Chapter 1

Roberto

He was in the Corner Bar again. It was a certainty that he'd be there Friday night, and Saturday as soon as the place opened. And about half the other nights, he'd be there too. He'd sit at the bar, or at a table if there was no room at the bar, and put down alcohol – beer, whisky, gin, vodka. If he had money – if it was payday, for instance – he'd order booze, and ask for the good stuff. If he was short, he'd ask for beer. But whatever he drank, he drank steadily, even fiercely. He was the kind of drinker a bar makes its money off of – he put the liquor down by the gallon, never got into fights and never broke the place up, and came back over and over and over again.

His favorite bartender was 'Vangeline. Her name was Evangeline La Tour – it said so on her name tag – and he'd known her long enough that he thought it might really be her name. She spoke with a soft voice, and a thick southern accent that didn't sound, to him anyway, like Virginia or Texas or Tennessee. To him – perhaps because of the French appearance of her name – it sounded like Louisiana Cajun. Did she speak French? He didn't know. He certainly didn't speak French, so he didn't ask. He just put money on her bar, and watched her at her work, and admired her mane of ash blonde hair that she must have spent hours curling and teasing and brushing into just the right degree of body. It was beautiful hair, and she was slim and tanned underneath it, and he loved to watch her.

She was the only bartender he really talked to. It was her voice and her accent – and her sometimes odd speech patterns – that told him that wherever she was from, it definitely wasn't Albuquerque, New Mexico. "I don't wanna be a bartender forever, me," she'd said one time. And another time, arguing with a customer who claimed she'd shorted him on his change, she'd hissed, "I ain't did it!"

Evangeline La Tour had quickly become 'Vangeline. As far as he could tell no one else ever called her that. Mostly the customers called her "hey you," or "bartender," or "missy," or "little lady." She heard them, and served them, and ignored their often explicit remarks. Only once had she reacted to a customer's treatment of her as a sex object. She'd been wiping the bar, and he'd reached out and groped her. She'd slapped his hand away, and hissed like a snake. "You put your hand on me again, mister, and I kick you where you hurt, you." 'Vangeline seemed to have as her personal rule the same dictum that applied to strippers – look all you want, say all you want, but keep your hands off the merchandise.

She talked to Roberto Vargas. Maybe it was his loneliness. Maybe it was the fact that his bar bill helped pay her salary, and his tips kept her pockets jingling merrily. Maybe it was the fact that he'd never spoken a vulgar word to or about her, even though he'd never attempted to protect her from the customers who did so speak. But she talked to Roberto.

"I ain't gonna have this job forever," she'd say. "I'm gonna get my massage training, me, an' then I'll set up as a masseuse. There's money in that in this town." And it was true. Albuquerque had its strip bars – show clubs, they called them – and its seedy porn joints and its "adult" bookstores, but no massage parlors. Massage in Albuquerque was genuine. What many husbands did for their wives on an amateur basis massage therapists did for pay, and the market was good.

"When you gonna sign up for that, 'Vangeline?" he asked.

"Soon, Roberto, soon." And she looked off across the bar, seeing some distant day that Roberto knew had been soon for a long time but never today. "I lost some on Julio, yeah, but I'm gonna make it again, me. Soon I'll be outta here." She turned her eyes to her customer, who swayed slightly on his stool. "An' then who'll you be talkin' to, you?"

"You'll be here forever, 'Vangeline, an' I'll be here talkin' to you and drinkin' this slop." It wouldn't be payday for two more days, and he was drinking the cheapest brand of beer the Corner Bar had on tap.

"Not forever, no. I'm gonna get outta here." But somehow it sounded no different than the protestations of every waiter and waitress in Hollywood that the tables were only temporary employment, "between jobs" – acting jobs, of course. It sounded futile, and sad, and just a bit worn around the edges.

"Set me up another one, 'Vangeline," said Roberto Vargas, and she did, and drew and poured for two or three other customers too. It was still afternoon, and the place wasn't nearly as busy as it would be later.

She came back, and wiped the bar in front of him, and leaned on her elbows. Her uniform always looked good on her – probably a burlap bag would have looked good on 'Vangeline La Tour. She filled out the frilled shirt very nicely, and the straps of the overall-style skirt emphasized her figure – she saw to it, for she knew what she had, and how to use it. She'd rolled the sleeves of her shirt to her elbows, and her arms were as tan as her face, smooth-skinned, though the hands looked older than 25 ... they were the hands of a woman who was using herself up in a thankless job and a pointless life, and eventually the rough skin would creep up to her face, and her neck, and her upper arms would begin to sag, and her figure would begin to droop, and she'd be an old bitter hag at 40. But for now she was the most attractive thing in the place, by far, and Roberto looked at her, all over her.

She knew it, of course. She invited it, with the way she wore her clothes and the way she held herself. She sighed. "Roberto, I've been watching you."

"An' what you see, 'Vangeline?"

"A man who is looking for something, but never finding it, because you're looking in all the wrong places." Her voice was as sad as her sigh, and though the accent remained, the diction was no longer so distinctive.

"An' what'm I lookin' for?" His speech was just slightly slurred, for it was early yet.

"I seen you leavin' here all the time with those women, you." Louisiana was back in 'Vangeline's mouth. "You pick the ones who look youngest, at least in this light. You pick the ones who look the most like ordinary girls. You're lookin' for a nice girl, Roberto, but you're never gonna find one here, no."

"So you know where I can find a nice girl?"

"I do."

"And?"

"And you wanna meet her, you?"

Roberto considered that. He was slightly befuddled with drink, but it was early yet, and he could still think. And he knew, though he would never admit it to himself, much less to 'Vangeline, that she was right. He did want to meet a "nice girl," and hadn't yet met one in the Corner Bar. "Yeah, 'Vangeline. I wanna meet her."

'Vangeline looked at the clock on the wall – a clock that, of course, advertised a brand of beer, the same one, in fact, that Roberto was drinking. "I finish my shift in half a hour." He knew that, of course, since he was a regular, and she knew that he knew it, but... "Lighten up on the suds, okay, an' I'll take you there, me."

"You'll take me to meet a nice girl?"

"Yeah."

He considered it. A "nice girl" might be simply a woman who would take anyone to bed, but didn't hang around in bars looking for anyone to take to bed. Or she might be an actual nice girl. Either way it was something different than looking over the pickings, when they came in later on, and going back to her place or his, and going through the mechanical and not spectacularly pleasurable coupling of strangers who want to remain strangers forever. "Yeah, take me to meet her."

"Okay, Roberto – half an hour. An' you ease up on the suds. They won't do you no good, no."


With 'Vangeline's words in his ears, Roberto Vargas had eased up on the suds. He'd nursed the one he already had, and only finished it when 'Vangeline took off her apron and went to the back to clock out. He followed her out the door into the afternoon sunlight – 'Vangeline worked earlier on Saturday than she did weekdays. He wasn't used to seeing daylight when he left the bar. The deep dark of night was more familiar to him.

'Vangeline faced him in the parking lot. "You okay to drive, you?"

"Yeah, sure."

"I wonder about dat." Her accent was suddenly much thicker, whether because she had left off restraining it, or for some other reason, he didn't know. "I never cut you off, me, but I should, I know. The boss say don't cut no one off, an' I ain't did it, me. But I don't know whether you okay to drive."

"I'm okay, 'Vangeline."

She shrugged. "I'm in de rusted Bug, me." She was losing her H at a great rate, and her Ts were beginning to turn into Ds. "You follow me, right?"

"Yeah." Roberto's car was a battered blue Toyota. He got into it and got the key into the slot – with less fumbling than he was used to. Maybe he really was okay to drive this time. He started the engine, and put on his seat belt, and backed out of the slot he was in near the door. 'Vangeline was all set to pull out onto Central, and he got behind her. The traffic broke, and she darted into the center turn lane, Roberto clinging to her rear bumper. Now the westbound traffic let up, and they pulled out into the lane.

It was a short drive to Wyoming, for the Corner Bar very nearly was on the corner, where they turned right – north. He followed her to Comanche, and then left on Comanche past San Mateo. She turned north on Monroe, with him still on her bumper, and then left on Delamar. And there she pulled up in front of a nondescript stucco house just east of Washington. He pulled in behind her, and they got out of their cars. 'Vangeline looked fine in the afternoon sun. Roberto had been with many women, but 'Vangeline had always been off limits – both because of her indifference to remarks and her violence toward groping, and because of something within him that had held him back. He regretted it now. She's a fine one, he thought.

But she was speaking to him as they crossed the lawn toward the front door. "Like I said, me, dis is a nice lady." On the drive it seemed that 'Vangeline's Cajun accent had gained full control. "You don' grope, you don' make no dirty comments, no. I doin' you a favor, me, an' you better appreciate it."

"Sure thing, 'Vangeline."

And her fit of pique disappeared – pique, or whatever it had been. She smiled at him, and knocked on the door. She knocked in a peculiar pattern, and then opened the door and stepped into the house. Roberto guessed that only 'Vangeline knocked that way, and the "nice girl" inside recognized it.

They were in a small living room, with a sofa to their right, a coffee table in front of the sofa, and a television against the wall facing the sofa, with a window beyond it. Straight back there was a kitchen; Roberto could see a Formica table and a chipped white enamel stove – an old one, he could tell by the shape of it, standing on its four legs, unlike modern stoves. To the right there was a hallway that must lead to the bathroom and the bedroom – the house couldn't be more than a one bedroom affair, unless someone had built onto the back at some point. From down the hall came a soft voice: "I'll be right out, Angelina!" The voice pronounced the name Spanish style, with the G sounding like the letter H.

"Angelina?" Roberto looked at the bartender, who never answered to anything but 'Vangeline, or Evangeline, as far as he knew.

"It's how she says my name."

He shrugged, and just then the owner of the voice came out of the hall and into the living room. She was wearing a loose red t-shirt whose sleeves reached to her elbows. It hung outside her pants, reaching midway down her thighs. The pants were khaki colored, with cargo pockets, and her feet were bare. Her skin was the soft brown of a Chicana, and she had vaguely Hispanic features. Vaguely Hispanic ... He realized that what was "vague" was that her face was more Spanish than Latin American; the European genes had governed that bone structure, rather than the Indian ancestry which makes Hispanics from Texas to Tierra del Fuego brown. It was a thin face, atop a slender, lithe body; as she moved Roberto would have sworn she had no more bones than a cat. Her face was smooth, her hands were smooth, the forearms were smooth ... even the feet, peeking out beneath the cuffs of the pants, were smooth. My age, Roberto thought ... he was 18.

He realized that 'Vangeline was speaking to him. "What's that?"

"I said, Roberto, dat dis is my frien' Antonia Cedillo. You not listenin' to me, you?"

"Sorry."

"Toni, dis is Roberto Vargas. He's a lonely man, him."

Antonia smiled. It was a gentle smile that crinkled her eyes. "And what am I supposed to do with a lonely man, Angelina?"

"Dat you bidness, Toni. I'm goin' home, me." And that abruptly 'Vangeline turned and went out the door.

Roberto stared after her in surprise. "She always like that?"

"She's always bashful about her good deeds. She puts on this front of a hardened bartender – and she is hardened, in a lot of ways. But she's also a good woman, and it embarrasses her."

"Oh."

"Please, sit down ... Roberto." She gave his name a Spanish pronunciation in her soft gentle voice, and he got the idea that she was suddenly shy with her friend gone.

He sat down on one end of the sofa, and Antonia sat down on the other end. And they looked at each other in silence.

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Story tagged with:
Romance / Religion /