I didn’t like where this was going.  I saw my husband’s expression, his face dark, eyes defiant, as he listened to the conversation, silently.  I’d been at the German restaurant for hours, drinking red wine and talking with my colleagues from the college.  Enormous stuffed animal heads–moose, deer, bears--lined the tavern walls, staring at us, watching, as we complained about our students and gossiped about the university’s leaders.

      Tipsy, I’d called my husband and asked him to meet us at the bar.  Immediately after hanging up, I regretted the call.  The last time he’d had drinks with my colleagues had been a disaster.  We’d had dinner, wine and cocktails with another assistant professor and her husband at their house, but the late-night conversation had, inevitably, turned to President Bush and the evils of the Republican Party.  Before I could do anything, my husband was shouting and cursing our hosts--calling them both “pieces of shit” and worse.  What could I do?  I apologized to Patricia the next day, tried to explain to her that my husband felt strongly about politics, that he owned his own business and hated all of the red tape he was forced to fill out by the state.  She just looked at me.

      I didn’t tell Patricia that I met my husband through Angie’s List.  A year ago, my toilet had overflowed late at night, soaking the carpets and sending a foul pool of wastewater bubbling up into my shower.  After numerous futile attempts at using the plunger, I swallowed my panic and searched the database for a plumber open at midnight.  Apollo 24-Hour Plumbing was the first listing, and I dialed the number with a shaky hand.

      Thankfully, he answered on the second ring.  I begged him to come over right away, explaining that I was a first-year professor and that I was being observed in class tomorrow by my department chair, and that I absolutely needed to wash my hair in the morning.  In my nervousness, I began talking too fast, babbling that my hair tended to get frizzy in the humidity, and that I needed to use a special conditioner, and that it was absolutely essential that my shower be fixed by seven a.m.

      “Slow down,” he said, “I’ll be right over.”  I liked the sound of his voice and the way he spoke.  He spoke slowly and deeply, with authority.  I began to calm down.

      He showed up fifteen minutes later.  I’d just had time to brush my hair a little, and take off my grubby, waterlogged t-shirt and sweats and put on a casual shirt and jeans.  He was tall, with a graying beard and wearing a ball cap with the Apollo logo.  Salt and pepper hair peeked out near his shirt.  No ring.  I showed him the clogged toilet and shower, trying not to display my embarrassment.  I told myself that he was a professional, like a doctor, and that he probably saw far worse than what he was seeing now.

      He used the plunger a few times.  Nothing.  “I’ll have to get the snake from my truck,” he said, turning away.

      “What do you need me to do?”  I asked.

      “Nothing.  Just take it easy, and I’ll have her going in about twenty minutes.  The main line is clogged, but I’ll use the auger to get her flowing again,” he said, smiling.  Willing myself to relax, I produced a simulacrum of a smile.  Not wanting to hover over him, I waited in the kitchen and grabbed my lecture notes.

      I listened to the sounds of his tools coming from within my walls.  I heard what sounded like a crank of some sort, and then a metallic whirring and grinding.  I tried to focus on tomorrow’s lecture, but the sound of the snake–surprisingly loud--overwhelmed me as it passed through the drain pipes.

      Good to his word, both toilet and shower were fixed within a half hour, and I asked him what I owed him.

      “One hundred for the service call, and seventy-five for the repair.”

      Gratefully, I started writing out a check.  I’d have paid twice that, happily.

      “Tell you what,” he said, grinning at me.  “I’ll take care of the service charge if you’ll have dinner with me this weekend.”

      Stunned, I could only stammer, “But I don’t even know your name . . .”

      Looking back now, I’m not sure he knew what he was getting into with me.  My husband was not formally educated and only had a GED.  This bothered him, even though his knowledge of plumbing and electrics was formidable.  I explained to him that I didn’t care about his lack of a college education, and that he made a lot more money than English professors.  Still, I knew he felt uncomfortable around my co-workers.  I felt uncomfortable around them, too, but for different reasons.

      The conversation at the German restaurant was typical of our departmental social gatherings.  At one end of the table near me, a senior professor was describing her approach to teaching the literature of African-American women, and discussing her recent book on Angela Davis and Alice Walker.  At the other end, a group of assistant professors were discussing the role of post-structuralism in graphic novels.

      Directly across the table from my husband was our endowed professor, Stanley, who was holding forth on the vagaries of Chilean wine while drinking a glass of the wine in question.  He stopped his soliloquy on foreign wine just long enough to focus his bloodshot eyes on my husband’s very large glass of German beer and ask, “Is that a beer stein, or a cow’s bladder?”

      The table erupted in laughter, and my husband’s face blazed red.

      I shot him a pleading smile from across the table.  Clearly, the best strategy was to get my husband out of the bar as soon as he finished his beer, to avoid another explosion and preserve my chances for tenure.

      Now the conversation at the table had turned to favorite restaurants and bars around town.  This topic was an old chestnut, and one that, thankfully, seemed unlikely to provoke a meltdown from my husband.  Stanley, not surprisingly, was extolling the virtues of a certain French restaurant and their extensive wine list.

      “I’ll tell you the best bar in town,” said my husband.

      “I said, I’ll tell you the best bar in town,” more loudly now.  All turn to my husband, watch him expectantly.  Oh Jesus.

      “The best bar in town is the Flight Path Inn.  It’s out there on Broadway and Tenth Street, but you have to look for the airplane sign, because it’s hard to find.  It’s called the Flight Path because it’s owned by this guy that used to be in the Army Air Corps.  He’s gotta be about 80 or 85 now.  Everybody calls him Old Bob.  You go inside the bar, there’s model airplanes hanging from the ceiling.  Lots of them.  It’s dark, and they have these old red lamps in there, because Old Bob is too cheap to buy new lights.  The bar’s been there forever, they even shot a movie in there once in the ‘80s because the bar still looks like it did in the ‘40s.  You’d think there would be pictures, photos, about the movie, but there’s not.  Nobody gives a shit that they shot some scenes from a movie in there.”

      “And why is this the best bar in town?” asked Stanley, archly.

      “I’ll tell you why it’s the best bar in town.  You can get an Old Style for a dollar.  You can smoke a cigarette in there.  You can talk to a working man about the football game.  But that’s not why it’s the best bar in town.”  He took a big drink of his German beer, looked around the table.

      “It’s the best bar in town because they’re open on Christmas Eve.  If I had kids, sure, I’d be with them on Christmas Eve, wrapping presents, telling them stories about Santa Claus.  Maybe watching that Charlie Brown cartoon on TV.  I loved that show when I was a kid.  I always felt like that little crappy tree in the cartoon, I always felt so happy when they fixed it at the end, and it turned into a real Christmas tree.”

      I was starting to get worried, because I knew my husband had some pretty bad memories about Christmas from his childhood.  He’d told me once that one of his stepfathers had beaten the hell out of his mother on Christmas, and that he’d had to knock his stepfather out with a huge wax candle, of all things.

      My husband continued, “The Flight Path is open on Christmas Eve, but that’s not why it’s the best bar in town.  Here’s the deal:  all the regulars are in the bar on Christmas Eve–all the people with nowhere to go, or maybe the people that need a drink, or maybe the ones that want to get away from their happy families.  Old Bob brings in a piano, and everyone tries to sing the carols, even if they can’t remember the words.  But there’s one song that no one is allowed to play.”

      Another big drink of beer.  All eyes at the table are glued on my husband.  It is quiet, and I am waiting.

      “The song that no one is allowed to sing is ‘Silent Night.’  You see, Old Bob was a POW in Germany in World War II for a couple of years.  He doesn’t like to talk about it, but he’ll tell the story on Christmas Eve.”  My husband stopped, looked around like he was trying to find someone.

      “What’s the story?” asked Stanley.  Stanley stared at my husband like he’d never seen him before.

      “The story is this:  at Christmas, the Germans allowed the POWs two things.  They allowed the prisoners to have a small Christmas tree, really just a branch turned on its side.  The POWs would decorate the little tree with scraps of cloth, twigs, anything they could find.

      “The other thing that the Germans gave to the POWs on Christmas is a little harmonica.  None of the prisoners could play it, but Old Bob taught himself to play ‘Silent Night’ on the harmonica.  And that’s what they played on Christmas Eve in that POW camp, gathered around that sad little tree.”

      My husband finished the beer in his glass.

      “The last song they play every Christmas Eve at the Flight Path Inn is ‘Silent Night.’  Old Bob doesn't drink anymore.  He’s pretty shaky, just drinks Diet Pepsi.  But on Christmas Eve, he creeps out to the center of the floor, takes out the old harmonica, and plays that song by himself, just like he played it 60 years ago in that camp.  He plays ‘Silent Night’ on the harmonica, one night a year.  And that’s why it’s the best bar in town.”

      At the table in the German restaurant, everyone was quiet.  I smiled, just a little.

David Weiden lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, with his wife and two sons.  He teaches at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, and has previously published a book, Sorcerers' Apprentices, as well as various non-fiction articles.

The initial idea for Apollo came from a conversation that I overheard at a restaurant in Indianapolis.  However, the characters in the story had been knocking around in my subconscious for a while.  Happily, the overheard conversation and the characters came together for this piece.  I'm hoping to revisit the narrator and her husband in another story at some point.




Copyright 2009