The bar car gave a sudden lurch, sending most of Ed Hastings' martini flying toward the seat in front of him, where it splattered a newspaper picture of LBJ and Humphrey at a barbecue in Texas. There were only half a dozen passengers on this late night run, the last train from the city to the western suburbs, so Ed didn't have to worry about having ruined another guy's suit. He was sorry for the rest of the martini, though.
The train sat for a few minutes, nothing happening. A few nervous jokes were made; the buzz of a fluorescent lamp seemed to grow louder with time. Ed looked out the window, but couldn't even tell where on the line they were. Finally, a shrunken old conductor came meandering up from the next car. "Engine's broken down," he said. "We radioed Central, a bus should be coming out to take you to your stations."
"How long will that be?" someone behind Ed yelled.
The conductor shrugged. "An hour. Or more."
Others groaned. Ed thought about it for a minute, then said to himself, the hell with it, I'll take a cab. He went to the doors, pulled the emergency latch, and hopped down onto the tracks.
Somewhere along the tracks he got to wondering just how far it could be from one station to the next. He still wasn't sure where he was-- Forestville, Lyons, Mackinall? Some little town of little houses full of little people, before you reached the much grander suburbs like Greendale where successful downtown men like himself caught the 7:40 every morning.
He came to a crossing and saw lights in the distance suggestive of commercial activity, so he left the tracks and started walking that way. There wasn't much-- an Esso station, an Italian restaurant with green and red neon in the windows, a tiki bar called Kahana Hula. The tiki bar looked marginally more lively, so he went in.
There were half a dozen tables, half of them occupied by older couples, and the usual Polynesian accoutrements-- thatched roof over the bar, primitive statues, exotically-patterned wallpaper. The jukebox was playing Jo Stafford, not quite with the theme. But what caught Ed's eye was the bartendress-- six feet tall and built like a football player, broad shouldered, jutting breasts, a wide backside carelessly wrapped in a flowery sarong, flowing black hair over her bark-colored skin. She wasn't a Negress, though-- the bright white eyes and delicate facial features suggested the South Pacific. Samoan, perhaps, they were known to be big. She smiled at him and the eyes and teeth seemed to glow out of her mahogany flesh. "You look like you could use a Scorpion," she said.
"Scotch and soda," he said automatically, then changed his mind and said "Naw, hell, that sounds great, make whatever you like," he said. "I'm sure it will hit the spot."
"My kind of man," she said.
"Yeah, a man who does what a woman tells him," an old timer at the end of the bar joked.
Ed stiffened slightly, then he told himself to relax and get along. "Don't we all, if we know what's good for us," he said, forcing a laugh.
He watched the bartendress mix his drink and pour into one of those silly Easter Island-head mugs. She handed it to him and her fingers lightly brushed his hand as she did. "Enjoy," she said, giving him another smile of neon-bright teeth.
He took a sip. Too sweet for him, but he wasn't going to complain. "You're going to think this is a silly question, but ... what town am I in?"
She smiled knowingly, leaning into the bar and giving him a nice view of her large breasts as they shifted heavily within her top. "Have a few too many on the way home?"
"No, it's actually not that," he said. "My train stopped on the tracks, I walked over here to catch a cab rather than wait for them."
"Well, you're in Quohonnic," she said. "Where are you trying to get to?"
"Greendale," he said, and he could see that the instant he said the name, everyone had him pegged-- the job at a white-shoe firm, the wife, the fancy house, the two cars, summers on the Cape, everything.
"Cost you fifteen bucks to get there," the old timer said.
"Well, I don't have any choice," Ed said. "Do you know where I can get a cab?"
"I said it would cost you fifteen bucks to get there," the old timer said, and when Ed still didn't get it, the bartendress said "Deke is a cab driver, he means he's gonna take you there. You in a hurry?"
Ed looked at his drink, then he looked at her, then he thought of home. "No hurry," he said. "Drink up, we can go when you're ready," he said to Deke.
It was a little town between Liege and Aachen, not long after D-Day. Nearly half of Ed's unit had been killed in the last week and he felt alone in the universe, running like a clockwork machine instead of a man. Now they were getting a bit of a break from the fighting, helping build up a supply center a few miles back of the line.
One night Ed found a little bar open. He and another captain, Meacham, went in, watching their backs because you didn't know in that part if they were going to act French or German on any given day. There were a couple of mademoiselles or frauleins at the bar, desperate enough to fuck for a pack of cigarettes or GI chocolate. There was also an older blonde behind the bar, with the big sturdy build of an opera singer in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, who seemed amused to have GIs in her place. Probably hadn't been that long since she'd hosted the SS in the same spot.
He thought they were doing all right with the two girls, but when the time came Meacham went off with his and Ed's blew him off and sat down with a local. Cursing his shitty luck, he turned back to the bar and ordered another. The bartendress just seemed amused by his plight and he had to admit, it was pretty fucking funny, Sad Sack loses again. They hardly spoke a word, communicating more in nods and laughter, but when the time came to close up she motioned for him to stick around. His danger meter went off a little but he was too horny to listen to it.
He went upstairs with her. He tried to kiss her but she didn't seem to want that, she didn't need to be romanced by some GI, she just pulled out her big floppy tits for him to play with, then reached down into his pants and started jerking him. When he was getting close she pushed him onto his back and sucked him to a climax. He didn't object, he was glad for the release, but at the same time, he was disappointed that it was all so functional, that she wouldn't let him be with her. Probably she thought no young guy would want to really make love to a fat old bag like herself. But over the years, Ed had often found himself thinking of her, of what it would have been like as a young man to spend days in her bed, learning all she had to teach in the sack. A few days later they moved on, and now he couldn't even think of the town's name.
An hour later Ed was buying Deke a last one for the road.
"I thought you were in a hurry to get home," the bartendress said.
Ed gripped his glass. "I'm in absolutely no hurry," he said, stressing the middle word. Deke, relieved, took a drink.
"Is this the part where you say your wife doesn't understand you?" the bartendress asked, smirking a little.
"My wife understands me fine," Ed snapped back, his harshness surprising even himself a little. "She understands exactly what I'm there for, and I understand exactly what she's there for." He finished his drink, set the glass in front of the bartendress, and nodded to indicate he wished another.
"Which is what?" the bartendress asked, this time minus the cynical edge.
Ed thought a moment. What indeed? "The American dream," he said. "No, the Greendale dream. The beautiful house, the job of power and prestige, the wife you're proud to have on your arm, who's proud to drop your name in society. So very proud. All that ... is mine."
"You're a lucky man," the bartendress said. (Deke added, pointlessly, "Lotta money up in Greendale.")
"So it is often said," Ed replied to the bartendress.
"You don't think so."
"The thought has crossed my mind," Ed said. "Okay, enough about me. What's your story? I get the feeling you're not from around here."
"Oh come on, old Quohonnic stock, can't you tell?" she laughed, and moved in closer to him, where he could smell the mix of perfume and cigarette and sweat, and couldn't help but stare into her ample cleavage, now thrust even closer to him. "Daddy was a palagi seaman, he married Mom and brought her back here, started this bar for her. She moved back to Samoa when he died, and now it's mine. Well, if the bank doesn't take it back."
"You in trouble?"
"Hey, what's trouble," she said vaguely, waving her strong, thick arms in a way that suggested island peoples for whom money was still a little too abstract a thing to worry about. "I'm no good with figures, just with showing people a good time. Like that happy-go-lucky guy from Greendale who walked in here the other night."
"Okay, I get the idea," Ed said. "I know, I'm a killjoy. Don't mind me. I'll be on my way soon enough."
"Don't go," the bartendress said, suddenly putting her hand on Ed's wrist. The act sent a shock wave up his arm.
"Okay," Ed said, uncertainly. "I guess I could ask you your name."
"Hello Sharon. I'm Ed," he said.
Ed was pretty tight, he knew it and he didn't care. Deke didn't care either, Sharon didn't care, neither did the other folks who'd come up to the bar and were laughing at Ed's war stories (not the one about the big old woman, never that one), more than anybody had laughed in years at his stories. Nobody cared about anything, they were just having a great old time. "You're pretty funny once you loosen up," Sharon said.
"Yeah, that's what they told me the last time it happened. In 1947," Ed said. "It's good to talk to people who don't have a Greendale stick up their ass. I'll have to get off the train more often." He leaned close to Sharon, savoring the air of unabashed physicality she gave off; his wife was a walking clothes hanger, more image than flesh, Sharon radiated waves of ripe womanliness with every bump and grind she made behind that bar. "Not that I have any god-damned idea how I'm getting home tonight," Ed stage-whispered. "I wouldn't get in his cab to save my life."
"Maybe you won't have to," Sharon said. She stood up straight and addressed the crowd. "Well, good friends, I'm afraid it's closing time. Time to go, come back tomorrow, liquor still good then, money still good then, me plenty good then. Up you go, Deke."
"Are we off, partner?" Deke croaked, his eyes barely pointing in the same direction.
"I'm catching another ride," Ed said.
Deke suddenly looked worried. "Well, now, I been holdin' my cab for you, gave up a lot of business--"
"Will fifteen cover it?" Ed said.
"You're all right," Deke said as he tucked the ten and the fin in his cap, gave Ed a two-fingered salute, and staggered like a sailor fresh on shore out the front door.
They pulled up in front of Sharon's bungalow. "So, how about that nightcap?"