Sunday, June 4, 2017

(ToM) Two Minutes to Midnight


The year is 2071 AD, and the government has cracked down on
criminal activity in the country. In doing so, jails and prisons are
overpopulated to the point that special release programs have
been put in place to thin out the number of inmates and make
more room in jails and prisons for an ever-growing number of 
prisoners incarcerated. In Texas, in a rural business district of the 
state sits a diner and bar on the outskirts of the city. It operates 
from 10 AM to 12 AM, and on the night of July 4th, it's a stormy 
night when two men enter the classic throwback restaurant that's 
designed to be a replica of the old Wild West from many years ago.

One is a retired County Sheriff in for the night to eat an early
breakfast as America celebrates another birthday. Another is a
convict that has been released from prison nearly three days ago.
It's his second night on the outside after being released from 
prison because of special release. Convicted of murder, he has 
been given a life sentence, but due to overcrowding, has been
given a chance of a commuted sentence. The only stipulation is 
that during the three days, he has on the outside; the public has 
been given opportunity to kill him at first sight and collect $25,000 
for doing so. 
 
The third man in this story is a humble and meek bartender and 
cook who waits and serves the two men as they sit side by side at 
the bar. Unknowingly, they eat their meals together until finally,
the climax of the meeting comes to pass in which the bartender 
plays an ultimate role in the lives of both men which will change 
their lives forever!
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They've called it the local honky tonk. But those who refer to it as
much don't know what that means. It's just a name that's passed
on thru the generations to finally reaching Buck who his family and
friends have affectionately called "Uncle Buck." If you were to ask
Buck what a honky tonk is, you would get any number of answers
depending on how many drinks he's had or who is around him at
the time you ask. In reality, Buck needed help. And that's why 
Jason was working late on the eve of July 4th.


Jason was the bartender and cook for The Honky Tonk a year prior,
and much to his bosses hope, would stick around for this year's
anniversary of working there shortly after the country celebrated
her own festivities. The work was good; the pay was decent, but
Jason’s fondness for the job was getting to interact with the variety
of different people that were regulars to the diner. For Jason, he
had a knack for engaging people and his jovial and sometimes
abrupt frankness often played key roles in pivoting what would
have been either a depressive day for a customer or a quick call to
the police on account of a rowdy drinker at the bar.


It seemed like Jason’s personality was the best fit for the job. Or
perhaps for the time he had been with the Honky Tonk, the
establishment itself had been the best fit for him. Either way, Jason
was always faithful to show up on time and do what his boss
expected of him. If he had any intention of either staying or 
leaving; his boss was without a clue to his plans. However, for 
Jason a sticking point or stipulation that he had agreed to with 
Buck before being hired on at the bar was that he held the 
prerogative to refuse drink to anyone at the bar who was drunk or 
would be drunk if served anymore.


At first, Jason’s boss, Buck was skeptical and thought this was
nonsense. But finally, Buck agreed to hire him and use him
primarily in the kitchen to cook. And then pending a probationary
period of how his performance was in the kitchen; he then would
be considered to serve people at the bar. There hadn't been any
problems to this point. And to the contrary, there seemed to be a
faithful clientele that would regularly come in to eat or have a 
beer. And during the times Buck had been present for these
moments; he recognized that most all of them warmed up to 
Jason quite well.


So it went. The fact was, Jason was an asset to the Honky Tonk 
more than what a cook or bartender ever did there as their job
description went. Time and time again, many who went inside the
Honky Tonk that didn't have a smile on their faces usually, by the
time they left, were wearing one. And to Jason, this was what it
was all about. To him it didn't take having more beers than
necessary to feel happy. And to Buck, he explained all of this
during his interview before taking the job. Buck thought he was a 
religious zealot, but took him on-board anyway. And after 
observing his behavior, mainly checking to see if he would preach 
or what he angrily considered shoving religion down peoples 
throats, he relinquished control to him for opening and closing the 
bar.




In Buck's mind, even though he adamantly opposed Jason’s beliefs
of strict sobriety and chastity, in a round-about way, knew that this
was the type of person that could be trusted. These thoughts often
stirred in the conscience of Buck, and even though he knew that
Jason’s character was good when it came to his convictions, often
wondered about the time when he would ultimately come to his
crossroad of deciding between the two paths: Soberness or
inebriation. For one, it seemed easy to throw his weight around.
And the other was a clear choice that called for counting the cost 
of business and relationships lived out by genuine love, patience, 
and kindness. On the night of July 3rd, that decision was about to 
be made.


Buck was at the bar. (He always helped himself to the beer cooler
upon desire). He said it after popping the lid to the can.“Hey Jason,
make sure you bring in more wood from the ricks outside tonight.”
Jason was at the sink washing some of the day's glasses from
drinkers at the bar. He looked up when Buck
walked past him. “Sure thing, Buck. Hopefully, the storm slows
down a little. Hey, on second though, are you sure about those
logs? They'll be awfully wet, and no real use to the fireplace 
soaked as they are.” Buck threw a curse and started back at him
while taking another gulp from his beer can.
I said bring in the wood! I didn't tell you to give me an evaluation
on whether or not the wood is wet. I want 'em in here by 
tomorrow morning.” Up to this point, this was the loudest Buck 
had been. Jason knew to just affirm what he said and agree. “Look
Buck; I was just saying. That wood out there isn't going to burn 
regardless. I would let it sit to dry, but if it stops raining, I'll bring 
some in. At that Buck cursed again. He ranted about the rain. He 
blasphemed hell. And throwing his now empty beer can in the
 trash-can near Jason, he yelled, “And if you don't get that wood in
here tonight,don't bother showing up here tomorrow afternoon.
Period!”


Buck didn't wait for a reply. He stormed around Jason and grabbed
his jacket from the coat rack and exited the front door. The
outburst didn't last over five minutes. It was over. Drying off the 
last remaining piece, he placed the glass on the counter beside the
others he had just dried and walked back to the kitchen to
clean up. The sound of bells soon hit against the door, voicing the
arrival of another patron in the restaurant. Jason knew this wasn't
Buck. He hollered from the back, “Be right there!”




When he came out, the client that had just come in was already
seated at the rectangular bar and reading the menu. “Is it too late
to order a plate?”, he asked. Looking at his watch, Jason 
considered. 
It's 11:30. We close at 12. But I'll tell you what. If you don't mind
getting your food in a to-go plate and taking it with you, I can go
back and fire up the grill." “That'll be fine.”, the man said.
Okay, are you ready to order now or do you need more time?” 
“Give me a few more seconds.”, replied the man. “No problem”, 
said Jason. “I'm going to go back and clean up a little more, and I'll 
be right back.”
While Jason went back to the kitchen, the bells on the door
introduced another visitor coming in. Jason finished removing the
debris in the dust pan by banging it inside the garbage can and
walked back out to the front. When he got back out he was
expecting to notify the next customer that had come in that the
restaurant had closed and only the last client who was still there
was going to get served. “I'm sorry, sir. We're closed.”
I knew you probably were. I've just walked 10 miles from within
the City limit. You wouldn't happen to have any scraps or anything
small you could get rid of, would you?” The man was old. He wore 
a leather hat and wore a heavy poncho that went down below his
knees. He was also short. Sizing him up, he might have been barely
over 5 feet. His ethnicity was Hispanic origins by his appearance,
but he spoke with a clear American accent. There was barely even 
a trace of Spanish to his words. Granted for him, he took Jason’s
comments that the restaurant had closed because he made no
move to take off his outer clothes or step closer inside the interior.
But there he remained. Jason wasn't the first one to make the next
word or move.


10 miles is a long way to walk in this weather, man.” It was the
client at the bar. Next, he made no effort to engage in conversation
further, but instead turned his head from the visitor back to the 
bar and said, “It's a good way to find trouble, too.” He stretched
out his arms over his head. Reaching down to his side, he flipped
his coat to one side, revealing a pistol, and then unholstered it and
placed the gun on top of the bar counter. It was a .357 magnum.


The visitor peered across the room at the man at the bar, putting

his hand up, he said, “That's alright.” Backing up, he was about to 

walk back out the door when the man at the bar called to Jason

and said, If you don't mind, can you just make double of what I'm

getting and half it with this guy?” Jason didn't say anything.

Instead, he paused for a moment, glancing at the visitor who was

eyeing him and the man at the bar back and forth.




Fried chicken sandwich with a side of fries is what I'm having. That
is if this man even likes that.” The man at the counter did not turn
to face either Jason or the visitor. Instead, after his offer, he took
out his phone and remarked, “11:40 PM.”
Lifting his head up to the ceiling and uttering something silently, 
the stranger finally walked toward the
bar and sat down on the stool next to the patron who had just
ordered his dinner. Jason slowly walked to the front door and
locked it and then made his way back to behind the bar and asked
the two men what they wanted to drink. “Ice-tea,” said the visitor
that had just come in.


A can of beer that's anything imported.” , replied the other. A
couple of minutes later Jason returned with the men's beverages.
Before returning to the kitchen to cook the meals, however, he
reached up and turned the big screen television on that was
suspended above the bar and onto the wall.
Gentlemen, feel free to change the channel to anything you want,
and I'll be back in about 15 or 20 minutes with your plates.” With
that, he slid the remote control over the counter and placed it
between the two men. The younger of the two men, (the one who
had placed his gun on the counter) started the conversation.
Where 'ya headed?”
Just over the county line, about a half mile from here.” The newly
arrived guest had not taken off his poncho and was having trouble
sitting beside the other man. After sitting for several moments in
silence and not making many motions to look up, he asked the
younger, “What do you do for living?”


Retired Sheriff”, replied the man. He said it abruptly and not
without any scorn. Or so it seemed to the elder. Lifting his eyes, 
the older man glanced quickly next to him and took in the sight of
the pistol lying on the counter. “That sounds like a good 
profession.” The old man couldn't help but sound nervous when
he said it. If the anxiety showed to the Sheriff; he didn't show it. 
Instead, he grabbed the remote control off the counter and flipped
on the TV. For several seconds they sat there in silence as the TV 
played.


After a few commercials, a broadcast of local news came on the air
and the meteorologist started talking.
Who cares what the temperature was like 12 hours ago. What's
the temperature like now and tomorrow?”, the sheriff sounded his
disdain, but instead of someone with true angst he shook his head
and chuckled. “These folks on TV can report death and killing every
day, but they'll never know what it's like to be really in the midst of
that kind of stuff. It's nothing but sorrow and heart-break.”
The retired sheriff was voicing his thoughts out loud. As the news
segment changed on TV and another picture came up, the
older visitor silently wished the sheriff would keep going on about
the pitfalls of law enforcement and the nonchalance of news
reporting, but it was too late. He had stopped talking, and the
newscaster was now sharing another news bit. As the older man's
picture was broadcast on the screen he slowly stood up from the
stool and stood erect and stiff. But by now it had already begun.



As soon as this happened, Jason walked out from behind the
wooden doors, separating the bar area from the kitchen and he
was carrying the men's to-go plates. As soon as he saw what was
on the television screen and what was taking place at the bar, he
quickly walked over to the men and placed the plates on the
counter. After the retired sheriff saw the visitor's mugshot
broadcast from the screen he quickly picked up his revolver and
waited until the news woman got thru reporting the bit. She was in
her late 30's or early 40's. The sound of her tone while reporting
the facts of the man's case was concise and deliberate.Any 
emotion that conveyed as hostile, neutral, or passive seemed lost
in the segment.
It was straight-forward as any unbiased report could be except for
the part where she talked about the three day bounty on the
man's head and reward for the one who carried it out. If any 
observer that cared to evaluate the tone of her voice; she almost 
sounded as if killing the old man would be a just thing to do, just as
long as the killing occurred the furthest away from her as possible. 
And when it came to the reward, it was as if money was not the 
least bit stained with blood. The bartender stood in the middle of
the two men; only separated by the width of the counter. The
sheriff had his gun pulled and aimed at the old man. The
bartender, Jason, started from behind the bar.


Now wait a minute, this is a place to eat and drink; not kill.” “Tell
that to this man who is a murderer.”, said the Sheriff. He said it
coolly but with an edge that sounded as if it wasn't quite with a
motivation to carry out the law's option to kill the man, but
certainly to do something else that would be dreadful. And the old
man knew it, and he still stood there not moving an inch.


Sure, the law gives you the option to shoot him and collect 
money, but what does that really make you to kill someone in cold 
blood?”
The retired Sheriff knew it was a good question, and he
momentarily looked at Jason but still had the gun aimed at the old
man. Jason continued. “Yes, this man did a horrendous crime, and
I'm sure he had a lot of years in prison to think of the hurt and pain
he caused others, but just as the law locked him up for over 40
years and let him out, so there's another law that says, “all
have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” This man's sin of
murder is a stench in the nostrils of God just like any other sin is
repulsive in the sight of God as well.” There's none righteous, no
not one, remember that.”


The old man was now looking at Jason as he went on. “If you shoot
this man with your gun, Sheriff, what you would be doing is making
yourself his Judge, and there's only one Judge and that's Jesus
Christ.” Fellas, I've made your dinners, and I'd wish nothing less
than for you both to take them out of here and remember that it's
the kindness of God that leads any man to repent.


For you, sir, of what you've done.” Jason pointed back to the TV
with his hand. “And to you Sheriff, of the sins you've committed."
And to that, the Sheriff lowered his gun, reholstered it, and picked
up his plate of food and walked away.
As he made his way toward the door, he didn't look back but 
walked straight out to his truck and drove off. Still, inside the 
restaurant, the two men stood next to each other while the TV 
broadcast ran a live countdown to
12 AM. The clock was at 1 minute by the time the old man left. 60
seconds later, the interior of the restaurant was pitch black dark
and the bartender was nowhere to be found. The next day as the
owner of the diner, Buck, returned to open up the restaurant, he
was sorrowful to not find one thing: the collection of wood logs
inside the diner.


And secondly, he was perplexed to find a napkin lying on the bar
with the Bible passage 2 Peter 3:10-13 written on it. "But the day 
of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a
roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and
everything done in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be
destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You
ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of
God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the 
destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in 
the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward 
to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells."




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