The bar was always full on Christmas day, like most days in Muskogee. I never could resist counting the number of trucks and occasional cars lined up outside as I drove home. It bothered me when I first saw the symbol of the Nation on a bumper sticker, but not anymore. My thought was always the same: poor bastards.
And strangely, it was the first place in my head when it hit me that I would be alone on Christmas day. First time spending Christmas alone in a long time. My divorce had happened just a month ago.
The leaving scene replayed itself in my head each morning, like my head had an internal movie projector that switched on the moment I was conscious.
I sensed her standing behind my easy chair, which I had specially made because of my height, and then she spoke.
“Aren’t you even going to get up? Aren’t you going to face me?”
And then, her voice cracking, “SAY something, for once!”
I did say something. I didn’t have the courage to get out of the easy chair. I didn’t even crane my neck around to see her. Maybe she thought I was watching the TV. But I wasn’t. I did say something.
She was silent.
I screwed up my courage and turned my neck in her direction. Her lower lip quivered. Looking at her face, I was speechless again. I clenched my fist, willing her to feel what I was feeling.
Then her tears came. She turned away from me and said, “That’s it?”
I couldn’t tell if she was talking to me or herself, but my heart thumped harder as I felt her slip away.
But no more words would come. And then she was gone.
* * *
I used to tell her that my silence was the Indian way.
“Don’t you mean Native American?” she asked.
I shook my head to prove my point about the silence.
She seemed to think it was cute or at least acceptable when we were dating. I wasn’t sure when it became the enemy in the house. But my silence was my enemy, too, because I didn’t want her to leave, but I didn’t know how to say it.
I tried to show it by always coming home. After I completed my mail route, I didn’t care about the guys and their boozing at sports bars or worse, strip bars.
I was happy to come home to her. Sometimes I would surprise her with a little something—something from the local bakery, for instance. Sometimes. Maybe… maybe not lately. I tried to remember if I had done anything like that this year.
Or… last year?
But, in the end, I think it was the silence. Every day, at the same time, she would ask me how my day had been and I would say the same thing: “Okay.” In our early years she would prod for details and I would respond to whatever she asked, but usually I had only one-or two-word answers. I wasn’t trying to keep anything from her; I just didn’t know what else to say. But I could tell she was disappointed.
It’s only now that she’s gone that I wonder how her days went.
It bothered me when I first saw the symbol of the Nation on a bumper sticker, but not anymore.Then there was therapy, but she did most of the talking. Basically, she did all of the talking. If the therapist asked me a specific question, I typically responded, Yes, No, Maybe, or Sometimes. I couldn’t help it. I wasn’t trying to be “resistant,” like she said. It was just all I had to say.
But the last session we had with her probably put the nail in the coffin of our marriage.
“Do you love her?” the therapist asked me.
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you want to stay married to her?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said again.
“Are you willing to try to change the way the marriage works?”
I hesitated. I had never liked change. My parents made me move off of the reservation with them, made me go to a new school, and made me get a job.
Getting married was the only change I’d ever welcomed. Ever since then I’d tried to ensure our lives followed a very rigid routine. It felt safe.
I remember focusing on my hands when I said, “No.” I would not change the way the marriage works.
* * *
Yet here I was, Christmas day, pulling into this pathetic bar. Something completely new in my Christmas day routine. But since she had gone, I had no routine. I wanted to try to get my head together with some people around me. In the rural area where we lived, that bar was the closest thing with people in it in under an hour’s drive.
I managed to squeeze my small truck in between a tractor and, a rarity, an actual car. It was an old Chevelle from the seventies. I bet the strips of rust used to be stripes.
I expected to find a huge screen blaring some game inside, but I only heard the clack of wooden balls from the pool tables somewhere in the back. It was not well-lit, which I guess was a good thing since I didn’t see a single woman in there and most of the men looked like me, over fifty with a paunch hanging over their belts. Looking at them made me uncomfortable and I hitched up my jeans and stood a little straighter as I made my way toward the bar.
A large deer head hung over the bar and a few wild turkeys stood in frozen positions around the rest of the place. I looked up at the huge rafters, which I didn’t expect because it looked so small from the outside. A stuffed bat was wedged between some beams, as if caught in flight toward an unsuspecting customer. No one was talking except the noisy gang at the pool table. Not even the people at the bar with their elbows practically touching.
Something looked odd about the way everyone sat there at the bar and then it dawned on me that all the guys were still wearing their hats: baseball caps, cowboy hats, you name it. If a woman walked in, would they take them off or not even blink?
It’s only now that she’s gone that I wonder how her days went.I ordered a bourbon and the bartender wordlessly handed me the drink within seconds, like he had a bunch of bourbons lined up beneath the bar, ready to go. Having a drink in my hand reminded me of wearing a tuxedo to the prom—an unnatural event. Even worse to sit at a table by myself since the bar was completely full. I sat down at one of the small wooden tables and stared at the drink I was raised to hate. Mom and Dad never drank alcohol because of what it did to their parents. When I drank liquor, it tasted like candy. The expensive kind of candy that came in boxes on special occasions, like the Whitman’s Sampler my dad brought my mom on Valentine’s Day.
I forced myself to sip it though it felt silly, forcing myself to sip something that tasted like liquid Whitman’s. My muscles started to loosen. I might have told myself that I was coming here to get my thoughts together, but now I feared losing them completely… for a while, at least. I heard the gang at the pool table suddenly guffaw loudly, but at the same time they seemed far away…
“So, they let you in here without a hat?”
My eyes flew open. When did my eyes close? I jerked my head toward the sound of the voice. The guy at the table to my right was grinning at me. He had a thin face with a wide grin beneath his baseball cap—late twenties? Early thirties? I wasn’t sure if he was making fun of me or not, but not many people make fun of a guy my size so I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt.
“Yes,” I said.
“Well,” he said, pointing to the shocks of blond scruffy hair peeking out beneath his baseball cap, “I really didn’t want to, but I’ve been through chemo lately and this here is actually a complete fake get-up. My son found it online and sent it to me. Well, at least that’s what the ex-wife said in the note. Shows one of ’em knows this place, though it might have at least stirred things up on Christmas day to let a cue ball like myself walk in, huh?” He grinned again.
I couldn’t believe this stranger had just told me he was bald from chemo. “Yeah,” I managed to say. How could he look so young and be going through chemo?
“But I know this place well and you, my friend, are new. So please, allow me to introduce the Nameless Saloon on Nobody’s Lookin’ Road.” He made a sweeping gesture with his right hand as he said this and angled his chair toward me as he scooted closer.
I looked down at the drink I had barely touched and felt trapped. But that was ridiculous. Trapped? Wasn’t that why I left the house?
“On the main stage,” my neighbor began, gesturing to the men lined up along the bar, “we have ‘My Wife Doesn’t Understand Me.’ This is a long-running play that is in constant demand around here. The actors change from time to time, but the lines are most definitely the same.
“Over there—” his hand swept toward the rear of the place, with the noisy crowd playing pool: “You have ‘Bring it On,’ dudes itching for a fight to give them a chance to prove that they’re something since they can’t seem to prove it anywhere else.
“And lastly, you have our play.” His head swiveled around to indicate the tables where we were sitting. “Which I like to call, ‘The Talking Heads.’”
This one puzzled me. “The Talking Heads?”
His grin seemed to say that he was glad I’d asked. “Because all of us at the tables have found ourselves in this shotgun shack and are wondering, ‘How did I get here?’ and then eventually, ‘Oh my God! What have I done?’” He couldn’t keep from chuckling a little. “Get it?” And he got all toothy on me again.
I’d never met a guy who talked and smiled so much and, I admit, it was a bit contagious. His take on the people was pretty clever. I guess I was smiling a little myself because he seemed to brighten and said, “Yeah, you get it!” and plunged right back in.
“I know what you’re thinking… You’re wondering why a guy my age is hanging out here since the only younger guys are in the ‘Bring it On’ production over there. Believe it or not, this is right where I belong. I’ve personally starred in every production here. It was only a matter of time before I joined The Talking Heads, and, thanks to the cancer, I finally have.” He took a small sip of his drink and I wondered why his drink looked off to me. I did a double-take: It was a Coca-Cola glass with a regular straw.
“It’s a funny thing, isn’t it, how something really bad can turn out to be so good?” He had an unfocused gaze when he said this and he wasn’t looking at me.
“Good?” I inwardly cursed myself because I had been thinking what in hell could be good about cancer, but I didn’t expect something to come out of my mouth about it.
His eyes got bright and he leaned down in a confidential way with his elbows on the table and his hands clasped together.
“Yeah,” he said, all hushed, like he was telling me a secret. “Good.” He lowered his head a moment. “Yes, definitely good. I mean, the players in The Talking Heads have the greatest turnover, and you know why? Well, I’m finding out. I think they’re really trying to face their crap. I mean, face yourself, a lot of which is crap. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t have to come to a bar to figure yourself out now, would you?” His mouth twitched but he didn’t smile.
I tried to remember the last time I heard someone talking about facing themselves. I think it was never.
“Now you’re thinking I talk funny,” he said, his mouth twitching again. “Yeah, that’s what reading does to you. Hell, I’d forgotten I could read until I was stuck in a hospital bed and so sick of everything on TV that I was desperate enough to ask for something to read.” He looked at his drink and gave a half-hearted laugh.
‘It’s a funny thing, isn’t it, how something really bad can turn out to be so good?’I worried that he would read my thoughts again so I tried to keep them blank.
He leaned back and folded his arms. “I believe there are two kinds of folks in our group here: Those that face themselves and keep coming back because of what they saw, or those who leave and never come back.” He nodded. “I believe this latter group has decided to do something about their crap. That’s what I truly believe.”
Which would I be, I couldn’t help wondering.
“The worst thing you can do is wonder which one you’ll be,” he went on, “because then your locus of control…” he paused and raised his eyebrows, “is outside of yourself. What that means is you’re acting like the decision is not in your hands, which it is. The sooner you realize it is, the more likely you are to take some action and not keep coming to this shack.”
I didn’t know what locusts had to do with control, but it sounded good.
“Yeah, I read a lot of psychology textbooks when I was laid up,” he said. “I admit, I probably never would have read that stuff if something else had been lying around, but one of the nurses had just finished a class and said it was all she had for me to read. Thank GOD they had that dictionary or glossary or whatever they call it in the back of those big-ass books. Sometimes I think I should have read the books backward. It took me a long time to get through that first one, but I admit that I got hooked. I mean, you start trying some of the stuff and you know what? Some of it fuckin’ works.”
“How?” I winced, a little pissed that I’d again expressed myself, and to a complete stranger. I scowled a little into my drink as if some fool had forced me to speak.
He startled, like he forgot I was there, and sat back for a moment, jutting out his chin, his eyes shooting up to his forehead. “Ah, okay, this was one thing that worked great. I remember it’s called the ‘empty chair technique.’ Now, one thing you have plenty of around sick people is empty chairs. The gist is that you’re supposed to pretend that whoever you want to talk to is in the chair and then you say whatever you want to them.”
I stared at him blankly.
“Oh!” He slapped his thigh. “Lemme explain. Like, say you were going to a therapist because your wife left you and this therapist said,” here he lowered his voice into something that sounded full of authority, “Pretend your wife is sitting in the chair and tell her how you feel.”
Now it was my turn to sit back in my chair. I hadn’t realized I was so hunched over my drink. I tried to blank my mind again as the hair rose on the back of my neck.
“So, like I said, there’s plenty of empty chairs in the ward and the meds make me too sick to sleep at times so I thought, why the hell not? The other patients were out cold. And ta-da, there was a chair right beside my bed so all I did was prop myself up and, ah, have a chat with my ex-wife.” He took a sip from his drink again, like it was liquor.
“Buuuuut… I was too chickenshit to talk to her so I had a long chat with my dad instead. At first, I just told him what I was thinking and it felt kinda stupid. But then as I got comfortable, I actually started imagining what he might say. I tried to see him in that chair with that smirk on his face and his hat tilted back. Arms folded.” He exhaled. “Whew. At first, I have to say it was rough. So sometimes I woke up some of the other patients due to my yelling. But then, over time, I started… imagining what I wanted him to say instead. It was, you know, bizarre but good. I mean, for two months I actually had a dad I liked. I’ll tell you,” he said and he leaned toward me again. “I didn’t realize how much I loved being pissed off. I mean, I guess you could say I was an amazing lover when it came to being angry. I mean, I could go all night long with Angry!” He chuckled.
“Boy, Angry is a tough bitch to divorce, let me tell you. She still shows up at my door and at first, I let her in because, you know, we’re such old friends, but then I realized she would make excuses to stay the night and then the night would turn into ‘just one more day,’ blah blah. I didn’t even realize what a bitch she was until I had a few nights away from her. She didn’t think I needed any other friends and really, let’s be honest, she didn’t think I needed anybody but her, PERIOD. I met up with her in this bar a LOT over the years.”
I glanced at my drink. I hadn’t touched it since he started talking.
“So, she still shows up at the door, sometimes at the very door of this bar, but now at least I can keep her out.” He glanced at the door of the bar.
I couldn’t help but flick my eyes toward the door, too.
He sat back in his chair again and tilted his head to one side, like he was sizing me up. “It’s really weird that you came here tonight and sat down near me, of all people. I mean, this being your first night. See, I’m making this night my last.”
“Why?” Who was this blabbermouth? What was wrong with me?
This time he grinned with all his teeth. “Because I can.” He winked. “Internal locus of control. That means I believe I’m in control.” He paused. “At least when it comes to this place. That’s what I’ve decided.”
He looked down at his mostly full drink and stood up fast, taking deep breaths and shaking a little. “I’m not even going to finish my drink.”
He looked ready to bolt, but then he hesitated and turned back to me.
“Lou,” he said, extending his hand.
I shook it. “Sam.”
He took another deep breath and looked down at the floor, then at the ceiling before he spoke again. “You know, since I won’t be coming back here, if you ever want to hang out, I live just a mile from here off of Chesterson Road, number twelve. Maybe you can tell me your story then. But, if I don’t see you, hey, good luck, and I mean that.” He pulled on the bill of his cap like he was tipping it in my direction, his mouth twitched, and then the front door was closing behind him.
My story. Did I have a story?
I don’t remember a lot else from that evening except that I was the last one out that night. Lou was right… it was not easy to face your crap. Not at all. But over the next week I kept thinking about everything he said, especially about how he’d spent most of his life in that bar. I didn’t want it to become a habit—and that liquid Whitman’s tasted real good—so I tried not going back. But I passed the bar to and from work and I was so lonely…
The week wasn’t even out when I pulled up to his house one night. It was 6:30, which I figured meant he was home but not eating dinner yet, I hoped. I’d never sought out someone like this except for my wife and it was so weird that I had to sit in the truck for nearly half an hour before working up my courage to go knock on his door. It seemed so dumb, but that was how I felt.
The porch light was on, but no one answered. I waited a beat and then knocked again, but nothing happened. When I turned around, I saw why: no truck (or car) in the driveway. I stood there for more than a moment, my shoulders sagging, before going back to my truck.
Over the next couple of weeks, I slowed down when I approached the bar, like pretty much every day after work. When I was nearly rolling to a stop, I decided to drive by Lou’s house to see if he was home instead.
He never was. One time I tried early in the morning and another time, when I was feeling really bad, I even drove past late at night.
He wasn’t there.
‘Could I have kept you from leaving?’That late night, when I pulled into my driveway, I sat there a moment, gathering the strength to get out of the car and be alone. I looked at the passenger side, where my wife used to sit because she hated to drive. I always drove when we were together. I stared at the house. Why didn’t it matter, that I always drove?
“It did matter. It just wasn’t enough.”
I closed my eyes, sucked in my breath. It was too easy to hear her, right there, so close.
“As usual, you’ve got nothing to say.”
When she said that, which she said a lot, it somehow made it harder to speak. But this time, I thought of Lou. And how he was trying. So I tried.
“I didn’t,” I started, looking through my dirty windshield at the house. Then I sighed and turned to her. “I wasn’t trying to hurt you.”
She gave me a kind look. “I knew that. But after we went to therapy, I knew you weren’t trying to help us, either.”
I gripped the steering wheel. I hated that therapist.
“It’s not her fault,” my wife said, reading my mind, like Lou. Which was actually unlike her. That might’ve made things easier. This wife, the empty-car-seat wife, continued. “She just made you aware that it was your choice not to try.”
I pursed my lips and continued to concentrate on the steering wheel, but she didn’t stop.
“Part of being an adult means knowing that you always have choices and that those choices will affect other people, whether you mean to or not.”
She looked and sounded like my wife, but those words seemed like Lou.
“Could I have kept you from leaving?” I asked.
“You could have kept me from wanting to leave,” she said.
I blinked at my large fists on the steering wheel.
“You chose to marry me,” I said.
“I thought you were what I wanted,” she said, sighing.
I’m not sure how long it took me to say something to that, but I didn’t see it coming.
“I thought… you were too,” I whispered to her.
We talked more. Or rather, she talked and I tried to respond as best I could.
I woke up in the car the next morning.
* * *
Not long after that talk with my empty-car-seat wife, I took a longer route home. I didn’t have any reason to rush home and it meant I didn’t have to pass by the bar. The less I considered the bar, the less she appeared in the empty car seat to argue. In fact, the first night I took the new route, I think she smiled a little and didn’t say anything at all.
But in the end, I knew she was in my head. I was still alone.
I went by Lou’s for another week, trying to vary the times I drove past, but the driveway remained empty. Which now seemed odd.
Then one night a thought popped into my head and once it was there, I couldn’t shake it.
I don’t think I let a whole day pass before I gave in and drove to the nearest hospital. I assumed that was the one he’d been to because it was the closest to his house, though still a good forty-five minutes away.
I walked up to what looked like the main desk and then froze—I didn’t even know his last name. But a nurse was already walking toward me so I sputtered, “Have you… I mean, has Lou… checked in recently?”
She looked at me blankly.
“Uh,” I continued, “he… lives on Chesterson… he… has a baseball cap with hair attached…”
At that another nurse behind her looked up. With her smooth dark skin and full lips, she looked too pretty to live around here.
“You’re looking for Lou?” she asked.
My body felt lighter. “Yeah,” I said. “He’s here?”
She hesitated. “Are you… family?”
“No,” I said. “No… just a… a friend.”
“Oh,” she said, blinking. She reached out and touched my hand. “I’m so sorry to tell you this, but Lou passed away.”
I didn’t move. Her hand was still touching mine.
She said, “I’m so sorry. I kind of got to know him and no one ever came to see him. I didn’t think he had any friends. He… he read so many of my psych books and helped me study so much he deserved an honorary degree.” She tried to laugh but took her hand off of mine to wipe at her eyes away instead.
It was strange that I could not remember leaving the hospital. All I remember is finding myself parked at the bar. I couldn’t believe I was parked next to the Chevelle again. I stared at the rusty stripes until they blurred.
I sat in the car, staring at the bar in my rear window for I don’t know how long.
The last time I looked at the bar, it was in my rear window again, except this time my car was moving.
I was walking into the hospital and there was the same nurse who cared for Lou looking all surprised again, but she was alone.
“I’m glad you came back, I was worried about you. You didn’t say anything and I… well, I’m just glad you’re okay.” She paused. “Is there something I can do for you?”
“Yes,” I said, and placed my palms on the counter. “Do you need help?”
She blinked at me, confused. “Help?”
“I mean…” I tried again. “The… patients… where Lou stayed… do they need help?”
I saw her hesitate and quickly continued. “I just mean… if you need anyone to just… be with the patients. I could be someone they could talk to. I thought they might need… a listener.”
I exhaled with the effort of saying so much at once.
And then her hand was touching mine again.