The black-legged jeans that Lucy wore, or was putting on – her black-socked foot slipped through the hole in the knee – were getting wider in the waist. From the packed closet she tugged out a black button-down and smelled the armpits, barely bothering to look for stains or wrinkles.
How hard it seemed, that March morning – the sun or something like it in the alley, the concrete side outside one window – to get dressed before noon, Lucy thought, and then made sure her next thought was: fuck it. She pulled herself into the shirt, slipped into and zipped up black boots. She looked at the belt on the floor and decided to let it lay there, asleep like an eyelid-less snake, so the lost weight wouldn’t strangle her, rub her hips, the sound of the buckle coming undone another reminder that Anne was dead.
The walk wasn’t long, and she walked through the wind, the roots pushed up the sidewalk, the day was a day. There, a long-leashed golden retriever, larger than she remembered dogs could be, hunching its back, paws slipping, seemingly, against the concrete, and then the shit slapping onto the sidewalk.
“There’s my sweet girl,” Shirley said when Lucy walked into Hank’s. Lucy walked up to the side of the bar and gave her a wet kiss on the side of her mouth, a hug that pulled Shirley’s soft side into her own jagged bone. Shirley, with her white hair, dropped down and when she came back up a beer bottle was open and slick with sweat.
“Imma open this door on up,” Shirley said, slapping the side of the bar up and scurrying past Lucy, who watched her push the damn door open out onto the sidewalk. The trucks on the corners slowed to let the people cross and then sped up around them and down past the bar where tires squeaked because they never made that next light.
“Hey Shirl, turn that music up why dontcha? It’s after noon, ain’t it?” This is so easy, Lucy thought, this new language, this life. The hard glass of the bottle bona fide against her lips, her tongue, was what she wished for at Hank’s, underneath the year-round Christmas lights and paint-peeled ceiling, awash in what was once cigarette smoke (which now only drifted inside when the door was open and the boys were outside in their paint-chipped boots and rusty fingernails). The music, ragged at first, swam up slowly into Lucy’s loose morning mind, the beer already slipping through the spaces between her teeth, halo-ing, and then the gulp of it all down. In the twilight glow I seen her blue eyes cryin in the rain.
“Yeah, man. I like this one,” is what George said, letting his neck drop, and Lucy thought she saw his eyes close as if remembering that as a young boy born on a boon town farm somewhere west of Knoxville he had once made a too-beautiful blue-eyed neighbor girl cry after poking her with the sharp end of a stick. Lucy couldn’t be sure of it, but it distracted her enough to think of George and how all the other boys he grew up with must’ve also had parents who made it a patriotic point to name their children after the great crooners and outlaws they couldn’t have been. If George had figured out enough to still see his boys they’d probably be beating each other around the bar with fake whips made out of braided twine, and Shirley’d give them one quarter each for the jukebox, let them spin on stools until the cherries in their cheeks burst out onto the scuffed, soggy floor.
In another place, miners were miners, schoolteachers in school, and cowboys everywhere, wherever: a trail opening like folded flowers, the crack of the earth in a hoof-step, a hum to push a day along, and the embryonic emptying of everything: arms-full of birch, cedar, dead maple bark, the spit inside of a can, the hill always seen and never reached, a cord of rope, piss on dead dry leaves.
“You over there dreamin bout Luckenbach, Texas?” Shirley asked from the corner where she crossed her arms after sucking in some lemonade.
“Ain’t nobody feelin no pain,” George said. And then, “Gimme another, hon.”
Except for the drawling music, the bar was mostly quiet; in an hour the construction foremen and some of the workers would stumble in, swiftly order strong drinks or shots and leave quickly to the lonely places where they lived. Time slowed here, and the sun only shone through the door, so Lucy sat still and dreamed. She wondered what it would be like if Shirley were her mother and George, her father, and them all living in a tiny two-bedroom dressed up like a trailer home. And then, Lucy thought, what if Shirley and George had been sweethearts and Lucy the lover that broke them apart; What would it feel like to have a strong man’s arms wrap around the soft, subtle bits of your soul, your shoulders? Would Lucy, small as she was, small as she felt – even then, even at 32 – be crushed under the weight of his naked and hairy gut, the whiskers and whiskey-breath? How is it possible to love a man?
It would be easy to love Shirley, Lucy thought, eyeing the straps of her bra that slid out from underneath the black tank-top she always wore. Her tanned skin, an anomaly this time of year, must have sunk in since a long time ago, in another place, the hard life before this one.
“Hey Shirl.” Lucy said.
Shirley bent down to bring Lucy another beer, her first only half-finished.
“Oh,” Lucy said. “I wasn’t going to ask for another.”
“Ain’t no point in askin,” Shirley said.
“But can I ask you something?”
“You sure can,” Shirley said. “Shoot.”
“You know that saying that cats have nine lives?”
“I do,” she said. “But I’ll be honest with ya, I hate those stinkin things.”
Lucy finished the last sips of the warming beer. “How many lives you think we get?”
Somehow Lucy thought Shirley’d have the answer right away; she was a quick and lively thing, almost like a cat herself, always perched and scratching. She sunk back and folded her arms underneath her breasts.
“Well,” Shirley said. “Me, I’m on my third. George, honey,” she said. “How many lives you got goin?”
George picked up his head and looked at the women like they were women and said, “I got four kids. I ain’t got no life.”
The first dusty man swaggered in, legs loose from laboring, a tongue about to lap something up. Shirley’s eyes had seen him before; her knuckles relaxed on the wet back of the bar, and she tipped her breasts forward. Lucy laughed at the hair around his ears, the backs of his hands as spotless as the palms were stained, the sag in his pants. Anne, she thought, is dead.
Nothing about the man reminded her of Anne, who, if she admitted it to someone, – Shirley, for instance – seemed to never have been alive. Anne had only one life. Nothing before or after. Lucy wanted to tell Shirley how she had suffered, how she was sure Shirley had suffered too, how all women suffer, how sometimes that’s all women do. The man had ordered a Corona and took the time to push the lime into the bottle, plugged his thumb over the hole and turned the bottle upside down. What a faggot, Lucy thought; all these men, alive. She called Shirley over.
“Lemme have a whiskey.”
“That time already?”
Lucy coughed into her arm. “Gasoline if you got it,” she said.
Shirley’s ring clanked against the brown bottle; Lucy had never noticed it before. My god, my god, my life: my wife went down with the whiskey.
“When did you get married?”
“This?” Shirley said. “Ain’t no wedding ring.”
“Oh,” Lucy said.
“It’s alright darlin. I had plenty of those. It’s just some pretty piece of junk my boyfriend gave me.”
She didn’t twirl her hand or present it as a specimen, but pointed the finger it was on and then wiped her hands into a rag. Lucy’s body slowed (cheeks, pinkies, kneecaps, ankles) but her brain rushed along.
“I want to know,” she said.
“Bout what? I got about ten more minutes before these brutes come barging in and you know how this place gets.”
“I know,” she said. “Will you get me another one? One more.”
Your life, Lucy thought. I have known so many women, but only a few lives, and the one I knew best is gone, and maybe if I don’t know yours I’ll never know another one again. She was so thirsty.
“One more Bud, and one question, huh? You feelin alright today, honey?”
“I just want to know – Well, how many times have you been married?” Lucy said.
“Only one of them worth talkin about,” Shirley said. “Jack.”
“Tell me a story about him,” Lucy said.
“We were young,” Shirley said. She wiped down the bar where George left water rings after he disappeared down the street. “He jumped off a building once.”
“Did you love him?”
“You bet I loved that man.”
“What was it like?” Lucy said.
“What was what like? Lovin Jackie?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Easy,” Shirley said.
Lucy squeezed her hand against the backside of the zipper, thought about pulling the pants all the way down, but the floor oozed piss, the sink stunk and dripped, walls were covered in cute curlicues and phlegm. She touched nothing but herself; she looked at nothing but herself, overgrown and full of veins. With room for only one she huffed, let slip a finger, and then a moan; the bass beat close. Lucy, inside, would never tell anyone what had happened.
When Lucy got back from the bathroom there were more men; it seemed there was an endless supply of them, and Lucy, drunk now, imagined them walking out of the a slop of water, soaked in seaweed, emerging from some less-than-earthly Eden, and they’d saunter straight into places like Hank’s, their dry throats hissing a less than subtle croak for more than a wink from a woman.
“Move over you guys,” Shirley said.
A group of nearly-bearded men gathered at the bar, almost on top of the chair Lucy had been sitting in all afternoon. The shortest one said, “why?” without looking, while the others took her in and smiled.
“Hi, I’m Dennis,” he said.
“That’s my friend, Lucy,” Shirley said.
Shut up, Lucy thought; I’m just a sad woman. Lucy’s face felt hot; she didn’t take time with mirrors, and what could these men want with her? She sat down at the now-stuffed bar, let the stink of her set in, and watched the bar-flies like a frog.
“Do you like Johnny Cash?” Dennis asked.
“Who? Me?” Lucy said. Who cares?
“Yeah,” Dennis stuttered. “I was going to call you the woman-in-black, but now that I’ve said it it sounds fucked up and depressing like you’re a witch or something. I mean, I’m sure you’re not, but the all black, it looks cool, is what I meant. I like your boots.”
“Uh,” Lucy said. She thought about Jeremy, how they hadn’t spoken since his wedding, how every time he got a new girlfriend he’d stop calling, that he would have never complimented how she looked. He was lost, too.
“It’s okay,” Dennis said. “I’m sorry.”
“I like Johnny Cash.”
“Yeah, me too.”
Dennis drank. His long hair curled around his ears, something young still left in his eyes, too much blonde hair on his arms. He didn’t look like the others, the blue-collar careermen, the work and drink your life awaymen, the whistle and honk at loose-breasted girlsmen. Death had made her cold. She forgot she liked the attention.
“I’m sorry,” Lucy said. “I’ve been here a while.”
“Oh,” he said. He said, “it’s okay.”
“I come here often.”
“I like it.”
The Remington would be perfect for Dennis; the steely longness, a firm pumping, the quick tug and release, gave the same blank black stare. On the floor, Lucy adjusted a white beanbag chair, and covered it with a white sheet. The whiteness was on the floor too, a half-dozen sheets overlapping and clean; Lucy covered a picnic bench with another and then the table. She forgot, or just didn’t want, to smooth the sheet, pull the splinters from the supple cotton.
Dennis collapsed onto the chair, drunk and chewing, really, carving into, a cookie, the rifle on the table. He laughed, and Lucy set up the shot. From behind the camera Dennis didn’t look drunk at all; the slouch in his spine serpentine, legs and elbows as if they could pierce skin softly, he looked like he’d swim away. And then there was his face, fawn-like except, Lucy thought, that he’d survive on his own under a log, back against the side of a hill: he was a foot fixed on clod. He wasn’t anything at all.
“I really think you got a nice place here,” Dennis drawled.
“Shut-up,” Lucy said. “I’m almost ready.”
He sunk back down, asked for a beer.
She steadied the tripod, tightened the screws, and bending down to adjust the feet her knees cracked loud in the nearly empty room. Jesus, she thought, you’re so needy; you’re hungry, now you’re thirsty. Suffer, suffer, suffer.
“How old are you?” Lucy asked.
Dennis shifted around, couldn’t sit still, and leered drunkenly. “Old enough,” he said.
“Oh, really?” Lucy laughed.
She walked over to him, leaned her hand toward his mess of hair. He let her, and clucked his tongue, which reached back grasping, it seemed, for some last bit of chewed cookie in his molars.
“And how old are you?” He asked.
“I’ll be 33 tomorrow,” Lucy said. She saw sweetness in his eyes, he was no snake; lounging below her he appeared to be not much more than a child. Still, she hated him, perhaps for what she knew he could become, for the easiness in which she acquired his presence; in that moment he could be anything she wanted, except for the dead come back to life.
“Well,” he said, “happy birthday, then.” He smiled and put on a pair of sunglasses pulled from a pocket. He smiled and scratched the inside of his thigh.
Lucy, almost slipping, slid back to the camera, turned it off and then turned it on again. A red light flickered. She smoothed her hair, tucked it behind her ears. She pressed a button; the light pulsed.
“Take the sunglasses off,” she said.
He pulled them down onto the tip of his nose.
Lucy grabbed the gun.
“Take it off,” she screamed.
Lucy cocked the Remington, placed her finger on the trigger; she made sure he could see into the barrel.
The camera flashed.
Photo By: Honza Chylìk