fiction by Chris Helvey

even seconds after the woman walked into Clyde’s Tavern, I was wishing for three things. One, that I’d taken a shower before coming to the tavern (I’d been cutting timber for Bobby Warren and was a touch sweaty); two, that I wasn’t halfway to Drunksville; and three, that I had a helluva lot more money than the lonely ten spot in my billfold. 

She was tall and willowy, with dark hair hanging down past her shoulders, and my eyes followed her slender body like radar until she sat down with the other three girls at a four-top in the shadowy corner across the room. 

Once she’d settled in, I pushed up and worked my way through the obstacle course of tables to the Men’s room where I took a long piss, washed my face and hands, dampened my hair and ran a comb through it. After that, I studied my reflection in the cracked mirror. Definitely wasn’t pleased with the face that started back at me, but, like the rest of my life, I couldn’t see where I could do a damn thing about it. I gave the face in the mirror the finger, took a deep breath, turned and started walking toward the woman’s table. 

Halfway there I got to thinking some music might help, so I bent right and crossed the floor to the jukebox. Now, I’m not much on music, especially the recent stuff. However, Clyde’s old jukebox still carried several hits from a few years ago, back when I could still stomach the music. There were a couple of slow songs, tunes even I could shuffle around to without embarrassing myself. I slid coins in the slot and punched in B 14. 

By the time the first notes were drifting around the bar I was standing next to the woman’s chair. Before I figure out something clever to say, she lifted her face and smiled at me. I still hadn’t come up with a good line, so I simply said “This is a real nice song. Would you care to dance?”

Without speaking, the woman put her left hand in my right and rose, seemingly without effort. Holding hands, we maneuvered through the people and tables to the dance floor. Without hesitating, she gently pressed her body against mine and we slow-danced around the floor like we’d danced in each other’s arms a thousand times. 

Her eyes were almost level with mine and I glanced down to see what sort of shoes the woman was wearing. I was expecting heels, but they looked like flats, not that I was any kind of an expert on women’s clothing. Back when I’d been engaged to Cindy Skinner she’d talked a lot about which fashions were hot and which ones were not. However, I hadn’t paid attention. When it was way too late, I figured out that Cindy in particular, and women in general, wanted their man to pay attention to them, like just about all the time. 

Remembering Cindy telling me over and over not to mix stripes and plaids in the same outfit I started smiling. Then I wondered where she was now. Last I’d heard, she’d been dating Bobby Duncan. But I knew for a fact that Bobby was doing sixty days on drug possession in the White County jail. My last two nights there had been Bobby’s first two. 

The woman said something and I felt my mind come swirling back into Clyde’s. Unfortunately, I hadn’t caught what she’d said. 

“Sorry. Can you try me again?”

The woman smiled. “I asked what your name was.”

“Sorry, should have introduced myself.” I felt my myself blushing. For sure I wasn’t much of a lady’s man. No wonder I had so much trouble finding, and keeping, a woman. 

“My name is Cobb Girtner. What’s yours?”

“Mine’s Evelyn, Evelyn Swigert.”

“You know a Derek Swigert? Lives over to Glencove.”

She shook her head. “No. I’m not from around here.”

Well, I thought, that explained why I hadn’t recognized the woman. “You just passing through, or here on business?” 

“Neither,” she said. “I’m visiting my aunt, Belinda Johnson. She lives across town, two blocks down from the hospital.”

“Afraid I don’t know her.” Now that I thought about it, I didn’t know many people in Carlton. I knew Bruce Kunsler who owned the trucking company my Uncle Mike had worked for before his heart gave out, Fast Eddie Bennett who owned Bennett’s Truck and Auto Sales, a few of the guys who shot pool down at Bruton’s Billiards, Ted Smith who was a loan officer down at the bank, and, of course, Bobby Warren.  Oh, and I knew the sheriff and his deputies. Those jerks I knew all too well. 

Evelyn snuggled tighter and I caught a whiff of her perfume. She smelled like roses, like the roses Grandma Murphy had raised behind her house on the old place. Grandma had been dead for five, maybe six, years now. I wondered if her roses still bloomed. 

The slow song ended and a faster paced rhythm swirled out of the jukebox. I’d embarrass the hell out of myself trying to dance to that one. So I stepped back and took a quick look around, finally spying an empty two-top on the far side of the bar. The new song sounded louder, as though an unseen hand had cranked the jukebox up. Leaning forward, I whispered in the woman’s ear, “Buy you a drink?”

She turned and looked directly at my face. Sizing me up, I figured. Trying to figure out what sort of man I was, and what I had in mind. For a moment I thought she was going to give me the brush-off, but she smiled and said “Sure. How about a bourbon, on the rocks?”

Taking her by the hand, I led her over to the empty table I’d spotted. “Back in a minute,” I said and started for the bar. 

On the way, I detoured and bummed a twenty off Tommy Royce and a pair of Delbert Hinkle’s special cigarettes. Now, I hate to bum, but I sure as hell didn’t want to let this woman slip away without trying everything I could think of. She sure looked like something special.

I carried the drinks back to the table and we clinked glasses and took a healthy swallow. While she was drinking, I studied her neck. Long and gracefully curved, it put me in mind of a swan I’d seen once up in Michigan. At the moment I couldn’t remember why I’d been in Michigan, but in my mind I could see as clearly as the first time that beautiful, graceful, long-necked bird floating on a lake so blue it looked unreal. A word was tattooed on the woman’s neck, down low, just above the collar of her blouse. I wondered what it was. 

A man laughed like a braying jackass at a nearby table and I came back from Michigan. I tried to think of a way to strike up a conversation that the woman might be interested in. For a few seconds I couldn’t remember her name and started to panic. I won’t claim to always think so straight when I’ve been drinking. Not to remember her name would be a piss-poor way to start a relationship. Then her name floated back into my mind and I whispered it to help me remember. Evelyn was a classy name; it felt good on my lips. 

“You said you were visiting your aunt, Evelyn, so where’s home?” 

The woman tilted her head, closed her eyes, and murmured “Home is where the heart is.” Tilting her head, she gave me a sideways glance. “But then I don’t have a home, so maybe I don’t have a heart. What do you think?” Sadness seemed to be spreading across her face, as though she’d just heard bad news. 

Well, that was different. I wondered what she’d been smoking before she’d come to the bar. I didn’t know how to answer the woman. Her voice sounded as though it was coated with sadness. Just to keep the line open, I nodded like I thought the words she’d said were meaningful. She smiled feebly and sipped on her bourbon.

The song on the jukebox changed to another slow one and I considered asking the woman if she wanted to dance again. However, one glance revealed that she was lost in space. When she took another drink, I joined her, hoping the evening wouldn’t evolve into a drinking contest, cause bad things often happened once I started drinking for real. Or maybe it was more that I often did bad things when I was liquored up. 

We sat quietly through the song, the woman nodding and drinking. When the last note had died, she drained her glass and put her elbows on the table. Her eyes studied my face like she was studying for a final exam.

“You asked me a question, so I figure it’s okay to ask you one?”


“I noticed the tattoo on your hand. My brother had one almost exactly like it. Does it mean what I think it means?”

That one was out of left field and I tried without success to think of a good answer. After a minute I said “Not sure what you’re thinking of, but it might be close.”

She leaned forward. “Is it a gang tattoo?”

“Well, sort of.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” 

“Means I got it behind bars. So, it’s like a jailbird’s tattoo, and jailbirds are a gang, if you look at them a certain way.”

“So, you went to prison?”

Before I responded I took another sip of whiskey. On top of what I’d already drunk, the bourbon was starting to make its presence felt. Whether that was good or bad I couldn’t say. 

“Not exactly. I got it when I was in the White County jail the second time. Sixty days for DUI, reckless driving, and resisting arrest.”

“No probation, or maybe a fine and suspended sentence?”

I shook my head. “Wasn’t my first ride on that particular merry-go-round. I’d already had my breaks.”

“So, how many times have you been in jail, Cobb?”

“Too damn many.” I was getting tired of the woman’s questions. Why the hell did she want to go down that particular dark road? Time to change the subject.

“You said your brother had a tattoo like mine. Was he in jail?”

The woman closed her eyes. “Prison, actually.”

Part of me wanted to ask her what crime had sent her brother to prison, but I didn’t know her that well.

She opened her eyes and told me anyway. 

“He was using heavy in those days, and, naturally, needed money. A lot of money. He wasn’t in any shape to work, so he stole some. A little at first, then a lot. The law didn’t approve.”

“Is he out now?”

The woman blinked a couple of times and I wondered if she was trying not to cry. “He’s dead. He was just twenty-nine.”

“Sorry.” I meant that. Dying young with the rest of your life shimmering on the horizon was bad shit anyway you cut it. 

She nodded but didn’t respond. After what seemed like five minutes, she said “I’m going to go freshen up.” 

I nodded and watched her walk away. She had nice legs and a good walk, but she sure was one sad lady. 

She was gone so long I started to wonder if she was coming back. But, after a spell, she did, walking more purposefully and plopping down in her chair. She was smiling, and I wondered if she really meant it. Women had their ways of fooling a man. For sure, they could fool me most of the time.

“You look like a man who knows how to have fun.”

“Been known to have a little fun.”

“Such as?”

“Mostly drinking. Sometimes I have a lot of fun after I’ve been drinking.”

“Thought you looked like that sort of man.” The woman’s lips rearranged themselves into a wider smile. “You wouldn’t know it, Cobb, but I’m an excellent judge of character. A few minutes with almost anybody and I can tell with precision what sort of person they are.”

“That must come in handy.”

“You’d better believe it.” 

The woman’s face drifted closer. In the dimly lit bar, her pale face put me in mind of a wandering moon. Somebody with talent could work that image into a poem, I thought. A song, even.

The wandering moon drifted closer. I studied the tattoo on her neck. It read Forgiven. Well, that was different. 

“I’m feeling kinda bummed out tonight. Need to have some fun. What do you do for fun around this town?”

“Depends,” I said, not being sure how to answer the question. After all, everybody had their own idea of fun. I wondered what Evelyn’s was. Maybe she wanted another drink. I nodded at her empty glass. “Want another?”

She shrugged. “I’d rather do something else, if you get my drift?”

“Such as?”

The woman’s face took on a real serious look. “You’re not a policeman, are you? Not an undercover cop?”

Me, a cop?  That image, I had to laugh at. Now, for sure I was intimately familiar with police procedure, but I’d always been the catcher, never the pitcher. “No, I’m about as far away from being a cop as a man can be.”

The woman’s face shifted back into smile mode. “Drinking’s okay, but I feel like getting high tonight. That would help me take my mind off my troubles. Know any place where we can score some good stuff?”

My first thought was that maybe the woman was trying to set me up. But that didn’t make a lot of sense. Sure, I’d smoked dope a couple of times and popped a few pills, but beer and liquor were my demons. 

“What sort of good stuff?”

She leaned closer and when she spoke her voice had slipped into a lower register. “What I really need is to mellow out. Oxy would be good, or maybe a few benzos.”

The woman was full of more surprises than Christmas morning.  “Might, but I’m sorta between paydays.”

Evelyn smiled. “No worries, big guy.” She patted the right front pocket of her jeans. “I’m carrying cash tonight, and I don’t mean five or ten dollars. Tonight, I’m like straight from the bank.” 

My first thought was that maybe the woman was trying to set me up. But that didn’t make a lot of sense. Sure, I’d smoked dope a couple of times and popped a few pills, but beer and liquor were my demons. If Sheriff McEver was trying to set me up, he’d have used booze as bait. Besides, nothing ventured, nothing gained, as Uncle Turner used to say. 

“Sure you don’t want another drink first? Night’s still young.”

The woman shook her head. “Got my heart set on something else. Think you can make it happen?” She bent forward and brushed her lips across mine. “I’d be grateful, real grateful.” Her right hand caressed the inside of my left thigh.

I jerked my head toward the door. “Let’s go see what we can do.”

“Let’s,” she said and rose like her body was hollow. I stood quickly and started heading for darkness, with the woman walking with me, stride for stride.


I knew only three guys who dealt, at least that’s what I’d been told by people who used. Since his house was only a couple of blocks away, we tried Tommy Ellison first. But the house was dark and nobody answered the door. Next, I drove us over to Harlo Hubbard’s place, but his wife, who answered the door, said he was out of town and wouldn’t be back until next year. I knew what that meant.

Three strikes and you’re out; that’s the way the old saying goes. And, if Len Morris wasn’t home, we’d have struck out and Evelyn would have to get by with me and a bottle. Wasn’t sure about what I was hoping for as I drove out Benson Road. While part of me wanted to make her happy, I was still sober enough to realize that in the short run, drugs, while they could make you feel damn good, were dangerous, and in the long run they were flat out deadly. Guess you could say the same thing about liquor. But that had never yet stopped me from drinking. Certainly it didn’t that night.

I’d only been to Len’s house a couple of times with friends, and always as a passenger. Maybe that’s why I took the wrong cutoff, or it could have been because I’d taken a couple of nips out of the bottle of Blanton’s Evelyn had bought us at Liquor Villa. In any case, what should have been a fifteen-minute drive turned into forty-minute wander. By the time we found the place—less than a mile past the old Bethel Baptist Church—it was after midnight.

However, from what I’d heard, drug dealers were like all-night diners and stay open twenty-four seven. The curtains were pulled and the house looked mostly dark, but as we pulled off the pavement onto the gravel driveway I could see the porch light burning. I parked and we got out and crossed the yard. Evelyn stumbled stepping up onto the porch, but I caught her arm and kept her upright. 

Len had been a year behind me in school, so we knew each other enough to say hello. I knocked on the door and after a few seconds I could hear footsteps. As the door swung open, I hoped I looked more sober than I felt.  Everything was a little fuzzy about then and I blinked the night back into better focus as Len’s face peered through the glass. 

Took him a minute before he figured out who I was, but when he did, he invited us inside. His place was your basic couch, recliner, and tv living room, although the tv looked new. For sure, it was the biggest screen I’d seen on one. Like I said, I was a beer and whiskey man, so I introduced Evelyn to Len and let her make her own deal while I watched an old Bruce Willis movie on Len’s monster tube. They chatted for a few minutes, then got up and drifted into the next room. I could still hear them talking, but the words were muffled, distorted by walls and space and all the booze sloshing around inside me. 

Evelyn was laughing when she came back and I got up, told Len I’d see him, and followed Evelyn outside. Clouds that had obscured the sky on the drive out were breaking apart. As we headed for the truck the moon revealed itself and lighted our path with a cool silver hue. Moonlight always seemed romantic to me, and I took Evelyn’s free hand and held it all the way across the yard. I opened her door for her, and she put her face up to mine and we kissed. It was a good kiss. I hadn’t kissed any woman in a long time.  


“Where do you want to go now?”

She leaned my way and lightly brushed her lips across my check. “Is there a river close by?”

“A river?”

“Yes, a river. I love rivers, the way they keep on flowing, never staying the same, carrying away the sins of the world, quenching our thirsts.” 

Again, she turned her face towards mine. I could smell her perfume and sense an unspoken desire. Only I wasn’t exactly certain what that desire was. She stretched out a hand and ran her fingers slowly, gently across my face, lingering where the bones pressed against the skin, as though she was memorizing my face so that she could sculpt it later. 
Seconds later, she pressed her lips against mine and we kissed again, longer than before, and more intently. Desire rose in me like one of her rivers in flood stage and I pulled her body to mine. It had been a long time.

After a moment, she broke off the kiss and rearranged her body back on her side of the seat. “Wow,” she said, “now about that river . . . ”

I fired up the engine and shifted into gear. “I know one,” I said. “I know just the place.”


About half-a-mile past where Culver’s Store used to stand the Messina makes a wide swing south, creating a riverbank lined with sycamores and bushes I don’t know the names of. If you turn down Spence Road and park on the river side, it’s only a short stroll down a sloping patch of ground to a spot where the moonlight shines through the gaps in the trees and the bank is covered in soft grasses. I’d been there before, so even halfway to drunk I could navigate the journey. 

A band of silver light stretched along the riverbank like it had been painted there. I carried the bottle with me, along with a blanket I kept in the truck, just in case, while she swung along like a young girl, talking a little, smiling once or twice. 

It took a couple of minutes, but I found the spot I was looking for and spread the blanket on the ground. Excusing myself, I wandered off behind a massive sycamore to get rid of some of the Blanton’s. Coming back to the blanket, I saw her press two fingers against her lips, then take a healthy swig from the bottle. One of the pills she bought from Len, I figured. 

I’d been told that mixing pills and booze could cause issues, but she seemed to know what she was doing, which was more than I’d been capable of lately. Easing down beside her on the blanket, I took another drink. I could sense the alcohol starting to take control, but studying her moonlit face I didn’t much care. Leaning over, I kissed her again. Then I nuzzled her long, white neck.  

Something splashed near the bank and she turned her head. For some time she sat quietly, thinking about something I couldn’t guess. I studied her profile and listened to the night wind rustling the leaves. 

“I killed him, you know? Killed him as sure as if I’d murdered him with a gun.”

“Who did you kill?”

“My brother, the boy with the tattoo, the boy who died young. You remember me telling you about him?”

“Sure,” I said, recalling her talking about her brother’s tatt. Which made me wonder about her tattoo, but I kept my mouth shut.

“I didn’t mean to, of course. But that doesn’t make any difference. He’s dead and I’m alive and I killed him. That’s not right, you know?”

I put a hand on her bare right arm. “Want to tell me what happened?”

Enough moonlight lit her face so that I could see her nod. “Yeah. I want to talk about it. Want to tell someone.”

“Whenever you’re ready.” I lifted my hand from her arm and took another swallow of bourbon. By now, I wasn’t feeling much pain and didn’t want to feel any at all. In my short life, I’d suffered through enough for two lifetimes. 

“Greg, that’s my brother, he’d gotten straight, see. After prison and three rehabs he was finally straight. And he was trying to get me straight. And I sorta wanted to, but not really, not enough. Anyway, he’d finally found a job and just got his first paycheck and wanted to take me out for a nice dinner. Only I had to pick him up, because the motor in his old car had quit running the day before. Not that I minded. I’d bought a new car the week before, see. Plus, Greg wasn’t always the safest guy to have behind the wheel, if you get my drift.” 

She turned to face me. Maybe the moonlight was playing tricks on me, but it looked like there were tears on her cheeks. 

“So, I picked him up and we had a nice dinner. But he kept talking about how it was my turn to get straight. Made me so mad. Like I wasn’t old enough to make up my own mind. So, I took a pill or two and tried to keep calm. But he pissed me off so bad that when we got back in my car after he’d paid, I took off like I was drag racing. He kept telling, begging, me to slow down. But I was so hacked that I didn’t. And then, between the pills and the speed, I didn’t make a curve and he didn’t survive the crash. Died instantly, the coroner said. Only twenty-nine, my own brother. And I’m totally to blame.”

She sobbed once, rummaged in her purse, then pressed a cupped hand against her mouth. I knew what she was doing. Another of Len’s pills to help her make it through one more night. She washed the pill down with a long slug of bourbon. Between us, we were doing a number on that bottle. 

“I prayed about it, you know? Even went to church for a while. The Bible talks about forgiveness, see. That’s why I got this.” 
She brushed a finger across the word tattooed on her neck. “As for society forgiving, I don’t give a damn about society. The problem is, I can’t seem to forgive myself. . . .” Her voice trailed off, blending with the night sounds. 

In a lopsided, half-drunk sort of way, I understood. Forgiveness is easy to talk about, but hard to do. Especially forgiving yourself. At least it had been for one Cobb Girtner. 

She made a soft sound deep in her throat, turned, and came to me. Our lips met and our hands got very busy. Afterwards, she took another pill, maybe two, while I finished the bottle. By then the night had grown too long and too heavy to hold, and I lay back on the grass and thought about all the crazy, stupid, bad things I’d done over the course of my life. Wondered if I’d ever be forgiven for them, for any of them. 

That got me to thinking about who would forgive me. So many of my family, who were some of the many I’d wronged, had passed on—my mom and dad and all my uncles, except for Tom, who was out in Wyoming somewhere, and Mr. Benfeld, my old high school principal, and Gail Watkins who had the best set of legs I’d ever seen. 

Next, I got to thinking about God, and how much attention He truly paid to this tired old planet and numbskulls like me who lived here. And if He really forgave, or just figured we would be rotting bodies soon enough. Finally, I wondered about Evelyn, that beautiful, infinitely sad spirit. I heard her sigh and wanted to kiss her again, but sleep was flowing across me like an ocean breeze. Closing my eyes, I surrendered to it. 


My head was pounding like it was an anvil and Thor, or one of those ancient gods, was pounding the hell out of it with a sledgehammer. Keeping my eyes closed, I lay still until the pounding eased. Then I opened my eyes and propped myself up on one elbow. 

Full daylight. Middle of the morning, if I had to guess. Birds were fluttering in the treetops and calling to one another and the scent of something sweet in bloom floated on the faint breeze. In daylight, the water had a greenish cast to it, and I could see a path on the far bank that slanted into a shadowy woods. 

Yawning, I sat up, stretched, and looked over at Evelyn, half-expecting her to be awake. But her eyes were closed in a face turned up toward the sky. Remembering the night before, I leaned over and pressed my lips against hers. They were strangely cold and unresponsive. I ran my fingers down her left cheek and said her name. No response.

Starting to worry, I felt for her pulse. No luck. I pressed my left check close to her slightly opened mouth. Nothing. 

My pulse was hammering in my temples and a sick, fearful feeling was crawling all over me. Hurrying now, I shook Evelyn’s body, but, deep down, I already knew I was wasting my time. She was gone, gone off to heaven or hell—who was I to judge? Who ever really knows another person? And I’d only met Evelyn a few hours earlier. 

Still, I could sense a void in my world. She had come and gone, leaving me to struggle on alone. Yet, I wasn’t the same man I’d been before I met her. Whether I was a better man, or a worse one, time alone would tell. 

Easy to see it was up to me to go and call 911. Explaining my way out of this one was going to be a bitch. But couldn’t see where I had a choice. 

Before I started climbing the bank I took one last look at her, trying to fix her face into my brain. My eyes seemed drawn to the tattoo on her neck. Forgiven.

I rolled the possibilities over in my mind. There were so many I couldn’t grasp more than a fraction. “Forgiven,” I said to myself, and to the birds in the trees above me, and to the silent, still body of Evelyn of the Lost Night. 

Looking down at her lovely face, I wondered if she truly had been forgiven. 

Then I wondered if I ever would be.  

Shaking my head, I turned and started climbing up the bank. It would take me several minutes to get to the truck and drive to Butcher’s store.  On the far side of the junction, it was still the closest place I could think of that would have a phone. I leaned forward, stepping quickly, sunlight slathering my face, the morning breeze ruffling my hair. Halfway to the top, I paused and looked back.

“Forgiven,” I said in lieu of a benediction, “forgiven.”

Chris Helvey is an award winning short-story writer, a poet, and a novelist. The author of more than a dozen novels and multiple short-story collections, Chris’ latest novel, Bayou, was recently released by Wings ePress, and is available in both e-book and paperback formats on Amazon. A founding member of the Bluegrass Writers Coalition, he is also editor-in-chief and publisher of Trajectory Journal. Chris spent many of his formative years in Whitley County, Kentucky, and has traveled and worked extensively throughout Eastern Kentucky.

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