Saturday Afternoon, 11/25/06.
In a feeble attempt to prove that I am not a vampire, I brave 50-degree temperatures and bright sunshine to have lunch in the dim, wood-tone-hued cavern that is the downstairs Pine. Visually it’s like a Bizarro version of a Las Vegas casino: instead of bright lights 24/7, the lighting is totally 2 AM, which means that any time you glance outside at the sunlight-dappled street, you end up searing your retinas. After buying books at both Strands (downtown and uptown), I lug my incredibly-packed shoulderbag down University and am greeted with a sign on the front door which announces that the Pine will not be serving food till 12:30. Evidently the kitchen staff didn’t get in until long past their start time, stranding those early morning pub-crawlers who might have wanted fries with their 9 AM stout. I park myself at the bar; Elijah is tending, and Jynah is gamely running around trying to set everything up, so it looks like none of the wait staff showed up early either. Well, it’s the last day, and based on what I saw when I left last night at 2ish, I’m guessing that everyone probably got home about 90 minutes ago.
I’m not on a stool more than thirty seconds when Richie comes down from upstairs and does a quadruple take when he sees me. I can tell exactly what’s going through his mind.
What’s going through Richie’s mind
A. Matthew is sitting at the downstairs bar.
B. Matthew is never sitting at the downstairs bar unless it’s after midnight.
C. Therefore, it’s after midnight.
(Dies of a heart attack.)
After getting resuscitated, Richie reveals that he was upstairs printing out tonight’s closing menu, which is pretty damn funny. Richie is also working on setting up the Closing Party tomorrow night, current plans for which call for an upstairs bartender as well as a series of downstairs ‘tenders to handle the incredible amount of people who will be flooding the place. He’s also expecting a huge amount of people tonight, which is why he has scheduled Dave to work the door. I remind myself to bring in a couple of comic books and a flashlight for poor Dave, because Richie has been predicting massive Saturday night crowds since the Smoking Ban went into effect, and (probably just to piss Richie off) everybody’s been staying south of 9th Street and east of Avenue A.
Some follow-up from last night:
ELIJAH: So did Dave leave with Oh THAT Amanda? They were necking like crazy up there.
ME: No, she left with Ethan.
ELIJAH: You’re kidding.
ME: Nope. They were going to some trendy place and wanted me to tag along, but I’m sorry, my fifth wheel days are over.
ELIJAH: So Dave?
ME: -- left with Trish.
ELIJAH: I still can’t believe what he said to me last night.
ME: I can’t either, but I bet he apologies profusely for it tonight.
I order some chicken tenders and start making notes for the play. As usual, every time I start adding to my notes, I end up writing down ideas which are funny, clever, and have nothing to do with this play. It makes me want to go into business as the guy you go to when you have writer’s block. (“Do you keep staring at a blank piece of paper and wondering when something is going to write itself? Call Matthew and he’ll hand you fifteen different ideas in two hours.” “Need a sure-fire premise? Call Matthew –- he’s got two filing cabinets chock-full of ideas he’ll never get to if he lives to be 300.”)
I’m in the middle of trying to figure out whether a really fun three-character scene should go into Black Coffee In Bed (the just friends play), Band of Gold (the “Once you’ve got a wedding ring, you get hit on ten times more often than when you were single” play), or Temptation Eyes (the adultery play), when Elijah’s cellphone rings and he flips it to me. It’s Benjy in North Carolina.
BENJY: (I can’t believe it) So. Tonight’s the last night.
ME: (I can’t believe it either) Yeah.
BENJY: The end of the Wild Bunch.
ME: Four guys saunter up to the bar and say “Let’s go.” “Why not?”
BENJY: Big smiles on their faces.
ME: Yup. Kill and be killed. There’ll be a lot of dead soldiers tonight.
At about one o-clock, as I’m dying of starvation, I check on my order of tenders, only to find out from a very apologetic Elijah that chicken tenders have been 86’d since like last night at 8. So I quickly order a burger, and devour it in like three gulps when it shows up in front of me. Fifteen minutes later, I’m gamely wiping the grease off my fingers when Benjy’s Mom comes in, sits at the bar three stools down from me, turns my way and with the forlorn look of a waif who has watched everyone else in the orphanage get adopted except her, says to me: “Where are we going to go?”
“Where are we going to go?” I’ve been asked that question over and over again in the last three weeks. “Where can we go?” “Where are we going?” And the inevitable “Where are you going?” And the answer, for me at least, is not so much a decision that I consciously made as it is a decision that slowly made me. Sort of like when a play uses you to get itself written, which is what usually happens to me when the writing is going well. When it isn’t going well? It’s like trying to drag a three-year-old away from a petting zoo.
And the decision? I’m not going anywhere. I’m done with the local pub thing. Yeah, I’ll go out for drinks now and then, but I don’t expect to ever again hang out at a bar as much as I’ve hung out at the Pine. And if I’m being totally honest with myself, I’m partially annoyed that the place took so long to shut down. I was totally ready for the Pine to close this summer, because I was ready to move on. Life was telling me something very specific.
LIFE: Okay, you’ve done this, it’s over, and now you can do one of two things: you can trade across, and transfer everything you feel for this place onto some other place –
MATTHEW: You mean like hopping from girlfriend to girlfriend not because you’re in love but because you don’t want to be alone?
LIFE: I see you’re familiar with the concept.
MATTHEW: Instinct, nor experience.
LIFE: (I’m going to do you a favor and forget you said that) Right. Or. You can clean yourself out and go do something different. Because we both know there’s a bad-habit aspect to this barfly thing which would make it very hard for you to quit. So I’m doing you a favor. I’m firing you.
LIFE: So get a new job. As it were.
MATTHEW: So, um, you’re trying to tell me something here?
LIFE: Here’s what I’m not telling you. I’m not telling you: "Hey Matthew--run out and find another bar you can hang out in three or four nights a week."
MATTHEW: Okay. So what are you saying exactly?
I listen to Life babbling on around me while I stare at the downstairs bar. The first time I saw this bar was back in the 80's, when Lisanne Clapp took me in here for an afternoon drink one Saturday. I can't remember where we were coming from--an art gallery maybe; I always associate Lisanne with book readings and art galleries--and I can't remember our conversation, but after twenty years I can still see exactly where I was sitting--one stool east from where I am now--and the way that bar looked, like if you opened the right cabinet, a piece of New York history would drop into your lap. With a shot of whiskey as old as the country. And I can still remember what I thought: that if eyeballs left fingerprints, there would be a layer two feet thick on top of this bar, which you could dig through like dirt in an archaeological expedition to find evidence of lost and forgotten lives, with their hopes given wing and their fears drowned out by drink, with their stories told and then forgotten, with their dreams unspoken but seen by those same eyes that looked on their reflection in the glass of this bar, face after face after face until tomorrow night, when it will be covered with blankets and packed in sawdust and put away in a warehouse somewhere, or sold to another bar for far beyond its original price and far below its current worth. If this bar was a camera, it would be its own museum.
When the mailman comes in, a thin old guy with gray hair and a sack over his shoulder, Elijah buys him a whiskey, pours himself one, and they toast. Of course--this will be the last mail delivery ever to this place. Lord. So many final things. You never think about it, but there's always a final time for everything. Usually you don't realize it until after the fact. That's something I've learned to grasp or the years. But when it comes to knowing what it means while I'm watching it happen, well, that's something I'm grasping at with baby fingers, fingers that don't know how to clench the right way to hold it. Last mail delivery? Can't grasp that; it just fell to the floor. And that's the last time it will do that.
"How about a beer that's not my last?" I say to Elijah, and he pours me another one. "God willing anyway," I add, because I could get hit by a meteor before the pint builds, right?
While it builds, I get a text from my friend Patrick, who's in town from DC. He wants to know what I'm doing tonight, and I invite him to the bar for a drink. "It's CLOSING?" he texts, and then adds twenty-five question marks and twenty-five exclamation points. Patrick is very low key. I tell him it sure is, and he promises to be there early and hang all night. Part of me is thrilled and saddened by this at the same time, because it’s another finality and at the same time a first: Patrick has always promised to meet me for a drink here, and never has, in the ten plus years we’ve known each other. Is there nothing that won’t be bittersweet about the next 48 hours?
Alexandra and Sunday come in at 1:45 to help out. As Allie gets ready, Sunday sits next to me and Elijah serves her up a coffee with enough Irish in it to bring Finnegan back from the dead. “So who are they?” Sunday asks.
The ghosts. I take a deep breath. “They’re Jack Vander and a waitress named Molly something—Molly Evans? Molly Sanders? I can't remember. They eloped in 1945 after Jack got back from the war. He was at Omaha Beach, he won the Silver Star, and the story is that Molly promised to wait for him, and then got involved with Alec, Jack's brother, who wanted to enlist but was not allowed to by their father Septimus. He had to stay and run the family business, even though he hated it. But he started liking it more and more when he fell in love with Molly, who was one of the waitresses there. And who had been secretly engaged to Jack just before he shipped out. Which they kept secret because Septimus hated her, she was way too low class for him, he wanted Jack to marry into society, so he could be more than a saloonkeeper. Which is why Septimus totally approved of Alec falling in love with Molly, because (a) nothing Alec did ever satisfied him, so it confirmed his opinion of the poor guy when he fell for a waitress, and (b) Alec coupling up with Molly would take her off the board when Jack returned from the war. Only he didn't count on Molly's persistence--she refused every Proposal Alec made--and he really didn;t count on Alec's patience--Alec took each refusal in stride, using each as an incentive to be even more affectionate and caring. By the time Jack did return from Europe, Alec was the Mayor of Crazytown when it came to Molly. And then they eloped to California and Jack changed his last name. It just about killed Septimus, and it turned Alec into the crotchety old misanthrope he is today. He married the next girl who caught his fancy, a mousey little secretary who worked for a publishing company, fathered a son with her (Jason) and then barely spoke two words to her for the rest of her mercifully brief life, and now lords it over Jason and his wife Anna. And their three crazy-ass kids.”
“Except,” says Sunday. “Except if they ARE the ghosts, then they didn't elope to California at all, did they?” “Nope.” “And how did anybody know they eloped to California in the first place, or that Jack changed his last name?” “Very good, Watson! Because,” I say, “because in 1969, a 24-year-old woman calling herself Melody Vander showed up at the Naughty Pine with Jack's Silver Star. She claimed to be Jack and Molly's daughter, born when they moved to Venice Beach, and lived under the name of Anderson. When they both died in a car crash in 1968, Melody found evidence of the Vander connection in their papers. Along with the Silver Star. All of which was good enough for Septimus, who was still alive and still grieving. He took Melody into the family, pissing Alec off all over again, and she spent the next two years becoming Septimus' favorite grandchild before the old guy died of a heart attack. And when his will was read, Alec almost died the same way, because half of Septimus' estate was left to Melody, and the rest to Alec's son. Not Alec. He's still pissed off about that, from all accounts, and that was almost 35 years ago.”
“So if they eloped to Cali, how come their ghosts are haunting the Keg Switch?” “Because this is where they were killed,” I say, and watch Sunday’s face as she takes this in. She stares at me. “You have that look in your eye,” she says. “That story look. What? Tell me. What's the story where it makes sense?”
“Hypothetical,” say, “purely hypothetical. Let's say you loved your brother’s girlfriend. And when your brother took her away from you, you murdered them both. Let's say you know exactly where the bodies are buried. Let's say you also know where your brother’s Silver Star is. And then, years later, here's this woman who shows up with a Silver Star that she CLAIMS is your brother’s, and you KNOW it's a fake, but you can't tell anybody WHY you know it's a fake, because if you do, then you are admitting to murder. So you keep your mouth shut, and you wonder how much this person knows about what you did, and you wonder IF this person knows what you did, or if she's just a clever grifter. Because the one thing you know for sure is that she is NOT the daughter of your brother, because you killed him before he had any kids. So who is she? That's the real mystery. Who is Melody Vander? And what does she know?”
“I have no idea,” says Sunday. And I say I don’t either. “And neither does Alec—and he’s been living with this since 1969. Because if he knew, he would have done something to get rid of her. And she’s still up there in Newport, living in the Vander mansion.” “You’ve got that look again.” “Yeah. I have no idea who Melody is, but I will put her on the back burner, and see what gets served up when things start cooking. It may take a while, but if there's one thing I do well, it's stories.” “Everyone's except your own,” says Sunday, and I’m just honest enough to say out loud what I’ve been thinking all month. “Crap. Why aren't you twenty years older? And with a different mother?” Sunday grins and says: “Thank you.” “?” I say with my face. “That means I'm in the bad timing part of your life, not the good luck part.” “You are indeed,” I say. “If I’m still around when you’re sixty, give me a call.”
I throw down some twenties for Elijah and start to leave, when Richie comes up to me, a shocked look on his face. “See you later?” he asks, and I nod fiercely. “God yes—I’m going home to take a nap and rest up. And can I ask you a favor?” “You can ask.” “I want to do something special on Saturday night.” “What?” When I tell him what it is, he laughs. “I love it,” he says. “Yes. No problem.” And home I head.
Alcohol: Guinness (3) Jameson (1)
Copyright Matthew J Wells
Day 29 Part 2
Day 29 Part 2