You Never Know
Arlen was born Arlene. In high school back in the ‘80’s she decided dropping the final e would make both her name and her way cooler. Her friends agreed and the deed was done just in time to be reified on her very first driver’s license. She celebrated by requesting the family’s brand new, dark blue Chevrolet Chevette five door hatch-back, listening patiently to her parents’ safe driving tips and only then chauffeuring Brandi, Cherri and Tildi out to Chez Rodolfo’s on the highway for “Shirley Temple Nots,” the official coming-of-age drink among her peers. On the way home the Chevette strayed across the center line and crashed into a partially completed abutment leaving only Arlen still alive.
This happened three weeks to the day before her high school graduation, three months less a week before Freshman Week at her intended alma mater, Wichita State. She never returned to high school although as a good student she was awarded her diploma nonetheless. After written and telephoned appeals from both her high school principal and the family’s minister supported by documents from the State Police, her primary care physician and the psychiatrist she had begun seeing after the accident, her tuition deposit was refunded. Oddly enough, it arrived in an envelope which also contained a brief note of condolence signed by both the Freshman Faculty Adviser and the Dean of Students. Her father invested that money wisely along with her many graduation gifts—all of which, it seems, had been significantly supplemented for reasons of pity. These would provide Arlen with sufficient income to support a thoroughly acceptable if humble lifestyle without her having to resort to employment. Indeed, from that summer forward every opportunity for any degree of happiness that might present itself in her life she would evaluate against the moment of the crash. She would then reject it in favor of continuing a colorless if comfortable status quo.
Brendan first spoke with Arlen in the lounge of a Howard Johnson’s Motor Inn on Allegiance Avenue just south of the mall. It was early spring of this year. Had the remarkably rotund man reading the Financial Times on his iPad not deserted the bar stool immediately to Arlen’s left and Brendan’s right, their meeting would never have taken place. Brendan, who had been reading without interest over the man’s shoulder, now found himself with neither distraction nor obstacle between himself and the middle-aged woman wearing a backwards Kansas City Royals cap only one stool away. As for that woman, Arlen, she was content to continue staring into the empty glass before her firmly convinced that nothing of greater interest might present itself.
Brendan liked being called Brendan. Though his associates—he had no friends—called him Bren and he could accept that from them, whenever the opportunity to do so arose, he would introduce himself as Brendan. And so…
“Hi, I’m Brendan,” he offered genially across the emptied stool.
Brendan was two years younger than Arlen. He had moved out of his family’s split level in Cheyenne at eighteen to attend a residential college only because his folks had always wanted to be the parents of a college graduate. He’d chosen Emporia believing he was more likely to find himself in that flat place than he had been in the mountains. Once out of Wyoming he never returned for longer than a weekend. Even when his parents died, his mother in 2003 (cancer) and his father in 2007 (skiing) he’d left the tasks of their final rest and the enactment of their wills to Cynthia, his younger sister. She was a lawyer after all. He appeared only for the two funerals and once again in 2010 to visit briefly with Cynthia, her Italian-born husband Pinero, and their two adolescent sons, Mauro and Michael.
Three things must be known about Brendan:
• He was pretty much ready to try anything, just not ready to try it seriously.
• He was comfortable in the manufactured indifference of fern bars.
• He favored the word “ain’t” over the word “isn’t” for no reason other than “ain’t” had fewer syllables.
One thing must be specified regarding Arlen, although it might already be intuited:
• The life she had chosen left her with ample time to create exquisitely detailed imaginings of the lives she’d not chosen, to rehearse these and subsequently make them the substance of her bar conversation.
“Hi, yourself,” she replied. She had been at the bar a while. “I like that name, Brendan. It’s got weight, if you know what I mean. You get it from Brendan Behan or something?”
“Thanks,” he smiled. “You know, I never asked my folks why they picked it. It’s not like we’re Irish or something.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in here before,” she continued.
“Usually I come later,” he lied.
She took off the cap and shook her thick, just-to-the-shoulders and just-beginning-to-gray hair back off her face—she’d read in a magazine not to push it behind her ears—and stretched her neck up to its full, uncharacteristically graceful length. She started to replace the cap but thought better of it.
“I can be here pretty late,” she assured him. “I guess not the same nights.” In truth each had seen the other before. Each however had ruled the other out as a possible source of interest or entertainment. Tonight though, simple proximity and that “You never know” attitude that strikes so many bar patrons as the evening wears on combined as only fate might have it.
“OK,” he replied with new energy. “What are you drinking?” She looked down at her empty glass.
“I was drinking chardonnay.”
“That a hint?” He beamed. She chuckled.
“I like a man who catches on quick. Whatcha gonna do about it?” Brendan signaled the barmaid.
“Maggie, May I have a chardonnay for the lady and back me up, this time neat.” Arlen recognized his play on the old Rod Stewart song, smiled but said nothing.
“You got it, Bren,” Maggie responded and went to work.
“Bren!” Arlen sounded both puzzled and annoyed. “She forgot the last half.”
“Yeah,” Brendan said. “Ain’t no big deal. We’re still getting the drinks.”
Arlen introduced herself. He liked her name and said so. She thanked him with mock Southern modesty, they raised their glasses and the evening was launched. He spoke variously about his work as a stringer for the local paper before it got taken over by a wire service, his brief time as social director on a stern-wheeler gambling boat that went up and down the river and now as managing the Charles Schwab office over at the mall. For her part she talked mostly about her graduate degrees in anthropology and, after an all-too-long, childless marriage ended, the years spent rebuilding her life first in the investment field, then with the Peace Corps in Peru. The enduring consequences of the latter, she sighed with resignation, were disillusionment with the agrarian classes and a love of cocaine that ended only with her eventual imprisonment for importing sufficient quantities to maintain—she swore this to be true—only her own habit.
Not to worry, she assured him. She’d been clean now for several years. Coke was too expensive in the joint, and she wasn’t ready to exchange sex for it. The topic of sex having thus been introduced into their conversation, Brendan, if only for obligations of gender but more likely out of half-hearted hope, sought to continue in that direction. Not so Arlen. Rather than endure the anticipated discomfort of such unfamiliar territory, she abruptly turned focus to the lateness of the hour and her early morning appointment at the small airport just north of town for her flying lesson. Brendan said he’d really enjoyed their talk and might he see her again. How about, could he pick her up after her lesson for lunch? No, she replied quickly. Her stomach was usually too unsettled after all those banks and turns and her landings were still far from smooth. She shifted her sweater from the back of the stool onto her shoulders.
“Maybe later, how about back here at the bar around eight? They have pretty good burgers here.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “You order one medium rare and that’s what you get. And they’ve got those sweet potato fries.” Now it was Arlen’s turn to agree.
“Yes,” she smacked her lips. “The sweet potato fries are really the clincher.”
Without making a show if it, Brendan settled up the bill. Arlen had drunk steadily but slowly, and wine was cheap, so the total was well within his means. He offered to walk her home. Much to the surprise of both she accepted. When they reached her front walk and she began fumbling for keys, he reached out to take her hand. She clasped his, raising it almost to eye level.
“Don’t think this means first base,” she grinned. “I got pretty tough back—you know.
“I’m not surprised,” he smiled back. “A pretty woman like you, you probably had a lot of times you had to defend yourself.” She looked directly into his eyes.
“You’re sweet, and you’re very understanding,” she said with a new softness in her voice. The sweet smell of chardonnay filled the space between them. Simultaneously each leaned forward for a brief kiss.
“You be careful up there,” he whispered.
“Don’t you worry,” she replied. “Nothing can keep me from a good burger.” She squeezed his hand just a bit. “Trust me on that.”