Christmas Eve at the South Side Tavern

Torrin finished his second Evan Williams and Coke and signaled Seth for another as he and a few other evening bar dwellers took in Paul McCartney’s “Wonderful Christmastime” from the jukebox.

“This song makes me think of shopping,” Seth said, taking Torrin’s generous tip.

“Reminds me I’m gonna have to make a late-night K-Mart run. Second year in a row. It’s becoming tradition. Hopefully it won’t be a ‘Jingle All the Way’ situation. If it comes down to it I have no problem taking out Sinbad for a toy. Santa always delivers at the Swanson house.”

Seth scratched at the corner of his thick black mustache as Torrin started laughing. It was a distinctive, contagious laugh, one stand-up comics either love or hate depending on whether “distinctive laugh” thought their joke was funny.

Multi-colored Christmas lights hung behind the bar, just over the unimpressive top shelf. A few were flashing, and some didn’t have any light left for this year. Harry, a disabled vet and a South Side Tavern regular, sat a few stools down, one of the only other people at the bar. 

His light had also faded. Those who knew him before Vietnam also knew him sober. 

But Torrin wasn’t thinking about Harry. He’d just broken a heart, maybe his own, as well. He wasn’t sure. He felt shattered. 

Shattered, he thought. I never really liked that Stones song, but I’m feeling it now. 

Seth handed Torrin his third drink, the one he’d promised himself he wouldn’t have. He didn’t want to brace the cold. The three-minute walk home felt like an eternity in zero degree weather. 

There are more excuses to drink in the winter, he thought. 

This was his first Montana winter, and it was starting to get to him.

“You alright?” Seth asked. 

“I’m OK, I guess. I don’t know. I left Megan and I feel like shit about it. No one wants to be all alone on Christmas, right?”

“Well, I’m not the best at comforting people in these situations, but weren’t you just in here last week talking about how concerned you were about the relationship?”

On “Thirst Thursday” last week Torrin was having drinks with Wes, the new assistant volleyball coach for the community college, and one of the few Black men in town. He enjoyed being the “token,” as he said, especially when he’d go “cougar hunting,” as he called it.

“If you want out, you gotta get out before the holidays, dog,” Wes told Torrin, his voice smooth and sharp from his days as a radio DJ in Vegas. “They trap you after the holidays. Ain’t no gettin’ out, man. Shit…I’ve been there.”

And here Torrin was on Christmas Eve, no longer “trapped” and unsure how to feel about it.

“Megan is kind,” he told Seth, “but she wants a family of her own, and she’s ready for it now. No hesitation.”

“Nah, that’s not it. Sounds to me like you’re just not into her.” 

Seth gave Torrin a liberal pour of well whiskey with a few squirts of Diet Coke, a $4 double in a plastic cup. When Torrin moved here he didn’t think it was possible to get a stiff drink so cheap. Not in 2009, at least. Clearly he’d never been to Glendive, Montana, a small railroad town on the eastern side of the state surrounded by the rustic beauty of the Badlands. Torrin had never seen anything like it. He often felt like he was living in the Land of the Lost.

“Hey, don’t worry,” said a young Native woman who had taken a seat next to him. She must have been around 22, just a few years younger than Torrin. 

He hadn’t noticed her. 

Had she been there for a while? Had she heard the conversation? 

“Excuse me?” Torrin said politely, turning his attention toward the girl. She wore a tattered blue and white coat and had jet black hair down past her shoulders.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” she said, sliding a free drink token to Seth, who nodded and flirtatiously lifted an eyebrow. She took it as her cue. “A Sea Breeze, please.”

“Torrin, right?”

“Yes, and…”

“Jasmine. We met here a few weeks ago, actually, by the jukebox?”

“Oh yeah, Jasmine…”

He realized he didn’t recognize her because she was smiling this time, even had a glow about her. A few weeks ago she was morose. He kept trying to cheer her up by playing something upbeat and positive, but she just wanted to listen to Mazzy Star’s “I’ve Been Let Down.”

“I don’t mean to pry, man, but, seriously, I was just where you were. I was agonizing over what I did wrong and blaming myself for not being able to make it work, but, you know what? Maybe it just wasn’t the right person? Maybe you’ve been killing yourself to make something work that won’t, and it’s not good or bad. It’s fine. You’re not right for each other. So let it go, learn from it and move on.”

“Here’s your free Breeze,” Seth said playfully, sliding the drink into Jasmine’s hand. He nodded over at Torrin. 

“I was just going to tell that sad bastard the same thing, Jazzy.”

The one-liner was just enough to get Torrin laughing again. Seth had a knack for it.

“There’s some truth there,” Torrin said, looking over at Jasmine. “I just feel guilty, you know? Like I was being selfish.”

“Guilt is a useless emotion,” she replied, getting animated with hand gestures. “Get that shit out of your head, man. Think positive and look ahead. Dismiss all that’s behind you. Everything is in front of you. Stay positive and stay in the moment and you won’t lose what good thing might be right in front of you. I almost missed an opportunity last week. Justin kept asking, and I was apprehensive, but I took a chance and I’m glad I did. We had our first date last night and you know what he did? He took me to ‘The Squeakquel’ and even brought flowers! I couldn’t believe it. Who brings flowers to a movie? I didn’t know where to put them, but it was wonderful. No one had been so sweet to me before.”

“The Squeakquel?” Torrin asked.

“The Squeakquel,” Seth interrupted, his tone cheerful and exaggerated, and he emphasized each syllable with jazz hands.

“Shut up,” Jasmine said, laughing slightly, a bright smile on her face. “It was cute.”

“I’m sure it was, Jazzy,” said Seth. “Justin Long voices Alvin. How bad could it be? Fun for the whole family, really. Chipmunks versus Chipettes. An absurd David Cross performance. It might be forgettable years from now, but my son loved it, and I could bear it. The Squeakquel!”

“Yeah, see, Torrin? Don’t mock it until you try it! Anyway, this is about more than the Squeakquel. It’s about lightening up and being open to getting swept away. There’s someone else out there. Trust it.”

“Yeah, Torrin, trust it. You’ll find your Squeakquel,” Seth added.

Torrin burst into laughter again and looked over at Jasmine, her joyful presence brightening the whole bar. He wouldn’t be surprised if some of those burnt out Christmas lights started to flicker again. He looked over at Henry, who had been listening in. He too looked cheerful.

“To finding our Squeakquels,” Torrin said, raising his glass.

“To finding our Squeakquels,” said Jasmine.

Seth handed his two friends drink tokens and let out a laugh so boisterous he almost snorted.

“I’ll drink to that every Goddam day,” he said. “I found my Squeakquel eight years ago, and we made a little squeakquel of our own. You’ll find your Squeakquel, Torrin, or, better yet, she’ll find you.”

About CharliesTinyUniverse

Originally from the suburbs of Indianapolis, Denison is a writer and musician who has picked up culture and influences from eccentrics all over the U.S. and even overseas. He is a University of Kentucky Journalism School grad and an award-winning Montana journalist. Through the years he's had work published in the Montana Quarterly, Rural Montana Magazine, Raised in the West, Last Best News, NUVO and others. He has a solo album, "Whispers of the Lonely," blending country, folk, blues and soul, and plays regularly with his band, Groove Creek.
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