Gwen might be a pathological liar, but she’s a fantastic tipper.
after Kevin Canty’s “The Birthday Girl”
Even when Gwen has good ideas, they are bad ideas. Case in point: this trip from Atlanta to the Sip ’n’ Dip Lounge in Great Falls, Montana. Gwen needed adventure, it was all so obvious, and she’d played her ace like a pro. A tiki bar! With mermaids! In Montana! She’d made at least six Target cashiers gasp when she told them. One had been so impressed, she felt obliged to actually make the trip. And what do you know, the bar was perfect, right from the bamboo walls to the purple octopi. There was Piano Pat, a living UNESCO heritage site. Her nimble, gnarled hands flew around the Wurlitzer, cranking out hits of yesteryear. Bob was but a distant memory compared to this wondrous place. Then the blizzard hit.
Now it’s night four and still no hope of cleared runways. Gwen is trapped in a luau-themed snow globe, banging at the glass like some rube from The Twilight Zone. The carnival music grates, as do the college kids home for the holiday. Gwen shreds the label of her longneck beer and rolls the paper into pellets. She needs a new story. The one about her twin and the bull mastiff is getting old.
“Happy birthday,” says the red-headed bartender with shark eyes.
“How’d you know?”
“Around drink three, it’s your birthday.”
“Hey, happy birthday. This one’s on the house.”
Gwen might be a pathological liar, but she’s a fantastic tipper. The drink is awesome—a florescent-blue fishbowl with parasols, bobbing cherries, pineapple, and ten shots of coconut rum. In the depths of this drink Gwen feels all the possibilities and terror of the ocean.
At the end of the bar sits Wayne. He calls, “Happy Birthday!” and Gwen thanks him. Seems like doing a cowboy should be on the Montana bucket list. But not Wayne.
The college kids clutch one another and belt “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” They think they are funny, but the song takes on a funereal quality, despite Piano Pat’s blitzkrieg pace. Gwen seeks comfort in her Tidy Bowl drink. It’s not the ocean, after all, but a bucket of booze. She should finish it to be polite, but she won’t. Because Gwen isn’t a finisher. Not college. Not two pregnancies. Just last year she was going to buy a house, or maybe a condo, but couldn’t decide. Even the real estate agent’s shellacked facade cracked from irritation.
Let’s not even talk about the men.
The only real magic left in the world is the motel pool behind the bar, where a giant glass pane screens underwater movies. Some college kids have jumped in, still in their clothes and shoes despite the giant sign demanding proper swim wear. Whatever happened to skinny dipping, anyway? The kids’ clothes billow in the water, their cheeks puffing as they frog around, their limbs in slow motion compared to life at the bar, which now feels dizzyingly fast. Everything is spinning now, like that carnival ride where the floor drops out. Piano Pat cranks up “Xanadu” to allegro con molto.
“Wayne,” the bartender says. “Get Marty, would you?”
“Got it,” Wayne says.
The bartender is always getting Wayne to get Marty to kick drunk people out of the pool. At night the pool is supposed to feature mermaids, but Gwen has yet to see any, aside from the plastic ones hanging on her tiki drinks. Mermaids were the whole reason for the trip. A passenger on a flight to Los Angeles—some waxed mustache hipster—told her she just had to go. Gwen was a flight attendant, but all she ever saw were airports and Courtyard Marriotts. It had taken six standbys to get here. Now she’d missed so much work they’d stick her with the SLC to ATL route—drunk, polite Southerners and sober, placid Mormons all acting as if they didn’t think the other was dammed to hell. Back and forth. Southwest and Southeast. Everyone grinning with the spirit of Jesus until their cheeks fell off.
Gwen realizes she took her anti-depressant twice today by accident.
The man next to her leans in. He is about to mention the weather or remark on how she reminds him of someone he once knew in Minneapolis. This happens to Gwen a lot. It’s her apple cheeks.
“Helluva storm out there,” he says.
“Yep,” Gwen says.
“Not the weekend I planned, I tell you.”
“Happy fucking new year.”
“It’s my birthday.”
Gwen doesn’t tell people it’s her birthday for the free drinks. Still, she doesn’t mind when the man dutifully signals the bartender. She notices a fan of lines around his bright yet deep-set eyes, a sign of life lived. The man wears faded jeans with the physical ease of a man who’s comfortable outside. Gwen orders a Mai Tai, and the magenta looks pretty next to her blue drink. The man stares into the middle distance with such intensity, Gwen knows he is here avoiding someone. Gwen has seen this all before.
The college kids are sorting out their hookups for the evening. Gwen remembers when she was 18 and creepy men in their 30s hit on her. Then she was 20, and it was cheaters in their 40s. Now she’s 30, and it’s creepy cheaters in their 50s. And so it goes. The creepers and the cheaters. Not to mention the gropers. Then there’s love, Gwen supposes. There was Bob. For Bob she’d plunged into the abyss of love, past the safety line.
Sorry, Bob had said, but he just didn’t feel the same way.
Thanks to Bob, Gwen was guzzling neon lighter fluid at the Polynesian apocalypse. Yet despite the bartender’s best efforts, she can’t numb herself tonight. She is too aware of everything—the loony tune piano, the college kids, Wayne, the weathered man, the puce octopus over her head. The aquamarine barstools are too aqua. Her skin prickles.
Gwen should go to Mexico. Bob is there with his new girlfriend, the younger, brighter version of her. She could take a tiki totem and beat that bastard to a pulp. Gwen looks around and can see now that she is surrounded by creepers and cheaters, every one of them.
Cheater. Creeper. Cheater. That one over there? Total cheater.
“Oh, was I talking out loud?” Gwen does this sometimes without realizing.
This sad man’s bright eyes reveal cheater for sure. He is drinking a shot and a beer, meaning he wants to get drunk and make a mistake. Gwen decides this mistake will be her.
“Let me tell you something,” she says.
“Say whatever you want.”
“Happy birthday to me.”
The man raises his beer and clinks Gwen’s Mai Tai. His hands are calloused—knobby knuckles and rough skin. His sandy hair is thinning, but a thatch holds on. They exchange names and Gwen forgets his immediately. Maybe this is her cowboy. She likes that his boots look worn from actual work. The college kids are gone, and Piano Pat plays some Frank Sinatra song Gwen can’t place.
“I’m supposed to be in Mexico,” Gwen says. “With my boyfriend.”
“Whoa. That is something.”
But the man doesn’t find Gwen’s love life remarkable; he is staring at a fat couple making out in the pool. The water makes them floaty, light. They are clearly enamored, the way they ballet step in the blue light. Within a minute the pool has transformed from a Panama City Beach nightmare to a deep-sea wonder of love. What a world.
“I should get back to my son,” the man says. “He’s waiting in my room.”
“I hope they can get it on before the bartender gets Wayne to get Marty to stop them,” Gwen says.
“I know what you mean.”
“People don’t know that everyone in the bar is watching.”
“I guess everyone needs someone.”
The couple’s legs lock in a way that signals they are about to get down to some serious business.
“Wayne,” the shark bartender says.
“I’ll get Marty,” Wayne says.
“Jesus.” The bartender throws down her towel. “Every night.”
“Oh, Wayne,” Gwen says. “You’re the man I should want.”
“I thought you had a boyfriend in Puerto Vallarta,” the man says.
“Your boyfriend. The one in Mexico?”
“Right. Motherfucking Bob.”
“Gwen, I would like to buy you another drink for your birthday.”
“Pina colada. Wait, did I show you my wallet photo of a bull mastiff yet?”
“Float a shot of Myer’s dark rum on top,” Gwen tells the bartender.
As soon as the drink lands on the bar it separates, the alcohol and the water rejecting one another. A thick layer of coconut coats Gwen’s tongue.
“Hey, would you do something for me?”
The man will do something for Gwen, whatever she wants. As it turns out, what he needs more than anything, is to do someone a favor.
“Get me a pack of cigarettes from the machine, but only let me smoke one. My boo hates the smell of smoke.”
“I mean, Bob. No, fuck him. Wait—did I mention my twin?”
“You have a twin?”
Gwen tells Bob her Esmeralda stories. How Esmeralda hitchhiked through Tasmania. Used to sing backup for the Allman Brothers. The Sip ’n’ Dip was Gwen’s attempt to live like Esmerelda, the kind of woman who traveled the world like a hipster journalist dude. Men love the idea of a twin. Even so, Gwen knows she’s botching this pickup. She’s saying the right things but in the wrong way. Then again, this is a man who has been with the wrong woman before.
“Wait, is Esmerelda real?” the man asks.
“No more or less real than the bull mastiff,” Gwen says.
Wayne has fetched Marty. Now the pool is empty. Gwen tears up over the vast empty blue nothingness. She senses how the bartender judges her, for picking up a cowboy, not handling her booze, repeating the same stories. Gwen is an out-of-town cliché who watched some Hollywood movie about a woman from New York City who fucks a horse whisperer, fucks everyone’s shit up, and splits. Gwen decides to slip out quietly, an Irish goodbye. To ensure a smooth exit, she checks for her room key. Where is it? She fumbles and the contents of her purse, her checkbook, pens, wallet, and makeup spill across the bar. A used tissue floats down like a gross snowflake.
“Shit,” Gwen says.
“Here, let me help you,” the man says.
“A tampon!” Gwen holds it up as if she’s extracted Excalibur. “You’re a man of the world. You’ve been with some ladies. I’m guessing a tampon won’t freak you out.”
The man looks terrified. Here he’s chopped a thousand horse testicles but balks at a tampon. What a weenie, but even Gwen knows tampon chat is poor seduction material. She needs a new topic, but her head is woozy, as if all her thoughts dumped out, too. Gwen wants to apologize, but she isn’t sure how, or what it is she’s done wrong, exactly, except for botching it like always. Against all odds, the man’s hazel eyes remain bright. His craggy hands tenderly refill her purse. She sees now that he loves her a little bit and for this, she loves him back a little bit. Uh-oh. Feeling. Gwen doesn’t know that she can handle feeling. Feeling never goes well for her. No, better not start all that up again. Please god, she prays. No more feeling.
“Maybe you should get some rest,” the bartender says.
“I really should go to Mexico. That would be a bad idea, but that means I should go, because if good ideas are bad ideas, then maybe bad ideas are good ideas,” Gwen says.
“Absitively, posilutely!” says some asshole who just showed up. He tips his Coors Lite in Gwen’s direction.
When did Gwen become one of those rummaging pocketbook women? The cowboy is so sad now she almost feels sorry for him, but he’s a cheater, and that’s not her fault. Gwen finds her key. It’s large and metal, the last real motel key in America.
“I need some help getting back to my room. I mean, I don’t want to walk by myself.”
“I know. It’s silly to not be able to walk a hallway by myself. But I don’t want to.”
“No one should have to.”
“Isn’t that so true? No one should ever have to walk down a hotel hallway alone.”
The man looks helpless now. He doesn’t really, not really, want to help her to her room, but he will. He said something about a son, but Gwen doesn’t sense a wife. Still. There is a betrayal in there somewhere.
She gets up and they make their way down the hall which has stretched a million miles into the galaxy, a wormhole to nowhere. Gwen stumbles, thinking she’ll flirt like a rom-com star, but the man grunts as he catches her. Turns out stumbling after 35 is lurching. Or is Gwen 40? And if she is, how the hell did that happen? A wave rises from her stomach to greet the bob and weave of her head.
“Maybe you should fuck me,” Gwen says.
A college boy at the ice machine startles at the word “fuck.”
“I never said I meant to,” the man says.
“No, I mean. I think. Never mind.”
Gwen glares at the eavesdropping college boy. The hallway carpet seems determined to make everyone’s life lonely and miserable but wait. No, Gwen changes her mind. She loves this carpet, the paisley mustard and purple print reeking of optimism. Only a person with hopes and dreams would install such a carpet. What a lovely disaster.
“Wait,” Gwen says.
“Come in. Just for a second.”
The old key turns like a dream. Gwen forgot she left the scented candles burning, and her room smells like a burnt wedding cake. On her first night, a man sent a bouquet for her birthday. Exotic arcs of bright indigo and fuchsia slash the maize-colored room. Gwen hates flowers because either the wrong people are sending the right flowers, or the right person is sending the wrong flowers. All that wasted baby’s breath. It’s too much, especially when you factor in climate change and that lonely whale in Norway. Gwen is about to give up, but then the man looks at her—as in, looks at her. She stares back into his unbearably bright eyes, past the sadness, to the part of his mind thinking he should be somewhere else, but instead is here, so completely here. No one has looked at her like that for a very long time. Just look and not think of anything or anyone else.
“You shouldn’t leave candles burning like that,” the man says.
Gwen bends over and sobs. She knows men cringe over a crying woman even more than a tampon, but she can’t help herself. The look has punctured her levee of grief. Her tears erupt—loud, violent, inexorable. Between one and one million seconds later, her spell is over. Gwen feels as if she’s emerged from a long tunnel. Dazed, she looks up, blinking into the sun. The man (Richard! His name is Richard!) is still here, witness to a grief so deep she hadn’t even known it was there. This was a grief forged in the boiling earth’s core from cracked pelvic bones and bitter seed of pomegranate, then buried in cement, now cracked open and unfurled into the world.
“That was weird,” Gwen says.
“This happens to me more than you might think,” Richard says.
They pause for a moment, considering, then this moment is over, too. Richard has decided to remember that he does, come to think of it, have somewhere else he is supposed to be.
“Fuck Bob and all the Bobs,” Gwen says. “For wasting my time.”
Richard hands Gwen her dress, which fell on the floor somehow, and slips out the door.
Gwen wakes up on her stomach, cool tiles pressing into her skin. The damp air smells of chemicals. She is naked under her robe, lying next to a giant rubber fin and a pink shell bikini top. Her cheek aches. She pushes herself up and finds a plastic monkey burrowed in her cheek. As she peels it off, and the blood rushes back, she remembers her mission. She’d rather crawl back to her room and sleep, but no, this time, she will see this through. Gwen rallies.
The rubber fin is snug, made for a younger woman with less life in her hips. Gwen flails and flops as she rolls the rubber up. For a moment, the task seems impossible, but she perseveres, and she’s rewarded with a new lower body. From there, it’s easy to spoon her boobs into the shell cups, the way a salesperson taught her once at Victoria’s Secret. Neat-o. She’s ready to loll on rocks, croon with sea creature friends, lure sailors to their death.
Plop! In she goes. The water is warm, inviting—maybe too warm, maybe it’s a trap. She can’t kick her legs; she’s sinking. Gwen panics. She won’t loll or croon. No, she’ll end her life as anecdote fodder for the 24-hour news cycle. But then she finds a butterfly kick. Whoosh! Gwen undulates. The power of her enormous tail shoots her upward. She rushes up, flips like an orca, gasps for air, and dives back in. It’s fantastic. She would do this over and over if only she had exercised more than twice this past year. Exhausted, Gwen explores sustainable mermaid moves. She discovers that a slow and steady shimmy keeps her buoyant. Graceful and gliding now, she traces the boundaries of her surface world, but soon Gwen craves the deep. This time she relaxes into it, allowing the weight of the tail pull her down, down to the bottom. Home.
Gwen opens her eyes. There’s a familiar shadowy figure in the glass. The chlorine burns but she forces herself to focus. Esmerelda! Her underwater Gorgon sister has been here all this time, sea snakes floating around her head. Gwen reaches to make contact and Esmerelda reaches back. So nice to finally meet. How do you do? How do you do? Gwen has so many questions, but her lungs are burning; land calls.
One last look. Past the shimmer of Esmerelda, the earth is blurry, the white Christmas lights spirals of the Milky Way. The bar is empty except for the shark bartender and Wayne, drinking after hours. Gwen can see now that Wayne isn’t a creeper or a cheater or a groper, but a regular guy who likes hanging out. Just a guy. Wayne. With her two index fingers, Gwen draws a heart in the glass, presses her palms to her lips, and blows a bubble kiss goodbye. And the bartender doesn’t tell Wayne to go fetch Marty but toasts her birthday with a shot.
Kelly K. Ferguson is the author of My Life as Laura Ingalls Wilder(Press 53). Her work has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, New England Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and other journals. In the past ten years she has moved from southern Louisiana to southern Ohio to southern Louisiana to southern Utah to southern Ohio, where she is an assistant professor of journalism at Ohio University.