We were sitting at a large rectangular table that was really two smaller ones pushed together, both at capacity, but each still accommodating the handful of folks who’d floated over in seats they docked with us. My friends and I liked it back then when people on the fringe wanted to be part of whatever it was we had going on. Which was quite a lot that night.
I was near the center of the group, on the far-left side of the table closest to the tree to the right. The one that stood smack-dab in the middle of the restaurant, its scratchy bark at odds with the finished planks of the hardwood floor, its canopy obstructed by the ceiling that encircled it. We were at The Trace, a trendy nightspot that a couple of my friends owned in Nashville. Hillsboro Village to be precise. It was early 1999.
By the time things really started to pick up, most of the plates had already been bussed, the few that remained offering half-eaten entrees which drew the occasional nibble, bites taken between sips from one of the several tumblers which dotted the white canvas, my own filled halfway with the bourbon-cutting ice responsible for the beads of sweat that rolled slowly, drunkenly, down the outside till they splashed upon the tablecloth and contributed to the freshest of the damp circles which stamped our table.
In concentrated clumps, these stamps were, thanks to the many and subtle relocations such tumblers experience. Never replaced in the exact spot, though each landing within the same small radius. One of arm’s length, naturally. But not all of the tumblers were active, some having been abandoned for the stemless glasses which held generous portions of red wine from one of the half dozen bottles that were flowing.
Mindy was sitting directly across from me, and she didn’t come off all “hot” as I’d expected. Instead, understated. And quite lovely. Surprisingly down to earth. And as the night wore on, surprisingly erratic, too, alternating between a cool cockiness and a palpable vulnerability.
I forget the exact particulars now. The hows and whys of our encounter. But it wasn’t all that unusual for my friends and me to get a chance meeting with a Nashville personality in those days, thanks largely to our affiliation with The Trace as well as our propensity for carrying on into the wee the hours of the night.
What was unusual, however, was the prolonged and uninterrupted access Mindy permitted. We gathered not in one of the private dining rooms, but instead upon the main floor with everyone else, though our large and crowded vessel did feel like an island unto itself. Mindy and her companions sat with us for hours, the many concentric conversations growing ever louder, their words ever more slurred, their gist ever harder to follow.
At one point, we opted for some privacy after all, and rose from our table, cut through the smoky bar, then the hallway between the private rooms as if going back to the kitchen before making a 180-degree turn and ascending the creaky, narrow staircase that led to the office, our version of backstage, where the rules could be bent without consequence.
Except, of course, the ones we’d exact upon ourselves.
I remember asking which of her (at that point) two albums she preferred, then asking if I might be able to find that particular selection in a second-hand music store.
“Well, yeah probably, but why wouldn’t you buy it new and support me?” she said through a frown.
“I would, Mindy. I was only kidding.”
She didn’t get it.
It was in the office when she began telling us how tough she was. The later it got, the louder she said it. Mindy McCready. The country starlet with the tough-luck smile, who, like us, had no way of knowing she was already a tick past her zenith, and, in fact, in the very initial throes of her spectacular fall, was telling anyone who’d listen that she was one tough cookie. I didn’t believe her, though, and the title of the album she’d release not even a full year later — I’m Not So Tough — told me I wasn’t alone. She obviously didn’t believe it, either.
Not that I ever held that white lie against her. Quite the opposite, in fact. Because all she was doing was spinning herself. And I was no stranger to spinning myself in those days, either. In fact, it was right about that time in my life when I finally began to realize the difference between the persona I projected and the person I really was. It’s hard for a lot of folks to be themselves, you know.
Which is why, for many years, I was content with my persona, and why I carried on with other like-minded personas, sometimes toeing the line and other times doubling down on a soft four with a dealer six showing inside Vegas casinos at hours far closer to dawn than dusk. We were beautiful back then and we knew it. The others did, too, because they could see us standing beneath the wineglasses hanging upside-down and neatly in rows, their round bellies gently vibrating against one another to the pulse of the thundering bass that reverberated through the nighttime air that was thick with their smoke.
Yeah. We were beautiful. Or so I always thought. Even after I learned that many who laugh loudest late, late at night aren’t nearly as happy as they seem.
The night my friends and I hung out with Mindy McCready wasn’t this magical springboard that catapulted me into a higher realm of consciousness. Instead, just another in a long succession that littered my 20s. Nights which, by then, were starting to lose their luster. After all, one can only be mischievous for so long before another adjective is required.
And I didn’t want another adjective.
Which was why, slowly but surely, I got my shit together. Not that I was an out-and-out train wreck. I wasn’t. Still, I made a conscious decision to quit going out so much. To quit being “that guy.” Eventually, I even quit the white-collar job that had treated me so well, in hopes that I might find other avenues that were more akin to the person I continued to learn more and more about.
Not that there’s a single thing wrong with the white-collar world. There’s not. It just wasn’t where I belonged.
I didn’t know it at the time, but those were the very first steps towards finding Caroline and the kids. And as confusing and difficult as my transition proved to be, I’m still forever thankful for those first few steps for getting the process started. Thankful, too, for the world I left behind.
Through the ensuing years, my life got less exciting, but more rewarding, my sense of invincibility slowly replaced by that of practicality. But as my life got better, Mindy’s got worse, or so I gathered from the occasional and troubling report that made the news.
And just two days ago, I got the final report on Mindy’s life — that she’d chosen to end it — and I can’t quit thinking about that decision or the lovely and talented woman who made it. The former superstar. The mother of two. The love-starved addict.
The girl who, at the height of her stardom, told me repeatedly that she was tough. She may have gotten it wrong back then, but not by much. Because while Mindy may not have been so tough, her life sure was.
God bless you, Mindy McCready. And may you rest in peace. I’ll always remember you as one of the beautiful ones.
Because you were.
Read more of JCO Multiplied:
Backseat Parenting from the Corner Booth at Waffle House
NYC Nanny Killings: Personalizing the Tragedy
7 Things You Should NOT Discuss With the Parents of Triplets
How the DVR Ruined My Vacation in Specific and Parenting in General
15 Things Every Stepparent Should Know
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