Street Tacos
fiction by Rachel Holbrook

I imagined I would look sophisticated sitting at a table for two on the rooftop bar, the light would be fading along the horizon as I sipped white wine and crossed my legs in a classically seductive fashion. I would wear my new sundress with the wide straps, the color of an overripe plum, and would push last year’s sunglasses up onto my head, holding back the vibrant mass of coppery curls—undeniably my best feature. I played this scenario in my head for months leading up to my divorce. I didn’t account for the finalization being in late March, when the weather was as temperamental as a menopausal woman. I am no longer married, but it is too cold for the flimsy sundress I ordered online.

The chill in the early Spring air requires jeans and a sweater, but the sun shines brightly as I step out onto the rooftop of the bar. I have only been to Market Square twice before, both times pushing a toddler in a stroller and trying to ignore my husband’s complaints. It had been crowded and lively on those sunny summer days, a little less crowded now, but still just as lively. Moreover, it feels safe to me to be here alone at night. Driving downtown and finding a place to park in the garage had been intimidating, and that feeling of intimidation had made me feel small and ugly. I think ahead to Tuesday afternoon when I will meet with the therapist my lawyer recommended after the fourth or fifth time I broke down crying in her office. The therapist is middle-aged, with mousy brown hair cut into a thick bob, and she charges on a sliding scale. When I am feeling particularly unkind, I liken her haircut to a mushroom cap, but only in my mind and only when she speaks in a voice not unlike my mother’s and questions the truth behind the things I say about myself or, occasionally, about my husband. Dr. Morgan rarely lets me get away with hyperbole, but she is exceedingly compassionate when I tell her about the things I feel threatened by. Things like driving myself downtown or walking down the street unaccompanied. I am twenty-nine years old, and I know these things shouldn’t cause me so much anxiety. Yet, come Tuesday morning, I will relate to Dr. Morgan the way my heart pounded as I stepped into the elevator in the parking garage with a nicely dressed man with clean cut hair and a brown suede jacket. How I expected every moment for him to lunge at me and push me up against the wall. How I felt light-headed from holding my breath when we reached the ground floor and he politely stepped aside so I could exit before him. She never judges me for the things that scare me. The things I had never been allowed to do, and definitely didn’t do alone. I will tell her about the anxieties, but I will probably leave out the reason I drove downtown in the first place.

The hostess seats me at the bar that runs around the perimeter of the rooftop lounge, overlooking the square. I barely hear her as she recites the drink specials, nodding silently when she recommends the house special—double barrel margaritas. This will be my second drink—ever. The first had been near the end of my marriage. My sister, Kristin, had jokingly offered me a beer, and I had surprised her by accepting it. I had sat on her back porch, watching the kids—hers and mine—playing in her backyard, holding the sweaty bottle between my knees, occasionally sipping it until it was gone. My sister had known something was wrong between David and me, but she never asked. She watched me sip the warm beer, but didn’t offer me another. I want to forgive Kristin for not asking. If I’m honest, I want to confront her first. I want to accuse her of knowing something was wrong and looking the other way—of knowing I needed help but not offering it. I had gone so far as to role-play the conversation with Dr. Morgan, but, when I see my sister, I always end up talking about something else. Confrontation is not in my nature.

To be honest, neither is having a one-night stand, but I am determined to know what it is like by the end of the night. I rented a room, paid for it with David’s money, which I had taken five and ten dollars at a time before I left while he was at work. I had slipped money out of his wallet and off of his nightstand for two years before I took Addie and went to my grandmother’s. That money and a car full of clothes for me and my daughter were all I had with me when I knocked on the door of Mamaw’s trailer. My parents would have sent me back home to David, but Mamaw pulled the door open wide and ushered me in. She crumbled cornbread into a coffee cup for Addie, and covered it with cold, sweet milk. While Addie ate, the story tumbled out of my mouth in a torrent. I told her about the bruises and the holes in the walls, about the way he tracked my every move with an app on my phone, and the way he never let me have any money, only what I needed for groceries. Mamaw called David a sorry sonofabitch, and helped me carry our clothes inside. She put clean sheets on the bed in the back bedroom, and we’ve been there ever since. 

The waitress brings my margarita and takes my order. Street tacos, again at her recommendation. I don’t know what a street taco is, but she assures me it is just a better version of a normal taco. I sip my margarita. It is cold and sour and biting. I like it much better than my sister’s bitter beer.

“Anyone sitting here?”

I was gazing out over the square when she spoke to me, so I am surprised and can’t immediately think of what to say. It is only seven o’clock, and there are plenty of empty seats, at the bar and at the several tables spread across the roof. I am surprised she is asking to sit right beside of me, but somehow relieved. I shake my head no, and she pulls out the metal chair.

“I’m Casey.” She holds out a small, slender hand, each finger inked with a letter in hard to read script. I can’t tell what they spell out altogether. Each short fingernail is painted black.

“I’m Hannah.” My voice sounds squeaky. I clear my throat and sip my drink.

“Nice to meet you.” Casey is small and waifish, but she exudes an aura of toughness. She seems bigger than she is. I want to ask her how she does that—how I can do that—but we’ve only just met. She pulls her legs up and sits cross-legged in the chair. Her black jeans have more holes than fabric, and colorful tattoos show through nearly every one. I wonder what they’re of.

The wooden door to the roof swings open and a loud group of guys burst through, laughing and shoving at each other. They move in a pack, like a group of rangy wolves. 

“Oh, god.” Casey rolls her eyes. I can’t help but notice how blue they are, like an iced over lake. They’re outlined in a black liner that swoops up in a thick wing. I’ve tried to do my makeup like that, but I always smudge it. Her hair is blonde, but not white blonde. It reminds me of the hay bales we played on at Papaw’s when I was a kid. Her hair is short, almost too short to be called a pixie-cut, but it somehow makes her look even more feminine.

I tear my attention away from this girl and allow my eyes to track the wolves as they make their way to the other end of the bar we are sitting at. There are five of them, and each one looks like a perfect candidate for my night’s intended purpose. Three of them are white and two of them are black, but they all somehow look the same to me. They are most likely UT students. They have a frat boy look about them with their tight t-shirts and expensive sneakers. The one on the end looks over at us and immediately smiles when he sees me looking at them. He has big, square teeth that look like a toothpaste ad. He tilts his head back and winks. I find myself smiling in response.

“Don’t encourage them,” Casey says, refusing to look over her shoulder to follow my gaze. 

“Why not?” I ask, emboldened by the margarita I’ve quickly made disappear.

Casey raises one eyebrow, but says nothing as the waitress comes to take her order. She orders street tacos, too, without being prompted, and a beer. I ask for another margarita, and glance over Casey’s shoulder at the guys. They are absorbed in their own loud conversation. No one is looking my way.

“Are they your type?” Casey asks. She looks amused and a little bit disgusted.

“I don’t have a type,” I say, and am impressed with how cool it sounds falling off my lips. The waitress is back with our drinks and I take a long pull on the straw before setting it down on the bar. 

“Really?” Casey smirks. “No type at all?”

I shake my head.

“So, you like girls and guys?”

That is not what I meant. I start to clarify, but something about the way she is looking at me stops the words in my throat. Instead, I just smile and take another sip. 

I don’t know what to say after that, so I finish off the rest of my drink, and order another when the waitress brings out our tacos. My head is starting to fill swimmy, and I wonder if I should slow down. That’s what they always say on TV when a girl is drinking too much. Maybe you should slow down.

I look at the three tacos on my plate, each one resting in its own spot in a stainless-steel holder. Shredded pork topped with onion and cilantro, accompanied by a small cup of habanero sauce and two lime wedges. This isn’t Taco Bell. I follow Casey’s lead and squeeze lime juice onto the tacos. The first bite is a little taste of heaven. “These are really good!”

“You’ve not had them before?” Casey asked around a mouthful of her own.

“Nope.” I shake my head and take another bite. “I didn’t even know what a street taco was. The waitress had to explain it to me.”

Casey smiles and looks a little puzzled.

I lift my glass, and, before drinking, say, “I’ve never had one of these before tonight either.”

“Really?” She seems truly surprised. “You just turn twenty-one?”

I can’t help myself. I laugh so hard I have to cover my mouth with my hand to keep the food from falling out. After swallowing and wiping the tears out of the corners of my eyes, I say, “I wish. I’m almost thirty.”

“Well, kudos to you.” Casey lifts her glass and clinks it against mine. “You are a youthful goddess. I thought you were my age.”

I try to ignore the way the goddess comment, so nonchalantly delivered, makes my heart speed up just a bit. I ask, “And what is your age?”

“Twenty-two.” Her blue eyes sparkle in the fading sunlight, and she arches one pale eyebrow. I realize she’s flirting with me, and I drain my third glass.

We eat our food in relative silence after that, and the waitress brings us both another drink. The world around me has gotten kind of wavy, so I wait before taking a drink of this new one. 

“So, what’s your story?” Casey asks. “Why are you all alone tonight?”

“Why are you all alone tonight?” I try to be coy.

She laughs. “I work over there.” She inclines her head toward the pub across the square. “I had to come pick something up from a friend and I decided to get dinner before I go home.”

“Where is home?”

“Over by the university.”

“Are you a student?” 

“Grad student.” 

I don’t want her to know I don’t really understand what a grad student actually is, so I ask instead, “Are you from Knoxville?”

She shakes her head. “Topeka. But I got my undergrad at Baylor. I wanted to see somewhere different for grad school, so I applied all over. UT was the only place I got accepted. This wasn’t my top choice, but it definitely wasn’t my last. So, I’m happy.”

I nod my head. I know so very little about the world. I am eight years older than this girl, but listening to her talk makes me feel much younger.

“The Bible says your job is to be a keeper at home,” he liked to say.
It felt virtuous back then, even if it was mind-numbingly boring at
times. Now it feels like a trick to make sure I would have no
marketable skills 
if I ever got up the nerve to leave him. 

“What about you?” she asks. “Are you from Knoxville?”

“About an hour west of here. Little city you’ve never heard of before.” I don’t want to tell her anymore. I’m starting to feel anxious.

“What do you do?” Casey asks, as if it’s a perfectly innocent, innocuous question.

What do I do? I used to tell people I was a stay-at-home mom. That’s not really true anymore. While I haven’t found a job since leaving David, I haven’t been staying home either. Partly because I’ve been trying to find employment that doesn’t embarrass me, and partly because I don’t have a home to stay home at.  Even in the years before Addie was born, I stayed at home. I didn’t love being a housewife. It felt very old-fashioned. But David didn’t want me to have a job. “The Bible says your job is to be a keeper at home,” he liked to say. It felt virtuous back then, even if it was mind-numbingly boring at times. Now it feels like a trick to make sure I would have no marketable skills if I ever got up the nerve to leave him. 

Casey is watching my face, waiting for an answer, so I say, in a wave of honesty, “I’m newly divorced and currently unemployed.”

“Oh.” She takes a long drink of her beer, and then asks, “What do you want to do?”

I am stunned for a moment. I don’t know what to say. What I can do and what I want to do are two very different things. I struggle to find an understandable answer in my muddled brain, but can only come up with, “I don’t know.”

“That’s okay.” Casey shrugs. “You’ll figure it out.”

I haven’t noticed the noise from the square while we have been talking, but, as we sit in silence while I try to think of something semi-intelligent to say, a man’s deep voice reaches us from down below. The man’s words are hard to understand, but one word rises above the others, clear as a bugle call. “Repent!”

Casey’s eyes widen like a cartoon character’s before she says, “Oh, shit!” She looks excited.

I’m confused, but follow her lead in standing up and leaning out over the bar top to see the square below. There are three men and several more women standing in a group on the corner. The men are wearing suits. The women wear long dresses. The older man is the one who is preaching. I can hear him now, quoting familiar Scriptures—verses I learned in Sunday School and memorized as I grew up in church. The women mostly stand to the side, two of them holding signs. One says “Jesus Loves You.” The other one, of course, says, “Repent and be saved.”

The older man reaches the crescendo of his message, and quiets down. The younger man, probably about the same age as Casey, black hair slicked down and parted to the side, steps forward, taking the older man’s place. His voice isn’t exactly louder than his compatriot’s, but it is clearer. It carries across the square, and we can better understand what he is saying. I listen as he quotes verses, and portions of verses, one after the other. I know each one by heart.

“I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord,” he calls out. This makes sense to me, him quoting John the Baptist. He goes from quoting from the book of John to quoting the prophet Ezekiel. “As I live, saith the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways.”

I recognize this portion because it comes from the same text that David liked to preach. As a lay preacher, he delivered his sermons only every now and then, and they were mostly new ones each time. He particularly liked preaching from Ezekiel chapter thirty-three, though, so I recognized the young street preacher’s words immediately.

Casey has one barely-clad knee rested on her metal chair and her elbows braced on the bar top. She is watching the scene below with apparent fascination. I watch her watch them and drain my latest margarita. 

The wolves at the end of the bar are also watching the spectacle, laughing and joking from where they now stood behind their chairs. When the young preacher called out “Repent!” in a shrill voice, one of the wolves called back, “For what?”

I tear my eyes from Casey and try to focus them on the preacher. He’s looking up at the wolves. He holds up his big black Bible in one hand and calls out, “Repent of your sin and all your wicked ways!”

The wolf laughs and yells, “I’m not wicked. I’m a good guy. Honest!”

“The Bible says there is none good!” The preacher’s voice is mostly strong, but you can hear his nerves in the slight waver at the end.

I know what’s coming and mouth the next words with him. “No not one.”

Casey looks curiously at me, but doesn’t say anything.

“We are good.” The wolf sounds insistent, like he wants to convince the other man.

“None is good,” the preacher repeats, “no not one!”

A different wolf, taller and darker and with a much deeper voice calls back, “Surely there’s at least one or two. Mother Teresa? Ghandi?”

“Oprah!” The shortest and whitest wolf, with skinny legs and a scruffy goatee, offers his suggestion with a chuckle. 

The first wolf howls with laughter, and says, “You get a car! You get a car!” He looks back down to the preacher with drunken glee, and shouts, “Everyone gets a car!”

Even from my perch high above, I can see the confusion on the young preacher’s face. He’s probably never seen an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show, and I can’t imagine him sending around a viral meme. I remember all the strange references to Oprah Winfrey I had heard made from the pulpit of the little church where I grew up. She was maligned almost as much as Barack Obama, neither of whose Christianity was respected by the group of fundamentalist churches that I suspect these street preachers belong to and to which I had once belonged. 

The young preacher is preaching again, trying to ignore the wolves. He has attracted a small crowd of onlookers, on whom he’s now focused. I see multiple phones lifted up to record video. I wonder if the young preacher is embarrassed or emboldened by their attention and their phones. 

“That’s so crazy,” Casey is saying, sitting down once again. She tips up her glass and drains the last of her beer. 

“They think they’re doing a good thing,” I say, surprised at the compassion I hear in my voice.

Casey studies my face, but says nothing.

Tired of the noisy scene below, the wolves are moving in a pack toward us, teeth bared in a show of friendliness. 

“Hey, ladies,” the tallest one says.

“Oh, god,” Casey says, and the tall one looks embarrassed.

“Hey,” I say, remembering my mission.

“Can we get you another round?” the one with the skinny legs asks.

I nod my head as Casey says, “We’re good.” She grabs me by the elbow, and pulls me up beside of her. Her head comes barely up to my chin. Standing beside of her, I can’t believe how tiny she is. She says, “We were just heading to the restroom.”

Standing, I feel a rush of heat to my face and start to lose my balance. “Be right back,” I say to the tall one. 

Casey leads me down the stairs and into the women’s bathroom. The bathroom reminds me of a barn, with the distressed wood walls and dim lighting. I lean against the sink to wait on Casey to do her business, but she just stands there looking at me. 


“I know we just met each other,” she says, “but I don’t think you really want to do what you’re doing.”

“What do you mean?” I try to focus on her ice blue eyes, but I keep having to squint my own eyes to keep her face from slipping sideways.

“Those guys,” she says. “They’re probably decent enough, but what are you planning to do? You’re already drunk off your ass. Are you planning to go home with one of them? All of them?”

The room is spinning around me, and I’m surprised to realize that’s a real thing. I close my eyes, and, when I open them, the room is standing still for the moment. “I don’t know,” I say.

“That’s pretty obvious.” Casey stares at me, scrunching her lips to the side as she thinks. She’s adorable.

“I could go home with you instead,” I say. It’s funny how I can hear myself saying these things, and yet it feels like I’m watching a movie of someone else speaking the words. 

Casey smiles. “You could.”

“Or you could come with me. I have a room.”

“Trying to get all your firsts out of the way in one night?” She takes one step toward me, and I feel a rush of excitement.

I nod my head, and the motion makes me feel dizzy.

Casey reaches out her little tattooed hand and I watch it as it rests on my forearm. It reminds me of a bird perching on a branch, and the thought makes me giggle. “The difference between me and those guys up there,” Casey says, “is that I don’t take advantage of girls who have been drinking too much.”

Whatever I thought was about to happen is quickly replaced with a rush of nausea and beads of sweat on my forehead. “I don’t feel so good,” I whisper. 

“That’s not surprising,” Casey says. She looks deep into my eyes and smiles. Her little bird hand pushes my hair out of my face and she says, “I’ll walk you to your hotel.”

We settle our bills and push through the heavy door and out onto the square. The rush of cool air hitting my face makes me feel better, but I still need to hold onto Casey’s arm. I wonder if we look like a couple.

The older preacher has resumed his speaking role, and the wolves have resumed their call and response routine from the roof. The younger preacher is walking in our direction, handing small rectangular papers to the people he passes. I know that they are Gospel tracts, and I’m surprised by how many people accept them. As he passes in front of the bar, he holds up his Bible with his right hand, and, with his left hand pressed against the black leather and hidden from his cohort, he extends his middle finger, while never even looking up at the wolves. They react with riotous laughter, and the young preacher’s face flushes bright red. I feel sorry for him.

I fall into step beside of Casey, my drunken steps matching her shorter stride. The heels of my shoes click against the sidewalk, sounding like “re-pent, re-pent, re-pent.” I think of the preacher’s hidden finger and think, “I won’t. I won’t. I won’t.”

Rachel Holbrook writes from her home in Knoxville, Tennessee. She earned a BFA in Creative Writing from Tennessee Wesleyan University, where she was awarded the Creative Writing Prize in 2019. A lifelong resident of East Tennessee, she has a passion for writing socially-engaged fiction set in Southern Appalachia. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Ink in Thirds, The Society of Classical Poets, Reckoning: Tennessee Writers on 2020 (The Porch,) and Anthology of Appalachian Writers, Ann Pancake Volume 16. Rachel is proud of her identity as an Appalachian, a queer woman, an Army wife, and a mother of six. Find her on Instagram as @Rachel_A_Holbrook.

home               return to fiction