On an overcast Friday in San Francisco, corporate attorney Rachel Parkins acted on a bizarre but not completely unexpected impulse. She booked a window seat on a flight to Phoenix, Arizona for later that day. Phoenix held no fascination for her, but it was the city closest to a tiny town called Morena that was (according to records) Seth Foster’s place of residence. Rachel had grown up in nearby Tucson, but the entire family had scattered all over the southwest – Las Vegas, Santa Fe, El Paso – so she hadn’t been to her home state in almost a decade. She realized she couldn’t wipe out her past by clicking delete, but she hoped this short trip might help her close one particular chapter.
The flight was uneventful except for the aging jerk sitting next to Rachel in the aisle seat. Experience had taught her how to handle horny divorced men. After pulling down her black pencil skirt as far as possible, she leaned over and whispered in the guy’s fuzzy ear: “I think you’re extremely hot, but my genital herpes just became active after six great months of lying dormant. I’d feel so guilty infecting you.” After landing in Phoenix, Rachel rented one of the clunky white sedans that stood on the parking lot of the rental car agency. She’d forgotten how hot Arizona could be in the middle of March. The temperature was soaring, and she was dressed for a light snowfall.
Dusk was beginning to darken the air as Rachel weaved her way among the few cars on the highway. An eerie suspense hung in the air along with a stale odor that permeated the Pontiac. The distinct possibility that this spur-of-the-moment excursion might amount to nothing didn’t bother her. The scenario had been in her head for so long that it was time to either bring it to vivid, possibly volatile life or drop it once and for all.
At around six thirty, Rachel zoomed into the miniscule town of Morena with its abandoned buildings and youthful drug traffickers lurking in menacing alleys. A couple of bored teenage hookers stood on a street corner; business wasn’t exactly brisk. Pieces of trash swirled in the warm breeze. It seemed as if even the trees had given up on any kind of pleasant existence; their withering brown leaves hung lifelessly, waiting to fall from their branches and disintegrate. Thankfully, a bright crescent moon hung in the sky like a luscious slice of melon, its shimmering silver glow radiating something that resembled hope.
Torrence Boulevard was the center of town, the heartbeat of this hideous place, and it wasn’t difficult to find. Neither was a pub called Cy’s Tavern. Its red neon sign, blinking on and off as it struggled to remain lit, caught the eye from blocks away. Rachel pulled into a diagonal spot near the bar’s entrance.
The happy hour crowd numbered a few dozen, predominantly male and blue collar. Kicking back after a sweaty day of labor, the guys smoked like city buses and guzzled beer like college students at a keg party. The few women present had likely never heard of Glamour or Vogue, and it was a sure bet that nobody in the place was a season ticket-holder to the Phoenix Symphony.
The cavernous pub had wood-paneled walls, burgundy leather booths and a pool table that had seen better days. Rachel hesitantly approached the bar and ordered a glass of white wine from the friendly, lanky bartender. “Two bucks,” he said.
She handed him a ten. “Keep it,” she told him.
A big-boned, platinum blonde with a gigantic slab of a bosom eyed Rachel suspiciously; she didn’t appreciate the competition. A brawny guy in a black T-shirt flashed Rachel a grin. “Howdy,” he said.
“Hello,” she responded. “Is this the town’s most popular hang-out?”
“Town’s only hang-out,” he chuckled, glancing at Rachel’s long legs that sprouted from her skirt. Closing in on forty, she appeared ten years younger. Rachel didn’t have trouble attracting men; the trouble arose when they wanted more than a superficial fling. Her eyes moved past her new fan at the bar and fell upon a man sitting alone at a booth in the back. An inexplicable sensation drew her to him; she wondered if he was Seth Foster. “Excuse me,” she said.
Stepping slowly on the stained concrete floor, heels clacking, heart thumping as if it might damage the wall of her chest, she waded through shadows as she approached the rear of the room. “Mind if I sit here a minute?” she asked the stranger slumped against the leather booth. He was clutching a bottle of Bud Light like it was his lifeline.
He looked up, took his time to take her in. “It’s a public place,” he said.
“Yeah, I had a feeling it wasn’t a private club with a high annual fee,” she said
as she descended onto the squeaky, burgundy leather opposite this long-haired loner. Moderately disheveled and in dire need of a shave, his faded white T-shirt was tattered and fraying. “Time to buy a new shirt?” she playfully asked, attempting to break the ice. He didn’t respond; not even a nod. “My name is Nancy,” Rachel said.
“Cool,” he mumbled. The lines on his neck were deep and cracked.
“A guy having a beer.”
“And I’m a woman with a glass of wine.”
“Good for you.”
“I’m not bragging,” she explained. “Just making conversation.”
“You got the wrong guy for that.”
“Don’t like conversation?”
“Not as a general rule,” he said.
“Well, give me a minute then I’ll leave you alone.”
“Seth,” he quietly said. “Name’s Seth.”
Rachel tried her best not to tremble or shriek or jump out of her skin. Of course it was Seth. How could she have questioned it? Even stripped of his youthful beauty, he was still Seth Foster. The body was bloated, the face creased and doughy, but the prominent cleft still gave the chin distinction. The perfectly chiseled nose still looked like the work of a top cosmetic surgeon. She saw him so clearly now that she had to look away. “Is this place known for any particular cocktail?” she asked, recalling the iced tea he had once insisted she drink. Spiked with some kind of liquor, it tasted like medicine.
“Beer,” he said. “It’s known for stale beer.”
The exuberant bravado that once dazzled, the golden appeal that once glowed, had decayed into a faded yellow façade, unrecognizable from afar. The spirit had been squeezed from him the way water is squeezed from a sponge, and the sponge had been left on the counter for decades where it hardened and shriveled. Resigned to the fact that his luck would never change, this was what became of the neighborhood Adonis who had dissected Rachel’s child body and stolen the very core of her spirit.
“What’s there to do in this little town?” she asked, trying to disguise the shakiness in her voice with a touch of frivolity.
“You don’t live here?”
“Just driving through.”
“Perfect town to drive through,” he said. “Stay here, you go nuts.”
She forced a laugh. “Have you gone nuts?”
“I was born that way.” His devious half-smile deliberately hid secrets.
The staccato clack of a pool cue slamming a billiard ball sliced the thick barroom air. Then came the crash of the ball against the triangular rack, tearing it apart. Sweat was gathering on Rachel’s forehead. She lifted one of her vibrating hands from under the table and wiped it away. She could still feel his stinging sweat dripping on her face; it might as well have been hot wax. “Are you married?” she asked.
“No, I’m not.”
“No,” she said. “No children.”
“Well,” Seth said, “I’m too old for you.”
“Did that sound like a proposal?” she asked.
“I’m too old for anything,” he explained, leaning his head back on the hard leather surface. He seemed to be at home in this tavern, a clinging vine growing on its very walls. She vividly remembered his bedroom walls plastered with posters of sci-fi flicks. She recalled how he stuffed her mouth with his fist so that she wouldn’t be able to scream. But she wouldn’t have screamed; she was too terrified to make any kind of sound, too scared to move a muscle. Now she glanced at his weathered hand on the table, the same hand she had tasted in her mouth. She wondered how a human body could’ve changed so drastically. For her, the result was immediate and startling. For Seth, it was a gradual metamorphosis that likely had more to do with constant drinking, smoking, and wallowing in misery than anything else.
“I happen to like older guys,” she said. “Do you go for younger girls?”
Seth paused for a few tense moments. “What’s a classy dame like you doing in a dive like this? You lead a double life?”
“That’s me,” she joked, “harried lawyer by day, happy hooker by night.”
The tattoo on his arm was new. He hadn’t had it on that scorching spring day when she struggled to make her way home in hundred degree heat. She stopped only to throw up on Marta Ludwig’s front lawn. Seth’s eyes wandered to the big-bosomed blonde at the bar. “Women around here either look like that,” he said, “or her grandmother. They don’t look like you.”
“Should I take that as a compliment?” she asked.
“Take it any way you want.” His teeth were chipped and discolored; he probably hadn’t seen a dentist in a decade.
“Did you work today?” Rachel asked.
“You’re full of questions.”
“Nah, didn’t work today,” he said, still clutching his beer bottle as if he were
afraid to part with it. “Or yesterday. Sometimes you get a lousy deal, you know?”
“Right,” she said. “But sometimes you deal the cards yourself.”
She wanted to hammer the man’s head against the knotty pine wall until it was bruised and bleeding, until he begged for the pulsating pain to stop, but first she had to fight the impulse to take his calloused hand and caress it with tenderness. Despite what he had done to her, a familiar face from childhood was sitting across the table, and the connection was intense and heartbreaking. She couldn’t deny a powerful, almost uncontrollable attraction to this child molester. It had been a long while since Rachel experienced any sensation filled with so much passion. Though she tried, she couldn’t help seeing the strikingly beautiful seventeen-year-old Seth had been, and she wanted to travel back in time to change their history. She wondered if it was fair to judge someone for a crime he’d committed decades earlier when he was still a kid, a teenager with acne. Rachel’s head was spinning with rage, affection and pity, blending like chemicals that weren’t meant to meet. She was unable to make sense of it, and the Chardonnay sliding down her throat didn’t make the situation any easier.
Seth stared into her eyes for a solid ten seconds. “Do we know each other?” he asked with bone-chilling curiosity.
“Know each other?” she repeated quizzically, as if this was the silliest question she ever heard. “I don’t think so,” she said, instinctively covering her vagina with her left hand.
A nervous giggle unwittingly emerged from her, but she spoke the truth; they didn’t know each other. She had never met this woebegone figure with filthy fingernails and boundless self-pity. The Seth she knew was brimming with confidence and clean as a bar of soap. “Why do you sit so far in the back?” she asked.
“Nobody bothers me here,” he explained.
By now, a thin film of sweat covered her face. It was futile to try to wipe it off. “Why don’t you want to be bothered?”
“I don’t need people prying,” he said. “Especially the whores.”
Rachel wondered how many Bud Lights he had tossed back before she arrived and how many more he would buy before calling it a night. She wondered if this was his typical nighttime activity – getting soused at the local tavern and then trudging home alone. “Well,” she said as she struggled up from the booth, “I’ve pried long enough for one night.”
“You’re not prying,” Seth mumbled. “You can stay.”
“I really ought to hit the road,” she told him. “It’s getting late.”
“I don’t think you’re a whore,” he stated.
“I appreciate you telling me that.”
She took one final look at the man who dominated her past but would be absent from her future. In this light, she recognized the piercing, hypnotic blue eyes. The bar had been too dark to notice earlier, but now a nearby floor lamp glowed. Seth’s puffy face reminded Rachel that thirty years of her own life had passed by in a flash.
“I’d like it if you stayed,” he said with difficulty.
She nodded slowly, felt his brutal loneliness. “Makes us even, I guess.”
With that, Rachel wandered toward the front door, stopping to hand the lanky bartender a twenty dollar bill. “Buy that guy in the back a couple of Bud Lights, OK?”
“Sure,” the pleasant bartender said.
Rachel wondered if Seth was mystified by her closing statement. Did he even give it a second thought? She suppressed a desire to shoot him a glance. She suppressed an even stronger desire to march over and tell him she was the ten-year-old girl he had invited into his house on that Friday afternoon so many years ago.
Rachel bolted out of the tavern without looking back, feeling Seth’s penetrating eyes on her until she stepped into the balmy night air. As if escaping to safety, she rushed into the rental car and immediately locked the doors. Then she took a short time to catch her panting breath before putting the key in the ignition.
by Garrett Socol