Sam walked into Cheers late on a quiet Tuesday night, a pained smile on his face. The cheers of the patrons could have been for the return of a conquering hero, as his friends eagerly awaited tales of his adventures. Sam waved his hands to quell the din. The failure of his quest still smarted, and for once, he really didn't want the spotlight.
"Easy, easy… I'm back from vacation, not a mission to Mars," he chastened, forcing a laugh.
Despite his sorrow, he was glad to be back in the safe embrace of the familiar. Cheers would always be here for him, even if the rest of his life went to hell. He ran his hand along the smooth cherry veneer of the bar top as he made his way over to Norm, Cliff and Carla in the corner.
"So, Sammy—how were things down under?" Cliff leered, "Or was it over? Or maybe..?"
Norm cut him off before he could embarrass them all further.
"I think what Cliffie's trying to say in his own clever way is 'welcome back'."
"We missed ya, big guy," Carla added with a hug.
Sam looked around at his old pals. He was suddenly aware of how the years had passed and how much all of them had changed. The lines in their faces seemed deeper… their hair thinner and whiter… their pace slower… their bodies weaker… and yet Cheers stayed the same. There was a simultaneous comfort and sadness in all of those thoughts, and Sam swallowed hard at the lump in his throat.
"I missed you guys too," he managed.
His friends noticed the change that had come over him, but no one would speak to it. None of them were particularly fond of emotional scenes, and when it came to Sam, it made them downright nervous. They hadn't seen him like this since… but no, it couldn't be that again, could it?
Woody sidled over from the other end of the bar.
"Hey boss! You back in town?"
Norm couldn't resist.
"No Woody, this here is Sam's clone. An exact double we keep in a laboratory up north to fill in when Sam takes an extended leave of absence."
"Aw, come on, Mr. Peterson. More than twenty years in the city and you still think I'm a gullible farm kid," Woody rejoined, doubling back to give Sam a long once-over to be sure.
"Yeah Woody, I'm back," Sam answered, "I won't bore you all with the details of my vacation. Let's just say it was eventful and exhausting and leave it at that."
"Ahhhh, say no more, Sammy… we can imagine the rest," Cliff grinned conspiratorially.
"Say no more, Clavin. The less we know about your imagination, the better," Carla countered.
Sam sauntered off to the back room without another word, leaving his friends to wonder in silence. He was relieved when he heard their conversation resume, their laughter offering him some reassurance that not everything was wrong in the world.
He hung out in the back room for a long while, throwing darts and shooting pool. His head was still elsewhere, and he grew frustrated with his inability to hit a bullseye or sink a shot, so he gave up and collapsed into the tired leather couch next to the table. The few people out front had all but cleared out, and the closing time hush fell over the place as Woody let the other bar staff leave for the night.
Norm stuck his head in to say goodnight. Sam stood up quickly and pretended to inspect the pool table, not wanting Norm to ask him any tough questions.
"Hey, Sammy—see ya tomorrow."
"Yep," Sam agreed.
"Yep. Say, uh… you okay?"
"Good… good… 'cause I was thinking if you need to... you know, talk... or something…," Norm offered reluctantly.
It was an awkward moment, to be sure.
Norm exhaled in relief.
"Okay. Goodnight then."
"Hey, Norm? You know, I was uh… thinking about something you said to me a long time ago. I don't know why, but it sorta stuck with me. You probably don't remember, but it was about how I wouldn't leave Cheers, 'cause I'd be unfaithful to my one true love."
Norm rubbed his face uncomfortably.
"I said that?"
"Yes, you did."
"Wow," he mused, shaking his head.
"Well, I wanted to tell you… I've given it some thought and I think you're wrong. I was unfaithful… because I stayed."
Norm sighed a long sigh, as if he knew this day would come.
"I know it. We were all wrong, but especially me. I guess we all think we know something about life when we're young. Looking back, I know I sure as hell didn't. I'm sorry, Sam."
He went to leave, but a sudden thought stopped him before he could get down the hallway.
"How is she?"
"How is who?"
"You know who I'm talking about."
A small, sad smile crept across Sam's face. Norm knew. The hair on his neck stood up at the mere thought of her.
"Yeah… yeah, I guess I do," he breathed, "She's fine. Wants nothing to do with me, but… she's great."
"You know… I think that for some people a true love can be a place, but not for you. I've known it for a while. I'd guess oh, about 30 years now."
Sam felt the relentless truth grab at his heart once again. He hung his head in an effort to hide the tears that were welling up in his eyes.
"Yep," he whispered hoarsely.
"Say hey to her for me, okay? Place hasn't been the same without her."
Sam cleared his throat. Norm sure was right about that much.
"I will. 'Night."
It was obvious to Norm that his friend wanted to be alone.
And with that, Norm shuffled off home into the cool Boston night.
Sam sat back down with his head in his hands. Why couldn't this be easy? He thought by now he'd at least handle things better. He was 64 years old, for crying out loud, nursing a broken heart like a 17 year old. Maybe he just wasn't meant to be happy. Maybe it was time to just accept it and quit fighting. Maybe this really was the best he could do.
After a while, he headed for the quiet comfort of his office. Woody was still out front tallying the evening's receipts and mercifully left him alone. At about 2:30, Woody's regular knock came, and Sam rubbed his eyes.
"Come on in," he called.
The door opened and Sam turned in his chair. There in the doorway looking small and uncertain stood Diane.