Woman River Excerpt

Skinny’s exhaustion came slowly, weariness seeped in. Each breath leached away part of him. After a long week, it was Saturday night.

Normally Skinny devoured his work as it, in turn, consumed him. Muller’s Store and Tavern was busy. The old white clapboard building in downtown Woman River, with an apartment on top was right on Main Street, across from St. Albert’s Church and school. His Uncle Joe (Skeeter) Muller was in the process of handing it down to him when he dropped dead of a heart attack. No one in the family wanted it, and after some wrangling over money with doses of recrimination tossed in by cousin Klara, Skinny got a loan from Norm Svoboda at First State Bank and made it work.

Skinny was lean, 50ish, a flattop haircut with an intense, quick body. Not much got past him, even if his wire-rimmed glasses drifted down frequently toward the end of his nose. He washed them often in the soapy water used to clean beer glasses. The white apron, his signature wardrobe piece, was always being lifted from the bottom to wipe them off.

Joey Campbell, an early arrival at the bar, shouted, “Where’s Louie?”
“Aw, she’s out sick,” Skinny replied.

Mary Lou was the soul of the bar. Not having her here tonight was like having light or fresh air vanish. Her place of honor was the well-seasoned grill behind the window in the wall that made Muller’s burgers famous in a three county area.  You could have them one way – medium raw. If you wanted cheese on them or fried onions fine, but otherwise you were on your own with condiments from the sideboard. There was no French fry maker, just industrial sized piles of “Old Dutch” potato chips.

People tried to wheedle Mary Lou’s recipe out of her.  With her Lucky Strike dangling out of her mouth, she would smile and say, “Cigarette ash. Enhances the bouquet and keeps riff-raff from asking stupid-ass questions!”

Actually, it was grass-fed locally butchered two-year-old beef cattle, with some lean pork thrown in. She told others who could be trusted, “If you want a good burger, don’t fry the hell out of it like you’re going to a house fire. Slow and easy does it.”

Mary Lou was not a student of subtlety.  At forty-five she was as loud and direct as Skinny was intense. A little overweight, with long salt and pepper hair pulled back with a pink ribbon, she and Skinny complemented and complained about each other; often loudly. It made the place; people came back.

Tonight Liz, their eighteen-year-old daughter worked the grill in back while Skinny hustled around the bar cleaning tables. Running the place was a team effort.

Earlier in the day, he’d gone to St. Michael to pick up the fresh ground hamburger and pork, checked and made sure they had enough buns and condiments and refilled the ketchup and mustard bottles before slicing the homemade pickles.  Then the pop cooler was restocked along with coolers for bottle beer. With Mary Lou ill, it was ragged. Normally Liz loved the banter with the customers, knowing just about everyone who came in. Tonight was different.

Muller’s was a community center when most towns didn’t have one. The store was open all the time, with more straight-laced folks refusing to go in after six PM. The store part was open to the tavern. It held dried and canned goods, with lower shelves providing over the counter medicines. Many citizens of Woman River were grateful for the short distance from the bar to the grocery side, especially when immoderate behavior required aspirin or Pepto-Bismol.  Children sent by their mother for Cheerios or Corn Flakes were fascinated by the length of the long pole with the “grabber” on the end that could reach the cereal boxes ten feet up near the dark ceiling.

It was hot and air conditioning was not on Muller’s horizon. The churning ceiling and floor fans kept the air coursing over heated bodies. Of course the main attraction and reason for any comfort in the crowded bar was the cold beer, one tap, Hamm’s, and whatever would fit in the big chest coolers.

Skinny was rearranging some of the tables and chairs with his back to the door. A few of the early arrivals at the bar sipped on cold Hamm’s. The band was setting up. The front screen door creaked open and slammed. The place went quiet. Skinny glanced up at the bar. Everyone leaning over the big oak bar had turned their backs to the door. He turned. There was Father Ruzicka.

“Mr. Muller, I’d like to talk to you.”

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