The inn was crowded. Because of the lack of cars in the gravel lot, I expected to see only a few worn faces, but most of the booths and tables were full, and the bar only had a few stools left unmanned. I took a seat at the bar and asked for bourbon.
“Brown mud for the brown-haired man?” asked the bartender.
“Brown mud?” I responded.
“Aye,” he said, grabbing a bottle off the middle shelf.
“How do you know about brown mud?”
“Well, it’s the Tumbelton Inn, sir. Everybody here knows brown mud when they see it. Else it wouldn’t be Tumbelton,” and the mud splashed into the clear, small glass.
It was hard to disagree. “Tumbelton” was almost synonymous with “brown mud”.
“Well, thank you” I said. He handed me the glass and I raised it to him. Let him know I appreciated the all-too-kind hospitality.
My mother told me once to always go out of your way to thank those handling your food and drink. For precautionary measures, and all.
So I listened.
“Call me Dennis,” he said. “We’re all friends here.”
Ain’t that the truth, I thought. Maybe this Tumbelton was the good twin? Maybe I’d been living on the wrong end of the superhighway the whole goddamn time?
Time would tell, as it often did.
But then I thought of Haley, who was waiting for me on the opposite end.
A finger nudged me on the back of my shoulder. I turned around and gargled up some of the brown mud. The glass fell from my hand and landed on the bar, almost tipping off the edge, until a lady in a blue velvet dress snagged it from its fated demise.
She held it in her slender hand, rubbing the lip of the wet glass with her finger round and round.
And I hadn’t seen her face in years and years. Almost as long ago as my last glimpse of Haley’s own, innocent face. She looked as beautiful as the day I first ran off with her. Was that what my beautiful eyes looked like, Aunt Willa? I can’t see them myself, after all.
Her name was Anna, and she was my second love (scratch and ex through that, too).
The expected response from a flabbergasted drunk would be, “What are you doing here, Anna?” So I said the same.
And she said, “Having a drink in a familiar place, with a familiar face.”
“But how could you be here?” I asked. “You shouldn’t even be in the whole-wide country.”
“A girl can come back to her roots from time to time,” she said.
“Sure, sure,” I couldn’t keep my beautiful eyes off her finger rubbing round and round. “Speaking of, what kind of roots do you think these are? Did the Tumbelton move towns or something?”
She smiled and set down the glass. It was wet no more.
Only her finger was.
“The Tumbelton is where it’s always been, silly. Now get another drink and come sit down with some friends.”
I nodded and asked Dennis for another drink, only I forgot his name on account of it all. So I called him Fred.
He didn’t think that was so great.
I followed the lady in the blue velvet dress to a booth in the back corner of the inn.
“I’d like you to meet Connie and Bill,” said Anna. I shook their hand and took a seat in the booth next to her.
“Nice to meet you,” I said. “How do you all know Anna?”
“Oh, Anna and I go way, way back,” said Connie.
“Don’t seem to remember you,” I said.
“And why would you remember my girl?” said Bill. He didn’t seem to be joking.
The Tumbelton Inn was full of jealousy, and all the other sins from harmless to deadly. They festered, and never left.
No matter which inn they were in, I suppose.
“I was just saying,” I said, taking a sip of the brown mud, “that I don’t remember her hanging around Anna, is all.”
“It’s okay, Bill,” said Anna. “He’s cool.”
Bill sat back in the booth and took a bit of beer down his gullet. He still eyed me suspiciously, but it was cooling, thanks to the lady in the blue velvet dress.
“So what have you been up to, silly?” asked Anna. That was her thing, calling me “silly”. I forgot how much I missed it ’til I heard it again and again. She continued, “It’s been, what, twenty-odd years since?”
“Just about, I’d say. Haven’t been up to much, other than the same old.”
“Always up to the ‘same old’, huh?”
“But what brings you back?” she asked.
“Well,” I said, “It’s Haley. You know, my girl I had with the woman before you. She got in touch with me a few weeks back. She wanted to finally meet.”
“The woman before me,” said Anna. “Her name was Suzanne, right?”
“Sure was,” I said. I took another sip of the brown mud. I could feel it doing its devil business, as my mind started to slip, and my vision started to rock and rock.
“Always thought Suzanne was no name for a lady,” said Connie. She smiled and showed me her teeth. None were missing. “I don’t like no names with a ‘z’ in it. It’s unnatural, I say.”
“That’s quite the opinion there, Connie,” I said.
She laughed, and Bill’s suspicion finally cooled completely. He said, “I like you. Oh, yes, I like him, Anna. Yes, I do!” He gulped the last bit of beer and ran off for more.
“It’s not always a good thing–coming back, I mean,” said Anna.
“Why do you say that?” I asked.
“Just not, silly. Sometimes it’s to much to take. Sometimes you had no business coming back in the first place. And sometimes, well, sometimes, the place don’t want you back, the place is fine with where you were.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I sipped the last bit of brown mud, and it slid down my own gullet, and the effect was full, and numbing.
“It’s just,” Anna looked over at Connie, who was biting her nails. “It’s time.”
“Now?” asked Connie, after spitting out a piece of nail.
“Yeah, now,” said Anna. She rose from the booth, sliding her hands down her thighs to keep her dress low. She looked at Bill, who was coming back with a brand, new beer in both hands. “It’s time, Bill.”
“Damn, Anna,” he said. “Just when I got some more drinks.”
“Just leave them on the table, Bill,” said Connie. “We’ll be back for them.”
“What’s going on?” I asked. “What is it time for, Anna?”
And she said, “Just follow me, silly. Just follow.”
So I did. I followed her to the backdoor of the Tumbelton Inn, with Bill and Connie at my back. And, while I thought it could’ve been because of my altered head brought on by the brown mud, or my long, and tired, night of traveling through the dark, along the same, old country roads, I noticed a difference.
We exited through the backdoor, and instead of walking out onto a cement-floored patio, my beautiful eyes filled with darkness.
I was not outside like I should’ve been, but alone in the dark.
Until I heard a noise floating through the dark, and I held out my hand, and plucked it out of the too cool air.