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10:21 p.m. Scarves swaying behind us, we hustle under the hum of the State Theatre’s marquee lights, crossing the street toward their backward reflection. It bends, brilliant red and white, over the dark shop windows. Except for the blocks of twinkling white tree lights stretching west along Front Street, the sidewalks are dark. Quiet. Then the din of a party long since started seeps toward us. We follow the muffled ruckus to its source: the U&I Lounge.
10:37 p.m. Bouncer at the door. Marlboro haze in the air. Darts, mirrored Bud signs, classic rock, red vinyl booths and a game of Big Buck Hunter 2008, “Call of the Wild.” The U&I Lounge is the kind of place a true Northerner can call home. So it strikes me as strange that sitting in the booth opposite ours is a boy who looks fresh off a Russian submarine. I eye his navy pea coat, jaunty cap, scarf and wire-thin, waxed-to-perfection handlebar mustache.
10:39 p.m. He catches me staring. I yell over to him: “Is that your real mustache?” He nods and tugs one of the perfectly curled tails, yells back that he’s training to be a chef and the handlebar helps him stand out. His name is Jules, and he and his booth buddy, James, on leave from the air force, hail from Wellston.
11:09 p.m. Above the din of AC/DC, the boys tell us old high school stories, wax both poetic and plain about the river that shaped and aged them, the Manistee, which took Jules’ father’s life. “It was his own fault,” Jules says simply, stubbing out his cigarette and reaching for his beer. “His own fault.” We don’t ask. They move on to quarter-life crises, the war, the economy. Although Emily and I are 31 and 34, Jules, age 24, answers all yes/no questions with a yes or no, ma’am. “Are you calling us ma’am because you think we’re old?” I finally ask.
“No ma’am,” he says sincerely. “That’s just what I say to women.”
11:38 p.m. A guy in a floppy knit cap pops his head over our booth back. A friend of a friend from Wellston, he recognizes James. Emily and I leave the boys to catch up. As we slide out of the booth, Jules stands up from his seat and wishes us a good night as he shakes our hands. They don’t seem to make boys like that anymore. But they should.
11:44 p.m. When we step from the cold into the connected combo of Dillinger’s Pub and Bootleggers—aka Dillyboots, the doublewide—the spicy-sweet scent of clove cigarettes wafts over me. Emily’s glasses steam. When they clear, we do a survey stroll. Dillingers is brightly lit, booming with hip-hop; Bootleggers is dark, mellow. Both are crowded with boys in half-turned ball caps and girls who look us up and down as we pass in our coats and hats. I see an old friend, hug, chat, but we move on. Only two hours left.
12:06 a.m. I can’t help but love a bar with good beer and a couch. So while we’re too late to recline with a pint at Right Brain Brewery—it closed at midnight—and we’ve skipped our weekday happy hour spot, Firefly, we’ve still got Kilkenny’s, the giant yet cozy Irish-style pub below North Peak that boasts not only a couch but an elevated throne next to a pseudo-fireplace.
12:07 am. Kilkenny’s is raging. The band Three Thumbs Up is rocking heavy guitar and drums on the stage; swarms of people are squirming and shaking under a smoky haze colored blue and red by the dance floor lights. People are crowded along the bar and the pool tables and everywhere else there’s a free inch. There’s a guy in a kilt on my couch.
12:09 a.m. I go to the bar for a Guinness.
12:39 a.m. The guy in the kilt is still on the couch. He appears to be sleeping, legs akimbo. Some women standing nearby discuss whether or not we should wake him or helpfully push his knees together.
12:40 a.m. I turn on my camera and take a picture of him. I want the couch.
12:42 a.m. The flash has revived him. He throws his foot on a table and poses like a Scottish King for my camera. Everyone around us is laughing, heads bobbing, yelling. I raise my Guinness and toast him. “I like your kilt,” I yell across the table. He raises his glass. “Why are you wearing a kilt?” I yell. “For a funeral,” he shouts.
12:43 a.m. I let the man in the kilt have the couch.
1:30 a.m. The band’s left the stage, but it seems the whole town’s here for last call. We see the gang from Red Ginger. The boys from U&I. A man with a pouffy, permed mullet who looks to be the love child of Hall & Oates. There are gorgeous girls in strapless dresses. A gang of motorcycle mommas and papas. Hippies. Punks. Regular folks. Married men in collared sweaters; giggling girls in tight ones. And a nerdy reporter scrawling it all down in her notebook.
1:54 a.m. The lights come up and baby-faced bartenders and waitresses herd the squinty-eyed stragglers toward the stairs. Emily and I head up and start the long, cold walk home through the snow. Spring may still be weeks away, but as the echo of shouts and laughter fades behind us, and we pick our way, giggling arm in arm down the icy sidewalks, for the moment at least, I don’t mind waiting.