New Year
by Kate Sheckler

Lynn wore plaid skirts that ended four inches below the knee. Her blouses were white and finished with Peter Pan collars and pearl buttons. When she wore pants, the navy gabardine had the perfect crease of a dapper salesman. Her pale blue eyes were magnified by oversized lenses in dark burgundy frames that drew attention to the half circle of lines around her eyes.

On day-shifts she was the first person through the door when Joey turned the key. As I aligned the menus and set perfect bundles of silverware on the tables, she set the red and white striped, super jumbo size paper cup in the center of the bar. I polished the glasses placing each back in its spot on the shelf as she carefully peeled the paper from a straw and lay it beside the cup, ready to be poked through the plastic top.

Joey would give his uneven grin and switch on the blender which whirred into cheerful racket, grinding the ice and alcohol into a pale green slush. The color of a child's party dress.

"Have a good morning Mary. You too Joey." Lynn's tone was cheerful and businesslike. She signed the tab that Joey kept for her on the back of a napkin, her signature clear and precise despite the soft paper. Then she left, the paper cup held carefully, to return to her desk next door at the travel agency.

At 12:15 she would be back to sit at the bar and watch the lunch rush. This time the glass would be a huge, short-stemmed margarita glass, coated with thick frost from the freezer. Her stool was the one beside the waitress station, and her chat was wry and witty as she watched the other waitresses with amusement and nodded with approval at my neat ways. Lynn and I conversed in 30-second segments, and our words were often the same, our movements similar as I picked up drinks and left off orders. The others laughed at our likeness. Although I admired her precision, I shrugged it off and turned my thoughts away from any such idea. I did not covet the life I saw.

Lynn read the menu, considering each item before selecting either a quesadilla or a chimichanga, of which she would eat four bites before placing her utensils in an x over the remains.

At 1:00 Lynn would have Joey fill another paper cup before rising from her stool and returning to the office. "Have a nice afternoon Mary. Goodbye everyone."

There was another drop-in at 3:30, and that would be it until I left at 4:00 on my way to class.

I knew from my evening shifts that at 6:00 Lynn would be back. Not, like the casual customers, to eat and laugh, their uproarious demeanor matching the brilliant murals on the walls, which were so different from my own carefully rendered images. And neither like the other regulars who sat at the bar, spines drooping as if the alcohol had softened their bones until they were left flaccid, barely able to shuffle out ahead of one of the evening bartenders at closing.

Lynn would sit erect, her glass never entirely full and never entirely empty. At 9:00 she would say goodnight. Regardless of the evening's events, whether they had left us with ragged tempers or generous tips, we responded cheerily. Lynn would leave with a steady step making her way to her apartment, empty in the high-rise above the restaurant.

She was as different from the other regulars as I was from the crowd of waitresses. They spent their energies in wondering whether the manager, Jane, had finally slept with Ricky the cook, or counting how many glasses of Crown Royal Joey managed to sneak each day.

One evening in November Lynn arrived at 4:30 in the afternoon to sit at the far end of the bar. Silent and drinking steadily, she stayed until we closed. With last call I saw her sway as she stood, one veined hand on the red vinyl seat she had just left, until slowly and carefully she stepped to the door. I watched through the window as she walked the 20 feet to the entrance of her apartment building. There she stood, motionless for most of a minute, before finally disappearing within.

It was the next afternoon that she told us. There had been a prognosis. If she were to go on in the same manner, death would come sometime that year. Her liver was damaged and could no longer do its job. We all discussed it, and Lynn said that the choice was clear, there could be no more paper cups, no more short-stemmed, frost-covered, margarita glasses. Life was more important.

The morning visits were cancelled and as well the ones at 3:30. At lunch the liquid in her glass was the obvious brown of Coca Cola, but the four bites of food remained four bites. The lines of her face deepened, and her wit had an edge, yet Lynn remained polite.

Seven days before Christmas the plan failed.

On the 18th of December, Lynn arrived as the door was unlocked and placed a red and white cup in the center of the bar. Joey looked at her. She stared back with her hands flat against the sides of her neatly pressed plaid skirt. The room was silent until Joey turned on the blender.

There was no increase of cups, no drooping of spine; things went back to exactly the way they had been before, with each move precise. But Lynn's skin became puffed and stretched, turning the color of a yellow potato, and tiny red veins crawled spider-like across her cheeks. We spoke of them in whispers. To Lynn we spoke with strong and hearty words. I began to check the paper for other jobs, and my bundles of silverware were not so carefully made.

On New Year's Day the travel agency was not open. Lynn arrived at 11:00 in the morning to sit on her stool. I had worked the night before and had watched the giddy and desperate festivities as revelers had failed to meet the impossible expectations of the night. Now, already, this day seemed worn out. The rattle of ice against glass displeased me. Despite myself, I polished and straightened as I watched over my two tables.

"Mary, drink with me please."

I looked up from the glass of coke I was filling. My mouth filled with an unpleasant taste and I turned away. "No thank you, Lynn." I left to deliver the glass in my hand and took my time at the table.

"Let me buy you a drink." This time there was no please.

"It's too early for me, Lynn." I turned my attention firmly toward the bar and called my order. "I need a Bloody Mary, Joey." Making a business of squeezing a lemon into a club soda, I spent the long minute as Joey made the drink. The rubber bottom tray jittered as I lifted it and a Coke sloshed. I ignored the sticky overflow and left, angry. I wanted no inclusion-no collaboration in her death. I stayed away until another order required my return.

There was a highball glass sitting on the bar when I got back. The mixture within caught a single shaft of sun and glowed, briefly neon green, in contrast with the dark mahogany of the bar. The lime which Joey had squeezed into it lay misshapen on the mound of ice slivers.

Lynn clinked her own glass against the one that was waiting for me. I looked into her eyes and saw for the first time the circle of gold that framed the iris, changing the blue to celadon for that millimeter where the colors met. A beautiful color-beautiful eyes. I pulled back and saw that her blond lashes were sparse and so pale that they were nearly invisible, leaving her eyelids naked, the skin bloated like someone who has drowned. The lines that had been smile lines were now dragged down with pain.

She slid the glass toward me. Slowly, I lifted my hand to take it. It dragged at my fingertips, heavy with the weight of connection.

"To the new year."