By Claire Gebben
Serena clunked shut her car door in front of her darkened apartment building. The light of a full moon cast intricate patterns across the two story facade, shadows from sentinel utility towers in the field. The smells from the power line right-of-way, dew-damp grasses, chicory, Queen Anne’s lace, mingled with parking lot grit.
It had been a long night. Inside, Phil would be horizontal by now, his snore rumbling through the studio apartment as Serena washed up at the seashell-scalloped sink. Serena never felt sleepy after work. She considered sitting at the tiny dining table under the brass-plated chandelier, winding down with a night cap before climbing into bed beside her slumbering husband. It just wouldn’t do. She longed for live bodies, laughter, a bit of a frolic.
The moon’s silvery light fell on her white-shirted shoulders, strangely bright. It had to be almost midnight by now. The sign for Lackie’s Joint glowed just across the field, a place to go, company for her night cap. Every Friday for happy hour—two dollar beers and a half order of free wings—Serena and Phil would make a meal of it. She might not have set out on the grass-trodden path, the power lines humming over head, if she’d thought about it, but in this monochrome light the temptation was innocent enough. It couldn’t be that dangerous to be out alone at this hour. Would anyone possibly be lurking out here on the off chance she’d be passing through? A ridiculous notion, laughable even.
Outside Lackie’s, the neon sign competed with the steady light of the moon, eight or so cars in the lot. Serena entered the dim lounge, decided to pass up two empty tables for the polished brass of the bar. Beside the one open stool sat a heart-stoppingly strong man, his back trapezoidal, thick arms extending from overbroad shoulders to rest on the counter. The man’s waist was trim, his rear connected with the round, chrome-topped stool as if he’d grown from that very spot and still drew sustenance from the earth.
Serena slid onto her bar stool leaning slightly to her right to allow more room for the man’s left forearm. The bottles of the liquor display bore familiar labels, the same as at the Bistro bar where she’d just clocked out. Tonight’s extra large cache of tips bulged in her tip belt. She could drink top shelf tonight and Phil wouldn’t know the difference. The bartender looked her way.
“Chivas on the rocks,” she said.
Two guys in baseball hats were deep in conversation on Serena’s right. The large man on her left stirred and spoke.
“You just come from work?”
Serena glanced down, took in her white shirt and black skirt. “Yup.”
A squat drink appeared before her on its white diamond of a napkin. She pulled a five from her tip belt and placed it on the bar.
$6.50,” the bartender said.
She dug around for a couple more ones, slapped another five on top of the first. The mirror behind the liquor display afforded Serena a glimpse of her after-work glam. Strands of brown hair had slipped from her ponytail to hang on both sides of her face. Her forehead gleamed with a sheen of sweat, her lipstick needed refreshing. She snuck a peek at her neighbor, a rugged-looking man, lined face topped by a shock of rust-colored hair. Slightly hang-dog expression—maybe it was the bushy mustache. Their eyes met in the mirror. Serena averted hers.
“You a waitress?”
Serena nodded. “Just glad my shift’s done. Party of twelve kept me hoppin’. You just get off work, too?”
The man’s rope-knot of a hand gripped his mug of beer.
“Last day,” he said, taking a swallow.
“What do you mean, last day? Last day ever?”
Serena quit staring at her Chivas, took a healthy gulp. She was only being polite. It wasn’t like she wanted to get into it.
“After 25 years working there. Lackawanna Plant closed for good.”
“The Lackawanna Plant? Where’s that?”
“Pfff!” The man let out a burst of air. “Steel. The steel plant.” He pinched his lips together. “You one of those college kids?”
“Just moved here a few months ago.”
“Moved here? Nobody moves here. Everybody leaves. Why’d you come?”
“Phil’s in med school, at U of Buffalo.”
The man smirked. “I knew it.”
“So a steel plant closed?”
“Lackawanna Steel. Used to be everybody wanted to work there. I watched it fizzle to nothin’.”
“What was your job?”
“Smelter foreman. Refined the pig iron.”
Iron Man drained his beer, pulled out a ten and put it between them on the bar.
“Get you another?” He asked, gesturing toward Serena’s half-empty scotch.
She tilted her head to stretch out her right shoulder, the one that carried the heavy trays. It had been a while since she’d let a stranger buy her a drink. She saw this happen every night at the Bistro—guys getting girls drunker, louder, looser. She’d just watch herself.
“A beer, whatever you’re having.”
Iron Man called over the bartender, who ran the tap into frosted mugs and pushed them over the polished counter. The men to Serena’s right paid up and left. Serena took a sip, licked the froth from her lips.
“Thank you,” she said. “What’s your name, anyhow?”
Joe’s eyes dropped to her left hand. “Med school Phil your husband?”
“Yup.” Serena adjusted her diamond to the center of her ring finger.
“Where is he?”
“At home. I just got off work, didn’t want to wake him. He’s got some big exam tomorrow.”
Nowadays, Phil studied medicine like a brainiac. No more nights off playing pool, closing bars.
“Won’t he wake up and wonder where you are?”
“He’s a sound sleeper.”
And it’s not like I’m doing anything wrong. “Blue Skies” started up on the jukebox. Serena was sick to death of that song.
“How long you been married?”
Serena held up two fingers. Joe smirked.
“I been married 21 goddamn years.”
Serena edged forward to get a better look at his gray eyes. Was this guy drunk? He looked alert enough.
“Twenty-one years. Wooeee. That means you got married, when I was like, let’s see, around three years old.”
Joe glared at her. “What’s your point?”
“Nothing. No point.” Serena chuckled. The scotch was warming her veins, the cold beer chasing its syrupy aftertaste. “So where is she, your wife?”
“I don’t give a good goddamn where she is.”
Joe’s pout beneath his droopy mustache looked so comical, Serena couldn’t help but laugh.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing. Nothing’s funny. Except the way you say ‘goddamn’ every time you mention your wife.”
The grim set of Joe’s mouth made Serena realize she’d crossed the line.
“What I mean to say is, it sounds like you’re pissed at her, is all.”
“Damn right I’m pissed. Do you know what that goddamn bitch did?”
Serena laughed—she couldn’t help it. The goddamn worked like a punchline.
A storm gathered in Joe’s gray eyes. “Okay, I’ll tell you what she did. I got fed up, you know, fed up with those goddamn Hungryman dinners night after night. So yesterday, I goes to the store and gets me a sirloin tip roast, the biggest, most expensive hunk of meat in the store. Nothing to celebrate, out of a job and all, but Friday night, last damn day on the job, you know, I want to smell meat and potatoes when I get home. A real goddamn meal. You know?” Serena nodded, working hard not to smile. This wasn’t supposed to be funny. “So at five o’clock, we lock ‘er up. Close the plant forever. Place is a ghost town, no sparks flying, no heat, no clouds of steam from the stacks. That whole goddamn parking lot, no cars but a handful, weeds growing through the pavement cracks. I’m driving home, only thing I’m thinking about the whole time is roast beef and potatoes. I can smell it, I can taste it. No goddamn frozen dinner for once. So I get home, and here’s what she done. She boiled it. She put that goddamn hunk of meat in a big pot of water and boiled it. I mean, who does that? Nobody boils a beef roast. Thing looked all watery and gray. Wasn’t even cooked through.”
Joe thumped his mug on the countertop. Even mad, he seemed gentle, like he’d never hurt someone on purpose. Like he’d come to Lackie’s to avoid getting in a fight. Serena reached out and touched his forearm, the solid, warm muscles beneath his shirt’s cotton weave.
“She doesn’t know how to cook, your wife, that’s all. After 21 years, you ought to know that.”
“After 21 goddamn years, she ought to goddamn learn to cook. What the hell’s the matter with that woman?”
Serena shook her head sympathetically. Joe eased off his bar stool like he’d been sitting too long, gestured to her near-empty mug.
“Want another one?”
Serena thought of the time. She hadn’t meant to stay out like this. Phil’s waiting for you at home.
“Um, my turn,” she said, unzipping her tip belt.
“No way,” Joe said.
“Seriously, I made good tips tonight.”
“I bet you did. I’d leave a good one, for sure. Nope, it’s on me.” Joe called over the bartender, who brought them two more.
“Can you cook?” Joe asked her.
“Um, yeah. But I have a confession. It’s funny, when you think about it and all.” Serena took a gulp of her beer and watched Joe sideways. “I’m a vegetarian.”
“Vegetarian. Perfect,” Joe said, one corner of his mouth lifted with disgust. “That just tops off my day.”
Serena laughed out loud. Maybe Joe wasn’t a brainiac like Phil, but he could tap into the irony of life, its raw undercurrents. The tremulous organ of “A Whiter Shade of Pale” was whining through the nearly empty bar. The bartender roamed the lounge, turning chairs up on the tables, ushering out the last of the customers. Serena felt Joe’s eyes on her.
“Phew, I’m beat,” she said, swiveling away from him, hoping to spin loose the dream-like spell.
“You haven’t finished your last call,” Joe said.
“Thanks for the beers, but I have to go.”
Serena hopped off her stool, staggered slightly. Joe enclosed her upper arm in one hand to steady her.
“Now hold on, Theresa. What’s your hurry.”
Serena snorted. “Ha, Theresa. That’s a good one. Name’s Serena. Anyway, nice meeting you, Joe. Have a good one.”
Even as she said it, she knew he wouldn’t have a good one. In a couple of years, his muscles would turn to mush, his stomach paunch out, his biceps flab. Iron Man would soften, fade to gray. Why live life as if the good stuff’s coming later? Why not live every moment to its fullest?
In a trance, Serena let Joe guide her to the door. Nothing was going to happen, she told herself. They were both married. They weren’t looking for pick ups.
Outside, the moon hung lower on the horizon. Serena’s heart began to pound as she remembered she’d walked over here. It would be a bad idea to tell Joe that. He’d offer her a ride. No way she should get in his car. She decided to stall, let Joe leave first, not notice her hiking off through the field. So Serena sauntered toward the three remaining cars in the lot as if one of them belonged to her. As they came to a dark sedan, she turned around.
“Well, good ni—“
Joe folded Serena in his arms, rocked her in the cradle of his enormous warmth. Trying to push away, Serena’s hands touched Joe’s stomach, felt his taut abs beneath his shirt. His beer-soaked lips found hers and hot man-breaths stroked her face. Then he held her, swaying, against him, their bodies building heat.
Serena let out a whimper.
“What?” Joe pressed his mustache-tickling mouth against her neck, leaned against her like he was falling. “Name the place. We’ll go there.”
“I’m … I’m …” Her throat felt thick, so she could hardly choke out the word. “Loyal.”
“Don’t say that. No, you’re not.” Joe’s voice was pleading, as if he might cry.
Serena thought she might disintegrate from the ache inside. She had to break the spell, get home.
“Yes, I am.”
Joe stopped swaying. Serena moved backward, let her arms drop away from his warmth. A cool night air brushed between them. His face was a silhouette in the neon bar lights, so she couldn’t read his expression. She didn’t want to.
“Please? Just for tonight. Please?”
“I have to go,” Serena said.
Joe edged away from her and walked stiffly to the driver’s side of the sedan. His car door creaked open on rusty hinges.
“Last chance,” he said.
Serena stepped between the other two cars in the lot. His car door thudded shut and the engine gunned. She crouched between the cars as he backed out, then stood to watch the tail lights recede, his car driving past the dim shape of her apartment complex, where Phil slumbered inside.
Damn damn damn. Serena stumbled toward the footpath and into the field. The moon’s bare bulb hung on the horizon, smudging out the stars. Field grasses drooped over the path, lashing Serena’s legs with dew as she made her way home.
Copyright Gebben 2012