I point my truck down Main Street, let her roll away under my feet and guide me through the town. I take a left at the lights by the hardware store and then a right in front of the water tower and not a minute later, I find myself rolling up into the parking lot. The hour isn’t too late, but it seems like it’s getting dark early again these days. There’s a cyclical nature to these things that breeds habits.
A while ago, I had a few buddies that used to work alongside me, and I used to drink with them when we were done with the fields for the day. As the market moved to organic, the need for people was less. Most of my buddies skilled up, moved into low-impact office jobs; insurance, or sales. I still see those boys from time-to-time, but now the bars themselves are being replaced with trendy eateries and wine places, and they ain’t so inclined to visit.
I know better than anyone that resistance to these forces is pointless. I ain’t no Canute, ain’t gonna turn back the tide of progress. I just want a quick bite to eat, a glass of something and then a safe trip back to Mrs. Ben for the daily roundup of my neglected chores. So I park up, jangle my keys, push on the door to the bar and step into low-lit goodness. The bar is all-but-empty, quiet, just like I like it.
There’s no barman to be seen, but a waitress is fussing around, killing time ’til her shift is done and she can hitch a lift back into town. She’s a plain girl with a firm body, her breasts round and tight beneath her top. She has a tiny black apron tied around her hips, with a pocket on the front that’s just large enough to hold a small notepad and nothing more. I watch her cleaning tables with a dirty cloth as I settle onto the cold leather seat. Glancing around, she sees me looking at her and takes it as an intention to order.
“What can I get ya?”
“Beer, please,” I say.
She glances through the low-hanging blind towards my truck in the parking lot. “I saw you drive in here.”
“It’s the only one I’ll have,” I say, matter-of-factly.
She takes out her notepad and scrawls a short note on it, though it’s surely more out of habit than because she needs to remember the order. “Anything else?”
“Is it too late to eat?”
“Kitchen’s closed,” she says. “We can do you bar snacks if you want.”
“What do you got?”
“Olives. Sun-dried tomatoes. Feta cheese.”
“Olives and cheese are good,” I say. “I spend too much of my damn day around tomatoes as it is.”
The waitress disappears through a swing door at the end of the bar and I settle back in my seat. Yessir, stopping off for a quick one was definitely a good idea.
The waitress hasn’t returned by the time the door creaks open and another man, about my age but clean shaven and with a balding pate, steps through. He’s carrying a leather briefcase and is hunched up underneath his coat, like he’s cold or in pain. Even though I watch him come through the door, he still recognises me before I do him.
“Gentle Ben? Is that you?”
There’s a nickname that you ain’t to go sharing with Pierre. I double-take. “Seb? Seb Barnes, goddamn it, what happened to your hair?”
Seb Barnes had been a long-haired, bearded rocker just like me once, back in the days when summers were given over to road trips, girls and really goddamn ass-kicking guitar solos. In those days, we’d knock back a six-pack, listen to songs like “American Woman” and “Born to Be Wild” on the radio and spend our spare hours hanging out in the town with all the American boys that had stepped across the border and travelled north to dodge the draft.
“How’s it going, man?” Seb asks. He takes my hand and shakes it just a little too much. “What’s it been…ten years? More?”
“Could be twenty,” I say. It could, too.
“Twenty years, holy hell. Well, I don’t come out this way much. I ain’t seen any of the old crew for too long! You don’t look any different to how you were back then. Well, maybe a bit greyer at the edges, but still a rebel!”
I smile to myself. Fantasy creatures aside, having a quick drink before returning home is about as rebellious as it gets these days. “I’m good. Just out having a cold one. What are you doing these days?”
The waitress appears soon after, dropping off a bottle of beer and a small bowl of olives and feta cheese cubes in front of me. Seb orders two beers, and launches into a lengthy explanation of the benefits of home insulation. As I suspected, once he’d withdrawn from the freewheeling farming community, Seb had turned corporate.
“Have you ever thought about having your old insulation replaced?” he says, spreading brochures out on the table. “There’s initiatives, and you can get all sorts of government grants…”
“I ain’t never thought about that,” I admit, keen to change the subject before he pulls out the paperwork and I have to disappoint him. “But I will, and soon. What are you doing out this way, though? You never did say. Seeing family, maybe?”
“Well,” he says, and after that one simple word, Seb’s face pulls itself in a lot of directions all at once. “I was married for a while, got a couple of kids, adorable, they are. I got some photos I can show you. But things were tough for a while before I started working this insulation gig, and Mrs. B didn’t have too much staying power. She upped sticks a few years back and went to the big city.”
“Sorry to hear that,” I say.
“Yeah, well, it happens. I still travel to see my girls when I can. But hey! I’m not here to drag over bad times. I’m here to celebrate!”
“Oh yeah?” I say, thinking maybe birthday, or anniversary of something or other.
“Yeah,” he says, giving me slightly manic eyes that glow in the low light. “Today I think I met Mrs Barnes Mk. II.”
He clinks his bottle against my own before I can lift it myself. There’s something like joy there for him, this old compadre from decades past, but it’s tempered by an alarm bell that’s starting to ring somewhere in the back of my mind.
“That’s…good,” I say. “Though surely maybe it’s a bit sudden to make a decision like that, though?” I’m buying time for myself, time for a poor memory to think back. I remember Seb’s beard, all puffy golden curls. I remember the girls sitting on his lap and playing with it. There were a lot of girls. And yeah, he was the kind to make rash decisions.
“I stopped off for lunch after I made a sale this morning and literally bumped into her in the street!” Seb is away now, pretty much bouncing in his seat. It’s like watching that Tom Cruise talk show moment, and it’s every bit as awkward.
“Is she a beauty?” I ask, carefully.
“Oh, hell yeah,” Seb says.
“Is she a Nickelback fan?”
Seb’s far, far away in that moment. “Her voice…the moment she spoke, that was when I knew.”
Fred, I think desperately, if this is as bad as it looks, we’re going to need more than your coffee-making skills to come out the other side of this one. And we haven’t got much time, because if there are sirens in the town, we’re going to need to act quickly or people are going to start to get sucked dry every which way. Seb, poor simple Seb Barnes, with his once-golden beard, adorable children and briefcase full of insulation brochures, is gonna be first.
“Seb,” I say, thinking on my feet, “I’m proper serious about this insulation you’re offering. I want to talk more about it. Now, I’m still working up on the Gaultier Farm. You remember how to get out there, right? I want to see you there first thing tomorrow and we’ll get it all sorted then. Don’t go leaving the state and taking this deal to anyone else, though, you hear?”
Seb looks delighted. “Sure! Well, it’s a double celebration then!” He does the bottle thing again, and the sound echoes more than it should. The waitress looks up from scrubbing the bar, and shoots us a suspicious look before disappearing out back again.
“When are you next seeing Mrs. Barnes Mk. II?” I ask.
Seb glances down at the second beer he ordered, which sits untouched next to the first, and then out through the blind. I’m understanding too late, and my heart sinks. “Funny you should say that. She’s meeting me here tonight—and here she is!”
The door to the bar opens, and here she is indeed. She arrives like a boy’s wet dream, legs up to her neck, curves upon curves, wrapping around and upon herself like smoke. Eyes of blue fire, lips as full as early-season cherries, and that look about as tasty. It’s impossible to pin an age on her, but then I’m told that sirens by their very nature tend to look like you want them to. Every bit of her that isn’t skin suggests it, and no other cliché I have in the toolbox is going to be enough for me to point out to poor Seb Barnes that his beautiful new lady is a veritable supernatural nightmare of biblical proportions. In something approaching a blind panic, I reach for salvation the only place I can—the small bowl of feta cheese chunks before me.
At first, the girl doesn’t notice me at all. Instead, she descends hungrily upon Seb, kissing him so deeply that you can practically feel the essence draining out of him. I sit with my head in my hands, never taking my eyes off that girl’s lips, watching and wondering what in hell I can do.
When she’s done with Seb and he’s leaning back every bit as blissed out as he has a right to be, she turns those sapphire flames onto me. Closely, very closely, I study her lips again.
“Hello,” she breathes, offering me her hand. “I’m Nancy. So lovely to meet you.”
I nod back, not moving to take her hand.
She stares at me, and she’s appraising, and we both know it. There’s a window, a small one, before Nancy makes up her mind to act, and I have to use it if I’m getting out of here in one piece.
“GOTTA GO,” I yell, finishing my beer with a chug. “LOVELY TO MEET YOU. SEB, TOMORROW. THE INSULATION. DON’T FORGET.”
Seb mouths something vague back as I barge my way past the lovely Nancy and out to the street. I’m in my truck, a hand on the gearstick and a foot on the pedal within seconds.
“Oh, bad times, bad times,” I whisper to myself. The truck reverses, I’m out onto the road and heading back to Pierre’s farm. Still all I can see is Nancy’s cerulean stare in the rear view mirror, following me with the certainty of one who knows her cover is blown, and isn’t going to sit around waiting for me to come back with the cavalry.
The truck begins to eat up the miles as I tip my head left and then right, each movement spilling an oily chunk of feta cheese from my ear to the footwell.
Photo Credit: Flickr