Marissa Schwalm

Only Bar In Town

We walk into Lil Robert’s Place, the only bar in town. We’ve just moved to Concord, North Carolina, just 45 minutes northeast of Charlotte, two weeks ago. It’s practically empty, the bartenders outnumber the clientele, and mostly it’s men in Jesus sandals and women with dated clothes from some department store. It is only 7:30 and as we approach the bar a woman with giant, rolled-back bangs eyes me up and down. I pull at my work shirt, feeling overdressed for this dive that’s covered in local, mostly dark artwork of busty, tattooed women and hybrid animals that are combinations of cats/dogs/monkeys/bears. My husband—a word so new that it gets caught in my throat, something that feels like a mistake or joke to say—is smiling, happy to be out of the house, walking the length of the bar to see what’s on tap. 

“Hey, ya’ll,” the bartender says. She’s wearing thick-framed glasses, her hair is dyed an unnatural black, and her shirt covers very little. She pours me her favorite and I play back in my head my first week at my new job. People’s faces blur together in my mind, flipping quickly like a Rolodex. I look around and grab Mark’s arm. 

“If we run into someone,” I say, “I want you to introduce yourself quickly so that the other person has to say their name.” He stares at me, lifts his eyebrows. “It’s just there’s no way I can remember everyone I met this week. And this—” I wave my hand across the room, the faded couches, the band setting up in the corner, the old TVs on top of wooden shelves, “this is the only bar in town.” 

He nods and leads me over to a row of plastic chairs up against the wall. He sits forward in his seat, stares at the band, especially at the bass player. 

“Stupid fucking hats,” he says. “Why do they have to wear those? They don’t even fit their heads right.” 

I nod in agreement and murmur a groan of disapproval. When we first started dating ten years ago I would be sitting here with a group of friends and he would be the one up on some stage or in a corner setting up. I liked the way he used to barely move on stage, how his body just shifted side-to-side with his arms wrapped around his bass. He mostly stood in the shadows, off to the edge, sometimes his body would even shift so much that the audience could see only his back as one flat, black mark. Not like his lead singer who would rush across the stage, gyrate into his guitar, and sometimes even spit  

into the crowd; not like my own father who used to saunter across the stage, mic in hand, body pulsing. 

Pushing back into the plastic seat, I try to settle into the night. We’ve already been all over. We did Concord’s art walk, dinner at the Mexican place, walked around the 1980’s style mall that my co-worker joked was worth checking out just for laughs, and now we’re here. I know that Mark will want to see the band, want to just be out. Since we’ve arrived in North Carolina every minute I’ve been out of orientation and now officially working has been like this. Mark’s job hasn’t started yet and each evening when I walk in the door his mouth whirs like an old toy whose string has been pulled. He needs to start work—he needs to be doing something, always moving, like me. I need him to start working again, I think and turn to face the band. I need him to have something else to focus on other than my tired, overwhelmed face and my unconvinced eyes when I walk in the door. I picked this job, this town; I made this decision for us—again. So each night we’ve found something to do, some distraction. In fact, we walked the short stretch of downtown earlier this week, it’s how we happened upon the only bar in town. 

That night we stood outside, leaned into the window, and laughed at the hours of operation posted on a small sheet of paper taped to the glass. 

“10:30 closing time on the weekends?” Mark asked, snorting. “Did we move to the town in Footloose?” I pictured all of the bars that were in walking distance to us in the town in upstate New York where we last lived. How he could walk to them or to his friends’ houses. Even that day earlier this week the bar was half-empty and as we stared inside, seemingly not ready to make that the visit where we went in—needing to stretch out what we could do here—we turned our heads back and forth, tried to take in the façade of the bar, the street, the people who walked by with ice creams in their hands from the local creamery. This is where we live now, we both were surely thinking. 

A little boy was being pushed toward us on the sidewalk by his mother in a red faux-trike stroller. His mother’s face caught me, the way her mouth was pulled tight in a firm grimace. She kept turning her head back and forth to stare at a man, presumably her husband or the child’s father. The boy’s little feet pushed and pushed at small pedals though to no avail; they weren’t connected to anything. He was strapped in at the waist and every time the mother turned back to stare at the man, her left hand on the bar pushing him, the trike would wobble, twist toward the road. 

“Jesus,” I said, nudging Mark, and I got ready to move out of the way, to share the small space of the concrete sidewalk with them. 

As they got closer a streetlight illuminated a deep purple circle around his eye. “Nice shiner,” Mark whispered to me. 

“Well, c’mon!” she shouted to the man. She twisted almost entirely around, her hand pulled on the bar of the trike, and the kid began toppling over, his small body falling out the side. 

I started to step forward, reached my hand out. I could see it all happening so clearly in my mind: his little body twisting out of the trike only to crack his small head on the lip of the curb. But then the mother righted herself with a firm jerk, nearly slamming into Mark who leapt against the stone wall of the bar. The boy let out a yelp, a siren of panic, and the mother reached down and plopped him back in, pressing forward into the small bar, the man a few feet behind. 

Just as I’m about to now make a joke about her, about the boy, about her mystery man, the band begins to play. It’s something blue-grassy and mellow. The men with the hats struggle to harmonize at first but then finally find their stride. Mark groans at moments, nods at others. He passes me his bottle of beer to try. I take a quick sip; it is dark and heavy, thick with caramel and coffee. Then I wrap my hand firmly around my beer and watch as the crowd begins to grow around us. More men in sandals. Women with too much hair spray. I pull down at my pants; try to straighten them at the crease. 

I want to tell Mark that I’m ready to go. We’ve been here over an hour and after this week—my first week at my new job, for heaven’s sake—I’m ready to go home and change, to sit on our couch. I want quiet, not music and people laughing, and some sports game on TV. All these people with their friends. Everyone so contentedly knowing each other and where they are. Couples with their arms around each other. I want to say to someone: Whatever it feels like to be newlyweds this surely isn’t it. I look at the bartender, the one with the thick-rimmed glasses. Where the hell is she from? I wonder. What part of this small town does she go home to at 10:30 when this place closes down? 

A flash of red catches my eye. In walks the woman pushing the faux-trike stroller. A man follows behind her and watches as she grabs the boy and plops him on a couch near the band. He heads to the bar and I stare at his face as he passes by. He looks like no one and everyone. His skin seems to only just fit, as if it is stretched in some places.  

From here, in this light, I can see that the boy’s hair is even blonder than I thought when I saw him earlier this week on the street in the darkness. The woman jams the faux-trike into a small space between the couch and the wall and then sits next to her son. Her eyes catch mine and I will myself to look away. Does she recognize me? 

I am pulled to her, the way she wears her chaos so freely, the way her body seems to move in waves. More and more as the years go by, as I move up in my job, start a new position at a higher level, I feel like a straight line. But I’ve seen her twisted face of rising anger on my own face behind closed doors and wonder about motherhood, about compiling a family, about keeping it all together. We are in our thirties, we are far from home, and we are adrift together and with each other. 

“Let’s go,” I say to Mark. He can’t hide his disappointment, although he tries. His face moves around, as if he’s searching for the right response. “It’s just,” I start. I can’t even begin to find the right words. “I’m bored,” I say. “I’m ready to go.” My voice begins to get sharper, faster. “I don’t know how you do this. How you can just sit here like this. All these people. It’s all so boring.” 

I lead us toward the door; feel Mark’s hand squeeze my arm as we pass by the mother and son. The last two months since our wedding people keep asking us when, and sometimes if, we’ll be having kids. The boy’s eye is still a deep purple, circled almost perfectly around. We drive home in almost near-silence, except for the radio on low playing some song we both have never heard before. 

Marissa Schwalm received her Ph.D. in creative writing and English literature from Binghamton University, and her MFA in creative writing from Chatham University. Marissa has been previously published in Wake, Decompression, Ragazine, and Clockhouse Review, among others. She currently lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, and is Assistant Professor of English for Pfeiffer University.