Try a Little Tenderness

by Joey R. Poole

Hi had done the math and was sure that he would never fall in love again. This wouldn't be a big deal at all, he thought, in fact he could be quite happy with it, if all the songs in the world weren't about some trumped-up notion of what men and women did to each other. But as he sat in the dark at the Spirits Lounge karaoke night watching to a trio of drunk businesswoman half his age shrieking and giggling through "Sexual Healing," the whole thing was pretty depressing.

Again he did the math in his head. He was sixty-six years old; given a normal life span, he had ten or twelve years at most. He'd been lucky so far, but was worried that one day soon his dick was going to give out, so even if he had ten years of life left, he probably didn't have ten years of hard-ons. But they had medicine for that now, and he supposed that he was old enough that he ought to realize that real love didn't require a perpetual erection after all.

Still, it just wasn't likely. In his prime it had often taken him months, sometimes a year or more, to find even a new fling when one had ended. He liked to think that this was just because he was picky when it came to women, and he was probably at least partially right. Even with revised standards, he figured, the odds were stacked against old guys like himself, so it would take even longer, would be even more work than it had been in his younger days when he'd only felt old, and he generally figured it wasn't even worth the trouble. At any rate, it didn't look likely here at Spirits. Not tonight.

Sometimes Hi wished that he'd never left Gladys, who'd broken down in the middle of the Huddle House and cried about dying alone when he'd told her that they were probably having their last breakfast together. But then he thought about her taking her teeth out at night, the inevitable string of spittle from her lips, how sunken and how old she seemed when she came to bed without her teeth and he shuddered. It was shallow, it made him feel like a prick when he thought about it that way, but it was real. Every time she'd stopped by his house to surprise him, always with a cake or some banana bread in hand—the woman had seemed determined to put him on insulin—he hated her for being there, felt that she was cramping him somehow even if he was just going to watch the news and lay around all evening anyway.

He was, all in all, pretty miserable as he looked around at the freedom that he'd wrested back from Gladys, the same two Mexicans playing pool every night, the same drunks singing the same songs every week. The most thrilling thing about his evenings here was always the drive home, an adrenaline-soaked DUI gauntlet. He couldn't stop thinking about how it had finally ended with Gladys, how she'd called him every day for weeks, always wanting to know why and asking if maybe he just needed some time, which always struck him as an odd thing for an old woman to say. He just sat there on the phone and listened to her sniffle night after night until finally he lied to her and told her that there was somebody new, a woman in Lumberton, and that he'd been sleeping with this other woman the whole time they'd been together. To his amazement, she'd wanted to know, through her sobs, what this other woman was like. It had scared him how exhilarating it was injuring Gladys, building for her a woman born from the weird science of his fantasies, younger than himself but not too much so, a woman who drank wine he could barely pronounce, a woman with flaming red hair and healthy breasts and a husky voice in which she whispered temptations into his ear even while Gladys rang the doorbell, leaving a cake on the doorstop. Finally Gladys had hung up on him for good.

Initially he'd liked the peace that he had when she stopped calling, but then he started feeling bad about it, how he could've hurt somebody he'd once loved or at leastliked a lot so badly, and there had been a few times that he'd tried to tell her the truth, and once, when he was drunk, that he'd tried to win her back, but she wouldn't give him the time of day. He told himself he wasn't going to call her or sleep in his car in her yard no matter how many liquor drinks he had tonight.

He ordered another Crown Royal and waited for his turn to sing karaoke, trying to remember what song he'd put in. Was his memory going, he wondered, would he be one of those poor bastards who wandered off trying to find the shitter and ended up lost, devoured by fire ants in a ditch somewhere? Try as he might, he couldn't recall the song, but he told himself it didn't matter; whatever song it was, it had to be one he knew by heart.

Unlike most of the other karaoke regulars, Hi could sing, and he knew how to work the crowd. He'd even fronted a beach band for a while in his thirties and forties, playing shag dance nights at bars and weddings where drunk women line danced. He scanned the bar while the fat lady who sang "Eighteen Wheels and Dozen Roses" every goddamn week butchered "Don't Come Home Drinkin' With Lovin' on Your Mind." No need for her worry about that, Hi thought. It was a slow night, maybe fifteen people in the whole place. The only one he didn't know was the woman in the wheel chair who'd been sitting near the stage all night and was now at the bar, straining to reach the drink she'd just ordered.

"Let's have a great big hand for Cindy," the karaoke DJ said when the song was finally over. "Next up, Maria. Maria, come on up to the stage, girl."

Maria was the woman in the wheelchair. She was younger than he'd first thought, maybe young enough to be his daughter, even, with auburn hair—god, he loved redheads—falling all around her face and all of her teeth inside her smile. Hi watched as she rolled up from the bar with a Kaluha and Cream nestled in the folds of her skirt and parked her wheel chair by the karaoke machine. When the music started, she closed her eyes and sang "Dancing Queen." She sang the shit out of "Dancing Queen."

Hi nearly fell out of his chair, could not believe the voice coming out of this woman, how much of both longing and joy there was in it, how much life and how much sadness. She never once opened her eyes as she sang, her hands gesturing quietly in front of her, one foot working its way off its foot rest to dangle uselessly to the floor. He wanted to scoop her into his arms and dance her around the room, thought about how gentle he would be lifting her from her chair to his bed. When she was done, he was not embarrassed to find that he was the only one who'd been moved to give her a standing ovation, his heartfelt response clearly audible over the smattering of polite applause from the rest of the bar.

It was his turn to sing, and he tried again to remember the song he'd chosen as he made his way to the stage. It didn't matter; whatever it was, he would be singing it to her. He smiled at her as he walked past, bent down and put his hand on the armrest of her chair. "That was beautiful," he said. She'd only thanked him in response, but she'd let her hand fall lightly on his arm in what he thought might be a suggestive or at least a friendly way. He would not look at her and sing into her eyes. That was corny, no matter what the song turned out to be. But he would sing his song, and when he was done he would sit right down at her table and ask if she would let him buy her a drink, if perhaps she would do him the honor of a duet.

He stood on the stage, waiting for the title of the song to come up on the screen or to hear the first strains of the tune. Just then the door swung open at the front of the bar and in walked Gladys. She'd let her hair grow out, had perhaps even lost some weight, moved more comfortably than Hi remembered. There was a man with her, not nearly as tall as Hi, but probably not as fat, maybe even younger. He sat with Gladys at the bar, grinning like an idiot, and Hi hated him. Gladys turned to scan the room and caught Hi's eye for just a moment before she looked away without even flinching, turning to put her hand on her new friend's thigh.

He turned toward Maria. Perhaps he would look into her eyes as he sang after all, or at least in her general direction, away from Gladys and the new man. Maria smiled at him, he thought, but it was dark at this end of the bar. As he stood there waiting for the DJ to fiddle with the machine and call up his song, a rumpled-looking woman sat down next to Maria. They leaned forward until their noses touched for an instant and kissed each other right on the lips. Maria's hand found the other woman's and they sat, fingers entwined, looking expectantly up at Hi, who'd forgotten the tune and couldn't make out the words as they scrolled across the screen, "These Arms of Mine" rolling by unsung.

BIO: Joey R. Poole is a writer from Florence, South Carolina. His fiction has previously appeared in Southeast Review, Adirondack Review, and Clapboard House. He is currently working on a novel.