By S. Paul Bowen
Clio descended the stairs to the dive bar carefully. It was the brightest day of the summer, if not the hottest, and it took her eyes some time to grow accustomed to the darkness. If this was her regular bar, she wouldn’t have any problems, but she wanted to go someplace where she could remain anonymous.
She hunched over a bit as she walked in. She thought the ruse effective, but ultimately unnecessary, as nobody in the nearly empty establishment so much as looked up. She took a few shuffling steps toward a barstool, but then veered left and sat down at a table against the wall. She was breathing heavily, she noticed, nearly hyperventilating. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath through her mouth and slowly let it out through her nose. She did this three more times and then stopped when her breathing was back to normal. Without realizing it, she caressed her stomach.
She opened her eyes and was greeted by an ample chest in a pink and white striped top. Her breasts pushed at the top, allowing one to see a black bra between the buttons. “What can I get you, hon?” she asked.
Without hesitation, Clio asked for her usual. “Crown, rocks. Please.”
“You got it.” The woman walked away, leaving behind her a cloud of Aquanet that Clio could practically taste.
“God, what’s wrong with me?” Clio asked aloud, and again rubbed her stomach. Physically, Clio felt about as good as she had in months. She was just shy of five months sober and had left the worst of the shakes behind her. She was, quite frankly, surprised that she had gotten as far as she had. The last time she had gone more than a few weeks without drinking were the first seventeen and a half years of her life. Since that first can of Iron City Beer—bitter for the first drink, then cool going down for the second, and finally the third ending with a warm and pleasant dulling of the senses—she knew she was in the grip of alcohol. Not that she had any reservations. “Grip” connoted negativity, but it was more like the firm clasp of a lover. At any rate, she was happily being held in its warm confines. She graduated to vodka a few weeks later, and finally discovered the bliss of whiskey about a year after that, and never looked back.
Until just about four months ago. That was when the little pink plus sign confirmed what her missed period hinted at. She immediately slid off the toilet she had been sitting on while she waited for the result, and lifted the lid just in time to deposit the recent contents of her stomach—about a fifth of whiskey and two churned up slices of pepperoni pizza. The mixed smells of alcohol, marinara, cheese, and bile turned her stomach further and she wretched fruitlessly. It took almost all of her remaining strength to flush the toilet and remove the awful stench before she laid her head on the cool linoleum and passed out.
She awoke late the next morning with the fervent wish that the pregnancy test had been a bad dream, but she knew it wasn’t, even before she picked up the test again and saw the plus sign, this time with a crispness that the alcohol had blurred the night before.
Jesus, what a night. Of course, it was only the most recent in what had been a month and a half of bad nights, since the night Alfred . . . No, she wouldn’t think about that.
The waitress set down Clio’s drink in front of her on a napkin bearing the bar’s name, Nineteen Pages. Extravagant touch, she thought, considering the bar was pretty much a shithole. “Anything else I can get for you?” she asked. Clio looked at the woman’s nametag. Trudy.
Clio nodded toward the tag. “That’s a nice name.” She had recently taken to noticing people’s names. “Is it short for something?”
“Gertrude. But don’t you dare call me that.”
Clio managed a weak smile. “You don’t like it?”
Trudy shrugged. “Sounds like an old lady’s name to me. But I like Trudy fine.”
“Are you named after someone?”
Trudy laughed. “Yeah. My parents were both English professors, and they named me after some dyke poet, Gertrude Stein. And wouldn’t they be proud of what I’ve become?”
“Are they gone? I’m sorry.”
Trudy shook her head. “No, they’re not gone. At least, not that I know of. I’m gone. I left when I was young and stupid and never went back.”
Clio guessed Trudy to be in her mid-50s or so. While her own parents were none too proud of her life choices—specifically making drinking a full time job, dropping out of college one semester short of a Bachelor’s, going out with Alfred, and most recently, deciding to keep the deadbeat’s baby—she could not imagine not knowing about them for more than half of her life.
“You really look like you could use a friend, sweetie. You want to talk?”
Clio smiled that wan smile again and shook her head. “No thanks.”
“Well, I’m behind the bar if you change your mind.”
Clio turned back to her drink and felt something poke her belly rudely. This type of thing was happening more and more often as her stomach protruded, the skin stretching tight over it like a drum. She looked down and noticed a handle jammed into her stomach. The table she sat at was a foosball table that somebody had cleverly sawed in half and abutted against the wall. It was covered in Plexiglas with dozens of rings obscuring the tiny foosball players. She wondered how she had missed it before, but then she remembered that missing the obvious was something else that was happening more often.
She picked up her drink and noticed the condensation as it created yet another of those circles, even through the flimsy napkin. She inhaled the whiskey and shuddered with pleasure as the smell passed the cilia in her nostrils and settled at the back of her throat, creating what was nearly a taste.
Alfred was the one who got her into whiskey. She was nineteen and mousey and he was twenty-eight and muscular with a shaggy insouciant mop of blond hair and only the beginnings of a gut, and everything he said was right. So when he told her that vodka was a pussy drink because it barely tasted like anything, and that the subtle flavors in whiskey were akin to the tannins in wine, of course she tried it. And even if he was wrong—which he wasn’t—she was determined to drink whiskey until she liked it.
He also got her into other things, like weed, shrooms, E, and acid, and while those were all fun, they didn’t hold her interest like alcohol. And when he invited Clio to live with him in the house he shared with two other guys, of course she jumped at the chance, never mind that both of those guys struck her as enormously skeevy.
She swirled her drink, noticing the comforting sound of ice clinking against glass. She brought the drink to her nose again and breathed in. This time, it turned her stomach and she pulled it away as though it stung her. She felt nauseated and thought about rushing to the bathroom, but the nausea subsided as quickly as it came.
She had only once before been so bothered by the smell of whiskey. It was the night that the being now growing in her uterus was conceived. At least, she thought it was the same night. She and Alf were very good about using condoms. She tried the pill, but never found one that agreed with her, so condoms it was. She sometimes toyed with the idea of having children, but it never got beyond that. She couldn’t imagine a kid in her life, not as it now was. And she supposed she was old-fashioned, but still thought that parents should be married when they had kids, and while she loved Alf, she would never marry him. She wasn’t sure when it happened, but her opinion of him shifted at some point, and she thought she was better than him from then on, and always changed the subject the half dozen or so times he brought up marriage.
But this night, she was wasted and horny and Alf was only too willing to help her scratch that itch and completely “forget” to put on a condom. He had just gotten home from work—the late shift at Ralphs—and Clio was adamant. After the brief, sweaty performance, she was equally adamant that he run back to work to get more alcohol. “Come on, babe,” she said, moving her hands down her breasts in what she thought was her sexiest look. “Let’s keep the party going.”
“Let’s keep the party going.” The last words she would ever say to him.
Alf was hardly ever sober, but he was as sober as he got as he made the just over two mile drive back to work. He was certainly sober enough to drive, as he had done it several times before. Thus making the scene ironic when his 2000 Taurus was sideswiped by a new Mercedes, its owner later showing a BAC of .19.
Clio wondered just how much time separated the collision and the insemination. Sometimes she liked to think that he was killed after sperm met ovum, and on some level he knew he was going to be a father. And sometimes she liked to think that the two events were simultaneous, and that this new life would be imbued with Alf’s soul. But mostly she wondered how he could leave her like this—no job, rent due, alone, and knocked up with a dead man’s baby.
When she heard that Alf was killed, she turned straight to her old numbing agent and spent the next four days either getting drunk or being passed out. The smell of the whiskey made her sick then. It smelled of burning flesh and burnt rubber. It smelled of blood and spilled gasoline. But she would stifle a wretch and drink up.
“You okay over here?” Trudy, with her protruding bosom and cakey foundation.
“You haven’t touched your drink.”
“I guess I’m not as thirsty as I thought.”
“Want me to take it back? I won’t charge you.”
“Leave it for another minute, would you?”
When she missed her period—usually a very reliable occurrence, Clio thought it might have just been the heavy drinking, that she had finally pickled her insides. At least, that’s what she wanted to think. She didn’t want to think that she could be bringing a child in this world. Into her world. Her world of late nights, bars, booze, and douchebag boyfriends. Well, she could cross one of those things off the con list now. She was nobody who should be a mother. She considered an abortion, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. She supposed it was the way she sometimes romanticized the conception with relation to Alf’s death. Regardless, once she decided that she was keeping the baby (at least through the birth), she swore off alcohol.
She had her doubts that she could do it, but she kept thinking of the innocent being inside her and it was easier than she thought. Which was not to say that it was easy, only manageable.
Until this morning.
That was when her insurance called her. Nobody was paying out since Alf was legally drunk. Mercedes’ lawyer was fighting this, saying both parties were to blame. Clio, who went to great pains to prove she was Alf’s beneficiary, was getting nothing, because there was nothing to get. This was supposed to be how she would take care of her—their—child, but now she was back to being stumped. And when Clio was in a bad way, what did she turn to?
She looked toward the bar. She wanted to know if anyone was looking at her before she drank. Two customers were at the bar with their backs to her. Trudy was chatting with one of them. She caught Clio’s eye and nodded. She’d be right there.
Before Trudy had a chance to finish her conversation, Clio pulled a ten out of her purse and slipped it under the full drink. Condensation dampened the bill, but Clio doubted the waitress would mind. She shuffled to the door as fast as she could with the extra ten pounds that felt far heavier. She climbed the stairs two at a time and stepped into the bright day. The sun pierced her eyes like needles before she could fish her sunglasses out of her purse and put them on. Already she could feel a thin coat of sweat after the coolness of the bar. Despite the heat—104, according to the LED readout on the bank across the street—she ran to her car and plopped into the driver’s seat. She leaned across to the glove box, her stomach protesting as it pressed into the gear shift, and pulled out the flask that Alf had given her last Christmas. It had her initials on it. She imagined the Crown Royal inside would be warm. Warm like another body. She rubbed her initials on the flask. And they were her initials. Suddenly she was exultant that she never took Alf’s name. It was her one possession that was not shared by him. She had always felt slightly guilty about changing the subject every time Alf brought up marriage, but now she was positively giddy that he never pushed it. She laughed. Mine, she thought. It’s my name. She liked the way the word bounced around her head and said it aloud. “Mine.” She brushed her thumb across her initials, her other hand rubbing her stomach. “Mine.”