True story: Heaven is a bar where the World Series is always on TV, it’s always happy hour, and “Lay Lady Lay,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” or “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” is eternally playing on the jukebox. An old bubblefront Wurlitzer, maybe, or one of those early ’60s jobs full of 45s, glowing like the command console of the U.S.S. Enterprise next to the squat battleship of the cigarette machine. Quarter for three plays. Make your choices and take your chances, kid.
There’s always a dime left in the coin return of the pay phone, and the bathrooms are always freshly swabbed and pine-smelling, clean enough for the Virgin Mother’s stainless tookus other than the finest, filthiest graffitoes having graced the walls in indelible marker: “Here I sit all broken-hearted” and “It’s shorter than you think. Stand closer” and “Fall thy edgeless sword.”
At the bar, the pretzel dishes are always full and the backbar mirror clean enough to be honest, the men just drunk enough to talk about their troubles but not potted enough to fight, the women always in that sweet spot of wondering, and kind. Late in the night, when the toughs in the back by the pool tables go to war and slice each other open over a slight or a welched bet, the bartender shouting “Hey! Take that shit outside!”, the barmaid’s beer-soaked towel heals their wounds and they rise as brothers, to rack ’em again.
Abe Lincoln is there, and Bukowski, Zora Hurston, Scott and Zelda, Biggie and Tupac, everybody else you ever loved or who helped you love yourself for a minute or two, all laughing together and trying to puzzle out what that nonsense back then was about and why it mattered so damn much to everybody at the time. All of them restored to their best and brightest selves, their addictions stilled and demons exorcised, their hurts and wounds and resentments and all the other cares of the world dissolved away by the long bus ride through the nightlands to the gouged threshold of this bar.
Because I’m speaking magic to you, notice how your heart fills in all the little details as your read this, the faces becoming those of the people you’ve loved and lost and the One That Got Away, people you wish you could have met, people you’re kinda glad you didn’t meet but who you’ve always been curious about, wondering whether the face they showed the leering world was actually them or whether they were like you: another person entirely on the inside. It’s different for everyone, this heaven, the labels on the bottles behind the bar swirling with letters until they settle on whiskey or gin or vodka, the liquor inside bubbling up at that moment clear or gold, amber or the sweet purple of wine. Different for everyone outside the window, too: dark or daylight, Saturday afternoon or long after midnight, bright August sunshine or a languid rain that we’re all glad to be out of, dry and warm. The French Quarter in May smelling of gardenia and hot shrimp, or Saigon at peace. St. Louis. Little Rock. Dogtown. Paris or Dublin. Some one horseapple speck in East Texas, or that little joint you loved in San Francisco or Austin or the East Village, the street just beyond the windows swimming with finned Plymouths and DeSotos, maybe, the sidewalks burbling with people checking their watches and hurrying along about their day, because is there any better time to drink than when everybody else in the world is working? It’s all here, everything you need or want or wish you had, even a little bookstore next door where you can pop over every once in a while for a paperback or newspaper to read at the little two-top in the patch of sun by the window when the conversation gets stale, a perfect glass of beer or glass of wine sweating into the coaster before you, to sip in silence at the close of every third paragraph.
Glasses clink. Laughter and conversation. Forever, Amen. Under it all, the soft, nothing sound of the jukebox in the corner: Your cheatin’ heart will make you weep. You’ll cry and cry, and try to sleep. But sleep won’t come, the whole night through. Your cheatin’ heart will tell on you. And then Joltin’ Joe dings another one into the cheap seats on the Zenith perched over the bar and everybody cheers, even those who don’t give half a doughnut hole about baseball. Then somebody calls for a round of the Good Stuff, not that cheap shit we been choking down all night, and the bartender says: “This one is on the house. Now pipe down. The game is on.”