Short-Leash Marriage

Bud Scanlon hangs out at the bar every Friday night. I’ve met him a couple of times, but he’s enough of a regular that the bartender doesn’t bother to stop him when he helps himself to the Coors Lite. He’s about my age and gives me fishing tips whether I want them or not. I’m not sure what he’s been doing for the last couple months since the bar’s been shut down, but this last Friday night, I found him in his usual spot on a stool at the end of the bar, shoulders bent over a bottle of Coors Lite.

“Hey, Bud! How goes it?”

He looks up through bleary eyes, blinks and the two brain cells left sober enough to function meet up and recognition spreads across his face.

“Not bad. How ‘bout you?”

“Working my ass off as usual.”

“What you drinking tonight?”

I look over the list of specials scrawled on a neon board next to the TV behind the bar which always shows Fox News or ESPN. Nothing looks promising. In a town which runs on PBR and Bud Light, why they stock specialty dark beers, I have no idea.

“Probably a Voodoo and a shot of Morgan,” I say.

“Getting there quick tonight?”

“Looks like I have a lot of catching up to do,” I say with a gesture toward the two empty bottles sitting in front of him along with the one in his hand. “The wife finally kick you out of the house?”

“She doesn’t know I’m here. Told her I had to work late.”

I try to flag down the bartender who looks my way briefly then turns away without so much as a nod or a smile. She’s not the regular gal I’m used to and she takes her time chatting with the crowd at the other end of the bar.

“Don’t tell Angela you saw me here,” Bud pleads. “I’d never hear the end of it.”

“I’d say not! A guy ought not lie to his woman.” The bartender comes down to our end and sweeps the empties from in front of Bud. “Excuse me, ma’am,” I say to get her attention. Head down, she strides off to the other end again. By the time she reaches the group haggling over the jukebox, she’s all smiles and chit chat as she pulls a cell phone from her pocket and starts typing.

“It’s not that. She’d be pissed I’m talking to you.”

I scoff out loud. “She’s that jealous? No offense, Bud, she ain’t got nothing to worry about. I’ve got a man of my own at home that I have no intention of cheating on!”

“Does he know you’re here? And that you…” A belch works its way up from the depths of his thick middle. “You flirt with all the guys here?”

“He does and he comes with me sometimes.” The last half of his comment registers as the bartender flits back over to the refrigerator. “Wait! Y’all think I flirt?”

Bud stares at me in borderline shock. His wide eyes dart up and to the right and back to my face. “Y…yeah. We figure you aren’t getting enough from your man at home.”

I roll my eyes and chuckle. “Oh! I get plenty from him! Trust me! I just like getting out once in a while and meeting new people.”

“And he trusts you not to go home with another guy?” Bud asks incredulously.

“Yes, he does.” I throw my hand up in a wave as the bartender looks toward our end of the bar. She puts her head down, and reaches into the ice cooler. “What’s a girl gotta do to get a drink around here?” I mutter. “Been here five minutes and she hasn’t even acknowledged me.”

“It’s a busy night.”

I glance over my shoulder at the dozen patrons, half of which are tucked into the back corner at a table I call the Teacher’s Lounge Extension Office, something never talked about outside this place. It will get busier later, but at the moment, I fail to see how this constitutes busy.

“Seems the whole county came out tonight,” I mutter sarcastically, knowing if I commented on the slowness of the moment, I’d just get the response of, “You just don’t understand.”

This is Bud’s town. He was born up on the north side of Lakeside in the hospital, back in the day when insurance companies would allow small town hospitals to have maternity wards. He drank his first beer here at this bar when it first opened as the Lucky Leprechaun. By the time he was old enough to drink legally, someone objected to the name, probably because of the suggestion of gambling or the fact that the area lacked a large enough Irish population for the name to reflect the community adequately. The city council discussed it for a year and levied several fines against the place until the owner relented and renamed it “The Beacon”. The nautical theme of the name and the decor served mocking tribute to the lake a quarter mile to the east, especially when the nearest sea sized body of water lay almost 500 miles away.

“You ever seen an ocean, Bud?”

“What?” I repeated my question, deliberately filtering my southern accent which Upper Midwest ears seem to struggle with sometimes. He shook his head. “No. Who would want to do that?”

“You like fishing, don’t you?”

His eyes lit up and he flicked his beer in a slide to the edge of the bar as he declared, “Fuck yeah! I do!”

“Did it ever cross your mind to go deep sea fishing and go after something you’ve never fished for before?”

“No. Sharks live out there.”

“Is that the only thing holding you back?”

“Just never saw the point in it.”

The bartender plopped another Coors Lite in front of him, snatched the empty and turned back down the bar. My temper flared at being ignored again and I practically yelled, “Excuse me, ma’am!”

That finally got her attention along with half the rest of the bar. She stared at me expectantly.

“Any chance I could get a drink, ma’am?” I could ask her in the same honeyed tone for the beer and shot, but her previous snubs caused the chip on my shoulder to grow a couple sizes. I wanted her to actually acknowledge me with a word.

She just shrugged, extending her hand expectantly, her body language as snippy as a teenager demanding What do you want? 

“I’ll have a Voodoo Ranger and a shot of Captain Morgan Hundred Proof, please and thank you.”

Her jaw worked and she turned to the fridge. At least her service would be prompt now if grudging.

Bud’s phone rang. He looked at it, reached out and pushed a button to silence it.

“Maybe you should at least let her know you’re okay,” I suggested.

“She’ll know I’ve been here.” His crestfallen look said what his mouth didn’t.

“She give you hell for it?”

He scoffed. “She gives me hell for not coming straight home from work every day, for not picking up the mail, for going fishing, for hunting…” He shook his head. “And I don’t even drink when I’m hunting!”

“But you drink with your friends.” I looked over my shoulder and realized that his two buddies stood with the group at the other end of the bar.

“I’m too drunk tonight,” Bud muttered, and I barely heard him over the burst of laughter from the crowd. “They didn’t say it, but they usually leave me alone when I’m like this.”

His comment awakened my curiosity. By no means was I ready to feel sorry for him. A man should be able to make his own decisions and deal with the consequences, but something in his tone told me Bud’s story contained more than the usual, “My woman doesn’t like me drinking.”

“Why are you like this tonight?” The bartender placed the beer and shot at the back edge of the bar. I slid the payment across the stainless steel countertop with a high-roller toned, “Keep the change!” Then standing on the rail of the stool to grasp my drinks, I ignored the woman as she watched me toss back the shot, set the glass rim down on the drain pad and sweep up the beer in one fluid motion. I doubted she comprehended that I was showing her up not showing off for Bud.

Satisfied to have my starter down, I turned my attention back to Bud who forgot about me while he read a text on his phone. I sipped my beer and waited while he typed out a response, edited it, reread it, deleted half of it, retyped it, edited it again, hit send, then let his phone fall to the bar.

“The wife?”

“She knows I’m here. She’s coming to get me.”

“Not a bad idea considering how many phones you’re seeing.”

Bud lolled his head sideways then rolled it back. “Why can’t she just leave me alone?” he moaned. “Why do women have to be like this?”

“What? Suspicious or controlling?”

He looked at me as his remaining brain cell sounded the warning bell that he was talking to a woman.

“No worries, man. I’ve been a sister to more men than most women have known in their lives and screwed none of them. If you have something to say, go for it. I’ll probably agree with you.”

He thought about this as the last sober brain cell locked up. Two heartbeats later, he found his speech again. “I always knew you were strange.”

I laughed. “Thanks, but I hate drama too much to date wome.”

A second passed before Bud let loose a loud guffaw. I took a long swig of my beer trying to hide a grin.

“You two married young, didn’t you?” I ask.

His head bobbed. “I just turned 18. She was 19 but we were in the same grade.”

“Let me guess. She was head cheerleader and you were a football and hockey star.”

“How’d you know?”

“Facebook, bro.”

The bartender slid her hand and arm into the wide space between us. “You want another beer, Bud?”

“Yeah, and get Tommie one too.”

The bartender shot me a warning look, and I figured she’d be charging me for that beer. It didn’t matter since I planned on drinking another one anyway. She walked off toward the cooler, pausing beside the register to check her phone. She probably snitched on Bud and told Angela every torrid assumption about our meeting here. In this town everybody was either related or went to school together which included the community college. However, I transplanted in from three points of the compass. So the usual reaction I drew was suspicion.

I quietly scoffed at the woman. She lacked the guts to talk to me let alone intimidate me. The thought crossed my mind to throw her under the bus and tell Bud she was the snitch. One problem interfered with that plan. Though Bud openly talked to me about his woman problems, the grapevine fertilizing bartender was a bred, born and raised local. No way could an outsider like me hold equal credibility to her. Eventually, she’d hear what I told Bud and that cold shoulder I got when I walked in would spread and turn into an all-out ban from The Beacon. Not one person would say it straightforwardly. Instead, they’d ignore me until I left and never came back.

Gulping two swallows of the Voodoo, I stewed over my impotence for a moment before Bud’s voice drew my attention back.

“I don’t have Facebook.”

“I can fill in gaps.”

His long face paled. “You some kind of CIA agent.”

I smiled wryly. “I’ve been around. I’m sure that’s all over the local gossip since I moved here. Work with a lot of different people…you learn how to read them.”

“So, how do you read me?”

Wincing at the sharpness of my beer and the seriousness of his question, I stalled a little.

“How do you read me?”

“You want my honest and direct answer?”

After he nodded, his expression faltered. His alcohol induced bravado lost a little steam.

“You sure?”

Again he nodded. I drained my bottle as the bartender returned with our fresh drinks. I made a show of picking at the new bottle’s label until her new found attentiveness dissolved and she went back to chat with her friends at the other end of the bar. Definitely, she possessed all the maturity of a teen.

Bud’s bravado returned in the meantime. He raised his head and looked down his long nose at me. “Right! You’re just blowing smoke.”

Maybe he needed to hear the truth, but I refused to go so far as to tell this man to bail on his wife and go live his life. If he failed to figure that out in twenty years, that recommendation served no purpose.

“High school was the best years of your life. You graduated, got married, had your first kid within a year all while working the family farm with your pawpaw and brothers. Sometime between ‘07 and ‘09 you went out west to work oil. Came back to the farm after a couple of years, not because you were done but because Angela wanted you home because she couldn’t stand your parents, or didn’t trust you to keep your marriage vows. But that was enough time to give you a taste of freedom which you starve for every day now. That’s why you binge drink and stay out late like this because she’s such a naggy bitch to you when you get home. You dread being around her and you find every excuse to stay away as much as you can, and when you can’t you drink on the sly. How accurate is that?” 

As I sip my beer, my words sink in and sober him up a little. Then he stares down at the bottle in his hands for several minutes. I contemplate another shot of liquor. One of the wonderful things about having a cell phone is calling for a ride, and I have no problem doing that. Give me a chance to show off my guy, or give me an excuse to scare up some new conversation while I sober up.

“You were wrong about a couple things,” Bud finally told me. “I went to Watford City in ‘06, and I came home because I missed it, not just because my wife wanted me to. The guys out there were rough, and I just didn’t like dealing with them. I bounced from company to company trying to find some guys I could work with.”

“Guys like your buddies here at home.” 

Bud nods with a sad look on his face. I’d spent a little time in Williston before oil prices dropped in the last quarter of 2014. Something about a grown man not being able to hold his own with that kind of crowd further confirmed the fact that if I was single, I wouldn’t be chasing this boy.

“You know she sold my boat?” He blurts. “She’s going to use the money as a down payment on a house up here by the lake so she doesn’t have to stay in a camper all summer.”

“That seems a little counter-intuitive.”

Putting his bottle to his mouth, Bud tilts his head back and drains it. I don’t pity him, but I dislike his wife the way I despise bullies.

“Would make more sense to sell the camper,” I stated.

“I know, right!”

In truth, it had nothing to do with the finances of it. Some women just clung to the belief that men were immature idiots who needed someone to make decisions for them. These women kept their men on tight leashes whether they needed it or not. I’d known a few women over the years like that, Angela included. They often spoke more adoringly about their sons than their men, and rarely did they have fewer than two ex-husbands. 

Everything about Angela screamed insecurity. She worked for an insurance company in town, and both times I went to change things in my auto policy, I got the distinct impression she wished to squash me like a bug. All she needed to do was sit on me. Apparently the hormone shift of having children, entering middle age or just letting herself go, sent her weight skyrocketing. At least she went to the trouble to dress for her size, but weighing in at over twice her cheerleading weight easily put a complex in her head about her personal attractiveness. Having been slightly chunky most of my life and getting bullied by girls like her in high school, I took guilty pleasure in her obesity, though I’d never admit it aloud.

“I better piss,” Bud said, stepping off his chair. “She’ll be here soon.”

I considered making myself scarce, hiding outside until she hauled Bud out of here by his ear. No part of me wanted to get caught in the middle of that. Bud lied to her, and lying damages trust in a relationship like no other action or inaction, but I also didn’t fault Bud for lying. A guy deserved to have fun! Anyone who works for a living needs a little time to kick back and relax. Angela paid for weekly massages down in Minot. I knew because she posted it on social media regularly. Between the price of the massage, lunch and the gas getting there, Bud would have to buy the drinks for him and his friends all night long once a week to tie her expenditures. Which left me wondering why she had more right to go to Minot with her friends than he did to drive 20 miles to hang out at a bar on Friday nights?

But it wasn’t my place to defend the guy. He’d made decisions time and again which led him to his current situation. He had to decide what to do to fix it or not. At the same time, I wasn’t going to play coward.

Miss bartender came over and cleared away Bud’s empty without saying a word to me, but she snatched a glance in my direction which was both curious and threatening. 

“Please, woman!” I blurted, two drinks down and half my filter gone. “Think you could act courteous to an outsider for two seconds? You might get more than a loose change tip if you did!”

Her eyes widened in shock. 

“I’ll take another beer, when you have a sec. And leave the cap on it.”

Mouth now gaping, she moved on. I didn’t expect to see that next beer and made a mental note to not stay the next time she tended bar.

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