Years ago I heard that Sam Shepard drank here. Since then I’ve stopped in several times, and I hear a new Shepard story almost every time. When I say “here” I really mean Heirloom restaurant and bar in Midway, Kentucky. But I also loosely mean the other two main bars in town—Mezzo and Goose & Gander.
It’s late afternoon on a Wednesday in mid-October. I walk up to the bar at Heirloom and sit down. I order an Old Fashioned. I recognize the bartender. She is very familiar to me, but I can’t place how. She rubs the orange rind along the rim of the glass. Her hands are small and her fingernails are short, unpainted. I ask where I know her from, and she places the drink on a black napkin in front of me. She says, “I don’t know,” and smiles.
I rest my forearms on the bar and take a drink. The bar is cool beige marble with swirling unpredictable patterns like clouds; it’s illuminated from within—it looks like it’s glowing. The Old Fashioned is very good. One of the best I’ve had. It’s got a hint of sweetness, strong but not overwhelming, and the taste of bitters is subtly there—it has balance and character. I sit at the far right side of the bar. I imagine it’s where Shepard would have sat. I always thought maybe I’d run into him sometime. But he died a couple years ago, before I had the chance.
I’m writing this essay on Shepard, and I hear that the owner of this place—a guy named Henry—was good friends with Sam. I also hear he knew Hemingway. These are two good reasons to drink an Old Fashioned after work on a Wednesday. The bartender is dressed in all black, and she climbs a ladder and inspects a bottle of wine off the top shelf. She rests the toe of one black shoe on the edge of the bar. This makes me nervous. I’m afraid she will fall. I think of how I could possibly catch her if she did fall, and I realize that I could not.
Most of the stories I’ve heard about Shepard start with him drinking alone at this bar. Bottles of wine. Tequila, neat. Never beer. Most of the stories paint Shepard as quiet, solitary, down to earth. People will sometimes say, “Well, he did like to chase young women around,” but there is never a whole lot more detail than that. There are some Shepard stories that I won’t write down, some stories I heard about his last weeks. Nothing bad. Good stories, really, but some things should stay off the page.
The warm scent of scallops cooking in butter reaches out to me from the kitchen. The restaurant is small, cozy, and rectangular shaped with big luxuriant booths with thick, beige, soft but angular padded backs and rich dark brown leather padded seats lining the two long walls; two circle tables sit in the front by the open windows, and four big square tables stagger along the center, between the booths. The lighting is soft and dim with small circle lights in the ceiling, and four large off-white webbed spheres that hang and project soft light down. Four off-white webbed-cloth curtains hang from the wall at each booth, giving a sense of windows that don’t exist; animal shapes are sketched into the cloth curtain—if you don’t look very closely you will miss them; it’s one of those details that has a cumulative effect but goes unnoticed. The back of the bar is all wood like the inside of a ship. I look out at wood shelves stocked with many bottles of wine. A small TV plays horse races from between the wine shelves behind the bar. Images of horses being led around race tracks—always between races—shuffle across the screen, and I stare at them and listen to the people talking down the bar, and the waiters and waitresses, and the bartender.
Drinking alone at a bar is one of my favorite past-times. You can relax, and you don’t have to talk to anyone if you don’t want to. You’re truly off the clock. You’re free to think, listen, watch. But if you want to talk you can. And you meet new people, usually. There is a code for drinking alone at bars. It takes some bravery to begin with. To drink alone at home is one thing. To drink at a bar with friends is one thing. To drink alone at a bar is another. You have to manage how much you talk to the bartender. You have to consider how busy the bar is. It’s better to be quiet most of the time. To err on the side of quiet. But not too quiet. From the stories I’ve heard, Shepard knew the code well.
I order another Old Fashioned. The bar is starting to get busy. “That was a great Old Fashioned,” I say to the bartender.
“Thank you,” she says and smiles.
“How long have you been here?”
“A couple weeks. The old manager left a month ago.”
“I see. Question for you. I’m writing this essay on Sam Shepard, and I heard the owner was good friends with him.”
She scrunches her eyes like she is confused and thinking. “You mean, Henry?”
“Yeah, that’s him. Henry.”
“He’s the owner’s dad. He comes in most nights. He’s been under the weather lately. He just called a minute ago.”
“Think he’ll be in tonight?”
She looks at the clock. “Mmm, he didn’t say, but if he’s not in by now he probably won’t be. We have his book,” she says and holds it up to me. She opens her eyes wide in an exaggerated gesture that says she’s anxiously waiting for my interest in it—yet at the same time—she’s only teasing. She gave me the same kind of smile and expression earlier when I asked how I knew her. She could be a silent film star.
“How much?” I say.
“Twenty?” She looks at the back for a price tag. “Yes. Twenty.”
“Sure, I’d like to read it. Can I put it on my tab?”
“We can figure something out. You gonna be here a while?”
“OK.” She walks out of the bar to the kitchen.
Jazz music plays soft in the background. A couple sits to my right, sharing a bottle of wine. They share a steak. There’s bottles of wine scattered on tables throughout the bar. Bottles are half off on Wednesday. I order a red blend, and the bartender reaches it from the shelf, uncorks it, and pours a tall glass. “I may need your help with this,” I say. The wine leaves a nice trace on the side of the glass like a good scotch, and has a smooth even aftertaste. I make small talk with the couple next to me at the bar. The bottles and glasses of wine around the restaurant become empty and then are cleared away. The waiters and waitresses shuffle to settle up tabs, then fall into getting the place ready to close. The bartender dries wine glasses with a white hand towel, and she holds each one up to the light and looks for spots. I finish my glass of wine and pour another.
I would find out later that I was wrong about where Sam sat. He always sat in table 6—the booth by the far left of the bar. I can see why. It’s a good vantage point. You can see the whole bar and restaurant from there, it’s close to the bar, and there’s some level of privacy. He’d start off the night at the corner booth, writing, and drinking wine. He always ordered a bottle. He wrote on a notepad or a laptop. When he got to a stopping point he’d move over to the bar, on that side—the opposite side from me. He’d come here every day when he was living in Kentucky.
The wine is hitting me. It’s in my blood. Warm and thick. I feel mellow, lethargic, good. I tell the bartender the rest is hers—she pours it in a glass, smiles, and drinks. I settle up and buy Henry’s book. I walk down the road to Mezzo’s. They have a basement bar I like. Its walls are all exposed brick and the long light wood bar runs along the walls. I bum a cig from a guy in a blue sweatshirt. He and several other people are standing outside at the top of the basement stairs. We stand around talking, smoking. I ask if they knew Sam.
The guy in a blue sweatshirt says, “I owned a bar down the road, and my girlfriend and her friend ran into him one night. They come stumbling down the road with Sam and say, ‘Hey, look who we found.’ I don’t know who he is, and Sam can tell. He seemed to like that.” He takes a drag from his cigarette. “So anytime I see him after that, Sam would ask how the bar was going. I’d see him in the post office some mornings. His hair was wild like he just woke up, and his hands would shake. Sometimes, he’d drink three bottles of wine at the bar down the road until they’d kick him out, and he’d just come down here and drink.” He nodded at the basement bar.
I sit in the basement bar and read Henry’s book. I don’t feel like talking to anyone anymore. The book is very well written. There’s not a bad sentence to be found. I read from a scene where a young man is coming back from war. Back to Kentucky. And nobody knows he’s coming home. It’s a quiet homecoming. The young man is riding a bus. I sip at my beer. When it’s gone, I settle up and say bye to the people I talked to outside.
I decide to go back the next day, in hopes of catching Henry. I figure if he missed a day the odds are good he’ll make the next. Leaving work, I turn down 60 towards Frankfort, then turn right toward Midway. It’s very bright outside. I’m glad I have my dark sunglasses. Manicured horse farms with black wood fencing, stone walls, and a high row of solid oak, maple, and sycamores pass by the road. The leaves have just started to turn. But the only new color is brown. I park in the historic section of Midway, and walk up to Heirloom. A sign hangs on the door: Closed. Till 5:30. I walk on down the road to Goose and Gander. A U-shaped mahogany bar snakes around the restaurant’s heart. I sit in a barstool on the far side, toward the end, with a good view out across the big open room. Only a few empty tables stand behind me. I order a tall Guinness from the bartender. She’s pretty with dark hair. Probably in her early fifties. You can tell she was a knockout when she was younger. The beer gets close to empty, and she asks if I want another. I do. She places the new beer on the bar in front of me.
“You doing alright?” she says.
“Not too bad yet. You?”
She smiles. “Same.” She wipes down the bar to the left of me.
“Have you worked here a while?”
“Long time,” she says.
“Sam Shepard come in here much?”
“Yeah, we’d see him sometimes. He was quiet. Kept to himself mostly.”
“People mostly left him alone. When he first came here I didn’t like him. I was in line behind him at the post office. They couldn’t do whatever he asked. And he said, ‘Do you know who I am?’ He never was like that after the first time—all the other times I saw him. I think he learned you can’t do that here. There’s a lot of big horse people here. Lots of famous people come through. No one cares. Burt Reynolds used to be here all the time.”
“So he was pretty decent after that first time?”
“Yeah, he’d come in with a computer and a straw hat. And just drink and write.” She put away the white cloth she was wiping the bar with. “I wasn’t really starstruck by him though. I only got that once. My friend used to work at the hotel by Rupp. In the eighties. She asked me to cover one night. So I do. And it’s the night that Bowie’s playing at Rupp. I’m a huge fan of his Hunky Dory album. Never cared for the Spider from Mars though. I’m working the hotel counter and get to talking to this guy. Turns out he’s Bowie’s guitarist. He invites me to dinner later, and I say yes. So we go to this italian place by the Fayette Mall. And we sit down at a table and Bowie, and one of his dancers he was seeing at the time, sit down with us. He’s just like a normal guy.”
“So you had dinner with Bowie?”
“Yeah, me, his guitarist, him, and his date—the dancer. He was just like a regular guy. He was a vegetarian and ordered some spinach pasta dish. He said it wasn’t exactly what he ordered, but he didn’t complain to the waiter. While we were eating, somebody walked up to him and said, ‘Hey, are you David Bowie?’ and Bowie said, ‘Not tonight.’ And that was that.”
“That’s great,” I say.
“He was really nice. Very normal. Quiet. That was the most starstruck I’ve ever been.”
“That’s really cool.”
An older guy in a suit across the bar chimes in: “I saw the Beatles,” he says.
“You met them?” I say. I almost have to yell it to be heard.
“Saw them in concert,” he says.
I nod. “What was that like?”
I nod. I order one more beer and settle up. I’m kind of disappointed the talk turned to fame. Sam’s ambition, talent, dedication as a writer, and the way he lived his life set him apart. His fame was incidental.
I carry Henry’s book with me, and make my way back to Heirloom. I walk back into the dim light. It’s less crowded. I’m glad. The bartender from last night is working. “Hey,” she says. “Old Fashioned?”
She nods and grabs a bottle of simple syrup from a drawer under the TV. I lean forward and rest my forearms on the cool glowing marble bar. I watch her cut out a slice of orange rind and rub it along the inside lip of the glass. A bald waiter in a black shirt carries a plate out from the kitchen. Steam rises off the plate. The smell of scallops reaches me. A saxophone plays a low and mellow melody over sparse piano chords. It sounds like an old Lester Young record. The way Lester played after the orchestra and Billie Holiday days. After the prime. Like he played when he lived in the run-down New York apartment after everybody had forgotten about him, and drank all the time, and kept to himself. The bartender places the Old Fashioned in front of me on a black bar napkin on top of the glowing marble bar. I thank her.
She smiles. She starts to make another cocktail. She pauses. “Oh, that was Henry earlier. He called. He’s coming in.”
Twenty minutes pass. My Old Fashioned disappears and another takes its place. Henry walks in and sits at the bar beside me. He’s not what I imagined. He’s friendlier. He’s from eastern Kentucky, but he reminds me of a good friend from western Kentucky. His mannerisms, mostly. He’s overly polite, but it’s genuine. For the next hour I listen. And drink. I switch from Old Fashioneds to beers. Henry talks in a lower volume than I’d like. The bar is loud with talk, and he talks just under it—like a song you love and they put the vocal too low in the mix—you can barely hear it over the drums and guitar. I lean in to hear. I tell him I like the little I’ve read of his book. I tell him it’s well written—it is. I ask him about Sam. He said Sam always told him that his short stories were his strength. He should focus on those, Sam had said. Henry agrees with this assessment of his work. I ask him what Sam was like. He says he was a great friend. Henry tells me that a lot of nights he’d give Sam a ride home when he’d drank too much. He’d drop him off at his front door, hand Sam his keys, and say, “Put these somewhere you’ll remember them.” Sam would cuss, but relent. The next morning Sam would call Henry and say, “How bad was I?” Henry would tell him the truth: “A little,” or “pretty bad,” or “not your worst,” etc. A saxophone played on, low in the background. In the foreground, the noise of people talking rose up around us. I sat at the bar beside Henry and leaned in to hear. The food had started to come out less regular. There were less wafts of chicken livers and scallops. People had moved on from eating to drinking. I’d see the bartender out of the periphery of my vision moving to grab a bottle of gin or reaching a pinot noir from the top left rack. I nod at the bartender to let her know another beer would be welcome. A few moments later she slides a beer in front of me. I’m turned sideways toward Henry so that I can hear him. Sometimes his voice goes very quiet, and I want to hear everything he says. I’ve been doing much more listening than talking. I’ve barely spoken. As it should be. I tell Henry, “I heard you knew Hemingway.”
Henry turns his glass of red wine on the bar and looks thoughtful. “Well.” He parses his lips. “Have you heard of the Compleat Angler?”
“Well, it was a hotel and bar in Bimini, where Hemingway stayed a lot. It was one of his favorite places. He wrote there—To Have and Have Not and Islands in the Stream—and was good friends with the owner.” He draws out the last word, almost like it’s a question, but not exactly. There’s a friendly eastern Kentucky singsong nasally cadence to the way he talks. It’s not exactly eastern Kentucky either. The sentences are like melodies. He’s a good storyteller.
He goes on: “I’m in my twenties and I’m doing some work that brings me to Florida. Turns out the owner is renovating the Compleat Angler, and my name came up. We arrange to meet. The day comes. I’m sitting in his office. And the first thing he shows me is this wallpaper. It’s pastel blue with blue sailing ship images all over. It’s not a common wallpaper print. It’s probably from the forties.”
He goes on: “So I tell him,” Henry holds his right hand up to make a point ‘Sir, I’d love to help you, but I don’t think it’s possible to find this exact wallpaper anymore. We could maybe find something similar.’ ‘No,’ he says ‘we will find this exact wallpaper.’ And I looked at him and said, ‘Mr. Simmler, I’m afraid I’m not the right man for the job. I don’t think I’ll be able to find that exact wallpaper.’”
“Then,” Henry reaches into his pocket to illustrate, “he pulls out a checkbook and writes a check for $500, hands it to me and says, ‘you’re exactly the right man for the job. I’m going to have my assistant give you the addresses of several warehouses in Miami. You’ll start your search there.’ I take his check, and say, ‘I’ll do my best, Mr. Simmler.’”
“The next day,” Henry continues, “I get a call at the hotel, and it’s Mr. Simmler’s assistant. He gives me the addresses of two warehouses. I spend all day searching the first. There’s junk from decades back. Everything you can imagine. It’s Miami, and it’s not air conditioned. I spend all day looking through that warehouse. Not one stitch of wallpaper in the whole place.”
“That night I call Mr. Simmler from my hotel. He asked how it went. I tell him, ‘Mr. Simmler, I think I’m the wrong man for the job. I’m afraid I won’t be able to help you.’ ‘Keep looking, Henry. You’ll find it,’ he says.”
Henry shrugs in the bar stool beside me. “‘OK,’ I tell him. ‘I’ll keep looking.’ The next morning I go to the next warehouse address. In the first room I look I find fifty feet of the exact pastel wallpaper with blue sailing ship images. The exact one. I write a check immediately and have it wrapped and sent to Mr. Simmler’s place. After that, I helped him finish renovating the Compleat Angler. We got to be friends.”
Henry slowly turns his wine glass on the bar. He studies it and clears his throat. He’s hardly had a sip from it all night. “One night, the renovation has just been finished, and Simmler and I are having a drink at the Angler bar. He points to a ring on his pinky. It’s got a turquoise stone at its center. ‘You see this ring, Henry?’ I say, ‘Yes, Mr. Simmler, that’s a nice ring.’”
Henry holds his fist out as if showing an imaginary pinky ring with a turquoise stone. “‘It’s more than a nice ring,’ Mr. Simmler says. ‘It was Hemingway’s.’”
Henry goes on: “Simmler tells me that Mr. Hemingway was going through a period where his books weren’t selling. He was having a hard time. Having a hard time paying bills. He says that he knew Hemingway was too proud to accept help, so he comes up with this idea. He and Hemingway are drinking at the Angler one night, and Simmler points to the ring with the turquoise stone on Hemingway’s pinky. ‘That’s an incredible ring, Hem. How much would you consider for it?’ Hem says, ‘It has more value than anything in the world.’ So, Simmler and Hemingway go back to drinking. A few minutes later, Simmler says, ‘But seriously, Hem, what about five grand? I’ll give you five grand for the ring. Would you take that?’ Hemingway just stares at him for a long moment and doesn’t say anything. Then, Hem says, ‘It has more value than anything in the world.’
Henry clears his throat and picks up the wine glass by its stem. He swirls the wine and takes one sip. Maybe his first. I drink at my beer, leaning in to hear. He’s still talking low the whole time and the cacophony of voices around us has only slightly decreased. Henry goes on, “They have another drink, then call it a night. The next morning, Simmler gets up early to make a big breakfast for him and his guest, Hemingway. When he reaches the kitchen, he hears the seaplane start up behind the hotel. He knows a moment later he’ll hear its loud engine roaring, and it’ll be sailing away, over the hotel. He forks out sausage links, scrambled eggs, and a share of butter onto a heavy black iron skillet, and listens to the seaplane going over, tearing through the sky. He knows it’s likely the last time he’ll see his famous friend. Times have been hard lately, and he’s disappointed he wasn’t able to help. He knows how smart Hem is, so he’s pretty sure he saw through the whole thing, and he’s worried Hem feels insulted. So, Simmler pours a cold beer from the draft, and sits down to coffee, sausage links, and scrambled eggs at his square oak table. There is a thick quiet that hovers in the empty shell left after the noise of the seaplane is gone.”
Henry turns his wine glass again, and is quiet a moment. I’m waiting in the silence beside Henry for the end of the story. And wondering maybe if I just got it. “Simmler goes to eating his breakfast,” Henry says, “and he notices a small piece of paper folded up at the center of the table, near the vase.” Henry points to the bar like he’s picking a note up. “Simmler picks it up. Something is folded inside of it. He unfolds the paper. Hemingway’s ring with the turquoise stone is tucked inside. Simmler reads the note:
‘Here’s that goddamn ring you wanted so badly. -Hem’”
“Simmler reads it and smiles.” Henry turns to me. His eyes look almost wet with tears, but I can’t be sure. “And Simmler turned to me as he told me the story and he showed me the ring on his pinky finger with the turquoise stone, and he says, ‘It has more value than anything in the world.’”
I nod. We’re both quiet for a while. “That’s a great story,” I say. Henry nods. He finally takes a sip of his red wine. I finish my beer and order one more. The place is winding down. The empty tables and glasses have been put into order. The lights have dimmed and the blanket of conversation around us has become lighter; it’s now more of a sheet than a heavy comforter. The glowing marble bar looks translucent under my pint of beer.
“What’s your favorite Sam story?” I say.
Henry nods and turns his wine glass on the bar. “One morning Sam calls me. ‘What are you doing?’” he says. “I tell him I’m just working, getting ready for lunch. ‘Can you get free? Let’s go to Keeneland.’ Well, I tell him, I reckon I could get free in about fifteen minutes. ‘Good, pick you up in fifteen,’he says.”
“So, fifteen minutes later,” Henry continues, and turns his wine glass, “Sam pulls up out front in his truck. It’s a mess like always. I have to move empty paper coffee cups and fast food wrappers around to sit down. ‘You know, you could clean this.’ Sam just smiles. So, we get to Keeneland, and it’s very crowded. We have a beer and place a couple bets and look for a table. We find a lady at a table by herself and ask if we can join her. She has no idea who Sam is. She says, ‘Sure, but you’ll have to go when my friends get here.’ ‘OK’, Sam says. So we have another beer and place a couple bets and we do OK. A couple people look at Sam like they’re trying to figure who he is. But no one comes up.”
Henry takes a sip from his wine glass. I see the bartender holding a wine glass up to the light from the corner of my eye. “Well,” Henry says in his singsong way of putting melody into words, “after a while the lady’s friends get there and she tells us we’ve got to go now. Sam says, ‘OK,’ and we walk off carrying our beer and racing programs. Just as we start to walk off, we hear the lady’s friends talking behind us. One of them says, ‘Do you know who that was? You just kicked out Sam Shepard.’ The lady and her friend call out: ‘Wait, come back. We’re sorry. We didn’t know. Mr. Shepard! You can sit here.’ Sam nudges me with his elbow as we walk away, looking straight ahead, and says, ‘Keep walking. Don’t look back.’”
Wes Blake earned his MFA from the Bluegrass Writers Studio. His work has appeared in Louisiana Literature Journal, Shark Reef, Jelly Bucket, Level: Deep South, and Route 7 Review. His novel, Antenna, received the Outstanding Graduate Project Award. He grew up in Kentucky, and has written obituaries, worked in a cajun restaurant, worked as a security guard, sold advertising, and taught writing to high school students.