Whether due to lack of funding or resources, or simply the stubborn tenacity of human nature, change tended to come about slowly in a small town. Allman Falls was no exception. Every time Dan drove through town, every scene, every smell, every chime of the church bell so reflected his memories he felt as though he had somehow slipped back into his fifteen-year-old self. The feeling was never as intense as when he walked through the door to Gimp’s Pub.
Housed in an old, metal Behlen building situated just south of downtown, steps away from the tracks, Gimp’s had always reminded Dan more of a musty, poorly lit basement than a bar. Tar, nicotine, and blue dots of pool cue chalk stained the suspended ceiling. Cracked and scarred, the green asbestos floor tile had forty years of grime layered in with the wax. The furnishings were an eclectic mix of yard sale and auction finds. Oak tables mixed with brass and glass, upholstered chairs paired with wicker and wood. Ceramic lamps with burned out bulbs shared table space with ketchup bottles. A forgotten, faded paper streamer danced in the ceiling fan breeze while a wilted spider plant dangled heavily in a macramé hanger. Dusty cobwebs clung to the corners. The men’s restroom as well as the women’s sported turquoise and silver wallpaper, seashell-shaped sinks and pink porcelain toilets separated by plywood dividers. It was the ugliest bar Dan had ever walked into, and it was the one where he had always felt most welcome.
Most of Gimp’s regulars qualified for the senior citizen discount. With nothing much to do during the day, they’d show up early for the noon meal, stick around for the supper special, and by six o’clock, they would be on their way home to watch Wheel of Fortune. Friday nights were no exception. Other than a few diehards who would most likely close the place down, the vinyl stools sat mostly empty when Dan arrived. A heavyset woman in a sagging tank top sat in the only booth, nursing a beer and slowly working her way through a stack of pickle tickets while her three dirty children gambled away their quarters at the claw machine. Stacy and Chase had staked a claim beside the better of the two pool tables and were chatting to Gimp’s ex-wife, Cheryl.
Nearly thirty years earlier, Gimp—whose real name was Stanley—and Cheryl got married in a hurry and divorced even faster. He had been fifty-two at the time, she a smart-mouthed twenty-three, and their entire relationship had lasted just shy of ten days. One minute hopelessly in love, the next Cheryl told him if she had to spend one more minute listening to him breathe, she would kill him in his sleep. He took her seriously. Gimp emptied their bank account and took off in the middle of the night, leaving divorce papers and a mountain of bills on the kitchen table.
The next day, she officially changed the name of the bar to ‘Not Gimp’s Pub Anymore.’ Everyone still called it Gimp’s for short, and since no one really liked Gimp and didn’t care who ran the bar as long as the beer was cheap and served cold, she didn’t lose a single patron. Stacy’s father had dated Cheryl off and on while Stacy was in high school, and the two women remained good friends even after the relationship ended. Stacy considered Cheryl family, and she was the only family Stacy acknowledged since her grandparents passed, even though, as far as Dan knew, both her parents were still alive and kicking, getting drunk somewhere in the lower forty-eight.
Stacy caught sight of Dan lingering in the doorway and nearly bounced out of her chair as she waved him over. “You came!”
“I did,” he said with quite a bit less enthusiasm.
“Well, well. Look what the cat dragged in,” Cheryl said as she pulled Dan over and wrapped him in a strong, hearty hug.
A woman of solid build and a warm heart, she favored wolf sweatshirts and silver jewelry. She wore her long, grey hair tied into a braid that fell midway down her back. Her hands were rough and her words could be harsh, but her laugh came easily and ended with a snort if she found something exceptionally funny. Dan loved her dearly.
“It’s good to see you, Dan,” she said softly, privately, giving him her condolences without making a big deal of it, the way he preferred. He hugged her tighter in appreciation.
As he let her go, he asked, “How’ve you been?”
“Can’t complain. I hear you’re building quite the place out there on Chelsea.”
“It’s just a house. Nothing special about it. Jimmy and Brent are doing most of the work.”
“Those Rogan boys know their business. You did right choosing them. That house’ll last longer than your great-granddaddy’s cabin,” she said.
“Oh, I don’t know about that. That cabin still has another hundred years left in it.”
“That it does,” she agreed. “You want a beer or something stronger tonight?”
“Beer’s fine,” Dan said.
As he sat next to Stacy, she reached over and squeezed his leg. “I was beginning to think you weren’t going to show.”
“Yes, you are,” she said on a heavy exhale, as though she had been holding her breath since she’d invited him. She started to pull away, but he held her hand to his leg and brushed his thumb along her fingertips. He missed Millie’s constant touch. Stacy’s was a comforting substitute.
“He’s not even five minutes late, Stacy. Give him a break,” Chase grumbled as he checked his phone. Pocketing it, he finished his beer and waved the bottle at Cheryl for another, then pushed his chair back from the table. “I gotta take a leak.”
Dan watched Chase as he headed toward the restroom, his phone in hand again, texting as he walked. “Is he okay?”
“He’s fine,” she dismissed with a wave.
“How’s the shop doing?” Dan asked, guessing that was the problem.
She shrugged. “Not great, but that’s nothing new. I started substitute teaching at the elementary school this year, which helps with the bills, but leaves Chase without someone to run the counter at the shop, so he gets cranky, but it’ll all work out. It always does.”
Dan squeezed her hand and allowed her to pull away. “How do you like teaching?”
“Oh, I love it!” She flashed a genuine smile, one that brightened her entire demeanor and flushed her cheeks. “The kiddos are absolute dolls, and the other teachers are so sweet and super helpful, and really fun to talk to. It’s nice to get away from shop talk and non-stop butt jokes and have a genuine, adult conversation once in awhile.”
“Plus, I kind of like dressing up for work.”
“No one’s stopping you from wearing heels and skirts to the shop.”
Stacy laughed. “True, but it wouldn’t be very practical. Though, if the skirt were short enough, Chase would probably have more customers than he’d know what to do with.”
“That depends.” Dan peeked under the table. “Let’s see your legs.”
Stacy turned in her chair, slowly lifted one tiny jean-clad leg up, pointed her toes in her Nikes, and sensually crossed it over the other. She placed her hands on her knee, pushed out her ample chest and batted her long eyelashes at him. She was so cute he couldn’t help but laugh.
“Ooh, very nice, Miss Ruzicka. I do believe you have found your fallback career.”
“What, as a tiny dancer?”
“There’s big bucks to be had if you do it right.”
Returning to the table, Chase asked, “Big bucks doing what?”
“Stripping,” Stacy said.
“Good to hear you finally found a job, Dan.”
“It’s an honest living. Somebody’s got to do it,” Dan said with a wink at Stacy.
Cheryl brought a round of drinks and a platter overloaded with cheeseburgers, French fries and onion rings. As they ate, they reminisced about high school, discussed cars and rifles, debated the proper way to grill a steak, and gossiped about their neighbors. Cheryl goaded Dan into eating two of the pickled eggs out of the massive jar sitting on the bar. Chase switched from beer to Jack and Coke. Stacy went to plain Coke, and Dan stuck with beer. Chase beat Dan in a handful of rounds of pool while Dan won two or three. Through it all, Millie’s name never came up, allowing Dan to relax and enjoy the evening.
As the night wound down, Cheryl and Stacy moved over to the jukebox and fed it quarters while Dan and Chase lounged across the seats of the back booth. Without the girls to keep the conversation going, the men fell into an uncomfortable silence. Dan was content to watch Stacy and Cheryl dance to Alan Jackson while he finished the last of his beer, but Chase’s repeated heavy sighs as he stared into his glass forced Dan to ask, “So, what’s going on?”
“I don’t know, man. Nothing. Everything.” Chase rested his head back against the wall and implored him with heavy, bloodshot eyes. “You know?”
“I know.” Dan took a drink from his beer and waited. He had known Chase long enough to know when he was drunk and feeling sorry for himself. If Dan waited long enough, eventually Chase would start talking.
Alan Jackson changed to George Strait, Stacy’s favorite. As Dan watched her sway to “Amarillo by Morning,” Chase finally asked, “How the hell did life turn out like this?”
“I don’t know,” Dan answered.
“I mean, one minute I’m eighteen and having the time of my life and next thing I know I’m thirty-two and bored out of my fucking mind. What the hell am I doing sitting at Gimp’s on a Friday night like an old man? We should still be living it up out on Chelsea. Tell me I’m wrong.”
“You’re wrong,” Dan said, not because Chase told him to, but because he believed the two words he’d just said.
“You remember that night when we were all out there and that storm came up?” Chase asked. “That was a great fucking night.”
“It was.” Dan nodded in agreement as the memory washed over him.
There had been about fifteen of them there that night—the guys playing a rough game of full-contact football, the girls cheering them on—when it started to sprinkle. A quick, shattering clap of thunder had given but a moment’s notice before the skies opened up and dumped. As the rain came down in sheets, the hard-packed dirt quickly turned to mud and elevated the intensity of the game. They played harder, hit harder, the game becoming as electrified as the lightning. Dan had never felt more alive than he had at that moment.
As the rain slowed, he found himself having a difficult time keeping his mind on the game. Millie’s t-shirt had soaked through and she wore it like a second skin. Drawn to her by what he could only describe as feral desire, he’d wandered away from the game in the middle of a play. They’d ended up on the other side of the lake, hidden away from everyone else, skinny-dipping and making love in the rain-cooled water.
“Why don’t we do shit like that anymore?” Chase asked.
“If you want to play in the mud then go play in the mud. No one’s stopping you.”
The only thing Dan wished he could re-live about that night would be to hold Millie in his arms and feel her lips on his, her naked breasts pressed against his chest. To hear her laugh again. The rest of it held no value, just things kids do to kill time while they wait to grow up.
“I don’t want to play in the mud,” Chase sighed. “I want to know what happened to that kid that played in the mud. How did his life turn into this?”
“It’s called growing up.”
“Well, it sucks… Life is just shit right now, you know?”
“Oh, I know,” Dan agreed wholeheartedly. That was exactly what his life was—shit.
“I mean, do you really think this is what I wanted my life to be?” Chase slammed his glass on the table, Jack Daniels sloshing over the rim. “You have no idea how fucked I am right now. I’m seriously fucked, Dan.”
“Life never turns out the way you want,” Dan dismissed. His gaze wandered back over to Stacy and she wiggled a little butt shake for him. He mouthed the words, ‘Tiny dancer,’ and she tipped her head back as she silently laughed.
“Man, if I could do it all over again I would.”
“What would you do over?” Dan asked.
“If I were you I’d be thanking my lucky stars that I still have a future to look forward to.”
“What future?” Chase spat.
“That one, right over there,” Dan said, pointing to Stacy. “She holds the key to everything, Chase. Open your goddamn eyes and grow the fuck up.”
“My eyes are open and I have seen the light, and it’s shining straight out of the devil himself.” Chase drained the rest of his drink and added, “You don’t know how close I am to just saying fuck it and getting the hell outta here.”
“So go,” Dan said, tired of his bullshit.
“Maybe I will. You don’t know how lucky you are.”
Dan’s vision instantly turned red. “What the hell does that mean?”
“You get to start over. Do it again. Do it better this time,” he said, with a wave of his hand.
“Go to hell.” Dan slid out of the booth and grabbed his jacket.
Chase struggled to his feet. “What’s your problem, man?”
“My problem? You’re my fucking problem. Man.”
Stacy and Cheryl stopped dancing and Stacy started toward the table.
“Hey!” Chase grabbed Dan by the shoulder and Dan snapped. Turning back, he punched Chase in the jaw with the full force of the anger he had been suffocating under all summer. Chase stumbled backward into the booth and crashed to the floor, out cold.
“What’s gotten into you two?” Cheryl demanded.
“Dan?” Stacy cried out in confusion. Frozen, as though torn between which of them to comfort, she looked from one to the other. Just as Dan thought she would reach for him, she knelt beside Chase and cradled his head. Gently, she stroked his cheek and whispered, “It’s okay. It’s going to be okay.”
Disgusted with the both of them, Dan brushed past Cheryl and stormed out of the pub, slamming the door behind him.