To Helen Back on a Friday Night
It was about 3:30 on a Friday afternoon at the Helen Back, a bar on the Florida Panhandle that used to be a kind of grungy biker place but has since fancied up and franchised. There was already a good crowd of regulars there, getting a head start on their Friday night.
The two girls behind the bar look to be under 18 with glitter-spangled eyes and their hair up in pigtails. Ashtrays are prominently displayed because that law about “no smoking indoors” doesn’t apply to the rebels at the Helen Back. If you don’t like it, you’ll be invited to leave.
The bar is a rabbit’s warren of little rooms; maybe it was an old cinder block Florida house at one time. Just off the main room there’s a big, screened-in porch, and outside of that is a dock with boat slips. Guys are playing foosball and pool to the sounds of 1970s rock on the jukebox. The multiple TVs are tuned to sporting events but nobody is watching.
Next to me is a cute blonde, a little younger than me but not by much. She’s got the thousand-mile stare going on, and I think she’s been on that stool for a while. My husband The Scot is on my other side and he’s met up with a couple of older men who recognize his accent. It seems that John and Joe were both executives in the offshore oil business back in the day, and flew all over the world as a result.
“It stopped being fun when the company wanted to quit letting us fly first class,” says one.
The guys are telling international tales of drunken revelry that become progressively more risque as the liquor flows. Occasionally, they apologize for the racy content and the necessary use of profanity, but I assure them that I love the stories and I’m not offended by the telling.
They call for another round and the little girl bartender pours a five-finger shot of vodka into John’s tumbler as I think to myself that he’s a career drinker. He’s cuddled around that glass and smiling at me, and he tells the Scot what a lucky man he is to have such a gorgeous woman by his side. Later in the afternoon he promises to protect me if I come on back to the Helen Back for Super Bowl Sunday while The Scot is out of town. “I’ll take good care of her, and you know I won’t bother her or let anyone else get close to her, either.”
He grins and tries to project himself into the role of chivalrous knight guarding his fellow knight’s damsel. He wants a commitment because he’s even willing to buy my ticket. The Scot assures John that I can take care of myself as Joe warns that John used to be quite the ladies man. I’m basking in the attention and feeling festive and flirty, and The Scot looks on in amusement as I sidle up to John and then Joe and buss each of them on the cheek, telling them how adorable they are.
The boys get back to telling oil business stories and I turn my attention to Chrissie, the blonde who’s smoking a Marlboro Light as she feeds quarters into the jukebox. We start chatting and she tells me all about her lowlife boyfriend who doesn’t work and treats her bad and “someday I need to get rid of him but I love him, ya know”… and she says she’s a nurse and works in a hospital in Pensacola. Yes, of course she is, and it’s no surprise to me that she’s got this country song of a life going on that compelled her to make the hour’s drive down to the Helen Back to try to make everything feel better. We keep talking and somehow find out that we’re both Air Force brats and we both lived in Billerica, Massachusetts when we were children and that both of our mothers were nurses, but they’re gone now and Good God we must have been sisters in a previous life.
We take our drinks and head out to stand on the dock. By now, we’re best friends . She’s got two kids at home, a daughter of nine who’s going to be trouble and a 17-year-old son who’s doing fine now, and then there’s her lowlife boyfriend’s brother who recently moved in. And nobody works but her. She’s wondering how she got into this mess, and I tell her she’s a fine woman and needs to dump the loser and find someone to appreciate her, but I know she won’t.
As we talk, we spot a Mexican guy further down on the dock who’s pacing as he talks, rapidly and animatedly, into his cell phone. Suddenly we hear a big splash and look over to see him up to his knees in the water. “My cell phone! My cell phone!”… and he’s looking like he’s going under to retrieve it, but we assure him the phone is dead and it’s not worth the effort. He shakes his head in dismay and disbelief as he grabs the hand of his friend who pulls him out of the water and back onto the dock. Chrissie wanders over to talk to them and I go back inside to my barstool for a fresh beer and a slice of what John has assured The Scot is the world’s very finest pizza. And oh yes, it’s some kind of good.
The bar is filling up now as the rest of the regulars come in after a hard day’s work, and The Scot says it’s time for us to move on down the road and find another dock where we can watch the sunset. By now, we’ve been accepted into the Helen Back fold. We’re regulars and we’re pretty happy about it; we like this place.
I hug and kiss John and Joe goodbye and The Scot shakes their hands and I see that Chrissie is snuggled close to a new guy at the bar so I wander over to tell her goodbye and I give her a hug and a smooch on the cheek and she looks me in the eye and leans in and quite deliberately kisses me on the mouth. I smile and say “Thanks, precious girl,” and I make her promise to get a cab home. She’s already been to hell and back and I don’t want her to go there again.