Madeline, the sick feeling


madelien1I had spent 30 days in a county jail outside of Helena, Montana for driving drunk with a suspended license.  The first thing that I do when I get out is head straight downtown and walk into the first bar that I lay eyes on.  It’s eleven in the morning. There I spend the next six or seven hours pumping quarters into a lively juke box and sipping Jameson on the rocks.

I have never understood a beautiful woman at the bar thumbing through a magazine, and I’m not about to start with Madeline.  I overhear her name spoken by the bartender after he pours her a dirty vodka martini.  I watch painfully as she bites into her lower lip and occasionally licks her teeth, turning the pages to her magazine slowly. Right off the bat I know that if I approach her she’ll turn and look at me as if I’m about to club her over the head and drag her back to a cave.  At the same time, if no one strikes up a conversation with her she will go home tonight feeling slighted and ashamed.  Nobody wins.  And after several months in this town I’ve begun to learn that most people here lose. Everyone’s lonely in Helena, but too stupid to admit it.

Madeline runs her fingers through her hair and gently yawns. “For fuck’s sake,” I think out loud. She now looks bored beyond belief despite herself. And desperate. My impulse is to say something clever and insulting to her – but I can’t quite figure it out.

“If you keep on reading that magazine in this light you’re going to wake up one morning not able to see past the foot of your bed,” I’d say.

“That’s an old wife’s tale,” she’d remark.  “My grandmother used to spin that yarn to me and my brother when we were kids.”

“And does your brother wear glasses?” I’d reply.

“I don’t think that has anything to do with it.”

“But you never know for certain.  I mean, it might have been because he read in the dark.”

“It might have also been because he was jerking off all the time.  He was even caught at school once.  In the tenth grade.  He was never able to live it down.  I think that’s the real reason he dropped out of school and left town when he was 16.”

“Fair enough.”

End of story. The next thing I know Madeline’s smoking a cigarette and doing a crossword puzzle.  Every now and then she’ll glance up at the mirror behind the bar and make cockeyes with me indirectly.  I watch as she picks up a pink cell phone and places it to her ear.  Seconds later a tall skinny boy walks up toward the bar with a hooded sweatshirt beneath his flannel jacket.  He approaches Madeline, extends his arms and kisses her on the head.  He hasn’t shaved in three days.  His hair is thin and straight, a little greasy, and my guess is that he’s covering up a receding hairline.  I’ve seen the type a 100 times before in a 100 different small town bars.  A few seconds later the two of them are sucking face.

I leave the bar feeling humiliated and somewhat sick.  I look at my watch.  It’s 8:22pm. For a minute I wish that I were back in the county stir sleeping in a concrete cellblock among other desperate men.  If I had a shovel right now I think I’d go dig a hole in Womens Park, just west of here – an inch for every girl gone off into the night with someone better than myself.  That hole would surely make a tidy grave.  If I had a car I would drive all night and wake up in another town.

About an hour later I’m on I-90 heading east doing about 80 miles an hour, the wind howling through the shattered driver’s side window.  The sky seems particularly empty this evening – I am having trouble making sense of the constellations above me.  Nevertheless, at this speed, I should be in Cheyenne, Wyoming by sunrise.

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