Onyx Publications
  • Small Town Opera

    Written By: Tacheny Perry

    © 2021 by Tacheny Perry

The Neighbers Bar and Grill was across from the Phillips 66 on the edge of town. Really, all parts of town were on the edge. One gas station, one bar, a Family Dollar, and a Pizza Hut. There used to be a Dairy Queen when Peter was growing up, but that had closed years ago, after the family that owned it moved to Omaha. It wasn’t even a town, really, just a place centrally located between farms and grain mills and the meat packing factory.

It was a nice place to grow up, though. Every spring, there was a flower festival. There were contests for biggest, best color, and most exotic. Not that any of that had interested him. His mom had participated one year, but she’d complained the whole time because the flowers had to be grown inside. Nebraskan spring couldn’t be relied upon until at least mid-May, and the festival was Memorial Day weekend.

Peter was eleven when his mom, Gloria, had grown her daisies. She grumbled every time she had to water them or move them out of the living room and into a back bedroom because they were hosting their church group. But he also remembered watching her smile at the little stems pushing through the dirt, and the tiny buds balancing above the growing leaves, and the delicate revelation of the soft white and pink petals. She didn’t win any awards, but Peter knew it hadn’t been about that. It had been in honor of his grandma, who had always participated, and who had died that winter.

“Grandma deserves flowers,” his mom had said when she’d carried in the envelope of seeds and cracked ceramic pot.

After the awards each year, the whole town paraded down to the graveyard and placed the flowers on the gravestones of their loved ones. This was important to grownups, but it was always hard for Peter to stay quiet and respectful when he wanted to run to the rides and games being set up back on Main Street. He was especially good that year though, even watering the flowers on the days his mother had forgotten. Because she wanted Grandpa’s and Grandma’s graves decorated.

After the Spring festival, Prairieville held Summer Splash, then Harvest Festival, then the Christmas pageant, and then everyone went inside for several months and drank too much until it was time to find seeds for Spring Festival again.

The festivals had always been his mom’s thing. As a kid, Peter liked them too because he ate candy by the handfuls and drank only orange pop. When the rides and games were lame or when he and his friends were too old for them, they would sneak away, usually to the Dairy Queen, at least while it was still open. He’d held Amy’s hand there for the first time, the skin below his shorts sticking to the booth as he tried to slide close enough for their fingers to casually touch.

Once he’d graduated high school, things were different. Most of his high school buddies were still around, but a lot of them had kids now, or drinking problems that could no longer be excused by age. Peter had left briefly for an electrician apprenticeship, but he’d never really considered staying away for good. Prairieville was his home, crazy festivals, and empty ice cream chain stores, and all.

He and his mom always went together, though she never grew flowers for the Spring festival again.

“Turns out they sell daisies in the store,” she told him.

So, they began driving to the Walmart a town over to pick up flowers the night before. She never entered her store flowers in the contest, but they did join the parade and laid them on his grandparents’ graves.

 

Peter thought maybe he should have participated in the Spring Festival this year, maybe even grown his own flowers. Amy had offered to help. But he couldn’t walk in that parade without his mom.

He’d never missed a Spring Festival before. Even when he was in Omaha for his electrician apprenticeship, he came back for it because his mom asked him to.

“Only if your boss doesn’t mind,” she said on the phone.

He considered lying, but it wasn’t that big a deal, and she didn’t ask for favors except on festival days.

He was pretty sure she had been disappointed when he moved back after receiving his electrician’s license. Excited to have him back, of course, but disappointed he’d failed to escape. She’d never said any of this out loud, but Peter heard it in her tone. Maybe it was because his mom didn’t belong in Prairieville. She did all the things the other women did; cook, sew, grow and can her own vegetables. But she didn’t scavenge for dress patterns at the church garage sale or experiment with different spice combinations while pickling her cucumbers. There was no excitement in any of it for her, only duty.

“I was going to be an opera singer,” she told Peter when he was ten. “Before I married your father and had you.”

Most people in Prairieville, including Peter, didn’t have dreams that included things outside of Prairieville. They liked recognizing people in town, and making dirt clouds behind their cars, and the cool nights full of stars and chirping crickets. “Big cities” were for weekend visits or extra-special shopping trips.

There were plenty of homes and businesses that needed help with electrical issues in Prairieville. It had everything Peter needed. But it didn’t have an opera house, or concert hall, or anything else that wasn’t a church basement. And no one knew who Pavarotti was or why Puccini’s Madame Butterfly was always best when the costumes and set were traditional.

Maybe that’s why his mom had a “before I die list.”

Before I die, I’m going to visit the MET. Before I die, I’m going to start a poetry book club. Before I die, I’m going to color my hair blue. These were some of the big ones. Then there was the small list. Before I die, I’m going to organize this pantry, return that overdue library book, paint my yellow dining room, get the lady’s circle to come up with something more interesting than a bake sale for fund raising, ask the owner of The Neighber’s Bar and Grill if the spelling error in his name was intentional. Once she was actually dying, the lists disappeared.

For a brief moment after her death, Peter thought about finishing her list for her, like some convoluted plot for a made-for-TV movie. He pictured himself bringing home paint samples, driving to New York City in his rusted white Ford pickup truck, an urn in his passenger seat. But his mom had been buried, not cremated, and he couldn’t see the point of going to New York alone or fixing up a dining room she would never see.

Including the name of The Neighber’s on her “before I die” list, had mostly been a joke. But it had driven her crazy, the misspelling. She’d offered to pay him twenty-five dollars when he was twelve or thirteen to ask the bartender if there was a reason for the misspelling, but going inside would have meant breaking the rules, and Peter didn’t do that.

Probably there was no story behind the name. Probably, she had already asked, years ago and never told him. But he’d been driving past it now for a week on his way to his job site. And he’d missed Spring Festival, so there were no flowers on his mom’s grave. And there was an open letter on the floor of his truck from his old boss, offering him the perfect excuse for never attending another festival again. But was that what he wanted?

He hadn’t gone to the bar for years.

  The inside looked exactly the same, a stereotypical small-town dive bar complete with wobbly legged tables; cracked, red vinyl booth cushions; and mismatched wooden bar stools. The posters and jerseys between the TVs on the wall were the same too, a faded collection that included paraphernalia from both the local high school and the Huskers “glory years.” Everything looked grimy and smelled of stale cooking oil and spilled beer.

  It was mostly empty except for a small group of road-crew guys, orange vests draped over the backs of their chairs, and two graying men, sitting three stools apart at the bar. They all looked familiar in the vague way that everyone from Prairieville looked familiar, but he didn’t really know them.

Peter grabbed the lopsided stool closest to the door and sat at the bar. He pulled the bowl of pub mix toward him and started picking out the rye chips as he waited for the bartender.

Coming here was a stupid idea. There was no secret behind the misspelled word, just another unimportant small-town mishap that his mom had somehow made exciting. He pushed away the bowl of pub mix and shoved his left hand into his pocket.

There was an electrical wire cap in there, orange, if he remembered correctly. He passed it between his fingers. He should leave, go home, let out his dog, drive over to his dad’s and check on him. That would mean more to her. But instead, he slumped farther down onto his seat, pulled out the orange cap, and began spinning it on the counter. It skittered and bumped as it lost speed before he trapped it under his hand and spun it again.

The bartender appeared, standing in front of the wall of alcohol on the opposite side of the bar, staring down at her phone. She was younger than he’d expected, and a lot hotter. She wore a low-cut black tank-top and tight, strategically ripped jeans. His eyes followed a thin gold chain that traced a line around her collarbone and down into her cleavage.

Peter trapped the electrical cap under his palm and glanced around the bar. With the exception of one of the old guys, everyone was staring at the bartender. She didn’t look up, but something about the way she held her shoulders, pressed back, one raised in a slight shrug, told Peter she noticed.

“Hey sweetie,” called one of the men from the table.

“You don’t tip well enough to call me that, Joe,” she said without looking up.

“Maybe if you were more attentive.”

“Sounds like a real chicken versus egg problem.”

She stuck her phone in her front pocket. “Another round?”

Without waiting for a response, she pulled down one of only two spouts of on-tap beer and filled five plastic cups with Budweiser.

Peter watched her walk to the table. Her shirt didn’t quite meet the hem of her pants, revealing the bottom of a tattoo on the small of her back. There wasn’t a tattoo parlor in town, which didn’t mean no one got any, but Peter was pretty sure she wasn’t a local.

“Budweiser?” she asked Peter as she walked back towards the bar.

“Yeah, thanks,” he said, slipping the cap back into his pocket.

“Anything from the kitchen?” she asked as she set down his translucent, disposable cup, foam flowing over the lip and dripping down the side.

“No thanks.”

She had an ornate purple and pink butterfly tattoo on her right wrist. He stared at its slightly faded wings as she let go of the cup.

            “That’s pretty,” he said, looking up.

            “It was a bet. I was fifteen.”

            He expected her to disappear to the back room, but she stayed, standing in front of him, so he looked back up and said, “I’m Peter, by the way.”

            She leaned forward, resting her elbows on the bar. The thin gold chain slipped out of her shirt, revealing a tiny flower pendant.

“Chicken or egg, Peter?”

            For some reason, Peter found the flower surprising.

“Egg, I guess.”

             She smiled. “Jessica,” she said, offering him her hand. 

            Jessica disappeared back into the kitchen and Peter drank his beer. The two older guys at the bar drank with him quietly, but the group at the table was getting louder. Peter wasn’t listening to anything they were saying, just the increasingly insistent noise their collective voices made.

            His mom used to call this his superpower, being able to turn any conversation into ambient noise. It drove his dad crazy, though Peter knew he inherited the power from him. It was useful, if not impressive, especially when he wanted to be able to sit and drink without being interrupted by anyone’s thoughts.

            The Neighber’s Bar and Grill used to just be called The Bar and Grill. Peter had only been six when they changed it, so he wouldn’t have remembered, except that his mother had pointed it out.

            “Vital life lesson,” she said to him on one of their walks to the library, pointing at the new block letters above the entrance.

            His memories were sprinkled with his mother’s “vital life lessons,” always given at odd times for what seemed like odd things. As he got older, he decided his mom just liked the sound of the phrase, but he still held onto them. He was glad he had now. That day, her “vital life lesson” had been “always have one friend without a social filter.”

            “Why?” he asked, not knowing what a “social filter” was.

            “Because they’ll tell you when you’re being stupid, preferably before an entire town notices you can’t spell.”

            Jessica’s phone lit up the fabric of her jean pocket. She pulled it out, read the message, and shoved it into her back one instead.

            “Do you smoke?” she asked, setting another beer in front of his almost empty cup.

            It took him a minute to turn her voice into words. “No,” he said.

            “Neither do I. Let’s take a non-smoke break.”

 

            Hours later, Peter sat in the bed of his truck and Jessica lay beside him. They weren’t touching, but he was very aware of how close his fingertips were to her exposed waistline. The night was cool and bright with stars.

            “I have a theory,” she said.

            They were parked just outside of town, next to a cornfield owned by some non-local corporate farm based out of who knows where. Peter pulled another can from the six pack they’d brought from the bar.

            “About?”

            “The chicken and the egg.”

            “Which came first?”

            “It’s not about which you pick, it’s about how you say it. No one actually knows the answer. That’s the whole point of the question. My theory, is that you can separate people into three categories: people who think they know the answer, people who understand there really isn’t one, and people who are too stubborn or scared, which is really the same thing, to answer at all.”

            “Which one is the worst?” Peter popped the can and took a swig.

            “The third one.”

            “Which one am I?”

            “The second.”

            “And you?”

            “I just ask the question.”

            “So you’re outside the categories?”

            “The theorist can’t be part of the theory.”

            Jessica’s phone buzzed loudly against the truck bed.

            “You going to get that?” asked Peter.

            “No. He’s a number one.”

            Peter lay next to her, folding his hands over his stomach. “Do you have any more theories?”

            Her phone buzzed again. “Theory number two: there are two reasons to abandon a car on the side of the road.”

            “I’m assuming one is because it’s broken.”

            “No. Sure, cars break down and have to be left temporarily, but think about it. If your truck broke down, would you just leave it on the side of the road forever?”

            “I guess not.”

            Her phone went off again. Ringing in an electronically replicated sound of an old landline.

            “What?” she said, sitting up and sliding off the truck bed, the gravel crunching as she paced.

            He tuned out the words she whisper-yelled into the phone. He closed his eyes. He didn’t know why he was here. He had a long day tomorrow. His dog had probably peed all over the house unless Amy had gone over to let him out. He wondered what category Amy would fall into in Jessica’s chicken and egg theory.

            Before his mom got sick, he and Amy had been planning their wedding. More accurately, Amy had been planning the wedding, and Peter had been going along with it. Amy had offered to move the wedding up, make it smaller so that his mom could be there. Peter had suggested they wait until his mom got better. But his mom hadn’t gotten better. And now the wedding was just something that floated in the air between them, not quite in the past or the future. He didn’t know how much longer Amy would let it stay that way. And he didn’t know what he would do if she decided to give him an ultimatum.

            He was pretty sure he loved her, just not in an urgent way. She was comfortable and kind. She fit here, and so did he.

            Except he didn’t know if that was true anymore. The fitting part. Prairieville had been home because his mom had made it home. He felt like one of those helium birthday balloons his mom always hung onto for too long. Half of the string dragging across the floor, sluggishly drifting: to Amy’s, to the bar, to the possibility of Omaha, to Jessica. He knew he’d be stuck wherever he landed. He wasn’t ready to be stuck. But he wasn’t sure he had enough energy to choose.

            The truck bed sunk slightly as Jessica climbed back on. Her knee nestling between his legs. Her breath yeasty and warm against his cheek. He didn’t open his eyes, just slid his hands around her waist as she lowered her chest onto his. Her kiss was salty and much softer than he’d expected.

            “I lied,” she said, laying her head on his shoulder. “I’m a number three.”

 

            Peter heard a car door slam and then the rumble of tires churning against gravel. He sat up slowly, opening his eyes. The darkness barely changed. Clouds must have rolled in. His back ached from the hard, ribbed floor of his pickup. He slid his hand across the cool plastic next to him. Jessica was gone.

            He walked around the truck-bed and climbed into the front seat, leaning his head back against the headrest and reaching beneath him to rescue his phone when it pressed against his thigh. It lit up the cab, the clock reading 2:30. There were three voicemails, five missed calls from Amy, and one text message from an unsaved number. He clicked on it and read: theory 2 reason 1—you’re running away from something.

            Peter clicked back to the missed calls and dialed Amy. She picked up after the first ring.

            “Thank God. Are you alright?” She had obviously still been awake.

            “Yeah, sorry. Fell asleep in my truck.

“Damn it, Peter. I have been freaking out for hours.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“This is not ok.”

“I know.” Peter paused. “Did you happen to go over to let Brian out?”

            “Yes.” Her voice was clipped and high pitched. He was pretty sure she was trying not to cry. “But Peter, we need to talk.”

            Peter closed his eyes and slipped his hand into his pocket, finding the orange electrical cap with his fingers. “Ok. I know.”

            “Tomorrow… or I guess tonight? Supper?”

            “Sure.”

 

            At noon, Peter’s phone buzzed.

            Theory 2 reason 2 - you’re running toward something.

            He typed: Wouldn’t a car make running to something easier? He waited, but she didn’t answer.

            After work, he stopped by the grocery store to pick up some wine and flowers for Amy. At dinner, when the pork chops came out, so did the ultimatum.

            “I’m moving to Chicago. I want you to come.”

            Peter swallowed. His mouth watering from the salty seasoning. Amy always added too much salt.

“What?”

            “I know this wasn’t in our plan. But my friend from Kearny reached out. She was accepted into this program to work at the inner-city schools there. I honestly didn’t think I’d get in, so I didn’t tell you. And then there was your mom.”

She set down her fork and leaned forward toward Peter’s end of the table. “Peter, I love you, but I went into teaching to make a difference and I’m not sure I can do it here.”

            “I thought you liked being able to visit all the same places we did when we were kids. I thought you were happy here.”

            “I am happy. And we’ll move back some day. But I want to do something first. People don’t dothings here.”

            Peter took another bite of pork chop. He did things. His phone buzzed. He glanced at the text. A single word: no. He looked at Amy.

            “My mom was going to be an opera singer,” he said.

            “What?”

            “Before she got married. Had me.”

            Amy smiled. “She always had a beautiful voice.”

            “She never really fit here. But she’s stuck here now.”

            “I don’t think that’s how she’d want you to see it.”

            “What if I say no?”

            “To coming?” Amy asked, her hands pressed flat against the table top.

            “Will you still go?”

            She sighed, tracing the lines gathering on her forehead with her finger.

“I haven’t signed anything.” Her voice was quiet now.

            “But this is your dream?”

            “Peter, I have a lot of dreams.”

            Peter thought about his mom, singing scales in the shower. Blasting Wagner and Vivaldi until the minivan shook and the women passing by with strollers glared into our tinted windows. Shutting out the Chemo with Madame Butterfly.

            “If it’s your dream, you should go,” he said. “We’ll figure it out.”

            “What does that mean?”

            Peter closed his eyes, slipping his right hand into his jean-pocket. His mom used to say he fiddled when he was trying to find words. A sharp piece of copper wire jabbed into his middle finger. He pulled his hand out, pressing the prickle of blood against his palm. Growing up, his pockets were full of gravel or snail shells or crushed dandelions. He would roll them between his fingers, then later find them piled by the laundry room sink. He still forgot to empty his pockets, his washing machine clanking arrhythmically with each load. It was a wonder it still worked.

            “I’m sorry, Amy. I’m tired. I haven’t been sleeping well. Can we talk about this tomorrow?”

            “You could sleep here.”

            “Not tonight, okay?”

             She shoved her chair away from the table and stood, grabbing her plate. “I barely see you anymore.”

            He stood, more slowly than Amy had, and stared down at the edge of the table. “Tomorrow. I promise. And Amy?” He looked up at her. “Congratulations.”


Peter didn’t know where he was going or, more accurately, Peter wasn’t going anywhere. After thirty minutes of driving down random roads, he pulled over and took out his phone.

He typed: Theory 2 — Reason 3 you’re dead.

            A moment later, his screen lit up. Morbid, but accepted.

            My mom wanted to be an opera singer.

            Mine wanted to be a drug addict.

            Peter stared out of his windshield. The wind murmuring through the corn in the surrounding fields. It was always growing and shrinking and being plowed under, but somehow it never seemed to change.

His phone buzzed again. Theory 3 — I would make a terrible mother.

            He Typed, Theory 4 — I’m an ass.

            Category two people can only be temporary asses.

            Peter turned his truck back on but left the headlights off. Everything outside was heavy. The air. The sky. The roll of his engine beneath his seat.

Choose, Jessica. Chicken or egg.

            Two months before she died, Peter, Amy, and his mom and dad all took a road trip together. His mom had wanted to see the redwood forest before she died. Her oncologist wouldn’t clear her to fly, so they took a week and drove there. She had to stop a lot. Really, it had been a terrible idea, but you can’t say no to a dying person.

            “Vital life lesson,” she had said on an abandoned looking road somewhere in Nevada. “If you’re lost, ask for directions.”

            But, abandoned roads in Nevada don’t have cell service or people. So they had just kept driving in what turned out to be the wrong direction until they hit a dead end and had to turn around.

            “Better vital life lesson, don’t be lost.”

            He thought about Omaha and the letter on the floor, crumpled with all the other trash. An arm’s length away. He thought about Chicago and Amy. He could be an electrician anywhere. He could come back to visit when he wanted. People moved away. Maybe not in Prairieville, but in most places. People moved away and came back. Nothing had to be permanent. But sometimes it was. He couldn’t move to Chicago.

            Peter tapped on his phone.

My mom is dead.

            So is mine.

            Please answer.

He stared down at his phone, but it didn’t light up again.

Jessica. Chicken or egg?