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Closing Time

by Beth McKim

Beth is an actress and writer who lives in Bellaire, Texas with her husband, Buddy and their Labradoodle, Lucy. Her poetry, essays and short stories have appeared widely in niche publications. Writing and acting have helped her survive the Pandemic, and Beth is always on the lookout for inspirational stories, especially clever ones.

Bruce Bender needed to retire. He was trying to figure out just how to do it. He knew that his days of being a counselor were almost over and the advice he was giving of late was not as sharp and on target as it had been in the past.

Just last week he had listened to the young construction worker, who confessed to him that he had a serious drug and drinking problem. He felt bad when he heard himself, mostly out of boredom, say to the fellow, “Maybe it would just be easier to go ahead and take a lethal dose of Vicodin and Jack Daniels, so you won’t have to feel pain any longer.” He quickly laughed to signify that what he said was a joke and gave the man the card of a local twelve-step program.

The week before that he told some middle-aged lovebirds they should either divorce or murder their respective spouses so they could make a new life with each other was amazed that they missed the irony and looked puzzled when he told them, “Just kidding, of course.”

In earlier days, Bruce had been sympathetic and caring, almost to a fault. He begged fresh-faced Henry Hopkins, a twenty-one-year-old male who was threatening to jump from the Devil’s Bridge just down the road, “Henry, you better stop and think before you leap to an almost certain death.”  Bruce knew that Henry was doing this so his parents would not find out he was a homosexual. Later, other clients reported back that not only did Henry not jump after talking to Bruce, but he also came out of the closet and moved to San Francisco where he met the man of his dreams. He and his partner eventually adopted a baby girl.

Another time Bruce spent three hours counseling Millie, a fire- engine red-haired secretary, who had embezzled thousands of dollars from her company. Terrified of being caught and in the process of relocating to another state, probably Ohio, she was shedding buckets of tears because she had never lived on her own without family or friends. Bruce encouraged her “Give the money back and then check yourself into a local rehab center. You can say you need treatment for either Kleptomania Syndrome or Shopaholic Disease.”

Once he had the pleasure of talking with Prudence Parson, a writer of a religion-based advice column. She came to see him with her church minister who was now also her lover. They were fugitives from another county and had run away with the all the tithes of the church members to use on themselves. They claimed they were being chased by one of the church deacons and Bruce promised not to tell of their whereabouts if the deacon came calling. He admonished the couple “Remember about God, and let’s have a prayer asking Him for forgiveness.” He was not quite sure what had happened to them but felt good about the therapy he had done.

Unfortunately, lately, he had just not been as helpful. He had grown tired of the tears, the complaints, the sadness, and the anger that he dealt with on a daily basis. And he found himself making more and more jokes instead of seriously trying to advise. He felt ashamed of recently having told the young mother who was having trouble with her unruly children “Just check into putting them all up for adoption.” He consoled himself by saying that people usually did the opposite of what he told them anyway.

He told the local schoolteacher who frequently lamented that her students were hoodlums, their parents were worse, and the school administrators were a bunch of thieves, “Maybe you ought to burn the school down.”  

He had turned eighty years old on his last birthday and everything ached from time to time, especially when he stood too long. His eyes were no longer good, and, because of a hearing problem, he sometimes had to ask people two or three times, “What did you just say?”

So, was this the right time for him to finally walk away from his long-held position? Would there be someone to replace him? Would the people of Bethel trust the new counselor like they had Bruce? Would he or she possess the skills that only years of age and experience could provide? What would he do after he no longer had a place to go everyday and familiar, needy faces to see?

These were the thoughts that occupied Bruce Bender’s mind that night as he left the Loose Lips Bar, adjacent to the Fant-A-Sea Motel, where rooms were available for as little as $30 per night. This had been his place of business for forty- nine years, and, after all, his job of bartending had been the only career he had ever known.

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