Milledgeville’s not famous for its bar scene. When it comes to nightlife, you’ve got Hancock Street and Wayne Street, which is a cross street of Hancock Street. If you’re an undergrad who likes sugary drinks and (alleged) sexual assault at the hands of lecherous NFL quarterbacks, you’re probably a fan of Capital City, where the Katy Perry’s loud and the grinding is honest. If, however, you’re older and more interested in just plain old boozing (and a place where the Katy Perry is a little less loud), you’re likely a denizen of one of three very similar, not-quite-painful but certainly not-even-close-to-cool places with names like The Brick, Chop’s, or The Velvet Elvis—all of which, in truth, are just C-list restaurants masquerading as bars. But if you’re a neurotic MFA student with a three-day beard and a penchant for endless complaint, you’re pretty much always at Buffington’s.
Buffington’s became the go-to after my first year of MFA, when my assistantship forced me to remain in Milledgeville all summer to run the school’s writing center. Milledgeville is generally a ghost town, but from late May to early August, when students escape to the McMansions of Gwinnett County, it becomes a ghost town proper. In my eight weeks of clock-watching and time frittering, not more than ten kids stopped by. And, if memory serves, at least half of those kids arrived all at once and were exchange students fresh from Japan. (Oh, they needed help with their papers all right, but whatever it’d take was more than I could offer.) That summer was long and lonesome and weird. Milledgeville’s streets were empty. I had little money and even less to do. Most days, I’d wake up, write, go to work, run, cook dinner, watch a movie and go to bed. Sometimes it was nice. Other times I felt so alone I thought I’d fade away. Thankfully, my buddy N. was in town too. Both of us were coming from college towns—he from Morgantown, me from Baton Rouge—and the two of us could commiserate. We were still new friends then, not super-close, but we agreed that, money be damned, we had to start going out. For a few weeks we bounced around, but in the end our bar was Buffington’s.
Much of this had to do with the fact that K., another friend and a recent MFA grad, was tending bar. Let’s just say the ship that Buffington’s ran wasn’t a tight one, and N. and I took full advantage. We’d stroll in about nine every Friday, pre-buzzed from the camo-can tallboys of Busch Light we’d slurped on his porch on Elbert Street. We’d pull up our stools and K.—who hated her job and wanted badly to leave town—would smile her little devil’s smile and pour us pint glasses three-quarters full of Kentucky Gentleman. N. and I would drink the drinks too fast and feel lucky and let the night carry us where it would. It was a happy place, Buffington’s, and had a good crowd, too—mostly the mountain-man dudes getting their masters in Outdoor Ed and the pretty girls from the coffee shop or the theatre department—all of whom occupied a nice middle ground in style between hippy and hipster. I must’ve spent twenty nights there that summer I was twenty-three. I don’t think my tab was ever more than ten bucks.
Over the next two years, if we made memories, we made them at Buffington’s. There was the time I confronted a flirty girl from my British Modernism class about having a crush on me but being too scared to admit it; the time I told some other girl I liked that her boyfriend was a righteous chump. (The former was coy; the latter was pissed; I managed to sleep with neither.) It was where I jumped through the window one night to avoid paying a five-dollar cover, where my most gorgeous student once drunkenly sent one of her equally drunken friends on a mission to tell me she had “a big thing for me”—and then showed up to my class the next afternoon like it was nothing. It was the place where, on a snowy night in December, after finishing the first draft of my thesis, I passed out cold on a tabletop; where we toasted my beautiful poetry professor the day she found out her first book would be published. And the characters, my God, the characters. The old man with white hair and glasses (rumored to be the owner’s dad) who seemed ever-perched on his barstool, playing not-so-innocent games of grab-ass and saying nasty things to passersby with unsettling impunity. And the girl, the pudgy townie girl—so drunk so often, she was barely a person—who’d lumber around the barroom in short skirts and too much makeup. You’d see her tits sometimes, her ass. But that was just it, wasn’t it? That charmless charm. It became my place, the only place I’d ever go.
But, for a time in my last year, we weren’t supposed to go. K. had quit the bar and broken up with her very unhappy boyfriend who still very much worked there. As a sign of solidarity, our friend group stood by K. We had more house parties, suffered through Karaoke nights at a new bar that seemed to change its name every week and then closed its doors altogether. I did my best to make due, but the whole time Buffington’s called to me like a siren. And on the night K. braved up and let us all go back, her ex-boyfriend bought me and her new boyfriend—my buddy A. who later became K.’s husband—a round of shots. He said nothing but gave us a firm nod, which, of course, said everything.
There is one more memory of Buffington’s—the one I’ve tried to forget. Not long before my thesis defense, N., my roommate, and I stopped in for a round of post-workshop beers. The bar was overrun that night with unfamiliar faces, a new gang of locals maybe, or folks just passing through. Either way, we were crammed in and the mood was off. N. is gay, you see, and while that shouldn’t mean anything, it certainly meant something in Milledgeville. People were eyeing us. At some point a man in a hat and a denim jacket came up behind N. and smacked him hard on his ass. He said something, too. I’m sure of it, but I don’t remember what. For me, time had stopped.
Afterward, my roommate and I walked home in silence. Finally, one of us—I don’t remember who—said what we were both sick to death of thinking. What was the matter with us? Why didn’t we stand up for our friend and knock that guy down? Why didn’t we tell him that he was a coward, that he and his posse were no more than Podunk trash? Neither of us knew then, and I don’t know now. But what I did know for sure was this: it was good that we were leaving Milledgeville. Three years had been enough.
But, anyway, Buffington’s. If you ever find yourself in Middle Georgia—that dead zone of red clay and second growth pine—you may as well stop in. They’ve got stiff drinks, a dodgeable cover, and all but one of the memories you’ll make there won’t haunt you. Also: Yuengling.
William Torrey lives and works in Baton Rouge. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Florida Review, The North American Review, Washington Square Review, Colorado Review, the Hawai'i Review, New Madrid and Zone 3, where his story "Trabajar" won the 2011 Editors' Prize. He is currently at work on a novel. @wshametorrey | firstname.lastname@example.org.