And before you ask, yes, they have a lot more to say and I have a lot more questions to answer. Hoping to let you read all about it in the new year.
Til then, Happy Holidays from my family to yours.
Home At Last 5
Laura wondered if she’d lost her mind somewhere on the way to the pub. She knew better than to start something with somebody at work. It’s just that he’d taken her completely by surprise. She didn’t spot him when she walked into the bar. She was oblivious to him while eating the early dinner Jerry had the chef always put out for her in the dining room. She didn’t even spot him when she took her place behind the bar at the beginning of her shift.
Ordinarily she should’ve noticed him then, and would have if he hadn’t briefly left the bar a moment before. Laura always scanned the patrons before she settled in to see if someone needed a drink or if anyone looked like they needed a cup of coffee and a cab home. At MacCaulay’s, even at four in the afternoon, you could have a lifer on your hands drinking away their burdens and needing some TLC. But it wasn’t until she’d turned towards the register to count the bank Jerry left for her that she glanced up and spied Garrett coming out of the restroom in the back.
Laura wasn’t normally given to overreactions when she saw a handsome man. She’d seen plenty. Yet, while watching Garrett make his way across the room, stopping occasionally to speak to people seated on the other side of her bar, the first words to spill out of her mouth were unconscious, low, and breathy.
The next words she uttered, came right after and were equally quiet, “Darn it, I’ve lost count.”
She put the bills she held in both hands together and started counting from scratch again. After all, she already knew who he was immediately, not just from the uniform but from the copious times Meg had shown photographs of him around the bar. He’d sent pictures of himself and his soldier friends to his aunt every few weeks as if it verified he was alive and well better than the emails did. Meg was no paragon of parenting but she’d loved her nephew in a big way and would brag about him to anyone who gave her an opportunity.
Still a picture did no justice to the man who Laura was now trying so hard to avoid staring at in the mirror over the bar. First, there was the uniform. Yes, it was a cliché for him to look that good in it, but Garrett filled it out so solidly and so well. Either the work of his tailor or his personal trainer was blessed by a chorus of angels — maybe both. Then there was the walk. Garrett seemed to move in slow motion, each step a perfect complement to the swing of his arms, his hips, and the broadness in his chest and shoulders. Each footfall, firmly planted, but not thundering. It was a walk you’d see on a big cat in the jungle. As if stealth were the order of the day — every damn day. All of him, head to toe, seemed put together by nature’s first sweet breath. When Laura felt her head tilt and her gaze slid down his back, she instantly closed her eyes and took a shaky breath.
What the hell—
She’d lost count again.
Forget this, she thought, putting all the money back in the register. Jerry had never gotten the bank wrong before. She could, for once, assume that was the case today too.
Laura considered going to Meg’s funeral but by and large she avoided that particular ritual, whenever possible. Too many reminders. Laura’s mother died right before she started high school. It seemed like a long time ago now and they’d never been close, but her mother’s murder had still been a sudden and heartbreaking blow.
Laura used to dream that they’d make an effort to get it together… might even be loving and close one day. Funerals or memorial services, especially for people who were loved and had warm longstanding relationships with their friends and family, well, they just reminded Laura of everything she’d never been able to achieve with her own mother. She knew enough to know she’d wouldn’t get over the depth of pain that fissure caused. Consequently, going to someone else’s emotional going home ceremony was like picking at an open wound. She didn’t — she wouldn’t, indulge.
Sitting in the seat at the very end of the bar Garrett appeared a little lost himself to Laura’s keen insight. Leaning against the wall he stared out of the big picture window beside him near the entrance of the bar, his soulful gaze not really seeing anything she speculated, but gripping his beer mug tightly like it was a lifeline. She knew from her conversations with Meg that he was alone in the world now. Concerned that he might need someone to talk to but not knowing him well enough to intrude directly, she got the idea of starting a poker game and asked him to join in.
She’d discovered long ago that most men were duly accommodating when she asked them to help her with something. She was a fairly capable person in most respects but she learned for many reasons to keep her talents to herself, a habit that went nicely with her desire for anonymity.
Laura didn’t much like drawing attention to herself. She knew she was attractive enough but she didn’t like being sought out for that alone. So she’d been a bit disingenuous when she asked Garrett to help her remember what hands were winning ones in poker. Laura along with, her dad, her step-mom and siblings, heck, even her grandparents had been playing poker and every other card game you could think of for as long as she could remember.
The ruse worked beautifully though. Garrett actively played cards with her and some of the typical Sunday night gang for hours. After the one boiler maker, he ordered a turkey burger deluxe and pretty much stuck to draft beer for the rest of the night. She noted happily that he never seemed out of control or wasted the way some soldiers did when they were on leave and at her bar.
Periodically she’d catch him staring at her with a look that suggested he liked the way God made her just fine, but it never felt creepy or uncomfortable. Truthfully, she liked having him look at her. After a few hours, she still couldn’t tell you what color his eyes were, bluish-green, greenish blue, grayish teal, sometimes they turned a shade so pale and icy it looked like the snowy cap of a mountain. One thing she knew for certain was that he was seriously attractive, with a strong jaw line and a tan complexion several shades lighter than her own. Because his Mother had actually been Black, she remembered Meg joking that Garrett was more Black Irish than she was, that being an ambiguous term describing Irish like Colin Farrell or Olivia Wilde who had darkish skin and hair.
While keeping her own extensive travels around the world to herself she asked him about his time in Afghanistan and Africa because those were places she had never been to and could only imagine. At eleven o’clock there were less than fifteen people left in the place and it pleased Laura that Garrett was among them. That pleasure made have been the catalyst for her asking him to join her on the run she usually made to Dunkin Donuts after work.
She tried not to cheese too much when he frowned first, then jumped at the chance to join her. She could tell he was doing it as much out of some macho protective crap as a strong hankering to not let the evening end without having some time alone with her. She didn’t care. He was even cuter when he did the manly thing. Plus, she wanted more time alone with him too.
Outside the rapport they had built up when Laura was behind the bar evaporated. Walking silently in the cold it was as if being nearer in proximity with nothing between them but air created a veil of shyness neither of them was willing to breach. But Garrett was a soldier and obviously at least somewhat brave by nature so it was he who eventually broke the silence.
“Do you go for the donuts or the coffee?”
“Isn’t it a little late for coffee?”
“It’s very late for coffee. But I need it. “
Laura gazed up at him. The collar of his black field jacket was covering up the lower half of his face and the black winter knit hat came down low on his forehead. All she could see clearly was his eyes, which had an amused but perplexed glint to them.
“I don’t have work or school tomorrow or Tuesday so I’m hoping to stay up long enough to get a lot of writing in.”
“You’re a writer?”
“What do you write?”
“I’m a poet mainly, but I write other things.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever met a poet before.”
“Oh, we’re out here. Plugging away and going broke mostly.”
“Ahh, so bartending keeps you in pens and paper?”
“You could say that… but the truth is my mother left me enough to get by on if I’m frugal.”
“I’m sorry. Did she die recently?”
“No, it was a long while ago but I still feel it.” Laura moves her gloved and fisted hand to her sternum. “Here.”
“Yeah, I feel it there too. Ever since I first heard Meg was… it’s like she planted a tree in my chest and left it behind for me to water. All I’ve been doing is thinking about her and my parents.”
“I know what you mean. When my mom died it was such a shock. I couldn’t stop thinking about the what ifs. I didn’t—”
Laura stopped herself. She rarely spoke about her mom to anyone outside her family. This was unfounded territory.
“What will you do now?” She deflected.
Garrett stopped walking. So, she did too.
“That wasn’t what you were going to say.”
He had turned to face her. Her eyes traveled up to meet his.
“No, it wasn’t.” She confessed.
“It’s alright. I don’t mind if you don’t want to tell me what you were going to say. I guess I just didn’t want you to think I wasn’t listening. That I wasn’t paying attention.”
Garrett was leaning down so their faces were inches apart. It was cold enough she could see their breaths meeting between them. She was intent on watching his mouth move. His lips were full, almost pouty for a man. She suddenly wondered what he had looked like as a kid. He must have gotten his way every day of the week including Sunday.
“I am paying attention to you Laura.”
Laura smiled again.
“Well, that’s good to know. So? Answer my question.”
“I will, but then you have to answer one of mine.”
She nodded and they resumed walking.
“Ok, what will I do now? Go on, I guess. Pretty much like before. I go back to the base in about three weeks. Then I finish out my tour. After that I don’t know. Maybe more school. Maybe more travel. I’m not sure. I never wanted anything as badly as I wanted the army but lately I’ve been thinking that’s left me with a narrow viewpoint. Like I’m not thinking big enough.”
“Hmm… I bet that’s a little scary but exciting too. I like having big choices to make.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.” Garrett’s voice lowered. “I can’t complain. My choices are wide open and right in front of me, it’s just a matter of making the right one.”
Laura’s smile widened. She’d been doing an inordinate amount of grinning since meeting Garrett McClellan in the flesh. It was hard not to see the connection. It was almost slapstick.
“My turn.” He said eagerly. “When you asked for my help you already knew how to play poker didn’t you?”
Laura dipped her mouth down into the large knit scarf wrapped around her neck to hide the grin that nearly took over her entire face.
Her voice was slightly muffled when she answered him, “You figured that out huh?”
“Yeah, you looked just a little too smart about the game, bluffing with two pair and still managing to win that five-dollar pot right out from under Jerry.”
“He was ticked off, wasn’t he?”
“Can you blame him? He had three deuces when he folded.”
Laura laughed and stopped walking. The bright lights from the Dunkin Donuts splashed onto the sidewalk they were standing on. It was the only brightly lit and open storefront for blocks.
“You held out tho. Took that ragged pair of Aces you had to the mat didn’t you?
Garrett pouted a little, then smiled. “Yeah. I knew you were bluffing.”
They were standing close again. Laura badly wanted to rise up to her tippy toes so her mouth would be closer to his.
“I guess you were just keeping me honest. Kind of… like you’re doing right now.”
“Keeping you honest is fun, Laura. I bet it’ll make some lucky guy a terrific full-time job someday.”