When my husband and I push through the plate-glass door into the Rose Marie Inn, Chrissie Hynde is belting about a place in the past we've been cast out of. We can hear the grease in the fryer popping in the kitchen, and coming from the half-full row of stools along the bar, the talk is of football, the new strip mall, and how she'll come back just as soon as she runs out of money she always does.
Farther back, just past the booths and right by the Pac-Man machine, a lady in a Dolly Parton wig leans against the jukebox, her face bathed in the neon glow, her index finger drawn to punch another song. It's 10 o'clock, and Saturday night's waxing toward its finest hour. But for now it's half-full, half-lit: this bar and everyone in it.
Chris and I settle into a booth in the back. Tucker, the bartender, comes right over, a draft beer in each hand. He's 69 and has a handlebar mustache. He wears a short-sleeved, collared shirt, black leather suspenders and a long white apron around his waist.
When I tell my husband that the Rose Marie Inn is the best bar in Richmond, probably in the universe, he says, "That's, you know, maybe a little hyperbolic."
In defense, I marshal key evidence. I tap the original Formica tabletop. I point to the pictures of the customer-of-the-month club, which date back to the '70s, and the pictures of catfish and fishing trips, which date back even further. I tap my Miller Lite draft, which costs just $1.75. I point to Tucker the perfect bartender: prompt, friendly, discreet who understands the gesture perfectly and brings over another pair of beers.
I point to the crowd: University of Richmond kids, middle-aged lonelies, elderly regulars. I point to the menu reasonably priced bar food with a few Southern specials thrown in: fried chicken, fried fish and barbecue sandwiches with cole slaw. I point out the owner of the Rose Marie, Johnny Fleming.
The Rose Marie has been in Fleming's family since 1971. (It's been in its present Patterson Avenue location since 1959; it first opened on Cleveland Street in the Museum District in 1938.) Fleming can explain the history of the pizza in Richmond and how it came to be a standard bar offering, and how ABC laws have shaped Virginia bar furnishings in the last 80 years. He can take his high-school yearbook Thomas Jefferson, class of '61 off the top of the fridge case by the front door, and he can detail all the famous and semi-famous football players and basketball players and golfers who've been connected to the Rose Marie. Summarizing the appeal of the place, Fleming will say, "You're always trying to connect to the past."
He knows. After 30 years of single life, Fleming recently reconnected with his seventh-grade sweetheart. A couple of months ago, she came into the bar to ask for directions. They hadn't seen each other in 40 years; now they're married.
A place like this and a love like this are rare, and in that rarity there's something both fragile and timeless. Could this be why I love the Rose Marie so much and want Chris to love it too? Our story is much the same, though we had to wait just eight years.
But my trump card's the jukebox. Its selections include Merle Haggard, Al Green, Jackson Browne, the Platters, Patsy Cline and everyone else you want to hear this time of week and night. Four plays for a dollar. The music is loud enough to hear, but low enough that it never interferes with conversation.
I cadge a single off Chris, who's smiling as if he's been almost persuaded, and punch in "Fountain of Sorrow," "Bells of Rhymney," and "Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon." Then, "Back on the Chain Gang," because nobody in the Rose Marie minds a repeat.
Turning back to our table, I catch sight of something in the big plate-glass window. The way the light fixtures hanging over the booths are reflected there makes it look as if this tiny room stretches on forever. Chris faces me, that infinity dropping back behind him.
All of a sudden, it seems possible I'll go on looking at my husband's young face forever, that this Saturday night will go on forever.
And it will go on forever. At least until 2. S
Rose Marie Inn
8923 Patterson Ave.
Open daily, year-round, from 8 a.m. to between midnight and 2 a.m.