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Last Call at the Long Night Club

A winter solstice story

By David Templeton

It is not uncommon, when locked in hand-to-hand combat with a frightening illness, for a person to turn to religion for a bit of comfort and courage. Whenever one's future is in doubt, there is a natural human tendency to seek solace in something larger than oneself, and often it is the simple convictions of our youth, the faiths of our mothers and fathers, to which we turn. Sunny Sommerfeld was different.

When it was, at long last, clear beyond doubt that something was wrong, that Sunny was in fact quite seriously ill, even though the specific reasons for her condition--the lingering, ever lengthening periods of daily unconsciousness--were still unexplained, she did not seek consolation from the Christian assurances with which she'd been raised. She did not consult her husband Tom's brother, the rabbi, nor did she explore the pages of any spiritual text. With little explanation and no hesitation, she elected to follow a different path.

Overnight, Sunny became a pagan.

The blackouts began in early summer. The first occurred at 8:30am on Saturday, June 21, and lasted roughly 24 minutes. Sunny was in her studio, starting a new painting, when she felt a soft buzzing at the back of her head, followed by a sharp wave of nausea, and then blackness. When she came to, she was curled up on the floor, a paintbrush in one hand. It happened again the next morning, exactly the same way, then every morning, more or less at 8:30. When Sunny and her husband, Tom, visited the hospital, they were told the extended episodes of unconsciousness were nothing more than nerves.

Sunny had been married to Tom for five years, and together they'd recently taken over operation of the Long Road Club, a venerable barnlike tavern on the outskirts of town. It was hard work, but all the old regulars--who'd stopped coming in after the place was sold to the Sommerfelds--soon discovered that they actually liked Tom and Sunny, and the tavern was finally making money, if just enough to keep the doors open.

Then came the blackouts.

Once the medical specialists had ruled out epilepsy, diabetes, anemia, cardiac arrhythmia, brain tumor, dissociative identity disorder, and alcoholism, it was concluded that the daily stress of running a business was the probable cause of Sunny's spells. The doctors' benign diagnosis would have been comforting to the Sommerfelds, except for the fact that Sunny was among the most cheerful, optimistic, and stress-free individuals anyone could think of. Not that she wasn't remarkably sensitive to her surroundings, but those sensitivities were mainly linked to the weather and the environment. She could always tell when a thunderstorm was coming. When it came to other people, and to hard work under difficult circumstances, Sunny's cheerful nature had always been enough to keep stress and worry at arm's length.

 

The Long Road Club was so named due to the 12-mile road patrons were forced to travel when visiting the odd little tavern on the mountain. It was nicknamed the Long Night Club due, in part, to the tavern's original owner, Dr. Octavius Melon. A professor of astronomy, Dr. Melon decided to build a tavern in which to serve out his retirement, and selected a piece of land far enough away from the lights of the city so as to not interfere with his nightly stargazing.

As soon as the tavern was built and its doors opened, Dr. Melon set out to construct a little observatory out back. It was a thick, low building built to house a large, handmade telescope with a 16-inch reflecting mirror that Melon had crafted himself using an old glass porthole window from the broken boat he found rotting in Buster Munton's salvage yard. Though he built it for his own use, Melon enjoyed showing it off, and the little observatory was soon attracting its own visitors to the Long Road Club.

Eventually, as more and more star watchers showed up for a beer, a sandwich, and a peek at the sky, Melon added the Star Tower. Three stories tall, it stood atop a hill overlooking the tavern. A straight, plain-sided edifice of weathered wood, the Tower had a long ladder inside, reaching all the way to the top, where there was a large, round platform with a low railing. Most nights, Octavius Melon would ascend the tower, often alone but sometimes with an astronomically inclined patron or two, where hours would be spent stretched out on the platform, faces turned up to the heavens, drinking in the vastness of the universe with naked eyes.

There was little to adorn the tower's exterior beyond a smattering of yellow painted stars and moons. That celestial theme--stars, moons, planets--was continued in the tavern itself, where Melon filled the walls with photographs of constellations and planets. Hanging on the northernmost wall was a large circular tapestry, dark blue and deep black, on which were sewn all the constellations of the winter sky. It was Dr. Melon's one and only firsthand attempt at art, and there were those who thought it ugly.

Sunny liked the tapestry the first time she saw it.

It was to Sunny and Tom that Dr. Melon sold the tavern when he had, after many years of declining vision, been declared legally blind. The change of ownership alarmed Buster Munton, owner of the local salvage yard, and Boden Rainbone, the high school science teacher. Each was an amateur astronomer. For years, Buster and Boden had been patrons of the Long Road Club. It was a place for people to come to talk and listen, and for amateur astronomers, there was always much to talk about, with the observatory and the Star Tower out back to offer additional stimulation.

For Buster, who was divorced, his ex-wife and five children living off in the city, and for Boden, whose brothers rarely called, the other patrons of the Long Road Club and Dr. Melon--who had moved into a large trailer just down the hill from the Star Tower--had become a kind of substitute family. One evening, inspired by the stars and moons splayed across the tavern's interior, the observatory and the rest, Buster Munton affectionately dubbed the place "the Long Night Club."

It was an even better nickname than anyone knew.

 

Sunny's conversion came at the end of August. The blackouts had been worsening for two months. What began in June as a 24-minute lapse of consciousness had stretched to nearly three and a half hours, and Sunny was hungry for an explanation. She found it one afternoon, after emerging from a 178-minute faint. When she opened her eyes, she was on the floor of the tavern, with her head in Tom's lap.

"Welcome back," he said.

"What did I miss?" she murmured, forcing a smile as she shuddered and shook from the effort of regaining consciousness. What did I miss? It was her usual response upon waking. She might have said "Good morning," but the blackouts were so lengthy now, she no longer came out of them while it was still morning, and she inwardly believed that "Good morning" was what people said when they had no reason to suspect that there might be no tomorrow to say "Good morning" to. On this particular morning, while Tom went on holding her, stroking her hair, Sunny smiled again, letting her gaze drift from his face to the ceiling, and finally to the big circular tapestry on the wall.

Suddenly it dawned on her. She understood what was happening.

Pulling herself to her feet, she went to the calendar on the wall. Turning back to the month of June, she tapped her finger on the 21st, the day of her first blackout. Summer solstice. The longest day of the year. There was a noise in the room, and Tom and Sunny glanced up to see Dr. Melon, Buster, and Boden, all sitting in a row in the back booth.

"Afternoon, boys," she smiled.

 

In the Northern Hemisphere," Dr. Melon was telling Sunny and Tom, "the summer solstice marks the longest day of the year--and the shortest night." As he explained the scientific mechanisms of the solstice, Boden and Buster contributed a few additional thoughts of their own. Sunny and Tom soon understood the basics. The earth travels around the sun. As it does, the north-south position of the sun changes, due to the tilt of the earth, which shifts in relation to the sun, thus causing the seasons.

While the summer solstice signals the point at which the sun is as far north as it can be, creating one very long day, and one correspondingly short night. The winter solstice is the reverse, a point at which the people of the Northern Hemisphere experience the shortest day of the year.

"And the longest night," Dr. Melon said.

"In ancient times, the winters meant darkness and cold and death," Buster added, sipping his beer. "As the nights grew longer, people couldn't be absolutely sure it wouldn't keep on getting worse, with the world sliding off into some monster-sized night. Winter solstice was the day humans celebrated the turning point."

"That's why they burned big bonfires, to try and call the sun back to the earth," Boden went on. "They decorated evergreen trees. They painted spirals on everything. That's the pagan symbol for the movements of the universe, the stars and planets, life and death--the spiral."

"Basically," said Dr. Melon, "winter solstice was when they all got together to pray to the sun for it to return."

Sunny stood listening, her breathing shallow, her eyes moist and bright with excitement and understanding.

"Let's start praying," she said.

The men stared at her as she explained her theory. Improbably, mysteriously, she'd begun picking up the movements of the sun and the earth, mirroring the darkness of the lengthening nights in her own daily blackouts, which were growing longer because the nights were growing longer.

Sunny turned to Tom. "I think I'm the new solstice queen," she said. If her suspicions, as unlikely and bizarre as they seemed, were somehow true, then at winter solstice, when the darkness of the night stops and turns itself around, Sunny's blackouts should begin growing shorter. Possibly, they might stop altogether. "What do you think?" she asked.

They all continued looking at her, considering her words.

"Certainly, why not?" said Dr. Melon.

 

Winter solstice was marked that year for Dec. 22. Sunny built an altar at the back of the tavern, on the mantle of the fireplace, covering it with pine boughs and candles. She read The Golden Bough and The Spiral Dance. She and Tom took long walks in the woods, considering the intertwined relationships of the natural world. Whenever possible, she arranged to have her blackouts on top of the Star Tower; some nights, she and Tom slept there, her face turned up to the night.

Though hardly a traditional pagan observance, Sunny's favorite song became Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles. Tom, uncertain how else to help, always made sure it was playing on the jukebox or CD player whenever Sunny was coming up from one of her increasingly-long spells. "Cheer up, solstice is coming," she'd remind him brightly, but Tom was unable to chase away the persistent thought that his young wife might be wrong. Perhaps, little by little, Sunny really was slipping away. Though he said nothing to dull her optimism, Tom feared that one day in the future she would slide off into a long blackout and never wake up again.

Sunny understood the danger.

Her newfound paganism was, for her, a way to make sense of that danger. By observing the rituals of ancient peoples, she felt that she was creating a context for her illness, one which offered a sense of hope she could not find in the doctors' timid speculations. In becoming a pagan, Sunny was accepting that the world was full of mystery, but that it all followed a pattern, a pattern that would lead her back into the day.

With Octavius Melon's permission, Sunny pulled down the big circular tapestry and took it out to her studio on the second floor of the Star Tower. There, upon the faded constellations of the tapestry, Sunny began painting. It was a great multicolored spiral, spinning up in a clockwise direction from inside to out. As the months moved by--September, October, November--and as the blackouts lengthened to five, eight, and twelve hours, Sunny soon ran out of room on the tapestry. She began adding pieces of old quilts, blankets, and canvas tents, sewing them on at the edges so she might expand the ever growing art piece.

As the blackouts also expanded, she had less and less time each day to work on the spiral, but Tom had taken over responsibilities of the tavern, and Sunny used what time she had for painting. When interested patrons would step by to see what she was up to, marveling at the widening circle of fabric, she explained that she liked to keep busy, but in her thoughts she knew the spiral was the one thing that helped keep her mind away from that prickling sense of rising fear--the same fear Tom was trying so hard to hide from her--that her mysterious darkness might never turn itself around.

 

"Too bad there can't be a real bonfire," she said. The morning of the 22nd had finally come. Sunny's most recent blackout clocked in at 14 and a half hours. The spiral was complete, or as complete as it seemed likely to be. It now measured an astonishing 54 feet across, big enough to cover the entire platform at the top of the Star Tower, dangling down several feet or so all around. If someone could have stood that tapestry spiral on end, it would have risen one and a half times as high at the tower itself.

It was there, up on the tower in the center of the spiral, that Sunny planned to spend her solstice. Dr. Melon, Buster Munton, Boden Rainbone and several other patrons had walked up the hill to the tower to wish her well. In a few moments, they all knew, for whatever reason, cosmic or physical, Sunny would be slipping away, and by all indications this would be her longest blackout yet. Everyone planned to take turns climbing the ladder to sit with her through the long day and night. Sunny had been hoping for a bonfire, to echo the ancient ritual to call back the sun, but as there was no place nearby to build one safely, it was decided that a simple charcoal barbecue--already carried to the platform and fired up by Tom--would be enough of a bonfire to count and might serve to keep Sunny and her watchers somewhat warmer. Buster Munton planned to cook hot dogs during his shift on the platform.

At 8:15, Sunny stood in front of the tower.

"Well, here I go," she said, "off to have the most important blackout of my life." Followed by Tom, she stepped inside and climbed to the top. It was cold, but there was a sleeping bag, and the glowing coals of the barbecue, though a bit absurd, were strangely comforting. As she tucked herself inside the bag, she ran her hand along the swirls of color painted on the tapestry on which she was lying. Immediately, she felt the familiar buzzing in her head, the jolt of nausea. Tom took her hand and held it tight.

"Don't leave me alone," Sunny asked.

"You won't be alone," Tom promised.

She closed her eyes and slid into blackness.

 

Fifteen hours later, at midnight, a fire was blazing in the tavern fireplace. Tom was up with Sunny, now taking his fifth shift on the platform. Most of the regulars had taken at least one turn, with a steady supply of hot dogs and hamburgers sent to the tavern throughout the day and evening. This was a good thing, as there were many mouths to feed. The tavern was full, not just with people from the town, but with others--old friends and family and long-distant relatives, unexpectedly invited to make the long drive that night out to the tavern.

The phone calls started early in the evening, inspired by a comment by Dr. Melon. "You know, the modern Christmas party owes much to winter solstice," he said, sitting at the bar. "While ancient peoples did come together to honor the turning of the year, there was another reason they congregated in those little villages each solstice. They came together because no one knew who would still be alive when the winter was over. They gathered together because they understood that this might be their last season on earth, their last chance to meaningfully love their friends and their families."

As Dr. Melon spoke, Buster found himself wondering whom he'd want to see if this were indeed the last turn of the planet. Suddenly, he realized how much he missed his children, how much he needed to see them right then, and he went to make the call. Boden was having similar thoughts, wondering what his brothers would say if he suddenly called to invite them up to the tavern for some food and drink.

For everyone present, there was someone out there somewhere whom they were missing, whom they were needing to tell something to. Within hours, the tavern was crammed with people--family reunions, children and grandparents, old friends and new friends. Tom's brother, the rabbi, was there with his family, and Father Ogilvie, who baptized Sunny years before, had also stopped by to lend his support as Sunny slept on.

At 1:30am, which usually marked the last call for drinks at the Long Night Club, she had still not awoken, though it had been 17 hours since she'd last spoken, over two hours longer than her longest blackout. A regular patron, Agnes Olden, the pharmacist, had just gone out to relieve Tom, but after a few moments, she pushed back through the tavern door and shouted: "The tower's on fire!"

 

How the fire started is not known--a stray ash from the barbecue? faulty wiring in the second-floor studio?--and it is not particularly important. What mattered was that Sunny and Tom were up there, and Sunny was still unconscious. The flames had engulfed the bottom floor of the tower, and though Tom might have made it down the ladder and through the flames, it would have been impossible while carrying his wife.

The entire human contents of the tavern were now gathered at the tower. As some attempted to run hoses up from the tavern, others worked to organize a bucket brigade. Octavius Melon, standing with Boden and Buster, asked them to describe what was happening. The flames were almost as high as the spiral tapestry, which had been hanging down all around the platform until a moment ago, when Tom had pulled it up onto the platform. When Buster mentioned that they could hear the sound of hammering from atop the platform, Dr. Melon understood what was about to happen. Tom, it seems, had devised a plan of escape, and Sunny had made it possible.

"Everyone move back," Melon said.

A minute later, one-half of the vast tapestry came fluttering down, and Buster, helped by Boden and his numerous brothers, were able to snatch the end of it before it flapped down into the flames. The other end, up on the platform, had been nailed down by Tom, who was able to bring a hammer and nails up from the second-floor studio. With dozens of people holding the spiral down on the ground, pulling it tight, they could make a kind of slide. If everyone worked fast enough, Tom and Sunny might be saved.

On the platform, Tom lifted Sunny in his arms. She was still in the sleeping bag, her head cradled against his chest. He carried her over to the edge of the platform where the tapestry was fastened on one end, with everyone they knew holding fast to the other, and the flames beginning to rise too high to make escape possible.

"You're not alone," he whispered to Sunny, his lips against her hair. Then he stepped out and off, and together they fell.

 

Sunny was dreaming. Though she'd never dreamed during her blackouts, she was dreaming in this one. She was flying, her hair sailing out behind her. Tom was there, floating at her side. As they flew, they passed over a mighty bonfire burning in the night, then another and another, hundreds of fires burning in the darkness, out across the world and across time. She knew that one of the fires was burning for her, but she didn't know which one. As she sailed from fire to fire, there came singing, rising up from the world, a thousand different songs in a thousand different languages. In her dream, Tom pointed to a fire in the far distance. "That way," Tom said, pointing, and they began to fly toward one large, very bright bonfire.

"How do we know it's mine?" she asked Tom.

"Listen," he said. "They're singing your song."

They landed softly enough, rolling to the ground from off the billowing spiral. With Tom and Sunny safely down to earth, the tapestry was released, catching ablaze as it swung back into the flames.

"Well," Buster said, "I guess Sunny got her bonfire."

She was still unconscious. Tom lay beside her, still holding her close, when he got an idea. "Sing," he said to Dr. Melon. "Sing Here Comes the Sun."

"Why not?" Melon replied.

Soon, all were singing.

Here comes the sun, and I say, it's all right.

A few moments later, Sunny stirred. She opened her eyes. Though the world was still in the dark of night, the light of the burning tower illuminated her face. She was smiling as she looked up at Tom.

"Good morning," she said.

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From the December 25-31, 2003 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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