This story is by Michael R. Stern and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
“Something smells good,” John said.
“Pulled pork,” grunted Tom, the barkeep. “Sandwiches. Happy hour.”
John spotted a purple ribbon on the bar. “That’s new.”
“My daughter’s. She drove a helicopter.”
His lone patrons, John and Paul, two regulars who had been coming every Tuesday at four as long as he’d owned “Mac’s Place,” could tell Tom was irked. “What’s wrong,” Paul asked, as Tom plunked a fresh pitcher on the bar. As the barman soaked a dirty towel in the sink, he nodded to the wreck shuffling through the door.
“I’ve warned you before not to let even your shadow cross this door,” Tom said. Gray stubble shaped a face that sagged from age and deprivation, with sad, bluish eyes, bloodshot with red lightning streaks. His clothes defined his life—tattered. The bar towel flew, scoring a solid hit in the man’s face. “Get out, now. Or I’ll drag you out and when I’m done, the cops can have you.” The dripping face hid the tears.
“Hold on, Tom,” John said. Swiveling on the stool, he asked, “Hey, buddy, what do you want?” Before the man could answer, Tom said not to get involved, that the guy was a local bum who wandered around the area for months. Tom walked around the far end of a mahogany bar built for a bigger crowd in a better time. He grabbed his unwanted visitor’s scrawny arm.
“Tom, he’s an old man. Take it easy,” said Paul.
“You want to take care of this, be my guest. But I want him gone. Besides, he stinks. When did you last bathe, you piece of…” The last word faded as he grasped the collar of the old coat, and shoved the old man out the door. He staggered toward the street, but turned around and with small steps moved back toward the door. The proprietor watched the old man reach into his pocket and take out crumpled bills and a blue ribbon.
Tom laughed. “Look at him, the old lush.” He pointed at the man, now holding out money, a beggarly look asking for something. Paul pushed past the barman and asked the man if he wanted a drink. Shaking his head, a raspy whisper said one word, bathroom. Paul gently gripped the man’s elbow, brushed the barman away as they walked back inside, and pointed to the men’s room.
“If you’re going, go. Then get out,” Tom said impatiently.
“I’ll pay,” said the old man. He pulled his hand from his coat pocket and opened his fist to Tom. The ribbon hooked his finger, attached to a gold medallion.
John had eyed the purple ribbon on the bar, until the blue ribbon hit the floor. “Old man, where’d you get that? Can I have a look?”
Paul picked it up and put it back in the man’s hand. As the old man walked toward the lighted restroom sign, he handed John the ribbon.
“What is it, John?” Paul asked.
“Something none of us has ever been near.”
“It’s probably not even his,” Tom said. “He picked it up in some alley, or stole it.”
“It’s seen better days,” John said. “They both have. I want to ask him about it. Tom, give him a glass of water now. Name your price.”
“For water? Don’t be stupid.”
“If he wants anything else, like a sandwich or chips, I’m buying. Don’t give me a hard time about it. Okay?”
Tom’s response was indecipherable—and unhappy. “If you weren’t regulars, I’d run you out of here, too. I expect that I’ll have a few more normal people soon. So get him out before then.”
John held the medal in his left palm, caressing its face. The ribbon was dirty and wrinkled, but had held together through its abused life. The door in the back snapped shut.
John offered the old man a seat and placed the water in front of him. “Do you want something else?” The old man shook his head. “Food?” Although his eyes lied, he again shook his head. “Where did you get this?” Tears traced a path through the stubble.
Paul laid his hand on the man’s shoulder and told him to sit. “What’s your name?” The old man shook his head.
“I’ve got a medal.” Tom dabbed his eyes. “What’s the big deal?”
“It is, Tom,” John said. “It’s not a medal. Look.” The medallion hung from a gold bar inscribed, Valor. “It’s the medal.”
Paul asked, “The medal?”
“The Medal of Honor.” John read the back. “The Congress to . . . That’s your name, isn’t it? Ferris?” The old man nodded. Tears began again. “Sir, I have a million questions.”
“Not here, you don’t.” The barkeep pointed to the door.
“Were you in the service, Tom?” John snapped. Silence answered. “I was. So shut up. This man has a story I’d like to hear. Get him a sandwich. And a beer.” The old man shook his head, and whispered, “I don’t drink.”
They sat at a table across the room where John displayed the medal. The old man sipped the water, sat up straight and answered their questions. He said he lived on the streets, bad dreams. Ghosts. Of all those he’d killed, young men like himself. Those empty eyes. The President called him a hero for saving the overrun platoon. John asked how long since he’d spoken to his family. Eighteen years, the old man said.
Paul asked what they could do. Did he need a doctor? Did he have VA benefits? He shook his head. “How can we help?”
“I want to be forgiven.” For the first time, maybe in a long time, the old man’s mouth turned up, not a smile but almost. “I want to go home.”
John thought, Nineteen lives saved, but no one saved him.
A mixed tone of gratitude and sadness joined his usual grumpiness, when Tom said, “Come back anytime, Mr. Ferris. On the house.”