.”
“You take another job and tell them you cooked filets here,” said Miller. “No one has to know.”
“I’ll never tell anyone I was here,” Smith said.
The months wore on. The dining area in the bar had library shelves built into the walls. Miller took up reading on the clock. He noticed the books never moved from their places on the shelves. Miller started writing notes on order tickets like Staff Pick! Order up a thick serving of Faulkner with your fries! and left them tacked on the shelf. If the books were taken, it made Miller feel good. He worked the nights when the bar held an open mic. An old friend from college named Hobbs hosted the event using his own equipment, moving a couple tables out of the way to set up a single amplifier. Time had separated Miller and Hobbs, but it was nice to see an old face once a week. The rest of the performers were always the same people playing the same songs on guitar. Miller didn’t mind. They were very supportive as a group and it seemed like the world hadn’t gotten to them. It felt like they really cared. At the end of each open mic, the whole gang would get on stage and take turns singing “The Weight.” Miller thought about joining them but never did.
Hobbs asked Miller one day, “Why’d you leave advertising?”
“So much worry about all the wrong things,” Miller said.
“Man, but it’s something,” said Hobbs.
“Whatever amounts to anything?” replied Miller.
“You can’t be a bartender forever,” said Hobbs. Miller did not answer. Hobbs went on, saying, “I mean, you were doing so many good things. Man, I would never have had the courage to join the Army, regardless of the reason or the time, and like, you did it. You were over there, you were doing good things, even if just for yourself. And you’ll do good things again. Just need to have a direction, you know.”
“Like these guys just playing guitar here?” Miller said.
Hobbs looked away. Miller could tell his feelings were hurt.
Miller said, “Look, I didn’t mean that, that way. I guess playing guitar at a bar once a week is better than not playing guitar. It just doesn’t seem like right now anything will make any difference for me either way.”
“Little by little,” said Hobbs, “you can make a big difference. If you believe in it.”
“I don’t know if I believe in anything anymore,” said Hobbs.
More time passed and the bar started to see a lot of turnover. The cooks eventually found jobs downtown doing real cooking. Miller volunteered to take up shifts in the kitchen. He wanted to help and it didn’t require much learning. The kitchen was built into a closeted space in the middle of the old building—space for only two people with a flat-top, a roll toaster, two cold serving tables, and hot oven. Someone years before had left behind an old stereo that could still be heard through the walls even with years of grease covering the speakers. Miller played his favorite music, and loud. He learned where the food was stored and how to heat it properly. With practice, he got the timing down, estimating how much frozen food to thaw before the evening started, how many patties the grill could hold at once and how to handle the deep fryer with one hand, all while shredding lettuce or slicing onions. He took extra care with orders if there weren’t many at once. On certain nights of the week, he might get overwhelmed. A large group would show unannounced and twenty orders would drop at once. Miller would stand dripping over the flat top, sweat soaking into his bandana, taking large gulps from the foam cups of water he stashed on the shelves before each shift. He learned that in the Army. He’d cook and cook and cook and eventually it would slow and then end. He didn’t mind. He learned how to clean with as little effort as possible, and how to start shutting down before closing time, so there was little reason to hang around.
That fall, there was an election. The country would be deciding the next president and people talked about it day and night at the bar. It would be the third executive in charge of the same war Miller had fought in, and chances were that a woman could be elected. There was nothing else so captivating in the whole country. Miller tried not to get caught up in it. He would vote, of course, if it meant things would be slightly better one way or the other. Much of the country had been divided on the war, though, and the regulars thought they could ask him for his opinions. Every time he made his rounds to bus the glasses and pitchers, he’d have to hear it.
“Where do you stand?” Dansby asked.
Miller gathered empty pitchers as a group of old men looked up from the table in the middle of the patio.
“Behind the bar.”
“On the election, jackass.”
“All I can do is try not to make life more difficult for anyone,” he said.
The old men chimed like birds in a row. “Lots of ways to go about doing that,” said one, Bradford.
“But everyone all at once,” Miller said.
Dansby, said, “You’re going to have to take a seat.” Dansby slid out a chair from the table for Miller to sit. Spilled beer and crumpled napkins littered the tabletop, but none of the men sitting there cared. Miller took a cigarette from one of the packs and lit it with a lighter taken from the tabletop.
“I’m just a bartender,” he said.
Bradford sat up. “Only because you can’t find the work you want.” Looking at the entire table, he said, “We just can’t do that to our veterans.”
“Can’t expect one president to change all that,” said Miller.
“Sure, you can,” said Dansby.
Miller knew what they wanted to hear, but he didn’t want to lie. “Nothing’s ever changed that much over the years.”
“I can’t see any better reason for an election,” said someone else.
Miller looked around the table at the old faces. The regulars were pouring fresh glasses and setting into conversations again. He didn’t know how to explain himself to these men. People like these still thought that certain things could change, and certain things mattered. But Miller knew better, now, and didn’t see how an election would bring back his friends. He went quiet and wanted to leave the table. But Dansby wouldn’t let him go easily.
“There’s got to be something you believe in,” Dansby asked.
“Sure,” said Miller. “But it can’t be solved by a single election.”
“Hard thing coming from a soldier,” the whole table seemed to say at once.
“Right when I get here from the Army I meet Garrett,” Miller said.
“I’ve known that guy for twenty years,” said Dansby. “Half the reason I still drink here every day.”
“And wasn’t it his brother had to come and take him back home to Ohio?” asked Miller. “Just like come and rip him away?”
“He needed to be around family,” said Bradford.
“Garrett lived one mile straight up this road in a garage apartment and for thirty years he’d ride down here on the bus, cook hamburgers, and drink his weight in beer, with just enough money left to pay his rent.”
“Everyone has theirs,” said Dansby.
Miller snuffed the cigarette into an ashtray. “But his brother had to do for Garrett what Garrett couldn’t do for himself.”
The bar was packed the night of the election. There was an open mic still scheduled and when the singing was about to start, a winner still hadn’t been called in the election. The sun went down and the results rolled across the television screens, but nothing changed in either direction and the bar only got busier. People were excited. There appeared to be as much silence as there was chatter but Miller was too busy to talk. The stage had been readied for a performance that no one wanted to give. Miller hadn’t even noticed Hobbs setting it up. When he got a moment to step away, he pulled him aside.
“What’s going on?” Miller asked.
“Not much to sing about right now,” said Hobbs.
“Maybe things will change.” Miller didn’t know what he meant by that, but it felt like something to say.
The election dragged on without a winner. It was usually apparent by now who would win, but nothing changed. People were still drinking and ordering food. The time came to close the kitchen, and Miller hadn’t cleaned a thing. He offered to keep the kitchen open an extra hour and started cleaning as best he could. In between walking pots to the sink, a new food order would come in. The pots piled up in the sink, but he’d return to the grill with a new order. Eventually, it stopped. The networks still hadn’t called a winner and it was midnight. The bar was still full. Students sat hanging their heads. It felt like things might get better, or a lot worse. Miller didn’t hear the commotion of people talking anymore. Everyone was sad.
Miller found Hobbs outside. “Is the microphone on?”
“Can be,” said Hobbs.
“I got one.”
Miller walked to the stage and stood at the microphone. Hobbs went for a guitar but Miller waved it off. He tapped the mic. No one at the bar so much as looked up. With a heavy breath, Miller closed his eyes and started singing. He knew all the words to this particular song by heart. He had listened to Sam Cooke after school because he thought it was important to know his songs, and when he first heard “A Change is Gonna Come,” he made the effort to memorize it. He always felt like it would be an important song for some moment to come along. As he got through the final chorus, he opened his eyes. No one had moved from their seats or even looked in his direction.
He felt embarrassed. He stepped away and walked back toward the bar. It was dark outside. He was carrying pots back to the kitchen when Hobbs found him.
“You’ve got to sing more often,” said Hobbs.
“Not so sure,” said Miller.
“I never would’ve picked you for a tenor,” said Hobbs.
Miller walked back into the kitchen. It needed sweeping and pots waited in the wash sink. He knew what it felt like to open the kitchen after the night cook had gotten too drunk to finish cleaning, and he knew how it made him feel to step into a mess that wasn’t his. Looking at the sink full of brown water, he plunged his hands in and started scrubbing. He wasn’t going to leave anything for the next guy to clean up. He had more respect than that.
Thomas Johnson lives in Washington, D.C., and attends the Master of Arts in Writing at Johns Hopkins University. Johnson is a graduate of the University of Texas at Austin and later completed an enlistment in the United States Army.