The red neon rim of the Applebee's sign was flickering out front late one recent Thursday night. The black-letter marquee said there was live music inside.
At the bar was Will Bryant. He moved here two years ago from Ohio, and he's a traveling computer consultant, which means he's usually gone, working long days from Monday to Thursday, which means when he comes home for the weekend he sees that sign and comes in here.
He is 42 - old, he said - and he has a bald spot, and he lives 4 1/2 miles away, and he knows this: He comes here for two reasons.
One: "It's close."
Two: "It's safe."
Maybe three: In front of him was a Bacardi and soda with a citrus slice.
Maybe four. Definitely four.
"I'd like it if there were more women in here, but it ain't happening," Bryant said.
He was asked why not? Where are they? Where do they go?
"I have no idea," he said. "It's a mystery. I know there are women in Wesley Chapel."
Census says so. About half.
"Get more women over here," he said. "Get more women!"
He laughed and hit the bar with his fist.
It smelled sharp, like buffalo wings, and there were those hanging red and green Tiffany-style lamps, and the silent scroll of scores on the TVs set to ESPN, and the bleep-bleeping MegaTouch bar game.
Then the TouchTunes digital jukebox stopped, and Casey Stidham took the mike.
He asked how everybody was doing.
"Good?" he asked.
"Good," he said.
"I hadn't seen the consistent crowd before Casey," Bryant said at the bar. "It was up and down. But the crowds have been getting bigger. There are times if I get here at 11 or so that I won't be able to get a seat."
Casey: sneakers, shorts, ball cap, 23 years old by now. He went to Plant City High School - that's where he's from - did some college, dropped out and drove a forklift in a factory for a while.
It was a learning experience, he said. Learned he didn't want to do that anymore. Now he sings and plays to pay his bills and does that mostly down around where he's from but every week on Thursdays he drives up here.
He played Brown Eyed Girl, Country Boy Can Survive, Wonderwall.
All the roads that lead you there are winding
All the lights that light the way are blinding
There are many things that I would like to say to you
But I don't know how
I said maybe
You're gonna be the one who saves me.
The man with the muscles at the front of the bar was holding hands with the fit woman with the big-rocked ring. Brian Cline, who works concrete, and Ericka Koehler, who teaches kickboxing, are getting married on 6/7/8, which they said is the new 7/7/7.
Heather, the tender of bar, asked Bryant if he wanted another drink.
He thought about that.
"One more," he said. "I'll have one more. Then it's my bedtime."
Someone on the other side of the bar called out to Casey to kick it up a notch.
"Kick it up a notch?
He took his usual midnight break and sat down at a table off to the side where it was just a bit darker.
"I like to think I keep people coming back," he said. "I've heard it spikes a little when I'm here."
He was asked what he thinks that says.
"That there's music here," Casey said.
Break time was over. It was getting on to about 12:20. He got back up behind the mike.
"Okay, I got a bunch of requests ..."
Outside, the lot was full, and so were the tables on the patio by the To Go pickup parking, and that red rim on the sign was still flickering.
Inside, Casey played some Barenaked Ladies, some Johnny Cash.
A wide-shouldered young guy at the table to Casey's right drank a beer real fast and his friends watched and then he finished and put the glass down on top of another glass and there was the loud sound of shards.
It was getting late. The guy had wetness running down his front and he walked around the bar and to the restroom in the back.
About this feature
What happens between 5 p.m. and 9 a.m. is just as important as what happens between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and might actually say more about who we are and where we live. Night is based on that belief. Got an idea? Contact Michael Kruse at email@example.com or (813) 909-4617.