by Mitch Pollock
I’ve been hiding by the bathroom for ten minutes, waiting for my date to leave. From my spot behind the old phone booth, I can see Eleanor at the bar. She’s retrieved her black overcoat and has it draped over my vacant stool; a bit of yellow froth is all that’s left of her beer. She’s on her phone, and when her head bobs upwards I duck behind the booth.
The pub had been her choice. It was exactly the kind of place I hated: dim and crowded, an endless stream of Dad-rock that was just loud enough to notice. Worst of all, they serve peanuts. I’ve spent the last ten minutes picking the shells out of my sneakers, pausing occasionally to sneak a glance at Eleanor.
I’ve gotten them all, now. Nothing left to distract my shaking hands, which are causing the ice cubes in my glass to dance. My head is throbbing and my teeth hurt, the familiar result of anxiety and too much nervous drinking. I hold the drink to my forehead, looking again at the bar through the glass and brown liquid. The yellow lamps looks dimmer through the glass, and the neon Miller sign reflected in the bar mirror looks warped, with letters from a language of a far-off land. It’s a bad date, yes, but hiding? That’s new for me. Well, relatively new: it’s my third time, and the other two women walked out on me within ten minutes. This one is persistent.
When I was a kid I was great at hiding. I became a James Bond obsessive as soon as I discovered my dad’s old VHS collection. My favorite was The Spy Who Loved Me. I built a rainbow-colored gun out of Legos and would sit cross-legged and shoot the bad guys as they popped up on our humming tube television. After a dozen watches, I’d memorized every scene and had a quicker trigger than Bond. But the true test of my skills came when my parents had a night out.
My babysitter was named Megan Studebaker. She wore pink high-top basketball shoes with no socks, and had a sharp tan line across her ankle bone: brown to white. I always wanted to ask her why she didn’t wash it away, but I knew somehow it was a silly question. Her hair had lines, too: blonde highlights over brown hair, pulled into a ponytail. She would arrive at my house from the high-school gym and work on her homework at the kitchen counter; she graciously let me help her. What else do I remember? She smelled like sweat and watermelon chewing gum. A large wad of it hung from her lip while she worked, always threatening to fall out of her mouth. She let me try a piece once, but I didn’t like it; still, I kept the wrapper hidden in a comic book for months until it lost the smell. She was my first love.
When Megan was done with her work, we played our spy game. It was called Spy Game, and it was basically hide-and-seek. There were only a handful of hiding spots in the condo: behind the washer, behind the couch cushions, behind the coats in the hall closet, or under my bed. Just before she’d reach me, she’d let me scurry to another spot as I waved my plastic gun behind me. One day, I decided to up my game. When Megan went to her car to put her books away, I locked the front door behind her and ran to my room. Gripping my gun between slippery palms, I squeezed under my bed and waited. The underside of my bed smelled like wool socks and old cabin wood. I could barely fit among the toys, clothes, and comic books crammed underneath. Half of my face, wearing a grin the size of the moon, was still visible. After a few minutes, I heard distant pounding on the front door. A few minutes later the phone rang and I bit back a laugh. This was the ultimate Bond move: locking the villain out of her own lair.
Then I heard hands slapping against my window. “Henry,” Megan said, in a voice I hadn’t heard before. I peeked out and saw her wet cheeks marked with running black lines like scars. She was pounding the window with both hands, wild with panic, calling “Henry! Henry!” between frantic glances down the street for my parents’ station wagon. By the time I opened the door for her I was bawling. She leaned down and wiped my eyes with her shirt. “It’s okay. You want to play a game?” I nodded. “Okay. Maybe a different game.”
Eleanor has ordered a second beer. As she takes a drink, I’m sure I see her look at me through the corner of her eye. I wipe my hands on my jeans and start walking, tiptoeing around the broken shells on the floor. My chest is pounding like a speaker box, a steady rhythm that matches the terrible Springsteen song that has just started. She sees me coming, and there’s no smile. Right before I reach her I feel peanut shells smashing under my feet.
“You like The Boss?” I say, like an idiot. She stares blankly. “Bruce? Springsteen?” Why am I bobbing my head back and forth? Jesus Christ.
She shakes her head, squinting. “Not particularly. That was a long phone call.” Her capacity for mercy, or at least civility, has shocked me; I just nod. Across the bar, dozens of colored bottles are lined up beneath the mirror, enough colors and shapes to make my head spin. It’s a dark, woody barroom, with about a dozen tables that filled the gaps in the music with low but desperate chatter. The bartender is humming along to Bruce as he cleans glasses. It’s an alien place.
Eleanor’s looking at me, but my eyes only manage to get to her wrist. For the first time, I notice a sharp tan line, the circle of a missing watch. The corny joke is nearly out of my mouth before another, better thought saves me.
“Do you want to play a game?”
“What, like a drinking game?” she says.
She waits. “Do you have one in mind?” I don’t, then I do.
She makes a quick scan of the bar to humor me. “I spy, with my little eye, something… brown.” Her eyes settle on my drink.
I pick up my glass and down the rest of the liquid. It smells like lemons, and it’s harsh and sweet against my throat. “I don’t know. I don’t see anything.” Not exactly an inspired line.
But she laughs: a small laugh, but enough to lean her stool onto the two back legs. The song changes to The Joker, the ultimate Dad hit, a tune to make my mother clench her fists every time my father’s favorite rock station cycled back to it. My dad once played only Steve Miller on a family trip to the Smokies; now I’m telling Eleanor while she rings her still-full beer with her pinkie finger. By the end, my head has stopped pounding and I call for a refill. I’m taking the first sip when I notice Eleanor’s smile, a sight made more lovely by the bits of peanut shell stuck between her teeth.
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