SCANDALOUS LUSH • by Linda Saldaña

Rhonda preferred to think of herself as a scandalous lush, which sounded more acceptable, more Dorothy Parkeresque, than what her last lover (hardly a heartthrob, but good company on at least two memorable occasions) had called her — which was a sloppy drunk.

She summoned perfunctory bravado, accused him of having bad breath that overpowered his tepid personality, said he hardly deserved impeccable behavior on her part given how he let his Rottweiler lick the spaghetti sauce off his dinner plate.

But he never responded to her text and that was that. Jerry the used car salesman (who may or may not have been married anyway) was history.

The approaching holidays of course left Rhonda with a dilemma in terms of whether to drown her Christmas Eve sorrows alone watching Hallmark romances full of implausibly happy endings or seek a bar that hadn’t already 86ed her. All the bartenders she knew had lost their sense of humor, so she found herself sitting at the counter of the little pizza joint around the corner, ordering a small Everything No Anchovies.

“Can I get a Bourbon and Seven to go with that?” she asked.

The barmaid or pizza slinger or whatever she liked to call herself flipped her mousy brown ponytail and all but rolled her eyes. “Beer. Wine. Those are your choices.” Her name, according to the plastic-coated name tag, was Fiona.

“I’ll have a Pinot Grigio,” said Rhonda. “I assume it pairs well with an Everything.”

The girl disappeared into the back room and returned with a gallon jug labeled “Premium White.” She twisted off the cap and slid it across the counter for Rhonda’s inspection. “Bright citrus flavor with underlying mineral notes,” Fiona said. She splashed a little into a glass for Rhonda’s approval.

Rhonda detected a trace of sour grapefruit with a strong metallic finish, but given her options, kept quiet and motioned for Fiona to pour. “Cheers,” she said, holding up the glass, first to Fiona, and then to the empty room.

“Yeah, Cheers,” said Fiona without enthusiasm.

“I hate to drink alone,” said Rhonda. “It’s Christmas Eve. Let me buy you a drink.”

“Can’t,” said Fiona. “Working.”

“Who would even know?” Rhonda gestured to the empty tables.

“Can’t,” Fiona repeated.” Just can’t.” She retreated into the kitchen, where Rhonda could see her open the huge brick oven to check on the bubbling Everything. She reappeared at the counter with a wine glass full of cola. “Cheers,” she said, holding it up for Rhonda to clink.

Beyond the window with its flashing neon Open sign, the rain was starting to fall in sheets, the Christmas lights up and down the deserted street reflected on the sidewalks.

“So you got the short straw on the shift assignments?” said Rhonda, filling the silence.

Fiona shrugged. “I volunteered.” She went back to the kitchen, pulled out the pizza with a large metal paddle, slid it onto a plate, and cut it into eighths.

“I hope this tastes better than that wine,” said Rhonda.

Fiona’s brows knit uncertainly for an instant and then she laughed. “Guaranteed,” she said, “or your money back!”

Rhonda pulled off a slice and put it on a napkin, shoving it Fiona’s direction. “At least join me in this,” she said. “Unless you’re sick of pizza.”

Fiona hesitated. “I’m vegan.”

“Oh, Jeez. A vegan pizza parlor waitress who doesn’t drink! How did I get so lucky? Merry Christmas one and all!”

“But my dog would like it. Would you mind if I take him some?”

“He’s in the kitchen? I suppose he helps you wash the dishes?” Rhonda pictured Jerry’s dog with his big pink tongue.

“He’s out in the car.” Fiona already had on her coat.

“In this weather?”

“He’s dry.”

“It’s cold. Why didn’t you just leave him home?”

Fiona hesitated in the open door, weighing whether to get an umbrella or make a run for it. “We live in my car,” she said, and then out she ran, covering her head with a menu.

Rhonda extracted the olives and munched a slice of Everything. The outside chill passed through her briefly as she peered through the streaming rivulets to see wild exuberance inside the steamed-up Pontiac parked out front.

She shuffled to the juke box. Dropped in a few coins. Picked songs Fiona had no doubt heard a million times but would have to tolerate again. Thought how she could offer to let Fiona sleep on her couch. Build a fire to warm the dog. Make a virgin hot chocolate, even. Thought how the specter of being a stray on such a night was possibly more than she could bear.

Linda Saldaña is riding the waves of the pandemic in northern California where she is learning to navigate the New Abnormal. Her stories have appeared most recently in MacQueen’s Quinterly, The Centifictionist, and Club Plum.

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