After dinner service Laren and I languish on barstools, in the back room across the street.
“Did you ever think you’d wind up stuck in something like this?” she asks.
I consider this. “I can’t remember ever really thinking that far ahead, after a certain post-astronaut or -garbage man point, of course. Maybe that’s the problem.”
She nods. “I’m drowning.” She plays with the words, tosses them in the air like grass to determine the wind. I can tell she is still the hero of her own drama. And as I try to recall exactly when I stopped expecting victory, she bursts out singing.
“The Thrill is gone!” It is the very best B.B. King that I’ve heard a twenty-two-year-old throat squeeze. “The Thrill is gone!” She dips her chin at a frank angle and turns to me. “If I was black it would be easier. I’d have that deep heavy burden shit on my soul and I’d be used to it and people’d respect it? That’s not racist?”
“I’m drowning,” I offer across the void of the bar, to the lush city of bottles lit up like a neon dream.
“And maybe I’d be like a minister sister who could still live a normal life and screw, and just be soulful and true, and make people feel it!” She claps her pint glass against the bar and beer plumes heavenward, an anxious fleur-de-lis, dissolving over her hand before it can fully realize.
“I once thought maybe I was going to be a priest,” I tell her.
For a moment we drink. Laren dries her hand.
“Well, what happened?” she asks.
“Guess I got older.”
“That always happens,” she says.
“Yes, this seems always to be happening.”
“You would’ve drowned if you were a priest,” she tells me. “God is a big drowner.”
At that moment I could have married her, spent my entire life with the girl of that perfect breath, the punning daughter of Iowa, pint glass in hand, and we’d move out west and raise milk cows big as elephants.
Suddenly my eyes burn at the corners, and for an instant I wonder if I’m crying, until I realize I’m sweating again.
“Laren, do you see? I’m turning to liquid.” I pull the neck of my undershirt up from beneath my button-down and dry my face, blow down at my chest. “I’m being juiced.”
“I don’t know. Pretty dark in here.”
“I won’t make it past Christmas.”
“Don’t say that… You can’t leave… Not yet. Look, I’ve been meaning to ask you? But can you please work New Year’s Eve for me?”
John Kersey lives in Chicago with his wife and their daughter. He teaches creative writing at Elgin Community College. More work of his can be found in the Fall 2012 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal.