How to explain what it’s like here if you haven’t been here before: It’s like crashing a wedding reception where you don’t know anybody but it doesn’t really seem to matter, someone once said in that typical mixture of bemused bewilderment and delight.
Retired farmers, artists, librarians, professors, upholsterers, businessmen. Sometimes several generations. All crowded into the small back room of the bar. Tin ceiling. Egg and dart molding. Worn wooden floor. Plastic lawn chairs hauled up from the basement when the real chairs run out. Beer nuts and popcorn. Beer, bloody beer, beer with olives, Bloody Marys, Sex on the Beach. Sometimes there’s a birthday celebration, so friends bring in flowers, gifts, snacks, and cake. The cards get passed around. Everyone signs. The band sings happy birthday. Everybody gets to eat cake.
Tunes sliding into a familiar groove over the weeks. The tunes, all old standards, familiar 75′s in nostalgia’s raspy jukebox.
Sometimes an elderly man, an incorrigible flirt in blue overalls, is helped to the stage, where he plays harmonica. (But first he takes out his teeth, wraps them in a hanky, and slips them into his front bib pocket. Or do I inadvertently make this last part up?)
Every week the King of South Dakota sings a few songs. (Why is the King of South Dakota the King of South Dakota? I used to ask everyone obsessively, on a Brenda Starr-esque quest. But I never came away with a straight answer, even after consulting at length with the Queen.)
Keep your sunny side up, up!
Hide the side that gets blue.
If you have nine sons in a row,
Baseball teams make money, you know!
Every week, Pat, a silver-haired woman with the body of a twenty-something, dances to “Sunny Side Up.” With a wide grin, she bends over and moons the audience each time the chorus rolls around, giving her blue-jeaned bottom a playful slap for good measure. (Sometimes I have to turn to one of my friends and say, Seriously. I don’t think I could make this shit up if I tried.)
Keep your funny side up, up!
Let your laughter come thru, do!
Stand upon your legs, be like two fried eggs,
Keep your sunny side up!
Every week W. makes me tell him how old I am. (W. is trying to find a bride for his son in Alaska.) Every week I have to tell W. that I’m way too old for his son. How old? he insists. I finally tell him how old. She’s way too old! he blurts out to the entire table. Then adds, as if to placate me, But for your age, you look seventeen. (So is seventeen for my age the new thirty?)
The guitarist wears a black eye patch. He plays a mean guitar. He sings gravel style, like Satchmo.
There is no other way to say this. The fiddler is a Fiddle God: Brisk rosiny crunch of double-stopped passages opening up into a hot electric sear of melody. (After another impossible tour-de-force of a solo, the entire crowd makes O’s with their arms over their heads, sighing, Owen !)
Neon burning brighter as the night sets in. Afterwards, bundling into coats and hats and scarves and gloves, stepping into wind chill, falling barometer, an entire weekend filled with the insistent, incessant filibuster of snow until music’s a muffled memory and everything is calm and quiet, dollopped with several heavy feet of white like whipped cream from a can, or the stiff sugary frosting that comes on cakes from grocery store bakeries.
But still, a residual lingering, like a whisper of metal brush against the snare drum, like the echo of jukebox in an empty dark bar after everyone’s gone home for the night and all the streetlights switch to a backbeat pulse of flashing yellow:
Take good care of yourself . . .
Under the boardwalk, down by the sea . . .
Come a little bit closer . . .