NO PLACE BUT EXIT
New Liberty, Iowa.
I passed New Liberty Baptist where my mother Dahlia hauled us kids every Sunday to pray to be better children. The Old Patriot Grill and Bar was on the next corner, my Dad’s reverent watering hole. I drove pass the Hy-Vee grocery. My ex-husband Frankie worked there during high school. We would sneak behind the cartons of detergent, coffee, and cans of Shasta pop to put in a good necking session while on his lunch break. I saw in passing the Dairy Queen was full of high schoolers, just like when I was in high school. Nothing much changes.
“Life gives you burdens to bear whether you want them or not, Lillian,” Dahlia would say to me every time I complained. “And you best smart up to that now.”
Witnessing my father passed out on the lawn when we left the house for school or meeting him on the sidewalk just coming home, staggering and falling, I swore I would never drink alcohol. I swore I would never marry a man like my Dad. And yet, I had the same cursed gene for addiction as he had. And I married Frankie, so like my mother.
What goes around comes around
Driving down Laurel Avenue, the white, late 1800’s house where Frankie and I lived caught in my headlights, appearing little different than it had twenty years ago. Frankie’s mother loaned us the money to buy the Victorian home. We moved into it after our first daughter Margaret was born. The house loan wasn’t a gift for me. Frankie’s mother never forgave me for getting pregnant and keeping her son from finishing his law degree--we married just weeks after our high school graduation.
Seventeen years old. I thought I had all the answers even if I didn’t exactly know what the questions were.
I stopped at a four corner stop with my headlights aimed directly at the front window of the house where I’d sit looking out for hours in the day. At first I thought I caught an image of someone sitting there now. Margaret? But when I blinked, the image disappeared. I passed through the crossroad pulling up across from the house. The lights were on, someone was home. White fakes floated a soft landing on my jacket when I stepped out of the car. I shivered.
Standing on the Home Is Where the Heart Is welcome mat, I took a couple of deep breaths. I put a finger to the door bell.
No one answered. Would she have kept all the lights on if she weren’t home?
I pushed the bell again. This time I heard footsteps. The door opened. Margaret stood before me holding a cell phone to her ear.
We hadn’t been face to face for too many years, but I recognized her instantly. She had Frankie’s soft, dark eyes. She had my mother’s high, beautiful cheek bones. Yet, while she was only in her late twenties, the dark circles under her eyes made her look fifty years older. In fact, should we have been standing side-by-side and someone guessed, they might say she was the mother and I the daughter.
She glanced over at me and then turned away holding up her index finger asking for another moment. Then she clicked off the conversation. Her attention came back to me. “Can I help you?”
I went completely mute.
She said, “I hate these marketing companies calling to sell you something you don’t want.” Her free hand opened up and she gave me the flat of her hand. “Free, they promise, but nothing’s free in this life. They stamp YOU OWE on your butt as soon as you pop out of the womb.” She blew “fed-up” between her lips. Her foot tapped a samba on the wooden floor. “I don’t have all day. You’re letting in the cold air.”
Then she stood as if her blurred vision of why I was at her door cleared, and she saw before her the root of all her problems. She studied me from my head down to my feet and back, staring full at my face, her eyes narrowing into small slits. “What the hell are you doing here? Get off my property.”
She grabbed hold of the edge of the door as if she needed something to hold to keep from attacking me, while her other hand gripped the cell phone like a formable weapon.
Words fell out of my mouth, “Maybe I should have called first, but I thought…”
“Thought?” She spit the word back. “Can you still think with your pickled brains? Go have another drink and get off my porch.”
“I’ve been sober for over fifteen years, Margaret,” I told her.
“Sober?” she laughed. “A drunk is only sober until they have their next drink.” She sneered, her body becoming unbalanced with the weight of her anger and the disgust at having me standing on her porch, back in her life, unwanted and unasked. Another burden for her to bear. She gave a guttural chuckle, which changed into more like a menacing growl. “I bet you’re drunk now. You are, aren’t you?”
“Liar. Now get off my porch before I have you arrested.” She slammed the door so hard it banged back open just so she could slam it again. The deadbolt snapped into place.
Shivering, shuddering from my knees up to the top of my head, tears and flakes of snow mixed and dripping down my cheeks, dropping off my nose, I reeled off the porch heading back over to the car. I stumbled, caught myself before completely falling, then stumbled again.
You shouldn’t have come.
She hates you.
Nothing you do will ever let her forgive you.
I fumbled the door open, and once opened, I slumped behind the steering wheel hiding as guilty as any criminal caught in the act.
An hour later, my hands steered the car off Highway 218 to Interstate 380 East. Mechanically, somehow, I’d left New Liberty and headed east. The windshield wipers raked the snow off the windshield in shuddering rasps. The exit into Davenport was familiar and welcomed, Northwest Blvd. Even better, Locust Street.
Outside the wind whipped falling snow into a flurry and churned it into small whirlwinds forcing me one step back for every two I took. But I continued keeping an eye to the Martini glass, a beacon blinking on and off, on and off, stop or go, stop or go, in or out-- out or in?
A drunk is only sober until they have their next drink.
The bar’s heavy door opened with a small push. I headed towards the back of the room to the third stool from the wall. My stool. My place. Home.
It was darker inside than the night outside. And quiet. No storms in here. This place calmed storms. Music from a hidden stereo system played Christmas music. Little Town of Bethlehem. Another lost soul looking for protection against the weather sat at the bar. Or maybe he didn’t know it’d started snowing outside. He lay with his head down on the counter and an empty shot glass held loosely in his hand.
How still we see thee lie.
The bartender came over and wiped the area clean in front of me with his dirty rag. “What can I get’ya?”
His piercing eyes, red-rimmed and grave, gave me the shakes. The stench from the rag he was holding, mildewed and rotten, made my nose itch.
“Coming right up.”
I wanted to touch him to see if he was real. He reached out, quick, and grabbed my hand. He put a glass in it. Amber liquid full of grain.
Hello, Jack, my old friend. Forget his pal, Absolut. Nothing was absolute anymore.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth an every lasting light.
My fingers twirled the glass. If I took one sip, just one, then I might take two. And if I took two, the whole glass would be empty by the time I counted to three.
The hopes and fears of all these years
Yet, before the number one pulled breath from my lips, as if my lips had a mind of its own, my hand raised the glass.
Ah, get off your pity pot. I told you not to go.
She appeared beside me. She wore a sheath, white dress, exposing the cleavage of her large breasts. Diamond cross-shaped ear-rings hung from her ears. The diamonds were impressive. She reached over and pulled the glass out of my hands. “I could use a drink.” She slugged the amber liquid down in two gulps. She grimaced. She gagged. “It’s been a while. And that’s no Jack Daniels. That’s some cheap stuff. It’ll kill you.”
“Hey, that was mine.” My words sounded bullying,
She leaned over the bar, her breasts almost falling out her dress. She yelled, “Hey, sweetheart. Yes, you, handsome. Bring us another drink.” She came back to me and smiled. “Make that two. It’s cold outside. We’re going to party tonight.”
My head became so heavy my neck couldn’t hold its weight. I let it sag to my chest and saw the scratches in the bar’s counter made by the sharp end of a neglected house key. It read like a tombstone epitaph, LD WAS HERE.
Had I done that? Or was it some other person named LD? How many LD’s had sat on this third seat from the wall hoping for a life different from the one they’d been given?
Without seeing, I knew the dark shadow of the bartender standing down at the other end of the bar was watching me. He was waiting for my signal. And once I gave it, the simple pointing of my index finger, he’d come to me and say, “One more before you hit the road?
“She shut the door on me.”
“Of course she did. And she’s right. What good were you to her? You were no mother, that’s for sure. Not a good wife, either. Frankie was always so good. He was there, always there, but you hated him for that, didn’t you? You hated Frankie because he could get up out of bed each and every morning. He could put a face on for the day. He got the kids ready for school, while you were still wondering if you made it home or not.”
I reached for the glass. Somehow it had filled again and the amber sloshed onto my fingers. I licked each finger clean, one at a time. Good, so good.
“I wish I were dead. No one would care.”
“Of course not. Here, take another drink.” She pushed the glass to my lips. “Then take another and another, drink the whole damn bottle. Hell, no, drink up the whole damned bar and then go find another place open. It’s cold enough outside you can freeze to death. They say freezing is an easy way to die.”
“I’m tired. So tired.”
“Think of it this way. If you were dead, you wouldn’t have to worry about anything anymore.”
“No worries?” Peace. A pure and simple word. Rest in peace.
“No worries. No touching or being touched. No smelling anything bad. No smells at all. Can’t feel, see, taste!”
Dahlia’s anger used to frightened me: “You think I like getting up every day knowing already what the day’s going to be like? Life’s the burden you’ve got to bear. You’d better grow up and realize that now, before it’s too late.
“I’m sorry, Mama.”
The glass in my hand sweated from the ice. I hated ice. Who’d ordered ice? Warm booze went down faster.
“This is your drink, not mine.” She leaned over again to yell down the bar, “Hey, down here. Bring us another round.” When she turned and looked into my eyes, in her eyes I could see me. Hair wet and limp. Face a deeply etched map of where I’d been and what I had come back to.
Margaret doesn’t want you.
“No. She doesn’t want me.”
I saw the shadow of the bartender begin to move down the bar. The white of his teeth gleamed out from his darkness, as white as any celebrity’s teeth. He smiled a ravenous smile like a starved dog being offered a full bowl of kibble.
If I stayed, he’d to try pull me back into his darkness.
I let go of the glass.
The lost soul lifted his head as I passed him. “Where’re you going, sister? Pull up a stool. Let me buy you a drink.”
“Come with me.”
He smiled, his eyes teary. Took another sip from his glass.
The door with the exit sign felt leaden, as if made of steel. Glancing back, I saw the bartender pour the lost soul a drink.
I squinted to see down to the third stool next to the wall. It still appeared as if someone was sitting there. The thought that it still might be me and that only in my dreams would I have gotten up to leave horrified me. I struggled the door fully open.
My footprints darkened the white, tracked black down the sidewalk into the street. I shoved off what snow I could from the car’s windshield. Clunking open the car door, pushing the front seat forward so that I could reach in back, I grabbed my heavier jacket and slipped it on. The heaviness felt good. I got into the driver’s seat and put the key into the slot. The car stubbornly refused to start. I turned the key again and again. My foot stamped down onto the gas pedal.
What was holding me here? What was keeping me from leaving? I glanced back through the flurry to the door.
But the martini glass had dimmed. The OPEN sign turned off.
And then the motor started. The car lurched forward. I turned down one street after another. Street signs changed from familiar names to alien directions and unknown places.