SHOULD OLD ACQUAINTANCE BE FORGOT?
Abby had to work on New Year’s Eve. She didn’t know if she felt worse for the sad sacks who would be ringing in the new year in the dumpiest bar in town or herself for working there. It didn’t help that she hadn’t been feeling well for the past week or so. All she wanted to do was sleep. She had no idea how she was going to stay on her feet all night. Bill, the idiot owner, had decided that they would have a Mardi Gras theme for New Year’s. Did he not understand that Mardi Gras already had a place in the calendar?
In her tiny, dark bedroom, she dug her “party” clothes out of the plastic bin under her bed. She cursed the pea-soup green carpet as the bin snagged when she tried to shove it back into place. She was sick of the cramped apartment with its stained rugs, peeling vinyl floor, and fake wood paneling.
Black halter-top, a short black skirt, and a handful of plastic Mardi Gras beads. It felt good to get dressed up, even if her destination wasn’t anything special. Her eye makeup made her look more awake than she felt. She was zipping up her boots when her cell phone rang.
“Hey, you gonna swing by later?” she asked, cradling the phone between her ear and her shoulder and tossing a few things into her purse. She had this nagging feeling that she was forgetting something. She’d felt that way for most of the past week.
“I don’t know, babe,” Nathaniel said. “My plans are still a little shaky.”
“Seriously? I thought we were at least going to have midnight together.” Abby pulled a big hoodie over her skimpy bar clothes and slid her down jacket over that. However hot it was going to be in the bar, the weatherman promised that it was going to be one of Boston’s coldest New Year’s Eves on record.
“It’s not that I don’t want to see you, but the Watering Hole isn’t exactly my favorite place.”
Abby tucked her long brown hair into the collar of her jacket and put a knit cap on her head. “I thought your favorite place was wherever I am.”
“Yeah, because that cutesy shit always works on me,” Nathaniel said.
“Tell me again about the hopeless romantic you used to be.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, okay?”
It wasn’t okay, but she wasn’t in the mood for a fight. She knew what Breanna would say if she were here. You deserve better, Abby. “What are you doing tonight?”
“Zack’s having some people over. I think I’ll just stay out there.”
Even a house party west of Worcester trumps a night at metro-Boston’s finest, Abby thought. “Who’s gonna be there?” she asked.
“The usual suspects, I’m sure. Nobody you know.”
Of course not, Abby thought, stepping out into the cold, because you never invite me. “Well, have fun,” she said, the icy air biting her nose.
“Yeah, you, too, kiddo.”
Abby hated when he called her kiddo. She hung up the phone.
It was a short walk to the bar, but long enough that Abby’s fingers and toes were frozen by the time she got there. Bill shouted at her to shut the door before she let all the cold air in. Abby rolled her eyes. She slipped into the little office at the back of the bar and reluctantly took off her warm outer layers. A few wardrobe adjustments, a swipe of lip gloss, and she walked out to the bar. She brushed past the low tables with their scratched Formica tops and chairs whose torn vinyl seats were patched with duct tape. No wonder no one ever sat down in them. The overhead lights glared down on the sticky, shellacked counter. The drop ceiling was gray and dingy from years of cigarette smoke. Smoking had been banned indoors for at least ten years, but Bill would never bother to spend money to make the place a little more welcoming.
“Beautiful, doll,” Bill said, looking her up and down. He was setting up the sound equipment on the small stage against the back wall.
“Who’s on tonight?” Abby asked.
“You, Kate, Jason—”
“No, who’s the entertainment?”
“Those college boys. What do they call themselves? Timbuck Blue?”
It was hard to believe that was the best entertainment Bill could come up with for New Year’s Eve, and even harder to understand how those hipsters would contribute to a Mardi Gras theme. Bill probably wasn’t paying them. Abby noted the baskets of beads behind the bar. She wondered if Bill had any other theme items or if he was just hoping drunk girls would show off their tits. And by girls she meant the middle-aged women who were among the regulars, because there weren’t likely to be many girls present, unless Timbuck Blue had managed to find some groupies since their last appearance.
Nathaniel’s band, the Latecomers, would have been a far better choice. They played crowd favorites, and they could do jazzy tunes to create a New Orleans mood, but the Latecomers hadn’t played at the Watering Hole for three years.
They used to be a regular part of the lineup. That’s how Abby and Nathaniel met. Abby had just gotten the job. Bill said he had a gap in the schedule on Tuesday nights and he’d like Abby to fill it. Abby had arrived for her first shift prepared for a slow night. Being a weeknight, she figured there’d be a few regulars, lonely drunks who’d expect her to listen to their tales of woe and to make sure that the TV was set to ESPN. When a balding, middle-aged guy with a beer belly came in and began setting up speakers and microphones, Abby had no idea what was going on.
When he was done setting up, he came over to the bar and ordered a gin and tonic, heavy on the gin. “Hope you like music,” he said.
What kind of person doesn’t like music? she had wondered. She preferred classic rock and country, something with solid lyrics and nice harmonies, but she could enjoy almost any live music.
“I’m Johnny, by the way,” he said, extending his hand.
Johnny took his drink to a table in the back of the bar and set up an easel with a newsprint tablet that said “Open Mic” with times listed for people to sign up. Abby couldn’t imagine any of the grizzled guys at the bar crooning out tunes. She wondered who was going to be performing and what style of music she could expect. Still, she reasoned, whatever it is, it mustn’t be great. Live music should draw people in, but Bill had specifically warned her not to expect much by way of tips.
After a while guys with guitars began trickling in. The aspiring musicians had a median age of forty-five, Abby guessed, and as a group they were in need of a shower and a shave. A few of the old-timers who had been warming barstools settled their tabs and headed for the door as Johnny introduced the first act of the night. Not a good sign.
When the third act, a heavy man with greasy hair and a beat up classical guitar, was half way through his rendition of “Feliz Navidad” (in the middle of July), Abby understood why Bill had a gap on Tuesdays. She watched the performer for a minute and then turned back to the bar. She noticed a new patron near the back wall.
He had dirty blond hair, blue eyes, and dimples when he smiled. He was, by far, the youngest customer of the evening. Abby guessed he was about thirty. She noticed the guitar case leaning against the wall behind him.
When she asked what he was drinking, he produced some wrinkled bills and a few coins from his pocket. He asked her to stretch that as far as it would go. He grimaced at the Bud she brought him, but he drank it and two more after it. She would have asked him about his act, but she was working alone and had to attend to other customers.
Johnny flagged her down for two shots of whiskey. Abby gave him the glasses and watched him walk over to the stage and set one on the stool beside Mr. Christmas-in-July. Abby didn’t think the whiskey would help him much.
The music did get better as the night went on. A duo of middle-aged guys in jean shorts and work boots sang some nice harmonies, and a short, professorial-looking man played several complicated instrumental pieces on a twelve string. Finally, Dimples and his band got up to play. They were the last act of the night.
“We’re the Latecomers,” Dimples said, as he tuned his guitar. “That’s Charlie on bass, Jeff on keyboards, and I’m Nathaniel.”
Each week, the Latecomers closed out the open mic with an hour set (unlike the others who got three songs each), and each week, Abby served Nathaniel his succession of Buds.
After a month or so, impressed that she had lasted so long, Nathaniel finally introduced himself properly. Abby had never met a Nathaniel who didn’t shorten his name, and she made the mistake of calling him Nate, but he pointedly corrected her. Later, Abby learned that he was named after his father, who went by Nate, as Nathaniel had as a child. Once he was in college, he chose to distinguish himself from his father as much as possible, so he insisted his friends call him by his full name.
After their official introductions, he offered to play a special request, and she asked for a Beatles song, it didn’t matter what one. Their second number that night, “Baby You Can Drive My Car,” was dedicated to her.
Later, when she picked up the tip Nathaniel left her, she found a scrap of paper with his phone number tucked under the dollar bill. When she got home and told Breanna, she shook her head at Abby and said, “But he’s the guy who can barely afford a Bud.”
Abby probably should have listened to Breanna, but he was a musician, and she had a soft spot for cute musicians. Although she couldn’t carry a tune if her life depended on it, she loved music, and she was fascinated by people who made it. Every crush she’d had in high school had been a guitar-toting dreamer, and she was always dragging her friends to the summer concerts at the ski area near her parents’ New Hampshire home. Peter Frampton, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Boston—bands long past their prime who put on cheap shows under the stars. You could get lawn seats for twenty bucks and spend the entire night soaking up the music, imagining what it would have been like to see those bands when they were still the hot ticket in town. Other girls could have the jocks. She wanted a guy who could sing her a love song.
Besides, he had offered her his phone number, not a marriage proposal. At the time, at the hopeless age of twenty-three, she’d been living in Somerville for a year and, despite the large numbers of available men purportedly in the greater Boston area, she’d gone out with only two guys, neither of whom made it to a second date. It couldn’t hurt to give this handsome, dimpled musician a try.
And four years later, he still never had more than ten bucks in his wallet, the Latecomers had fallen apart, and marriage still wasn’t part of the conversation. Breanna was right: She was a fool.
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Genre – Women’s Literature
Rating – PG-13
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Quality Reads UK Book Club Disclosure: Author interview / guest post has been submitted by the author and previously used on other sites.
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