fiction by Chris Helvey
Seven 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.”
“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?”
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.
“Where do you want to go now?”
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.
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.