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The Last Night at the Hidden Palms
Her name was Pearl and at one time, she had been a great beauty. In her heyday, people often remarked that she resembled Elizabeth Taylor, and indeed, she did. She had worked at the Hidden Palms Nightclub for most of her adult life.
The Palms had once been a meeting place for powerful men, Wise Guys, and the “in crowd.” With its dark red, plush leather booths, a circular mahogany bar, and elegant chandeliers, it exuded a quiet elegance. From the period of the 1950s, when the bar was built, to the mid 1970s, the Palms was the place to go. It was often so packed, that people had to wait in a line outside for a place to sit. Even then, people were turned away to accommodate standing room only for the A-list crowd.
Pearl started working for the Palms in the mid fifties on her 21st birthday, and before long, it was like she owned the place. With her striking good looks and quick wit, she took home good tips and a plethora of gifts. Going to work was fun for Pearl back in those days. At the Palms, she was a minor celebrity, and she enjoyed the prestige of working for the best nightclub in town. It was a good gig for a small town girl who grew up poor in the hills of West Virginia. She wore minks to work, and her hair was always impeccable, as was her makeup. Her cocktail waitress outfit showcased long legs and a Bridgett Bardot physique. She was a definite head turner.
It was now 1990 and the Palms no longer attracted the same crowd. As the neighborhood changed around it, new places attracted a different breed of club goer. Pearl watched bemused as people paraded by the windows in pink hair and red Mohawks. Girls were no longer content to have their ears pierced just once, and even guys had a multitude of earrings in each ear. They wore strange outfits that never quite seemed to match. The new nightclubs were even worse with tacky neon signs and garish interiors. The world was changing, but that didn’t mean that Pearl had to change.
As time progressed, the Palm’s clientele consisted mainly of serious drinkers; many of whom drank alone, quietly, lost in their own private thoughts. Pearl drank with them, a sip here, a sip there, and she was never far from her pack of Pall Mall cigarettes, which she kept in the same glittering cigarette case that a wealthy admirer had given her years ago. By this time, the Palms was no longer a nightclub, rather a bar or tavern. People didn’t come there to socialize, they came there to forget.
Through all the changes, Pearl kept the same hair and makeup, wearing her thirty year old mink to work in cold weather. She still could have been a beauty, life hadn’t always been kind to Pearl, but Mother Nature had. She never took note of the severity of her hair color; she dyed her hair the same blue-black color she had worn in her twenties, and she wore the same cat-eye eyeliner that she had sported in her youth. In the forgiving light of the Palms, she was still a dish; in the bright light of day, she needed to soften up a bit.
Pearl was devoted to the Palms. She’d been through three husbands, and more boyfriends than she cared to admit during her time there. One had been killed in Vietnam, one just up and left, and one had been physically abusive. When she came into work with a badly beaten face, a couple of well connected guys took care of him, and he left town the very next day. Not even bothering to collect his clothes or quarrel about who owned what. Still, Pearl swore, no one would ever put a hand on her again.
At some point, Pearl had stopped dating. She told herself that she was done with men; she was content with her life. She owned a small, one bedroom cottage that was like a time machine. A collector of vintage 1950’s and 60s décor would have been orgasmic about the things she’d held on to. Settees, chairs, pictures, Eames era lamps, and two china hutches full of treasures. Her bedroom was strewn with high-end rhinestone jewelry and a light pink silk bedspread that spoke of another era. Not much in her house had changed in over thirty-five years.
Pearl’s days started late. She slept in until mid afternoon, and went to a diner for an early dinner. When she got to the Palms, she made sure everything was ready for the late afternoon crowd, who began to arrive at 4:00 PM. She and the bartender, Nicky, always shared a drink before they opened the doors. He was around her age, and like her, had worked at the Palms for years.
Each night blended into another with one day off a week, Sunday, until a day in early November when everything changed. A new customer started frequenting the Palms, and the regulars all took notice. Vincent was new in town, and he sauntered into the Palms like he owned it. He was handsome, and about Pearl’s age. He dressed of another era, much like the men who had frequented the Palms in times long ago. For the first time in ages, Pearl experienced those old familiar feelings again, as he openly flirted with her. She was once again the belle of the Palms, with the most handsome man in the place hanging on her every word. No one knew where Vincent had come from, or much about his past. There were rumors that he came from money, but in the end, it was all conjecture. His presence breathed new life into the Palm’s patron’s existence. For the first time in a long time, everyone was talking.
They went out for about a week, and in spite of her reservations about trusting a man, Pearl realized that she hadn’t felt this happy in years. When he took her home, and she invited him into her blast from the past, it was as though he belonged there.
It was a relationship based on dim lighting and shadows. The two of them slept for most of the day, and the lighting in her home was circa 1950’s rosy glow. Even when she helped clean the red leather booths at the bar, the lights were put on in small increments, and only when necessary. Her life consisted of serious, yet unconscious attempts to control the quality of light around her.
November turned into December and one night after the bar had shut down for the night, she and Vincent were having a few drinks while they put up the silver Christmas tree that the Palms had been using every year since the early seventies. Vincent started to drink at an alarming rate, and as the early morning hours progressed, his mood turned ugly. He asked her to get him a drink, actually, more of a command, and she was frozen, having seen that look and heard that tone before. She saw it coming, a quick backhand across her face. It wasn’t a tentative, can I get away with this jab, it was with full force. Shocked, she staggered backwards, and instinctively started to make her way to the restroom to assess the damage to her face.
Still confused from the assault on her face, she lost her footing, knocking down a bar stool. She pulled herself up by using the edge of the bar, disconcerted, and then she did the unthinkable, she turned the floodlights on. As the bright light spilled across the bar, she caught sight of herself in a large, gold flecked mirror. Hair ashrew and blood spilling from her nose, every line in her face magnified. Horrified, she looked away, and noticed pieces of wallpaper staring to peel back, red buttons missing from the booth seats, and cigarette burns on the mahogany bar. Glancing at Vincent, she realized that his face was puffy, and worn, his eyes bloodshot, staring mindlessly into his scotch and water.
It was more than her mind could register. The veil had been lifted from the beautiful façade she had constructed over the years. Suddenly, she was confronted with the endless and unmerciful march of time. She walked behind the bar and reached far back under the counter. It was there, waiting as it had always been, for all those years. She held the cool metal in her hand and approached Vincent; he never even saw it coming. She shot him at point blank range as he reached for his drink. His body recoiled then settled back against the wall and the tall richly upholstered booth. He looked like he had just passed out, resting.
After fixing her hair and makeup, she dimmed the lights again, and poured herself a tumbler of the best scotch that the house had to offer. The room was silent. She walked over to the jukebox and put on Sinatra. “When somebody loves you, it’s no good unless he loves you, all the way,” Sinatra crooned to an audience of one.
She walked into the backroom and found the gasoline that Nicky kept on hand should someone run out of gas. Slowly, she trickled it over the surface of the circular bar, memories of better times flooding back as she circled the bar. She lit a match, and tossed it on a small sliver of gasoline, watching the old mahogany transform into a ring of fire.
With head held high, she swayed her hips a bit as she walked back to the table and Vincent. Sitting next to his body, she looked at his face. He looked peaceful; like an angel. That raging need to drink, the driving force for most of his life, silenced. She said, “Cheers,” and clinked his glass before taking a huge swig of Scotch. Satisfied, she lit a Pall Mall, and waited...