My father was the best bartender who ever lived. No one really questioned that in a town like Gros Ventre, glad of any honor, or out in the lonely sheep camps and bunkhouses and other parched locations of the Two Medicine country, where the Medicine Lodge saloon was viewed as a nearly holy oasis. What else was as reliable in life as sauntering into the oldest enterprise for a hundred miles around and being met with just the right drink whisking along the polished wood of the prodigious bar, along with a greeting as dependable as the time of day? Not even heaven promised such service. Growing up in back of the joint, as my father always called it, I could practically hear in my sleep the toasts that celebrated the Medicine Lodge as an unbeatable place and Tom Harry as perfection of a certain kind behind the bar.
Which was not to say, even the adherents comfortably straddling their bar stools might have admitted, that he added up to the best human being there ever was. Or the absolute best father of all time, in ways I could list. Yet, as peculiar a pair as we made, the bachelor saloonkeeper with a streak of frost in his black pompadour and the inquisitive boy who had been an accident between the sheets, in the end I would not have traded my involuntary parent for a more standard model. It is said it takes a good storyteller to turn ears into eyes, but luckily life itself sometimes performs that trick on us. In what became our story together, when life took me by the ears, what a fortunate gamble it was that my father included me in his calling. Otherwise, I'd have missed out on the best seat in the house — the joint, rather — when history came hunting for him.
I turned twelve that year of everything, 1960. But as my father would have said, it took some real getting there first.
My mother, who was my father's housekeeper when domestic matters underwent a surprising turn and I was the result, long since had washed her hands of the two of us and vanished from our part of Montana, and for all I could find out, from the face of the earth. "She up and left," was his total explanation. "Pulled out on us when you were a couple of months old, kiddo." Accordingly, he handed me off to his sister, Marge, and her family in Arizona, and I spent my early years in one of those sun-baked Phoenix neighborhoods where saguaro cactuses had not yet been crowded out entirely.
It was not an easy existence. My cousins, Danny and Ronny, were four and six years older than I was, and infinitely more ornery. Aunt Marge was loyal to me — or at least to the checks my father sent for my support — but she took in laundry and ironing as well as running the household, and so her supervision of her unruly sons was sporadic at best. None of us saw much of the husband and father, Arvin, a fire-man who usually was trying to catch some sleep in the back bedroom or on shift at the firehouse. My enduring memory of that period of my life is of the big Zenith console radio saving my skin the same time every afternoon, when the bigger boys took a break from tormenting me and we all slumped down on the living room floor to tune in to serial adventures far beyond what Phoenix had to offer. So I survived, as children somehow do, and occasionally I was even reprieved from Danny and Ronny. A time or two a year, my father would show up and take me off on what he declared was a vacation. We saw the Grand Canyon more than once.
As time went on, my situation started to slip drastically. Ronny was about to become a teenager, and turning meaner along with it. Among other stunts, he liked to grind his knuckles on the back of my head when Aunt Marge wasn't watching. All the while, copycat Danny was just waiting for his turn at me. The saying is that what does not kill you strengthens you, but sometimes you wonder which will happen first.
By the summer I turned six, I was desperately looking forward to the first grade, when I would be out of Ronny's reach at least that much of the day. It all culminated one hot afternoon when we were sprawled on the rug in the living room, listening as usual to The Lone Ranger. Ronny was alternately mocking Tonto — "Why it never your turn to sweep the tepee, Kemo Sabe?" — and spitting sunflower seed husks at me, Danny was giggling at such good fun, and I was wincing at how cruddy a life it was when a person had to put up with relatives like the pair of them. Then, more dramatic than anything on the radio, there was a thundering knock on the front door, which brought Aunt Marge rushing to see what it was about.
She opened the door to my father, head and shoulders above her even though she was a large woman. "Hey, Marge. How's tricks?" I was too surprised to jump up and run to him as usual. Seeing him materialize in that doorway — he looked like he always did, his hair slicked back and his lively eyebrows cocked, although his usual blinding white shirt was unbuttoned at the neck in concession to the Arizona heat — challenged my imagination more mightily than the masked man and his faithful Indian companion ever could. What was wrong? Why was he here, suddenly and unannounced?
The perfectly bland answer confounded me as much as the question. "I came to get the kid."
Aunt Marge laughed in his face. "Tom, you can't drag Rusty off on some dumb vacation right now. He starts school pretty soon."
That did not seem to perturb him the least bit. "Last time I looked, Montana has schoolhouses."
She was speechless, although not for long. "You don't mean you're going to try to raise him! That's crazy!"
"Yeah, well, that's one description of it." My father's wallet now entered the conversation, a riffle of bills as he counted out more money than I would have ever dreamed I was worth. Thrusting the wad of cash into her nearest hand and adding "Much obliged, Marge," he peered past her to our three gaping faces amid the unheard palaver of the radio.
In that moment, my life stopped being cruddy. Maybe I was imagining, but I thought I heard a scared gulp out of Ronny as my father sized up him and the sunflower seed shrapnel. Then he was looking at me as if we were the only two in the room. "Let's grab your things and hit the road, kiddo."
Excerpted from The Bartender's Tale by Ivan Doig. Copyright 2012 by Ivan Doig. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books.