The bouncer looked over May’s blonde head as she made her way inside the lineless bar, as she did every Sunday evening. The other patrons looked to her, then away, for they all thought it best to acknowledge her as little as possible—especially the bouncer.
May had not yet reached twenty-one years, but she had been coming here for nearly eight months following her college graduation. The first night she’d walked into the bar, the bouncer stared at her, mouth halfway agape, before she pushed past the man in front of her to the warm lights of the bar.
She never said anything about her age and neither did they. Everyone knew May was a St. Clair, and her family owned half the county, more than half probably. They had ties with every institution within the town and could not be bothered with any inconvenience. Surely, if May so openly walked in through the doors, then her family knew and did not mind. And if her family did not mind, then who was the bouncer to mind? He knew the way of the law only went so far in a small town.
She slid onto a shiny-faux leather stool, swinging her body around and thrusting her torso because her feet did not touch the bottom bar of the stool. The metal rubbed against itself, whining with the weight of May’s spinning. The screech was just audible above the country music which echoed slowly through the bar. She did not like the music nor hate it. She was merely accustomed to its slow rhythm and long drawl.
May rarely sat in this seat because of the squeaking. Usually, Old Ray sat here, alone, perhaps because no one else wanted to hear the stool as he rocked relentlessly. But because May chose to sit there today, Old Ray moved, as did the others—away. The next patron over was four seats down, gulping a vodka tonic. May thought he must have been a Kennedy or a Kelly (one of those rich K families which rivaled her own) because of the way he was drinking and the way his teeth were distended from his lips. Whether he was a Kennedy or a Kelly, they were distantly related rich families that were not attractive, but because they were wealthy this did not matter.
The Kennedy (we’ll call him that for clarity’s sake) had bushy, brown hair that grew well past his forehead in greasy pieces which stuck together. He was the black sheep of the family. He tried to differentiate himself by looking unkempt, wearing American Eagle jeans and a flannel instead of something from Ralph Lauren, as if this sixty dollar difference meant he was unlike his family.
Kennedy gulped his vodka tonic down in three swift swigs. He did this every time he came in but especially on Sundays. No one wanted to be seen at a bar on a Sunday. This is how news of May’s attendance was never proven. People could whisper that she frequented Jam’d, but they could never confirm. To confirm meant that you, too, were at the run-down bar off the side of the road instead of church or Bible study. To know of a person who frequented the bar on Sunday was not much better either. A person was not any better than who he associated with.
The bar people did not say anything about May’s presence, for they know the ways in which gossip and prestige in a small town work.
It was a small miracle there was even a bar in their two stoplight town. It was not long ago that the county was dry, and a person had to make a trip to the river to bring alcohol into the county limits. Even now, the two liquor stores were closed to retain respectability. Jam’d was the only place to buy a drink on a Sunday.
May tapped her painted fingers on the wooden bar, its lacquer protected by a plastic film. The bartender glanced at her but refilled Kennedy’s glass before coming over. The bartender was, perhaps, the only person who was not afraid of her or who she was. He paid her no special attention. She liked him for that.
“The usual?” he asked, slinging his wet rag onto his shoulder. It smelled of limes.
“The cherry limeade”—her usual indeed.
He nodded once at her, letting his auburn hair fall into his eyes. He adjusted the gold nametag on his shirt, which read “Barry.” Its presence was ludicrous because what bartender needs to wear a name tag, especially in a town with less than two-thousand people?
She watched him as he made his way down the line of patrons, taking their drink orders and turning back to the refrigerator to make the drinks. There were only two black minifridges behind the bar, housing ice and fruit. The entirety of the bar was quite minimal, lined with nearly empty liquor bottles. The owner, who rarely showed his face in the bar, never bought more alcohol until Barry was pouring from the empty dregs.
He took a can of lemonade and cherry puree out, letting the frozen yellow melt as he made the other drinks. Barry swished alcohol into a metal container and shook it up until it was blended. May watched his triceps pulse as he made a show out of shaking the alcohol. May wasn’t exactly sure who it was for, but she was certain it was a show. She could tell by the upward twinge of his mouth and the way he rolled up his sleeves, only a little bit, to allow for more muscle to show.
He could be handsome, May thought, but he wasn’t to her.
Perhaps it was because he felt the need to perform in a bar which was mostly empty, and in any case, filled all with middle-aged men save May and Old Ray. There was something Barry seemed to gain from being the only strong, young man in the bar, and he needed to show it as he shook the alcohol and slid the drinks across the tables to the half-drunk men. This was likely all that Barry had, though May didn’t know for sure. Barry had moved to town while May was in college, and she didn’t make a habit of acquainting herself with townsfolk.
There was something sad about needing to perform in this bar, feeling as if it was your only place to be admired, but May did not pity him. She had been an Anthropology major, or something of the sort in college. And though she didn’t like people, she did like watching them.
Barry slid the Cherry Limeade to her from an unreasonably long distance. He managed to do it with enough care not to splash the full drink out of its container, which actually was impressive. Barry walked over to May and handed her a printed napkin.
“Thanks, Jam’d,” May said, looking at the blue logo outlined in white and etched into the folds of the napkin. It hung in a large, tacky sign above the bar as well.
Barry just shook his head and muttered something as he returned to the counter.
May smiled to herself, taking satisfaction from what she could. The bar was called Jam’d for a reason unbeknownst to her. The people of the town pronounced it as “Jam” “D” instead of “Jammed” because they did not know any better. Only May pronounced it as it was written, and they did not correct her.
She stirred her drink and took a long, slow gulp from the glass. It smeared onto her upper lip. It could’ve been Kool-aid by the way she licked her lips like a child. The alcohol burned only momentarily as it slid down May’s throat and dropped into her stomach. She had grown used to the taste in eight months of only ordering the same thing. Unlike her college classmates, she had not become accustomed to the burn and nail-polish remover smell of vodka.
“Did you hear about the drug bust over in Meade county?”
May let her eyes roam to the small set of tables occupied by the Boone brothers. They each drank a lukewarm Bud Light, leaning back into the tan chairs and letting their bellies protrude beneath their shirts.
“You better find a new dealer,” Al said with a cackle, nudging his younger brother roughly and knocking his beer aside.
“Look what you did, you shit,” George said, rubbing the beer off of his wet, hairy belly with the bottom of his shirt.
“And I done told you I haven’t been doing drugs for a month now. Had to get clean for my lady.”
Al and Jeremiah both laughed so hard that beer snorted from their noses.
“You call that pig you’ve been whoring around with a lady?” Jeremiah yelled so loudly that Barry shushed them.
May tuned out their loud voices and let her ears accustom themselves to the natural rhythms of the bars. The sounds of glasses clinking and spilling, and the low rumble of laughter meshed with the slow drone of a country guitar.
She took another swig of her drink and sighed, letting the thick sugar roll down her throat and ignoring the bite of liquor that lingered in the aftertaste. She did this every Sunday evening, sitting and drinking, watching and sighing. The rhythm could have been therapeutic to her if it were not so depressing. She sat here because she wanted to feel something. She suddenly felt a wave of nausea hit her fiercely. She could feel the acidity of the alcohol rising back up. Why did she ever think this place could fill the inexplicable void inside her?
May blinked away the incessant tears that coated her blue eyes, and she stared directly into the fluorescent Jam’d sign. It was blue, too, but less innocent. Even in its brightness, it seemed somber.
She threw back the rest of her drink and swallowed quickly. It was then she felt the strong gust of wind that blew through the open doors of the bar. The wind was bitter, causing the hairs on May’s neck to raise. She never would be able to describe the shift in that moment, but it was as if something changed. The voices that she always worked to drown out were gone, and it was only her.
“Can I buy you a drink?” someone said, sliding into the seat next to May.
She looked in the direction of this voice eagerly because it was not one she knew. And there was never anyone new inside this bar.
The man to whom the voice belonged sat smiling at May, the edges of his lips upturned into a banana. He looked amused, if not happy, with a face that May couldn’t seem to figure out. He had the kind of face that everyone had, yet no one had. His hair appeared dark, but she wasn’t sure if it was the way the low lights were hitting it, or if it truly was dark. His skin was likewise an enigma, ranging from pearl white to amber based on the pulse of the Jam’d sign. He grinned as May watched him.
Her own eyes narrowed as she tried to find something concrete about this chameleon man. His eyes were green, she finally decided. She stared at them intently until she was sure. But there was no mistaking their almost eerie glow. Even in the darkness, they shone like a cat’s.
“What would you like?” he asked.
He looked at her, appraising her, finding her amusing. May thought that he couldn’t be much older than her, but the smirk he wore made him seem more mature. Experienced.
Suddenly May wanted to seem more than she was, and her Cherry Limeade felt insignificant. She tried to beckon the stowed memories of the few college parties she went to and the drinks they drank. She wanted something as hard as they drank but more sophisticated.
“Jack and Coke,” she said finally, hoping that this order would not make the strange man lose his grin.
It did not.
“I’m Levi.” He held out his hand for May to shake. Formal.
“May,” she said, grasping it firmly, like her father taught her. She was surprised by the softness of his hands, warm milk caressing her. His hands enveloped hers, inviting.
“What brings you here on this fine Sunday evening?” Levi’s eyes glimmered as he asked. They wore a joke that May couldn’t decipher.
What could she say to him that wouldn’t make her feel any worse about herself? She was here because she could be, because at least here, she could be invisible from the rest of the prying eyes of the town. Here she felt less like a failure surrounded by those who only fail.
“The atmosphere of course.”
Levi turned slowly, letting his stool moan as he glanced about the room. There were mostly the empty wood-chipped tables lined with faux-leather seats that were ripping at the seams. Only the Boone brothers were still there, sipping on beers and guffawing. May didn’t hear a word that they said.
“You like a lonely scene then?”
May shrugged her shoulders. She wasn’t sure if that was true or not.
Barry slid the drinks to them, cautiously eyeing the newcomer.
“You new here?” he asked Levi, even though he already knew the answer. Everyone knew who everyone was in this town.
“Just passing through.” Levi leaned back in his seat, taking his Bourbon in one fluid gulp.
May cringed as he swallowed it with ease.
Barry nodded, not pressing for more and went to clean a sticky countertop.
“What’s your story?” she asked, watching this mysterious, handsome man.
“I’m a bit of a drifter. Never stay in any one place for too long. I like to travel, stop at hole-in-the-wall places.” Levi’s eyes shifted around the bar.
It was certainly hole-in-the-wall. The sagging dart boards which lined the walls and the already peeling linoleum floors gave the bar an age that it shouldn’t yet have.
“What’s yours?” he asked abruptly, facing her entirely.
There was something in his stare that was so confident it made May feel as if he already knew everything about her.
She gulped her Jack and Coke, trying to swallow with ease but struggling not to gag. “Um, I graduated college a little less than a year ago. An anthropology degree. I haven’t found a job worth taking yet.”
“Anthropology. You must like people.”
May shook her head, frustrated with herself for getting a degree about people when she never really liked being around many of them.
“I like to study them. Their customs, their cultures.”
“Why?” Levi asked. This was the first question he seemed to really wanted to know the answer to.
May let some of her frustrations fade away. This was only a man, one who was handsome and new but was probably only interesting to her because of his toyness . May was beautiful, too, and smart. She did not need to be intimidated by the gaze of this man.
“I like to understand how they work, how they function together depending on the culture. Some people are so predictable, while others keep me guessing.”
As Levi stared, May took a quick swig of her drink. She couldn’t entirely hide her grimace.
“You don’t care for that, do you?”
She shook her head.
“I’ll order you a different one,” he said.
May nodded, flipping a tuft of golden hair over her shoulder. Why shouldn’t she let this man buy drinks for her? Inject some excitement into this mundane life of hers?
But she couldn’t help but feel as if he knew more than her, like she was a fraud and he’d discover her.
“I’ll be back,” she said, hopping off of the bar stool. She felt him watching her as she went.
May pushed open the swinging door to the bathroom that was almost never cleaned. It smelled of stale piss and rotten limes. It made May breathe through her mouth.
She put her hands on either side of the sink, staring first at the drain and then at herself.
May cursed the youth she saw there. She was beautiful in a conventional way, with straight blonde hair and bright, cobalt, eyes. She was thin but not narrow, petite but not tiny. She was glad for her beauty because she knew her life was easier for it, but May regretted that there wasn’t anything else there, anything to make her beyond her years.
She furrowed her brow, aching for the crease between her eyes to remain once she relaxed. But her face was as smooth as the baby she was, refusing to hold the slightest sign of age. She wanted years, wisdom, for someone to believe that she was more than she was.
May painted a smile on her face and returned to Levi. She swung slowly into the seat, giving him time to follow her arching legs with his eyes.
“I think you’ll like this better,” he said, pointing toward the new glass with his lurid eyes.
The liquid inside was candy pink, like wine, but it didn’t smell sweet. It smelled strong.
“What is it?”
“It’s a special of mine.” Levi smiled at her again, the same smile that was full of amusement rather than actual joy
May looked to Barry, wondering what Levi could’ve ordered, but Barry was busy cleaning the beers which the Boone brothers spilled.
May’s blue eyes returned to Levi’s, flirting. She smiled with glittering teeth and let out a small laugh. She taunted him, sliding her finger around the glass rim, letting it squeak as her fingers slipped in circles.
Levi watched her, and his grin faltered. She could tell he wanted her to take a drink. May liked that she held this over him, and she let her hands dance with the glass.
He took a drink out of his own glass, letting the liquor slide down his throat. His Adam’s apple bobbed, and May gulped.
She could take a drink of this strange man’s drink, or she could refuse and drink her Cherry Limeade in solitude as she did every night.
Levi’s jade eyes caught May’s, and they were piercing.
She brought the glass to her lips.
May never returned after that night, and the bar people speculated. Maybe she’d run off with that strange man who entered Jam’d one winter night. Maybe she’d gotten into some trouble and needed to leave. (And by trouble, the people of the town most certainly meant pregnancy). Perhaps even her well-to-do family was tired of supporting her. Or maybe her appearances in the bar began to tarnish their reputation.
She could’ve found one of those anthropology jobs and finally escaped the place that she hated but couldn’t seem to leave.
Her name was whispered in Jam’d on occasion when someone would think of the missing blonde ornament. May was wondered about as if she was a ghost, a wisp lingering in her old home waiting for someone to remember. But soon even the people in the town forgot about the St. Clair girl, fascinated with the newest small-town scandal. All that was left of May were the red-tinged rings of her Cherry Limeades on the bar counter.
About the Author
Avery Knochel is originally from Kentucky, but recently moved to Washington to attend Eastern Washington University’s MFA in Creative Writing program. She appreciates the opportunity this program provides, one of which recently brought her to Selkirk College to teach at the annual Stone’s Throw symposium. When she’s not writing, Avery enjoys hiking and traveling.