Nina didn’t recognize him at first. He strolled into the dingy ambience of Ott’s Bar—low ceiling, scarred horseshoe bar, vinyl booths hugging a dimly lit perimeter–with a skinny, yellow-haired girl. He was thinner. His hair was shorter, too, unlike his kid-self who would’ve howled at the mere suggestion of a shorn, Semper Fi look. Though Nina had heard about his good-behavior release, she hadn’t pursued the details. Lyle-related news wore her down.
Lyle craned his neck searching the bar and booths. Nina was tempted to duck, crawl out the back exit. The thought evaporated in a loud “Hey!” Lyle pointed then thumped his chest, the way movie stars gesture ‘Gratis, Love You’ to an adoring crowd.
Regulars at the bar swiveled in their seats and gave Nina the once over. Wishing she’d worked through her lunch hour, she polished off her margarita, heavy on the salt.
Lyle and the girl swung into Nina’s booth after Lyle awkwardly took the girl’s sweater and shoulder bag. He held the girl’s scrawny arm while she slid across the vinyl seating. The girl was pregnant, maybe four months. She supported her small, rounded belly, hand cupping the swell like a volleyball server. Lyle slid in beside her.
“What’s happening, Mama Mia?” He grinned and drummed the tabletop.
Nina gazed at the snake tattoo curving playfully around his forearm. “Same old, same old. Ordinary life. When were you released?”
“Few months ago. Wanted to get settled before I dropped by.” His brows knitted. “Jesus, forgot my manners. This is Janine, Mom. Janine, this is my first mother, Nina Evers.
“I’m his only mother, Janine. Lyle’s stepmother lives in Wisconsin. With his only father.”
The girl smiled cautiously. “Nice to meet you, Mrs. Evers.
“Ms. Evers. My maiden name.” The girl blushed.
“Don’t let my mother fool you, Janey. She’s a pussycat at heart.”
Lyle winked. He put his arm around the girl then gave her a squeeze. Smiling, the girl looked down at her hands. She stroked her belly then rested her head against Lyle’s shoulder. He kissed her forehead, the way one might reassure a child.
Nina looked away, caught the leering eye of a middle-aged man at the bar then turned back to Lyle. “Does your father know you’re out?”
“Nah. Don’t think he’s interested after . . . ”
He scowled. “Whatever. Accidents happen.”
“Particularly when you’re cooking drugs in the basement.” An edge had crept into her voice.
“I don’t want to do this right now. It’s done, finito. I’m a changed man.”
“Hope so.” Nina checked her watch. “Need to get back. Nice meeting you, Janine.”
She picked up the bill. Lyle grabbed her wrist.
“That’s it? I’ve been away for five fucking years and you don’t have an extra ten minutes?”
Lyle’s eyes welled up. A nervous tic made his right eye twitch.
She’d always surrendered to this drama, embracing Lyle, saying she expected better the next time and the time after that. Her willingness to forgive Lyle’s troubles and disasters had been well intentioned. As had years of rehab and therapy. Lyle, always sorry and anguished, promised to change. Nearly twenty years of waiting. A weariness ran through her, a deep, familiar ache.
She slipped from Lyle’s grip but held his hand gently. She recalled his chubby childhood fingers, his infectious laugh. She let go. Glancing at Janine–mouth pinched, eyes blanched with worry–she knew the girl would never last. She’d have the baby’s welfare to weigh against Lyle’s shattering excuses. She’d have her own sanity to take into account.
“Time to go.”
Hurrying to the register, she told the barkeep to pocket the change then pushed through the heavy front doors. She resisted the sharp, burning urge to turn and glance back.
She no sooner arrived in the office than her manager Richard yelled, “You’ve got a call, Nina. Says he’s your son. I’ll transfer him to your office, line 3.”
She mouthed a ‘thank you.’ Entering her office, she closed the door. She let the phone ring several times, longer than normal. Every day she fielded calls from frustrated construction crews and disgruntled homeowners: fix this, change that, get your act together. How do you repair or restore a broken life to anyone’s satisfaction? She thought of the girl then, the way she’d held her swollen belly, supporting then stroking the roundness, a crazy act of faith.
She lifted the receiver. She took a deep breath feeling an unnamed something crumble around her.
Margaret A. Frey writes from the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared in: Notre Dame Magazine, Camroc Press Review, Kaleidoscope, Foliate Oak, Flash Fiction Online, Used Furniture Review, The Dead Mule of Southern Literature and elsewhere. Most recent work appeared in the summer 2014 issue of The Stinging Fly.
Read an interview with Margaret here.