I opened the door to the one-seater women’s bathroom. Annabelle was lying on the floor, crying, mascara streaked in straight lines down her face and her unspilled drink held vaulted above her head. The loud noises of small-town drunks and Hootie and the Blowfish on the jukebox wafted around my frame in the doorway. I closed the bathroom door and locked it.
There is a female code. Drunk Girl crying in the bathroom, stranger or no stranger, you take care of her. I assume men have a similar code. I’ve never asked.
Step one, ask her name, immediately assure the girl you’re a friend, and you’re there to help. I sorta knew Annabelle, so this step was easy.
“Hey, Annabelle,” I said, balancing my drink on the pedestal sink, and gently grabbing her amaretto sour and repeating the motion. I sat cross-legged on the floor beside her. Do not think about how dirty this floor is do not think about how dirty this floor is do not think about how dirty this floor . . . “Hey, Annabelle, it’s Marti. You’re ok.”
Step two, brush hair out of her face and offer tissue.
I tucked the woman’s wild black hair out of her left eye and smoothed it behind her ear. I carefully pulled a wayward strand from above her right eyebrow and shoved it under her hat. Leaning to my left, I grabbed a wad of toilet paper, folded it twice, and handed to her. Annabelle sat up, sighed heavily, and blew her nose. She threw the paper in the toilet, and I handed her another neatly folded wad. She sighed again.
Step three, identify the source of distress and empathize.
“Annabelle, sweetie, what’s wrong?”
“It’s DALTON,” she wailed, blowing her nose in the tissue. I handed her more.
Dalton was not his real name.
“DALTON isn’t his real name,” she wailed. “And that’s not really his wife.”
I blinked hard. I’d thought the couple was . . . out-of-place in this small-town-Missouri-miserable-dive-bar, but aliases? Maybe they were hiding from something.
Or maybe Annabelle was just drunk.
“I’m just drunk,” she confirmed sadly, looking for her drink. I retrieved the yellow beverage off the sink and took a swig of mine for good measure.
Annabelle was dressed in all black, a lacy floor-length skirt, a black shirt with ruffles, black knee-high boots with a piece of black duck tape across the heel, and in my memory she’s wearing a scrunchy black top hat with goggles perched on the brim like the lead singer for Four Non Blondes. I have no idea if Annabelle was really wearing that hat, but every time the two local bands played in the back of this dive bar, one of them would play What’s Up and Annabelle would allow herself to be coaxed out of the audience and up on stage, where she would hold the mic to her lips shyly and then suddenly turn into A ROCK STAR. She had an amazing voice, and she would belt out those HEEEEEEEEEEY-AAAAAAAY-AAAAAY-YAAAYAAAAAAs like she fucking owned the world, and for three minutes on a Saturday night in a miserable bar in the middle of nowhere Missouri . . . she did.
The bar owner did not allow mugs in the back anymore, because too many of them got broken. It was a ritual I to this day do not understand. Men who were best friends since childhood would start out the evening laughing and joking, as the night progressed drink drink and drink some more, scream at each other, beat each other to a pulp, dramatically smash beer mugs on the floor, threaten each other within an inch of their lives, go home leaning heavily on their wives/girlfriends/woman of that weekend, sober up, AND FUCKING DO IT ALL OVER AGAIN THE NEXT FUCKING WEEKEND.
“Why on earth do you hang out at that terrible bar?” my parents would ask me.
For one, I was one of those girlfriends. I had no idea how Michael would get home without me to drive his drunk ass there and half-carry him across the yard. For two, the only other social activity in that town was The Church Life and as those of you from small towns know . . . The Church Life is far more filled with debauchery and disparagement than the bars.
And in my opinion, the bars had better music.
“LET HER CRYYYYYYYYYYYY” the bar was now collectively singing to the jukebox. To this day I will never ever hear a Hootie and the Blowfish song without the sound in the back of my brain of someone in that little dive bar screaming “HOOOOOTIE” when someone played one of their songs on the jukebox.
There was also an Offspring song everyone loved. I’ve forgotten which one. Not important.
My boyfriend’s name was not Michael, but you’ve probably guessed that by now.
Step four, hold crying girl’s hair back if she has to throw up.
“You want a soda, Annabelle?” I asked her.
“No, no, I’m not that drunk,” she insisted, placing a high-heeled boot flat on the floor in an attempt to stand up. Her leg wobbled, and she decided against standing, instead taking a long swig from her drink. Someone knocked on the door.
“OCCUPIED!” Annabelle and I called out over the knocking and the Hootie noise.
“FUCK!” came from the other side of the door. “I GOTTA PEE!!”
“USE THE MEN’S ROOM!” I called out helpfully.
“THERE’S PUKE ON THE FLOOR!”
Annabelle and I locked eyes and nodded in agreement. Still on the floor, I leaned over and unlocked the door. Barbara walked in, shut the door, stepped over us, dropped her jeans, and sighed in relief. “You ok, Annabelle?” she asked. We all knew each other in this bar.
Well, except for Dalton and his (possibly not) wife, Candy.
“Who the fuck are these people?” I asked Michael earlier that night. “They’ve seemed to show up out of nowhere.” Dalton and Candy had suddenly started hanging out at this bar a couple weeks ago.
“This town is cool!” Michael insisted. “This bar is cool! Cool people want to hang out here!”
I’d scrutinized Dalton’s huge gams and trying-a-little-too-hard backward-turned ball cap as he played pool, and glanced over Candy’s spectacular teeth and bleached-blond-with-no-roots hair as she crunched a chef salad at a nearby table.
For some reason chef salads are amazing at dive bars. They have like, twenty fresh ingredients and they’ll give you an extra packet of salad dressing without charging.
“They are clearly NOT from these parts,” I mused. “And this town nor bar are cool.”
“I disagree,” Michael disagreed.
“You do that,” I agreed. I wondered if he’d make it to the bed, couch, or living room floor tonight. He was drinking whiskey, so I’m guessing entryway or maybe couch if I’m lucky.
Barbara had finished peeing, washed her hands, and was on step two with Annabelle.
“You ok, hon?” she brushed Annabelle’s hair behind her shoulders and straightened her hat.
“I’m good, I’m good,” Annabelle insisted. “Marti’s got me.”
Barbara tossed her beer bottle in the trash can, patted me on the head, and opened and shut the bathroom door again. “I’M JUST A SUCKER WITH NO SELF ESTEEM OOOOOOWAAAAAAAAOOOOOOO” floated through the open door from the jukebox and then she was gone.
Step five, get girl back on her feet and out of the bathroom.
“Come on, Annabelle, let’s get you up before someone else has to pee,” I tucked my knees under me and extended a hand for her to grab. She grabbed my hand and looked into my eyes with earnest.
“I SWEAR,” she promised, swinging my hand up and down for emphasis. “Dalton isn’t Dalton. And Candy isn’t his wife. I’m in love with Dalton. But we can’t be together. He has to play a part. I’ve said too much. I’m part of this too. I wish I could tell you more. But I’m sworn to secrecy.” She started crying again.
I hugged her and offered more tissues. Annabelle finally cried it all out, finished her drink, decided she needed more, and I managed to complete step five and deposit her back at the table with not-Candy.
I didn’t worry about her getting home. I knew Annabelle was staying a block away with Michael’s best friend Robert and his wife Trisha. She’d been staying there for like a month.
“How do Robert and Trisha know Annabelle?” I’d asked Michael over a month ago when I first met her. “This woman has seemed to show up out of nowhere.”
“This town is cool!” Michael insisted. “This bar is cool! Cool people want to hang out here!”
“But how do they know her?”
“They don’t. They met her at the bar.”
“And they invited her to STAY WITH THEM?”
“She’s cool. And the motel sucks.”
I agreed with him on both counts.
I didn’t get a chance to sit with Candy and Annabelle. Michael was screaming, and I knew he’d reached the angry drunk stage that whiskey so often generates. I followed the sound of his drunk-ass rantings and found him at the pool table, screaming at Dalton. By this time, Dalton had had enough, and he threw his baseball cap on the floor, broke the pool cue in half, and stood ready to fight off Michael should his screaming turn to fist-flinging.
Not the first bar fight I’ve broken up, and my cool demeanor seemed to always work on everybody but Michael. I propelled him backwards out the door with both hands flat on his chest, and managed to get him in the car with false promises that I’d take him back to the bar after we went home and got his baseball bat.
He was asleep in the seat by the time we pulled in our driveway.
I managed to get him to the couch.
Two weeks later, there was a HUGE drug bust in town. The local paper proudly announced that two undercover FBI agents (one with a backward baseball cap, the other with no roots and perfect teeth) had taken down a drug ring in town that operated out of the bar. Annabelle had been working with them as part of a deal she’d cut by getting in trouble running drugs out of her bar at Lake of the Ozarks.
I don’t know what was more crazy about the whole fucking thing. The fact that I was accidentally in the middle of all that (never having done or seen or even known about any of the drug activity), the fact Annabelle was RIGHT and damn near spilled the whole thing to me on the bathroom floor, the fact Michael (thank GOD) was not part of any of it, despite Robert and Trisha getting arrested for being a part of the ring, or the fact that Michael almost got into a fist-fight with an undercover FBI agent over a football disagreement.
I turned the radio down recently in the car when What’s Up came on and told this insane story to my husband, who was more interested in the Lake of the Ozark part than anything else. I’d forgotten he’d binge-watched Ozark recently.
“Annabelle was really a bar owner at the Lake of the Ozarks?” he asked, super-excited.
“The Lake. We all just call it ‘The Lake,'” I corrected. “And that was the story I heard. You gotta realize, small town gossip -“
“Yeah, yeah small-town gossip added to bar gossip clouds everything over with half-truths and embellishments,” he said knowingly. My husband has spent his own time in dive-bars and small towns. “So what happened to Robert and Trisha?”
“I heard the feds offered them the same deal they offered Annabelle when they arrested her. A lighter sentence if they went undercover and NARCed on someone else. Last I knew, they’d both moved to The Lake along with Annabelle to work undercover together since they all legit became friends. But that was decades ago.”
I saw on Facebook about a year ago that Robert died suddenly. I’ve never found out how. My guesses? Drugs. COVID. Broken pool cue. No idea if he and Trisha were still together.
I have no idea what happened to Annabelle. Or if she still sings Four Non Blondes. I’d like to think she still does. And maybe added another tune or two to her catalog. That there’s some non-assuming small bar at The Lake that holds a karaoke night every Thursday, and a woman with wild black and grey hair, dressed all in black, gets up from the back when her name is called, shyly takes the microphone as the guitar cords strum, and starts humming softly before hitting the screeching chorus and bringing down the house.
I’d like to take this Sunday afternoon to raise a glass to the crazy adventures of a small-town-miserable-dive-bar that was once in the middle of nowhere Missouri, the genuinely cool people I met there, and all the random people we meet and the experiences we have along the way that create memories and stories that make life a little more interesting.
25 years and my life is still . . .– What’s Up
Tryin’ to get up that great big hill of hope –
For a destination.
I realized quickly when I knew I should
that the world was made up of this brotherhood of man . . .
For whatever that means.
Four Non Blondes