Christine Fadden’s “The Empty State”

New work by alumna Christine Fadden (fiction, ’09) appears online at Pithead Chapel:

Here in this small town, the bars are dark, and outside, life glares.

Here Janelle is meeting Macie, because all the other bars in town allow smoking, and the women don’t want their clothes to stink, their hair, the things they’ll take out of their purses the next day. Janelle trusts the wine at this bar not to be sour. The bartenders here know how to set drinks in front of customers without dripping, spilling, or sloshing. There aren’t many choices in this small town, but Macie chose to move here, in part, for its lack of pretention.

Janelle’s been around a few years. “Bar or table?”

“Bar.” Macie knows that the best bet for two women who want to hold an uninterrupted conversation here is to keep their backs to the crowd.

Macie chooses a barstool. She always chooses the wrong line at the supermarket too.

“Well, hey,” the man she sits next to says.

“Hey—you’re back,” Janelle says.

After ordering drinks, Janelle asks the man, “Hows everyone getting along, Sloan?”

“The wife’s just started talking to me again.”

Macie takes a long sip from her pint, aware that when the word “the” precedes the word “wife,” she’s in for something different.

“Son’s still pissed,” Sloan says. “Nobody understands me packing up the RV a month after the funeral and driving off solo with a case of macaroni and cheese and a camera. I was going to drive to the Grand Canyon, but that isn’t the smartest place to visit after your daughter has fallen to her death. So, I hung a left for Nebraska.”

Macie blurts out, “I guess there’s no place to fall in Nebraska.”

Janelle shudders.

Macie’s ears shoot full of blood, probably like the Fallen Girl’s did when her head hit rock. “I can’t believe I just said that. I am so sorry.” She fans her hot face with her hands. “I’ve only lived here six months, but I heard your daughter’s story.”

“That’s my story,” Sloan smiles. “But you’re exactly right! There is no place to fall in Nebraska.”

Janelle gulps more wine. Macie grasps her pint glass with both hands and presses it to her chest. She stares into the mirror behind the glass shelves lined with tiny spotlights. Gem-colored spirits glisten, like a Frida Khalo halo, around her reflection. How long would it take her father to hear about it, if she fell off the face of the earth?

Sloan is saying, “She was a firecracker—a livewire. She was probably out there showing off.” He puts his hands on his hips and wiggles on his barstool, imitating a teenage girl showing off.

“She had no limits. Caught the biggest fish. Won 4-H trophies. A Western girl through and through.”

Janelle nods her head and says, “True. She was a beauty to watch ride.”

Sloan raises his bottle of beer; Janelle her glass of wine; and Macie, her pint. They clink glasses, then stare into the mirror.

Sloan says, “Ahh” and sets his beer down. “She had just lost her virginity, the wife and I are pretty sure, to a really nice guy.”

Janelle coughs.

Macie wants to slide off her barstool and slink back into the light, into the beautiful bright afternoon she’d just bicycled through. But she can’t leave Janelle, so she plunks her elbow down on the bar and plants her head in her hand. She uses her thumb and fingers to pivot her head away from Janelle, whose chest she can feel—actually feel—heaving.

She watches Sloan.

Her father called her thickheaded for dating older men. Of course, he only liked young women. He called her selfish and irresponsible and ungrounded for moving wherever she wanted whenever she wanted, even though he had left the family and moved halfway around the world when Macie was still just a girl.

“It sounds like your daughter was really alive,” she says. “Some people live to a hundred, but are never really alive.”

“She was really alive,” Sloan says. “And I was too tired to go fishing with her that day. Thought it was just another redwing blackbird morning, turns out it’s the day my daughter cracks her skull.”

He twirls his bottle of beer on the bar.

Janelle says, “Did you know she came to our house before prom, senior year? She was beautiful that afternoon. I’ll dig up the photos and bring them to your house.”

“Those senior girls,” Sloan says.

Both women hold their breath.

I took a lot of pictures of those girls, all those senior portraits. I heard a group of them went into therapy after she died. My girl—she was the one nobody ever imagined not being here.”

The girl nobody ever imagined not being here is still with her father. Her name is printed on the rubber bracelet he wears on his left wrist. Macie had heard the Fallen Girl’s story, but not her name—that of a flower that grows at high elevation.

What a very small town she has moved to.

“I kept driving that RV, arriving unannounced,” Sloan says. “Visiting ranching and farming families I’d shot portraits of over a decade’s time, across the region. They’d invite me in. They’d sit for more photos. Amazing what a photo will reveal.”

Janelle looks toward the front door. The man who has entered is not the one she is trying to avoid. She puts her hand to her forehead and it takes Macie a minute to realize she is not wiping her brow in relief, but flattening her bangs.

“Snapping those portraits,” Sloan says, “every single family told me they’d had a major loss. I couldn’t see it, on the road, but when I finally came back to my dark room, I saw the further I was from here, the sadder those faces I’d always known.”

Macie wants to ask something about pain and how it might shift and swell relative to its epicenter, but before she can form a coherent question, Janelle brings up a family she and Sloan know. A few years back they lost their adopted daughter during an appendectomy.

“People actually said, ‘It’s not so bad,’” Janelle says. “‘You only had her for five years.’”

“God,” Macie says. “People can be so—”

“I never said it,” Sloan says. “But I thought it.”

Janelle winces.

Sloan’s head is in his left hand. Macie wants to say she hates those yellow Livestrong bracelets, hates even more the pink breast cancer ones that say I © Boobies. She wants to tell Sloan how if she died tragically, her euphemistically “estranged” father would just as suddenly turn into her biggest fan—eulogizing her “free-spirit” at every bar he walked into alone.

She looks at Janelle, who is doing that “look to the door and flatten the bangs” thing again, so she turns to Sloan.

“Did you think that—about the magnitude of that adopted girl’s death—before or after your daughter fell?”

“After,” he says. “Only after.”

“I can see how that would go through your head.”

“I’m only telling the truth.”

“That truth is terrible!” Janelle says.

“But,” Macie says.

“I don’t think that now,” Sloan says. “It wasn’t any easier for that family because their girl wasn’t blood; because they’d loved her for five years and not eighteen.”

“It’s alright,” Macie says.

“No,” Janelle says. “It isn’t.”

Behind their backs, a group of young women has poured through the front door, rowdy before they even sit down. The rhinestones on their shirts and jeans glitter. The makeup they wear would weigh other women down. In another town, they would be in the streets, shimmying loose at Carnivale.

But here, in this small town, the mountains rise like massive arms, stark and holding everyone together.

“I’d like to see those family portraits,” Macie says.

Sloan slides her a pen and a napkin. She writes down her number, but not her name. He takes the napkin, folds it, tucks it carefully into his shirt pocket, and says he’d better get back to the wife. He tells the bartender to give Janelle and “the new girl” whatever they want.

“See you tomorrow,” the bartender says.

Janelle and Macie watch Sloan make his way to the exit. An arm shoots up from across the room like a bronco rider’s. “Sloan!” one of the young women at the rowdy table yells. “You’re back!” He smiles, and drops his head. The women hush as he slides into their booth.

For two minutes, all Janelle and Macie can do is whisper: “Woah. Wow. That was weird. So weird. Awful. I know. I didn’t know how to get out of it, but I had to hear it. It’s not your fault.”

“You’re not going to actually meet up with him, are you?”

“I don’t know. He’s creepy, but I really want to see those photos. I want to see grief spread out against a map.”

“That isn’t what any guys around here want to see spread out, trust me.”

Macie laughs. “Don’t you worry about me,” she says. “I was a big city girl my whole life. I’ve learned there’s nothing for me in other girls’ adoring fathers.”

“Here’s to learning the hard way,” Janelle says.

They toast.

When the door swings open this time, they both turn to look. The sun is shining so bright behind the man walking in, he’s nothing but a dark shadow, the silhouette of a cowboy. Janelle—she is definitely primping now. Macie—she is following the swing of the door, noticing how it stops just short of closing, leaving the smallest sliver of light.

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