I turned into the darkness. It hurt, more than it should have. I felt like I'd been electrocuted. My next thought was wonder: Wonder at the fact that I knew what it felt like to be electrocuted, wonder at how dark it was.
Then I landed. And suddenly, I couldn't remember where I had come from, where I'd been going, or what I'd been doing. All I could remember was my name: Ashley.
I couldn't remember whether or not I had a last name. In fact, the only other thing that I could remember was a face: blue eyes, widened in horror and sadness, a mouth that formed an "O" of shock, all framed by shoulder-length black hair.
Shaking my head to clear it, I started down the street. It seemed ordinary enough: t-shirt shops, a couple of bars, a bookstore, restaurants, and other who-knew-what types of establishments. The smells were heavenly: a mix of delicious food, the flowers on the trees, and an underlying hint of…salt water?
I finally spotted a street sign that said "Duval Street". Unfortunately, it didn't answer the question of where I might be. So I just stuck with wandering. Eventually, I turned off the main road and onto a residential side street, lined with wood frame houses with big porches and some of the most gorgeous plants I'd ever seen, including palm trees and bushes with huge red flowers.
I'd been walking for a while when the bushes next to me transitioned into a picket fence tall enough that I couldn't see over it, lined with coconut palms. Soon enough, I came to a huge wooden gate. It had once been one solid piece, but had at some point in the past been split down the middle and only half-decently repaired, leaving a noticeable crack down the center. Next to it hung a sign simply stating "The Place". I could hear voices, so I pushed the gate opened and walked into one of the funniest looking bars I'd ever seen.
Honestly, my first thought was how the hell do I know what bars looked like? But my eyes were busy taking in every detail as I walked into the enclosure: five cottages around the edge of the compound, which was enclosed on all sides except for the parking area off to the left. The U-shaped bar in the center stood under a thatched roof and next to a pool, and was connected by a concrete walkway to another, smaller set-up under a tin roof: a brick fireplace and an upright piano. Said piano was currently being played by a madman in a bowler hat; good jazz, too. Sprinkled around the compound were palm trees that provided shade to the numerous lawn chairs, about half of which were occupied.
By this point, I'd reached the bar. The bartender, a skinny guy with long brown hair going grey, a beard the same color, and glasses, was talking with another customer, so I spent a few minutes eyeing a machine that looked like a toaster on steroids.
"Can I get you something?" a voice interrupted my musings.
* * * * *
I'd noticed her the instant she opened the gate. The Place is close to Duval Street, but far enough away that we don't get too much new business. While the gang and I don't mind new trade, we do like to make sure they're our kind of people, so the set up works well.
She had shoulder-length blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, and wore a black jumpsuit of some kind. As she approached the bar, I could tell that she was evaluating everything about the Place and everyone in it. I could also tell that Long-Drink, the person I was currently talking to, was aware of her as well. But as one of my oldest customers, Drink didn't need to be told what to do: he simply continued talking to me as the young lady approached the bar and left only after she'd been sitting for a couple of minutes.
Finally, I approached her. "Can I get you something?" I asked.
She started and turned a pair of ice-blue eyes on me. "Uh, yeah," she responded, blinking. "Could I get a beer?"
"Certainly," I responded. It was the work of a moment to get her the requested drink. "Here you go," I told her, setting the glass down in front of her. "Four bucks."
"Um…" The deer-in-the-headlights look said it all.
"Don't worry about it," I told her. The grateful look on her face was payment enough. "I'm Jake, by the way."
She had picked up the glass and taken a gulp. "Ashley," she said as she lowered it to the bar.
She didn't offer a last name, and I didn't ask. "If you don't mind my asking, what are you doing here in Key West?"
"I don't…" she trailed off as the sound of a throat clearing caught her attention. She turned in the high chair (I don't use bar stools) towards the fireplace. I also looked in that direction, and discovered Long-Drink standing at the edge of the fireplace enclosure.
"To Doc!" the Drink said, raising his glass. He was echoed on all sides as he drank, and once the glass was empty he threw it into the fireplace with the accuracy of a big-league pitcher. The ensuing barrage of glass almost overwhelmed the parabolic design of the fireplace, but my customers have been doing this for long enough that they know how to do so safely.
When the barrage finally died down, Ashley turned back to me. "What was that all about?"
"House custom. If you want to, you can make a toast and smash your empty in the fireplace. Costs you your two bucks change, but it can feel pretty good." I moved away to serve another of my regulars before the implication that maybe she should try it could even begin to hang in the air.
"Who was his toast to?" she asked when I was back at that end of the bar a few minutes later.
My smile was tinged with sadness, but behind it were many happy memories. "Our good friend Doc Webster passed away seven years ago today. People have been making toasts and telling stories all evening."
She nodded in contemplation. "Interesting customs you guys have. Any other rules that I should know about?"
"Just that no one here will ask you a snoopy question. If they do, they're blackjacked by the piano man and dumped out on to the street."
Her eyebrows almost disappeared into her hair. "How do you define 'snoopy'?"
"We don't; the person being asked does. That's why I started my earlier question with 'If you don't mind my asking'. If you'd minded, you would have told me so, and I wouldn't have pressed the issue."
"Huh." To cover her surprise, she took a sip of beer. "Thanks for the info."
"No problem," I told her. I could tell that she was done talking for the time being, and so moved away to tend to my other customers. Over the next several hours, I occasionally caught sight of her: she stayed by herself at the bar for awhile, but later got drawn into conversation with Mei-Ling and my daughter, Erin, when they came over to say hi.
Eventually, it was closing time. Most of my customers helped out by cleaning up the areas where they had been sitting, and Long-Drink swept out the fireplace. Erin and Mei-Ling had Ashley help them clean the tables around the pool, and I took care of wiping the bar and setting The Machine to clean itself. With all of those hands, closing only took about fifteen minutes, so it wasn't very long before my friends were drifting away through the gate, calling good-nights as they went. Those that lived in the compound (Mei-Ling, Tom Hauptman, the Duck, Long-Drink, Tommy, and Fast Eddie) also called good-night and headed for their respective cottages, leaving Ashley, Erin, and myself at the bar.
"Well Ashley," I said, "it was a pleasure to meet you. Hopefully we'll see you again sometime."
"Pop," Erin spoke up, "I told Ashley that she could stay in our guest room."
I raised my eyebrows at my now-twenty-year-old. "Really?"
"Sorry, Jake," Ashley jumped in.
Or tried to. I held up a hand and continued looking at my daughter. "Why?"
Erin traded a look with Ashley, and it was the latter who spoke up. "I don't have any place to go."
"No friends? No family?"
"I don't remember. My memory only goes as far back as walking down Duval Street, then turning onto a side street and finding my way here."
Over the years, I've developed a pretty good sense of when someone is pulling my leg. She wasn't. I thought about it for a moment, but in the end decided that my wife wouldn't mind and that Erin had good judgment. "I can't say no to a story like that. Erin, go ahead and help Ashley get settled. I'll be along in a minute."
Erin smiled at me and led Ashley towards our cottage. I watched them go and pulled out a book. I'd stay at the bar until Zoey got in from rehearsal, and tomorrow we'd try to figure out how to help Ashley. After all, that's what we do here at The Place.
Author's Note: Okay, I know that many (if not all) of you are unfamiliar with the Callahan series by Spider Robinson. While I'll include more details in later chapters, here's a quick rundown of the series:
From 1948 to 1986, Michael Callahan owned and operated Callahan's Place off Route 25A on Long Island. House rules at the Place were as follows: Every drink in the house cost a buck. Callahan dealt only in singles. If you returned your glass, you were entitled to fifty cents in change from the cigar box at the end of the bar. Or you could step up to the chalk line, make a toast (this is mandatory), and deep six your glass into the fireplace. If you decided that you wanted to talk about it, you had the immediate and undivided attention of everyone in the Place. Often, they'd have a solution for whatever problem was troubling you. (Not every toast was serious; oftentimes a toast was so funny that a barrage of laughter and glass would result.) Should you choose not to talk about it, no one would bother you; anyone asking a snoopy question was promptly blackjacked by Fast Eddie the piano man and dumped in the alley. Other house traditions included Fireside Fill-More night, Punday night, Tall-Tales night, and Riddle night. Callahan's regulars included the reigning Punday night champ Dr. Sam "Doc" Webster; Long-Drink McGonnigle; the 7-foot alien cyborg Mickey Finn; the narrator of these stories and great guitar player Jake Stonebender; Ralph von Wau Wau, the talking German shepherd; Fast Eddie Costigan the piano man; several other aliens; assorted time travelers; and, most important for this crossover, Nikola Tesla.
In 1986, Callahan's Place was destroyed by a nuke in order to save the world from annihilation (good trade, no?). Two years later, Jake opened Mary's Place, carrying on many of the traditions and customs of Callahan's. After one year, Mary's was closed due to improper paperwork. Roughly a year and a half after that, Jake & Co. moved down to Key West, opened The Place, and saved the universe.
This story opens roughly seven years after the last (as of now) novel in the series, "Callahan's Con". I've done my best to match the timelines, but Spider is a little inconsistent with dates in the books. Anyway, please drop me a line and tell me what you think. Thanks for reading!