The Lantern

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    Lenora Minogue
    Keymaster

    Setting: Past
    Subject: Jennyfer Weir, John Redmen, Trish McNamara

    The Lantern Pub

    Halloween Night, One Year Before the Asheville Fire

    Summary: While John Redmen (Brian’s dad), Jennyfer Weir (Fiona’s mother), and Trish McNamara (Paz’s mother) are out one evening at the historic Lantern pub, they pay little mind to their young-overworked waitress while they consider their own lives, their children, make conversation. Jennyfer plays footsie under the table with John, and ends up giving him a hand job to “comfort him” in the men’s bathroom stall since his wife is dying. And he gives her good fingering telling himself it’s not cheating if they just use their hands. It only goes that far. And then they continue the awkward conversation at the table while getting drunker. Trish is glued to her phone and savagely giving the young barmaid a hard time about de-seeding lemon wedges while doing her utmost to forget her mexico lindo daughter, Paz.

    Every time the waitress steps away from the table, we hear narration of someone talking to her without hearing the barmaid’s side of the conversation. And we learn about the Lantern and its strange history, especially during Halloween. And lastly, we learn, after John, Jennyfer, and Trish leave, that what marks this particular Halloween at the Lantern is that the waitress who has been serving them all night may have been dead the whole evening and that some or all of the revelers that night in costume may have been ghosts themselves.

    Narration: No, please, you were before me. Age before beauty, ha ha. I like your Halloween outfit; sexy French maid very original. I’m in no rush to be served. The bartender knows me, he’ll get around to looking after me soon enough. This is my local. I’m always here on special evenings. You haven’t noticed me before? I’m not surprised. I tend to blend in with the crowd here. I like the Lantern well enough. And what else am I going to do? There’s never anything on TV, and at least you meet interesting people here. There’s always someone new passing through.

    Take that bunch that just sat down at your table over there, the white-bread sanitized prim-lipped ambassador of suburbia who staunchly refuses to wear the slightest hint of Halloween flair next to that blonde poured into the stola of vestal virgin–bet she’s anything but–how very entertaining. And that dour-faced man with them, you can practically smell the Irish on him, or maybe that’s just booze. Probably needs a drink or 10. He’s got all their ruddy lines, but so little of their cheer. What’s that? No, I won’t go anywhere while you see what they want.

    *****

    Glad you’re back, no, I don’t see a run in your stockings. Hmm? Oh, I don’t come in on Saturday night because they have a DJ now and the music’s too loud for me. You’d probably enjoy it, being young. I haven’t seen you in here before. This place? Yes, it’s unusual to find a traditional watering hole like this. The Lantern has an interesting history. Well, if you’re sure I’m not boring you…this place is a bit of a pet subject of mine.

    We’re on the site of an ancient peat bog here in the Appalachians. The strange phenomenon of gas flickering over it was called ignis fatuus, from which we get the flickering of the Jack O’Lantern. They built a coaching inn on the marsh in 1831. Not a good idea. Even now, there’s still water seeping through the basement walls. Later it became a gin palace. That burned down, and it was rebuilt around the 1902 as a pub called the Buckshot Tap House. See the counter? It’s part of the original bar. Solid teak, brass fittings. It was curved in a great horseshoe that took wood from all three rooms of the Lantern. And those shelves there, pitch black and aged were fashioned from what salvageable wood remained from the stables. Oh no, I can wait until you see to that table–

    *****

    Very clever, yes, you’re sure to get more tips if you stick the bills into that sexy lace bra tonight. Here’s one for the collection. Oh that? Well, yes, that’s not surprising. The Lantern was always caught between two worlds, the rich patrons who came from their elegant town homes, fancy chalets, and those reeking of rock and rye and worse soured in the shanty houses.

    The drunken poor came in on that side in order to drown their miseries in cheap ale, and the fine gentlemen ventured in to swig down their wine while visiting the nearby brothels. Oh yes, there were dozens in the backstreets. The area was notorious back then. It’s all gentrified now. Urban professionals. They don’t drink in here, not stylish enough for them. But they’ll be the first to scream when it’s gone, carry on loudly about the loss of local color and a historic haunt. Not that Asheville will every really change. You don’t change it, it changes you. Oh, yeah, sorry, don’t let me distract you and your black stiletto heels from your tables. I see them waving their arms like they’re trying to drive bees away to get your attention. No, no, I’ll wait.

    *****

    Of course, there was always trouble in here on All Hallows Eve, right from when it first opened. One time, close to midnight, a couple of soldiers got nearly blind drunk. They mocked one of the raggedy, poor men who stood at the other side of the bar, and brought him over for their amusement. They challenged him to prove that he had not been born a bastard. When he couldn’t do so, they told him that if he could win a game of wits, they would give him five pieces of gold. They placed a white swan feather on one of the tables and seated themselves on either side of it. Then they produced a meat cleaver that belonged to the cook, sharpened it and challenged him to drop the feather into his lap before they could bring down the cleaver on his hand. The poor fella knew that these soldier boys were stronger and faster than him, but the deal had been struck and you didn’t back out of a bet in those days.

    They splayed his fingers on the table, six inches from the feather. As one of the men raised the cleaver high above his head, the other counted down from five. The poor man held his hand flat and lowered his head to the level of the table, studying the feather. Then, as the countdown ended the cleaver swooped, the poor fella sucked the feather into his mouth and spat it into his lap. He won the bet. Those soldier boys though, they were angered so much that their whole faces were red with it though. They took this man outside and cut off his nose with their swords.

    The nose remained on the wall here for, oh decades.

    *****

    Here let me just straighten your beret there, slipping a little, and I can see you’ve got your hands full with those trays. There you go. Hmm, oh that? Yes, during World War II, no one was much in the mood to celebrate Halloween. No female could come in alone, because it was considered immoral in those days. Well, so many men were off fighting, and most of the women around here were left available, see. But there was one attractive married lady, a redhead, Melanie somebody, who came in regularly and drank alone. None of the accompanied women would talk to her–they cut her off, dead. Melanie took no notice, just sat at the bar enjoying her drink.

    But the whispering campaign took its toll. The other women said she was a tart, sitting there drinking gin while her husband was flying on dangerous mission over Germany. The pointed remarks grew louder, until they were directly addressed to her. Finally, Melanie couldn’t sit there any longer without answering back. She told the others that her husband had been shot down during the first weeks of the war, and that was why she came in alone, because it was his favorite place and she missed him so much.

    The other women were chastened by this and felt sorry for her, but in time they became disapproving again, saying that a young widow should show remorse and respect for the dead.

    People were very judgmental in those days.

    Then in 1944, Halloween night, when she’d been at the bar longer than usual, a handsome young airman came in towards the end of the evening and kissed her passionately without even introducing himself. Everyone professed to be shocked. The women said it was disgusting for her to make such a spectacle, but their disapproval turned to outrage because she slid from the stool, put her arm around his waist and went off into the foggy night with him.

    It wasn’t until the barman was cleaning up that night that he found the photograph of Melanie’s husband lying on the counter. And of course, it was the young airman. He’d come back to find her on All Hallows Eve. Had he survived being shot down after all, or had the power of her love called him back from the other side, to be with her again? They never returned to the bar so I don’t suppose we’ll ever know.

    You, uh, got a little something above your lip, there. A little powder. Yeah, that’s it. It’s gone. Hmm? Oh, well, the Lantern went through so many changes over the years. In the 1960s, it became The Groove. Psychedelic, it was, very druggy. All crimson-painted walls and rotating oil lamps. Let’s see, then it was Swingers, a purple plastic 1970s pick-up joint, then the 1980s a leather bar called the Anvil, and on and on it went, years, decades, centuries. Now it’s back to being called just the Lantern again. Always the same site, always changing identities. But the nature of the place never changed, always the rich rubbing up against the poor, the dead disturbing the living, the marsh rising up towards midnight in a crescendo of an ignis fatuus flare.

    The Jack O’Lantern never goes out at the Lantern.

    Or so they say…

    And they do say that a lot on Halloween night in particular which is always lively and jumping here.

    See the pumpkin flickering above the bar? It’s lit all year round, not just tonight. If you look carefully, it looks like you can see a skull behind the smile. It was put here long ago on All Hallows Eve. For months a sad-looking young man and his sick old father would come and sit in that corner over there. The young man wanted to move in with his girlfriend, but her life was over in Gatlinburg, and being with her meant moving away from his father. I would sit here and listen to the old man complaining about his illness, watching as his son got torn up inside about the decision he knew would soon have to make.

    His father would sit there and cough and complain, and would catalogue the debilitating diseases from which he was suffering; but the funny thing was that he looked better with each passing week, while his son looked sicker and sicker.

    I could see what was going to happen. The young man had to make a choice and his decision coincided with his father’s worst attack, although nobody knew what was wrong with him. The old man still managed to make it the pub every night. The son though saw his papa’s life was slowly draining away. Finally he broke it off with his girlfriend to look after his father. And the old man looked so well in his hour of triumph that even the son became suspicious.

    I hear the girl quickly married someone else. We didn’t see the boy for awhile, but when he finally came back in, he sat on the stool alone. It seemed the old man had fallen down the coal cellar steps at midnight on Halloween, and had twisted his head right around. The son put the Jack O’Lantern up in here that very night. It even looks like the old man….

    Look, it’s like the lantern’s laughing now, isn’t it?

    *****

    I walk into the back of the Lantern, past the kitchens, into the larder, and I see her there sprawled out on the floor, that sexy, French maid who had been serving drinks tonight, blood trickling out of her nose, an almost gentle frost of cocaine below her nostrils that gives a strange softness to her fresh, still corpse. Her death will make the papers, but pushed behind other news, second or third page story at best, a drug overdose isn’t exactly riveting news. The good folks of the Asheville police will come around and go through the motions of a cursory investigation on their way to some doughnut shop or another. And her last table that night, those hodge podge of parents, brought together, mostly out of social obligation for the sake of their kids, will never once consider this barmaid again, if they ever truly did at all.

    They’ll likely never realize she died sometime that night, and most assuredly, would never consider that she may have even…been already dead by the time she served them.

    Just another spirit in here with others. If they might have paid attention to their surroundings, they may have noticed that some of the costumes in here matched certain stories of the place. And whose to say who was living, who was dead?

    The Lantern has always been caught between worlds, the dead disturbing the living, the living disturbing the dead.

    And never is it more true than Halloween night.

    You think this pub has endured more than its fair share of tragedy? I knew them all, and I’m still here. I sit here drinking while the tragedies of others unfold around me.

    And who can say which of us is the main character in the story? Perhaps we only ever belong at the edges of someone else’s tale. We suffer, we cry, we die unnoticed, and the people we consider unimportant fail to sense our suffering because to them we are merely background colors, minor characters in their story.

    The Jack O’Lantern never goes out at the Lantern.

    Or so they say…

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