She’s got good days and bad days.
Sometimes the days pass right quick-like, and she’ll go for hours, pushing it down and forgetting. But eventually the thoughts slip back in, centipede-like, through a crack in her concentration. Then that bright pain hits inside her head, lighting it up like a lava lamp, and she has to shake it hard to make the pain stop. That helps some. Like looking away when the needle goes into your arm to give blood. Actually, Eileen feels as if she’s giving blood, or more that it’s being taken from her—drip, drip, drip—draining away her life. She imagines her body when it’s all over, skittering around the floor like used tissue paper.
Even sitting here, her favorite time of day, with Oprah spilling her smooth voice all over her guest like honey, Eileen can’t make her head quit.
Sometimes it’s Louetta Weeks. Lionel took Louetta to the senior prom. They were voted class couple. 15 years wasn’t too long for something like that to come bobbing back up like a corpse in a flood.
Sometimes it’s that new blonde, Tracy, in Lionel’s office. Eileen remembers how he sort of shoved them together at the office picnic, saying how much they had in common. Like Him? He’d enjoy almost getting caught, watching them sniff and search, and come up short at every dead end. Does Eileen suspect? Will Tracy blow his cover? Which path leads to the cheese?
Eileen knows what women think about. She knows Tracy watched her with the sharp eye of the other woman, thinking, so that's Lionel’s wife, no wonder he comes to me. Sizing Eileen up. Tch-tching over her dull brown hair, I-see-now-ing over her three children. They clamor for Eileen’s attention, tugging at her pants leg, tap, tap, tapping on her arm. And the other woman thinks why does he stay with her? And the baby cries blindly in the front pack, flailing his arms, while Eileen jiggles her body up and down, up and down, extending her hand, smiling. Nice to meet you.
These images keep Eileen awake at night. The one thing she never wanted to be was a fool. But there you go.
Lionel spent two weeks last summer on reserve duty in Panama. Maybe an exotic foreign hooker stopped him on the street. Gave him her business card from the brothel. Lured him with her long black hair, olive skin, red lips. Took him to a room in a local boarding house where she turned her tricks. It would have to be clean. Lionel might be unfaithful, but not in a dirty room.
His momma taught him better than that.
She wonders if they kissed.
Or was it when he got sent to Saudi for the Gulf War? Maybe a Brit, with a sexy name like Sam, who whispered her accented dirty words in his ear when they did it. Oh yes, Luv. Quite right. That’s the ticket. In bed they would call each other Sergeant and snuggle together, with knowing, throaty chuckles. “My wife,” he would say, not using her name, “has fat thighs.” And they’d laugh together. The ultimate betrayal.
Dixianna was three when Lionel was called up. Eileen hugged him good-bye over the huge mound of her belly while the baby kicked at him through the thin blanket of flesh. Mindy came early. Three weeks sooner than she was supposed to, two weeks after Lionel shipped out. So Tammy ended up in the delivery room with Eileen, holding her hand and praying while Baby Mindy squeezed herself out into the world.
Tammy’s husband Joe drilled with Lionel’s unit, but Joe wasn’t called up, on account of his back, so Tammy helped Eileen when she could. They organized a Christmas cookie brigade from Floyd Baptist Church so the boys overseas could have home-cooked goodies. They put up a hundred yellow ribbons till the sight of them made her sick. She wrote Lionel a letter every day to keep up his spirits. Morale was a sensitive thing and Eileen didn’t want to be the cause of him coming home all shattered and out of place like those Vietnam vets did.
She doesn’t remember that war, of course, except for summer trips to the beach with her family, passing trucks full of soldiers going down Interstate 64. For the big rigs she made a fist up, honk-your-horn sign, and for the soldier trucks a two-fingered peace sign. The truckers always honked, and the soldiers always answered her peace signs with their own. If she closes her eyes, she can still see them, hanging out the back of the trucks, grinning—green canvas flapping around behind them, hot asphalt slipping away beneath them. She thinks about them now, dying with a little girl’s peace sign in their heads.
“I’m not a writer,” is what Lionel said, but he did call from Saudi when he felt lonely. It was usually three a.m. in Virginia when the phone rang and the panic rose up in Eileen’s throat so she could hardly say hello. She was always certain it was The Call, but then there Lionel would be on the other end, laughing at her worry.
Usually he wanted her to talk dirty, wanted to get excited long distance. “Tell me what you’re wearing,” he’d say, with the echo of a pause as his voice bounced across the moon. Groggy and crabby, with the baby starting to wake, she’d struggle to find something to say, reach down deep to think of something that would get him going.
Eileen never could confront Lionel over the phone. She couldn’t handle the long, expensive silences that went nowhere. Actually, she doesn’t think she can confront him now, either. Maybe she just can’t deal with it. Anyway, she has to think.
Of course, thinking is about all she’s been able to do lately, and she finds herself doing stupid stuff like putting the fork in the trash and the napkin in the dishwater. Even Oprah can’t bring Eileen out of her funk today. She’s had the TV on for most of the show, trying to get uplifted, since Oprah promised her shows would be inspirational from here on out. But the show is about living with AIDS. Try as she might, Eileen just can’t get uplifted thinking about living with AIDS.
Eileen finished high school. She was class valedictorian, which ought to count for something. She isn’t dumb, but she can’t account for the way things have turned out. Before all these kids she used to be a working woman. If Lionel hadn’t swept her off her feet, she’d probably be manager at the Kroger’s in Christiansburg by now.
Lionel was so charming back when they were dating. He used to show up at Kroger’s the days she had to work late, and she’d see him at the back of the line, whistling, not looking at her. Then when he’d get up to the register he’d have some fancy cheese and crackers from the gourmet section, and a six pack of those wine coolers that were just getting popular. It was his secret message to her. Or he might buy a red rose and some fancy foreign chocolate. Lionel knew she’d get to thinking, and he was right. She’d get all hot under her apron. One time he bought a bottle of baby oil and a cucumber. She’d spent the rest of her shift blushing and fretting. She always did, though. If a lady bought sanitary pads or a pregnancy test, or a man bought hair color or Preparation H, she couldn’t look them in the eye when she told them their total.
Eileen can’t figure how things got this way with her and Lionel. Did she get to the point where she liked being taken for granted? Maybe she got satisfaction out of being The Woman With The Most Inconsiderate Husband, saving up stories until she could top the best of them. Like her 30th birthday when Lionel kept the kids and sent Eileen all the way out to Hooters in Roanoke with the other realtors and secretaries from his office. She was pregnant with Lionel Junior at the time, and big as a house, in no mood to party. Half the people there didn’t even know her name. The waitresses, in their cropped shirts and short shorts, bounced
to the table with a piece of cake and sang and she was 30 and these strangers stared and clapped and told her to make a wish and asked her was Lionel coming and she chewed and smiled and tried to pretend that this was normal and okay with her, too polite to name a skunk. She drove home afterward with a sick pit in her stomach, parked the car with the lights off, sneaked out back behind the lilac bushes and vomited. Then she walked in to see Lionel’s eager face, first thing, so pleased with himself. He wanted to hear every detail of her fun evening. Then he wanted sex.
Lionel had never been what you’d call sensitive, but Eileen couldn’t have predicted his unfaithfulness. He was her husband. He said he loved her. She believed him. She had no reason not to.
Eileen remembers the time early in the marriage, right after Dixianna’s birth, when her Pap smear showed chlamydia, and she was called into the clinic for a private consultation. She thought it was a fancy word for a yeast infection, and just stared at the technician when he told her it was a sexually transmitted disease and no, you couldn’t get it from a toilet seat. In a daze, she drove to her sister’s to pick up Dixianna, her breasts leaking milk in big, wet circles on the front of her dress. Then she was so distracted she forgot to feed the baby and she had to stop right there on 221 at a Dumpster and nurse just to quiet her down. When Eileen got home and called Lionel at the sales office, she cried and told him she had an S.T.D., and it was shameful, that’s what it was.
But Lionel put on his calm, patient voice and explained it all away. Left over from our single days …false positives …what would it hurt to take the medicine, just in case? He was so sweet and understanding. He said he didn’t even suspect Eileen of being with another man, he trusted her that much.
Stupid now. Stupid! Stupid! Stupid! Was this always the way? You toss away the obvious until suddenly it hits you like a ton of bricks that you’ve been blind, deaf, and dumb? And at risk. This is the 90’s and Eileen has watched enough TV to know that she could die from what Lionel might bring home to her.
Faithful. Trusting. Stupid. Dead.
She glances at the TV and there’s a guest from Oprah’s audience standing up at the microphone. She says she’s a nurse who works with newborns who have AIDS. The nurse says they still don’t know if HIV can travel through breastmilk or not, so if a mother thinks she could be infected she shouldn’t breastfeed. Eileen can’t breathe when she hears that. She has to do something. She has to protect herself, her family.
She finds the bottles of formula from the hospital, pre-mixed, on the back shelf of the pantry. Then she opens drawer after drawer in the kitchen, pushing junk aside, looking for the nipples. Where could they be? Why was she saving so many twist ties? And how many fast food straws did she really need anyway? Trouble was, you just never knew when those things might come in handy. And as sure as she threw something out, then she needed it the very next day. Hadn’t Mindy needed that extra wire for her fairy wings? And actually, Eileen kept meaning to string Hawaiian leis with the kids using those straws like she saw in Family Circle’s craft section last month. Maybe even have a family luau.
Finally, there’s the nipple. She thinks she should sterilize it or something; but really, there isn’t time if she’s going to save the baby. So she screws it on and puts it quick in the baby’s mouth. He sputters and chokes, and bites on the damn thing like he doesn’t know what it’s for. She tries again and again, pushing it farther in, until he’s bawling and retching, and she’s crying, “Here. Take it. Take it!” over and over, but it’s no use.
Eileen pulls it out of the baby’s mouth. His face is all red-purple from crying and his little fists are clenched, flailing at everything and nothing. Eileen is shocked by what she’s done. She throws the bottle in the trash, nipple and all, and gives the baby her breast, sobbing and breathing in big gulps of air. He gets real still then and pauses mid-suck, staring at her, big-eyed, over the white mound of her breast.
Eileen knows what she must do, but the tasks ahead of her seem unbearable. More humiliating tests requested with a rushed explanation. Condoms. (Law, that’s embarrassing.) Confronting her husband. Deciding whether she can live with him, looking at his lying face for the rest of her life.
The rest of her life.
Even if he says he’ll give the other woman up, can she trust him? Eileen sees herself checking pockets, listening in on phone calls, calling hotel rooms late at night. She doesn’t want to be that woman, but she can feel a tendrilled mass growing inside her already. Malignant. A tumor of distrust.
When Oprah goes off, Eileen decides to call Tammy, who’s been through this with Joe twice before. All Tammy says is how the Good Lord meant for us to be forgiving and after she and Joe worked things out it made her love him even more. Eileen makes sympathetic noises over the phone, but hangs up as soon as she can. Secretly she thinks Joe is a jerk and Tammy is a fool, and vows not to call her again anytime soon. Joe got that 17-year-old waitress pregnant, for pity’s sake. Thank goodness the girl decided to have an abortion, now at least they only have to see her every Sunday after church when they eat at the Waffle House on the bypass. That’s punishment enough for Tammy. She could think of worse for Joe, though.
Then, since Eileen really doesn’t know about anything anymore, she imagines Lionel in the same predicament. What if he has an illegitimate child somewhere? She lets the magnitude of that sink in slowly, wallowing in the possibilities, the future scenarios, the confrontations. Then the TV lights up all on its own and there’s Sally Jesse Raphael smiling conspiratorially and saying, “Well, Eileen, I think you have a right to be angry,” while the audience applauds. A baby’s picture flashes on the stage monitor. “Lionel’s baby by Crystal” captions the photo. The audience boos and hisses Lionel in his plush red chair, Eileen on his left, girlfriend Crystal on his right.
And Eileen’s mother is the surprise guest on the show. She strides out from backstage, yelling, “Faithless bastard! Infidel!”
Somehow, these images are painful and comforting at the same time. Eileen is learning to let them flash through her brain until they are gone. She’s decided to go with it. Work through it. Ride the wave. It’s as if she’s on an amusement park ride, like the one at Lakeside she rode as a child. Cloud Nine. They strap you in and you spin and spin until you can’t even lift your arm or leg—a giant one of those things that spin your blood. Only she realizes too late that the attendant forgot to strap her in, and little pieces of her are flying off in every direction. She can’t stop them and she can’t get them back.
As a kid, Eileen would always imagine the worst possible scenario and make herself a plan. When she was eight, her parents took her to Virginia Beach. She held onto her daddy’s hand and walked the long pier out into the ocean. When she looked down through the wooden planks at her feet, she saw the waves below, rolling toward the beach, and Eileen knew with a child’s certainty that she would either slip through a crack or the whole pier would give way, leaving her to grab the biggest plank and hang on for dear life. So as she walked, she planned out in her head exactly what she would do, which plank she would go for.
When they drove over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, her sister Debi tried to hold her breath the whole way, but Eileen carefully planned how she would escape the sinking car after a big truck ran them off the bridge.
The baby has fallen asleep at the breast. She tries to dislodg
e his lips without waking him, but he shifts around and opens his eyes. When he looks up at her so trusting, Eileen has a moment of panic. He starts to squirm and she makes a quick decision. She’ll give him ice cream. It’s made from milk. All kids like ice cream.
He shrieks when she tries to set him down, so she shifts him to the other hip, puts two spoons in her mouth, grabs the carton with her free hand, and heads for the table.
Eileen is just hooking the straps on the high chair when Lionel comes in with Dixianna and Mindy. He says Eileen had better get her shit together. Wouldn’t he like to sit around all day eating ice cream? Maybe Eileen would like to go to work and support him for a change?
Over the buzzing in her head Eileen offers to fix him a bowl, but no, he has to go back by the office. He can’t stay.
“Can you drop the kids by Momma’s on your way out, then?” Eileen asks. “She’s gonna sit them so I can get some housework done.”
“I’m not driving. Wes is picking me up in five minutes.” Lionel is suddenly charming, chucking the baby under the chin, smiling, kissing Eileen on the top of her head.
Grateful for the kindness, she overlooks the fact that Wes has three ex-wives, a big black Harley, and a drinking problem. He’s been with Buffalo Realty about a month now, and he and Lionel have become best buddies. She’s pretty sure Wes made a pass at her the first time they met.
“Can I have your keys then?” she asks as she offers the baby her spoon with just a dab of ice cream on the end. “The Plymouth won’t start again.” Lionel drops the keys into her lap with an exaggerated sigh, and she’s sure the car would start if only she were smarter, thinner, better looking.
The baby sucks on the end of Eileen’s spoon, gives her a toothless grin and smacks his lips for more. He opens wide like a baby bird and Eileen spoons in a whole bite. Shocked by the cold, he holds his mouth open, makes a panicky noise in his throat, and shakes his head back and forth. He won’t spit it out though, because it tastes too good. Eileen laughs out loud and gives him another spoonful. Then Lionel starts laughing, which brings Dixianna and Mindy in to see what’s so funny, and pretty soon everyone is laughing.
The baby loves being the center of attention and keeps on being silly until the whole family is laughing wide open, gasping for breath, and Eileen cries, “Oh my God, stop. Stop!”
In the middle of it all, the phone rings. Eileen answers it with the laughter still in her voice, breathless. “Hello?”
“Hello?” a woman’s voice says in return.
“Yes. Hello.” Eileen chuckles, mugging for Lionel as he pantomimes the baby’s silly face for her, and she gasps, trying not to laugh, and thinks this is it. This is family at its best. They were still a family. No other woman could give him this. She sees it clearly in that frozen moment with her ear to the phone, Lionel ushering the girls upstairs, blowing Eileen a smiling kiss over his shoulder as he leaves through the front door.
“Hello?” says the woman again as if she can’t hear. “Hello?”
So Eileen says it slowly, “Hell-lo,” and the woman hangs up.
Connections are bad sometimes. Eileen knows this as well as anybody. It just seems odd that Eileen’s end was so clear, and that woman couldn’t hear. If it’s important she’ll call back.
Sure enough, not a minute later, the phone rings.
Lionel runs back in. “Forgot my wallet,” he says with a grin, taking the steps two at a time, bounding up them while Eileen watches him and lets the phone ring an extra two times even though she’s standing right there with her hand on the receiver.
“Hello,” Eileen says. She makes it a statement not a question, and she’s getting a bit annoyed. The floor needs mopping, after all. She doesn’t feel like talking to anyone.
Lionel has grabbed the upstairs phone before her and his voice echoes too loudly in her ear, “Eileen, it’s me. They hung up—wrong number or something. Anyway, I’m gone, Baby, okay?”
“Yeah, sure,” she says, distracted, then hangs up and waits for the third call.
When it comes, Eileen puts her hand on the receiver and says out loud to no one, “Answering the telephone—take three,” then lifts it up, pauses an extra moment and says, “Hello?”
It’s her again. After a long moment the voice says, “Is this Eileen Quesenberry?” The words are slow and deliberate.
“Yes it is …”
Another long pause. “And are you married to Lionel Quesenberry?”
“…Yes I am.”
Eileen thinks it could still be a salesperson. Please be a salesperson.
“All right, then,” says the woman, pronouncing each word distinctly, not running them together the way anyone from Floyd would.
The click of the receiver seems slow and deliberate, too, and Eileen stands there with the receiver to her ear, listening without breathing, hoping to find some clue in the stillness. She listens as hard as she can, willing the woman to come back on and be an old friend looking for Lionel, or a salesperson, or even a collection agency. She listens until there’s only an insistent beep, beep, beep, echoing in her ear and she could just scream.
The baby starts to fuss and squirm in his high chair so she puts the whole carton of ice cream on his tray and sticks two spoons deep into it. Let him play with that. She needs to think.
That woman’s voice, her words, her deliberateness. Eileen keeps trying to replay the calls in her mind, remember every word, dissect every nuance, but she’s winded, knocked off her feet, nothing to grab hold of, nothing to stand on, no air to breathe. All she really wants is some security, some surety, some steady love. Even the ability to admit to the inability to stay faithful would be something. The honesty might actually be refreshing. Perhaps she would smile and throw her arms around Lionel if he finally admitted to being a thoughtless, faithless jerk.
Instead of confessing, though, he always pulls out some explanation that sounds so logical. Or even better, he offers none, and pretends to be just as baffled as Eileen by the whole thing.
That’s really clever.
The more Eileen thinks, the more she’s certain what the phone calls were about, and the madder she gets until there’s this great burning anger inside her. If she raised her shirt, she’d see it glowing, illuminating her from within, her bellybutton a dark circle against the glowing, pulsing radiation of her anger, her hurt, her fury.
Lionel must thank his lucky stars every night. He got a woman without a brain. Does he think she doesn’t know? Oh, she could cut his thing off like that Bobbitt woman did and not even look back. Forget running down the street with it, she’d just flush the damn thing and be done with it. She wouldn’t want somebody putting it in a cup of ice and sewing it back on later.
Although, a Velcro attachment would be good. That way, whenever he left the house, she’d just say, “Oh Honey, you forgot again,” with a big toothy grin and then scriiick, off it’d come, and she’d lay it out in a cigar box until he got home. A big, fat stogie and she’d be in charge of it for a change. Teach it some manners.
Eileen’s stomach is boiling. She’s absolutely starving. She’ll never get anything done on an empty stomach. Cheesecake. That’s what she needs. Cheesecake to dull the ache, blanket the agony. The thought’s hardly registered before she’s in the kitchen dragging out the Sara Lee box. It doesn’t even matter that it’s frozen. Eileen attacks it with the fork, stabbing into each bite, launching it into he
r mouth rapid-fire. Her cheeks are bulging, and each swallow is really more of a contained choke, but things won’t get better until she sees the bottom of the box.
She uses the flat side of the fork after the cake is mostly gone, smashing the remaining crumbs through the tines, bringing them to her lips, greasy from the crust and the cake and the fury of it all. On the last bite she chews and chews until it’s mush. Still she chews, making up for all she swallowed whole.
Hanging on the wall in front of her is this Serenity Prayer her momma cross-stitched for her. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to blah, blah, blah. As Eileen reads it, she’s staring at it, licking her finger and pressing it into the crumbs, thinking, God, grant me the serenity to eat the things I cannot change …
The girls are at the door, coats on, fighting. The baby has ice cream everywhere. Eileen told her momma she’d have the kids there by 5:30 and it’s after that already. Cleaning is out of the question, unless it’s the mess of her life she can mop up, spray off, dust away. Instead she grabs the ice cream baby, pulls his shirt off, and turns on the tap while he fiddles with the sprayer. As Eileen grabs a dishrag the phone rings and she reaches for it, one arm towards the phone one arm towards the baby. She’s pretty sure who it is this time so she says, “I’m on my way, Momma,” and sets the receiver back in its cradle.
While she’s wiping his face, the baby figures out the sprayer and shoots a long arc of water down the front of Eileen’s shirt, then squirts himself in the eye and starts crying. She pronounces him clean enough, throws him into a diaper, and puts on his little red sleep suit and coat. She gives the girls the rest of a bag of cheese puffs to stop them from bickering, then loads everyone into Lionel’s truck and heads off to her momma’s house.
It’s early, but the winter sun is long gone, dropped behind a mountain, shrouding route 221 in eerie twilight. Eileen tries first her high beams, then her low, but nothing cuts through the strange half-light. Dixianna and Mindy fight over the cheese puffs, yanking the bag back and forth with loud crumpling sounds. The truck fills with noise. Eileen reaches over and turns on the radio to drown them out while the baby wipes orange fingers on his car seat. She starts to yell at him, but decides she has enough on her mind anyway, what with this stinking truck and its impossible gear shift that only Lionel can work without grinding and Lord she’ll be lucky if she doesn’t wreck the thing.
That’s about the time Eileen rounds the big curve at El Tenador, the old skating rink, and sees the deer, but doesn’t see it, too. As in, oh, a deer. Isn’t that nice. The buck ambles across the road and Eileen’s headlights catch him halfway across. He stands there, transfixed, frozen in the headlights. Eileen keeps driving, frozen in her thoughts. She tries to count the points of his antlers the way Lionel taught her back when they were dating and she pretended to like hunting just to be around him. Ten points? Twelve? She sees his haunches quiver as he stands there mesmerized, like in some part of his brain he knows he should run away, but can’t make his muscles work. Eileen is just deciding that she is The Deer in the Headlights, imagining the thud of his magnificent body against the fender, when Mindy screams, spewing orange spit everywhere.
Eileen yanks the wheel hard, hits a patch of gravel on the side of the road, and does a 180. The deer bounds away while the road dust dances in her headlights. The baby claps his hands and Mindy sobs while Eileen tries to make her shaking hands work the gearshift.
She drops the kids off at her momma’s without getting out of the truck. Dixianna carries the baby. Eileen’s momma stands in the doorway, silhouetted by the porch light. Her breath puffs out indignantly into the night air, casting its own long, disapproving shadow. Eileen lets the truck idle at the end of the driveway until she sees the kids safely inside.
She backs out, accidentally spraying gravel from the unfamiliar clutch, and heads back to the main road then turns onto the Parkway. The Blue Ridge Mountains could always clear her head. She drives to a scenic overlook and parks.
She could leave Lionel. But in such a small town she’d never really get away. She could make him jealous, hurt him like he hurt her, but that wasn’t really her style and anyway, who would want a Mother of Three? She could take a Greyhound bus to Charlotte, or New Orleans, or Tampa, and start a new life. That was tempting. But there were the kids to think about. She could pray for Lionel to change—Tammy’s solution. Or she could simply wait it out; she’d already been doing that for 10 years.
Eileen sits and stares at the lights in the valley below. They pulse and throb and beckon to her. Who would miss her if she were just to drive right off the edge of this big old mountain? It seems like an easy solution. So very, very easy. And restful. Except Eileen begins to picture the car flipping over and over, then devises a plan in her head for surviving the crash. Her mind interferes even in this.
When she realizes her fingertips and nose have gotten numb sitting in the cold, she starts the engine and heads back toward town. She pulls onto 221 near the sign that says Ray’s Rest. (The sign maker had run out of room, but it was more of a bar than a restaurant anyway.) Eileen slows to check out the parking lot. Just as she is almost past, she pulls into the lot, surprising herself. She sits in the truck until she musters enough of her new go-with-it attitude, gets out, and slams the door.
Then she stands there, suddenly indecisive. As she reaches for the handle to climb back into the truck, she hears her name called.
“Hey, Eileen! Ain’t seen you around lately. Where you been keeping yourself? You coming in?”
“Why Daryl Agnew,” she yells across the lot. “I wouldn’t miss the chance to play catch-up over a redeye. How’s that wife of yours?”
“Afraid you’ll have to ask my lawyer.”
“Well, now, that’s a shame. You just give me a second. I’ll be there directly.” Eileen slips off her wedding band and holds it in the palm of her hand, feeling the warmth of the gold. She hasn’t taken it off once since the day Lionel slipped it on her finger 10 years back. For effect she lets it fall through the air into the coat pocket she holds open with her other hand. There’s something satisfying in the extra flourish, and she pats the outside of the pocket for good measure.
Once inside, Eileen sits on a barstool next to Daryl. Ray gives her a nod. “Redeye?” he says, gesturing with the glass.
When she nods he pours a shot of tomato juice into a glass mug, then holds the mug on a slant at the tap, and the beer slides into the tomato juice, making a faintly orange head of foam. He slips a napkin under the bottom of the mug and sets it in front of her.
As Eileen reaches for her redeye she stares at the white place on her finger. It looks obscene, like a dead fish belly, and she thrusts her hand into her pocket. She locates the ring and slips it on awkwardly with her thumb and pinkie.
When she grabs her mug, it clinks against the glass.
Mary Akers' work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bellevue Literary Review, The Fiddlehead, Primavera, Xavier Review, Brevity, and other journals. She was raised in a rural, one-stoplight town i
n southwest Virginia—which she will always call home—but currently lives in western, New York.