BY GERI LALACH
Copyright is held by the author.
I’M A big woman. Not running to fat, just . . . solid, and tall besides. The kind of woman you’d imagine hauling her family in a covered wagon across the prairie, delivering her babes in a field between picking crops, cornering a pig to roast up for the farm feast.
My hands are busy pulling draft behind the bar and I have no call to be fanciful but I can’t help it. I see him. Cowboy is what I call him in my head. I force myself to look away. It’s a busy night. College kids, men finishing their shift at the plant, some white collar, but men mostly used to clocking in and out.
I run a decent place, a good place. My girls are pretty and dress proper. No call I tell them to be showing their assets for a few extra tips. They want to hold themselves cheap, they’re welcome to do it elsewhere. I work hard to run a respectable bar and I told them from the start I won’t stand for any foolishness with the customers.
My own foolishness now, well, that’s another kettle of fish. I was managing to keep a lid on it till the cowboy first walked through the door. And I’d gotten used to taking care of myself too. But since that first night he came to my bar, I’ve woken up all feverish my hands finishing the job as I imagine his body sweaty and pulsing against mine.
“I’ll take a beer Margaret.”
I’m startled seeing him so close. He usually sits at the table in the corner by the fireplace, not elbows on the bar in front of me. One of the girls must’ve told him my name. I’ll have to find out who it was after. Most people call me Maggie. I’m not used to being called Margaret but the way he says it makes it sound like we’re the only two people here.
I pretend to wipe the counter as I study his face. Thick dark hair threaded with grey reaches the collar of his shirt. His nose is hooked, and a little too big for his face, but it suits him, and me. Grooves line his cheeks and the corners of his eyes. His chin is strong, angular rather than square. A soft dusting of hair covers his forearms from where he’s rolled back his sleeves.
I wish he wouldn’t have done that. Let me see him close up like this. I try not to watch as he wraps his hand around the beer glass and swallows. Foolishly I imagine those fingers wrapped around my calf as he spreads me up and open. I watch his Adam’s apple move under tanned weathered skin. I want the taste of him there on my tongue. My breath hitches. There is a clench beneath my apron.
This is not good.
I try to catch Sara’s eye but she’s busy preparing a tray of shooters for a group of college boys. All my other girls are busy serving tables. It’ll be a good night for the bar. I wish I could enjoy it. Instead I’m preoccupied by irksome foolish thoughts. He’s saying something and I notice the slight overlap of his front teeth when he smiles. I don’t smile back. Instead I grab some limes and cut them up quickly, expertly like I’ve done a million times before, except I’m too distracted and I slice open my thumb and blood oozes out, staining the cutting board and the limes.
I lift my hand, frowning at the open wound and I try to say something but nothing comes out.
“You stay here and watch the bar. Let me take her to the back. You got a first aid kit back there?” Cowboy is talking to Sara.
Sara looks at my thumb and blanches. She gives him a jerky nod using the bunched up end of a towel to slide the cutting board into the sink and the bloody limes into the garbage.
Cowboy sits me on the toilet, places my hand over the sink and lets the cool water run over the cut on my thumb. It’s uncomfortable at first but after a moment the water feels good.
“There’s better ways of getting a man’s attention Margaret.”
He’s got a crooked grin, one that’s charmed prettier women than me I’m sure. I scowl back at him. “That’s the last thing I was after, your attention. I’m running a business here, not mooning after every cowboy who comes into my place.” It’s not a lie. He’s been the only one to kick up my dust.
“We’re of an age, aren’t we Margaret?” He’s opening the medicine cabinet and looking for the first aid kit.
I take in his salt and pepper hair, the lines on his face and give him a brief nod. My hair went prematurely grey a long time ago. I leave it long and silver past my shoulders. It’s the one thing I’m vain about.
He pulls up a stool and sits down in front of me before wrapping a pad of gauze around the cut. He doesn’t let go of my hand. I know what he’s doing, applying pressure to stop the bleeding. He wouldn’t be holding my hand otherwise I tell myself. Still, I can’t help but imagine his hands elsewhere on my body.
By mistake I look at him. He’s no longer smiling. His nostrils flare slightly as he reads the longing in my eyes. He brings my hand to the open “v” of his shirt. I look away, jerking slightly, pulling back with my hand. I don’t want to be pitied. Or used.
“I want you to touch me,” he says, bringing my fingers back to the faint line of chest hair below his collarbone.
“Why?” I ask, “Why me? There’s lots of pretty women out there, besides, like you just said, we’re of an age. You don’t need to feel sorry for me.” I tug my hand again expecting him to release it but instead he uses the momentum to move closer to me.
“You afraid Margaret? I didn’t expect that from you. But maybe most of the men round here are stupid, can’t see a good thing right before their eyes.” He pauses, angling his head. “Or maybe it’s just you’ve been hiding. Hiding in plain sight. Clever woman.” He leans over and rubs his cheek against mine as he catches my earlobe between his teeth, sucks gently, and whispers, “I’ve always been a sucker for a smart woman.”
But he’s wrong. I’m not smart or clever. A smart woman would thank him for his assistance, go back to the bar, and not look back.
Instead I whisper back to him, “Lock the damn door.”