Value of Virtue

Cleat doesn’t get out much. He’s been retired over 8 years. He’d been thinking about making a change. He was testing the water.

He was walking by The Crow’s Nest, a pretty lively place, usually. At least that’s what Cleat noticed in driving by from time to time.

Today he’d driven by slow. It was a slow Monday afternoon everywhere. He saw the bar almost empty. He decided to finally step inside. There was only this very old man and the barkeep.

He didn’t realize it but settling down near the lonely old man in the neighborhood bar, for Cleat, was sorta like hitting on the ugliest girl at the dance. He figured it would be easy. Otherwise, he’d never have taken the seat. Cleat guessed that old man to be about 85.

Cleat sat at the middle of the bar. The old man was at the end. They nodded at one another. Cleat ordered a beer and lit a cigarette. He gave it a few minutes to settle in.

Then he said to the old man down the bar, “Kids these days. No respect. With their cell phones and all. You even got a cell phone?”

The old man tuned away from the television, trying to be polite. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a phone.

“Not me,” Cleat said. “Getting by just fine without one.”

“Congratulations,” the old man said before turning back to the television.

“You like golf then?” Cleat asked.

The old man shrugged.

“Much as anything, I suppose.”

“Me, I don’t much care for golf. I like baseball,” Cleat said.

The old man wondered if this fella didn’t like golf, why in the fuck was he asking.

“Congratulations,” the old man said again.

“You got kids?” Clete asked.

The old man shook his head no.

“Be thankful,” Clete said. “Most of ’em are ungrateful.”

The old man nodded agreeably.

“I’m not a bad guy,” Clete said. “I’ve done plenty of nice things that I don’t much like talking about.”

“Congratulations,” the old man said again. “Not to be rude, but there’s a game on. If you want to speak to me about your virtues, it’s gonna cost ya a drink and a smoke.”

He old man said it half-jokingly. Cleat wasn’t sure if he was just playing around or not. But, realizing there was nobody else around to care or listen, Cleat complied. He pointed at the barkeep to give the old man another beer. Then Cleat moved down the bar to give the old man a smoke and take the adjacent seat.

“So I do good things. I’m sure you do good things too,” Cleat said.

“I suppose,” the old man said.

“I’ve given money to the family of a sick kid. This sick little kid that’s close to my family.”

“Good for you,” the old man said, lighting the cigarette.

“That’s it?”

The barkeep gave the old timer another bottle.

“What more do you want?” the old man asked.

“Well, I’ve done some decent things. Doesn’t that prove I’m not the bad person some people might think I am?”

“What people?”

“My kids. My family. They say I’m selfish.”

“Your neighbors?”

“I dunno,” Cleat said. “But they shouldn’t think so. See, that sick boy – things got rough for ’em a while back. There was some kind of charity event for the boy, so I went over to their house and gave them some money. A decent amount.”

“But you didn’t go to his charity event?”

“No,” Cleat said. “It wasn’t necessary. And I don’t like crowds.”

“What was the event? Some kinda breakfast sponsored by a church or something? A bike rally?”

“I don’t remember,” Cleat confessed.

“Hmmmm,” the old man said.

“What?” Cleat asked.

“This sick boy you gave the money to. You ever think about doing more than that for the poor guy?”

“Like what?”

“Doing anything with him.”

“No,” Clete said. “That never really occurred to me.”

“But he’s close to your family?”

“Yeah,” Cleat said.

“You don’t think sick kids like movies and museums and things?”

“I’m sure they do.”

“Can he go to movies? Or is he too sick?”

“From what I know, I think he could.”

“So why not offer to be the kid’s friend instead of just give the family money and let them do all the dirty work?”

This conversation was going far too much in the direction of Cleat’s daughter. He was beginning to think he’d made a mistake, offering the old timer a drink, and then he turns what ought to be friendly conversation into something quite different.

“I’m not a bad person,” Cleat said.

“I never said you were. You’re putting words in my mouth, which isn’t a nice thing, even if you gave me a smoke and a drink.”

Old men are supposed to be friendly, Clete thought. And appreciative. Lonely old men sitting in lonely old taverns at 2 p.m. on Mondays are supposed to need something , but this one, strangely, didn’t seem to. It was all getting Cleat steamed.

“Fella, I bought you a drink and you never even asked me my name.”

“And you never asked mine either,” the old man said.

“But I bought the drink and gave you a smoke.”

“And you put words in my mouth that I never said. And I’m listening to this rubbish,” the older one said. “Seems to me we’re close to even.”

Cleat got up to leave. He decided The Crow’s Nest wasn’t a very friendly place.

“Ya know, I’ve just been trying to be friendly. Sitting here by yourself, day drinking on a Monday – it’s sorta sad,” Cleat said.

“What’s even more sad is you had to come in here and mess it up,” the old man said.

Cleat slapped a 10 spot one the bar and left.

The barkeep came over to the old man.

“Who was that? Never seen him in here before.”

“Don’t know,” the old man said. “Just another drifter, I guess. But I hope he don’t come back.”

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