“What are you going to have people call you when you’re famous?”
“Very funny. Seriously, your last name makes me think of soda pop.”
“I guess I could take the Gary Allan approach,” he mused.
“Jaxon Lee. I love the sound of that.”
* * *
“You are going to love this place.”
“We’ll see.” Will had been promising that all day, and yet I was still convinced otherwise.
“Stop being such a skeptic. I’m telling you that after being here last night I’m convinced bars in Memphis can’t hold a candle to this place. You’ll probably be thanking me for bringing you here and want to camp out for the next two weeks.”
“I doubt that,” I said under my breath.
My words were lost in the music. Walking through the tight doorway was like taking a step inside of a time machine. All of my long-forgotten memories funneled through my subconscious and collected within the confines of the doorframe. They hit me with the intensity of a brick wall as I emerged into the timeless room.
No one knew the original paint color on the walls; every spare inch was covered by mismatched frames. The photos engulfing the space were yellowed with age; layers of nicotine and melodies had coated the murky glass. The walls would make the patrons feel claustrophobic in another hour or two when the hordes of tourists emerged from the air-conditioned comfort of their hotels.
Nothing seemed to have changed—except for me. This time I wasn’t eagerly looking for employment, a young woman with high hopes and stars in her eyes. And the entertainment wasn’t as impressive as it had been the last night I had ridden into town.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw the ten-gallon hat; the cliché look had never been his style. After the way Will had gushed over last night’s band I hadn’t been able to sleep for fear of seeing a familiar face on stage.
“It’s great, isn’t it? You can just feel the excitement in the atmosphere,” my boyfriend gushed from my right, reminding me of his presence.
“Yeah, it’s wonderful. Can we leave now?”
He chuckled, unaware of how serious I was. “You’re hilarious, honey. Come on! I’ve been waiting all day to bring you here. Let’s get a drink.”
Will pulled me toward the over-crowded bar. Instead of causing a scene, I urged my feet to follow him into the heart of the mob.
“I’m still not feeling up to par.” Which wasn’t a lie; my stomach rolled, fighting sickening memories. “I don’t think a night out is in my best interest.”
“Just one drink, Evelyn. Standing around empty-handed makes you look awkward. You don’t even have to finish it.”
“One drink?” I qualified, scanning the bar for recognizable faces, thankful to see only strangers.
For the most part, the bars on Broadway were for tourists, hopeful musicians, and service professionals who slaved away nightly only to escape with a pocketful of cash after three each morning.
The locals would be haunting the bars at Five Points on the East side of town, on West End near Vanderbilt, or in Hillsboro Village.
“One,” he promised. “And if you want to leave after that then I’ll go willingly. But I’m telling you, you’re going to change your mind. I wouldn’t be surprised to have you begging me to bring you back again tomorrow.”
“Want to put money on that?” Because for once in my life I’d win a bet.
“Well, well, well. Look who is back in town.” Her husky voice was just as I remembered, thick and warm as Tennessee whiskey. “I’m not so sure I believe my eyes right now, boys.”
I turned to face my old friend, feeling mildly embarrassed that I had silently prayed for today to have been her day off or that she had sold the place altogether.
“Hey? You say that to someone you barely know, like a creepy cousin who tried to tongue-kiss you at the family reunion. Get over here and give me a hug, sugar!”
“Wait a minute. You two know each other?” Will asked from behind me, his voice mystified.
“Know each other?” Mags started, acknowledging his presence with surprise and only a hint of irritation. “Evie here used to practically run this place for me.”
“She did? You did?” he asked.
I forced a smile. “Yeah, back when I used to live here. I’m not sure I’d admit to running the joint though. It seems a good bit shadier than it was back then.”
“No, it’s still equally as shady as always.” My friend twisted to address Will’s confused expression. “Don’t let her play shy with you. She used to be quite the local celebrity.”
“She was? You were?”
I shrugged. “That’s what they say.”
I wasn’t nearly as proud of that fact as I used to be. In my advanced years I realized there were many more respectable ways to gain public recognition; the ability to down copious amounts of liquor and still walk a straight line wasn’t one of them.
“What a small world,” Will said.
“You have no idea,” I remarked to no one in particular.
“I’m Maggie O’Farrell, proprietor,” Mags said, extending her arm toward my boyfriend. “This is my bar.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. Where are my manners? Mags, this is Will. Will, this is my old boss, Mags.”
“Pleasure,” Mags said, shaking my boyfriend’s hand. His smile of appreciation was likely in response to her unexpectedly manly grip. “And you’d better watch who you’re calling, old boss around here, Evie. You’re not so young yourself.”
“I’m younger than you,” I reminded her.
“I like to say that I’m in my prime.”
“It’s nice to meet you,” Will allowed, interrupting our exchange. “I’ve met very few people who knew Evelyn before I did—beyond her family, of course.”
Mags’ grin widened; the look in her eyes made my stomach tighten. “Well, you’ve come to the right place, Will. I know just about everything there is to know about this pretty girl in front of us—or at least I used to.”
“Too bad you’re not willing to share any of that information,” I warned gravely.
Mags arched her eyebrows but didn’t push the issue much further. “We’ll just have to see about that, won’t we? Everything has its price. What do ya say? Ya’ll staying for a few drinks?”
“No, we really need to get going.”
“Oh, no!” Mags cried, pushing her full lower lip into a pout no man could resist. “Ya’ll just got here!”
“Don’t listen to her, Mags,” Will said, moving to take a seat on one of the rarely empty stools by the bar.
“We could be here for up to two weeks and there are no appointments to be kept. Come on, honey. You know, Mags, I was here last night and just had to come back again today.”
She moved to the back of the counter, assuming the role of bartender. “That’s the nicest compliment a girl can get from a man. Thank you.”
“It’s funny though,” he continued, thoughtful now. “When I mentioned this place to Evelyn she didn’t tell me she used to work here.”
“You never said the name of the bar, Will,” I explained for both of them, irritated by the assessing look Mags was throwing me.
He shrugged and turned to peruse the list of drink specials. From what I could tell, the menu hadn’t changed in nine years.
“Have a seat, Evie. Stay a while. Drinks are on the house.”
“Whatever happened to no free drinks, no exceptions?” I asked, reciting our creed from back in the day.
“One of the perks of being the owner is that I can change the rules to suit my own purposes.”
As if being the owner had anything to do with Mags feeling entitled to changing the rules. She’d been altering the game in her favor ever since I had known her.
“No, Mags. Really, that’s too much,” I protested.
“Oh, hush,” she scolded. “What’ll it be, Will?”
“Bud Light, please.”
“Draft or bottle?”
“Evie?” Both Mags and Will looked at me expectantly.
“I’ll take the same,” I said, resigned to my fate. The least I could do to help increase my chances of survival was get drunk and blackout.
* * *
“So… it’s been a while, huh?”
“Sure has,” Mags accused. “Wonder why that is?”
“You know why,” I shot back.
“Maybe I do; maybe I don’t.”
If I were a betting woman I’d go with the first. The bartender knew everything that went on within a two-mile radius of this place, down to the most miniscule, CSI-worthy detail.
“How’s business?” Work was usually a pretty harmless topic.
“Really?” Mags asked, offering me a sardonic frown as she let two pints of Guinness settle.
We both watched the foamy head disappear, allowing room for more of the dark chocolate brown liquid.
“How’s life?” I tried again.
“Really?” she repeated.
“What about men?” That was a scandalous topic she had always loved to brag about. “Have you found someone who is willing to put up with you for more than one night at a time?”
“I got married a few years back,” she confessed.
“What? I hadn’t heard.” And if the news hadn’t come from the source itself I would never have believed it. Even so, I was still skeptical about her sincerity.
“If you wouldn’t have cut off all contact then you would have been invited to the ceremony.”
I accepted the jibe because she was totally justified in her irritation. “Who is the lucky guy? Do I know him?”
“His name is Jimmy.”
“Not Jimmy Smith?”
“Please, Evie. You know I have better taste than that,” she said, disgusted.
“From what I remember, no one was ever good enough for you.” She went through more men in a day than pint glasses—and she had been less inclined to break the latter.
“Did you really get married?” Ten years ago, Maggie O’Farrell had professed that she hadn’t believed in the institution of marriage, as if the holy sacrament had been the Easter Bunny or Tooth Fairy.
“No! Of course not. Look who you’re talking to!” She gave me a saucy smile. With a roll of her eyes, she offered a rush of flippant answers to the backlog of questions I had asked. “Business is good enough for me to still be in this bar. Life is good enough for me to still be on earth. The men are good enough to be here, at least for a little while.”
“Please, spare me the details,” I muttered sarcastically. There was nothing like giving me the edited version.
“Don’t heed your own advice. Tell me about you, what are you doing now?”
“I’m a high school English teacher,” I disclosed, slightly uncomfortable. She snorted as I knew she would. “What was that for?”
“You are a teacher?”
“Yeah, I am.”
“Of kids?” she pressed.
“Can’t get anything by you.”
“Please, tell me you’re joking!”
“No, I am not joking. For your information, I’m a very good teacher, Miss O’Farrell.” At least I was when I wanted to be; nobody could operate at one-hundred percent all of the time.
Mags snorted once more and moved closer. “Don’t start that formal crap with me, Ryan. Where the hell have you been hiding out?”
“I haven’t been hiding anywhere.” At least not anymore. “I’m living in Russell, Kentucky, right now.”
“Kentucky? We’re practically neighbors.”
“Hardly.” Before this trip, I had maintained a self-imposed restraining order requiring a minimum of three-hundred miles in between where I was and where I used to be.
“Certainly not too far for a visit every once and a while,” she challenged. “At least once every five years. Nine is pushing it.”
“I know.” Now that I had been forced to return I could admit to myself that nine years had been too long. Still, even knowing that, I wouldn’t have come back any sooner. “You could have come and visited me. Last I checked they make most roads with two lanes.”
“And I would have if I had known where you’d run off to.”
“No, you wouldn’t have,” I said with confidence.
She grinned. “You’re right. But I would have thought about it. Who knows? Maybe I would’ve sent you a Christmas card or something.”
“You know me so well.”
I knew her as well as I had known myself ten years ago; it was a relief to see that at least one of us hadn’t changed.
“It’s hard to believe it’s been so long.”
“I still haven’t forgiven you for missing your shifts, by the way.”
“That’s a bit long to hold a grudge, don’t you think, Mags?”
“I have a good memory.”
“Sorry about leaving you high and dry.” In the end I had turned out no better than the faceless girls who hadn’t lasted through their first week under Mags’ reign. In eleven months of employment I had seen my share of Houdini-bar backs; now you see them, now you don’t.
“You should be even though I can tell you’re not. The girl I found to replace you didn’t even last through the second shift!”
“That’s because you probably threw her to the wolves.”
Mags grinned. “I prefer to call it on-the-job-training.”
“Right.” My on-the-job-training had involved two slaps on the butt, one drink to the face, three hundred in tips, and too many broken glasses to even attempt to count.
“I know.” I had done more than survive; I had thrived in the chaos. Sometimes, when the monotony of my life became too predictable, I missed the alcohol-infused madness of bartending. One could argue that there were bars in Russell but working in those places wouldn’t be the same. There was only one Maggie O’Farrell.
Since Will and I had arrived at the bar it felt like no time had passed since I was last in Tennessee. Mags wasn’t the kind of girl to keep a safe distance and punish an acquaintance for non-contact. No, my friend was still in the business of ball-busting and she wasn’t pulling any punches or feigning manners tonight.
“Hey, Mags! Can I get some service down here or what?”
“Serve yourself, Rick,” Mags shouted back. “You’ve been here long enough to know where the taps are.”
“Do you see how they treat me?” Rick whined sarcastically to the stranger beside him.
Mags and I both knew that he secretly loved the abuse he received here.
“I can’t believe he still comes in.”
“Every night,” Mags confirmed. “You’d think he’d be divorced by now. At this point I figure his wife likes it better when he’s not around. I know I wouldn’t miss him,” she said, raising her voice so that Rick could eavesdrop.
“Don’t you start lying to the girl, Mags,” Rick said, unabashedly inserting himself into our conversation. “You wouldn’t know what to do with yourself if I didn’t show up one night.”
“Feels just like old times, doesn’t it?” she asked me with a wink, ignoring Rick’s claim.
Mags smiled, knowing exactly what I had been referring to. “You should really stick around. We’ve got a decent lineup tonight.”
“You sound pregnant when you use those contractions.”
“What’s stopping you?”
As if he was answering her question, Will leaned over and tapped me on the shoulder. “Hey, Evelyn! I’m going to run to the men’s room.”
“Okay, Will.” Did he need my permission? Maybe he was worried that I would make a run for it and leave him behind, which wasn’t entirely unfounded.
“This place is great, isn’t it?” he said for the hundredth time.
“Yeah, it is.” I had forgotten how great it was.
Mags chuckled after Will was out of earshot. “Okay, I’ve gotta ask. Who is that guy?”
“Mags…” I warned, anticipating the forthcoming snide remark.
She ignored me. “He seems… nice.”
“Don’t start.” Although I knew she’d already begun and had no intention of stopping.
“Start what, Evelyn? He seems genuinely nice.”
“What?” she asked, feigning innocence; the look was foreign in her mischievous eyes.
“I heard the way you said nice.”
She gave me a wicked grin. “And how was that?”
Mags already knew the answer; however, I decided to play along. “Like it was a disease of some sort.”
“It is. Nice tends to be contagious.”
“I don’t think you have to worry about that.” Mags was too far beyond saving.
“Thanks,” she said, accepting my words as though they were meant as a compliment.
“You’re not nice now, are you?”
“Do you really think I’d be stupid enough to be nice to you? I haven’t forgotten that lesson.”
“Good girl,” she said proudly. “At least I taught you something.”
“You taught me more than I’d admit.” And not all of those lessons had been about serving drinks. After a few weeks in the company of Maggie O’Farrell, a girl learned how to take care of herself.
“With the way you run I’d say I taught you too much.” The bartender chewed on her lip as she mulled over what she was going to say next. “Will’s definitely not the person I thought you’d end up with. I always thought that maybe—”
“I know what you thought,” I interjected, unwilling to allow her to voice the fictional scenario aloud. Hers wasn’t the only mind that had wandered along those lines.
“But he’s nice. And he’s so damn happy. You’re not happy too, are you?”
She shrugged as though she hadn’t been intentionally setting me up. “He’s cute too, in a… clean-cut way.”
Will had short-cropped blonde hair and flat brown eyes. He was attractive the way Barbie’s Ken was attractive: generically. When a person pictured a good ‘ole American boy, Will’s face would come to mind. He was very different from other men I had dated.
Back when Mags had met me I had been attracted to more flamboyant personalities and men who were not as… refined. But it hadn’t worked out with those guys so I had changed my tactics. Now I found myself in a successful five-year relationship with the same guy—if five years could be considered successful. To Mags it’d be a jail sentence.
“I guess he’s safer,” she allowed carefully.
Her snap judgment annoyed me. The way she said safer was almost as bad as nice had been.
“I like safe,” I said with a confidence I didn’t feel.
“Are you trying to convince me or yourself?”
She had me there.
“Safe is good.” Safe was certainly easier than the alternative.
Mags laughed darkly. “If by good you really mean boring then yeah, safe is good.”
“I’m back!” my boyfriend announced proudly. I resisted the urge to cover my face in shame.
“Welcome back!” Mags greeted with false cheer.
“Can I get another drink, Mags?”
“Sure thing, Will. More of the same?”
“Of course,” Will confirmed with an open grin. “There’s no need to change a good thing.”
“Amen,” she agreed.
“Alright, folks!” the man on stage announced over the microphone.
I had forgotten that a band had been playing the entire time. Tonight’s entertainment had been background music at best, not the usual up-and-coming headliners who had frequented the stage ten years earlier.
“You’ve been a great audience. Remember, we’re here every Tuesday from seven to midnight. I’ll be comin’ round with our tip jar here in a minute. This is how we make a livin’ so be generous. Now, we’ve got something special for you tonight. Legend has it this man got his start right here on this very stage. Let’s give a big Nashville welcome-back to Jaxon Lee!”
My eyes shot to Mags’, and she raised her eyebrows in defiance against my silent accusation. No wonder she had been feeding my boyfriend drinks and had begged us to stick around.
A decent lineup indeed; I should have known better than to have trusted her motives. The only thing Mags missed about me was the way I naively allowed her to play puppeteer with my life. Nine years later and she was still pulling the strings.
“You knew he was coming?” I scolded under my breath, hoping Will wouldn’t hear me over the deafening roar of approval from the crowd.
“Knew? Sweetheart, I arranged.”
* * *
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