SIT IN A booth in the corner. Give the waitress your drink order. Yes, you’d like something to start with, the spinach dip maybe, something with chips. Tell her again; she can’t hear you over the others, braying like wounded donkeys. Don’t apologize for them. That’ll just make things worse, make them swear louder, make them laugh louder. The waitress doesn’t want to hear it anyway. There are too many people for the booth, so pull tables over. Point the bathrooms out for Delilah. Lean in when she leans in and open for the kiss. Smile and play it off when she swerves and whispers in your ear, Get me a Coke.
Don’t be surprised when the other diners glare at you, as if this is your fault, as if you brought in the noise. Don’t shrug at them. Okay, don’t do it twice. Your empathy just makes you look traitorous. Read the menu. When Delilah comes back, share it with her. Let her read over your shoulder. Don’t kiss her neck, not here, not with Bobby beside you ready to stand up and mime jerking off in front of everyone, the truck driver and the stoned couple at the next table eating skyscrapers of pancakes. Don’t nuzzle her ears. When the waitress returns, order your food and when Delilah says she’s not hungry, order her something anyway because she will be when yours comes.
Watch Fuller closely. He’s not talking which means he’s drunk, which is fine as long as he doesn’t get too drunk. If he starts smiling, watch out. Try to get him to drink water, eat a little. Watch the plume rising higher in his neck. If it reaches his cheeks, tonight will end with someone getting punched. Don’t let that someone be you. When one of the girlfriends gets all MADD on him, Fuller will hold his keys up and dare you to take them. This is where sobriety has lead you. Don’t say anything. Fuller is the drummer and an occasional union machinist, and his arms are the arms from fitness magazines, Greek statues. You play piano and have the atrophied arms of something living in zero gravity. You have long, delicate hands, thin fingers that Delilah twists around her own. Stick to piano and let others be saviors.
Pretend you don’t see Bobby staring at Delilah. You’re good at this; you’ve been doing it for some time. Say it to yourself: I never saw them in the bathroom at the club up in Ft. Wayne. Say it again. Say you never saw her pressed against the wall, wiping her ass against the names scribbled there while Bobby rubbed his hands over her tits and licked her throat. Tell yourself the lipstick you saw her putting on as she came back to the bar was for you. Tell yourself her hair is always that wild. If you need help lying to yourself, look at Bobby’s girlfriend, Jessie. She’s fantastic at it.
The diner will fill up with more and more friends of the band, and if you’d like, you can pretend some of them are there to see you. Sitting next to Bobby helps. He’s the singer, and that will remind them that you’re in the band, too, even if most still don’t remember your name. Smile when someone compliments your playing. Nod, if you’d like. Don’t be self-deprecating. That will draw a frown from Delilah. For once in your life, be cool. Be a little bit of a dick. Don’t be modest. Bobby’s never modest. Bobby’s a fucking star about to go supernova.
Stop wondering why you joined the band in the first place. Rick asked you, and you needed the money. Playing covers pays well. Starving doesn’t. Someday Bobby and Fuller will come around and get into the songs you write in Rick’s basement. Someday they’ll get serious. Tell yourself you still have plenty of time to ‘make it,’ that thirty isn’t all that old. Don’t worry that Delilah keeps asking you to test for the fire department, where her dad’s a captain. Don’t worry that she’s three weeks late-yes, that kind of late, and for the love of God, don’t ask if it’s yours, even to be funny. It’s not funny. Don’t write songs about it. No one’s noticed yet that she’s stopped smoking, so when Bobby passes a cigarette around, take it yourself and drag on it, wait until he’s not looking and then pass it over to Jessie. Let Delilah drink her Coke and hold your hand and smile when she smiles even though she’s picking at your nails and her eyes look like she’s about to cry. Tell her everything’s okay. You’ve got bigger plans. You don’t plan on playing someone else’s songs forever. Tell her you’ll talk to her dad.
What’s up with you two? Bobby says. Tell him, Nothing, man, everything’s cool. When he turns around, resist the urge to knife him.
When your food comes, eat quickly, because Fuller’s slowly going wodwo and it won’t be long until you are all asked to leave, even though you’ve been quiet and smiled at the waitress and said Please and Thank you and No, that’s not my vomit. Don’t be surprised when she seems maddest at you.
When Delilah asks you to go to church tomorrow, tell her yes so she’ll smile, so she’ll stop scratching at her arms, even though going will mean no sex for two, maybe three days. This is her weekly attempt at atoning for the apostasy of your lives. Let her have it. You’ll go because afterwards her father will pay for lunch and you aren’t too proud to accept free food. Stop on the way home and get clean clothes. Just socks, a clean shirt. Do this for her mother, who still assumes you get up extra early to come over each Sunday morning. She’ll have a toothbrush and comb ready for you because she also assumes your morning-breath is your all-day-breath and your bed-hair is the result of bad genes, bad hy-gienes. A proud man would be insulted, but we’ve covered this. Don’t expect her father to buy into your bullshit. Fathers have a different kind of radar. You’re on his. He still calls you sport, like, “So, Sport’s coming with us today?’ Or, “How did Sport drive here with all that snow on his car?’ Don’t tell Delilah you’ve already talked to her dad about the fire department, about everything. Don’t tell her how he shook his head, turned the volume up on the TV and frowned, how he swirled his drink when he looked you in the eye for the very first time in his life. “This isn’t right for you, Sport,’ he’d said, and looked away. It’s okay. Every once in a while you need a reminder to not get your hopes up too high. Be glad you didn’t mention the baby. Be grateful he’s not a cop.
This is where Rick tells the story about the club in Jasper. This will be the first fight of the night because the club was in Indy and Fuller’s too drunk to let it go. It was a college bar, douche bag, Fuller says, followed by, What college is there in Jasper? And when Rick comes back with, What college do you think is in Indy?, Fuller says, IU, dumbass! but IU is in Bloomington and they’re both wrong, and Bobby can’t wait to jump in and point that out. You could mention that IU does have a satellite school in Indy; Purdue, too, both on one campus, but they won’t care, and they’ll just yell at you because the whole story is that the band’s van got towed when you parked it in a private lot across from the club, and since you had no way home, you got hotel rooms, where Bobby and Fuller rented porn all night and tag-teamed a waitress who followed you there from the club. Count on Rick smiling when he mentions the waitress. This is where Jessie will storm out, Bobby stuttering behind her, and there, in the parking lot, will be the second fight.
There’s a question coming and the answer is yes, even if you haven’t yet figured out what the question is. Be patient. It’ll come to you.
After Delilah’s third trip to the bathroom she’ll be ready to leave. Ignore how pale and jaundiced she looks under the humming fluorescents in the restaurant lobby. Ignore the cuts on her arms. Don’t wonder which one of them is because of you. Tell her she’s beautiful and then tomorrow, when the pain settles in, tell her again. Remember to trim her nails.
When you get up to leave, so will everyone else. Bobby and Jessie still arguing in the parking lot. Fuller half-comatose, Rick helping him out the door. Everyone’s money on the table, wadded up, like Chinese dumplings. When you count it, you’ll see there’s too much. Leave it. The waitress will smile, finally, when she says goodbye.
In the parking lot, Fuller will pull away from Rick and hold one hand up, the keys dangling from his fingers. Take them from me, Fuckers! Everyone’s too tired to fight him, so they’ll whine, instead. Come on, Fuller. Do it for Alice, do it for your girls. The more they beg the more Fuller will turn surly, louder. No one will approach him until Jessie jumps in another girl’s car and hurries off with Bobby screaming after her before turning and pulling the keys from Fuller’s hand. Fuller will stand there, frozen and red-faced, but won’t say anything as he climbs into Bobby’s car. No one will tell Bobby he’s drunker than Fuller and he shouldn’t drive either. No one will say goodbye, see you next time. No one wonders if there’ll be a next time, except you, and you’ll wonder if you care one way or the other, if anything in your life is worth all the trouble that comes with it. Do you remember the answer?
Take Delilah home. Put her to bed. You’ve got church in the morning.
Bio: Kevin Corbin studied education at the University of Southern Indiana before moving on to a career in law enforcement. His short story “Lost’ appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of the Southern Indiana Review, and he is a two-time finalist in Glimmer Train magazine fiction writing competitions. Corbin currently reside in Evansville, IN with his wife and two daughters.