by Melina Huddy
She reminded me of someone that I'd known once, but I couldn't
recall who. She came into the bar that first Saturday wearing red slacks and white high heels, looking good and smelling even better.
"Draft." Her voice was top shelf bourbon, deep amber, smooth and
mellow. She sounded like someone used to being listened to.
I got her a mug of beer and watched her drink while I tended bar.
Saturday afternoons are pretty busy around here; folks stop in and have a couple, then go on about their shopping or whatever.
Dad bought this place from Jim Parker about forty years ago and
let Mom name it and do the decorating. It's still called Kitty Korner and there are ceramic cats everywhere. I never have liked it, but who am I to change what's become a town institution?
After Dad died and Mom went to the nursing home, I bought my sister
out and Kitty Korner's all mine now. There used to be a laundromat next door, but I bought that, too; put in a couple pool tables and a dance floor. I turn a fair profit.
"Hey, Jack." The back door slammed against the afternoon sun,
letting Bud and Virginia in. It's regulars like these two that keep me in business.
Bud's a little weasel of a man, dark and greasy in a diesel
mechanic kind of way. Virginia's on the housekeeping staff at the hospital, a tiny brown mouse. She wears smocks and walks uphill, even on flat land. They keep an apartment above the bank across the street.
Two long-necked Stroh's, two glasses of ice. "What flavor?" I'd
gotten in a sample case of flavored schnapps about a month ago, and Virginia liked to sample things. I knew what Bud would say.
"What's that dark brown one?"
"I'll try that."
She was smoking a cigarette when I noticed that her mug was empty.
She nodded. I wanted to ask her if we'd met somewhere before,
but that line's older than I am. "Fresh mug?" Some people like them frosted and others keep the same one all night.
"Yes, please." Her eyes made me think of the storms we get in
August, dark gray and powerful. Her smile was like the rainbows after, always unexpected and awfully pretty.
She had two more before she left, and I didn't know any more about
her that when she'd come in. That, in itself, made her odd. Women usually get chatty after a couple beers, and strangers like to talk about themselves. A strange woman in the Kitty Korner, alone – well, that was almost unheard of. Shit, she hadn't even said anything about the cats and they all do that.
The night crowd started in. Men driving pick-up trucks and herds of
too loud laughter. Women wearing make-up like armor over worry. Drinking beer and shooting pool, dropping quarters in the juke box, dancing.
I don't have posted hours. Everybody knows. Monday through Friday, noon 'til midnight. I'll let them stay until two on Saturday, unless a fight breaks out. Sunday's my day off.
"Last call," I shout at 12:15.
"Ah, come one."
"One more, Jack."
"It's early yet, give us another round over here."
"Come on, Jack! I can't go home before one on Saturday. The old
lady'll think I'm sick and feed me chicken soup for Sunday dinner!"
"Wait just a minute, Jack. I'm trying to talk this little girl into
going home with me."
And so it went, like every other Saturday. I locked the doors at
2:05, with nobody left but Bud, Virginia and me.
"So, who was she?"
"Red slacks, red Cadillac."
"Yeah." Bud got us a beer. Another Stroh's for him, Genessee for
me. Virginia was cleaning up, like she always does.
Six nights a week she stays after closing, and on Sunday's she comes
in and really gives the place a going over. She takes her housekeeping seriously, and does a damn good job. I think she dusts every one of those freaking cats. I know if I look hard enough on Monday I'll probably find a new one. If I ask her, she can tell me how much pussy is in the room.
"Hey, Virginia, how much . . ."
"5221." She's heard it for ten years now, and keeps a running count.
"Yeah." Bud knows his cars like Virginia knows her clean. "'73. El
Dorado. Front wheel drive and in good shape, too. Pretty thing. We saw her pull up, out of state plates. I didn't look, maybe Virginia . . . hey, Virginia, did you notice the plates on that Eldy?"
"No. Nice car, though. Friend of yours, Jack?"
"Nope. Reminded me of somebody. Can't think who."
"Shame." Virginia's been trying to marry me off ever since I took
over this place.
I used to think about getting married, before Viet Nam, before Dad
died. I told him all about my dream girl once and he said, "You'll never find one like that, son." He was right, I never did. I'm too old now to think about it any more. I'll be 48 next fall.
Dad was right about most things. Just before he died, he said to me
one morning, "You'll have to take care of your mother when I'm gone. She won't take my passing very well, I'm afraid." He was 62 and healthy, and I didn't pay much attention.
Before the month was out he'd been killed in a head on collision.
Mom burned the house down the day of the funeral. They tried her for arson and the judge found her incompetent. The insurance company paid off and she went to the home. I bought Marty's half of the bar and the laundromat. Marty took the money and her kids and her lawyer husband and moved to Connecticut. Marty was always a taker, and a mover.
I drove home in the hazy darkness and was glad to see the light on
in the kitchen. It meant that Bell was still there. Bell manages the trailer park I bought when I first got back from Nam. I hired her when I took over Kitty Korner, give her two hundred a week and free rent on a 3-bedroom.
She was glad to get it then, for her and her two kids. She worked
the bar before Dad died. In ten years, she's never asked for a raise and cooks my supper every night. Folks think that we sleep together, which just goes to show how little they know. Bell was Dad's mistress, not mine.
"Jack." Bell's a pretty woman, pink and white, soft voiced and
hard working. "Scott went fishing this morning. Catfish for your supper."
Golden brown with just enough cayenne, hush puppies, fries and slaw --
a perfect meal, like so many before. "Thanks, Bell. Good eating. How goes things?"
"Fine, Jack, just fine. Coffee?" She poured two cups and joined
me. "Third month in a row with no late rents. Got that water line fixed on 19 today. Can you smell the grass? Mowers running all afternoon – can't stand the sound, but sure do like that smell."
"Folks come in to pay their rent just to get a cup of your coffee,
Bella. It's been a better park since you took over, you're better with the people than I ever was."
"Nonsense. You took in every hard luck case that walked into the
bar is all. I check references. Free drinks don't hit the pocketbook as hard as free rent."
I laughed at her, but knew that she was right. One of the best moves
I ever made was setting Bell Watson up as park manager.
It was Wednesday, late and raining when Bud said, "Saw her at the
Food Mart. Ahead of me in line, got one of those barbecued chickens and a bottle of fancy wine. Ever find out who she is?"
"I didn't ask, just figured she was passing through. Still in town,
huh?" That wasn't exactly true. I'd been looking for her car, but hadn't seen it anywhere and decided that I'd never see her again. It still bothered me. She reminded me so much of someone.
And then there she was, back at the Kitty Korner that Saturday,
wearing black, with red heels and a scarf this time. Four draft beers and she was gone. Next three Saturdays in a row. Always wearing red, and either black or white.
By the end of the month, I was like one of the damn cats, ready
to die for the curiosity, and called Ed Johnson. Ed knows everything there is to know in this town.
"Ed! It's Jack."
"Long time, Jack. How's your mother? Marty?"
"The same, Ed. Just the same." If there had been any change in
Mom, someone would have called me from the home. They call every year with the new rates. And I still get proper little thank you notes for the checks I send to Marty's kids, so nothings changed there, either. "Haven't seen you in the Korner, been a couple months, hasn't it?"
"Yeah. Ma's down sick and I been helping Pops out. Keep telling the
old man to leave the farming to the kids, but he's as stubborn as the day is long. Won't listen to sense, so you know he's not going to listen to me! Loves those chickens like a mother loves her children . . . what's up, Jack? Not like you to call just to hear my jaw flap."
"Well, Ed, to tell you the truth, I'm, well, I'm kind of curious
about something. Ought to say somebody. There's this woman, been coming in on Saturday's. Drives a red Cadillac . . ."
His dry chuckle stopped me and I waited. He knew something. "Strange
bird, that one. Pulled in out at the Parker place 5, 6 weeks ago, hauling a camper, one of those AirStreams. Set it up by herself, too. Got keys to the house and goes in and out, but stays in the camper. It's weird driving by and seeing lights out there. After the old man sold the Korner to your Daddy, the Parker's . . ."
I didn't call to hear the Parker family history. "Did the Parker's
have a daughter?" I was trying hard to remember.
"No, Jack, no Parker girls. Just boys. Four sons and not one to
take over the bar. Course, back then it was called `Jim's Place', don't suppose you'd remember that. Can't say as I do, either. Just heard Pops talk about how much your mother changed the place, made it fit for ladies, Ma says. She still looks for those knick-knacks when she gets out. No, she's not a Parker. Don't know who she is. Been down here 3 or 4 times, buying eggs. Doesn't say much. Why you asking, Jack?"
That's why Ed knows so much, he's always asking. If she'd been to
the Johnson's more than once and Ed hadn't found out anything about her, well, "No reason, Ed. Just wondering. Look, I've got to get off of here. Carpenter's coming in this morning, shelves for the cats, you know." Lucy Johnson and Virginia weren't the only ones buying knick-knacks.
"Got a regular museum, don't you. That's fine, real fine. How many
of those things you got now? Ma was just saying the other day that you could probably get in that record book, ever thought about that, Jack?"
"Can't say as I have, Ed. Something to think about. Over five
thousand, last count. Well, I got to go. Sorry to hear your Ma's not well. Stop in at the Korner when you get a chance, I'll buy you a beer. Give your folks my best, hear?"
"Sure thing, Jack. Sure thing. And if I hear anything . . ."
"Doesn't matter, Ed, really. Not important at all. Be seeing you."
I drove into town through the familiar early morning. She'd be in
tomorrow, and I'd just mention that the Parker's used to own the bar, see what she had to say. Probably shy, is all. Even as I thought it, I knew it wasn't so. Reserved and private, strong and proud, maybe stubborn, but not bashful, not that woman.
"You want them shelves built or not?"
"Yeah, Tom -- sorry I'm late. Got tied up on the phone. In here,"
unlocking the door, clicking on the lights, "along that wall, just like the ones on the other side, ok?"
"No problem, Jack."
On Saturday I caught myself watching, listening for her footsteps,
turning when I heard the door. She didn't come in at the usual time, and it chilled me even though it was a heavy, sweating day.
Virginia's sister and her husband were in for the week-end. Bud and
Virginia were entertaining them at a table. I missed them at the bar and hadn't heard a new joke all day. I felt stale beer flat and took two aspirin.
The door opened and Ed walked in, carrying an enormous box.
"What's this?" I asked as he sat it on the bar. "Have a beer?"
"No thanks, Ma's bad, got to get back." He mopped at his face with
a napkin. "Lady up at Parker's brought this down. Said she was leaving tomorrow. Seems she's in real estate. Guess their going to sell the old place. Anyway, asked me if I'd bring this in to you after she'd gone. Said she thought you needed it. I figured you'd want to thank her, so I ran it down now."
The box was neatly wrapped in brown paper. Inside was a life-size
china dalmatian, wearing a red collar. The card said: To Jack from Kitty (Kathleen McPherson).
I was smiling as I grabbed my keys. "Lock up for me tonight, Virginia!
I drove out of town through a trembling dusk and thought about how
wrong Dad could be sometimes. That twelve year old of Bell's had his eyes; it was Bella's brother driving the truck that hit him left of center.
I should have recognized her, but it had been so long since I had
allowed myself to dream. Kitty! I had to laugh. I punched the accelerator, didn't want to keep her waiting.
I could feel her stormy eyes flashing in my soul. # # #
Copyright 1994 Melina Huddy
Melina Huddy lives in Newark, Delaware where she is adored by her (4th) husband, accepted by her friends, and tolerated by the bird. She writes short stories and works in the advanced ceramic composite research field in her spare time. She can be found in Author's Network.