Shel always blushes when she gives mouth-to-mouth. She wears her wheat-brown hair pulled back so the class can monitor the movement of her cheeks, the air leaving her body for the rubbery torso of Roberto, the perma-tanned CPR dummy, something of a hunk. Shel covers her mouth with one hand when she smiles—a childhood habit to hide her teeth—but mouth-to-mouth exposes her. Years back, her younger sister Betsy got braces, but Shel had refused. Adamant about all those appointments, the rubber bands and headgear, the ache that Betsy said she still felt, a phantom pain, ten years after getting her metal removed. Shel wonders if she must look like a rabbit, moving teeth-first to fill a dummy with air. She wonders what she would look like as an adult with braces, whether she’d snag Roberto’s comatose lips.
“I can’t see,” complains Ian, Betsy’s fiancé, here in his future sister-in-law’s class as part of a work requirement. Shel gets plenty of firefighters and cops and babysitters, but she never knew therapists needed CPR. Ian’s practice had had An Incident.
“Turn my way?” Ian stares her down, grinning. He reminds her of a handsome cockatiel, with his spiky hair, beaky nose, and fathomless eyes. Shel is not in love with her sister’s fiancée, no way. But for some reason, she does sometimes imagine cooking dinner for him, naked. It’s that little look he gives her, which to her mind communicates a hunger that could be satisfied in two ways. Ew, she censors herself, then plans a menu anyway: duck confit, a pear cake, crisp potatoes fried into crunchy shoestrings. She admonishes herself in the same thought. Ian gives that look to anything in a skirt. And Shel, as a rule, wears khaki pants. But she turns to demo for Ian anyway. She wants him to see her skill, to get his money’s worth.
“That’s better,” Ian says. “Yes. Excellent.”
Nervous, Shel finishes the breaths more quickly, more forcefully, than normal. Roberto’s lungs, were they real instead of synthetic, would burst with the pressure. She stands and smoothes the front of her chinos. The finger sweep isn’t until next class, but Shel gives an overview anyway. “You have to be prepared to remove any number of everyday household items: pen caps, batteries, action figures, croutons, dice, marbles, crayons, coins. And that’s just off the top of my head,” she warns her students. A pert woman who’d introduced herself as a grandmother-to-be, maybe forty and wearing a clingy white tank top, shudders visibly. She mouths the word coins, eyes shut in reverse rapture.
Ladder Company 12 is celebrating its recertification with shots at The Dalmation. Shel throws back giant thimbles of whiskey like a civic duty: pride mixed with resignation. The firefighters supply more drinks each time. It isn’t even four thirty in the afternoon. She’s agreed to be home by seven for another dress fitting with Betsy.
“You should see her with Roberto,” hoots one of the crew-cut kids. “Damn!” He reaches behind the bartender’s back to ring the tip bell, twice.
“It’s hot,” agrees another in his Brooklynese. Hawt. They are typical of the guys she goes out with, eager and pleasantly uncomplicated, committing to week-long relationships at best. It’s nice when they stretch into two weekends.
Shel smiles demurely, covering her teeth with her lips. Then with another shot glass.
A few minutes later she is navigating the narrow stairs down to the basement to change the keg. She doesn’t work at the bar but is there often enough to want to help out. This is after being helped out by the bartender numerous times: a cab call or two, a clarifying to her beer goggling (“No, not him.”). Was there anyone Fat Lloyd would approve of? His was a kindly fat, a beer fat, that made him appear much older than he really was, and he treated all customers but Shel with grim acquiescence. She didn’t know how old he really was, but often felt surprise when he chimed in on a bit of ‘80s music trivia (Dead or Alive’s single chart-topping hit, “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)”) or displayed his skill at reciting Brady trivia, both from the show itself, and also the tell-all memoirs that nearly all the child actors had written in midlife. His cultural touchstones marked him as around her age. Unkindly, Shel thought, he was probably just a couch potato—though she did have the ample evidence of his gut. And, she was forced to admit, she knew most of the answers, too.
The basement is dank but clean, the keg lines easy to navigate. Shel is good with her hands and excels at almost any mechanical task. The job takes less than five minutes, but she isn’t ready to rejoin the party. It’s quiet in the basement, calm. She turns down the hall and lingers at the open door of Fat Lloyd’s office. He has pennants for the Sox and the Cubs and the Bears along one wall, and framed and autographed eight-by-ten glossies of celebrities who’d visited the bar (Bette Midler, Harry Connick Jr., Denzel Washington—all in town on separate movie shoots). A computer whirs atop the corner desk. She sits down in Fat Lloyd’s office chair, which is too big for her. It’s been years since she’s been down here. She isn’t drunk, but the whiskey has wrapped around her brain like a fuzzy blanket. When she clicks on the computer screen, an internet window appears for an online dating site. YOU ARE LOGGED OFF, the page states. What Shel would give for a password. She has always loved knowing things about people that they didn’t know she knew: scouring Betsy’s journal for her teenage indiscretions against unwitting boyfriends, looking through her parents’ bill file and discovering, despite their frugality and claims to modest means, astronomical stock portfolios. Her secret findings always reassured her. That life could be lived as understatement or exaggeration. That there were multiple versions of truth, none necessarily wrong. Or right. Look at all the space that opened up. Wiggle room.
She isn’t sure DateMatch would reassure her about Fat Lloyd, or herself. Whatever truths or untruths were revealed might be too much to look at, like the sun during an eclipse. She turns the monitor off, pity giving way to awe. Good for Fat Lloyd. She wouldn’t have the guts. It had never occurred to her. It was occurring to her now, a little, in subconscious increments.
Back upstairs, when the Brooklynese firefighter puts his arm around Shel’s waist, and Shel automatically puts her hand over her mouth, Fat Lloyd shakes his head. “She’s a lady, my friend,” Fat Lloyd tells the kid. “Gotta know how to treat a lady.”
The kid grins and removes his arm and stands before Shel to perform a sweeping bow.
“Lady,” he trills theatrically. “Want another drink?”
Fat Lloyd doesn’t wait for Shel’s response. “Jesus Christ,” he says, turning his back on them to watch the overhead TV. Baseball. Cubs at Boston. “Lemme know how this shakes out.”
After a beat, he turns to Shel and winks. She knows that in a moment he would roll his eyes, because he always does, and as usual, she wasn’t sure if he was exasperated with himself, with her, or with the guy who wasn’t living up to the standards Fat Lloyd seemed to have set for her. All these standards. Implied, clear as the globular wine glasses hanging from the rack: somebody had to set them, since she certainly hasn’t.
“Watch this!” the young firefighter calls, and tilts his head back to balance a full pint of beer on his forehead. He doesn’t spill a drop.
The weather is finally nice after a rainy spring, and Shel is too tipsy to drive, so she walks the fifteen blocks home. The early evening sunshine glows like light shining through a whiskey bottle.
Shel’s sister is coming for the dress fitting, and Shel will be late for the seven o’clock deadline. Never mind that their parents could let Betsy in—they have the spare keys. Shel occupies one half of a duplex owned by her parents. They live on the other side, so quiet that she has a hard time knowing when they’re home. In her own second floor bedroom window, she can see the silhouette waiting for her: the dress dummy that stands upright, a woman with a stick up her ass. Shel had learned to sew in high school theater productions, when the drama teacher pulled her from Home Ec in a frothy, key-jangling panic, demanding harem pants for fifteen extra concubines. Shel had complied, using a drapey silk that unintentionally modernized the trousers with a 1990s MC Hammer sensibility. Future generations now could watch not only The King and I restored on DVD, but a quasi-homage to “U Can’t Touch This.” The seamstress’s well-meaning, nimble fingers are poison to preservation. They date everything they touch. Like Shel’s old wedding gown, which she had pulled over the dummy’s headless form. It was no longer timeless: the poufy sleeves and lace and beading of a bygone era, of America’s Funniest Home Videos, of a mistake.
Shel wouldn’t have minded if Betsy had let herself in. She would have preferred it, saving time, small talk, the necessary niceties. But Betsy wants her older sister there at the moment she lifts the dress from the dummy and pulls the silk over her head. She wants her there for everything.
“You’re late.” Betsy sits on the stoop with a paper cup of designer coffee in each hand. She tilts her head to sweep her caramel-highlighted bangs from her eyes. “Come on, show me some hustle!” An old cheerleading chant. Shel is grateful her sister’s hands are occupied with coffee, lest she burst into rhythmic, possessed clapping.
“I can’t have caffeine at this hour,” Shel says.
“Got you decaf, dummy,” Betsy says. “But which is which? Hmm.”
She smiles with those straight teeth. Smiles with all her might, which is considerable. “I could taste-test it,” she says. “But I shouldn’t have too much coffee, what with the teeth-whitening and all . . .” She carefully inserts a straw through one lid.
The wedding is in two weeks. Betsy and Ian shall be bonded forever, in all their bonded and capped and bleached grinning glory, following a ceremony with a Catholic Mass at their parents’ church. The last six months have been filled with stipulations, appointments, excuses. Betsy couldn’t help plant the family vegetable garden because she might get bug bites or poison ivy. Or bad tan lines. No, dinner would not work that night, or most other nights; she had pilates followed by a deep-breathing mat workout. No dessert for her, even if it was her birthday and Shel had made a German chocolate cake, both Betsy and Ian’s favorite. There was the dress to keep in mind.
The dress. Shel’s dress.
Shel had made it herself. She had worn it many times, but never to her own wedding. The family, as was their way, didn’t talk about it. Not in the months leading up to the cancelled date, not in the years after, not when Rob, her intended, moved two towns over and married someone else (she’d heard they divorced in less than a year, which did not surprise her). And they especially did not talk about the time Shel had come downstairs from her side of the duplex in the gorgeous, handmade gown on what was supposed to be her wedding day, and walked down to the corner for a six-pack and some magazines. She carried her money in the small white beaded clutch she’d found a year before at the Bridal Emporium on the boulevard. Then she walked home, climbed the steps, and stayed inside for a week. Leave me alone, she’d said, and so they did. The neighbor kids rang the bell and ran, swearing they’d seen a woman in a wedding dress standing in the window in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon, plain as the silk taffeta draping her somewhat concave bodice. She never answered the door. Maybe these were just stories, taking shape in the town’s imagination, the way people make things up to understand whatever it is they don’t understand. You could blame the gossips. But maybe they simply were trying to get history down intact. Floating false information to flush out the truth.
Betsy was the only one to broach the subject. And one could easily argue her interest was not for Shel’s well-being: she left the issue alone for approximately seven years. It seemed pertinent, relevant, for her to finally ask about Shel and her handmade dress, because she wondered if it would be all right to wear it for her own wedding. Betsy showed remarkable restraint, for her part: she waited about an hour after Ian’s proposal. She did not say “wedding” or “gown” or “bride.” She asked Shel, without really asking, “Maybe I’d wear the dress you sewed.”
“Why not,” Shel had said, setting down her milk glass at the hastily arranged family dinner. Their parents looked from one daughter to the next, then studied the pot roast on their plates. Ian was with a thousand other therapists in Telluride at an anger management conference. He’d proposed by webcam.
“Super!” Betsy cried. “I haven’t got an inch on my credit cards, but that’s not why I want to wear it. I always loved that dress. Think you can help me alter it?”
Shel shrugged her indifference and asked to be passed the potatoes. Everybody knew Betsy was hopeless with a needle and thread. “Helping” meant Shel would do all the work. Shel mentally steeled herself for the task. It would bring some vile stuff back to the surface. Everyone had just assumed she’d been left by Rob. Some even told a story that involved Shel standing forlornly at the altar, petals falling from her bouquet, but it had never gone that far. When the wedding was called off two months before the date, Shel had been the one to cancel the vendors, to arrange for partial refunds, to take care of all the details, and she hadn’t minded that much. Not like you might expect of an ex-bride-to-be. Instead, she was filled with a kind of relief and gratitude that she wouldn’t spend her life married to Rob. The two of them, oddly still loyal, vowed not to tell anyone why the wedding wouldn’t go on as planned, which meant people would draw their own conclusions. People always do, anyway, even when the facts are fanned before them like playing cards.
But the dress. The dress had been special. She had been looking forward to wearing that dress. Shel designed it herself, spending weeks sketching in her big art pad, making erasures, sketching again. The fabric sifted through her hands, not like water, but something softer, thicker, like cream if cream were to take fabric form. She created an underlay that wouldn’t itch the sensitive skin of her legs, or her other under-areas. People don’t know how tulle can scratch.
Still, Betsy wants tulle. “This dress is gorgeous in its simplicity,” she says now, twirling before the mirror. “But the style today calls for, like, a little oomph. I need a little oomph under my dress!”
She laughs and crouches in a pose, Marilyn Monroe-over-the-steam-grate, but to Shel the laugh sounds fake. Betsy has already laid claim: my dress.
“That’s still going to be mine,” Shel says evenly through the pins in her mouth. “I’m letting you wear the dress.”
“Oh,” Betsy says. “Oh. Well. You can always take the poufy stuff out, right?”
“The tulle I don’t mind,” Shel says. In fact, a new bolt bought just for this purpose sits inside the hall closet. “Just call things what they are, okay?”
Betsy ignores this. Next door, there’s the sound of a chair scraping heavily across the floor—their father’s gesture, one which drove their mother crazy—then silence. In the way of their family, Betsy changes the subject. “Ian says you’re a really good teacher. He says he can see why the YMCA put you in charge of the first aid program.”
Ian is one class away from his own graduation. Shel can’t help it; she’ll miss having him in class. Of course she’ll be seeing a lot of him with the upcoming wedding festivities. But that’s not really the same thing. She has no special skills at weddings, nothing of note that might attract attention or set her apart from the rest of the guests, aside from creating a dress she won’t be wearing. As the unmarried sister of the bride, it might be nice, she thought, to find a date. Briefly the dating website enters her mind, but only briefly. What if Fat Lloyd saw her? Or one of the other guys she’d gone home with from the bar. There had been more than a few. What if any of them turned out to be one of her matches?
Betsy interrupts these imaginings. “Shel? Can we talk about these big sleeves? Since we’re updating the style and all. It’s just that I’ve always pictured myself in a sleeveless dress.”
Shel doesn’t answer, only moves the pins carefully, ever so carefully, around Betsy’s tanned, soft skin. It would be easy to slip, but Shel doesn’t.
In class the next day, Shel corrects a preteen girl on her form with chest compressions, and tears spring to the girl’s eyes. Shel knows she has not been particularly harsh: this is merely the way of girls, even responsible ones who want to learn how to be Safe Sitters, a designation bestowed on those who complete a course that certifies they know how not to kill the babies with which they’ve been entrusted. Still, Shel feels a twinge of remorse. Later she is sure to compliment the girl, who sports a midriff T-shirt that says BRAT, on a successful finger sweep of Roberto the CPR dummy’s fish-like mouth. When she pats BRAT on the back, Ian gives Shel a complicit grin. She grins back, forgetting to cover her mouth; her teeth are not as bad as she thinks, anyway. Shel imagines making Ian a dinner of bright raw fruits and sautéed vegetables, wearing only an apron and high heels, which, as a rule, she abhors. The heels would be red, to match the strawberries and red peppers. They would eat off of pristine white ceramic, those heavy plates sold at restaurant supply shops. Then they would smash the dirty plates on the floor. She doesn’t get much further than the plate-smashing. That might be enough.
Shel isn’t optimistic about Betsy and Ian’s future. This could be due to her generally pessimistic nature surrounding weddings. Or it’s the accumulation of her observations. Ian owned a pair of binoculars and claimed to be an avid bird watcher, but he couldn’t tell the difference between male and female cardinals. Even Shel, who paid nature only brief perfunctory glances, knew that red cardinals were boys. In nature, the male birds get all the showy plumage. And Betsy’s always been flighty. She never held onto her money or maintained much of a job aside from temp office work. She’d been the fill-in receptionist at Ian’s practice two years ago, where they met. Maybe Betsy’s grown out of her cheating phase, but Shel watches her sister when Ian’s talking. Betsy’s mind travels. The tiniest smile will play across her mouth when Ian’s describing how therapists can get secondary trauma from listening to patients’ stories. “I mean,” he’d be saying at a family dinner, “things so awful you wouldn’t expect them in a horror film. Housewares used as instruments of torture.” Ian’s face would cloud over like a little boy’s, and Shel felt for him, she really did. And Betsy would be stirring her minestrone with her spoon, a lazy, luxurious movement, with a half-smile on her face. She was in the habit of checking her teeth in the reflection offered by the back of the spoon. All clear. Shel imagined their marriage would be a different kind of torture, with household items as props. Phone bills listing unfamiliar numbers. A pair of binoculars and a neighbor who failed to pull her shades. A soup spoon reflecting only one person, but a distorted reflection, one you’d have to squint to see.
Fat Lloyd had known Shel’s ex-fiancé, who’d come into the bar several nights a week. This was when Rob was working at the travel agency down the street, and he would bring home stacks of obsolete brochures and oblong folders to use as scrap paper. Shel might receive a phone message scrawled on the back of a Gettysburg battlefield reenactment scene. Rob wrote so the words looked like they were coming from the old-fashioned cannon: CALL YOUR MOTHER. He had excellent handwriting.
One night, Shel had gotten to The Dalmation before Rob. Fat Lloyd was spilling over one of the barstools, watching TV in the near-empty bar. An old episode of The Honeymooners. “Pull up a seat,” he’d said.
They watched together in silence until the commercial break, then Fat Lloyd got her a beer. He popped the bottle cap and said, “Heard you’re making quite the wedding dress.”
Shel covered her mouth and smiled. She was proud of her work, proud that Rob had taken an interest. He’d helped her without even asking, nearly every night since she’d begun. Then Fat Lloyd surprised her by describing, almost bead-by-bead, what her dress looked like. The train that could be made into a bustle. The princess sleeves. And, Lloyd said pointedly, the material that felt better than anything he’d ever felt.
“He?” Shel asked. “You mean Rob?”
Fat Lloyd looked at her with a good deal of kindness, with some sadness mixed in. “Yeah, him,” he said.
“Well, he better like it,” she said defensively, not wanting to hear what the bartender was implying. “With all the work I’m putting in. I’m lucky he cares so much.”
“About you, though?” Fat Lloyd asked. He rearranged pint glasses, mercifully not looking at her.
“Who else?” she giggled, and then her stomach turned into a stone.
Lloyd did look at her then. He spoke quietly. No way could any of the other customers hear him. “So he likes dresses,” he said. “Who am I to argue? I like stupid old TV shows.” He grabbed the bottle cap from her beer off the bar, holding it between thumb and forefinger. After a moment he flicked it into the trash can without looking.
“It’s not that, Shel,” he said. “He brings in guys he says are clients. I’ve been here a long time. I know some of ‘em. I’m sorry, honey, but they aren’t booking flights.”
Right then, Shel felt that she should indicate her surprise in some way. She was aware of the need to show that open-mouthed expression, along with her shock, horror, betrayal: all appropriate emotions. But she experienced none of those things. There had been a feeling nagging at her for as long as she’d been laboring over the dress. Longer. She had been glad at Rob’s interest. No one in her family had cared about helping with a hem or straightening a crooked seam, but Rob would bring her pincushion and thread and sit nearby, asking questions. The two of them had scoffed at the superstition about seeing the dress before the wedding. She had been pleased to be with a man who wasn’t a cliché.
She had had only the briefest wave of dread, easily swallowed and choked down, the day she’d come home from teaching class and seen Rob standing before the tall mirror in their bedroom, naked, holding her wedding dress up against the length of his body. He’d been startled, then quickly calmed, calming her. People get curious, she’d reasoned. And Rob had told her he was getting a sense of the alterations left to be done. Since they were the same height. More off the bottom, didn’t she think?
What made her angrier than anything else was that he had turned out to be a cliché after all. Then she was sad. Followed by angry. Mixed with some more sad. And pity, an emotion she would learn to detest deflecting, the main reason she stayed inside her duplex for a week, wearing her wedding dress at will. But at the time, in that moment at the bar with Fat Lloyd, she had yet to know the uselessness of pity; she quickly transitioned to pitying Rob, who couldn’t be who he was. Poor Rob!
When Rob got to the bar that night, Fat Lloyd offered them the use of his office. In less than twenty businesslike minutes, they’d sorted out their stories and how to handle the details. It would still be Rob’s secret. Shel’s silence, keeping him in the closet along with her wedding dress, made people wonder about her. What kind of woman wouldn’t show grief at a cancelled wedding? What kind of woman would let a guy like Rob Hatch get away? It was all on her. To her knowledge, nobody speculated about Rob. To them he would always be the same charming guy who sang the national anthem at the Founders’ Day parade, who gave them insider information about their Mediterranean cruises, who humorously mangled the words to “American Pie” at karaoke night. And he still was that guy. Lucky for Shel, she had learned another way to see him before things had gone too far.
Shel had little regret about how things turned out. She could look back and see all the ways she’d been warned—phone hang-ups late at night, broken lunch dates, a distance in his eyes when they kissed. If other people had seen Rob’s dates at The Dalmation and been suspicious, they didn’t say. Only Fat Lloyd had been observant enough, kind enough, to see what was going on and tell her. Fat Lloyd who kept to himself and stayed out of it, except when it came to Shel. And she had trusted him so completely, so immediately, that she ended her engagement in the bar’s basement office without hesitation. She hadn’t even cried. And the bartender had been right; Rob immediately agreed with everything she said. No, it was all for the best. Shel had cared little about a big wedding, or being a bride, or any of the trappings Betsy now obsessed over: matching chair covers at the reception, for God’s sake.
If she did have a regret, it was the dress. What had possessed her to keep it, allowing for it now to be given away? Why had she not cut it into ribbons and tossed them into the wind, giving birds materials for their nests? She had kept the dress in the closet, where it had turned into a shadow. She had loved, still loved, the dress. It was hers and always would be. Even when Betsy put it on, tulle added, sleeves removed, and marched the altered version to the altar.
Ian’s CPR/First Aid course ends on a Friday afternoon, and the legal-age members of the class head down the block to The Dalmation. The wedding is in one week and one day, and Betsy pulls herself away early from that day’s spa treatments to join them. A posse of giggling bridesmaids are summoned. Shel, maid of honor, is the alleged head of this group, but these pushy girls take over any and all arrangements, and all parties are pleased with the arrangement. They mime how they will jockey for the bride’s bouquet. They draw on cocktail napkins the order in which they will traipse down the aisle on the arms of Ian’s brothers and golf buddies. Before long, the event takes on the festive air of a rehearsal dinner. There are toasts, manicure comparisons, complexion reassurances, last-minute orders regarding who will bring what item to the church, though it is far from the last minute. The last minute, Shel thinks, is before you say those words you can’t easily take back: “I do.” But of course people take them back all the time, sparing no difficulty. Even last minutes can stretch out across eons. Even last minutes can be undone.
The happy couple is busy talking to other people. Ian works the room, becoming blurry with perpetual motion. Betsy stands at the center of her bridal court. She is tan and firm of bicep. Her sundress dangles strappily off delicate shoulders, her diamond necklace sparkles in the hollow of her collarbone.
“Jesus, Betsy, could you look any hotter?” says Angelica, the chief organizing bridesmaid, who sports fire engine red fingernails and snaps picture after digital picture. “You are going to be such a hot bride, girl. Everyone in this room is jealous of you right now. ”
If Fat Lloyd hears all this, Shel can’t tell. He’s in work mode and brings Shel whatever she asks for, and a couple things she doesn’t. “On the house,” he says. “It’s graduation day.”
In the pre-wedding commotion, she’s nearly forgotten her CPR charges, who have been pushed to the periphery: a day care owner, one rookie firefighter from Ladder Company 12, the forty-ish soon-to-be grandmother who admits, after a beer, her fear that she will be stuck raising her reckless teenage daughter’s baby. Shel sends them a round of drinks, including one for Ian.
When Fat Lloyd pulls the tap for the Bud Light, it sputters foam. Shel jumps up. “I’ll get it,” she says, and heads downstairs to change the keg. The other bartender, Phil, nods his thanks. Happy hour is The Dalmation’s busiest time of the week.
It’s a relief to be in the cool basement, to be alone. Like last time, she finishes the task quickly and eases into Fat Lloyd’s office chair. The computer is turned off. She leans her head back and closes her eyes, trying to distinguish the various voices above her head, the stabbing of stilettos into the wood-plank floor, the shuffling clump of men’s thick-soled dress shoes.
Shel’s eyes snap open like window shades. Fat Lloyd is smirking at her. She starts to get up, but he motions for her to stay put. He settles into a creaky wooden chair on the other side of the old wooden teacher’s desk, as if she were interviewing him for a job.
“You holding up okay?” he asks. Rather than answer, Shel picks up the Magic 8 Ball resting next to the keyboard. She gives it a shake, then holds it out for him to see: BETTER NOT TELL YOU NOW. They smile at one another with their mouths, not their eyes.
“Ian’s a shitty tipper,” Fat Lloyd confides, his hands clasped over his big belly.
“Actually, I think I forgot to tip after the last round,” Shel says.
“You get dispensation.”
He rolls his eyes comically to the ceiling, where patrons creak the floorboards from the other side. “You’re bar family,” he says. “We’re supposed to take each other for granted.”
The footsteps on the stairs are Ian’s; he knocks on the doorframe and steps inside. “Betsy’s looking for you, Shel,” he says. “It’s about her wedding dress—she’s lost more weight or something.”
“Be right up,” Shel says, though Ian’s already clomping up the stairs. She is no longer thinking of naked dinners. Fat Lloyd gathers some papers off the desk and shuffles them around in his hands, acting like a bartender who’s busy doing something other than eavesdropping.
“It’s my dress,” she tells him softly.
He drops the sheaf of papers. “She’s wearing your dress?” Fat Lloyd’s eyebrows shoot up. “The dress? No. She doesn’t deserve it.”
Shel is conflicted. She agrees with Lloyd, her benevolent protector, her bar family, the big brother she never had. But Betsy is her real family. Her baby sister in braces, always in braces, even with straight teeth, even as a hot bride. Betsy was just a kid who knew what she wanted and went for it. There was something to be said for that.
“There’s something to be said for . . .” Shel starts, but can’t finish.
There is nothing to be said. Not much, anyway. Fat Lloyd watches her face carefully, and she doesn’t look away. She studies him back. Extra weight ages people, even children. They get treated older than they are, taken for small, middle-aged adults. She can tell Fat Lloyd’s been big all his life, but his eyes are young. His face would be, too, if he shed some pounds.
She glances down at the desk. The papers are printouts from the dating site—his matches. He sees her looking but doesn’t cover up the pages. His profile picture is shown, too: double chin and all, grinning from behind the bar. The lighting’s a little dark, but it’s a good likeness. Women will know who they’re getting with this one.
She’s about to ask how the dating’s going when he preempts her. “I saw you in your dress,” he blurts.
“My wedding dress?”
“I came by that day to see if you wanted company. I was parked down the street, trying to decide if I should ring the bell. I didn’t know if you were the type who’d want to be alone, or what. And I sorta felt responsible, about the wedding not happening and all.”
“You saw me in my dress?” Shel has a single focus now. She fails to hear what else he is telling her.
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “Yeah. Walking down the block like you owned it. You looked nice. Very pretty. You know.”
She does know, though nobody had ever told her. She’d made that dress for herself, and she wore it well on the day she was supposed to. And after all this time: somebody had seen. And not just neighborhood kids who thought she was strange and hilarious, somebody who didn’t matter. She had been seen for who she was, for who she wanted to be. Not a bride, necessarily. Just someone who made something beautiful and was worthy of it.
“C’mon, kiddo,” he says. She is still fairly certain they are the same age. “We’re wanted upstairs.”
She senses his deflation, unable to pinpoint herself as its cause. She walks ahead of him on the stairs, conscious of his wheezing along the short flight. Instinctively she slows, turning to ask if he’s all right. The trainer in her is mentally practicing chest compressions, calculating the pressure she would have to apply for a man his size, wondering how to get his body to the landing if needed. Performing CPR on the stairs wouldn’t be ideal, but she could manage.
Fat Lloyd rests one hand on his heart. His color’s good, though his eyes are a bit flatter than they were back in the office. Shel wants to take his pulse, but he waves her off.
“I’m good,” he assures her. “Though I could always be better.”
They blink their way into the still-daylight of the bar like a couple of moles. Ian and Betsy are in the middle of a passionate discussion. Over what? Appetizer choices? Whose teeth are whitest? Ian disengages first, framing Shel and Fat Lloyd with his hands as if to take a picture. Somebody’s Nikon sits on the bar, but nobody makes a move for it.
“On three,” Ian calls, preparing to click the imaginary shutter.
Shel moves a little closer to Fat Lloyd. He is catching his breath and puts his shaky hand at the small of her back. The hollow warms. The two of them stand there, smiling on cue, acting as if this counts.