by Katrina Denza
Patti took the bar manager job the day her divorce from Jimmy became official. That morning, she’d let her cat out to pee and then bent down and picked up the day’s newspaper, moist with dew, and brought it inside. Over coffee and toast, she scanned the want ads. Her job as art teacher was over for the summer and she couldn’t imagine the next two and a half months with nothing to distract her. The ad for a manager’s position in her new town required only that she like people. And she did. For the most part.
She’d never worked in a bar before, but she’d certainly been around enough to understand that in rural Vermont, there was more pouring of draft beer than fancy cocktails. She’d seen it done: pull back handle, beer flows out. Easy, peasy. But this was a management job, so maybe all she’d have to do was stand at one end of a long bar and like people.
In the afternoon, Patti drove away from the courthouse and followed winding Rt. 7 twenty miles north. Her town—her separate-from-Jimmy town—was small: Rt. 7 was the main street with a few arterial roads leading off into farm country in directions east and west. In the center was an old-fashioned grocery that sat next to a hardware store, and across the street, some kind of hippy shop squatted beside a fusion café. Patti found the bar behind these businesses, the access a narrow road that sloped downhill to a colossal red barn, the kind of barn one might see in a horror flick, topped by a brass eagle with a maniacal stare. A sign on the front near the roof’s peak read: Mountains de Tavern. Later she would learn that it was meant to read Mountainside Tavern, and that its missing letter had been plucked away by an unconfirmed tornado, but when she first saw it, she assumed it was some sort of tribute to Quebec.
Patti sat in her Volvo until Melissa Etheridge’s song “I Want to Come Over” ended. She marveled at the thought of loving someone enough to obsess over him. She imagined herself prowling around Jimmy’s apartment, peeking in his windows at night. Patti and Jimmy had lived together for almost six years, but she believed it impossible to really know someone unless privy to what he did when he was alone. She wondered if all Jimmy’s annoying habits, like his picking the skin around his fingernails and his constant throat clearing, had sprouted again like stubborn weeds, now that she wasn’t there to disapprove. Maybe he’d have a new girlfriend over or maybe she’d spy him masturbating under the covers like so many nights near the end of their marriage, the tell-tale sounds of friction giving it away.
Patti checked her teeth in the rear-view mirror and then dug around in her bag for the big bottle of Chanel she’d bought her first week of separation. Jimmy didn’t like perfume, said it made him asthmatic, though she never saw him use an inhaler. He was a sensitive sort, though. Ordinary smells like wood smoke, deodorant, household cleaners, were enough to make him retreat to bed complaining of a wheeze and a migraine. “Listen,” he’d say, his eyes wide with panic. He’d pull her ear to his chest and breathe deep. “Hear that?” She never heard a thing but that didn’t stop him from imagining that his airways were about to swell up and shut down. Food was another problem. Nearly everything but meat and potatoes made his tongue tingle, his throat constrict, his acid reflux rise to scorch his esophagus. He claimed that people whose bodies could detect harmful chemicals and toxins in the environment were important for the survival of mankind. Well, okay, maybe she could buy that, except he didn’t do anything but complain and withdraw. Some guard dog he was.
Patti stood outside the door of the tavern, straightened the skirt of her suit, and after looking around to make sure no one was looking, sniffed to see if her deodorant was still working. Satisfied, she went in. The clouds had thickened considerably throughout the afternoon so that the inside of the bar was dark, in spite of two rather large windows on both sides of the long, narrow space. To her left were square tables with wooden chairs stacked on top. To her right, a pool table and next to it, along the wall, a jukebox and a dart board. The odor was unmistakably tavern: stale smoke, spilled beer, and pee. She click-clacked her way back to the bar, where a man sat watching a soccer game on TV. When she cleared her throat he glanced sideways at her from under the rim of a black cowboy hat. He wore a Grateful Dead tee shirt and jeans. She couldn’t really see his face.
“Hello,” she said.
“Are you Bill?”
The man swiveled his stool around to face her. He tipped his hat back on his head, giving her a better look. His eyes were squinty, his face broad and tan. His full bottom lip poked out between his mustache and beard. He was not an unattractive man. Except maybe his posture was bad. He slouched to one side.
After rudely looking her up and down, he turned back around. “Nope,” he said to the air in front of him. “Bill’s in the back.”
A slender man in a polo shirt and khakis came through the kitchen door whistling. He nodded at Patti. “Can I help you?”
“I called this morning.”
She grew uncomfortable as he looked her at her with an undisguised look of amusement.
“For the manager’s job?”
Bill nodded, still smirking. “Come back here for a minute.”
She walked behind the bar, through the door he held open and into a room that looked as if it had once been a real kitchen, though Patti couldn’t imagine the bar had ever been a house—it didn’t have the right bones. The floor—hunter green wide boards—slanted to the right, ending at a deep sink with a window above it. A fly buzzed against the glass panes.
Bill opened a fridge and pulled out a beer. He held it up. “Want one?”
She shook her head.
“Yes, well, I’m Bill Walters. I try to come to this shithole as little as possible and that’s why I’m looking for someone to run it for me.” He leaned against a stainless steel counter and took a long draw off his beer. His eyes crinkled pleasantly at the corners. “Just kidding. Truth is, my family and I are going to France for the summer and I need someone to manage it while I’m gone.”
“You think you’re that person?”
Patti nodded again.
“Do you talk?”
“Yes. Sorry. I’m Patti.” She held out her hand which he ignored.
“Ever managed a bar before?”
“No, but I’m a fast learner.”
“Hmm.” Bill scratched his chin. “What do you do in real life?”
“I’m an art teacher for White Brook Elementary.”
Bill nodded as if he’d already known. “Right. Not exactly bar manager material—no offense.”
“I like challenges.”
He waved a fly away from his face then shrugged. “It’s your sanity.”
He took her around the kitchen. She worked hard to remember everything he said: how much Tabasco and horseradish to add to the Bloody Mary mix, how often the beer reps came, which line hooked up to the soda and which to the CO2. It was too much. She wanted a nap.
As if Bill could read her mind, he pulled a sheet of paper off the fridge. “It’s all here, you know.”
She could feel him studying her as she took the paper from him. She pretended to read the list.
“You know, you may not want to dress so fancy on the job,” Bill told her. “Folks that come in here aren’t really into fashion.”
Patti looked down at the suit she’d worn to court. The skirt was so tight she could hardly walk in it. Did he really think she’d wear it to work? Men. She handed the list back to Bill who pinned it on the fridge under a Coors magnet.
“How many bartenders work here?”
“I was wondering how many people I’ll be in charge of.”
“One. Yourself.” He regarded her with a look that said, Duh, then laughed in a jovial manner and patted her on the back. “The bar’s closed on Sundays so you’ll have your evening off.”
Patti steadied herself against the counter. What kind of manager only manages herself?
“If you need an extra day here and there, I’m not opposed to you keeping the bar closed once in a while. Though, come to think of it, the regulars might be a bit put out.”
“I thought this position was for a manager.”
Bill sighed. Then he spoke in a tone similar to the one she used for her students when they were particularly thick. “The manager part is when you count the money at the end of the shift, lock up, and make the night deposit. And don’t let the regulars get to you. They mean well. Even the ones who’d just as soon kill you as look at you.”
When the interview was over, she walked out of the kitchen and back through the bar. “See you next week,” she said as she passed the man in the cowboy hat.
Some nights, Patti didn’t bother going to bed—she drifted off on the sofa. Going to bed reminded her of Jimmy and the fact that she wasn’t with him anymore. Losing Jimmy was like losing a best friend. He knew absolutely everything about her and still, had loved her. And he thought she was pretty though she knew she wasn’t. She was too tall, her hips and thighs were gargantuan, and her head was small. She thought she looked like a giraffe. Jimmy, however, would gaze at her with admiration. Her coloring was pale—almost sickly so—and yet he’d run his hand down the length of her leg and comment on how smooth and beautiful her skin was. When she walked into the room, he would whistle, slink up to her and playfully pinch her behind.
Their first date he took her out for dinner on Killington Mountain, the same mountain where he worked as a ski reporter. Over dessert and Bailey’s and coffee, he joked with her that he’d only continue dating her if she were an innie. “So what are you? An innie or an outie?” His eyes glittered in the candlelight. “I guess you’ll just have to wait and see for yourself,” she snapped, and he laughed. After dinner, they walked out to their cars under the luminous light of a blue moon. They leaned against her car and stared up at the bright disc. “They say that if you kiss under a blue moon, you’ll be together for life,” Jimmy said. He pulled her into an embrace, touched his soft lips to hers, tentative at first, too tender really, and so Patti grabbed his face and kissed him more deeply.
But they were not together forever.
Away for three days last fall, Patti walked into her living room to find Jimmy on the couch with his face in someone else’s crotch. It took Patti a minute to make sense of what she was seeing: Jimmy’s bobbing head partially hidden by a substantial, ghostly-white thigh. Bobbing head. Thigh. Then, almost as if in slow motion, the woman turned her head and saw Patti. She frantically worked to peel Jimmy off of her as it took him considerably longer to figure out they were not alone. The look of astonishment on Jimmy’s face. Days after, days and days and days after, Patti would retrieve the memories surrounding that night and visually pinch herself with them. But that night, seconds after entering the room, she picked up the violet and lime afghan her grandmother had knitted for her, and swung it at the woman, and the woman, largely ignoring Patti and the fact that she was being whipped by a blanket, pounded on Jimmy’s chest.
“You never told me you were married! You bastard.”
Jimmy, defending his face with his arms, shouted, “You never asked.”
Patti felt brief satisfaction as she watched the woman beat on Jimmy, but then the whole ugly weight of the moment came crushing down on her. She’d had enough. “Get the fuck out of my house!” she hollered. And then as an afterthought, “Both of you.”
She stormed out of the room and up the stairs. She pulled the covers off the bed, made a makeshift nest on the floor of their bathroom—the only room with a lock. She didn’t sleep at all that night. Her heart pounded too fast. Sometime she heard Jimmy try to open the door, and then a quiet, “Shit,” before padding away.
In the morning, after Jimmy left for work, she got up off the floor, rubbed at the pain in her back, peed, and walked out into the living room. There was the couch, slutty red corduroy. She opened the front door and dragged the whole nasty thing out to the road. Let some truck run over it. And after calling a substitute—there was no way she could deal with loud and messy kids feeling as she did—she went through the house and smashed every one of Jimmy’s precious African violets, crushing them under her feet. He kept over thirty of the velvety plants which he doted on as if they were children. It was the worst she could think to do. When he came home that night and found them all on the floor, he shook his head but knew better than to say a word about it. The next evening, he came home with a flat of new plants.
When they separated Patti asked to keep one of his violets, though she was terrible with green things. Animals were easier. They were vocal about their needs. Now, she noticed the sad state of the plant on top of the microwave. She’d gone straight from the bar manager interview to the market for a celebratory wine, though all she could find was a cheap cabernet. Split pea soup from a can and shitty wine for dinner. And she could see that the plant, Jimmy’s plant, was shitty too. Her stomach fluttery, she picked up the phone.
“It’s dying,” she told Jimmy.
Jimmy sighed. “You insisted on taking it.”
“The leaves are all yellow at the tips and the stem is like mushy or something.”
“Too much water. Leave it the fuck alone.”
“I got a job today. For the summer.”
“Managing the Mountainside Tavern.”
Silence, and then he added, “So, you killing another plant or you want to give it back to me?”
“It’s not dead yet.” She hung up.
The worst part of the job was after all the customers left, and the room became too large, too quiet. She couldn’t see anything out the windows but darkness and often conjured up a murderer waiting for her to step outside so he could slit her throat.
Toward the end of the first week, Warren, the man who’d been at the bar the day she was hired, saw fit to nurse his last bottle of beer while she did the clean up and counted the money. He came the next night and the next until, after a week or so, it became habit. She tried to thank him, once, while he helped her stack the chairs on the tables, but he just waved her thanks away. “Ain’t a bigee,” he told her. So she always bought him his last beer of the night.
She wasn’t sure what she’d do without Warren now. Not only did she feel safer, but he helped with the heavy stuff. And he was funny in a dry, New England sort of way. They’d play a game while putting up the chairs: who could come up with the most outrageous nickname for each of the regulars. Lance, the milkman, was Mr. Potato Head because he had an unfortunate case of Rosacea which had caused his nose to be red and scabbed and misshapen. Tim, a football coach for an area high school, they dubbed Whistler because of the whistling sound he made when he breathed through his thrice-broken nose. Also there was Hank Miller, who gained notoriety when he was teenager for his habit of poking his prick into a hole in a rock down at the quarry, whom they named Prock. Not to his face, of course. There was something off about the man. Even Warren was wary of him.
Patti had just arrived at the bar, expecting a busy Friday night—a lot of the regulars got paid on Fridays—but didn’t see Warren on his usual stool. She found her disappointment surprising. Most of the night went well, but about halfway through she encountered her first difficult customer.
Rita was a short, broad-shouldered woman with slug-brown hair that hung down to the middle of her back. She sauntered in and pulled a stool away from the bar so she could lean against the wood. Patti was busy pouring a pitcher of beer when Rita started banging on the counter with a glass ashtray. “Where the hell’s Bill?” Patti looked down the length of the bar at the round, angry face of Rita, who then added, “Who do I have to kill to get a frickin’ beer?”
The phantom lurkers Patti imagined at closing were nothing next to this block of a woman. Rita’s shoulders were granite slabs from which her meaty arms hung down bare, tan, and tattooed. A ring of keys jingled on a belt loop of her jeans.
Patti’s head throbbed. “Um, what kind of beer would you like?”.
Rita glared at her with a look of such menace that it made Patti giggle out of sheer nervousness.
“You’re not laughing at me, are you?” Rita shook her head as if cueing Patti on how to answer.
“No.” Another giggle. Shit.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake. Give me a Bud, you dumb bitch.” Rita crossed her arms over her chest. All ten men seated at the bar halted their conversation and looked to Patti, their faces as open and expectant as sunflowers to the sun.
Patti had to admit there was something admirable and almost attractive about Rita’s self-assured brutality, a quality Jimmy liked to believe he had, right along with his uncanny ability to warn the human race about impending environmental doom. In truth, he was as much a wimp as Patti. One time, they’d both been woken in the middle of the night by thumps out in their living room. Patti was the one who went to see what it was. Jimmy feigned indifference from the safety of their bed, but Patti suspected his heart beat as fast as hers. There was no intruder, only a bat. Patti yelled for Jimmy to help her and he yelled back he was allergic to bats. The creature clung to the curtain under the sudden assault of bright light. She captured it in a towel and released it outside. When she crawled back in bed, Jimmy softly snored as if he was asleep, but she knew he wasn’t. She kicked him hard in the shin. He quietly rolled over.
Patti poured Budweiser from a bottle into a frosted glass, little foam, just the way Rita directed. The beast apparently sated, Patti went down the row of customers checking the state of their drinks. Some of them gave her sympathetic looks.
Rita downed her beer and slammed her glass on the bar. “Later,” she called out as she walked to the door. No one turned around or said goodbye. The door shut hard behind her, an auditory exclamation point.
As the end of the night grew near, Patti started to worry about closing time. What if Rita came back and wanted to pound the shit out of her? What if Rita came back with a whole mob of angry people just as large and menacing as she?
There were just two men left and they were almost done with their game of pool. She tried to clean up as much as she could before they left. But she couldn’t stop the inevitable. Her hands grew clammy as she locked the door behind the last customer. Maybe she could spend the night in the bar somewhere.
In a panic, she pulled her cell phone out of her purse and called Jimmy.
“Hello.” She made her voice sound cheery.
“Patti?” He sounded like he’d been asleep.
“Our cat’s depressed,” she told him. It was the first thing that came to her mind.
“Where are you?”
“At work. By myself in this great big bar. At night.”
She heard a sound like something had dropped, some fumbling, and then she heard Jimmy swear.
“Actually, I wouldn’t have called except I had this really awful customer who’s kind of a bully and I’m scared she’s going to jump me.”
“What are you saying, Patti?” He sighed into the receiver. “I’m in bed.”
She wanted to insist he come—no, she wanted him to offer. “Never mind.”
“You could put her on Prozac. I hear they do that now.”
After she hung up, she wiped her sweaty hands on her jeans and then peered out one of the windows into the parking lot. Someone was waiting out there, leaning against her car, but it wasn’t Rita. Warren waved to her and she lifted a hand to the window. She hurried outside.
“What are you doing?” She strolled to her car, more relaxed now than she’d been all night.
“Knew you didn’t like walking out here by yourself.”
“Thanks.” He tapped a cigarette against his palm, then lit it.
“Couldn’t get here earlier. Had a bunch of stuff to do.”
Patti looked back toward the bar. “You want a beer?” She was tired and wanted to go home.
“I’m good.” The tip of his cigarette grew bright red as he inhaled. She liked the smell of his smoke hanging between them. “Guess I’ll head back over to the house.”
She looked in the direction he pointed and saw the outline of his roof against the blue-black sky.
“I didn’t know you lived next door.”
“Huh.” She smiled. “Well, thanks for coming tonight.”
“Yup. See ya.”
He started to walk across the parking lot then stopped and called back to Patti. “Hey. You want a beer at my place? Or wine, if that’s what you like.”
“Sure. Why not?” It might be nice to be with a man other than Jimmy.
She followed him through a break in the bushes and up the steps of his old house with a wide front porch and tall windows.
The inside had a lot of pink. Pink wallpaper in the living room, light pink carpet in the hallway, pink curtains in the kitchen. He must have seen her expression. “My wife decorated the place. Been meaning to update.”
She’d heard about his wife’s accident from one of the regulars. She’d been on a construction job where she fell from scaffolding and broke her neck.
Patti and Warren sat together in the living room—he drinking a beer and she, a white wine. Nothing in the room suggested he was widowed. Maybe that’s what happened after someone you loved died—you went on hoping they’d return as if they’d simply gone on a trip. She couldn’t imagine not having Jimmy in this world—they might be divorced, but at least he was out there, somewhere. They didn’t talk much and the quiet, after a while, became disconcerting.
“Ooh. I’m tired.” Patti yawned and stretched. “Guess I should get home.”
Warren looked at her then, his dark eyes boring into hers. “Welcome to stay here…you know, and…if you want.”
Patti swallowed. “Maybe another time.” She stood up. “Thanks.
He walked her out to her car and she didn’t look back as she drove away. She felt, inexplicably, as if she’d survived a near-death experience.
Already her job was starting to bug her. The routine of it, the physicality of it—sort of the way she’d felt in her marriage toward the end. She had told Jimmy she was leaving him because of his infidelity but she’d checked out long before he cheated on her. Back when she stopped setting her alarm so she’d be awake when he came home from the mountain. When she stopped caring whether she smelled the way he liked her to smell: no perfume, but clean like her grapefruit body wash. And she had long stopped leaving a plate of dinner for him on the counter next to the microwave.
She started the car and drove away from the bank, past the turn she usually took back to her apartment, and down Rt. 7. She drove through the city she’d left behind, soaking in the sight of the buildings of downtown that were once so familiar to her and brought back so many memories of her and Jimmy. They had gone out every week on Jimmy’s night off. At the Nightspot they danced and drank in the smoke-filled room until they were sweaty and lusty and Jimmy’s asthma kicked in. On those nights, Jimmy looked at her like she was the only woman in the world and the firmness with which he held her body to his on the dance floor, made her almost believe him.
When Patti turned up Woodstock Avenue, lights twinkled on Killington Mountain. Once, Jimmy took Patti skiing. She didn’t want to go on the lift because she was afraid of heights, but Jimmy had promised her that once she got off, she’d be so thrilled with flying on top of the snow and the wind and sun on her face, she’d forget she was ever off the ground. Jimmy put his arm around her and drew her close. He pointed up to the painfully bright sky. “Look at that moon.” He pointed to the faded sliver of moon. “If you see a moon in daylight and you’re with someone you love, it’s lucky.”
“What is it with you and moons? Are you making that up?” she asked.
“Doesn’t matter so long as you believe it.” He had kissed her then, a full deep kiss that took her breath away and made her knees tremble. “Look at me. I am the power of belief personified. I shouldn’t even be here right now, but I am.”
Jimmy’s sister, Agnes, had told Patti he was dying. Agnes was the school secretary and one day in the teacher’s room, she pulled out Jimmy’s picture. Patti peered over the secretary’s shoulder at the man with the dark feathered hair and the aquamarine eyes. “He’s going to find out this month if they got it all,” Agnes said, her voice drifting off. When Patti gave her a puzzled look, Agnes said, “Cancer.” Patti looked at the picture for some kind of evidence that he was ill, but couldn’t find any. Agnes leaned closer and whispered, “You wouldn’t want to take him out some night, would you?”
When she saw the sign for Jimmy’s road, she pulled over to the shoulder and cut the engine. She wasn’t ready to see Jimmy’s place—not yet. She’d asked for the divorce out of hurt and anger and by the time she’d asked for it, it was too late to turn back. Not even after Jimmy’s pleas and promises to be faithful in the future. Not even after he showed her what he’d done to prove those promises. “Look, Patricia,” he said, pulling down his pants. “I did this for you, for us.” There on his upper thigh, quite near his crotch, was an angry looking wound, which as she peered closer she could see that it was her own name tattooed on his skin. But even a measure such as that didn’t convince her. She kept going back to that night seeing Jimmy and the woman on their couch. She knew she’d withdrawn from sex a bit, but she thought their vows for better or worse included those times she felt shitty about her body, her fat thighs that rubbed together, her non-existent ankles, her too-long neck. Though looking back, she realized the worse she felt about herself, the more Jimmy complimented her. The time she had the flu and she thought she might not live, she sat slumped on the couch watching I Love Lucy reruns in her ratty robe. Her face was unwashed, her lips crusty and chapped, her hair limp and greasy at the roots. Jimmy came home from work, smelling like a snowstorm, and as he bent over to kiss the top of her oily head, he whistled low and long. “You sure look sexy for one so sick,” he said. “Any chance?” He wiggled his eyebrows up and down while he waited for her answer.
In her car, Patti turned on the overhead light and checked her face. If there was any chance she’d have the nerve to knock on his door and see Jimmy, she didn’t want to appear tired and sad. She turned back onto the road and headed to Jimmy’s.
She knew where he lived because he’d taken her to it the day he signed the lease. “In case you change your mind,” he said to her. She’d gotten mad at his suggestion then, her pride larger than her sense, and she left in a huff. She might have changed her mind except for the nagging fear that in Jimmy she had found a man exactly like her father. A man who went away on “business trips” that lasted for weeks at a time. A man who drove her normally soft-spoken mother to scream and rage like a lunatic.
Patti, unlike her mother, was not a screamer. When she got tired of asking Jimmy not to eat saltines in bed, she grabbed a box of the crackers, neatly wrapped in their wax paper, and stomped them until they were dust. Then she tore open the paper and shook the bits onto the sheet on his side of the bed. She pretended to be asleep when later that night, he slid into bed smelling of yeasty beer. When she found the gram of coke tucked into one of his socks, she didn’t confront him. Instead, she unfolded the piece of paper and watched the April wind blow the fine white powder over the gravel driveway. The paper, emptied and spent like a used condom, went back inside the sock. And when Melissa, one of the ski instructors, called the house looking for Jimmy, with an I’m-screwing-your-husband tone of voice, Patti didn’t get mad and scream into the phone like she’d heard her mother do once. “Oh, I’m sorry, but you just missed him,” Patti told Melissa, her voice pleasant and reasonable. “He’s at the doctor getting his recta-bag attached.”
Jimmy lived in a new condo development that had tennis courts, an indoor pool, and a view of the east side of Killington. During the summer, Jimmy worked maintenance for the same corporation that employed him in the winter. Patti pulled in next to Jimmy’s truck. She cut the engine. She wasn’t sure if she had the courage to knock on his door. Last time she saw him was at court, where he’d been quietly civil. And to think just a few months ago they’d lived under the same roof. Laughed at each other’s farts and kissed in the morning before brushing.
Patti climbed out of her car and walked up the pathway. She breathed in the cool mountain air and drew her sweater around her. She knocked.
She heard footsteps, a lock turn, and then there he was, standing on the other side of the open door, in his baggy sweatpants, more handsome and sexy than she remembered.
He looked at her, not smiling. Perhaps she’d gotten him out of bed. Or worse—perhaps she’d interrupted something.
“Hello,” he said, finally.
“Nothing. I was just out driving around and thought I’d stop by.” She felt embarrassed. “For a minute.”
He smiled then, and opened the door wider. “You want to come in?”
Did she want to go in? Yes, she did want to go in. Yes, she did want to feel his skin against her skin, to have him gaze up at her with longing. She wanted to be told she was beautiful.
She shook her head. “No.”
He stood there, waiting for her to say something else.
“You’re a shit, Jimmy. A complete shit. And I still love you and I’m very, very disturbed by that.”
He nodded and puffed air out of his mouth.
“I fucked up.”
She leaned up to kiss him, a short, sweet kiss and after, she said, “Yeah, you did. We both did.”
Then she turned around and walked back to her car before he had a chance to convince her to stay.
Patti yelled so loudly, her voice squeaked halfway through. “You do that again and I’ll see…” She coughed. “I’ll see that you’re banned from here!”
At first Rita stared into her beer saying nothing. Patti held her breath until Rita lifted her face and blinked. Then she smiled and made like she was blocking a punch. “Whoa. You don’t have to get all PMS on me.” She pulled a twenty out of her pocket, making a show of flattening it out on the bar. “May I have a Budweiser, please?”
The rest of the night Rita spent at the pool table, sending whomever she was playing up to the bar for beer. After Patti announced last call, the guy Rita was playing pool with hung his pool stick on the wall and left. Rita came up to the bar.
“I’m closing up.”
“I don’t want anything,” Rita said. She sat on one of the stools. “Actually, I do.” She reached into her back pocket and pulled out her wallet. “Wanna buy you a drink.” She fished a five out and laid it on the bar.
Patti shook her head. “Not necessary.”
Rita pushed the five closer to Patti. “Listen, I…I’m a home healthcare nurse. One of my patients died a couple of months ago.”
“Huh,” Patti said. She went on wiping the bar.
“I specialize in difficult wounds—wounds that won’t heal, you know? Anyway, Frank went in last year for a colonoscopy and they nicked him. He ended up with this huge festering hole in his gut. I saw him every day for a whole year.”
“Really.” She did not want to hear this. She didn’t want to feel anything for this woman who thought nothing of throwing hard objects.
“Amazing how close you get to a person when you’re around them like that every day. When they let you see ‘em at their very worst. It’s a fucking privilege.”
Patti stopped wiping and nodded. She and Jimmy had been like that. Seeing each other’s worst. Wasn’t it saying something that they still had feelings?
“The man never complained, just talked about his kids.”
“That sucks,” Patti said.
Patti waited to see if Rita wanted to say anything more. After a time of staring off into space, Rita hit the bar with the flat of her hand. “I gotta go.” Patti watched her walk out the door.
After Rita left, Patti grabbed the keys so she could lock up, but before she could get the key in, Warren came strolling over from his house.
“I’m almost done,” she said as she held the door open.
He walked in past her, not saying anything. He turned on the TV above the bar and sat down to wait. She poured his beer and tallied up the deposit. When she finished, she asked, “Why’d you come back?”
“I thought I should tell you the reason I can’t sleep at night.” He took off his hat and set it on the counter. His head looked suddenly naked. The sports announcer on television droned softly in the background.
She held her hand up. “Wait. Don’t tell me.” She thought she knew what he was going to say, and she didn’t want to disappoint him.
Warren stared at his hat a minute before getting up from his stool. “Yeah, well I guess I ought to not hang out here so much.”
“Okay. If you say so.”
They walked outside together. Warren shut her car door for her and stood in the middle of the parking lot watching as she drove off. There was something too sad about that man.
On the way home, Patti couldn’t stop staring at the bright coin of a moon, hanging in the sky straight ahead of her. Her eyes constantly shifted: road, moon, road, moon. Had it ever been so full? So brilliant? She wanted to follow that moon, drive her car until she could no longer see it in her windshield, just to see where she’d end up. But, she already knew. She hoped he was home.
Katrina Denza’s stories can be found in REAL, The Jabberwock Review, Storyglossia, PANK, elimae, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Confrontation, among others, and forthcoming from Gargoyle #57. She was awarded a Carol Houck Smith Contributor Scholarship for the 2011 Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She volunteers as a mentor for Dzanc’s Creative Writing Sessions and keeps a literary blog at katdenza.blogspot.com.