That night in the bar, Marian managed to get several more gin and tonics out of Vince without him making too much of a fuss. He was busy talking to those boys, Darrell and Johnny, probably about football, judging by the way Vince was lifting his arms around. His voice was too soft for her to hear what he was saying, but she wasn’t interested anyway.
She raised the gin to her lips, but hesitated before drinking it. Marian dreaded the bitter taste and the dullness it would impose on her. Still, the need to smooth over the sharp corners was more than she could bear. She took a sip, forcing herself not to cough. It was dark outside and the feeling of loneliness was closing in on her.
It was always dim in the bar, even in the daytime. The only windows were at the front of the tavern and the wide roof façade on the body shop across the street, blocked much of the sunlight from coming in. A large rendition of a pocket watch, cast a bluish pall over the counter. Two small lamps with gold shades, struggled to provide light at either end of the bar.
The gin gave her a slightly dizzy feeling. Strands of blondish-brown hair poked carelessly over her forehead. She sat where she wouldn’t have to look at herself in the bar mirror. She hated the crumbling mess her face was becoming. It seemed like she was getting older by the day. Only in her large dark eyes, she felt, was there any sign of the beauty she once was.
She looked over at Vince and the boys again. Marian couldn’t see why Darrell hung out with those friends of his. He was a good looking kid and a great athlete, she’d heard.
Darrell was probably screwed up like most juveniles, but eventually he’d probably find his way. The other boy, Johnny, was skunked from the word go. And Sam, who left the bar earlier, was going to be a drinker, she could see that from a mile away.
A deep feeling of remorse came over her. It was August already. Soon it would be September, then October and winter would quickly follow. Time goes so fast after high school, she thought. It was over a quarter of a century since she graduated but it seemed like only yesterday. She felt panicked. Her life was darting past her and she had no way of stopping it. Nothing to put her heels against.
But so what? Her existence was empty and meaningless anyway. The only thing she and Vince talked about anymore were the receipts. The amount of money they made or didn’t make, what they could be earning someplace else. She felt other things, but whenever she tried to express them, Vince looked bored or disgusted. Unless she was drunk, she kept quiet. But even drunk, she couldn’t say what she wanted to say and in the end she wished she had kept her mouth shut.
Marian took another sip of gin and coughed. It made Vince turn and look at her.
“I thought you were going to clean the cooler,” he said.
“I am. Later.”
“Not if you have too many of those.”
Marian didn’t answer him because she knew what she would say, and what he would say, and the very words they would use in the argument. She didn’t feel like fighting. She felt like walking out to the road and thumbing the first car that came along. But she worried that no one would want her anymore. She wasn’t even sure that Vince did, and he was her husband.
A man came in the front door and walked straight to the bar. He wore a suit but his stout body looked uncomfortable wearing it. His dark blue tie was loose in an unbuttoned collar. There was something familiar about him, but Marian was always seeing resemblances in people. The man slapped a five-dollar bill on the counter.
“Whiskey and soda,” he told Vince.
The moment she heard his voice, Marian realized she did know the man. He was Lyle Goodson. She had gone with Lyle for a while when they were kids in Washburn, a town less than twenty-five miles from here. She thought he had moved to California years ago. Marian slipped over two seats so she could see herself in the bar mirror. She brushed the hair away from her eyes with her fingers, wondering if she should speak to Lyle, or pretend not to know him. Lyle had fleshed out some, but he looked better than her, she thought, staring at her face in the mirror.
Vince served Lyle and gave him change for the five dollars.
Lyle took a quick drink. “There’s times I wonder why a man gets out of bed,” he told Vince, holding the glass near his mouth. He took another drink.
“Problems?” Vince asked.
Lyle shrugged and finished the whiskey off. He pushed the empty glass toward Vince. Marian remembered them going on dates in his parents’ car, a rattletrap with a badly placed stick shift. They always had fun. The first time he touched one of her breasts, she stopped him. But on the dates that followed, she didn’t hold him back. A few months later they quit seeing each other. Nothing was wrong. They were young and there were so many things to do and so many kids to do them with. They had even been friends afterward. It was probably the finest relationship she ever had.
Marian wanted another drink but she didn’t dare use her voice in front of Lyle. Vince served Lyle another whiskey and soda.
“Get one for yourself,” Lyle said. “Fix up these boys and the lady down there.”
Vince brought Marian’s drink first, giving her a look that meant for her to take it easy.
She hated it when he did that. She took a bobby pin from the back of her head and used it to keep the loose hair out of her face. It made her appear better in the mirror.
“Thanks for the drink, Lyle,” she said.
Lyle squinted at her. “I know you?”
“Marian Balstead. Used to be.”
“Marian!” he said excitedly, moving over to her. He threw his big arms around her and almost hugged her breathless. He leaned back and looked at her again. “How the hell are you? Goddamn, how long’s it been?”
“A pretty long time and I show it.” She felt nervous in her stomach. “That’s my husband, Vince.”
Lyle reached over the bar and shook hands with Vince. “Your wife here was quite a looker in high school. We’re old friends. We got back to Washburn High School, before they even dreamed of the dam.”
“Glad to know you,” Vince said.
Marian gazed up at Lyle adoringly. “What have you been doing since I last saw you?”
“Hell, I wouldn’t know where to begin. A little of everything. Right now I sell medical supplies to hospitals and med schools. Places like that.”
“Where do you live?”
“Bismarck. But what about yourself? How you doing?”
“I’m right here where you see me.”
Lyle scanned the room. “It looks like a nice bar.”
“We do okay on weekends,” Vince said.
“How’s the dam coming? It looks pretty well finished.”
“They got one major project left,” Vince told him. “The spillway and then some secondary dams. Riverdale will start thinning out in a year or two.”
“Once the dam’s completed, Riverdale disappears, right? Maybe Washburn can win some football championships again.”
“Riverdale won’t have much next year,” Vince said. “The good players will all graduate. Like this knucklehead here.”
Lyle looked at Darrell. “So you’re on that team, huh? One hell of a powerhouse. I saw you play my old squad. It wasn’t pretty.”
“I watched all the games,” Johnny said. “And I didn’t see them do squat.”
Lyle stared at Johnny a moment, like he was wondering who this guy was and what he was doing here.
“Riverdale boys can’t block for shit,” Vince said, sensing trouble. Johnny was staring back at the man as hard as he was being stared at.
Lyle laughed and looked back at Vince. “They must have been doing something right. They beat up on our boys pretty bad. Give these guys another round.”
“Thanks,” Darrell said.
Lyle slapped Darrell on the back. “You boys should be having fun while you can.”
Darrell grinned and shook his head. “Some guy was telling me I ought to get serious about life. He told me it would be gone before I knew it. Before long I’d be sitting around trying to find my pecker.” He looked at Vince, who was remembering saying something along those lines and it was true. It did go fast and nobody young ever seemed to know it, Vince was thinking.
“Whoever said that is full of crap. Now’s the best years you’ll ever see. If you just knew it. Get your kicks while you can. You’ve got the rest of your life to be a moron like me.”
“Lyle, you make it sound so miserable,” Marian teased.
Lyle laughed. “Don’t pay any attention to me. I’m just pissed at the world.” He looked at his watch. “Hell, I have to run.”
“Have another one,” Marian urged.
“I’m sorry but I’m late already,” Lyle said, squeezing her arm. “I’ll stop back in, now that I know you people are here.” He stared into her eyes in a way that made Marian realize she was special to him too. He shook hands with Vince and the boys, then left.
Marian raised up on her stool and watched Lyle’s headlights swirl across the darkness as he backed around. The car shot forward, brightening the paved road a moment, then the car was gone. She lowered herself back down on the stool, wondering where Lyle got his sense of purpose, his energy. The only reason she cleaned the trailer anymore was to keep from being buried in trash. She had never felt so dejected. Before Marian could stop herself, tears welled into her eyes.
If Vince noticed her tears, he didn’t mention it. He gave the boys more drinks and talked about some stupid football injury he once had. Disgusted that she was being ignored, Marian grabbed a bottle of Gordon’s gin and went out the back way of the bar. When she got to their trailer, parked a few feet behind the tavern, she didn’t feel like going inside.
She sat on the metal step and leaned back against the tin door of the trailer. Marian uncapped the bottle of gin and took a strong drink. She felt the taste of the gin rise into her nostrils. She looked up at the stars, so clear and twinkling. She never believed what those college professors said, that the stars were millions of years away and were millions of years old.. How could a stuffy college professor know that? They got paid big bucks for those kind of crazy ideas and what could anyone do about it? The professors had the telescopes and all the time in the world to give out their baloney. She could look at the stars and tell they weren’t that old but who was going to listen to her? Even her own husband would tell her she was full of shit if she tried to give her opinion about that.
Inside the tavern, Vince hit his fist on the counter. “I’m going to get rid of that dizzy bitch!” he said.
“Who’s that?” Darrell asked.
“Marian. I saw the way she looked at Lyle.”
“That was for old times,” Darrell said. He liked Marian because she was a real woman. She stuck it out with Vince through some rough years, and finally wound up living in a drafty trailer behind the bar with him. It made Darrell sad that Vince would talk about her that way.
“Yeah, old times,” Vince snorted. “When Lyle comes through again, I’ll get him drunk and make it clear they have my blessing. They can go back to high school and fuck in the backseat of his car again.”
“Marian will kill you,” Johnny said.
“She’ll love me for it.”
“Sounds like a perfect plan then,” Johnny said. “You get Lyle drunk. He realizes he loves Marian again. If Darrell and I are here, we’ll sing a song like “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” You sneak out to the trailer and pack a suitcase and some food for them. Show the lovers the door, and if Marian doesn’t put a knife in your gut, they’ll leave clean. I don’t see a hole in the plan if Marian doesn’t stick a hole in you.”
“Why do you want to get rid of her, anyway?” Darrell asked. “It’s not like you have anyone else.”
Vince leaned on the counter with his arms folded under him. “People change,” he said.
“That’s what you have to watch out for. Marian was a damn good woman when we started out. Me being in football, it was tough. She’d go right to work on any little house we rented, trying to make it into something. Marian was cute then. Had these flirty eyes and was always laughing. Not like now. We traveled a lot in the beginning, first football, then trying to settle down and find a place for ourselves. Somewhere along the way, we lost it.”
“Lost what?” Darrell asked.
Vince looked as though he might cry. He glanced at the boys, his face tinted blue from the dangling clock light.
“The ability to talk,” he said. “It was like something came between us that we couldn’t get around. We both knew it, we both felt it there, but we couldn’t do anything about it. We still can’t. I’d like to see her find someone. Lyle looks like a good choice.”
“If it fails, you’ll probably die,” Johnny offered. “Except for that, the deal looks solid, man.”
“If it works, you’ll probably be a lonely old fool,” Darrell told him.
“I’m a lonely old fool now,” Vince said, serving them another round.
Marian stood up from the metal step, holding the gin bottle by the neck. She went around to the road and started walking west on it. Luckily, she was wearing her flats. She hit sections of loose gravel on the shoulder of the road and easily handled her footing. The road seemed to want her to slide down into the ditch but that wasn’t going to happen. She felt proud about that and wondered where she was headed.
She stopped and uncapped the bottle and took a long stinging drink. Then Marian recapped the bottle. Looking up at the stars now, made her dizzy and wobbled her legs, so she kept going until she came to a rise of land that lifted up from the road. She climbed it a ways and sat down. The grass was short and not unpleasant to sit on. She lay back on the ground and looked at the stars again. Such a magnificent spectacle, thousands of tiny twinkling lights glittering across the huge black sky. She could barely contain herself. She didn’t understand any of it but who asked her to? It was just there and she was seeing it in her own way. She got mad at the professors again for trying to take that away from her. They just droned on and on until pretty soon the stars weren’t anything one could just look at with a sense of wonder. According to the ding bells, they were only dead matter, reflecting borrowed light that took forever to get here and might not even exist any longer. Marian decided that she was going to stop listening to the radio.
Lying there quietly, she could barely hear the faint screeching and rumbling of the machinery down in the basin of the dam. Whatever they were doing was nothing in comparison to these stars. It was just men trying to compete and change things, to honor themselves. These beautiful glimmering lights were flung all the way across the night and she didn’t need to know anything more than that.
Vince let the boys out of the tavern and locked the door. He went back to the trailer hoping that Marian wouldn’t be awake. He didn’t feel like arguing with her. Talking about the past with the boys, had put him in a melancholy mood.
He looked in their bedroom. Marian wasn’t there. He got worried, thinking she might have done something to herself. Vince didn’t see the bottle around, which only added to his worries. It meant she had to be outdoors somewhere.
Vince went out to their old Chevy and got it started after a little sputtering. He backed the car around and drove up onto the road and turned away from the dam. He was certain she wouldn’t walk across any fields; she was never real happy with darkness. And she wouldn’t go toward all the construction lights on the dam. It would be embarrassing if she was seen; a lot of the men frequented their bar on weekends.
He drove almost a mile before he saw her in the headlights, sleeping on a hillside next to the road. She was out flat on her back, the bottle of gin standing not too far from her head. She hadn’t done much damage to it, the bottle looked to be two thirds full.
Vince turned the car around and parked on the shoulder of the road below her. He climbed up to Marian and gently pushed on her shoulder. Gradually, she opened her eyes and looked at him.
“What’re you doing here?”
“I’ve come to drive you home.”
Marian sat up, still confused. She shook her head.
“Where were you going?” he asked.
She stared at him a moment. “I was going to go tell those professors they’re full of shit.”
“They been bugging you?” Vince asked, helping her stand up. In the starlight, there in the night, she was cute and clinging to him.
“Those are young stars,” she insisted. “Those professors can’t leave nothing alone.”
They left the bottle there and started down the hillside. “We won’t serve professors in the bar anymore,” Vince said, hoping she would think that was funny instead of getting mad.
“I’m happy about that.”
Marian let Vince help her into the car. Both of them were laughing and feeling better about things. If you ever have a good laugh with someone, Vince once told the boys, you have a friend for life. He remembered saying that, as he started the car up.