By Alvarado O’Brien
Stories? I’ve got plenty. Women? I’ve known a few. Sometimes the ones you can’t forget didn’t seem important at the time. I was in a small town in Wyoming to see my sister in the hospital, stopped in a dive called the Crown Saloon one night, bought this broad a few drinks. Not a beautiful woman by a long shot. Nobody in particular. Never saw her again.
Maybe It Was June
Her name was April or May or something. Maybe it was June. She wasn’t looking like springtime any more, or even summer. She was wearing too much makeup, pink lipstick blurring into the cracks around her lips, thick mascara caked on her eyelashes. You could tell she was used to dim bars, cloudy restroom mirrors, men who didn’t really care that her roots were showing, her speech slurred. She leaned close to me, showing a lot of cleavage. “What’s your name, honey,” she said to me, hand on my knee, and I lied and said Frederick. I bought her a drink, because what the hell, I had a few bucks, and she smiled, a smile that lit up her face for just a minute to let the girl she’d once been shine through. We had a couple more. It was probably a year before I stopped by again. One of the regulars said she’d died. I can’t stop thinking about her.
Frederick the Great
“Frederick. After the Emperor,” I said to her that night, lying big time.
“Frederick the Great, a German.” I’d been watching the History Channel again. I liked his goldenness, at least in the pictures on TV.
So Frederick it was.
She seemed interested, leaned into me with her shoulder. “Aw, you’re kidding me. I haven’t drunk with royalty in ages. Here’s one to you, Frederick!” She lifted her sweaty glass with a smile that broke my heart, it was so tender and sad. Later, I watched her get into her old sweater at the door, which she snatched off the coatrack in the corner impatiently, like a queen fed up with the lame help. Where was I? Well, her tired personal servant, yours truly, was sitting on the bar stool, too sloshed to get up.
Halfway out the door, she paused on the threshold of eternity.
“Frederick, you have made my evening.” She glowed like maybe she had once upon a time before time became the main enemy.
“You are a true gentleman after my own heart.”
“Likewise, ma’am.” I bowed in my seat and turned back to my beer with her in my head, just an old drunk like me, maybe a decade older, putting her hand on my knee now and then. She didn’t pretend coyness and bat her eyes all night. We didn’t end up cavorting in her trailer down the road. I know the West. I travel this land. Sometimes, I’m called to play a small part in some epic battle. I come out a hero. I am full of shit. I love words. I have exes. I have regrets. I own sorrows enough to fill a book.
The World Is Full of Sorrows
History is one long litany of sorrows, that’s what I think anyway. Frederick the Great, for example. His father used to beat the shit out of him. He ran away from home with his best friend when he was a teenager, and had to watch when his buddy was beheaded for it. He wanted to be a musician. He wrote symphonies. But he ended up a military leader in the Seven Years War. He was gay, but they married him off to a woman he didn’t love. Prussia became a superpower under his leadership. He’s in the history books all right, but maybe he didn’t want to be, you know?
What I’m trying to tell here is June’s story, not Frederick’s, not mine, but maybe just as tragic. She needs a real writer to do her justice, not an amateur historian, not my ramblings. I don’t know many facts about her. I only know the moment she lit up like a girl, and the little I found out later.
Sorry to Share the News
I was thinking about Frederick the Great a year later when I stopped by the Crown Saloon and heard she’d died. (My own sister had finally died and that was all over, that part of the thing that brought me there in the first place. Cancer. Nursing. Brothering.) I pulled up a stool at the same spot. I asked for her casually, mentioned I knew her.
“That old batty thing, Esther? You knew her?”
“Wasn’t it June?”
“Sometimes. She had a lot of names.”
“I told her I’d look her up when I passed through again. I had a drink with her.”
“She was kind of daffy, you know. She claimed to know the Emperor of Germany, Frederick the Great! And that he was the best man she ever met, the best! If only circumstances hadn’t kept them apart she might have lived a different life entirely. I tell you she actually pictured it for me once. ‘We’d live in a castle, Paul, and never be sad again.’ It almost made me cry and I don’t cry for nothing. Well, she was like that. She got worse and worse at the end, drinking more. Like all the booze just caught up to her and she’s still filling the tank because she can’t stop. ‘The Emperor,’ she asked once on a Tuesday night with nobody here but us and the ghosts by the jukebox. ‘Has he been in today, Paul?’ She was something before, well, the booze and the men, I got to say. I’m sorry to share this news.”
“I’m sorry, too, my friend. She was royalty herself. I believe she did come from quality. Didn’t you see it?”
“Haven’t heard that for a while. It’s something my grandmother used to say. I guess she was all right, if that’s what you’re trying to say.”
“I’m trying to say more than that. But I’m having difficulty. Have one on her, bartender, and fill me up again.”
I shook my glass at him, ice cubes rattling, and hunkered down at the bar for the long haul. I was just another drunk in town for the night. I banished her from my thoughts but she marched in again and again. She laughed and sang for me a little bit, with that wrinkled chin held high and an exceptional gleam in her eyes. We connected is all I’m trying to say. Look at me, a blithering old fool with a refurbished typewriter and a fresh ribbon trying to make sense of the time I have left. Ain’t I a fool to have ever tried.
Frederick the Great. Shit. I should have told her the truth. “I’m nobody seeking solace on a lonely night. You?” Then I might have had something to write about.