Clinging to a busy stretch of U.S. 1 just south of Red Road, Fox's Sherron Inn is a one-for-the-road roadhouse, a nightcap paradise. Little flashing bulbs beckon to me as soon as I walk through the door, leading me to the jukebox: a shapely late-Sixties model carved out of steel. The musical offerings run from contemporary Top 40 pop and R&B (Will Smith, Marc Anthony, Lauryn Hill) to country, both old and recent (Patsy Cline's "Faded Love" and George Strait's "Today My World Slipped Away"); from big-band standards (Jimmy Dorsey's "Sophisticated Swing" and brother Tommy's version of "Stardust") to novelty rock (Dion's "Donna Donna Prima Donna") and Christmas tunes (Elvis's "Santa Claus Is Back in Town" as well as Bing Crosby's "White Christmas").
No prepackaged holiday cheer for me tonight, though. I'm looking for a sign. Wondering if angels answer telegrams, I tap out a few choice selections: Frank Sinatra's "Someone to Watch Over Me" (1-8-6); Rosemary Clooney's "It Might as Well Be Spring" (1-2-4); Jo Stafford's "You Belong to Me" (1-3-6); and, just for good measure, Johnny Mathis's "Chances Are" (1-6-1).
All in all Fox's seems like an odd place to go looking for a guardian angel. Naked red light bulbs, alongside too few white ones, bathe the room in a velvety crimson glow. Wood-paneled walls rise up from behind the long wood bar, which snakes all the way from the front of the joint to the rear. The stools that line the bar and the five large half-moon-shape booths that fill the room are covered in blood-red vinyl.
For the holidays the establishment has hung wreaths on the walls and faux snow from the top shelf behind the bar. From the ceiling descend oversize reflective gold Christmas balls, topped with red ribbon. Festive. And, now, of course, there's the music of eternal longing and hope as New Jersey's favorite son, St. Francis of Hoboken, croons effortlessly over the din: "There's a somebody I'm longing to see/I hope that she turns out to be/ someone who'll watch over me."
The only trouble is the mob scene surrounding me at the bar. I don't mean to suggest the place is crowded. At the moment there are only a few of us here. No, I mean the script reads more like Martin Scorsese than Frank Capra. The two men and a woman next to me at the bar are telling Jersey jokes. "Hey, pal, are you from Jersey?" they ask me.
"Yeah, actually, I am." They think I'm putting them on, so they hit me with the punch line: "What exit?" Nobody expects an answer to the question.
Jeff, the designated driver, is sober enough, but his companions, Johnny and Cheryl, look as though they've had a few too many on top of a few too many. It's going to take me awhile to catch up, so I order whiskey on the rocks. Cheryl, a blonde in her thirties, drapes an exposed shapely leg over Johnny's lap. Johnny, wearing a dark suit, striped shirt, and red tie, divides his attention between Cheryl, what's left of his cigar, and his drink. Until he sees my notebook. "You're not a cop, are you?" he wants to know, pointing his pinky ring at me. "You got a cop haircut." I assure him I'm just a writer with a recent trim. Turns out Johnny owes Miami-Dade's finest a big favor. "We had to call them to come out one time when Cheryl lost the handcuff keys." Mostly to get even, I ask if Cheryl is a cop. "Naw" replies Johnny. "She's a dominatrix." No wings on Cheryl.
Sinatra, however, has given way to George Clooney's Aunt Rosie, and she's singing to me: "I'm starry-eyed and vaguely discontented/like a nightingale without a song." His own eyes twinkling, the owner, George Andrews, comes out of his office, which is behind the long wood bar. He's wearing a white T-shirt and coaxing the last puff out of a cigar stub. A large man with receding white hair and a white mustache, he could pass for a very tough Kris Kringle. I say hello and ask him what he has planned for the holidays. "Staying open extra-late on New Year's Eve," he volunteers. "Otherwise it'll be the same as every other night: all different kinds of people dropping in."
And George is right. Night in, night out, just about anybody might show. In the booth just behind me sits a spectral figure sucking on a menthol cigarette and trying not to cough up his good lung. With his pencil-thin mustache, starched white shirt, and studied detachment, he might just be William Faulkner. The bourbon he sips, like the prose he once wrote, is straight out of the South. From the way he talks to the waitress, I can tell he's a regular. In my whiskey haze, I imagine this is the great writer's purgatory: forced to drink alone, listening to the postmodern, postliterate ramblings of the University of Miami undergrads who have steadily poured into the bar for the past half hour. I raise a glass to the ghost of Joe Christmas Past.
"Chances are you believe the stars that fill the skies are in my eyes." Mathis. Jo Stafford's lament of love among the jet set must have gotten by me. Maybe because I'm distracted by the bartender, a pretty young blonde in a ribbed gray sweater and black pants. "What can I get you, baby?" she asks. She's not talking to me but to the waitress who runs drink orders to the tables. Still, I lean forward to ask her name. Actually what I say is, "Mind if I ask your name?" She replies, cagily: "No, not at all. Go ahead." Now she's got me.
"Okay, what's your name?"
She smiles. "Heather."
Heather could be the one, my guardian angel. She claims to have worked at Fox's for only two weeks, but there's something about her that suggests she would have been comfortable slinging drinks back in 1946, when this place first opened. Maybe it's the fact she throws around a case of Budweiser and the word baby with equal aplomb. There's something timeless and divine at work here. But the place is now hopping, and Heather is busy fishing beers out of the cooler and mixing drinks. I can't get a word in. The moment disappears, like a set of keys you can't find. No use looking; it'll only drive you nuts.
I throw some money up on the bar and wander back to the juke. She's got a little wear on her and she's cheap, but she's also beautiful, she purrs, and, right at this moment, she's available. Did I say cheap? Hell, she's free. No change required. You just have to know how to push her buttons. I'm about to dial up one last tune for the road. Maybe a Christmas song after all: Bing Crosby's "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" or Elvis's "Blue Christmas." Before I can decide, the current number -- Jimmy Buffett's "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes," for chrissakes -- sticks in her throat. "Some of the selections skip," confesses one of the waitresses, squeezing past me, "but George won't replace them." That's all right, I tell her. She's never missed a beat with me.
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