Renee hasn’t been to Mother Goose’s Pub & Hot Wings since college, back when it was the “spot” off campus. Students would come to have a beer, watch a good game on the ten plus flat screens lining the walls, sober up on wings and home chips after a night of partying, play a little pool and try not to get too competitive—although, Renee recalls Bryan once splitting a cue stick over his knee after Natasha beat him fair and square.
Renee, Natasha, Rita, and the guys would meet up at the quad outside their dorms every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night to walk the quarter mile up South Tatum Street to Mother Goose’s. The men always accompanied. There was a section of South Tatum, just before the restaurants and bars started, where none of the street lights worked. The trees hung low over the road, but there was never any wind, so the leaves never ruffled. A quarter-mile strip of total silence, total stillness, total darkness, like an inter-dimensional vacuum.
All of the city’s outcasts and homeless found sanctuary there. Most of them were harmless, but sometimes there’d be clowns who chased kids with toy axes. Dirty old men who groped half-dressed coeds in high heels. And hookers—both men and women.
Renee heard a few whispers of rape on South Tatum during her Sophomore year, but nothing was ever officially released by the University, just recommendations for girls to travel in packs and carry pepper spray. South Tatum was at its worst during Halloween; those nights, Renee would insist they find someone with a car.
Come to think of it, that was how Natasha and Mitchell met. She’d flagged him down, in the middle of the road, and hitched a ride to the bar.
And now they’re getting married. Renee smiles to herself. She loves weddings. She and Bryan never had a real wedding of their own. One in a church, with bridesmaids and groomsmen, a flower girl and ring bearer, friends and family filling the pews, her father giving her away, her childhood pastor uniting them in holy matrimony.
Renee had just turned eighteen when she and Bryan eloped the day of their high school graduation. There was no star-crossed romance to it. They wed so they could have sex—Renee too afraid of her hellfire and brimstone mother to go all the way before becoming a wife.
Well, her mother wasn’t that bad. She wasn’t like those crazy Christian moms she sees on TV, who slap their daughters in the face with the Bible for saying a “bad” word, or wearing a skirt that doesn’t go past the knees. There was only one sin her mother wouldn’t tolerate under her roof: Sex before marriage. It was cheating on God. Looking back, Renee imagines any sin would technically be cheating on God, but there was something about the way her mother said it. The idea of her having sex with a fickle boyfriend who would dump her for the girl with the bigger boobs in the next class the following day juxtaposed with her body being a temple only for God—it terrified her enough to keep her legs closed, even in her horny, rebellious teenage years, at least until the night she and Bryan said, “I do.”
Renee turns onto South Tatum, and her white Sienna is engulfed in darkness. She can’t even see her hood, and Bryan just washed it yesterday. She considers making a U-turn and going the long way to Mother Goose’s, but the stop light is just ahead, and she can see the lit snowflakes hanging from the street lamps just beyond it. It’s Christmas, she reminds herself. What is there to fear on Christmas? All the decorations, the lights, the sonorous Christmas carols.
But before she can reach the intersection, she has to slam hard on her breaks, lunging herself forward into the steering wheel. There’s a man crossing the street, weaving between the neon pedestrian markers that separate the lanes, most likely drunk. He’s naked but for several cut-out white pillows that he wears stacked, one on top of the other, like a tubed wedding dress. She thinks he might be trying to look like the Michelin man. Then he turns his head, and she sees the carrot.
When the man finally passes, she steps on it, running the yellow light as it turns red. Her phone, sitting in the cup holder by her thigh, lights up and vibrates against the seat. Thinking it’s Natasha calling, she picks up ready to bless her out. Nostalgia her butt, Applebee’s would’ve worked just fine.
But it isn’t Tash.
“I hate you so much.”
“Hey, Rita. How’s your fast going?”
“It should be the opposite.” Renee laughs at her own joke. “What are you doing?”
“Rita!” Renee turns into Mother Goose’s parking lot, located behind the bar. Surprisingly, she finds an open spot directly in front of her, right at the end of a packed row. She eases into it, puts the car in park, and in her sternest “mama’s” voice, says, “Do I need to come over there?”
“Relax, it’s not weed. Just a cigarette.”
“You shouldn’t be smoking at all. And I thought you didn’t smoke cigarettes.”
“I don’t—” Rita breaks into a series of rattling coughs that echo into the phone. Renee holds the phone out away from her ear until the coughing dies down.
“What am I supposed to do with myself?” Rita asks, her voice hoarse.
“Think, sweetie. What goes hand-in-hand with fasting?”
“Ugh! I’d rather drink. Where are you?”
“At Mother Goose’s.”
“Great, I’ll meet you.”
Renee can hear Rita moving around, throwing shoes into her closet, sliding a shirt over her head—the sounds briefly becoming muffled.
“No,” she says sharply, like she’s talking to her twin toddlers who think it’s a good idea to eat crayons and spread chocolate syrup all over the walls. “I’m meeting with Tash, and you have an appointment with Jesus tonight.”
“I love you!” Renee hangs up the phone and collects her keys and purse. She steps out into the cool air, walks toward the ramp on the side of the building and is almost bulldozed by a skinny Santa and two scantily clad overweight elves.
“Really, Tash,” she mumbles to herself. “Here, of all freakin’ places!” She bundles up, raises her shoulders to her ears, bares the cold wind, and speedily marches to the front entrance.