Passing through town on my way north, I decided to stop for a cold one.
As I parked my truck, I saw the front door swing open at Don’s Seldom Inn. The tavern’s namesake proprietor in a neatly pressed white shirt, cuffs rolled back, weaved out the door heading for home. Time for his afternoon nap. When I walked in, Gen was sitting at her appointed location at the end of the bar, cigarette burning in the ashtray.
“Well, well, look what the cat drug in. What brings you to town, stranger?” Gen asked with a smile.
“How about a hug and one of those little greenies, for a starter,” I replied.
From my tiny efficiency apartment across the street, I would visit this corner bar while attending college. Close and quiet compared to the downtown pubs crammed full of students, the place reminded me of the neighborhood taverns of my hometown. Those small, dimly lit sanctuaries where locals would seek refuge after work, share stories and tribulations with extended family members otherwise known as bartenders, or simply sit and nurse a drink while trying to smooth the edges of their life.
When I first met Gen, I immediately liked her. A motherly figure, she was a familiar stranger. She likely viewed me with skepticism, wondering why a college student would sit in a bar with a handful of working-class locals, but after a few conversations, we got to know one another and she understood, reciprocating with curiosity, occasional friendly advice, and a good story or two.
“How’s Steve these days?” I asked.
“Oh, he’s good. Around somewhere. He headed out with the Monsoor boy to do some fishing on the river. I think they spent the night at the boathouse playing cards,” Gen replied as she flicked the ash off her cigarette and took a drag. “He works tonight, so he better show up pretty soon. I’ve got things to do.”
Our conversation was as short as the time it took me to down my beer. We refreshed our connection with personal updates, played a couple rounds of remember when, and silently recognized the separation time has created. Like an old bottle of tonic, nostalgia has a shelf life and when opened, the fizz evaporates quickly.
I turned on my stool and stood up, looking at the pay phone on the wall. “I made a lot of collect calls from this spot.”
Gen turned her head and gave an acknowledging smile. “Yes, you did.”
“None of those people are around to answer their phones anymore,” I said as I hugged Gen’s shoulders from behind. “Well, it’s time to hit the road. Lot of driving ahead of me.”
“I’ve got something for you.” Gen rose from her stool, stepped behind the bar, opened the door of a cooler, and reached inside. As the door closed with a loud metallic snap, she set a quart Mason jar on the bar. “You still like pickled northern, don’t you?”
When I headed out the door, a regular pressed J-6 on the juke box. A muffled Jeanne Pruett song about satin sheets and pillows played. A little early in the day for melancholy I thought, but a neighborhood bar offers simple enticements and the perfect environment to chase whatever mood you desire. Three plays for a quarter sets the tone.
I climbed into my truck, started the engine, and looked back one more time at the empty lot where the bar once stood. Funny what things stick in the head after 45 years.