How Only Mary Became Mary Only, or
The World Will Never End at the Star Bar
It became a joke, really, as many times as we had the same discussion. I would be getting ready to go out, showering, shaving, that sort of thing. My roommate, not the most observant of creatures, would pass by the bathroom and exclaim, “Oh, got a hot date, who is it this time?” and I would sometimes respond “No, no hot date, it’s only Mary” and we would both laugh, every time. Mary was one of those people who aren’t lovers, not really friends, and seem to exist solely for something to do, someone to be with when you sorta wanted to go out by yourself but didn’t want to be alone. We would have dinner, see a movie, or go trolling in the thrift shops because Mary had a fierce junk jones.
It was never anything serious, and if we didn’t speak for a few weeks, or months, it wasn’t the sort of thing that would cross your mind, until one day you just called her and there she was, and you would get together for awhile and then go home, by yourself and that was that. Tonight was the same thing. It was a Friday, and a payday at that, and I was going to see a band down the road at the Star Bar called the Neon Angels, and the thought crossed through my head to give Mary a call and so I did, and she had nothing better to do so she said yes, I said great, and we made plans to get together.
Mary didn’t have a car any more, so when she gave me directions to the bar I think she purposely made them twice as long as was really needed just so she could ride in a car and smoke. Fine with me, because she was funny and kinda cute, and there are worse ways to spend time. We finally got there, after going through some areas that you automatically pray that you didn’t get a flat tire because you know that just out of eyesight are vultures, waiting to swoop down when you get out, rob you blind and jack the car. It was about ten when we got to the bar, and we had to park in the back and walk up, after paying three bucks to some guy you hoped was just stoned and not really as brain-dead as he appeared. I joked to him that he better watch my car, for all that money I had paid him. He looked real confused, as if I was talking way too fast, and I told Mary later that I should have used flash cards with big pictures of a car on it to help him out. She said “Huh?” and I thought, yeah, I’ll get some for you, too. That was the last time I saw my car. I don’t think I will ever know for sure if it is still there or not, although I don’t think so, because nothing else outside of this room seems to be there anymore.
The most crowded place on earth is the Star Bar on a Friday night. It has the fire marshal sign on the wall that states the capacity for the room is 125 persons. I stood behind that many people waiting in line for the bathroom. I would guess about three hundred people were inside when we got there, and you walked in the door and stopped, not to look for a table or anything, but because it was like merging onto a freeway at rush hour, just packed. We finally angled our way over to a long rail set in the middle of the room and found enough space to rest our arms and I went off to get us some beers. I glimpsed a gap in the mass at the bar and wedged myself into it, between a white guy with dreads in mirror sunglasses and two women sharing a stool. I reached past the nearest one and put my hand on the bar, with a ten-dollar bill in it. I’ve found that bartenders are blind to anything in front of them that doesn’t have money attached to it. My chest was about six inches or so from the woman’s face, and I was standing there, reading the bumper stickers on the mirror behind the liquor (“no, I don’t care how big it is, just where has it been?” was the best) when she spoke, which was only natural, seeing as how I had invaded her comfort zone and all.
“You smell good.”
What the hell do you say to that?
“I better, thanks.” and tried to catch the bartender’s eye, which I was beginning to think would require a fly-casting rod to achieve.
“What are you wearing?” she said, and I looked down at her and her friend, joined together on the stool. They looked like a stop on a circus midway, two heads, four legs and one large black dress.
“Nature’s own, I guess.” I couldn’t think of anything to say, really, and I don’t think that she was coming on to me, because she and her stool-mate were holding hands. But you never know these days.
“Really, who makes that?”
“Hey, that’s cool. I’ve never met a person who makes cologne before. Is there money in it?”
I realized that I had no idea what she was talking about.
“What? I work at a engineering company. We make maps.” I had almost gotten the bartender to feint in my direction, and if I paused anymore with this conversation I would miss my window of opportunity and have to wait until she made another pass of the bar, and if that happened I would be paying for the beer with a Social Security check.
“Hey,” she said between giggles, “You’re pretty funny! I meant I thought you made cologne and stuff and you meant you weren’t wearing any! Trip me out!”
If I had a spare thirty seconds I would, and it wouldn’t even be hard.
“Smells good and talks funny. What more do you need in a man, right?” I responded, smiling.
The other one spoke this time, holding up their interlocked hands waving matching bands of black and gold. “We’re engaged, pal,” she sneered.
“Your parents must be so proud.”
“Jerk.” She hissed, and angrily picked up a smoke from the bar and craned around, looking for a light. I lit her cigarette and she exhaled in rapid bursts from her nose, and I knew she hated the taste of the Winston, just because a pig like me had lit it. Her friend, on the other hand, was still giggling and trying to ask me about making maps, something about did I find them hard to fold up like everyone else, or what, until her betrothed snapped “Can it, okay?” and then they both sat silently, looking somewhere past me, squinting from the smoke.
I finally ordered from the bartender, got the beer and stepped back from the bar, trying to hold the pitcher and the glasses without sloshing beer onto the pair, which, even though it would be funny to see, would waste what I had waited what seemed like a lifetime for, so I resisted.
“It’s been fun. Let’s do it again, okay?”
The surly one mumbled something back that I lost in the noise of the crowd and I bounced off ten people on my way to Mary, who had managed to smoke three cigarettes in the time I was gone.
“A pitcher? I don’t know if I want that much to drink.” Which I knew was a lie because Mary drank like a man in a desert each time we went out.
“If you want to go up and wait at the bar every twenty minutes then you go ahead. Me, I got better things to do with the rest of my life.” Looking back on it now, I guess I was wrong about that.
We talked about this and that, as you do. Only talking with Mary, who has taken Prozac for so long that she always seems about ready to nod off at any moment, is more of a monologue than a exchange, because she doesn’t really have anyone else her age to talk to, I guess. When we are together she feels compelled, although not by me, to relate all the various ailments and bad breaks she has suffered since the last time I had seen her. I found myself looking around the bar as she spoke, distracted. It was a normal crowd for the Star Bar, which meant it had every sort of person there, from bikers to gays to girls from Emory who would smoke in little drags and drink light beer and whoop out loud every once in awhile at nothing in particular. Up against a wall were some older, bored-looking guys who never spoke to each other, drinking some dark whiskey that didn’t seem to be soiled by water. They were most likely drug dealers, a profession that is not as needed as it was ten years ago, I don’t think. Anyway I don’t use them anymore, but maybe other people did, because a lot of folks around me seemed to all have a runny nose and were talking a mile a minute in that teeth-grinding, jaw-clenching way that bad coke makes you do.
We drank, smoked, and didn’t talk for a while until I realized that all the beer I had in me was making a desperate attempt to escape. Mary was on the phone, telling her aunt that she wasn’t coming home until tomorrow, and not to worry. Well, she isn’t going to worry, I don’t think, but tomorrow is about an eternity too short to use as a time frame for going home. I turned around to the guy next to me, a normal enough looking person who was trying to show a girl some bar trick that involved a quarter and a napkin. He had been working at it for about ten minutes and kept dropping the quarter on the floor when he screwed up. The girl with him looked bored as it went on. I wonder how she looks now.
“Watch our spot, okay? I’m making a run for the bathroom before the band comes on.”
He laughed and said, “Then you better use the wall like everyone else, or you’ll never see what you paid for.” I looked confused so he went on.
“When you are this close to the door it’s easier to go outside and use the back wall near the cars than it is to fight your way into the bathroom. Trust me.” I said sure and went up to the bouncer at the door.
“Leaving or leakin’?” He held out a stamp, poised over my hand, ready to imprint me with that fingerprint ink bars get from a cop shop, because it never comes off.
“Leaking, I suppose.”
“Well, good luck. It’s cold as hell out there. Say hey to Robert. He’s the guy who took your money when you parked.”
I didn’t exactly want to engage anyone in a conversation while I was peeing, much less Robert the ganja boy. He stamped my hand and I went outside, and he was right, it was cold and misting rain to boot. I went around the back of the bar, expecting to be alone. Instead there were about five or six other people already gathered around the trashcans, drinking out of a paper bag and smoking a joint.
“Don’t tell me there’s a line out here, too?” I asked, looking around for a more secluded place to do my thing.
One of the group laughed, a skinny guy in a slick looking cowboy hat. I could hear a woman’s voice from around a corner, and she wasn’t happy.
“I told you morons to keep everyone away from here! I don’t want nobody watching me take a leak, for hell’s sake.”
“Rosie, the least attractive thing in the world might not be a big old red-headed bitch taking a piss behind a dumpster, but if it ain’t, I hope I never see it. Just finish up, we gotta play. Damn.” It was the skinny guy again, and he was wearing a jacket like ones that Gram Parsons used to wear, or maybe Dwight Yoakum these days.
“Nice coat. Nudies?” I asked, and he nodded, yeah.
He looked down at my boots and complemented me on them and I returned the nod. My boots, black with red going around the sides, little tiny toes, were occupying a large part of my concentration at the moment, at least avoiding splashing them as I relived the pressure of bar beer. I did, and said see you later. He finished the joint and licked the roach and ate it, like people used to do years ago, and I hadn’t seen in forever, and said, “Hope you enjoy the show” as I walked back up the hill to the bar.
It was easier getting in to the club now that some of the crowd had left, or were in the bathroom. I found Mary and noticed three more empty paper cups, the kind the shooters had come in, lined up in front of her. Her eyes were kinda glazed and she took my hand and stuck it in her leather jacket, to warm it up, she said. I didn’t move my hand at all, not wanting to appear fresh or anything, but really, how coy can you be with a drunk girl holding your hand to her breast? I mean really. We stood there awhile, Mary weaving a bit on her toes, which was really the same as if I was moving my hand after all, and I started to think that maybe Only Mary might turn out to be something after all. I have known her for years, and excepting a few times when a kiss goodnight at the door led to a kiss good morning on the couch, I never thought of her as a date type thing, and she always said, in response to no question that I ever remember asking, that she just wanted to be friends. I had always agreed, and that was that. But now here we were, rubbing up against each other and introducing my knuckle to her bra, and a guy just had to think twice about that. I almost wanted to suggest that we leave and go somewhere a little more private, like my house, but if we had done that we would be gone now, I suppose, so I’m glad we stuck around.
What made me stay, and always had, was the music. I’m one of those people who would rather read a good book or hear a hot band than mix with other people. My ex-wife had been the same way, and it was unfortunate, because a man and wife really can’t share that sort of common desire, or they grow apart. We had. So instead of going away with Mary for an experience that would be at best only momentarily captivating, I opted to stay and hear if the guy in the Nudie jacket deserved to wear it.
They walked up on stage then, the guy in the jacket and the rest of the people that I had seen behind the bar, and what I guessed was the owner of the woman’s voice I had heard. The guitar player plugged in and for about 30 seconds played licks from the first Elvis Sun records, the little Scotty Moore riffs that are so sweet. I wanted to buy the guy another jacket, he was that damn good. I took my hand out from inside Mary’s chest, and gave my full attention to the band.
Certain things in life can be verified instantly. If you order a plate of barbecue you know from the first taste if it is good or not. There are no “okay” rib places, just like there are no “okay” country bands. It only takes about half of one song to realize it, and this band had it down cold. Rosie, the singer, had a mane of red hair that started under her black cowboy hat and ended up somewhere south of yesterday. She was a busty thing, like most good country gals, and had a voice that could warm up a dead man. Good male country singers could make you cry in your beer, but a good country girl would make you remember why you did. They started with the Dave Dudley song, “Six Days on the Road,” and it sounded better than the Burritos’ version, which is saying something. I took Mary’s hand and asked her if she liked them, and she did, which was good, because they are going to be the house band for all time, it seems.
They played for about an hour, and I knew every song, and even danced with the pair of girls from the bar, and everyone was feeling real good, that kind of good that when you think back over it the next morning you blush, because you recall acting like a fool, maybe. Only this time there isn’t going to be a next morning, not for a long time.
What happened was this. The band had stopped to take a break between sets, and the PA came back on, playing some annoying new music, although any music would have been wrong after her. It was late, and when people started going outside and not coming back, it wasn’t anything weird, because most people don’t stay out all night listening to music, and it was getting to be around one in the morning. Then the guy next to me said he was going to wash the wall and when he opened the door to leave I could see what looked like a wall of mist take him in, and the air coming in was warm, like it was a summer night in the south, not a winter one like it had been when I had gone out before. I never saw him again either.
It was a little while longer before I really starting thinking something was strange. Mary and I had moved to the bar and were ordering more Kamikazes. When the woman poured the vodka into the mixing glass the level in the bottle never went down, like it was a magic trick. When I tried to pay for the drinks she looked at me like I was nuts.
“Why? What good will money do now?” She answered, and moved off down the bar.
“What did she mean?” Mary asked, and I could tell she was a little scared.
“Where did everyone go?” she asked, and I looked around. She was right. Only about a hundred people were left in the bar, and you could see all the way across the room, which I don’t think I had ever been able to do in all the times I had been here before. As I looked at the faces of the people left, I realized something interesting. All of the Emory girls, the drug dealers and such were gone. All that was left were those of us who had really grooved on the band and had stuck around to see the last set.
I reached down and held Mary’s face in my hands. She took them away and put them back under her coat. They found the proper places and she kissed me on the neck, and said the girl had been right, I did smell good. We stood like that for awhile, and the band began warming up to play again. The bartender looked at us and said she was glad we stuck around. She asked our names. I told her mine and was about to say Mary’s when she spoke.
“Mary. Mary Only.”
“Glad to meet ya both. Hellava band, wouldn’t you say? Bet you need some more beer, am I right?” I nodded and she reached into a cooler and pulled out two Coronas. The space in the cooler were they had been was full, like the beer was still there.
Mary leaned her head against my chest and when she spoke I could feel her face move through my shirt.
“We are in a place called the Star Bar, the band is called the Neon Angels, and the beer never runs out, right?”
I waited a minute, ran it all back through my head before I spoke. On stage the band was playing a Merle Haggard song.
“Yeah. Welcome to heaven.”