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Drinking from the Hourglass

Updated: Dec 22, 2022

A storm loud enough to rattle the rafters free of cobwebs and week old dust passed a few hours ago. Grim cleans glasses from the rush of customers that swept through to escape the downpour. He presses the faucet pedal twice with his foot, splashing two hearty sprays of water over the dirty tanker in his hand. He grabs a bar of soap and massages the outside until it’s coated in a neon pink lather. Before snatching the rag from over his shoulder to wipe away the suds, he douses it once more. After all the soapy streaks wash away, Grim dries it and holds the glass under the bright white bar light behind him. The beams shine through like a spotless diamond ready for the ring of a soon to be bride. Beautiful. He places the tanker gently on the shelf below the bar where dozens of tankers like it wait for guests.

The hour is eleven, a time of night when Grim rarely sees patrons. Sitting in the silence of the bar save for the clinking of rearranged glasses was a normal fare. But out of the dreary evening steps a young, sullen man into the bar. Grim notices his long coat is bone dry. Must have hid out somewhere during the thick of it.

“If you’re looking for the port nightlife, I’m ‘fraid ‘ol Grim’s is deader’n a closed casket,” Grim calls out.

The man pays no attention to Grim’s comment. Slowly, like a ship in a thick fog, he removes his coat and hat, hangs them on pegs right inside the door, and sits at a table in the shadows with his back towards Grim. He leans over, like his full weight rests on his arms. For a few moments he remains motionless, until a trembling hand with open fingers rises into the faintest beam of light to request service.

Grim tries again for a response. “Plenty o’ room at the bar. Less walkin’ for someone my age.”

The hand continues to float. With a quiet laugh to himself, Grim walks with the glass he was near done cleaning to the man. Finally on the other side of the table to see his face, the brevity in Grim’s spirit leaves. This man is not in his bar for a pint of courage or late-night skirt chasing. This man is here because the weight of death is on his shoulders and he doesn't know where else to go, what else to do.

“What can I get yah, lad?” Grim asks gently.

“Three pints of the house brew.”

Grim returns behind the bar and fills four freshly cleaned tankers with beer. He comes back to the table and places a glass in front of the man, two to the empty chairs, and one he sips from as he sits down.

“Plenty’o air in an empty bar,” Grim says before another big sip.

The man remains silent, eyes deadlocked on the drink in front of him. He doesn’t answer and drinks.

“Speakin’ the heart can relieve a man of many burdens,” Grim says.

The man takes another drink. “My drinks are here and so your job is done.”

Grim lingers for a few moments, waiting to see if the man will warm to him, but nothing changes. Still a ship lost in the thickest fog he’s ever seen. With a sigh and beer in hand, Grim leaves the table and resigns himself to cleaning more tankers.

“At least I tried, Dierdra,” he mumbles to himself.

Another hour goes by as Grim for a brief while forgets the man in a steady stream of pedal, water, soap, water, dry, pedal, water, soap, water, dry. At last he works his way through the pile of glasses. Neatly, all but four sit next to each other, perfectly turned, spaced, and aligned. He rises and leans over the bar. The man is still at the table, his beer half empty and the two others still full. Grim closes his eyes and sighs.

It’s been such a long time though, Dierdra. Our last anniversary if I remember.

Behind him, in between bottles of hard liquor and antique nautical decorations sits a small black hourglass. The top rim has a thin line of gold. Inside the sand is black. The pillars that hold the pieces together are shiny silver. Grim takes the hourglass in his hands. All the sand sits at the bottom. With a deep breath, he turns around and leans on the bar. Gently, he flips the hourglass and puts it down. Slowly the grains of black sand begin to run to the bottom. He closes his eyes and pictures her. Toothy grin like a mischievous child. Forearms thick like a Lumber Jill. Curved hips like a dancer. Black hair always weaved in a braid. Long, thick eye lashes. A scar running from the top of her left eyebrow down her left cheekbone. Posture of a soul ready to protect you. Voice like warm tea.

What about death rouses the hearts of men? Why do we give what is not ours to lend?

Grim’s deep melodic voice echoed through the near empty bar, rich with sincere pain.

My sweet, kiss my cheek and I’ll never wash again. Friend, shake my hand and we’ll face the world ‘till to the end.”

In the blackness of his closed eyes Grim cannot see the man, but he hears the rustle of his coat, so he sings louder.

Until God himself takes you away, forever I will stay. Until I bury you in the earth, you can trust me at every turn.”

Grim can feel her presence leaning over the bar watching him as he sings. She leans on her hand the way she did before she’d kiss his cheek and tell him to keep cleaning glasses.

Now isn’t forever, our time will come to pass. But for a moment let’s forget the sands and laugh at time with a glass in hand.”

As Grim opens his eyes, the last grains of sand drip to the bottom. He takes the corner of his dish rag and wipes the corner of his eyes. And, to his surprise, a slow and hearty clap fills the bar. Facing him with a stern look, the man claps and nods at Grim. Grim smiles and refills a glass for himself and takes a seat across from the man. He takes two big swigs and waits for the man to speak.

It takes a few moments, but he clears his throat. “Beautiful ballad,” the man says with a strained voice.

“Only to someone wh’knows pain. To anyone else, ‘tis simply gibberish.” Grim drinks again.

“Who sang it to you first?”

Grim smirks, “I wrote that ballad.”

The man looks shocked. “You?”

Grim nods.

“How did someone like you write somethin’ like that?”

Grim drinks the rest of his beer in three big gulps and gently sets the empty glass down on the table. “You could drink all the beer’n the world and it wouldn’t scratch buried pain. Art now, something like a song; that digs it out of you. Puts it on display. Shares your agony with someone else.”

The man sits forward, “Why’n the hell you’d want to share all that with anybody?” He asks, genuinely curious and perplexed.

“Because,” Grim says pointing at the man, “Every person is deep as the ocean. Some know it, others need to be told it. But when they see it as the truth, realize how far down they go, it awakens something in’em. Helps ease the hurt they had no words for.”

The man rests back in his chair, slowly shifting his gaze from the empty chair on his left to the empty chair on his right. Grim watches him fight the tears trying to work their way out.

“Thing is son,” Grim says, “Being that you’re an ocean, sometimes your waters need to flow free. S’only human.”

The man bites his lip and turns away, still fighting his sadness, until finally he collapses forward onto the table, his face buried in his arms. For minutes, he sobs. Shoulders heaving, like a warrior mourning a fallen comrade, the man weeps for the two who were supposed to be here with him. Slowly his breathing settles and he begins to calm. He sits back up, roughly wiping his tears away to make sure there isn’t a trace of sadness left.

“Who’d yah write that ballad for?” He asks.

Grim folds his arms and leans back, looking up at the ceiling. “Late wife. T’was her who opened this bar.”

“A lass with a passion for the ale business? Never would’a thought.”

Grim grinned, “Dierdra hated the stuff, called it pig swill!” He lost himself in laughter for a moment remembering how she spoke of the drinks they served. “No, she opened it for me. To keep me going after I left my trade. Lost m’mind bad enough in a season I couldn’t work. Nearly took one last late night swim to the sea's bottom."

The man wipes his nose and sniffs, “You were ready to die and so she opened a bar for yah?”

“It’s more than that lad,” Grim says tapping his chest, “Only lass I ever met in my life that ever saw the ocean. She knew it would take something creative, something beautiful to get rid of a death wish buried that deep.”

“So that, the bar,” he says, pointing at Grim’s work station, “that’s what kept you going?”

“You’re missing it,” Grim says. “What makes this place. The glasses, the tables, the brewin’, the serving, the freedom at wee hours of the night to sing for strangers--she knew. She knew me well’nough that runnin’ some place like this’d be where my ocean would flow. Where that wish would pour out and wash away.”

“Still not sure I understand,” the man admits, “but it’s a good brew and song. I’ll be sure to visit again.” He begins digging through his coat pocket for coins.

“Not necessary lad,” Grim says, holding up a hand. “You just take your time and remember them. You want to pay for a drink, come back again.”

The man smiles and nods. “Best be off. Think I can finally catch a wink before we take to the sea. Thank you.”

Grim smiles. “Pleasure is mine. But ‘fore yah go, come join me at the bar. Got a tradition for sending sailors off with a little luck.”

“It’d be a pleasure, sir.” The man says, following Grim. As Grim walks behind the counter, he sits down and folds his hands on the bar. “Before I go, can, ah...could you write down the words to that ballad? So I can sing it to myself--on the hard nights?”

“Wouldn’t do you any good,” Grim says with a smile. “Yah need to write your own words for yer mates. For their sake and for yours.”

“I’m a fisherman, sir, not a singer. Hell, not even a poet!”

“It’s not the melody your lines lad, it's your own words of pain! That’s what stirs the soul. S’why my song brought the tears to your eyes, ay?”

The young man shakes his head. “But I could never sing anything I write for anyone else like you did! They’d laugh, maybe throw me overboard.”

“Nah lad,” Grim says, grabbing two shot glasses from a high shelf above the bar. “Every man on every vessel has lost something they love. A woman, a dream, even hope itself. You sing, even bad as all hell, and I swear on this bar: every man on that boat will blubber along with yah like a pack of soaked alley cats.”

“You seen it happen?”

“Watched yah bear your soul to an old widower whose livelihood is scrubbin’ tankers,” Grim says, pouring a dark liquor into the glasses.

“Fair shake, sir. Very fair.” The man says, finally with the hint of a smile.

“When are you off?”

“Mornin’, a’fore sunrise.”

Grim nods. “Then we better make this quick, get you a few hours rest.” He slides the shot to the man and holds up his own. “I’ll follow your lead, sir.”

The man picks up the glass and holds his chin in thought. Finally, he clears his throat, “ the ones we’ve lost,” he says, a few tears pooling in the corners of his eyes.

Grim knocks the extended glass with his own. “To drinking from the hourglass.”

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