Her inky-black pupils, suspended in rings of glossy hazel, dilate as she enters the dark interior of Del’s Tavern. She’s assaulted by the pungent odor of stale beer fused with shelled peanuts, like rancid lager saturating a vat of greasy peanut butter. It’s a fragrant reminder that she’s about to break the promise she implemented over a month ago.
She scans the cheerless room, hoping Ricky’s lanky frame will be hunched over a tumbler at the bar. That for once, he’ll be waiting for her. But all she sees is the perpetual assemblage of random barflies. Lit by flickering neon, they’re anchored to the same seats they always use. As if Butch, the portly and bulbous-nosed proprietor, assigned a seating chart that none of them have the courage to disrupt.
Not seeing Ricky, she makes her way to the bar. A few steps in, the soles of her heels begin to shatter peanut shells strewn across the floor, a result of Del’s only source of sustenance. For a dime, Butch will dip a soiled plastic flowerpot into a mammoth bag of cut-rate peanuts and send them across the lacquered bar to those that need sodium to accompany their musty brews. After sucking out the insides, the barflies discard the shells onto the floor, creating a carcass-laden landscape of tawny husks that are crushed under the oily-bottomed work boots of Del’s clientele.
She walks up to the bar, and pulls out a broken-down stool, vinyl seat held together by frayed duct-tape. She sits and crosses her legs, causing her jean cuffs to rise, which reveal her meaty ankles, one of the many despicable things she inherited from her mother.
As she tugs her jean cuffs down, Butch approaches and cracks a monstrous grin, lips parting way to nicotine-stained teeth. He tells her that it’s been too long. She smiles and agrees, about to order a drink when Butch waddles away, saying he’ll get her the usual.
She hasn’t wanted the usual, Butch’s sugary and watered-down take on a Boston Sour, for over a decade. But she’ll accept it, not wanting to offend him if she declines. She’ll wait for Ricky to arrive and order her something else, not giving Butch a chance to dislike her, even for a moment.
As Butch prepares her drink, Wallace, one of the barflies, shuffles towards the pinball machine. He fishes around in the pockets of his threadbare coveralls, coming up with a grimy quarter. He pops it into the slot, causing the game (Card Whiz, if she remembers correctly) to quiver to life. Flaxen lights glow, illuminating Wallace’s craggy face, nose riddled with broken capillaries. His knobby fingers, stained with oil and grease, pop the buttons on the side. His hips undulating with each ding and rattle inside the machine, willing the pinball to hit combos and kickout holes to rack up points.
Butch winks as he plops down her cocktail, causing a shriveled maraschino cherry to rock in the golden liquid. Off his wink, she flashes a crooked smile, tilts her head and emits an overzealous thank you. Even before the words emerge, right when her cheek muscles contract to create the off-kilter smile, a wave of self-hatred washes over her. Anger rises, causing her milky-white skin to redden at the fact that she smiles and complacently whispers words of gratitude to any flirtatious glance, wink, or nod. She knows it’s happening, can hear the small cry from the back of her mind trying to quell the instantaneous reply. The inner shriek attempting to calm her crooked smile and cheerful response but it spews forth, unchecked whenever someone of the opposite sex engages her.
Like her sturdy ankles, she blames this inherited trait on her mother, another constant reminder that she holds the physical and emotional attributes of a weak woman she hasn’t seen since her and Ricky started dating. Whose hair parted to the same side as hers, who is to blame for her pale skin breaking out into red, scaly rashes, and whose lack of self-respect allowed one of many stepfathers to shower down abuse over the years. She inherited the worst from a woman she left in a crippled and tear-filled wreck, bawling into the shag carpet the color of rotten plums, when she was sixteen. Vowing to never return. To never become her.
To calm down, she hoists the Boston Sour to her lips but notices the grimy fingerprints that plague the scratched tumbler. She looks at the soiled glass and wants to throw it. Hurl the cocktail she never wants, but never has the courage to refuse, at the potbellied man who made it. She fantasizes the drink sailing past him, smashing into the tarnished and greasy mirror. Causing the dollar bills taped up to the burnished surface to come crashing down, shards of glass piercing the green-inked portraits of presidents long since passed.
But instead, she sips the weak and candied drink as Wallace curses at the varying chirps and whistles emitting from the pinball machine. Knowing that as soon as Ricky’s whip-thin silhouette appears in the doorframe, she’ll straighten up and smile. Relying on the knee-jerk reaction she just cursed to bring him into her arms. Not caring that the promise she made to herself was broken the moment she agreed to meet him here. Not caring that Ricky will utter excuse-riddled apologies that are disguised as requests for her to be the warm body he crawls into bed with after a double shift. Not caring because underneath the tavern’s familiar odor of ale, Jiffy, and despair, Ricky’s pleas are the same as hers – he doesn’t want to be lonely, and neither does she.
by David Ebeltoft