Old Penny

Christy Crutchfield

They pass around a water bottle filled with Aristocrat and orange juice. They stare at the Old Penny Saloon and Grille. They stare at its neighboring electronics store and the shop with paper covering its windows, at the bar marquee: Karaoke Sat Free Juke Tues

They've lived here all their lives and come back every Christmas break, but none of them has ever spent time in the Square. They know why.

But they've said it: they're going to die if they spend a whole month without a bar. They've said it: it's bad enough to suffer the absence of good movie theaters and ethnic food.

Except for Randy, who's working at the mill with his Dad and says he'll go to Guilford Tech next year, which he's said for the past three.

And except for Daniel, who attends University of the Oaks only five minutes away, but who admits that staying in his mother's house feels alien right now.

They watch Carly's stomach appear when she stretches. They count the cars parallel parked in front of the Old Penny Saloon and Grille. The lights are on inside, the Budweiser and Yuengling signs florescent, but they couldn't tell until they were right in front of the building. The bar light adds nothing to the gray. The streetlights don't either.

They pinch the fake IDs in their pockets.

Except for Amy, who is of legal drinking age.

And except for Daniel, who mumbles, "I don't need one around here," into his jacket. At U of O, they drink in their dorms.

They could sneak him in. They don't think there's a bouncer on a Monday night. They don't think bouncers exist in Lafayette, North Carolina. They take longer pulls from the water bottle. They want to know if they're going to do this thing.

Their parents seem to be following them around their houses. They've never realized how much their parents talk. Their fathers have suggested curfews. When they'd asked if they could separate the trash from the recycling, their mothers looked at them like they'd asked if they could kill puppies. They never realized how quiet their rooms could feel at night.

They watch Carly pretend to cover her stomach. "It's like I'm fifteen again. When I left, I told them I wished they were dead."

They watch their cigarette butts when Carly says, "Shit. Sorry."

They only sneak glances at Daniel, who's thinking it's not a big deal, who's thinking it was almost four years ago and he rarely saw his father anyway, who's thinking this is the first time Amy has looked at him all night, who's thinking it was his father's fault anyway, too macho for a doctor, too much of a man to take care of himself.

They wonder why the tinsel Christmas decorations on the streetlights—candles, holly, bells—aren't made of lights. They don't know that as children, their parents took them here to see Santa arrive at the now defunct Macy's, that these tinsel stars decorated the streetlights before they were born.

They watch Carly's extra large exhale and try to pick out the smoke from the hot breath.

Except for Amy, who is holding her elbow, who used to be the one they noticed.

They know people wear cities on them, but they can't pinpoint what about Atlanta has made Carly stand out. Something about how she's learned to plant her feet when she walks or how she uses her cigarette like a weapon or just that her hair is different in an ugly, cool way that they only half understand.

They know she's discovered the power of unbuttoning her second button, that her chest is bigger thanks to college weight gain, and her butt, and that they wish she were leaning in closer to them.

Except for Daniel, who realizes she is, for some reason, who would pay more attention to Amy if he were allowed to, if she'd look at him again, if she didn't have a new boyfriend in Chapel Hill that she calls confident and smart and giving.

And except for Amy, who always knows the right words to use even when she doesn't mean them, and who is staring at the parking meter.

They don't think that Daniel can sneak back into his dorm tonight like he plans. The RAs must lock up the whole building for the holidays, and they don't know why he would even want to. They skip Kenny and hand the water bottle directly to Daniel, tell him to stop being a little baby and just walk in the bar with his head up, like he's done this before.

They've never tried their IDs outside of college bars and, truthfully, they need the water bottle full of Aristocrat and orange juice.

Except for Randy, who takes longer pulls because he's the only one wearing his same skin. Because most of them are still in this state, but they've shed a layer every time he sees them. They don't want to hear about gear-greased Melinda at work who's always claiming she's going to make a man out of him, and he won't tell them about overtime or that he goes to his share of U of O parties or that the girls like him at first but start asking him stupider questions when he tells them he's a townie or that he always does something stupid like throw beer cans or climb on the roof after that. He won't tell them that he and Daniel made eye contact at one of those parties and that Daniel kept walking.

They can't see in the windows but they're pretty sure there is no actual grill in the Old Penny Saloon and Grille. And truthfully, they missed their parents. Truthfully, they've been so busy this semester, they hadn't stopped to think about missing their parents.

Except for Daniel, who sees his mother every laundry day, who's reminded every laundry day that this is the only time he sees her. Except for Daniel, who just received another postcard from his sister, this one of the Celtics, Santa hats painted on all of them, which means she isn't coming back any time soon, which means they'll never have another Christmas together or maybe any time together at all. Except for Daniel, who can't really say that missing is the right word for her or his father because he doesn't remember what it was like to have them around.

And except for Randy, for obvious reasons.

They watch Amy who is "fucking twenty-one for fuck's sake" throw away the empty water bottle and disappear through the Old Penny Saloon and Grille's suicide doors.

They agreed they would die without this. 

They stub out their cigarettes and follow.

Except for Daniel, who is wondering whether or not his roommate locked their windows before he left, who is never sure what it is about him that interests women, but who thinks whether he gets into his dorm or not that something is going to happen between him and Carly tonight, who feels like spitting in Amy's face, who follows them in eventually.

They get served, but not without out one squinted, smiling eye from the bartender.

Everything is lit strangely gold, and no one is dancing. There is not a dance floor. Every man in this bar has a mustache, and they order the same Buds the men are drinking.

They don't know what an Old Penny is, and truthfully, this bar is more proof that if they move back here, they will shrink. Once they get their degrees, they'll go to California. They'll go to New York. They'll settle for Seattle. Army guys end up right back here, but they've seen that a college degree can keep them away. And if they aim for California, maybe they'll at least end up in Raleigh, which is enough. They know Daniel's sister got out without a degree, but their parents weren't so lucky.

They find some decent songs on the jukebox. They feel brave enough to order shots. They whisper about what kind of men spend their time in a bar on a Monday night, and Randy doesn't tell them he works with one of these men, and that man, thankfully, doesn't acknowledge him.

They ignore Carly when she says she can "go to a bar any day in Atlanta, and not a shitty one" and, now that her hand is on Daniel's thigh, they wish she were shy again. They try to ignore her hand on Daniel's thigh. They turn the talk to what they'll get for Christmas. They could really use what they asked for for Christmas.

Except for Kenny, who just became the president of Students for Peace and Justice, who is starting to achieve his first set of dreadlocks, but who realized last month over Thanksgiving dinner and this month when he looked under the Christmas tree that his family is part of the "they" he keeps referring to in his Sociology papers.

And except for Daniel, whose mother always complains about money but still gets him everything he asks for. She doesn't have anyone to buy presents for now, besides Daniel.

They find it hard to believe that Daniel would put his arm around Carly in front of them, who include his ex-girlfriend. They wonder if they'll have mustaches when they're fifty.

Except for Amy, who no longer finds drinking fun now that it's legal, who wants to spit in Daniel's face.

And except for Carly, who has actually only been with two men, who has actually never tried ecstasy like she claimed, who, yes, slammed the door in her mother's face tonight, but would still like to help her wrap presents tomorrow. Except for Carly, who hates Lafayette but also sometimes hates Atlanta and is terrified of New York and California, who can only think of ending up back home at this point, which isn't so bad, which is also a failure.

They are learning that bars don't solve boredom when they are back home.  They are learning that their friends will rub their hands around each other and ignore them, even though they only see each other twice a year. They are learning that they can never quite place when exactly the conversation turns into a fight. They are learning that, looking back, they should have seen it coming. They are learning that the Old Penny Saloon and Grille actually does serve wings. 

Their mouths turn into vowels when Amy says, "Fuck you."

Their mouths turn into bigger vowels when Daniel says, "Too late."

They are starting to learn it's better to walk away, even when the formerly shy girl who started this problem follows you home. They don't believe Daniel will get into his dorm tonight, but they do believe he'll get into Carly. They are starting to learn that even if sex ends in climax, it isn't always satisfying. They are starting to learn that a bar isn't always satisfying.

They remind Amy that she has a boyfriend and to calm down, and she remembers asking Daniel what Christmas was like without his father. She remembers him pretending not to hear her.

They don't know that all it takes to get into a dorm over the holidays is what it takes any night, the door code and the room key.

They don't admit that they were ready to leave the Old Penny Saloon and Grille as soon as they walked in. They do impressions of their parents instead. Soon, they'll drive home with their arms as straight as they can hold them, gripping the insides of their cheeks with their teeth, grateful the police are only on the prowl when U of O is in session, grateful that tomorrow is Christmas Eve.

They drink slowly, until their suggested curfews expire.

Except for Daniel and Carly, for obvious reasons.