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I think she really likes me.

The sign outside tells passersby that Cookie's still here. But new dancers are always welcome. -- Luke Turf

The Toad Tavern
5302 South Federal, Littleton
12:35 a.m.

Plunked down in suburbia at the southernmost end of Federal, the Toad Tavern stands out like a Broncos fan at Arrowhead. And in the witching hour, the only signs of life in this neighborhood are coming from the Toad.

As I enter the bar, Bruce Hornsby loudly beckons anyone within earshot to "listen to my heart break every time she runs away." Sorry, Bruce, but your earnest plea is falling on deaf ears. I've got some serious heartbreak of my own to contend with tonight. I came down to the Triple T to check out the live music and score some free Anthony's pizza. But as it turns out, the complimentary pizza won't be doled out until Friday's happy hour (natch), and the band has just finished playing. As the musicians -- who all appear much too young to be up so late on a school night -- stack their instruments on the edge of an empty dance floor, a lonely merkin ball spins silently, sparsely illuminated by a strip of Christmas lights framing the entryway to be the bar's makeshift VIP area. Across the dance floor, three guys hover intently around a trivia console as though they're hashing out plans for an upcoming bank robbery.

At the back of the long, L-shaped bar, a big-screen TV is tuned to ESPN's Sports Center, which is rolling through a montage of the day's game highlights. A handful of folks are perched on bar stools, clutching their drinks and chatting. "Mandolin Rain" stops falling, giving way to the unmistakable rumbling bass line of Tool's "Stinkfist," which sounds as loud as a jet engine firing up.

"This one's for you, Tracy," remarks the sound man, glancing toward the bar.

Good call.

A few minutes later, I make my way out to the Toad's posh new smoker-friendly patio, which sits on the sidewalk just in front of the bar. Although many bar owners are bemoaning the smoking ban, the Toad seems to be making the best of it. Fenced in by a cast-iron rail and outfitted with a pair of futons and several bar stools, the section is an invitation to fire up and shoot the shit.

"Justice is hitting on me," comments a slender blonde to her friend.

"I noticed," says the friend.

"I'm like, ŒI like boys,'" says the blonde, with a look of exasperation.

Just as the words leave her lips, a petite woman with dark, close-cropped hair flings open the bar door and comes stumbling onto the patio, inspiring the two ladies to make their way back inside.

"You got a smoke I can get from one of you guys?" asks Justice, who's clad in a baggy, checkered shirt, beige slacks and construction boots. "Just one?"

"I don't smoke," says the burly guy seated on a nearby stool.

"You're fuckin' full of shit," Justice slaps back, incredulous. "What the fuck you doin' out here, then, bro?"

"Claire drug me out here," he responds. "Hey, smell my breath. I don't smoke."

"I don't smell a motherfucker's breath," says Justice.

The guy gives up and heads back inside.

Unloading a banana clip of F-bombs, Justice is tore up from the floor up. As she leans against the rail and takes a pull from her beer, she sprays random invective about a box of onions someone left behind, free for the taking. "Fuck, yeah," she exclaims to a guy standing next to her. "Dude, we're having a big-ass fuckin', fuckin' cookout, dude! I'll tell you what."

A few minutes later, she confirms what's obvious to everyone. "Fuck," she mutters. "I'm fucked up, dude."

With that, she sets down her beer, thanks us for the smokes and heads for the door. On her way out, she turns and says, "I better get my ass gone, man, maintain my own self, you know?"

We know. -- Dave Herrera

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