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She met him on a Monday. Her heart stood still. At the time, she was sure his did, too. Of course she turned out to be right about that.
The place was called the Back Way Out, a uniquely Charlotte sort of shithole, tricked out like a real juke joint with crooked shingles hammered over the drywall and sawdust shavings scattered across the stain-resistant vinyl-and-tile flooring. The Gimmick, even more than the décor, gave the bar away as the young-banker haven it was: everyone who entered got a laminated, folding yellow card, with a clip-art sketch of a beer mug on it and eighty-seven tiny squares. Fill each square by drinking—or at least ordering—all eighty-seven varieties of microbrew the bar served and you became a Back Way Out legend and got your photo on the Crossroads Wall behind the stage. Fill forty-three squares and you got a yellow Halfway Out the Back T-shirt, complete with drooling smiley-face logo.
Natalie considered it a small sign of hope for humanity that she saw at least half a dozen drooling smiley-face T-shirts as Sophie dragged her through the door, but no new photos on the Crossroads Wall. The last time they'd come, eighteen months before, there'd been the same three grinning frat-boy idiots up there, in matching oversized Hornets jerseys. Eighteen months, Natalie found herself wondering. Was that really all? It seemed so much longer. Way back in their old lives. Back when they'd had lives. Now, she just wanted to go home.
She held up her cell phone. "I'm going to go call them," she said, wincing as the guy in the Stetson on the stage unleashed a feedback shriek while trying to tune his guitar.
"It's not really halfway," Sophie said, cocking her hip and folding her hands under her breasts so that they surfaced in the V of her summer dress. Right on cue, half a dozen pairs of beer-glazed eyes swung in her direction.
Natalie rubbed a tired hand over her face. She'd taken her longest shower in over a year before coming out tonight, combed and given a curl to her hair, which was still new-road black even if she hadn't had it cut in months, applied actual perfume for the first time since forever. And still, she smelled like Johnson & Johnson.
"Excuse you?" she said.
"Forty-three. Isn't really halfway to eighty-seven."
"It's a convenient stop on the road to Moronville."
"Spoken like you've been there," Sophie said. She'd loosened her arms, let her breasts dip just far enough back into the V to draw at least a few of those beer-glazed gazes upward, and now she was having fun locking eyes with them. "It's not all their fault, after all. They're not the ones went and got themselves knocked up."
"That's because they're…" Natalie started, caught the eyes of one bespectacled, boots-sporting pretend-cowboy who'd gone straight past Sophie to her, and felt herself blush. Did she really look decent in this dress anymore? Twenty-four years old and she already felt like a mom who'd donned a cheerleader costume in the hopes of feeling sexy again. Except Sophie'd been the cheerleader. And Johnson & Johnson wasn't sexy, no matter what dress it was wearing. Only the mom part was right.
"I'm going to check on our children," Natalie said.
"Watch this." Sophie pulled her arms in tight again, grinning as the poor bankers' chins dipped. "It's like playing beach ball with seals."
"Two beach balls," Natalie muttered, and Sophie laughed.
"There's my Nat."
"Where?" Natalie said, and moved off toward the hallway by the restrooms to get some relative quiet.
When she came back ten minutes later, Sophie was sitting at a table near the stage with three guys in loosened ties, her unknotted blond hair spilling artfully over her one shoulder. In front of her sat three separate umbrella drinks, each a different shade of Day-Glo.
"Saved one for you," Sophie chirped.
Natalie stared down at her oldest friend, flushed and smiling and still nowhere near pre-pregnancy weight and not caring. Then she stared at the drinks, then at the guys Sophie had collected. One of them bald, another black. Clean, pleasant faces, well shaven or meticulously unshaven. On the right, farthest from Sophie, sat the spectacle guy who'd eyed her before. He was eying her still, shyly. He'd pushed back far enough from the table that Natalie could just see the Kenneth Cole messenger bag leaning against his right boot. In spite of herself, and her now-perpetual exhaustion, and her own mother's voice still echoing in her ears—Your babies are fine, Nat, God's sakes. Have a hard one on me—she felt herself nod.
"Saved one," she said. "What if I want two?"
"There's my Nat," Sophie said, slapping the table while the black guy blinked and the bald guy trembled and spectacle banker's eyes went just a bit wider.
The musician onstage was strictly Advanced Karaoke, perfect for a training-wheel New South bar like the Back Way Out, but he had some taste, at least. "A Thousand Miles from Nowhere," "Sally Sue Brown." Spectacle guy, once he got up the nerve to sprinkle in some conversation with the shy glances, turned out to be enough of a Baltimore Orioles fan to have recognized Merv Rettenmund at a truck stop once, which Natalie figured qualified him, at the very least, to hear her Dave McNally hiccough story a little later in the evening. After some dancing. If he could dance. She had her fingers curled around a tallboy, her head cocked just enough so she could hear Sophie's laughter over the music and spectacle guy's increasingly animated, friendly chatter, and had finally remembered what it was—besides the boys, the beautiful, pitiful, sweating, shining boys—that she really had almost loved about all this when the lights went out.
They went all at once, as if there'd been a power outage or someone had flipped a switch. As it turned out, that's what had happened, because of course the Back Way Out had no dimmers, no spotlight, wasn't set up for anything other than the game almost anyone who ever walked through its doors imagined they were playing. One row of track lights—the wrong one, too far back near the bar—blinked on, then off again. Then the row over the stage, right above their table, and Natalie squinted.
"Holy shit," she murmured. Spectacle guy hadn't even turned around, wasn't curious, was too hell-bent on getting to her. Which of course doomed him, as far as Natalie was concerned. Then she stopped thinking about him entirely.
"Whoa," said Sophie, one hand grasping the black guy's forearm. "You see that? That guy just—"
"Ladies and gentlemen," boomed a gravelly woman's voice from the back. "We hope you appreciate the gravity of your good fortune."
The new figure onstage really seemed simply to have appeared, a junkie-thin scarecrow all in black, complete with button-up work shirt, unlaced, half-collapsed hiking boots that looked more like potatoes than shoes, and a completely incongruous sombrero that mashed his dark hair down around his face. His narrow nose tilted to the right, and his fingers seemed to tremble slightly as he sketched a wave at the drinkers of the Back Way Out and then slid his hands deep into his pant pockets. Natalie took all of that in but soon found herself staring at his mouth, which looked too rounded, the lips forming a near-perfect circle.
"He looks like a blow-up doll," Sophie whispered in her ear, hitting a simile exactly right, for once. Then she added, "With a leak," and Natalie wanted to hug her, and also to cry, but she didn't know why.
"You know who that is, right?" She watched the guitarist shift, straighten his Stetson, and go still, apparently awaiting some communication from his new companion.
"I know you do," said Sophie.
"It's the Whistler. It has to be."
"Who's the Whistler?" said spectacle guy, and Sophie stuck her index finger to his lips and shook her head.
"Dude," she said.
What had Natalie expected them to play? Some George Jones wallow, maybe. One of the Blue Yodels. Something that let the Whistler communicate just how lonesome-sorry he was, since that's what he was famous for among the truckers who came into the Waffle House where Natalie worked nights and the handful of music-nerd friends from her two years at UNCC who'd spirited her off on weekend jaunts into western Georgia, down to Lake Charles, Louisiana, in search of the ghosts and echoes of what they called the real stuff. As if ghosts and echoes were the closest to real anyone could get anymore. Her friends, she realized, would have been at once electrified and horrified to discover the Whistler at the Back Way Out.
The Whistler cleared his throat, shivered his bony shoulders. Natalie half-expected stalks of straw to poke out through his buttonholes. Then he muttered low to the guitarist, who swayed in place. Broke into a dazed smile, as if he couldn't believe his luck.
"Well, y'all," he said, and tuned his E string again, even though it was already in tune. "I never thought I'd get a chance to do this. With this man."
And then he broke into "Red Cadillac and a Black Moustache." Too slow, at first, which agitated Natalie even more than it should have, until the Whistler glanced, just once, at the guitarist. The tempo picked up. Then more. As though the guy were a gas pedal and the Whistler had floored him. The whole room began to clap and shudder. Even before the Whistler pulled those pursed lips just a little tighter, preparing, Natalie knew she was in trouble.
"Pretty sure who that guy'll be loving, anyway," Sophie half-sang along, elbowing Natalie under her rib cage as the guitar chugged and the melody hit full gallop.
"Yeah. Me, too," Natalie murmured back. Followed by, "I mean, shut up."
But the Whistler had spotted her, now. No. Had been looking at her from the second he'd slipped from the shadows. Had never, for one moment, looked elsewhere. Even as he pulled in breath and held it, she saw the edges of his mouth stretch toward smiling.
"Uh-oh," she said, holding the table.
The Whistler let loose.
Later—so much later, dawn a red rip in the skin of the dark and birds already stirring in the poplars of whatever-the-hell park they'd parked Sophie's Kia beside—Natalie awoke facedown in a spill of blood atop someone's bare stomach. Sophie's stomach, she realized, sat up too fast, and grabbed the back of the front passenger seat as the world tilted over and the half a beer she was almost sure was all she'd drunk shot up her throat. Even before the world steadied, she cried out, touched her fingers to the dried redness streaked across Sophie's abdomen and trailing into her belly button and up under her bare breasts. She shook her friend hard and realized, just as Sophie blinked awake, that there were no wounds she could see. Which meant the blood was hers?
She frantically checked her own skin but found nothing of note except that it was bare, too. The shreds of her dress she located around her waist.
Sophie sat up, cringing against even the faint light just spreading along the horizon. She ran a hand over herself, shoulder to hip, noted the blood, looked at Natalie. To Natalie's astonishment, she smiled. Sleepily. "Hey," she said.
"Jesus Christ, Sophie." Natalie pulled enough of her dress together to shrug it partially closed around her shoulders. "Did we…"
"Pretty sure," Sophie murmured, not bothering to cover any part of herself except her eyes.
"Both of us? With him? With the Whistler? How the … how did that happen?"
For a long moment, they just sat. The light and the birdsong needled at Natalie, too, and she winced and closed her eyes. "Could we go home now? To our children?"
"What'd you do to my dress?" Sophie said, trying to find enough buttons to close herself.
They got out of the car, settled into the front seats. Even with the motor running, Natalie still imagined she could hear birds, a shrill warble driving up her ear canals toward her brain. "Was that me? Did we really do that? Why?"
The clock on Sophie's radio read 4:45, too early for even the early-bird rush hour, and they passed unaccompanied and unobserved down the empty, tree-lined streets of suburban Charlotte, past the rows-upon-rows of pines and poplars and perfectly mown lawns and subdivision signs. The Oaks. The Hill. Oak Tree Hill.
"I don't remember a goddamn thing," Natalie said. But that wasn't true. It was coming back. Bits and flashes. The Whistler at their table with his pursed mouth and his sombrero-mashed hair, smiling sadly down at his hands, which trembled on the table like a butterfly he'd caught. That woman appearing behind him. Pearl-wearing, pinch-faced African-American woman, grandmotherly glasses, rumpled green skirt-suit, disapproving frown. The three of them—Natalie, Sophie, the Whistler—in the car, in this car, much later. Sophie's soft lips against Natalie's own. Their hands up each other's dresses. The Whistler still there. Where?
Natalie closed her eyes against the light and the woozy whirl of half memory. She put her hands to her ears, but that didn't help. When she opened her eyes, Sophie was squinting at her, holding up a shielding hand against the sliver of sun just peeking over the edge of the earth as they neared Honeycomb Corner, the trailer park where Natalie had grown up.
"You know," Sophie said quietly, steering with one hand, pulling her tangled hair straight with the other, "I always kind of wanted to do that." She glanced toward Natalie. "With you. Stop looking like that; why is that so shocking?" Sophie looked away.
Natalie blinked, winced, shook her head. "It's not … it's just … you did? I mean, you have?"
"Kind of. Yeah. I don't know." She turned back to Natalie. And there was her smile. The ghost of it, fleeting and sad. "I like you."
She turned the Kia off Sardis into the dirt, and they jostled down the rutted track, between silent, rusting trailers hunched in their berths like pre-fab mausoleums. The curtains all drawn, doors shut, no one moving, nothing living. Even in the middle of the day—let alone now—with Skynyrd blasting out of the new hairy dirt-bike family's window and laundry drooping on dipping lines and people shouting at other people to shut up and kids smoking out by the perimeter fence or racing bikes up the dirt ruts and adults smoking everywhere, this place always reminded Natalie more of a cemetery than a neighborhood.
Sophie parked in the shade of Natalie's mother's double-wide. They sat together just a little longer, staring out the windshield, until Natalie said, "Sophe? Are you sure … I mean, what, exactly did we do?"
To Natalie, it sounded as though she were speaking through water. Sophie's movements seemed submerged, too, a slow sweep of her hand up her ruined dress, a long shrug. "I don't know, Nat," she said, so softly. "But it hurt."
After that, Natalie stumbled inside and straight into her bed with that sound in her ears, blaring but from far, far away, like a tornado warning from another county.
Copyright © 2012, 2014 by Glen Hirshberg