After another very long day on the road, after nearly a week of aimless driving, Dean decided the town of Sicily, Nebraska was as good a place to stop as any. The elder Winchester was itching to find a new job and relentlessly determined not to talk about how much time he had left before his deal came due. This left Sam with little to say outside of "work" and increasingly frustrated at Dean's seeming indifference to the situation. Considering Dean's mood when they found a motel, Sam expected Dean to take off for a while to be by himself or to find a girl and was surprised when instead, Dean invited him to go get a beer.
"C'mon, Sammy…we could both use a drink." Sam acquiesced immediately, left the laptop charging on the bed and followed Dean out to the car.
The closest bar they could find was part of the local bowling alley. The sound that assaulted Sam's ears as he walked in the door was the resounding crack of a sixteen pound ball connecting solidly with a set of pins resulting in a definitive strike; it brought a smile to his face. There was just something about the sounds, sights and smells of a bowling alley that put Sam at ease. It seemed like no matter how far they traveled, the ambiance of a bowling alley was the same no matter where they went; Sam found it comforting.
Dean quickly made his way to the bar, but Sam took his time walking over; he enjoyed watching the bowlers. Although it was a Saturday night, the bowling alley wasn't full. There were a few families, but because of the late hour none of them included small children. One particularly brave dad seemed to be in charge of a Boy Scout troop or something because he was supervising a handful of pre-teens with no maternal influence in sight. In the farthest lanes, there were two groups of older teenagers clearly separated by gender who spent more time giggling and fooling around than bowling. The rest of the occupied lanes were taken up by "serious" bowlers, probably a league by the looks of them. Although the bar was incorporated into the bowling alley, there didn't seem to be any heavy drinking by those who were out on the lanes to play.
By the time Sam arrived at the bar, Dean had a beer waiting for him and was already halfway through his own. In spite of Dean's invitation, he seemed more inclined to ponder his beer than engage Sam in conversation, so Sam turned his attention back to the lanes. That was when he realized that they'd been noticed.
The dad who was attached to a platoon of boys was speaking to another dad who had apparently been on bathroom duty. They tried not to be obvious that they were talking about the Winchesters, but their glances telegraphed their target and the finger pointing sort of gave them away. The dad who'd been missing when the Winchesters walked in looked unsure and shook his head in the negative, but the other dad was adamant and headed for the bar with some speed.
Sam tensed, but the man swerved off course and made a large circuit to avoid them. He wasn't coming to speak to them; instead he sought out the bartender. Sam took the opportunity to give Dean a heads up. He swiveled around on his stool and used his body to block Dean from the line of sight at the far end of the bar. "Dean, I think someone recognized us. Have we been here before?"
Dean turned his face toward Sam; it was clear from his expression that weariness, not alcohol, was interfering with Dean's ability to process. Dean thought he was done for the night and was having difficulty clicking in to Sam's question.
Sam fed him more information. "A dad bowling with a Boy Scout troop. Looking over here like he recognized us. The other dad wasn't sure but the first guy came to the bar for reinforcements." Sam nodded his head to the right where the dad was now animatedly talking to the bartender.
Sam hadn't minced words or taken much time, but it was all Dean needed to get focused on the problem. Sam could already see Dean scanning the bar and using the mirror on the wall to view the lanes behind them. Without turning his body, Sam took another look around; other than the familiarity of the bowling alley being a bowling alley, he didn't recognize the place. But when he turned back toward Dean he didn't see a blank association like his own, instead Dean seemed to be trying to make a connection, trying to dredge up a memory that fluttered elusively on the edge of his memory.
Dean lost the hazy connection when the hand of the bartender came slamming down on the bar between them. "Goddammit! Dean Winchester! I can't believe I didn't recognize you right off!"
For the briefest moment Sam could see Dean's disorientation in his raised his eyebrows and quirk of his lips – Sam could read Dean's "I'm playing along with you here, pal" expression before his professional mask slid into place and he smoothly responded, "It's been a long time…"
"It ain't been that long, man! What? Four…five years?" the bartender asked the bar at large, but down where they were sitting only the Boy Scout dad was paying any attention.
"That's about right," the dad interjected as he seated himself on Dean's left, "My boy's twelve now…he was only in second grade when it happened."
Sam could see Dean frantically scanning his memory banks while letting the bartender and father reminisce about the old days. Meanwhile, Sam started putting information together. If the bartender knew Dean by his real name it was probable Dean had been through here on a job – maybe the bowling alley had been haunted? At the same time Sam was doing the math, and whatever had happened here took place during his "Standford years". His heart clenched uncomfortably in his chest because any reminder of that time was bittersweet; he never asked what Dad and Dean had done without him, and Dean never volunteered any information. Only a moment or two had passed - both the bartender and dad seemed friendly and welcoming, and Dean wasn't tense enough to indicate he was ready to bolt, so Sam sat and waited for a cue on what to do.
"I can still remember the look on Fitzgerald's face…" the dad continued.
"I thought he was going to have a stroke!" the bartender added, and the two of them laughed at the old, familiar story.
Dean shot a glance at Sam and shook his head slightly to indicate that he still didn't know what the two locals were talking about. The bartender was savvy enough to pick up on the exchange. "You don't remember, do you?"
Sam could see the instant Dean decided to tell the truth. "Sorry, man…it's not coming back to me."
"Oh my God! A legend walks into a bar and doesn't even know he's a legend!" the dad crowed while slapping Dean heartily on the shoulder. "It sounds like the setup to the worst joke ever!"
"Picture it! Sicily…2002." The bartender held out his hands before him and did a fair impersonation of Sophia from The Golden Girls. Sam had to laugh at the reference. "A guy strolls into our bowling alley looking for a job."
Dean's gaze looked speculative, then he made an intuitive leap. "Frank. You're Frank….but you weren't the bartender then."
The bartender grinned, pleased that Dean had finally placed him. "Nope! I was just the guy working the desk waiting for someone to die so I could get a promotion."
Dean turned slightly toward the Boy Scout dad. "Did you work here too?"
"Naw, I was bowling in the league then…just happened to be here when it happened." He held out his hand for Dean to shake as he introduced himself. "Matt Kearny."
Dean took his hand in response. "Hey, Matt…" he nodded to his right to indicate Sam. "This is my brother, Sam."
Matt nodded a greeting and the bartender, Frank, addressed Sam. "So your brother walks in looking for a job. We were short on help with all the college kids back in school and one of our regulars out with a broken leg. He's not even looking for a particular job, just anything we can give him."
"Fitzgerald was the manager at the time," Matt threw in.
Sam glanced at Dean who had returned his gaze to his beer. Sam found it difficult to read Dean's expression and he really didn't know where this story was going.
"So Dean gets hired for general maintenance and Fitzgerald does his whole song and dance about this being a family establishment …maintain the status quo…he runs a tight ship…you know the drill."
"He really had a stick up his ass," Matt added.
"The thing is," Frank said a little defensively, "Fitz liked doing things a certain way. Everyone's got their things…you know? This place was his whole life at the time and he had a picture in his head about how a bowling alley should run. He wasn't unkind or unfair…just a stickler."
Matt didn't comment he simply shrugged no longer willing to argue the point.
As Frank continued, Sam could see he was really warming up to the story. "So things go along pretty good – junior leagues during the week, high school team for practice and matches, adult leagues, and on the weekends…midnight bowling."
"Dean was all over the place – at the front desk, in the lanes, in the back." Frank paused his narrative to address Dean. "We haven't had any trouble with lane sixteen since you fixed the mechanics back there, it's like a goddam miracle."
Dean nodded and smiled to himself.
Frank returned his attention to Sam. "You know how guys on a job bitch about this or that? Not Dean, he just threw himself into the work, he'd take on anything Fitz gave him to do. Fitz said more than once, 'I wish I had ten more like him.'" Sam could see Dean shifting uncomfortably unused to such unrestrained praise. Frank grinned as he led into the next part of the story. "There was just one thing I ever heard Dean complain about…"
"The MUSIC." Both Frank and Matt finished together.
Sam rolled his eyes and grinned knowing perfectly well Dean's taste in music. "Eighties pop, Sam." Dean shook his head in disgust. "Eighties, disco infused, young teen sensation, synthesizer heavy POP." Dean covered his eyes with one hand and groaned as if even the memory of the music caused him pain.
"You see," Frank continued, "Fitz had a lot of things going for him, but his taste in music wasn't one of them. He had his own ideas about what was appropriate 'family friendly' music. During the week it was mostly oldies. But on the weekends there was a short list of songs he approved of particularly when the kids came in for midnight bowling."
Matt jumped in, his voice taking on a ponderous tone, obviously imitating Fitzgerald. "Don't want to rile up the youngsters."
Frank snickered, "Fitz thought he was hip to the times."
"Yeah," Matt added, "twenty years later…"
Dean muttered into his beer, "It was enough to make me want to gouge my eyes out."
"Then one night just as midnight bowling was about to start, Fitz hit the button under the desk to automatically start the music and instead of Debbie Gibson, AC/DC started blasting out of the speakers. The bass was so high the pins started to rattle before the drop."
"It was awesome!" Matt's face lit up at the recollection.
"The guys who were wrapping up the league bowling started clapping and cheering. The kids went wild."
"I guess they did get riled up," Sam smirked.
"Fitz went crazy yelling about the music and demanding that it be turned off. But mysteriously the switch at the desk no longer worked, no one could locate the keys to the office where the sound system was housed and Dean was nowhere to be found. In the meantime, Back in Black, You Shook Me All Night Long and Highway to Hell all played."
Sam shot a look at Dean who was nodding with approval at the revised playlist.
"Eventually Fitz got some big guy at the bar to break down the door to the office and inside was Dean 'taking a nap'" Frank indicated with finger quotes, "like he hadn't heard all of the fuss or the music."
"That office was sound proofed" Dean protested with false innocence. "I didn't hear anything," he stated seriously before taking a swallow of his beer.
"They didn't even get halfway through Zepplin's Ramble On before Fitz turned it off and put on Rick Astley instead," Matt recalled with disappointment.
"That's just wrong," Dean muttered irritably. Sam laughed out loud.
In his mind, Sam could see Dean sitting at the sound system console like Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption letting the music free his soul and the souls of the unfortunate bowlers who had been tortured for so long.
"It wasn't long after that when Dean up and quit." Frank stated matter-of-factly. Sam noticed Dean shifting uncomfortably again; neither of them liked to be reminded of their nomadic lifestyle, particularly when they developed a connection to a place. But Frank's tone wasn't accusatory, he had a little more of his tale to tell.
"For weeks afterwards during midnight bowling, songs that Fitz would never have approved of randomly played, even on CDs with playlists that he burned himself after you left. It was like he couldn't shake the ghost of Dean Winchester."
"It was so funny," Matt interjected. "Every time a song came on that made Fitz blow a gasket, people would start yelling shit like, 'Dean's back to haunt you, Fitz!' Personally I liked to yell, 'Winchester, get me a beer!' Sadly, one never appeared."
"Well, I can get you a beer now," Dean offered.
"No way!" Frank objected. "You gotta know it's on the house!"
"What happened to Fitzgerald?" Sam asked with some concern; Frank had said he was waiting for someone to die so he could be promoted.
"His wife finally convinced him to buy a place in Florida. She had enough of the cold winters and wanted to retire someplace warm. He sends us a postcard every once in a while." Frank waved to the mirror behind him with some sunny "Wish You Were Here" cards taped to it.
"And the music?" Dean asked.
Frank shrugged. "New management got XM radio and pipes in whatever they're in the mood for. Most of it is okay. But every once in a while, especially during midnight bowling something different gets into the mix…"
All four men at the bar noticed when The Black-Eyed Peas "I Got a Feeling" was cut off mid-song and the familiar strains of "Back in Black" suddenly started to play.
Matt started laughing so hard he nearly fell off his barstool. "Winchester in the HOUSE!" he yelled while slapping Dean on the back.
Dean took a long swallow of his beer as he slid off his chair. "I'll be right back…I got to check out lane sixteen. For old time's sake…"