While waiting at the bar for two women they didn’t know, Nick Granger and his brother Dave exchanged but stories.
“Here’s one for you,” Nick said. He tilted his beer then set down the mug. “She said, ‘It was terribly wrong of me not to tell you I’m married, but—.’”
His brother Dave wasn’t impressed. “This,” he said, “is my former wife: ‘It’s not that I don’t love you, I swear, David, but—.’”
Nick signaled to the bartender, B.B. “Let’s call that our segue to sex humor, brother,” he said. “Try this one on for size. My doctor talking.” Nick lowered his voice an octave. “We will, of course, have to wait for the lab results, but—.”
“Oooooh,” Dave said. The brothers laughed.
Behind them, the happy hour crowd was filing in, each patron with his or her own but story to tell: I would have made that sale today, but—. Or, I know that he’s not the man for me, but—. Or, I promised myself I’d never set foot in here again, but—.
The Paradise Lounge was part sanctuary part asylum where irreconcilables held hands and bellied up to the bar. Where regulars and first-timers alike reconstructed office politics and exorcised credit card debt, where marriage counseling slowly began to make sense, or not. Where the bar was as close to an altar as some would likely get. A temporary holding zone where their lives weren’t a mix-and-match thrift store of contradictions. Where Dale Earnhardt never died. Where they’d come from where they hide, their rendezvous with the irrational. A refuge, where barstool neighbors exchanged covenants of devotion and lies, rolled up their sleeves and chiseled away at the granite cliff of history, their only tool that single conjunction, but.
The two women, a real estate agent Nick had met and the woman’s friend, a cosmetics rep, were late. Nick, who had set up the blind date for his brother, looked at his watch. “They said they’d be here at six.”
“However,” Dave said, lifting his beer, smiling. Dave was rebounding from divorce.
Nick dialed a number. “We’ll be there for you,” sang a real estate jingle before the machine picked up. It was six-thirty. Nick left a message. “We could have gotten our times crossed up,” he said. Nick was an algebra teacher. His older brother sold software.
“Maybe we got our lives mixed up,” Dave said into the bottom of his beer mug. He’d married a girl he’d gotten pregnant in college, setting into motion a series of unhappy calamities, each a product of Dave’s doing the right thing. His had become a but life. Now his confidence was a little low. “Our times mixed up? I don’t even know what day it is,” Dave said.
Nick lifted his glass, signaled for another round and smiled at B.B., the finely crafted red-haired bartender. He and Dave adored her from afar in high school. Over the years, both men privately lusted for her. But she was, after all, Coach’s wife. “What day is it?” Dave said.
Nick looked away. A reflective pause crossed his face.
“What?” Dave said. “What?”
“Today is the anniversary of Dad’s death,” Nick said. The lovely bartender set the beers before them. “Thanks, B.B.,” Nick said.
“Here’s to you, Pop,” Dave said, raising his glass. “Speaking of mixed up, that guy took the trophy.” They both drank.
“Funny,” Nick said, “That reminds me. I dreamed about him the other night. I’d forgotten this. I was near Asheville looking for a place to live, and I saw him in a ‘38 convertible coupe, top down. His hair was in this really goofy do, curled tight and piled up like a big metal spring on top of his head, dyed black except the ends which were blond. He gave me a look that said he’d done it as a gag.”
“A laugh a minute, huh? A real clown, that one.”
“He was headed out of town. I knew in the dream he was dying, you know. I mean, I knew what the dream meant as I was dreaming it. I wanted to go with him.”
“That sounds like you, all right,” Dave said. Nick looked up from his drink to his brother. Dave looked away. “Don’t worry bro, you’ll get there.”
Nick said, “He was headed west. I told him to step on it. I said maybe he could out-drive the sun.”
Dave wouldn’t look at him.
Then Dave said to his beer, “My guess is we played maybe forty, fifty football games in high school, right?”
“Including playoffs, something like that. Why?” Nick said.
“Daddy-O never showed up for a single one. Not one.”
Standing at the urinal in the men’s room, Nick felt the building quake then heard the shouting and confusion that followed. Back in the bar, he saw the backs of the swarming crowd. Vincent Howle, who was celebrating another release from the county jail, shouted above the cries, “It’s a sign from God! It’s a sign from God!” Nick saw his brother. Dave stood on his bar stool looking beyond the clustered heads, nodding in disbelief at the front end of a ‘66 Mustang that had crashed through the large plate glass window of The Paradise Lounge.
“What happened?” Nick shouted over the noise. Dave turned to B.B., who was all elbows near the front, tunneling through the crowd. Nick was beside Dave now. The Mustang’s fish eye headlights were raised to the heavens. One of its front wheels was slowly turning like a dying clock.
“How’d he do that?” Nick said.
“Good thing it was a Mustang,” Dave said looking down at his brother. “That long hood, that’s where the glass fell.”
B.B. screamed a curse above the noise, and in a matter of seconds silence blanketed the room. “Coach,” somebody whispered. Nick and Dave wedged their way to the door.
“Huddle-up, men,” a slurred voice repeated. “Huddle-up.”
Outside, B.B. stood hands on hips. Excited patrons poured from the bar, surrounding the car, which looked like the down side of a seesaw. A guy in a turtleneck helped Coach out of the car. Coach leaned back, steadying himself. He studied his wife’s face as he lit a cigarette. He lifted his arm and spoke to the crowd. “As God is my witness,” he said, “I love this woman more than life itself.” B.B. lifted her hands, covered her eyes. Sirens echoed from the west. She couldn’t look at him. He spotted Dave and Nick. “What’ll it be boys?” he said. “I say we go with the single wing. When all is lost, it’s all that’s left.”
The sirens were closer. B.B. swiped her tears. They saw the pleading in her eyes.
“Come on,” Nick said to his brother.