With love to Billy Joel.
|It was Saturday, an hour before closing time, and the only five people who ever set foot in the outdated tavern shuffled through the door. An old man, a writer, a Navy man, a realtor, and a waitress just coming off her shift. Betty nodded towards the piano player, a middle-aged man who'd stopped in one summer, offered to play for the customers, and never moved on.
"Paula," the realtor addressed the writer. "How're things?"
"Oh, same old, same old." Paula sat down at the bar on her usual stool. "Betty, get me the usual?"
"Sure thing, dear. Don, same for you?" The realtor nodded, taking the stool beside Paula. He'd once sat there because it was the only one free, and he'd never bothered to sit anywhere else. Always next to Paula, ordering his usual glass of wine, and halfway through the night the two would get lost in their conversations. By closing time one would offer to drive the other home, Don would kiss Paula on the cheek, and Paula would promise to call him during the week.
"You'd think they'd be married by now," waitress Nora muttered to Betty as she took her spot at the end of the bar. Betty shrugged, preparing Paula's cosmopolitan and then the beer she knew Nora would be ordering. Saturdays were a real bitch, Nora's feet were always killing her, but she always took the Saturday shifts because that's how she'd supported three kids for a total of twenty-two years. Three grown kids, the youngest one was about to graduate from college, and Nora still took the Saturday shifts.
She didn't even bother asking why. Actually, Betty didn't even bother asking why the tavern still even existed, how the mysterious owner they never met kept it in business. Oh, there were theories, lots of them: organized crime, doing sexual favors for the property owners, secretly a millionaire, magic, the owner was a Time Lord.
Betty didn't even know how that last one worked, having watched enough Doctor Who to know the specifics of Time Lords. But she didn't call Winston the cashier out on it because the poor man tried so hard to seem like he understood pop culture beyond the seventies.
Jamil, one of the chefs, had once suggested Winston himself had something to do with the place still standing. Think about it, he'd said, the tavern's been around exactly twice as long as he's been, they both try to stay relevant while being stuck in time, most guys his age are busy playing golf while he's happy just sitting behind the register making change.
Apparently, the place used to be jumping, a real hot spot, and Winston used to kid her that the day she arrived thirty-one years ago was the day the jumping stopped. Betty knew better now, though. It was an old place that changed with the times, the usual crowd of the old days moved on or passed away, and now it was a place for bored old and middle-aged people to come on Saturday and talk about the same old things.
"-Palm Street," Don said, breaking through Betty's thoughts. It was easy to let your mind wander in a place like this no matter how busy you were. "Anyway, how's your latest book?"
"You know how the last ten minutes of the movie always seem the longest? That's what the second half of the last chapter is for me," Paula sighed. "This is the final installment, and I'm under a lot of fan pressure to give it the perfect ending. No surprise character death, no bittersweetness with the magic going away, all the loose ends tied up."
"Hogwash!" scoffed Seth, thumping down his half-empty glass of gin. "Kids today and their happy endings. Happy ending's just a code for if their favorite couple's not smooching, the story's ruined! Trust me, my granddaughter still won't shut up about those two kids from that Star Wars flick. Back in my day-"
"Back in your day, Louisa May Alcott gave the biggest middle finger to people who kept demanding Jo and Laurie get married." Mark the Navy man, who'd been quietly sipping a glass of port, smiled ruefully. "My great-grandmother still gets a chuckle out of that." Seth snorted, while Daisy the waitress finally woke up from her catnap and ordered a martini. Even with this small a crowd it was easy to forget some of them were in here when you got caught up listening to the others. And Daisy had always been the quiet type.
"You should be fine as long as you don't end on a cliffhanger, Paula," she quipped as Betty set her drink down in front of her. But, Seth had to ask, was there any way to definitively end a story? Even children didn't go for and they lived happily ever after anymore, the end of the written tale didn't mean the end of the characters. Was there a way to say it was over while remembering that life went on?
Betty, always more of a TV person than a book person, had always wondered the same thing about her favorite shows. But then again, she wasn't a picky person. As long as it didn't cut to black or the network didn't can it after the latest episode dropped a drama bomb, there was no such thing as a "bad ending" in her book.
So she kept mixing and pouring drinks, bringing out the occasional bowl of pretzels or peanuts, listening to the shuffle of bills or the clink of change in the piano player's tip jar. Gradually the conversation drifted from story endings to the song the man was playing to the usual curiosity of why a man of his talent was playing in a dive like this.
"I hear he's really Winston's son," Daisy murmured. Based on what, Betty thought, the two didn't look alike and rarely if ever acknowledged each other. But when you had two strange mainstays whose pasts who didn't know about, theories like that were bound to crop up. But before they could expound on that theory, Seth grabbed the microphone and began to sing along with the tune.
"Come on, let's add a little color to this joint! You too, Betty!" Betty started, nearly dropping the empty mugs in her hand. She hadn't sung in public since high school, when her school's choir won second place in the all-state championships. But the pull of the microphone was strong; no sooner did she join Seth at the piano than did the others, one by one. Paula and Don shoulder to shoulder, Mark waving his arms like a conductor, Nora and Daisy trading lines back and forth.
Betty didn't know when the jumping stopped all those years ago, but she would always remember the day the place came back to life, even if only for a few hours.