HEY BARKEEP, GIMME A SIX-PACK OF TICKETS TO GO …
It was in the middle of nowhere, really. Other than a few farmhouses and barns, too many cows and corn, and a few rats scattered among the scores of cats roaming the countryside, there really seemed to be little life.
It was late at night, I was driving tired from too many hours already spent on the road, and in the distance it beckoned.
Not like the sirens call of Greek mythology, luring me to some ultimate doom. And not like the fire light that seduces the moth into its fallen flash of death.
No, this was more like a neon finger flickering for attention amidst the back country’s thousands of stars, as if it didn’t know whether it should vie for attention or not. Nonetheless, it drew me ever closer, and closer, and closer.
I had opened my window for a wallop of fresh, cool night air, hoping it would startle my eyes into staying open, when I heard the sound of … what the heck is that??
It was like something that wanted to be an accordion, but wasn’t. Accompanied by the sound of something that wanted to be, I’m not sure, maybe a harmonica, but wasn’t. And the sound of something that reminded me of singing, but wasn’t.
I slammed on my brakes, skidding halfway through the intersection, having realized slightly too late that there was a stop sign. Although about a third of the sign was missing, having apparently been the victim of shotgun blast.
The smell of skunk wafted nonchalantly through my nostrils, and headed straight for the back of my brain where it plastered a sign that said, “eww-w-w-w-w-w-w-w-w.”
Still, I didn’t move. My eyes were transfixed on the scene that laid no more than thirty feet in front of me. My foot still pressed hard on the brake pedal.
There it was. Not a finger flickering for attention, but a neon pickle struggling to stay lit.
The parking lot was full of cars, trucks and a few motorcycles.
It was the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, and I was stopped in the middle of the intersection of Erehwon and Zilch Roads. Somebody had a sense of humor. (Erehwon is nowhere spelled backwards.)
After about five minutes, I lifted my foot off the brake pedal and slowly headed toward the parking lot. It didn’t matter how tired I was or how soon I wanted to get home, I had to know more about this place called, “Pickled Pete’s Pantry, Pub and Used Cars.”
The sound that was trying to be music, but wasn’t, was still playing.
I parked a few cars from the front door.
The hand-written sign on the door said, “Tonight Only! The Tar Bottom Trio! No Cover!”
I pushed open the door and stood there, looking the place over before committing myself to actually walk in.
I heard a friendly voice bellow from behind the bar, “Come on in friend. The Pantry and Used Car Lot is closed but the Pub’s open for another couple of hours.”
It seemed safe enough, so I walked up to the bar and sat down on an old but comfortable stool.
“I’m Pickled Pete,” the bartender said, “What can I getcha?”
“Got some strong, black coffee?” I asked.
“Sure do, made fresh only a couple hours ago. Shot of anything in it?”
“No thanks,” I said. “Just the coffee.”
As the Tar Bottom Trio was finishing its “song”, I noticed the handful of other patrons in the bar. Most were, shall we say, definitely under the influence. As in, you won’t need a breathalyzer to know these people are past the legal limit.
I asked Pete about his entertainment.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s my second cousin Frank on the concertina and his wife, Millie, plays the comb. They’ve been trying to break into the music biz for the past 8 or 9 years, so I let ‘em play here for the practice.”
The concertina was that sound that was trying to be an accordion, but wasn’t. And Millie was actually playing a comb with a piece of paper over it.
“But they’re called a trio,” I said. “Where’s the third person?”
“Oh, that’s Gabe,” Pete said. “But he’s not a person. He’s their parrot.”
And that would be the sound of something that reminded me of singing, but wasn’t. Gabe was the trio’s lead singer.
Don’t get me wrong. The parrot knew the lyrics, mostly, and sort of carried a tune, somewhat, but I wouldn’t call him a “lead singer.”
That is, until I heard Frank and Millie sing. So yeah, Gabe was the trio’s lead singer.
I had a couple more cups of coffee that was so strong it could have been on steroids, and left Pickled Pete’s Pantry, Pub and Used Cars wide, wide awake.
About a mile down the rode, I caught a glimpse of chrome parked behind a billboard. It was a cop car, waiting.
Shortly after passing him, the red and blue flashing lights signaled me to pull over. The cop came over to my door. “Been drinking tonight?” he asked.
“Just coffee, sir,” I said.
He leaned in closer to my face, and said, “Mind exhaling for me?”
“Smells like Pickled Pete’s brew,” the officer said. “He reuses some coffee grounds with every pot he makes. Really strong stuff.”
“Yes,” I said. “Definitely some strong coffee.”
“Well, you’re free to go. Drive safely.”
As I drove off, I had to wonder … why do people put bars in the middle of nowhere?
You have to drive to get there. Then you drink. Often too much. And even though you’re drunk, you still have to drive to get home. It’s not like you can just walk home or catch a bus. You’re miles from anything.
I don’t really have a great ending to that last paragraph. It was just one of those hangers-on thoughts that you feel obligated to let loose, but afterward, you wish you hadn’t. I won’t belabor the point any longer.
You’re free to go.