Summer settled heavy in Dorset County, wet and slow and with that particular light that only a late-August Mississippi summer could have. Thirty weeks into the year 1998, Danny Johnson had been released from prison. Thirty-two weeks into the year he bought a bar and now, thirty-four weeks into the year, he was tending it in that sweet-long heat.
Springsteen on the radio and dust rising in the road and the town was timeless. He wondered sometimes if it had always been that same day, the dog days of summer with the Sirius star high up at night and the burning heat of the road seeping through his shoes as he walked to the grocery store down the block for another carton of milk.
He bought a bunch of carrots to have with dinner purely for the pleasure of plunging his hand in among the ice chips and tasted the chemical air-conditioned air before he went back out into the hot world again, the sun just about getting around to setting. The bar was old, not set up for central air yet, and Danny liked it that way. It reminded him of the way things had felt when he was young, before all the trouble and the shame, when summers seemed longer and hotter than they did in his adult world.
In prison, there had been no summers.
But now there were summers, and there was a business to run too. Drinks to make. His bar was an old-timer’s bar, and the most complexity required of him was to pour the whiskey on the rocks instead of straight up. The townsfolk left him alone, and in return he left them alone while his prison haircut grew out and he got used to life on the outside again. Blue eyes and blond hair growing out made him look too young, but he didn’t mind. If he couldn’t actually erase those years, he could look like he had.
He poured himself a soda, settling behind the bar and waiting for the regulars to show up. The fan was going strong, moving the hot, wet air around, and Danny smiled to himself. Things were getting better.
Things got a great deal better when a stranger walked in. He was new to town, just pulled in, and Danny greeted him with a smile and a drawled hello. The stranger was a Yankee and very handsome. Curly black hair and bright blue eyes and a soft smile, not too ready but revealed for Danny. They saw each other and recognized something in the other that could be called home for a night.
“What’ll you have?”
“Jack Daniels, on the rocks,” the stranger ordered, and he seated himself at the end of the bar. “You got anything to eat?”
“I could,” Danny allowed, pouring a generous two fingers over crackling ice. “Not much, but I could make you up a sandwich or two. Ham and cheese all right?”
“Perfect,” the man said, taking the drink with a nod and sipping it. Their hands had touched, just briefly, and the dark-haired man acknowledged it with a smile that promised more.
“Danny Johnson’s the name, by the by. I take it you’re not from around here?” Danny asked, kneeling down to pull cold cuts, bought for his lunch and not yet used up, from the small refrigerator under the bar.
“No sir. Just passing through on my way to visit family in Meridian,” the man said. “Oh. I’m John Carter.”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Carter,” Danny said, leaning over to shake hands, and he nodded when the other man insisted on John. He returned the smile, still a little unsure on his face, but genuine just the same. Definite change of luck, with this one.
They didn’t say much, Danny whistling along with the radio as he polished the bar with an old rag, John eating two sandwiches and drinking another Jack, then nursing a third when the usuals showed up. Danny took care of them, and the bar settled into a comfortable silence, the heat too great for the conversations that would take place in cooler weather, the chess games and the arguing over politics and women and all the things that had been done between these four walls in the fifty years that someone had been running the bar. Danny was amazed that it was still solvent, but he was making enough to live and was happy and didn’t complain.