By Sean Dietrich
I am at a bar. It’s loud. There is live music. And cheeseburgers. I missed dinner tonight because I was making a speech at a dinner banquet, which is ironic when you think about it.
Everyone at this big banquet was eating hors d’oeuvres, sipping expensive chardonnay and chowing down on Maine lobsters the size of baby grand pianos.
I could hardly keep my mind on my speech because the ballroom was full of people in tuxedos, all wearing little plastic bibs, making a chorus of slurping, sucking, licking sounds.
A woman at the head table who looked like Queen Elizabeth II was wearing a bib. She kept asking me, “Now, how exactly were you invited to this dinner again?”
Each time I answered, she would get this far-away look in her eyes and start sucking meat from a lobster leg like a baby Wolverine.
So I felt out of place. I felt even worse when the waiter informed me that the bar didn’t stock Natural Light.
Pretty soon, Queen Elizabeth forgot all about me. Butter sauce dripped down her chin, all over her bib. She would lick her hands violently when she didn’t think anyone was watching. And I don’t mean just her fingers. This woman was actually licking her forearms and her tennis bracelet.
When my speech was done, the last thing I wanted was to stick around and eat lobster with the Royal Family, so I found a beer joint that was open late. Which is where I am now.
It’s a dump, and there are lots of people here. There’s a guy playing guitar. He plays a rendition of “Brown Eyed Girl” and sings in a voice that is faintly reminiscent of the late Daffy Duck.
The lady bartender gives me a menu and asks, “What’re you so dressed up for?”
“I was just at a banquet.”
“Wow. Fancy pants.”
“You shoulda seen them eat lobster.”
She taps my menu. “Make sure you try our onion rings. They’re famous.”
So I order a cheeseburger, onion rings and a three-dollar beer. My father was an onion ring connoisseur. I never understood why he was so crazy about onion rings, but he could tell everything he needed to know about a restaurant based solely upon their onion rings. He would rate them on a scale of 1 to 10.
There is a young man next to me at the bar who looks sad. He is staring at his beer. He orders a burger and onion rings, but he doesn’t touch them. I try to make conversation, but he’s not going for it.
He’s not here long. Soon, a young lady walks through the door. His demeanor changes. He’s happy. They hug for a long time. He orders her a vodka cranberry. They move to the dancefloor. I overhear them ask the guitar player to play something slow.
The musician agrees, then selects a ballad that is not neither soft nor sweet. In fact, it sounds more like tactical ground missiles being launched from a nuclear silo.
So the young couple wanders outside to the empty parking lot. There, they slow dance together beneath a streetlamp with nobody watching.
The bartender asks me, “Hey, where’s the guy who was beside you? Did he leave?”
I point out the window to the couple.
The bartender sees them. She smiles. Her eyes are wet. She calls a server over. I overhear her say to the server, “She’s back.”
“Where was she?” the server asks.
“She was getting treatment in Texas.”
This is all she says. She boxes his food and pours his beer into a plastic cup.
I keep my eye on the dancing lovers. They stop swaying. They lean against the side of a white Nissan. They are looking at the stars. He’s holding her.
Another server asks, “Who is she, again?”
“That’s J.T.’s girlfriend.”
“Is that who the vodka cranberry was for?”
“Yeah. I guess her treatment’s over.”
“No, not over. My mother had the same kind she’s got. You never quit holding your breath. It’s never over.”
“How long was she at MD Anderson?”
“A little while.”
“I have a friend who beat cancer.”
“Cancer sucks, man.”
The guitar player is now playing “Runnin’ With the Devil” by Van Halen in a style that sounds exactly like a North Atlantic whale mating with a semi-truck on I-65.
I pay my bill and leave a tip. Before I go, the bartender stops me. “Hey,” she says. “Can you give this box of food to them on your way out?”
She nods to the couple.
I am a writer, so I say sure.
On the way to my vehicle, I hand the man his Styrofoam box. I hate to interrupt an intimate moment. I have enough of my mother in me to think about trying, but I chicken out.
All I see are two people who don’t want to let each other go because there’s no telling what would happen if they did.
They open the box. They split the hamburger between themselves.
The young man lifts an enormous onion ring and says to me, “Hey! Have you tried the onion rings here? On a scale of 1 to 10, they’re a 10.”
How do you like that.
Sometimes you learn things about yourself when you least expect it. You learn what you’re made of. You learn about sadness. And joy. And love. But tonight, I learned that I’d rather eat onion rings with good people than eat lobster with the Queen.
Sean Dietrich is a columnist, and novelist, known for his commentary on life in the American South. His work has appeared in Southern Living, the Tallahassee Democrat, Southern Magazine, Yellowhammer News, the Bitter Southerner, the Mobile Press Register and he has authored seven books.