Chapter 2: Et tu, Roy?
When Roy reached the gravel parking lot in front of Scuddy's, he realized something was wrong. There should have been blaring music and wild laughter spilling out of the little wooden building, but there was only stagnant silence. Inside, a handful of barflies consumed their pints quietly in the corners. A very attractive woman was working behind the bar. Roy had seen her there a few times before. She had a nice tan, long blonde hair down to the middle of her back, and big brown eyes. She was in her mid-twenties, and Roy had heard that she used to be a brilliant student at the university, but she suddenly dropped out for some reason or another.
"What are you drinking?" she said to Roy.
"Um, I was just looking for Lucas. Is he working tonight?"
"He was, but there was a big brawl in here a few hours ago. The cops were here and scared everyone off. Anyway, Lucas punched some guy in the head, and it looked like he broke his hand, so he went to get x-rays. Probably won't be back until next Tuesday, is my guess."
"Oh, sorry to hear that. Well, see ya," Roy said.
"Not thirsty tonight?"
"I am pretty thirsty, actually."
"You're a freshman, huh?" she asked.
"Yeah," Roy admitted.
"Well, I know you and Lucas have an arrangement. As long as you have money, I'll serve you. But if you get out of hand, I'll throw you right out on your ass," she explained matter-of-factly.
"Yes, ma'am," Roy said.
"And don't call me ma'am, either. I'll throw you out just for making me feel old."
"What should I call you?"
"My name's Sarah."
"It's nice to meet you, Sarah. I'm Roy," he said, and they shook hands.
"All right, Roy, what'll it be?"
"I'll have a Budweiser draught please," he told her. Roy couldn't help but notice how her tight jeans hugged her curves like a Ferrari hugs a tight corner. He'd seen guys in there tip her twenty dollars on a two-dollar drink as if to say, "I know I drive a 1977 rusted out Buick Skylark with bird shit all over it, and I have four ex-wives and seven kids between them, and I live in my buddy's cousin's garage, and I don't have a job, but I just tipped you one thousand percent so it would really be in your best interest to come home with me tonight." Despite the big tips and big talk, Roy had never seen her give anyone the time of day. He wondered why she was being so friendly, and it made him kind of nervous.
"That's two dollars," she said.
He gave her a five and averted his gaze to a little 24-inch TV mounted on the wall, which was tuned in to the National Tractor Pull Championship. Sarah came back with the change, and Roy put two dollars back in his pocket and left one on the bar.
"Oh, thanks," she said.
"Sure," Roy said, trying to sound casual. He pretended not to notice her at all while he watched a tractor powered by what looked to be a jet engine pull a five-ton sled across a dirt arena. He watched it like it was the seventh game of the World Series, or the Super Bowl, or the Ohio State/Michigan game. Then, in a moment of inspiration, Roy reached for a salt shaker and sprinkled a little into his beer. The grains left little contrails of effervescence as they sank to the bottom of the golden lager, and then the head fizzed back to life.
"Why do you put salt in your beer?" Sarah asked.
"It's what I do when I want to start up a conversation with a beautiful woman," Roy said, and regretted it almost immediately. It was too bold, too cheesy, and she was too far out of his league.
"Oh yeah? Well, now that you've started a conversation with a beautiful woman, what's your next move?"
"Honestly, I didn't think the salt thing would work, so I never bothered to think of my next move," he said meekly.
"You better think fast while you still have my attention."
"How about a drink? Can I buy you something?" Roy offered.
"That's a little cliché, but I could use a drink. I think I'll make myself a martini."
"All right," Roy said, and he threw a sawbuck on the bar. She mixed the drink and gave him five dollars in change, but he wasn't sure what the etiquette was for tipping when you buy a drink for the bartender, so he just left the five singles there in front of him.
"Cheers," she said, and they clinked their glasses together and took a long draw.
It occurred to Roy that he was now obligated to sustain one-half of an engaging conversation that would move seamlessly from current event to current event. The thought made him very nervous, and he quickly finished off his beer and ordered another. Soon after, Sarah poured herself another martini, on the house this time, and not long after that, they both agreed a few shots of tequila were in order.
The mummified barflies must have blown through their paychecks because they made their slow, wobbly exodus out the door about a half hour later. The place belonged to Roy and Sarah that night. She walked around the bar, sat down next to Roy, and flipped through the stations on the 24-inch T.V. with the remote.
Three channels in a row came up nothing but static, but the fourth had on an animal documentary. A troop of baboons was on the march to one of the few watering holes that hadn't dried up during the grueling African summer. The camera zoomed in on the alpha male's flaring nostrils. Apparently, he had caught the scent of an intruder. It was another male baboon, a stranger to the troop, who had been following at a distance for some time (at least according to the narrator, who was not Morgan Freeman this time).
The alpha male made horrible screeching sounds and beat the ground with his fists as a warning, but the intruder baboon wasn't afraid. He picked up his pace into a strange primate gallop, and the alpha male roared louder. Intruder Baboon broke into a full sprint, and Alpha Male charged forward to meet him. They looked like demons sweeping across some charred plane of Hell, and they clashed like atoms in a particle accelerator.
It seemed like a long time, but it was probably only five or six seconds before Intruder Baboon had Alpha Male retreating from a furious onslaught of dagger-like teeth. A seven or eight-inch gash opened up across his face, and the bloodied and deposed king moved to the periphery of the troop where a lesser female inspected his wound. The new leader roared triumphantly while the other baboons looked on cautiously.
In the next scene, the new king baboon strutted up to the highest ranking female and got down to business while the deposed king pouted in the shadows.
"Oh my, is this getting you in the mood too?" Sarah asked playfully.
"Baboon porn always gets me in the mood," Roy said.
"Come on, let's get out of here. I'll lock up. My place is just down the street," she said.
"Sounds good to me."
They made the short walk to Sarah's two-bedroom bungalow, and she asked Roy to open a bottle of Pinot. When their glasses were empty, Sarah took Roy's hands in hers and said, "I'm only looking for a one-night commitment, so are you okay with that?"
"Yeah. I'm okay with that," Roy said, and his voice cracked just a little bit right at the end. He felt hopelessly unsure of himself and profoundly horny.
"I just don't want any hurt feelings in the morning," she said.
"It's okay," Roy said. They kissed, tentatively at first, softly, and then passion took them, and they couldn't get out of their clothes fast enough.
In the morning, sunlight seeped between the slats in the blinds and Roy knew he was late for Analytic Geometry.
"Shit," he muttered.
"Sorry, I must have set the alarm for P.M. instead of A.M.," Sarah said.
"It's all right; I can get the notes from somebody. Anyway, I'd rather spend this morning with you, if that's not too much of a commitment," he said.
"Come here, my alpha baboon," she said as she pulled him on top of her.
They had their grand finale, and then the quiet settled all around them, and the little things people seldom hear seemed unbearably loud to Roy. The whisper drone of the refrigerator filled his ears, and the burner in the hot water tank suddenly gasped back to life, startling him.
"You okay?" Sarah asked.
"Yeah, I'm fine. Want to get some breakfast?"
They ate eggs and toast at a greasy spoon down the street called Lucky's Diner, very much alone in each other's company, but satisfied in their bellies and their loins, and that counts for something. The awkwardness reached a crescendo when Roy walked Sarah back to her front porch. The early spring sun didn't know if it wanted to shine or not, and they didn't know if they wanted to kiss or hug or just go their separate ways.
"It would be less weird if we just kissed goodbye," Roy said.
"I agree," Sarah said.
So, they kissed the way strangers do when the alcohol is almost gone from their blood, and their ids have swum back down into the primordial depths because the surface has frozen over with inhibition again.
"I'll see you around," she said. "I tend bar Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and sometimes Tuesdays. So you know where to find me if you want to."
"So you want to extend the one-night commitment for a little bit longer?" Roy asked.
"Yeah, Roy, I'd like to see you again. But let's not jump into anything serious. Let's just see where this takes us, okay?"
"Bye, for now."
A lot of relationships have all the components of a good old-fashioned coke addiction. There's the initial surge as you tap into that reservoir of primal energy, the renewed sense of confidence and optimism, and that brief window of crystal clear perspective through which you glimpse infinite potential and happiness. Of course, the acute paranoia and the haunting withdrawal symptoms show up later.
Roy was too young to see it, but Sarah had a hunch there was something dangerous in the air when they were together -- something like a slow gas leak quietly filling a house, waiting patiently for that tiny arc of electricity the instant somebody flips on a light switch.
When Roy showed up at the bar on Thursday night, Sarah had already rehearsed a little spiel so she could nip their relationship in the bud. She was going to say something about how he was so young, and he should go out and meet other people. She was at a different point in her life now ... blah, blah, blah. Any cliché would have been adequate had she just plugged it into the formula. But for some reason, she couldn't do it.
"Look, we can't serve you here because the cops are still riled up about the brawl from the other night," Sarah explained. "We're all gonna be on our best behavior for a little while ? at least a couple weeks. But here's the key to my place. Pour yourself a drink, and there's leftover pizza in the fridge. I'll be there as soon as things slow down enough for me to sneak out."
Roy smiled and winked like a conspirator. And from his perspective, it was kind of like a conspiracy. Since that first night with Sarah, his mind had been entirely consumed with seeing her again. He hadn't been to class in two days -- hadn't even opened a book.
To hell with the Dean's list, and his scholarship that required him to maintain at least a 3.0 G.P.A. To hell with getting into a prestigious grad school so he could find a career with an important sounding title, a lucrative salary, a 401K plan, health benefits, and two weeks paid vacation. And to hell with marrying a nice Catholic woman who would pump out lots of babies so he could mold them into fluffy little sheep who would mindlessly repeat the cycle. To hell with all of that. Roy buried the dagger in dogma's back, and he gave it a good twist to make sure the job was done right. Et tu, Roy?
Yeah, me too, sucka.
For Roy and Sarah, the days were like confetti falling from tall buildings, swirling in the wind for their amusement as they promenaded down Main Street in their two-person ticker-tape parade.
Sarah quit her day job in women's retail as well as her night job at Scuddy's. She sold her bass guitar, synthesizer, and two Marshall amplifiers.
Roy cashed in some bonds his grandparents had given him over the years, and the two of them withdrew from the world and methodically worked their way through the Kama Sutra. Their diet consisted of pizza delivery and Chinese takeout, and they fueled week-long benders with bottom shelf booze and knocked the edge off their jagged hangovers with dirt weed and off-brand aspirin.
But then the pomp and circumstance were over, the trumpets and the tubas fell silent, and the confetti turned to pulp on rain-soaked streets.
The second week of May brought an end to the academic semester, and the mailman brought news from the outside world in various sized envelopes. The first was Roy's report card: five F's, and two incompletes. The second letter curtly indicated that his G.P.A. had dropped below the required 3.0, and his scholarship would not be renewed.
There were more envelopes with more bad news. Late notices from the utility companies started to pile up, and Sarah stuck them in a kitchen drawer ... but she could hear them in there, clamoring for money and making threats.