erasing clouds
 

XO

a short story by matthew webber

Dave heard three quarters clink in the jukebox. The fourth quarter clanked in the coin return slot, clanked there two more times, and finally clinked somewhere deep in the jukebox's innards.

Clink.

He stared at his ring finger, at a wedding band-sized white zebra stripe, tapping on a half empty glass of muddy beer. He sucked his lips as if they really were the peanut shells that they now tasted like. He didn't look up, towards the jukebox, through the smoke, so he never saw Emily -- (he glanced at his Fossil watch, her one-year anniversary gift to him) -- his ex-wife of six hours and seventeen minutes, choosing her selections. He didn't see her aerobicized bottom stretching the seat of her tar-colored slacks as she leaned towards the jukebox's glass for a read. He didn't see her golfcourse-burned arm digging in her pocket for additional coins because she just saw Disks 07 and 08, Billy Joel's Greatest Hits I and II, and she wanted to sing along to every song except"Just the Way You Are" as she aimed her Budweiser darts between her ex-husband's eyebrows. (Emily, New Year's Eve, 1999: "So he doesn't think she's clever, but she's supposed to be flattered? No wonder he couldn't keep Christie - oh, what's her name?")

He certainly didn't see the pool players lean on their table to leer at her and whisper whatever it is that people who go to bars more than once in their lives whisper to each other when they're drooling over a man's ex-wife. Probably something sexual. Probably something vulgar. Instead he stared at his invisible wedding band.

Had she really walked here? He sipped his chunky beer.
Had she really followed him? He still hated it, whatever the hell it was.
Of course she hadn't.
Of course she didn't love him.
But he could hear her fingers pressingthe buttons on the jukebox, swishing the selections from the right to the left, bypassing the Eagles, Steve Miller, ZZ Top. If this person had really been she, she would have bought "Layla," "Black Dog," and"Landslide," or maybe a dollar's worth of Bat Out of Hell - even though she hadn't been barely seventeen until 1996. He knew her songs were in the jukebox because he'd read them all one hour and forty-three minutes ago. He'd re-read them nineteen minutes ago because his left foot had fallen asleep and his right butt cheek had started to doze and he'd memorized the order of the beer bottles behind the bar (Budweiser, Bud Light, Smirnoff Ice, Miller Lite...) and he was about to take a nap himself and he didn't have anything else in front of him to read.

The person at the jukebox wasn't she. Dave obviously hadn't memorized the jukebox's selections as well as he'd memorized the beer bottles -- (when he re-read them for encouragement, the forgotten bottle of Heineken taunted him) -- because if he had done so, the zebra stripe on his finger wouldn't have been dripping with muddy beer because he'd tilted his glass in shock when someone had selected his favorite song by his favorite singer-songwriter and the best song ever written about a karaoke bar, not that his ex-wife had ever given what she would call a fig and what he would call a fuck, and spilled some beer he didn't even like all over his hands and the already-sticky bar. (Emily, her birthday, 2000: "Yeah, it's sad and pretty, and I guess I like the lyrics, but it's not exactly something I can rock out to in the car.") He wouldn't have been swabbing the negative image of his wedding band with a peanut-oily napkin because the familiar C major chord with some kind of diminished seventh, or the comforting E minor chord with some kind of suspended sixth, or the soothing F sharp major, or whatever chord Elliott Smith could strum with his hands behind his back but Dave couldn't even memorize let alone strum with an additional eight fingers and two thumbs -- because his song, "XO," had broken the silence of Biff's Sports Bar that had deafened him in the minutes before the clinking quarters: the clackings of cue balls against solids and stripes, the whackings of pinball flippers against oversized ball bearings, the chuggings of manhood and the shoutings of"pussy" and "faggot" at these games. Elliott Smith drowned them all like alcohol supposedly drowns sorrows -- a husbands' tale Dave now knew wasn't true. He was awash in his sorrows, and they were drowning him, getting drunk on the smell of her Joop (his one-year anniversary gift to her) on his shirt buttons.

She would never have bought this song in a jukebox. It would never even be in a jukebox for her to buy.

first the mic then a half cigarette
singing cathy's clown
that's the man she's married to now
that's the girl that he takes around town

One-two-three.

Emily wasn't married to any other man yet. Dave didn't have a girl he could take around town. But Dave and Emily were no longer married to each other. At the age their high school friends were graduating from college, they were getting divorced. (Emily, today: "I still love you, but we were too young. I think I love Hotshot Golf Pro and I want to find out. I'm so sorry, baby. I'm, well, I'm sorry.") At the age the people they used to know were promising new friends they'd try to keep in touch, he was trying to forget the best friend he'd ever made by sipping and spilling some milkshake-thick beer and trying to get drunk for the first time in his life. He was failing at these attempts like he'd failed to convince her to stay.

She wasn't in this bar with him. She was probably somewhere with him.

She appears composed, so she is, I suppose
Who can really tell?
She shows no emotion at all
Stares into space like a dead china doll

Dave looked up, towards the bartender, drying clean glasses at the other end of the bar. Of course he wasn't singing along. He didn't know the words, or else they really weren't playing. His cheeks and chin were almost as smooth as the mirror that reflected his back. He looked younger than Dave, not even old enough to be legally drinking the drinks he dispensed. Like Dave, he wasn't wearing a wedding band. He was wearing some kind of class ring.

"Can I get another?"

"Guinness, right? Like the book of world records?"

So that's what Dave was drinking. Having said what he'd said, his "like the book of world records" nonsense, the bartender had probably thought he'd been drunk when he'd come in.

"Right. And some more peanuts."

The bartender bought Dave his second glass of Guinness in almost two hours and a bowl of peanuts. His class ring was from Dave's rival high school. The year on the ring was 1998. Dave didn't tell him how he'd scored the winning goal against the bartender's school one year before that, his own senior year. He hadn't told the bartender anything, least of all the way Emily stroked the back of his hand with her thumbnail when they held hands or the way she could relax him by merely calling him "Davey." In Biff's Sports Bar, nobody knew his name, and he didn't want anybody to. Dave paid the bartender and left him a bigger tip than he'd ever left anybody for anything. So the bartender would know for sure he was wasted.

He sipped his Guinness, pretending it tasted like the cola it resembled. He gobbled some peanuts to wash away the aftertaste. The beer bottles behind the bar reminded him of Emily -- they were curved like her hips and her high school cheerleader waist. He looked up, towards the jukebox, to see if her choice of song was an apology.

It wasn't.

The triceps at the jukebox were definitely not Emily's. They were slimmer, and paler, and freckled, and more naked. Emily would never wear a sleeveless shirt to a bar. She would never wear that light yellow color, which she would have called canary or lemon instead. For all he knew, Emily would never even be in a bar - just like Dave, she'd never been in a bar, unless she'd gone with him when she'd told Dave she was going to her hip-hop step class. Maybe she'd been drunk before. Maybe she was drunk in a bar with him right now.

But she wasn't in this bar. She didn't like Elliott Smith - whether or not he was really on the jukebox. Her hair was blonde and straight, instead of red and wavy. She never wore jeans; she always wore khakis. She never swayed her hips while she leaned against the jukebox; she never danced at all because she said it was "frivolous." She didn't really know what frivolous meant. And she never sang along to a song in public, she rarely sang along to a song in a car, because singing was frivolous, karaoke was frivolous, and this redhead in jeans at the jukebox was singing along to Dave's favorite song of all time, even though Biff's was a sports, not a karaoke, bar. Even though hip-hop aerobics, rocking out in the car, and cheating on her husband were somehow not frivolous.

I'm never gonna know you now, but I'm gonna love you anyhow

She must have felt his staring, because she looked up, towards his shadows, and smiled as she sang. She looked younger than Dave but older than the bartender. The neon yellow jukebox couldn't jaundice her pink face, nor could it wash her freckles in canary. She was taller than Emily and her hips and waist were shaped like a bottle of champagne.

Her hips, and then her index finger, beckoned for Dave to join her.

Dave gulped his Guinness, choking on a dislodged crumb of peanut. A minor chord dizzied him, more tipsy from her than from his beer. The light in the bar was the color of the felt on the billiards tables; a chalky, faded green with scratches and nicks; the color of flesh, or at least his sweating face. He couldn't smell Joop amongst the cigarettes, cigars, and drinks; amongst the body odor that broke through his High Endurance. He stared at the woman, her hips, her breasts; tinier than Emily's but twenty times more touchable; waltzing in her stoplight while the rest of Biff's Sports Bar faded to black. One-two-three, one-two-three. Drumbeats. Her steps. The music muted billiard balls, pinballs, and white boys in red bandannas who fancied themselves ballers. It hid them, his rivals, in smoky, shadowy corners; like manholes in alleys on misty February midnights, like monster holes under beds from which scaly arms poke, like hell. One minute ago, he hadn't seen nor heard them. Now, he couldn't. He saw her, heard their song. There was no one else in the bar. There was no bar.

The redhead in the lemon shirt waltzed with herself. One-two-three.

Spilled beer or nerves glued Dave to his barstool. He poured what was left of his glass into his mouth; beer drops drizzled onto his tongue. He popped two peanuts like Altoids for a date, because the aftertaste of the most alcohol he'd ever drunk in one night was thick enough for him to get drunk off the roof of his mouth.

One-two-three.

Maybe he was drunk already and hallucinating an angel. Maybe he'd passed out and was dreaming a fantasy. Maybe she was waltzing towards his barstool, pelvis first, this karaoke singer in a sports bar who didn't look like Emily but instead looked like someone you meet eyes with in a bar as your favorite song plays and you think she's tapping her feet and you're pretty sure she's blushing and it isn't just the lights and she's singing and waltzing and it's like you've known her forever but you'll never meet again because you stand up to leave and you tip the baby bartender and the air outside the bar will be colder than when you came in and you'll wish you brought a coat even though it would smell like the bar; or maybe she'll follow you and walk her to her car where she'll turn on the heat and warm you in her arms and you'll stare at the stars until the windows are too fogged and your thoughts will be hers and her dreams will be yours and you'll both be The One and you'll know; I mean, she might be, but that sort of thing never happens, you know. She's probably just drunk. She's probably a flirt. She's probably staring at a crack behind your head. So you chuckle at the thought and leave the bar alone and stumble to your car ignoring the moon. You're lonely. You're shy. You miss her already. Oh well. Maybe next time. You always have the choice, and tonight you choose not to.

"Hi."

"Hello."

He knows he isn't dreaming because he smells her when she breathes. Mexico. Beaches. Pina colada. He knows what it smells like because he's had it non-alcoholic. She smiles. She's pink. And since he's sitting at the end of the bar she can't be talking to anybody else. Still, he doesn't think she can actually know his song. He's sure he's never seen it in a jukebox before. So, he knows he's dreaming.

"I've been watching you all night. I was wondering when you'd talk to me." She pauses her waltzing to extend a freckled hand. "I'm Annie."

He speaks his lines to a tray of inattentive peanuts. "I'm Dave. Nice to meet you. I, um" - think I might be drunk or dreaming or dead - "love Elliott Smith."

Annie smiles. Elliott Smith strums. Dave falls in love for the second time in his life.

"I could tell. You look like the type. This has gotta be one of my favorite songs. It's either this or 'Between the Bars.' I think I like this better because it's a waltz. Plus, I like to sing along." She stands there, neither waltzing nor singing, looking naked. "Are you waiting for someone?" Her voice lilts; so she's singing.

Billiard balls sleep. Darts freeze in the air. The bartender drops a glass in slow motion - there's no crash.

"No. I" - don't remember why I got married, probably something about being in love and wanting to prove wrong our parents and our college-bound friends - "I'm complicated." And I can't be hearing this song because no one else knows it exists.

--We're all complicated. That's what makes life interesting.
--But I'm
--You're not. I've already had a kid. The condom broke and I didn't even orgasm that time, although with Mark the latter wasn't too unusual. You know what's ironic? I didn't even love him. I think he lays sheet metal with his father in Pittsburgh. I haven't seen him or my daughter since the hospital. If she ever comes looking for me I'll kill myself. If he ever says he's sorry I'll slap him instead of shoot him. You know how mothers always say their baby is beautiful as soon as it's born and you wonder what they mean because its just a wet blob and it's screaming and you're bleeding and you should be in the greatest pain of your life but you're all doped up on tranquilizers and you feel happier in the bed than you did when you conceived it? She had the most beautiful cowlick I've ever seen. A little, white tornado with only like five wet hairs. I hope when she finds me she'll forgive me for being eighteen.

--I'm glad you didn't ask me what I do 'cause I don't know. I mean, I know I work at Schuster and Simpson downtown and I know I'm a Technical Advising Manager and I used to be a Mechanical Outputs Analyst but I didn't get a promotion or a raise, just a different job title, but what I really do is alternate staring at a computer screen and my watch all day. Then I go home and my wife cooks me dinner and we watch the evening news and I drool on my chin when I nap. We used to make love all the time, in every room of the house, and I loved it when she'd grab my butt and arch her back and scream my name and pant and say she loved me when we spooned in our sweat afterwards. But she left me today. Because I don't play golf. Because I don't have suntan. Because she's only twenty-two and she's having a quarter-life crisis.

I've never been to a bar before, not even on my twenty-first birthday, because I wanted to watch the sunset with my wife and we went to Sunset Park and played chess with our magnetic set that's missing one black knight and two white pawns as we made ourselves lightheaded on a bottle of the cheapest wine we could find at Walgreens and we giggled at the rocking van next to us, me not knowing she'd fall out of love.

I never really knew her.

She's the only one who's ever completely known me.

My first time in a bar and I'm already an alcoholic. I was drinking by myself until you danced my way. It feels so good to talk to someone. I'd hug you if no one was looking. I think I

--Shh. I think I do too. Let's dance.

The eight ball sinks in the corner pocket. A Budweiser dart hits the bulls-eye. The bartender sweeps glass shards into a dustpan. It's only 7:13 p.m.

One. Two. Three.

The yellow neon jukebox spotlights their steps. Dave hasn't danced with a woman since the Prom. Like his ex-wife, he's too self-conscious to dance or sing along. He probably isn't waltzing; but at least his feet avoid Annie's toes. His hands rest on her champagne bottle hips, in her jeans pockets, against the small of her sunshiny back. Her touchable breasts press into his chest.

He hopes she doesn't notice his dandruff on her shoulder. He hopes his shirt smells like whatever perfume she's wearing. He hopes she'll still taste like the ocean when she kisses him; will her red waves sift through his fingers like water? He hopes she really loves him back.

He sees their reflection in a mirror: he looks like Dilbert; she looks like someone who wouldn't want a golf pro. She's a pink and yellow bag of Easter M & Ms. He's a black and white newspaper ad for a Memorial Day sale on underwear.

She's three inches taller than he is.

Above the mirror, Mark McGwire mouths his acceptance of his below-market contract, trying to save the game of baseball or something. Dave almost steps on Annie's foot; there are televisions everywhere and he didn't even notice. McGwire smiles on something like 70 different screens.

Below McGwire, he thinks he sees Annie swallow a yawn. Because he bores her. Like he bored Emily. She'll fall asleep dancing. She'll break her leg and sue him.

So maybe it's better to never begin. Because she'll break his heart eventually; he knows; she will.
But maybe it's all worth it, the time before the heartbreak.
A quarter, then three more, clink in the jukebox.
Maybe not at all.

I'm never gonna know you now but I'm gonna love you anyhow
I'm never gonna know you now but I'm gonna love you anyhow
I'm never gonna know you now but I'm gonna love you anyhow

"Fifteen million a year. And that's supposed to save the game. Outrageous, huh? Do you want another glass?"

Clink.

Dave's ring finger bled onto the bar. Blood and Guinness congealed into mud. He rubbed where his wedding band used to be to stop the bleeding. This morning, he'd rubbed the band for good luck. (Emily, today: "Pawn it then, for all I care. No. I don't mean that. David, I'm sorry.") He sucked his finger to wash away the aftertaste. Even though he'd never drink Guinness again, he knew he'd taste it every time he swallowed.

"No. I'm done. I must have dropped it. I, I'm sorry. I'm not used to drinking."

"It's okay," the bartender said, kneeling behind the bar and sweeping glass shards into a dustpan with a hand-broom. His black boots ground other shards into the floor. "It happens more than you'd think. Last night, some redneck threw a bottle at the wall. There's a nasty stain from it behind your head."

Dave would never see it even if he were to stare. The wall just looked like the wall of a bar.

"Look, I'm sorry. I had a rough day. I'm tired. I'll pay for the glass."

"Hey, it's okay. No problem, you know?" The bartender wiped the congealing bar.

Dave stared at a zebra stripe. He felt eyes staring at the stain behind his head. She'd known him forever, so she knew what breaks his heart.

--Ha! You called the wrong pocket. Looks like you owe me a brewski, jerkoff.
--Fuck off, bitch. Hey, don't look but there's a fox by the jukebox.
--Where?
--I said don't look.
--Looks like she's got issues.
--Looks like she wants some comfort tonight.
--You kill me. "Comfort." I hope she buys some Skynyrd.
The fourth quarter clanked in the coin return slot.

Dave stood from his barstool. He smelled like his deodorant had quit working. He smelled like someone else's cigarettes. He grabbed for where he would have set down his coat, his fingers touching nothing but a spectral wisp of smoke.

"Do you remember if I brought a coat?"

"I don't think you did. But at least it won't stink. I hope you parked close; I think it's kinda chilly out."

Dave spoke his lines to the cut on his ring finger. He tasted like Guinness again instead of blood. Emily always tasted like whatever fruit juice she'd most recently drunk.

"I walked. Don't worry; I live pretty close. Hey, uh, did I pass out? There's a minute back there I can't remember."

"No. Or, I don't think so. But you said some woman's name. Is your finger okay? It was bleeding pretty bad."

Dave squeezed out one drop of blood from his ring finger. It would be okay. He hurt in too many other places to even notice this pain.

"It's fine."

A cue stick rolled across felt.

--I'm gonna go talk to her.

Dave looked up and stared at the bartender's face long enough to memorize every blemish (blackheads on nose, popped zit above right eyebrow, shaving cut on upper lip), longer than he'd stared at the bottles behind the bar or the selections in the jukebox.

"When I was talking, what did I say?"

"Something like Anna Lee, or Emmie, or something."

A quarter clanked somewhere where Dave wasn't looking. He wouldn't say anything. His tongue dislodged a peanut.

Clank.

"Do you love her?"

"Yeah. I mean, I used to. Well, maybe. Does anyone ever really know? I mean, really?"

Clink.

Somebody bypassed Fleetwood Mac's Rumours. Dave would never look.

"Right. Are you gonna be okay? Your face is kind of greenish."

Dave mumbled something about Mr. Man and impossible plans. More clearly, he told the bartender, "Leave me alone."

He stumbled towards the door, alone, underneath Gary Sheffield, the disgruntled Dodgers outfielder who wanted to be traded, and various brand name neon signs. He bundled himself in a coat he didn't have, looking down, away from the neon yellow jukebox and her. When he opened the door, he could see his frosty breath, although the globe of a streetlight was the only moon he saw.

Oh well.

Before the door closed, he heard familiar guitar chords. Maybe A minor. Maybe E minor seventh. Whatever they were, they were something she'd choose.

Behind him, the door, her song, and she closed. ("You're the funniest guy I've ever met." "I love it when you tell me what you're thinking.") The alcohol or the thoughts of her arms hugged him until he was warm. He walked home slowly, both tasting and watching his breath. Maybe she'd follow him, for whatever it was worth. His feet slapped the sidewalk, terribly out of step.

Issue 9, April 2002


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