Margie at the Lone Star
Margie stepped hesitantly into the near darkness of Jay's Lone Star Lounge and looked around. She saw a typical Thursday night crowd—several men and one couple sitting at the long bar on her left, two couples and a threesome sitting at three of the dozen or so small tables that filled up most of the room—and she also saw Jay Killebrew working behind the bar. He was leaning over, talking to a man sitting on a stool beneath the TV set. Seeing that he had his back turned, Margie walked hurriedly past the tables and to her usual stool at this end of the bar. She lay her purse on the bar then waited for Jay to notice her. It didn't take long.
"Marge, what the hell you doing here?" Jay said, walking toward her, a frown on his face, his small eyes with their pale lashes closed to slits. "You said you wouldn't be in tonight, said you was going to rest up." Jay was big, heavy, with thick gray hair and a flattened nose. He looked mean, and could be when the peacefulness of his place of business was threatened, but Margie had known him a long time and knew he was really one of the gentle people, softhearted and easygoing. "I shouldn't sell you anything tonight, Marge," he said, standing in front of her, his arms folded across his belly. "You was walking pretty unsteady when you left here last night."
Margie managed a smile. "I just wasn't myself last night, Jay. The drinks just hit me harder than usual."
"That's been happening a lot here lately, Marge." He sighed, shook his head. He unfolded his arms, said in a softer voice, "Listen, why don't you go home and rest up, Marge? How were your feet today?"
"I got myself those shoes I told you about, Jay, the ones like the nurses wear? They really helped. As long as they don't put me on that night shift, I'm okay. And I had the back area today, where they got the booths. Actually," she said, smiling, "I'm feeling pretty good today, Jay. That's the reason I'm here. I just felt too good to sit around that trailer house watching TV, thought I'd walk over and have a drink or two, keep you company."
He stared at her for a long moment, then he nodded. "Don't be drinking too much tonight, Marge. Okay?"
"Sure. Sure, Jay. No problem. Say, can I have a double?"
Jay frowned. "Did you have anything at home, Marge?"
"Well, I had a beer. While I watched the six o'clock news. Just one light beer."
"Okay," Jay said, sighing, "but the next one's a single."
"Sure, Jay," Marge said, reaching into her purse, taking out a twenty dollar bill. "Whatever you say."
When Jay brought the drink and set it in front of her, Margie smiled up at him, waited until he turned his back, then picked up the glass and downed half its contents. The drink had the desired effect. The vodka flowed warmly down her throat and settled gently and soothingly in her stomach, and almost immediately the soft, warm curtain lowered itself over her thoughts and feelings, darkening her vision so that the dim lights grew even dimmer, while the colors of the juke box and the neon beer signs brightened. She dug in her purse for coins, walked across the room to the juke box and, as she always did, played all of the Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette songs. She walked back to her seat, picked up her drink, frowned when she saw that the glass was half empty, then sipped from it and turned her attention to the mirror directly in front of her. As usual, between the combined effects of the vodka and the near-darkness of the room, she didn't look so bad, none of the lines or wrinkles showing, the thick brown hair hanging about her face looking almost as dark as it had twenty-five years ago when she was right out of high school. She smiled wryly, thought to herself, If you want to look like you did twenty-five years ago, girl, you need to take off about twenty pounds. Then she shrugged, picked up her glass. Okay, thirty, she thought. Then she looked down into the glass, saw that it was nearly empty, decided she better wait a while before asking Jay for another. She turned to look around the room, see who her companions were.
There was the usual cluster of men at the far end of the bar, smoking and drinking beer, staring up at the TV that was on but turned down, most of them wearing jeans and T-shirts and billed caps. These were working men, refinery workers mostly, Jay's bread-and-butter. Jay usually stayed near this group and was with them now, his back propped against the inside edge of the bar, staring up at the TV.
At the table nearest her, Margie saw a young blond wearing a white dress. She was leaning across the table, listening intently to a middle-aged man who was talking volubly while waving his hands. Margie studied him, frowned. Married man fooling around on his wife, she decided. She shook her head then looked back at the bar, saw an old man wearing a curl-brimmed straw hat. He was hunched over a glass of beer and a shot of whiskey, his arms around the two glasses as though guarding them.
Margie caught Jay's eye, motioned at her glass. Jay looked over at her then sighed and brought her a fresh drink. "This is it for a while, Margie."
"Sure, Jay. I been thinking about cutting down anyway." She looked back out to the tables, saw a man sitting alone beneath the blue and white glow of a beer sign. At first glance he looked like he had walked in off some kind of movie set—light colored western style suit, off-white shirt and white tie, and a beautiful white Stetson resting squarely on his head. He was drinking something tall and pink and staring through the purple gloom directly at Margie. Margie found herself staring back at him, wondering if he was real or if her eyes were playing tricks on her again. Then he was on his way, standing up slowly and picking up his pink drink, strolling casually across the room.
"Hi, hon. Can I buy you a drink?" The man sat down on the stool next to her then turned slowly in her direction.
Margie glanced toward Jay, saw that he was still looking up at the TV so she turned to face the man. Up close he was far from being the movie star that he looked to be across the room. His face was dark-skinned and leathery and full of wrinkles and creases so that when he smiled, showing chalky white dentures, the skin of his face folded and pleated.
"Well," Margie said, glancing again in Jay's direction, "I don't know."
The man tapped on the bar with a coin. "Bartender! Give this pretty lady a refill."
Margie turned and looked at the gleaming rows of glasses and bottles that lined the front of the long bar mirror, avoiding looking at Jay when he walked up but all too aware of his presence. When he placed the glass in front of her she glanced once at his face, saw his frown, and quickly looked down at her glass. She waited for him to walk away then she picked up the glass and took a sip. She looked at the man. "Where you from?"
The man sipped from his pink drink then turned to look at Margie. "All over, hon. But I'm mostly from Texas City, up near Houston." He leaned toward Margie, giving her a whiff of stale cigar smoke. "You might of seen me on TV, hon. I own the biggest used car lot along the entire Texas coastline, do my own commercials on TV."
Margie nodded. "Uh-huh, I think I have seen you." She sipped from her drink. "You have a family?"
"Sure. Got a ex-wife in Houston, another in Phoenix, got three sons, two daughters, a whole bunch of grandkids. How about you, hon?"
Margie sighed. She rubbed at her eyes, said in a low voice, "I got a daughter."
"Uh-huh. Well, listen, is this girl of yours at home? I was thinking maybe we could pick up a bottle, go to your place and . . . and watch a little TV or something." He gave her a wink.
Margie didn't answer. She turned up her glass and emptied its contents.
The man tapped on the bar top with his coin then pointed at Margie's drink when Jay looked their way. Jay frowned and walked over. "Listen," he said, wiping his hands on the white apron that stretched across his belly, "I think the lady's had enough."
The man pushed his lips together. "Well, shit," he said, "there's another bar down the street. If you can't . . ."
"Okay," Jay said, holding his hands up but frowning at Margie, "you got it. One refill."
"Say, hon," the man said after Margie had her drink and had taken a deep swallow, "your makeup's getting all streaked." He looked at his watch. "Listen, I got to be getting on the road." He reached into his pocket and took out his billfold, dug inside and removed a twenty. He held it up in front of Margie. "Why don't you go out to my car with me, hon? You can earn yourself a little drinking money then I'll be on my way."
Margie wiped at her eyes then sat up straight. She sighed, looking at the man and the twenty dollar bill, then she reached out and picked up the man's glass that was still about half full of pink stuff and she poured the pink concoction down the front of his gleaming white suit. The man jumped up, looking down at the pink liquid flowing down his jacket and onto his pants. "Why, you little bitch you!" he sputtered, then he turned and headed for the door.
Jay came over to stand in front of Margie, his jaw set, a scowl on his face.
"I'm sorry, Jay," Margie said. "Are you mad at me?"
Jay let out a long sigh, shook his head. "Naw. He had it coming, I guess. Listen, Margie, why don't you go over to the Dairy Queen, straighten yourself up, have a cup of coffee. By the time you get back I'll be ready to close. I'll walk you home. Okay?"
Margie nodded, got carefully to her feet. "Okay, Jay."
Margie walked unsteadily through the gravel of the parking lot, heading for the coastal highway that fronted the lounge. It was dark but she had no idea what time it was, although it felt late, after ten at least. It was cool but she was wearing a sweater over her blouse and skirt. The cool air was heavy with the fishy smell of the Texas gulf, blended with the odor of the oil refineries on down the coast toward Houston. There was a bit of a misty rain, little more than a fog, but it made the lights of the stream of cars blur together. Margie rubbed her eyes, saw a slight break in the traffic flow, and hurried across the highway.
The interior of the Dairy Queen was flooded with bright light and Margie squinted as she pushed inside then stopped to look around. There was nobody sitting at any of the plastic booths except a family—mother, father, two little girls in matching red sweaters and blue jeans—and there was only one person working, a fat woman wearing a white smock and a white paper hat. She was standing with her back toward the counter, staring out the window at the flow of traffic as though she were seeing it for the first time. Margie leaned on the counter and said to the woman's back. "You got coffee?"
The woman turned around, stared at Margie, blinking her eyes. "Huh? Yeah, sure. Uh, cream and sugar?"
Margie frowned. The thought of any combination made her throat tighten. She took a deep breath. "Give me a . . . a banana split."
The woman nodded, still staring, then turned and went to work.
Margie sat down toward the back of the room and waited. One of the little girls—a cute little blond with big blue eyes—was staring past her mother's shoulder at Margie. When Margie smiled, the little girl ducked her head. Margie got up and walked over to the family, smiled down at the little girl. "You remind me of my little girl," Margie said, then she reached out to pat the little girl's cheek.
The little girl shrank away, staring up at Margie with a frightened look on her face. The girl's mother turned to look at Margie. She was a pretty woman but her eyes were hard, her mouth set in a frown. "Leave her alone," she said.
Margie straightened up. "I just wanted to—"
"You heard what my wife said," the husband spoke up. He stood up, towering over Margie, a heavyset man with a thick blond mustache. "Just move on, lady. Go sober up somewhere. We don't like for our kids being around drunks."
Margie walked away, feeling numb, then she suddenly thought, Oh, my God. She fumbled in her purse, took out her compact, looked at herself in the mirror, then turned and dashed for the women's restroom. In the restroom she dampened a wad of toilet paper and blotted off the streaked mascara, rubbed until there was no mascara left.
When she went back out to her table she found the fat woman waiting for her, the banana split in her hand. Margie fumbled in her purse and handed the woman a bill, then she headed for the door, her head down.
The misty rain had stopped and the air was cool and fresh but instead of the cool air making Margie feel better, it made her feel worse, and she found her vision blurred again as she hurried across the highway. She barely made it across the street and to the side of the cinder block building before she threw up. She leaned there for a while, tasting the bitter residue of the vodka, then she wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and went inside.
She sat down at her regular place, rubbed at her eyes. Jay came over, looked down at her with a frown on his face. "You okay, Marge?" he asked. "You look kind of peeked."
"I'm fine, Jay. You had the right idea, all right. I had two cups of coffee, had a little something to eat to ease my stomach. You know the trouble I have with my stomach." She leaned forward. "I sat next to this family, real nice people, and the cutest little girls. I talked to one of them. She was a little chatterbox, Jay. We talked quite a bit." She wiped at her cheeks with trembling fingers then said, "She made me think of my own little girl, Jay."
Jay gave her a long look then sighed and shook his head. He wiped his hands across his aproned belly. "Listen, I think I'm going to close up now, Marge. I'm spending more for electricity than I'm making."
"Okay, Jay. I'm ready when you're ready." She sat at the end of the bar and watched Jay turn out the lights then come around the end of the bar wearing his blue windbreaker and carrying a paper sack. "Let's go," he said, heading for the door.
Outside there was only the soft glow from the street lights except for the brightly lit Exxon station down on the corner. It was even cooler outside now but the air smelled cleaner, fresher, although still tinged with the saltwater smell of the gulf. Jay strode along, the paper sack under his arm, the back of his windbreaker ballooning out behind him. He didn't look back to see if Margie was following but he was walking slow enough so she could catch up.
"Boy, you sure are in a hurry," Margie said when she reached him. Her head was clearing now but she was getting a headache.
Jay didn't say anything, just shifted the paper bag to the other arm and kept walking. Looking over at him, Margie could see that his jaw was set and his eyes were fixed straight ahead.
"You mad at me, Jay?"
Jay let out a long sigh, then shook his head. "It's just that it's the same old stuff, Marge. Always the same old stuff about your little girl and all. Why do you do that, Marge?"
Margie was holding her sweater tight around her neck. She didn't answer for a while, then she said, "Well, sometimes, Jay, especially after I've had a drink or two, sometimes it seems like I've still got my little girl, like she's back at my trailer house, waiting for me. I just forget, Jay."
Jay looked down at her then said in a softer voice, "She's been gone a long time, Marge. Sixteen, seventeen years now? She knows where you are, Marge. You haven't budged from this neighborhood. If she wanted to find you, she could. You know that."
Marge shook her head. "She's going to show up one of these days, Jay. I just know she is." Then she looked up at him, smiling. "Hey, I might even have grandkids. Wouldn't that be great, Jay?"
Jay just shook his head and kept walking. They'd turned a corner and were moving away from the highway now. They passed an auto body shop and a self-serve car wash, then they were walking along between houses, most of them wooden, painted white, with tiny grassless front yards. Cars were parked on the street or pulled up blocking the dirt sidewalk. Margie shivered, pulled her sweater closer around her neck. When Jay continued to stride silently along, she asked without looking at him. "How's Louise?"
Jay didn't say anything at first but then he muttered, "Still coughing her head off. She'd be a lot better if she'd lay off the goddamn cigarettes."
Margie looked up at him. "I thought you said she quit, Jay."
"That's what I thought. She said she did, and the house started smelling better, then last night I got up to go to the bathroom, looked out the back window and there she was, Marge, sitting out there puffing away."
Margie touched the paper bag under his arm. "What's this?"
Jay shrugged. "Candy. She says candy helps her taper off."
They reached a trailer park with a big white wooden sign in front: "GULF BREEZE COURTS." Jay stopped and looked at her. "Well, here you are, Marge."
Margie said in a hesitant voice, "I could make some coffee, Jay."
Jay turned away from her. "I need to be getting home, Marge."
"You haven't stopped in for quite a while, Jay." She wasn't looking at him now but when he didn't answer she moved over so she could see his face. "A couple of months I guess."
Jay still didn't look at her. "Things are . . . they're just different now, Marge."
Margie nodded. She took a deep breath and sighed then looked at Jay, her expression serious. "Listen, Jay, I want to ask you a question and I want you to be honest with me. Okay?"
"Sure," Jay said. "Ask away."
"Jay, am I turning into an old drunk?"
Jay stared at her for a long moment, chewing on his lip. Finally he said, "Well, Marge, if you're not, you're sure as hell getting there."
Margie sighed, nodded. "Thanks, Jay." Then she reached out and touched his arm. "You used to give me a hug, Jay. How about it? Could you just give me a little hug?"
Jay turned around and looked down at her then he reached out and pulled her against him. Margie closed her eyes and leaned her cheek against his chest and took a deep breath. After a moment Jay lowered his arms and stepped back. "I got to go, Marge."
She nodded, straightening her shoulders. "Sure, Jay."
Jay started walking away then stopped and looked back at her. "You coming in tomorrow night?"
Margie looked at him. "I think I'm going to stay home tomorrow, Jay."
Jay nodded. "Good idea." He turned and started to walk away again then paused to look back. "You okay, Marge?"
Margie managed a weak smile. "Sure, I'm fine, Jay. Just fine."
Jay nodded then held up his hand, gave her a wave, turned and hurried away.
Margie stood there and watched him go, stood there until his blue windbreaker disappeared into the shadows, until the sound of his footsteps faded into silence, then she turned and headed for her trailer house, thinking now of the half-full bottle of vodka sitting on her coffee table in front of the television set, thinking about what she was going to do with it.