Illustration by Andres Garzon
She had just started washing the cutlery when the phone rang. She pulled a towel off the oven handle and used it to lift the telephone from its receiver.
“Hey, is this Emily?” It was a woman’s voice. “It’s Vera from the gym.”
“Vera! You used my number.”
“Yeah,” she said. “And it’s not a fake! What are you doing this weekend?”
“Nothing,” Emily said. “What’s up?”
“I don’t know. How does drinks sound? What’s Nick up to?”
“Great, drinks sound great.” Emily tried to remember Vera’s face, and wondered if they would recognize each other in normal clothes. “But Nick hasn’t been doing too well,” she said. “I’d love to though.”
“Great,” said Vera. They agreed to talk again on Friday, and Emily placed the telephone back to its receiver, careful not to let it slip from the towel.
Emily got off work at 3 on Friday. On her way home from the diner she pulled over at the liquor store. She placed a bottle on the checkout counter and searched for her wallet. “That’s all,” Emily said. “Thanks.” She handed the cashier a twenty.
There was nobody behind her when she reached their driveway, so she didn’t bother with the signal before pulling in. Nick’s socked foot resting on the sofa’s back was visible from the road.
“Hi honey,” she said walking directly to the kitchen and putting the bottle in the cupboard.
“Good day?” He shifted from his back onto his arm.
“Fine,” she said. “It isn’t finished though.” She pulled a glass from the cupboard and ran the water from the sink a few moments before filling the glass. “I’m so pissed,” she said. “Do you remember Dana?”
“Maybe you haven’t met her,” she said between sips. “She’s a new girl. You probably haven’t met her yet.”
“She called in sick.” Emily filled another cup of water. “Did Vera call?”
“Oh yeah, she did call,” he said.
“I said to call back.”
“Hm.” Emily opened the fridge. “We’re going for a drink this weekend,” she said. “She’s a girl I go to the gym with—super sweet girl. We’re thinking of going to that place you used to go to. She insists on a place with a pool table.” She laughed. “I don’t know who she thinks she’s going to play pool with.”
“I’m busy.” Nick started shifting on the couch and sunk back when he found the remote.
“Great.” She closed the fridge and moved into the bedroom to look through her clothes.
He changed the channel from Nascar, to the Nature channel, and then to a BBC program. He raised one knee and bent the other off the cushion to fit, then messed it all up to reach for his cigarettes from the coffee table and an old cup to ash in. Emily was back in the kitchen looking in the fridge when the phone rang.
The next evening Emily was back at work. Nick grew tired of waiting, so he went into the bathroom. After splashing water on his face, he looked in the mirror. Then he closed his eyes and looked again. He’d go to the place he used to go and have a bite before Emily was finished work, he decided.
Nick took a seat at the bar and stood up to take off his jacket. He didn’t recognize the bartender.
“Kitchen still open?”
“Yessir,” said the bartender. “A server will come around in a minute.” He placed a laminated menu in front of Nick from over the bar. “Need a drink in the meantime?”
Nick looked at the taps. “Yeah,” he said. “Your stout.”
The waitress came around and Nick ordered a hamburger and potato wedges, and before she could ask, he said “garlic mayo.”
When the bartender asked how he was doing, Nick nodded his head and raised a finger. The bartender waited. “Does”—he finished swallowing. “Does Joe still work here?” he asked.
“Yessir,” the bartender said. “Joe got switched to days.”
“Oh,” Nick said.
“You know Joe?”
“Yeah, I know Joe. Hey,” he said. “What about Vera?” He dipped another potato wedge and rubbed it around the ramekin of garlic mayo. “Does a girl named Vera still come in here?”
The bartender shook his head slowly and pinched his lips. “Vera,” he said. “I can’t think of any Veras.” The bartender made eye contact with a man who walked through the door and smiled. He started pouring a pint and said, “but I don’t know the names of everybody.” He placed the pint in front of the man who sat a few seats down from Nick.
Nick finished his wedges and used the napkin. He looked back at the pool table and scanned the bar for any faces he might have missed, then he got up and pulled on his coat.
Nick could see the lights in the kitchen were on from the road. He began unbuttoning the top of his coat. The door was unlocked.
“He exists!” Vera said, raising her arms in mock surprise when he walked into the kitchen. He walked over to Emily and touched her back while he made his way to Vera who stood up to shake his hand with a sergeant general’s face on.
Nick smiled at her. “Nice to see you,” he said. “You must be Vera, right?”
“I am! Nice to finally meet you; Emily has told me so much.” She tugged at the bottom of her dress that had ridden up and loosened her shoulders. “Emily was just telling me a story from her work.” She sat back down and picked up the glass she was holding before.
“Yeah,” she said. “Some guy who preferred to be shot at than to be with his own family.”
“Nick knows all the stories,” Emily interjected.
“I don’t know if I know this one,” Nick said. “Hey, what are you girls drinking?” He went over to the cupboard.
“Jack and ginger,” Vera said.
“I thought you were busy,” Emily said from behind her glass. Nick broke out a few cubes from the ice tray.
“What happened to playing pool?” Nick asked.
“Vera met me at work. I wanted to drop off the car, so we figured we’d have a drink here.”
“There’s always later,” Vera said. “Now, the story.”
“Yeah, I know.” Emily took in a mouthful of whiskey. “So, this guy goes to Iraq, right? He goes to fight in the war and leaves his wife and kids at home.”
Nick crossed the kitchen floor with his glass and pulled up a seat at the table.
“Then he comes back, all in one piece.” Emily picked up her glass from the table and leaned back a little. “Boring story, heh?” She lifted the cup back to her lips and took another sip. “But that’s not all.”
“Oh my.” Vera put down her glass.
“No,” Emily said. “The thing is, is that the man went back! He went back to Iraq! He missed getting shot at I suppose.”
“He went back?”
“He missed being in the war, so he went back. Can you imagine?” she asked. “Can you imagine the kids? The wife, and the kids?”
Vera shook her head. She narrowed her eyes into slits. “What do you mean he went back?”
“I mean he went back! I don’t know,” Emily said. “I guess he said he got something at war he couldn’t get at home.”
Vera shook her head.
“I can’t imagine.” Emily looked down and started picking at something on her sleeve. “Anyway, it was the poor wife who told me this.”
Nick got up from his seat and left to the bathroom.
“Yeah.” Emily stopped picking at her sleeve. “I don’t know. You never really know, do you?” She went to the freezer.
“It’s true. You really don’t.”
Emily was breaking more ice when Nick came from the bathroom. “Never know what?” he asked.
Emily replied with her back to him. “Who the man you marry will become.” She turned and raised her eyebrows at Vera, but Vera was looking away.
Nick got up after sitting down and put his cup into the sink. Outside was still dark. He tried to remember if there was snow this time last year but couldn’t seem to place it.
After that night, Emily spent less time at home. Nick was on the couch each day Emily came home from work. “Nothing yet?” she’d ask.
“We’ll see,” he’d say. “We’ll see.”
Nick was spending less time at home, too. After the first snow, he decided he needed warmer socks if he was going to go out looking for a job, so he took the car out before Emily had to leave for work. He drove out to a department store on the edge of town. Coming out of the store he threw the bag into the trash and wore the lined socks over his hands across the parking lot. He went at his pockets for the keys, but his hands were too big, so he tucked the socks under his arm while he opened the door and ducked into his car.
The snow had melted into a small muddy puddle down at the pedals by the time he turned his car off on the street outside the bar. He kept one hand rested on the steering wheel as he read the advertisements hanging in the window, remembering that he had once actually gone to a Karaoke Thursday—he had once actually come for the Happy Hour Special. The posters were so faded that it seemed impossible the advertisements could still be applicable. He tried to see through the other window but all he could make out were the neon lights of the video slot machine screens near the front and the light that hung low over the pool table. The rest was dark. He stepped out onto the sidewalk and locked the car.
The view of Vera sitting at the farthest end of the bar entered Nick’s vision like a warm distant memory tethered to a smile, which she flashed up at him at the sound of the bar room door as it crept shut. The pool table in the corner stood empty.
It was hours before Nick finally got the car home. Fitting the key into the lock, he noticed he couldn’t hear the television. Inside, the lights were all turned off. He tossed his socks onto the couch and went to the kitchen table, but there was no note. So, he went to the telephone. The last call was to the diner, and the call before that was from the previous day. Crumbs were all over the counter. Nick sunk his hands into his jacket pockets to feel for his keys and carried his new socks from the couch to his bedroom, stopping in at the bathroom to look at his face in the mirror.
He could hear the engine still ticking as he locked up the house. Nick found Vera’s car still parked across the street from the bar with a light coat of snow blanketing the windshield. He pulled into his same parking spot out front and killed the engine.
Meanwhile, at the diner Janice was busy telling Emily about the elderly couple seated at table 13. She tilted her head a little in the table’s direction while tearing out a leaf from her note pad. Janice was always talking about the customers. Emily didn’t know of any coworkers who took notice like Janice did. “They don’t tip,” she was saying. “They don’t come in during the day, but you’ll see them when you work nights.” She tucked the order slip beside the others and started to untie her apron. “Honey I swear,” she said. “It ain’t you. They just don’t tip.”
“Oh,” Emily said. “Okay.”
“Yeah. Somethin’ must’ve happened and they still come by here, but they won’t tip. Honey,” she said. “Trust me, it ain’t you.” She said she was going on break so good luck.
Emily lifted a pitcher of water from the counter and carried it over to the sallow looking elderly couple then to another table where a large man in a suit read the menu carefully. When Emily was coming back from the tables, she switched the water pitcher for a coffee pot, and carried it over to an older gentleman in a tweed blazer who’d been sitting at the bar with a paper a few seats from where Janice sat down. While Emily filled his cup, she felt Janice’s eyes follow her. Emily brought over a cup and a dish of creamers and sugars and placed them on the counter.
“Thanks darling,” she smiled up at Emily.
After she brought the food out to all her tables, Emily carried a glass of water over to Janice and took a sip. “Can I ask you something silly?”
Janice crossed her arms on the counter and pulled her seat closer using her ankles.
“What’s it like to be married?”
“What’s it like?” Janice asked. “What is it like? You and Nick are married, aren’t you? I always thought you were married.”
Emily shook her head and brought the coffee pot over to the older gentleman. “No,” Emily said, coming back to Janice. “We aren’t. I guess it isn’t any different though.”
“No, exactly,” Janice said. She said it really wasn’t much different.
“It’s strange though. I feel different. It’s funny to say, but I really feel different.”
“You don’t say,” Janice said. “And just how are you feelin’?
“Well,” she lifted the coffee pot up to Janice, but Janice shook her head. “Okay, so,” she said, putting the coffee pot back. “So, this might be really crazy, but I sort of have this feeling like everything is about to change. I feel like really everything might be about to change.”
“So, what’s the big change?” Janice said. She leaned a little farther onto the counter, grinning.
“So, the other night, after I had this new girlfriend of mine over—we had a few drinks, whatever. Then, after she left, Nick and I went to bed. But something was different. It felt—” she slowed down in her speech, trying to better express how it was different. “When he was on me in bed like, it felt like I was looking in on a younger lady’s life.” She put her hands on her stomach, and Janice put her hands to her mouth.
“It’s weird, right?” Emily smiled. “I know, it sounds crazy, but I really think things are about to change.” She picked up her cup of water. “But I’ve been off, too. I’ve been feeling really off these last weeks.” She flashed a look down at her stomach, which she pushed out a little and laughed with Janice. Emily brought the cup to her lips, then hesitated. “It’s crazy, right?” she said. “Isn’t it just crazy?”
CLAYTON LONGSTAFF is a short story writer and poet from Victoria, BC, currently studying English Literature at Concordia University, Montreal.
Copyright © 2018 by Clayton Longstaff. All rights reserved.