Their table looked out on the empty two-lane highway. Michael ordered coffee with his ham and eggs and got up to buy the whiskey at the adjoining bar.
The bar had eight or nine customers, half of them middle-aged men, burnt-up drunk, unhealthy looking and ill disposed. There were also two Indian youths with ponytails and druggy, glittery eyes. One had a round, apparently placid face. The other was lean and edgy, his features set in what at first appeared to be a smile but wasnt. Michael stood at the take- away counter, resolutely minding his own business. Then the barmaid, whom he had not seen at first, came out from some storage space behind the mirror and the stacked bottles and the pigs-feet jars. The barmaid looked only just old enough to serve liquor. She had dark hair and brilliant blue eyes evenly set. She was tall, wearing black cowgirl clothes, a rodeo shirt with little waves of white frosting and mother-of-pearl buttons. Her hair was thick and swept to one side at the back.
"Say," she said.
"Do you have Willoughbys today?"
"Could be we do," she said. "Like, what is it?"
Michael pondered other, different questions. Could he drive out every Friday and Saturday and have a Friday and Saturday kind of cowboy life with her? But not really. But could he? Would she like poetry with a joint, after sex? Not seriously. Idle speculation.
"Its whiskey," he told her. He thought he must sound impatient. "Its unblended Irish whiskey. You used to carry it."
"Unblended is good, right? Sounds good. What you want."
"Yes," Michael said. "It is. Its what Im after."
"If its good we mostly dont have it," she said.
And he was, as it were, stumped. No comeback. No zingers.
"Really?" he asked.
Someone behind, one of the young Indians it might have been, did him in falsetto imitation. "Really?" As though it were an outrageously affected, silly-ass question.
"But I can surely find out," she said.
When she turned away he saw that her black pants were as tight as they could be and cut to stirrup length like a real cowgirls, and her boot heels scuffed but not worn down from walking. He also saw that where her hair was swept to the side at the back of her collar, what appeared to be the forked tongue of a tattooed snake rose from either side of the bone at the nape of her neck. A serpent, ascending her spine. Her skin was alabaster. He heard voices from the back. An old mans voice raised in proprietary anger. When she came back she was carrying a bottle, inspecting it.
"What do you know?" she said. "Specialty of the house, huh? You Irish?"
Michael shrugged. "Back somewhere. How about you?"
"Me? Im like everybody else around here."
"Is that right?"
"Megan," one of the smoldering drunks at the bar muttered, "get your butt over this way."
"George," Megan called sweetly, still addressing Michael, "would you not be a knee-walking piece of pigshit?"
She took her time selling him the Willoughbys. Worn menace rumbled down the bar. She put her hand to her ear. Hark, like a tragedienne in a Victorian melodrama.
"What did he say?" she asked Michael, displaying active, intelligent concern.
Michael shook his head. "Didnt hear him."
As he walked back to the diner section, he heard her boots on the wooden flooring behind the bar.
"Yes, Georgie, baby pie. How may I serve you today?"
Back in the restaurant, their table had been cleared.
"He ate your eggs," Norman said, indicating Alvin Mahoney.
"Naw, I didnt," Alvin said. "Norm did."
"Anyway," Norman said, "they were getting cold. You want something to take along?"
Copyright © 2003 by Robert Stone. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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