He didn’t drink much, but he was there when she did — one of her palms flat on the smooth, worn wood, the other propping up her swaying head as she laughed into the shoulders of the other men at the bar. He sat quietly and watched her reddening cheeks and sloppy, flirtatious grin, he even watched her dance with them without changing his position, back against the wall, legs straight out before him, boots crossed at the ankle. By the time she would have owned a couple pitchers by herself and a few shots of whisky, he had finished his first and only beer and knew when to rise to take her gently by the arm and begin to lead her away. She‘d protest, stumbling and chortling, the crowd at the bar raising its collective voice to agree with her objections. She was their clown, the one who drew laughter like air from their lungs. Once she was gone they would have to make their own talk, their own laughter, and they protested at the idea. She was flattered each time, but she always let him lead her away.
His eyes would meet Stella’s as she stood behind the bar, hands working to fill another pitcher of watery tap beer, and she’d smile knowingly and he’d nod before turning back to the body next to him and begin his way out the door. He’d help her into the car, careful to make sure both her legs were inside before he shut the door and went to the driver’s side. Her slurring words hummed in his ears as he drove the few miles back to the apartment above the laundromat on Theodore Avenue, a short block from the bridge spanning the gorge. They’d drive by its yawning blackness, the lights from the other half of town spreading their tails of soft neon orange, yellow, and red behind.
Sometimes she’d still be talking, a chattering, excited four-year-old dancing up the stairs so that he would shake his head slowly as he followed her upwards. Other times she had fallen asleep in the passenger’s seat by the time the car was parked in the gravel lot of the alley; he’d go to her door and reach over to release the seatbelt he made sure she always wore before lifting her to her feet. One time he carried her, teetering awkwardly on the steep steps so that he almost fell backward when she shifted her weight in his arms. Most of the time, he simply pushed her gently up, hand on her shoulder blade to steady her swaying step. He’d unlock the door and they’d enter the darkened apartment. She often nearly tripped over the cat as it rubbed its small body against her legs in greeting, tail curling about the calf and she’d put a hand against the wall as she made her way to the bedroom by way of the short hall. He’d go into the kitchen to get some ice water and listen to her stop in the bathroom, sound of her bladder releasing loud as she groaned in relief. There were a few times when she’d get on her knees before the toliet bowl and throw up, and he’d go in behind her, holding her hair back from her face as she wretched and trembled with drunkenness. Then she’d place her head on the porcelain seat and smile apologetically with heavy, swollen lips.
Eventually, she got into the unmade bed, after which he’d follow and draw her boots off her feet as she laid on her back, eyes closed, murmuring softly and he’d pull off her jeans before stripping himself down to his boxers and sit on the mattress beside her. There were times when she rolled to him and pressed her chest to his, fingers feathering down his hip. He relented to her desire and she’d open her mouth in long, low moaning, her sweat and his own moistening the sheet beneath them. Or she’d be asleep, breath light, head turned to the side so that her face was away from him. He’d watch her chest rise and fall, placing a warm hand on her shoulder. Sometimes he’d prop himself up against the wall and smoke quietly, waiting for sleep to begin tugging at the corners of his consciousness. The cat came in, jumping on the bed and curling against her side because it was her cat and liked her better, but he’d pet it, scratching beneath the chin so that it lifted its small head, eyes thin slits in its face, purring softly. She talked in her sleep sometimes, and there were only snatches of phrases or lone words that he could make out. If it was warm outside, the window would be open, breeze whispering through the screen, rocking the raised blinds up and down. He’d exhale smoke in its direction and sit in silence, no matter what things slipped from between her lips that might make him curl his fingers back into his palms.