Bruce Mundhenke

J.C.

He wasn’t very big. He stood almost to my shoulders. Four foot, eleven inches. He told me one time that he had been hassled all his life because he was small. He was also quite skinny, even as an older man. He had loved beer and marijuana since his teenage years. He had never been very work brittle, but he always seemed to get by somehow. Mostly, when he worked, he helped farmers who owned small farms, but he had done a few short stints at factories through the years. 

I knew him casually since we were nine years old, but because of circumstances of fate, I got to know him much better in these last two years. Two years ago, my live-in girlfriend physically attacked me while I was driving down the road. I was stopped by the police, charged with DUI, and lost my driving privileges. I rented an apartment uptown, began drinking in skid row bars, and struck up a friendship with J.C..

I found myself walking the two and a half blocks that would take me to see J.C. at the Rendezvous Tavern. I did this nearly every morning. It had become my routine for the past two years. I worked the night shift in a warehouse on the edge of town, loading trucks for shipments to fast food restaurants. At fifty four years old, I was still in pretty good shape. I had an inexpensive apartment just off the square in the small town where I live. My health had held out. My expenses were minimal. There were two grocery stores that were just a short walk from my apartment. And skid row was just a few minutes away…

In our town, skid row was a one block area on East Main that had four bars, two on each side of the street. It had a shady reputation, to say the least. The bars there were frequented by mostly the ragged people of the community. Twenty five years ago, it had boomed. When there was more work, a mix of people went there for sex and drugs. These days, the work wasn’t there, neither were the crowds. Still, at night, it got busy sometimes. The older folks were stoners, but most of the younger folks were into meth. These days it could get pretty mean on skid row at night.

I walked the brick sidewalk from my apartment past the courthouse square, down Main Street, that would take me to the Rendezvous Tavern. As I walked, the bell at the top of the courthouse rang nine times. Nine a.m.. I passed the statue of Abraham Lincoln with a small pig at his feet, which graced a corner of the courthouse lawn.

The story was that pigs were squealing beneath the old courthouse. Abe requested a Writ of Quietus. I guess in those days, court proceedings were sometimes interrupted by squealing pigs. This happened when Lincoln rode the circuit to practice law at various county courthouses in Illinois.

The businesses uptown around the square were struggling. A Walmart had sprung up on the edge of town. Many of the young people in town had moved away, either to go to school, or to find work elsewhere. The coal mines and better paying factory jobs had disappeared.

J.C. had a mobility scooter. He simply called it his scooter. He lived about one half mile from uptown and rode it uptown nearly every day of the week. He received social security disability for various medical problems, including muscle atrophy and cardiac problems. He had had three heart attacks and had a defibrillator. He smoked cigarettes like a dragon. He was a daily pot smoker and drank beer like the Coneheads.

His scooter was parked out front of the bar across the street. I crossed Main Street and walked into the front door of the Rendezvous Tavern. J.C. sat on a barstool near the end of the bar watching Julie, the bartender, stock the coolers with beer. He had been obsessed with her for the two years I had known him well. Even though they had never had sexual relations, they often seemed like an old married couple, friendly at times, at each other’s throat at other times.

I sat down on a barstool next to him.

“How you doing old man?” I asked.

“Pretty fair,” he replied.

“Julie,” I said, “get me and J.C. a couple of beers.”

She walked over and put a couple of Miller Lites in front of us, then went back to stocking the coolers.

J.C. watched her walk away. Julie was in her early thirties and looked pretty good, especially when you considered how hard she had partied for the last ten years or so. She had long brown hair, nice-sized breasts, and a great ass to boot. This despite having developed a fancy for the meth as of late.

I got along well with Julie. She had a good sense of humor and was fun to party with, but she drank like a sailor. I had never been intimate with her, but on several occasions we went bar hopping together. It cost me a pretty penny.

J.C. quit watching Julie and turned to me.

“Wanna hitter, Alan?

“Sure, brother.”

He began to load one pinch hitter after another. We took turns smoking them, while sitting at the bar. J.C. and I had an unspoken agreement. He supplied the pot and I bought our beer. After we had smoked three one hitters each, I made my way over to the jukebox. I played 8 or 9 fossil rock songs. I put on Creedece Clearwater Revival, the Moody Blues, Jackson Browne, Bob Dylan, and others. Sometimes we would listen to songs from the soundtrack of Oh Brother Where Art Thou, laughing like crazy at times while they played. We were, after all, hillbillies in hillbilly heaven.

Greg, the owner, came in the door as J.C. was smoking a one hitter.

“I told you guys to go to the restroom to do that shit.”

Julie laughed. “Nobody is in here, Greg.”

“I don’t give a shit. It’s not cool.”

J.C. laughed. “We won’t do it no more. I promise, Greg.”

J.C. had told him that a hundred times. We both laughed and J.C. put the one hitter and pot in his pocket. Greg walked down to the other end of the bar to talk business with Julie.

J.C. was grinning like a cat eating shit. I loved him just as he was. I wanted him to discover the truth that had been revealed to me many years ago. And the joy that came with the discovery. 

Many years ago, in Vietnam, I was at the lowest point in my life. I asked Jesus for help. I experienced a powerful spiritual experience shortly after that. I felt like I was in heaven for about 30 seconds. There are no words that  would describe it. That thirty seconds seemed like an eternity. Everything was one. Everything was connected. Everything was beautiful. There was nothing but love, joy, and peace. Thirty seconds of bliss. It was more help than I could have dreamed I would get. I never did become involved in organized religion, however. I always thought of myself as a barbarian Christian.

“J.C., don’t you ever have any curiosity about God?”

“Don’t start that shit again, Alan. I’ve told you before, all we are is specks of carbon, that’s it.”

“J.C., God spoke and made everything.”

“Bullshit, Alan. If there’s a God, where did he come from?”

“He always was, J.C..”

“Bullshit. He had to come from somewhere.”

“He always was, J.C..”

J.C. was not concerned with the origin of the universe or what events would unfold in the distant future. His concern with the past was limited to his own remembered experiences within his lifetime. His only concern for the future was related to his plans for the next 30 days or so.

The front door of the tavern opened. In walked Jerry, an old friend of us both. He owned the bar next door a few years ago. He was a little older than us. He had retired from the coal mine. He had been a wildman in his youth, but had mellowed out considerably in recent years. He sat down at the bar and ordered a beer.

“What are you drunken clowns doing?”

We both laughed and I told him we were contemplating the nature of the universe.

“You guys are too fucked up to contemplate anything.”

J.C. handed him the bag and the hitter. “Shut up, Jerry. Go to the pisser and have a couple hits.”

Jerry took the bag and the hitter and made his way to the men’s room.

Meanwhile, J.C. was watching Julie again. She was stocking the liquor beneath the bar.

“She’s on that shit again, Alan. Look at her mouth.”

She stood there with just the bar between us, scrutinizing an order form. Her lips were moving this way and that, something she did when smoking meth.

“Look at that camel toe, Alan.”

Her jeans were very tight. She gave J.C. a dirty look. “Up yours J.C., you pervert.”

Jerry came back from the men’s room smiling and gave J.C. back his pot. It was pretty decent reefer.

The front door opened and in came Joe and Mark. Joe worked for a construction company and was often out of town. Mark did maintenance work on oil rigs and other odds and ends. He also did a lot of trapping. Often in the winter, the back of his truck would have dead beavers, muscrats, , coons,  and coyotes in it.

They were both legends in our area for the amount of whiskey they could put away. When they were barhopping, often fights would break out in the bars they left, because the younger guys would try to keep up with them and then become mean and stupid. It happened often.

They sat down at the bar and ordered beers.

“Alan, did I ever tell you about the time I took J C. on my coyote run last winter?”

“I don’t think  I heard that story, Mark.”

“Well, we came up on a coyote in one of my traps and I gave J.C. the pistol and told him to shoot it.”

“Was he a dead aim?”

“Oh, he shot him. Made him pretty mad! Then I had to finish him off.” Everyone in the bar laughed.

“Bullshit Mark! He moved right when I shot and you know it.” Everyone laughed again.Jerry looked pretty stoned. He looked at me and J.C. and shook his  head.

“You guys are really something.”

Everyone laughed again. Mark finished his beer. I saw him wink at Joe. “Julie, give us all a shot of Beam.”

She set up the shots and everyone did one. Then I ordered shots of Wild Turkey. I didn’t have to work that night. I knew better, but I didn’t care. Mark, Joe, and I took turns of buying Jim Beam, Wild Turkey, and some other brand of Whiskey I’d never heard of. J.C., Jerry, and I were smashed. Mark and Joe left the bar laughing. Julie had Greg bring J.C.’s scooter into the bar and called a cab for J.C., Jerry, and me.

When the cab let me off in front of my apartment, it was a long climb to the top of the stairs. When I got inside, I found my way to my recliner in the living room. I looked out the window of my apartment at the courthouse clock. It was only 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

I sat in my recliner, in the living room of my apartment. My eyelids were heavy. I was nearly dreaming while awake. I was thinking about J.C. as he was now, but also about various recollections I had of him throughout the years.

I remembered him in his John Deere baseball uniform when he was 10 years old. The spectators would laugh when he came to bat. He was so short and his strike zone so small that he nearly always walked. He was left handed. Sometimes he would ground out, or on rare occasions hit a single between the first and second basemen. He loved baseball and was a diehard Cubs fan.

In his teenage years, I used to see him at the skating rink. He was truly one of the best roller skaters I have ever seen. He could skate backwards better and more gracefully than anyone else could skate forward.

He married a pretty good looking girl when he was young. They had two daughters. She left him when the girls were quite young. He drank a lot and worked very little. After she left him, he began drinking even more and smoking more pot. He partied a lot with some girls in a neighboring town in those days. You would sometimes see them drop him off after a two or three day binge at an uptown bar. He would be drunker than hell and his hair would be all messed up.

Many years ago, he was convicted of DUI and lost his driving privileges. He got around that by using a riding lawnmower to drive around town. One night, when he was barhopping on his riding lawnmower, he passed out and crashed into the door of the corner drug store, breaking the glass door. This resulted in his second DUI and a large fine.

During this period, I was sitting at an uptown bar when a guy came in laughing like hell and proceeded to tell everyone sitting at the bar of how he had been in court to hear J.C.’s account to the judge of why he hadn’t made payments on past fines. He told the judge that on account of all the rain caused by El Nino that year, he had not gotten much work from the farmers. The guy said the whole courtroom cracked up, including the judge.

I remember once, many years ago, a bunch of us talked J.C. into running for mayor. He did, but would not campaign. One day I gave him a lot of shit because he wouldn’t stop drinking long enough to campaign a little. He told me he didn’t want to be mayor. He had decided to run for State’s Attourney. I told him he needed a law degree for that. Even though he lost his bid for mayor, be got quite a few votes.

He got a mobility scooter after he became disabled. He rode it all over town, drunk or sober. The police never bothered him. If they thought he was too loaded, they put his scooter in the trunk of their squad car and took him home.

One time, about thirty years ago, I spent 10 days in jail with J.C.. We had been playing softball with a bunch of people out at the lake and drinking keg beer. We rode back into town in Doug’s pickup truck. Doug and Zeke were in the cab. J.C. and I were in the back of the truck. When we got uptown on the courthouse square, there were four guys sitting on the courthouse lawn. One of them had had a fight with Zeke a few days back. Zeke was drunk and demanded Doug pull in. We stopped on the square and a fight broke out. The guys Zeke had a bone to pick with had a billy club. Also, one of them went to the trunk of his car and got  a shotgun. The city police came onto the scene. Zeke and I spent 10 days in jail before we got bailed out. Doug bailed out immediately. J.C. spent the rest of the summer in the county jail. Zeke’s dad told him the guy with the shotgun had fired, but the shell misfired. I hunted a lot when I was young and never had a shell misfire. 

During my stay in jail, the trustee, Jim, was on work release. He worked for a landscaper. He brought me and Zeke and J.C. pot to smoke every day. We got stoned every day during the ten days I was in jail.

Zeke, J.C., and I were in the bullpen. We spent our days in an open area with a concrete table and benches. At night, we were locked into three individual cells that were side by side. One of the jailors was an old man. One night, when we were being locked into our individual cells for the night, Zeke asked him to sing us a song.

He sang a few verses of an old hillbilly song I’d never heard before. I can still remember the first verse. It went:

“Don’t send my son to prison

He didn’t do no wrong,

He didn’t steal them chickens,

They just followed him on home.”

Then he told us good night. After he left, we waited a few minutes, then lit a joint and passed it back and forth from cell to cell. At one point, we heard the jailor’s keys jangling in the distance, then it stopped. J.C. was holding the joint at the time and we heard his toilet flush. Zeke told J.C. he couldn’t believe he done that and promised to choke him in the morning. I believe he really would have if I hadn’t talked him out if it.

J.C. would give anyone the shirt off his back if they were down and out. He didn’t like to talk about politics or religion. He was mostly interested in things he could touch or feel, things right un front of his face.

I woke up in my recliner at 2a.m.. I swore I would never drink whiskey again and I never have. Not long after that time, a woman who had been a close friend of mine for several years moved in with me. For the most part, I quit going to the bars, but I would still go and see J.C. once in a while and now and then he would visit me. On one of these visits, he told me his time was short. I told him he would dance on my grave.

About a month later, after a night off from work, I got up out of bed and turned the television on. There was a preacher on television, preaching in a huge, lavish church, to a large congregation. He was telling his followers that after the rapture, they would be walking on streets of gold and living in mansions, but the people left behind were in for big trouble.

My understanding of what Jesus said was in reference to places of rest, not expensive mansions. And the Bible, as I understand it, doesn’t talk about a rapture, but it does speak of an eventual change into spiritual bodies when the Lord returns. I turned the television off. I showered, then started the familiar walk down the brick sidewalk that would take me down to skid row. There was no scooter in front of the Rendezvous.

I walked into the Rendezvous and sat down at the bar. Julie gave me a bottle of beer and took my money. Greg sat at the end of the bar. Ed, Bill, and Mark sat a little way down from me. Everyone was quiet.

“Anybody seen J.C.?”

Bill told me that nobody had seen him for two days, so Julie sent him over to check on him. He said the door to his apartment was unlocked and he went in to find J.C. dead, lying on his bed. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say anything. I finished my beer and left.

As I walked back to my apartment, my mind wandered.  As much as I could know, God was not in J.C.’s thoughts, but I believed J.C. was with the Lord and the Lord would accept him and love him. J.C. would know the truth. Truth is love. That is what I believed. It was conceivable though, that J.C.’s ashes would merge with the earth to drift through time and space toward some unknowable destiny, without any awareness whatsoever.

4 thoughts on “Bruce Mundhenke

  1. Would love to hear more stories from the Rendezvous Tavern. You had me at “He was a daily pot smoker and drank beer like the Coneheads.” Good stuff.

    Like

  2. This story is fantastic, Bruce. Your life experience and age (I mean that in the best way) comes through in the way the story is written. You remind me of Scott McClanahan, if you’ve heard of him. He’s a big influence of mine.

    Like

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