Disclaimer:  This is a work of fiction with scenes of intimacy between women. All of its contents are intended for mature, legal age audiences only.


Between a Memory and a Dream
by LA Tucker © 2002


Part I:  You Don't Know How It Feels to Be Me

Some people have been alone so long; they've forgotten that there is any other way to be.

Marie Bach stopped in front of the two-story red brick building on the corner with the darkened windows and looked upward.  There were four windows lined across the top floor, each open so the soft spring breeze could waft in.  The screens themselves looked old and wood framed, but they appeared in good condition. She took a step back and noticed the windows had the prerequisite mini-blinds hanging in them.  She took a few more steps, this time around the side of the building, and looked up again, seeing more of the same screens and blinds therein. She frowned, and shrugged her shoulders, tossing her tight curls out of her eyes so she could get a better look around.

She turned on the sidewalk, looked up at the street sign, and then up and down the streets at the intersection.  It was an intimate, old neighborhood, with two-story wood framed houses, most likely built in the late 1930's. Most of the houses looked somewhat alike, with small porches and even tinier front yards that touched the cracked cement of the sidewalk that bordered the street.  The houses were generally in decent repair, some of them deserved a new coat of paint, a new roof or a simple window washing, but all in all, they looked friendly, comfortable and completely forgettable. Some of the front porches had window boxes newly planted with petunias or posies, a majority of the porches sported a softly flapping American flag. The houses were nearly shoulder to shoulder, lining each street, north and south and east and west. They had small, claustrophobic driveways next to them, barely large enough to pull in and open the doors without knocking a hole into the neighbor’s siding.  The cars parked street side were all at least 5 years old, inauspicious and basic, and some of them could probably be considered junkers.

It was an old neighborhood, the houses holding either longtime residents who had moved there not long after the houses were new or young people, perhaps young marrieds, who came up with a borrowed down payment for a low cost fixer-upper.  It was a working class neighborhood, probably at one time inhabited by folks of a certain ethnicity, but as years went by, the people became more of a melting pot of local flavors. Most, if not all of them cherished the warm security of knowing each other, all attending the same churches, their children in the same schools, and they all looked out for each other with the idea of maintaining the closeknit atmosphere.

Marie sniffed the air, and found it clean and fresh, carrying no discernible nose-wrinkling odors that might disturb her varied and irritating multitude of allergies.  Her most recent home had been downwind from a dog food factory, only a few hundred yards down a hill from the stench spewing smokestacks, and she'd had an almost constant nagging headache the two years she lived there.  Now she had to move because her apartment building was being sold to settle an estate.  She was not terribly unhappy with this turn of events.

As she turned again to face the corner building, she looked at the first floor curtain darkened windows, with neon signs touting different brands of beer, and noticed the small, hand-printed post tucked into the corner of the window to the left of the door.  The sign read exactly the same as the classified ad in the newspaper she had clutched in her hand, 2nd FL STUDIO FURN /INCL UTIL.

She walked towards the 3 steps that led to the broad and ancient wooden door of the corner bar, and read the gaily painted, if scratched and faded letters painted across the breadth of it.

THE DUCK INN.  She turned the knob tentatively to see if the door was unlocked, and went in.

"We don't open until 2."

Marie started, and looked quickly around the darkness of the room for the source of the voice. The large room was sparely lit by a small light over the cash register behind the length of a polished wood bar.  She could make out the forms of square tables around her, surrounded by older wooden chairs with seats covered over with hideous plaid seat covers.  She squinted in the direction of the bar, thinking that was the most logical location for the disembodied voice to be coming from.  She saw movement there, and then realized it was merely her reflection showing between the bottles of liquor lining the back of the mirrored wall behind the bar.

She nearly jumped straight out of her skin when she felt a soft tap at her shoulder. She whirled, and found a woman standing behind her, smiling softly at her.

"Sorry," the woman apologized, half for scaring her, and half for reiterating her last statement, "But we don't open until 2"

Marie blinked, and tried to compose herself.  Her jangled nerves traveled from her quickly beating heart down into her arm, which was waving the rolled up newspaper at the stranger, barely holding back the urge to smack the stealthy woman smartly on the nose for startling her.  Instead, she continued waving the newspaper, using it as a prop for her explanation, irritation showing plainly in her voice.  She didn't like being snuck up on.  "I came to see about the studio," she said coolly. "The door was open."

The woman was still smiling, feeling a little bad for frightening the prospective tenant.  She threw the bar towel she had clutched in her hand over her shoulder, and apologized again, this time smiling to show her teeth, which in her mind meant she was trying hard to be charming. "Oh, yeah, hey, my bad.  I just got here 10 minutes ago, and I guess I left the door unlocked."

The curly headed woman nodded and said nothing.

"Would you like to see the apartment?  Sure you would, otherwise you wouldn't have ...."

"That would be nice."  Marie said stiffly, still grasping the newspaper tightly.

"Tell you what; hang on just one second while I hit the lights in the breaker box in the back room. One second."

Marie nodded again, this time at nothing, because the woman was already moving away from her to go through a swinging door at the left end of the bar.

Marie blinked when the lights came on, and took the time to take a look around the bar now that it was illuminated.   It was still far from bright, most of the light coming from recessed low wattage bulbs behind the bar and around the perimeters of the room.  There were tables scattered in no discernible pattern throughout the bar, the walls were covered with predictable sports emblems and plaques, lots of photographs and there was a pool table and jukebox and some sort of old videogame in the space to the left of the door where the woman had disappeared.  On the bar itself, propped up against a support post, was a small chalkboard with TODAY'S SPECIALS permanently stenciled across the top of it, and chalk smear below it.  The floors below her feet were covered with a dark and worn linoleum, each table had little ornamentation on it other than a little napkin stand that also held glass salt and pepper shakers and cheap metal ashtrays.

Well used, unrenovated and smelling faintly of cheap cigars, cigarettes, stale beer and furniture polish, The Duck Inn was the epitome of the neighborhood bar, unpretentious, old and comfortable. The newest item in the whole place was probably the large softball trophy sitting prominently atop the ancient cash register.  As she waited for the woman to return, Marie noticed that there was more decoration to the place than she originally had noticed.  There were old watercolor prints of mallards in flight on the walls, and carved duck decoys on a few flat surfaces, all in keeping, she supposed, with the name of the establishment.  She shifted her backpack more comfortably onto her shoulder and wiped her sweaty palms on her pants after carelessly tossing the newspaper onto a nearby table.

The woman reappeared, pushing though the swinging door. They both took a quick opportunity to give each other the once over while she walked back to where Marie was standing.

The bar owner was about Marie's size, perhaps an inch or two taller, but whether the height difference had to do with her footwear, Marie didn't have the time or inclination to check.  The woman had thick dark hair, a shade or two lighter than her eyebrows, a dead giveaway that she had dyed it, perhaps because she was bored, or because she wanted to wash away the grey reminders that she was getting older. The hair was a uniform shoulder length all around, ridiculously thick, with a soft wave that framed the strong shape of her face.  Her eyebrows were equally thick, but sharply defined, and her eyes, a simple friendly blue.  A wider than necessary nose was parked over full lips, and as she smiled again, Marie could see straight white teeth, so perfect that they couldn't have occurred naturally, they had to be the result of the skills of a orthodontist when she was in her youth.  Which, Marie mentally calculated, was a good 30 or so years ago. She tagged the woman as being just slightly older than her own 34 years.

The woman put out her hand, also scrutinizing Marie. She lightly shook Marie's proffered hand. "Hi, I'm Dorothy Salinas," she began as she always did when she introduced herself, to save time explaining later, "But everyone calls me 'Duck'.  My mom was the original Duck, and I've kind of inherited the name, " and her arms spread and waved in the general direction of the building itself, "and this place is mostly mine now, too.  Including the apartment upstairs you want to see."

Marie politely replied, "Marie.  Marie Bach."

Duck nodded her acknowledgment of names exchanged and motioned Marie past the pool table and towards a door marked Storage. She walked that way, with Marie following, and stopped in front of the door.  Duck turned and grinned again at Marie.  "Like Johann Sebastian Bach?"

"No, PDQ," said Marie automatically. It was a bad joke that few people understood, and the bartender seemed not to get it either. Marie was not disappointed in her puzzled expression, few people did get it.  At least the bar owner hadn't come up with something lame like Bachman Turner Overdrive, or Bach ... like a chicken? "You're not trying to rent me a storage closet, are you?" she commented, confused.

Dottie laughed a low yet pleasantly rising chortle. "Ah, well, that's why it's so cheap."

Marie's eyebrows furrowed, and Duck opened the door to reveal not a closet, but a stairway. "Secret entrance.  Just like the Batcave.  C'mon." She headed up the stairs, explaining as Marie followed behind. "This whole building used to be a house, I guess, originally.  The upstairs used to be one big floor, but we needed storage space, so they took a couple of rooms away on one side, and Pop made the remaining area into a studio apartment. The same old guy, Tony, he lived here for like 30 years, but he died last year. Not in the apartment, so don't worry about that. That would kind of give me the shivers, you know? Anyway, where was I? Oh. So we finally got the place repainted and fixed up, and well, I decided to rent it out to the right person."  They'd arrived at the top of the steps, and there was a short hallway with three doors, two to the right and one to the left. Duck headed for the one on the left, opened the door and stepped inside.

Marie entered too, and immediately liked what she saw.  One large room, with a newish, neutral brown futon couch. The space was airy and well lit, the breeze easily moving through the small studio apartment from the open windows at the front, left side, and back of the long room.  There was a nondescript coffee table with a matching end table, and a large cushioned rocking chair across from the couch, all on dully polished hardwood floors with area rugs scattered about.  To the rear of the room was a small kitchenette, with a regular sized gas stove and refrigerator, and a small kitchen table with chairs on either end of it.  There was a small microwave, and some sturdily built white cabinets over a small kitchen sink and short counter area placed between the large appliances. The kitchen area had its own covering of a newly laid linoleum floor.  To the left of the kitchen area was another door, which Marie rightfully guessed belonged to the bathroom.  She began walking about, sticking her head into the small bathroom, and saw a new fiberglass bathtub enclosure across from the tiny sink and rather ancient toilet.  She nearly hummed her approval as she went about inspecting.

As Marie was walking about, Duck took time to gauge the woman who appeared quite interested in renting the apartment.  She noted the strong legs in baggy khaki pants, the scuffed penny loafers, and the loose sweatshirt that hid her build until one looked down her arms to her thin wrists which led to a few ring covered fingers.  With only the back of Marie's head visible, Duck smiled softly as she noted the mass of unruly curls that was held back away from the prospective renter's face by a low placed decorative clasp between her shoulder blades.  The hair itself was a wonder, not only the sheer casual bushy messiness of it, but of the number of colors that it encompassed.  Somewhere in those multicolored blonde strands, ranging from ash blonde to reddish light brown to nearly platinum blonde, Marie's true color lurked, but in the short time allowed her, Duck could not  begin to hazard an educated guess what that true shade might be.  She mused for a moment that the woman's hair reminded her of the different bronzing hues of a tree in middle autumn.  When Marie turned around and found the bartender staring, they both blushed and tried to cover for the embarrassing moment.

"Nice place. What utilities are included?"  Marie asked, adjusting her dark backpack and looking around again.

"Uh, heat, electric, water.  There's a dumpster behind the bar you can toss your trash in. We recycle too; you can put that stuff in the recycling box in the kitchen of the bar.  Back where I turned the lights on earlier."  The bartender had yet another moment to study Marie, and noted the pale brows over small but intense eyes, the color unobservable from this distance away.  The nose was sharp; the lips were small and pursed; the chin, small and a bit pointed. All in all, the woman looked attractive and and ethereal, but that wasn't Duck's main concern right now.  Right now, she had to ascertain some important financial facts. "Telephone, you have to have installed and pay for yourself. If you want cable, that's extra too.  If you have a car, you can park behind the building, there's two or three spots back there, nobody really uses them.  Everyone that comes in the bar usually either walks here, or parks out on the street."  She cleared her throat. "Are you working?"  In this neighborhood, this was a very valid question.

"A couple of different jobs. Yeah. And if you need references from my old landlord, I have them right here in my 'pack. I was there for two years, no problems."  She pulled a sheet out from the backpack, and handed it to Duck, who quickly perused it, and nodded her acceptance. "How much upfront?" Marie asked, mentally crossing her fingers.

"First, last and security."  Duck had asked some of the bar patrons advice about this point, she had never really rented the place out before.

"How about first and last, and when I get moved out of my old place, and get my security deposit back from there, you can have that then?" Marie asked hopefully.

Duck considered this a bit, running her hand thoughtfully through her dark tresses, pulling the ends out from beneath the collar of her plain blue polo shirt. "Well ..." she couldn't help but notice the earnest expression on the woman's face, "I guess we could let that go for now.  And you could pay the security deposit a little bit each month, if you're strapped for funds."  She felt like she wasn't performing the conscientious landlord duties, so she asked again, rephrasing her last closed end question. "Where did you say you worked again?"

Marie was this close to closing the deal. She could feel it in the expectant way the woman was looking at her. "Let's see." She licked her lips and began. "I groom dogs part time. I pet sit, mostly going to people's homes once or twice a day, depending on what they want.  I'm a substitute morning bus driver for the school district, that's pretty steady work, though I have the summer off. I teach ballroom dancing at the YMCA down on State Street the first and third Thursday of every month.  I clean a Lutheran church for four hours on Saturdays, I do all the landscaping and grass cutting down at their senior center.  I do some tailoring, some alterations. I design and make costumes for the folks involved in Medieval Fairs."  She took another breath, gathering her thoughts. "I used to teach a once a month weekend motorcycle safety course for the state, but since I sold my motorcycle, I don't know if I'll be doing that this summer or not.  Oh, and I'll be teaching an American cooking class down at the Y too, this summer. You'd be surprised at how many people can't make a decent meatloaf." Her shy demeanor turned serious again. "And I'd like to continue teaching banjo, but wasn't sure if you'd allow my students up here or not. I wasn't sure where the entrance was, so maybe I'll have to find some other place to do that." She stopped, sure she had left one or two of her current jobs out, but she was too rattled to think clearly right now. "Well, what do you think?"

Duck was having one hell of a hard time thinking anything at all.  She was too busy trying to overcome her surprise and wonderment. "About what?" she replied lamely, her eyes nearly round in astonishment at the laundry list of paying activities the woman in front of her was involved with. She got a grip. "About the banjo lessons?  I don't see a problem with that ... if your students don’t mind coming through the bar to get up here. That's the only entrance, besides the fire escape.  I was thinking about putting in an outside staircase and another entrance to here, but haven't had the chance."  Banjo? Banjo?

"They're mostly adults, so I don't see them having any problems."  Marie said matter of factly, seemingly unaware of Duck's shocked expression.  She was already trying to find a suitable place to put her sewing machine. Ah, there, that far corner. Good light and I can use that table. She came back to herself when she heard Duck clear her throat.

"Well, I guess we have an agreement, Ms. Bach.  When did you want to move in? It's going to have to be either in the morning or early afternoon before we open, or on Sundays when we're closed."

"Would next Sunday be too soon?  I don't really have much furniture, I'm glad this place is furnished, I like to live light.  Just a few books, clothes and my sewing machine..."

Duck smiled, and shook her hand to close the deal. And your banjo. Don't forget the banjo.

Duck had left the bar in the hands of her somewhat capable short order cook, Garrett, and made her way across the street to the house she shared with her father.  She did this every night that she tended bar, every night of her life for the last two years.  It had been two years since her mother had passed away at Handon Hospital, a slow and torturous death for both the old woman, her family and especially for her husband of over fifty years, Albert.  Since his wife had passed away, Albert was half living his existence, pining for her and submitting slowly to the twin afflictions of his particular brand of old age: loss of purpose and a fading mind.  He rarely remembered now what had happened just the day before, or sometimes even hours ago, but he could recall with crystal clarity the first time he had set eyes on Dorothy, his beloved wife and best friend.  He would regale his daughter, his wife's namesake, with that story time and time again, unaware that he'd told her just the day before.  He was barely living in the present, and holding on tightly to his past.  His daughter was his best audience.  She told him, plenty of times, that someone had to be the audience, and she was quite content being there for him.

She'd warmed up a couple of plates of some leftover ziti in the microwave, and settled onto the couch across from him in his lazyboy chair, always faced towards the large TV.  Today he was watching ESPN, one of his favorite channels, that and the History Channel, where he would watch documentaries on WWII for hours, just for the joy of the memories that time brought to him.  Days when he felt vital, young and in love.  These days, well, there were just too many baseball strikes and threats of terrorist attacks for him to truly enjoy anything but the small pleasure his daughter's company always brought, and the memories always just a thought or two away in his mind.

She handed him his plate. They had stopped eating at the kitchen table long ago; it felt like someone was missing there.  "So, any good games on tonight?"

He blew on his pasta, and shook his head. "Just those damned Braves.  I hate 'em.  America's Team, my ass. Just like those damned Cowboys -- like anyone other than a fool Texan would like those sons a bitches."  This was Albert's normal speaking style; he was never hesitant to express exactly how he felt about any topic at hand.  Too many years behind a bar serving factory workers shots and beers will do that to a guy.

These opinions were nothing new to Duck, but she nodded in agreement anyway. "Hey, I rented the apartment over the bar out today.  Some woman with a million jobs.  Seemed kind of nice, a little strange, but nice." Really strange, come to think of it.

"That's good.  Place has been empty now for too long. Can use the income from it, huh?  Maybe you can finally get a new car."  His eyes twinkled, and he smiled.

She was pleased, as she always was, to see that smile, especially when he had his teeth in.  He'd had false teeth for over 30 years now, she could remember being an 8 year old girl who was so embarrassed when her daddy would pop them out and slip them in his front pocket just to tease her in front of her friends.  Her little friends all thought that her fun loving father was 'neat', but she had a young girl's idea of proper behavior for her parents, and false teeth tricks weren't high on her list of dignified manners.

"I don't need a new car, Pop.  I hardly drive anywhere now.  Everything I need is right here in the neighborhood."

"Everything?" he said, not looking at her, taking a big bite of his buttered Italian bread.

She shrugged that off. "I feel better, I guess, just having someone over the bar again.  How many times did Tony call the police for you and Mom because he heard noises down there, huh?  Too many to count.  The place has never been successfully broken into, thanks to having Tony live up there."

Albert wasn't listening, he was thinking about how much his daughter reminded him of her mother. He mopped up some sauce from his plate with his bread, and set the plate on the table next to him. The dark thick hair, the short neck, the light complexion that made her eyes stand out even more than they already did. The strong hands, with short nails, the thick forearms and her infrequent full smile. His daughter was a powerfully built woman; she had no problem hauling beer cases around like they were bed pillows.  Powerful yet gentle, capable of lifting her frail mother up, and softly depositing her wherever she wanted to sit or lay down.  He'd looked at his daughter on more than one occasion with envious eyes, especially the weeks and months before his wife's death, because he was no longer strong enough to physically care for her. So he sat by her bed, and watched his strong daughter do the tasks that he wanted to do for her, and it tore at his heart and ate away at his sense of virility.

"Pop?"  Duck repeated. "Did you hear me?  I asked if you wanted anything else before I head back to the bar.  I left you some brownies on the coffee table.  Maybe you could come over to the bar later, since there's no games on the TV?  Everyone there keeps asking about you."

There was nothing physically stopping her father from coming over to the bar.  He just had refused to do so, from the day after her mother's funeral on.  A few regulars came over to the house to see him, but he had brushed them off too many times and they were hard pressed to come over and see the cranky old coot any more.  Which made them sad. And some days, it made Duck very angry, because all the burden of her father's entertainment and companionship rested solely on her shoulders.

"No. No. There's something on one of the news shows I want to watch tonight."

She leaned over, and gave him a small kiss on the cheek, feeling how tight and soft it felt under her lips. "Well, if you need anything ..."

He smiled at her, and patted her arm. "I know, the buzzer."  There was a radio feed into the bar from the family house, with emergency buttons in many of the rooms.

"Right."  She headed towards the door. "Have a good night, Pop. See you tomorrow."

"Hey, Duck?  Tell Tony he still owes me twenty bucks from that Holyfield fight, will ya?"

Duck smiled, this one not a genuine one, and lately she was having trouble telling the difference between the two. "Sure will, Pop."

"So you got somebody new upstairs?  I was kind of hoping to rent that place out myself," Garrett said, peeved at his perceived loss of freedom.

Duck shook her head at him. "Listen, you had every opportunity to rent that place.  Jesus, you helped me paint it.  I got tired of listening to your grand plans for the place and went ahead and rented it out. Nice woman. Nicer than you.  I would have had to spend money to have you evicted from there at some point, and I'm not all that fond of lawyers. And I hate the district magistrate. He's had a bar tab here for 10 years, and he still hasn't paid enough on it to cover even a case of beer. So take your grandiose ideas, be glad your mother still puts up with you and hasn't thrown your skinny ass out on the street yet, and ... what the hell did you do to your hair this time?"

Garrett grinned at her, and lifted his hand to gingerly touch the bleached golden spikes on his head. "Pretty cool, huh?"

She squinted and shook her head. "How do you get that to do that?  Plaster of Paris?"

"Nope. Elmer’s."

She looked at him disbelievingly. "As in Glue?  Elmer's GLUE?"

"Yeah. Strong as nails." He tapped a few stiff spikes and she almost believed she could hear a faint clanking noise as his palm hit down on the tips of the short sharp spikes.

"What ever happened to Aqua Net?  That stuff was always like varnish."

She apparently thought that this hairdressing secret would be lost on the young man, but he surprised her. He constantly surprised her. "Nah, that stuff is bogus. Get a little rain on it and the whole thing fades."

They looked at each other for a few moments, him grinning, her frowning. A typical night at the bar with Duck and Garrett.

She took her keys out of her jeans’ pocket, and slipped them into the register slot to run a reading. "Whoa. Bad dinner crowd huh?"

"Well, not a lot of people thought that a tuna melt and fries was a good reason to eat out on a Tuesday night."

"Tuna melt?  That's what you came up with for today's special? A tuna melt? And you call yourself a cook?"

"No, you call me a cook; I call myself your slave."

She eyed him disapprovingly. "Could your pants get any lower and stay up by themselves?  What makes you think any self respecting young lady has the least desire to know what kind of underwear you have on?"

"Well, like my dad tells my mom, Duck -- just be glad he's wearing underwear!" he said rather cheekily. He switched gears, and tried to sound smooth. "Listen, Duck, do you need me around here any more tonight?  It's pretty slow, just the regulars, and they don't eat anything but the hard boiled eggs and the beer nuts anyway.  The kitchen is all cleaned up and everything ..."

She was still studying the register reading and didn't look up. "Yeah, it must have been really tough to clean up after, what, four tuna melts?  It probably took me longer to clean up after Dad and me tonight."

"How is Albert?"  Garrett hadn't seen him lately, but he was pretty much a fixture over at the house, running errands and occasionally checking on the old man after he left the bar at 9 each night.  From then on, it was just Duck and the neighborhood regulars.

"Same old same old.  Remembers 40 years ago like it was yesterday, and can't remember yesterday at all."  Her face twisted into a frown, but she just sighed it off. "Yeah, go ahead, nothing happening around here. I'll see you tomorrow."

Garrett brightened immediately. "Thanks, hey, do you want me to stop by over there before I head home?"

"No, he was fine when I left.  But, tomorrow, when I head over there for dinner, that woman who rented the room is supposed to stop by with a check and sign the lease, and I was supposed to give her the keys. She's moving in on Sunday.  Will you do that if I'm not here?"

"Sure, no problem.  Um, she good looking?  More importantly, is she single, my age?" he asked wolfishly.

"NO. I mean yes, she's very, uh, cute in a kind of hippy dippy kind of way. But she's more my age. Single, I'd guess, not sure."  She thought about it a minute. "I'd guess she was unattached, she probably wouldn't be renting a tiny studio apartment if she had a husband, huh?"

"Ya never know."  He shot back. "Your age, huh?  And hippy dippy? What's that mean?"

"You know ... kind of a wild looking free spirit type. Well, not really, but she has this like, not frizzy head of hair, just all kind of curly bent and sorta long and a million different colors."  She smiled at the remembrance of looking at that intriguing head of hair as she moved down the bar to empty an ashtray. "You'll have to see it for yourself to understand it."

Garrett's eyebrow rose. "Huh.  Sounds interesting."

Duck looked up at him as she ran a glass through the three bar sinks in front of her, pausing before she rinsed it in the sanitizer. "Yeah. Interesting. You could say that."

When Marie parked her little Mazda pickup truck in front of the bar on Sunday, she didn't notice the people sitting on the porch across the street from her.  She felt kind of weird unlocking the door to the bar, as if she was trespassing on private property, but it was the only way to get up to her apartment, and she supposed she would have to get used to it.  She'd packed conservatively, tossing unneeded items into the trash at her old apartment. The truck was loaded with small boxes, and the majority of her clothes, bedding and towels were hastily thrown into garbage bags. She lugged a few upstairs, plopped them down on the futon, and headed down to get another armload. As she entered the darkened bar again, she stopped and took another look around, frowning at the bottles lined up so straight and organized and deliberate, as though they were objects de art.  She never thought in a million years she'd ever be living above a tavern.  She'd almost prefer to live directly above that stinky dog food factory, instead of this place.  But the neighborhood was decent; at least she'd heard it was family oriented and rather peaceful. Just ten blocks south, the trouble started, the drugs and the more rundown properties, threats of gangs and much poorer living standards.  She was somewhat relieved that although she wasn't financially flush with funds, she still had the means to avoid living in a neighborhood like that. She'd come close to living in her car some years ago, and she wasn't about to let that happen again.  Never again.

When she stepped out into the daylight again, she was surprised to find Duck standing awkwardly behind her truck. She hadn't seen her new landlady since the day she'd rented the apartment, and she smiled curiously at her, not sure what she was doing standing there.

"Hi." Duck said, still mildly pissed at her dad, who was sitting watching them from his chair on the porch. He'd pestered her into going over to offer to help the woman unload her truck.  It didn't appear anyone else was there to help her move in.  Duck would have been just as happy to sit on that porch, but Albert appealed to her sometimes lacking decent manners, so rather than sit there and listen to him nag at her, she'd gotten up and walked across the street.  She probably would have done it anyway, but she liked to tease her Dad and argue with him a bit, she liked the banter and he liked to think that he was keeping his daughter on the straight and narrow path of  good social graces.

"Hello." Marie kept moving. The clouds overhead looked threatening, and for some reason, she wasn't happy to find the other woman standing there.

Duck, not sure of the reason for the cool reception, almost didn't make the offer, but then she glanced across the street and saw her father grinning at her. If she didn't make the overture, he'd harass her for the rest of the afternoon, or worse, he'd come over and try to help out himself and his back wasn't up to carrying anything up stairs any more.  In her opinion, 78 year old men always got an exemption from that kind of labor, and he was no exception. Although he was pretty healthy for his age, he still took blood pressure medication and cholesterol pills.  His back was chronically sore, the result of too many years of spending 10 hours a day standing behind a bar. Duck herself often felt a twinge in her lower back some nights, and she automatically went for the Aleve.  On slower nights she didn't feel bad about coming around and sitting with the customers at the bar.

With one more look at him, Duck returned her gaze to Marie, loaded down for her next trip up to the studio. "Thought you might need some help. Uh, do you want some help?"

Marie just shook her head. "That's OK, I have it under control."  But the raindrops started to fall and she mentally growled in frustration.

Duck hesitated, grabbed a box, and then another, and there was no more discussion about whether her help would be welcome or not.

By mutual silent assent, the women hauled the stuff directly into the bar, and left it there, trying to empty the truck as swiftly as possible to avoid the escalating rainfall.  It didn't take very long, and soon the truck bed was empty and there was quite a formidable pile stacked near the bottom of the steps leading up to the studio.  Both women were a little damp and winded, so Duck went behind the bar and grabbed a glass and poured herself a half glass of beer from the tap. Marie was starting to gather things to carry up the stairs when Duck called over to her. "Hey, take a break.  Want a beer or something?"

Marie, her arms full, was already heading up the steps. "No thanks, I want to get this done."

Duck stared at her retreating form, and then studied the foam cresting in the center of the glass. Did I do something wrong?  She couldn't think of a single thing. She seemed friendlier the other day. Maybe it was just her faking like she had a personality just so she could get the apartment. Duck drained the beer from the glass, determined to help the new tenant finish carrying her possessions up the stairs as quickly as possible, so she could go home and check on the lasagna she had in the oven.

Not much later, she was dashing across the street through the pouring rain, and an odd thought struck her. There's no way a woman who plays a friggin' banjo could go through life without a personality, is there?

Nearly a month went by and the two women saw each other nearly every day but barely acknowledged each other except for occasional quick comments about the weather or a silent wave.  Duck had done her duty, she'd pointed men and women and a couple of teenagers to the storage door entrance leading to Marie's apartment. After three weeks, she seemed to get a fix on the schedule of the young woman's comings and goings, which had an odd regularity considering all the jobs the woman held.  Every time she would see Marie cross through the bar, either coming or going, she tried to remember some of the jobs that Marie said she worked.  The banjo lessons were obvious and easy to guess, and she vaguely remembered something about ballroom dancing lessons on Thursday nights.

She also noticed that no one without a banjo case in hand went up Marie's steps, nor did the woman ever have anyone with her when she came in or departed for wherever she was going next.  Some weeks her comings and goings were more frequent, some days even more so. Duck remembered she’d said she went to people's houses to pet sit, so she figured that she must have bookings for those. The woman's wardrobe varied from day to day too; sometimes she left in one set of clothes and came home in another. With all the boring sameness of running a neighborhood bar, the game Duck played with herself trying to guess where Marie was going next kept her actively amused, but her curiosity was also nagging at her. She couldn't quite understand how a woman whose varied occupations seemed to center on needing to be somewhat socially competent could manage her life without posessing any social graces. It appeared the woman flitted through the bar like a distant and aloof apparition. There one second, gone the next.

On the first of the month, Duck had just opened the bar, and was sitting at a table reading the newspaper when she looked up to see Marie standing there, envelope in hand.

Duck couldn't help herself. She just had to try again.  At least to try and ease her raging curiosity. "Hi there. Off to work?"

Marie placed the envelope on the table, and said softly. "No, not for a couple of hours. I have a couple of students later. I have a light day today."  She flipped a few strands of hair out of her eyes and noticed the frank and friendly smile Duck was shooting her way. "Well, I suppose I should ..."

Duck kicked out the chair next to her, an invitation for her tenant to sit down. Just in case Marie missed the overt gesture, she backed it up with a verbal invite. "Take a load off. I wanted to talk to you about something."

Marie hesitated, and then sat down. She folded hands in her lap, and waited for Duck to begin the conversation.

"Well, it's like this," Duck said carefully, not knowing what the woman's reaction would be to her inquiry. "I remember you said you were going to teach an American cooking class ... don't know if you're doing that now, but ... I have a cook here, Garrett, who is totally clueless.  It's a wonder he can butter toast.  His idea of a menu is to melt cheese over some kind of meat or fish or fowl on two pieces of bread, and serve it with fries and a dill pickle on the side. We've lost a lot of dinner customers here since my mom had to stop cooking for the place some years back, and I was kind of hoping ..."

Marie interrupted her. "I really don't think I could cook here, my schedule’s very full ..."

Duck held up a hand. "Whoa. No, what I was thinking was maybe you could, in your spare time, teach him how to cook some stuff. Meatloaf would be a great start. Mashed potatoes. Gravy?  You know, like diner food?  That's what my mom used to make, and well, I was too busy climbing trees as a kid to pay much attention to how it all got put together."

Marie's expression changed from negative to thoughtful to an almost discernable interested one as she considered this. "Just meatloaf?  What else?"

Duck's smile broadened. "How about I leave that up to you?  Just simple stuff, a daily special that we could feature every week. You know, like Tuesday nights would be meatloaf night. People around here, if they like the stuff, they'll say, hey, honey, it's meatloaf night at The Duck Inn, let's go!" Then Duck's smile got very wide, because Marie actually did something unexpected, she laughed.  Duck laughed too, in pleased response. "Maybe some kind of chicken another day?  Swiss steak?  Just not anything that would be considered a 'melt'.  And nothing too complicated, because you never know when I might have to end up cooking on Garrett's day off. That could be a disaster!"

Marie was wearing an amused smile, and she relaxed in her seat, feeling a little more at ease. "I'll go upstairs and write up a sample menu, how's that?"

Duck was already out of her chair, hoisting herself over the bar to retrieve a pad and pen. "Better yet, why don't you stay right here with me, and we hammer out the details?" She sat back down and slid the items towards Marie. "Think about how you want to be paid for this. I have no idea how much time this will take, Garrett's not the brightest guy, and since it's more complicated than making a Pop Tart, it may take up a lot of your free time. But although he's a little on the goofy side, he'll catch on.  I think he's a little bored around here and needs a challenge."  She snickered. "OK, let me rephrase that. I'm getting tired of paying him to burn toast and watch MTV back in that big kitchen And I'll sneak back there and learn stuff too, but I want him to learn the bulk of it.  His grandmother was my mom's best friend, and he's been a godsend to us the last couple of years.  Just good having him here when I was too busy to be here."  She stopped there and a small frown formed on her face.

"Your mom, she's ...."

"Passed away, couple of years back now. Just me and my dad, in the house across the street. When mom was, well, in her last days, Garrett would make sure the bar got opened and running until I could get here later at night. He looks and acts like an eighteen year old, but he's 23 with absolutely no direction in life."

Marie chuckled. "That makes two of us."

"What, you act 18 but you're really 23?"  Duck teased.  Marie blushed, and Duck was really starting to feel good about coming up with this whole plan.

"No, silly, the no direction in life part."

"What, with the gazillion and one careers you have?  Dog sitting, ballroom dancing, grave digging?"

"I never dug graves, I never had the muscles, and besides, the shovel would mess up my carefully maintained banjo calluses." She lifted her hands, palms out to show the roughened pads on her fingertips to Duck.  "But I did sell burial plots for a short while there. That was a ton of fun. Not." Marie noticed the undeniable twinkle in the bartender's blue eyes. "You wouldn't believe the morbid humor in the funeral business. Pretty terrible stuff."

"Oh, I'd believe it." Duck shook her head. "I was an RN on the critical care unit at Talbot Memorial Hospital for twelve years. You had to have a sense of humor about the darker aspects of life working there." She saw Marie's eyes, which she realized were a very pleasant shade of light brown, widen in surprise. "What, you're surprised we could be ghoulish, or that I was a nurse?  This bartending gig, well, I just started it when mom got sick. She wanted to spend her last days at home, so I figured that taking over the bar would keep me closer to home. I quit my job, sold my house, and I've been living over there for around four years now.  Dad and Mom ran this place right up until Mom got sick. I brought Garrett aboard, and now, well, my Dad has his good days, his bad days but I still need to stay close to him. So here I am."

Marie found herself wanting to do something to ease the tired pain she saw in Duck's face, but she was at a loss as to what to do. This was the first real conversation she'd allowed herself to have with the woman, and she felt a flush of shame for the way she'd kept her distance from her. Duck seemed to be a very nice woman, a little gruff around the edges, but very pleasant and funny. She made a decision, it was the least she could do.

She grabbed the pen and flipped the pad open. "Well, let's get this place back on its food feet again, and maybe I'll consider it someplace I'd like to eat. Right now, you couldn't pay me to try Garrett's toast."  She started jotting things down, biting her lip as she wrote. "How about chicken and biscuits?" she asked, without looking up.

Duck leaned back in her chair, and her earlier sad thoughts floated away, watching the woman concentrating on the pad in front of her with such determination. "Yeah." She folded her arms across her chest, and got a little more comfortable. "Sounds really good."

As the weeks rolled numbingly by, and the spring flowed into the early weeks of a beckoning summer, Duck saw more of her tenant than she'd been privy to before.  But to Duck's consternation, Marie still seemed to avoid chatting with her for more than a few minutes at a time.  Marie would still enter the bar, returning from one of her many appointed rounds, or appear through the Storage door, and she'd wave and smile, but now she went directly into the kitchen in search of Garrett.

A week after Marie started spending a half hour to an hour here and there with Garrett, he came out of the kitchen one early afternoon with a meatloaf dinner on a plate, and placed it victoriously in front of a stunned Duck.  Two bites later, she was glad she'd approached the enigmatic blonde with her idea to teach the young man the cooking ropes, and she requested a second plateful to take over to her father.

Marie took in the whole exchange from the opened door of the kitchen, Garrett's hopeful expression when watching Duck take a tentative first bite, and the smiling approval as she swallowed.  Duck clapped Garrett on the arm, praised him enthusiastically, and turned and saw Marie watching silently from the doorway.  She gave Marie an approving thumbs up and a wink, and Marie found that the wink and the warm smile on Duck's face made her feel a glow that she rarely felt anymore. She was a very competent cook, having toiled in an actual diner in her younger years, and was used to compliments and satisfaction from her customers and the students she'd taught over the last couple of summers. Yet, for some reason, Duck's appreciation meant something more to her, and she found herself blushing, and looking down and wiping her hands nervously on the full white service apron she was wearing. When she looked up again, Duck was still congratulating the beaming young man with the spiked hair and the numerous piercings, and that warm body glow returned just watching the two of them interact. After a moment or two more, Marie went back into the kitchen feeling cheerful and elated.

She left the bar not much later, and she actually accepted an invitation to go see a movie at a local theater with one of her adult banjo students.  They went for coffee and pie afterwards, and Marie got home much later than she normally did, long after midnight.

The bar was empty, save for Duck who was sitting on a barstool reading a book with Baseball Tonight playing on the TV mounted over the bar.  Marie fully intended to just casually stroll by her with the most perfunctory of greetings, and continue to the stairs and up to her studio.  But instead, her steps faltered when Duck nodded at her, and she found her feet carrying her over to stop to stand next to the seated woman.

"Anything good?"  Marie asked, looking towards Duck's open book.

Duck closed it, so Marie could see the cover. "No, it stinks. I already know who done it. I think I knew on page twelve."

"Then why are you still reading it?"

Duck laughed sheepishly. "It's an ego thing; I like to congratulate myself for knowing I'm always right." She pushed the book away, and turned on the stool to face Marie, who was standing awkwardly with her thumbs hitched in the back pockets of her ever present baggy khakis with a loose and flowing linen top that made Duck think she looked a little like a flower child from the 60's, transplanted into the new millennium.  The look suited her flowing and unruly mane, and Duck was totally captivated, a soft grin crossing her face.

Marie found herself returning that grin, and then was completely overwhelmed by the thought that she didn't have the slightest idea what she was doing standing there. But she didn't move, and kept grinning.

Duck broke the awkward yet pleasant moment by speaking again. "Dad just loved the meatloaf!  He said it was better than Mom's.  And he was totally blown away that Garrett had actually made it."  She looked a little skeptical, and asked, "He did make it, didn't he?"

"Every bit. I just stood and watched. He made the mashed potatoes and the gravy, too, but I have to admit, the gravy was just a mix we doctored up with some pan drippings from the meatloaf pan.  But no, he made it.  I didn't even get my hands dirty."

"Well, Pop said that if we just get a reputation for serving the best meatloaf in town, and don't make anything but, then business is bound to pick up.  Maybe we can even start opening for lunch again. We had to quit that when time got so tight with Mom sick and no one to do the cooking. But I see bigger and better things in the future. Maybe a chain of Duck's Inn Meatloaf and Taters Diners all across the country." She snickered. "Or not." She flashed a rare full smile, and noticed Marie shyly shuffling her feet. Enough teasing, maybe teasing isn't the best way to go. "Anyway, so what's next on the menu?  Spareribs?  Spaghetti and meatballs?"

Marie saw that they both were interested in continuing their conversation and for the first time in what seemed like an eternity, she found herself sliding her butt onto a barstool. She gripped the edge of the bar, getting comfortable, well, as comfortable as she could in the surroundings.  She blocked out the deepest of her uneasy feelings, and answered Duck's question. "Chicken next.  Then maybe a few soups. Soups are good because you can make massive amounts, and store them. That's a great old fridge and freezer back there, we could really stock it up.  Soups don't sell well in the summer, but it's good to have a few just in case. And I have to teach him to make chili; chili will be great if you want to open the place up for lunch again. But chili in the summer, can't do that. Maybe in the fall."

Duck nodded, and found she wanted to act the hostess to a visiting friend rather than a bartender in a bar. "Do you want something, I'm sorry. A beer or something? I could get it for you."  Her movement off the stool was stopped by a warm hand on her forearm, and she blinked, staring at the hand touching her skin.

The hand moved quickly away and back into Marie's lap where it belonged. "No, no thanks. I... I’m not one for drinking. I'm fine."

Duck didn't miss the troubled shadow that crossed Marie's face.  There was something there, something she wanted to ask her, but she stopped herself.  Marie had finally sat down to have a friendly talk with her, and she wasn't going to upset the applecart by asking nosey questions.  She shifted conversational direction instead. "You're back late.  I don't believe I've ever seen you come in this late, it's nearly one o'clock."

Marie was glad of the question, she'd read other questions in Duck's eyes only seconds before. "We went out to a movie.  And we went to this new coffee place afterwards. Let's just say the pie was better than the movie," she laughed.

"We?" The word slipped out of Duck's mouth before she could get her lips clamped shut.

"Oh, one of my music students ... you've seen him, Trevor. He's a big fan of foreign films and he's been pestering me to see one by this director he likes. They were showing it down at the college so we went."

Duck got a mental image of Trevor. He looked like a Trevor should look like, alright. All strapping 6 feet of muscle and tousled moused hair.  Duck made an immediate decision; she decided she didn't like Trevor. She didn't take the time to think why, however. She tuned back into what Marie was saying.

"... and the pie had about four inches of this magnificent meringue on it.  But unfortunately, the lemon filling under that mountain of meringue tasted like someone ground up a box of Lemonhead candies into it. I ended up just eating the meringue." She saw Duck's eyes darting across her face, as if searching for something and it brought her conversational flow to a dead stop. She reached up her fingers, touching at her own cheek. "Do I have something on my face?  We had popcorn and Jujubes, too. Am I wearing them?"

Duck was lost somewhere. On your face? She wanted to reply. Nothing on your face besides those wonderfully long lashes that keep dusting over your beautiful brown eyes. Milk chocolate. "I'm sorry, what?"  Duck turned away and fiddled with a few clean ashtrays on the bar.

Marie blinked. "Nothing."  There was a long moment of unsure silence. Marie looked at the clock over the bar. "I suppose I should get to bed. I've got an 8:30 sheep shearing tomorrow morning."

"Sheep?"  That brought Duck back to the here and now, and from whatever galaxy her mind had been visiting. "You shear sheep now?"

Marie laughed. "Oh, no, that's just what we call Elmo, this big English sheepdog we do.  He's coming in tomorrow for his summer haircut. He's a doll, but it takes two of us to groom him, he's always wiggling around, kissing us."

There went Duck's brain again. Lucky dog.  At that moment, she became aware of something awakening in her. Something she'd forgotten about, pushed away, thought she didn't want or need anymore after all these years of concentrating on nothing but her ailing parents and trying to keep the bar afloat. That need welled up inside her, and grabbed at her heart, clutched at her throat, made her eyes sting at the surprising clarity of it.  At the recognition of the terrifying thought, she reacted the only way she knew how to, "Yeah, you'd better get going, you look kind of tired."  She didn't look at Marie again other than a quick smile that she meant as a goodnight gesture.  She pulled the book back over to her again, and found her spot where she'd marked it with a bar napkin, and flipped it open.

Marie gazed at her, a little startled by what she perceived as a brush off. Duck had never treated her this way before.  But she'd never sat down to just chat with Duck before, so this was really all new.  But the abrupt dismissal was enough to convince her to be more wary of the brusque bartender in the future. She got up from the stool, and walked over to the storage door and went up the stairs.

She didn't see, or even feel, the penetrating, wistful gaze that followed her up those stairs.

Part II:  She Don't Give a Damn For Me

Weekends at The Duck Inn were getting way out of hand. Friday nights meant payday, payday meant no one wanted to make dinner so they wanted to eat out, eating out meant they were coming to Duck's place to get the Friday or Saturday dinner special.  The meatloaf was great for Thursdays, the chicken and biscuits went over well on Wednesdays, Tuesdays meant Swiss steak, Friday was fried fish and fries day, but Saturday's special went over especially well with the neighborhood. Marie and Garrett had fussed and experimented secretively to get the Saturday special just right.  It was an Italian sampler platter, with lasagna, spinach and cheese ravioli, a meatball, stuffed shell, with a salad and bread on the side and a dessert cup of spumoni on the side. Duck had to order an emergency supply of styrofoam take home containers for the enthusiastic throngs who were filling the place from 4 PM until 8 PM, when they stopped serving dinner.

The first time she'd tasted the sampler, Duck eyes widened in surprise, and she couldn't help but wonder how Garrett had learned to make such a wide variety of homemade Italian foods in such a short time.  It was not if Garrett was of Italian heritage, if he were going to make foods suited to his ethnic background, it would certainly be something along the lines of kielbasa and pierogies. And Bach was not exactly an Old Country name either.

Garrett sat across the table from her as she tried a forkful of each food, chewing and carefully considering the flavors of each.

Finally she took a cleansing sip of water and peered at him with just a hint of confusion on her face. "OK, I give up. You guys -- I mean, Marie taught you how to make sauce, meatballs, stuffed shells, lasagna and ravioli?"

He chuckled, and played with a snake hoop in his earlobe with a look of sneaky satisfaction. "Nope. The only thing we made here was the lasagna. The rest we got from Cerrone's."

Duck recognized that name. "The people who deliver our Italian bread?"

He chuckled gleefully. "They also deliver gallon buckets of homemade sauce, meatballs, the shells and the ravioli. In these great big pans that fit great into the ovens back there. The lasagna though, that's partially my mom's recipe and partially Marie's.  Marie likes to put a little thin layer of pepperoni in the bottom, she says it gives it a bit of a kick."

"So if we're ordering everything from Cerrone's, is it cost effective?"

"It's gotta be, Marie said Cerrone's Italian wholesale has been what's kept Marchini's so popular for the last twenty years,"  Garrett said in a hushed voice, as if there might be spies lurking about.

"No..." Duck breathed. Marchini's was practically a landmark Italian restaurant on the west side of town. And here they were, conniving frauds! "Really?" She could hardly believe it. "Now my the last of my innocence is truly gone. I can never be a virgin again."  She burped, and aftertasted that kicker pepperoni again. " 'Scuse me. Marie's right, the pepperoni stays with you - probably for hours afterward. I'd better order more Alka Seltzer for the back of the bar," she kidded, then realized it wasn't a bad idea. "So, there's no Italian grandma in the back of Marchini's slaving over a hot stove all day?"

"Uh uh. Marie said this one will put us over the top, and that I should mention to you that maybe you might want to start looking for a waitress for Friday and Saturday nights."

"She did huh?"  Why didn't she tell me that?  Oh wait, we don't really talk to each other, except through Garrett. "Well, maybe I'll do that.  But the lasagna, isn't that going to be pretty labor intensive?"

"Marie and I figured it out.  I'll put it together, big pans of it, on Fridays in the afternoons and toss it in the fridge. Since Friday night is fish fry night, all I have to do there is keep deep frying the fish and fries. And maybe a burger or two. Good thing everybody mostly orders the specials, or the leftovers of the specials from the days before, or you're going to have to get me an assistant for back there. I only have two hands, and I'm going to have a reputation to keep up." He was only half teasing. The time he had spent learning from Marie had instilled a new sense of culinary adventure in him that hadn't existed before. Just spending time with her, discussing the possibilities that some basic, well made food could bring to the bar gave him a sense of direction and accomplishment that making tuna melts hadn't supplied him before.

Duck rubbed her forehead tiredly. In the space of three months, the bar had gone from sleepy to steadily busy. The wait help was a good idea, she couldn't continue to ignore the rising pandemonium in the bar and the kitchen any longer. She was having to pour drinks, bus tables and haul food all night. As it was, she made customers come up to the bar to order their food, and it was getting way too tiresome, and she felt as though she was running cross country half the night. Plus, it made it difficult for her to duck out at four to have dinner with her father for a scant hour. And on the bright side, it might be nice to have a cute young waitress around the place..

She was just about to say something about that very point to Garrett, but he beat her to it. His variation on it, at least.  He had a very eager look on his wispy bearded face when he snuck up on her with his opinion,  "And, I was thinking, if you did want to hire, you know, serving help, I know someone that would love to do it.  Lots of experience, needs the money, available after class everyday, trustworthy, great looking...."

Duck's eyebrows rose in speculation. It would save putting an ad in the paper, and she really hated to think she had to interview people.. "OK, have them come in and talk to me."

Garrett hopped up from the table excitedly. "Thanks! You won't regret it!"

Duck didn't end up regretting it, although she winced the first twenty or so times she heard her new hire, resplendent in black pants, starched white shirt and neatly groomed, Elmered green hair say, "Greetings, I'm Warner, and I'll be your server tonight," with just the slightest pierced tongue lisp.

Duck not only hired Warner, but she ended up giving Garrett more hours, too, something he'd been begging for long months now.  And Warner was a great help, coming in immediately after his classes at the local junior college, and hanging around to help clean up the kitchen and even draw draft beers behind the bar.  Duck adamantly refused to plan a special for Monday nights so only the core regulars would bother them for a meal -- the two employees really needed a day off, and Duck was happy to warm up a leftover meatball and ravioli to placate the most insistent customers.

Marie's job teaching Garrett the basic menu had tapered off too; since  there was a set menu in place, and it was easier to keep the faire simple and straightforward. She was very busy teaching the extra class at the Y, grooming and walking dogs, landscaping and she was thinking about putting together a recital in the fall with her banjo students.

She still kept her distance from Duck, but found she didn't have to try very hard to avoid her, because it seemed as though Duck had completely forgotten about her tenant's existence. Marie was inwardly pleased to see to see how busy the bar had become, at least during the dinner hours.  And it was natural for bars to attract more customers in the summer, seeking a reprieve from the oppressive heat of their houses.  Garrett and the new waiter, Warner, went out of  their way to chat with her, or simply greeted her warmly and that made her feel welcome and she enjoyed their goofy good humor. She concentrated on little else than keeping up with her self inflicted demanding schedule. That's the way she preferred it because it gave her little time to think of anything else, such as actually having a life.

She bought a small used air conditioner from a fellow groomer at the shop, and Garrett and Warner helped her install it in a window near the futon.  In a week's time, she would be traveling a hundred miles to spend three days at another medieval fair, to show off her designs and hopefully drum up some business for her custom order costume business. This last year had been good, she'd made innumerable wench and waitress costumes, a strolling minstrel or two, some fair maidens, and the always popular court jester outfits. The costumes worn by the performers were the best advertisement for her talents, detailed and well researched, using the best and most appropriate material. She was achieving great word of mouth among the medieval performers, and each year she attended the festivals she found she was being sought out for orders. This winter she would spend many long wintry nights at her sewing machine, sewing heavy velvets and the lightest silks and chiffon, making the kind of magic she would never think of wearing herself.  But she loved seeing the outrageous outcomes of her labors on her clients, and  basked in the attention and notoriety it brought her, if only for the short days of the large fairs she'd attended the last five years.  Marie was a living contradiction - a free spirit in appearance only. Inside, Marie's spirit was carefully harnessed and carefully hidden away.

The last time she had approached Duck with a rent check, Duck had quietly taken the envelope from her, shrugged and ripped it in half, and handed it back to her. "For the lasagna -- and our terrific sampler Saturday nights," her landlady simply said, and went back to attending her customers at the bar.  Marie just stared after her, wanted to say more, but couldn't think of exactly what she wanted to say. Some nights Marie would come in after midnight, and Duck would be sitting at the bar, a few customers playing the arcade game or talking quietly in a corner, and they'd only nodded at each other. Marie had stopped herself, several times, from going over to speak to her, just to make some light conversation, but she never saw an approachable hello shining in Duck's eyes, so she'd pass on by, and go up to the salving refuge of her small apartment.

Frequently she would sit on her futon, strumming her banjo, and think about Duck, sitting alone just one floor below in the nearly empty bar, occupying the late hours with the sole company of a book. She'd think about how she just would like to get close long enough to see if Duck was getting enough sleep, to check for telltale circles under the bartender's eyes, to see if any happiness was lurking below the carefully maintained aloof surface. Some mornings she would be leaving out the door of the bar on her way to the groomers, and she would see Duck and her father sitting on the porch across the street, sharing the ritual of morning coffee. The old man would wave at her, and she'd wave back, but Duck would do no more than merely acknowledge her  She never saw the old man away from the porch, never saw him in the bar, which Marie thought was sadly telling of the depth of grief he must be experiencing. Perhaps too many memories lived in the deepest recesses of the bar for the old man to want to dredge them up and live through them again.

Marie was all too familiar with the need to bury and escape grim memories, and she experienced a strange feeling of kinship with an old man she'd never even met.

"Hey Duck!" Garrett called through the swinging door of the kitchen. Duck was inside, taking inventory of the backstock bar snacks and mixers.

"What?" Duck said, rather sharply. Garrett was scheduled to leave in another half hour; she wanted to get this done before she had to get out and attend the bar again.

Garrett grimaced.  He'd been the target of Duck's perpetual foul mood for weeks.  He couldn't figure it out, the business was running smoothly, attracting a wider customer base, and tuna melts were no longer on the menu.  She withdrew from the people she usually treated the best, the regulars and even from him, and he'd been working with her side by side for the last few years.  It was almost as if a new business had sprung up from within that worn old corner bar, and Garrett felt proud that he was contributing to the new success. But Duck looked and acted drawn and tired, and she rarely smiled other than the false one she displayed for the benefit of the customers. But lately she wasn't even endeavoring to be the least bit pleasant with him.  There was something bothering her, he was sure, but Duck wasn't the kind of person to approach and confront her with questions about her recent bouts of moodiness.

He took a deep breath and blew it out. "There's somebody out here looking for Marie.  Do you know if she's around?"

Duck looked up from the two cases of Rolling Rock she was sitting on. "Do they have a banjo case?  Probably a student."

"Nope, no banjo case. The woman said she heard Marie lived here.  So I'm thinking Marie doesn't know she was coming."

Duck tapped her pen on her clipboard. "I'll  take care of it."  She got up, and came out into the bar, and Garrett pointed the woman out to her.  She was sitting at a table in the far corner, a glass in her hand.

Duck strode over, checking the woman out as she went. Dark, short hair, thin features, a mouth that seemed too large for her long face. There was something quite attractive about her, the long neck, the sleek arms extending from muscular shoulders that looked like they pushed her body through a hundred laps a day in a pool.

The woman remained seated as Duck stopped in front of her, and asked politely, "Hi, can I help you?"

The woman returned a polite half smile to Duck and seemed nervous as she spoke. "I was looking for Marie Bach.  She .. she's an old friend of mine, I was told she lived here, up above the bar, but I couldn't find an outside entrance to an apartment. Does she live here?"

Duck wasn't sure how to respond to this inquiry, if the woman had been a banjo student, she would have to know that Marie lived here. Marie had never had just 'old friends' stopping by, never, in the time that she'd lived here. So Duck didn't know where to go with this. She didn't want to appear to be too suspicious, so she decided to get more information before she made a decision. "Who told you she lived here?"

"Oh, Caroline from Mason's.  She knows me, that's why she told me Marie lived here."


"The dog groomers where Marie works?" Who is this woman, her body guard?  She doesn't even know where Marie works, and she's giving me the third degree?  She kept her mild irritation from showing in her voice. "Caroline and Marie and I go way back. I just moved back here, Marie doesn't know I'm in town. I wanted to surprise her."

"Oh."  Duck felt a little embarrassed, and yet a little overprotective of Marie's privacy. "Well, I .. . uh ... "

But Duck was saved from her bout of indecision, for Marie was standing next to her, fresh from walking a departing banjo student downstairs.

It was if Duck no longer existed.  The two women were exchanging long, silent looks, and then a small smile broke across the seated woman's face. "Hi, Marie.  You look great. It's been a long time."

Duck glanced sideways at Marie, who was lightly gripping the back of the chair in front of her. "Colleen," she murmured, and then took a quick look at Duck. "Thanks Duck, I can handle it from here on out."  Her voice was direct and firm, and there was an undercurrent of tension weaving through it.

"Sure, sure ..."  Duck retreated, sure that the two women hadn't even heard her reply.

Duck walked back behind the bar, and stuck out the order clipboard to Garrett, who was pouring someone a shot. "Here, go finish the order."

Garrett's eyes widened. "But you never let me do the order, you've always said I'd screw ..."

Duck poked him with the clipboard again, trying to drive home her point. He handed her the schnapps bottle in exchange.  She wasn't looking at him, she was pushing the shot over to the waiting customer, and her eyes were drawn into the back corner of the bar. Garrett looked there too, and saw Marie, with her back to the counter, sitting across from the woman who had asked about her earlier.

"Everything OK, Duck?"

She snapped her head around, flustered to be caught staring at Marie. "Sure. What are you waiting for, go do the order, will ya?" She grabbed a bar towel, and starting wiping surfaces that were perfectly clean.

"But ..."  Garrett could see the tightness in the set of Duck's jaw, and the narrowing of her eyes. "Is it Marie?"

"No!" She slapped the bar towel against the counter. "Now go do the order will you?"

He clutched the clipboard to his chest, and studied his boss' face a little longer. Oh well, I can always find another job where I can watch MTV all day long. "It's Marie, isn't it?"  Duck moved away from him and his probing questions, farther down the bar, emptying ashtrays as she went.  He risked keeping his head on his shoulders, but he gamely followed after her. Not knowing what else to say to make his question any more clear, he had her pinned with no place to go without either answering his question or ripping his heart out. "It's Marie, isn't it?"

She answered him without giving him any answers. "It's that woman who just showed up out of nowhere. I'm not sure what there is about her, I just want to keep an eye out."

Garrett knew where he wanted this conversation to go, but the destination was going to take a little patience on his part. "But she said she's an old friend of hers, that's what she told me.  They sure look like they know each other."  They peered back at the corner table again; the woman was talking quietly to Marie. It was impossible to see anything but the back of Marie's head, and it was very still, as though she was just listening.

"Colleen." Duck said, just saying it out loud, seeing how it felt rolling over her lips. It made her lips curl downward into a frown. "Marie didn't exactly jump for joy when she saw her." She tried to shrug in an offhanded manner, but she was too tense, and the motion appeared more of a jerk.  She turned to Garrett again. "Now would you please go finish the order?"

Garrett stood his ground, concerned with his boss who was acting even more out of sorts than she had been of late.  His eyes darted to Duck, then over to Marie, and then back to Duck again. "It's Marie, isn't it?" The question was rife with unstated implications. Why you're so unhappy, why you insist on closing every night, why you're always here when Marie might stroll through the bar.

Duck's jaw locked in place, and she looked down at her feet.  The last thing she wanted to do was to admit it, out loud or otherwise. What good will it do?

She lifted her shoulders, and sighed. Not able to look him in the eye, she made her terrifying, freeing confession. "Yeah, Garrett. It's Marie."

"How long now?" he asked gently.

Duck shook her head and tried to calculate the answer. "How long?  Maybe since the first time I looked at her?  Since I found out she teaches banjo and ballroom dancing to dogs?"  She smiled sheepishly to herself, trying to make light of the reasons that made her feel like her heart was tightly bound, making it hard for it to beat. "Since the day she treated me like dirt just because I wanted to help her move in?  Or maybe it's her meatloaf," she laughed with self contempt, "that's always the way to a woman's heart, isn't it?  Or maybe it's because she won't give me a second glance.  Or maybe it's because she's straight, and doesn't want an old bulldozer of a dyke bartender to talk to or spend time with. Hell, what's the point?  I've got nothing, no life to offer her. She's going, going, gone all the time, and here I am, sitting at this bar six days a week, hanging out with my dad seven days. She's like a spectator sport for me, I can watch, but I can't play."

Garrett wanted to help find a solution. "I could close the bar for you some night, me and Warner, we'd be happy to ...you guys could go somewhere, a date, you know?"  He had already known the answers to his questions before he'd asked them. But it wasn't until tonight, right now, that he saw the cause of Duck's irritability written so clearly on her face when she looked Marie's way. "I think Marie is lonely.  I spend a lot of time with her, she's really funny and sweet and she tells the funniest stories about the places she's worked." He paused. "Did you know she used to tend bar?"

"What?!"  Duck's eyes were large, and then she saw someone at the other end of the bar waving a five dollar bill at them, trying to get their attention. She held her hand up to placate the guy, with no real intention of getting down there anytime soon.  She looked over, and it seemed as if Marie was talking, and that Colleen woman was listening intently. She turned her attention fully to Garrett. "She was a bartender?"

"Yup, for two years, full time.  She didn't say where, just that it was a place like this.  I asked her if maybe she'd like to fill in here some nights, figuring you could use a back up. She shot me down so fast on that ...."

"I didn't even think she liked bars," Duck replied incredulously.

"Well, I got the feeling she doesn't .... anymore. But she never said why."

The five dollar bill waved a little more insistently. "Wait, I gotta get this guy down at the end. Don't go away."

Garrett leaned against the back of the counter, and surreptitiously spied on Marie and Colleen while Duck took care of the customer.  She tossed the money into the register, and saw what he had noticed.  Colleen had moved from the chair across from Marie, and was now in the chair kitty corner from her, leaning towards her, speaking low and intensely.

Duck turned away, and her stomach clenched. "So she doesn't like bars, huh?  Can't say I blame her, this is not exactly what I'd like to be doing with my life," she said defensively. She couldn't help feeling a little snubbed, a bit insulted.  "But with Dad not ... not ever improving, just slipping farther away .... to where ever he goes, this is the only place I feel safe in being right now. But I wish ..."  She beat that thought back down, she had too many responsibilities, to family, to business, to allow herself the luxury of wishing. She fixed Garrett with a scowl and quietly snorted. "And this is stupid, I'm too old to have a crush on a straight woman. It just goes to show I don't get out to much huh, and ..."

Garrett reached and softly tapped on her elbow, to stop her defeatist flow of words. "Uh, Duck ... I'm thinking ...  she might not be as straight as you think. Look."

Duck totally forgot that she was trying to be stealthy in her surveillance of Marie and Colleen, and did as Garrett asked. She swallowed hard and her heartbeat skipped in reaction to what she was witnessing.  Colleen had captured Marie's hand in hers and was softly stroking the back of it with her thumb.

"Garrett." Duck said, almost too low to be heard, "Friends don't hold friend's hands like that, do they?"

Garrett was sorry to say it. "No, not in my neighborhood, at least."

"Mine either."  She took the clipboard from him. and without another word, strode to the entrance of the kitchen, and pushed her way through the door.

 The fingers around Marie's hand felt familiar in their warmth, their size, and the rhythm of the circular rub on the back of her hand.  But Marie's brain was barely registering the soft contact, her brain was too busy trying to decipher a multitude of feelings, none of which were making a lasting impact. Surprised, angry, intrigued, pleased, irritated, confused, panicky, flattered, curious, relieved, powerful yet powerless, sentimental, immature, nauseous, decided, self conscious, challenged. With every word that was coming out of Colleen's mouth, every smile she imparted, Marie was at a loss to pick a reaction and stick to it. Seconds to minutes, the emotions waned and crested. Right now, for these few moments in time, she was merely numb to the caresses on her hand, deaf to the words crossing the barrier of her eardrums and being transformed into things she wasn't ready or willing to hear. But her resolve had lessened along with her long held righteous anger, and she was riveted to her seat, unable to make a move or find the words that would encourage Colleen to leave. She didn't really want her to leave -- or did she?  Everything she had learned in the last three years urged her to get up and walk away. And yet she sat, she listened, she allowed her hand to be stroked along with her fragile ego.

"Marie, things have changed." Colleen said again, sounding as sincere as the Dalai Lama. "I've changed.  I know that's hard to believe, but it's true. Things could be good for us again. None of it was your fault, it was all me. Do you hate me that much?"

Marie didn't know what to say, so she just answered honestly. She was too exasperated to take the time to find the right measured words. "That's wrong. It was my fault. My fault for letting you get away with all the shit you pulled for so long.  Why would you think I'd want to go through that again?"

"Because, at the beginning, it was really good between us. I know you know that, you used to throw that in my face all the time, how good it was, and then it went bad."  Colleen squirmed uncomfortably in remembrance.  It wasn't easy for her to come, heart in hand, and face Marie this way. "We had it so good, and we let it all slip away."

"We?  We had it good? We let it slip away? How about you had it good?"  Marie said quietly, emphasizing her disagreement in the inflection of her words.

That was one thing Colleen hadn't missed about Marie, her ability to fight, argue, yell and dispute in the most constrained and controlled tones. Marie was not verbally demonstrative, the force of her anger was in carefully restrained, clipped sentences that felt like razor blades cutting at exposed sores.  It was not that Marie was not capable of being mean, or demeaning, she just had the ability to make you feel small with an accusing glance or an extended silence. This silence could feel as weighty as a raised  voice full of expletives and terse incriminations.  As many times as Colleen had lost her temper, and let loose a stream of raging nonsensical verbal attacks, she'd always felt the loser when faced with Marie's painstakingly guarded, closemouthed non- reaction. The madder and more bombastic Colleen got, the result was always the same. Marie would reply to it all in that passive, maddeningly composed way of hers. It was a terrible cycle, going round and round -- Marie's stolid silence provoked the volatile, verbal Colleen. She escalated the heat of her tirades in a futile attempt to break through the wall of Marie's determined mute refusal to engage in heated communication or retaliation. These arguments, as differently handled as they were, had become more frequent over time, and they unfortunately took these traits to an extreme because they'd never been able to find an approach to their problems in any other way. These extremes led them to display the very worst attributes of their personalities, and they frequently were just as upset with themselves as they were with each other for achieving such low standards in personal self esteem and action.

"I did have it good. Until the lying started." Colleen said,  her resolution to remain calm faltering for a moment.. She'd had plenty of time to think this through, many years now, and it was time to reiterate her good intentions.

"Are you talking about my lying or yours?" Marie said, watching Colleen's eyes.

Colleen took a sip from her glass. "Both. But you started lying first."  Oh, hell, I didn't want to say that.

But Marie surprised her by agreeing with her.. "You're right. I lied first. I lied a good long time, too, until it seemed everything I was doing was a lie."

"We don't have to lie any more, Marie. We could start out fresh. I ..I'm so sorry for the way things turned out."

"I am too," Marie said evenly, and then her voice dropped, and for the first time, she seemed to notice Colleen's hand in hers. She looked to their entwined hands, once again searching  for but not finding the strength she needed to turn Colleen away. She'd long got over blaming Colleen for the all the events that had driven them apart.  But she still blamed herself for her own part in the demise of their relationship, That failure still nagged at her, still haunting her life to this day, feeding her reluctance to let her heart mend and go on.

The temptation was great to try and rebuild their crumbled house of cards to its once grand and compelling stature. To repair a good love gone horribly, violently bad. Many fools had attempted this course, and some had succeeded, but too many had failed.  But being the fools that they were, they thought they might be the ones to overcome the odds against them.

They talked deeper into the evening at that table in the corner, and Marie never noticed Duck slipping quietly from the bar after finally accepting Garrett's repeated offer to close that night.

"You couldn't pay me a million dollars to go to Vegas."

Duck cringed, she couldn't remember how many times she'd heard that phrase lately. You couldn't pay me a million dollars.  It seemed her father prefaced every sentence with it, and it was getting to her. He was getting to her.  Her evening wasn't getting better since she'd left the bar early.  Her dad was feeling chatty and his disconnection with reality was more pronounced in the evening after sundown. She knew it was a bad idea for her to be around him right now; she had no patience for his innocuous rambling, and his negativity lately was grinding on her, making the time she spent with him unpleasant for the both of them. That was the last thing she wanted to do, make his already depressed existence any more difficult for him.  She felt it her job to keep a smile on his face, a laugh just a joke away. It was her mission, she believed she owed him that much, to devote herself to making his last years tolerable and less lonely. But the converse was happening, the more she gave to him, the less she felt she was allowing herself, and although he demanded just part of her time, she'd already resigned her future to doing her daughterly duty on his behalf.

In her years of nursing, she'd met many women in her present situation, that of being caregiver to an elderly parent. She hated looking at it as though it was a burden, she preferred to think that she was doing something noble, loving and selfless, suppressing her own dreams and desires so her father could be properly cared for in his declining years.  He was no where near needing the care of a even a part time nurse, he still performed his daily activities without supervision or help, he still wrote out his own checks, paid the utilities and bills, did their laundry and picked up after himself. There was no telling when he would need outside services, and Duck was not eagerly looking forward to that day.

Today she let herself feel resentful, today it came bubbling to the surface with the extra disappointment of seeing Marie holding hands with another woman. Tonight she hated everything about her life, she wanted to find a way to extricate herself from this impossible situation and live the life she used to live.  Dating, mating and sex. Hanging around with a lesbian or two, feeling a part of the gay community she'd left behind. She was hard pressed to identify herself in any particular way any more other than a celibate, caregiver/bartender. Her wants, needs and desires in regard to having a love life were so submerged that it was difficult for her to muster up any pretense she required that in her life any more.

Until Marie moved in. And she'd felt the quiet rebirth of emotions that she didn't realize she still possessed. So long had she repressed these notions, she didn't recognize them when they resurfaced. She'd skillfully and quietly buried her own needs to the point that they'd become non-existent. Selfless and ascetic became her new mottoes, determined to sacrifice a few years of her life to the parents who had given her so many years of their own. Any other thought or recourse seemed disloyal and selfish to her.

Until Marie.

Her father disturbed her reverie. "Did I tell you I got a letter from your Uncle Butt today?  He invited me to go to Vegas with him, I wouldn't go to Vegas if you paid me a million dollars. Why would I want to go to Vegas? All gaudy, buncha crooks running all those casinos. If I wanted to sit around in a bar and lose money, I'd go over to the Inn and play poker. I'm perfectly happy right where I am. Why would he even think I'd want to go to Vegas of all places?"

Duck frowned, and mentally beat her head against the wall. She dearly and deeply loved her father but sometimes it was just too much. "Pop, Uncle Butt was just trying to be nice. You and mom used to go places. I thought you liked to travel. I know Mom did."

"Your mother got to go everywhere she really wanted to go. She never wanted to go much of anywhere anyway.  We never had the time and money to go traveling about," her father replied, his voice filled with resentment over something Duck hadn't said or meant. "And then she got sick."

"I know, Pop. But don't put Uncle Butt down for making a nice offer like that ..."

"Well, he should know better. Just because he runs all over hell in that RV of his, he thinks everybody else should want to do that too. Well, I don't. And he should know that."

Duck's ire was rising, and she spoke harshly to her elderly father, something she prided herself on rarely doing, even in her most impatient and frustrated moments. "Pop, don't!! Don't you dare turn a nice invitation into a bad thing!  I'm sure Uncle Butt didn't invite you to go along just because he wanted to torture the crap out of you. He probably just figured maybe you had some free time now ..."

"Bullshit. He's just trying to lord that fancy RV over me. And I have things to do here, what does he think I'm doing?  And I have that problem, I can't get on any goddamned RV."

"I know, I know. Irritable bowel."  This was her father's reason for not leaving the neighborhood. It was true, he did suffer from the occasional symptoms of it, but his doctor had given him medication to keep it under control. But he tended to overuse it as an excuse not to go anywhere.

"Well, I do, and it's goddamned embarrassing. He's just thinking of himself. So what he can go gallivanting around the country, does that mean the rest of us want to do it?"

That broke Ducks tenuous hold on anything resembling patience. "POP! Would you please quit being so negative about everything?!"

Albert growled. "You just wait, young lady. Just wait 'til you get old and can't do anything."

Duck took a deep breath, and said quietly enough that he couldn't hear, "I'm already there, Pop. I'm already there."

She summoned up a small apologetic smile, and went out to the front porch to be alone.  She got up after a while, and began walking. The neon signs glowing across the street were colorfully blurring through her tears, and she couldn't bear to stare at them any longer.  She wiped at her eyes, and followed the path of the streetlamp lit sidewalk until she was far enough away to temporarily forget what awaited behind her.

Part III:  I've Got A Little Space to Fill

It was some weeks later, and Marie and Colleen were spending time together, here and there, whenever Marie's schedule allowed it and she actually felt like she had strength to deal with her ever conflicting emotions.  She could not find fault in Colleen's motives and actions since their unexpected reunion. Colleen was treating her with kind and patient good humor, mixed with respect and a determined attitude that all was going to work out for them. However, Marie was not so sure at all, and her conscience kept nagging and berating her for being weak and considering resuming the old relationship at all.

Marie had realized over the years they had spent apart, that she enjoyed many aspects of her freedom.  The freedom of not having to be responsible to a lover's demands on her time and energy. The absolute control over her money and how she chose to spend it. The ability to pursue her own interests, however fleeting or commanding they might be.

Conversely, she would lay in bed at night, or rather, on the couch, because she rarely opened up the futon to enjoy the space it provided her tired body, and she'd wish for a lover's arms around her, breathing soft demands in her ear, expressing desire and pledges of an unending love. She yearned for the comforting feeling of knowing someone truly knew her, was aware of her daily ups and downs, knew of her secret and sometimes silly dreams and aspirations, and was there to soothe or inspire when she needed it most.

She reluctantly admitted that it was not all that enjoyable, all that freedom.  She would sometimes wish she had someone to care for other than herself. Someone to hold, to cherish, to laugh with and wait for, in a wash of expectant lust and love that was too powerful to deny. She ached to give intimate touches just as much as she craved getting them.  She dreamed of the thrill of the chase, the soft seduction of romance, the release and joy that could be found in a long look, a frantic coupling, or just spending time in a room breathing the same air as someone she loved.

It was all of these things that drove Marie to half-heartedly agree to Colleen's entreaties to give their old relationship another chance.  Even with all the pain they had caused each other that finally led them to part some years ago, it seemed less frightening to attempt this impossible feat than venture into the unknown waters of a new and untried love.  The trials and pain experienced with Colleen were more familiar and predictable to her. She knew how to defend her heart from the worst of Colleen's faults and knew that Colleen was well aware of her ex-lover's shortcomings. The thought of trying love again, with the fresh and untried heart of another was more intimidating a thought to Marie than the chance that she and her ex-love would misfire again.  She outright expected the attempted reconciliation to flop, but perhaps not as miserably as before, and perhaps they could at least reach some sort of contented existence with each other if they could get beyond the conflicts that had plagued their past.

It was this pervasive fear of failure with a new love that Marie had recognized when she'd first met Duck. She'd felt the draw between them, and instead of enjoying the heady rush of her attraction for the barkeep, she fought against it, in denial, She convinced herself that it was a foolish notion and refused to let herself be seduced by the power of it.  She could feel Duck's eyes follow her as she crossed the bar, and she ignored the innate thrill of it, chased it from her mind, and spent many hours re-convincing herself that she actually preferred being alone.  Then Duck had inexplicably turned her away. This gave Marie the proof that she'd been right to keep her distance because Duck's interest in her had waned, she'd found something in Marie less than desirable and the budding friendship between them shriveled up and died, unnurtured on the vine.

Marie found herself confused and distraught over Duck's rejection of her. She'd been putting so much energy into wishing Duck's attentions away, that when Duck did exactly as she'd hoped for, she felt crushed and validated at the same time. The one night she'd actually let herself approach and talk unguardedly to the bartender, she'd been infused with a wild, passionate hope that was quickly vanquished when Duck shut down the flirtatious interaction between them with a swift and cool dismissal.

But then Colleen reappeared in her life and made a passionate plea for her company, stating her continuing need for her. She painted Marie's bruised ego over with a fresh coat of admiration and unapologetic wanting. She made the promises Marie wanted to hear. Marie did understand, somewhere down deep, that those pledges and declarations were something she needed to help her forget her disappointment and heartache related to the distant and plainly uninterested Duck Salinas.

So if Marie wasn't strong or brave enough to go after the woman she really wanted, she would settle for the old worst thing instead.

The coffers at The Duck Inn were brimming as never before, and Duck had to add on even more help to keep up. She hired two more of Garrett's friends- one as his kitchen assistant, and the other a wait person. Kim and Karen shared Garrett's current preoccupation with piercing body parts that God had surely never meant to be pierced, but they were good workers and amiable company, so she didn't mind writing out more checks on paydays. Kim was an experienced bartender, and so she helped out behind the bar alternating evenings and afternoon shifts with the overworked owner so she wouldn't have to work twelve hour shifts any longer.  Their shifts overlapped at the busiest hours, and the two of them had fun behind the bar, gliding gracefully around each other in the tight space on hectic nights .

Duck was overwhelmed and underprepared to deal with the newfound free time afforded her by the renewed success of the bar Now that she had a number of competent and caring employees, there were days she wasn't needed at work until 4 or 5 PM, or if she worked the early shift, she was able to leave shortly after 8 PM.  At last she was feeling more the owner rather than an overworked bartender, and she relished that feeling, but she didn't know what the hell to do now that she didn't have to spend all of her time behind the bar.

She initially used the excess free time to gently prod her father out of some of his cloistered existence.  She took him to matinees at the local theater, knowing full well he wouldn't remember the name of the movie or much of the plot the very next day. She made an effort to make his here and now as pleasurable and easy as she could for him, pushing away her feelings of disappointment that he sometimes had trouble recalling all the things she'd with him just the day before.  She listened, without interruption, to the same repetition of stories about impossibly named relatives she'd never heard of before -- before he began obsessively living in the past.  She heard detailed stories of his childhood, told with a clarity she had trouble believing.  He could happily conjure up memories with exacting descriptions of his shared bedroom when he was four years old, and then he would be shattered with the realization that he'd forgotten that she'd made a fancy turkey dinner for him two nights before.

She kept a surreptitious eye on his bill paying and daily intake of medications, but steadfastly refused to treat him like a child. Some days his awareness of his deepening forgetfulness became painfully apparent to him, and she patiently helped him through the depression this awareness brought. She stood helplessly by, watching him slipping away on a river of memories, but at least most days those recollections were pleasant ones. She supposed there were worse ways for him to spend his old age, reminiscing endlessly about the best times in his life. She felt sharp pangs of envy, especially when he talked about his abiding depth of devotion for his dearly departed wife, and the life that they'd built so lovingly together.

Garrett kept up a steady and not very subtle pressure on her about Marie.  As far as he could tell, Marie and Colleen hadn't taken things too far yet, and he resolutely campaigned the bullheaded bartender to make some sort of a romantic overture in her direction.  Duck shot him down each and every time with a shrug and a stern, warning glare.  But she didn't try and deter him from reporting the results of his secret surveillance of the couple. It was over a month now, and Marie and Colleen often met in the bar, but Colleen had not as yet made that ever important trip through the storage room door and up the steps to Marie's apartment.  They spent their time sitting in the back of the bar in a far table, quietly talking and sometimes eating dinner together.  And when Colleen left the bar late in the evening, Marie didn't accompany her. Sometimes they would show up at the bar together, but Marie hadn't as yet invited her upstairs.  This was all proof to the earnest Garrett that Duck still had hope where her eccentric and enigmatic tenant was concerned.

Marie and Duck rarely spoke at all now, and their friendly waves had stopped too, each one convinced that the other woman had just decided on a dislike for each other. Considering they'd never shared a harsh word between them, this was a very odd conclusion for each of them to come up with, but it worked to ease their doubts, and they went with it.  But Garrett was very cagey in his sneaky observances of his boss and her overworked tenant; he knew that Marie snuck long looks at Duck when the bartender's back was turned, and that Duck often chatted with a regular just because he'd placed himself in the same line of sight as Marie sitting back in the corner. Garrett even lobbied his three coworkers into taking up his spying when he was stuck back in the kitchen for long periods of time.

Garrett did his best to keep friendly and communicative with Marie, even though her trips back to the kitchen were less frequent now. And those trips only occurred when Duck was away from the Inn. He took every opportunity to gently prod Marie for the least details about her life, but she shied away from answering anything of an intimate nature about Colleen.  He also tried to talk to her about Duck as much as possible, watching her closely for any positive reaction.  He stopped himself from weakening and telling Marie that Duck had feelings for her so this whole bloody confused mess could get settled once and for all.  He wasn't exactly getting an optimistic feeling about the state of Marie and Colleen's relationship, but he knew Duck would have a fit if he confided Duck's interest to Marie and the whole thing turned out badly.  Yet the undisguised look of regret he saw reflected in Marie's eyes when he spoke about Duck gave him an unwavering confidence that she held some unspoken feelings for his boss. He decided she was too confused or stubborn to admit it to herself, much less to the young short order cook at The Duck Inn.

Watching the infrequent interaction between Marie and Colleen, and the aggressive non-interaction between Marie and Duck was starting to make Garrett feel like he was stuck in the middle of a plot for an overly angsty lesbian soap opera. He knew that soon, something had to give.  He fervently hoped he wouldn't get caught in the crossfire when it did.

"She watches you, ya know,"  Colleen mentioned as casually as she could to Marie one Tuesday evening as they sat in their now usual spot in the corner of the bar.

"Who?" replied Marie, feigning ignorance, but felt the hairs on the back of her neck rise at this unexpected turn in their discussion. She intuitively knew exactly who Colleen was referring to, and it gave her a full body chill that was not wholly unpleasant. She still watches me?

"Duck.  The bartender.  She's always looking over here, staring at the back of your head. What is she, your self appointed bodyguard?  She think I'm going to jump you right here in the bar?"

Marie faked an off-handed response. "No, why would she?"

"Well, whenever I can catch her eye to let her know I know she's staring, she gives me a dirty look, that's why.  What did you tell her about us?"


"Nothing?" Colleen said skeptically.

"We don't talk."

"What do you mean you don't talk? Ever? Nothing?"

Marie shifted uncomfortably. "Well, we did, but I don't think she likes me very much, so, it was just a chore for us to keep up the small talk, so I guess we both just decided not to bother."  She watches me?

"Well, that's funny, 'cause I catch her watching you all the time. If I had a bigger ego, I'd think she might be interested in me, but it's obvious she isn't.  Matter of fact, she's doing it now.  She's looking in the bar mirror, and watching your reflection  Kinda scary, if you ask me."

Scared was a more apt description, of both Marie and Duck.  "Duck is NOT scary!, She's just having a tough life lately. Don't say that about her. She's been wonderful ..."  The vehemently spoken words were out before Marie could stop them.

Now Colleen's attention was shifted away from Duck, and rested solely on Marie. "I thought you said you two didn't like each other?"

"We don't!"  Marie was panicking now, floundering in a well filled with conflicting feelings.  She'd pretty much convinced herself that Duck didn't like her, wasn't interested and now Colleen was blowing that carefully  constructed theory to smithereens. There had to be some way to take control of this desperate feeling. Even a bad way.

She looked at Colleen and decided on a terrible course of action to drive away the troubling thoughts about the bartender who watched her, watched her even though she never spoke to her.


"Yeah, Mare?"

Marie thought once more of those impenetrable blue eyes behind the bar before she banished all thought of them.  She stood up, and motioned with a toss of her head, quite aware that she was possibly making a huge mistake. "Why don't we go up to my apartment?"

Duck went home shortly thereafter, and sat on the darkened porch, purposely torturing herself as she watched the lights go out, one by one, in the studio apartment above the bar.

Duck didn't see Marie for the next five days.  Marie's little truck was absent from the parking area at the back of the bar, and she knew, instinctively, exactly where Marie was spending her nights.  Her heart ached and mourned the first few days, the last few of the five, the ache had transformed into anger and defeat. By the time she saw Marie again one mid-afternoon, walking slowly through the tables on the way up to her apartment, she'd built herself up into such a jealous mass of frustration she called Kim from the kitchen to cover the bar, and went up the stairs after her.

Feeling both as if she had been cheated on, but more so that she'd cheated herself out of a promising future,  she stopped in front of Marie's door, quite sure that she was about to make a fool of herself. But at this point she needed to do something extreme to feel in control of her emotional life again.  She took a deep breath and knocked.

Marie opened the door, and the startled expression on her face revealed that Duck was the last person in the world she expected to find standing there.

"Hi," Duck said, trying to sound casual and businesslike at the same time. "Got a minute?  I need to talk to you."  Marie wordlessly motioned her in, and Duck entered, determined to make this as quick, if not painless as possible. She was already feeling the internal pain that would result from what she was about to say. "Uh,"  Duck faltered. Marie's eyes were distracting her, watching her carefully, expectantly. She regrouped. "Listen, this is really terrible, and I feel bad, after all you've done for me ..."

Marie recognized the tenseness in Duck's body language, and knew whatever she was going to say, the bartender was truly not eager to say it.

Duck continued, determined to see this through. This day after day torture of her psyche was too much to bear. "You've done so much, for Garrett, for the bar ... for me, and well," Duck's heart was pounding from the strain of forming her next words, "You see, it's like this. I need more storage space. Things are going so well, I don't have the room that I need to store things, and well," she took a final deep breath as she saw the look of concern come to Marie's face, "I'm going to need you to move out.  I'm going to turn this space into more storage space, do some remodeling in the bar this fall."

Marie's face remained impassive, but inside, her mind was in turmoil, and her heart felt a stabbing sensation that nearly buckled her knees. She swallowed, and nodded. "How soon?" she asked quietly, turning her face away so the bartender wouldn't see the disappointment and hurt written there.  She picked up a bolt of material and walked towards her sewing machine, keeping her back to Duck.

Duck thrust her hands in her pockets, feeling like every bit of the coward that she knew she was. "A month?  Look, I know this is sudden, but I want to get the contractors in here and working before winter comes. There's lots of stuff they'll need to do up here, so I guess the sooner you find a place, the better."  She saw the drop in Marie's shoulders, and her earlier jealous resolve dissipated, and she was hit with the finality of what she'd just done. She was driving Marie out of her life. She'd never see her again. Duck's voice tremored as she apologized. "If you want, I can make some calls, help you find another place. And you won't owe me any rent for the last month, either, because this is my fault, I'm sorry I'm putting you in this position ..."

Marie lifted a hand, dismissing Duck's offer, and she turned and glanced at her before looking away again. "No problem. I know a place I can go. I'll be out by next weekend."

"No, wait, you don't have to do that," Duck said in a rush. "There's no hurry, I didn't mean ..."

Marie made her way over and stood uncertainly in front of the bartender.  She looked down, and fingered the material lightly between her fingers, and smiled at Duck, not knowing how to respond, so she just began talking. "Nice material, huh? So bright.  And I totally forgot to take a sample of it with me to the medieval fair I went to this week. So no one could see it, so nobody ordered anything to be made with it. And it's so pretty, and so expensive, and now I'm stuck with it until next year."

Duck reached out, and softly stroked the material, feeling its satiny texture under her fingers, and nodded a tentative smile at Marie. Then the import of what Marie said hit her. "You were at ... a medieval fair?"

Marie sighed, and chuckled tiredly. "Yeah, just got back.  It rained for three days, the other two were so hot and sticky I thought I was going to melt away in that little tent of mine. I think it would have been cooler to sleep in the bed of my truck."

It struck them, simultaneously, that this was the longest conversation they'd had in a very long time. And now Marie was leaving, so it seemed all the more awkward.

"So you just got back?" Duck said, rather dumbly. She's been at a fair the last few days? I thought she was with Colleen.  Her heart shriveled in her chest, completely useless to her now.

Marie placed the material back on the coffee table and then decided to take a small, brave chance. It was probably too late, but she had to try. She gazed into Duck's eyes, watching for her reaction. "I got quite a few orders to be working on over the winter. And I was glad to get away. Things have been sort of ... difficult ... lately, so it was the perfect time for me to get away and think.  You can do a lot of thinking in a sweltering tent at night, because it's almost impossible to sleep."

"I'll bet."  What were you thinking about?

It was almost as if Marie could hear Duck's unspoken question. She motioned Duck to sit down on the futon, and Duck did, automatically, never looking away from Marie's eyes.

Marie found it hard to look at Duck as she sat down at the other end, and began talking; talking as though she and Duck were friends, and they'd had these kind of intimate conversations all the time.

"I broke up with Colleen. Again." She glanced at Duck, and Duck seemed to want to listen, so she went on. "Colleen and I were together for a few years, a few years back. It ended really badly between us.  The first six months, maybe the first year, were fine. Fabulous even. The best sex I've ever had. But then reality sort of kicked in, and I realized that the sex was all we had going for us. Once we were out of bed, we didn't click at all. Nothing in common, she was a party girl and I was, well, quiet and more reserved.  So we started to fight.  Colleen was under some stupid impression that if the sex continued to be satisfying, that the rest of our relationship would all fall in place. But I wasn't happy, and then the fact that the sex was decent ... it didn't matter to me any more."

Duck was nearly breathless, stupefied. She was finally in the same room with Marie, someone she'd barely discussed meatloaf recipes with, and now she was talking about her sex life?

Marie almost laughed at the shocked look on Duck's face, but she marched steadfastly forward. "So it was this cycle of sex, then fighting, then make up sex.  Colleen thought as long as we ended up in bed that the relationship was working.  But she ... I guess I found her lacking, emotionally, in other ways. Not a romantic bone in that woman's body, and that wasn't good enough for me.  I need more, some caring, you know? That's so important. Some sweetness, some ... romance. "

Duck just nodded, not sure she could say anything intelligent right now.

"Well, Colleen's not built like that. And I desperately wanted that, but it was like talking to a stone.  She always got defensive if I seemed unhappy or wanted to talk about things. And I was unhappy, but we kept telling ourselves it would all sort itself out. She got unhappy, too. She started to drink pretty often, too much, with her buddies. And she'd stay home, and get drunk with them, or by herself.  I'd get home from my job, and there'd she be, on the couch, drunk and ready to fight. I got sick of it, sick of drinking and drunks. I worked at this little hole in the wall bar on 5th street, Maguire's, and there were some hard core druggies and alcoholics in there. And the last thing in the world I wanted to come home to was some stinking drunk who wanted to fight or get laid. Or both."

Duck could see how difficult this was getting for Marie to talk about.  Her thin hands were nervously gesturing with her words, picking at her hair, smoothing the material on the back of the futon cushion. Her voice took on a distant quality, and she stared off, embarrassed at having to impart some of the smarmier details of her history with Colleen. "So, one night, I got home, found her passed out on the couch, and I walked into the kitchen, and starting popping open every booze bottle in the house, and pouring them down the sink. Just when I was pouring out the last bottle of beer, Colleen came into the kitchen, saw what I was doing and ... slapped me.  Right across the face. Hard. That was the first and last time for that. I ended up leaving her that night. Just took whatever I could grab."

Duck blanched, and she didn't know what to say, what to do. "Wait, this is the same Colleen that you've been seeing? Why?" she blurted, incredulous.

Marie shook her head, an equally uncomprehending smile of disbelief shadowing her features. "She's sobered up. Hasn't had a drink in two years. She showed up, a month ago, full of apology and promises. I don't know, I guess it was the both of us trying to recapture ... something we never, ever had in the first place. It seemed like the chance for us to redeem ourselves, I don't know.  I was so glad to see she'd straightened herself out, and ..." She looked away from Duck's intense gaze, "the rest of my love life was at a complete standstill, so I just ... gave in, hoping for the best.  So we've been spending some time together, and it's been nice but ... " she shifted uneasily on the couch, afraid to say it out loud, in front of the bartender. Not knowing how she'd react, but it had to be said. "We slept together before I left for the fair.  The next morning, all I could think about was how terrible the whole experience was -- I didn't feel a thing for her, couldn't get ...you know ... excited ... and for some silly damned reason, she was acting like a stud, like she'd bagged me, and things were going to be just fine.  I couldn't believe how deluded she could be.  She hadn't changed. She still thought sex was the be all, end all. But even the sex was horrible, awful for me this time.  So, I told her, as nice as I could, that it wasn't going to work out." Marie shook her head. "I guess, to give her some credit, she took it pretty well, at least she didn't start yelling." Then Marie smiled tiredly, and laughed with a sense of relief and sadness. "I guess I can't go back, and I have trouble going forward, too. I'm nowhere."

Duck didn't feel like laughing. She didn't have the first clue to what she was feeling, how to process everything she'd heard. "That's good that she's gone." she said lamely, knowing that she was expected to comment on all that Marie had confided in her.

"Yeah. This time for good. And I was thinking in that little tent that maybe, finally, I could go on, quit thinking about all the shit I've been through trying to get over all of it, and maybe trust someone new again, and trust my own judgement again and ...." she stopped there, suddenly exhausted from the events of the last week. The final farewell to Colleen, the days and nights in the heat and the rain at the medieval fair, the long drive home.

And then Duck, who had been filling her thoughts almost continuously for the last few days, weeks and months. Duck suddenly showing up at her door, and her heart sang with happiness until she'd heard the reason why she'd traveled up those steps and knocked. Her physical and emotional resources were completely depleted, and she suddenly needed to be alone and sheltered from heartache again.  She stood up and moved towards the door, turning the knob and pulling it open. "I'm sorry, I'm really tired. I really need to get some sleep.  I've got so much to do, and ... well, I'll try and be out by next weekend, OK?"

Duck was still sitting on the couch, and she stared blankly at Marie, who was holding the door open.  She stiffly got up, and made her way over to stand in front of the obviously upset woman. She looked into her eyes, not looking away this time, and she reached her hand slowly across and stroked Marie's cheek so softly that she barely could feel the contact. "There's no rush, Marie, and I wish ..."

Marie was having a hard time keeping her composure. She had to get Duck out of there, before she broke down entirely in front of the woman, and she wasn't about to do that.  The woman didn't want her; she was kicking her out of her apartment and out of her life. They'd never even allowed themselves the chance to get started, and now it was over.  There was only so much Marie could handle in the course of a week.

She stepped away from Duck, and smiled sadly. "Thanks for letting me vent. Now I really need to crash ..."

Duck blinked, and once again was caught flatfooted and speechless, searching for words. She went through the door, and heard it softly close behind her.

It was nearly 9 o'clock now, and Garrett couldn't figure out why Duck was still hanging around the bar.  This was her early night after all, and he and Kim were going to work until close. He'd seen Duck return earlier from a trip upstairs, appearing disappointed as though she'd gone looking for something and never found it.  She barely nodded an acknowledgement at him, and had gone back to the kitchen, rattled around aimlessly putting away pots and pans, pacing the floor.

That was nearly four hours ago. She'd gone home, eaten with her father, and returned back in practically the same state as when she'd left, preoccupied and pensive.  It was a slow night, and he was just about to approach her to tell her to go home, but then noticed her darting glances at the storage door that led upstairs, and he backed off, and guessed she was trying to work something through in her head. Around 7:30, he saw her leave through the front door, and then come back in even before the big, cumbersome door shut on its rusted hinges.  She repeated the act every fifteen minutes or so, going outside and coming back in more times than he could count, because his attention was called away by customers and taking care of his kitchen duties.

He couldn't figure it out.

At half past 9,  Duck got up from the barstool she was sitting at, staring at a NASCAR replay on some sports channel, and went through the kitchen door, startling Garrett, who was taking inventory of the stock from Cerrone's.  She wordlessly strode by him, turned on the oven he had turned off only an hour before, and opened up one of the large refrigerator doors and began pulling things out.  He watched her in confused silence.  Just as he was about to ask her what exactly she was up to so late in the evening, she fixed him with an impatient glare that invited not the least inquiry from him. He got out of her way after a few minutes, thinking it was safer for him out front. By then, she had taken out a viciously large knife and had begun chopping with a determined, quick motion.  He wasn't that old, but he was quite aware of the legend of Lorena Bobbitt and her avenging blade, and since he was quite fond of his private parts, he scooted out of the kitchen out of self preservation.

At 10 o'clock, Duck came out of the kitchen wearing a long apron, wiping her hands down the front, ignoring the customers who called out their hellos. She went out the front door again, and then reappeared, popping back through the door like the bird in a cuckoo clock, and swept past everyone and disappeared into the kitchen again.

Both Kim and Garrett had a short, silent, eye contact conversation. They agreed it was apparent that their stocky, prickly boss had finally gone over the deep end. And since she had made that leap, neither employee was going to stick their heads into that kitchen again this evening, no matter how badly their curiosity was bothering them.

At 11, Duck popped through the kitchen door, strode to the front door, walked outside, and came back in again scant seconds later, never looking at anyone, and by then, no one had the nerve to look at her.

If they had, they would have noticed just the shadow of smile shading her face as she made her last trip back into the kitchen.

Marie was still groggily trying to wake up when she heard the knock on the door. She was sitting back on her futon staring at the wall, lounging in the muted light of her end table lamp after her uncomfortable long nap, trying to sort out her future. She glanced at her watch on the coffee table, craning to see the time.  It was late, nearly 11:30, and she rubbed at her eyes as she sat up and tried to focus.

The knocking was repeated, this time a little louder.  She stretched, and wondered briefly who it could be, and then as she got to the door, her shoulders slumped.  She prayed quickly that it wasn't Duck again, with more bad news.  She fluffed her hair, and opened the door slowly.

It was Duck again.  Standing awkwardly, with a half smile on her face, holding a large covered tray in her hands.

"Hi," Duck said, and then cleared her throat, because it felt very tight and dry. "I saw your light come on, so ... I know you were tired when you got home earlier, and you said you were going to take a nap, so I thought you might be hungry."  The way Marie was eyeing her so suspiciously wasn't making it any easier for her to talk. She lifted the tray up. "You hungry?"  She didn't wait for her to answer, she walked quickly past the disoriented woman, who was still holding the door open, and deposited the tray onto the middle of the coffee table.

It didn't occur to Marie to ask how Duck could have possibly seen that her light was on, she'd only turned it on a half hour before, and the only way anyone could see it was on was from outside the building.

Marie was truly bewildered.  She'd finally gotten to sleep earlier by crying herself into an even more exhausted state, convinced that she had read the bartender all wrong. Duck wasn't interested in her; she hadn't been watching her with the eye of a secret admirer all these months.  And now Duck was standing quietly next to the coffee table, hands hitched in her pockets, alternately looking at Marie, and then the large tray on the table.

Marie inwardly shrugged, determined to get through the next few minutes without making too much of a fool of herself. "Uh, I'm not really hungry," she said, hoping that would give Duck the idea to just be on her way, and leave her alone with her quiet misery.

Duck planted her feet firmly on the floor, and stopped her nervous swaying. "Are you sure?  I made it myself. All of it."

Marie made her way over to the other end of the coffee table, and pursed her lips as she studied the roaster lid covering the contents of the tray. OK, just accept it, and send her on her way. Her eyes met Duck's, and she almost gulped when she saw her shy and expectant smile. "Tuna melt special?"  Marie quipped glibly. Then a familiar aroma wafted up to her nose, and she frowned in recognition.

"Nope," Duck replied, and laid her hand on the handle of the cover, her grin widening, and then fading a little. Will she like this?  Will she understand? "Guess again."

Marie sat down on the couch. Her own smile was blossoming, if out of nothing but disbelief. "If I didn't know better, I'd say that smells exactly like my ...."

Duck's popped the cover off the tray with a flourish, verbally announcing its contents before Marie could. "Meatloaf," Duck finished, as she put the lid off to the side.

Marie stared. It was a meatloaf, all right. And mashed potatoes. But a very different meatloaf and mashed potatoes than she'd ever envisioned. She gawked at it a long moment, then she looked up at Duck, who was licking her lips nervously, and waiting for Marie's reaction.

Duck cleared her throat, and then forced her nervousness down again, and stated, a little proudly. "It's the Duck Special."  Marie's expression had gone from tired to surprised and even delighted, so she continued on, a bit of flirtatiousness infusing her voice, "You're the only one I've ever made it for."

Marie's heart did a very definite, spinning cartwheel. "Well ... I ... "  She stopped, and blinked at the food on the plate.  There was a small, heart-shaped meatloaf, spread with a rich red sauce on the top, making it look like a baked Valentine. And pink mashed potatoes were surrounding it.  She looked up at Duck and they exchanged shy smiles. "Pink mashed potatoes? How did you ...?"

"Food coloring."  Duck whispered, as though it was a secret family recipe only to be shared with the closest of confidants.

Marie laughed, and Duck did too. They gazed at each other for untold moments, aware only of each other, not aware that some invisible emotional walls were tumbling down around them.

Caught in Duck's penetrating gaze, Marie lost her appetite for food and felt a surge of altogether different kind of appetite..  "I couldn't possibly eat all of this ... do you want to share?" With those words, her last defenses were jettisoned and her heart started beating with renewed purpose.

Duck sat down right next to her with no pretense of trying to keep a respectful distance. She'd kept herself away from this woman far too long, and moved closer towards her, magnetized. Her hand lifted with a will of its own, and softly touched Marie's cheek, feeling her lean into the caress.  They drew ever closer until their lips met softly in a sweet kiss, equal parts hesitancy, desire and hope.

Neither took notice of whose arms went where first, all they knew was that they were finally holding each other, then kissing again after breathing in enough air to fuel an even longer, more deliberate embrace.

The meatloaf and potatoes were momentarily forgotten by the time the two very warm women finally broke apart to look at each other with fresh and open eyes.

"I see that you can be quite the romantic,"  Marie teased, but she tempered that with a grateful and ever so pleased sigh and a gentle touch to arrange Duck's bangs.

"I do what I can ... " Duck said, straight faced, and blushed as Marie's fingers stroked languidly down her face. The heat in her tenant's eyes was plainly evident, and it stoked the fire that had burst into flame the moment their lips had melded. "I'm sorry I took so long ...." she said suddenly, needing to apologize for being so fearful and distant for the last few months.

Marie shushed her, lightly laying her fingers on Duck's soft lips, feeling the promise of their next kiss blooming beneath her fingertips. "No need. I was scared, too. But I don't feel that way any more ... do you?"

Duck's hand tightly captured Marie's, and she intertwined their fingers, inordinately pleased at the fit and the feel. "Terrified," she said honestly, and her face reflected that emotion just for a moment, until Marie moved closer again, her lips just a breath away. "I wished for this ..." Duck murmured, pulling an explanation out of thin air, thinking it made no sense, but hoping Marie would understand.

Marie did understand. She had dreamt this too. She wanted to tell her that, but it was impossible to do so because Duck was kissing her again, and as she fell into it, she decided that they had plenty of time for explanations later. Much later. Right now, there was lost time and love to make up for, months, even years worth, and new memories to make. Neither woman felt the inclination to waste one more moment of their future remembering the past.


Thanks, Sara.

Feedback here:  LA Tucker

Back to Tucker Out Home