Serendipity Lounge

I was seven the first night I hung out in a bar with my dad.

The quilted red pleather door held a diamond shaped window dead center, and hinged onto a smoky room, dim with neon beer signs and hanging pool table lamps.  Johnny Paycheck crackled on the jukebox and every barstool, save two, stood empty.  Three men in faded Levis, pearl button shirts, and mesh-backed baseball caps threw darts. The ancient woman behind the bar looked quizzically at a man bringing a young boy into a bar at 10:30 pm on a Saturday night in the middle of the winter, then gave us a welcoming smile.


“Hustle: come on,” my dad said. “We don’t want to miss post-game.”

He was right.  The University of Illinois basketball post-game show, with Jim Turpin and Lauren Tate, had held tradition for us  for as long as the easy-exit parking space four blocks from the arena had; I didn’t want to miss it.

That night though, the weather dictated hustling as much as my interest in college basketball statistics.  On January 17, 1981, the mercury climbed to a lousy 22 degrees.  As we approached the Dodge Colt just past 9 pm it fell deep into single digits, and it was windy.

“I’m trying,” I said, jumping parking blocks at the tail end of the parking lot, running to keep up with his six-foot strides.

Dad unlocked and started the car, blasting the heater so we wouldn’t miss any warm air once the engine warmed.

I tuned the radio dial to AM 1400, WDWS. Turpin and Tate were already discussing the victory over Minnesota, an 80-76 squeaker that hopefully would bump us in the rankings.

Stats streamed from the radio speakers, and I memorized them all as we drove, so I could quote them, chapter and verse, scripture to a young boy enraptured. Dad eased the car onto the interstate, heading home.


The first time the car chugged, I paused the endless line of questions I had been asking and looked up at my dad as he drove.  He hadn’t spoken, and his expression betrayed none of the uncertainty that had crashed down on me with the unfamiliar sound.  After a few seconds of predictability in the car’s behavior, I continued my inquiries.

“Derrick’s fast, isn’t he?”  I asked, referring to Freshman guard Derrick Harper, future NBA mainstay for the Dallas Mavericks.

“He’s a great ball handler,” Dad said.

“Is he as good as Magic Johnson? “

“Could Be.”

“Will he go to the NBA?”

“Hard to say, but maybe.  He’s only a freshman.”

“What about Eddie Johnson?  Will he get drafted?”

“There’s a good chance.”

“How about George Montgomery?”

Dad glanced at me and smiled.  “I’m not sure if he’s good enough for the NBA,” he said.

“If we lose 10 games this year, will we still go to the NCAA?”

“Could very well be, we’ll just have to see what happens.”

And on and on.

By the time the car chugged a third time, my train of thought derailed.  I stared straight ahead, willing the car to fall in line.   Cars ran: They took you places, and then you forgot about them. They didn’t scare you late at night, in the winter, in the middle of nowhere, and make your basketball night with dad scary instead of fun.

I began to panic. With each successive backfire my breath caught. Four chugs.  Five. Six.  Turpin and Tate didn’t register anymore.  Seven chugs.  Eight. Nine. The Intervals shortened and the backfires felt stronger.

Dad drove. Headlights from trailing cars, reflected in his rearview mirror, illuminated a stripe across his eyes.  I watched him for a moment as the car chugged twice more, the interval nearly nonexistent. He looked at me and with a smile and a ruffle of my hair, returned his attention to the road.  He pointed the car towards an exit.


Farmer City, Illinois, was named appropriately and ironically:  A city, it was not, but it sure appeared full of farmers.  A few houses clustered around a brief downtown, occasional porch lights illuminating reluctant old Ford pickups. On the fringes of town, agricultural signs lined hibernating fields, declaring brand loyalty for everything from herbicides to tractors.

We drove slowly amidst a cacophony of backfires.  The town’s main street held a few local businesses like a mouth with stubborn teeth in old age: gaps revealing small community decline in a modern economy.  This late at night however, even thriving businesses sat dark.

At the end of the third block, adjacent to the town’s only traffic light, one window glowed. Ancient painted lettering arced across it in chipping red and cracking white, declaring it “Serendipity Lounge.”


Dad and I walked up to the bar. He sat me on a stool.

“You know there’s not supposed to be kids in here,” the bartender said. Her smile didn’t fade.

“We’re having car trouble,” my dad said. He removed his black stocking cap. “There’s no place else open.”

“Yep,” she said, “most things here close up early.  Even on Saturday.  Have a seat if you want.  I won’t call the cops on you.”  She threw a wink at me and made her way towards the other end of the bar, where she found a glass and filled it with ice.

I had seen the inside of a bar on TV, but never been in one.  The wall-sized mirror behind the lined-up liquor bottles, Christmas lights that hung from the scalloped top of the mirror, the solidity of the wood under my elbows, country music murmuring in the background, stools so tall I had to climb onto them: It was all straight out of The Dukes of Hazard.

“Thanks,” my dad said to the bartender.  “Do you have a phone I could use?”

The bartender walked back after filling the glass with clear bubbly liquid from a hose.  “Ok to give him a Sprite?” she asked my dad.  “Phone’s around the corner, next to the bathrooms,” she pointed a careless thumb toward the other side of the room.

My dad hesitated but didn’t flinch.  He looked in the direction of the bathrooms, then back at me.  The lady stood patiently, holding the sprite in my direction.  He nodded, and I took it, marveling at the skinny straw.

“Come with me, Bran,” my dad said.  “We’re going to call Joe and see if he can help us out.”

I quickly put the sprite down and jumped off the stool. I grabbed my dad’s offered hand. We walked the length of the bar and turned left around its end. A pay phone hung on the wall nestled among graffiti and knife-gouged phone numbers.  Dad picked up the receiver and talked into it a little. I read some of the names on the wall.   He waited a long time before he hung up.  We walked back to the bar and I climbed back onto my stool.

“What did Joe say?”  I asked my dad.

“He didn’t answer,” dad said.  I’ll have to try back in a minute.

I was unsure what to make of that, and it must have showed.

“It’s OK,” dad said. “This is just a little adventure.  Nothing we can’t handle.”

“You know how to work one of those, don’t you?” my dad asked. He pointed to the juke box in the corner, just like the one I had used at Godfather’s Pizza a million times. He knew I did.

I nodded.

He handed the bartender a dollar bill and got back only two quarters.  She handed me the other two and told me to go play any four songs I wanted.


I spent long minutes paging through all the record sleeves, recognizing all the popular songs of the day.  I had always wondered who changed those records, and how.   Eventually, I picked four favorite songs and ran back to the bar, where dad sipped coffee.

My songs started immediately. My dad smiled at me again and set the coffee down.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, and shoved his fists in his pockets before walking back to the phone. My eyes followed him until he turned the corner.

I thought about our car, outside, cold and broken.  I wondered briefly how we would get home. I thought about my mom, sitting up wondering where we were, already getting home later than we had planned.

“You didn’t forget about this, did you?” the bartender asked, handing my sprite back to me.

A new thought popped into my head.  Sprite to drink, my songs on a juke box, and up way past bedtime: Could the situation be any more perfect?  Was this what it was like to be a grownup?

“So,” the bartender said, “I hear you’re quite a basketball fan.”

I threw a glance back toward the phone.

“We have season tickets for the Illini,” I said.  “Dad takes me to the weekend games mostly since it’s too late to be out on a school night.”

“Sounds like a great dad,” She said as she walked away to help other customers.

Dad returned and sat on the stool next to mine.

“Did you talk to Joe?” I asked.  “Did you talk to mom?”

He sipped his coffee.  “Yep. Sure did,” he said.  “Joe is on his way.  He’ll be here in a little less than an hour.  And I just wanted mom to know we were alright.”  He ruffled my hair.

Dad’s friend Joe owned a repair shop, and always worked on our car.  If anyone could help my dad figure out what was wrong with the Colt, it was Joe.

“That’s good,” I said, as my fourth jukebox selection kicked on.

The bartender wandered back our way. She began to sing along quietly with my song while wiping the bar. I slurped the last of my sprite.

“Do you mind if we wait here for my friend,” Dad asked her.  “I know you’re not supposed to have kids here, but it shouldn’t be more than an hour.”

“Not a lot of other choices,” she shrugged.  “I’m not going to make you wait out in the cold.”  She picked up my sprite glass and refilled it from the hose.  I could see all the buttons on the handle she held, and I wondered what the rest of them did.  She gave me a fresh tiny straw and set it back down in front of me. This time on a cardboard coaster with the Budweiser logo on it.  I knew what it was from watching St. Louis Cardinals games on TV.

Dad reached into his pocket and pulled out another dollar.

“A few more quarters?” he asked. And when the bartender returned with the change, he handed it to me.  “We’ve got a little time to kill,” he said.  “Might as well play some more songs.”

Double Jackpot.

The next hour flew by as I made myself at home:  more songs, more Sprite, and up later and later.  I learned the bartender’s name, and she showed me some family photos.

Way too soon, Joe walked in.  Dad stood up and met him halfway.  His back to me, he took a deep breath and blew it out slowly as he shook his friend’s hand.  I couldn’t hear their conversation, but dad shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.

Joe’s wife Trudy walked in too.  She walked directly to me.  Her chestnut hair was pinned back, and she had a broad smile.  She gave me a big hug.

“Wow, look at you!” She said.  “Having fun tonight?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I played this song on the juke box.  And Janet showed me a picture of her dog Max.  He only has three legs.”

“Who is Janet?” she asked.

“The bartender,” I said.

Trudy laughed and extended her hand.  “C’mon, kid,” she said.  “Let’s blow this popsicle stand.”

I thanked Janet and put my coat on.

Dad walked back to the bar and gave Janet some money.  I saw him shake her hand and she nodded as we all walked out the door.

Trudy and I walked across the street to their brand new 1980 powder blue Ford F150.  The engine was running, and the heater was on, so the truck was warm.  I crawled up and sat next to her on the wide bench.

“How are you?” she asked, a hesitant sound in her voice.

“Good,” I said.

“You’ve had quite a night,” she said, still appraising.

“It’s been great,” I said. “Dad said Joe can fix a car just by looking at it.”

She chuckled.  “Well maybe he was exaggerating just a little bit.  But Joe is pretty good with cars, that’s true.”

We both sat for a minute and stared at the deep winter sky.

A meteoroid streaked by, the first I had ever seen. It was past before I could even vocalize. But I didn’t need to. Trudy and I turned at the same time.

“Did you see that?”  I asked.

She nodded.  “I haven’t seen a shooting star in years.”

“I’ve NEVER seen one,” I returned.

“Well then,” she said, “this is a special night for you.”

And I couldn’t have possibly agreed more.


Dale Alexander has recently had fiction published at and