Tammy was tough. You have to be when you’re working solo at a dive bar fishing Coors Lights out of a cooler. I saw her a lot, at least once a week at the height. Me, sitting on a bar stool listening to old country tunes in a space that I probably should have steered clear of; Tammy, behind the bar framed by reproduced photos of Marilyn Monroe.
Tammy was tough on me, too. When my boyfriend would play at her bar, she’d look after me. She’d reprimand me if I did anything stupid, like the time I walked out the back door while talking on the phone. “You never do that,” she scolded when I walked back in. “Don’t go out that back door by yourself again.”
Tammy was tough, but there was one tune that wore down her exterior. And when That Song, laced with lyrics of loneliness and destruction, was played, it didn’t matter if I were sitting by myself—as oft happened—or at a table with friends. When it was time for That Song, Tammy would call my name, and I would step in.
She’d step in front of the bar and circumvent the room, turning off every neon sign one by one. Then she’d tell her patrons to be quiet. This was a song to listen to. And as the first strums of the guitar were heard, we’d sit down together in front of the stage and she’d grab my hand. Most times she was crying by the end of the second chorus, singing along, too. But as the song would end, so would her softness fade. It only lasted as long as a cigarette can be smoked.
Then the lights would come back on one by one, the songs that followed mimicking customary honky-tonk sounds. Tammy would go back to fishing out cold beers to people who probably didn’t need them.
I saw Tammy quite a bit. I got used to her six-minute reprieve of toughness: to the hand holding, the dim lights, the subtle tears.
I even went to Tammy’s backyard wedding. At the reception, she requested That Song for her first dance. I had a feeling she would, but I couldn’t understand why. Why would you want the first song of your wedding to be about “drinking to yesterday” and a “line of stools and an empty bar”?
It took me a few years, but I understand it a little more now.
Tammy was tough. Tammy was cans of Coors and yesterdays and emptiness. Even though those words were sorrowful, they were her words: words that let her fall soft and grab a hand in the smokey haze of a bar.
And that night, when she danced to That Song at her wedding, she didn’t have to turn off any neon signs or grab the hand of a near stranger. She didn’t need a front row seat for her reprieve. I think her softness lasted longer than six minutes that night: longer than a cigarette can be smoked.