On this February evening at 6p.m., there’s only a handful of customers left in the dining room of the Longwood Bar and Grill. A young family with two small children eat chicken nuggets and fries. An elderly couple split a salad and a turkey club and sip glasses of rose wine. The medical personnel, the professors and the outpatients from earlier in the day have all gone home from this busy Boston area.
The u-shaped bar on the far wall has even fewer patrons: a young woman in a business suit checks her iPhone and writes messages on a cocktail napkin; a maintenance worker dressed in khakis orders a beer and watches the 6 o’clock news; the dining room waitress chats with the bartender while she waits to offer dessert and clear away tables.
Jim and I have our choice of seats at the bar. We go for the two end stools right in front of the tv and breathe a sigh of relief. The trip down from the New Hampshire seacoast took an hour and a half, a longer ride than usual. Commuter traffic and work on the Amesbury bridge slowed us down. But we’re here now. We won’t have to make this trip in the early morning traffic. We’re staying right upstairs here at the inn, just minutes away from my scheduled 7 a.m. surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
“Evening, folks. I’m Jack. What can I get for you tonight? Drinks? Dinner? Both?”
“Both,” Jim replies. “I’ll have Chardonnay.”
“Sounds good,” I say.
The tv is tuned to channel 5, just like at home. The news announcers, the sportscasters and the weatherman are familiar friends. Our drinks arrive and we clink glasses.
“To Boston,” Jim says.
“To tomorrow,” I add. “I’m glad to be here, to know that I’m just steps away from the hospital.”
“It can’t get any easier. Unless you have the surgery in the room,” he jokes.
He reaches into his jacket pocket and pulls out two small boxes.
“A little something for you. An early retirement gift.”
It’s two Apple iPhone 6s. Something I’ve been talking about for a few months. Better camera for pictures. Bigger screen for reading. More storage for my writing. An updated phone to go along with the new Mac computer in my office and the iPad that I carry everywhere.
“Thank you so much! And a gift for yourself?” I tease.
He unfolds the directions and we start through the set-up process.
Two women join us, sitting around the corner at the end of the bar. They chat with Jack while they look at the drink menu. The short-haired woman places their order. Her companion adjusts her head scarf and gives Jack a big smile.
I am technically challenged with my new phone right from the beginning. Jim opts for the thumbprint log in option instead of a password. I press my thumb once, then twice onto the blank screen. It’s not responding; I’m frustrated.
The two women beside us watch and smile at our attempts.
“New phones.” I say. “We’re trying to sign in with our thumbprints.”
The woman sitting closest to us takes her phone out of her pocket, places it on the bar and pushes it towards me. She places her thumb on the button and the phone comes to life.
“Love this,” she says. “The best thing since sliced white bread.”
The four of us laugh at that comment. It seems to go with our age group. It’s a dated expression from another time.
The weatherman is now reporting the five-day forecast: rain south and west of the city; cold and snowy up into New Hampshire and the mountains of western Maine.
I look at Jim and say, “More snow. That makes you happy, huh?”
“Are you from Maine?” the short-haired woman asks.
“No, we’re from New Hampshire but we have a home at Sugarloaf. We just came back from there yesterday.”
The two women are also from New Hampshire and their early ski days were spent at Sunday River. The short-haired woman introduces herself as Lydia. Her companion is Sara.
“I’m Nancy,” I offer. “And this is my husband, Jim.”
Jack brings their drinks.
“Cheers,” they toast. They ask about the snow conditions and travel time. We have common stories of icy roads, drifting snow and whiteout conditions. And lots of parties back in the day!
In the middle of our animated exchange, a blonde woman with a big white smile climbs up on the empty bar stool between us.
She glances at Sara and Lydia and then at Jim and me.
“Hi, there. How’s it going?” she asks.
She slips out of her pink fleece jacket and thanks Jack for the draft beer that he’s placed before her.
“You eating tonight?” he asks
“Yep. My usual “to go” but not right now. Gonna sip on my beer first.”
She takes a long drink from the glass and then turns to the two women beside her.
“So, what’s your story?” she asks. “I’m Carolyn, by the way.”
Lydia makes the introductions.
“Sara here has breast cancer. It’s come back after ten years. And with a vengeance. We come down on the train every Monday night and stay here at the inn. Then she has chemo at Dana-Farber on Tuesday mornings.”
Sara smiles and sips from her wine glass. She runs a forefinger across the top of her brow bone where an eyebrow would be, if she had one.
Jack crosses from the other side of the bar where he has been in an animated conversation with a customer about ‘them Patriots’ and ‘that Tom Brady.’
“I see some empty glasses here. Another round? Some food?”
“Sounds good, Jack. I’ll have the burger with fries, medium. And Sara’s thinking French onion soup.”
Jim and I order and then Jack turns to Carolyn, places both hands on the bar.
“Not yet,” she says. “Just another beer.”
Lydia turns to Carolyn.
“What brings you here to the Longwood Bar? You seem to be a regular. Jack takes good care of you.”
“I have a baby girl at Children’s Hospital. I’ve been here with her since January.”
I look from Carolyn to the two women at the end of the bar. Sara is adjusting the back of her head scarf. Lydia places both hands around the base of her wine glass.
“Oh, my God,” I think. But I have said it out loud. “What’s wrong with your baby? I mean, it’s okay if you don’t want to talk about her. We’ll understand if…”
“Well, for starters, she has Down’s Syndrome. But that’s not why she’s here. When she was born, her esophagus wasn’t attached to her stomach. So the doctors put the two of us on a medevac plane in Cincinnati and shipped us here to Boston. So far, she’s had two operations and God knows how many more to come.”
“You’re here alone?” I ask.
“Yep.” She says. “My husband’s at home. Working to pay the bills and make the mortgage. We’re a blended family. Between the two of us we have five children. Range in age from twenty and down. At age forty-three, God decided that I should have another baby. So Kaitlin makes six.”
We focus on the weatherman who is predicting another winter storm for the weekend. Five to six inches north of Boston . Not much in the city. We follow his hands as he points at the color-coded map that shows the predicted snowfall amounts. The approaching storm distracts us all. Gives us time to inhale, exhale and formulate a next thought.
“You’re here? Staying alone?” I ask.
“No, not here at the inn. I have a room a few streets over. I’m at the hospital all day. I leave around supper time and then go back to sit with her until ten or so. I stop in here a few times a week. To see Jack, have a beer and order clam chowder and fish and chips “to go.” Can’t find good seafood in Ohio,“ she adds.
Her cell phone rings.
“It’s my husband. Let’s see what’s gone wrong today,” she says as she pushes the answer button.
Jack delivers our food. The two women start in on their big order of herbed French fries. Lydia notices my stare.
“Those look so good,” I say.
“Here, have some.” She starts to push the plate in front of Carolyn and over to me.
“No thanks,” I say. “I gave up fries for a month.”
“A month? Is it Lent already?”
“No, I made a pact with God.”
There’s silence as both women stop eating down the pile of browned, glistening fries.
“You made a pact with God?”
My husband is shaking his head as if to say you don’t really want to hear this.
“Yep, I made a pact with God. Told him in the third quarter of the Super Bowl that if he let the Patriots win, I’d give up fries for a month. French fries are my favorite food in the world.”
“That was the best Super Bowl ever! What a fourth quarter. 34-28! That was back on February 5th, right?” asks Sara. “How’s it going with no fries?”
“So far, so good,” I admit. “But I’ve still got some time to go.”
“Ah, come on. You’ve doing great. Just a few more days,” says Lydia.
I consider this.
“Yeh, but I’m having surgery tomorrow. I don’t think tonight is a good time to break my pact with God.”
Lydia and Susan laugh. My husband is still shaking his head. Carolyn turns back and forth and around on her bar stool. She sips her beer as she listens. Takes another sip before a short comment. She winds up her phone call with an “I love you, too” and presses the end call button.
“Well, here’s the short version,” Carolyn begins. “Little Joey’s teacher called and wants to set up a conference. Amanda thinks that because she’s almost twenty-one she should be able to have her boyfriend sleep over. Robert is going to try out for the baseball team and that will be fifty-five dollars for the uniform plus insurance. And the ice cream has thawed in the freezer. Try vacuuming the coils, I told him. Know what he said?”
‘Are you kidding me, Carolyn? You think I have time in my day to vacuum the fucking coils? I don’t even know where the coils are!’
Carolyn is laughing and shaking her head as she looks at all of us.
“Just another day,” she says. “These phone calls have become the new normal for our marriage. Every night we talk about Kaitlin’s day. And then he calls me from work in the late morning during his break to see how her night was.”
Carolyn turns to Jim and me.
“And what about you two? What’s up with you? Were you just passing by on this cold night and wandered into this bar?”
“No,” Jim says. “Nancy’s having surgery in the morning. She has an out of control, raging parathyroid that’s been messing up her life. A simple surgery, we’re told. And then we’ll head back to New Hampshire. The symptoms will begin to go away, some within a few weeks.”
I consider his words: a simple surgery. Compared to the women at the bar, my procedure does seem simple. But the thought of anesthesia and a scalpel slicing across my neck makes my heart speed up, skip a beat, thump too loud in my chest.
Jack comes over to clear away our dishes and offer dessert.
Now there’s no one left in the dining room. It’s just the five of us and Jack at the bar.
“Say, mind if I change the channel? You guys had enough of the news and weather?” Jack asks.
“Sure,” we are say. “Definitely. Go for it!”
Jack reaches for the remote, changes the channel and turns up the volume. We hear the opening notes of the jingle and know it’s 7:30, time for Jeopardy!! And there he is: Alec Trebek, host of America’s Favorite Quiz Show since 1984.
“I love this show,” I say.
“Me, too,” says Lydia.
“I never know the questions to the answers,” admits Carolyn with a laugh.
Alec introduces the contestants: Miss So and So from someplace we’ve never heard of, Bobby Somebody who’s wanted to be on the show since he was little and Wendy Wannabee who carries question and answer flashcards in her purse. The six categories are up on the board. And
after a brief commercial, it’s time to play JEOPARDY!
Jack leans back against the bar, arms folded across his chest. He has the look of a man ready to play.
We all focus on the tv. A toss of the coin and Bobby Somebody goes first.
“I’ll take Botany for $100, Alec.”
“This green pigment is necessary for plants to carry out photosynthesis.”
“What is chloroform?” I shout out.
“No,” says Sara. “What is chlorophyll?”
She’s right. And so is Bobby Somebody. She unties her scarf and gently rubs her head and the hair that is just beginning to grow back in.
“I’ll take The Human Body for $100, Alec,” says Bobby Somebody.
Again, he’s right.
The show moves right along: category after category, then a commercial, followed by The Daily Double. And then, it’s time for Final Jeopardy. Bobby Somebody is ahead but just by a few hundred dollars.
“Bet the wad,” I shout at the screen. “Go for it.”
The category for the final question is up on the board. Alec reads the clue and the contestants write down their answers. We all take a stab at the final question. Jim admits that he’s clueless but throws out a question anyway. In the end, Bobby Somebody wins it all. Jack the Bartender scores the win among our live audience.
And then it’s over. Thirty minutes gone. The six of us are laughing, joking about ourselves and the contestants.
“I guess you can put my order in now, Jack,” says Carolyn.
“And you can ring us out when you have a minute,” says Jim.
I turn to the ladies and feel a sadness that I’m leaving them. Lydia and Sara have been down this cancer road before and are committed to winning the battle again. Carolyn’s optimism for Kaitlin and for her family at home gives new meaning to the words faith and courage. Their lives will be a series of small steps: a day, a week, a month, a year. Maybe with some setbacks thrown in.
“So, my friends,” I say. “You’ll be in town next Monday night, right?”
They think for a moment and then nod their heads.
“How about if you all meet here? Spend some time with Jack. Kind of catch up on the week. Let each other know what’s going on. See if Kaitlin is doing better. Find out if the anti-nausea medication is working for Sara.”
All three smile and nod their heads.
“And have an order of French fries for me, okay?”
I’m suddenly tired and anxious and ready to go upstairs. It’s time for a long, hot soak in the tub. Clean pajamas. A back rub. And then some sleep before the early morning wake-up call. Jim pushes the button for the third floor. How lucky I am to have him with me, to have my back.
The elevator door closes and I think of one final Jeopardy clue for this evening:
“ New found friends.”
And the question?
“What do you call strangers who sit in a Boston bar and shout questions at a tv set?”