Disclaimer:  This is a work of fiction with scenes of sexual 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 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 her 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.

Continued in Part II

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