The bar had red vinyl stools bolted to the floor. When the two of them came in, it had been raining. The woman had shoulder-length red hair, drenched and moving with her body as if spilling from a wound. She wore black rectangular glasses. She looked homely until she took off her canvas jacket, like a trench coat, and revealed herself more fully, a woman’s body under a child’s face. She hesitated for a moment after that—the stools don’t have backs, and she was looking for a place to drape the coat—then she spread it awkwardly over the seat and lowered her ass delicately onto its heavy damp folds.
The man looked nervous but was trying not to look nervous. Mostly he was succeeding, it’s just, these things stand out. They catch you like truck flares. They—I don’t know. Part the sea. The duffel he clanked to the ground, softly, in front of him, in the shadow of the bar, the incandescence of that movement split the dimness and rippled with significance all down the line of red-topped stools.
The woman didn’t appear to be responding to his angst or to see that hot brief blaze, that rupture in spacetime that was as clear a harbinger of great tragedy as if a crow had hopped onto the bar and croaked ‘you’re all gonna die!’ Which we were. But I could tell there would be an edge, a sharpness, to the smell of his sweat that she must have pulled into her airways and buccal membranes and would be tasting soon. Or maybe she knew already what would happen, saw all that I’d seen, but figured that she ought to act natural, that commonest of errors.
The man left his coat on at first, even after seating himself, so I knew he wasn’t watching the lady that closely, or else felt no reptilian urge to imitate her coat-on-the-stool stupidity (it was going to soak through and wrinkle the butt of her skirt, it was going to make the flesh cold on the backs of her thighs). When he did look at her, when he saw her pale cleavage framed by the apologetic droop of her shoulders, a prey animal making a bodily recommendation, he remembered the garment and pulled it off quickly, letting it fall to the floor at his feet, the male counterpart to her female strategy, which was at best equally stupid (it was going to ooze and then soak in its own grimy puddle—he had no idea how dark it could get wicking that shit). The coat covered the bag which softly clanked again under its settling weight. The man looked back up at his date. She smiled.
“Well,” she said.
“Mm,” he said, “yeah.”
“This is the first one.” she gestured around her head with the blade of her hand at everything. “We’ll always have this place.” She giggled. “Like, we’ll always have Paris, you know?”
“For better or worse,” he said, nodding.
The bartender was tall, partially hidden in the dim light, and in drag. Most nights he was Rob. On Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, she was Tonia. It started as part of a theme night but the theme night didn’t attract anyone new; the bar attracted who it did and that’s it, and it changed into a matter of authentic personal expression. Tonia approached the couple. Her red dress was modest but sleeveless and she wore a blue sweater cape over her shoulders. The cape was held closed across her chest by a tiny translucent button, cheap plastic, which betrayed its chain store origins. Would she have picked that, I wondered, if she knew? Would she have gone cashmere? Eyeliner and lipstick were it for her that night, subtle, a little smoky, matching the space, matching the thing that was coming. I felt a pang of protective dread as she approached the couple.
“Hi,” Tonia said. She leaned forward onto the bar, each of her long arms extending to place a cocktail napkin, held as a diamond with all ten of her piano fingers, in front of the woman first and then the man. Tonia’s height, six-four, meant that her arms were longer than the width of the bar. When she rested her elbows on its lacquered surface and clasped her hands under her chin, there was something about the posture, seemingly more humerus than spine, face, or anything else, that could look swanlike or arachnid, depending on whether you liked her. “What can I get for you all tonight?”
“Well,” the woman said, “I’m sorry,” she smiled, wrinkling her eyelids behind the frames of her glasses, “do you have a cocktail menu?”
Tonia smiled a sweet smile, but one that showed her age, sucking shadow into all of the grooves worn over her face by each previous smile and the honesty that grew there over time. She looked directly at the ostrich flesh around the woman’s sockets. “In fact I don’t, I’m sorry to say.” She was trying to hide her accent.
“Oh,” the woman said.
“But you look like a martini,” Tonia said, “gin, with a twist.” She paused, laughed one short beat of laughter, and corrected: “You don’t look like a martini. You look like a young lady.”
“Oh,” the woman said again, smiling, face smoothing, lit up. “Alright. Well, a martini actually sounds about right.”
“And for you?” Tonia asked, turning toward the man slowly, so that her gaze acquired a pliable quality and somehow stayed a bit on the woman even as it stretched itself over to him, the time-and-space modulation of curiosity and concern. If she were a photo it would have been a darkroom error causing the effect: face-face-face-face, stretched like light, coming in clearer and blurrier along the face-track as if there were preset points where she clicked into a groove in the arc of that movement. If she were a photo, artists and hipsters would have co-opted the technique, the blur, the universe resisting its own machinations. Donnie Darko style. At least we lived to see that.
“Uh,” he said, sweat visible on his face even from where I sat, “Just an IPA.”
Tonia didn’t move, but I knew her well enough to see discomfort in her stillness.
“Well,” she said after a moment, “I have a few.” she gestured behind her at a series of tap handles. The man stared at her.
“Just give me the hoppiest one.”
“Sure.” If her gaze had been rubber before, had been capable of violating space and time to allow her to linger over, with love, the small woman, now the quality transferred to the orientation of her body: she was always turned both at the angle she factually occupied and also about forty-five degrees back toward the couple, toward, especially, the lady, like her movements coalesced into a second separate corporeal form—there was Tonia, and there was Tonia’s trajectory, which was a caterpillar made from layers of Tonia that ended in the real Tonia, who looked worried.
At that point I stood and walked closer. I leaned forward and drummed my fingers on the bar, smiling at Tonia when I caught her eye. She winked back, holding a tilted glass under one of the taps. She mixed the cocktail, carried both drinks to the couple. Aside from them, there was me, and there were a few scattered others, maybe fifteen total patrons in the place. When Tonia finally stood before me, I said:
“Slow for a Friday.”
“Mm,” Tonia agreed with suspicion, “there’s something in the air.” I didn’t want to say what it was. Then she leaned in so that her bristle-cheek rasped my fat-soft one and whispered, “I swear to god, men who order ‘the hoppiest’ IPA are the worst people in the world.”
When she backed up, she smiled and I smiled, feeling more intimately connected than we had, thrilling to our agreement, our worry and our snark, tightening up and performing the intimacy of the bystander, to practice for when the shit hit the fan.
“So what’ll you have next?” Tonia asked, putting a warm dry palm on the back of my hand just briefly. I didn’t know why she did that at the time, but I knew why later: body to body, skin to skin, is finite, and that was what she wanted: warm veins under the roof of my hand heating the hollow of hers, and then parting.
A little loudly, a little abruptly, I said, “I’ll have what she’s having,” and pointed to the woman.
“Oh,” the woman said, an embarrassed mirth lighting up her face in the cloudy rose of an algae bloom or of blood in the water. “Cheers,” she added, tilting her martini toward me with an affable awkwardness, sloshing just a bit onto the counter before taking a small sip.
Tonia and I paused a second to smile at her. When we turned away and Tonia stepped to the back to mix my martini, I overheard some very quiet question in the Tom Waits timbre of the man’s secrecy or embarrassment—though probably not the latter—followed by the woman’s reply:
“Oh, gosh, I don’t know. I think when I was twelve.”
“Twelve? That seems young.” His voice held an excited, taunting quality.
“Well, it’s not. I mean, it’s really not. Some girls start when they’re ten, I know a few who have. I’ve heard some girls start younger than that, too. I’ve heard some girls—when they’re nine.”
“And so by now you’re—”
“Yeah, it’s not a mystery anymore, that’s for sure.”
“Here, sweetheart,” Tonia said softly, setting the martini on the bar in front of me. I thanked her.
The inevitability was heavy and wet and smelled like the deepening odor of his body, a scent you could grow mushrooms in. When I was a child I overheated at an amusement park and had to stand in a tent full of mist. It stunk of mold and then I stunk of mold and the summer light came through the sides. This was like that.
When his glass was empty, Tonia approached to offer another. The man accepted. Tonia receded and returned tidal-like. It all felt organic, but then, eating an elk alive is organic—strips of loin torn wet from the lower skeleton and shaken out bloody over the snow, red lace and white lace and cold—if you’re a wolf.
“What are you—” the woman started to ask the man, just a hint of desperation suddenly mixed in with the rest of her voice. I stared into my gin and breathed the industrial odor of it, consciously holding my head down. Don’t look, I thought.
“Shut up.” He didn’t say it loudly, didn’t scream it at her, but the tone conveyed so much contempt it gave me goosebumps from my scalp back under the length of my hair like stones erupting in a cornfield.
“I really don’t think you should do that here, I really think it’s a bad—”
“I’m going to the bathroom,” the man said. His feet struck the duffel under the bar with a sound like scrap metal wind chimes, causing many of the eyes around the room to fall on him. It allowed me to look, to watch his body maneuver around and behind the bar and disappear.
“Sir.” It was the woman. I had been so focused on the man in that moment that I hadn’t noticed her standing and walking over to me. She plunked down onto the stool beside mine, spine curled up like a pill bug, arms and wrists in her lap, head about to fall off and land there too, plunk. Her voice sounded breathy and desperate. I wasn’t used to being called sir, felt the diminishment of my breasts behind my button-down which, to be fair, hid them well. My eyes meeting her eyes were the eyes I’d worn in high school.
“Yeah?” I asked softly.
“Um,” she said. She smiled, and as she did, tears that had been holding themselves tight inside the tiny gap between eyelid and eyeball spilled like dropped apples and crashed down her cheeks, bruising up.
“I’m on a date with that guy,” she said, “and I’m worried that he’s kind of a creep.”
“Yeah?” I said again.
“Yeah, he’s asking me—” she cleared her throat. “Asking me questions he shouldn’t be asking.”
“And you’re answering them.” It wasn’t a kind thing to say, but it was the truth. She was participating. She was keeping us all moving to where we would stop moving.
“Yeah but,” her sentence was suddenly bifurcated by a shaking sob. “The stakes are kinda high.”
Tonia turned away from a tap handle she’d been pretending to fix to eavesdrop more easily. She crossed her arms over her chest, screwdriver still in hand, and leaned the backs of her thighs against the counter behind her, attentive.
“What are the stakes?” I asked.
“Um,” she sniffled, “he drove me here, he picked me up at my house where I live alone, so he knows where I live and knows I’m alone—um.” she looked down at the bar. “I let him carry my purse for me, it had my phone in it but I just checked now and the phone is gone. And, when he got mad just then, it was ’cause he took some kinda pill with his beer and I called him out on it. He didn’t like that.”
“Well.” Tonia strode toward us, fanning her fingers on the bar, the tap of the screwdriver hitting the wood startling and straightening up the woman beside me. When that happened, I could see her shoulder blades biting at the spine between them with the self-destructive grace of apoptosis, like her whole structure wanted not to dissolve, but to eat itself alive.
Tonia said, “We gotta get you out of here, but—” she turned to look back toward the single-occupancy bathroom, which was still closed up. “I gotta say, I don’t think you’re in a special kind of danger. No—no, I’ve seen date rapists, and we all know how to take care of those, but this man didn’t slip you something. He slipped himself something. So what I want to know is, what in the hell is he getting ready for?” She thinned her lips solemnly, head shaking just a bit as she looked from the woman to me.
“I have a feeling about that,” I said. Tonia nodded, eyes grabbing my eyes with the same masculine affection and confirmation as if she’d gripped my shoulders and released a guttural grunt. “I have a feeling too,” she said.
“Well,” the woman said, “I just don’t want to die.”
“Well, sad as it is, we’re all gonna die,” I said, then Tonia started softly singing, “Did you get enough love, my little dove, why do you cry?”
The woman looked bewildered.
“Sufjan Stevens?” Tonia said, shaking her head. ” Sad and beautiful and true. Anyway, don’t let being afraid to die make you act against your own self-interest.”
“Okay,” she said, sniffing, casting an anxious look back toward the bathroom.
“Listen,” I said, “when he comes back, just distract him. See if you can keep him talking. See if you can keep him busy. Got a good fucked up story? A story about death? Tell him that. He’ll love it. He’ll listen so hard he won’t see what else is happening.” Sometimes you get a girl to tell a story to distract herself.
When we heard the sound of the bathroom door creaking open, we three jumped. A flood of bathroom light spilled into the darker hallway and we all looked paler and dryer and older than we had in the full dark. The woman scuttled back to her stool, tugging at the wet, wrinkled back of her skirt, but still opting to sit on top of the coat that had made it so. The man, pill or not, had it together enough that he could walk, but there was a new redness to his eyes. Pigmentary and otherwise.
“So,” the woman said with a nervous smile, launching in before the man had even had a chance to sit, “I have a story for you.”
The man frowned at her, but nodded.
“Well. When my mother was dying, it was a slow process. We knew when it was going to happen more or less. We all were there in the room with her, my father and her sisters—she had three of them—and me. And when she told us it was getting close, she asked me a funny thing: she asked me to put on a Sigur Rós album on my laptop. Do you know Sigur Rós? Sort of dreamy Icelandic music? I think of it as having no lyrics, but really it just doesn’t have English lyrics. And my mother wanted to hear it while she slipped out of the world. But I resented her for it so hard, because the last time she and I were in a hospital together listening to Sigur Rós, I was having a baby.”
“You’ve got a kid?” the man interjected.
“No. That’s the thing. I was fifteen years old. I didn’t know anything. The only smart thing I did was to bring in a CD player for the birth. But no, I gave that baby girl up.”
Tonia and I leaned on the bar crossways to each other so that her left cheek hovered near my right one, meditating together on the tension in the air, interrupted by ache for the girl that woman had been.
“Ow-guytis,” I heard the woman say, “bury-yeun.” She paused. “It’s hard to pronounce the titles but I won’t ever be able to separate those melodies from the contractions or the salt-watery ocean smells, almost like semen, and I guess—well, I thought those things could just be mine, you know? The sounds and feelings? But my mother, when she died, wanted Sigur Rós because it reminded her of her lost grandbaby, nevermind that it was my lost baby. And”—she had slipped away from the present emergency, yanked into something bigger and deeper and darker—”and so, while my mother’s eyes were closing that last time, and “Olsen Olsen” was on, I was watching and I was there alright, I was breathing with her and all, air out of her own lungs, but I wasn’t holding her hand, because I was holding my belly, which had a pain spreading and tugging all across, remembering. So the beautiful thing? Or the tragic thing? Is that my daughter and I lost our mothers to the same song.”
I stood up then, inserted myself.
“Ma’am,” I asked her, “can I take you out back for a cigarette? You look like you could use a cigarette.”
“Be quick,” the man said, “be real quick, then.” He made a shooing gesture with his left hand and was touching something in his pants with the right one.
Glazed-looking, the woman stood up and walked toward me.
“Your coat,” I said. “It’s still raining.”
She tugged it off her stool and let it hang flaccidly from one forearm. I imagined the cold wetness of it cooling blood at the pressure points of her wrist and elbow. Soon her whole arm would be cold, then her whole body. She was suddenly slow, and although I resisted the urge to smooth the wet and wrinkled fabric of her skirt, I did let myself touch her a little, just to guide her to the back, hasten her along. Tonia and I gave each other a look in passing. Our eyes screamed godspeed with loud solemnity and, looking back over my shoulder, I saw her move toward the man as we moved toward the back door.
Behind the building, the rain was so loud, torrential, that it was hard for us to speak to each other—I thought of broken water surging out of the body like the sound of blood in the ears and the other oceanic phenomena of birth—but I did give her the promised cigarette, and we stood there in the rutted gravel of the parking lot, tucked close to the beige siding so as to eke out as much shelter as the overhanging roof could give.
“I don’t know you,” I said, my face leaned in close to hers, “but I have a couch in my apartment. He wouldn’t know where to find you.”
“What’s going to happen?” she said back, into my ear.
“Hey, no one ever knows what’s going to happen.”
“I didn’t even mean to tell that story,” she said, and there were tears again apple-crashing over her sloping cheeks. I pressed my lips tight together in a sympathetic half-smile and nodded.
“Mine is the gray one over there,” I said, pointing to my car. She studied it. “We could go.”
I knew it would happen but I didn’t know when. We heard the soft pop-pop-pop, three quick beats, like three champagne bottles opened, like someone just got engaged, like a baby just was born. The woman barely looked up. It’s hard to know what people think or recognize. I took out my phone and fidgeted with it for a minute, turned on a Sigur Rós album, but not the one she liked. She looked at me, pale and wide-eyed, like the music had alerted her to the reality of our bodies in the rain.
“We can play it in the car,” I said. We stood still, smoke in both our nostrils and us breathing dragon-like.
“People never call the police when they should,” the woman said.
“Kveikur” filled all of the air between us, pushing aside raindrops. Before I moved, I saw my body moving, right through the fracture in our physical reality, right through the crack between is and will be, my body out of my body out of the rain and into the bar, after Tonia, just in case I could help. I said:
“That’s what gunshots sound like.”
“Gunshots,” she repeated. “Gunshots. Gunshots,” playing with the sound.
When I got inside there were the new stalagmite formations of all the people frozen into what had just occurred. Moments of great magnitude build monuments to themselves that last longer than they themselves can last, and because of this, there was Tonia, standing behind the man who was standing in the middle of the floor. The man’s stance was active, contrapposto, gun literally smoking, patrons littered and blood that could’ve been egg yolk cookie paint decorating the floor, Easter-like. Tonia looking surprised and terrified into the barrel of her own gun, the bar’s gun, like she’d tried to fire and realized the chamber was empty. After that the impression faded and Tonia was down there glossy on the checkered tile and behind me came the woman (after me just in case?) and before he did himself too, the man saw us—pop-pop—pop.
In the afterwards, Tonia and I stood clicking our tongues. I looked down at my still body. I nudged it, my toe the muzzle of a dog whose owner has had a coronary on the living room floor while the dog waited for breakfast or to relieve itself. My body, my striped button-down, my breasts rolling into my armpits, looking not as much like the man the woman had mistaken me for as like nobody at all. Tonia pulled the blue cape closer to her neck, and I observed peace in her gaze at her own wet form which itself looked peaceful. Not peaceful as in slumber like they tell you. Peaceful like she’d died and the dying was over and it was okay.
The woman’s shaking breath disturbed our moment of silence. I turned to look at her. She said: “I kept her for a year first. I kept her for a year. There was no song playing at the end.”
Tonia said, as if to no one, “Well. Gunshots don’t sound like you think they do.”
Hannah Markos Williams is a writer and educator living in the Berkshires of Western Massachusetts, where she teaches college and high school. A former homeschooler and first-generation college student, Hannah holds an M.Ed from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and an MFA from Warren Wilson College.
Hannah’s fiction is often innovative, dark, and provocative, centering on the complexity of millennial female identity in the era of #metoo. An excerpt from her novel, “This Story is About Water,” was featured in LEON Literary Review’s inaugural fiction issue in June 2020.
Hannah lives with her husband, their four-year-old daughter, various poultry, and a standard poodle named Luna.