Copyright© 2013 by Refusenik
History 303, History of the Roman Empire, was not well attended, but that meant plenty of available seats. Scott nodded to a classmate and dropped his backpack beside his chair. At six weeks in, with ten to go, the original enrollment of twenty-five students had dwindled by half. He thought it was a good class, but the professor was notoriously tough.
His phone chirped with a text message and Scott scrambled to silence it. One guaranteed way to get on the professor's bad side was to get caught playing with your phone.
A message from Shirl read simply, 'Checkbook handy?'
"You've got three minutes before the start of class, Mr. MacIntyre," the professor said from the lectern. The man was sorting notes, but didn't look perturbed.
The remaining class members and the professor had reached a detente. They were the ones who were going to stick it out and he knew it.
Scott tapped out a quick, 'Why?'
The reply came immediately. 'Reefer 4 beer cooler busted.'
"Well, crap," Scott said.
"Problem, Mr. MacIntyre?"
"Beer cooler broke."
"Definitely, I apologize, but I have to go." Scott grabbed his pack and headed for the door.
"He's really ditching class for a beer emergency?" the professor asked as the door closed.
Scott made good time on the bike. A beer delivery truck and a commercial heating and air truck were parked outside the Black Horse. The back door was propped open. Scott followed the sounds of commotion to the beer cooler.
The beer deliveryman passed him, heading to the truck, pushing two full kegs on a dolly.
"You're not going to be happy," the beer man said.
Scott remembered his name, "That bad, Karl?"
"'Fraid so, but I've got an idea for you."
"Come find me when you're done," Scott said.
The walk-in cooler was located behind the main wall of the primary bar. The interior reflected the cooler's age and weak lights in the ceiling flickered. Normally the cooler held a dozen kegs, with backups, and cases of bottled beer stacked five high. Karl had been busy removing the stock to his refrigerated truck. A small crowd of people surrounded a ladder in the empty beer cooler.
A man was standing on the ladder with his head buried in the guts of the cooler's evaporator assembly.
Shirl saw him and shook her head. "It's lousy timing with the weekend upon us, but it could be worse."
"What's the story?" he asked.
"Julio," Shirl pointed to the man on the ladder, "is our guy for heating and cooling. Barley was never big on spending money wisely, as you know."
The previous owner of the Black Horse was a cheapskate of the first order, besides being an addict and a terrible businessman.
"Let me guess, it's come back to haunt us?" Scott said.
"Big time," Shirl replied. "Julio's kept this thing running with spit and baling wire, but he says it's done for good this time. Compressor's shot, blower has a bad bearing, and the system barely held coolant when it was running."
Julio climbed down from the ladder. He explained what Shirl had in greater detail and went over a series of options with them.
Shirl had the authority to authorize expenditures below ten grand without consulting Scott, but the repair was over the limit. He authorized the work. It wasn't as if they had a choice, keg beer sales were critical to the bar's bottom line.
Julio went to his truck to begin ordering the replacement unit and left the two owners to commiserate.
"At least the downtime will give us a chance to give this walk-in a good cleaning," Scott said. "It's borderline disgusting."
"I'll call our weekend cleaning crew," Shirl said.
"Why bother, I can handle a mop and a sponge."
"I'd pay to see that," Shirl said.
"Lend me a spare body," Scott said, "and I'll tackle it this afternoon."
"This a bad time?" Karl the beer man asked.
"What's it going to cost me?" Scott asked.
"This would come out of our budget," Karl said.
"I like it already."
"Careful, boss," Shirl said. "Karl's the regional sales king for the distributorship."
"That's because of my sunny personality."
"What do you have for us Karl?" Scott asked.
"As the vendor, we're responsible for the product, how it tastes and how it's presented."
"He wants to do the taps," Shirl said.
Karl explained, for Scott's benefit, how everything from the keg to the tap head was the vendor's territory. The Black Horse's keg lines were old and the tap heads worn and pitted.
"How long to do this?" Scott asked.
"I can have a crew here when you open tomorrow and they'll be done by happy hour."
Scott looked at Shirl, who shrugged.
"Sold," Scott decided.
"Now, about your beer problem," Karl said. "I've taken back all your untapped kegs. To get you through the weekend, I can provide you with a large rolling bottle cooler and the stock for it. Combined with the one you have behind the bar, you should be able to keep up with demand."
"We could run a special on bottled beer," Shirl said. "Might keep the crowd happy."
"Do you have room in your kitchen cooler for cases?" Karl asked. "I know what you go through in kegs on a weekend. I can deliver the equivalent in bottles from what we've got at the warehouse."
"We'll make room," Shirl said.
"You guys work it out," Scott said. "I'm going to get changed and field day this cooler." Shirl was the one who ran the Black Horse and that was fine by him.
The bartender pointed Scott to the cleaning closet and promised that Shirl was sending him a helper. Scott was wearing an old black t-shirt and his rattiest pair of jeans and sneakers. He started reading the backs of various cleaning product bottles to formulate his plan of attack.
A voice with a Slavic accent asked, "Mr. MacIntyre?"
The wide human with the accent filled the narrow hallway. The man wasn't fat, and would have been a strongman or a wrestler in another life.
"My name is Yegor. Miss Shirl says I'm to help you."
Scott extended his hand, "Call me Scott. Where are you from, Yegor?"
"That's north of one of the 'stans isn't it? Part of Siberia?"
"North of Kazakhstan, you know it?"
"I like geography," Scott replied. "What do you do here at the Black Horse?"
"Am student. For now, I work as a bar back. Sometimes I wash dishes."
"You know about the cooler?"
"It is broke."
"Right," Scott said. "It's also filthy. I'd like to give it a good cleaning while we have the chance, but I don't want to asphyxiate us in the process." He indicated the array of cleaning supplies. "Which of these do you think we should use?"
Yegor pointed to a plastic gallon jug, "I have used this one."
The cooler was empty, which revealed debris from months and years of cold storage. The floor of the far end was covered with the remains of a mystery substance that had desiccated in the dry air and turned to powder. Dark stains marked the corners of the rectangular box and the metallic walls were covered with white scale.
They started with the ceiling and worked their way down the walls. Yegor was a good worker, but Scott realized the man wasn't going to speak unless he initiated a conversation. He appreciated the irony of being on the opposite side of that situation.
"What are you studying, Yegor?"
"Agricultural sciences," his quiet coworker said.
"You family are farmers?"
"My father," Yegor said, "is engineer for railroad. I will be first farmer." The big man wrung his mop and returned to the wall. "Farmers always have food and is honorable work."
"Farmers are good people," Scott agreed.
"Is true you fought in the war?" Yegor asked.
"Marines," Scott said. "I was in Afghanistan, twice."
"I was conscript in Russian Army, fixed tank engines," Yegor said. "My father's brother fought in Afghanistan many years ago, he did not return."
"That was a bad war for you guys."
"Your war was good?" Yegor asked.
"I came home and my buddies came home. I think that's as good as it gets."
Yegor grunted. "This is truth."
That was as much conversation as Yegor had in him.
The smell of ammonia in the cooler was strong, and they had to change the water in the buckets frequently, but they were making progress. The work was dirty, and Scott's tennis shoes weren't doing a good job of keeping his feet dry.
He scrubbed at a particularly stubborn patch of something, but wasn't accomplishing much.
Yegor handed him a scraper. "Try this."
Scott noticed the ring on Yegor's hand. "You're married?"
"Elena," Yegor smiled. "She studies digital journalism and hopes to—"
"Fight," the bartender shouted into the back, "fight upstairs."
Scott dropped the scraper and told Yegor to follow him. They burst through the bar door and ran for the stairs. He climbed them two at a time and found a standoff.
One side was the Black Horse wait staff in a loose semicircle, the other side was a man holding his hands over a bleeding nose and a few of his friends seated in a booth.
The hostess, Candice, was grimacing and shaking her hand.
"What the hell is going on here?" Scott demanded.