A Novel by Yvonne M. DeBandi
Copyright © 2016 Yvonne M. DeBandi
The bar was packed because it was Wednesday, Open Jam night, and still a couple of days before the official winter tourist season began. No doubt the music was going to go all night long; and, somewhere around two o’clock, Jacob, a scruffy looking regular who worked at the auto shop and loved to barbecue, would start giving Denny a hard time.
“How can you have a bar named Denny’s that doesn’t offer breakfast? I’m telling you Pops, gold mine! I mean, who here isn’t hungry?” he would shout out looking for reinforcement.
Of course, once enough noise was made, Mario would run next door to Mario’s Marvelous Pies and bring back enough pizza for everyone to eat and take home, the entire time muttering in Italian under his breath. He loved it, but he would never admit it. Rumor has it that he and Jacob were actually devising a breakfast pizza and, of course, a breakfast barbecue pizza. As of this moment, though, that was still a rumor.
Mario, originally a tourist that decided he never wanted to leave, lived in the cabin closest to the restaurant; but, he was never there. If you were looking for Mario, you would find him standing watch over a pizza oven, tossing dough or attending to other restaurant duties. That applied to just about every day of the week, except Wednesday nights. Tonight, like all the regulars, he sat in his normal open jam seat. His was next to the fire with his feet on the logs. Every once in a while, he would shift his position to toss in another, keeping the fire perfectly stoked.
“Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone” crooned Kevin O’Connell, the town resident blues vocalist, bringing Raven’s focus back to the stage lining the east end of Denny’s Den. Raven guessed the stylishly-dressed young singer was in his early thirties. His voice was pleasing, inviting, and you could tell he sang for the music, not the crowd. Raven appreciated that about Kevin, even though his arrogance off-stage kept her from being a personal fan.
She was, however, a huge fan of the song. It was the perfect choice for the moment, summing up the atmosphere in the room. Three days until the official calendar start of ski season and so far, no snow. That meant that despite the amazing entertainment and drunken revelry, an untouchable heaviness drifted around the room.
Raven may have been new to the area and never before lived in a tourist town, but it wasn’t too hard to understand that a slow tourist and ski season meant a tough year ahead for the town residents. Despite that, everyone was doing their best to forget their troubles, a point made obviously clear as the entire room began to sing along with the bluesy classic. It was loud and out of tune, but also sincere and heartfelt. The latter being all that mattered.
Small towns are great, Raven thought, watching the room with hidden marvel. At least they seemed to be great from her viewpoint of standing on the outside looking in. The town had embraced her and accepted her, but Raven had a knack for turning questions into questions. She understood that most people preferred to talk about themselves and had turned personal space and private vagueness into an artform.
She knew, however, that if she accepted Denny’s dare tonight, all that would change. She would no longer be watching from the outside, a mystery, an intrigue not worth the trouble of pursuing. The spotlight would once again illuminate, and the shadowy sanctuary in this dark little corner would be gone.
Despite those thoughts, Raven knew it was a losing battle. The real challenge wasn’t whether she could ignore her godfather’s dare; but, how much longer she could deny the piano’s magnetism when every moment since her arrival, it had relentlessly beckoned to her from across the room.
Mulling over her thoughts, she closed her eyes and smiled in appreciation at the ear-candy offered. The musicians were doing the number true justice and this only made her think about the piano even more. Sighing, she pulled out a cigarette and immediately heard the familiar flick of a lighter, followed by words spoken in a proper British accent.
“Bugger,” she said to herself, silently reciting, “Rule no. 3: never offer an opportunity to approach.”
Slowly she turned her head and accepted the flame. As her cigarette began to glow she allowed her eyes to wander up, expecting to find a stranger. She didn’t recognize the voice, and Raven was good with voices. Since moving to Jackson Hole, however, she had fallen for this trick every time.
“Wally,” Raven sighed more than spoke as he handed her a drink and winked, “Stop doing that!”
“Guuurl, you broke your own rules. Never pull out a cigarette without first lightin’ yo flame!” he exclaimed in a gruffly, cigarette-choked voice while staring, waiting for her to defend herself.
Others might have been taken aback by his tone and eye contact, but Raven knew it was all an act. She tried her best to stare at him blankly, noticeably failing as her lips lifted into a smile of their own accord. Wally was good people. That was what her gut said the instant they met, but nevertheless she asked Denny just to be sure. His gut was never wrong, at least not in her entire life.
Waiting for the dramatic scene she knew would unfold, she crossed her arms and looked at him through her long curtain of hair in expectation. Seeing the open window, Wally instantly broke into a brilliantly white, beautiful smile, changing his stance to match his newly chosen accent and character, a much younger version of his previous choice. Wally never turned down a spotlight.
“Gurlfriend, saved you from Table 12, an early-bird tourist that wandered in. Pfft. He don’t know no better. Can’t blame him. Look at you standing up, all over here alone, in black, in those boots and ripped jeans, with that dark red hair over your face. Since he probably hasn’t heard the very kindly put ‘hands-off’ rule you so clearly established to our locals here, I would have thrown him out for NOT noticing your mysterious, sexy self.”
Raven couldn’t help but laugh. Wally was a very tall black man, well built, with a smile that lit up a room, a twinkle in his eye and a hug that felt like home. His voice was as smooth as butter with a slight southern drawl when he was truly relaxed, but when working he usually used some sort of accent, playing some sort of character. Originally born in Alabama, Wally had been here for as long as he could remember. At least, that is what he said when you asked him. Truth be known, Raven had gathered it really hadn’t been all that long.
The adventurous tourist probably pegged him as the bouncer. Easy mistake since Wally liked to wander as he worked and well … looked like a bouncer; but, there was no bouncer in this place. No need. These people respected each other and took care of each other on nights like this when alcohol did come into play. No, Wally was the bartender; and frankly, words seemed to fail when trying to describe his unique and impressive drinks.
Late one Saturday, Raven stayed to help sweep the floors and straighten up. She wasn’t sure how closing chores actually took twice as long that night, but then again, they did stop numerous times in fits of laughter. And, the sight of this 6’4” black man rolling on the sofa with giggle fits just made things worse.
That night they came up with the brilliant advertising angle: Wally, the ARTbender and Spirit Specialist. It was the first time Denny had heard Raven laugh like that in as long as he could remember. All he could do was sit in his office and listen with tears streaming down his face, probably for a good hour, before finally joining them hands-on so they could get out of there.
Denny thought the ArtBender angle was brilliant. He was having signs and cards made, and also asked Raven, the Den’s webmaster, to create a whole section devoted to it. Denny had vision like that, as Raven well knew. It was easy to see . . . and well, taste, that Wally’s secret drink recipes were like nothing you could find anywhere else. It was a no-brainer for Denny. He grabbed onto the idea quickly and set it into motion. Not to increase the bar business (although that was definitely a check in the pro column), but to see where Wally might take this interesting and original idea.
As a result, on Wednesday nights Raven could count on a new drink recipe unveiling and was never disappointed. Tonight’s concoction was the Flaming Leotart. The unexpected fire demonstration had been truly impressive and the taste indescribably satisfying. It somehow washed over you smoothly, like a second skin, and ended with a kick of delectable tartness.
Despite this obvious talent, Wally would tell you bartending was his day job, like so many other hopeful actors and artists found behind a bar. With Wally, you never knew what accent or speech pattern you would get during conversation; but, if there was a theater production in town you could bet your life that he would be center stage or somewhere in the front row shouting accolades and clapping louder and harder than any other audience member.
Wally winked again and as he started to turn away Raven said, “Hey Wally, if Fred ever does you wrong, you let me know. We will start a conversion intervention and I will steal you away,” Raven quipped as she watched the big beautiful man chuckle with grace.
“Oh yeah. I almost forgot,” he said pulling a napkin out of his pocket. The branded paper was covered in scribbles that Raven instantly recognized as Denny’s hand-writing.
“Pops said to remind you that you have to do your thang tonight. . . Dang girl, you standin’ in the darkeeeest corner of the room.”
Raven grinned as Wally squinted dramatically, waiting for his eyes to adjust, finally turning the napkin in circles to follow the words written around the edges.
“He says he has upped the stakes. You do your thang . . . whatever that is . . . and you get to move to that more private cabin you wanted by the lake at the first of the month. You don’t, and he is starting a breakfast shift with you in charge.”
He paused for effect, leaned a little closer, lowered his voice like a confidante, and raised one eyebrow.
“So, Miss Thang, what’s your thang? Breakfast shift, huh? Pretty serious situation to consider for our resident vampire who doesn’t sleep until the sun comes up, hmm? Don’t think I didn’t notice. Why do you think I started wearing these here turtlenecks?” he asked, ending his speech by stretching the neck of his stylish apparel and letting it pop back into place.
Denny and his nephew, Fred, who helped manage the bar and cook, were the only ones who knew the entire truth about Raven’s past– why she was here in Jackson Hole and why she needed a new start. Truthfully, no one but them even knew her last name. Raven wasn’t sure if Wally had been ‘read in’, but with this playful question, she suspected Fred had honored her privacy.
Wally and Fred had been together for three years now, although when Raven asked how long they had been together, everyone in earshot recited in unison, “as long as he can remember.” Wally was not a time tracker or a dweller. She often heard Wally answer questions with phrases like, “Doesn’t really matter what any of us did before here, what are we doing now?” So, he never asked Raven about her life circumstances. He simply welcomed her friendship in any way she was willing to offer it.
Fred and Wally were a most unlikely couple. If she had just met them on the street, Raven would have never guessed in a million years they could be a perfect match, but they were. Wally with his artistic imagination, flamboyance and style; and Fred, who dressed in plaid, only spoke when necessary, stood tall at five feet if he was lucky, and truthfully was in desperate need of a tan. He was much more like the marine side of his Uncle, but Fred seemed to understand Wally, like Denny understood Raven.
Wally and Raven, who shared the same childlike imagination and wonderment when discussing things that could be created or dreamed, became fast friends. Denny and Fred had even commented to each other, that watching Wally and Raven was like watching two only children who suddenly found a lost sibling.
Needless to say, because of the fun atmosphere being created, bar business was up. Denny wasn’t surprised. Simply put, Wally was the biggest drama queen and diva of them all . . . and proud of it. He intrigued people just by being who he was, obviously and outwardly different from the rest of the flock. And Raven had always been a magnet. People loved her. Despite the fact that she didn’t share personal details about her life, people loved the way Raven made them feel.
Denny couldn’t have found a reality show on the planet that would have turned down the shenanigans that were now everyday occurrences. The two of them together were like magic to watch as they shared their smiles and kind nature with anyone that crossed their path. Of course, it didn’t hurt that their childlike games and harmless practical jokes seemed to entertain the guests as much as the two-man jokester crew. Denny firmly believed that some people were becoming daily regulars just to see what they would come up with next.
Despite the twinkle in Wally’s eyes, the entertaining vampire reference, and his ability to ask questions without expecting an answer, tonight there was a question of concern. It was almost hidden by his acting skills; but, not entirely. That onion layer had been added when Wally had reached to brush the hair out of her eyes one afternoon. They hadn’t known each other very long then. Before he could succeed, Raven had grabbed his muscular arm in her strong little hand, purely out of instinct. Stopping him like a mac truck, she said only one word in a voice he didn’t recognize, “DON’T.”
The next morning it was like nothing had happened. Except now there was that new look in his eye and fairly regular cracks about how Raven could probably beat him up. But, being Wally, he didn’t ask for details and frankly didn’t care. The only thing he knew was that voice deep down inside, the voice that mattered, the voice that said it was his job to make that girl smile.
Looking past Wally after hearing the message, she found both Denny and Fred smiling and waving at her across the bar. Wally laughed at the overly done scowl on Raven’s face and then stopped cold.
“He knows, Fred knows what the thang is, doesn’t he?”
Looking back and forth between Raven and Fred, Wally wasn’t sure who to pressure first. You see, it was okay not to offer information, but if someone else knew something and he didn’t, it festered until he could take it no more. His decision, however, was made for him when Denny pointed at the bar and motioned for Wally to get back to work. Denny then turned directly to Raven and raised his hands in question of her decision.
Reluctantly nodding, and thinking only of the promised beautiful little cabin on the lake, Raven mouthed, “Okay, you win. Last. Put me last.”