Apalachicola. My daughter, Natalie, and I arrive late at the bar in the historic Gibson Inn. Late is relative in Apalachicola. It’s a fishing village, and if you rise at 5:30, you’re too late to haul in a good catch. As a result, by nine on Sunday, this village—famous for its seafood, especially its succulent oysters—is pretty much shut down. Sun-drenched fishermen go to bed early, full of the sea and hope for tomorrow.
A bad meal (mine) at a usually good fish house drives us to walk to the inn through almost deserted Apalachicola, the heat still rising off the streets, buffed by a breeze from the river. Serves me right for ordering lobster. Lobster doesn’t live here. Eat local, y’all. But I wasn’t about to let a bad decision ruin our last evening in town if I could help it, so we slipped through the creaky side door into the almost empty bar of the old inn. I am still a little hungry, and we had wanted to visit this inn anyway. It is cool and quiet. The bartender is here, of course, and someone who works in the kitchen is chatting with her as she polishes the already gleaming bar.
The place is decked in bead board, varnished and worn. It smells wonderful—of wood and rum and brine. We sit at the bar, and I ask if they are still serving food. It is only 9 o’clock, but the bar already has that melancholy spirit that a bar gets late at night. Still, I am hungry. They are out of crab cakes, but someone will fix me shrimp tacos. “Local?” I ask, a little nervous after my recent experience. They give me a look. “Of course.”
My daughter, already full from her fine meal of oysters, asks if they make mojitos, her favorite libation. “I don’t have any mint,” the barkeep says. “You don’t have mint?” I ask. I wonder why. Outside the door, rosemary is bounding over the sidewalks, almost as tall as me, and there’s no good reason for there not to be mint as well. But that’s the gardener in me. The bartender looks at me and shrugs. Nat orders rum punch, and I get a decent Cabernet. A local comes in from an outside table to say goodnight and brings in the empty glasses from her drowsy party. The bartender locks the door behind her. Last call.
Nat sips her rum punch, but it’s too strong for her liking. I ask the bartender to put a little Sprite in it. “Of course it’s too strong, it has light rum, dark rum, banana liqueur, coconut liqueur…” she says. We laugh as she squirts in the Sprite. Someone brings my tacos from the kitchen. Fat shrimp, curry coconut sauce, and Asian cole slaw, tangy with fresh ginger. I dig in.
The bartender has deep brown eyes and chestnut hair that is swirled in a casual bun at the nape of her neck. She is neither young, nor old. She asks us where we are from. “You’re from Monticello?” Turns out she is from the next town over from us, Madison. She lives here in Apalach now, but still “keeps a house” in Madison, and they just got a liquor license over there. “Can you imagine?” She looks into us as though this is the next miracle. She’s hoping that liquor might attract retirees and improve the economy. I think about Monticello’s empty storefronts and high hopes, its canopy roads, its opera house. Times are still hard in the rural South.
Our bartender tells us she has insomnia because she watches movies on her laptop in bed all night long. She has read that the blue light from the screen messes with her melatonin levels. “Can you imagine? It never occurred to me,” she says looking at me with her deep brown eyes, swirling her cloth on the old bar. “There’s this thing you can buy on the Internet that will solve that problem,” she tells us, encouraged. Yes, I imagine there is…
A sleek black cat strolls regally through the bar, his green eyes glittering in the dark light. “A cat!” Nat exclaims, and the bartender says, “That’s Salem. He’s the king of the inn. He caught a snake this afternoon and brought it up on the deck. We saved the snake, and we put Salem up for a while. Quarantined.” The bartender looks at us knowingly, and smiles. Salem looks at us with his glittery green eyes. I shiver and sip my Cab.
The shrimp tacos are excellent, and Nat is humming into her rum punch, nibbling a shrimp, watching the sleek cat. The bartender tells us she is stressed and exhausted from the fishermen who spent the afternoon drinking in the bar. Dredged from my corporate world into this salty old bar, I wonder how you can be stressed from this, from fishermen. “They were out on the water for three straight days, and came in here with their tall tales, their fish stories. One of them was carrying on about how he jumped in for a swim and was chased by a Great White. Shoot. A Great White…” she laughs.
I ask her what is running right now. “Snapper and grouper. Grouper, of course,” she said. “They were after something else, something you can’t eat…I don’t remember.” “Tarpon?” I ask. “Yes, that’s it. Tarpon. I don’t know why someone would spend all day fishing for something they can’t eat, silliest waste of time I’ve ever heard…” she says, wiping away at the worn, smooth bar, polishing clean glasses and putting them up. “Perhaps they love the fight?” I ask. “Silliest damn thing,” she said. I nod in agreement, watching her polish those already gleaming glasses. Then she picked something up off the bar and held it up in the dim light. It was a large diamond ring, and she dangled it from the tip of her finger, sparkling and shimmering. “Well, shoot, that’s Julia’s ring! I thought it was a damn piece of ice!” She looks at me, and I look back at her, full of shrimp and wine and a trace of superstition. The black cat, Salem, looks at us with his green eyes and drifts away. Nat checks her cell phone, its blue light reflecting in her brown eyes. I hope she can sleep tonight.
I pay the bill, and finish my wine and say thank you. As we walk to the side door, the bartender steps from behind the bar to let us out, and throws the door open on its creaky hinge. A warm sea breeze floats in, and she lifts her eyes up. “The moon is a sideways smile tonight. Y’all come back.”