“Won’t even look at me … will you.”
The speech was slightly slurred and the tone was slightly accusatory. I looked at her, wondering if I was going to have a problem.
I could tell at one time she was incredibly beautiful. I’d seen alcoholism … my mother for one, and a few of my mates for another, and knew what it did to you. Her face bore the weight of years of hard drinking. She was still pretty, and clearly, I thought, trolling for a one night stand.
“You’re scared,” she told me.
She said it with clarity and conviction. She was right of course.
I studied her. Short bleach blonde hair. Heavy make-up. Well-dressed; fashionable. She clearly came from money. Although her face bore the fine lines of hard living, there was an underlying kindness I could sense … a compassion for me. It was the first time I’d been in a gay bar, and was hoping to just get a feel of the place without having to talk to anyone or do anything. Baby steps, I told myself before I went in.
I felt compelled to answer her. Instead of pressing me, she waited for me to talk.
“I am scared,” I admitted to her. I was trained not to show weakness, but this was an entirely different circumstance, and there was no reason to shade the truth.
Now it was her turn to study me. She swirled the brown liquid in her cut crystal tumbler and then took a big draw, emptying most of the remainder of its contents. She put the tumbler down and then raised her arm to get the attention of the bartender. She signaled for another and then looked at me again.
I blinked and then tried to focus. How could this woman look at me and know me in one glance? I’m sure she saw the confusion on my face.
“At ease, or whatever they say.” The clarity was starting to fade. She took the final sip from her drink and then looked into her empty glass, as if the answers she was searching for were engraved on the bottom.
I tried to relax. I looked at her more carefully as she looked into her glass. I could see that five years ago she would have been the most beautiful woman in the room. She was getting sloppy with her make-up and hair, but she was still very attractive. There wasn’t a question pending so I spent those few silent moments drinking her in, and wondering if something would indeed develop between the two of us.
The redheaded bartender came by with a fresh drink. She was unquestionably Rusty — tall, buxom, and matching the picture posted on the website.
“I wouldn’t go there … with me I mean,” the woman next to me said, starting in on her new drink. It was as if she was reading my mind. It was just a fleeting thought that I had, but she was already attuned to my mind and intercepted and quashed any notions that there would ever be anything between the two of us. I should have just finished up my drink and left, but the curiosity of the answer to the next question made me stay. It was only one more word.
“Why?” I asked.
“Why don’t you get us another drink and I’ll answer your question. And order the same thing that I’m having. You’re a bourbon drinker. Don’t ever order another Manhattan in this place.”
She got up and took a pack of cigarettes out of her purse. She slipped off her barstool and starting to walk away, stopping after a few steps and turning around.
“Go ahead and get those drinks … ”
She paused, waiting for me to fill in the blank.
I had to make a quick decision. I gave her my real name. “Jacks” I said. “My name’s Jacqueline, but everyone on the base calls me Jacks.”
“Go ahead and get those drinks … Jacks. I’m going to take a smoke break.”
My evening wasn’t going according to plan. I came in to get a feel for the place and now I was buying a round of drinks from a woman I met two minutes ago. How could this woman know me so well? I raised my hand to order another round of drinks. Rusty, ambled over, still polishing a glass with a bar towel.
“So you met Ronnie?”
Rusty put the clean glass onto a tray and looked up at me. She had a friendly smile and a glint in her eye when she saw me up close.
“Navy flier?” she asked.
Now that was her and Ronnie, within a matter of a minute. Was I wearing a neon sign on my forehead? I made sure the clothes I was wearing wouldn’t suggest I was in the military.
“We get a lot of them here. You based in Lemoore?”
“Yes … by the way Megan says hi.”
Rusty’s eyes brightened. “How’s she doing?”
“Same as always. Fixes everything. Doesn’t talk much.”
Rusty took her towel and wiped the bar counter, picking up Ronnie’s empty glass.
“She ask you to get two more like hers?”
I nodded. I didn’t think that I needed to talk any more. It seemed like everyone here could just read my mind.
She smiled. “Great, I’ll be back in a minute.”
I needed another drink, and thankfully Rusty returned quickly with two cut crystal tumblers in hand.
Balancing the two tumblers in one hand, she slipped a napkin in front of me and then carefully placed my drink, then Ronnie’s, in their proper places. She was holding Ronnie’s empty drink glass in her hand and was about to leave when I spoke up.
“Excuse me,” I said, just loud enough to get her attention.
She stopped and turned around.
“I didn’t pay you.”
She shook her head.
“No … no. I want to pay,” I insisted.
“The drinks are free.”
She shrugged. “Maybe I should explain myself. The bottle belongs to Ronnie — she’s a part owner of this bar.”
This night was already full of surprises.
“Oh … you don’t know Ronnie,” she continued, realizing I didn’t know who I was talking to. She let out a little laugh. The side door to the bar was still closed. Ronnie was taking a long smoke break.
“Taste it.” She looked at my glass.
I looked at the clear brown liquid, holding it up above eye level. I took a sip, let it settle in my mouth, and felt the viscous liquid on my tongue, the taste of the barrel char and then the rising heat, radiating in my mouth. I had never tasted a bourbon with such finesse and power.
“George T. Stagg,” she said. “That’s the good stuff.”
That was an understatement. It was the best sip of bourbon I’d ever had.
“Ronnie’s my silent partner. Her parent’s owned a large farm near Fresno that was converted into an office park. Ronnie’s family provided the money and I provided the concept.”
I felt a hand on my shoulder. I flinched nervously. Ronnie sat down in her chair. A faint odor of cigarette smoke and bourbon followed her.
“I see you’ve met Rusty.” Then she turned to her friend and business partner. “Did you tell her all of my secrets?”
Rusty laughed and gave her the finger.
Ronnie picked up her drink, sipped it with approval, and raised it in tribute to Rusty, who had her back turned as she returned to her glass washing.
“Bourbon drinker, right?” she asked, again already knowing the answer.
“You had me pegged,” I confessed, folding my cocktail napkin into a smaller square and trying not to stare at her, but failing.
She uncrossed and then crossed her legs on the barstool. Her dress rode up to her mid-thigh and my eyes couldn’t help but stare at her bare skin, deliciously smooth and creamy. I felt that twinge again — the same twinge I felt when I was with Bridgette. Ronnie couldn’t help being sexy. It oozed from every pore in her body.
She laughed. She had a beautiful laugh. It seemed like they were muscles rarely exercised.
“I meant the bourbon,” she said in a sexy, gravelly voice of a smoker.
“Oh,” I answered. “Of course.”
I took another sip and raised my glass to invite a toast.
She clinked her glass against mine, and this time our eyes met. I saw deep dark pools of sadness … sadness the alcohol couldn’t mask.
She put her hand under my chin and leaned uncomfortably close. I was afraid she was going to try to kiss me.
“You’re so young. Why are all of you so young and beautiful?”
It was a question not posed to me, but to the ether. I caught her in a moment of reflection, and sorrow.
I sat back my chair, creating a bit more space between us. I didn’t say anything to let her continue.
“Patience. I’m trying to build up the courage to tell you a story.”
I was sure it was a doozy.
* * *
Ronnie and I engaged in small talk while she was deciding whether to tell me her tale of woe. The bar had already cleared out and Rusty was putting chairs upside down on top of the tables to allow the cleaning crew to vacuum and mop the floor. Rusty shrugged when she saw Ronnie light a cigarette and take a big drag. She turned her head upwards, letting a cloud of smoke drift above us.
“Alex was pretty. As pretty as you. She was a brunette instead of a blonde. She was bright, vivacious and funny. She liked her beer, but she loved her bourbon. I met her almost ten years ago to the day. She was sitting in the same barstool that you’re sitting in now.”
She was already starting to tear up. She caught herself, and continued.
“I was twenty-two. I didn’t know shit. I’d just graduated from Hampshire College back east. Got a degree in philosophy and didn’t have any job prospects. I’m sure Rusty told you that I’m her silent partner. My family is wealthy, and that can be a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing for Randy, because it allowed me to bankroll her idea for this place.
“Randy was a God send. I found out … for sure … in college that I was a lesbian, and Rusty was one of the few locals I could talk to and hang out with. The Central Valley isn’t the most tolerant when it comes to gays, and Rusty, even back then, was one of the more vocal proponents of gay rights.”
I could relate. Things hadn’t gotten that much better in those ten years that passed. I took another sip of bourbon and could feel it. I reminded myself not to try to keep pace with her drinking.
“Anyway, our family money backed Randy’s venture, and it turned out good from the very beginning. We were making money almost from day one, and I got it in my head that I could do no wrong. My swagger went for the bedroom as well, and with Randy’s new place as a hunting ground, I was sleeping with a new woman almost every week.”
I looked at Ronnie and tried to peel off ten years of hard living. She still had the body of a younger woman. It seemed that nothing was off limits and I was dying to ask.
“So, what was it like?” I was a bit too embarrassed to add “to have sex with so many women.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
I made a sexy pose. “So what was it like?,” I asked, but this time in a tone that matched my posture.
She looked at me and laughed. She gave me a sexy smile in return.
“Oh that …”
She smirked. I could see from her eyes that she was retrieving those fond memories of her misspent youth.
“What do you think a rich, spoiled twenty-two year old woman would do? Coke and pussy. I think I spent two years in that cycle of getting high and getting laid. And Rusty was taking care of everything.”
Rusty came over with a drink in hand. She apparently was finished for the day and was about to close up.
“Who’s the drink for?” I asked.
“Me,” said Rusty. She stood across from us and plopped her drink down, the brown liquid splashing in a brandy snifter.
“What’re you drinking?” I was curious what a bartender would drink.
So we had that in common. Maker’s is a bourbon with a distinctive taste profile. If you’re weaned on Maker’s, it can stay with you.
“Can you get me one too?” I held up my empty fancy tumbler. “Brandy snifter?”
“Sure.” She ambled off to get the drink.
“Hit me,” called Ronnie.
I heard Rusty mutter, “I thought the bar closed at 1.”
Ronnie and I reengaged. “So yeah. I was kind of a fuck off for two years. Rusty’s was doing fantastic business so the family thought I was working hard. Truth is, I don’t have a head for business. But I do know a good idea when I hear one. I’ve always been convinced that Rusty’s would be a success.”
Rusty served my brandy snifter of Maker’s. Ronnie got her fancy bourbon.
Ronnie raised her glass to me, her glassy eyes reflecting sorrow.
I was drawn to her. Maybe it was her distress … her deep hurt. I wanted to make it better. Behind that sadness was beauty. I could see it. I wanted to see that inner beauty.
“So you guys talking about me?”
Rusty must have heard the last part of Ronnie’s soliloquy about how great Rusty was.
“Don’t let Ronnie tell you that it was me. Ronnie raised the capital and also convinced the bank to extend us a line of credit. If she hadn’t believed in me and put money behind me I would be an old dyke with a good idea that never came to fruition.”
She raised her glass to Ronnie and took a long draw of the smooth Kentucky bourbon.
“Rusty, you know what I did … you know … when we first met.”
Rusty rolled her eyeballs. “I think on any given night, you could have slept with half the women in the bar. And you were putting a half a gram up your nose.”
Something must have jolted her out of that lifestyle. Your body can’t sustain it. You’ve got to crash, and when it comes, it comes hard.
“So at the end of it, I’m doing coke and a half bottle of Maker’s every night. That’s one reason I can’t drink Maker’s anymore.” She waved her glass at me. “I was having a hard day when I met Alex. I was closing down the bar with Rusty, just like we are now, and Alex tiptoes in like a scared mouse. I was concentrating on my drink, and caught her out of the corner of my eye. She was like a beacon of sunshine. I remember I patted the stool you’re sitting on and invited her over.”
“I remember the first time I saw her. Looked like a cute, lost puppy. You thought she was just a fresh piece of meat,” Rusty observed.
“I didn’t.” There was a flash of anger in her eyes. “I never thought of Alex as a piece of meat … ever …”
Rusty knew when she hit a sore spot. “I’m so sorry honey …”
She extended her hand and put it on top of Ronnie’s.
“Alex was the best thing that came into both of our lives,” said Rusty, assuring her long-time friend of her allegiance to their shared view.
“So anyway,” said Ronnie, taking over the story, “I patted the barstool and she sat next to me. I could see from her eyes and her body language that she was nervous. She was drop dead gorgeous.
“Like you, she ordered some mixed drink when it turned out she would have drunk Maker’s with me. Maybe trying to impress me. I asked her if she was from around the area and she said no. She wouldn’t elaborate and I figured that it didn’t matter to me. I couldn’t figure out where she came from. She looked perfect, almost too perfect. There wasn’t a hair out of place and her clothes looked like they were just ironed. I was lucky to find a clean pair of underwear.
“We probably spent about an hour talking about nothing and drinking when it finally occurred to me what she was.
“‘You’re a pilot … Lemoore,’ is what I told her. Just like I told you.”
“She looked like I shot her with a gun.
“She started to get up to leave. I put my hand on her shoulders. “Don’t leave,” I said. “Please.”
“She sat down, though not in a mood to talk. I had to explain.
“‘I heard from someone, I don’t remember who, that there was a group of women pilots training at Lemoore,’ I told her. ‘You’re so beautiful I would have already found you if you were from around here so you needed to be somewhere in the valley. You look too clean cut … that’s why I guessed military.’
“‘I see. No one knows I’m here,’ she confessed to me. She was even more nervous than you are now.”
Ronnie stopped her story and took the last sip of her bourbon out of her tumbler, then a drag from her cigarette. She stubbed out the cigarette in her empty glass.
“I assured Alex I wasn’t going to tell anyone. She told me that I ‘didn’t count.’ She didn’t want to elaborate. I didn’t want to ask. It didn’t matter. I just didn’t want her to leave.
“‘You know I’ve never been to a bar like this,’ she observed to me. I could have also guessed she was a bored housewife who took really good care of herself.”
“I teased Alex, and told her she’d have a hard time meeting a guy here on a Friday night.
“I remember Alex said to me to shut the fuck up. For some reason I sensed I was going to be falling in love with her. I don’t know why. I’d met dozens of women at Rusty’s. I never fell in love with any of them.”
“You told her that you loved her … that evening,” Rusty interjected.
“I did … but I was drunk,” said Ronnie.
“And high,” added Rusty.
“But you really meant it,” said Rusty.
“I guess so,” Ronnie said wistfully. “I know I loved that girl.”
Ronnie tamped her pack of cigarettes and took another one out and lit it.
“It was the best thing and worst thing that ever happened to me.”
“Why?” I asked, curiosity getting the best of me.
“She died,” said Ronnie, taking another puff and blowing smoke across the bar.
Rusty poured Ronnie another drink.
* * *
It was approaching 4 a.m. when Rusty told us she had to lock up and go home. Ronnie had spent most of the time talking, telling us stories about how Alex would sneak away from the base so they could see each other, and how Ronnie taught her how to have sex with a woman.
“Looks like I’m heading out,” Ronnie told me. She drained her glass and attempted to put it on the bar, missing, and dropping it on the floor.
“Shit!” she yelled at no one in particular. The expensive cut crystal glass shattered, shards of glass skimming across the floor.
“I’ve got it.” Rusty scrambled to get a broom and pan. I reached around the corner of the bar and grabbed a waste basket.
Ronnie was a bit wobbly on her feet so I draped her arm over my shoulder.
“She’s not driving anywhere,” said Rusty. It sounded like this was a daily occurrence.
“Can you drive her?” Rusty asked.
“Sure,” I answered. I had a two day pass, so I wasn’t needed anywhere. I was just getting a bit sleepy. I was up at 0600.
Rusty swept around me, collecting fragments of broken glass. “I’m leaving as soon as I clean this up. I put Ronnie in the cabin behind my house. She’s already got her things in it.”
“Where does she live?”
“Officially? Down in the valley. Has a beautiful house near her parent’s house. She’s never there. She pretty much lives in the cottage. Listen. I promised to pick up some stuff in Fresno this morning. I’m running late. Can you just have Ronnie tell you where she lives?”
Ronnie was sagging against me. She was pretty drunk. I was glad I was fit because I felt like I was supporting most of her weight. I put my arm under her shoulder to steady her, and couldn’t help feeling the swell of her breast pressing against my arm. She was awake enough to ask me what happened. I told her she dropped her glass.
“Oh yeah,” she told me. “That’s when my life stopped.”
“When you dropped your glass?” I asked her, not quite following her drift.
“No, when Alex died.” Her mood soured.
“Take me home,” she told me. I was wondering if she was mad at me.
I dragged her to my car. I parked quite a ways from the bar. You remember I was a bit scared to go in there. We had to cross the road to the auxiliary lot across the street. My car was sitting by itself.
“Where the fuck are we going?” said Ronnie, still wobbling on the uneven pavement. She was wearing heels, and not well at the moment.
“Car,” I said to her. I pointed across the street.
“Where’d you park. Timbuktu?”
“You want a ride or do you want to freeze your ass out here?”
Ronnie calmed down. “Get a ride. Thank you.”
She needed a bit of humble pie. I liked her, but I wasn’t going to put up with her bullshit either.
I let her into her side first.
“Rental,” she said when I got into the driver’s side.
“We’re not allowed to have a car on the base. It’s easier to rent.”