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Write Me A Story by Streeper Clyne

“Write me a story. And start it here.” The middle-aged brunette who’d been sitting at the end of the bar slid into the seat next to mine and leaned close, tapping the wrinkled skin next to her right eye. Her breath thick, redolent with alcohol. “Felt tip, ballpoint, doesn’t matter. I want to feel the words.”

She wasn’t the first tipsy older woman to hit on me. Props for the unique approach, though. I gave her my best non-committal, ‘not interested’ smile, but it didn’t work. She smiled back, something lighting up in those makeup-caked, glassy brown eyes before she blinked. The slow, heavy-lidded flutter of a drinker.

“Leave the kid alone, Laura.” The haggard bartender, who I assumed was in his late fifties—she called him John? Jacob maybe? I hadn’t paid attention—set another Moscow Mule in front of her. Maybe I should have caught his name since it was just the three of us, but it wasn’t like I was ever coming back. If the weather hadn’t been so crappy, I wouldn’t have set foot in the place to start.

“As I said, I’m a technical writer. Instruction manuals. Boring stuff, not stories. And I’m thirty-six.” Not a “kid.” I pulled off my tie, shoved it into my pocket and took a draft from my can of PBR. No craft beers in this joint. Nothing even on tap. Just bottles or cans of Bud, Miller, PBR and, as the bartender pointedly stated, “Modelo or a mixed drink, if you want something fancy.” I didn’t.

What I wanted was to be on the road, headed home to Durham from a long, exhausting day with a client in Wilmington. I’d been making good time. Not a lot of traffic on Highway 70 on a Tuesday evening.  Just as the sun set, the sky opened up and pelted rain like God had scooped every ocean dry and was dumping the water in one endless deluge onto the long stretch of nothing between Kinston and La Grange. I gave up trying to drive in it after hydroplaning the second time. Turned my Bimmer off the road and pulled into the first place I could find—this sorry little hole.

It was one of those roadside bars at the edge of some Southern hamlet with a funny name like Sudden Drop or Peahen, where the residents were all up in each other’s business. A typical windowless, weather-beaten, wood-sided rectangle, that may or may not be a converted double-wide, with a blinking sign that said “Cold Beer” near the entrance.  The place had an air of desperation about it.

  Inside was worse: dimly lit wood-paneled walls darkened by decades of nicotine residue, hung with flickering neon beer signs and faded photos in store-bought frames. A line of rickety stools ran along the bar. No high tops or booths. Country music in the background drifted into a tune I recognized: “Cruise” by Florida Georgia Line. Funny, in an up-and-coming city neighborhood, this bar might be considered trendy—if they added a tap, some microbrews, and ditched the stale-smelling brownish carpet that slurped at your shoes as you walked. But here? In the middle of nowhere? It was just a sad, out-of-the-way place. A weekend hangout for locals, and somewhere to take refuge from that god-awful storm on a weeknight for me.

I drained the can. I wasn’t going anywhere soon, so I motioned for another. “Same, please . . .?”

“Eric.” The bartender’s smile cracked a weathered face that at first looked tanned, but when he turned, seemed more like permanently embedded dirt.

“Right. Eric.” So, not a ‘J’. Oh well. I’ve never been good with names. 

Laura tapped a scarlet, claw-like fingernail against her temple. “Still waiting for that story, sweetheart.” Then she pursed her equally red lips and scrunched her face in a trying-to-be-flirty-but-failing way. “You think about it while I powder my nose.” She got out of her stool, brushing her substantial breasts against my shoulder as she passed me.

It was simultaneously repulsive and stimulating. I grimaced, gulped down half my beer and focused on the couple dozen dusty bottles of alcohol on the backbar shelves, wondering how often Eric used his mixology skills, aside from making Moscow Mules for Laura.

“Don’t mind her, kid.” Eric smeared a damp cloth along the bar top.  When Laura was out of sight he said, “She hasn’t been the same since the shooting.”

“Shooting?” Shock upended my annoyance at being called “kid” again.

“About six years ago, I suppose. Her husband tried to off them both in a murder-suicide. Got the suicide part right. Botched the murder.” Eric sighed and drew his lips in a line.

“Shit. That’s horrible.” I glanced toward the restrooms and shook my head. “Poor woman.”

“Yeah.” Eric’s eyebrows raised. “She survived being shot in the head. Four surgeries and ten months in recovery, but she survived. Mostly. That bullet didn’t take her life, but it sure took something.” He folded his arms on the bar and leaned toward me. “Every now and then she gets these odd ideas. Like wanting you to write a story on her face. Just ignore her. A couple more drinks and she’ll forget about it. She always does.”

I nodded and Eric resumed pushing his cloth around the bar top. Those bottles behind him could’ve used a quick wipe, but I guess he didn’t see the dust. Live with something long enough and you get blind to it.

I took a mouthful of beer and held it for a moment, analyzing the flavor, if you could call it that. A little bready, but not much more. The copper mug next to me caught my eye.  Laura seemed like your stereotypical barfly. No wonder Eric let that little tidbit slip. Guess he was tired of people misjudging her.

I brushed a hand through my hair, glad my brain was intact. God. How the hell does someone survive that kind of thing?

“Must have been hard on her family too. Dealing with all that.”

“Well.” Eric flipped the rag over his shoulder and poured himself a couple fingers of Wild Turkey. “What family she has is pretty useless. Her kids stopped talking to her when she married Frank. They didn’t like him, and she didn’t want to hear that. After the shooting, she got a ‘told you so’ from her daughter. Her son went by to visit once while she was in the hospital but hasn’t been back since. Her parents are long gone. No siblings or cousins, as far as I know.” Eric downed the bourbon and nodded toward the restrooms.

I glanced in the backbar mirror and could just make out Laura headed our way, her image murky between the half-empty Stoli and an unopened bottle of Tanqueray. I took a long draft on my beer, studying her in the mirror as she sat down next to me. Anything to delay having to talk to her. I wasn’t certain I could keep the pity from showing on my face.

I hadn’t wanted to know anything about these two when I walked in here. Maybe some polite conversation about the weather and a little sports-talk to wait out the rain. But now? Crap. I’d passed Laura off as a drunk. And maybe she was, but she had a damn good reason for it. A hellish nightmare of a reason.

I felt Laura’s eyes on me. A quick glance in the mirror confirmed it. I swallowed the last of my beer and set the can on the bar.

“Another?” Eric asked.

I shook my head and slid my credit card to him. “I’m gonna check the weather.” I smiled at Laura, but it felt forced. Her fleeting smile back was filled with sadness.

When I poked my head out of the door the rain was gone, steam curling off the pavement into a starry night sky. I turned back as Eric craned his neck to see outside.

And Laura . . . She looked small and fragile, the fingers of her right hand tracing lines near her temple. Our eyes met. She pulled her hand away and hunched over her drink.

“Guess you’ll be headed out now the rain’s done,” Eric said. “Thanks for stopping in.”

Laura drew herself closer to the bar, like she was trying to disappear into it.

Another hour and a half and I could be home, feet up on the coffee table, watching Arcane and eating leftover tandoori chicken. “Nah. I’ll have one more.” I let the door clap shut behind me as I walked toward the bar. “Hey, Eric. Got a pen?”

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