He had never described his wife, but Fay knew who Elise was the moment she folded her hands on the bar. Something essential changed about a person, Fay thought, when they belonged fully to someone else, as particular as a color. A certain softness in the shoulders, a diminished curiosity that came from no longer performing for potential futures. She was disgusted by it, she was envious.
It was early on in the evening, the bar still partially lit by sliding sun, and though two men had recognized Elise from her brief residency on the base and tipped their chins and raised spread hands, her eyes stayed ahead. She was a person without periphery.
Elise was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen, even the most beautiful animal, shaming the cougars Fay had caught flashes of in the mountains, though the green eyes recalled them. Her posture sharpening, she was immune to the piano becoming louder, the report of shot glasses slamming the bar in unison.
Fay told herself that the moment Elise made eye contact, or turned even an inch in Fay’s direction, or indicated with a raised hand that she required help, she would go to her, every part the professional. Five minutes passed, ten, and she couldn’t pretend any longer she had not noticed the exception Elise was in that room, her shell-pink manicure on the warped wood. Inhales and exhales transpired in hyperclarity. Her body was just a map of pulse points now, all of them angry. Finally Fay went to her, her face arranged in amenable servitude, and waited.
“Seltzer,” she said, her eyes still not meeting Fay’s.
Fay made a quick scan, searching for the cleanest glass on the rack, and she filled it and set it on a cardboard coaster. In a sidelong glance she saw the floral brocade of the dress as through the carbonation, and then she was imagining Elise underwater, taking great breaststrokes, surfacing to breathe and laugh and call to her nearby husband. The fantasy came to her unbidden, already fully formed.
“Ice,” Elise said. She hadn’t appraised Fay as she ordered, only as Fay filled the glass and then scooped the ice, and this was not lost on Fay, who knew how she was being seen—in her lowly position, the dirty demands of it. The fans mounted on the ceiling went at full force; the vinyl curtain to her bedroom trembled. It was a reminder of the privacy she no longer deserved, had destroyed by taking what she shouldn’t. Elise planned, it was already clear, to stay awhile.
Over the next hour and fifteen minutes she ordered a basket of french fries, a Coca-Cola, extra napkins, a Seagram’s and 7 Up, the rib-eye steak, the Cobb salad, a martini up. The things remained exactly where Fay had set them down, the grease on the paper fixing, the glasses dripping condensation. Elise would not so much as stir a drink with a straw.
Sitting up incrementally straighter, the men at the bar became a divided audience. Some grabbed Fay’s hand and patted it, offered their handkerchiefs and made benign gestures toward the cover of sweat on her face. They cooed softly as she struggled to keep up with the string of orders, called there now,you got it, as she oiled the griddle for the fourth time in twenty minutes. Others hooted, two ordered popcorn. They tipped their stools back so deep they had to hold on to the bar, and they bit down on their cheeks as they watched Elise, then Fay, then Elise. One, a man she had watched Rusty kiss on both cheeks, asked Fay to send Elise a drink on his tab. He chose a Mudslide, the most complicated cocktail on offer, and he breathed with his mouth open as he watched her dole out all the liquors, pour out the Kahlua and take down the blender.
It was not a secret, the time she spent with Vincent. They knew it in the way one knows of someone’s addiction, an embarrassment it is best not to mention. But because Fay was the person who handed them what they needed at the end of the day, the gossip had not come to taunt her beyond a look that lasted too long. This was, she knew, the end of that era, the end of evenings in which she tended the bar and felt alone in her thinking. It was the end of any invisibility, the beginning of the feeling that would consume her until she left the desert. She would come to believe that every private thought was written explicitly on her face, that every time she smiled or didn’t it was proof to them of the foolish mistake she continued to make.
In the bar that night Fay imagined her sister walking through the door, disarming the spectators of her sister’s poor judgment, slipping the guitar from around her back and opening the room with a long, bright C. But Charlie wasn’t scheduled to come in for another two hours, was hauling back a delivery of booze and meat in her unreliable truck. Fay was alone with the row of faces.
Elise never asked for the check. When she finally stood to leave, she placed a bill on the table that amounted to three times what she owed, and left without change. Fay couldn’t bring herself to collect it, and it stayed there until closing, when someone—Fay never knew who—put it out of its misery and into his pocket.
That week she was most conversations at the bar, Elise, a distraction from the standard talk of explosions twenty thousand feet up and those who might jump the Air Force ship for NASA’s second round. She showed up most nights, stately in silk, gold brooches in the shape of coral. Dark with focus, she sat once and played Debussy, as private and purposeful as some nun seen walking alone, removed from her institution only in geography. Fay prepared the gin and tonics, the waffle fries, and continued to refuse the money, which sat as limp and oily as the things uneaten. At the close of the third day, Tom taped a mason jar with a label that read GOOD LUCK FUND, and at the end of every night he placed Elise’s money in it. It was the only thing left on the bar when Fay turned out the lights.
Charlie confronted Fay during an afternoon windstorm, the mean streak of weather a part of her voice. She came through the door pointing, the hour before the bar opened, at the back booth where they would talk. Around them were the smells of orange wood cleaner and pine mopping solution.
“Are you going to tell me who that belle of the ball is coming in most nights, or do I have to ask her?”
Fay was quiet, pressing her spine against the torn red vinyl. Between the pristine salt and pepper shakers, the menus stood at a slight lean, and she straightened them.
“Honey, do I have to ask her? Are you going to make me ask her who she is?”
“There are things on here we’ve been out of for months. Did we ever have a tomato pie?”
“I’m guessing not a starlet on her way to a premiere at Grauman’s.”
“Why does it say all whites are also available by the bottle? No one has ever even ordered a glass. Doesn’t really go with the taste of our nineteenth-century peanuts. Who was president when that jar was new, or did we even have one?”
“Not a friend of yours trying to lure you back to society life.”
“That is Vincent’s wife.”
“Vincent the Midwesterner of few words?”
“And how much money you estimate is in that jar and not in the fucking till?”
Fay rolled one of her shoulders forward, tilted a palm up.
Unlike the transparency of her red joy, the maudlin play of her little tragedies, Charlie’s rage did not show easily. There were few tells, but Fay could see them now, a new one every few seconds. Charlie was erect, her surroundings no longer resembling a personal arrangement of pillows, without a cigarette, not reaching for one, the soft pack she always carried not on the table or in her hand.
“Okay, Fay. We have a couple options. The first being that I leave you here to burn the place down, and I take that money and go to college, become somebody’s aging typist.”
Fay looked up with a grin, but the look on her sister’s face dismantled it. Charlie’s words were as few, then, as they were in all else excessive. She would take over nights until Elise had gone. Fay would make herself scarce. Did she understand. Fay nodded, the bob of her head deep with the relief of a decision made for her. She slid a hand across the table to Charlie, who squeezed it once.
They switched rooms for three days, Fay in Charlie’s. She touched the cracked aviator’s helmet that hung over the bed, she sang through her baths, she smoked. There was no way to know how his wife reacted to her absence, and Charlie, when she delivered to Fay what Elise would not eat, refused to speak of it.
Excerpt from AMERICA WAS HARD TO FIND by Kathleen Alcott. Copyright 2019 by Kathleen Alcott. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.