by T.K. Lee
She shouldn’t have gone out. She should’ve stayed on the couch.
The weather alone.
Unreliable. Even a slight rain makes enough mud.
And the week.
It’d been a week, already, and this was Wednesday.
Clare really should’ve stayed home.
In her small, small home. Except. It wasn’t hers. I mean, it wasn’t that kind of home. It was an apartment. It had been anybody’s home, which meant it was nobody’s home. So, it didn’t feel like a home, to her. It was half a duplex, an apartment. With a shared driveway and she’d gotten used to it. In a good neighborhood, but still, it was a too-small apartment.
In a too-small town. Where there was a college that made it feel bigger than it was.
Which was something, at least, because god, it had taken too long to just get to Wednesday already and she hadn’t been able to go further than the couch yet when she dragged home after class on Monday, on Tuesday. Hadn’t wanted to, really, but then, she’d start to feel her age, the minute she walked through the door and into doubt; she hated those days, becoming less few and far between, it seemed, days that made her come across too set in her ways, like she was wanting to disappear, to be left alone.
She wasn’t that old. And age is never the right answer to Why Not.
She was no stranger, for godsake. She knew people. She’d been here for six years. She had friends. She had what felt like friends. Women her age weren’t without friends, for godsake. She’d done a play at the community theater, for godsake. She was on the board for the Art Walk, last summer, for god—she put up campaign signs in her half of the front yard!
She had friends. She—
She should not have gone out.
But halfway through an okay bottle of Pinot Gris, Clare had paused too long in a short second, and decided she was tired of Thinking. She wanted to be Doing. And eating. This was, what, a third glass (she wasn’t even grading papers!) and she really needed to eat if she were to keep on going at this rate. She got up off the couch, to make her way to the kitchen, finding her careful steps to the kitchen to be funny. She pulled open the refrigerator to bare shelves. Not bare, no. But she couldn’t stand the thought of another bowl of peanut butter sauce and sesame oil and gnocchi. No more salsa and shredded cheese over whatever bag of potato chips had squatters rights in the cabinet above the fridge.
My god…this was America.
She said that to herself, right there in front of the open refrigerator, “Clare, my god, this is America. Go the fuck out and get anything! Get some Doritos. Or Sonic.”
Then she said, “I’m too tired to go get some Doritos. Or Sonic.” Because she didn’t want Doritos or Sonic.
And then, almost as soon as she said that, she said this to herself, “Go out then. Just go the fuck out. Go see some family,” and she liked the idea of this because she didn’t mean that family.
That’s why ten minutes later, she was parking her Civic at Nashes in the spot that nobody ever parked in. It was a narrow space for many cars, and far too near the garbage bins with their feral cats—she didn’t care because it was also close to the entrance and she did all right with cats.
Nashes was inside the Derby Motel, the door of which always stayed open. The wood the door was made of had thickened with age until it had swollen into the jamb and, as such, couldn’t close. To the right, and down a little dark hallway, was a second entrance, an open threshold through which sat the dive bar called Nashes, which wasn’t its real name, and, in fact, had nothing to do with the name of anything to do with the bar, in any shape, form, or fashion, at all.
Clare fell in love with it the first time she came. It was a dirty place. It was poorly lit. It had three TVs, one of which didn’t work, but played static constantly. And the people working there now were working there then, the day she moved. Things like this made a place comfortable to Clare.
And things like the stand-alone road sign out at the highway, bragging through its cracked, peeling plastic lettering, lit from behind with marquee bulbs clouded over with wear-and-tear proclaiming that tonight was Ladies Night.
The sign always said that. They never took it down.
The continued absence of the apostrophe at the end of the word “Ladies,” had long since made her smile; outside of an essay, she was surprised to discover that such mistakes tended to make her feel familiar and safe.
Plus, there was Dennis.
Dennis, the balding, Dennis the divorced, Dennis who owned Nashes was kind to her. It’s pity, she’d tease him. But: She enjoyed what she pretended was attention (though she would sometimes allow herself to think it was more a bit of parlay on his part) which she never admitted to until she’d had a few and didn’t really believe she meant it even then. Though she said it.
It wasn’t pity, he’d said enough times that she ought to believe it. She was “family,” he’d said. He said that to all the regulars. But she got the chili fries for free when she drank enough Cape Cods to tell him she thought he did what he did out of pity.
Lucky lady, no.
He winked at her. She allowed it.
Ladies Night. Free Cape Cods. No, cheap. Cheap 3-4-1 Cape Cods.
“That in Africa?” Jesse asked. Jesse, she liked when he bartended, she liked that he asked this every single time, about Cape Cod. She hadn’t seen him come in.
“Not yet,” Clare laughed. “But it might as well be.”
Cape Cod, she’d never go there. Would she. No. Never would.
“It’s a school night,” Dennis said as she found her usual/usually weekend bar stool. “And in this weather. No umbrella, you ok.”
“I don’t own an umbrella.”
“I thought everybody just … had umbrellas,” Jesse stated.
“I don’t. I guess I’m shaking things up.”
“Oh. So, what’s that mean, a Madras, instead?”
“Cape Cod’s fine.”
“Cape Cod. Cape Cod. You got it—”
“And, some food, I want the—”
“Chili fries, extra—” Dennis offered.
“No,” Clare said, deliberately. “No. I don’t want the chili fries. I want the pot stickers.”
Dennis turned toward the kitchen with a wry grin tugging at his bottom lip.
“The lady wants pot stickers … ”
* * *
There was a local band, a new group Clare hadn’t heard of, calling themselves Milk Children, which was the stupidest name, wasn’t it, performing that night. She recognized one of her former students though— a “B” or, no, a “C”, on a paper about Marxist theory in Welty’s “Petrified Man.” It was an ambitious fool’s errand of an essay, but he engaged when he came to class, and that counts. what was his name, uh…Matt?
Mark. Mike? Something-Or-Other. Mark, it was Mark. With a C? It was something different like that, like him.
He caught her staring but she wasn’t staring, per se, that was just how she used her eyes in a bar. He waved though which caught her periphery, and so she nodded at him with a smile; the big bits and pieces coming together now. This was Marc — she remembered then to wave back as well — Marc, he was in his mid-30s, returning to finish his bachelor’s, she had him last semester, in the spring. He was already divorced, was already with two kids, too young, he was already too good looking and he already knew it.
He’d come late, every class, and it was because of the kids, dropping them off, picking them up, taking them to whatever, wherever, whenever. Maybe it was last year, not last semester, she had him in class? He’d come late, but he would come. Every class.
He certainly knew what to do with a guitar. His fingers…in flight across those strings.
She realized she was still staring at him. He had moved onto the next song, thankfully. Marc with a C. Which was what he had earned in her class. If he’d only tried harder.
“C.” Clare picked at an eyelid: M-a-r-c.
She was sensitive to spelling, being a Clare. She asked for a To-Go box. Cut this off at the impasse, she told herself. After three Cape Cods she’d found herself wanting to dance. She placed her food in the styrofoam container, and then Dennis wrote her name on the outside of it with the Sharpie he kept in his shirt pocket and slid it under the heat lamp which she took as encouragement. So, she rolled off the bar stool, stood up, started to walk toward the music.
Dennis was bemused at her change in behavior. This interest in dancing, pot stickers and not chili fries.
“Think you know a person,” Dennis was heard to say.
She decided about a foot away from the stool not to dance, on second thought, did a 180, and as she reached the stool, she asked for the tab.
* * *
11:40 PM. Clare could hardly believe it. My god. I teach at 8:00. She leaned way over, too much over, onto the bar and the bartender, Jesse, of course it was Jesse, Dennis always left at 10:00 and there was always Jesse in place—did he live on the shelf with the Tequila? Jesse stepped away to grab the To-Go box. She knew what was coming next: He would bring it to her, tell her good night through that cocked grin he gave to everyone that everyone thought he only gave to them.
Clare considered that cheating. She appreciated it. But she didn’t trust it.
No one ever paid her any real attention. Lip service counted but not like it used to. And that had started becoming the problem, hadn’t it, lately? She had a Ph.D. and she had a nice body and she did yoga and she cut out soft drinks four months ago and she took care of herself, heart of a twenty-five-year-old even at forty+, the nurse practitioner had told her, and…shit! Four different literary journals, begging her to submit more work. A new book coming out in the spring. She was a shoo-in for tenure, she knew that.
She wanted for nothing which was exactly what she already had, so the difference didn’t make much…difference. And, my god, forget it, forget it, this was, pointless. She was making faces at nothing, until she was making faces at Jesse who had brought the To-Go box to her and was standing in front of her, amused if slightly concerned…as she was still sitting on the bar stool.
She had a good life, right?, and, it was full enough, and she had her friends, and she had a nice bed, and her apartment was in a good neighborhood—she reached out to grab her To-Go box and stand—she traveled, she’d been like, to Mobile, Memphis, New Orleans for a conference, twice to Gatlinburg, and whenever she wanted, hell, put Cape Cod back on the list!, and she had Nashes and this was her place, these were her people, her family!, and as she slipped behind the wheel of her car, that reliable and smart blue Honda Civic parked in front of the garbage bins where there were no feral cats tonight, and cranked it for the one mile drive home, she looked down at the styrofoam To-Go box and saw that Jesse—or no, it was Dennis, with his Sharpie—had written in his weird, balding, divorced hand: “Hold for Claire.”
T.K. Lee is an award-winning member of the Dramatists Guild, Southeastern Theatre Conference and the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, among others. In addition to plays, he has published prize-winning poetry and acclaimed short fiction. He is currently on faculty teaching in the MFA in Creative Writing as well as the MFA in Theatre Education programs, both at the famed historic Mississippi University for Women, located in Columbus, the birthplace of Tennessee Williams. Read Lee’s past work in Deep South here.
This is one of our “Slowing Down” accepted submissions. Read the rest from this theme here.