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  [Sara Lewis]


[cover]View the reading group guide for The Best of Good.

"If you're looking for a story about transformation and 'pull yourself up by the bootstraps' kind of charm, this is the one. Tom Good has been living in a funk for years. Everyone around him seems to have given up hope that he will change, reconciled to his apparent arrested development. With the sudden realization that he is father to a partially grown boy of ten, Tom achieves what has eluded him all along. It is not unreasonable that people become what they have to be, not for themselves, but in spite of themselves."
-Paula Shackleton, Bookbuffet.com

"Lewis spins an absorbing, poignant, but light-hearted tale of late blooming, of finding new life and hope. Humor and tragedy mix naturally in her writing, reflecting its fidelity to real life... The Best of Good shows it's never too late to start afresh, to live and love. Lewis's loving tenderness for her characters brings them alive, allowing them to tease out universal feelings all readers have experienced, and to encourage them even as they are entertained."
-Cathy Carmode Lim, The Anniston (AL) Star

I was behind the bar in The Club, a music place where I had worked for a long, long time. I tried not to think about the exact number of years, but trust me, it was lots. It was packed. All the seats were sold out as were all the standing-room tickets. People were six or seven deep at the bar, and the music was loud, so customers were screaming their drink orders into my face. An enormous biker yelled, "Whiskey sour!" and a drop of his spit landed on my upper lip.

"Did you forget my tequila sunrises?" another guy yelled. "I ordered three tequila sunrises half an hour ago!"

I nodded that I got that, and I wanted to say that it wasn't half an hour ago; it was more like three minutes. But right then a girl squeezed her way through the crowd up to the bar. She had blond hair, and a lot of her chest was exposed in the low-cut shirt she was wearing. On the upper portion of her left breast, a tattoo of something with wings—a butterfly, an angel, the tooth fairy?—was peeking out over her shirt.

"Bartender!" she yelled in a piercing voice. She had a twenty-dollar bill in her hand, and she was waving it at me. "Margarita, extra salt!"

I had a lot of money in my left hand from other customers, and I had to put it away before I could do anything about these orders that kept coming at me. I punched the buttons on the register, but nothing happened: dead. I got down on the floor to check the plug, but it was fine. Time was passing, and the orders were piling up in my head. My right hand got wet down on the floor, and I would have to wash it before I made these drinks. I stood up. I was still holding the money, and the register wouldn't open. Why was everybody ordering these fancy drinks tonight anyway? Didn't anybody want a plain old beer? I was pushing buttons again, but the register must have been jammed or something.

"Bartender!" someone yelled. "I ordered two white-wine spritzers! Like, an hour ago!"

"I ordered before you!" someone said.

Just then, the biker guy, who was wearing a leather vest and no shirt said, "Where's my whiskey sour?" And he lunged at me across the bar, grabbing my face with his enormous, scratchy hand. I heard something snap in my neck and everything was suddenly too bright.

"Oh, my God!" I yelled.

Then I was sitting up in bed in my own place, and my heart was pounding. The bartender dream. It was only the bartender dream, which I had at least a couple of times a month. I reached for my glasses and put them on. I looked around at my faded comforter, my yellowing lamp shade, my black-and-white TV with the coat hanger taped to where its rabbit ears should have been, a calendar on the wall from another year that had been over for a long time. "Phew. Everything's fine," I said out loud to no one. "Everything's normal."

My name is Tom Good, but since I was ten, which was also the year I started playing guitar, everyone, except my immediate family, has called me Good. I am forty-seven years old, but if you went to high school with me, even if you hadn't seen or thought about me since 1971, you would recognize me right away. I haven't changed much. I still wear T-shirts and jeans, sneakers, and, when absolutely necessary, a denim jacket.

I was boiling water for coffee when there was a knock on my door.

After thinking about it a few seconds, I went to the door. I don't get many visitors. My place is at the back of an old stucco two-story house. The old lady who owns the house lives on the second floor; a family lives on the first in front. My apartment is just one room for living and sleeping, plus a bathroom and a kitchen. I don't get too many door-to-door salespeople, as they don't realize there's another unit back here.

I opened the door and there was Kevin, a friend I hadn't seen in quite a while. We grew up on the same street. Later we worked together at The Club, where I was still a bartender.

"Oh!" I said, startled to see him. "Hey. What's up?" I smiled and slugged him on the shoulder before backing up to let him in.

Kevin was married and had two kids and another one on the way. He met his wife at one of those software mills in Sorrento Valley, where they both still worked, as far as I knew. She was a little younger than we were. He had a first marriage that didn't work out. Whenever he wanted to remember what he had lost with the passing of his youth, he called me for comp tickets to a show. I hadn't seen him in six months or so, since the last time Steve Poltz played at The Club.

"What are you doing here?" I said. "This is a surprise!" I didn't think he'd ever been to my place before. But since I had been living in this house for as many years as I had worked at The Club, I was not hard to locate, if you were willing to put even a small amount of effort into it.

"I had to talk to you. Kind of important. Can I sit down? Do you have a minute?"

"Sure," I said. "Help yourself. Do you want some coffee or something? I was just about to—"

"No, thanks," he said. "I only drink it in the morning."

It was 12:30. He must have been on his lunch break.

"Listen," he said. And then he looked at me for a minute without saying anything. He exhaled and glanced at my row of guitars, my unmade bed. "Do you remember Diana?"

"Diana? Hmm. Diana?" This was a bluff. Of course I remembered her. I used to be in love with her. We were together for a few months. One minute she was asking me if I was ever going to get rid of my motorcycle and get a car so other people could ride with me without freezing and wrecking their hair, and the next minute she was gone. Untraceable.

"From The Club. You worked with her," Kevin explained. "Singer-songwriter," he said.

"How long ago?"

"Come on, Good. I know you remember her. About ten, eleven years ago. Blond hair. Beautiful. Smart. She was in school, majoring in education." He clicked his fingers. "Snap out of it! You guys were together for two months! Maybe three."

"OK, anyway, what about her?" I was bracing myself. I could almost feel that something bad was coming. She was dead, and it was my fault. Or he and Diana wanted to use my place. No one knew him in this neighborhood, and he would promise it wouldn't be often—poor Cathy! Quickly, I made my decision: I would do the Nancy Reagan thing and just say no. I would say, "Kevin, its none of my business, but why don't you and Cathy get some counseling? You've got a couple of great kids, another on the way—"

"Listen, we ran into her," Kevin said. "We saw Diana. Geneva started kindergarten this year, and Diana works at her school, Corona Vista Elementary. She's a speech therapist there. She and Cathy started talking, and it turns out Diana's a single mom who lives not too far from us. So anyway, Cathy invited her over for dinner."

"Yeah?" I said, trying to urge him to get to the point.

"So she shows up with her kid. Her son."

"OK," I said. Single mom. I didn't like the direction this conversation was going. I had an almost irrepressible urge to throw him out before he continued his story, to open my front door and point outside. This is a man I like, a man I've hung out with, a man whose wedding I ushered. I almost said, "Get out of here and don't come back!" But then I sort of watched myself not do this. In a way, I waited to see what was going to happen next.

"Good, listen to me." His voice got softer until he almost whispered. "The kid looks exactly like you."

All the blood evacuated from my head, and my armpits started to drip. "What?" I said.

"Yeah," Kevin went on. "Same dark hair with that cowlick right over here, same mouth. Good, he's even got glasses."

"What?" I said. Eloquent, I know.

"He looks exactly like you in the fifth grade! He's in fifth grade. Same school. Corona Vista. So is this just some huge, weird coincidence? Should I back off and just never mention it again? Could it be a fluke to find a kid who looks just like you in the fifth grade and happens to be the child of one of your old girifriends—"

"Diane, you said?"

"Diana," he said, shaking his head.

"Blond hair?" I said. I scratched my head. "She played an acoustic guitar that was really beat up?"

"I don't remember that. Maybe I wasn't—"

I ignored him and continued, "She had this funny song about getting dumped on her birthday. About getting presents and eating cake and dividing up CDs and sweatshirts the same day. Remember? About being happy and being sad at the same time? The guitar was a Gibson. It used to be her dad's. He was a folkie who used to—"

"But you said you didn't—"

"But I do," I said. "I do." I lowered my head and looked longingly at the floor. I am not proud to say that there was nothing I wanted more now than to crawl under my bed.


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Text © 1992-2007 by Sara Lewis.

Sarah Lewis