Last Call at Lulu’s

I don’t remember what time it was, if I ever knew, but I do remember sitting at the bar holding up a guy I’d never seen before who’d draped his arm over my shoulders to reminisce about our Army days together in places I’d never been while another stranger, a small, elderly woman with big glasses leaned against me from the other side, serenely smoking a cigar.

It was the night we closed Lulu’s for the last time.

Smoking anything in a public accommodation, of course, is a practice both vile and illegal but it was the end of the world that night as so many of us knew it, and the courtesies and laws of simpler times seemed quaint and obsolete.

You could see it in our faces. We jammed the place for a last chance to eat something brazenly unhealthy or drink the last bargain cocktail in the last of its kind lounge on the south end of the Key Peninsula, ordering all kinds of impossible things in a futile effort to force the restaurant to stay open past its time of reckoning. We waited hours for extravagant burgers that would never come, sipping from the very cup of trembling as more and more of the doomed arrived while someone dimmed the lights lower and lower and the juke box got louder and louder.

Lulu’s looked like a simple diner near the end of the road at the end of a peninsula that has somehow stepped out of the flow of time. I used to bring my 3-year-old there for what he called “Godzilla pancakes.” At 18 he could order the same thing in the same way from an unfamiliar server and get the same dish. Once I had somehow forgotten my wallet, and that server waved me away saying, “Fine.”

Over a span of nearly three decades, Lulu’s became an oasis for anyone wanting gravy with their steak, eggs or coffee, or for anyone who just wanted a warm place to sit among warm people. Lulu’s radiated acceptance like some eccentric aunt you assume will always be around. You might suspect that below the eastern horizon is a future where you exist without her, somehow, but you cannot picture it and you don’t want to.

It was that kind of night.

I think it was the Eagles who were blaring from the juke box when the elderly woman with the glasses and cigar pulled me to my feet. “Let us dance,” she said, “as if it were for the last time.”

She put her head on my shoulder and shouted, “What will we do Johnny, what will we do?” Before I could ask about Johnny, other patrons grabbed each other like they were the last life jackets on a sinking ship, and we all swayed back and forth together as the ship went down beneath us.

I am more familiar with the ways of the wild animal that is grief than I will ordinarily admit. I know from my own exile in its territory that grief has a certain way of stalking you, for years, reanimating a long-gone event you somehow managed to survive as if it occurred only a moment ago. Like all predators, grief does not forget you.

It strode among us that night, stirring distant memories utterly unrelated to the closing of Lulu’s, reigniting the smoldering pain of old losses into new fires.

And there is only one answer in the face of such an enemy.

“This is not our last dance,” I said. “It is the next of many more to come, my dear.”

She let her head roll back and she laughed like she had never heard anything so absurd in all her long life. “Oh, Johnny,” she said. “You always know just what to say.”

Ted Olinger is an award-winning journalist. He lives in Vaughn.

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