“Steve’s Place” A Short Story by R.J. Fox

18134_380167700553_5107390_n-1On the loneliest street, in the loneliest city, Steve’s Place was a lighthouse in an urban-gone-wild wasteland. The fresh blanket of snow that had fallen on the surrounding neighborhood had an almost heavenly, ethereal quality.

Adrift in the winter wasteland were Jimmy and Julia Schicksal, who somehow managed to veer off track while driving home from a friend’s birthday party at a downtown Detroit club, where they spent most of the evening pretending (wishing) that the other didn’t exist. In recent months, fighting had become their only shared activity. Lately, most of their arguments were done in silence, which was often far worse than the ones filled with words.

They were so lost in their own individual – yet mutual – suffering, they had somehow roamed off course. The fact that the snow was now falling even harder certainly didn’t help, making it nearly impossible to see a foot in front of them. Jimmy was prone to getting lost in normal driving conditions; one of the many faults Julia found with her husband. The list was growing exponentially by the day.

Sadly, it wasn’t that long ago when Jimmy and Julia were frequently described by others as “the perfect couple.” They were that good at keeping up the illusion when out in public. Lately, it was getting harder. Behind closed doors, their relationship was reduced to smoldering ruins. They tried counseling, but came to the conclusion that the only thing that succeeded in doing was draining their now separate bank accounts. It was no longer a matter of if. It was a matter of when … a foregone conclusion.

Jimmy looked over at Julia, who stared through the snow-covered windshield with glare a so sharp, it could cut glass. She finally ripped through the decaying silence like a dagger.

“How did this happen?” she asked.

“I must have taken a wrong turn,” Jimmy said.

“Why am I not surprised?” Julia said with disdain. Jimmy’s only response was to clench the steering wheel, knowing that remaining mute was in his best interest. Besides, Julia was right. He had the ability to get lost in his own neighborhood.

“Of all the places to get lost in, you had to pick here,” Julia continued.

“It’s not like I did it on purpose,” Jimmy said, still gripping onto the wheel for both weather and spousal conditions.

“This is why I should have driven,” Julia retorted.

“Well, if you didn’t drink so much, then you could have,” Jimmy said, struggling to keep his temper at a low simmer. “You obviously didn’t notice that I was going the wrong way, either.”

“You’re the driver,” Julia said.

“I’ll figure it out,” Jimmy said, without a speck of confidence. “I always do.”

Jimmy looked around at his snow-diffused surroundings, consisting of abandoned skyscrapers and storefronts, punctuated with busted-out windows and graffiti. It was like being trapped a snow-globe from hell. Not a single streetlight worked. Not a soul was in sight. They might as well have been at the end of the world. Even prostitutes and the homeless were nowhere to be found on this cold, snowy night.

As Julia continued to fume, Jimmy continued to struggle with his attempt at creating the illusion that he had things under control, despite having no clue where he was. There was a reason why Julia normally drove. But after taking a drink tally, they determined Jimmy was the wiser choice that night. This was no surprise. Lately, Julia was turning more to booze to remedy her reality – at least more so than her husband.

“What are we going to do?” Julia continued to nag in that grating voice of hers, which once upon a time, Jimmy thought was the sweetest sound in the world.

“What would you like me to do?” Jimmy asked.
“Stop being such a fuck-up. That’s what I want you to do.”

Jimmy pretended to ignore this. He had heard it all before. However, deep inside him was another story. No matter how many times she called him a “fuck-up,” “loser” and any other term of endearment du jour, her words stung on the outside, poisoning him slowly on the inside.

Meanwhile, the snow had begun to fall harder, making it harder to see in front of him. Panic began setting in, but he refused to show it. He truly had no idea how to get back on course and he imagined that getting lost in a Michigan snowstorm in the middle of downtown Detroit was about as close to hell on earth as one could get. But suddenly, straight ahead in the distance, an amber light appeared, burning through the falling snow.

“What is that?” Jimmy asked.

“Obviously, a light,” Julia said.

“Maybe it’ll be somewhere we can stop and ask for directions.”

“Or get us killed,” Julia countered.

“Do you have a better idea?”

She ignored him. Jimmy continued driving toward the snow-diffused light, which slowly revealed itself to be emanating from a green brick building, with a matching green and white striped awning, which stood on an otherwise abandoned block with several long ago shuttered buildings.

Jimmy parked along the curb in front of the decrepit, building. It was difficult to fathom how any business could flourish in this location – both in terms of the building itself and its environs. One end of the structure’s awning fluttered ghost-like in the wind. Peeling paint on the side of the building proclaimed “Steve’s Place,” below which said “Fine Homemade Food. Cocktails. Open 7 Days.” Despite the run-down outward appearance, there was something down home, warm, and inviting about this place. Then again, compared with the rest of the block, that wasn’t saying much.

“This looks like a dump,” said Julia.

“We needs directions,” Jimmy countered. “Plus, I need a drink.”

“We have beer at home,” Julia reminded him.

“It’s gone,” Jimmy said, realizing he probably shouldn’t have admitted that.

“Well, you’re not getting a drink here. You’re going to go in, get directions, and then leave so we can get the hell out of here so I can get to bed,” Julia demanded in a tone that made it clear to him that she would have the bed to herself tonight.

“Okay, I won’t get a drink. But I’m not leaving you out here,” Jimmy said.

“As if you care.”

“If I didn’t care, then I wouldn’t want you to come in with me.”

“If you cared, you wouldn’t have gotten lost in the first place,” Julia said, forming her own sense of rationality.

Jimmy opted not to dignify her statement with a response.

“Are you sure they’re even open?” Julia asked.

Jimmy peered through the falling snow and pointed to an “Open” sign in the window of the otherwise darkened bar.

“Then stop wasting time. Go in there and get it done.”

“Okay, okay,” Jimmy said, beginning to get out of the car. “You’re not coming?”

“No. I already told you,” Julia said.

Jimmy was too tired to argue anymore. He cautiously got out of the car to brave both the elements and the environment. His feet disappeared several inches into fluffy, freshly fallen snow. As he took one step toward the entrance, he felt a chill run through his entire body, unlike anything he ever felt before. He considered hightailing it back to the car, but before he could collect his thoughts and take another step, Julia got out of the car and joined him. Whatever he felt, he assumed she felt it, too. Her presence made the chill subside, though he could still feel its lingering effect.

“Scared?” Jimmy asked.

“Shut up,” which Jimmy knew translated into “yes.”

Jimmy smiled at her. It was the best he could do when she got like this, which infuriated her even more.

Jimmy reached for the rusty door handle, but it didn’t budge.

“It’s locked,” Jimmy said.

“Are you sure?”
Jimmy tried again. “Yes. Pretty sure.”

“Let me try,” Julia said, nudging Jimmy out of the way. Sure enough it was locked.

“Well, this sucks,” Julia said. “Now what?”
Jimmy peered through the window, partially obscured by blinds. Julia joined him. The well-stocked bar stood empty. Unlit Christmas lights were unevenly strung across the bar and around the entire perimeter of the building. Not a soul was in sight.

“Okay, let’s go,” Julia said. “It’s obviously closed.”

“But it says it’s open,” Jimmy insisted.

“This place is freaking me out. We’ll figure out how to get home on our own.”

Suddenly, a harsh wind blew, knocking off a drift of snow from the roof, narrowly missing Jimmy and Julia down below.

“Look!” Jimmy said, pointing toward the door. Somehow, it creaked open.

“Must have been the wind?” Julia said.

“But it was firmly locked. Guess we’re going in, after all.” Jimmy entered, leaving Julia little choice but to relent and follow him with skeptical footing.

As though on cue, a scratchy recording of Billie Holiday’s melancholy “Solitude” poured out of an ancient jukebox located in front of the window, intermingling with a musty odor that hinted of death and nostalgia. The cobwebbed Christmas lights also flickered on – first in struggling dimness, before surging to full life, blinking erratically. One thing was clear to Jimmy: these lights weren’t put up for this Christmas, but rather some forgotten Christmas from long ago.

The entire bar felt time-abandoned, oozing a nauseating, musty smell, which hinted of death. Various faded posters advertising beer and booze products punctuated the room. Not a soul was in sight.

Jimmy and Julia situated themselves on swiveling, squeaky barstools with torn, faded green vinyl padding. The coupled soaked in their unsettling surroundings, not uttering a word, as though breaking the silence would shatter the illusion of the surreal universe they just entered. Julia’s expression suggested that this was the last place in the world she wanted to be. Jimmy, on the other hand, was enthralled by their discovery. He felt as though they had entered into another dimension of time and space.

Despite the lonely, suffocating sound of a hissing, rattling radiator, the bar was cold as death itself. Jimmy removed his coat, but Julia kept hers on. She was always cold to begin with – this place certainly wasn’t going to change that.

“Can you believe this place?” Jimmy asked, finally breaking the silence. The illusion remained.

“Were you expecting anything different?” Julia asked.

“I’m not complaining. I think this place is awesome.”

“Well, clearly nobody is here, so why don’t we get going?”

“Maybe I can help myself to a beer and leave money on the bar,” Jimmy said.

“You can’t do that,” Julia said.

“Why not? It’s not like I’m stealing it.”

Just as “Solitude” reached its lonely conclusion, shuffling footsteps were heard from above. Jimmy and Julia waited in suspense. Moments later, the footsteps began a slow descent down an unseen staircase. After what felt like an eternity, a door at the back of the bar buried in shadow opened up and out of the darkness came a gaunt, elderly man in a plaid shirt. Jimmy found the sight both equally haunting and comical. One look at Julia’s horrified face was all Jimmy needed to hold back his stifled laughter as the haunted man continued to advance toward the bar. He moved at a snail’s pace, hunched over from a lifetime of weariness. His feet never once left the ground, but instead, shuffled along the faded black and red tiled floor, worn and beaten by time itself.

As the bartender crept nearer, Jimmy once again felt the chill he experienced outside the bar. Jimmy noticed Julia tighten up with fear as the bartender proceeded to walk right past them … as though they weren’t there at all. He headed straight to the jukebox, made a selection, and turned on a neon light bordering the window, through which the snow had begun falling even harder.

As the bartender slowly made his way back to the bar, The Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” came on. Steve smiled and nodded his along to the music. Steve’s Place was now officially open for business.

When he finally came to his resting place behind the bar in front of Jimmy and Julia, he buckled over with a violent, bronchial cough, before finally struggling to regain his breath.

“Something to drink?” the bartender finally asked, in a thick, unrecognizable accent. He proceeded to adjust the collar of his plaid shirt, which was buttoned to the very top. It was faded and torn, neatly tucked all the way into his pants, which were pulled up high above his twisted, thin waist. His peppered hair was neatly combed, and still wet with grease.

“What do you have on tap?” Jimmy asked.

Julia gave her husband a characteristic glare for even entertaining the bartender’s offer. Although he would never admit it, Jimmy knew his wife was right. He didn’t need another drink, anymore than she did. Like arguing, drinking was one of the few things they had in common anymore – though it was usually done in separate rooms. Or locations all together.

“No tap. Bottles. Just Stroh’s,” the bartender said.

The bartender ended every sentence with the smacking of his dry, chapped lips. His musty breath poured out of his partially-shaven faced. It smelled much like the bar itself, as though the two were somehow one and the same.

“That’s it?” Jimmy asked, disappointed in his beer options.

“That’s it,” the bartender replied matter-of-factly.

“Then I guess I’ll have a Stroh’s.”

The bartender turned toward Julia.

“You?”

“Nothing, thanks,” Julia replied, looking right at Jimmy with her patented death glare.

“No drink, then you must leave,” the bartender said.

“Seriously?” Julia asked. Jimmy chuckled, pissing Julia off even more.

“Yes,” Steve said, with a stern glare. “You want drink, you stay. No drink, you go. So drink then, yes?”

Julia realized she didn’t have much of a choice. She was too tired to try picking a fight with this man. Jimmy was surprised she surrendered so quickly. In the past, Julia always stood her ground in situations such as this. It saddened Jimmy to see her so resigned to her fate.

“Bud or Stroh’s?” the bartender asked.

“Bud.”

“Would you like my wife to fix you something?” the bartender said.

“I’m sorry, what?” Jimmy asked

“Would you like my wife to fix you something?” the bartender repeated with more enunciation, which did little to clarify what he was trying to express. He made an eating motion with his hand to his mouth.

“Eat?”

“Oh. As in food!” Jimmy said, looking at Julia, who was staring past the bar, where a row of dust-covered lime-green booths lined each side of the room, leading to an abandoned kitchen, littered with dirty pots and pans from a meal served long ago.

“Want something?” Jimmy asked.

Julia flashed Jimmy a look that suggested “Are you crazy?”

Clues leading to what may have last been prepared in that kitchen hung behind the bar on a plastic signboard, featuring weekly menu options posted in plastic letter pins – many of which were missing:

Mon: Ro st B ef/Chi k n Noo le

u s: Ro st Chi ken/Na y B an

We : Me balls & Spa.

Thur: Sh rt Rib / t Pea

ri: Fi h & Chi s/Cl am Ch wde

“Food, yes?” the bartender asked.

“Just beer’s fine,” Jimmy said, characteristically caving in, wondering if refusal would be grounds for removal.

With a sad, puppy-dogged face, the bartender got to work, retrieving two beer bottles out of an old, grimy fridge. As Chet Baker continued to croon his troubles away, the bartender moved in the deliberate manner of a sloth. No one said a word – only Chet, as though demanding to be heard. His lyrics said it all.

Jimmy noticed a faded calendar from 1983 hanging on the wall. Seemingly random, off-kilter knick-knacks from decades past were scattered on both the bar and shelves above the bar. Even the bottles of liquor appeared dated, beyond their faded labels. Behind the bar rested an antique cash register that was probably older than the bar itself.

As the bartender finally popped the tops off with a rusty bottle opener, Julia removed her coat. The place was slowly, but surely, beginning to warm up.

With trembling hands, the bartender slowly set the beer bottles down on the severely scratched blue, faux-wood bar, which was peeling off in every possible direction with edges accentuated with green, tattered, and torn vinyl padding. Two shot glasses suddenly joined the beer bottles.

“Oh, just beer’s fine,” Jimmy said.

“Comes with beer,” the bartender said.

“It’s free?” Julia asked.

“Not free,” the bartender replied. “On me … on me.”

“Okay, I’ll have, um, a shot of whiskey,” Jimmy said.

“Peach Schnapps. That’s it,” the bartender scolded.

“Okay. Then Peach Schnapps it is,” Jimmy said with a confused chuckle.

“Good choice,” the bartender said with a sly smile, before pouring them some. Despite his shaky hand, he managed to fill Jimmy’s glass up till the very brim, without spilling a single drop. When he attempted to fill Julia’s glass, she put her hand over it in an effort to stop him.

“No thanks,” Julia said, but the bartender insisted.

“Peach Schnapps. Very good, very good,” he said, tilting the bottle toward her glass. Julia moved her hand out of the way just in the nick of time. Another surrender.

When the bartender was done pouring, he put the bottle back, then reached for a bottle of whiskey, which he proceeded to pour for himself, drawing a shared smile between Jimmy and Julia – something Jimmy assumed was a thing of the past. Judging from Julia’s expression, she felt the same way. For once, they were on the same page. As much as it felt good, it felt even stranger.

The bartender then held up his glass and proclaimed: “To old times,” a refrain that both Jimmy and Julia repeated. They then all downed their shots, as though they were old friends. Jimmy proceeded to take a sip of his beer. He cringed, nearly spitting it out.

“It’s warm!” Jimmy said.

“Fridge broke. Can’t fix,” the bartender said in defense.

“Maybe you should get a repairman in here?”

The bartender merely shrugged. It wasn’t clear whether the shrug implied indifference … or confusion. It was quite possible that no repairman would venture this far into the urban wilderness even if called upon. That was probably the more likely explanation.

“So, are you the owner?” Jimmy asked.

“Yes,” the bartender said in reply. “And wife.”

“Then does that make you Steve?” Jimmy asked.

“Yes. Stefano. My wife, she Sofia. She sleep upstairs.”

“You live here?” Jimmy asked, genuinely curious about this strange man and his strange bar.

“Yes.”

“Where are you from?”

“We come from Greece.”

“How long have you owned this place?

“Thirty-two years,” Steve said with pride.

“Wow,” Julia said. “That’s a long time.”

“This place,” began Steve. “My life. My joy. My jail.”

“If you don’t mind my asking, how old are you?”

“I was born 47 years ago.”

“You’re 47?!” Jimmy asked. Seventy-five would have been too young of a guess.

“If you want to know the truth, I really don’t know,” Steve added.

“You don’t know how old you are?” Julia said.

Steve shrugged, then added: “You sure you don’t want something fixed?”

“Other than the fridge?” Jimmy joked. “We’re fine. We already ate.”

Not satisfied with Jimmy’s answer, Steve looked toward Julia. “You?”

Just then, a cockroach raced across the bar past Jimmy and Julia. Julia shrieked. The bartender either didn’t hear, notice, or ignored the situation all-together.

“Nope. We’re good.”

Disappointed, Steve took the shot glasses away and turned his back away from them. He proceeded to carefully remove a small sheet of paper from his shirt pocket, followed by dried herbs of some sort that he kept in an envelope.

“Is that weed?” Julia whispered to Jimmy.

“I’m assuming maybe tobacco?” Jimmy said, as Steve started to gently roll his own cigarette, before removing a book of matches from his pants pocket, which he used to light his handmade cigarette.

“Smoke?” Steve asked, taking a long drag.

“No thanks,” Jimmy said. “But can you please tell me where the restroom is?”

“In back. You’ll find easy,” Steve said, taking another puff, which led to another coughing fit.

“Thanks,” Jimmy said, getting up from his stool just as Johnny Cash’s “I’d Just be Fool Enough (to Fall)” cried out of the jukebox.

“Don’t leave me alone with him,” Julia whispered in a plea to her husband.

“I’ll be quick,” Jimmy assured her.

“Another reason you need to stop drinking. You piss too much.”

“You bitch too much,” Jimmy retorted. “That’s another reason to drink.” Though she was pissed, Jimmy noticed an layer of hurt beneath her tough exterior. Unable to bear the sight of it, Jimmy headed toward the restroom, slipping into the darkness and instantly regretting what he said – as was usually the case … as was being too stubborn to ever apologize. Perhaps tonight would be different.

Jimmy cautiously walked past the kitchen – noticing a sink filled with dirty dishes that appeared to have been there for several days – if not weeks. Their decision not to order food was certainly a wise one.

Jimmy passed the door Steve entered through upon his arrival and felt the same, odd chill he felt earlier, mixed with his increasing guilt for what he said to Julia. It formed quite the eerie cocktail. Jimmy quickened his pace and continued walking down a dark red hallway with a single, flickering light, just barely illuminating the various, broken bottles, and abandoned junk littering the edges of the hallway.

He finally entered the men’s room, consisting of one trough urinal and one stall with a missing door. It was even darker inside the restroom, than it was in the hallway. Jimmy scrambled to find a light switch, but it didn’t work. The only light source came from a busted, barred window located next to the trough. In the center of the trough was a round Hanoi Jane sticker, featuring Jane Fonda’s face, illuminated by same the amber light that drew them to the bar to begin with.

As Jimmy took aim at his target, he continued to ruminate not only over what he said to Julia, but over everything he ever did to hurt her – big or small. He wished he could go take it all back and go back to the start. It saddened him that he couldn’t.

A cold wind suddenly rushed through the window, carrying with it several snowflakes that landed on his exposed flesh. Despite the frosty air, Jimmy found it refreshing, compared to the musty air suffocating the rest of the bar. It rejuvenated his senses and partially cleared his clouded, muddled mind.

When he finished the showering of Hanoi Jane, he approached the rusty sink, containing the nasty, caked remnants of a bar of soap, glued to the ledge. Jimmy opted to skip the soap, rinsing his hands instead – although the thought of turning the rusty, scum-covered handle wasn’t exactly a consolation prize. His concerns were amplified by the fact that the handle wouldn’t budge. After a brief struggle, he finally managed to loosen it, unleashing a rush of rusty water. He waited several seconds for the water to clear up, rinsed his hands, then turned toward the towel dispenser, which he realized was a dirty, yellowed cloth towel.

As Jimmy dried his hands on his pants, the toilet flushed behind him. He turned around to face the door-less stall just in time to see the remainder of the rusty water spiraling down the filthy bowl. Freaked out, he scampered the hell out of there, running down the dark hallway, tripping over a discarded milk crate, and falling hard to the filthy, grimy ground. He took a moment to make sure he wasn’t seriously injured. Aside from a couple of bruises, he was fine. He got back onto his feet, looked behind him to make sure he wasn’t being followed, and then tried his best to regain his composure before Julia came back into view. But it was no use.

“What happened to you?” Julia asked.

“Just got a little spooked, that’s all,” Jimmy said. “Julia, about what I said earlier, I’m sor—“

“You look like you a saw a ghost,” Steve interrupted with a sly smile.

“I may have,” Jimmy said.

“Another shot?” Steve asked, reaching for the bottle of Peach Schnapps.

“No, thanks. I really shouldn’t.”

“Schnapps, good,” Steve said.

“Yes, very good,” Jimmy agreed. “Which is why you should save it for others … or yourself.”

“Never runs out,” Steve said with a wink.

“So do you get a lot of customers in here?” Jimmy asked, in an attempt to divert the conversation.

“Sometime yes. Sometime no,” Steve said. “When there event, many come. No event, few. Trouble. So … much … trouble.”

“And you’ve stayed in business all these years?” Jimmy asked

“Don’t need money,” Steve continued. “People come, they come. They don’t, they don’t. No difference. Work is home and home is work. We need nothing.”

Jimmy attempted to soak in everything Steve was telling them, but the more he thought about it, the less sense he could make of it all. Julia appeared equally perplexed.

Without warning, Steve suddenly shouted “Go away!!” while shaking his fist toward the window. Jimmy and Julia saw a couple of African American women peering through the window. Steve continued to fume, shaking his head in frustration. The warm, genteel somehow morphed into a raving lunatic.

Meanwhile, the women acted like they didn’t even notice Steve, as they continued peering through the window, much in the way Jimmy and Julia were earlier.

“Not open!” Steve shouted. The women finally walked away. Steve shook his fist up in the air again, as though cursing God Himself. He muttered something indecipherable – in either English or Greek. Jimmy and Julia flashed one another a perplexed glance, as Steve kept looking out the window in a paranoid fashion, his anger now reduced to a low simmer.

However, his anger completely dissipated the moment the haunting opening strings of Nat King Cole’s “Stardust” flowed out of the jukebox, accompanied by shuffling footsteps up above, beginning a slow journey down the steps.

While Jimmy and Julia waited in suspense, Steve beamed with excitement and anticipation in the direction of the door he earlier arrived in. After what felt like an eternity, the door finally opened and a ghostly, catatonic-like woman appeared in a red and white polka-dotted nightgown, a beacon of light in the pitch black of the entranceway.

“That’s my Sofia,” Steve said with pride and a love so deep, it inspired a strange sense of envy in Jimmy. He looked over at Julia and could instantly tell she felt the same.

As she shuffled, zombie-like across the floor from the back of the bar, she emerged out of the shadow and into the light, her lifeless eyes zeroing in on her husband as though nothing else in the world existed. Steve stood waiting for her at the end of the bar. When she finally reached him, he helped her into a tattered chair that was padded with an enormous pillow, proceeding to retrieve her a can of Vernor’s Ginger Ale from the warm fridge. He popped the top and handed it to her, once again in the fashion of a sloth. In comparison, her movements made Steve look like an Olympic sprinter. She reached for the can in the same manner, then took a long, slow sip. Her expression never changed. And her eyes never left her husband.

As Steve jaunted over to the jukebox, there seemed to be an extra spring in his step. He finally reached the jukebox just as “Stardust” ended. As he deliberately punched in his next selection, the bar hummed with the sound of the dying radiator and the buzz of shoddy electrical work. Although the radiator still sounded broken, it was now generating perhaps too much heat after a slow start.

As Steve made his way back toward his beloved Sofia, Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” kicked in on the jukebox, which now sounded louder than before, echoing through the empty bar.

Steve reached his arm toward Sofia, even though she was still far from his reach. She reached out in return. Jimmy glanced at Julia, who smiled at him warmly. He couldn’t remember the last time she looked at him like that.

As Steve honed in on his Sofia, their eyes locked in a loving embrace. Her dead eyes were now overflowing with life. To Jimmy, the couple now appeared younger, but he dismissed it as an illusion. When Steve finally reached her, he took her by the hand and helped her up before they began to dance to Patsy Cline’s haunting, melancholy melody.

As Steve and Sofia danced, it was as though the rest of the world no longer mattered – or perhaps never existed at all. A lifetime of shared love, happiness, tears and loss radiated from their beings, directly into Jimmy and Julia. As the dance progressed, Jimmy felt the negative feelings that had controlled his entire being for so long slowly begin to erode until they were replaced by the old, happy feelings that had been packed away for so long. They were now renewed and refreshed.

Meanwhile, the ancient couple danced and gazed at one another with a love so deep, it transcended human understanding. Jimmy could now clearly see just how far he and Julia had drifted apart from one another. He wondered whether once this moment was over, if they could somehow find a way to permanently return to where they once were and retrieve the towel they had thrown away so long ago. As they sat there and watched the embodiment of true love slowly being revealed right before their eyes, Jimmy began to fear that once the song was over, they would slip back to the dark void they were in when they first walked into the bar. There was nothing Jimmy wanted more than for this moment to last. Forever. Just like he thought it would seven years before when they both uttered: “I do.”

Suddenly, Jimmy found himself on the brink of tears – the edges of which he saw forming in Julia’s another’s eyes. They turned to face one another at the same moment and without speaking a single word, Jimmy knew she was feeling exactly the same way. He reached for her hand. For once, she allowed him to take it into his. He felt his body fill with that old familiar feeling from a time when holding hands meant so much. Before it became meaningless, then an annoyance, then non-existent.

Jimmy and Julia smiled at another and continued to do so through a cascade of falling tears. They were Jimmy & Julia again, rather than Jimmy and Julia – or more specifically. Jimmy. And Julia.

When they turned back to look at Steve and Sofia, the old couple had magically transformed into the exact age of Jimmy and Julia. It wasn’t an illusion, Jimmy thought to himself. Or was it? Age was no longer relevant to this timeworn couple. Jimmy looked at Julia and she appeared to him exactly as she did on their wedding night, both in terms of her appearance and his feelings for her. It saddened him to think how once upon a time, he assumed he would always feel this way about her. He never imagined that the day would come when such a familiar feeling felt so … foreign.

Julia squeezed Jimmy’s hand even tighter. He never wanted her to let go. Of this moment. Of him. Of them.

Steve suddenly waved Jimmy and Julia over to join them.

“Want to dance?” Jimmy asked Julia.

“Can we just stay like this?” Julia asked.

Jimmy nodded, gently caressing her held hand with his fingers. Steve persisted that they join them. Jimmy politely shook his head no.

At the song’s key change, Steve dipped Sofia back. They not only remained young, but were suddenly bathed in a heavenly, ethereal light – a light that Jimmy felt permeating through both himself and through Julia, whose hand he still held.

As the song finally came to an end, they transformed back into their old selves, as Sofia buried her face into Steve’s shoulder. Steve held her closely against him, as though fighting off the reality that the song was coming to an end – like everything else in life. Knowing this, they did not let go of one another until the echo of the very last note faded, absorbing into the very walls that held onto everything else that slipped from the present and into the past.

Steve kissed Sofia’s hand and then watched as she slowly shuffled back to the door from which she came, out of the light, into shadow, and then back into darkness, until all that remained were the sound of her footsteps slowly ascending the stairs until coming to a rest.

Julia slowly let go of Jimmy’s hand. All he could see on her face was sadness – the same sadness he felt inside.

As “Stardust” picked up where it left off, Steve turned back to Jimmy and Julia. “That’s my Sofia,” he beamed, before breaking into another violent coughing episode. Still coughing, he managed to pour himself some whiskey He downed it, settling his cough.

“Another shot?” Steve asked.

“No, thanks,” Julia said in a melancholy tone.

“I’m fine,” Jimmy said, offering Julia a reassuring smile. Her face lightened.

“Have another,” Steve insisted. “On me.”

“No, seriously. We’re good,” Jimmy said. “We still have to drive.”

Disappointed, Steve took the shot glasses away as Jimmy and Julia took a long sip of their beer. Steve regained his composure and smiled at them.

“Beautiful people,” he said. “Beautiful people.

“Thank you,” Julia said, flattered.

Jimmy finished his beer and Steve leaned against the bar, before proclaiming:

“Stay in love,” Steve began. Jimmy put his arm around Julia’s shoulder just like he always used to do before her body language forced him give it up all together. Now, she leaned in closer to him than ever before.

“Love lasts forever. Life does not. It is why there’s no greater thing. And just like that, everything will be fine. Everything will be fine. Because love will always melt away all the snow.”

Jimmy glanced at Julia, who smiled warmly at him as Billie Holiday’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” began a mournful lament out of the jukebox.

“Ready?” Jimmy finally said, looking toward the window. It was no longer snowing.

Julia nodded, taking one last sip of her beer.

“How much?” Jimmy asked Steve.

“On the house,” Steve said, catching both by surprise. After all, Steve had already given them so much that night.

“Are you sure?” Jimmy asked.

“Don’t need the monies anymore,” Steve explained. “You keep it.”

Jimmy set down a $10 bill.

With a shaking hand, Steve handed the money back to Jimmy.

“No tip. Keep it.”

Jimmy refused to take the money back, but Steve insisted.

“Buy her something nice,” said Steve, winking at Julia. Jimmy was left with no choice but to take it back. He could tell Steve was relieved.

“Thanks, Steve,” Julia said.

“Yes. Welcome,” Steve said in reply. “Beautiful people always welcome.”

Jimmy and Julia stood up. Jimmy offered to help Julia put her coat on. Jimmy was pretty sure he caught her blushing.

“Thank you,” Julia said.

“My pleasure,” Jimmy replied back, before kissing her gently on the forehead as Steve watched this with great satisfaction.

“Goodbye, Steve,” Jimmy said.

“Yia sou,” Steve said in Greek, before translating. “Goodbye, my friends.”

Jimmy and Julia started to make their way toward the door, when Julia stopped in her tracks.

“We forgot to ask for directions!”

They turned back to Steve, but he was gone.

Suddenly, a booming voice commanded: “Okay, guys. Party’s over.” Just then, the jukebox, radiator and every light in the place all shut off at once, as though somebody pulled a giant, invisible plug.

Jimmy and Julia turned toward the door, where a portly cop stood, revealing his badge.

“I’m sorry?” Jimmy said in confusion.

“You’re trespassing,” the cop said.

“Trespassing?” Jimmy said. “We’re customers.”

“That’s what they all say,” the officer said, annoyed.

“Just ask Steve,” Jimmy said, turning toward where Steve was just standing. All that remained were two empty beer bottles.

“Come on, you two,” the cop said, with his back already turned toward the door.

Jimmy and Julia followed the officer out, in a state of confusion. Not only had it stopped snowing, it also felt much warmer.

“If I catch you in there again, you’ll be arrested, do you understand me?” the cop warned, pointing an accusatory finger at them.

“Yes,” Jimmy said, trying everything in his power to not question authority, despite the million questions running through his head.

The officer proceeded to put a thick padlock on the door. Jimmy could no longer bite his tongue.

“When you said ‘that’s what they all say,’ What did you mean by that?”

The officer looked up into the night sky, as though searching for an answer, then sighed deeply.

“With all these empty buildings downtown, we periodically catch trespassers trying to salvage what’s left. I don’t know what it is about this place in particular, but there isn’t a night that goes by where we don’t find someone in here. Must be some kind of cheap thrill.”

“But we were invited in by the owner, Steve … unless he was a trespasser, too?”

“It’s always the same with you people,” the cop said in a somber tone.

“We don’t understand,” Jimmy said.

“You know damn well what happened in here,” the cop insisted.

“I’m sorry, Officer, but we really don’t,” Julia said.

The cop finally realized that they were telling the truth and took another deep sigh.

“About 30 years ago, the owners – who lived in the apartment upstairs for over 30 years – were robbed and murdered inside there. They’ve been closed ever since.”

Jimmy felt that old familiar chill shoot through his body, stronger than ever.

“Which is why I implore you to STAY THE FUCK OUT!” the cop’s voice echoed into the empty night. He turned around and walked away, leaving Jimmy and Julia to ponder their new reality. He disappeared around a corner, as though he were never there at all – much like Steve himself.

Jimmy and Julia were left with nothing but confused silence, haunted by loss. Still too stunned to speak, they both looked back toward the bar and noticed that in place of the “Open” sign was a “Closed” sign. The same chill Jimmy felt throughout the night returned – but intensified.

They peered through the window one last time, still unable to fathom what had just transpired.

The bar was still empty. And dark. Only the cobwebs remained, which led the eye to a framed photograph of Steve and Sofia dancing together on their wedding day – the only beacon of light remaining in the entire bar, looking just as they appeared while they were dancing just moments ago.

“Let’s get home,” Julia said, without a hint of the demanding tone she used earlier.

“We never did get directions, did we?” Jimmy realized.

“I’m sure we can figure it out,” Julia said. “You eventually always do.”

As they walked toward the car, Julia took Jimmy by the hand for the first time in months, as the remaining snow melted all around them.

View my short film here: “Steve’s Place” movie

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