|Painting by Alex Sztasko|
Dust billowed all around the parking lot. The motorcycle was put into park, and the rider clumsily dismounted his ride. He put the kickstand down, took off his helmet and brushed dirt from his jacket uncovering a name embroidered on black leather - Jack. He moved his way bowlegged toward the tavern, still trying to find his feet after riding for many hours. He ascended the stairs to the main entrance, noticing lush gardens and vibrantly coloured signs welcoming him. Wind chimes hung from the deck and fluttered a faint tune as the breeze brushed past it.
Jack took a seat at the bar, caught the eye of the bar maid and ordered a local beer on tap. Sweat was starting to dry on his forehead; his body temperature cooling now that he was out of the hot summer sun. He leaned against the bar as the server poured him a pint and set it down next to him. “Want to start a tab there hun?” she asked. Jack responded with a quick nod and took a sip of his beer.
The rest of the tavern was quite empty. About a quarter of the tables were occupied by tourists and the odd local. It was a slow day for the summer. Jack let out a sigh as he took a gulp of his beer. An oldies station was playing on the radio emitting reminiscent sounds of Journey, Supertramp and Dylan. Collections of foreign coasters, beer bottles and rural antiques filled the walls of this sturdy establishment. While enjoying the effects of a cold beer, Jack was interrupted by an elderly man wearing a battered plaid work shirt, torn up and faded blue jeans, and a flimsy green baseball cap, who gaily walked in to the tavern. This man showed an air of confidence that could not be replicated. The new comer found a seat beside Jack and ordered “the usual”.
“G’day there chum.” The man said to Jack, as the waitress placed a glass of water with a wedge of lemon on the bar. “Must be your bike out there eh? She be a beaut. What year would that be?”
“It’s a ’67 Harley,” Jack replied, eyeing the fellow curiously, unsure if he should encourage conversation.
“’67? Well I’ll be damned! Now that was quite the year. That was when I moved up to the Valley you see. There were a bunch of us back-to-the-landers, they called us. We settled ourselves out in the back roads, up in the Wilno hills. Me and a buddy hitchhiked all the way from New York state. You could do that back then. Not any more though, even though my boys still do. So where ya headin to?”
“Just working my way towards Parry Sound. Visiting some family there. Just passing by.”
“Heading up the 60 then eh? Through Algonquin Park? B’y there is a lot of trees there. Those tall red and white pine were a real money maker back in the day. Years ago now though. 1860’s was when it was the main industry. When I got here in the 60’s there were still loggers. But could ya imagine? Living in them shacks for months at a time – forty or fifty of yas. No lassie to be found for miles. B’y, she be a tough go. All for the money I’magine. And maybe the attention. When them lads get out in the real world, clean themselves up, well those local gals would think they done won the lottery. Those men ripe for the pickin’.” He took a quick swig of his drink, leaving a trace of water droplets on the fringes of his unruly mustache. Jack glanced around the bar, hoping no one could see that it was him this man was rambling on to. Before the man started up again, Jack took a hurried gulp of his beer hoping to show that he was not staying here long.
“You ever been to the tavern before?” the talkative man said whilst not even worrying about the bits of spit that he discharged onto Jack.
“Nope. First time. Like I said, just passing through.”
“Well you should stay for blues night eh? That’s when the place gets really exciting. And if yer lucky, dancin’ Andy will be here. Draw a portrait for ya. But b’y it’s not like it used to be. When she first started thirteen years ago it started with a man who really had the blues. He just got up there with his harmonica and gave’r. Brought ya to tears. Anyone could play then. Now too I suppose, but things have changed. Real good music though. Can’t beat it. See yer drinking a Wilno ale. Not quite like the shine eh? Used to be bootleggers all up the Opeongo Line back in the day. All shut down now of course – unless you know people!” The man took a quick peek around to see if anyone was looking. “I could tell ya where to go if you wanted. Just let me know. Be no trouble.”
“Thanks. That won’t be necessary though. I’ll be heading out once I am done this one.” Jack hoped this would be the end of the conversation.
“It’s shame. This here is quite the place. There used to be rooms for rent upstairs eh. Was called the Exchange Hotel. Cross the highway there was the train station. Used to be how they shipped them logs out of the Park. Tore that out long ago though. B’y you’re stepping on the old tracks too, eh. Gaffied them up when the rail was being ripped out. Tavern was the place to be then. Be in the early 1900’s that was. I know cause there is a picture of how it used to look over there. Quite the work done on it.”
“Oh well you seem to know a lot. I don’t have time to share any stories with you, but can I buy you a beer in return?”
“Oh no, no. Don’t drink anymore.” The old man starts up again much to the dismay of Jack who was hoping for a quick exit. “ Haven’t had a lick of that since Polish Day back in the 80’s. Was a rough day. Like I said, the shine eh. B’y if you can’t stay for blues night come back for Polish Day in May! You get all the Polacks coming out doin a polka down at the park. Dem Kashubians can really put ‘er back – they the first Polacks to settle in Canada you know. And ya gotta bring yer fiddle and tappin’ shoes. No Polish Day could happen without ‘em. B’y shes a good time, even for a dry fellow like me self.”
Jack shifted uneasy in his stool. He wasn’t sure how he was going to get out of here. It’s not that the man was being rude or anything. He was just overly friendly and welcoming. Jack caught the eye of the bar maid who gave him a knowing smirk and ask if he wanted another one. “May as well” said Jack. “Doesn’t look like I am going anywhere for a bit.”
“Now, if that doesn’t sound like your cut of tea then, come out in September. B’y them Wilno ladies know how to cook a fine meal! The church up on the hill there puts out a big chicken on the yard every August. Drive by that every day and all ya can do is dream of the pumpkin pie they bake. Mmm! B’y what ya need to do is get yerself a good Polish gal. They know how to take care of their men ya see. I dated this one lass when I just moved here. Oh b’y was she a looker. Met her at blues night in fact. She and I danced a mean shuffle. And don’t tell no one but we went out later and had a little of the green stuff ya know? A certain herb one might say. Ahaha! I was young and foolish then b’y. But my, she was a looker.”
Jack waited for more to come out of the stranger’s mouth but no words seemed to be coming forth. He sat there in blissful silence staring off into his past. Jack embraced the moment and sipped his beer in silence, noticing that the tavern had cleared out at some point. The only ones left were Jack, his new friend, and the bar maid who was busy clearing off tables.
“Well chum, look at the time. Best be headin’ out now. That decks not goin’ to build herself. Come again soon. Blues night like I said – can’t miss it!” The stranger swung himself off the stool, tipped his hat to the server, and headed towards the door with his clunky work boots echoing throughout the bar. “Safe drivin now eh. Watch out for dem moose in the park. Dem big suckers!” He finally exited with a warm, friendly grin.
Jack kept his eye on the door for a moment after the man had left, then slowly turned his attention back to his beer. “How’s that beer coming?” The server asked. “Good. That will be all for now. I will clear up my tab.” Jack watched as she printed off his bill and couldn’t help but wonder if she was Polish. She handed him the bill with a smile and went back to tidying up the place. Jack placed a couple bills on the bar leaving a little bigger tip than normal, just in case. He threw his jacket back on, waved goodbye to the bar maid, and went back out into the dusty, hot sun.