“Mama Lee”Published August 17, 2016
In its heyday the Sportsman’s Saloon, located on an out of the way street in an unremarkable strip mall near the river was a novelty. The saloon was the very first sports bar in the city and was packed full nearly every night. Little League coaches would bring their young charges in on the weekends after a game for french fries and soda. The Sportsman’s Burger, a grilled half pound ground beef burger prepared to order and garnished with a thick slice of sweet onion, ripe tomato and iceberg lettuce on a toasted bun was the talk of the town. Jumbo satellite dishes fed every sports event of the day to the huge projection screen on the east wall and to the half dozen or so smaller televisions strategically lining the other three walls
A peanut machine dispensed heavily salted free roasted peanuts that were still in the shells. Customers were encouraged to just throw the empty shells on the saloon floor where they would be swept up at closing time by a less than enthusiastic wait staff. The Sportsman’s Saloon was a fun place to spend an afternoon or evening. Everyone came dressed in their favorite team’s football jersey and cheered enthusiastically for their favorite college team or their professional sports team of choice.
Eventually Other businessmen in the food and beverage industry began to take notice and after a year or two the city landscape was dotted with sports bars which began to affect the business at the Sportsman’s Saloon. The original owner, alleged to have been in some financial distress, sold the Saloon to a retired Navy Chief Petty Officer who successfully ran the business for several years before deciding to sell to Lucille.
I didn’t feel much like cooking that Saturday so I decided to head over to the Sportsman’s Saloon for a beer and a burger. I hadn’t been there in several months and had heard reports from some of the past regulars that the saloon had undergone a change in clientele. The karaoke crowd and trivia buffs had replaced the sports aficionados and the juke box was loaded with row after row of country and western dittys that bemoaned some relationship gone wrong or a loved one who was shot in bed by a jealous paramour…or cuckold…or both. Hell, I don’t know.
I must have arrived early as there were only three people in the bar, Lucille the owner and an older couple, Buddy and Marilee McDonald. I said hello to the McDonalds and greeted Lucille as I sat down at the west end of the wraparound bar.
“Coors Light and a Sportsman’s burger please, Lucille. Kind of quiet here tonight, isn’t it?”
“We don’t have any entertainment scheduled for tonight. What you see is what you get.”
“How you want your burger?”
“Medium, loaded but hold the mayo.”
“Got it. Be right back with your beer.”
Lucille walked over to the kitchen window and handed my burger order to Timmy the short order cook, then retrieved a bottle of Coors Light and brought it to me.
“Yeah, that’d be nice. Thanks.”
“Dr. Bob, how in the world are you? We haven’t seen you in a cat’s age.”
Marilee McDonald, known to everyone as Mama Lee was speaking to me.
“Hey, Mama Lee and Buddy. I’m okay. You know, so far so good.”
The McDonalds were originally from Opelika and both were Auburn alumni. Mama Lee had taught second grade at the local elementary school for more than forty years until retiring a year earlier. Everyone said that there wasn’t anyone who lived in this part of town, young or old who hadn’t been in her second grade class at one time or another. Buddy was retired from a sales position with a local electrical supply company. They had lived in the neighborhood for the better part of fifty years.
“Well Dr. Bob, what are you doing with yourself these days now that you have sold your dry cleaner plant?”
Mama Lee was updating her file on me. Everyone also said that if you wanted to know anything about anyone in this part of town just ask Mama Lee. She always knew what everyone was doing.
“Working with a contract company on a contract for Novartis Pharma. Keeps me out of town about three weeks out of every four.”
“Well, Dr. Bob you’re working too hard. You need to find a job where you can be closer to home.”
“Don’t I know it! I’ll think about it at the end of this contract next year.”
Buddy had a thought on the subject.
“Well, you ought to be getting close to retiring I would think.”
“Five more years, Buddy, then I’m hanging ’em up for good.”
The door to the saloon opened, a man walked up to the bar and took a stool about four places down from Buddy and Mama Lee.
“Draft and a burger. I want it rare.”
Lucille took the order without greeting the man, poured a Budweiser from the tap, placed it in front of the man and delivered the food order to Timmy, then walked over to my spot at the opposite end of the bar and whispered to me:
“If there’s trouble with this biker I’ll need your help.”
“Me? Me? Why me?”
“Because Buddy’s too old and Timmy’s in the kitchen, too far away. Just grab a pool cue and hit him with the fat end.”
“At least Timmy has knives. Have you looked at this guy? He looks like he wipes his ass with sandpaper.”
“May not be anything going down, Doc, just be ready in case.”
“This is what I get for being too lazy to cook.”
“What was that?”
“Never mind. I’ll do what I can. Just don’t aggravate him.”
The biker had a request.
“If you two are done talkin’ over there I’ll take another beer.”
Lucille turned and went over to pour another beer.
I figured that if I was going to get killed in a barroom brawl I’d better take measure of the guy that would be punching my lights out. He was of medium height, unshaven, stockily built and well muscled. His hair looked like it hadn’t seen soap and water in months and was slicked back with a mixture of bear grease and motor oil. His dungaree pants were torn and from his wide leather skull buckled belt was strung a chain which secured his wallet in his back pocket. There was some sort of club patch on the back of his motorcycle jacket. His face appeared to be safety wired in a scowl.
I wanted to be anywhere but where I was at this moment. I just knew there was going to be trouble.
Excerpted from “Mama Lee,” in “A Man Who Lost His Wife and Other Stories.”