You could get a Baby Tall at Cronin’s for $1.75. Eight ounces of beer in a short glass that curved wide at the bottom, went skinny in the middle, and curved out again at the top. It was whatever they had that day, always bottled American lager. There were no options—you ordered a beer or, if you were a regular, one appeared in front of you. Trish would lift a bottle out of a slide top cooler, flip the cap off, pour eight ounces, and place it down on the sticky wooden bar-top. This left four ounces in the bottle, which she simply put back. The next customer would get those four ounces and the first four ounces of the next bottle, and then the following customer would get those remaining eight ounces, and the process would start over. Although Trish placed the money into the drawer of a cash register, it was always and only just a drawer, as the machine had never, that I had seen, functioned. No buttons were pressed and nothing was written down in the calculation of your tab; you just paid at the end of the night, whatever Trish told you, and you believed it was the right amount. She was similarly precise and consistent with the bar’s schedule: when the Red Sox played the one o’clock game, she opened the bar at noon, unless it was a Sunday, when she went to Mass and opened at the usual time–four o’clock.
Amongst the beer-brand mirrors and thumbtacked flyers and taped-up dollar bills behind the bar, hung two pictures; the first was Pope John Paul II, and the second was Trish’s husband Gerry. Both men had been dead over a decade, but I don’t think there was ever a thought of taking either down. When Gerry was around, Cronin’s had a functioning kitchen, serving up meals in paper-lined plastic baskets: scrod, burgers, and Gerry’s famous steak tips with fries. If you sat at the short end of the bar, near the entrance, as I typically did, you would be looking directly into the kitchen. You pretty much had to look that way, as the only television in Cronin’s was mounted over the kitchen entrance. It was a small screen and from that distance it was always hard to read the score, but in Gerry’s days you’d watch the Sox game and take in the show of him heaving his bulky frame around, working the grill and the fryer and wiping down the counters, yelling for pick-up as he loaded the baskets of food, shouting out warm sarcastic greetings to patrons that he glimpsed through his open door—an impossible constancy of motion for so large a guy. It was a terrible place to see a baseball game, but as good a place as any to watch one.
When Gerry died, the kitchen went dark, and you had to find your meal elsewhere if your afternoon or evening involved a barstool at Cronin’s—unless you were content to feed yourself from the pretzel bowls that Trish spaced out along the bar and occasionally remembered to refill. The talk—from Trish sometimes, but mostly from fellow patrons—was that the kitchen would reopen soon, when Gerry Jr. got back from the Navy. He was as talented a cook as his father, and steak tips with fries were in our near future.
I had known Gerry Jr. since we were both kids, and talent was not a thing I believed he did, or even could, possess. Then again, I’d have never believed he’d join the Navy, had I not heard Trish say it. People change, I’d been told; and besides, having a bit of faith in my fellow sinners was the charitable thing. And so I accepted and even spread the story of Gerry Jr.’s triumphant and imminent kitchen reopening, even as the years added to a decade and more without any sign of it happening.
Then, at the start of a surprising October playoff run for the Red Sox, I arrived one evening to my post on the short side of the bar to notice, through the door below the television, that the kitchen light was on. My eyes continually drifted down from the screen to catch a glimpse of what was happening. And indeed, the long-awaited Gerry Jr. had returned. He slouched into view, lifting a box of cooking utensils onto the counter next to the grill and sidling away. It seemed that the Navy had let some fitness standards slip, but I kept a dual watch over the game and the comings and going of Gerry Jr. that night. As I settled up my tab, I asked Trish if they’d be serving steak tips soon. She half smiled, already pouring someone else’s beer “In three days.”
So in three days I was back, with a hunger for steak tips or scrod. As I leaned my weight onto the bar, though, I noticed a whiteboard propped up where the Pope’s picture should have been. In black marker it advertised “Today’s Specials”, and below it, a single menu item: “chicken nuggets”. I looked into the kitchen, which was lit, but did not see Gerry Jr. standing before the grill and fryer, where his father would have been. I could feel the occasional draft of October air come out of the kitchen, as if its back door was being opened and closed.
The next time Trish passed by, I ordered nuggets, and from that moment ceased looking at the television at all, staring, instead, into the kitchen, at the only spot that someone cooking could possibly stand, and waited for Gerry Jr. to appear. When he did, it was not at the cooking station. Rather, he emerged from the other side of the kitchen, full basket of nuggets in hand; he reached out of the door and placed the basket down on the railing in back of the bar. Seconds later Trish grabbed it and delivered it to me. I felt the draft from the back door again. I reached down and grabbed my first nugget—hot to the touch but strangely uncripsy, with the soggy shell of breading sliding out between my fingers and over the meat. Biting in, I knew the exterior would be a little too hot, but I was not prepared for the nugget to be entirely cold—frozen—in the middle. I grabbed a napkin and spit the bite into it, dropping it back into the basket. I took a quick drink of beer. The draft from the back door wafted through again.
I’d been going to Cronin’s for years without getting food there, so I wasn’t going to give up on the place; I’d avoid the microwaved chicken nuggets, drink my beer, and watch the game. I can’t say if I would have tried any other menu items if they had been added, but the option never arose: for the next several days the daily special remained; chicken nuggets and the cold air from the back door.
Even the nuggets didn’t last long: the drafts that had accompanied Gerry Jr.’s reign in Cronin’s kitchen proved to be the coming and going of customers for his side business, selling something stronger than chicken byproducts. Ten days after Gerry Jr.’s arrival, Cronin’s shut down in the midst of the police investigation and the American League Championship Series. It was closed for a few days after his arrest, and reopened with the same schedule and the same pours of beer, the same baseball games and pretzel bowls. That kitchen door was dark again, with nothing to see below the game on the screen, and not even the talk of there being something.
I heard someone, sitting at the bar, ask Trish about her son, about how she was handling everything. Trish shook her head, to one side with her eyes down, and that was it; it wasn’t a conversation, and it wouldn’t be. She was looking up toward our end of the bar a half-second later, and caught someone next to me signaling that he wanted to pay up. “Twenty-two fifty doll,” she said as she approached, consulting nothing but her memory. And as she arrived and waited for him to dig out the cash, she reached back without looking at a bottle on the closed slide-top, picked it up and refilled my glass—all eight remaining ounces of an already-opened bottle. We did not look at or speak to each other.
Customer’s money in hand, Trish turned back to the broken cash register, and as she deposited the coins and bills, she reached her index finger up to touch the corner of Gerry Sr. ‘s picture. And then she was back about her business with the customers; she was a small woman, and old, but she had her own constancy: eight ounces with four left over, those four plus another four, the remaining eight, start over.
I leaned my elbows on the sticky wood bar, sipped my Baby Tall, and watched the Sox playing on the TV at the far end of the room, over the darkened kitchen door. I couldn’t read the score from there, but I was glad the game was on.
Kevin Duffy is an American writer living in Spain.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021