It’s almost unfathomable to believe that there are still places so frozen in time that it could just as easily be 1987 as 2017. But that’s what Scarlet’s was. Somewhere in between a saloon in the Old West and a restaurant in Istanbul, its period of existence was too nebulous to pinpoint–suffice it to say that it was not moderne.
The only bartender who worked there consistently was Mabel, a 35-year-old native of Sacramento (which, if you were still there at that age, generally meant you were going to die there as well). She had seen a number of community college students come and go in her time, but never any that would stoop to continue working at Scarlet’s for any longer than a semester. Though there had been Dylan, the 24-year-old she struck up a romantic dalliance with about a year ago and therefore persuaded with her feminine guile to hang around for a full six months. But apart from him, very few had managed to invoke the trust or interest of Mabel. She had never intended to end up a bartender, as most rarely do, but the circumstance of knowing the owner of Scarlet’s , the prototypically named John, had somehow conspired to get her to “help him out” after she herself had graduated from community college and still had no clear sense of what she was supposed to do next. It was thus that she had remained working in the role of “head bartender” for the past thirteen years. For a few of those, she felt the pressure to leave, to find something new–“better.” But then she came to accept that there would never be anything better than near total autonomy and being able to live on one’s own with money to spare after standard expenses.
It was a simple dream to fulfill, yet still somehow a constant struggle for most denizens of America. And so, in her own quiet way, she felt a sense of pride for her so-called “little” existence. It never occurred to her to be ashamed of it except during the rare event of an out-of-towner coming to the bar, serving to accent that she was just as trapped in time as the establishment itself.
As was the case last night, when Dylan, who had migrated to Los Angeles as all Northern Californians (and New Yorkers) do, sauntered in with his girlfriend, Mathilde. She was French the only flaw that can never be forgiven. Worse yet, she was an aspiring actress who took one look at the grab bag decor of Scarlet’s and commented, “We should shoot a horror movie here, Dylan.” Apparently Dylan, too, had gone to the dark side. He was now pursuing a directing career. Mabel was appalled by the swift change he had undergone in just less than a year of being an L.A. resident. When they had been together, all he talked of was becoming a novelist. Where had his integrity disintegrated to? Was L.A. such a temptress–a promiser of great things–that it could make even someone’s strongest of convictions dissipate? If the outside world was so cruel, Mabel thought, then she would never feel the pull to leave her own Eden.
And as Dylan snickered along with Mathilde at the emptiness of the bar at eight o’ clock on a Thursday–at the fact that the only other patron was a lazy cat posted up on one of the couch cushions–she wondered where the boy she loved for that brief period had gone. Or if he had ever really been there to begin with. Sometimes we mold ourselves to the person we’re with solely because it behooves us in that moment. Mabel questioned if this wasn’t the case with Dylan during the months of small town romantic bliss they shared together. Before she could overly dwell on just how much of a sham it was, however, Dylan sauntered away from Mathilde, toward Mabel’s station at the end of the bar.
Grinning, he said, “I told you I’d be back.”
Mabel frowned. “What can I get you and…”
“Mathilde. She’s French. Isn’t it great?”
Mabel raised her right brow. “As great as being born anywhere can be.”
Dylan’s face fell. “Jesus, you’ve become even more bitter since the last time I saw you. I didn’t think that was possible.”
Mabel winced at his unexpected verbal lashing. It wasn’t the voice of the Dylan she had given head to probably roughly six thousand times.
“Like I said, what can I get you?”
At that moment, the usual house band that tended to favor covers of Sacramento staples like Papa Roach, The Deftones and Cake took the stage in all of its cacophonous badness. Mathilde, already evidently drunk from her own personal stash of what can best be described as “bachelorette bottles,” screamed out, “I don’t belong here!” And this just as the band delved into its cover of “Short Skirt, Long Jacket.” It was then that Mabel came to terms with the horrific epiphany of just how much she, in contrast, did: dowdy, complacent and never striving for more.