Excerpt from Tillie's Table, a novel in progress
by Diana Meade
Surveying the damage of the previous night, Marcelee Winthrop stood in front of the mirror in the bathroom of the Hamilton Inn bathed by a hateful fluorescent light that emphasized the bags under her bloodshot eyes. Marcelee was what her old maid Aunt Phoebe had called a stout woman, saying it as if it were a complement and not a death knell to what was left of her self-esteem. Marcelee wished she had been deaf instead of stout and she’d have missed being stamped and labeled a strong woman too.
There was nothing wrong with “strong women.” She came from a long line of them. Her female ancestors probably pulled the garden plow if the mule was sick. If it was between growing a crop, putting food on the table or letting your family starve, she guessed it was a plus to be plus sized. Except that her generation could buy their food at the grocery store. She would have been thrilled to be one of those women that men chased around, trying to help them get their sacks of groceries into the car.
Aunt Phoebe said it was a virtue to be independent and self-sufficient, but from Marcelee’s point of view, being strong meant you could weather any emotional storm alone, and if you were stout to go along with being strong, you could hold the door closed while the wind blew your house away.
She couldn’t do much about being stout. It didn’t matter how much she starved, her bones alone probably weighed more than an average woman with the meat on them. Besides, starving herself made her cranky. She had never been a beauty, but she worked diligently with what she was given. She usually considered it a matter of personal pride to look her best but today was not going to be one of those days, because last night had been one of those nights.
She sighed at the mirror. This was the part where she was supposed to be strong. Face reality. Face the face you were given. Keep your chin up. Which one? A snotty little voice whispered in her pounding head.
“Oh who cares?” She muttered in response. Marcelee was tired of caring. She was tired of being strong and she was most tired of being alone.
She used to love her job as an inspector for the State Board of Cosmetology. For the first few years, she enjoyed meeting people in different towns, staying in hotels, seeing the countryside. She had worked her way up in the department and become a supervisor so that she wasn’t required to travel unless one of the inspectors under her supervision went AWOL for some reason. That being the case on this trip, she was once again issuing citations for slime in the shampoo bowls.
Marcelee didn’t care about all that shit now as she closed one eye to better aim the tube of toothpaste toward the toothbrush in her shaking hand. Ever since she had been out on the road this time, she had used the opportunity to wallow in as much self-pity as possible. At home in Austin, she had to act like a solid upright citizen, but out here in one little burg after another, she could lose her strong stout self and turn into another kind of woman; the kind of woman who went to bars, listened to honky-tonk music and drank seriously.
Her only companion was the loneliness that rode in the car with her, that talked to her over the car radio, humming along to the tear-jerking music, reminding her that she had never broken a man’s heart. His bed springs maybe, but never his heart. Just once, she’d like to have a man beg her to stay after a one-night stand. It was the loneliness that unpacked its bag in her hotel rooms in the evenings, talked her into ignoring the possible rejection and turned her into a traveling salesman. You were supposed to welcome the no’s because that just meant your law of averages was closer to someone saying yes, therefore, making the sale.
Occasionally she met a man that liked a woman who could arm-wrestle him down on a bet, and the loneliness would catch a ride with someone else for a while. She had met men in these little towns; men who cheated on their wives, men who hadn’t had sex or some good conversation in a long time; whatever the reason, some of them would come talk to her, especially if she sent them a drink.
Despite all the crummy times she’d endured in one, Marcelee loved everything about bars. It was almost as good as going to a garage sale. You never knew what good stuff you might find that someone else considered junk and was about to get rid of. And if all else failed and you didn’t find anything worth making an effort for you still got to get liquored up and listen to some fine music on the jukebox.
Facing the mirror in the morning was the price she paid for looking at the one behind the bartender the night before. She might as well get it over with. She sat down on the toilet and leaned her forehead against the sink. Marcelee hit the play button on the mental Tivo in her head and replayed the events that led her to this moment.
She had perfected her routine to fine art. Nurse the first drink long enough to see if the crowd looked promising then pick three possibilities. She had learned long ago, if you got your heart set on just one man, you were bound to be disappointed. She was a realist when she could get her head out of wanting to live happily ever after. So she entertained herself imagining which three would be her top picks and the most easily approached.
She never went for the pretty boys for all the obvious reasons, but she did like to watch them out on the dance floor. She loved to dance, was good at it too for a woman of her size. It was too bad more men didn’t dance. If the way to a man’s heart was through his stomach then the path to a woman’s heart was by way of the dance floor. Marcelee never understood why men didn’t know this. Other women, beautiful women had told her that they’d take a good dancer over a pretty boy any time and all her research done while sitting on a barstool had proved her theory to be true most of the time.
She scanned the room again with a practiced eye. A seat at the end of the bar had opened up and she had moved camp down to a more agreeable spot. The place was starting to get crowded which wasn’t difficult due to its size. There was a younger crowd of snot-nosed kids who looked young enough to still need a baby sitter; the boys drank huge quantities of beer, postured and smoked one cigarette after another while the girls, dressed in their best slut suits, flitted around with way too much energy or looked monumentally bored.
The next tier of humanity was the still-hopeful bunch. It was her alma mater. She would revisit the class of the hopeful from time to time but in all honesty, she had graduated. You couldn’t define the hopeful by a certain age group, but if there had been a questionnaire for admission, you would have to have checked the box that stated that you were willing to take another chance with your heart, your pocketbook and your genitals, considering that other sexually transmitted diseases didn’t go away just because AIDS got all the press these days. Despite the potential for disaster, the hopeful obeyed the call of the wild and came out to howl.
They were coming in now in packs, the women in twos and threes; safety in numbers. The men sauntered in, as if their pickup truck had conveniently left them stranded in front of a bar and heck, all that was left for them to do was buy a drink and pretend to ignore the reasons they were here.
There was something comforting to Marcelee that all bars were basically the same. As the hour grew later, the smoke got thicker and the booze kicked in. All there was in the world was in this bar. There was revelry, drama and desperation. There was attitude, addiction and adultery, all the makings of an evening to remember and if it wasn’t worth remembering you just drank enough to forget it and your headache the next morning would give you something to think about instead of the unsatisfying time you’d had.
Marcelee watched the man in the blue shirt ask yet another woman to dance and she admired his moves. He was no slouch and by the time he was finished and left the dance floor he had worked up a manly sweat and an obvious deep thirst. Marcelee and the bartender, Otto had become old friends since she over-tipped him from the first and called him Doll-baby. Blue Shirt stood next to her and tried to get Otto’s attention who had just stepped to the other end of the bar filling waitress’ orders.
He was just about the right height so they were eye to eye when he glanced her way. She could feel the heat coming off him. She pushed her rum and coke over to him and said, “It’s a fresh one. Help yourself.”
He broke eye contact, looked down at the drink, then further down the bar to the blur that was Otto, then back up to her. The smile was kind and grateful. He picked up the glass and drained it. He set it back in the watery ring it came from and stuck out his hand, “I’m Cecil,” he said, and she fell in love for the first time that night.