2009 story submission by Lani Jo Leigh
Three o’clock on this Memorial Day afternoon, I’m having a beer in the Queen of Hearts. It’s a neighborhood bar across the street from the community center where Eugene and I used to go swimming three or four times a week. One time I even got him to take a yoga class with me, but since he was the only male in the class, he swore he’d never do it again. To be truthful, I used to think this bar was a strip club, and it’s certainly not the kind of place I would normally frequent, but today is my Red Letter Day so anything is possible for me.
I climb on one of the high stools to order. The bartender rambles off the usual list of American piss, but it would be a disservice to Eugene to drink anything like that. He used to make his own home brew, and many’s the time I’d come home from a day of teaching and the whole house would reek of hops and malt. Every Memorial Day, instead of fighting crowds at the shore, Eugene always liked to stay home and brew up a big batch of beer to have ready in time for July 4th and the BluesFest. I keep shaking my head until the bartender suggests Ten Barrel. He says it’s a new micro-brew out of Bend, an I.P.A. Sounds fine, I say. I’ll give it a shot. No, I don’t need a glass, I’ll sip it from the bottle.
Almost a dozen Harleys line the sidewalk outside. The walls are covered in beer slogans and posters. The slogans sound like pop psychology for achieving your full potential. For all you do, it’s all here, if you’ve got the time. But in the posters, fulfillment only comes from scantily clad young women straddling large bikes. The stools are fashioned out of motorcycle rims, and they form a “U” around the bar. I can see through to another, smaller room with a few tables. I guess bands play here in the evenings, a small stage juts out of the corner. I climb down from the stool, pick up my bottle and settle into a chair at a small table across from the stage.
It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. After the cancer diagnosis, after the surgery, the chemo, the radiation, I was going to get better and we would get a new lease on life. We could travel, maybe take that trip to Machu Picchu we always talked about. But then Eugene’s heart attack. He probably died pretty quick, but he must have had some idea about what was happening since he pulled the car over to the side of the road. Donna says he passed over to get things ready for me, but to Donna and all the other “it’s God’s will” or “God doesn’t give you more than you can bear” mumbly mouthed well wishers, I say I can do without that kinda help. I quit my treatment within a week of the funeral. So here I sit more than a year later, staring down my cancer like it’s a stray cat in the kitchen that’s jumped up on the counter to eat a plate of my bones with a side of liver for dessert. I try to shoo it away, but I just can’t. I don’t have the energy, and I don’t give a fig anymore. I would use stronger language, but I never got the hang of it. If I even start to think about saying the real f-word, I get the taste of Ivory Soap in my mouth.
I walk over to the jukebox and plug it with two dollars. Seven songs, not a bad deal. First song, Al Green, Love and Happiness.
Before I left the house this morning I was watching the Memorial Day ceremonies on C-SPAN. I saw President Obama lay a wreath of flowers on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Afterwards, he gave a pretty nice speech. “If the fallen could speak to us, what would they say?” Yeah, Eugene, what have you got to say for yourself?
Eugene could have had a military funeral, he served two tours in Vietnam, but whenever we talked about it, he’d say, “I don’t want that kind of a fuss.” So I had him cremated like he wanted, and then him and me, we took a walk like we used to, down the Springwater Corridor, and I left him on the banks of Johnson Creek. There wasn’t much to him, even alive, he was always a skinny little thing. He used to joke about us being Mr. and Mrs. Jack Spratt, since I had quite the backside. He’d be shocked to see me now. I look pretty much like Twiggy with make-up courtesy of Night of the Living Dead.
Second song, Billie Holiday, Summertime.
After the president’s speech, I drove over to Powell Butte, and sat in my car for awhile explaining things to myself mostly, but maybe some to Eugene. Then I went to the Pussycat Tattoo Parlor in Milwaukee for my first tattoo. My niece, Diane, recommended the place. I felt kind of funny sitting there, me a sick, old woman, around all these beautiful young folks adorned in ink and steel, but it’s just something I’d wanted for a long time. My sister, Judy, was appalled when she heard me and Diane talking about it, but I told her I wasn’t going to live long enough to regret it. Rose was my artist – a real sweet girl and gentle with me too. She told me to eat something before I came and to take a couple of ibuprofen. I couldn’t tell her that I haven’t been hungry, not for a long time, but I tried to keep down a bowl of Cheerios for her sake.
I always thought tattoos were either dark, like skeletons and sculls or Munch’s The Scream, or cutesy like butterflies and tiger lilies. But my tattoo isn’t dark or cutesy. It’s the Phoenix. I put it on my left arm. It didn’t even hurt that much. After all the sticking and prodding and surgeries I’ve had in the past five years, getting a tattoo was a walk in the park.
I like the design, but it’s kind of hard to tell it’s a bird. I guess you might say it’s a tribal version of a phoenix. That’s what Rose called it – tribal. It’s all shimmery, various shades of gold with golden red wings, flowing into a golden orange breast to a sun-at-high-noon tail that looks like two golden hearts, one for me and one for Eugene. I couldn’t believe in God much after Eugene died, but maybe somewhere, somehow, Eugene has been reborn, and after I die I’ll be reborn too and I can find him and we’ll finish what we started.
Third song, Ray Charles, When Your Lover Has Gone.
We would have been married forty years ago come August. I was twenty, and Eugene was back home from his first tour in Vietnam. We kept hearing about all the craziness out east with Woodstock, and I said to Eugene, “come on, we should go check it out for our honeymoon,” but by the time we got to Pennsylvania on Friday, still about twelve hours out, the news anchor on CBS couldn’t talk about anything but the snarls of traffic snaking in from every direction. Eugene said to scrap it, so we went to Hershey Park instead. I know we missed a big happening, but I’m not sorry in the least. We liked the music, but me and Eugene weren’t ever what you’d call counter-culture.
Hershey Park fit us to a tee. When we rode the Comet, I could lift my hands up over my head, but Eugene held onto me for dear life. After we came back to Portland, just to make me smile, Eugene found ways to hide Hershey Kisses. One day it might be under my pillow, or on the napkin next to my place setting. Once after we had a silly argument, I found a Kiss in my tooth brush holder.
I think there’ll be some Woodstock fortieth anniversary stuff happening this summer, but by the time it comes around I hope I’m somewhere with Eugene eating chocolate. That’s another reason today is my Red Letter Day. I’m officially fifteen days past the sign off on my final prescription, so I’ll get to pick it up tomorrow. They sure don’t make it easy. Two witnesses, two doctors. But at least I’ve finished with the process now, and I can take care of it this week. I can’t talk to Judy about this. When I’ve tried to discuss it, she just goes off on how we’re not supposed to play God. But Diane understands. She’s agreed to stay with me until it’s over, and then she’ll call hospice. I know I shouldn’t say this, but Diane’s our favorite niece – the daughter we never had. Me and Eugene wanted children, but Vietnam screwed that up.
Fourth song, Temptations, Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World is Today).
Funny the conversations you hear in a bar. The bartender is jawing with a guy about a band. “Oughta be a law,” he says. “ A cook or waitress, they steal from me, I can throw their ass in jail. A band takes three hundred dollars and they’re shitty and drive out my customers, what should I do? Shoot ’em in the face?”
Bars in daylight draw hard core drinkers. It’s a nice day, this Memorial Day, and I would prefer to sit outside, but now that we’ve got the anti-smoking laws in Portland, the picnic tables are packed with smokers.
Fifth song, Peter Gabriel, Sledgehammer. When we met in ’67, Genesis was one of Eugene’s favorite bands. I could never get into them, but I’ll play it for you, Eugene.
I guess it’s the changing of the guard. There’s a new guy behind the bar. He looks to be about thirty. One of those, what do you call ’em, hipsters. He’s wearing a short-sleeved black bowling shirt with a black leather vest. There’s a fedora on his head, and a wrench in his back pocket. It’s strange seeing these young men in hats like my father wore. All things old are new again.
A Harley is starting up outside. Putta, putta, putta, the engine growls in rhythm with the guitar. Now the drums quicken, my heartbeat quickens. Kinda nice in here, this dingy dark bar on a warm afternoon. I shoulda come here sooner, where strangers know nothing, expect nothing.
Oh, no, some guy’s coming over to the jukebox. Since it’s all done by computer, it’s fixed so that if he wants to pay an extra dollar, it will move his song to the top of the list.
Sixth song, Liam Clancy, The Dutchman. Whew, that’s one of mine.
I hope this guy isn’t into heavy metal. I want to drink the rest of my beer in peace. In thirteen minutes the barbeque joint next door opens. Maybe I can talk myself into eating some pulled pork and okra, maybe even a little mac and cheese.
My arm is stinging. I kind of like this sweet localized pain. It’s lot different from the overwhelming numbness I usually feel. Grief seems to wake me up in the morning, and sorrow tucks me into bed at night.
Seventh song, Aretha Franklin, I Never Loved a Man (the Way I Love You).
That’s the end of my list, the new guy’s stuff is coming on. Love to Watch Her Strut? What message is he trying to send and to whom? I’m the only female in the bar. When I came in, there were a couple of woman outside smoking, but I don’t hear them laughing anymore, so maybe they were the ones taking off on the Harley. I always wanted to learn how to ride a motorcycle. Oh my god, this new song is awful, the singer wailing, “They call him Cabo de Vido the Outlaw.” There’s not simple short vowel sound anywhere. A single syllable sounds like three.
Just a few more sips of beer, a trip to the bathroom, and Smokey Mountain will be open. The review in the Weekly said it was barbeque that could send you to heaven and back. But this week, I’m only looking for a one-way ticket.
Hey, the old dude’s playing John Prine, Sam Stone. This sure takes me back. I wonder if he’s a vet. I can’t tell much any more, I know they’re my age, but they all look so old. All of them, except Eugene. When I looked in his eyes, I was back in Hershey Park watching the turning wheels of the Dry Gulch Railroad, sitting with my hand in his.
The mostly-bad-music-on-the-jukebox guy comes over to my table. “Would you do me the honor of letting me buy you a beer?”
“Sure,” I answer. “It’s not everyday that a girl gets her first tattoo.”
© 2009 Lani Jo Leigh