Hunter’s in the bath. Linda’s sweeping the floor around the edge of the door.
"Hunter, I wish you would put your own clothes away."
Hunter eases himself down under the bath, his ears fill with water, his long hair floats out at right angles— a halo of red hair. He watches the bubbles now at eye level.
Down again and up for air.
"Hunter, can you watch the baby today while I go to work? I have to model from three till six."
Down again in the world of bubbles.
In the kitchen, he can hear her cleaning off the table.
Her footsteps in the hallway.
"Hunter, could you wash the baby while you’re in there?" She opens the door and stands in the frame holding a chubby little girl with folds of fat around her knees and elbows and a big smile.
Hunter looks up from the soapy water and closes his eyes. "All right."
He sets the baby on his stomach, leaning her back on his knees. She splashes the water.
"Hunter, what kind of bubbles are you using? I hope it’s not dish soap. That wouldn’t be good for her skin." The woman combs her long hair until she is encircled by it and Hunter can’t see her nose as he looks at her sideways.
"Hunter," says the voice inside the hair, "What kind of soap did you use?"
She turns, sets the hairbrush on the toilet tank with a clank and walks past him impatiently, whipping the baby off his lap and drying her with a towel. "I wish you wouldn’t use that kind of soap."
Hunter pushes the door closed behind her. He steps slowly out of the tub, wrapping a long green and white striped towel around himself, looks into the mirror then and starts to untangle his hair.
Hunter comes home drunk in the middle of the afternoon and follows Linda around the house while she cleans and takes care of the baby.
"Remember the time, Linda, when the doctor in the hospital tried to get me to talk to those kids about drugs, how they were bad for them, how they killed and I told him the truth: Yea, but doc, you can’t deny one thing about heroin. It makes you feel good. Nothing else in the world makes you feel that good."
"Hunter, please . . . "
"No, this ain’t nothing," he says. "I’m just talking. That’s all."
Linda wipes off the mantle. "Hunter, drugs gave you that valve in your heart. The click, click sound that keeps us awake at night came from using that beautiful drug."
"That didn’t come from the drug. It came from the needle, silly. The drug is beautiful."
He follows her in the bathroom, loses his balance, and grabs the shower curtain to steady himself. It comes down easily, the pole, too.
"Hunter. Why don’t you just sit down. I wish to hell you would find a different job besides tending bar in that dump."
"Hey— What is it you want, Linda? Huh, what is it?"
"I don’t want anything but some goddamn sanity in this house." She slams the ashtray down on the coffee table in front of the rose-colored sofa and lights a cigarette while the baby nurses.
"All I want, Linda, is a trailer, a trailer and a truck so I can travel around. I don’t want this house, this furniture, none of it. I’ll just pull my trailer up to the curb when I want to stay and pull away when I want to leave."
"You couldn’t possibly leave the piles of shit you have accumulated here, Hunter."
"That would simplify things."
"Sure, I can see it now, beer bottles falling out in a heap every time you open the door. That would be very simple, wouldn’t it?"
"I can tell you one thing for sure, Linda," he says as he stretches on the sofa, the toes of his brown shoes lined up on the floor. "I’m not going to keep working for the rest of my life just to make the bills."
They both shut up then and listen to his heart click.
Linda sits with her chin in the cup of her hand, her elbow resting on the bar. She smokes a Marlboro. Hunter wipes down the counter and tells a drunk who is sitting at the end of the bar that his time is up. "Joe, hit the road. You’ve made your limit." The drunk stands up, puts on his black trench coat, flicking his pony tail outside his collar. "Just remember Red, I always pay for my drinks," he says as he stumbles out the door.
Crack— the balls are spinning on the pool table. Linda stirs her rum and coke with the straw and pulls the brim of a l930 style hat down around her face. A woman wearing a tight black skirt, high heels and dramatic make-up sits next to her. "You seen Lamont around?" she asks. "No, Vanessa, I haven’t seen him all night," Linda says. Then she stares at the bottles in the mirror, using her hat to cut the woman out of her line of vision.
The night before she and Hunter had given a young girl a ride. Lying on the floor in the back of their car, she was crying and shaking— afraid Lamont would find her. They dropped her off at some house on Commonwealth Street.
Hunter moves up and down the bar. She can hear him whisper to some pimps, Got some good grass. Then he shoots a game of pool with Chuck. Chuck takes five dollars from Hunter, and carefully puts it in the middle of his roll of bills.
"Watch out for that guy in the corner over there," Hunter tells Linda. "I think we’re going to have trouble." She slides down closer to the end of the bar away from the action.
The guy in the corner— a tall skinny guy wearing red pants— puts a quarter on the table. Chuck turns around and faces him—" You motherfucker… You keep away from my girls!" Chuck smacks the guy on the head with his pool stick, cracking it in two. Suddenly the bar is full of people.
From behind the counter where Linda is hiding, she can hear the woman yelling: "Lamont! Put that gun away! We don’t want that girl!"
"Shut up, bitch!"
Hunter flashes the lights on and off. His voice sounds over the fight. "Everyone out! The cops are on their way. Everyone out!"
The group pushes and shoves each other as they go out the door. Then Hunter locks the door, dims the lights, and the noise starts to move into the distance.
He glides from one end of the bar to the next, setting in front of each customer the correct drink, with a twist and a straw. Earlier in the day, in the Majestic Grill over orange juice, eggs and bacon, he and Linda had reaffirmed that they didn’t want the false security of married life— a house with a manicured lawn. "We’ll be together for the rest of our lives," she had said. "A marriage certificate won’t make any difference." They ate their breakfast. "We’ll just keep on like we are— we won’t let our lives change." Linda said this and Hunter agreed.
Tonight Linda drinks gin and tonic and she racks up the balls and then smack— the number five and the number three fall in corner pockets. Indian Joe, a regular, misses the ball— he’s too drunk to do much more. With each shot Linda makes, she sinks two or three until she’s won the game. A dollar in the back of her tight levis and Hunter tells Joe it is time to go home and sober up.
The next quarter on the table is Lamont’s— his ladies are across the street at Anderson’s Garden tricking the johns and collecting twenties for his roll. He’s going to pass a little time now, shooting a game of pool. "You sure are looking good, sweetie, since you had that baby—put on a little meat here and there."
A woman drops a quarter in the jukebox and Marvin Gaye sings: "I bet you wonder how I knew. About your plans to make me blue. With some other guy you knew before…"
Linda chalks up her stick.
"I told you girl— anytime you want to give up that beatnik, I got a place for you. The baby, too. I’m definitely not jiving you."
He racks and she leans over, slides her stick over the felt. The cue ball hits breaking the rack sideways and three balls sink.
"Lucky shot, honey. I can tell you’re a winner."
Hunter keeps drying glasses and washing down the counter, singing along with Marvin: "I know a man ain’t supposed to cry. But these tears I can’t hold inside…"
Linda walks from one side of the pool table to the other, sinking balls and occasionally hitting the lamp above the table, its angular light flashing back and forth between them.
Lamont steps back rubbing his hands on his iridescent red slacks. "Ain’t nothing but luck for a woman to get those balls."
Hunter chews on a toothpick.
Linda purposely aims off center, grazing the number six.
"Like I told you, hippie girl, you were just lucky."
Lamont takes aim and knocks two balls into their respective pockets.
Linda banks the cue ball and puts the number two in the corner pocket. Then she takes all the rest.
Lamont peels off a five dollar bill and looks around the bar. Everyone is looking at him: Chuck’s ladies at the bar, a group of hustlers by the window, and three or four others.
"Ain’t no goddamn woman gonna beat me," he says under his breath. Then he removes a fifty dollar bill from the center of his roll and challenges her to another game. One of Chuck’s girls crosses her legs and comments to her friend, "Come on Sally, let’s watch this fool."
Linda puts three balls in on the break.
She stands taller and taller after each shot, brushing her long hair out of her eyes. Lamont chugs down a shot of vodka and then, leaning on his stick, he smiles at everyone in the bar. When he shoots, the cue ball drops in a corner pocket.
Seventy-five. Linda takes the second and the third game. One hundred dollars. "Ain’t no woman gonna take my money," he says.
Vanessa comes strutting into the bar then and she walks over to him as Linda counts up her bills. "I’m out here, Lamont, breaking my ass for you and you’re in here giving my money away to some white bitch?"
"Can’t you see, Bitch, that I’m busy." He orders another drink.
* * *
Hunter lies on the sidewalk outside the apartment building and laughs hysterically.
"Hunter, get up. It’s 4:00 in the morning. Hunter the police will arrest you. Hunter the babysitter needs to go home. Hunter I have to go to work tomorrow morning. Hunter…"
Hunter says "Oh Baby" between laughs and then he stops and lies still. He is very quiet.
She leans over him and shakes his head and tugs on his jacket. "Hunter… Come on. Are you all right, Hunter? You know you shouldn’t drink, Hunter."
Suddenly, he laughs again, teasing her. She turns her back on him and starts walking home. One half block away though, and she looks back like a mother does to her young child who refuses to walk. The street is empty and the three story apartment buildings all have their shades drawn. The street lamps leave triangles of light on the pavement. Hunter stops laughing then, stands up, and they walk home together, arm in arm, just like usual.
Barbara Henning has several published novels and books of poetry, recently Digigram (United Artists 2020); forthcoming is Prompt Book: Experiments for Writing Poetry and Fiction (Spuyten Duyvil).