This short story is inspired by the song “Elephant” by Jason Isbell.
Emily’s long porcelain legs shivered in the drafty cold of the sleepy Tennessee bar room. Above her, two dusty speakers rang out Clay Pigeons. She sat stoically in a short dark blue dress that clung tightly to her body. One of her hands tickled the chicken skin forming along her thigh.
“Take my sweater, Em,” Andy said to her.
“It’s Emily, Andy,” she replied with a smile.
Andy shook his head. For six months, they’d met at the same bar every Thursday night to watch singers with beards and sweat-stained hats play songs for middle-aged couples and a few yuppies, like Andy, who lived in the neighborhood and were bored with other bars where college kids hung out.
The first Thursday, Andy noticed Emily, blonde and skinny, sitting by herself. She had big blue eyes and her arms were pale and muscled. He approached and stood beside her to order a beer. She did not turn to face him, even when he spoke to her.
“I didn’t know anyone else under the age of 30 came here,” he said.
“I don’t come for conversation,” Emily replied, her eyes never moving from the bar top.
Andy laughed it off. “So, is it for the music? I think my cat can hold a better melody.”
Emily smiled softly and finally looked up at him. “You’re a cat person?”
They spoke for four hours that first night. Andy told her about how he had moved to Nashville from Clarksville after college. He took a few classes at Belmont. He tried to make it as a folk singer, but stayed instead for a job in advertising. His boss is a fan and lets him take time off to play a few small shows on the road every summer.
It would be a few more weeks before Emily told Andy about her cancer. The doctors had found it in April. She told Andy about her timeline. How her family had moved from Oklahoma to Franklin to be close to her.
“They’re one of those big Baptist families,” she said. “They think they’ll pray my cancer away.”
Now, Emily and Andy sat at the same bar stools again talking. It was late November, as the fall crept to winter. They looked like old lovers half the time the way they sat close but rarely touching. They talked ceaselessly. At midnight, Andy closed their tabs.
“Do you still want to sleep with me, Andy?” Emily asked him, woozy from Jack Daniels.
Andy’s shoulders fell.
“It’s alright, Andy. You can take me home,” she said.
He walked Emily two streets over to her apartment and helped her up the stairs, both of them sleepy and unsteady from the booze. She laid down in her bed and they spoke until she fell asleep. He felt her skinny body beside him. Soon he got up and washed the dishes in her sink, threw away the old mail on her desk, and swept the floor where strands of her hair had fallen. Then he left.
Andy and Emily spent the nights they could together under the dim light of a barroom or her bedroom. On her bed post, they kept a tally they scratched off after every time she was readmitted to the hospital. He met her family there on one of the hard days. She had been sick to her stomach the night before.
“It’s a blessing Emily’s found you,” her dad told him. He grabbed Andy’s forearm and gripped it, as he stared kindly at him.
Emily laughed. In his other hand, Andy held a cup of coffee he shared with her.
“Can I get you another cup?” her dad asked him. Andy politely nodded no. Emily’s parents left for a few hours to meet her cousins who were in town to spend the weekend.
“Seagrams?” she said when they were out of sight. “Really, Andy? You crack me up.”
In the hospital, Andy sat beside her bed. He brought his guitar some nights and played her old country songs. The blue veins in her skin were rivers throbbing under the harsh fluorescent lighting. High from the medicine, she sang shamelessly.
“Play Hank Jr. next,” she said. “Family Tradition.”
It hurt to play the songs. It hurt to watch her die. But Andy stayed until the end. He loved her completely and irrationally in a way he never did the others who came before her.
Emily died on a Tuesday morning. Two days later, Andy returned to the bar two blocks from her apartment and sat at the stool where he first saw her. He listened to a guitar player on stage sing a love song that ended with a happy-ending line he hated deep inside himself. Then he ordered Jack Daniels until he was blazingly drunk.