In a red booth in a dim bar, I sat with Shel and the rest. For some reason, she’d invited – was always inviting – Tim. He sat next to her and smoked and didn’t say a word.
Shel’s out-of-state suitor had proposed marriage – we were celebrating. Shel swallowed her shot with swagger and set the glass aside. She made a show of flourishing her finger – newly ringed. It flashed impressively.
The reception will be in a barn, Shel said. It’ll be really cute!
Tim grimaced. What’s wrong, Tim? said Shel.
Tim’s just being his sulky self, aren’t you Tim? I said.
Don’t be mean to Tim, Shel said. She put her hand on his. He stared. When she took her hand away, he looked out the window into the street.
We walked to a different bar. This one served grilled hamburgers and you came out smelling like one. We went in and pushed two tables together. Someone bought a pitcher of something cheap and frothy.
To Shel! we shouted. To Shel and old What’s-His-Name!
You guys are such dicks, said Shel, slurping.
Meanwhile, Tim stood at the jukebox. Soon, some slow, sappy songs came on the speakers, though we’d instructed him to pick something peppy.
We left in a charbroiled cloud. Shel’s shoes stunted her stride – she took small steps. Tim – a notorious loper – lamed his left leg to lag near her.
Tim was from a broke, gritty part of the country and wore it like a jacket. His jacket, in fact, was the sort you’d see there – bulky, ugly, uncolored, abused. He stuffed his fists into it and thrust the pockets out of shape. It was all an act, because he had money and an education. He was tall, but slumped. Even so, he stood a foot over little Shel. Anyone could see how he enjoyed his view.
Why are you so quiet? said Shel.
Who cares about colors and flowers? said Tim.
Talk about something else then, said Shel.
Tim shrugged. Whatever, he said.
The next bar was loud and crammed with the gelled-hair crowd. The close air was a cologne soup. A pair of tanned men handed shots to Shel and me that tasted like chocolate cake batter.
Why did you take that from them? Tim said.
Why not? said Shel.
It’s like you want to get raped, Tim said.
Tim, I said, maybe they’ll give you one too. Maybe tonight’s your lucky night. He turned to leave but Shel grabbed his sleeve. She said something in his ear I couldn’t hear. He stiffened. Behind his wire-rimmed glasses, he blinked several times.
This place sucks, Shel said, Let’s go.
A cab took us from civilly-lit streets to where the dark sky gaped. We got out at the farmer bar – Dirty John’s. All around were farmers’ fields. You could see how torn up the fields were, and how dead – nothing moved, nothing sang. In the air was sick pigs’ shit and a chemical sterility.
Inside, some old timers sat on stools and some younger ones shot pool. The nation’s flag was on prominent display, as were several handmade placards announcing aggressive slogans. Tim – standing straighter – ordered for us at the bar. He smiled when he sat down. I love it here, he said. It’s authentic, he said.
Shel leaned her head against the back of the booth and closed her eyes. Shel, Tim said, do you like it here?
It’s okay, Shel said.
Tim’s mouth turned down like he’d swallowed something sour.
The waitress, whose name was Wanda, arrived with the chilled bottles she’d crowded in a huddle with her strong hands. The bottles looked to have been dunked in a bucket of ice – little chunks of it slid down their sides and onto the table, where it made quick pools.
Wanda wiped her hands on her pants. On the marriage finger was a gold ring topped with a big prong-set stone.
I grabbed Shel’s hand and lifted it. The glittery thing slipped a little. She’s getting married, too, I said.
I’m not married, Wanda said. I wear it to keep the creeps away.
Does it work? Shel said.
No, Wanda said.
Later, Tim went to the toilet and didn’t come back. He walked out the side door and onto the unlit road, thinking about Shel and what it would be like to fuck her. He wanted to fuck her, even though she was stupid. His love was noble – he wanted to fuck some smarts into her.
He walked and walked, thinking of fucking. The cold wind blew hard. In a rush of rage, Tim ran, then tripped. His eyeglasses tumbled off, lost. He hunched and reached, hands stretched out, searching the ground. The landscape looked like nothing. At last he stumbled into a wet ditch and lay still.
As for Shel and What’s-His-Name – they prospered, or they persevered, or perhaps they did hit a few pitted places, but their optimistic attitude augured a generally hallowed outcome. Can’t we all be easier knowing that?
Photograph © Eric Allix Rogers