I recently learned one of my favorite hangouts burned down. This was my little way of remembering fond memories. Anyway... enjoy.
Pass you by
In the scorching heat of day, the humidity was suffocating. Now, with the sun pushing lower to the horizon, people were starting to emerge from their air conditioned refuge. As I pulled open the worn screen door, Calypso music drifted to me from hidden speakers. Bruce the bartender nodded to me and continued washing glasses behind the bar. Oversize wooden spools that formally held power cables served as tables. Mismatching stools surrounded the peeling wood panel bar. Without asking what I'd like, Bruce pours me a Red Stripe from the tap and serves it in a mason jar. Perhaps I should wait for the others in the rattan chair in the corner, instead of sitting at the bar.
“Where did you get that shark jaw, Bruce?”
“Caught that off Key West back in the sixties,” he said with a smile. “Got that shell on the same trip too.” motioning to the leatherback turtle shell near the shark teeth. “Trophies of a bygone era.”
“Hey, don't get like that old man,” came a voice from the door. “Look who it is... Stevie Wonderbread. You finally showed up.”
Nobody called me that nick name anymore. Turning to see who stood in the front door, I almost spit my beer out. “Chris, you fat pollack, get over here and buy me a beer, You made me spill mine.”
Chris and I hugged each other like the old friends we were. Bruce actually came out from his usual roost behind the bar and set two freshly poured beers down for us.
“You're looking good, man,” Chris said as he sipped his brew. “How ya been?”
“It's been too long Chris. Is everybody coming? I didn't think I'd get here.”
Chris shrugged. “You never know who'll show up. But now that you're here, I'll bet the whole Maple hill gang crashes this place.”
“I've missed you man,”
“Next time, don't move to California,” Chris said.
Tilting my head up so I could see the oversize rattan chair back, I could almost imagine being down in Key West... or better yet, some lost island in the Bahamas. The palm trees and Bruce's Caribbean souvenirs certainly helped the illusion.
“Typical.” another voice sounded from the door as the screen clapped shut. “You bums started without me.”
“Dave, quit your bitching and pull up a stool.”
“My two oldest friends are fighting like the bitchy girls they are,” I said.
Dave sat down on a semi-sturdy chair and made himself comfortable. This time Chris brought three mason jar Red Stripes. “Only the best toilet paper coasters for my friends,” he said.
Setting the beers down, Chris gazed over my shoulder before breaking out in a grin. “Here's one I haven't seen in a while.”
Turning to where Chris had looked, I saw a group of faded pictures on the wall. One in particular caught my attention. The people in the picture were hoisting their glasses up in a toast. Friends and peers long forgotten. Scrawled on the bottom in blue ink were the words; Xmas '88. Looking closer, I found what I was searching for. There I sat in the corner with one arm around a girl, stein of beer raised in the other hand. The office Christmas party. We were celebrating the completion of a project that had to be done before the new year. The girl in the photo looked up seductively at my turned away face.
“Hey, what ever happened to you and that girl,” Dave said. “You must have gotten lucky that night.”
Honestly, I didn't know. The face with the gorgeous green eyes and long hair that I found attractive in girls. You'd think I'd remember getting laid. For the life of me, I couldn't recall her name.
“Hey Dave,” Chris called out. “Do you remember this chick's name?” as he pointed to the faded picture. Dave leaned in for a closer inspection.
“What is it?” I asked.
“I can't believe you had that much hair back then.”
The three of us fell back into our seats laughing. “That maybe true, but G looked good in a dress.” Pausing in momentary surprise, I realized that I remembered something. “Her name began with a G.”
“That it?” Chris said. His eyes seemingly held some vital piece of information back. I knew him too well. Generous to a fault, lousy poker face.
“For now,” I said.
“Don't worry about it,” Dave said casually. “It'll come to you.”
Chris wanted to change the subject. “So tell us what's been going on in your life man.”
“Well, not much to talk about,” I admitted. “Moved away, had a few kids... I came back a few times though. As a matter of fact, the last time I was here...” cold realization washed over me. Chris visibly held his breath, clearly awaiting the next words out of my mouth. “Go on.” He prompted.
“The day I gave your eulogy.”
Chris nodded. “It was a beautiful service. Nice touch, by the way.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You and shmuck face,” pointing to Dave. “Snuck a bottle of wine into my arms before they closed the casket.”
At that moment I needed a drink. Something strong to calm my growing apprehension... and all I had was this lousy beer! My hands fell slack as memories began sifting to the fore of my consciousness. Chris had always been overweight. One winter day, he fell on the ice as his strained heart beat for the last time, never to get up again. For a moment, I didn't see the portly adult he'd become. My mind's eye recalled the stocky pitcher of our high school baseball team who threw a no hitter during the playoffs.
“Ah, that's more like it,” Chris said soothingly. He straightened in his seat, gray hair returning to it's original shade of brown. Gone was the middle age man who stood welcoming me to my favorite hangout. A much younger version of Chris sat smiling as he reached for his beer.
“Hope I don't get carded in here.” He winked conspiratorially while sipping his drink.
Turning to Dave I asked, “Are you dead too? Am I dead? Is this a dream?”
“Answer that question yourself.” Dave replied evenly.
“Gloria and I couldn't make your funeral,” I said. “She was undergoing chemo treatment for breast cancer.”
Dave slowly nodded.
Tears burst from my eyes as I sought out the the hand of my long lost friend. “I am so sorry.”
“It's okay,” he said. “I understand.”
Feelings of sadness and joy mixing together in an eruption of emotion was too much for me to bear. Hiding my face behind my trembling hands, I sought to bring my feelings under control.
A nudge at my right knee demanded my attention. Looking down, my eyes fell on flowing locks of golden yellow hair.
My old dog Snoops licked my hand in recognition, tail wagging fiercely.
“He comes in every so often,” Dave said. “Looking for you.”
“I'm dead aren't I?”
If anyone could give me a straight answer, it would be my two dearest friends.
“Buddy,” Chris gently placed his hand on my shoulder. “We've all been waiting for you. You finally found your way here.”
“So is this...” The question died in my mouth before it could stumble past my teeth.
“This is where you were the happiest,” Dave said.
More memories sprang from the murky depths. “This place,” I said. “It burnt down years ago.” Both my friends nodded silently.
“Where's Gloria?” I asked. “You said the whole gang would show.”
Chris slowly shook his head and held up his hands. Dave cleared his throat, getting my attention.
“She always hated bars,” Dave said. “She only came in here that one time because of you.” he indicated the picture on the wall.
Snoops choose that moment to retreat out the front door. As the screen door gently slapped after his retreating tail, I knew where the love of my life would be.
“She's waiting outside for you buddy,” Chris said. “Welcome to the club.”