It is Fish Fry Friday at Elks Lodge #1291, and Marsha smells like cod, oil, and tartar sauce. She catches a whiff of herself as she slides into her Ford pickup for a cigarette and grimaces, unlit Marlboro Red dangling from her chapped lips. She squirms for a lighter, patting the breast pocket of her polo, then her apron, which is caked with food waste. She must’ve never gotten her lighter back from John the bartender after that last rush. She finds her Zippo in the glove compartment, lights the Red, and inhales, watching the parking lot slowly empty. The nearly dead who frequent Elks Lodge #1291 really know how to pack the house.
Marsha stares into the rearview and inspects the crow’s feet lining her face. She doesn’t roll down the window at first, instead allowing the thick, gray smoke to surround her, move through her. It tastes stale, but she doesn’t mind. In fact, she likes the sensation of her throat burning. It makes her feel safe somehow. She cracks the window, pushes the cigarette tip through the slit. She can still smell herself—it’s as if she bathed in a cooler of raw, silky fish—so she rolls down the window completely, catching Sam the dishwasher in her side-view mirror. Her eyes shift to the clock on the dash. It’s just after ten. Closing time, finally.
He joins her in the pickup. “Sorry I’m late.” His biceps tense as he manages the heavy weight of the door. Marsha can see his acne, even in the streetlight glow.
She shakes her head. She’s suddenly antsy, yearning for touch, so she drums her fingers on the steering wheel. “Do you have the stuff?”
“Yeah,” he says, shifting his weight and retrieving a plastic baggie from his pocket.
“Good.” She smells the weed—dirty, dried up, but it’ll do. “I gotta fill up the ketchup bottles, vacuum, and get the hell outta here. Rhonda handled my last check, so I’m gonna break her off a bud.”
He nods. “Want to grab a beer or something?”
Marsha can hear the excitement in his voice, and she thinks he should save it for a girl his age. She’s old enough to be his mother, after all. She stares at him, remembering what he looks like naked: his protruding hip bones, the freckles on his boyish chest, the trail of blond hair leading from his belly button to groin. She knows she could fuck him real quick behind the dumpsters, and no one would know. She lets the thought float for a moment. “I can’t, sorry.” She takes another drag. “I gotta date.” She forces the cash into his clammy hands. “There’s a little extra there for your trouble.”
Just after eleven, Marsha arrives in Eaton Park and pulls into the Circle K. She yanks the emergency break then recovers some tip money from her bra. It’s so busy in the store that she has to put the six-pack of Pabst and the gallon of milk on the floor while she waits.
“That’ll be all?” the clerk Jim Strickland mutters when she approaches the counter. His eyes are on the items on the counter, then on the cash register.
“Uh, no. I need a pack of smokes.”
He pulls a pack of Reds from the display behind him, grins when he notices it’s her, and winks with his good eye.
“Thanks.” She smiles. The glass eye used to freak her out, but now she kind of likes it.
She hands him three fives, watches him count the change back to her, his hands large and rough. Their fingertips touch, and she lingers for a moment.
When she parks in her driveway, she notices Marge’s Civic is gone from next door. Richard’s van is gone, too. Phillip Jr.’s friend William’s Camaro is there, parked in the drainage ditch. Two beaters she doesn’t recognize are parked in the driveway. Phillip must be having another one of his parties. Marsha hasn’t been asked to babysit the Collins children in years, but she still watches their house. It’s a hard habit to break. She used to watch Phillip, Jr., Daniel, and Tammy daily when Phil first went to prison. Marge was left raising the three of them on her own and needed some help. But that was almost five years ago. It is quiet at the Sanchez house across the street, but Marsha knows the mother is a nosy cunt, so she won’t be surprised if the police are called.
About fifteen minutes later, Marsha hears the telephone ringing when she steps out of the shower. She grabs a towel and runs into the bare living room, still dripping. Her scent is flowery now that she’s scrubbed off the film of fish.
“I’ll be leaving here soon,” Jim says in a hurried, husky voice. “I’ve just got to switch out the coffee filters and do a once over and—”
“Okay.” Her nipples harden. She swirls the cord in her fingers.
“I’ll see your beautiful ass within the hour.”
“I can’t wait.” She hangs up the phone, scurries into her bedroom.
Marsha stares at her naked body in the hanging mirror on the back of her bedroom door: the wormy stretch marks on her hips and thighs, the sun spots on her shoulders, the razor burn on her bikini line. She gazes at her small, still-perky breasts and the muff of black hair covering her vulva. Her body, in spite of the tectonics of time, still excites her after all these years, and she longs to share it with Jim, who’s been coming over weekly since his wife went into a coma after that terrible wreck on the 4. She brushes her pubic hair—still damp—with her fingers and runs her hand up her torso, petting her breasts. She shivers, feels a pang of arousal in her belly.
She feeds her cat, rolls a joint with the herb from Sam, and goes through the pile of mail on her coffee table. She’s still waiting to hear about her dead father’s life insurance policy. Nothing but utility bills, dollar store coupons, and credit card statements in her hands. She cracks open a beer, glances at the clock on the stove. She hates smoking the cheap stuff; it always gives her a headache. But she needed something to relax and Phillip told her he was dry when they saw each other this morning.
Marsha is clothed when Jim rings the doorbell, but just barely. She’s wearing short Soffe shorts, the kind worn for cheerleading, without underwear and a men’s wife-beater tank top. She is braless as well as shoeless. She can still smell Phillip’s scent on the shirt even though she washed it after the last time. She’s confident Jim won’t notice.
His hands are on her as soon as he’s inside. His lips kiss her face, neck, chest, and he strokes her hair, squeezing her ass and pulling her closer. She sighs and groans, unzipping his Wranglers and drawing him, now shirtless, into her bedroom. Jim is one of Marsha’s favorite lovers, even with the glass eye and beer gut. There’s something in the desperation of his touch.
They lie in her bed afterwards, smoking cigarettes and drinking Pabst. Her bare leg is draped across his. “Can I get you something to eat?” she asks, stubbing out her cigarette and breaking through the silence that has encased them.
“No, I’m good.” He takes a final drag, exhales through his nose. “I had something at the store.” He crushes the cigarette on the metal of the ashtray and it hisses.
“Pork rinds aren’t a meal, Jim.” Marsha drags herself up into a seated position. “I got some fried cod and fries in the fridge. A roll, too, with butter. Let me go fix it for you.”
“I’m not hungry.”
Suddenly bored, she grinds him, breathes hot air into his ear, kisses him wildly, and discovers he is still flaccid. She caresses his soft penis, hoping to feel it grow.
“Can we just lay together for a while?” he whispers, putting his hand on top of hers and giving it a pat. “I’ve been thinking of you so much, how it feels to touch you, smell you, taste you. Now, I don’t want to let you go.”
Marsha doesn’t know what to say. She wants Jim to either go home or go to sleep—that’s why she offered him her shift meal. She didn’t sign up for this sappy shit when she first blew him in the Circle K storage closet almost a year ago. He was just so lonely, so defenseless, so embarrassed. She rests her cheek on Jim’s chest, listening to the sound of his heartbeat. After a while, his breathing becomes heavy and a gurgle erupts from his throat. He is snoring. Marsha leaves the bed slowly, so as not to wake him, and decides to finish the joint in the garage.
As soon as she lifts up her garage door to clear out the smoke, she sees Phillip Jr. and a few of his friends in the driveway; most are leaning against cars and smoking. He is taller than most everyone around him and stands in the center of a circle of teens. He looks over in her direction and then looks away quickly. Marsha does the same, for this is a practiced exchange between them.
She’s still sitting out there smoking when Phillip’s party dies and all cars but the Camaro have sped off into the Polk County pre-dawn. It is after three a.m. and she has finished all the Pabst. The ashtray is crammed full. She has gone through all of the magazines and has started rolling another joint. When she hears the squeak of the garage door opening next door, her heart hammers in her chest. She stops rolling the joint and looks up to greet him. Even though she knows she can’t bring Phillip inside, not even into the living room for a Mountain Dew—which she keeps in the fridge because of him—the thought excites her. If they were to fuck in the garage, Jim would technically be on the other side of the wall. She could be quiet.
But Phillip is not alone like Marsha. She realizes this when he comes into view. He is walking on the lawn towards the Camaro, William’s keys jingling in his hands. A petite female companion trails behind him like a shadow. They walk close together, but they don’t hold hands. William, Marsha thinks, might be too wasted to take the girl home, so Phillip has offered, good boy that he is. Phillip unlocks the passenger side door of the Camaro and presses the girl onto it. Then he leans in and kisses her, thrusting himself closer to her body. Marsha imagines the youth of the girl’s scent, her firm ass and perfect breasts, how she probably giggles when things get too hot and heavy. They kiss for a while against the car. In the darkness, with their subtle movements, they look like one body. Marsha lights another cigarette though her mouth is dry. She feels a mixture of arousal and pain. When Phillip and the girl unfasten themselves from each other, Phillip walks around the car to the driver’s side, but not before glancing at Marsha.
When she finishes her cigarette, she jerks the garage door down and walks back into the house. Jim is still sleeping, and he has swallowed the bed. Lying on his belly, his arms grasp her pillow, legs spread vulnerably. She tugs at the wife-beater, pulls it over her head. Then, she takes off her shorts, and goose bumps appear on her skin. She peeks at herself in the hanging mirror and then looks away. She looks again because she can’t stop herself and notices the slight sag of her ass and the way her belly sticks out, just a little, when she turns to the side. As she turns her body to face the mirror head on, she finds she looks better, younger. With makeup on, she can still pass for thirty.
Jim stirs in his sleep, and Marsha sees his reflection in the mirror. His eyes are still closed. Another gurgle, then a gasp. He begins snoring again. Though his snoring sometimes irritates her, bores her, she doesn’t mind tonight. The sound reminds her of what silence feels like, so she welcomes it. There is a small spot in the bed now that Jim has rolled over. She idles, touches with her fingertips the place marked for her body, and lies there, ashamed because for a moment she forgot it existed at all.
Emily Hoover is a fiction writer and book reviewer based in Las Vegas. Her fiction has most recently appeared in Anti-Heroin Chic and FIVE2ONE Magazine. Her book reviews have been published by Fiction Writers Review, The Los Angeles Review, Necessary Fiction, Ploughshares blog and others.