It was at a bar—a sports bar in Boston. It was some years back, and I was taking a break from all my worries—sitting back at a table. Earthen tones filled the place—polished wood, cleans and dark, with pictures of sports figures and other memorabilia against wallpaper that fit. The bar was also wooden, smooth and shining, with a rail of brass all around—the stools all where they should be and the right amount of tall.
The place was about half-full. Busy enough, but not exactly packed to the brim. All the customers were seated, except for a bunch of guys over in the game room, shooting a round of pool. They'd invited me to join them. I'd said maybe later. For now, I was at my table, alone, waiting for someone to take my order.
My trench coat was hanging from my chair—I'd be darned if I was going to hang it on a rack where a bunch of others were later gonna be hung over it. My fedora was on the table, off to the side. My suit coat was open, and I was able to relax. For a bit, at least.
It wasn't too long after I'd sat down, when she came up to the table. And when I saw her, let me tell you: it was pretty darn hard to notice anything around. Yeah, I said it. She was that pretty. Small and slender—delicate, with golden hair that flowed down to her shoulders…and she had a soft and gentle face with wide eyes that sparkled in the light.
You know, it'll sound like I'm gushing, but here goes: innocent, sweet, warm-hearted and kind—all those words filled my brain when she gave me that bright, inviting smile as she took a pad and pencil from her white barmaid's apron. That smile, with perfect-looking teeth between perfect-looking lips. And even with all the bustle all around, I felt like it was just her and me in the universe, with that smile of hers that reached those blue, perceptive eyes.
"Hello!" she said in a voice as golden as her hair and gentle as her face, "My name is Diane Chambers—I'll be serving you, tonight. Welcome to Cheers! What would you like, today?"
I felt a smile of my own—and had to remember to keep myself professional, composed. "You folks have anything soft?"
Her smile seemed to freeze, more in confusion than anything else. "Um…soft?"
"Soft drinks—you know, Coke, Sprite…?"
"Oh—oh!" she laughed—nervous, but light and musical, "Uh—yes, sir, we do! I'm sorry…."
"Oh, that's all right, Miss…"
"Diane—I'm the one that should be sorry, anyway. Way I said it…"
"Oh, no, that's fine. I…" she laughed again. I found myself grateful for witnessing it twice in as many minutes. She cleared her throat, and put pen to paper, "Well, then…"
"A root beer—no ice. Unless you got cream soda?"
"Have," she said—absently, as if the correction came out on instinct.
I kept my chuckle internal. "Okay, do you have it?"
She blinked—and her already creamy face turned pale. "Oh!—oh, I'm sorry, sir, I—I didn't mean to—"
"Oh, no problem," I smiled at her again. "If you don't mind me being a little forward, Diane—you strike me as too nice a lady to mean it like that."
She returned the smile, and warmth returned to that pretty face.
I went on, "So, a cream soda—no ice. You know, second thought, make it two. That's it, for now."
She nodded quickly. "I'll check with Sam. I—if we don't…"
My smile grew. "Then they'll be root beers—same way."
She nodded, writing it all down, and left.
You know, I found myself counting the minutes until she came back. She actually did, a few times, empty-handed—first time to reassure me that she'd checked with "Sam" and yes, they did indeed have cream soda—they just didn't get that request too often. The rest were reassurances that, don't worry, she hadn't forgotten me—it was just, with the rest of the clientele and all the orders…
Finally, she came over with the sodas on her tray. "And—there you are, sir: two cream sodas, no ice. Again—I must apologize for the wait—"
"No need," I chuckled, leaning back against my chair. "It hasn't been that long."
She relaxed in relief, nodding as she set the drinks down. "By the way," she said, "If you don't mind my asking, sir—"
"Call me Jack. Jack Dickens. And don't bother—I thought of it, too."
She frowned, with a blink. "Thought of it…?"
I shrugged. "That song—'Jack and Diane'. I take it you don't know it?"
"I'm…afraid I can't say I recall…"
"Oh, it's got one of most irritating melodies I've ever heard—and a chorus everyone knows by heart: 'Oh yeah, life goes on—'"
"'Long after the thrill of living is gone'," she said softly.
I shrugged. "Sure sounds better when you say it, doesn't it?"
She chuckled. "It…is a little irritating, isn't it? The melody, I mean."
"A little? Just try getting that song out of your head, now."
"Now, now," she smiled, wagging her finger a little as she set the empty tray down on a nearby empty table, "I've found that the more you try to forget something, the harder it becomes to do so."
"Point taken. So, how about we talk about something else?"
She frowned, "I—I really should get back to work—"
"Like that ever stopped you, before!" said a short waitress with curly dark hair and a snarky, vaguely nasal accent that sounded like New York, as she walked past Diane from behind.
The golden-haired girl sighed, shaking her head. "Anyway, Mr. Dickens—"
"Jack…I really do have to get to work."
I shrugged. "Well, do what you got to do. So, can I count the second soda as a refill?"
"Well, oddly enough, I was intending to ask if you were waiting for some—"
She stopped with a blink, staring at me in silence. Finally, she managed to half-whisper, "You…ordered that, for—?"
"Well, isn't that how it works? Guy meets a beautiful lady, he buys her a drink."
"Oh," she cleared her throat, and straightened up, "Oh, well," she put on an air that was apparently supposed to be "haughty", "I suppose so, but I don't believe I've ever seen it conducted in quite this manner, before! Not only am I supposed to be bringing you the drink, but I must have missed your asking whether I liked that kind or not!"
I chuckled. "I haven't met that many folks who don't like it."
"Well, some might say it's too sweet for their taste…."
"Come on, someone like you, turning something down for being…too sweet?"
She stiffened. "Mr. Dickens, you barely know me."
"Try me. It's my job to figure people out, Miss Chambers."
"Oh," she smiled coyly, "Are you a detective, or something?"
I returned the smile. "Try FBI."
"And I'm certain you are."
My smile grew. "I have a badge, if you need it—but I'm worried about any onlookers getting the wrong impression."
She stiffened, her smile vanishing. Without breaking her gaze, she slowly took her seat.
I sighed, "Look, Diane, you don't have to worry—I'm not on duty. I'm just a man, in a bar, admittedly alone. Take it how you want, but I'll be darned if I'm going to get you out of fear. I'm not that bad."
She swallowed, and the look in her eyes could tug at even the hardest of hearts. "No—no one's…in trouble?"
"What, here? Probably not—at least, not that I'm aware of. It's not an interrogation, Diane—you got my word on that."
She nodded, "I—if you're lying—"
"Would I have a reason to?"
"No…I suppose not."
"Good," I smiled again, and pushed the other soda to her. She stared at it for a moment, and took it, sipping a little off the top.
I took the moment to notice how she was dressed. Elegant—very prim and proper, but she wore it all pretty well, looking very comfortable and graceful in them, and I found myself wondering what she'd look like in the dress of a medieval-era princess. The mental image was pretty flattering, I can tell you that.
She shrugged, as if driving away her fears, and asked, "Mr. Dickens, I was wondering…"
"Hey, I said call me—"
"Jack—if I may ask about your name?"
I smiled. I had a good idea what was coming. "Go right ahead."
"I don't suppose you know whether or not you're related to the 19th-Century author—?"
"Doubt it, but anything's possible. You like Dickens?"
She smiled. "I…like to think I'm very well-read."
"Well, you know, Phillip Marlowe was named after Christopher—not sure if Chandler wanted to link 'em by family, per se. You ever read Chandler?"
"Raymond Chandler?" her smile grew.
"Is there another one I should know about?"
She shrugged. "I've read a few of his novels, I think—The Long Goodbye, I remember I liked. Sam has them all, I'm reasonably sure," and she added with a wry tone, "One of the few things he's able to re—"
She caught herself. "No," she sighed, apparently to herself. "No, that's not fair—not in front of a stranger…."
I let all that go—the barb that'd half-slipped out sounded like the kind of chop-busting I and the others in my crew did on a regular basis. Still, I couldn't resist, "Sam? That the tall guy behind the bar?"
She nodded to me—I'm pretty sure her cheeks turned a little red—and she quickly added, "Anyway, I actually remember his essay more—Chandler's, I mean. It was required for my class on Modern American Literature."
"The Simple Art of Murder?" I asked.
She nodded again. "Yes…I found him a tad too critical of Agatha Christie."
"Really? I forget, what did he say about her?"
"Oh, not her, per se…but he found the resolution of Murder on the Orient Express to be implausible—I believe he said, and I quote, 'This is the kind that is guaranteed to knock the keenest mind for a loop. Only a halfwit could guess it'."
"What, that all the suspects are guilty? That's pretty crazy, you gotta admit. Entertaining, but crazy."
She sighed, looking off. "I suppose so…."
I thought for a moment, and asked, "So, you're in college?"
She turned to me quickly, blinking, "How did—" but she caught herself, and chuckled, "Right, I mentioned a class…"
I smiled. "How far are you?"
Her eyes glinted. "I don't suppose you'd believe me, if I told you I'm a hair's breadth away from thirty-seven different master's degrees?"
I grinned. "I take it you come from money, to afford all that?"
"Oh…not necessarily—I'm working here in part to pay for it."
"Well, sure, but that many? Your folks must be well-off, if they haven't pushed you to make up your mind."
She stiffened a little.
I frowned. "I'm sorry…hit too close?"
She sighed, and took a bigger sip from her glass. "That's all right," she muttered.
It was time to change the subject.
"Well, Diane—if you'll tell me…what's a college grad like you doing working in a bar?"
She gave me an odd look. "Didn't I say?"
"Well, you said you're working to pay—I'm just wondering why a bar."
She sighed again. "I…don't suppose you'd accept my telling you that I have nowhere else to go?"
I shrugged. "Depends. Is that all?"
"Well…not all, not exactly."
"Well, there you go."
She paused for a moment…and looked around the bar, her eyes looking as though she was searching—often resting at a place for a moment, before moving again. I followed her gaze—at the other waitress, at a couple of guys sitting up at the bar (one a mustached postal guy talking the ear off the heavy guy wearing a suit)…at one of the bartenders, a youngster with an easy smile…and at the other one—the taller, strong-looking one with an easy charm about him. "Sam", wasn't it?
Her voice turned my attention back to her. "I have a family, here, Mr. Dickens. I—well, it took me a while to realize it, but…I suppose I've long come to think of this place as home."
I nodded. "Well, I can understand that. You're all pretty close?"
She nodded—and then chuckled. "Well—Carla would never admit it, anyway. But still…there are times when I can't help but feel that even she's accepted me—in her own way, I suppose."
"Hmm. Family, huh?"
She looked at me…and those eyes of hers started boring deep into me. "Do you have a family, Jack?"
I shrugged. "Well, I guess you could say I'm married to my work. And the boys are like brothers to me, sure."
She kept her gaze locked on me. "Are there any…well, 'sisters' on that accord?"
I chuckled. "Well, sure, but…never really that close."
Something softened those eyes even more…and she asked, "And your true family?"
I smiled at her, and tried my best to mimic her peering. "You didn't tell me about yours, now, did you?"
She smiled, and those eyes sparkled again. "I didn't, did I?"
"No…so, fair's fair."
"I see," she nodded.
"Besides—like I said, the boys in my division, we're family. First and foremost, I'm closer to them."
She chuckled, "Yes…that's more or less how it is for me, Jack. Sometimes…sometimes I can honestly say I'm closer to these souls than I've ever been to anyone else in my life—well, there was a cat I once…" she sighed, and gathered herself, "Anyway—they're my dearest friends, in so many different ways. I—well, I'm not sure words can do it justice, to be honest."
I felt my smile grow—so help me, I was feeling warm. "Maybe not, but let's try them out, and see."
She shrugged, and said, "I'm so different from them all—I admit, there…there are times when I feel like an outsider. Sometimes, I feel as though I've driven them to the point where they want nothing to do with me—I freely admit, I've been known to drive some people away. I can be a little pompous at times…and a little self-righteous." She chuckled, "Don't tell any of them I admitted that."
"Don't worry, it's zipped."
"Thank you," she said, her eyes beginning to moisten. "It's…not the sort of thing I'd confess to in front of everyone. And maybe that's the problem, I don't know…maybe I always give them the impression that I see myself as 'above it all', and I never truly make much of an effort to change that. At any rate, they can actually be downright cruel, when driven far enough. And yet, it's no less cruel than they can be to each other. And…and maybe that's the point. We all fight, and we bicker—and in the end, we make up. We find ways to work it out. Because…because in many ways, in our hearts, people are all the same. Our troubles, at their roots—they're all the same, too, I suppose. And they all know that, I think—and…maybe that's why I love this place."
I said nothing. This sounded like the kind of thing a girl like her silently begs to get off her chest and confess to someone who wouldn't make more of a difference than she'd have wanted.
She stared into her glass, "This place…this bar. Ironic, isn't it? In all my life, I could never have imagined saying it—but I love this bar. And…and I love those who inhabit it so. Because…whatever I'll do, in my life—wherever my choices take me…I want to always know there's somewhere I can go—one place in the world, where…where they know me. Everyone, they all know my name, and they know the girl behind it…and while they may try to deny it, I can always tell in my heart that they're always glad I came. And all things considered, I…I wouldn't trade the years I've lived among them for anything on God's Earth."
I stared at her, somehow keeping my own emotions in check, as I found myself thinking on her words—and the fact that she'd pick a guy like me, someone she didn't really know, to unload this from her heart.
She blinked back a tear or two, and gave a timid little laugh. "Sorry, I—people have told me I'm notorious for…talking."
"No, it's all right," I said. "You're good."
She nodded. "Thank you," she said in a near whisper.
"For what, for listening?"
"For…being willing to listen. I've been told I can talk the proverbial ears off of my customers."
"I don't know about that, but I liked what you had to say."
Diane shrugged. "Well, regardless—I suppose one could say it's the role I'm to perform in this place. After all, Shakespeare himself noted that 'all the world's a stage and all the men and women merely players'. And of course, 'Life is but a walking shadow, a poor player that frets and struts—'"
"Hey, you know, I wouldn't press my luck, on your audience." I smiled to soften the blow.
She nodded with a self-amused smile, and rose to her feet. "I—suppose I'd better get back to work."
"Not gonna finish your soda?"
She sighed, and smiled as she took it. "I'll put it aside for now, I think. Good to meet you, Mr. D—Jack."
I returned the smile, and nodded. "Good to meet you, Diane Chambers."
She nodded quickly, blinking again. And then she walked over to me, and gave me a peck on the cheek. So help me, I felt a little lighter, for a minute.
"Thank you," she said again, with that sweet little smile of hers. And she crossed the floor of the bar, handing the cup to the youngster behind the counter.
The other bartender—the tall one, "Sam"—came over now, with a half-embarrassed chuckle. "Hey, uh," he said, "I hope she wasn't taking too much of your time, huh?"
I shrugged. "I don't know. I enjoyed it, myself. So, you're…Sam, right?"
"Yeah, I'm—" he extended a hand, "Sam Malone. Maybe you've heard of me—you like baseball?"
I rose to my feet, and shook his hand. "Well, you know, here and there. You play, I take it?"
He smiled, "You're not from around here, are you?"
"You guessed right—I'm actually in town on a case. I'm…FBI."
"Oh," he frowned. "Well, I hope nothing's—"
"No, Mr. Malone, you don't need to worry about a thing. I'm just here to relax."
He smirked, as he let go. "With her?"
"Well, she certainly gave me a lot to think about."
"Yeah," he muttered, "She kinda does that to you, doesn't she?"
"She's a good girl, Mr. Malone. You're lucky to have her."
He turned to look at her across the room—and I was sure I heard a nostalgic, wistful tone coming from this tough-looking guy:
"Yeah," he said, "Yeah, I guess you could say I am."
I saw her across the room, turning to notice him. She gave him a warm smile of what looked like affectionate amusement. And Sam smiled right back.
Hmm. Just for the heck of it, I peered over at the girl's hand. Sure enough, there was a ring I'd somehow missed when she was talking to me, with a diamond bright and shiny. But then, with a face like hers, and my being off duty, I guess I could barely blame myself for not looking down at her hand, before.
As Diane went about her business, Sam turned right back to me. "So, can we get you anything else? Woody's trying his hand at a few mixers of his own, if you like living dangerously…."
I chuckled. "Hey—part of my job, living dangerously. But…" I checked my watch, and sighed. "Yeah, I gotta be off—they boys are gonna start paging me like mad if I don't show up."
"Well, good luck on that case, Mr.…"
"Dickens—but call me Jack," I smiled, taking my fedora and putting it on.
"Well, thank for stopping by, Jack," he said, returning the smile. "Ever in Boston, and need a break from all your worries…"
"Oh, I don't 'worry', Sam—sorry, can I call you that?"
"Go right ahead."
I took my coat. "Thanks—but you know, I'll sure keep you guys in mind. Great place you have, Sam…and great people, too."
He smiled, and nodded.
I downed the rest of my drink, and paid up—making sure to drop a Hamilton on the table. She certainly deserved it.
Opening the door, I stopped to look over to her. She was standing at my table, picking up the ten. She blinked—and looked up at the doorway.
I smiled, and tipped my hat. She returned the smile, and gave me a wave.
I turned and left, promising myself that I'd take Sam Malone up on that. And if Diane Chambers wasn't there, somehow…well, I'd still meet up with her again, I promised myself. Something about her told me she wouldn't be satisfied until she sought out all her dreams, win or lose…but something else made it clear, her greatest dream was also right in front of her. She was right, I could tell—regardless of what would happen to her in her life…her home would always be here, at a bar. A sports bar in Boston.