As I drove north from Mobile, I knew there was only one place I could end up: Milwaukee. Now that Meghan and I were seemingly over, it only seemed right that I throw in the towel and commit to being Alan Schmidt, at least for a while. I didn't want anything to do with my own identity anyway, I had ruined it so badly. I almost welcomed the idea of wiping Tyler Blake off the slate.
Between Alabama and Wisconsin, I spent about a week in Memphis running what could generously be referred to as a "personal errand," but it could also be considered a farewell to a part of my life that I should've said goodbye to a long time ago, or maybe just indulging in a fantasy.
I found myself in a bar called Billy's. It was kind of a dive, far from Beale St. and the tourist scene. Delta blues were, of course, blaring from the jukebox, and there was a stage for a band but nobody playing tonight. I didn't mind that. I wasn't feeling festive.
The crowd as mostly old men. I saw two waitresses flitting about: a stacked blonde and a more slender African-American girl, both absolutely gorgeous, wearing the customary low-cut black top and tight jeans. Both worked their individual tables pretty much the same, giggling and smiling and bending over whenever they deemed it necessary. It was 10 PM but it might as well have been 4 PM or 3 AM for how empty it as. There was lots of empty tables, but I sat down at the bar.
"What will it be?" asked the server in that inimitable drawl. I say MGD, and, maybe unimpressed with the simplicity of my choice, she pops open a bottle, plunks it on the coaster in front of me and goes back to wiping down the bar.
"So how's Billy?" I ask when I'm sure she can hear.
She stops. "You know Billy?"
I smile, aware that as Alan, my huge moth gives me a wide, earnest grin that seems to charm people. "No, no, heh... I just assumed there was one since his name is on the sign."
"Well," she says, seemingly amused by my gag, "Billy's a she."
"Ah," I say, "Good for her." I take a swig in cheers.
"And she's my mama," the barmaid adds.
"That's interesting," I say.
She seems for a moment like she's going to go back to her cleaning, but then she stops and turns back to me. "Sorry, can I see some ID?"
"You already served me," I point out.
"Yeah, an' I'm regrettin' it," she says. "Put me at ease?" I shrug and pull my wallet out. She takes a look at my license. "Wisconsin, huh? Funny, you don't have the accent."
"What accent?" I ask.
"You know, that funny way'a talkin' they got there? You ever see Fargo?" I say sure. She says, "You sound more Alabama."
I smirk again, "Sorry, uh, I was actually just down there for a visit. Must'a picked it up."
"Well, put it back down, folk'll think you're makin' fun."
"I'll try," I said. I don't even know how to sound like I'm from Wisconsin but I figured it can't be that different from the Pittsburgh accent I occasionally picked up there, and I doubt she'll notice the distinction anyway.
"So Alan," she says, now seemingly more interested in me than her wet bar rag, "What brought you to Alabama?"
"Funeral," I say, "A distant relative. I only went out of guilt."
"I'm sorry to hear that," she says.
"Sorry enough for a free drink?"
"You said distant relative, right?"
"Darn," I say, in the most cutesy Northerner way I can. I take another sip and then tell her a story about how, after the funeral, I decided to go sightseeing. See Graceland. She scoffed. "You got a problem with The King?"
"All due respect, of course," she said, half-embarrassed, half-ready to educate me, "He was a great entertainer, really a legend, and we here in Memphis are real proud. But I always thought music is a kinda livin' thing, you know? Can't live in the past forever."
"That's the truth," I said, raising my glass to her.
I came back the next night. She asked how Graceland was, and I said it was nice enough, but I wouldn't mind having someone to show me the "real, 'living' Memphis." She scoffed a bit. "Lots'a tour guides in a city like this."
I blushed, "Sorry, I had to try. I bet guys hit on you all the time in here."
"Oh yeah, of course," she said, "Not as often as some of my co-workers, but I have a few fans."
"I wasn't really..." I backtracked, "That is, I just got out of something. I'm really not looking."
"Uh huh," she smirked, "That's what they all say."
"No, seriously," I said, and passed her my phone, which at that time featured a lengthy exchange between me and Meghan. It was mostly one-sided (hers) laying into my untrustworthiness and lack of character. I conceded most of her points and stopped defending myself.
As the barmaid scrolled through, eyes bulging out, I wondered if there was anything in there that would reveal the existence of the Inn - yes, the spell does seem to insulate outsiders against understanding its powers, but I might have to come up with and explanation for the whole setup. But the way Meg and I talk about things with each other, ewe hardly talk about the Inn even when we're talking about things that relate to it, so to the untrained eye, we were just a couple having a serious row.
"Wow," she gasped, "You do not come off well in this. What you do to piss her off so bad? Cheat?"
"I wish it was that simple," I sighed, "She is blaming me for something that I didn't do, and I realized that I'd never really have her trust, so... how could we continue?"
"That's a shame," she said, "Now, if it was me, I'd work harder at it, but I never know when to quit at these things."
"I'm the opposite," I said, "As soon as things get hard, I'm gone. It's a fault, but really, shouldn't it be easy?"
"I guess," she said. I could tell I hit a nerve. She changed the subject: "If you're looking for comfort, I might know some girls..."
"Thanks, but, really... I just need a bit of distraction. Sightseeing before I head home."
I could see the thoughts processing in her head. Finally, she concluded, "Okay, you seem harmless enough, as long as you promise you're not trying to pick me up."
"I promise. Seriously, the last thing I need right now is more drama."
The next day, we met up at a restaurant for lunch and she took me for a walk along the riverbank. I tried my best to see the city with new eyes and pretend I didn't know anything, let her give me her perspective on it. It was utterly lovely to hear her describe the city for what she loved about it.
We picked back up on the conversation about my break-up, and she told me that it got her thinking about her first big one. "It was about three years ago. It was a long time coming, but I couldn't see it. I was blinded by love, and I thought if I kept hammering away at this guy, maybe he would love me back. He wasn't really capable of that, though. Not the way I wanted to be loved. I wanted to marry him, and after four years I figured that was only right. But he couldn't commit. Didn't have it in him. And it took a long time after he was gone that I realized, why would I want to give 100% of myself to this person who could never appreciate it? I felt so stupid."
"Well, that's his loss," I could only say.
"I was so angry for so long," she said, "But that breakup was for the best. Sounds cheesy, but that's the kinda thing you only learn after some time has passed. Now I'm on the other side of things. I started seeing this new guy two months ago, and he'd already said 'I love you' after the third week and wanted to introduce me to his parents."
"You ever get the urge to run?"
"Hell no," she smiled, "It's just overwhelming. I never expected to be with a guy like this. Never expected a guy like this existed. I want to love him as much as he loves me. Sorry, I'm rambling."
"It's okay, I enjoy it," I said, "Makes me feel better about my situation. Although I wonder if maybe I'm a bit like your ex... can't appreciate a good thing."
"Naw," she said, "I think you're a nicer guy than him. And it seems like you and your ex have some pretty legit problems. Maybe you could work them out, but maybe it ended for a reason."
My "ex." It was the first time I thought of it that way.
I came to her bar again the next night. Her boyfriend was there. Handsome guy, a little older than my real self. He's a family doctor. I have to admit they make a nice couple. But when before I left, I took the opportunity to say goodbye.
"Say, how did you know I was doing an Alabama accent when I got here?"
"Well it's a funny coincidence," she said, half smiling, "My ex was from there. Gulf coast. You sounded just like him. But I don't hear it anymore."
"Oh, I hope that didn't bring back any unpleasant memories..."
"Naw," she said, "I mean, if he was here right now you'd probably have to watch I didn't pick up any sharp objects, but there's still some positive associations too."
I left, tipped her well, and went to my car to map out the route to Milwaukee.