All My Life

"Greta Garbo here needs another vodka."

"Fuck you," Greta says.

"Hey, don't blame me. It was the guys who killed rock 'n roll." The tall red-haired man nods at Solly the bartender as he heads for the door.

"All my life I have to listen to these stupid Greta Garbo jokes." Greta takes a sip from the vodka tonic Solly places in front of her.

"She was a beautiful woman." Solly shrugs.

"Yeah, so I'm not and it's funny to call me her name?" Greta pulls a cigarette out of the pack lying next to her glass. "What do I care? I'm old now. You should leave the old alone."

Solly moves down the bar to empty the ashtray of a young couple so immersed in each other they don't notice. At the end of the bar sits a fat guy about 50, wearing a khaki fishing hat. He's flipping channels with the remote and muttering at the TV. "When you gonna actually buy a TV, Emmett?" Solly calls.

"Why don't you pay your cable bill so's we'd get the game?" Emmett shoots back.

"You want a sports bar, go over to Balls & Bats," Solly grumbles as he sloshes a glass though the soap scum in the sink.

"This is the Old Bats & No Balls," Greta says, twitching her cigarette left and right with her long bony fingers. "I believe you've made a mistake."

The young couple look at Greta as if she might have said something witty, but they didn't quite catch it. One of the Blondes in Booth 2 comes over to get a dish of pretzels. Blonde and Blonder, Solly calls them. They come in Thursday nights in the summer and wait for the softball team. In winter they just come in and wait.

Emmett settles for Jeopardy. He pushes an imaginary buzzer but Solly doesn't let him shout out the answers anymore.

There was one week about three years ago when a young pimply guy from the community college came in and he and Emmett competed every night till some old man in an oily raincoat started yelling out the right answers. The pimply guy never came back. "Got a girlfriend," said Solly. "Got fired," said Emmett.

"Have you seen Melanie?" Greta asks Solly.

"Not in awhile," he replies. "Vince's been in."

"She's probably got another black eye," Greta says, pursing her lips. "Someday he's gonna wake up with a hatchet in his spine."

Solly looks at Greta over his glasses. "I doubt he'd be waking up then."

Greta shifts on her stool and laughs. "Yeah, maybe. You must know just about everybody's dirt."

"I listen," Solly says. "It's part of the job." He pushes another vodka tonic at her. She doesn't have to ask. "That's your welcome home present. Getting out of the hospital calls for a couple of drinks."

Greta raises her eyebrows and lifts her arms in feigned astonishment. "You sure you're not just trying to get me drunk so you can steal my jewels?"

"What jewels would that be?" Solly asks, pouring himself a ginger ale.

"Well, there's my mother of pearl rosary that belonged to my great grandmother."

"That's tempting," Solly says.

"Of course I may need that to give to Jake so's he'll bury me out back with his car parts."

"I didn't know Jake was doing funerals."

"It's a special deal." Greta tilts her head. "'Cause I bought so many used carburetors from him over the years."

Solly laughs.

Greta reaches over and grabs the paper Solly keeps under the counter. "Let me read about people blowing each other up," she says, "it'll make me feel better."

When Jeopardy is over, Emmett pulls out a ratty paperback copy of The Red Badge of Courage and starts to read. He's decided to go back to all the books he had to read in high school and read them again. "I've got a different perspective now," is how he explains it.

The young couple leaves, a lone quarter setting near their empty glasses. Two guys with too much gel in their hair come in and sit down with the Blondes. A few regulars drift in. Everybody seems depressed. "It's the atmospheric pressure," says Mike, a butcher who became a postal worker, which, more than one person commented, was perfect preparation.

All day it felt like rain. At 11:00 it starts. The drops hit the windows in a steady slap and a silence falls over the bar except for the muted sound of Solly's radio playing Gershwin.

"It's sorrowful music, the rain," Greta says.

"I like it," Solly shrugs. "It's good to fall asleep to."

"I'm afraid to sleep," Greta says. "I'm afraid of pain more but I want to know when I'm dying."

"Maybe you're there the same if you're sleeping," Solly says.

"I have to go by what I do know," Greta replies. "One thing I know is Greta Garbo never said that line 'I want to be alone.' Did I tell you that already? I can't remember how I knew that. I can't remember anything."

"You get to be our age," Solly says, wiping the counter, "there's not much room left for remembering."

"Not much room, not much room," Greta echoes. "I gotta go home and lie down."

"Lemme walk you. I got that big umbrella." Solly reaches for his coat. "Emmett, time to go. I'm locking up." Emmett is the only one left in the bar. He says goodnight to Clint Eastwood and leaves.

Greta doesn't even protest. She's too tired. "Who was that guy I said 'fuck you' to tonight?"

"Tommy McHale." Solly shuts off the lights. "You knew his dad Michael a million years ago. He died in that car accident, him and his wife."

"Oh, yeah," Greta pulls a scarf over her hair. "Left five kids. Who took them in?"

"Aunts, uncles, here and there, it's a big family," Solly replies, opening the door to a gust of wet wind.

"And now I'm telling one of them 'fuck you' after that kind of heartbreak. What's wrong with me?" Greta takes Solly's arm.

"It was just joking," he said. "Don't worry about it."

"I never used to talk so bad," Greta says as they turn the corner.

They walked on into the wet, dark night that smelled of oil and exhaust and loneliness, thinking about the past.