Birds of Winter, fiction by James Alan Gill

Last night’s span­gles and yesterday’s pearls are the bright morn­ing stars of the bar­room girls.”

–Gillian Welch, Bar­room Girls

Lit­tle girls don’t dream of grow­ing up to become bar­maids, and Lori Thomp­son was no dif­fer­ent, but now she stands behind the bar at The Bluff, star­ing into a day­dream of neon-lit smoke, while men and women hov­er close over drinks she’s poured them.

The bar is dark, the only win­dow in the place board­ed over with ply­wood and cov­ered in plas­tic. A small space heater run on an exten­sion cord glows orange on a shelf behind the bar to make up for the aging fur­nace. Roger Price, the bar’s own­er, sits lean­ing back in a wood­en chair, read­ing a worn paper­back. His thick white hair is combed through with pomade, mak­ing it the col­or of iron. Down the bar two men sit with beers in front of them, their eyes sag­ging, their shoul­ders near­ly touch­ing. They stare up at the tv hung in the cor­ner where men in cam­ou­flage hunt­ing gear hold scoped rifles and the antlers of a dead elk on the side of a moun­tain while thick snow falls around them.

“What’re you read­ing?” Lori says to Roger.

“Oh, hell, it’s one of those romance books like you see check­ing out of the gro­cery.”

“What got you start­ed on those?”

“I just picked one up and took it home. Wasn’t long after my old lady left, so I didn’t have a whole hell of a lot to do. But since I took them up, I’ve had more sex than I’ve had in the last ten years.”

Lori sips from a white porce­lain cof­fee mug. “I’ll bet.”

Roger sits back in his chair and cross­es his legs, hold­ing his place in the book with his thumb. “Well, think about it. Who reads this stuff—women. Why—because it’s what they dream of. So once you fig­ure that out, you got some­thing.”

Lori starts to ask him what it is that women dream of but fig­ures it best left alone and steps around the bar to wipe down the tables along the oppo­site wall in prepa­ra­tion for the four o’clock rush when peo­ple start get­ting off work. A woman comes out of the ladies room and sits in front of an ash­tray over­flow­ing with crushed butts. Her make­up is smudged black around her eyes, and she dabs them with a fin­ger­tip, keep­ing her back to Roger the whole time. Lori walks over, dumps the ash­tray, and sets it back in place. In the dim light of the room, the woman looks not much old­er than thir­ty, but the skin on her hands is loose, the veins dark and bro­ken. Her hair runs long and straight down her back, dark and with­out shine.

“What’s the mat­ter?” Roger says to her.

“Noth­ing.”

“Don’t look like noth­ing.”

“Well, it is.”

“It’s Dar­rell, isn’t it.”

The woman doesn’t answer.

“He don’t treat you right, Deb. He nev­er has. And if he were here, I’d tell him that. I’d tell him he was a damn fool. Because if I had you, if I had one god­damn night with you, I’d treat you like a god­dess. Like no oth­er.”

The woman turns and looks at Roger, and he smiles at her soft­ly. She begins to cry again and wipes at her eyes, but then stops and stands look­ing at him. “Thank you,” she says, and hur­ries back to the ladies room.

Roger holds up his book in Lori’s direc­tion and thumps the cov­er with the back of his hand. She shakes her head with a mild dis­ap­proval, but he winks at her, and she can’t help but smile.

Her moth­er had taught her ear­ly about the ploys of men, hop­ing to avoid what she con­sid­ered to be the curse of women in their family—both Lori’s grand­moth­er and moth­er con­ceived their first child out of wedlock—so she told her that sex was no real plea­sure in life, that it only led to the pain of child­birth and the sac­ri­fice of moth­er­hood, and the soon­er she learned to live with­out it the bet­ter. When Lori bought her first pair of heels to wear to the eighth grade dance, her moth­er sat at the kitchen table while Lori walked back and forth across the linoleum for hours until she could do it with­out wag­gling her ass, but even with her mother’s con­stant pres­sure, she found her­self preg­nant a month before her nine­teenth birth­day.

Of course, both her grand­moth­er and moth­er were mar­ried before they start­ed show­ing, and their hus­bands worked hard—her grand­fa­ther as an oil­field mechan­ic, her father at the powerplant—to sup­port their fam­i­lies and ful­fill their duties. But Lori hadn’t had that for­tune.

She was still liv­ing at home then, going to the junior col­lege with hopes of trans­fer­ring to study social work. Her moth­er said, “you bet­ter find a way to stay in school because you’re the only one tak­ing care of that baby.” And her advi­sor showed her pro­grams for work­ing moth­ers and dif­fer­ent finan­cial aid forms and told her it would be tough for a few years but that by doing so, she would be able to pro­vide a good life for her daugh­ter and her­self. And Lori knew they were right, yet she nev­er enrolled for the next term because she came to believe she wasn’t one to be coun­sel­ing oth­ers, that she was a fail­ure as a woman—an unmar­ried unem­ployed une­d­u­cat­ed too-young moth­er still liv­ing under her par­ents’ roof; the very thing her moth­er had warned her about hap­pen­ing; anoth­er sta­tis­tic for back­wa­ter Matin Coun­ty Illi­nois.

Lori got a job at the Ben Franklin in town—working the reg­is­ter, clean­ing, learn­ing how to frame and mat­te pictures—but when she spoke to the own­ers about a mater­ni­ty leave, they went on about how busi­ness had been slow and that they need­ed to find ways to cut back and that she could work until the baby was born, but after that she wouldn’t be need­ed.

In the fall, a lit­tle girl was born, and Lori named her Sier­ra and for a while was glad for her par­ents’ help: her moth­er there for night feed­ings and col­ic and laun­dry; her father with an end­less sup­ply of fun­ny faces and rock­ing chair sto­ries. But as the months passed and the fam­i­ly eased into a rou­tine, Lori felt the bal­ance shift­ing, felt the lives of daugh­ter and grand­daugh­ter meld­ing as her par­ents treat­ed them more like sis­ters born twen­ty years apart.

Just after Sierra’s first birth­day, Lori knew she had to get out, so she applied to work at near­ly every place of busi­ness in town, and she filled out paper­work for income-based hous­ing in a new com­plex that had been built the year before. It took two months for her hous­ing approval to process, and the only job call­back she received was from the Bluff. She worked there every night but Mon­day and Tues­day while her moth­er kept Sier­ra, and since she had no real expens­es, she was able to save back a first and last month’s rent deposit and was ready to move in the day after they called say­ing there was an open­ing. As her father was car­ry­ing the last of her things into the apart­ment, Lori smiled and told her moth­er that she felt she was final­ly get­ting things under con­trol. Her moth­er smirked and said, “Well it’s good to know the solu­tion to all your life’s prob­lems was learn­ing to flirt and pour drinks, get­ting on WIC, and find­ing place in the projects.”

“I’m try­ing real­ly hard, Mom. It’s only tem­po­rary.”

“I’ll bet you thought it was only tem­po­rary when you were out slut­ting around town, but that lit­tle girl you got ain’t tem­po­rary, so you bet­ter get your act togeth­er.”

Lori want­ed to say, You had it fig­ured out, didn’t you Mom, stay­ing at home cook­ing and clean­ing like a good lit­tle woman should, hav­ing three kids by the time you were 22 so that you didn’t have to think about your own life, just had to tell us how to live ours, but instead she went over to where Sier­ra played in a small square of grass between the side­walk and the park­ing lot and said with a great smile, “Come on, sweet­ie, let’s go up and see your new room.”

***

Roger is sit­ting at one of the tables, talk­ing to the woman Deb, their hands near­ly touch­ing between their emp­ty drinks. When the hunt­ing pro­gram ends, one of the men down the bar turns off the tv, then takes up his stool again. He slaps the man he sits with on the back.

“So what’s on that test you got­ta take?” He is short and chub­by, his cheeks smooth and shiny.

“Frac­tions.”

“Do you know math?”

The oth­er man sits with both hands on his beer glass. “I’ve worked as a para­medic for eight years. Took the test for that job at the coun­ty hos­pi­tal. It’s all dec­i­mals. Not a god­damned frac­tion on there. Now the city thinks we need to know frac­tions.”

“Frac­tions is easy.” The chub­by man takes a pen­cil and a nap­kin and starts writ­ing fig­ures down, while the oth­er man looks over his shoul­der intent­ly.

Lori wipes through drops of water on the bar with a white rag. As she pass­es, she hears the chub­by man say, “See, point twen­ty is one fifth. Twen­ty hun­dredths makes two tenths makes one fifth. Got it?”

“No,” the oth­er man says. “One thing this coun­try fucked up on was not using the met­ric sys­tem.”

The door opens and the light from out­side is blind­ing. A tall man in his fifties steps in and shuts the door soft­ly behind him. Lori turns and walks to the shelves of liquor and begins mix­ing whiskey and 7up. “How you doing today, Sweet­wa­ter,” she says to him.

The man takes up his seat at the bar. “Any bet­ter and I’d have to be twins.”

Lori sets the drink in front of him. “Hard day?”

“Oh you know, through rain and sleet and dark of night.” He takes a long drink.

One of the men from the oth­er end of the bar yells over:

“Sweet­wa­ter, how’d you get a cushy job deliv­er­ing the mail, while the rest of us have to work for a liv­ing?”

He holds his glass toward them in a mock toast. “I passed the Civ­il Ser­vice exam.”

Lori fills a small sink with water and begins wash­ing glass­es, set­ting them out to dry. Sweet­wa­ter lights a cig­a­rette and says to her, “How’s a nice girl like you ever expect to find a decent man work­ing in a gin palace like this.”

“Well, Sweet­wa­ter,” Lori says, “you’re in here every­day.”

“Yeah, but I ain’t look­ing for a decent man.”

There was a time when Lori thought she had a decent man. Nathan Barnes worked as head of sales in his father’s office sup­ply busi­ness uptown, and he took her out for nice din­ners in Evans­ville and bought her lit­tle gifts, even let her dri­ve his brand new Mus­tang con­vert­ible to the col­lege a few times while she left her mom’s 78 Mal­ibu parked behind the store, and as she drove it proud­ly through town with the top down, her mother’s voice rang in her head: Hon­ey, you can mar­ry them rich the same as you can poor. But he had nev­er promised her any­thing, nev­er said it out­loud, though many times when they were parked along the flood­plain on the front side of the lev­ee, watch­ing the faint lights of cars pass­ing on the bridge above them, he talked about mar­riage and kids, and she imag­ined her­self in the role of wife and moth­er and before long began to believe that’s what he was say­ing.

Then she saw his pic­ture in the paper with anoth­er girl on his arm, blonde and tan with pen­cil thin eye­brows and her left hand thrust for­ward to show the dia­mond on her fin­ger. Lori drove to his par­ents’ house, and Nathan’s father told her that he was out play­ing golf, that he’d prob­a­bly come home around dark, but instead of wait­ing, she drove to the golf course and sat in the park­ing lot near the ninth green, think­ing she might see him, and when she did, she walked out onto the fine­ly cut grass, wav­ing to him. He was with two oth­er friends, and he took her aside and whis­pered harsh­ly under his breath.

“Couldn’t this have wait­ed.”

“I saw your pic­ture in the paper.”

“What about it,” Nathan said. His friends stood near the cart, drink­ing beer, their heads leaned togeth­er.

She start­ed to won­der why she’d come here, why she couldn’t have sim­ply accept­ed what she already knew. “It just seems a lit­tle quick.”

“Not real­ly. I met her last year in Texas. We’ve been engaged for six months.”

“So I was just some­one to pass the time with.”

He looked above her head toward the road, start­ed to speak, then stopped with the first syl­la­ble so that he sound­ed like a child try­ing to sound out a word he rec­og­nized but couldn’t say. He stood with his golf club rest­ing over his shoul­der and said soft­ly, “Kelsie’s mom and dad are shelling out twen­ty grand for the wed­ding, plus a hon­ey­moon to Can­cun, and her dad has offered me a job with his com­pa­ny.” He smiled as if he’d for­got­ten who he was talk­ing to, let his excite­ment slip just a moment. “He owns a truck acces­so­ry shop. Camper shells, ton­neau cov­ers, light bars, lift kits. It’s huge.” He turned to his friends stand­ing at the cart, and they all nod­ded, and one of them held down his two mid­dle fin­gers with his thumb in a heavy met­al salute and said, “Hell yeah.”

Lori stood with her arms crossed in front of her chest and said dead­pan, “Well, how could you pass that up? In line to be the next Muf­fler King of East Texas. It’s a no-brain­er.” She was break­ing apart on the inside, but all she showed was hard­ness.

Nate said, defen­sive, “It’s acces­sories. Not muf­flers.”

Excuse me, your high­ness.”

That was all she had left, mid­dle school come­backs, and turned away. Nate called her name, and she stopped to see him stand­ing with both arms out­stretched, teeth show­ing in a smile that held noth­ing but spite.

He said, “What’d you expect, sweet­heart,” and could have left it at that, but decid­ed to dig deep. “There are girls you mar­ry and girls you fuck.”

Lori felt like throw­ing up and made her­self walk to her car, even though she want­ed to run sob­bing with her face in her hands. She pulled from the curb, passed the city pool, then sat for near­ly five min­utes at the stop sign where Park Road crossed Col­lege Dri­ve until a car moved up behind her and honked. She screamed and floored the ped­al, nev­er let­ting up until she real­ized she was doing six­ty on a res­i­den­tial road, tears run­ning down her face in black streams of mas­cara. She pulled into the ten­nis courts behind the col­lege, shut off the car, and stared at her­self in the rearview mir­ror until she was blank of all emo­tion. She told her­self she could han­dle a bro­ken heart, said it over and over, and in the fol­low­ing days came to believe it. And then she missed her peri­od.

***

Lori fin­ish­es wash­ing the few dirt­ied glass­es and puts them away under the bar, leav­ing one out in front of Sweet­wa­ter. She makes him anoth­er drink and push­es it toward him, tak­ing away his emp­ty in a sin­gle move­ment. A few more patrons come in, two city work­ers and a woman who is a clerk at the water depart­ment, and Roger walks to the oth­er end of the bar where they sit, pours their drafts, and starts a con­ver­sa­tion. Lori wipes down her end of the bar, which is emp­ty now, except for Sweet­wa­ter.

“So do you have big plans tonight,” she says to him.

“You’re look­ing at it. Only I hope I’m a lot drunk­er by the end.”

She smiles at him, think­ing it was a half-joke, but he isn’t look­ing at her. She stands for a moment, lis­ten­ing to the furnace’s blow­er slow­ly crank up, then starts to walk away to the oth­er end of the bar where the hum of peo­ple talk­ing and laugh­ing grows loud­er. But as she walks past Sweet­wa­ter, she feels his hand on her arm.

“Two years ago tonight, my son died.” His grip is strong, almost hurt­ing her wrist, but he doesn’t real­ize this. His eyes hold no mal­ice, only pain.

“I’m sor­ry,” she says. Then after a short pause: “How did it hap­pen?”

He drains his glass, leav­ing only the whiskey soaked ice, and says, “That’s the real shit­ter of it all. He want­ed to join the Marines, and I told him he bet­ter make no mis­take about what they do for a liv­ing. Well, he went on about serv­ing his coun­try and about me being at Khe Sahn and this and that, and I told him, if I hadn’t been draft­ed, ain’t no way in hell I’d vol­un­teer for that shit. The only thing I did to serve the coun­try was duck my head for damn near three months, think­ing it would be over once the shrap­nel hit my brain. My luck just held out longer than the gooks.”

Lori stands look­ing sad and con­fused, try­ing to fig­ur­ing out what war Sweetwater’s son could have seen. She start­ed to ask, then thought it was a dumb ques­tion. Sweet­wa­ter didn’t seem to notice and kept talk­ing.

“He joined up right after grad­u­a­tion, did real well in his train­ing, kept a head on his shoul­ders, wasn’t some gung-ho idiot, and I began to think maybe he’d done the right thing. Then in ’96, he was part of the out­fit sent to regain con­trol of the Liber­ian embassy. It was a small action. Most peo­ple prob­a­bly don’t even remem­ber it. But when he came home, he had a real­ly hard go. He tried to talk to me about it. I Guess when they went in, most of what they were up against were lit­tle kids with AK-47's, which nev­er set right with him. They would have killed him. He did what he had to do. But say­ing it that way doesn’t change what hap­pened. He fin­ished out his enlist­ment, but was drink­ing pret­ty heavy by then and had come close a few times to get­ting kicked out. I tried to step in as best I could with­out mak­ing him feel worse than he already did. But after a few months, it seemed like he’d start­ed to get things togeth­er a lit­tle, at least on the sur­face; he even talked about going to col­lege, get­ting some­thing worth­while out of the sit­u­a­tion, and then one night dri­ving back to his apart­ment, he was going through some road con­struc­tion where they’d tak­en it down to one lane over a bridge—it wasn’t late, there weren’t any oth­er cars, and the autop­sy showed he wasn’t drunk. He just lost it.”

Sweet­wa­ter holds his palms up, shak­ing his head. “The para­medics said he died instant­ly, but I don’t know if they just say that so you don’t think they suf­fered or if it was real­ly true.” He looks up at Lori, push­es his glass toward her with one fin­ger, and tries to make a smile. “You think I could get anoth­er?”

She nods and says, “Sure thing, babe,” then takes the bot­tle down and mix­es his drink heavy. For a moment she feels like cry­ing. Not for his son, though she’s sad­dened by the sto­ry, but for Sweet­wa­ter. From the day she met him, she didn’t believe he could ever be beat­en by any­thing, and yet here he sits, his eyes red and bleary, his face heavy and aged by grief.

She places the glass in front of him and says, “I’ll be right back,” touch­ing the back of his hand light­ly with her fin­ger­tips. “You be okay for a minute?”

He changes his voice, try­ing to sound more like his usu­al self. “If the whiskey gets low, I’ll just reach across and pour my own.” Then he squeezes her hand, lifts it to his lips. She smiles and walks through the kitchen to the back entrance and push­es open the heavy steel door. Even with the gray half-light of late after­noon, she squints after being in the dark of the bar.

She perch­es her­self on an iron rail­ing along the walk and dials her cell phone. The wind cuts through her clothes, and she real­izes it has snowed, though noth­ing more than a thin pow­der over the sur­face. Her friend Shau­na answers on the third ring.

I know every­thing is fine,” Lori says into the phone. “I just need­ed to check.”

The sound of the tele­vi­sion plays in the back­ground. “Sure thing, girl.” Shauna’s voice is light, indi­cat­ing her smile. “We’ve eat­en and now we’re watch­ing Mulan. No prob­lems.”

Not long after Lori moved out on her own, she became friends with Shau­na Palmer, a divorced twen­ty-three-year-old cos­me­tol­o­gist who lived in the apart­ment across the hall, and one after­noon, while Shau­na was col­or­ing Lori’s hair at her kitchen table, she offered to keep Sier­ra at her place overnight so that when Lori came home from the bar at 3 am, she could sleep late into the morn­ing and yet be close by if Sier­ra need­ed her. It was the final step of inde­pen­dence from her par­ents, and she accept­ed on the spot.

Lori lights a cig­a­rette and says, “I just need­ed to call.” Bits of grass stick­ing through the snow shud­der with the wind.

“You doing okay?” Shau­na says.

As well as can be expect­ed. Tell Sier­ra good­night for me, and I’ll see you in the morn­ing.”

Lori hangs up and stands for a moment, watch­ing an end­less black cloud of star­lings over­head, seek­ing roost for the night. The trees along the river­bank are already full with them, as if the limbs had bud­ded a pesti­lence, and the world becomes qui­et, noth­ing but the hush of a mil­lion bird­wings, the scratch of the snow blown against the build­ing.

***

By last call, Sweet­wa­ter has reached his goal of obliv­ion and sits hunched on his stool while younger peo­ple crowd to the bar to order drinks. Lori has been watch­ing him all night, always sure to ask him how he is, and in the midst of the loud music and drunk­en laugh­ter, he nev­er fails to meet her eyes and smile sweet­ly.

As the bar begins to clear out, Lori leans in close to his ear and says, “Hang around a minute. I’ll take you home.”

The hard­est thing about her job is com­ing home to an emp­ty apart­ment. When she was a lit­tle girl, she always hat­ed being in emp­ty places with­out the noise of some human pres­ence oth­er than her own. On the worst nights, she goes home with some young man who’s sweet or hand­some or just qui­et and alone, and some­times she sleeps with them, though she doesn’t always have sex with them, and then she awak­ens ear­ly and checks their wal­lets for what­ev­er mon­ey they have left­over from drink­ing and takes what she can with­out clean­ing them out com­plete­ly.

She doesn’t see this as steal­ing or whor­ing but as tak­ing a tip, no dif­fer­ent than the mon­ey she’s tak­en across the bar all night. And least that’s what she tells her­self. Deep down, she fears that it’s some kind of warped act of vengeance against Nathan Barnes and any oth­er man that sees her as a girl to fuck and noth­ing more. She keeps this mon­ey in an emp­ty cof­fee can in her freez­er, one hun­dred eighty five dol­lars so far, and tells her­self when there is two thou­sand, she’ll pack up every­thing and take Sier­ra from this place for good.

At five min­utes till clos­ing, Roger tells her to go on home. She walks out the back entrance to the park­ing lot where Sweet­wa­ter stands lean­ing against the fend­er of her car, smok­ing the last of a cig­a­rette. He says in a clear voice, “I’m fine, real­ly. I left my car at home and walked up here.”

“Well what are you doing stand­ing around out here in the cold for.”

“I guess if some­thing were to hap­pen to me, I’d be an unset­tled ghost know­ing it was on your con­science.”

“Just get in the damned car.”

He tries to open the passenger’s door but it won’t budge. “You got me locked out, dar­lin.”

She climbs in and reach­es across the seat to pull the han­dle. He sits slow­ly, hang­ing onto the top of the door as he low­ers him­self against the cold vinyl seat, and she turns the key. Street­lights shine through the lay­er of snow on the wind­shield. Their breath fills the car. She clears the glass with the wipers and backs out of the lot.

They don’t speak oth­er than Sweetwater’s brief direc­tions to where he lives, and soon she pulls in front of an old shot­gun house near the rail­road tracks that cut through town. He opens the door, and Lori says sud­den­ly, “Can I walk you in?”

He sees this as noth­ing but con­cern for a drunk­en old man, but the truth is she’s not ready to be alone. They walk through the front door of his house, and Sweet­wa­ter flips on the lights. The front room is bare, save for a couch and a small tv set on a cof­fee table. She’s sur­prised at how neat the place is, though it’s obvi­ous a sin­gle man lives here: mag­a­zines in a stack beside the tv; a large ceram­ic ash­tray on the floor with a few fil­ters lying amongst the ash­es; dust over every­thing. An open door­way leads to the next room where a sin­gle bed sits pushed against the far wall oppo­site a wood­en dress­er. Past that is the bath­room and then the kitchen. True to it’s name, a gun­shot would sail through the front door and out the back with­out touch­ing any­thing.

Sweet­wa­ter walks slow, reach­ing a hand out for steadi­ness, his eyes bare­ly open. Lori takes his arm and guides him through the door­way to the bed­room and helps him sit on the edge of the bed. He looks up at her and man­ages a smile, then eas­es down on his side, using his elbow to sup­port his weight.

“Do you want your boots off,” she says.

“You don’t have to do this.”

He clos­es his eyes and his breath­ing becomes even, as if he’s fall­en asleep in that instant. She waits a moment to see if he’ll awak­en, but he doesn’t stir. His boots are laced to the top and dou­ble knot­ted. Lori tries to undo them gen­tly, but she becomes frus­trat­ed and tugs at the laces until final­ly they come loose. When she slides them from his feet, she expects the smell to be over­whelm­ing, but to her sur­prise it’s not. Just boot leather, a faint smell of sweat. She sets his boots togeth­er near the clos­et and then digs around until she finds an old quilt fold­ed in the bot­tom draw­er of the dress­er. She cov­ers him, pulls a chair into the room from the kitchen, and keeps vig­il as one would over the sick and dying.

A sound like rocks being dropped on the roof grows loud, and she says to her­self, “Snow’s gone to ice.” After a while, she goes to the front room and smokes a cig­a­rette on the couch, crush­es it out with the oth­ers in the ash­tray. Then, with­out want­i­ng to, she falls asleep.

When she awak­ens, the sky has light­ened, though the sun won’t be up for anoth­er hour. She smokes again, try­ing to wake her­self up, then leans against the arm of the couch and dozes until the sun­light com­ing through the win­dow forces her eyes open.

Lori stands and looks out, a hand-edge flat against her brows. The trees and pow­er­lines and eaves of hous­es look as if they are encased in glass. The chain­link fence run­ning along the side­yard seems made of spider’s webs. Tree branch­es like black blood run­ning through veins of crys­tal.

She puts on her coat and steps back into Sweetwater’s room. For a moment she can’t tell if he’s breath­ing and stands lis­ten­ing like she did for the first months after her daugh­ter was born, long­ing for a cry so she would know the baby was alive. Final­ly, Lori moves beside the bed and puts her hand on his back. It’s warm, and soon she can feel the slight rise and fall of his breath­ing, and then with­out a thought, she tucks the stray strands of hair at his tem­ple behind his ear and ris­es to go.

When she cross­es the thresh­old into the liv­ing room, he speaks hoarse­ly:

“In the box, on the dress­er.”

She turns, star­tled for a moment, and sees his face above the cov­er, nod­ding toward the oppo­site wall. She walks over to the paint­ed wood­en jew­el­ry box sit­ting on the top of the dress­er, which she assumes had been his mother’s, and opens the brass hinged lid. Inside is a plain white enve­lope with the word Sav­ings print­ed in ink on the front, thick with mon­ey.

She goes to the bed and lays it beside him, but he reach­es out and takes her wrist gen­tly.

“I don’t need it.” His eyes are dark and clear. “You do.”

She steps back. “I can’t.”

“You’re a beau­ti­ful girl, Lori, but there’s more to life than what you’re liv­ing.” He rais­es the enve­lope and holds it there until she takes it. She can’t look him in the eyes any longer and turns her head toward the front door.

“Now lis­ten,” he says. “You take that, and you do more with it than just pay the cable bill or buy your lit­tle girl some new clothes. Seems to me it ough­ta get you a good start on fin­ish­ing up your school­ing. I know oth­er things seem more impor­tant right now, but your daugh­ter won’t remem­ber what you buy for her now. She will remem­ber what her mama does for a liv­ing.” Lori starts to cry and turns to go, but she stops in the front room. His voice comes from behind her, low and calm. “I know that was hurt­ful. I don’t mean for it to be. But I want to say this to you, because I feel there won’t be anoth­er chance.”

She goes to speak, but her voice cracks. She clears it and wipes her cheeks. “You’re right, Sweet­wa­ter. But it’s pret­ty god­damned harsh.”

“I know it is, hon­ey,” he says.

She waits to hear him rise from the bed and come to her, wants to feel his arms slide around her, but they don’t. It seems a long time before he speaks again.

“They told me that my son’s death was an acci­dent, but I’ve been around too long for that. You nev­er want to believe how much peo­ple lie to you, even the ones who love you. That was no acci­dent. I know how he was feel­ing, been through it, and still I couldn’t say or do any­thing for him. He saw that con­crete brid­ge­side, and he knew exact­ly what it would take. They said he was going full speed when he hit. There were no skid­marks.”

She feels cold stand­ing in the bare room, even in her coat, and sud­den­ly wants to leave.

“I need to get home,” she says with­out turn­ing around.

“Take care of your­self, Lori. And don’t waste your wor­ry on me. You’ve got too much liv­ing ahead of you for that.”

She opens the front door and the cold burns her lungs. She half expects him to say more before she goes out, but he doesn’t, and she shuts the door behind her. A few star­lings walk across the ice-crust­ed snow, peck­ing into the sur­face for food, and a car­di­nal sits in the branch­es of a for­syth­ia bush at the cor­ner of the house, bright against the col­or­less world. The wind stirs the frozen trees, and she thinks it sounds like bones rat­tling.

Inside her car, as it’s warm­ing up, she opens the enve­lope and counts the mon­ey. Thir­ty-three hun­dred dol­lars. She looks back toward the house and tells her­self she can’t keep it, then clos­es the flap and puts it in her purse. She backs into the road and tries to pull away with­out spin­ning the tires, but they slide eas­i­ly on the ice, so she lets off the gas and feath­ers the ped­al until the tires grab, and she dri­ves toward her apart­ment thank­ful the sun is ris­ing behind her so that she can see.

***

When she walks into the Bluff that night, the place is already begin­ning to fill up. She scans down the bar, look­ing for Sweet­wa­ter, but doesn’t see him in his usu­al place. Roger makes a motion with his head as he mix­es a drink, let­ting her know she’s need­ed right away. Then he smiles as if out of pity and looks away. She doesn’t pay this much atten­tion and quick­ly gets to work behind the bar, open­ing beers, mak­ing drinks, pick­ing up emp­ty glass­es.

An hour pass­es before she has time to notice that Sweet­wa­ter still hasn’t come in, and she begins to make excus­es for him: maybe the mail was heavy today, or he had car trou­ble, or because of the tough night, he got a late start.

A man at the far end of the bar waves his arm at her and whis­tles. “You think I could get a drink down here, or should I do it myself.”

She doesn’t answer, only reach­es into the cool­er and pries the cap off a bot­tle. As she approach­es him, she hears his con­ver­sa­tion with the man sit­ting on the next stool, the para­medic who was wor­ry­ing over his exam the day before.

“I won­der when they’ll adver­tise his posi­tion,” the para­medic says.

“I fig­ure it’d have to be soon.” The man turns to take his beer from Lori. “Thanks, sweet­heart. Next time you’ll have to tip me.”

She turns with­out giv­ing it a thought, numb to com­ments from jerks by now, then hears over her shoul­der: “It’s like they say—the mail must go through. Somebody’s going to have to deliv­er it.”

Roger is fid­dling with the blender, try­ing to make a frozen daiquiri, and she stands close beside him.

She says, “Have you seen Sweet­wa­ter today?”

He press­es a but­ton on the blender and the noise from its motor drowns out the juke­box and the people’s voic­es, and when it shuts off, the reg­u­lar noise from the bar could be mis­tak­en for silence.

“Wait a sec­ond.” Roger takes the daiquiri to a woman wear­ing a black Harley David­son shirt a size too small. When he comes back to Lori, he takes her by the arm, and they walk through the swing­ing doors into the kitchen.

“You haven’t heard.”

From his face she knows that some­thing has hap­pened and is not sur­prised.

Roger looks through the round plex­i­glass win­dow in the door, then back to Lori. “They found him dead around noon.”

She tries to keep her face from chang­ing and can’t tell from Roger’s expres­sion if she’s done so. “What hap­pened?” She had tried to speak qui­et­ly, but the sound of her voice is shock­ing to her.

“When he didn’t show to work this morn­ing, the post-mis­tress called his house, and when there was no answer, she called his sub, then went by there over lunch. His car was in the dri­ve, and she knocked for a while, then tried the knob. It was open.”

Lori thinks to her­self, Yes, I didn’t lock it, but knows enough to not say any­thing.

Roger’s face becomes strained. “He hung him­self. Did it with an exten­sion cord.”

And at this, Lori begins to cry. Roger looks on as a man would in this sit­u­a­tion, as if he’s gone to far in what he said, that he should have known a woman couldn’t han­dle that type of detail. But it isn’t that. She’d been there with him, and once again she had failed to give the right com­fort, the right coun­sel, and it pushed her to a point of despair where she could no longer hold in her tears.

Roger puts a hand on her shoul­der, and she apol­o­gizes and wipes her cheeks. He paus­es for a moment, looks out at the crowd again, and says, “I guess I bet­ter get back out there. No rest for the wicked.” He squeezes her shoul­der to let her know he is only try­ing to light­en things.

Lori lets out a small laugh. “And the right­eous don’t need it.”

Roger shakes his head and returns to his post behind the bar. Lori watch­es him, then goes to the back door and steps out­side. The air has warmed a lit­tle, the wind shift­ing out of the south, and the ice has all but melt­ed, leav­ing a heavy fog over every­thing. She leans against the slick rail­ing, then stands quick­ly, so the damp doesn’t soak through her pants.

A car pulls into the lot and parks, and a man and woman climb out. He is old­er than her, bald­ing, pudgy in the mid­dle, but still he walks con­fi­dent­ly beside this young beau­ty whose hips move so seduc­tive­ly, high heels click­ing on the wet asphalt. And though Lori has nev­er met her, she knows her. Thinks, That’s your future, Lori, and grips the rail­ing with both hands. Then whis­pers, “Shit, girl, that’s you now.”

Lori unties her apron and drapes it over the wet iron, won­der­ing how far away she and Sier­ra could go on three thou­sand dol­lars. Some­where with moun­tains, so that win­ter­time is beau­ti­ful, even with the cold and the snow. She lights a cig­a­rette and pulls out her phone, hold­ing it in her palm. The wind rais­es nee­dles in her cheeks. The slow bass-thump of a coun­try song bleeds through the walls of the bar, and she clos­es the phone again with­out call­ing and walks to her car.

On the road to the apart­ment, the fog is thick, dot­ted with the haloed stars of street­lights, and Lori imag­ines load­ing up her car with her and Sierra’s things and dri­ving west like mod­ern day pio­neers, seek­ing a new start in val­ley town between snow­peaks. And then she real­izes she’s missed her turn.

She slams on the brakes and jerks the wheel, think­ing she can make it, but over­shoots and bumps up onto the curb and onto the side­walk. For a moment, she sim­ply looks out the win­dow, lis­ten­ing to the soft hum of the engine idling.

She rolls down the win­dow to breathe the cold air, and lis­tens to the qui­et, and she thinks of the star­lings who cloud­ed the skies and filled the air with the scream­ing, and won­ders where they are now. Won­ders if they fly all day with no des­ti­na­tion oth­er than to find food and drink and a roost for the night only to do it all over again tomor­row, and then she sees her­self stand­ing behind anoth­er bar in anoth­er town while Sier­ra stays with some­one else every night. The view out the win­dow is love­ly, but the view inside is the same.

And so she moves the shifter into reverse and pulls into the street, try­ing to cal­cu­late rent and tuition in her head, then slow­ly on to where her daugh­ter waits for her to come home from work­ing at the Bluff for the last time.

James Alan Gill was born and raised in South­ern Illi­nois in a fam­i­ly of coal min­ers. He holds an MFA in fic­tion from South­ern Illi­nois Uni­ver­si­ty at Car­bon­dale, and his sto­ries have appeared in sev­er­al jour­nals and mag­a­zines, most recent­ly in Col­orado Review and Grain Mag­a­zine, and will be forth­com­ing in Crab Orchard Review's spe­cial issue Writ­ing From and About Illi­nois. He cur­rent­ly lives in Ore­gon with his wife and two sons, and spends as much time pos­si­ble sleep­ing in a tent and hik­ing trails far from roads, build­ings, and groups of peo­ple larg­er than ten.

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