By Rosemary Cacolice Brown.
Alice Briar, now living alone in Ferndale at age thirty-two, rose at 7:30 as she’d done every morning and padded to the kitchenette of her studio apartment to make coffee. She hadn’t slept well, tossing and turning all night, wondering how she could have been so gullible as to marry Milo Pierce.
Of course, she already knew. Slick and handsome, he had plied her plenty in the beginning. She had the “goods,” he said, with her hazel eyes, chestnut hair and fabulous voice that landed her a spot with his five-member jazz quintet at Charlie’s Lounge where loyal patrons sipped cocktails in the mellow, bluesy atmosphere. In short time she fell madly in love, foolishly eloping with him within just two short months—the bliss of it all lasting barely a year until the rumor spread among the employees about his hidden affair with a twenty-something looker from Grosse Pointe that they all knew. At first she refused to believe it, but when the rumor didn’t fade she curiously approached him, only to be shocked by his raging denial and a sudden facial slap that bruised her cheek, the first of many over time that she cleverly covered with makeup.
Yet, through the maelstrom she stayed, walking on eggs for fear of inadvertently saying anything that would set him off. Like an obedient geisha she gave in to his every whim, in bed or not, blunting her humiliation between sets by joining the crowd, gin and tonic her preference, at times missing cues and slurring lyrics. Only the bartender, Tom Stoddard, was privy to her pain, adamantly sworn to secrecy. Then, one miraculous night, she summoned whatever remnants of self-respect she had left and walked out while the quintet was playing September Song, one of George Shearing’s iconic hits. Only then did Milo admit the truth the following morning, pleading for mercy, but she was done, already packed to leave. Daring him to stop her, he folded like thin paper.
So now it was over—or was it? The residue of her frightful experience weighed on her like wet gauze, so often described as post-traumatic stress. Depressed and rudderless throughout the impending divorce, she continued to imbibe until, by the “grace of angels” she liked to think, her commonsense took hold, leading to her first AA meeting in an annexed room of St. Cecelia’s parish, even though she hadn’t attended Mass in some time. Fine enough, except for days like today when drenching regret for her utter stupidity overwhelmed her and relapsed threatened. The only upside was that, so far, she was managing well enough, now employed at a pricey gift shop selling scented candles, figurines and whatnot; the atmosphere far removed from the smoky, intoxicating influence of Charlie’s Lounge.
Thus was the backdrop of Alice’s story on this ordinary Thursday, her day off. As she sipped coffee in her minuscule kitchenette, her intent was to stay fiercely busy all day to keep the “dragons away”—as she colorfully phrased it. Do some grocery shopping and pick up some dog food for Daisy, her rescued mixed-breed terrier of six months. And maybe she’d drop into Nick Bailey’s small shoe store on Hickory Avenue for some new loafers. It was time since her current pair had stretched beyond support, the casual style having long since replaced the stilettos she wore in her chanteuse days. After showering and a quick breakfast of one English muffin and orange juice, she wriggled into her favorite jeans and threw on her green jersey top with a cursive notation that said Full Speed Ahead, the encouraging reminder appeasing her as Daisy, perched alongside her, watched silently.
Twenty minutes later she was on the road in her four-year-old Honda with her grocery list and one stubby pencil in the pocket of her jeans. The traffic seemed heavier than usual for a weekday, but no matter. Driving always kept the harsh reality of her past at bay, at least for awhile. She even enjoyed the weekly task she was presently into, always maneuvering through the aisles with quick ease. Forty minutes later she was done, and then it was on to Nick Bailey’s shoe store. But there’d be no new loafers today as she read the note taped to the door that said “Sorry, closed today, Having root canal. Nick.”
What to do? Sighing, she simply went home, filed the groceries away and plucked a bowl of leftover tuna salad from the fridge, and while sharing it with Daisy, decided on the fly that Melody Park on Hickory Avenue, directly across from Nick’s shoe store, was her next move, clueless that the impulsive decision would mark the turning page of her fractured life. Leashing Daisy, she grabbed her shoulder bag and Daisy’s water bowl—her plan to fill it at the park fountain as she’d often done—as she rushed out to the Honda for the second time this day.
Melody Park was empty when she arrived. Not a solitary pet lover in sight, but fine by her since she wasn’t in the mood for idle chitchat. Unleashing Daisy, she settled on a paint-chipped park bench to watch as the furry darling scampered over the sprawling green, stopping occasionally to bless a tree, panting with excitement. Retrieving the water bowl, she trekked twenty feet to the park fountain in the ill-fitting loafers, only to find it out of commission, dry as dust. So now what? She wasn’t ready to go home to the dragons that haunted her and, God knows, neither was Daisy. She’d have to find water, but from where?
Mulling her dilemma, Alice scanned Hickory Avenue. There was, of course, Nick Bailey’s shoe store, a print shop, and Dobb’s Inn on the corner, the new sports bar just opened last January. Her best option was Quik Mart a half block down. So, securing Daisy once again, the leash on her wrist, she placed the water bowl under the paint-chipped bench. Hoisting her shoulder bag once again, she crossed Hickory at the corner light and walked in. Then, after pulling three bottled waters from the rear wall cooler she proceeded to the payout window, but while leaving stopped short when she heard her name called.
“Alice! Alice Briar!
She turned. Of all people, there stood her old friend and confidante, Tom Stoddard, the bartender at Charlie’s Pub, his thinning hair now streaked with faint strands of gray.
“Tom! What a surprise! It’s good to see you!” she said, her tone joyful.
“Likewise,” he cheerfully replied, the mutual greetings followed by warm hugs.
“So how are things at the old watering hole?” she quipped, quelling the angst hovering her this day.
Tom shrugged, his hands in the pockets of his baseball jacket. “Don’t know. Charlie’s Lounge is no longer. After the old man passed on his two sons took it over and turned it into a rock joint. Jazz lovers disappeared and so did I a few months after you left. Couldn’t take the racket.”
Alice feigned a smile. She shouldn’t ask, but she did. “And the quintet?”
Tom paused, groping for response. “I think they’re playing in Chicago now. But, hey, how ‘bout you? You doin’ okay these days?”
She surmised he knew by “quintet” she meant Milo, but let it slide. “I’m doing well,” she fibbed. “Divorced, Milo’s gone, new day and end of story.”
“It’s good to know…you were too good for the bastard,” he said straight out. Then, after a long, awkward pause he went on. “You know, when you left that night, I regretted not being more honest with you. But you had so much on your plate, I felt you didn’t need my story.”
His remark puzzled her until he explained. “By that I mean when you started singing there I was already five years sober.”
His stunning revelation rocked her! God, every night the guy poured drink after drink to a thirsty crowd lined at the bar! In that pinnacle moment a symbiotic connection poured through her. She needed to know more. He seemed so at peace with himself.
“And you never…you know, relapsed?” she asked, amazed.
Tom chuckled. “Can’t say it wasn’t tough in the beginning. But, for me, it all came down to choice—self-forgiveness, I guess. After I won the battle, reached the goalpost, I didn’t want to be shackled to it the rest of my life—live in fear of backslide. In fact, after Charlie’s bit the dust I drove a hack for awhile and found it boring as hell. I figured bartending is what I do. Do it well and like the people—well, most of them—and it’s a decent living.”
Alice stood mute. For a moment she wondered if he was lying, but quickly dismissed it as Daisy began to whine in protest of the leash. “So you’re back in the saddle then?”
He nodded, grinning now. “Yep, and living not far from here. I run the taps a few doors down at Dobb’s Inn…hired in last week. If you come in, I’ll make you a pretty nonalcoholic drink with a little umbrella in it—on the house, of course.”
Sweet, but she politely declined. “Thanks, but I’ll pass, Tom. I’m only here because of Melody Park across the street—which Daisy is itching to get back to, as you can see.”
Nodding, Tom stooped to scratch Daisy’s ears, then stood, fumbling for response. “So how ‘bout this. Let’s stay in touch this time. Take my number—I won’t push for yours. Just call me if you feel like company sometime, and I’ll join you at the park when I can.”
Moments ticked as Alice pondered his compelling victory over addiction, so unlike her very own at this point. But weary of the fear that tethered her, she nervously pulled out the rumpled grocery list and stubby pencil still in her jeans pocket and jotted her number, wondering if his unyielding optimism could ever be enough to pull her from the shielding cocoon she lived in.
With that, hugs, promises and cordial good-byes ended the reunion. Alice crossed Hickory Avenue once again at the light and returned to the same paint-chipped bench to unleash Daisy and fill the water bowl. Then, suddenly, as she sifted through the course of this one given day, a flutter of peace washed over her, the seminal moment releasing her from the dark alley of uncertainty she’d plundered through for so long. Indeed, Tom Stoddard’s wise words of choice and self-forgiveness had hit a resounding cord she so needed and, grateful for his friendship, she’d definitely stay in touch this time. But for now it was time to go home, make something easy for dinner, feed Daisy and have a foot soak. Hopefully Nick Bailey would be back in the shoe store tomorrow. She really needed those new loafers.
ROSEMARY BROWN, mother of four and grandmother of six, is always at the keyboard in her southeastern Michigan home whenever time allows. Early on her work was print-published in small-press magazines. On the Internet, her many stories have been published at Long Story Short, Apollo’s Lyre, Green Silk Journal, Houston Lit Review, Fiction on the Web, and soon The Story Shack. She says she loves creating plots more than her morning coffee.
Photo by polkadotted1.