The boisterous conversations from the Friday afternoon crowd made it nearly impossible to hear her voice, much less the actual words. Standing behind the bar, I leaned in closer.
“Listen, Scotty. I’m just saying, nobody but you even saw this Peter O’Toole look-a-like, much less had a conversation with him. He said three days, and it’s been three days. Nothing’s happened. I’m fine; you’re fine…well, as fine as you’ve ever been. He’s obviously short a few cards from his deck. Just forget about him. Forget about the whole crazy thing.”
Kelly moved closer and stood on her toes. I could feel her breath on my mouth. She pressed her slender frame against mine, and kissed me softly on the cheek. “Think about something else.”
I gazed into her soft emerald eyes. I wanted to forget about it. I mean let’s face it, the thing sounded like the beginning of a guy-walks-into-a-bar joke. I’d even started wondering if I made it all up, or dreamt it.
“Ouch! Dammit Scotty! Whad ya pinch my ass for?”
“Sorry Kell, just checking to see if I was dreaming,” I replied with a half-smirk, half-smile.
As quickly as the reddened face and sneer appeared, it started to dissolve. “Pinch yourself next time. You do that again and I’ll have to resort to violence, even if you are the boss and we’re standing in front of your home team…at least you’re smiling…jerk.”
I reached out to take her hand in mine. She slapped it away.
“You know when you’re angry, your face and your hair almost look the same color? Just one big red ball of fire.”
With her hands on her hips, she shot back, “Inside and out, baby. Inside and out.”
“Methinks the lady protests too much.”
“Methinks the gentleman doesn’t know Shakespeare from a milkshake. ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks.’ Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2.”
We stood there within an inch of one another. She stared defiantly; I gazed.
“Hey Mac! Why don’t you two get a room? But first refill my beer, will ya? And another Pouilly for Lynn?”
Kelly turned away from me. “Sorry, Gerry. Mac’s busy…being an asshole. I’ll get it for you.”
She carried on a conversation with the couple while she poured their drinks. Kelly knew how to ask good questions, and she knew how to listen like she was your best friend. Most of all, she knew how to make people forget, at least for a while, the hardship of living life on this god-forsaken planet.
Her reputation made the rounds quickly in our small town. In a matter of a few short weeks, customers had started showing up asking specifically for Kelly - customers like Lynn and Gerry, an unlikely pair to say the least.
Lynn, the height-challenged, three-hundred pound husband, detested beer, but thoroughly enjoyed a fine glass of Pouilly Fuisse. He spoke eloquently of history, literature, and the arts with a snooty Boston accent. Gerry, the slender, tall, pretty wife, detested wine, but loved to chug down a dark, stout Guinness followed by a walk outside to light up a cigar. She talked like a sailor, with a harsh touch of the Bronx. I learned words from her that I never knew with stories behind them that I didn’t want to know. Married for over 40 years and affectionate in public to the point of embarrassment for everyone but them, they agreed on nothing. And yet, I think they both would have adopted Kelly in a heartbeat.
I continued to clean the shot glasses. She delivered their drinks in record time, adding a genuine smile at no charge.
“Thanks Kelly,” they responded.
Like I wasn’t in the room, Gerry added, “You know this place would be right back in the toilet if you decided to leave. That other guy, what’s-his-name, he didn’t know shit about customer service.”
I grunted; Kelly grinned. Looking around as if to make sure I wouldn’t overhear, she shouted, “Yeah, I know. Mac’s a bit social-skill challenged. Part of his endearing personality repertoire.” With a roll of her eyes, she added, “So irresistible.”
The longer Kelly hung around, the less visible I became. I did like that, but I don’t like change. As much as I hate the present state of things, I hate anything different even more…or at least the process of transitioning to different.
As Lou Reed belted out a few choice phrases about Rock and Roll, the membership of the Kelly-saved-the-pub fan club increased by a dozen or so. One after another, my patrons joined in extolling her virtues.
Having had enough, I pushed Kelly behind me and spoke up. “You know, I kind of liked it the way it was.”
After the corporate crowd groan ended, I continued. “My small, yet loyal clientele put up with my less than effervescent demeanor, and in turn I rewarded them with good food and drink. What the hell’s wrong with that?”
More groans. Gerry stood up and bellowed out, “Did you say ‘less than effervescent’?” Her head shot back as she let out a thunderous laugh that seemed to rock the entire pub.
A minute later, the laughter died down and I offered my last words on the subject. “Whatever. But now, all sorts of folks show up, even halfway functional ones. And the problem with you functional types is that you have expectations about stuff. I hate expectations. They always—
“I’m singing in the rain. Just singing in the rain. What a glorious feelin’. I’m happy again.”
“Not bad, Kelly. I didn’t realize you crooned,” Lynn offered. “A Gene Kelly tune no less. Any relation?” he added with a mostly repressed chuckle.
Surprised me, too. Not only that she could sing, but that she did sing…a show tune…in my pub. Give me a break. By the expression on her face, it seemed like it surprised her as well, but not near as much as the repeat performance about two minutes later, or the third another ten minutes after that.
After her second encore, I grabbed her arm and pulled her into the back room. Before I could get a question in, she blurted out her own. “Scotty, what the hell is going on?”
“I was about to ask you the same thing. I’m glad you’re happy again and all that shit, but don’t you think that’s about enough singing for one day…or for an entire lifetime?”
“Yeah, I think it’s enough. But what I think doesn’t seem to matter. First Jake ordered a Guinness—
She stopped mid-sentence and broke into song, “I’m singin’ in the rain. Singin…”
“Cut it out, Kell!” Ignoring my command, she finished her chorus and then I finished my thought. “Listen, I’m not biting and I’m not amused. Who put you up to this?”
“Oh you think, I’m completely embarrassing myself just so I can pull a prank on you? Geesh, Scotty! This might be hard to believe, but the world actually revolves around the Sun. Not you!”
“You don’t have to yell!”
“Better than singing!”
“Good point!” A couple of deep breaths later, I tried again. “Why don’t you just try closing your mouth? You can’t sing with your mouth closed, right?”
“Wow, I wish I would have thought of that. Thank you so much.” The heavy sarcasm reminded me a bit of my own. She went on. “It’s like…like somebody’s pressing a play button in me.”
“You’re not making any sense at all. What are you trying to say?”
“Hmm, let me think about that…I don’t know!”
Jake tapped me on the shoulder. “Excuse me, Mac. Mac!”
“What?” I snarled as I whipped around to face him.
“Sorry to bother you, but there’s a guy in the main room, near the entrance.”
“He said to give you this note and that it was extremely important.”
“Now what?” I opened up the note.
“What’s it say?” Kelly asked.
“Somebody thinks they’re funny. It’s just one word: Guinness.”
“I’m singin’ in the rain. Singin…”
Pointing to the note, I shouted to make myself heard above Kelly’s latest performance. “Jake? What did the guy look like who gave you this?”
“Kind of unusual. Tall, gray hair, British accent—”
I ran out of the backroom. Standing on my toes, behind the bar, I scanned the packed house. At the back of the crowd, near the entrance, I found him: the tall Brit with the fedora.
Before I could make a move in his direction, he tipped his hat, winked, and disappeared.