I entered the first chapter of my novel-in-progress into a short story contest. It was a bit brash of me for it isn't a short story although it was first written that way. I didn't win the contest but my piece was a Fiction Entry of Note because it made the judges' Top Ten Lists. Several of you have asked about it so here is the story. Enjoy!
I walked into the Maverick Bar in Farmington. I’d been driving all day, had just rented myself the cheapest motel room I could find, and was preparing to get drunk.
This wasn’t anything startling in my life. I got drunk as many nights as I could though I was careful to do most of my drinking in private. I never quite knew when I would black out and I’d already had enough strange mornings after—strange men, strange places, strange feelings about all the things I might have done or said that I would never remember.
I also tried not to drink and drive, but I hadn’t found a liquor store before closing time so I’d picked a motel with a tavern two doors down. If I was lucky, they’d sell me a bottle without too much fuss.
I liked to pretend I wasn’t a drunk but I knew better. Besides, women alone in bars in small towns seem to have to play one or the other—drunk or tramp—why else would they be there alone? And I never went into a bar to pick someone up. I sometimes did, or rather I got picked up, but it was never my intention, not any more. I went into bars to drink enough to feel all right again, and maybe to feel loose enough to ask for a bottle that would tide me over.
Sometimes I tried restaurants—the kind with a cocktail lounge that will bring you double rye on the rocks a couple of times without looking askance. And I often enjoyed the food in such places; they had good chicken and dumplings or steak and mashed potatoes. But it was too late to eat, too late to be hungry. I just needed a good buzz, a bit of slow-down so that I could get to sleep.
I showered off the road and walked on down to the tavern. There’d been rain earlier in the day and the neon flashed in the puddles that remained: Coors Light, Coors Light, Coors Light. There were only a half dozen pick-ups parked in front of the Maverick, and I noted that with relief. I never like a tavern to be too crowded. Men get rowdy in crowds and they get mean. Not so great for a woman alone, even one like me.
I pushed the door open and walked right to the bar. It’s always straight ahead in a country tavern and if you make a beeline for it, there’s no need to make eye contact or suffer the reactions of the patrons to the newcomer. I feel more invisible that way.
The bartender, a young brawny redhead in overalls and a red denim shirt with pearl snaps, put a napkin down in front of me right away. “What’ll it be, miss?”
I like a kind bartender who’ll pretend I’m still young, and I smiled at him. “Double Maker’s Mark,” I said. “Go easy on the ice.”
“You got it,” he said and the drink was before me in no time.
The first sip is the best. We all know that. It’s really the only one you taste. The rest is just for effect. So I try to wait a moment before I start, no matter how much I’m craving, so that I can really register that sip. The bartender must have seen me hesitate, for he spoke to me again. “Something wrong, ma’am?” Worry played at the corners of his eyes.
“Ma’am.” There it was. I sighed and looked up at him. Decided to play it light. “Just giving thanks to the bourbon makers of America,” I said. “My way of saying grace.”
He chuckled at that and things were easy between us again.
I took that sip. Enjoyed it. Drank down the rest pretty quickly. The bartender―I decided his name was Billy―looked over at me from the beer tap and I nodded and he fixed the next one.
The Maverick has a big mirror behind the bar. I always love that. It lets me watch the action without having to be part of it. There were four booths over to one side of the front wall and three of them held couples. Two of the booths held kids. Boys barely old enough to shave, let alone drink. Cheerleader girlfriends. When did the world get so young? In the third booth, the couple was necking and laughing. When they disentangled themselves, I saw that they were both grey-haired and thick in the middle. That made me feel better.
The woman, I’ll call her Maudie, got up and disappeared in the back. Pit stop, I’d guess. And Roy, her boyfriend, went to the jukebox. There’d been two honky-tonk tunes in a row, but now George Strait‘s croon came on. “I still feel 25, most of the time…” When Maudie came back out, Roy whirled her around the floor a few times before they sat down and went back to nuzzling each other. Billy took them a fresh pitcher.
By now, my second bourbon was pretty well gone and I had a decision to make. I don’t like to drink more than two in a bar. With two in me, I can navigate my way home. I can make decisions that are usually the right kind to make in a strange town. But once I start in on number 3, there’s no telling what can happen.
I gave myself a good hard look in the mirror. Now you’re thinking that I’m checking myself out, right? To see if I look good enough, pretty enough, thin enough to take on somebody. But that wasn’t it at all. I already knew what I looked like. In the last decade, I’ve put on 50. The prettiness I may have had is long gone, and the best I can get on a good day—I mean a really good day—is “handsome.” Not that I’m bad-looking—my skin is still smooth and my hair still dark, thanks to my friend Henna. And my extra pounds are still shapely and I’ve got great legs. But I’m not turning any heads anymore.
So no, the good hard look in the mirror wasn’t that kind of inventory. It was the fulfillment of a promise I’d made to myself, to make sure I knew what I was choosing, to check in, you could say, before I checked out.
The woman in the mirror nodded at me, and I nodded back. Then I looked down the bar. A couple of truckers sat to my left, wearing the road like a badge of honor. One winked in my direction. I smiled back. I couldn’t help it. I’d loved a long-hauler for three years in my 40s. He was a good man and a surprisingly sophisticated lover. But then his knees had given out on him and he’d moved off the road and back to his wife. I looked to the right. A cowboy with a gray beard was nursing a beer and a shot. He too looked at me and smiled. But nothing sparked and I looked back at my empty glass. Billy was busy unloading a tray of clean glasses. I waited for him to get finished and look at me.
It was then that Al slid onto the stool next to me.
I saw him in the mirror first. He was tall, so tall that his head and shoulders showed well above the row of bottles that lined the shelf behind the bar. I’m tall myself but for some reason, I’ve never been drawn to tall men, preferring someone my own size. But this guy had a mane of thick silver hair that fell down over a weather-lined brow. Similar lines crinkled his eyes and creased the corners of his wide, handsome mouth. He grinned at me as he took off his black hat. Twenty years ago, I’d have called him “foxy.” Twenty years ago he might have said the same about me.
“What’ll it be, Al?” Billy asked, coming down the bar towards us.
“Coffee,” he said. “Big coffee.” And he grinned at me again.
Billy poured a big glass beer mug of coffee from the hot plate next to the maraschino cherries and lime slices. I could smell that it was long past fresh. He set the mug down in front of Al along with a carton of half-and-half.
When Al had finished turning the black stuff white, he turned to me. “Where you from?”
“Not here,” I said and I drained the ice melt from my glass. Billy tried to catch my eye to see if I wanted another but I avoided his look. I waited to see what Al would say next.
But he said nothing. Just put his elbows on the bar and sipped at his coffee. Maybe it was my turn. I looked up at Billy and asked for a glass of water.
At that, Al looked over at me and at the empty glass on the bar. “My name’s Al. I own a ranch about 15 miles out of town. I do pretty well, considering that idiot in the White House. I’m 64, my hair and teeth are my own, haven’t ever had a major illness and don’t plan to have any.”
I didn’t know what to make of these revelations. I took a big drink of the water in front of me and thought about that third drink.
“Well, Al,” I said, finally, when I realized he was waiting for me to speak. “My name’s Ellie. I’m 60, and I too have my own hair and teeth. I have also had two major illnesses that are none of your business.”
Billy had his back turned to us and was wiping between the bottles but I could see his shoulders shaking with laughter.
Al didn’t say anything in response, just nodded solemnly. Then he signaled Billy for a refill and the smell of overcooked Folgers wafted towards me again.
Finally Al turned to me and put his hand ever so gently on my forearm, which lay on the edge of the bar. “Ellie, have you ever wanted to be a rancher’s wife?” His eyes were serious, dead serious.
I managed a smile. “I’ve never thought about it, Al.” I paused. “Say, does Jesus enter into this somehow?”
He frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean I need to tell you, Al, that I am not religious. No way, no how. I’m not cut out for Sunday School and prayer meetings and being the good little woman at home. I’m more the hell and damnation type, if you know what I mean.”
He leaned towards me and I caught a whiff of Old Spice. It was just enough, you know? “Do you have to do it alone?” he said.
“Raise hell. Can someone else come along? Be there to pick up the pieces? Bring you back home to yourself?” Then he smiled at me with that wide, handsome mouth and I went weak in the knees.
“Sure, I guess,” I said to Al. “Why not?” And I pushed the water away, held up the whiskey glass, and nodded at Billy, who brought over the bottle.