Photophobia by Mary Lynn Reed
Darlene wore a gold cross on a chain, smoked unfiltered cigarettes, never made eye contact before noon. She said her father was a union man, laid off in '85, rarely sober since. I hired her for her looks and told her as much. That's the way it is, she said, then grabbed my apron off the hook behind the bar and put it on. She hasn't missed a shift in two years, and she knows I love her. Knows I'd slice open any man who crossed her, if she wanted me to. And, maybe, some days, even if she didn't.
I was the sole proprietor of Lucky Jeb's Tavern, had been for sixteen years, since my brother Jeb died. Couldn't see drunks stumbling into a place named Christina's at ten a.m. for Wild Turkey and dusty peanuts, so I'd never changed the name. But once, about six months after Darlene came on, I called the sign man and priced a pink neon "D." I told Darlene I'd do it too. Name the place after her. She laughed and called me a horny old woman. Said lack of attention was making me queer and I needed to find a man, quit staring at her ass. But that wasn't going to happen and we both knew it. Love doesn't tell your heart why. It just steps in and makes itself at home.
Darlene was legally blind but you'd never know it, except she couldn't drive. Hitching rides with strangers was dangerous, I tried to tell her. But she did it all the time. No shortage of offers either. So I put her on closing shifts, drove her home myself most nights.
Windows open in my Dodge four wheeler while she smoked. Crickets growing louder as we got closer, her trailer set way back from the road. She lived with her old man in a double-wide on a twenty acre plot. Her mother had fled to Oregon three years before and Darlene tried to do right by her father but nothing worked. So she brought him a fresh bottle of whiskey every night and didn't hound him anymore. Nothing would change him now, she said.
I wished her sweet dreams as she got out of my truck, and she hung her head back in the open window, squinting. That pained look she got, wanting to see more clearly than she was capable of. "You're crazy," she said to me, then knocked twice on the truck door and walked away. Slower than usual. She stopped at the front door, one foot in, one out, then turned back, and waved. I imagined I was nothing but a blur of headlights, all white and glowing, but I held my hand up and smiled.
It happened on a slow Tuesday night, tavern door propped open, inviting the clean March breeze inside. Just two guys at the bar, and I told Darlene I had it covered. She should rest awhile, watch a flick in my office if she wanted to.
She sat in my big brown recliner and took off her shoes, rubbed her toes, talked about her mother's corns and heel spurs. The dreaded fate of her feet. I brought her a fizzy Coke and she touched my shirt sleeve, said it looked real nice.
"Itís new," I said. Green cotton pullover, loose. I moved closer, to give her a better look.
Her hand grazed mine.
"You enjoy yourself tonight," I said. "Call me if you need anything."
Then I left her alone.
I sat behind the bar, kept the whiskey levels rising for the regulars, glanced back at Darlene as often as I could. I didn't notice him come in, don't know how long he'd been there when he sat down in front of me, pushed his baseball cap back and said, "Hey, darling. Remember me?"
Bucky Torrence, twisted grin and a brand new white shirt, fold creases still showing. My husband.
"Don't looked so shocked," he said. "Good behavior's my middle name. You know that."
Knots in my stomach, organs twisting around like pole dancers up my spine.
"Long while since I had a visitor up there," Bucky said. "Something going on?"
Bucky eyed the men at the bar, touched the rim of his cap. I looked down at my apron; it smelled of tobacco and sandalwood: Darlene. From the TV in the office I heard sirens, loud voices, a tinny gun shot. Then another.
Bucky slid his hands across the bar. "Come here," he said.
The TV went silent and I heard Darlene approach.
"What's his name?" Bucky asked.
Darlene sidled up next to me, untied the apron around my waist, and lifted it over my head. Bucky watched her. Tired restless eyes of a man who'd been in prison a very long time.
"This guy bothering you?" Darlene asked, her hand resting on my waist.
Bucky laughed, touched his face as if he were trying to remember who he was.
"This is my husband," I said. "Bucky, this is Darlene."
Darlene took the bottle of Jim Beam out of my hand, her face inches from mine, straining to read me. "I'll be right here," she said. "If you need anything."
"I'll take a beer," Bucky said, then licked his lips as Darlene pulled him a draft.
We took a booth near the back, Bucky acting like all the others, staring at my melancholy girl as she wiped down the bar. Her face softly tragic in repose, so radiant when a quick smile overtook.
"She's young," he said.
"We need to talk." I cracked my knuckles, one by one, a nervous habit I hadn't exhibited in a decade.
"She living with you? You doing her?"
I looked at Darlene, then back to Bucky, my non-answer answering.
"Too bad," he said.
He laid his head down on the table, cut his brown eyes up at me, those delicate long lashes. Too delicate for a man, I always thought. His head rested on his muscled forearm, and I had to look away.
"Take me home," he said. "Please."
"You can't expect that."
"'Til death do us part," he said. Deep crevices lined his forehead. His skin looked parched, achingly wind-blown.
Darlene was working her way over, wiping down tables with swift steady strokes of a dingy grey towel.
"A hot shower. Warm blanket on the sofa, a television I can leave on all night long," Bucky said. "You owe me that much, don't you?"
Bucky sat up, pulled his cap down, and drained his beer. "For all I've done for you."
I met Bucky Torrence in junior high. He was clunky, big, older than everyone else since they'd held him back three times. His dad worked with my uncle at the auto shop; his family, always good friends with mine. Barbeques in the backyard, tractor pulls, rodeos. Bucky was always around. He called me Prissy Chrissy one year, said I was the most beautiful girl he'd ever seen the next. I was a brute and a tomboy and that never changed. Bucky didn't care. He took me to the prom, gave me Valentine hearts. The only boy who ever showed any interest at all.
He proposed in the back seat of his father's rusty Cadillac, my pants around my ankles. Go ahead, I told him, just do it. Take my virginity and stop begging. But he stopped short, zipped his pants up, and said he loved me. Then he pulled out a ring with the tiniest diamond I'd ever seen and asked me to marry him.
He was the stupidest boy I'd ever known, but I said yes. My bare ass freezing on those fake leather seats, I said yes, I would marry him. I was eighteen and didn't know a damn thing about who I was or what I would become. But Bucky loved me; he'd do anything I asked him to do. And that was something.
Bucky fell asleep in the brown recliner in my office, TV blaring beside him. I sat on the stool behind the bar as Darlene showed the last patron out. I dropped ice cubes in two tumblers, poured the best Vodka I had. Pushed one across the bar to Darlene.
© 2005-2009 Per Contra: The International Journal of the Arts, Literature and Ideas
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