The Cellar Bar opens. It’s quiet before the customers arrive. Mac sits in a chair by the fireplace. The boss is busy setting up the bar. Mac hears a car pull up and park outside. He walks to the front of the bar and peeks out from behind the Persian carpet that blocks the window. He sees an older model white Cadillac Coupe de Ville, the kind with the large fins in back.
Two women exit the car, one from the back seat and the other from the passenger seat in front. They walk up to the front door of the restaurant and go inside. Mac figures it’s a bathroom stop. The Frolic has one of the few readily accessible bathrooms in town. The boss lets the public use it except when the annual water shortage hits. Then he allows customers only and requires a key. People get around it by buying a cup of coffee.
As soon as the first two women are gone the driver gets out and heads downstairs to toward Mac. Mac lets the carpet slide back in place and returns to his seat.
The woman enters through the front door, ringing the cowbells, walks up to the bar and sits on the barstool closest to the front door. She looks to be in her sixties. A few extra pounds, the liver spots on her hands, and the makeup that doesn’t quite hide the inevitable signs of aging. The wrinkles on her neck confirm his guess. She’s dressed modestly in a beige pants suit with a matching vest over a yellow blouse. Her hair is blond, but not the roots. She wears an elegant gold bracelet and pin. A lady of means but not a kept woman, a woman on her own, in control, who lives like she wants. Mac thinks about some advice he received from a local lady he sees sometimes on his walks. “Don’t let yourself go,” she says, “stay fit and keep your appearance tidy.”
“A vodka, straight up please,” she says in a husky voice. No fancy drinks for her, thinks Mac. The boss pours a vodka and sits it in front of her She downs it in a single gulp.
“One more,” she says. She looks around the bar at the stuffed animal heads, the large oil paintings of The Pied Piper and Cinderella, the dried alligator skin, the rhinoceros foot, the blowfish. She acknowledges Mac with a smile. She takes everything in but without comment. No small talk.
Mac watches her. She has a special charm and confidence some women of her age display. She downs the second vodka just as fast as the first.
“Might as well have one more for the road,” she says.
The boss looks uncomfortable but he pours the drink. She’s not one he wants to argue with.
“Who am I to judge,” the boss tells Mac after she leaves.
Mac goes to the window. He watches the woman get back into the car. She’s comfortably relaxed into the driver’s seat when the other two women walk out the front door of the restaurant. Mac watches the car slowly back out. He follows the large white fins until they disappear over the hill on Lansing Street.
“What would you have done, boss, if she ordered another?” asks Mac after he returns to his chair.
“I would have cut her off,” says the boss. “We have a responsibility.”
Maybe, thinks Mac. But he’s not sure. Some people can hold their booze better than others. Some are in control, some aren’t. There are all sorts of addicts—sex, drugs, booze, food. Addiction is rather odd. You know you have one but won’t admit it. You know you should get rid of it but you don’t want to. You keep at it, do the same thing over and over and expect a different result. But it’s always the same. You learn to ignore the guilt. You learn to live with who you are. Or you go mad.
One morning Mac walks down the back stairs to clean the bar. The window above the ice machine is busted out and the back door of the bar is ajar. Mac enters cautiously. Nothing seems amiss until he notices an empty bottle of bourbon and a glass sitting on the bar. There is a note under the glass with a twenty-dollar bill. “I needed a drink. Sorry about the window. Hope this covers everything.” Mac tells the boss who laughs it off. The boss has one of the carpenters who hangs out in the coffee shop repair the window and put up a metal grate.
The janitors don’t clean the bar at night. The bartenders put all the perishables away in the refrigerator under the spiral staircase. They straighten up the pillows and chairs and check for cash and lost items and smoldering cigarettes. They are allowed a couple of drinks to unwind. Some nights they have more than a couple of drinks. Bill tells Mac about one of those nights.
“I was joined by a tall man who will remain nameless. One night he and I had a few too many. He said he felt so good he felt like jumping. He was sitting in one of the stuffed chairs in front of the fireplace. He stood up on it and jumped straight up. Unfortunately, his head was only a few inches below the ceiling and he was knocked out. He plunged backwards off the chair, his head coming to rest under the corner barstool. There he was, long and cocked. I didn’t know what to do,” says Bill, “so I got some more ice for my drink and waited for him to return. I listened to Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain on the stereo. It was nice in the quiet of the bar late at night after closing. My friend was out and I sipped my drink. He came round, finally, and we drank till dawn, laughing. I never told the boss.”
Mac is sure the tall man is one of the other bartenders, the one they call Odd Bob. On another night the boss, Odd Bob and Julie who works the register hang out after hours and drink Tuaca, a sweet butterscotch liquor. They drink until the sun comes up. They solve all the problems of philosophy, religion and life the way people do when they’ve had too much.
“Don’t ever get drunk on a sweet liquor,” the boss says to Mac. “Shirley Hawley told me God protects drunks and fools. Well, God may have protected us that night but not the next morning. I had a terrible hangover. I guess I am here to tell you about it though, so maybe there’s some truth to what she said.”
Mac doesn’t say anything. He knows better. Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent. Flash told Mac a famous philosopher said that.
In the early days the bartenders cleaned the bar before they opened. They complained to the boss that it ruined their outfits, clean shirts, ties and all. So he tells Mac that it’s his job. When the lights are turned up and the doors are open to air out the place, Mac sees the dust and grime on the tables, the fried green peas and rice crackers spilled all over the carpets, the nicotine stains on the ceiling and glass chandeliers, the dirty ashtrays, the rotting lemon peels and fruit on the sticky floor mats behind the bar. It’s a big job but Mac puts his head down and goes to work. It’s not much different from washing dishes really.
Mac wonders how people decide what to drink. Drinks come into and out of fashion with a strange alchemy. First it’s Long Island Ice Tea, then Tequila Sunrise or Kamikaze or Harvey Wallbanger. For some reason Metaxa brandy is the thing at the moment. The Frolic serves more Metaxa than anywhere in the world outside of Greece. Coffee drinks are always popular. Lots of Kahlua, lots of cream, lots of sugar and hot coffee. Some customers swear Irish coffees cure flu attacks. Coffee and booze make for a room full of wide-awake drunks. Anywhere else that might lead to trouble but there is seldom much trouble at the Cellar Bar.
Most of the customers Mac watches want what everybody wants from a watering hole, a place where you can just drop in and stand a decent chance of running into somebody you know, a place where you can unwind from the stresses of daily life and bond with folks you might otherwise never meet. People come to ease their sorrows, to keep up on the local news, to find a place to rent, to find someone to date. And, for all the junk in the bar, Mac never sees anyone walk out with anything. Mac hangs out in the bar because he enjoys seeing the scene unfold. He got a bad case of the spins once when he drank and got stoned at the same time, so he sticks to one or the other and lots of times neither. He’d rather get high from just watching.
He sees romances bloom and fade. People meet, seduce each other, become a couple. Then they argue, flirt with someone else, have a fight and split up. The entire process sometimes takes less than a week.
As busy as the bar can be, tonight it’s surprisingly quiet. It’s December 31, 1975, New Year’s Eve. The boss is bartending. Brin joins Mac and Myrna by the fire to talk. There aren’t many customers, one group of tourists from the City. They look disappointed. There’s no hoopla, no noise, just soft conversation.
“So, where are you from Mac?” asks Brin innocently.
“I wish I knew,” he says, “but I don’t.”
“Beth and I found Mac along Albion road,” says Myrna. “We think he was in some kind of accident but no one knows anything about it. He can’t remember anything. It’s kind of annoying,” Myrna looks at Mac, “but he can’t help it I guess.”
“Myrna found this and thinks it fell off my neck when I was walking along Albion road,” says Mac who takes off his necklace and shows it to Brin.
Brin gets a puzzled look on her face. “Where did you get this Mac?” she asks.
“I’m not even sure it’s mine,” says Mac.
“It is,” says Myrna, “I’m sure of it.”
“My grandfather had one just like it that some divers gave him,” says Brin. “They told him it came from the site of the Frolic shipwreck. That happened very close to our family home. Does the name on the bezel mean anything to you?”
“Not really,” says Mac who still has some things to sort out before he says anything. “Hey, I think it’s just about midnight.”
A bearded spaced-out hippie at the bar asks the tourists if they have the correct time.
“Exactly midnight,” says the man who consults the Mickey Mouse watch on his arm.
The man at the bar pulls a kazoo out of his pocket and plays Auld Lang Syne. The tourists are clearly amused. Brin walks to the bar and gives the boss a kiss. Mac and Myrna snuggle up on the couch. The pendant is forgotten. None of them know it but this is the last New Year’s Eve for the old Cellar Bar. On December 12, 1976 the Frolic Café is destroyed by fire. The day of the fire Mac thinks back to what Rafan told him about the Frolic shipwreck. Turn turn turn. Everything has its place and nothing lasts forever.