Fifty years worth of cigarette smoke was soaked into the cedar walls of Sullivan’s Tavern. The ancient smell filled the air like the ghosts of all those who’d drunk there before. It was as if they’d never left, as if they were still sitting in their favorite stools sipping beers, talking baseball, and waiting for the verdict on their final judgment.
Nights when he was left alone to lock the place up, Tommy could feel the ghosts all around him. If he closed his eyes, he could almost hear them, a great cacophony of voices shouting and laughing and whispering, but when he opened his eyes the bar would be empty, no ghosts in sight, only the smell of the smoke in the cedar and the butts in the ashtrays to assure him that anyone had been there at all.
It was a late Monday afternoon and Tommy sat in Sullivan’s watching television. He surfed channels aimlessly, shoveling chips into his mouth, every now and then swiping the crumbs from his shirt where they peppered the blue fabric with oil stains.
Big Carl came in roaring through the front door. “Tommy, you son of a bitch, it’s time we settled this controversy once and for all. This town deserves to know who the best pool shot is.”
Carl was a monster of a man, six foot seven and all shoulders, but he had a baby face and was always joking and had never been in a fight in his life. He was locally known as the Foot because his feet were the size of party subs.
Scott, who was average height and lanky, following Carl with a big, crooked smile. One of his front teeth overlapped the other but he never tried to hide it and smiled all the time, anyway. Scott had never been seen without his backwards-worn Philadelphia Eagles cap, and nobody could recall anymore what he looked like without it. The running joke was that it had melded to his head.
“The only controversy is in your mind, you big clown,” Tommy said. “I know who the best shot in town is.” He poured two beers and set them on the bar.
Carl drained half his drink in one swallow and slammed the mug back on the bar. “I like your attitude, Tommy. I’m going to murder your ass, but I like it.”
Carl waved off the beer. “No more of this swill. Tonight it’s only the best. And I don’t want to hear any of that shit about how you can’t drink on the job, because Scottie and me are leaving tonight and we’re never coming back, and unless you treat us right you’ll be lucky to get so much as a goddamned postcard.”
Tommy poured three beers of the good microbrew stuff. “Where you clowns going off to?”
“Arizona.” Scott grinned. “That town Janie moved to. She said it’s building fast, frigging mansions popping up all over the place, not enough labor to do all the work. We’re going to get a custom tile business going.”
“None of that assembly line shit,” Carl stressed. “No wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am crap. We’re talking only the best custom work.” He lifted his eyebrows and tipped his head forward seriously. “Art, Tommy.”
Tommy smirked. “You guys have been talking about that for years now.”
“We know,” Carl said. “That’s why we’re going. Tonight. No matter what.”
“You’re driving to the desert to start a tile business? That’s crazy.”
Scott laughed. “We know it’s crazy. That’s why we’re going for it.”
“You two can lay some tile, I’ll give you that,” Tommy said. “But starting a business is different. Where are you going to get the money?”
Scott shrugged. “We’ll find a way. The most important thing is getting out of town. Long as we stay here we’ll never even try.”
Tommy shook his head. “You guys are full of shit.”
“Come look outside if you don’t believe us,” Carl said.
They walked outside and sure enough there was Scott’s gold station wagon packed from window to window with stuff. Tommy stared at it as if it was some kind of magic trick he could discover the secret to if he only watched long enough.
There was no trick, though. The car was really there in the snowy street, packed and ready to go. The realization filled Tommy with cold dread, though he didn’t know why.
Carl slapped Tommy’s shoulder. “See, we’re not shitting you, so pour us three shots.”
They went back inside and did their shots. Tommy sat sucking a lemon and trying to mask the inexplicable fear he felt. “So you guys said the hell with old Tommy boy?” He finally said, faking a laugh.
“You know that’s not how it is, man,” Scott said. “Carl and me been talking about leaving forever. You stopped talking about it a long time ago.”
“That’s just because I’ve got Leigh now, and this job. Kevin treats me like I own the place, not him. He might even give it to me someday.”
“That what he means,” Carl said. “We didn’t ask you to go because we didn’t think you’d want to go.”
“Wait ‘til summer,” Tommy said casually, as if the suggestion was for Scott and Carl’s benefit and not his own. “It’s cold as hell right now. Knowing you two, you’ll end freezing to death on the way. Or worse, cuddling to keep warm. No one needs that shit.”
Carl shook his head. “Sorry, buddy, but it’s got to be tonight, winter or not. We’ve lost too many seasons already.”
Tommy smiled. “Hell, you’re talking like an old man.”
“We’re 27,” Scott said. “That’s old if you’re not doing something worthwhile.”
Tommy had never thought of himself as old before. He didn’t like it. “This isn’t a bad town. It’s a good place to raise a family. Low crime, everybody knows each other. It could be a lot worse.”
Scott shrugged. “It’s not bad here, but right now I just want to see what I can make happen in the world.”
Tommy shook his head. “They say the economy’s getting pretty bad out there. I’m happy just to have a job. This isn’t the time to go around chasing dreams.”
Carl wasn’t smiling when he spoke next, and he smiled so much that when he didn’t smile it usually meant he wasn’t happy. “Nobody’s asking you to, Tommy. If it isn’t for you, it isn’t for you, but this is what we’re going to do, and friends support friends in something like this. We don’t knock you for staying, don’t knock us for leaving.”
After a quiet, tense moment, Scott spoke up. “It’s not like we’ll never see each other again. We’re brothers. We always will be.”
“I know that,” Tommy said. “I’m not worried about that.”
Tommy shook his head in frustration, unable to express his feelings, afraid that if he tried he’d let too much out and not be able to stop it. “Just wait until summer. We can do some ice fishing this winter. We’ll go up to the lake and drink about a thousand beers and tear the place up.”
Carl shook his head. “Can’t do it.”
The three friends were quiet a long time.
Carl, nodding to himself as if resolving an internal deliberation, broke the silence. He sucked down the rest of his drink and pounded the mug on the table. “Fuck it. Come with us.”
Tommy looked up as if he’d been caught doing something wrong. “What? There’s no room in the car.”
“We’ll make room. I’ll drive cross country with one pair of clothes if I need to. Scottie will, too, right Scottie?”
Scott nodded eagerly with a crooked smile.
“The three of us, just the clothes on our backs,” Carl went on. “Hell, that’s the way it should be. All three of us rolling into Janie’s driveway stinking like high hell, two feet of crushed cans on the floor. We’ll get leads on work right away, offer to tile anything for free, no charge but for supplies. We’ll do the best damn work anyone’s ever seen.”
Carl’s excitement grew as he spoke until all three of them were caught up in the momentum, smiling big, adolescent smiles.
“We’re going south first,” Scott added. “Then we’re going to cut along I-10, all the way to Arizona. We’ll hit New Orleans on the way.”
“That town will think another goddamn hurricane hit them by the time we’re done with it,” Carl roared.
Tommy tried to be businesslike, but a little smile kept creeping back on his face. “The three of us in New Orleans? Goddamn that’d be something. We could hit Nashville, too.” He saw it all in his mind. All of it. Glorious.
“Yea,” Scott said, “we’ll take our time.”
“But not too much time,” Carl interjected.
“No not too much time,” Scott said. “Just enough to see some things. Then we’ll build the business up from scratch.”
“Nobody can tile like we can, Tommy.” Carl slapped his chest. “Nobody has passion for the real custom stuff like we do. You do anything with passion and it’ll work out. I believe that.”
The backdoor opened and Old Walt Greer shuffled inside. He was the oldest person in town and one of the last to remember the boom times back when there was still coal in the ground.
Tommy poured Walt a beer and set it on the bar. His eyes lingered on Walt’s wasted, weary face, his vacant eyes looking they were tired of seeing. It occurred to Tommy that Walt had been 27 once, as well.
“How’s it going, Walt?”
“Alright, Tommy,” Walt said, just like he did every single day when he walked into the place.
Tommy walked back to the boys. “Let’s do it.”
All three cheered, toasted, and drank.
“Just give me ’til summer. Couple months so we can really plan this thing right.”
Carl held up his hands as though Tommy had drawn a gun on him. “Whoa, Tommy, we’re leaving tonight, no matter what. We’ve been waiting ’til summer for the last ten years. People talk about doing things all the time, but the car is packed and the tank is full of gas and you don’t get that far too often. When you do, you gotta move on it.”
“I can’t just up and leave,” Tommy pleaded. “Just ’til spring, then.”
“Can’t do it, Tommy,” Carl said.
Scott looked away.
They sat in awkward silence for a bit.
“Alright, I’ll meet you guys out there,” Tommy said, forcing enthusiasm that he didn’t actually feel. “I’ll come out this summer. We won’t even play that final pool game tonight, that way I’ll have to come out there this summer, just to beat your ass.”
Carl smiled the way people smile at funerals. “Sounds good, buddy.”
They finished their beers and Carl said it was time they’d better get going.
The street was cold and dark, devoid of people. The three friends milled around on the sidewalk a while, shoving each other around. They rehashed all the old stories from when they were kids.
Twenty minutes passed and the stories ran out.
“Well, buddy,” Carl finally worked up the guts to say, “we better get going.”
Tommy nodded. He shook Scott’s hand. When he shook Carl’s, the big guy grabbed him and pulled him close and damn near popped his head like a cantaloupe.
Carl and Scott got into the car. Scott started the engine and Bob Seger blasted out the speakers. Carl rolled down his window and shouted over the music, “I’m going to be goddamn deaf before hit the state line.”
Scott hooted and pounded the dashboard.
Carl grabbed Tommy’s hand through the open window and held it as Scott pulled away. He dragged Tommy a few feet, laughing, before letting him go.
As they car pulled off Tommy shouted that he’d see them that summer.
Head sticking out the window, Carl pointed at his ears to show he couldn’t hear.
Tommy watched the taillights disappear around the bend. The car was headed west. For so many years it’d always headed east, towards home.
Tommy stood a long time on the empty street after they were gone.
When he walked back into the bar, Walt Greer asked for another beer.
“You’ve got a good head on your shoulders,” Walt said. “Those fools don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. Nothing’s out there that isn’t here.”
Tommy nodded. “I know it.”
“You going to fish the same spot this years?”
“Should be good fishing,” Walt said. “That’s they’re saying, anyway.”
Tommy wiped down the bar. As he worked at a phantom spot, he envisioned the cross-country drive, the desert, the new beginning, and the dreaming hurt, just as it always had.
A stern voice inside his head told him to stop whining, because it wasn’t going to happen. It never had been going to happen, and it was time to get over that silly kid’s shit.
All at once, like a coffin door slamming shut, the yearning and the grief disappeared. Tommy felt very calm, and very still.
He breathed the ancient smoke soaked into the tavern’s cedar walls. He felt the ghosts of Sullivan’s Tavern crowding all around him, old Walt Greer sitting there alone, more at home in the midst of them than with the living, a ghost himself waiting to die.
The ghosts grew louder than ever, and for the first Tommy could make out exactly they were saying.
They were calling out his name, over and over again, and they were laughing.