DISCLAIMER: South of Nowhere and its characters are the property of The N network, no infringement intended.
SPOILERS: Slight spoiler for ep Objects May Be Closer Than They Appear.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
By LN James
I felt invincible. My strength was that of a giant.
God was certainly standing by me.
I smashed five saloons with rocks before I ever took a hatchet. Carry Nation
It is dark, smoky, and when she stumbles on the last step, she remembers why she should not have worn these heels. She never knows what to wear here, thinks whatever she chooses will never be quite right. With a hand against the wall, she steadies herself and nods at the stranger who, on his way down the steep staircase, put his hand to her elbow for support.
He smiles, but the look on his face can't hide his curiosity. He wonders why I'm here. They all do. I am not like the other women here. Why she's here is a secret she tells no one. Not her husband, not her family certainly. For once, she has one thing in her life that is just for her and no one else. This is it.
Besides, prying eyes here have no business looking at her like she's out of place, like what she is doing is wrong. They have little room to talk. Lottie Zagorski's Rathskeller is also a secret to the outside world, but one she shares with the men here. Their collective guilt hangs as heavy in the air as the smoke from their cigars and cigarettes. Amber tipple and clear, grain alcohol swirl in glasses on the slick, worn bar. A liquid testament to shame.
Prohibition in Chicago is in full force in '26 and places like Zagorski's exist because it is futile to deny people what they want or need or crave. America in the 20's is stuck between progress and that same old puritanical urge to keep all things holy and safe and proper. Force the people to repent, shame them into submission. America reminds her of her own mother and that thought is discomforting. What does that make her then? Paris? Marrakech? She is some foreign outpost that her family vaguely knows exists, but prefers to believe is a world away.
Prohibition curtailed the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol. The only problem with that: No one wants to drink alone. So-called sinners always seek out others to share the burden. She never understood the desire to regulate sin. Or, really, what other people consider sin and vice. Her definitions no longer seem to match. Not now. I don't know what is sin, what is vice, what is love. If I am guilty of anything, it is not caring anymore.
Lottie's is the only place like this she's ever been. She was terrified to go, that first time. Shaking even, when she pulled open the door and all those suspicious eyes fell on her. But the draw was too strong and her will too weak. She had learned about the Rathskeller completely by accident. One of the girls who tended to her mother's house had whispered disdainfully of its existence, and of brothers drenched in sweat, reeking of booze, coming home in the early hours of the morning with loud stories of women, music, gambling. And she overheard.
In some strange way, she feels at home here, even if she looks like, well, actually is a young housewife from Oak Park. As she slips on to a stool at the end of the bar, she takes a breath. But we are all sinners here. Carefully smoothing out her skirt and placing her pocketbook on the bar, her eyes scan the crowd. Mostly men. Some women. Low murmurs. An occasional laugh that gets muffled abruptly this early in the evening, like an expression of joy would call too much attention to the crimes they commit.
"Nice to see you again."
At the deep voice, she turns and smiles politely, discretely. Everything here is discrete. Undercover. Hidden. The person behind the bar is Lottie Zagorski himself. Or herself. She is never sure which pronoun to use. Not that it matters. She has heard the whispered claims of transvestitism, of a hermaphroditic condition perhaps. No one asks Lottie directly and he is content to dress how he wishes because he owns the place and he offers them a safe enough haven for what they need.
"Hello, Lottie. How are you?"
Lottie smiles and nods as he pours her a glass of gin he knows she will not drink.
"I'm good, Miss Carlin, good. You look lovely tonight."
She tilts her head at the compliment and blushes. Lottie calls her by her maiden name because that is what she told him when they first met, when he swept her away from the men and their looks. What are you looking for in here, sweetheart? She sat with him in a booth upstairs that first night and admitted the truth. I honestly don't know. Something that feels real? Lottie had chuckled as he looked around the dimly light tavern. The only real thing you can count on here is the booze.
She now knows that what Lottie said was not true. She found real. And she found it here. No one can ever take that away from her. When she goes back home to her naive, sleeping husband, real is still out there, waiting for her. At tedious Sunday dinners with the whole family, where she is the foreigner, real lurks in the corners of her mind, tingling her spine when she passes the bread, the butter. She feels it every day, every moment she is awake. It exists. And she can almost touch it, taste it, when she is here.
This is why she comes to Lottie's every other Saturday night, why she sneaks out of her house and out of her life to come to this dark and unremarkable place of sin and vice. I am here for a reason.
When she was a little girl, her mother used to tell her bedtime stories in which was the star. Inevitably, she would need to be rescued by the handsome prince who had come to save her. Her mother always said they would have many children and live happily ever after. This was not her fantasy world, it was someone else's. As hard as she had tried, the story never felt right or seemed to fit. Something was off.
She married Patrick O'Malley in a storybook wedding planned entirely by her mother. He was her Prince Charming, or so they both believed. They were young, she still is. But after a few years, they began to live their own lives -- Patrick at the law office downtown; she in her art studio. Their shared bed is the only tangible proof of their marriage and she avoids her mother's constantly veiled queries about grandchildren, about her private matters. Are you making sure Patrick has a nice home to come back to after a long day? He works so hard, men need outlets, Spencer. It is always about what other people want from her or for her.
Duty. Obligation. She gently brushes a stray strand of hair from her face. This is not working anymore. Her life, that is. She has so very few options. She feels forced to choose. When the piano starts, she swivels around and her eyes search, as they have for a year. Even across the crowded room and through the haze of smoke, her eyes know first. Her lungs forget their purpose until her heart finally pounds a reminder.
I am here for her.
Most of the men also turn their attention to the small stage in the corner. It is strange, but she feels completely alone in this room when the music begins. It is only her and the swaying, humming figure on stage. Shadows outline a woman, hand draped casually around a large microphone as if caught mid-caress with a morning lover. When that alto voice begins a low croon, she bites her lip. The tune, a popular one of the day, is slightly overwrought, but one of longing, of a desperation she herself recognizes.
Life's a game, but who can play it all alone
Ev'ry one should hold a heart that's all their own
Love may come at first sight, they told me
When I saw you, I knew
That I had found my only love
When I found you
The mystery of Ashley Davies, the woman singing, is that when she is on stage, her heart is an open book. It is as if she cannot hide who she is behind the smoke and the boozy trappings of this place. When she is not performing though, when she is sitting at the bar receiving compliments or offers (always turning them down) or discretely slipping out alone for air, she becomes unknowable. But I know her.
When she first heard Miss Davies sing, she stood paralyzed. It was her second visit and she had wandered, with slight trepidation, downstairs to the hazy den of gambling tables and booths filled with men and women working out late night arrangements. While activity buzzed around her, it was her own body that forced her to listen to its internal divination.
They say that the body knows before the brain is willing to admit. Some elements, unbounded by physical limitations, communicate faster than blood flows, before neurons can fire just the right pattern of signals that form the words: Yes, it is true. When she heard the first low notes of Ashley Davies's voice floating across space and time, her body responded immediately and with conviction. Her brain later supplied the obvious.
So, darling, I know that you know
That I'll go where you go
I choose you, won't lose you
I wish you knew how much I long to hold you in my arms
She watches from the bar and her cheeks flush slightly. She knows Miss Davies is looking at her, even if she can't exactly see her eyes. She knows this like she knows that every song that has been sung is for her. It is unspoken, but she knows. The barely lit woman is still swaying, still holding the microphone in a gentle embrace. The piano keys find the right rhythm and for the first time tonight, Lottie's patrons drink their liquid salvation with little remorse.
The first time she approached the singer after a show, months ago, her hands shook. Miss Davies was leaning against the doorway to the backroom, her eyes regarding the room with a certain detachment as the men went back to their poker games. She was dressed, as usual, in a form-fitting long skirt and a silk blouse, her wavy brown hair in a loose chignon. There was, however, a slight smile on her face.
"You liked the show."
She was taken aback because it wasn't a question but a statement. True, of course, but also presumptuous for two strangers. The way Miss Davies looked at her, like she could see through her West Suburbs disguise, caught her off-balance too.
"Uh, yes, actually. I did enjoy it. You sing beautifully, Miss Davies."
The singer smiled and held out her hand.
"Ashley. Miss Davies sounds like you're talking to my mother and I wouldn't even wish her on most of the drunks here."
She couldn't help but smile back, extending her hand and feeling the singer gently squeeze her fingers. Her touch was electric.
"I'm Spencer O'M Carlin. Spencer Carlin."
Ashley quirked an eyebrow.
Her cheeks flushed red and she looked down, pulling her hand from the singer's and shakily using it to push hair back behind her ear.
"Just Spencer Carlin."
Ashley had nodded, her eyes taking it all in, before she stepped closer and leaned to whisper in that same ear. Her perfume easily displaced the cigar smoke, spilled alcohol, everything. It filled her head, burning a whole new sense memory into her brain.
"You can be whoever you want to be with me."
And that was the start of their twice monthly meeting in the illegal confines of Lottie's speakeasy. Always, she would come and sit at the bar, Lottie would pour her a gin so other men would not insist on buying her drinks all night, and Ashley would sing soulful tunes that made her feel at home. After the show, they occupied a booth near the back and simply talked into the wee hours of the morning before she would inevitably and reluctantly return to her life.
What she craved about her time with Ashley, what she needed like the worst kind of bathtub gin, was that they talked about the future, their individual dreams, their hopes and wishes. They never dwelled on the past, who they were outside of Lottie's, what they returned to when they left. She told Ashley what she wanted from her life, Ashley talked of being something more. They laughed, sometimes there were tears. Mostly hers and always when the conversation turned to the emotionally intangible. What does desire feel like? Passion? What is real love? Cliched musings, but she truly wanted answers.
They are both artists, of sorts. Shouldn't she know about such things? When she is in her studio, sculpting, her hands deal with the here and now of clay. But it is hard to find feeling in water and dirt, in materials that are never soft for very long. But Ashley knows how to put words to good use, can weave together syllables and sounds that match every emotion. She can make people feel things with just her voice. That is Ashley's artistic gift.
One thing she knows from working with clay is that hardness brings with it a certain clarity. Like how she never feels more herself than when she is with Ashley. Everything settles into place as if it is preordained. She knows that, eventually, she can never go back to living the lie that was her life in Oak Park. She will always be Paris to her mother's America. And Patrick, poor Patrick. He probably would not even notice she was gone and when he did, maybe he would agree it was better that way. Fairytales are best confined to storybooks for a reason.
This time is my time
T'will soon be goodbye time
Then in the star light, hold me tight
With one more little kiss say nighty night
She takes a deep breath and sits a little straighter on the stool. The show is over and Ashley is making her way towards the bar, nodding her thanks to men who slip bills into her hand. Lottie pours a small glass of amber whiskey and sets it next to her own unfinished drink. Her heart catches as Ashley finally reaches her and smiles large until it crinkles her nose and reaches her eyes.
"Hey you. I missed you the last time."
She readjusts on the stool, tucking her hands under her thighs before she looks down briefly. When her eyes return to Ashley's face, she glimpses a fleeting look of nervousness. She smiles in return.
"I missed you too. Sorry, I couldn't get away something came up."
What came up was Patrick, who had returned from a Saturday meeting with a bottle of smuggled homemade gin, a present from an important client. He was in the mood to celebrate the deal and insisted she stay home, practically made her stay home. When his hands fumbled on her body later that night, she had to turn her face away from the sickening smell of liquor on his breath and pretend she was somewhere else. Men need outlets, Spencer. Hearing her mother's voice did not help matters either.
Ashley quickly buries the hurt with a small smile but she feels it. Ashley can't hide her feelings from her anymore, not when their bodies have been so close, tucked away into their booth for so long. It is her turn to feel a stab of pain. Ashley reassures her.
"Hey, it's okay. You're here tonight, right?"
She nods. Nothing could have kept her away.
"Yes. I'm here. I couldn't handle another night without talking to you."
At this, an unreadable look passes over Ashley's face and she reaches out to touch her arm. Cool fingers send a jolt through her.
"Come with me."
They lock eyes for a brief moment before she reaches back and gets her pocketbook. She looks at Lottie and they smile at each other. She thinks he looks better in solids than in floral patterns. She will never tell him this. Lottie Zagorski is proud and takes compliments better than criticism. Sliding off the stool, she steadies herself and follows as Ashley leads them not to their usual booth, but to the back exit.
Ashley is always the mystery, even after all these months. She thinks about her life with Patrick, her family, her mother. There is no mystery there, it is all so predictable. Maybe that is why she finds herself drawn to this place. It is danger, trouble -- everything she has been warned away from, sheltered from, denied. She wonders what Ashley finds in her companionship, because she is certainly not dangerous and she is not trouble. I am too safe.
It is dark in the hallway and she again finds herself stumbling tonight. Reaching out, her hands grab onto Ashley's arm, more for balance than anything else. But it is too late to nitpick and really, it was only a matter of time before they could no longer deny the obvious. Ashley turns and presses her against the wall before her brain, ever slow, catches up and flashes a signal: It has always been true between you two.
The name on her lips is cut off before she can finish saying it and fingers press roughly against her mouth. Ashley's perfume makes it hard to think. Their time together never involved more than talking. That was safe and proper, even if the location was not. This is something else entirely. Something real.
"You need to know something, Spencer Carlin."
Ashley is looking at her like she sees everything. Her voice is low and throaty -- the kind of songs she sings makes it so. She is finding it hard to breathe.
"This has happened before. It will happen again. You, me. Us."
She holds her breath as Ashley leans in and her lips find an ear, fingers still pressing against her mouth. She shudders at the whisper.
"Do you believe me?"
She feels her heart pound out the answer before her voice vibrates against Ashley's fingers.
I know. She closes her eyes when Ashley's fingers begin to move, touching until her hand is holding her face and only a thumb remains on her lip. She feels weight pushing against her as Ashley leans in again. That thumb presses down on her bottom lip and opens her mouth. She even feels the edge of a nail against her teeth.
"I've been waiting for you, waiting for our moment. This is it, Spencer. Do you want this?"
What does she want? She wonders if the answer is any clearer now than when she first walked into Lottie's a year ago. She wants desire and passion and love. She wants something that makes her feel alive again. She wants what is missing, what has always been missing. She wants the one real thing that she knows is here. She wants that other piece of her body or mind or soul where it belongs. And she wants it back, now.
She shakes when she feels lips against her neck, teeth gently biting. Warm breath tickles her ear as Ashley coaxes her with a murmur.
"You know me too, Spencer. You remember me like I remember you. Tell me you do."
Her hand trembles as she raises it Ashley's hip, the cool feel of silk slides against her fingers and yet she can feel warmth underneath. She squeezes until Ashley leans in and they touch, closing all distance. Their breathing mingles and she speaks so quietly she is not sure it can be heard.
"I remember you, Ashley. I knew it when I first saw you."
She does what she has been waiting to do for a very long time. Her lips seek Ashley's and they kiss. It feels like another kind of memory. Her mouth opens slightly because she knows what will happen next and Ashley's tongue does not disappoint. Will it always feel this new, this soft? She feels hands in her hair and Ashley settling into her. She loses track of where they are, she no longer cares. Pulling back, she is breathless.
"I want this."
Ashley looks into her eyes and nods. The voices of Lottie's customers are far off now and someone has started a phonograph player. Glasses clink together and she distantly wonders what appeal alcohol has when it is so much more intense to be entirely aware of life and its thrumming force. She feels like she has been drunk her whole life, living under a dull cloud of waiting, staggering through each day, blunted. She is alive now and Ashley's hand is entangled with hers. Then that voice stirs her again.
"Come away with me. I have a car. I have cash. We can go wherever we want."
She swallows. So this is real.
Because it is real and because it is her, she hesitates. Just enough that Ashley can see it in her eyes. The space they now occupy, this darkened hallway, shrinks.
"Isn't that what you want? To leave everything behind and start new? We can do that together, right now. Tonight."
Yes. Yes. Say yes! Her mind screams at her because now her body is the one who has fallen behind. The sweater she wears is too warm, her skirt constricts and wraps around her legs, her shoes are tight. This place feels illegal all of a sudden and for once in her life, she wants to commit a crime and feel the burn of gin slide down her throat. Surely that would shock her system into movement.
Then a light flashes, literally. The dirty bulb above their heads switches on and then off. On. Off. Stay. Go. Yes. No. Suddenly, she hears shouts and yells, chairs are overturned and shuffling feet come their way in a rush.
"Raid! Raid! Get out!"
Lottie's voice bellows above the din and men shout and push. She feels Ashley pull her towards the exit before they are surrounded and jostled. She is pressed against the wall and then she is engulfed again by the crowd, carried by bodies. Their hands are torn apart in the confusion. She catches Ashley's face between suits and large arms, sees panic there. The movement she desires happens, but her body does not initiate it.
She hears this as they all spill out of the backdoor exit and into the alley. Her eyes search desperately for Ashley, listens for her voice. Her heart pounds as lights flash into her face and people push her forward. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees a woman standing off to the side, arms crossed watching the sinners flee their judgment. It is America. And Patrick stands beside her, pointing. There she is. She almost looks down to see if she wearing a visible mark of shame.
The police begin grabbing random men, arresting them. Her secret life is over and all she can think about is Ashley and finding her and running. Anywhere. Her mother and Patrick and that whole life she has been living mean nothing anymore. She starts to run, looking around wildly.
She sees Ashley waving frantically, standing next to a car. She is so close; she judges the distance and her brain tells her to move. Her body knows, it remembers. This is her chance. This is it. Her feet step in the right direction, she starts towards Ashley. A man, drunkenly running, bumps her from behind and she trips. She stumbles, falls. Time stands still before it collapses upon itself.
On the ground, she looks up as she is being helped to her feet and the face she sees is not Ashley Davies. It never will be. She is gone. She inhales and turns her head to the sound of a voice.
Spencer blows out a breath as she lifts her head from her hand, blinks her eyes open and feels the wind, smells the open air of the road. Ashley is driving, she is awake.
"I just had the worst dream "
She pauses for a moment, hand on head, eyes closed. She feels herself carried along by four wheels. She thinks about her dream, briefly. She has lots of them these days and they always feel familiar. She wants to touch her lips to feel if they still sting just a little. She also wants to shake off this lingering sense of inertia; she doesn't want to be that girl who, caught between desire and obligation, between love and duty, finds herself faltering through the choice again. She never wants to hesitate. She thinks about Ashley and her impulsivity, her passion. She is real and I choose her.
"What, that we went all Thelma and Louise, on your family because they found out their daughter is gay."
Spencer chuckles, shaking her head, content to match Ashley's sarcasm with her own.
"Good thing that'll never happen."
At least she is free, for now. The sun is shining and she is young. In this life with Ashley, she thinks she knows what love feels like, is very sure what desire is. It is like driving on the open roads of their own private America with the top down. And it feels crazy. Right?
Return to South of Nowhere Fiction
Return to Main Page