It wasn't quite Hanukah, Kwanza,
Christmas, Solstice or any winter celebration yet, but the karaoke
crew was singing the songs of the season. There was an Elvis
impersonator, all in black, with fuzzy dark L-shaped sideburns, who,
appropriately, sang "Blue Christmas" in a very decent deep
My sweetheart's beloved dad had just
died, much too young, and we were in his coastal Florida town where
she'd arranged a memorial service. She was holding herself together
with baling wire and a piece of pink ribbon that came on a sympathy
The plan was to get together for dinner
with family, but preparations took so long we arrived in town late
and the family was ready only for slumber. We had a choice between
keeping everyone awake while we ate the family's traditional
Christmas Spaghetti, or letting them crash for the night and finding
some late night joint on our own.
The cheap motel we were at boasted a
little place called Jinnie's Grille. It looked, through the glass
door, dark and closed. That was my mood: dark and closed. Besides my
father-in-law's passing, big changes, albeit good ones, were looming
in our lives.
Inside, Jinnie's was dark, but
definitely open. We sat at the bar and ordered from the minimal menu.
That didn't matter, it suited my mood of emotional numbness. I'd
planned a day of writing, but hadn't found the creative spark I
Who wouldn't be depressed? I hardly
knew my sweetheart's dad but he never expressed a qualm when my
sweetheart told him who she'd fallen in love with. He welcomed me to
the family like I was Prince Charming come on my white horse to bring
his daughter all the happiness he could wish for her. He walked her
down the aisle to me.
Each holiday we spent with him, it was
the same. He was charming and gracious and embraced me literally and
figuratively. Now he wouldn't be with us anymore. It's a comfort to
know that he was pleased his three daughters were settled, happy and
fulfilled. He could enter the afterlife and report to my sweetheart's
mom that he'd stayed until the last of their chicks was safe in her
So there we were, at Jinnie's gloomy
Grille, my sweetheart devastated but not letting it show, and me glum
as a grinch on the barstool beside her, no help at all. When the
karaoke music started, loud enough to fill Yankee Stadium, I winced,
cringed, was ready to flee.
My sweetheart was nonplussed by this
surprise. With a smile, she whispered, "Everyone's old in
I looked around. Certainly, everyone
was old at Jinnie's, including the lone barmaid/waitress, who served
dinners and drinks at the pace of a twenty-year old.
"This place is incredible,"
my sweetheart said.
Without hope of incredulity on my part,
I lifted my eyes to the singer, a woman who looked, under her makeup
and fancy silver dress, to be in her sadly shriveled dotage. She sang
an oldie - they all did - but with a voice so full-toned and
professional, I had to look up again.
As I did, my eye was caught by the web
of white lights strung along the walls. They sparkled in the gloom.
Then I saw the framed pictures: Frank Sinatra, theater posters from
the forties and fifties, quaint old liquor ads. Jinnie, whoever she
was, had decorated with pre-boomer nostalgia. The karaoke singers
were singing the tunes of that era. A big guy with a gut got up and
belted out a lively Santa song. Someone else offered more traditional
Christmas music. They were backed by recordings of big bands, swing
"Hey," I said, "this
place reminds me of the basement rec room bars my parents' friends
built." They were the hits of their times. Dark paneled walls.
Short bars that were otherwise exact replicas of the places the
veterans frequented during R&R.
"You could write stories about
this place," said my sweetheart.
And suddenly I was. This was what the
holidays were like for old Floridians. I realized that the long table
over on the side was filled with an informal karaoke club. One by one
the singers performed and returned to the tables, or to tables of two
or four, or to the bar, for hugs and hurrahs. They did this once a
week or once a month, and prepared in between.
At the holidays they gathered and
celebrated in song, lonesome strangers in this big gloomy world who
found one another at Jillie's and formed a karaoke family.
My mood turned cheerful and loving. My
sweetheart had, once again, switched on my lights. I wanted to write
about the one single woman at the bar, the short-haired one who was
dressed in professional businesswoman clothes. A black dress, a red
jacket, silver hair. Who answered everyone who greeted her with the
words, "I've been traveling. And,” she added in a quieter
voice, "traveling." Her sigh wasn't audible, but it was
Florida-dive loud in the droop of her shoulders. Even she, older but
not retired, separate but known at Jinnie’s, was drawn to the flame
of this air-conditioned Florida dive.
It was a strange, unexpected refuge in
an unutterably sad time for my sweetheart and me. Holiday lights in
a bar. Happy songs of celebration rising with glasses of spirits.
People like us refusing darkness, reviving light.
[Editor's Note: Lee Lynch is the author
of over 13 books. Her latest, Rafferty
Street, concludes her epic
Morton River Valley trilogy. You can reach Lynch at
Copyright 2012 Lee Lynch