Hunched over my beer, I couldn’t stop from drumming one set of fingertips on the faded wood of the bar. I’d only made a half-hearted dent in the ham sandwich I’d ordered before my stomach decided to rebel against this cockamamie idea. The bartender had cleared my plate away without comment, giving me a commiserating grin.
I glanced around to see one or two other women darting glances at the crowd and wiping palms against their thighs. One clutched a small flute case in a death grip. There were also a couple that laughed with their friends, all casual-like. This is what Open Mic Night looked like at Sneakers!
I’m not sure what possessed me to come here. My guitar case leaned against the bar beside me, the side knocking against my right thigh as my knee jittered up and down. I hate to say it but I wished Elle was here to laugh with me and dull my stage fright. It might ease my nerves some. Taking a deep breath and a deep draught of beer, I put Elle Shipley out of my mind.
It was a weekday night, so there weren’t nearly as many people here as I’d seen on the two weekends I’d come before. Bonus for me and my ailing stomach, I guess. I idly wondered if they sold Tums behind the bar along with cigarettes and alcohol as I scanned the place for the hundredth time. A portable stage had been erected at the end of the dance floor by the DJ booth. It wasn’t big, not like the one at the county fair over a year ago. This audience wasn’t a mob of several hundred drunken asshats looking for something to heckle on a Friday night, either. That would work in my favor. If I could get up and sing in front of that mob, I could do this, easy.
Hear that? I told my stomach. Easy.
My belly didn’t agree, preferring to twist a little tighter. I finished off my beer to drown it and waved at the bartender for another.
“All right! Are we ready for another Open Mic Night at Sneakers?”
I turned, seeing a lady at the DJ booth using the microphone. She stepped up onto the stage, where a spotlight washed over her, to the accompaniment of hoots and applause from the audience. Tall and slender, wearing a professional-looking turquoise pantsuit, she had high cheekbones and oval-shaped brown eyes that sparkled as she smiled. Her dark hair brushed her shoulders and bangs hid her brow, except where they drifted away from a natural part. A gold necklace caught the light at the base of her tanned throat. I bet she had some American Indian in her to have that complexion.
“Thank you all for being here tonight! I’m your host, Kelly, and I’ve got six acts to present this evening. Some you’ve seen before.” She smiled and nodded toward a table that had erupted into gleeful shouts. “But we also have two newcomers to our illustrious stage.”
“Virgins!” someone hollered, getting a laugh.
Swallowing hard, I ignored the applause as necks craned among the crowd to see who the newbies were. I doubt I succeeded what with the bright red flush I felt on my face and neck. The bartender winked at me and hit me up with another beer.
Kelly chuckled with the others, wagging an elegant finger at the culprit. “Now, no speculation on that. At least not on stage; we’re not that kind of bar.” Wolf whistles and howls met her statement, and it took her several minutes for her to regain control of the audience. Consulting a piece of paper, she announced, “First up is Lucinda Talley!” The crowd applauded as a blonde trotted up to the stage carrying a violin. She thanked Kelly and introduced her act with obvious experience.
I couldn’t say what Lucinda said or how she played, because I seriously wanted to throw up by that point. Shoving my beer aside, I felt slightly faint. When I’d arrived and signed up tonight, I’d been the second one on the list. That meant I was next. I suppose it beats being first, but right now I’m not sure I care about the distinction. My eyes strayed toward the front door. A night like tonight, middle of the week, small crowd, there wasn’t a bouncer guarding it. Running was still an option; no one here knew me well enough to give a damn if I never came back.
But then where will you go? You’ll always know you’re a coward every time you come back here. And you will come back. There aren’t that many lesbian bars in the area. Frowning, my hand on my guitar case, I reminded myself that I’d survived the county fair talent contest. Won it, too. I stroked the case, studying its scuffed surface. Nestled within its fading red velvet was the sweet guitar that Elle had given me. She’d said my dreams weren’t silly. That night at the county fair she’d said that if I wanted to have my dream, I had to start somewhere. I’d started, but I hadn’t taken the next step. That’s what this whole thing was about. Taking the next step. Having my dream.
A warm hand rested on my shoulder, and I turned to see Kelly smiling at me. Up close I saw she was older than me, maybe in her late thirties with wrinkles just starting to develop at the corners of her eyes and around her mouth. It showed that she smiled a lot. I liked that in a woman. Somehow she felt comforting and safe.
I nodded dumbly, still in the throes of panic.
She squeezed my shoulder. “You’ve got about seven minutes to prepare.” Glancing past me at the guitar case, she said, “Do you need more time? I can shuffle the schedule.”
In my mind, I heard Elle’s voice at the river. “Dreams are never silly, Slow.” I swallowed hard and shook my head. “No, I’m good.”
Kelly’s smile softened as she rubbed my shoulder before releasing me. “Good. I’ll call you next. Get ready.”
She headed back toward the stage, and the hound dog in me watched her passage. Though as slender as me, she had the benefit of a feminine figure, and her hips swayed well enough to grab my lecherous attention. I groaned, turning away with my eyes closed. Now is not the time to be thinking of that! I laid the case out on the floor and knelt to lovingly pull my guitar from its interior. Just having her in my hands eased back some of the jitters. I attached the strap over my shoulder, stroking the wood with my fingers. She’d had a full tuning out in the truck before I came inside tonight, but I leaned close over the soundbox as I tested her strings. To be honest, I fiddled with the guitar as long as I could just to distract myself. I about had heart failure when I heard Kelly’s voice over the speakers.
“Lucinda Talley, everyone! Give her a round of applause!”
The audience obeyed, and I turned to see Lucinda step down with a relieved expression on her face. She fell into a chair at a table, getting her back thumped by her friends. Good to know that even the veterans felt uncertain about getting up there.
“Next up is one of our newcomers—”
Kelly gave the offender a fake scowl. “Jennie, be nice. You can heckle when you get the courage to come up here.” She smiled to offset her words as Jennie’s table exploded in laughter. “As I was saying, Slow Phillips is one of our newcomers tonight. Let’s give her a hearty welcome, okay?”
My hearth thundered in my chest, and time slowed down. The bartender said something, taking my beer and setting it behind the counter. I think she said she’d save it for me, but damned if I could hear her. All I heard was white noise in my ears as I took the long walk up to the stage and Kelly. This is what people on their way to the electric chair feel, I know it. Funny how weird time is, too. It took damned near forever to get up there under the hot light, but in split seconds there were two microphones on stands before me — one for me and one for my guitar — and I was alone.
The stage light did nothing to blind me from seeing the audience like it had at the fair. There they sat before me, about forty or fifty women waiting expectantly for me to play music for them. Good God, why did I do this again? I’m sure I was hyperventilating as silence fell over the room. I swallowed, heaving a deep breath to quell the terror. I had fifteen minutes to entertain them, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember what I was going to play. As I frantically searched my sluggish brain, my eyes followed suit, darting about the room. I saw derisive grins beginning here and there, some concerned expressions, and flat out boredom on other faces. Then I caught the oval-shaped eyes of Kelly at the DJ booth. She nodded to me, the kindness in her gaze giving me just the push I needed. I need water.
That’s what reminded me of my playlist. Duh. I almost said it aloud, but I’m glad I didn’t. It would have made a hell of a first impression, right? Not that I was doing such a good job already.
I started playing “Bring Me Some Water” by Melissa Etheridge. My voice was pretty quiet during the first refrain, partially because I was scared to death and partially from intent. The intent part seemed to work as I saw my potential troublemakers leaning forward to hear me. By the time I got into the meat of the song, I began belting out the lyrics. People started clapping their hands in time with the beat, some singing along with me. I finished with a flourish and a broad smile. No jeers, no harassment, everybody liked it. They liked it! Joy filled my heart, soothing its rhythm as I thanked them.
It seemed appropriate that the next song I had lined up was “Suddenly I See” by K.T. Tunstall. As I played and sang, the rowdies got rowdier. A couple of people got up and began dancing on the tiny remains of the dance floor. This was so much better than the county fair had been. I couldn’t get enough. For the first time in forever everything felt right, even better than when I worked on cars at the shop. What was so scary about this?
The song ended, and I felt somewhat sweaty. Though I rode the high of the performance, I had my doubts about my next tune. My final song wasn’t a cover; it was one I’d written myself. I’d lured the audience in with familiar songs. Would they forgive me when I played an original? “Thanks, everybody.” I waved at them. “I’ve got one more. It’s something I wrote last month, and it’s about how everything comes to an end.” Yeah, it was about me and Elle, how we’d parted ways, and about her last visit and my decision to let her go. But it was also about the love I still held for her. The song was slow in nature, a direct contrast with the others, but that didn’t seem to put them off. Most of the audience still seemed to hang on every line, every chorus. It was like I held them close, taking them on a ride through my heart and soul, and maybe they learned something of themselves while they were there.
There was dead silence as the last strains of my guitar faded. For a moment, stark terror swept in. Crap! They hated it. But then someone started clapping and then another. Pretty soon they were all whooping and hollering just as loudly as they’d been for the first two songs. Sheepish and pleased, I thanked everybody again and stumbled off the stage back to the bar. On the way, people patted me on the back and congratulated me. At my barstool I leaned my guitar against the wall and collapsed, my legs suddenly nothing but rubber.
The bartender produced a fresh bottle of beer. “On the house.”
“Thanks.” I tipped it at her in gratitude and finally quenched my thirst.
To my left, Kelly had retaken the stage. She smiled in my direction. “Slow Phillips, ladies. What do you want to bet we’ll be seeing her again?”
Embarrassed and pleased, I lifted my beer bottle to the clapping crowd. When their attention drifted back to the stage and the next act, I slumped a little. That had gone better than I’d expected. At least I hadn’t lost my dinner on Kelly’s nice outfit.
“You’re very good.”
Speak of the devil! I turned to grin at Kelly, only now noticing that she was a couple of inches taller than me, and that’s a stretch. Pun intended. Behind her, a pair of women sang on the stage to a recording. “Thank you!”
She leaned a hip on the stool next to mine, one hand on the bar to steady herself. Almost miraculously a glass of mineral water appeared at her elbow. The bartender was there and gone before I’d even had a change to register her movement. “Was this your first time?”
Was I that obvious? I must have looked like hell when I got up there! “First time here,” I allowed, trying not to blush. Losing proposition, of course. Good thing bars are kept dark. Maybe that’s why. I ignored the thought. “I won a prize at the county fair last year.” Inwardly I groaned. It sounded like I was one of the hogs on display at the livestock exhibit or something. “The Talent Contest,” I quickly amended.
Kelly’s grin was playful. “I figured that.”
Suave and sophisticated, that’s me. I spent a few moments drinking my beer and kicking myself in the ass. Beside me, Kelly sipped her water and glanced at the clock hanging behind the bar.
“I’ll be right back.” And off she went. I watched her walk away, heaving a sigh of contentment at the view.
The bartender chuckled and dropped a shot glass beside me. “Here. Courtesy of Jennie.” She poured me a double shot of whiskey.
“Jennie?” I looked where the bartender pointed, finding the primary heckler of tonight’s show waving at me with a grin. Jennie looked a little familiar, and I realized she was one of the banty roosters from outside last month when I’d come here alone. Whiskey. Wow. The last time I’d tried hard liquor, me and my friend Jeff ended up lost in a cornfield on the outskirts of town, puking our guts out. Somehow it was one thing to use a fake ID to drink beer, but the hard stuff? If you don’t drink it, you’ll insult her. Insulting a rooster wasn’t a good idea; they tended to make life miserable for everyone when that happened. So I picked up the glass, held it up in a toast and downed it in one swallow.
I’d forgotten the taste and feel of it, my eyes watering at the alcoholic burn cauterizing my insides. The bartender smirked as I slammed the shot glass down in front of me, and I promptly took a long draught of my beer to cool things off. Then Kelly was back at my side while another act took up the stage.
That was the way the rest of the night went. Kelly kept me company in between acts, always drinking mineral water, always friendly and slightly flirtatious. When the show was over, she and a couple of wait staff pulled up the riser and rolled it out of the way. Someone turned on taped music from the DJ booth, and folks started dancing. For a weekday night, Tuesdays seemed pretty busy. I soon had a handful of people around me, talking about music and guitars and getting to know me better. I lost count of how many beers and shots came my way. It seemed rude to turn them down, but I could tell I was really getting drunk. Things weren’t so bad on my barstool, but everything swam when I staggered off to the bathroom at one point.
Kelly mingled with everyone, setting aside her water for a glass of wine. Most everyone else wore jeans and shirts, though a couple of the acts had dressed up a bit. Kelly stood out with her pantsuit, and I found myself watching her everywhere she went. She had a gift for making people feel happy. At least that’s what I felt in her presence. Judging from some of the other expressions I saw when she talked to folks, I’d have to say they felt the same. I wondered how she kissed and what she was wearing beneath that pantsuit. I think I’ll go ask her.
Funny how alcohol works. If you’re sitting on your butt, you can drink like a fish and get pleasantly squiffed. Then you stand up and the room goes ’round. Like I mentioned earlier, I’d found that out with Jeff back in our junior year of high school. Nothing says seasickness like an ocean of cornfield spinning around, let me tell you. I’d gotten a solid reminder at Sneakers! when I’d gotten up to hit the bathroom, so I’d been prepared for a reoccurrence when I stood to go talk to Kelly.
I swear it was like I blinked. One minute I was in the bar, the last whiskey shot burning its way down my throat and a burning question on my mind. Then I blinked. When I opened my eyes, I stared at whiteness.
Isn’t any white in the bar.
I studied it a moment, wondering if somehow I’d gotten turned around between here and the can. Cocking my head, I noted a slowly whirling fan. A fan on the wall? No, idiot. It’s a ceiling fan.
Ah, now that made sense. Sort of. Except that I hadn’t noticed any ceiling fans in Sneakers! Ceiling wasn’t white in the bar, either. The moment of clarity faded into confusion. Where am I? I stretched and rubbed at my eyes, feeling sheets against my skin and a firm mattress beneath my back. Gingerly pushing up onto my elbows I confirmed I was in a bed, a queen-sized one, and I was alone. Peering beneath the sheet, I realized I was wearing my boxers and sleeveless tee. My pants and shirt were gone. The pillows beside me were smashed and the sheets tossed back. Someone had slept here with me.
Good Lord, I don’t remember a thing! I smelled coffee, and my eyes darted toward the slightly ajar door. Who’d I go home with? The idea that I’d step out that door and see the banty rooster Jennie scared me to death. She’d been the one buying me all the shots. While she seemed like a nice enough lady, she was as much a hound dog as I was. Did she get me drunk and take advantage of me? I frowned, peering down at my underwear again. No. More like someone brought me home, and I passed out on them. Heat rose up to my face. I think I’d rather it be the first scenario. Better having drunken sex than being too smashed to perform. Only one way to find out.
I forced myself out of the bed, eyes gummy, hair askew, and teeth covered with a nasty fuzz. My neatly folded clothes were on the dresser, and I quickly snatched them up and donned them. I had a moment of indecision — wear the boots or carry them? — before deciding the latter. I didn’t think I’d have to run away, and walking without them could afford me a few seconds more of quiet until I got my bearings. I ran my fingers through my hair to tame it. Like that ever worked. Picking up the boots, I snuck out of the bedroom.
The coffee smell grew stronger. I was in a short hallway with what appeared to be a living room at the other end. The layout looked like my folks’ house except that this was a lot smaller and much nicer looking. Plush beige carpet cozied my sock feet, and I found the bathroom right where I thought it’d be. My bladder sang out in joy, and I tried to argue with it. My debate fell flat as my bladder promised to stain my jeans if I didn’t get my butt inside. Damn. A few minutes later, my innards were happier. By extension, so was I. There was a bottle of mouthwash sitting out. I used it to rid myself of the worst bar-breath I’d ever had the pleasure of experiencing. Blech. How much whiskey did I actually have last night? It was a pretty sure bet that whoever was drinking coffee knew I was awake, so I flushed the toilet, still wincing at the loudness of it.
Back out in the hall, I heard movement up ahead and to the left. Forcing myself to stop tippy-toeing like I was sneaking into the house after being out all night, I strode forward. The living room did open up to the right. At the left was a doorway into a small kitchen where the coffee smelled strongest. A cup sat next to the pot with a sugar container beside it. I stepped in to see a small dining nook beyond. Seated there was the woman I’d spent the night with.
Her dark eyes came up from her newspaper, and she smiled. “Good morning.”
If I was the type to have seizures, I surely would have at that moment. I suddenly remembered what had prompted me to stand up that last time in the bar, and I felt my face heat up like a hot air balloon. My mouth was working, I could tell, but nothing would come out. Did I pass out on the floor right there, or did I actually make it to Kelly’s side to embarrass the hell out of myself?
Kelly’s smile broadened. She rose and entered the kitchen, brushing past me. “Do you like sugar or creamer in your coffee?”
My mouth snapped shut. I cleared my throat and attempted to act like I made a drunken fool of myself and woke up in strangers’ beds all the time. Who am I kidding? I’ve never needed booze to act like a fool. “No, I like it black.”
She nodded, pouring me a cup. While she was occupied, the hound dog in me scanned her from head to toe. She wore a pair of cream-colored silk pajamas that went well with her complexion. Bet it felt nice, too. Stop that! I forced myself to look away.
“Here you go.”
I took the cup from her, and she bypassed me to return to the table. Still off-kilter, I took a couple of steps toward her and stopped.
“Come on, sit down.” She followed her own advice, indicating the chair across from her. “How are you feeling?”
Dropping my boots on the floor, I sank into the chair. “Like a half-wit.”
She gave me a sympathetic smile. “We’ve all been there at one time or another. Do you remember anything?”
I leaned my forearms on the table, holding my cup in my hands as I stared into it. “No.”
She placed a graceful hand on my wrist. “Don’t worry. Nothing happened last night.” How could I tell her that was part of my problem? While I castigated myself, she continued talking. “You hold your liquor well. Tess hadn’t realized how drunk you were. By the time she’d cut you off, it was too late. That last time you stood up, you nearly passed out. I had Jennie help me get you here to sleep it off.”
Tess. It took a moment for me to remember the name of the bartender. Great. The banty rooster got me drunk. I was never going to live this one down. A question entered my mind. “Why here?”
Kelly squeezed my wrist and released it. “I couldn’t very well let you drive home. Besides, I only live a block away. It was easier to get you here and into bed.”
And out of my clothes. Damn! I set the cup down. “I should go. I don’t want the city to tow my truck.”
She caught my hand before I could push away. “No worries, Slow. We got your keys and moved it into the parking lot. No one’s towing your truck.”
I finally looked up at her. She was a kind woman, even now giving me a reassuring smile. She also seemed pretty certain about the truck thing. “How do you know the bar won’t call the tow company?” A sudden panic washed through me as I noted the late hour. They might have already!
Chuckling, she gave my hand a little shake. “Because I own the place.”
My mouth dropped open and I stared at her. “You own Sneakers?” For some reason, I expected her to be a lawyer or a doctor or something. She looked too cultured to own a lesbian bar.
“Yes.” She squeezed my fingers. “So your truck is still there. Don’t be concerned about it.” Releasing me, she patted my hand. “Drink your coffee.”
Her revelation helped derail my latent shame, and I did as I was told, taking a sip. It tasted delicious, and I took a larger swallow.
I sputtered, choking as the coffee went down the wrong way. After several minutes of me coughing and Kelly running for a washcloth to clean up the table, I was able to control myself. “Why do you ask?” I wheezed, eyes and nose dripping from the effort.
Smirking, Kelly finished cleaning up the table. She took my cup away and returned to the kitchen to pour another. “Has anyone ever told you that you talk in your sleep?”
“No.” Crap! I shook my head, mortified. “Please tell me I didn’t say anything too damning.”
She laughed. “You didn’t, I promise. You mostly mumble, but you did speak her name aloud two or three times during the night.” She returned with a fresh cup of coffee. “Drink this; don’t inhale it.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Her hand was warm against the back of my neck, and then it was gone.
“So? Who is she?”
I rolled my eyes. “My ex.”
“Ah.” Her dark eyes peered over her cup at me. “Still hurts, huh?”
“Yeah.” I looked at her, finding understanding in her expression. Something told me that she’d been hurt in the past, that she’d suffered a love so strong and a pain so deep that nothing seemed to ease it.
Before I knew it, I was spilling my guts to her, telling her everything about Elle and me. As I spoke I relived our wonderful summer, my heart soaring with the elation of being with my high school crush. I crashed with the agony of our break up, Elle running away, Mama’s abandonment. Honestly, I don’t know what got into me. I chalked it up to the fact that I hadn’t ever said anything to anyone about it before. Not that I was hoarding my pain or anything, just that no one I knew seemed to comprehend. Who’d I have to tell? Daddy? Franklin? The guys at the Bronc? Misty Sue Morton? Right.
When I finished, I was kind of proud that I hadn’t shed any tears. I’d told myself after Elle left the garage last time that I wouldn’t cry any more over her. My throat was clogged pretty good, though. Probably sheer cussedness I hadn’t started sniveling, I guess.
For a wonder, Kelly didn’t look like she was ready to throw me out. She’d taken my hand again at some point and held it still, rubbing her thumb over my knuckles. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
I gave a half-hearted shrug. “It is what it is.”
She smiled. “But I’m glad you did, too.”
“Huh?” I asked in that debonair way I had.
Her lips quirked to one side. “If we don’t feel the sorrows, we never know how to feel the joys.” She pulled my hand up and kissed the back of it. “And you’d never be able to write songs like the one I heard last night.”
I hadn’t expected the praise and automatically blushed. The other part, though, that’s what kept whirling around in my mind. She had a point about joy and sorrow.
“Are you hungry?”
Swallowing, I focused on her. “I could eat.”
“Good. I’ll scramble us up some eggs.” She left the table, and my gaze followed her. Something had changed between us. Maybe it was just that I had changed. By revealing my history, I’d taken a step down a path I hadn’t considered with Kelly. She was still a beautiful woman, and I can’t say I wasn’t still attracted to her. That didn’t seem as important any more.
As I watched her go about making me breakfast in her tiny kitchen, I realized that I’d found myself a friend.