“Another bourbon, Sandy,” said the man seated at the bar. He gazed down at the half-melted ice cubes swirling, as his chubby fingers turned his empty glass one way then the other on the dark, stained timber.
The bartender tipped the bottle, and a generous splash of golden-brown liquid set the ice afloat once more. “There you go, Ray,” she said.
The man forced a smile. His hand steadied and caressed the refilled glass, as his eyes snuck a glance at the television mounted in the corner up behind the bar. That television was the brightest thing in the room. When Christ said that men loved darkness rather than light, he might well have been referring to Leroy’s Bar. For a hundred different reasons people came there, where the shadowy booths and gloomy tables comforted them, concealed them, separated them for a few precious hours from whatever awaited them in the morning. Ray was there more nights than not.
Boisterous voices spilled in as the door flew open and a dozen young men, college students, entered the bar. Queer looks and laughter from the group indicated they had stumbled upon the place during a pub crawl. They surrounded one of the bigger tables and claimed it as their territory. Three of the young men approached the bar and ordered drinks for the group. One of them, wearing a t-shirt tight enough to reveal all the muscles for which he had worked so hard, pointed up at the television, which was showing the last quarter of a mediocre NBA game. “Hey, can we get the football on?” he said.
“Leave the basketball on,” said Ray, eyeing the young man’s reflection in the mirror behind the bar.
The muscular young man turned and looked at Ray with surprise. From behind, seated and hunched over his drink, Ray was a deceptively unimpressive specimen—sixty-six years old, a short crop of curly grey hair circling an ever-increasing bald patch, and his round midsection bulging over the sides of his belt like a scoop of ice cream too big for its cone. But head-on, you could see the lanky arms and strong shoulders of his six-feet-four frame. His hands were huge. He had a rugged jaw and an old scar across his left cheek. His eyes had seen a lot of life, but fire still burned in them.
“Yeah, well,” said the young man, standing tall and easing his wide shoulders back, “there are twelve of us who want to watch the Steelers game, and only one of you. You’re outvoted, pal.”
Ray turned and looked over at the table of young men. He nodded with interest, then turned back to the big guy. “Twelve of you, huh? Well, that means you have eleven friends to keep you company, but all I have is the NBA game up there. So why don’t you let me enjoy the basketball?”
The young man sneered. “You’re not even watching the T.V., old timer. Why don’t you go home to bed?”
Ray swivelled slowly on his stool to face the young man and looked up at him with a fierce glint in his eye.
“Basketball stays on, guys,” intervened the bartender, placing the beers on the bar.
The young man grit his teeth and glared at Ray. One of his companions slapped him on the shoulder. “Come on,” he said. “It’s the last quarter. The game will be over soon. Grab the drinks.”
The burly young man scoffed, grabbed four beers and turned and went to join his friends. The bartender looked at Ray. “He’s right, you know—you always want the basketball on, but you never actually watch the game.”
Ray took a drink, then twirled his glass between his fingers on the bar. “I know,” he sighed.
After ten minutes, the NBA game had finished and the football was on the television, the college students were laughing and cheering, and Ray’s glass was empty again. With his hands resting on the bar, he stared down at the silver ring on the index finger of his right hand. Engraved on the ring were the Latin words LIBERTATEM, GLORIAE, CIRCULI—Freedom, Honour, Hoops.
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