How did it come to this?
The thought rang over and over in my head as I stood bitterly wiping the inside of a glass mug with a towel, the sounds of obnoxiously loud country music smashing my eardrums from overhead. For the last year this bar had been my home away from home, but tonight everything about it made me want to scream: the paint curling off the walls, the smell of vomit that never seemed to leave no matter how much bleach we soaked the place in, and the same irritating bar flies that rotated on a clockwork basis like they’d pre-arranged their shifts.
“Another day, another dollar, huh Jason?” Harry Lewis, our resident barfly and overall pain in the ass, slurred and snapped me out of my pity party. He’d sat for two hours without saying a word, so why now? I looked up to find his bloodshot eyes swimming in their sockets.
“Yeah, something like that,” I said. “Refill?” As if I even needed to ask. He nodded, shaking his glass at me. To keep him from breaking the mug into a million pieces, I pried it from his hands and held it beneath the tap until the frigid brew spilled over the ridge and coated my hand. “Three bucks,” I said, waiting for him to pay up.
“Put it on my tab,” he said, reaching for the mug. I yanked it away, holding it just out of his reach.
“We’ve been over this before, Harry. We don’t do tabs here. Yours would be hundreds of miles long by now if we did.”
“Come on, man. I been coming to Jimbo’s for longer’n you been alive. What would your old man say?”
Sighing, I slid the mug across the bar to him. He wouldn't pay until he was good and ready, no matter how many times I commanded him. Harry didn’t catch the mug, of course, but he at least managed not to knock it over.
“That’s my boy,” he said, offering me his toothless smile, the same toothless smile I’d been terrified of as a kid. Looking at him now, I didn’t feel afraid at all. I felt pity. If things kept going the way they were for me, I might end up looking like Harry myself some day.
“Yeah, don’t mention it,” I said and went back to wiping dry the rack of freshly washed mugs, imagining Harry’s face plastered onto the nearest one as I tore at it with my rag. I couldn’t afford to piss him off. Aside from myself and George all holed up in his office, Harry was the only person in the bar. As much as I wanted to tell him to take his tab and stuff it, I couldn’t afford to. George and I desperately needed his three dollars, even if it wouldn’t come close to paying for all the time Harry had spent in the bar.
When Dad died last summer, none of us were prepared to deal with it, least of all my brother and me. I’d grown up within the walls of Jimbo’s Bar & Grill, so creatively named after Dad, so I thought I knew everything there was to know about it, but the weekly expense reports George generated proved neither of us knew our heads from our asses when it came to running a business.
I never imagined I’d be in this position. The thought of taking over Jimbo’s had never once crossed my mind, but there I was, my entire life revolving around a rundown dive bar like a planet in orbit. Everything spun out of control after Dad died, but at least I had good ol’ Jimbo’s to depend on, right?
“Hey Jason, can you come here?” George’s voice rang from his tiny office hidden away around the corner from the bar. His tone froze me in my tracks. “Make it quick.” I tossed my rag down on the counter and slipped through the tiny crack he’d left between his door and the wall. I couldn’t see his face, but I didn’t need to read it to know something was wrong.
“Is anyone out there?” he sighed, surely already knowing the answer.
“Just me, you, and Harry, as usual,” I said, peering over my shoulder to make sure. Harry raised his glass to me.
“Alright, close the door and take a seat,” George said. “We need to talk.” The rickety old chair creaked as I sat, its cushion sighing beneath my weight.
“What’s going on?” I asked, sure I’d rather not know. He ran a hand through his long, tangled hair and slid a piece of paper across his desk. A notice from the bank screamed up at me in big, bold letters, threatening foreclosure for default. I glanced at it quickly without picking it up, somehow afraid that touching it might contaminate me. The bright red ink seared my eyes.
“I don’t know what to say,” George muttered, his voice cracking. He cradled his head in his hands and massaged his temples. He hadn’t shaved in days and the combination of ginger and salt in his beard wasn’t doing his looks any favors. Now I understood why.
“Two hundred thousand dollars?” I asked, more to make it real than because I didn’t believe it. “How the hell had Dad managed not to pay that off by now? Jesus, there’s no way we can come up with that.”
“I don’t know. I think maybe he got in with the wrong people or something,” George said, still refusing to look up at me.
“Can we cut corners somewhere? What if we looked into different suppliers? What if—”
“Jason,” George interrupted, finally meeting my gaze with his own. Though wet with frustrated tears, his deep blue eyes managed to pierce right through me. “We’ve cut every possible corner and it wasn’t enough. It’s over. We can’t save this sinking ship.”
“Don’t say that. There’s got to be something we can do!” I said. I refused to believe we’d reached the end of the rope. We might have done a shitty job, but we’d kept this place running for nearly a year, and I wasn’t about to give up now.
“There isn’t. We’ve already laid off all the staff except for Mike, and we’re all working six or more days a week… it isn’t enough. Debts don’t go away, no matter how hard we work.”
“Holy shit…” I said, the air vacating my lungs. My stomach churned, and the floor seemed to fall out from beneath me. As much as I didn’t care for the place, it’d been in my life for as long as I could remember. I couldn’t imagine losing it, of disappointing Dad like that. “I can’t believe this.”
“That makes two of us,” George laughed, slamming a fist on his desk. “Thanks, Dad.”
“How the hell did one man manage to keep so many secrets?” I wondered aloud. Out of everything he’d left behind, the most difficult things to face were the many gems like this he’d never bothered to tell us, probably out of pride.
“When you’re as bottled up as fresh bourbon, it ain’t hard to keep your cards close to your chest,” George said.
“How long have you known about this?” I asked, forcing myself to maintain eye contact with him.
“Since last week,” he answered, slumping back in his chair to stare at the ceiling. “I didn’t have the balls to tell you about it until now.”
“What?! Why?” I said, my face tingling. I couldn’t for the life of me come up with a reason why George wouldn’t have shared this with me sooner.
“Christ, Jason, how was I supposed to break it to you? It ain’t like you’re the easiest going person in the world, you know? I didn’t even want to believe it was real, but I got a rude awakening when I came in to open this afternoon,” he said.
“What are you talking about?”
“There was a foreclosure notice posted on the front door. I took it down as soon as I noticed it. I don’t think anyone saw it before I did, but there’s no getting around this. It’s over. We’re done. Jimbo’s is toast.” His words hung in the silence that fell between us, bludgeoning the inside of my skull.
“How much time do we have?” I asked.
“Two weeks? Two months? There’s really no way to tell. Whenever the bank comes to give us the boot and change the locks.”
“I feel sick,” I said before I had the chance to filter myself. I stood from the chair and stalked out of the office. I had to get away from George before I slugged him.
Instead, I picked up the mug I’d left behind and replaced the image of Harry’s face being ground away with that of my father’s. I hoped Dad died happily. He’d spent his entire life running the bar and still managed to find a way in death to screw me over one last time.
I should’ve left Beauclaire months—no, years—ago, before Dad and his god damned bar trapped me here, before everything had gone to hell in a handbasket.
The ring of the front door opening caught me by surprise, and my stomach dropped to the floor when Dan Montgomery—my long lost and newly famous ex-boyfriend—stepped through the doors. His beautiful brown eyes swept over mine, and a perfectly straight and whitened smile split his face.
“Well, hot damn, if it ain’t Jason Smith himself! Long time, no see!” he called across the bar. Had it not been for Harry turning to throw Dan a scowl—no doubt from the throbbing Dan’s shout caused in his drunken head—I wouldn’t have believed the man standing in front of me was real. The glass I’d been punishing tumbled out of my hands and crashed to the tile floor in front of me. Dan winced as he stepped over to the bar and sat down next to Harry.
The day just kept getting better.
I bent down to pick up the shards and catch my breath. Dan Montgomery. The same Dan Montgomery who’d torn my life apart when he got the great idea to try and date me and then fell off the face of the earth when he won a stupid TV singing competition and traded me in for fame.
I stood slowly to keep from passing out.
“Dan Montgomery, what’s a hotshot like you doing in backwoods Beauclaire? Has your career washed up already?” I asked. I couldn’t summon anything other than sarcasm, my default for coping with uncomfortable situations—this definitely qualified as one.
“Well, I do miss the place every now and then, as hard as you might find that to believe, and I’d hate myself if I came through town and didn’t get a serving of Jimbo’s warm southern hospitality,” he fired back and pushed his overly long brown bangs out of his eyes, up over the top of his head. I chuckled while he folded his hands in front of him and locked eyes with me.
“It’s good to see you.” Suddenly aware of the knot between my eyebrows, I reached for an empty mug, filled it to the brim from the tap, and passed it to him.
“It’s been two years. Why come home now?” I asked. He’d certainly changed, as the skin-tight clothing wrapped firmly around his muscled frame attested, but time had only made him more attractive—dangerously so.
“I missed your smiling face and bright personality, of course,” he joked. “I see you’re still as sullen as ever, huh?” he asked and took a deep swig of the beer. A foamy mustache was left behind on his upper lip, which he made a show of dragging his tongue across.
“I figured you’d still be living here, but I hoped you’d at least found some sliver of happiness by now. I guess some things really don’t change, do they?”
“I dunno about that, it sounds to me like you’ve acquired an attitude nearly as large as your career,” I said, wiping away the wet streak his mug had left on the counter. He chuckled and fell silent.
“The music industry has a way of inflating egos, or so they say.”
“Yeah, so they say,” I agreed, though Dan’s had always been larger than most.
“My Mom’s sick, you know,” he said, refusing to meet my gaze.
“I… I’m sorry to hear that,” I said, totally caught off guard. I meant it, too. Mrs. Bailey—she’d remarried years back—had always been a tough old bird, and she’d never cared for me. She’d swore I was nothing but trouble and heartache waiting to happen for Dan, but really the same was true of him for me.
“Yeah… thanks,” he said, raising his mug in faux cheers before taking another deep pull.
“Is it serious?”
“Serious enough that I needed to come home for a while.” He drained the last dregs of his mug and slammed it into the polished wood of the bar. “But enough about me and my pity party. How are things with Mr. Smith? Still Beauclaire’s most eligible bachelor?”
“Just peachy, can’t you tell?” I asked, nodding to the empty bar and its rundown appearance. I would've given anything not to be discussing my sad life situation with Dan Montgomery in the middle of the sorry bar, but he clearly wasn’t going to let it go.
“I take it ol’ Jimbo finally retired?”
“Not exactly,” I said. He raised one eyebrow at me and when I didn’t offer any explanation, his face went blank.
“Shit. Sorry,” he whispered. Insincerity colored his voice, but I couldn’t say I blamed him after all the grief Dad had put him through when he’d caught us kissing in the back room of the bar two years prior. Long story short, Dad wasn’t real happy about it and fired Dan, and I couldn’t help wondering if that had something to do with the way Dan had skipped town not long afterward.
“Yeah, I’m pretty sure dear old Dad’s gonna come back to haunt me any day now,” I said as I refilled Dan’s glass.
“Why’s that?” he asked, eyeing me. Shit. He always knew how to read me, so lying to him would’ve been pointless. I sighed and wiped my hands on my jeans.
“He left the place to me and George to keep afloat and we couldn’t even manage that, just like he said we couldn’t. A foreclosure notice came today.” Tears stung in my eyes as I stared at the TV hung on the wall behind me without really watching it. Football definitely wasn’t my thing, but it was better than looking at Dan’s face and it kept Harry quiet. Knowing that the bar would be taken from us hurt, but saying it out loud made it infinitely worse. Still, I refused to let Dan fucking Montgomery of all people see me cry. It wasn’t like he cared anyway.
When I’d gathered myself, I chanced a look in his direction to find him watching me, his mug clasped between his hands, which seemed to have gotten bigger and more, well, manly than they were the last time I’d seen him. Back then I could’ve wrapped both of his hands in one of mine, but now it looked like it wouldn’t have taken much effort from him to mess me up in a back alley if I said the wrong thing to him. Must’ve been from all the training his publicist or whoever the hell had put him through to improve his “image.”
This was wrong, all wrong. It was supposed to be me who’d changed and made something of myself to impress him, not the other way around.
“How bad is it?” he asked.
“Two hundred G’s bad,” I said. “I’m sure that’s chump change for you these days.” He laughed.
“Maybe I could help,” he said, nearly knocking me off my feet. The offer was strange at best, manipulative at worst.
“You must’ve gotten up to some really awful shit while you were out of town. I don’t think karma works like that.”
“Sure it does,” he said, offering me his perfect smile and a shrug.
“If anyone should be chasing after good karma, it’s me.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” he said, and though his smile had faded somewhat, he didn’t look like he’d meant to hurt me with his words. Did he still hate me for letting Dad chase him out of the bar the way I had? I wouldn’t have blamed him if he did.
“Well, I’ve gotta get back to Mom’s place before it gets too late,” he said. He dug into his jacket pocket and pulled out a few bills, a ratty piece of paper, and a pen. He tossed the bills on the bar in front of him, scribbled something on the piece of paper, and made sure to leave it on top of the stack of bills. I hesitated for a moment.
“It’s on the house,” I said, shoving his money back toward him. I didn’t want anyone’s charity, least of all his. He didn’t owe me anything. Quite the opposite.
“I don’t think the house can afford it,” he said with a smile and shoved back from the bar. “I’ll see you around, Jason.” When he was gone, my mind reeled, searching for anything to latch itself onto before I drifted away. I snatched the piece of paper he’d left behind and held it up in the dim light to read what he’d written.
“Call me if you change your mind and we can talk it over,” it said, with his phone number scratched beneath it. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t the same number he used to have.
“Who was that?” George asked, startling me as he emerged from his cave of an office.
“An old friend,” I said, still staring at the piece of paper in front of me.
“Must’ve been one hell of a friend,” Harry said, having snapped out of his stupor. His wide, bleary eyes were glued on the stack of bills Dan left behind. “I reckon that’d pay for all my drinks and then some.” Of course, it was much more than he’d actually owed, but Dan was never one for subtly.
“Somehow I doubt that,” I muttered, but my mind wandered elsewhere. I didn’t really want anything to do with Dan Montgomery, country music star and hometown heartthrob, but what other choice did I have? He’d dropped into my lap with pockets deeper than God’s, all smiles and sexiness, and offered to help me turn the bar around. I couldn’t say no to that… could I?
Jesus, how the hell did it come to this?