The slightly sweet dusky smell of a small cigar crept out from under the folds of the red curtain and into the bar. The rule, or was it a law?, prohibiting smoking was not much observed, and certainly not in the private booths. Occasionally, a modest blue-ish puff could be seen drifting upwards, to be swirled out of existence by the ceiling fans.
Earlier Molly had just chewed the slender brown tobacco end; the cheroot was a rum crook, soaked in some non-distinguished liquor until it absorbed the flavor and odor and sugars into the fibrous strands. Molly did not find the mixture of leaked rum unpleasant when sloshed around with her spit and her Jack Daniels, and thought there should be a clever name for the combination, like one of those Asian drinks with fruits and umbrellas.
Miss Molly was newly retired as PE teacher at the Girl’s Academy on the hill, other side of town of course. Something more than a fixture, something less than an institution. It was an early retirement by mutual decision. The current run of girls did not appreciate the advice about aggressive use of the curved end of the field hockey stick to slow the opposition, and suspected with some accuracy that their coach rather enjoyed giving the lessons in real time. There had not been even a single mention of Molly’s attentions to the girls who, over the years, few in number to be sure, had enjoyed receipt of the pain and had understood the invitation it was designed to convey. Those disclosures would come later.
Molly grew up near here; this side of town. She went to the town school; big, gangly, nasty around the edges, played girl’s basketball to be in the paint with elbows out, played field hockey although she found herself always panting for breath; the cigarettes from 13 onward did not likely help her efforts. Molly was caringly nurtured by her mother, a woman of faded refinement abandoned by her husband with three small girls at home of whom Molly was the youngest. The household rallied to protect Molly from the things that the world had already done to her, too late to do much good except to protect Molly from the ramifications of her diffidence.
As a young woman went to State Junior college and majored in physical education. She liked the locker rooms most of all, instant assumed closeness that did not require really knowing anybody. She liked smiling all the time, at least when she really meant it. Big-boned and soft-tissued, with cropped hair and bitten nails, Molly dated a few guys who hung around the teams. She did not pursue a relationship, and none pursued her. Upon graduation, a friend of her mother’s recommended her as an assistant coach, and thirty years later she had been still there at the Academy, one of those graying invisible minions assigned to the minor sports for girls who knew they needed to exercise and knew they had no knack for it.
The curtain pulled back a few inches, releasing a block of smoke and odor; the opening was in invitation to come and sit and hang out. You didn’t come knocking before the curtain parted; Miss Mollycoddle came in and lined up her three whiskeys and two rum-soaked, kicked off her sneakers and pushed her sweat socks off each foot with the toes of her other, and meditated alone about her day. Since her retirement she had taken to sleeping later, rolling out of bed around 9, taking care of her toilet and smoking a half-pack of American Spirits with her Sanka. Molly did not take a newspaper and she only used her computer to check the lottery and to allow her sisters to send her emails they insisted on sending; sometimes Molly would read them and, sometimes, not.
This day Molly had spent some time putting articles in her scrap book. She had a book for each year with articles about her teams. She had no favorites as to groups or individuals, and never much worried that her teams always lost about the same number of games they won. On occasion her own name would appear; she used a light yellow highlighter to direct one’s eyes to that part of the article. Sometimes there was a picture of the team huddled with the coach but Molly often cut out those pictures and did not put them in the book; she did not much like how she looked in her track suit with her calves showing their meat below the knee while all the girls seemed to have tapering legs ending in pinched heels visible (or sensed) even through the thick game socks.
Her departing retirement gift, aside from a plaque and a five thousand dollar check, had been a flat screen TV; she had thanked the dean and faculty in a brief, muffled speech and had lugged the screen home herself; it was not that large, it fit in the back seat of the Subaru quite comfortably. The box was still propped against the wall of the living room, Molly was thinking maybe she would ask around the tavern to see if anyone would make her a good offer; her old set was smallish and not that sharp, but good enough for the soaps and she liked sitting close anyway, why get a bigger screen just to sit further back, seemed a waste. Besides, she would have to get someone to hook up the new one if she kept it, and she didn’t know anyone who could do that for her as a favor and was not in the habit of paying people to do work around the old house that her mother left her after her sisters had moved on to the City.
“Who’s the dame in the booth,” I asked. The bartender leaned forward discreetly.
“That’s Miss Molly.” A pause. “She’s a regular.”
“Regular what?,” I asked, thinking myself pretty smooth.
Another pause, a scowl. “A regular PATRON,” he explained with a touch of bored sarcasm. Molly might have been a sullen minor player, but she was a local sullen minor player; someone new to town didn’t get to share that perception even if accurate.
I must have knit my brow or something, or sent some signal of my own annoyance, because the bartender decided to lean forward again. “Just retired. A coach of girl’s teams at our private academy, Miss Molly.”
“Yeah?” I swished my Rolling Rock around my mouth; the neck of the bottle tasted soapy. “I coach kids at the Y. In the city, ya know?”
The bartender shrugged; he was almost as bored as I was.
“Think she’d like to talk?” I glanced over, could not see much of her face but I saw she was nursing a whiskey glass. “Talk shop, ya know?”
“Well, the curtain’s open so Miss Molly is what you might call in a receiving mood. Go knock yerself out.” This with a shrug and a tone that gave neither encouragement nor warning.
I lit a Camel, stuck it in my mouth, grabbed the beer in one hand and my order case in the other and walked over to her table.
“I know the type, it’s almost like a bad TV show,” the bartender murmured to himself. Louie pretended to wipe some water spots off the shot glasses as the salesman slipped off the age-veined leather stool and searched for his balance between the bottle and what appeared to be a heavy black sample case.
Louie didn’t own the place. His brother’s widow did. She was too dumb to suspect his skim, but then again business was so slow in the recession that it almost didn’t pay to grab the few bucks a night. If it weren’t for a few regulars – Miss Mollycoddle had surely been one of those for some time, although her intake had spiked upwards since her retirement – the place would have slipped beneath the waves. Shutting down the kitchen on week-days felt like the leading edge of a quiet demise.
“Thinks he’s a smooth talker. From Mason City, thinks his shit don’t stink, at least when he’s out among us country folks. Thinks every woman sitting in a bar is just waiting for some out-of-town guy to try out his hardware. Thinks every woman sitting in a bar is looking for it, from someone who won’t stick around to brag about it and mess up her small-town reputation. Fuckin’ asshole, ya ask me….”
Louie watched the creases in the herringbone jacket fail to fall out as the salesman receded towards the booths; too much sat-upon in the car, almost permanently implanted in the fabric. Probably just the coat from some old suit anyway, not a very good contrast with the beltless gray slacks that had slipped down just enough to bunch unattractively on his shoe-tops. At least this one didn’t have so much of a paunch that his waist-band rolled over, showing elastic and white trim where the belt-loops should have been. “Must keep himself in shape,” Louie said to himself with little interest.
The town was half-way from the old business center of Mason City and the new ring of businesses attracted by the last governor’s economic development zone. Lots of sales people came through, mostly end of the day, say 4 pm or so (although some did arrive around 11 or 11:30 in the morning, already beaten down and ready to spend a few hours before they filled out their call sheet with imaginary visits that were likely to result in orders in the next six months, make that nine to twelve). They pretended to be disappointed that the kitchen was shut, but a bag or two of Planters salted peanuts seemed enough to satisfy them, on the house don’t ya know.
Louie had worked at the Deere showroom for most of his life, right from High School in fact. His wife died, left him childless at sixty with an aluminum-sided house that plunked like a ukulele when the rain hit it from the side and a ten year old Dodge that needed a wheel alignment. The bar paid less and the hours were longer, but he was tired of discussing horse-power with a shrinking bunch of farmers who usually couldn’t qualify for the financing package once they decided on a model. Besides, there really was no boss here, and most of his friends dropped in to chat from time to time, which didn’t quite happen at the showroom. Louie didn’t know about the cancer yet, but he’d be spitting blood soon enough – about the time Mollycoddle left town, in fact.
Jake’s left knee popped when he slid off the stool and his leg hit the linoleum, and for a minute it felt like his balance left him as his sample case pulled him left and almost launched his beer out of his right hand. Jake had hurt the knee playing basketball years ago and every so often it gave him a momentary pang until the bone remembered its place and settled into the socket groove.
“This is a bad idea – maybe,” he thought, “didn’t like the expression on that skinny marinka behind the bar. Never know how weird people are, and I sure didn’t get any good vibes from the smoking babe behind the curtain. What the hell, whatuvIgotalose,” he asked himself, and since nothing sprang to mind he kept walking.
As he got near the booth the residue of cigar smoke reached him. Jake remembered smoking his father’s White Owls as a teenager; the cardboard-y odor as they burned down, the small bits of tobacco that peeled off the butt and stung a little if you accidentally swallowed them. He switched to cigarettes as soon as he could afford to buy them; his father was a cigars-only guy when home, which was not much. His mother never let inhalations of gasses interfere with the wine coolers.
Lousy trip, he thought. The recession had hit machine tool shops hard, no one wanted to upgrade and, if a bit or chuck was a little too worn, well it’d probably last another few months or you can always borrow a part from Joe or Fred, or just do without. No one was buying anything these days, not around Mason City anyway. Friggin’ Obama couldn’t fix a dripping faucet, let alone the manufacturing….
Jake was close now and would have stopped for a better look if he dared, but he didn’t. In for a penny in for a pound, he thought, and he took a deep breath and leaned slightly into the haze and the residual whiskey air, narrowed purposely his eyes to their cynical slits, and started to talk before he had to take a hard look at Miss Molly.
“Excuse me, sorry, bartender” he began – but then, I already told you that.
“Excuse me, sorry, bartender said you were a coach, I do that sometimes also; wonder if you’d like some company?” I was leaning slightly into the booth, as Miss Molly was back against the wall, kitty-corner; one leg was straight out on the seat, the other sort of tucked up under her rump in a flexible way that a guy my age would never have any hope of achieving.
A full-cheeked, almost puffy middle-aged face looked up at me, rimmed with too-blonde hair close cropped in back with short bangs across a low forehead. Her eyes were pale blue and little washed out, but with a suspicion of a spark lurking in the corners. The mouth was small, pursed, without color; there was no make-up anywhere. Suspected fine lines at the corners of the eyes were hidden by the tavern light; her upper lip showed the slightest start of vertical ridges as her skin shrank back against her jaw. A couple of ruddy patches might have been from the liquor — or just the residue of some ancient acne.
Molly shifted her body into a more upright posture, her grey blouse catching against the naugahyde of the bench behind her and pulling across her chest; looked like she could afford to lose a few pounds, but it was the kind of broad body that let you get away with not bothering.
“Sure,” she said, waving the back of her hand in the vague direction of the opposite side of the booth.
I see this guy coming towards me and right away I know. I just know. Doesn’t happen much but then again most of the guys here are local and know better, and most of the guys who aren’t local aren’t here very long, and likely not once they get a good look when I’ve shoved the curtain back for a little bit of the old O2. He’s either a teacher or a coach or just a plain old drunk, and he’s city so he’s got some sort of rap, or some story. No one ever walks up to you and looks you in the eye and says, “I’m bored” or “I’m lonely” and “I’d like to talk with you for a while if that’s okay.” Someone puts that on me, they can talk all night and me drinking Jacks and sharing my smokes too and maybe even something else though it’s been God knows how long.
He’s sort of mumbling now but I hear “coach” and why not so I pick my ass up a bit so I am not aiming my pants-front right at him and I wave him a seat. My budget is set at three a night but I am sure he’s good for a couple to supplement my mood, just so long as I don’t mention that they sort of suggested I not be a coach any more. This one’s the type who keeps his wedding ring on his finger, as if you can hide the slight swelling and indentation after you’ve slipped it into your pocket. I like that kind of honesty in a man. Particularly if he looks like he’s showered lately.
Life is good.
So this guy is Jake and he gives me his card and he’s selling fittings and drills and things that do not interest me. He coaches boys, soccer and basketball, a City gym in what he says is not the best part of Mason. What do I do, well not much just resting up between jobs thinking of office work or volunteering at the Town playground, yes lived here my whole life yaddayaddayadda say if you’re still nursing that beer do you mind why yes thanks –Jack and a couple of cubes is all. His face is thin and pinched and the skin is slightly grey under his greying stubble, and he chain smokes cigarettes and two fingers of his right hand are yellowed so he must do it a lot. Maybe he’s my age, dark eyes close together, eye-brows growing across, looks like a wiry ape but spindly arms and legs and a slightly bagged sport coat hangs pretty straight so he’s still sort of in shape, at least weight-wise, which is something someone in phys ed looks at automatically even if you are not possessing any sort of interest. The flap of his coat seems to flutter regularly at the edge of the table; his left heel must be tapping up and down at a pretty good clip.
So I figure I’ll give him a little tweak to see how he rolls, seeing as how I am dumb country and out of a job and he’s this hot City guy who coaches soccer and basketball in his spare time, and I ask him if he is staying over on this trip, and his cigarette pauses just for a moment on its way up to his lips and I know I have caught him off guard.
“No, just on the road for the day. Finished a bit early, didn’t have time for lunch so I thought I’d just stop in to wet my whistle before I headed – uh, back to town.” He couldn’t get out the word “home” but wasn’t smart enough to head off the moment; I’m thinking, this is fun but that’s ten points off. Followed by some silence while I am smiling inside and starting the second Jack he’s ordered for me while he’s on what is his third or fourth Rock and pretending to neaten up his cigarette ash in the chock-full plastic ashtray so he can collect his thoughts, think up his next line, and test it for tone and bull-shit content before he opens his mouth again.
Jake gives it up. Would have bet you my five grand graduation bonus he was going nowhere. He puts his legs in vertical position while he is sitting down, so he can stand up when his farewell speech is over.
“It was great talking with ya, Molly. Maybe we’ll get a chance to talk again sometime.” He’s up now, leaving his half-drunk beer on my table, his black case loosely held in his left hand, the lower edge on the seat, the whole thing titled towards him. He sticks out his hand to shake, and I give it a shake and a slight squeeze because by now I am really feeling great, five is right up at my limit not that I haven’t on occasion topped out at a higher count.
“You take care and drive carefully, Jake,” I admonish with quiet sincerity. I look him in the eye with open lids and slightly raised eyebrows. I have big eyes. I know that this look makes people a little uncomfortable.
Jake is dropping a few bills on the counter and talking low to Louie, and then there is a wave over his shoulder and he is gone; the sunset invades the room for a minute until the door swings shut. I take another sip, I am near the bottom, my eyes are closed. I hum the Academy fight song for no reason, then sense someone near me and open my eyes. Louie is standing next to the table with another Jack.
“Here, on the house,” he says.
“Thank you kindly, Louie,” I reply. As he is walking away he says over his shoulder, “What an asshole.”
I pick up my drink and tell it to Louie’s back. “You got that right,” I tell him.