“Damn her,” the pretty blonde blurted out suddenly from two stools down the bar.
Tommy, the bartender gave me one of those odd looks when I glanced at him for an explanation, one of those looks he usually gives for nutcases he’d been watching closely. Most of the time, he meant the look for the scraggly old drunks that still came in from time to time, old men still clinging to the memory of when The Red Baron was their kind of bar.
I’d never seen Tommy give a girl that look, let alone a girl as pretty as this one was.
“Is there a problem, lady?” Tommy asked, cleaning glasses -- which he always did when the night got slow, the way Mondays always got. He threatened to close up that night, saying he didn’t make enough to justify paying for the heat, but never did, knowing that most of the boys eventually stumbled in for Monday Night football or baseball depending on the season.
She looked up at him; but she didn’t see him, and though she shook her head, she might not have heard.
Tommy shrugged. I went back to my beer. It had been a long enough day without her.
“Damn her!” the woman yelled again, this time loud enough to rattle the glasses hanging behind the bar.
“Look, lady,” Tommy said, his image of perfect patience a mere illusion. He disliked oddities, and generally put up with the rest of us only because he had known us for so long, he did not need any more oddballs to complicate his life. “If you got a problem, I think you should take it out of here.”
He was not exactly throwing her out, the way he might some of the other clowns who made trouble on Friday and Saturday nights. Most times, he gave people the option. He gave her the option now.
She blinked. Again, I couldn’t tell if she understood or not. She only nodded.
I slid down a stool to get nearer to her. “Can I buy you a drink?” I asked, trying to ignore the outraged glance Tommy gave me, both he and I knowing how I tended to bring out the worst in people.
She looked at her nearly empty glass, giving me another nod. I jerked my head at Tommy. Tommy grumbled, but brought two drinks, some sweet switzer-concoction for her, another beer for me. He took the money from my pile glaring at me the whole time.
“I couldn’t help but noticing,” I told the woman. “Is something wrong?”
This time when she looked at me her gaze was hard, not only did she notice me talking to her, but didn’t particularly like the idea. In the social structure of our little barroom society, she fit a much higher level than I did, one of those people Tiny always called “the pretty folks,” who rarely associated with us commoners. Her kind came into bars like the Red Baron to get a feel for the underlife without actually dirtying their fingers by coming into contact with us.
“I mean, you don’t have to tell me or anything,” I said. “It’s just that you seem a bit upset.”
“I am upset,” she snapped, and then taking a deep breath, sighed. “It’s my sister. She’s over in Mountainside Hospital, dying.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said, catching a “I-told-you-so-look” from Tommy in the mirror.
“Don’t be,” the woman said. “I’m not.”
No statement had ever sounded so untrue to me.
“Then why are you so upset?”
“It’s ... the fact that she just lies there with machines running her life,” the woman said. “As if it was the most natural thing in the world.”
“Maybe it’s helping,” I suggested.
“Maybe it’s bullshit,” she snapped. “That bitch sister of mine wouldn’t listen to me. She wouldn’t take my advice about hair color or clothing styles, let alone anything more serious. Yet I have to sit in her room day after fucking day listening to the gurgle of her goddamn IV tube. It’s like a song of death.”
“What do the doctors say?”
“They can’t do anything to save her,” the woman said bitterly. “God knows, I’ve even prayed, hoping for a miracle. But maybe God just didn't want to listen to me.”
“I suspect God listens to everyone,” I said, drawing one of the queerest looks from Tommy I’d ever seen, knowing later Tommy would grill me about me possibly being a secret Jesus Freak.
“If he listened, he didn’t answer,” she said.
“Sometimes it takes a little time,” I said.
“I’ve given it time. I’ve prayed and prayed for her ever since we were both kids, when I first saw all this coming. She was always so reckless in everything. She charged through her life as if she was immune to every ailment. Even mother couldn’t stop her, frowning over her boyfriends, her habits, her senseless dual with danger. And if she wouldn’t listen to my mother, how would she ever listen to a sister three years younger than she was.
“I used to think how unfair life was, making her the elder sister, when I fitted the part. Or maybe I learned from her mistakes, finding wisdom in her foolishness. Had she not been so bad, I might not have turned out so well.
“I wanted to guard her, I wanted to protect her from her own mistakes. God knows, I tried.
“When we talked at night, I warned her, saying the boy would hurt her, and that she shouldn’t sneak around behind mother’s back. I’m not just talking about cigarettes or sex. It was how she always managed to go to extremes, from devouring chocolate on Halloween as a kid to later when she devoured isolation and laziness.
“I should have stopped her. But I thought my being a good example was enough. I thought if I could make myself perfect, she would absorb some of it, by osmosis.
“I married a good man and lived a clean life. I went to church on Sunday. I raised my kids. I smothered them, scolded them, shaped them into little perfect beings like myself, as if I needed to make up for all those darker things my sister did in her life. For her life seemed to reflect the opposite of mine. As my fortunes rose, hers fell. Whereas I had a good man, she had a hundred foul-tempered fools.
“It was as if there wasn’t enough happiness to go around, that my life seemed to steal her share. I blamed myself after a while, but I knew it wasn’t me. The choice seemed to be beyond us, as if fate had pre-selected how we would wind up -- my good needing her to survive, my good mocking her. Yet often, in the back of my head, I ached to trade places as if I saw joy in her pain and misery in the midst of my tranquility. I’ve never taken a risk in my life.
“How awful I must have seemed to her in those early years, so haughty, when I couldn’t even talk without preaching. How wonderful life was later, when we sat and laughed over those silly times, recalling each of your disasters over cups of tea, exorcising ghosts and mine with a single ceremony.
“Mother didn’t understand our reunion or how much joy in gave us. She looked at our giggling, thinking we were drunk, shaking her head as us as she left. Somehow, in those middle years, we formed a bond, balancing out the good and bad, staining my reputation a little, drawing lighter shades in her. But now I see it was already too late. Fate wouldn’t allow that bridge to remain too long. I could not bleed its poison from her, and when the doctors said: “AIDS” I nearly died. I ranted the way I had in the old days. I stomped my feet, condemning the world for being unfair. Then, I watched her slip away, day by day, life draining from her until her eyes shut and the coma closed around her. I felt shut out. I felt as if a part of me was inside with her, banging on the top of her coffin to be let out.
“Now what do I do? I don’t know if I am good or bad any more, as if in losing her, I’ve lost all meaning. Damn her!”
“Tommy,” I said after a long moment of silence. “Give the lady another drink.”
“Fuck you,” Tommy barked. “Her drinks are on me.”