That was all so long ago now, practically. By now, she has settled into herself—the way one settles into a couch, before the television, after work. She is not with anyone, and knows that without someone, she will never really be settled. But she has settled, or is well on the way to settling, into this kind of unsettledness, this settlement farther along the spectrum of being settled, up the river away from the people. The empty space and even time around her is less lonely than peaceful. The living room is clean; the front mat, back porch, driver’s seat and everywhere else are clean. Her datebook is vacant. A stillness within her overflows her dotted borders into the small house around her. Her privacy, previously less than valueless, is taking on value.
Now, the way people on the street are sad makes her sad. The mentally retarded with their bellies and backpacks, walking diagonally. The leathery homeless in their puffy olive clothes. The waiters for buses, benders for pennies. Food wrappers fluttering from fingers. Ripped dress shirts. And things like that. But it is an edge of sadness she walks like a curb edge in broken-in boots. She walks her life with her arms out, wobbling but not needing to catch herself. It is a chill of sadness that she feels in her joints. It flares with the weather or whatever. She is sad sometimes when she is also grateful for how sad she is not, and that makes the difference.
She still hardly cooks, and her friends, if they are really that, are at the bar. The flirtations or flings with the guys at the bar are pretty well used up, unless a special stranger were to roll through, which it isn’t so much that kind of bar. And she doesn’t want an away bar, prefers the home one. So she is out and (not really) about on her own and then done, routinely. Free any night to take or leave it. She teases her welcome among others the way she teases her drinking recovery time. There is a balance to it. A lot of the time, some miss her somewhat. And she them. Periodic pangs, surges, reunions. Outside of work, hours sober are like shucking herself from a shell. Picking a scab. She makes it happen, even dives into it. The diving being her yoga class, primarily. She walks around not really healthy but, well, most of the time perfectly successfully walking around.
She thought about moving. That was months ago, when the thought was serious—when she spoke it aloud, asked around, searched the internet, printed lists and maps. The whole globe; neighboring suburbs. When she decided not to, she thought about school. Circled course titles in newspapery books; drove by the city’s two community colleges without parking. When she rejected that, she decided that she was really a woman now and not a kid anymore even a little bit. Maybe a little bit, or more—but not in that way, which is maybe the most important way. Her dreams have settled into reality. There is no overlay or double-vision or taking turns. It’s a weeding of desire. She has accidentally become Buddhist, pretty much. It has gradually half-closed her eyes, turned up the corners of her mouth.
She has gotten into the nothing things that make a day. With attention, they have bloomed—like little sponge pets in water. Distended now, wobbly, on display to nobody in particular. Laundry alone (done three blocks away). Cleanliness and hygiene. Organization: by hour, by cubic foot.
She has taken up moisturizing. Has explored brands by their knockoffs, is currently on Safeway’s Compare to: Aveeno Creamy. Mornings and evenings, after her shower and before going out, she fills her hands with squirts of the stuff and rubs it in by body sectors, starting in the hips quadrant and working up and down. She thinks the names of her body parts as she goes, measures them by pressure. The crannies of joints, intersections. Apex notch of thighs; cavities behind knees; in and around ankles, elbows, collarbones; behind ears, between eyes. The flats and runs of thighs, belly—she is growing thicker there, looser. The sides of back, upper and lower arms. Meat and elasticity. The tightly strung cords of neck, hamstrings, Achilles tendons. When she doesn’t moisturize, she itches within hours now like an addict, turns red with scratching. The dryness of it. Dry skin—it’s not really skin but old wood, peeling paint. Exposed concrete. Isolated rather than unified. This didn’t used to happen. Even drunk, she remembers to strip down and handle the intimate labor of gooping up. Pores clog, rise into zits. She glistens in all light. All day, she discovers marginalia of residue, under-rubbed. When she checks mirrors, little curves of off-white like liquid fingernail clippings—around a nostril, in the lines cupping her mouth, pooled in her own fingernail beds. She smooths herself, waxy and unified, presses the tender bumps—tentative pain. She wonders who notices her self-absorbed fingers, her shine, the ready redness beneath it. She decides she doesn’t care, hunts for missed spots. As chatter swirls through and past her, she catches herself again looking neither inward nor outward—skinward—and agrees again with what she has decided.
Her attention to time itself smooths it out, lubes it up. Where it scraped along, it mostly glides.
She wonders, often enough, why anyone would care about her. She comes up with little. She hasn’t fallen from a dizzy height, risen from a horrific depth. Her greatest troubles are mostly, honestly, of her own creation (shame on her). She isn’t gifted with technology or art. She isn’t connected to … much. She might as well be a raindrop, she sometimes thinks. She pushes through this.
Partly, she pushes through by believing herself to be, inexplicably, watched. Invisibly witnessed. Not loved, necessarily, but looked in on. And maybe loved. She feels this and shrugs off the feeling. In the main part of herself, she shrugs it off. She’s sane, she tells herself. It’s just self-regard, another power of plain consciousness. A boomeranging echo of the mind—a kind of sonar. Or it’s religious programming, Pavlovian wishful thinking. Her part in the monotone chorus repeating “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty.…” She shrugs it off, then retreats to a part of herself where no one else seems to be looking—no one except the witness—and unshrugs it. Drinks what she had been seen to throw away.
And she’s not really alone, not purely. Who could afford to be, even if you wanted to? “Hey,” says a man in the laundromat, coming over. “How are you today?” He’s in his forties, white with maybe some Hispanic, wearing low-slung jeans with stitching all over the pockets. Or he’s her age and black with short hair, sneakers that match his shirt and a walk like a limp. Or he really limps with a cane, gray hair tufted in his nose and ears. Sunspots, a missing tooth. And so on. She’s glad her loads of laundry are drying, not just getting started. But she removes one earbud, lets herself be talked to. Politely glides.
It’s not an aura, her stillness, yet. It flows out of her for her to watch dissipate. Hisses out, squeaks out, to fizzle on windowsills. Across the papers on her desk at work. Into her computer’s mouse, beneath her fingers.
Her yoga class is Bikram, three weeknights and both weekend mornings. She’s not playing around with it. It is crowded, mostly with women she has little to no urge to talk to, and the heat is an incredible strain. She spends most of each session feeling on the edge of quitting, periodically on the edge of vomiting, occasionally on the edge of crying. She could give one absolute shit if her flopsweat boozes up the wet walls. She wears her earbuds and listens to the same songs a lot. She is sick of the songs, pose to pose and session to session. Much of Bikram for Shannon seems to be an exercise in hatred—of the poses, the lack of air, the two men, the infinite women, the stench (/stenches), the pure heat. Above all—or only, really—herself. Why it’s so hard for her. During some parts of her day, she is prouder of staying in this class than of anything else.
“Hey,” the instructor says after class. “You did really well today.” Shannon turns. He’s talking to the woman next to her, chubby and new, the least flexible and balanced in the room. Making the compliment extend to Shannon and everyone, sort of. And making this almost a kind of team.
Tonight, a post-yoga Tuesday, she is a cup of vodka in at 2199. So that could do it. Instead of Rachel, Javier is behind the bar. It’s quiet. The jukebox is playing The Clash. Unbidden, he pours her another, her middle shelf stuff in a martini glass, olives. Their fingers meet when she just touches the stem and he is still pushing. “I was thinking about heading home,” she says.
He says, “You are home.” Light sweat on his wide, flat face; no real message in the look to speak of.
She smiles, half-paying attention. Her mouth moves with the lyrics: “Get-away-get-away-get-away-get-away…” She feels it coming out as voice. Her singing voice is not good. But she feels him looking at her, zooming in. Her breasts feel heavy, her shoulders light. She catches the shine off of him: his perspiration, slicked-back hair, lips that don’t quite close. Maybe there is a message. He has a way of looking up under his thick eyebrows, his head tilted down for bottles, glasses, money, the bartop. Or, she suspects, for nothing at all—just as pose. His shirt collar is one extra button open on hairless honey-colored skin, the dark grade-B honey. No necklace, but of course on his near wrist the jumbo silver watch she’s avoided noticing the brand of forever. She straightens her back. Her fingers close around the drink stem. “What?” she says.
“How’d you like to be on this side of the bar?” he asks.
The other people who heard this are Celia, the old upstairs tenant, and Donny the barback. They frame her. A composed stillness all around. Shannon’s index finger and thumb hold the stem without lifting it, her other fingers in the air. A wisp of hair is over her left eye. Stadium tiers of smudged bottles restrain their nozzles from twitching. She turns neither left nor right. Javier’s big, slick head is blocking her reflection. There is the smell of sour booze in old crevices.
She drinks. It’s cold and hot and pure. She feels for a moment that she has nothing in life whatsoever to hide.
“When?” she asks.
“Thursday nights opened up. Maybe more, we could see.”
She takes his hand in hers. It’s been waiting there. Her thumb taps the watch.
“I got a pile of resumes in the back,” he says. “But I thought, maybe I’ll ask Shannon first. She’d probably be good.”
“Thanks for asking.”
“So what do you think?”
She feels flushed, her breathing shallow, eyes in blinders. It makes her want to do a back bend. She does lean back, arms overhead, eyes closed.
Eyes closed, but not on darkness. Suddenly, it’s very busy in there….
So here she is, walking home under stars on a weeknight. The air has the moist feeling of someone’s breath. God’s. The frame of roofs and treetops implies a street of stars above this street. Looking up and walking, she believes she can feel the sky turning, or the earth. She tilts towards a lamppost, eases it aside like a low-hanging branch. The sight of a homeless woman beside the park makes her sad; in her mind she coos at her as one would at a kitten.
She is climbing her steps, unlocking the door, crossing the floor, stripping, squirting moisturizer into her palms, and starting on the insides of her thighs.
And lying in bed, envisioning. A spotlight in the darkness on her, hosting the party. Herself, the same self. Just also alive in so many eyes.
On Thursdays. Maybe Wednesdays and Fridays soon enough, too, given Jenny, pretty but lazy and thieving, and now without the employment buffer of Rachel, who was sweet but even worse. Saturdays are out. Saturdays are Javier and Debby, and they are an institution.
Numbers impose/superimpose. She couldn’t quit her day job, not even close.
Not unless she really lives humbly. And/or finds another piece to the puzzle.
She awakes in daylight before her alarm, her tongue a little bit out between her teeth. She is pinching herself. Not dreaming.
She dials her mother. It’s later there. She’ll be on her second cup of coffee, the windows open, TV on local news, laundry somersaulting in the windowless drier. As the phone rings, Shannon watches her hands shake. It’s not just her hands. This happens rarely now, but sometimes. And means nothing. She feels happy.
Her mother listens past the words, into the silence. Shannon hears an airy slurp: the coffee is hot. She imagines her mother feels the shaking against her ear. “Frankly, Shannon,” she says, finally, “I resent having to even state the obvious.”
“It’s just a shift. Thursdays. I’m not quitting my job.”
“Well, so what? What if they did want me full-time? It’s just an option.”
“An option to quit your job.”
“My job that adds nothing to my life.”
“Except a steady paycheck.”
“It’d be harder to make rent, but I don’t think I’d need help,” Shannon says.
“That’s what I meant, Mom.”
“It helps to say what you mean if you want people to understand you, sweetie.”
Shannon means to and does convey silence in response to this. The threat of further distance. A little reminder that from this side of the country, that only means not calling/not answering the phone. As the silence hangs, Shannon feels she has bounced her mom’s bitchy wisdom back at her, ninja-like.
She doesn’t feel she is a ninja, but sees herself, these days, as occasionally ninja-like.
“And the drinking?” her mom asks.
Shannon wonders if this question means her mom loves her. She feels the answer together with the question, underlying it: In her way. Meaning what, exactly? If, say, one were to draw a Venn Diagram between just-right maternal love and Shannon’s mother’s way of loving Shannon, the football shape they shared would be—what? Skinny? Fat?
“A job at a bar?” her mother says.
“Actually, the weird thing is, Ma, if it took off, I could walk to work now. It’s like five blocks. I think it could be healthier, overall.”
At which her mother laughs rigidly and lets it go. Thinking, or maybe just pretending to, that at least her daughter is funny.
And so… here Shannon is, willing red lights green; jerking forward as she parks. A week from Thursday here already. She beeps her car locked, climbs her steps two at a time, unlocks the locks, shoulders through. She does a shot and lotions up. Changes into black sneakers and pants, a tight blue tee-shirt. Looks in the mirror. Says, “What can I get you?” Says, “What’ll it be?” Smiles. Stops smiling and acknowledges silently, with eye contact and a nod, in a way that is like saying a prayer or doing a shot, that she is missing yoga tonight. That this is the new Thursdays: OK. OK, moving on.
It’s Queen Debbie there when she gets there. This is good news, better than Javier. Javier staffs the place and does the ordering, but Debbie really rules it. “Hey,” she says, then seeing Shannon more closely, hugs her, and the two bounce a little for excitement’s sake. The ten or so customers watch, a little warmed because a little involved. “Don’t mind us,” calls Steve, one resident grizzled old scumbag. “Go ahead and make out.”
“You fuckers all better treat her good,” Debbie says, turning.
“Relax, Debbie,” Steve says. “It’s just Shannon. We love Shannon. She’s the nice bartender now.”
Debbie flips him off and he acts offended. Nobody takes their eyes off the bartenders. “Let me give you the tour,” Debbie says, and leads Shannon to the sinks.
Queen Debbie, 29 years old, is the kind of woman one has to be to rule a rock and roll shithole fronted by a probable hustler for a couple of silent partners. She is capable, direct, funny, empathetic and ruthless. She pours heavy and is heavy, an inch shorter but about fifty pounds bigger than Shannon, with an always-visible line of cleavage you could hide a baby in. She owns a German Shepherd named Dietz, not currently present. Her part-time boyfriend is really named Frank and really rides a Harley. Her deftness in handling vagrants and scrappers is renowned enough that at any hint of friction, an aisle towards those involved naturally opens for her and her barbacks. It doesn’t hurt that she has made a habit of taking on as her primary barback whatever young man has the most tattoos, and fanning his sense of honor, resulting in an end-of-the-bar line-up of on-call chivalrous inklings. They drink domestic tallboys and come and go, tats lighting up and blinking, receiving transmissions. Heavy D and the Tattooed Love Boys.
Shannon has always tipped like a bartender, and Debbie has long reciprocated with regular freebies. Before bartending, Debbie was a regular at an analogous dive bar in her hometown, a day’s drive away. So it’s more or less a religious conviction with her that if one wants to reach a certain level in a rock and roll shithole, beginning as a regular is the only true way. This can’t be a performance, it has to be a lifestyle. So she likes Shannon’s credentials: she really is a natural regular.
For Shannon’s part, there are so many firsts she hadn’t realized she’d been awaiting. Her first drink is a vodka tonic to Celia, who smiles in a way that makes Shannon remind herself not to giggle. Then pressing the TOT button to pop out the register drawer. Using the shaker for a Cosmo. Double-fistedly dunking pint glasses over the submerged scrub brushes and through the next two sinks. Chopping limes the house way. Salting a glass rim. Choosing who to help.
“I’m mainly wondering if you can clean,” Debbie says, at her shoulder.
“I’m a clean person in general, pretty much,” Shannon replies, picking up a towel.
“Not are you clean. Do you clean.”
“I just meant … I have high standards.” Shannon starts doing the wiping she has been neglecting.
When she looks up next, the bar is full. Booths, bar, pool table. Most, or so many, eyes on her. The tattooed love barbacks, too. She sets them up first, basks in their crooked-toothed mumbles. Rethinks, bartenderishly, whether one of them might wind up under her, and when.
“How about a margarita?” Javier stares at her across the bar.
“Salt?” she asks, knowing he drinks his without it—and with Cazadores and Cointreau, half a squeezed lime, half a squeezed orange, sweet and sour, rocks in a pint glass—but asking as if he were a customer.
She gives it to him and he pays like a customer. As she rings him up, she says, “This is me working the register,” and smiles, freeze-frame.
“Hands in the till,” he says.
Debbie bumps past her, maybe accidentally, without a glance. Shannon, counting out change and looking around, feels slow and uncoordinated but focused. Hard guitar chords throb against the red walls, the animal heads and bikini calendars. Her muscles are working—not sore but alive; she’s on the verge of sweating, has the slightly disassociated feeling of being the same temperature as the room. Glasses clink each other, clonk the bar, sparkle. All around, everyone, literally and figuratively, seems to be leaning on everyone.
It’s all so clear, is the thing about now, she thinks.
Clear, then past. She winds and pinballs after Debbie like a shadow through the rowdy dimness until finally the metal gate-door and thunderous dumpster lid of the back alley simultaneously slam closed. “Good night”; “G’night.” Wad of ones distending her small purse, moon floating like a reflection. She walks home, moisturizes, sleeps, wakes, drives, works, holds her stillness-spilling head. Watches the peripheries fizzle. Skips yoga again.
Now, here is time, Shannon’s 26th year, gliding along. The activities spin like lenses in an eye test. Hour to hour, day to day, clicking into place with their own focus. It’s the rest of the week—click-click-click-click-click-click—then Thursday again. Click. The rest of the week, in which she is tired and blurry and not unhappy. Then Thursday.
Now (click) Javier is handing her her tips and a nightcap—“Cheers.” Mostly fruity but complex. Lots to learn. Her tips, fanned across the bartop, come to $145. Everyone else is long gone, the glasses (aside from theirs) washed, bar wiped, floor swept. 3 AM: morning already murmuring through the thin wall of remaining night. She follows him into the liquor closet in the back to begin replacing empty bottles, watches him slide the money pouch into a slot atop the safe. She leans against the shelving, tired suddenly, two bottles in each hand. The silence echoes. The alcohol in her echoes. Her muscles echo, neck and shoulders and back. Whole body warm and tight and radiant, emanating mist. His form seems to echo. She follows it to its source, just standing. “What?” he asks, turning to find her watching him, close. She just smiles. She doesn’t know what.
Two weeks later, she is on Fridays.
And calling in sick to the day job. Then, instead of making yoga or sleeping in, drinking a bottle of wine in front of the television and thinking. She tries to focus on the television but finds herself pacing. “This isn’t stillness, it’s agitation,” she says aloud. A look at her fingers is all it takes to send her walking briskly to the lotion.
The skin, her skin. Or maybe that’s backwards. Inner thighs, outer thighs. Spiraling across curves. Does it matter whose hands? Of course it does. But this beats pacing.
Isn’t being on your back with your legs in the air like most of Pilates or something?
Javier’s watch is a Rolex.
She stands, finds the bathroom mirror, and for once, after so many views, sees what seems to be her real self. She looks at it, looks away, stares at it, and cries. Because she looks, even with the added weight, like a corpse. Really. Like They are all watching her die of an illness. She knows They feel this way—has, she admits, for ages. And now she cries, finally, because she feels it, too.
But not really, she tells herself. Really, what she feels most fundamentally is just happy to be alive. Grateful. Grateful but tired.
She just doesn’t want to be a part of so many clubs.
Suddenly, she is lunging—has done a sudden lunge, the yoga pose, has dropped to one knee, the other leg back. And up go the arms. Forward the chest. Balancing. Into downward dog, into upward dog, into plank. There on the bathroom floor. She stands, dizzy. Drops into the other leg lunge. Ahh! Something about the lunge. Frozen lunge. Straining lunge. It speaks to a certain hunger. Don’t they all, the poses. She leans hard into it, harder. The craving and the satiating are one. Downward dog, upward dog, plank. Breathing heavier, clearing bathroom floor hair and lint and dirt from her lips and nose. Dragging her breath against its passageway so it’s almost a growl.
This could work, she thinks.
She showers, stretches more in the shower, gathers her towel and clothes from the bathroom floor, then the dropped and cornered laundry from the rest of the house. Strips the bed. Slowly: I’m lonely–that’s the joke she tells herself, and Buddha-smiles, burrowing.The sheets are a little funky.
“Hey,” says a man at the laundromat, standing over her. His daughter is with him—cute and quiet. Maybe four. With his heavy eyelids, his sideways mouth.
“How are you two today?” Shannon asks, removing an earbud.
Now, the party comes to Shannon. She has kept the weight off, keeps her eyes bright. She drags kegs, twist-washes pint glasses through three sinks, wipes and scrubs, cocks the elbow to emphasize the heavy pour and let all those good tippers know, I got you. She pours only a little lighter when Javier is there than when he is away.
She steals much less from the till than Debbie, less than anyone. She still has her real job, somehow.
And right now, the bar is Friday-night packed and especially social. The more the merrier: rounds of shots, one after another; harmonious yelling. A Debbie “special”: blueberry cosmos made by Shannon and Debbie simultaneously, poured across the bar to like twenty people. Wads of bills. “Whole Lotta Love” on the jukebox, reaching crescendo. Glasses in air—bartenders included, of course—and down they all go! Over the cheering, Shannon roars like an animal. An absolute apex. Feet planted in sneakers, a strand of hair matted to her cheek, her mouth as open as it gets, the sound as loud as it gets. The room swallows it right up. Eyes everywhere are blazing; Debbie’s laugh is just beautiful.