by Amanda R. Howland
This story first appeared in Adanna Literary Journal issue 4, September 2014
Carmel angled her elbows around her doubled paper plate as she worked on loose shreds of roast beef, two soggy slices of Wonder Bread and potatoes coated in corporate Cajun spice. She was hungry, and didn’t want Mark to take her plate prematurely. Even though she loved him.
She ate her meat, bread and potatoes at the same curved corner of this bar most every night. She should feel safe. The bread floated away from the meat, hanging off the edge of her plate. She ate the bread last, even though she didn’t want it. When she was done, she smoothed her hefty blond bob back behind her ears, pulled her blue knit cap down and pushed her ruined plates forward.
“What kind tonight, Carmel?” Mark’s head was narrow, as if he’d been clamped too hard at birth, but his smile was genuine. Brave like a skull smile. One canine tooth gone from a fight back in high school. By the Coke machine. Carmel had been there.
“Rum and Coke. No. Vodka tonic.” She tried to order a different drink each night, until one day she would finally hit on her drink. Something exotic, beautiful. Something he could make for her. But everything she thought of was so generic.
He zipped around, working fast, even though the bar was dead. One bar in this town, and it was dead every night except for Tuesday Karaoke. Now there were always a couple guys around in blue and red flannels and caps in the winter, by the darts, or laughing at the giant TV, which she hated. Tonight the TV was on mute and the radio played bland hits from the eighties and nineties. The guys were just like the squirrels she passed on her walk over, benign, but not company. And not really wild.
A woman walked in. The long rounded bar was empty, but she sat by Carmel. Heat came off the women, even in this cold bar, where the heat was kept low, and everyone else wore a hat and coat.
The woman slid forward, focused on Mark. Her smell was chokingly cheap jasmine and stale cigarette. Her color was dried out orange: hair crispy dyed, skin saturated with freckles. Carmel couldn’t tell where her freckles ended and her lips began. Her lips were dry and cracked and bare, but her eyes were lined and shadowed in black. They looked weird because she wore no mascara, so her pale red lashes twitched against the black makeup.
Carmel had never seen this woman before.
Mark came up and let himself flop against the bar, exhaling and smiling at the woman as if he knew her, but Carmel knew he didn’t. “What can I get you, sugar?”
Her body swiveled and scissored toward Mark, but her eyes flicked at Carmel twice. “MM – how bout a mojito with extra lime, baby-man.”
He popped his eyebrows, then his body and hopped to it. Carmel wondered, how did he know how to make a mojito?
The woman leaned into Carmel, “He’s a sizzler, sister, I think I’ll be taking that boy home.”
“Home…you don’t live here. He’s married. His wife just had a baby.”
Mark came back with a beautiful emerald drink and, with his long elegance, handed it to the woman. He asked Carmel if she’d like to have another vodka tonic. Carmel pulled something out from the recesses of her memory. “No. How about a pale russian?”
“Uh, white russian, Carmel?” He smiled at the other women. “I don’t have any cream, how about a black russian?”
“Ok. How’s Karen? Is she recovering from giving birth to the baby?”
“Oh yeah, she’s happy as a horse.”
When he left, the woman sucked her drink and nudged Carmel. “A horse.”
“You don’t understand. He loves horses.”
“What do you love?”
Mark brought back the dark drink and winked, zipping away, god knows why – there was no one waiting for service. He crossed his arms and looked at the giant TV.
“Come on, gal…” The woman gulped down her mojito, jerked her head at Carmel’s drink and called to Mark, “Two double shots of Citron and the bill, kind sir.”
Carmel wasn’t used to two drinks followed by a double shot. She followed the woman out to the parking lot. The mud was hard, frozen dry. The woman had bare feet shoved into pink heels. It was too cold. She walked up to an old brown sedan and turned to Carmel.
“Where’s your car, Babycakes?”
“I walk. I just live down the block, above the drugstore.” She swallowed, wishing she hadn’t told the stranger where she lived. Carmel didn’t work. She stayed with her father. The drugstore had been closed for nineteen years.
“Come on, it’s early. Let’s go drink by the river. Hop in.”
A wind came up and knocked the car about. Then disappeared. If they were going to the river, Carmel was glad the air tonight was still for the most part, and dry. She looked out the window, feeling like a child. Trailing, sleepy. Not as curious as she imagined she should be.
Carmel asked, “Where you from?”
“Cross the border.” Across the Ohio border into West Virginia. “But don’t you even want to know my name?” She turned and smiled at Carmel, her eyes off the road a few seconds longer than Carmel was comfortable with. A canine tooth flashed gold.
Carmel looked back out the window. They wound down a side street, down to the riverbank. “What’s your name, then.” Like telling where she lived, she felt a stab of regret after the words left her mouth. As if speaking were more dangerous than riding.
“Star. I’m a starworker! HA! That’s your oldest profession, ok?”
“How did you know people drink by the river?”
“You should get over that bar-keep, Carmel. Enough suffering.”
Carmel felt her cheeks get hot and put her hand on her left cheek so Star wouldn’t see. “I don’t like him. He’s married. Did you bring any wine coolers?”
“You’re corny.” Star pulled fast against the street closest to the river. They got out. The doors squealed like dogs. “You got family, Carmel?” She pulled out a bottle of something clear and they headed over to the river’s edge.
They sat down on a rare patch of dry winter grass. Nothing was natural along the river – concrete, brown water. Maybe the brown was natural. Carmel was more careful this time, didn’t mention her emphysematic father she lived with in the two-bedroom apartment above the closed drugstore. “No.”
“Water looks like chocolate – is it rusty?”
“I guess.” Carmel tucked her hair behind her ears and pulled her cap down over them.
They passed the bottle back and forth in silence. It tasted like nail polish remover, but Star drank it like water. Again and again it returned to Carmel, who touched her lips to the bottle and just pulled a tiny kiss out of it, already feeling sick.
The orange streetlight fell dead onto the moving brown water. What makes it move? Where is its source? Where does it go?
Carmel said, “You stay in your car or what? What you doing in Crayton?”
As Carmel turned to face her, the world shifted and she realized she was very drunk. She put her hand to her mouth. Her lips were numb.
Star looked less dry here by the river. She looked clammy even. The harsh orange light was behind her, so it was hard to see her face, but when she turned and the light flashed on her cheek, it looked wet. They’d taken off their coats, the cheap vodka making them hot even as their breath was visible. Carmel’s eyes adjusted and she could see Star’s mouth, nose, eyes. For a long minute they looked at each other. Carmel felt a lift as their eyes locked. Were Star’s eyes grey, or silver? How long, maybe never had someone met her eyes so long before. She felt aroused and tried to hide her shaking.
“I’m in Crayton for you, Carmel. I came here for you.”
Carmel smiled. Closed her eyes then. This must be that moment before a kiss. Her chest opened, hoping for touch.
Knocked instead back into the ground, rough grass at her neck, concrete clanging the back of her head. Star on top, riding her like a fresh demon, slapping her numb face over and over again. Laughing. Laughing that was high pitched but quiet, like nails on glass.
“The hell you’re doing?” Carmel tried to say, but her cheeks, her mouth, were muffled with hits. Not devastating hits, but hits that stung, and were getting heavier.
“Ya ratty frump! Sitting around waiting for shit, ya shit.” Star stopped hitting and began to pet Carmel’s face.
Carmel’s eyes gently opened. Star’s hands, tracing unknown shapes on Carmel’s battered skin felt so good it made her mouth ache. Again, the orange light was behind Star, it was hard to see her face. Carmel wanted to ask what she was doing, but all she could do was swallow.
Star’s hands trickled down to Carmel’s throat and began to squeeze.
Her breath caged provoked rage, and while Star was planted firmly on the core of Carmel’s body, Carmel was bigger and stronger. She pushed the ground with her feet and they both toppled over, rolling, slipping into the water.
Frigid water. Carmel’s neck free, she exhaled heavy bubbles, and pushed off the muddy floor, aiming for the orange light blooming through the dirty water just ahead. But skinny white arms came out. White hands gripped her hands. No, Carmel moaned, her brain fucking crazy with supernova fireworks, all she could do to keep from inhaling the water, taking it in. Kicking.
Star’s face up in her face now. Star’s smile gummy, no teeth. Carmel kicked. Star’s eyes, still looking in. She held tight, laughing in the water. Just the orange light showing her face, her white hands. Carmel thought, If only this were a dream, I could just breathe the water.
Her street flashed in her mind. Hird Street. Empty. The drugstore next to the hardware store and the bar down the street. Her father on one end, Mark on the other. In her sock drawer, an ancient orange stuck with cloves she’d made with her mother the same year the hardware store closed. She felt sick for oxygen, and she felt sick about going back to Hird Street. Star moved her face closer. She said monster things in the dark, in the water. So much air lost, thickly flicking up into the space above them.
Carmel mashed her mouth to Star’s mouth and sucked, their eyes still locked. Carmel sucked Star’s air out. The air tasted like gas heat coming out of grates. Star’s eyes were holes into her true self, but Carmel couldn’t see what that was. She sucked Star’s air. The irises were sealed grey like the lids on soup cans. The pressure of Star’s grip on Carmel’s arms faded. Star let go, and Carmel kicked up, bumping her lips together to conserve air.
Carmel broke the surface just above them, gasping, breathing. The drunk out of her head but still in her body, and the cold in her body, made climbing the little bank difficult. But she lay there on the hard grass, breathing. Feeling warm, but shaking.
The water moved in delicate weaving patterns, steady, unbroken. Carmel felt doubt. Dread shimmied up her legs. She’d killed Star. Star had just been playing, and now, Carmel had killed her. Still, she stayed, watching the water. Her whole body shook. She finally stood up. Darkness to her feet. Knowing she had to get out of the cold, soaking wet, it couldn’t be safe.
She heard splashing to her left, and staggered as she saw a longhaired figure pull itself out of the river maybe fifty feet away. Carmel ran. She ran home. She took a long hot shower.
The next day she watched the news – no dead people. Her father liked a TV dinner on a TV tray. She kissed his greasy forehead as he flipped the channel. She left as always, heading out to Mark’s bar for her own meal. But then, she turned down Robin Avenue instead. There was no traffic, really. A brown sedan drove past. She walked until it was dark again.