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2022 Pushcart Prize Nominee - A Fine Girl by Kristen Zory King

Updated: Nov 7, 2022

Kristen Zory King

A Fine Girl

Inspired by "Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)”

Sandy is just getting to the good part of his story, his voice a quick and high tenor, when I hold up my hand signaling the need for a break. I can tell by the way the shadows are moving that the sun will set soon, and I can’t miss it. Won’t. I refill Sandy’s glass and grab my sweater, the promise of a long winter already sharp in the air though it’s only just September. The sunsets are getting longer too, the reds staining that part of the sky where it meets the ocean for whole minutes after the sun has disappeared.

When I return, Sandy is smiling that mean smile of his, eyes half closed and a hard wheeze in his throat. I haven’t been gone more than eight minutes but he’s not happy to have been interrupted, got the first lick of a buzz on him and decided to be cruel with it. Remember that fella’d blow in here each summer? Some kind of sailor-boy, wasn’t he? Of course I remember, Sandy knows that. But I won’t give him the satisfaction. Lotta men blow in here come April or August, Sandy, I say as I turn my attention to dusting the second shelf of the bar, the last of the day’s light illuminating each small particle, like tiny, bright wishes caught in the air. The bell rings over the door and Sam enters, earlier than normal, but then again it’s Tuesday, a day with its own particular flavor of sorrow.

Sam heads straight to the jukebox and I grab a cheap merlot from the back for when he’s ready to join us. Another round, Sandy? I can’t help but soften. Of course Sandy’s curious, they all were. Still are, especially on nights I wear the locket, it’s shine hard against the hollowed dip in my throat. But that’s old news now and the Sailor hasn’t been to this port for years. The fourth season was the hardest. The first, I made a fool of myself, getting dressed up each night and leaving the bar lights on an hour past close, despite the teasing. The second I knew not to get my hopes up, but hope is funny that way, always clawing behind your breastbone like a kitten, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t wear a little mascara each night just in case. I don’t remember much about the third except the sex. I was so angry, I’d fuck just about any seafaring man that walked through my door, half hoping the Sailor’d come by and catch me on my knees. But the fourth was when I understood he was gone. Whether he’d died, or quit, or found another woman, I don’t know and who was there to ask? Besides, he’d made no promise to me. For some men, home is an ever-moving coastline.

I’m not stupid. I know there were as many women as there were harbors and that a man like that needs the fantasy of a wife waiting and wanting, on days the water winks with the promise of a good, long sleep. Sometimes I like to imagine us all together, the Sailor’s women, the stories we could tell. I’d close the bar early, grab some cheese from that sweet little shop in Portland, have them all over to my apartment with its kitchenside view of the sea. I can hear the way we’d laugh–not the kind that women use with company, a quick, polite cough, but the real kind, a deep, delicious bellyful. It would be strange at first, all of us sizing up the other, wondering who was better in bed, comparing the bloat of our stomachs, the fullness of our breasts, but women like us know we’ll never sing louder than the sea, and we’d get over it quickly. Besides, our time with the Sailor was not the kind of thing you’re meant to question, just grab on to for as long as the grip will hold. I know it sounds ridiculous. It was ridiculous. But the Sailor gave us, gave me, something more than love, silver chains and the soft promise of summer.

I could always tell when he’d left the bed, the cool absence of his body rousing me from even the deepest of sleep. The first time I woke without him beside me I’d cried, ashamed at the idea of having been left in the night and ashamed at myself for caring. We were new to each other then, all warm hands between warmer thighs, and I could hardly get enough of him, would have licked him clean if he’d have let me. But he’d returned to bed in short order, smelling clean and sharp like the fog off the dawning sea. Where do you go, in the mornings? I’d finally asked, after the fourth or fifth time. He was quiet so long I made to drop it, until I noticed the shine in his eyes. His voice low, he told me of the water and not in the way that made the boys in the bar laugh. Told me his father and his father before that had promised to never take a day back on land for granted, watched the sun rise each morning and the sun set each night in thanks. It had the symmetry of a prayer and the next morning I joined him out back, watched as the sun kissed the sky until it blushed, a quiet ritual that’s stayed with me since, morning and night, no matter the season. His parting gift, I suppose.

Sam’s joined us at the bar and the first notes of his favorite song make the air feel full and round. I don’t know why he plays the same tune each night but it’s not for me to ask, so I pour his drink and hum along. Sandy’s returned to his story, the kind that stinks of salt water and shanties and Sam winks at me as I fill his glass to the rim. The sun is gone now, the bar only half lit on account of that one burned out bulb I can never quite reach. I listen to Sandy’s story, fill up my own glass from Sam’s bottle, and think about what it means to love a stranger, what a good wife I could have been, give thanks for the sunrise that’s sure to come tomorrow.

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