This is not a place for pick-up lines, for bright lights and loud music, for girls in black skirts and sequins. There are no frozen fruited drinks to choose from, no specials on sex-on-the-beach. The bartender, Jack, he's made a few margaritas in his time, but what with cutting limes and squeezing them by hand, then finding the glass, salting it, mixing it—hell, it takes him about five minutes, so you'd better tip him good. There is a silver glitter ball, a remnant from the disco days, hanging above what used to be the dance floor. The owner, Mr. Fred, decided the space would be better used by pool tables than couples dancing to Sly and the Family Stone. Mr. Fred describes this place as "A Sports Bar With A Difference" in the one-inch ads he takes out at the back of the newspaper. But nobody ever reads those things, and those of us that come here know: it's just a bar, but we like it.
Jack's behind the bar, and it's pretty busy for a Thursday night, so he has his hands full drawing pitchers. But he looks up when I walk in, and smiles for me—that silver-toothed, lopsided grin that sets my heart beating like a scared rabbit's.
"There she is!" he yells across the room. The regular guys at the bar turn around and wave, or nod, while the newcomers wonder who the hell I am. I walk over to the bar and pull up a stool. Jack sets a beer in front of me without my asking and slides an ashtray across.
"Allison," he says. "Where've you been?" Then he's gone before I can say anything, taking an order from a big guy down the end of the bar. I guess I could answer him with "I've been around," or "I've been busy," but the real question isn't where I've been, but what I've been. And I've been anything but fine.
Jack pours a scotch and soda for the big guy, takes his money, and comes back down to me.
"I have something to say to you," I say. Jack cups his hand around his ear and leans forward. He used to do some boxing and is a little deaf in one ear.
"What?" he says.
"I have something I want to talk to you about," I say, louder. "Something important."
"Can't it wait?" he says. "I promise, this time. After close." And then the big guy starts yelling for him.
"This ain't no whiskey drink," says the big guy. "Son, I've been around and let me tell you, there ain't but a three-quarter ounce of scotch in this glass."
Jack says he's been tending bar for eight years now, and he guesses he knows how much liquor is in an ounce, and that there's a full ounce and then some.
"Look how light that is," says the big guy, holding his glass up to the neon beer sign behind the bar. "That's about as pale as it could be." He slams the glass down on the bar, slopping it over. "That ain't no whiskey drink," he says, shaking his head sadly.
Jack picks up the glass and suggests to big guy that if he is not fully satisfied with this particular drinking establishment, he can take his business elsewhere. Only Jack uses slightly different language.
"Fuck you too, buddy," says big guy, and he lumbers over to the door, hiking his blue jeans up over his hips.
Jack, I think, is a really good name for a bartender. It's solid, dependable, with just a little bit of mischief thrown in. It's an all around good guy name, a do right, straight up name. I once was in a place where the bartender's name was Skip, and it just didn't feel right. I'm not sure I trust a guy named Skip pouring my drinks. Jack, though, that's a good name. Jack will always treat you right.
He sets the big guy's drink in front of me, but keeps hold of it while he looks at me. I look at Jack's left hand, gripping the glass. There is no wedding ring on his finger, which I think is cheating. He wasn't honest with me from the beginning, even if he didn't outright lie. I look at the drink. It doesn't look light to me.
"If," says Jack, "if I give you this drink," he pauses for effect. "Do you promise to be good?"
The guy on my left laughs. I glance over at him, then back to Jack.
"Why does she have to promise that?" says the guy on my left and he swirls the ice around in his glass.
Jack doesn't answer, so I say: "Because I drink liquor like I drink beer. Right, Jack?"
"And nobody should drink anything like she drinks beer," says Jack. But he pushes the glass across to me anyway.
"I'll be good," I say. "It's just one drink. Hell, it ain't even a whiskey drink, right?"
He takes his hand off the glass and smiles at me. "Okay then," he says, then leans across the bar and gives me a quick kiss on the cheek. "I missed you the last few days," he says. But he can't hang around and talk, not tonight. He's a busy man. Busy, busy, busy.
Jack's definition of me being good is this: don't get too drunk, don't fall over, don't start singing old Cole Porter songs, don't start believing you can shoot a decent game of pool. Don't cry. I guess I can live up to that, tonight.
Tony comes up to the bar holding a twenty dollar bill and sits down next to me. Rumor has it Tony was once a famous guitarist in a famous rock and roll band, but he won't tell anybody which one. He says if we knew, we'd always be bugging him for autographs and stuff. He has long black hair, money to burn, and a tattoo on his forearm that reads "Spike The End Of The Line" (God knows what it means)—so I suppose it could be true.
"Allison," he says. "You're a smart girl, tell me this. How many shots can I get for this twenty?"
"At two-fifty a shot?" I say. "Eight. No, wait . . . is that right? Yeah, eight."
The guys along the bar turn to look at Tony, hopefully. One of them calls out, "Yeah, eight."
"And how many ounces would you say is in here?" says Tony, picking up a plastic cup from the stack on the counter.
I shrug and take a sip of my drink. "Check the bottom," I say.
Tony turn the cup over and feigns amazement at the number written there. "Wow," he says. "Eight. Incredible."
He calls Jack over, and Jack walks towards him slowly, wiping the bar down as he comes. Jack and Tony don't get along, not since Tony called him just another failed business major turned bartender—and a bad one at that. Jack tried to get him kicked out of the bar, but Mr. Fred said no, he spends too much money in here, just give him whatever he wants. And Jack does, but reluctantly.
"Oh, barkeep?" says Tony.
"What?" says Jack.
"You see this glass here?" says Tony, waving it around in front of Jack's face. Jack watches for a moment, then grabs Tony's wrist, takes the cup from his hand, and sets in on the bar.
"Yes," he says. "I see it. Anything else?" He turns as if to walk away.
"Barkeep?" says Tony. Jack slowly turns back around.
"What?" he says. "And don't call me that again."
Tony taps the cup with his index finger. He has black rings of dirt under his nails. They don't look like guitar-picking nails.
"I want you," he says, "to fill this glass up with Early Times. Fill it right up to the rim. Right up." He looks at me and winks. "I got a girl waiting for me in Daytona, and I need fuel for the trip."
Jack takes the cup and scoops some ice into it.
"No, no, no," says Tony. "Dump that out. No ice at all. Just Early Times, all the way up."
Jack looks at him, then raises his eyes up to the inflatable Budweiser boxing gloves that hang over the bar, praying to them to give him patience, patience. "You paying with cash tonight?" he says, looking at Tony.
"Yup," he says. "Lots of it." And he flashes him the twenty.
"All right then," he says, taking the cup and turning around to fill it.
Tony looks at me and leans closer, puts his hand on my knee. "You want to come with me?" he says. "It'd be fun. Forget the girl in Daytona, I got some weed in my car, and . . . "
"Shut up and leave her alone," says Tony, without turning around from pouring the whiskey.
"No, thanks," I say. "We have plans for tonight." Actually, I do like Tony. He can be very entertaining at times, and he's got this funny sing-song voice that makes anything he tells you automatically seem interesting, even if it's not.
"Oh," he says. "We have plans for tonight. What, you mean you and the ass . . . er, bartender?" He turns to Jack. "Hell, Jack, I thought you were married. Guess I was wrong."
Jack doesn't say anything, but he sets the whiskey in front of him with a steady hand.
"Put a lid on it," tony says. "Don't want any spillage." And Jack puts the lid on.
"Twenty," he says, and Tony hands him the bill.
He picks up the cup and stands. "You didn't see me take this, okay?" he says and walks out of the bar.
"Where's my tip?" Jack yells after him, and Tony just waves over his shoulder. "Cheap bastard," Jack says, but then he starts grinning.
"What?" I say. "What's so funny?"
"I got the last laugh," he says. "I gave him Fleischman's."
Yes, Jack is smart and funny and wonderful. He has brown curly hair and black Irish eyes and two silver teeth on the bottom row. He has freckles scattered all over his shoulders and a birthmark (shaped like nothing at all) on his right thigh. I know everything about him, but there's so much I don't know. For example, I don't know why, with all the girls that must have come through here over the years, all the redheads, blondes, and brunettes, with their hair teased and faces painted—why did he choose me? I came in here with a date one night, all set to drink some beer and shoot some pool and have him kiss me on the front porch when he dropped me off. But instead we sat at the bar all night and watched the Lakers beat the Bulls with grace and magic. I listened to Jack's stories about other games and his on-going commentary on this one, and somewhere around the third quarter, my date left. I stayed.
When I finally realized my date was gone for good, I looked at Jack. "I'll need a ride," I said.
"I'll try to close down early tonight, then," he said, and that was all there was to it.
And, honestly, it wasn't until weeks later that I began to wonder. I wondered why we always had to go to my place and never his. I wondered at his excuses—that his apartment was a mess, that his air-conditioning was broken, that his damn dog was sick. Everything began to come together and play a wrong note in my head. Mr. Fred, he was the one that finally told me.
"Girly," he said. "You know that Jack's married, don't you?"
And though my heart was stabbed to the core, I smiled brightly back at him. "Sure," I said. "Of course I knew." Anything, anything at all, just to take away that look of pity in his eyes.
But by then, you see, it was already too late. By then he'd done his worst to me, and it was wonderful. By then he'd taken me to the prairie and shown me the stars and named off the constellations one by one. He brought blankets and candles and vodka, the three necessities of love. He kissed me crazy, talked and touched me moonstruck and bedazzled. He taught me how to do the two-step in soft heavy starlight, both of us barefoot and listening to Patsy sing her heartbreaking whine.
And, by then, I was hooked.
You know, I bet he doesn't even have a damn dog.
"Last call!" says Jack. "Last call for alcohol. Last pool game on the tables. You got ten minutes, finish 'em up."
He's already moving around the room, wiping down tables and stacking chairs upside down on them. Up at the bar, the regulars are jostling together like sheep, anxious for their last drinks, pulling change out of their pockets and pooling it together. Me, I never have to pay.
"Jack," I say. "Let me get a pitcher."
"No," he says. "You should've asked me fifteen minutes ago. You'll never finish it now."
"I'll help her finish it," offers the guy on my left.
"No," Jack says and looks down the bar. "All of you, I want you out of here in ten. I mean it."
"I'll finish it," I say. "I'll finish it while you close."
"Listen," he says. "I'm trying to get out of here quick so I can have this heart-to-heart talk with you, and all you want to do is sit in here after hours and drink?" He starts taking half-finished drinks away from people and dumping them. "Don't abuse your privileges. I let you drink all the time after close, but not tonight."
I don't say anything, but sit there and drink down my beer wile the others filter slowly towards the door.
Jack sighs and wipes down the counter for the last time. "I'll get us a fifth," he says. "And then we'll go out to my truck and you can tell me whatever it is that's so damn important."
What I was going to tell him is this. That I can't do it anymore. That unless he leaves Her, I never want to see him again. That I love him, but it's not enough to have only one time out of ten that he can stay the whole night. That I can't stand him getting up and getting dressed and going back to Her. That I will no longer lay awake and wonder, doesn't she suspect? How can she not know? Doesn't she smell me on him, doesn't she wonder where he spends his nights? What does he tell Her, how does he explain?
We never talk about Her. It's better not knowing Her name, better not making Her more real as a Lisa or a Candy or a Sue. I am free to imagine Her, at will, as any of them, or none. As a siren, a vixen, a belle, or if I am more self-indulgent, as an overweight frump with bad breath and zits.
What kind of woman must she be to put up with this? The kind that closes her eyes and her mind, the kind that keeps her lip shut tight over any accusations she might want to throw up at him. The kind that want to hold on to him.
I know the kind.
I called my mother yesterday. She picked up the phone in the kitchen, I could tell instantly by the faint echo in her voice and the metallic clang of a pan against the stove. She was making dinner.
"You favorite, Allie, spaghetti with meatballs." Dad was supposed to be helping make the garlic bread, but the sports news was on the TV, so he was watching that instead. "You know how crazy your Dad is about those Bills, Allie." Emma was in the living room practicing her piano. I could hear the fumbling, faltering strains of Fur Elise over the crackling static of the telephone lines. "She's gotten better, honey, since the last time you were home." I wanted to be there, I wanted to be safe again. Mom asked how my classes were, and I lied and told her they were fine. She asked how the weather was, and I told her truthfully that it was fine.
"And that guy you were seeing?"
"He's fine," I said. Is there no other word that I can answer her with?
"I just wondered," she said, "because you sound sort of depressed, like."
"I'm fine, Mom."
"Just make sure he's not making promises he won't keep, okay Allie?"
Suddenly I felt very tired. "Yeah," I said. "You bet, Mom."
My parents have been married twenty-seven years. They have stood together through weddings, funerals, births, deaths, anniversaries, and wars. My dad proposed on their second date, and they were married three months later. My mom says when you meet the right person it just happens like that, you just know. And I lay there on my bed in my apartment, and I thought: I don't even have a picture of him. I have nothing of him. He doesn't leave anything personal behind him, when he goes. Not even a stray sock or an old t-shirt. I have nothing but a vague soreness to remind me he was here.
On my mental checklist of this relationship, the good stuff is as follows: he makes me laugh, I get free drinks, I love him.
And the bad: he's married to Her, I cry a lot, I love him.
Using the mathematics of love, I think perhaps they cancel each other.
Jack turns off the lights in the bar, one by one. First the pool tables go dark, then the bathrooms, then finally the bar itself. He comes out from behind the bar and walks around to me. He pats a bulge in his jacket pocket and winks at me.
"Vodka," he says. "You ready?" He drapes his arm around my shoulder. He smells like chicken wings and sweat and the industrial cleaner they use to mop the floors. I love the way he smells. He holds the door open for me, and I wait while he locks it up.
"Wow," he says, turning around. "Look at this night."
There's no moon, and it's raining slightly, and the streetlights are haloed with mist.
"Breathe it in, " he says. "This is what they call a misting rain." He breathes in, long and deep, and then lets it out.
"Isn't this great?" he says. "I feel wonderful. I feel like I could run and run forever and never get tired."
He puts his hand against my stomach. "come on," he says. "Breathe it in, from here."
I breathe, in and out. It does feel good. Then Jack grabs me by the hand and pulls.
"Let's go," he says and starts running. At first I pull back against him.
"Jack," I say, "what are you doing?"
"Run with me," he says. "Just run."
We start off slowly, but then I catch the fever too and my head starts pounding hot blood to my legs, my arms, my head. And we are running hard, fast, down the empty street, under the silver haloed streetlamps, through the misting rain. The only sound is the muffled slap of our shoes against the pavement and our breath. At the end of the street is the old high school football stadium, and we're running towards it, holding hands.
"Jack," I say, trying not to pant. "Jack, where are we going?"
"There," he says and flings his arms out toward the stadium.
My right ankle is hurting, the one I broke playing basketball five years ago. I don't have the right shoes on for this. I'm out of breath, I can't keep up, my side is cramping. I've been smoking too many cigarettes and drinking too much beer. I'm not in any kind of shape at all. I try to tell him that I have to stop, that it hurts, but he drags me onwards, and suddenly we're there.
Jack lets go of my hand and we both bend over, hands on our knees, breathing hard. I guess he's not in such great shape either. I look at him and grin, and he starts laughing.
"Boy oh boy," he says. "Don't you feel great?"
I realize that I do. "What next?" I say.
He points at the fence surrounding the stadium. "In there," he says, "Over the fence and up to the very top row."
It's a chain link fence, about twice as high as I am and topped with mean looking, rusty barbed wire.
"I don't think so," I say.
"We can get over by the gate," he says.
I look at him closely. "Have you ever done this before?" I say.
"No, but just look at it. There's toeholds, and the barbed wire's sagging. It'll be easy." He walks up to the fence, takes the vodka bottle out of his jacket, and slides it across the concrete underneath the fence until it's just beyond his reach. "Now we have to go over," he says.
He grabs the fence and shakes it, then starts climbing. He gets to the top, holds the barbed wire down with one hand, then jumps the rest of the way. I don't think I can do that.
"Come on," he says from the other side. He picks up the vodka. "come one, it's easy."
"I don't think I can do that," I say.
"Shit," he says, dismissing it with a wave of his hand. "It's nothing."
"Even if I get over," I say. "What if I can't get out again?"
"Just get in here with me. We'll worry about getting out later."
"We could get in trouble," I say.
"You know," he says, coming closer to the fence. "You need to stop worrying about stuff so much. Just do it, don't think."
So I do it. With Jack telling me where to put my feet I make it over, and he lifts me down the last couple of feet. The hard hardest part was holding down the barbed wire at the top. Jack takes my hand again and leads me through the tunnel underneath the bleachers, We emerge into the stands and look down upon the empty football field spread out below us. It is huge and ghostly and beautiful. There is no sound at all, until Jack speaks.
"You know," he says, then clears his throat. "You know, I've never been completely alone in a stadium before. Everything is so perfectly symmetric, all the lines so clean and sharp. You don't see that with people there."
"You're not completely alone, anyways," I say.
"Oh," he says and looks at me. "Well, you don't count as someone else. You're just like . . . me. You're the same as me."
Which, I think, is the nicest thing he'd ever said to me. That anybody ever said to me. He takes the vodka out of his pocket and takes a swig from the bottle. He looks around the stadium.
"Boy," he says. "You bring out the worst in me. Breaking into football stadiums at my age. I feel like I'm back in high school."
I laugh. "How old are we?" I say. "Fourteen? Fifteen?"
He looks at me seriously. "I'm fifteen," he says. "You're fourteen. And you've never been kissed before." He kisses me then, softly on the lips.
"I want to be fifteen, too," I say.
"You will be one day," he says. "Just wait."
Oh, it's a beautiful, glorious, wet rainy night, and I'd be happy to stay here forever. Jack hands me the vodka bottle, and I take a drink.
"What was it you wanted to say to me?" he says.
I take another sip, the vodka burning in my stomach.
"Nothing," I say. "It doesn't matter."
I hand the bottle back to him, and as he takes it I see a dark smear on the glass. I look down at my right hand, the one I held the wire down with.
"I'm bleeding," I say. "I've cut myself."
He takes my hand and examines it. "It's nothing. Just a scratch." He kisses my palm, kisses the blood. "You must have cut it coming over the fence," he says. "Does it hurt?"
"Not really," I say. No, it doesn't hurt tonight, but I know that it will tomorrow. Tomorrow I won't be drunk, the cut will be open and raw and throbbing. Later, it'll hurt like hell. But I won't think about it tonight.
Listen," I say. "Listen, I thought we were going all the way to the top." I point with my bleeding hand to the top of the bleachers, outlined in black against a sky which is only slightly less black. "Or perhaps, at your age, it'd be too much effort?"
"You forget," he says. "I'm only fifteen. Let's go."
And so tonight we'll go, up to the very top, all the way up. We'll sit together in the highest row and look at the town laid out below us and watch the rest of the world go on about its business. Tonight we are separate from the world.
Later on I'll worry about us coming down. And getting out.