There’s a place off Interstate 75 South called Spirit of Choice. It’s a tavern accommodating to all walks of life. Truckers, college kids, moms and dads in need of a night out are all welcome at Spirit of Choice. This joint is famous for its selection of bourbon plus they serve great bacon. Oh yeah…and I own it.
My name is Charles Cunningham. Y’all can call me Charley. And this is a story about the night I learned fate exists. I’d always had a hunch there was a divine being watchin’ over us all. I started to suspect I have no control over my own destiny when about a year ago I placed a newspaper ad for a cook and ended up with a wife.
I’d pushed the thought of divinity to the back of my mind until it reemerged on this particular occasion. It was the middle of summer and hot as hell in Georgia. On that random Tuesday night Spirit of Choice was empty save for one young gentleman.
His name was Timothy Kelly. I know because I checked his ID to make sure he was old enough to drink. And just in case he wasn’t one of those undercover rascals trying to bust me again for not carding. He wasn’t one of them which became apparent when he broke down sobbing at my bar.
Spirit of Choice was anything but the type of establishment where one should be crying. The air reeked of Marlboro cigarettes, a sickly scent of stale PBR, and its walls were coated in Sharpie signatures, dollar bills, plus a few bras. And here I am – the proprietor — a large, red headed man with a burning bush of a beard — and my wife — who most folks would describe as rather plain but I think she’s the sexiest thing alive — standing on the other side of the bar watching our patron, Timothy, cry his eyes out into a cocktail napkin.
Together we looked with consternation at Timothy. My wife rubbed her pregnant belly while her eyes darted back and forth between me and this troubled young man. Her light brown curls were piled high away from her face and sparkling hazel eyes studied Timothy’s sad form.
“Darlin’,” she said. “I was fixin’ to make us something to eat. Would you like a nibble?”
Timothy looked down at the scuffed toes of his black shoes, “No thank you, ma’am. I’m fine.”
“Anyone who says their fine hardly ever is,” she said.
“Aw come on baby,” I sighed. “Leave the guy alone. Go on and make some sandwiches. Timmy, if you don’t want yours, then I’ll eat it when I’m closing up the place.”
Timothy shrugged. “Whatever suits you best.”
She shot one eyebrow up at me, and I raised both my red brows in return, then she spun on her heels and trotted back to the kitchen yelling on the way, “You didn’t say please!”
“Please, Miss Dee! I love you!”
“Only because I cook for you!”
“She knows I’m playing Timmy,” I said turning to my customer. “Or is it Timothy? You did say your name is Timothy right? My brother and I had a good pal growing up named Timmy. Hadn’t seen him in years. Would you mind if I called you Timmy?”
“Alrighty then, pleased to meet you Timmy.” I twirled my beard. “I’m Charles Cunningham, founder and owner here at Spirit of Choice. You can call me Charley. That sassafras upstart grilling you a sandwich is the love of my life, Mrs. Deidra Leigh Cunningham. You can call her Miss Dee if you like. It’s what I do.”
Timothy said nothing at my proclamation which made me even more perplexed. Here was this good-looking man, only a few years younger than me with spiky brown hair, donned in a black leather jacket. He could have been a rock star except for his slump. Like the weight of the world was betwixt his shoulders. I was determined to help ease my customer’s troubles. It’s something I was good at and my business focused on making sure folks had a good time while Spirit of Choice. I poured my guest a shot of bourbon then slid it across the bar, pouring another for myself. “Here’s to meeting new people.”
Timothy Kelly raised his drink in return.
“Cheers” I said clinking my shot glass. I tilted my shot back while pouring another round in the same movement. “Do you know why people toast that way, Timmy?”
“It’s how one uses all five senses. You can see your drink, it’s lovely color waiting for consumption. You can smell it,” I lifted the shot glass and sniffed the bourbon, its warmth burning my nostrils. “You can taste it,” I said shooting back my drink. “Then you feel it warming up your insides. One way you can hear how much God loves you, and wants you to be happy, is while toasting. This is why we never drink alone. It’s not a true experience unless you can use all your sensory perceptions.”
Timothy didn’t reply. His blue eyes glistened with tears under unkempt eyebrows. I would find out later that technically Timmy wasn’t even supposed to be drinking while taking antidepressants; however, the liquor seemed to make his mind relax.
“Would you like another shot, Timmy?”
Timothy’s tummy burned as the alcoholic mixed with the acid of an empty stomach. I would later learn he hadn’t eaten that day. After only eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch and Campbell’s Soup for the past month, he didn’t want to force anything else down. Nothing tasted good anymore. Food was only a form of sustenance. His medicine wasn’t working. My liquor did though.
“I take it by your lack of response you don’t want another round?”
“Oh no, Charley, please, I’d like one more.”
I half-smiled and poured his shot. Timothy Kelly watched the honey liquid flow into our two glasses, then wrapped his lean fingers around the shot, brought the whiskey’s scent to his nostrils, and clinked glasses with me. I was right: the only way to hear his drink was by toasting.
“To you good sir,” I said putting the bottle of bourbon back under the bar then asked, “What do you do to pay the rent?”
“I’m a freshman math professor over at Mercer. Before that I worked in a music shop, selling guitars and giving lessons. It was a great gig…didn’t pay enough to make ends meet. I’d always had a knack for math and the college needed a teacher. I’ve been doing that now for a few years.”
“And does it make you happy?”
“Are you content with your job teaching math?”
“For Heaven’s sake, Charley!” Deidra cried coming out of the kitchen. “I leave for a hot minute and come back to find you interrogating our guest!”
“It’s alright, Miss Dee.” Timmy said.
Deidra shot up that eyebrow of hers eying me again. “If you say so, Mr. Kelly. Sandwiches will be right up.” She turned, belly first, and headed back into the kitchen.
“Lord I love that woman. But I swear she didn’t have an attitude until she got knocked up.” I chuckled. “Only playing. She’s a pistol ain’t she?”
Timothy ignored my remark. I suppose his belly full of bourbon was a bit unsettled and even more so at my candor. Timmy was shaking inside though he attempted to make conversation. “Um…so…how far along is she?”
“Miss Dee is almost full-term and due in October. I was always hoping to time it right so we got pregnant in the late summer, have a little girl born in the spring, and name her something sweet like April, May, or June. My calculations were off. Our girl was meant to be born in the fall so we could name her Autumn.”
“Is that what y’all are going to call the baby?”
“Yes sir. Autumn Leigh Cunningham. And if she’s anything like her parents, she’ll be a hand full. Deidra’s pretty keen on the name Autumn. That woman always gets what she wants.”
“Aw, Charley,” Deidra said returning to the bar. She carried a platter laden with grilled cheeses and to the side was a stack of crispy bacon.
“Dee – you made us bacon! Guess you do love me.”
“It’s how I keep you on your toes,” she winked. “The bacon expires today and it doesn’t look like we’ll have a truckload of people comin’ in for breakfast tonight.” She set the platter down on the bar and handed Timothy a napkin. “Dig in.”
Timothy reached for a sandwich while studying the two of us. Miss Dee and me were quite the pair. I was dressed in my usual uniform: a pair of dark jeans with a chain on my hip linking to the wallet. A long black tee shirt faded with age stretched across my burly chest. I noshed on a strip of bacon, the crispy remnants clinging onto my red scruff, using a free hand to pat my wife on the back.
Deidra was downright short. She had very modest features by comparison to me — her outrageous husband. A tiny nose set between freckled cheeks, and she didn’t have on a scrap of makeup. Her breasts perched atop her gigantic stomach which were the only part of her that had put on weight. I thought back to her pre-pregnancy. Not much was different — just lack of the bump. Dee was still a very tiny thing. She’d taken to borrowing my shirts in her third trimester, and an over-sized black shirt formed a tent around her belly. I never thought a woman would wear my nasty shirts, let alone carry my offspring. We were very different folks bound together by our love. Here Timothy sat, eating a grilled cheese, watching me in my happy state with his bloodshot eyes.
“What do I owe y’all for the meal and drinks?”
Deidra looked to me for a response. I was face-full of bacon so I just nodded. She smiled at Timmy and replied, “It’s on the house darlin’.”
“Much obliged, but, y’all don’t have to do that. I can’t remember the last time someone made me a grilled cheese.”
“No offense, sir,” I said. “It just looked like you could use some foodie love. To me, nothing says love like grilled cheese and bacon made by a hot woman.”
“Oh, Charley,” Deidra playfully slapped me on the shoulder. “Seriously, Mr. Kelly. If you need to talk, we’re here. As you can see,” she gestured around the empty bar, “it’s not like we have a lot of guests right now.”
Timothy sat for a moment and stopped munching on his grilled cheese.
“Am I the saddest person y’all ever met?”
I shot Deidra a look of surprise and she titled her head. “No sir,” I replied. “A lawyer who came in here and drank himself stupid every night after work would have to be on the top of my list.”
“I’d say it was you, Charley,” Deidra said. “At least before you met me. But that’s a peculiar question to ask, Mr. Kelly. Why do you think you’re sad?”
“Because I am. Nothing makes me happy. Ever since I was diagnosed as depressed I’ve had this sadness I can’t shake. My thoughts betray me. All I can think about is ‘maybe I should kill myself’. Every day when I’m in class trying to teach statistics the thought ‘what’s the point?’ churns through my mind. I can barely eat, at least until now, because food had no taste. There’s no strength left in me to carry on.”
“Ah, but we can fix this!” I cried. “You have a brilliant mind. It’s easy to see you’re an intelligent fellow. The problem with today’s society is that we have great minds going to waste due to lack of gumption.”
“Here we go,” Deidra sighed.
“Do you know the definition of gumption, Timmy? Our favorite Georgian, Margaret Mitchell said it’s what makes some people survive and others go under. You must have gumption, because if you were really as sad as you say then you would’ve taken your own life long ago. You found something that made you happy: playing your guitar and teaching other people. For some God forsaken reason, you claim it was for money, you gave up doing what made you happy. Timmy, I assumed you’d be smart enough to recognize that life is a math equation. Positives and negatives blended together for one sum. You’re choosing to focus on the the negative. Whatever idiot psychiatrist your mama brought you to as a kid effectively destroyed your self-esteem. A quack said ‘you’re depressed’ so you grew into adolescence with this dark cloud of insecurity cloaking your persona. My pal Milton Gay once told me there is no normal. There is only happy or sad. How about we try finding a way to make yourself happy?”
“‘Mr. Kelly doesn’t know how to make himself happy, Charley.” Deidra declared. “If he did, we wouldn’t be talking him down from his existential crisis.”
“Is that what y’all would call it?” Timothy asked, looking to both me and Dee.
“Darlin’, you’re debating your very existence,” Deidra said. “Do you realize you have all the freedom in the world to make your own choices? And the one you’re grappling with now is whether you’re living what you called a sad life. Wouldn’t you call that an existential crisis? It seems like the whole world is going to hell due to an absence of gumption and sincere lack of faith. The best prayer we can say is ‘help me.’ Someone is bound to hear our call.”
At that, the door to Spirit of Choice flew open. As hot as it was that night, I swear a cold wind filled the room and ran chills up my spine as a female form stepped across the threshold. Her long inky black hair was a mess and dark makeup smudged along the rim of her almond eyes.
“Damn car battery died again,” she said flinging her denim jacket on the bar to reveal a black tank top. Both her skinny arms were filled with tattoos. “And of course my cell phone died. I had to trek back a few miles along I-75 because no one would stop to help me.”
“Lord have mercy, Jackie!” Deidra cried. “I told you not to buy that old Bronco. It was bound to have problems. No one is going to stop to help your car when you look like a hellion in those leather pants and boots.”
“Hellion with a heart of gold,” I chuckled. “Come here, girl. Have something to eat and then maybe young Timmy here can give you a lift.”
“What a rotten night.” Jackie said, crossing the bar to pick up a strip of bacon. “First, we have no customers, which means no tips, then my car breaks down.”
“That’s why you’re our favorite bartender,” I replied. “Because your piece-of-junk car doesn’t let you leave! Come on, Timmy. Would you mind giving Jackie a ride? I would but I don’t want to leave Miss Dee here alone to tend the place.”
Timothy had kept his head down focusing on his sandwich and finally lifted it to Jackie’s gaze. She was beautiful in the most unconventional way. I couldn tell he didn’t want to stare, so Timothy averted his eyes to the vine of red rose tattoos gracing up to her narrow shoulders.
“Where did your car die?” Timothy asked.
“Just off the next exit.”
“I’ve got jumper cables in my car. That should give you enough juice to make it there.”
“Awesome possum,” Jackie said. She grabbed another strip of bacon and slid it between half of a grilled cheese sandwich. “Damn, Miss Dee, you sure know how to make a mean cheese.”
“It’s what I do,” Deidra smiled. “Want me to wrap some up for y’all?”
“Nah, I’m straight,” Jackie said.
“What about you, Mr. Kelly?”
Timothy thought for a second before replying. Does the sum of all the world’s negativity outweigh the good? His grand plan to take himself out of this sad life was still intact; yet, I swear I could hear me and Dee’s words echoing in his mind. Timothy Kelly did have gumption. He might not have faith, but helping Jackie gave him a choice to make. After all, faith lives in the spirit of choice.
“Thank you Miss Dee. I think I’m fine.”
“You sure darlin’?”
“Alright then you two,” she slapped Jackie on the bottom. “Scram. Bar’s closed. My tired ass needs to go home so both Autumn and I can get some rest.”
“I’ll walk y’all out,” I said.
Timothy wiped his mouth, zipped up his leather jacket and slid off the bar stool. Timothy was a tall, handsome specimen of gentleman and Jackie was checking him out. That girl didn’t know he’d just broke down crying at the bar where she slung shots five nights a week. To her, he was a hot dude helping her get home, and that’s all a girl could really ask for.
As I walked Timmy out, I prayed for him. Talking to God wasn’t something I did very often, but that night I asked the divine power to help Timmy would learn to trust himself, to appreciate all the goodness within him. I suspect Deidra was doing something similar because when I walked back into Spirit of Choice she was crying in the same spot Jackie stood a few moments ago. Tears rolled out of her hazel eyes causing a silent steady stream down her freckles.
I asked my wife. “Why you crying, Miss Dee?”
“I forget,” Deidra replied wiping her eyes. “Damn hormones got me all over the place.”
“Baby, you’re better than that. What is it?” I approached my wife with all the compassion I’d ever felt for her. “In this equation that is life, all we can do is add up our happy moments and subtract the sad.”
Deidra looked to the empty bar stool where Timothy had previously sat. She walked across Spirit of Choice to me, nestling into the nook against my broad chest.
“You and your big ole bleeding heart.” I sighed and placed my hand on her belly containing our daughter. “I hope we see Timmy again soon.”
“You can say that again.”
“Gee, I hope we see Timmy again soon.”
“Oh you fart face,” she slapped me but I pulled her in for a hug, as close as Autumn would let us get.
The next night when Jackie showed up for work I asked her if she got home safely. She shrugged and replied yes but her car was still acting up so “Tim” had given her a ride. I didn’t say anything, but Timothy Kelly was back at Spirit of Choice that night. And he was every night until he put a ring on Jackie’s finger and together they left Spirit of Choice.