Tuesday, April 15, 2014

No Curfew by Matthew Wilding

Delmon Rose, returned to his hometown for Thanksgiving, drinks in Murray's Bar and reflects on the girl he left behind; by Matthew Wilding.

Murray's Tavern was quite a ride every third or fourth Friday in November. The day after Thanksgiving, from time immemorial, all the town's recently minted adults descended upon their native land and, loaded up on Turkey and football, made one last stop at the saloon their grandfathers built and fathers ignored them for - making it their own for the night.

The townspeople, to their credit, accommodated their young. Men went home to their wives while their sons, and even their daughters (that's what college does to them), took over their stools and tables: Grandstanding about their careers, academic accomplishments, and other successes, real or imaginary. It was high energy and usually included a lot of laughs, a bit of crying, a fistfight or two, and a dozen or so broken glasses.

What most frustrated Ox Bowman, the bartender and roughneck sage of Appleton, was that they always broke martini and wine glasses. Pint glasses were easy to replace. His friends Sam, Bud, or Miller delivered them almost weekly for free. Promotional swag. But the fancy stuff cost him money. And the college daughters and even some of the converted big city sons opted for the fancy stuff.

It was the only time of the year he had to use his "Mr. Boston" drink book. "When I was a boy," he'd said on occasion, "there was only one kind a' martini, and it were for twinks, ladies, an' British spies." He didn't say "twinks" anymore, though. The college kids lost their minds about it. Something about using homo words made their minds break. Ox didn't understand why they got so bent out of shape about it. Why, before he died of that terrible AIDS, Ox had had a close friend since childhood named Brad Manley. All his friends called him Twink. Twink drank martinis exclusively.

If there was one positive to that third or fourth Friday, it was the early closing time. It wasn't that he posted an early night. But these kids couldn't hold their liquor. Most of them were ready to drop by ten o'clock. The last usually stumbled out by eleven. Invariably, one guy who clocked another guy helped or was helped by the guy he clocked out the door. What happened at Murray's tended to stay at Murray's. The town had good stock. They might throw punches from time to time, and they acted like know-it-alls in their twenties, but when it came down to it, everyone got home safe.

This year there was a straggler past eleven. Ox found that strange in itself, but who the straggler was really caught him. Del Rose.

Del was a bright kid, with a real presence to him. He was a junior at one of those Ivy schools, Ox thought Yale but it was actually Brown. He hadn't seen the kid since his graduation. Del had given a speech about the future there. Ox couldn't remember a word of it, but he remembered that at the end, even he had felt hopeful. He knew it was Del as soon as the door had opened at seven-thirty that evening. He didn't even have to look. Del was someone you could feel.

The kid hadn't talked much about the evening. He didn't brag about his accomplishments. Not like the Jacobs kid, going on and on about his big money in plumbing, or Daniels' daughter, Rebecca. That girl must have talked about how brilliant the professor she'd been sleeping with was to everyone in the bar. Del just nodded politely, congratulated people for what they'd done, quietly sipped on bourbon and scanned the room for something he wasn't able to find.

But now here he was at almost midnight, washing down the bar counter that hadn't had a glass on it for over an hour, trying not to stare at the bright light of Appleton, young Mr. Rose.

Del sat quietly at a mahogany pub table, his hand gently circling the bottom of a Coors Light pint glass filled with Octoberfest (he'd switched to beer after polishing off all the Maker's Mark), his eyes staring at a wall of liquor bottles that he didn't see. Ox wondered what was bothering the boy when it occurred to him that being nosy was part of his job description.

"Somethin' on your mind, kid?" Ox asked as if he were talking to Del's father.

"So many things," Del responded, also remarkably like his father.

"Throw some at me, then. We'll see what sticks."

"It's nice to be home." It was a good deflection, but Ox had been prying for thirty-six years, and he could rebound with the best of them.

"You want another drink?" This was the easiest strategy, and while Ox wanted to know and maybe even help, he also wanted to get home. He'd promised his boy he'd go ice skating with him the next morning. It got colder faster than usual this year, but in Appleton, any winter weather that came before January second was considered seasonally festive.

"Another of these," Del motioned with his pint glass.

"Sorry, kid," Ox said. "Keg just kicked. I've got some of that winter ale."

"Nah... tastes like pine trees."

"I have Boston Lager in bottles."

"That'll do, ya."

Ox popped the bottle open and started around the bar before Del motioned for him to stay. "It's fine," he said. "I'll come to you."

The old bartender who was actually not too far past middle age nodded and put the sweating glass vessel on a cork coaster slightly to his right.

Del lifted himself from his table. He grabbed his spent glass to bring over, but lost his hold and dropped it on the worn wooden floor. "And there's eleven," Ox whispered to himself as it smashed on the ground.

The drunken student paused for a moment, staring in mild horror at the paltry destruction he'd caused. Ox saw in his young patron's eyes the fear of a young adult reverting toward his childhood and all the fear of elders that it brought, and quickly dissuaded him from worry. "Don't worry," he grinned. "I don't even carry Coors anymore."

Del motioned toward the mess, as if he could clean it all with his hands, but Ox assured him that he'd get it later, and to just sit down and have his drink. Del complied and seemed to forget all about the glass.

"So you have a good holiday?" It was a harmless question, but Ox thought it might glean something.

"Great, ya." Del seemed sincere. "Mom makes a heck of a turkey, and I'm a sucker for homemade cranberry sauce."

"Your sister sure is growing up fast, eh?"

"You're telling me!" Del waved his body back and forth as he said it. "She's got a boyfriend now. Liz Morgan's little brother."

"Reggie?"

"Nah. Phil."

"Phil?" Ox was surprised. "Isn't he a little old to be dating freshmen?"

"Probably," Del said with a grin. "But he acts like a kid, so I guess he might as well date one." The two men laughed.

"How about you, Ox? How's your family doing?"

Ox's family was in shambles. His wife had been sleeping with Wayne Jordan, a tan Californian transplant who owned Citgo franchises in Wellington and Davis, which in Ox's estimation made him a communist. As for his children, his daughter was knocked up by some boy she'd met at church and his older boy lived in Nevada or New Mexico. He didn't know because the boy didn't speak to him. The youngest, a slower boy named Will, but who everyone called Charger, was entering middle school maintaining his preschool habit of slamming his head against things when he was upset. He was currently the family's shining light. Ox assured Del that all was well in the Bowman household.

Del settled into the barstool with the faux-news of his barkeeper's familial tranquility. He let out a sigh, then asked, "You seen Meghan lately?"

Ox's opening had come. It was about Meghan. He'd suspected it. This kind of quasi-intellectual melancholy was usually caused by juvenile desires. Ox had seen Dan Fanieul act the same way back in '91.

"Saw her back in October," Ox poured a Jameson and slid it in front of his charge. "She was helping the Jaycees with their haunted house."

"Oh, ya?" Del took a moment to lift the new glass and shoot down his throat. "How'd that go this year? Still chase you out with chainsaws at the end?" He hiccupped.

"Oh, sure."

"I remember when Lou from the hardware store downtown first jumped out at me when I was six," Del took a moment to snicker to himself. "I actually pissed myself."

Ox gave him a smile. The moment lingered for a second.

"Meghan was there then. Didn't laugh at me or anything. Just shrugged and said 'it was really scary!'"

"You kids split up when you transferred to that city school?" Ox knew the answer. He just wanted to get Del rolling on the subject so he could see where it would go.

"Ya." Del waved a hand in the air at the bottles that lined the wall. "You know. Distance. It's hard." He waited a moment, then said "I wish she'd just come along."

"Someone had to take care of her mother," Ox suggested.

"She's got a husband."

"Would you trust him with the care of your mother?"

"I don't suppose so."

Ox moved on. "You get a chance to catch up while you've been home?"

"Haven't seen her," Del tried to say nonchalantly. The disappointment was opaque in his dismissal. "Figured she'd be here."

"I'm not sure she's ever come."

"You're right, now that I think of it."

"Maybe give her a call tomorrow?" Ox suggested. He always had soft spot for getting local kids together.

Del shrugged his shoulders much like a bad mime does. "No time. I'm getting on an Amtrak at nine in the morning." He shook his bottle, signaling another. Then he threw back the Jameson and put it down. So much like his father.

Ox obliged. As he popped the top off, he said without thinking, "so go see her now."

Del blushed, then grabbed the bottle from the counter and threw it toward his gullet. He shook his face a little, then said, "Ya. I should go see her now."

Ox realized after it had unfolded that he hadn't expected a positive response from his suggestion. It was kind of a throwaway comment. Nonetheless, Del was up out of his stool and walking toward the table he'd occupied most of the night, stiffly pretending not to be drunk and working his arms through his pea coat, struggling to get the scarf out of his left sleeve with his arm already through it.

"That's the spirit, kid," he cheered as he realized that Del's departure would allow him to close the bar for the night.

Del swung the scarf around his neck and pulled on his brown leather gloves. "Right. This is a good idea. I should just go there."

He walked out of the bar his grandfather built and his father drank at without paying his tab. Ox didn't mind. He'd enjoyed the company. He took Del's bottle from the counter. it was still almost full. He drank it himself.



Del couldn't be sure how insulated the whiskey and beer had made him, but something about the briskness of the autumn air in his lungs helped him focus without making him too cold. He ambled up the quiet suburban road, illuminated by new streetlights built to look antique.

Through a parking lot he cut to a dirt path lined with oak trees. He couldn't see where he was going, but it didn't matter. He'd taken this route almost every night in high school and was right to assume that it hadn't changed. Dead leaves crunched beneath his feet, but the farther in he went, the more the sound of stubborn mallards quacking their final fall quacks before their inevitable migration filled the air. The sound was familiar to Del, who'd sat by Fisher Pond so many November nights with so many girls from town. They all melded in his mind into one beautiful, young girl, whose skin changed from pale white to chestnut, her hair flickered between blonde, auburn, and black. His initials riddled the bark of elms, willows, and oaks all over the park, added with J.P. or R.R. or H.D. None of the equations were solved, but the sum of all of them was "history."

Another memory stood independent of the hybrid girl. A vivid image of Meghan Turley feeding the ducks.

Leaned over at the muddy shore at twilight, a young, dirty blonde girl with big cheeks reddened by the cold, green knit hat over her ears with matching mittens, the right one under her left arm as her bare hand distributed pieces of day-old Shaw's Supermarket French bread to hungry, green-headed fowl. One of them was standing on her blue-and-yellow-polka-dot boot. She laughed that laugh of hers that sounded like a mouse squeak followed by a series of thumps in her throat. She turned her head over her shoulder and, through her giggles said, "I wish you'd get this excited over bread."

There, in the middle of a different night and year, Del said with a smile, "You don't need bread to win me, baby," with fake suave histrionics, like a terrible actor in a teen romance movie.

Sun going down, she smiled, and threw some crust in his face.

Cold wind blowing, he could still feel it in the dark.

And then the pond in front of him was dark again, and he was alone - no one but the ducks to see him at his most empty.



The liquor was wearing off. Not enough to make walking easy, but just so Del could appreciate the true meaning of forty-three degrees Fahrenheit. He walked down Willow Street, a street light every two hundred yards or so his only guide but moon and memory. A doughnut hole-sized rock met his sneaker in the dirt on the roadside, and he took to kicking it methodically down the path with him.

Someone at the Webber's house was watching ESPN in the living room as he walked by. He saw highlights of the Lions game flicker for a moment before passing the window.

Kick.

Some kids had been playing mailbox baseball. They had a pretty poor batting average. Some boxes were dented, and only the McCaskells' place was knocked off entirely. A wooden post with an empty porch the only evidence remaining that USPS had ever delivered there. The box itself had already been removed from the side of the road.

Kick.

Nick Brewster bought a Pontiac Eclipse. Even in the dark, it looked fast.

Kick.

There was a house being built in a lot that used to hold neighborhood wiffleball games.

Kick.

The Davis' house was for sale.

Kick.

The Turley house was yellow with white trim. It always seemed cheerful, and while it was almost dead center between two distant lampposts, it shone through the evening, like it had its own light. The front portrait window showcased a hardware store-bought chandelier dimmed to its lowest setting, with a single marble table stand holding up a vase full of maroon flowers. If you knew where to look, and Del did, you could see the family portrait on the far left wall - a younger family, and a happy one.

Del walked through the grass of the front lawn, not using the walkway and feeling the dew seep through the tops of his sneakers and into his socks. On the left side of the house, he looked up to the second floor and, like he had so many times before, picked up some of the white and grey pebbles that Mr. Turley lined the edges of his home with, and threw them at Meghan's window.

His first throw hit the glass, making a "tink" sound. The next two bounced off of the linoleum siding for a lower, duller "thwack." Regaining his aim, he landed a succession of four pebbles to glass, when a light went on.

Del's eyes widened. It suddenly occurred to him that he had just awoken his high school sweetheart a number of years after the fact at what he guessed was about one-thirty in the morning, and he had no idea what he intended to say.

As his mind scattered in this and that drunken direction, the curtains of the window he'd been attacking opened up quickly, and a shape he didn't immediately recognize filled it. The figure seemed to be struggling to make out what it was looking at, just as Del was struggling, but after a moment, it seemed to nod to itself, and then closed the curtains and shut off the light.

Del stood there for a few moments, trying to figure out what had just happened. Had the Turleys moved? Were new tenants renting the house furnished? It seemed unlikely. No renters keep another family's portrait. As he continued to work out this puzzle, the figure from the window arrived to solve it for him.

"Why don't you come inside, Delmon."

Del turned toward the back yard. "Oh. I'm sorry, Mrs. Turley. What were you doing in Meghan's room?"

"It's not Meghan's room anymore. She took the old guest room on the first floor and I moved in to her room."

Del looked surprised at this.

"Oh, it's not what you think. Mr. Turley and I are just fine. He just uses a breathing machine now. Keeps me up. So I got a separate room for sleeping. Meghan moved downstairs so I could still be close to him."

As they walked into the back door together into the kitchen, Mrs. Turley offered Del a cup of tea.

Del thought about it for a moment, standing in the doorway as Mrs. Turley walked through it. "Maybe I should go," he volunteered.

"Nonsense. You've come all this way, and you don't seem to have all your wits about you." Without instruction, Mrs. Turley put a kettle on and started through her cabinets for tea bags and mugs.

Del was uncomfortable. He'd always liked Mrs. Turley, and had even called her "Mrs. Mom" for spell. He'd always found it strange to call her Mrs. Turley, or to call Meghan a Turley. When he'd met them, they'd been Martins. But when he and Meghan were nine, Mrs. Mom remarried. Del had to learn to call them all Turleys, and Meghan had to learn to call a stranger "Dad."

He sat down at the breakfast nook, which had checkered placemats down already for the morning. He was quiet for a while, until Mrs. Turley finally broke the silence.

"Your plan, I imagine, was to wrestle Meghan from her bed and woo her over with a poem about regret? Something to that effect?"

"I hadn't thought that far ahead, to be honest with you." Del hated to admit that, but his reputation preceded him, and so Mrs. Turley assumed dry wit and not wet honesty.

"Been a while, hasn't it?"

"Too long, do you think?"

She thought probably not. Meghan was loyal. "She's still here, after all!" Her mother grinned a guilty grin. She always worried she was holding her little girl back.

"I just thought I should come by. Say hello. Play a little catch-up, that's all." Del wasn't lying. He didn't really expect anything. He hoped she'd grab a duffle bag and fill it with clothes and make-up and matching hats and mittens to accompany him back to Providence, but no amount of amber liquids could make him think that was feasible. So he had settled his mind on a conversation of missing and being missed.

The kettle started to shriek. Mrs. Turley went and grabbed it off the burner, pouring its contents into two mugs. One said "Appleton Recreational Day, 2001" on the side. The other, handed to Del, was just blue. She set it down in front of him and started to talk. "Well, I think your coming here is real sweet. Boys don't do enough stuff like this anymore."

Like what, he thought. Get plastered at a bar where dreams go to die, and then stumble through the cold to your old girl's house in hopes that she still loves you? Maybe give her a reworked version of the stupid "come or it's over" ultimatum you handed her two and a half years ago? Sure! I'm a regular Goethe! It was a while before Del realized his thoughts were coming right out of his mouth.

Mrs. Turley sipped her tea. "You're being a bit hard on yourself, Delmon. Not to mention a touch dramatic."

This was a mistake, Del thought. He'd started his evening sentimental, and he'd added too much of sentimentality's favorite food. Now he was at a nook looking at tea he didn't want and listening to a woman who had replaced a good and decent man who had the unfortunate luck of dying young with an old, mean crab of a man who stared at her daughter with dry unblinking eyes. He had the good sense to not say those thoughts aloud. Even drunkards need to adhere to manners regarding hospitality.

"I can wake her if you'd like?" The offer seemed strange to Del. Who wakes up their daughter when a drunk comes calling in the middle of the night? Did she that desperately want for things to work out? Or did she want Del to look like a fool? Too many questions. His brain wasn't working right. He'd been coming here since kindergarten. She was just trying to help her little Delmon.

"Would it be too forward for me to go in myself?"

Mrs. Turley paused for a time. To Del's surprise, she acquiesced. He suspected she didn't want to. He took a sip of his tea. It was still too hot to drink. He drank it anyways.



Standing in Meghan's doorway, Del expected enough light from the kitchen to make it down the hallway and wake her up. Opening her door, though, he found Meghan perfectly asleep, window shades open and bringing in the moonlight. The view was accompanied by a familiar bouquet of clean laundry and Dove body wash. Pictures of friends and Abraham Lincoln (a funny obsession from middle school that became an ironic interest later) were distributed tastefully in frames on the walls. Her cherrywood dresser with a red tapestry on top. A framed picture of her mom at some tropical location, laughing. Her desk, with an iMac giving off the faint, pulsing glow of hibernation mode, and a bulletin board next to it with notes, postcards, and Polaroids. Her driving in one, a group of friends at a baseball game in another.

A photo booth strip of Meghan and Del together. He remembered being in it. The day wasn't anything special. Just the two of them at a food court in Boston. They'd gone to the aquarium earlier in the day, and Meghan couldn't stop talking about how the little penguins kept pushing the bigger penguins off the faux-rocks in their faux-habitat. They theorized that the colorful feathers on the tops of the small penguins' heads were gang colors, and that they were there to claim their turf from those square penguins in their tuxedoes.

In the first picture in the strip, the couple had been caught off-guard. Del's head was too far to the right, and Meghan was still entering the booth, and her head was cut off at the nose. The second, they were both smiling big, real smiles. The third picture they made funny faces - Del with his tongue out a little and a puffed out monkey face, and Meghan with a fist out and a twisted expression suggesting that she badly wanted a hooligan to get off her lawn.

The fourth picture was of them kissing. Del remembered that. He couldn't prove it, though. He knew exactly what it looked like, and could see it despite her having cut it off the bottom.



Meghan had to go to the bathroom. She'd been fighting it for about an hour, but her bladder was screaming, and she couldn't sleep through it.

She untangled herself from her covers. Her orange sheet had bunched up at her feet, but her two blankets were still on her, one tangled with the sheet and her body, the other smoothly over her, apparently unchanged by all the motion that had happened underneath it.

As she relieved herself, her thoughts were foggy. She felt a vague loneliness over her like she felt so many other hours in so many other days. It was a feeling she had felt a hundred times when she had to pee in the middle of the night and a feeling she had forgotten about by one hundred mornings.

Approaching her bed again, she noticed in periphery a slight change from the norm on her wall. Something had changed on her bulletin board. The photo booth pictures were missing.

Walking over to her small desk in the corner, she opened a drawer. Inside it, she pulled out an envelope. She walked to her bed, more awake now, and sat on it with the envelope in hand. Glancing out a window, she saw a figure walking down the road. As he faded in and out of focus walking in and out of street light, she smiled at his familiar gait; at his familiar back.

Sucking in her smile, tensing her muscles, she dedicated this one feeling to her memory. She'd remember this the next morning. She opened the envelope and pulled out a small rectangle of Del and her, on a day not so special, kissing not so well. She remembered the moment and she could prove it.

7 comments:

  1. what a really good story, lovely characters and mood and description
    easy to read (complement!) and an ending with hope?

    Michael McCarthy

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  2. I agree with Michael - the story has such a nice flow that makes it "easy to read," and you find yourself almost "knowing" the characters as if you were a local as well. Nicely done.

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  3. I'm envious of the writer's ability to write a simple story about characters and keep it so interesting, a page turner for its ease of reading and charm.

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  4. An enjoyable and easy to read story which demonstrate a keen knack of character development. Good job~

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  5. Wow. Thanks for the positive feedback, everyone!

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  6. Lovely piece--good balance of moods and tone. You create a vibrant place with complexity and familiarity. It really does feel like a small town and it captures that awkward blend of nostalgia and alienation very well.

    Good story!

    --Wendy Hammer

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  7. Love this story. Well done! Glad he walked off without waking her; glad she woke and saw him.

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