by Christy Crutchfield
Jim says, “You’re not coming in here, are you?” in a voice that says please. My no comes out yes.
Inside, everyone yells, “Neighbor!” just like they used to. Only back then it was “Neighbors!” If memory serves, someone will send over a shot of Kahlua and I will smile it down.
There’s only so long a woman can study her flaking nails in a winter kitchen. The plan was to put on my toughest boots and tough the January sidewalks, to weave my way through the elderly at Sam’s Grocery on Crazy Tuesday and scare up dinner. I only made it a block to a barstool and my next door neighbor Jim. I don’t know how he spends every night here and still goes to work before my alarm goes off.
It’s bigger in here than I remember. The game is on. All the games are on. My neighborhood is here and still in the happy portion of the evening. They’re nice but not sure what to do with me. It’s strange to them that I would keep living on this street alone, at all.
I wish I had a label to pick at like Jim, but I’ve ordered a draft and it’s come in long glass. When the shots come, I’m thankful they aren’t Kahlua, that salt and lime are included. The burn is a winter comfort.
“I wish we had a snow day tomorrow,” I say. I’ve already called in three times this month.
“I’ve been wishing for that every morning since the third grade,” Jim says.
I suspect my boss can tell the difference between sickness and sadness. Another long beer will not help, but here it is.
“Why don’t you call me Jimmy like everyone else?” Jim says.
“Because you introduced yourself as Jim.”
Jim takes off his stocking cap, rubs the back of his stubbled head. I worry that I’ve nodded too vigorously and laughed too encouragingly. I forgot what it means to be a woman alone in a bar. Some woman who works at a desk instead of with her hands. Some woman who is blonde and young enough in this low light to pass for pretty.
A bag of Doritos is on the house and dinner. My scratch ticket comes up empty. I may have taken another shot. I can’t keep track of my long beers.
Jim uses the edge of the bar to lean farther on his stool and says, “You are nothing like I expected.” I can smell the tequila just under the tobacco. I can see the grey stubble on his cheeks. How stupid that you can’t lie on someone’s chest without fulfilling other commitments first. How stupid to decide to be dangerous a block from home.
When Jim puts a hand on my knee, and tells me he’s glad I came out tonight, I tell him that I had to. I tell him otherwise, it was just me and a floor full of packing peanuts. I took the broom to them and the little Ss slid around the floor evading the dustpan. It made this noise on the hardwood. It felt like an art installation.
“When I finally got them all up,” I say. “They filled an entire garbage bag.”
Jim’s face is in stasis, waiting for the punch line, but the punch line is it made me sad.
His hand is still on my knee. And I do remember what it’s like to be a woman alone in a bar. And I remember that Jim lives next door. I remember my purse. I throw some number of bills on the bar. I hope I remembered my keys.
My boots are tough, even if they’ve only taken me a block. It’s icier than when I left, darker than the dark it’s been all day. I don’t know what time it is or what shape I’ll be for work tomorrow or if I remembered my phone.
When I’m almost to my apartment, I turn to see if Jim is after me though I know he isn’t. I collect salt and sand in my tread. I hold my house key between pointer and middle finger, ready to jab approaching faces. I search for black ice.
Then it’s on my nose, then my eyelashes. I look up, and it’s snowing. Fast, fat flakes. They land on my coat and maintain their Christmas ornament shape.
The neighbors leak out of the bar to watch. Jim looks at the sky and then at me. I smile too encouragingly at him and pinch my keys tighter. He smiles back.
Christy Crutchfield is the author of the novel How to Catch a Coyote. Her work has appeared in Tin House, Mississippi Review, Salt Hill Journal, PANK, and others. She writes and teaches in Western Massachusetts.