Hey, Dave  |  James Babbs

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             It was early on a Tuesday night, and the place was dead. Lou—the bartender—was wiping down the bar with a rag that had probably been white, once, a long time ago. When Lou reached the end of the bar, he stopped. A guy was sitting there with his head slumped forward.
             “Byron, what’s wrong?” Lou asked.
             Byron sipped at his beer like a dying fish gasping for air. “Ah, Lou, have I got troubles.”
             “Hey, how ’bout some of those cheese sticks you like? On me, okay?”
             “Sure,” said Byron, without looking up.
             Lou went in the back and returned a couple of minutes later. “Just a few minutes, buddy.” Lou scanned the empty bar, then took a step toward Byron. “Hey, did I tell you about the redhead who was in here last week?” Lou had a big grin on his face.
             “Yep. You told me, Lou.” Byron took another sip of his beer. His glass was about half empty.
             “Hey, let me freshen up your beer. I’ll check on those cheese sticks.” Lou took Byron’s glass and filled it up. He set it down in front of Byron, then Lou disappeared into the kitchen. When he came back out, he was carrying a plate of cheese sticks and a little bowl of sauce. “Here you go.” He set the plate and the bowl down on the bar. He pulled a little bottle out of his pocket. “And I didn’t forget the hot sauce.”
             “Thanks, Lou,” Byron said in the same tired voice. He began to eat the cheese sticks, but without much enthusiasm.
             Lou hit Byron hard on the shoulder and laughed. “I got somethin’ that’ll cheer you up.” Lou shook his head, knocking loose tiny pieces of laughter. “This customer told me the funniest joke the other day.” Lou hit Byron again.
             “No jokes, Lou.” Byron put his hand up, holding his beer with the other one. “I got big troubles.”
             “Oh,” Lou said. “You’ll love this.” He hit Byron again. Lou took a step back. “See, there was this guy, okay?” Lou stuck his hands out in front of him.
             Byron slumped forward, no longer interested in the cheese sticks or the beer. A long sigh escaped his lips.
             “See, there was this guy,” Lou repeated. “And he was going to a baseball game.” Lou leaned toward Byron. “And he’s waitin’ in line to get his ticket—” Lou formed a megaphone with his hands and put it around his mouth. “—and he hears somebody shout, Hey, Dave! The guy looks around—” Lou shifted his head from side to side, a look of confusion on his face. Byron stared at his beer. “—but he doesn’t see anybody, so he goes into the park and finds his seat. Well, he’s sittin’ there for a while, you know, watchin’ the game, and all of a sudden he hears—” Lou reproduced another megaphone and surrounded his lips with it. “—someone shout, Hey, Dave!
             Byron pushed the rest of his beer away and stood up. He started fishing in his pocket for some money.
             “Hey,” Lou said. He touched Byron’s arm. “Sit down. I ain’t finished.”
             “Look, Lou, I …” Byron felt the pressure of Lou’s hand against his shoulder.
             “Come on. It’ll only take a couple of minutes. I gave you those cheese sticks. I thought we were having a good time.”
             “I really don’t feel like it …” But Byron was already sitting back down, his hand buried in his pocket.
             “Now, let’s see.” Lou cleared away Byron’s plate and the little bowl of sauce. He left the glass of beer and the bottle of hot sauce. “Okay. There was this guy, and he went to a baseball game.” The phone rang, and Lou looked irritated. He turned to go answer it. “Just sit tight.”
             As soon as Lou was gone, Byron laid two dollars on the bar and headed for the door. Byron raised his hand to push the door open, but when he did, it retreated and another man entered almost running into Byron.
             “Byron, buddy,” the man said. “How ya’ doin’?”
             “Ah, Joe, have I got troubles,” Byron replied, hanging his head.
             “Well, come on, and I’ll buy you a beer.”
             “No. I better get home.”
             “Oh, come on. It’s early, yet.” Joe wrapped his arm around Byron and dragged him back to the bar. “Hey, Lou, two beers,” Joe said, as the two men sat down.
             “How’s it goin’, Joe?” Lou set two glasses down on the bar and took the money Joe left for him.
             “Good,” Joe said. He picked up his glass and drank some of the beer. “Hey, I got a joke for you guys.” Joe reached out and punched Byron in the arm. “Okay, listen up. There was this guy, and he was going to a baseball game.” Joe straightened up. “And he’s gettin’ his ticket, and he hears someone scream, Hey, Dave!
             Lou laughed and hit Byron’s shoulder again. Lou pointed his finger at Joe. “I was just tellin’ Byron, here, that same joke, but I didn’t get a chance to finish it.”
             Byron watched the foam from his beer ooze over the side of the glass and slither down to the bar where it formed a tiny puddle.
             “Well, go ahead, Lou,” Joe said. He took another drink from his beer and set the glass down again.
             “Okay,” said Lou. “Like I was sayin’ earlier …” He looked at Byron and grinned. “There was this guy at a baseball game, and he’s waitin’ in line for his ticket.”
             “Lou,” said Byron. “I really should get going.” Byron stood up.
             “But you haven’t touched your beer,” Joe said, waving his hand at the full glass.
             “I don’t want it, Joe. You drink it.”
             “Come on,” Joe said. “At least stay and hear this joke.”
             “Yeah,” said Lou. “Come on, now. Sit down.” He put his hand on Byron’s shoulder and pushed him back to the stool.
             Byron let out a long sigh. Lou and Joe looked at him, and he picked up his beer and took a drink. He set the glass back down.
             “Atta boy,” Joe said. He punched Byron in the arm again.
             Lou wiped his hands across the front of his shirt and shook them in the air. “Anyway. This guy’s waitin’ for his ticket, and he hears someone—” Lou made a new megaphone and used it like he had before. “—shout, Hey, Dave! The guy looks around and doesn’t see anybody, so he takes his ticket and goes to find his seat.”
             “Hey,” Joe said, rising from his barstool. “That looks like Charlie.”
             A man entered the bar, and Joe ran over to him and started shaking his hand. “Charlie,” Joe said. “I haven’t seen you for I don’t know how long.”
             “Hey, Charlie,” Lou said, grinning. “Beer?”
             “That must be why you’re the bartender,” Charlie laughed and pointed at Lou.
             “Yep,” Lou said. “That’s why I get paid the big bucks.”
             “Look who’s here,” said Joe.
             Byron was on his feet again.
             “Byron, old man,” said Charlie. He grabbed Byron’s hand and shook it. “What’s goin’ on?”
             “Ah, have I got troubles.”
             “Troubles, schmubbles,” said Charlie. “Sit down. Have a drink.” Charlie dropped Byron’s hand like a dead fish. “I got a humdinger of a joke to tell you.”
             “I was just tellin’ a joke when you walked in,” Lou said. He set a glass of beer in front of Charlie.
             “Look,” Byron said. “I should be going.”
             “But you haven’t heard the joke, yet,” said Lou.
             “But …” Byron’s voice trailed off.
             “Now, no buts,” said Charlie.
             “That’s right,” agreed Joe. The two men squeezed Bryon onto the stool between them.
             “Okay, Lou,” Joe said.
             “Well, like I’ve said before: there was this guy goin’ to a baseball game, and he’s waitin’ for his ticket.”
             Charlie began to laugh. He set his glass down. “That’s the same joke I was gonna tell.” Charlie slapped the bar hard with his hand and released a loud snort. “Hey, Dave!”
             Joe was laughing, too. “Hell, I came in here earlier and started to tell the same joke.” He leaned across Byron and put his face next to Charlie. Lou, Joe, and Charlie roared with laughter. Byron shut his eyes and held his head in his hands.
             “All right, ya’ dirty bums,” said a voice suddenly rising above the sound of the laughter.
             Joe and Charlie turned around. “Sam!” they both screamed at the same time.
             “Sammy!” Lou grinned. “Beer comin’ right up.”
             “Thanks, Lou,” said Sam. He slapped Byron on the back. “How’s it goin’, Byron?”
             Byron didn’t look up. “Ah, have I got troubles.” He let out another long sigh, but nobody seemed to notice.
             “Well,” said Sam, taking his beer from Lou. “Here’s to better days.”
             Joe and Charlie joined in, and all three of them raised their glasses and took long drinks.
             “What’s wrong, Byron?” Sam asked. “Not thirsty?”
             “We’ve been tryin’ to cheer him up all night,” said Lou.
             “Oh,” said Sam. He smiled. “I’ve got just the thing. Okay, listen to this.” He set his beer down and started chuckling. “Okay, there was this guy, and he had just bought a ticket to a baseball game, and he hears someone yell—”
             Sam was joined by the chorus of Lou, Joe, and Charlie: “—Hey, Dave!” They all started laughing.
             Byron was on his feet again.
             “We’ve all been trying to tell the same joke,” Lou said.
             “Yeah,” Joe said. “And ol’ Byron, here, seems to be the only one who hasn’t heard it.” Joe threw his arm around Byron and gave him a squeeze.
             “Well,” said Sam, pushing his way into the space between Byron and Charlie. “We can settle that right now.”
             “I believe Lou has dibs,” Charlie said.
             Byron slumped back on his stool as the others pressed in around him. He clenched his hands into small, hard fists and muttered silently to himself.
             “Is this a private party or what?” a new voice broke in.
             “Uh-oh,” Joe said. “That sounds like …” The three men whirled around. “Harry! You old son of a bitch!”
             “Hey, what’s happening?” said Harry. He was given several pats on the back and a couple of handshakes.
             “What can I get you, Harry?”
             “What are these other bums drinkin’?”
             “Beer,” Lou said.
             “Well, you know me. I’m not one to go against traditions.”
             Byron stood up and, during the exchanges with Harry, slipped away from the bar. He was almost to the door when Harry spotted him.
             “Hey, Byron! Where you off to?” Harry walked over to Byron. “Byron, it’s been a while. How are you?”
             “Ah, Harry, have I got troubles.” Byron glanced quickly at the others standing next to the bar.
             “What’s wrong?”
             “Here’s your beer,” said Lou.
             “Thanks, Lou,” Harry said, giving Lou a wave of appreciation.
             “You really want to know what’s wrong, Harry?” Byron said, looking at the door.
             “Sure. Why not?”
             “Well, I’ll tell you. My wife wants a divorce. She said she never loved me. My son got busted for drugs. My daughter’s pregnant, and she doesn’t know who the father is. And my doctor told me last week that I have a spot on one of my lungs. I just don’t know what else can go wrong.”
             “Hey, Harry.” It was Joe, pushing himself between the two men. “Lou’s been trying to tell Byron this great joke all evening.”
             “Oh, yeah. What’s the joke?”
             Byron was heading for the door again.
             “The Hey-Dave joke,” said Joe. “Everyone’s heard it except for Byron.”
             “Hey, Byron, don’t go,” Lou called after him.
             “Come back and hear the joke,” said Sam.
             “Come on, Byron,” pleaded Charlie.
             “Well, I haven’t heard this joke,” Harry said. He had come back to the bar and was picking up his glass.
             “Let Byron go,” Joe said. Byron went through the door and was gone. “Harry hasn’t heard the joke.”
             “Well, okay,” said Charlie. “Go ahead, Lou.”
             “Well, there was this guy,” Lou said, gesturing with his hands, “and he’s waitin’ in line for a ticket to the baseball game. And he hears—” Lou’s hands formed the megaphone and surrounded his mouth. “—Hey, Dave!” Joe, Charlie, and Sam chuckled, and Harry grinned. “The guy looks around—” Lou swivels his head back and forth. “—but he doesn’t see anybody, so he goes to find his seat. Anyway, he’s sittin’ there, just watchin’ the game, and from behind him he hears—” The megaphone goes up to Lou’s mouth again. “—Hey, Dave!” Lou swiveled his head. “The guy’s lookin’ all around, but he doesn’t see anybody. So, later on, he’s watchin’ the game, drinkin’ a beer, eatin’ a hot dog, and the game’s gettin’ really tense.” Lou leaned closer to Harry and started speaking a little softer. “It’s the bottom of the ninth, two outs and bases loaded, and the guy’s sittin’ there, and all of a sudden he hears—” Another megaphone appeared, and Lou took a step back. “—Hey, Dave! The guy spills his beer and drops the rest of his hot dog.” Lou simulated an explosion with his hands. “The guy stands up—” Lou placed his hands on his hips. “—and he’s really had it now.” A look of disgust played across Lou’s face. “The guy screams … My name’s not Dave!
             Harry was laughing along with the others, as they stood around slapping him on the back and downing their beers.
             “Hey,” Lou said. “How ’bout some cheese sticks?”

♥ End ♥

James Babbs has published hundreds of poems over the last several years in print journals and online. He is the author of Dictionary of Chaos (2002), Another Beautiful Night (2010), Disturbing The Light (2013) and The Weight of Invisible Things (2013). [Author photo by and © Anna Staab. Used with permission; all rights reserved.]

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