A Short Story by Shae Krispinsky
At Rhythm & Brews Lounge, the pours would always be watered down, the bartenders surly, the jukebox programed to loop the same two dozen modern country songs, the dance floor empty. It was a place for people to come and be lonely together, and little had ever changed there in the all the years Natch had been going.
Except tonight when he’d pulled in, the parking lot had been full, unusual for the Monday-through-Thursday stretch that was the doldrums of life. Inside, some digital recording of a wannabe cowboy wasn’t warbling about a honky tonk badonkadonk; there was a long-haired pretty boy up on the small stage, wearing ratty clothes that looked pulled from a dumpster and playing a $4000 guitar. A gaggle of women swayed before him, transfixed, sucking on their Smirnoff Ices.
And then there she was, the most obvious change of all, seated in the far corner booth with a bowl of peanuts in front of her. By the way she held herself, back straight, not touching the red vinyl cushion, alert but not alarmed, Natch knew the loneliness he saw in her was a familiar feeling. The Busch Beer stained-glass lamp hanging above her table gave off a cool glow that highlighted her cheekbones and her sandy hair that hung in a long tangle over her shoulder. Natch wasn’t the only one who noticed. He was, however, the one who approached, offering to buy her a drink. He would have done the same even if she hadn’t been so beautiful; he felt it his duty to be welcoming. The beauty didn’t hurt.
“Thank you,” she said, “but I don’t.”
“Nothing?” Natch asked. “Coffee? It’s not bad here. I mean, it doesn’t melt the spoon.”
“Any chance they have green tea?”
“Sweet tea, maybe.”
She settled for a club soda with lime, which Natch retrieved along with a beer for himself. “Name’s Tod, but everyone calls me Natch.”
She squeezed her lime into her soda, then dropped the spent wedge on a napkin. “As in naturally?”
“As in Natchez, Mississippi. Where I was born.”
Her name was Hanlon and she had, she shared, been born right there in Marville, a fact he found hard to believe. With the green tea and the posture, he had taken her for a city girl. Turned out he was partially correct—she had gone to grad school at NYU. After that, she had spent a few years wandering around before settling for a while in Savannah. As she spoke, Natch noticed the way the sundress she wore dipped slightly in the front, revealing she had nothing on underneath. Natch forced himself to stare at his beer, his head cocked, as though straining to hear over the live music.
“What brings you back?” he asked.
“My mother died.” Hanlon said this as though she were commenting on Natch’s shirt. “Twice, really. First when she left me and my father, and then again last year.” She shrugged. “I got a house here out of it.”
At this turn of the conversation, Natch reached for his Mich Ultra, took a deep, distancing quaff, and considered getting up for a whiskey neat. She leaned in across the table, her hair catching in the front of her dress, and said she didn’t mean to make him uncomfortable. Natch forgot about his thirst.
She turned her attention to the stage, where the pretty boy was switching out harmonicas in the holder around his neck. The women on the dance floor continued swaying, even as the pretty boy adjusted his capo and told some story about growing up in Memphis. Pretty Memphis Boy began intricately fingerpicking and Natch had to admit, he could play.
Music was the fastest way to earn Natch’s respect. He spent so much time on the road that music was what kept him awake and focused. He liked to say he owed his life to the songs. Pretty Memphis Boy started in on a harrowing cover of “Pancho and Lefty” that brought a palpable change upon the bar. No one wanted to face that kind of emotion at Rhythm & Brews. They came to forget their troubles; the wood-paneled walls, thankfully, did not reflect their darkest selves and never would. Conversation on the periphery drowned out his singing, but Pretty Memphis Boy took it in stride. A few women at his feet took this time to refresh their drinks, but the majority stayed: he was pretty whether he sang sad or not. But then he doubled down, playing “Waiting Around to Die,” and the floor cleared. Natch admired his conviction and whistled when the song ended, the only one to acknowledge Pretty Memphis Boy’s detour from his set of bluesy originals.
“That was remarkable,” Natch said, turning back to Hanlon.
She stopped playing with the lime wedge. “I prefer not to dwell on sadness,” she said and slid from the booth. “Time to call it a night.”
Natch stood. “Let me walk you out.”
In the parking lot, the transition from sad songs to a symphony of cicadas felt almost violent, the rending of two distinct realities. Natch shifted uncomfortably.
“You noticed that, too,” Hanlon said. “You sense things others don’t.” She put her hand on his arm, down near the wrist. “I could tell you saw me when you walked in tonight. No one else did.”
“Every guy in there was looking at you,” Natch said, his attention fixed on her hand, the heat pooling there. “Some of the women, too.”
“But they didn’t see me.”
Though she was tall, she had to stretch up to kiss Natch on the cheek. He could feel himself blushing as he watched her cross the gravel lot.
Returning inside, Natch found Pretty Memphis Boy posted up at the bar, staring at his phone, his set over. Women milled around, trying to get his attention.
Natch, cutting through the crowd, joined him. “That’s the first time Townes Van Zandt has been played in Rhythm & Brews. It was a welcome change.”
“Hey, thanks, man,” Pretty Memphis Boy said. He turned, offering his hand. “Seamus.”
Natch shook and introduced himself.
“So, Natch, how do you know about Townes?” Seamus asked, pulling a pack of Marlboro Reds out of his pocket.
“Yeah, me too,” Seamus said, lipping his cigarette. Three beers and one stop at the package store later, Natch and Seamus were down at the creek, skipping stones and passing a paper-bagged bottle back and forth. Night smells rose off the water and the silence around them seemed to hold up the moon. As the liquor settled in, they climbed the embankment leading to the train tracks abandoned when Marville began fading from the map. A quarter mile up was a bridge leading toward Missouri and there the two men sat, staining their hands with rust and kicking their feet, sharing stories until they caught dawn eavesdropping. Before going their separate ways, they made plans to grab a beer later in the week, the bond between them set.
The nearest grocery store was down in Union City, across the Tennessee line. Natch, amid his bi-weekly run, rounded an end display and found Hanlon studying a package of bulgur wheat. She smiled when she saw him and put the cereal back on the shelf. “I hate grocery shopping,” she said. “Let’s go explore the city instead.”
There was something about Hanlon beyond her beauty that made Natch want to go wherever she led. He left his buggy in the aisle next to hers and followed her out into the bright warmth of a Tennessee spring morning. Natch heard the day singing with possibility.
Downtown, they walked the length of the storefronts then talked over Mexican food. Her knowledge of music was slim; of art, vast. She told him she had moved to Savannah to study under Lenka Vargas, a world-renowned performance artist. Natch found the name vaguely familiar but couldn’t place it until Hanlon mentioned Vargas’s most famous work, stripping bare and hiking across Siberia alone. He had heard about that on the television.
“Is that what you do?” he asked, wondering if she, like her mentor, worked naked, and then chided himself for such a crass thought.
Hanlon shook her head. “I do endurance work, like Lenka, but her focus was on the physical limits of the body. Mine is more psychological. I test myself when faced with the quotidian.”
“Meaning what, exactly?”
“Boredom is what I work with,” she said. “It’s the one thing that challenges me.”
“Well, I hope you’re not currently being challenged,” he said.
“No,” she said, lowering her eyes. “I’m not working now.”
“If I recall,” he said, nudging the conversation back to Hanlon’s mentor, “Fox News called her a witch. They said it was the only way she could have survived that trek.”
Hanlon sucked in her breath. “Please don’t tell me you watch that.”
Natch sprinkled hot sauce on his rice. “Not on my own,” he explained, “but stop in any ten diners from here to Tucumcari and eight of them’ll have it on behind the counter.”
Breaking a tortilla chip into pieces, she said, “You spend a lot of time in diners?”
“A trucker’s life,” he said.
“It sounds lonely. Like being an artist.”
Natch couldn’t fathom how someone like Hanlon could ever come to be lonely. It was a cruel world in which that could be the case. He tended to believe the cosmic baseline was lawful neutral and it was his aim to keep things on the right side of good. If it was meant for him to ease her loneliness—well, he was willing to shoulder that burden.
Back at the grocery store parking lot they stood at Hanlon’s car, not ready to say goodbye. He wanted to hear more about her life, so vastly different from his of making time, getting the next load, seeing dozens of states and experiencing none of them. Hers was spent chasing some spark, an inner calling, the vagaries of the muse. He found her interesting and got the feeling she felt the same about him. How that was possible, he didn’t question.
Natch’s phone vibrated in his pocket. He checked out of habit, expecting work. Instead, a text from Seamus. He had forgotten he promised to help change the drive belt on Seamus’s motorcycle. Natch knew the only way for one’s word to mean anything was to stand by it. “I should get back,” he apologized.
“You could ask for my number while you have that out,” Hanlon said, nodding toward his phone. Natch punched in the digits as she spoke them. “Don’t be afraid to use it.” She looped her arms around his neck and pulled him in close enough to smell her lilac perfume.
Seamus was parked in Natch’s driveway, lying supine on the seat of his motorcycle, his feet kicked up over the handlebars.
“Thought you needed my help with that thing,” Natch said, climbing out of his truck.
Seamus sat up, straddling the bike, a pristine Triumph Bonneville. “It was easy,” he said. “Figured maybe you’d want to take her out.”
“It’s been years since I’ve been on one,” Natch said.
Dismounting, Seamus said, “It’s like riding a bicycle. And easier than driving your rig.” He passed Natch his helmet, his leather jacket.
“Wanna ride bitch?” Natch asked, grinning, zipping up the jacket.
“You know damn well I don’t,” Seamus said, holding up his bottle of whiskey. “My date and I are going to sit on your porch and enjoy this weather till you return.”
Natch took it slow through Marville’s serpentine hills but then gunned it back to Union City. He pulled off at the gas station next to the Mexican restaurant and bought a lottery ticket, feeling lucky. He scratched it, matching three, winning five dollars, not worth cashing out. He’d keep the ticket, a token of the day. He zipped it in Seamus’s jacket pocket and headed back.
Seamus had moved from the porch to the bed of Natch’s truck, where he leaned against the rear window, listening to music on his phone. “This small-town living,” he said, after Natch parked the motorcycle and joined him. “There’s not a single fucking thing to do. It’s wonderful.” He was at the point in the bottle where he turned giddy, loquacious. “Any new conquests?”
Cordial and confident, Natch felt secure knowing he could date if he chose, though he rarely did. It was unfair to pursue something when he could have to hit the road for days at a time, and when he explained this, Seamus went into a bit about sowing seeds, carpe noctem. Natch asked why Seamus wasn’t doing as he preached. Seamus held up his left hand, showing off a simple silver band on the ring finger. “Those days are over, my friend.”
Natch strained to articulate the morning. A part of him didn’t want to present the date—was it a date?—for Seamus’s judgment. To someone like Seamus, who had gigged across America, leaving countless beautiful, heartbroken women in his wake, enchiladas and discussing art wasn’t all that exciting, even if Natch felt his pulse quickening thinking about it. He asked instead about Seamus’s wife.
“With her, sometimes I feel like the luckiest sonovabitch on the planet,” Seamus said, lighting a cigarette, taking a drag, then passing it to Natch. “Then sometimes it feels like I could be on fire and she would just sit there, letting me burn, like she doesn’t even see. And I know this makes me sound like an insufferable prick, but being ignored by women? Not something I’m used to. Maybe that’s why she does it, to keep me in my place—I like that.” He laced his fingers behind his head and stared up beyond the trees lining Natch’s yard. “I never thought it’d be for me, but there’s something about marriage, man, something about making something real, something lasting, out of love, that’s pretty fucking special.”
None of that sounded like love to Natch, but he kept his opinion to himself. He thought of the way Hanlon had sat across from him, both earlier that day and on that night at Rhythm & Brews, with her attention focused, her interest apparent. He felt sad for his friend and decided he would call Hanlon to ask her on a proper date as soon as Seamus left.
Hanlon accepted Natch’s invitation to dinner and a movie a few evenings later. A storm had loomed in the distance most of the day, and as Natch pulled in front of Hanlon’s house, the sky let loose a spate of rain. She motioned for him to wait and disappeared back inside, reemerging with a leather jacket thrown over her long floral sundress. At dinner, she talked about her art, which still made no sense to Natch. She said she had been working on a performance for a while but feared she wasn’t strong enough to complete it as planned. Natch asked what the performance entailed, and she mentioned domesticity and countering the matriarchal paradigm of her youth. When Natch asked what that meant by that, she said, “Not turning into my mother.”
“I thought your work was about boredom,” he said.
“It’s one and the same,” she said, exasperation in her voice. During the movie Hanlon kept her arms crossed and her legs tucked up beneath her and Natch thought he had made her mad but afterward she suggested he take her back to his place. He asked if she was sure, and she told him never to question a woman about such things.
In his kitchen, he offered her a water, apologizing that it was all he had beside beer. “I don’t do this much,” he said. “Have company.”
“Why is that?” she asked.
“It’s hard to connect when you’re always leaving again.” Natch uncapped a beer but held it without drinking.
“Yet here I am,” she said, with a small smile. “Don’t worry, I won’t get too attached.”
Natch set his bottle down on the table and pulled Hanlon into a fervent kiss. She shrugged off her jacket and worked first the buttons of his shirt, then his belt buckle. They made their way to Natch’s bedroom and afterward, Hanlon dozed with her head on his chest. As he lay listening to her breathe, he considered if this was why he had remained single for so long, to leave himself open for the right person, who arrived in Marville like a miracle. Hanlon was willful and independent and occupied with her art; he didn’t see her getting teary and begging him to stay when she knew he had to go. It was a match like a hand in a glove.
Lightning flashed outside the window, followed by a thunderclap so loud it rattled the glass and woke Hanlon. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—” she said, sitting up and smoothing her hair. She glanced at the clock on Natch’s side table. Its face was blank. “Did the power go out? What time is it?”
Natch leaned over the side of the bed and retrieved his phone from his jeans. He held it up for her to see. “Not too late.”
She burrowed back under Natch’s blanket. “I hate being in the dark during a storm,” she said. “It makes me feel so powerless.”
“I’ve got some candles in the pantry,” he said, “but I’m not sure about matches. I’ll look.” He slipped on his jeans and headed to the kitchen, using his phone as a flashlight.
“Check my jacket. There might be a lighter in the pocket,” she called after him.
Natch found the candles, then picked Hanlon’s jacket up off the floor. He had never seen her smoke and wondered why she would have a lighter, but there it was. Something else, thick paper like a business card, was in the pocket. Curiosity getting the better of him, Natch fished it out and struck the cheap Bic to inspect. His heart sank. The lottery ticket, matching three, winning five dollars, that he had forgotten to take before giving Seamus back his jacket.
He stood there staring at ticket, piecing together what it meant, until the metal lip of the lighter grew too hot and bit at his thumb. He cursed under his breath as it clattered to the floor.
“Everything okay?” Hanlon asked, coming up behind him, wrapped in the bed sheet. “What were you looking at?”
“Just an old scratch off,” he said.
He crumpled the ticket into a ball and lobbed it into the sink. “No.”
The few citronella candle tins, once lit, cast angry shadows across the cabinets. Glancing around, Hanlon said, “It’s nice like this.”
If he feigned ignorance, he could keep the night going on his preferred trajectory. Carpe noctem, right? Seamus’s own dictum. Lead her back to his room for a reprise kept going till dawn. Her skin against his, the scent of her hair permeating his pillow. Instead he slipped the lighter back into the pocket, zipped it shut, and handed the jacket to Hanlon. “This is Seamus’s,” he said. When Hanlon didn’t respond, he added, “He’s married.”
“Yes,” she said slowly. “To me.” Her face hardened. “I thought you knew.”
Anger hit Natch so swiftly he had to steady himself by grabbing hold of the table. “How would I have? What are you doing here?”
“And here I was impressed by your nerve,” she said.
The microwave beeped and the overhead lights flashed back on. Hanlon blinked up at Natch. “I never wanted to get married and do that whole thing. Neither did my mother,” she explained. “That’s why she left. She couldn’t stand it, the honoring and obeying. I wanted to prove that I was stronger than her, that I could do what she couldn’t, that I could make a commitment and stay. And it would be the ultimate performance, something more brutal and numbing than crossing Siberia because even in Siberia, the scenery changes. Sleeping next to the same person night after night—no one talks about how difficult that is. No one talks about how boring it is, being a wife, or how lonely. Or how strong you have to be. How do you prepare for that? How can you? I thought I could.” She clasped Seamus’s jacket to her chest and dropped her head. “I’m just as weak as she was.”
Natch held Hanlon’s gaze as he said, “She left, and so should you.” It was a hit below the belt, and it felt good to land it.
To avoid the conversation he was not yet ready to have, Natch waited until Seamus would be gone before heading to Rhythm & Brews. After ordering his whiskey neat, he fed a twenty into the jukebox and searched the digital database until he found the song he wanted, setting it to play ten times in a row. A voice like well-oiled leather began to sing about a woman leading him down through misery and leaving him as low as low could be. Natch didn’t want the music to save him tonight. He wanted it to sear the pain so deeply into his chest that the next time he saw a beautiful, beguiling woman across the bar, he would remember that hurt, and he would wince, and he would walk away.
Shae Krispinsky lives in Tampa, FL, where she fronts the indie rock band, Navin Ave. Her short fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in Drunk Monkeys, Vending Machine Press, Connotation Press, The Citron Review, Thought Catalog, and more. She is currently at work on two novels and finishing up her band’s first album.