Smokey's

Zack Provost was working his usual shift at Smokey's Tavern when owner Matt Longren made an unannounced visit, stepping into the dungy kitchen and nodding his hello to the short order cook.

"Could I speak to you for a minute, Zack?" Matt asked, gesturing toward the back door.

Zack expected this day to arrive from the moment he started working at Smokey's more than a year ago. He knew sooner or later somebody would complain and that would be the end of his job. Zack followed Matt outside, feeling nothing but gratitude for the guy who had given him a chance when most others wouldn't. Matt lit up a cigarette and took a long toke. He was a big man with long hair and a full beard – more resembling a offensive football lineman than a business owner.

"I've got to tell you something, Zack," he said.

"I can be packed and out of here by tomorrow afternoon," Zack let his boss know, hoping to spare Matt the awkwardness of actually having to fire him.

"What?" Matt frowned but then he understood what Zack was saying. "No, it's not that," he said. "You're good. This isn't about you. Relax. I just wanted to let you know that my niece is taking over managing this place," Matt announced, taking another long haul on his cigarette.

"Your niece?" Zack asked with surprise.

"Yeah, she just washed out of the Navy," Matt revealed with disappointment. "I didn't ask a lot of questions but I told my sister a long time ago I'd watch out for her kid. She's going to move into the other apartment upstairs."

"What about Chuck?"

"I need Chuck to run my place in Greenville," Matt replied. "Trust me, it's a promotion for him. I know this place is a dive but I'm making money so I don't mind keeping it open. Help my niece out, will you?"

"Sure, Matt," Zack answered, relieved that he hadn't gotten canned - at least on this night.

"Okay," Matt said, grinding out the cigarette under his foot in the dirt as he stood by the trash cans.

"And thanks again for giving me a chance, Matt," Zack said as his boss began to walk away.

"You did your time, Zack," Matt replied, stopping and giving him a long look. "You've kept your nose clean here. I've got no complaints."

Zack nodded and watched as Matt disappeared into the night. He sucked in a deep breath and returned to the kitchen to finish his shift as short order cook and dishwasher. Most people came to Smokey's to drink – not eat – but there was a small menu and Zack was pretty good at grilling up hamburgers, hot dogs, and chicken wings, frying up fries, and using the pizza oven to make pies. He worked fourteen hour shifts seven days a week (occasionally part timer Shorty Rangel filled in) for minimum wage and free rent in one of the two dive upstairs apartments.

Smokey's had seen better days but it benefited from a prime location on Route 43 – one of the main routes between Greenville and Miller City - well frequented by truck drivers, construction workers, and locals who stopped in to watch a ball game on the television over a beer, play a game of pool, or socialize while getting drunk. The exterior was weather beaten with faded and chipping paint and permanently fogged windows and the interior was forever stuck in a 1960s motif but as Matt often said paying customers didn't come in for the décor. It wasn't a sleaze place but it was a dumpy dive, not the kind of place to bring a first date or someone you were trying to impress.

Zack enjoyed working for Chuck and he was sorry the manager was leaving. Zack wasn't sure if the new person would be as understanding, trusting, and willing to keep Zack employed once she learned of his history but he couldn't worry about that until it happened. Hopefully, Matt would have his back.

As always, Zack helped Chris the bartender and Dolly the waitress close the place up at one a.m. Dolly was a plump middle aged woman with a husband on disability. She was personable but she didn't take crap from the customers and the customers knew not to mess with her. Chris was an ex-con like Zack, paroled after serving five years for drug trafficking and Matt gave him a second chance behind the bar. Five years later, the tall and thin pony-tailed Chris was still serving drinks and keeping law and order in the bar.

Once the tavern was closed and Chris and Dolly headed home, Zack went upstairs to his bare-boned apartment in the back of the building. The second apartment – overlooking the front parking lot of Smokey's – had been empty since Lionel Martin died in there a few years earlier. Lionel had been a formerly homeless Vietnam War vet who Matt helped out with a place to stay as he slowly wasted away from Agent Orange-induced cancer.

Zack stepped into his drab and shabby apartment with its faded fifty-year old peeling wallpaper, worn out carpets, and out of date kitchen. The furniture had been there when Zack moved in, probably as old as anything else in the apartment – an overstuffed couch, a couple of beaten Lazy Boys, a 1950s style kitchen table with missed matched chairs, an old squeaky bed with Cass iron head and foot boards, an old bureau, a desk that looked like it had been stolen from a high school classroom, and a time-warped bathroom with leaky fixtures from the fifties and a window that wouldn't open.

Zack hadn't bothered personalizing the place. He knew it was temporary and that his presence was tenuous at best so he hadn't invested a lot of time or energy into the premises. He was grateful to have a place to stay. There was no television or computer. Just a radio to listen to ball games or music on and used books Dolly brought for him to read. He rarely ventured from Smokey's since it required a phone call to his Parole Officer and the usual stigma involved with the ankle bracelet he was required to wear. Dolly did his grocery shopping for him and she often said it was almost as if Zack was still in Jail but both he and Chris were quick to say that nothing was as bad as jail.

Matt's niece arrived a few days later. She pulled up in front of Smokey's in a ten year old Chevy with Virginia plates stuffed to the windows with luggage and other items, tugging a small opened trailer behind it full of furniture and other possessions. She was grim faced, especially when she got a look at the run down Smokey's exterior.

"Jesus, what a dump," she said.

Zack and Becker – the afternoon bartender – helped the new manager unload her belongings and bring them to the upstairs apartment.

"You sure this place hasn't been condemned?" she frowned when she stepped inside her new home for the first time.

Zack thought her place was in better shape than his but he didn't say anything as he brought in her stuff. Becker introduced himself, a rough and tumble looking guy with arms of a professional wrestler and a chest wider than a tree trunk. There were very few confrontations at Smokey's when Becker was on duty, especially since he served time for assault and battery in his younger days.

"My name is Launi," the new manager announced, looking rather shell shocked as she glanced around her new dwelling. "I'd like to be left alone if you people don't mind."

"You're the boss," Becker replied, unoffended. "Welcome to Smokey's."

Zack hadn't said a word to Launi since she pulled into the parking lot. He liked to keep a low profile anyway. The less contact with people the better. He wanted to do his job and be left alone too. But he couldn't help but notice her feminine features. Smokey's wasn't the place that attracted the college coed crowd or the middle class thirty year old house wife. Most patrons were male and the women who came in were truck drivers, motorcycle riders, and lower income girlfriends checking up on their man. Launi had been in the Navy and she looked worldly to Zack even if she didn't seem very happy.

Launi spent the next several days in her apartment, scrubbing floors, painting walls, and fixing windows. Zack saw the dumpster out back fill with debris from her place and she ran several errands, returning with various purchases – lamps, dishes, throw rugs, and paintings from what Zack saw. He stayed out of her way but it was hard to totally avoid her living across the hall from her. One afternoon, she opened the door as Zack was walking by and she flashed a hand gun in front of her.

"Just wanted to let you know I have this and I know how to use it," Launi warned, giving him a suspicious look.

Zack was more interested in the appearance of her apartment behind her than he was worried about the gun (or her idle threat). The place looked bright and cheerful, well decorated and clean, homey and comfortable.

"I'm surprised your uncle forked over the money to fix the place up," Zack said. "He's a tight-wad when it comes to Smokey's."

"I paid for it," Launi proudly informed him.

When she was done rehabbing her apartment, Launi began making appearances in the tavern in her role as Manager. Chuck came back to show her the ropes and Launi spent time sprucing up the manager's office (which was once a supply closet) behind the bar. She kept the old trophies from long forgotten bowling leagues and the photos of long dead sports personalities but she got rid of the clutter, old Playboy magazines, and other junk she didn't like although she kept the collection of unusual beer cans and liquor bottles on a bookshelf and a large photo of Smokey's back in its heyday (when it looked like a half way decent place in the 1950s).

Launi implemented something new nearly every day. She got new bar stools and tables and chairs from a bar that closed in Riverside. She had the interior painted a brighter color. She replaced the dim lights with new brighter energy savers. She had a friend paint a mural in the entrance way.

"I'm surprised your uncle forked over the money," Zack said for the second time. "He's a tight-wad when it comes to Smokey's."

"I paid for this," Launi informed him with annoyance.

Launi left the staff alone for the most part and Zack got the impression she really didn't want to be managing Smokey's Tavern and that she was a lot like the rest of them – stuck there because she had nowhere else to go and nothing else to do. Everybody at Smokey's was broken, wounded, stigmatized, damaged, or paroled and Zack figured getting booted out of the Navy was Launi's burden which only added to the smoky business.

Zack had busy rush times but there was also a lot do nothing down time in his job. He kept a book with him and there was a comfortable stool in the corner of the kitchen to sit and read between orders. One night he was sitting on the stool reading his latest paperback novel when Launi came into kitchen. It was late but because she lived on the premises too it wasn't unusual for the manager to be around at all hours of the day and night.

She pointed to the noticeable bracelet on the outside of Zack's jeans near his ankle. "What did you do?"

"I'm sure Matt and Chuck gave you the low-down," Zack replied, giving her a look over the top of his book.

"All they said was that you're a hard and dedicated worker and you deserved a second chance," she shrugged.

"Well, the others probably told you about me," Zack said.

"No, they're quite fond and protective of you," Launi revealed. "Dolly said I should ask you myself. So I'm here, asking."

He gave her a long look. "Why do I get the feeling you already know the answer?" He asked suspiciously.

"I want to hear you say it."

"I'm a registered sex offender," Zack let her know without skipping a beat, gesturing to the ankle. "My Parole Officer and the local cops know where I am at all times."

"How much under sixteen was she…or he?" Launi asked.

"Oh, so you did know," Zack replied, trying not to sound annoyed.

"All I had to do was go to the online sex offender registry list," she revealed.

Zack gave her a long stare. "I was convicted for statutory rape on a minor under sixteen," he revealed. "She was fourteen."

"And how old were you?"

"Twenty."

Launi gave a whistle as she folded her arms across her chest and rested her backside against the counter in the middle of the room.

"I didn't know she was fourteen," Zack said, feeling the need to tell his side of the story.

"She didn't look fourteen?" Launi asked suspiciously.

"Of course not," Zack sighed. "She looked twenty!"

Launi had a look of doubt on her face.

"It was a college frat party," Zack explained. "I assumed she was of age since she was there in the frat house with a bunch of other coeds. She was drunk and so was I. She was willing and so was I. It happened. It was nice as perverted as that sounds. We were lying in bed in the afterglow when the door got kicked open and there stood her irate brother who had tracked her down somehow. She claimed I raped her to save face but it didn't matter because I was in big trouble either way because of the ages involved."

"You have to admit you were pretty stupid," Launi remarked with disgust in her tone.

"I was pretty stupid," Zack agreed. "It became a scandal because of who I was."

"Who were you?" Launi asked with curiousity.

"A college football player with a well-known but not necessarily well liked father."

"Who was your father?"

"A state political figure," Zack answered. "So there were some hardball politics involved especially because the girl's father was no fan of my father. I got ten years and was paroled after eight but I'm on the mandatory Sex Offender Registry because I'm a monster who needs to be tracked and monitored." He said the last part with dripping sarcasm.

"Eight years!" Launi was surprised. "That was longer than my Navy career!"

"A non-violent statutory rapist serving in the same prison with pedophiles, violent rapists, and true predators was the worst part," Zack told her. "I wasn't sure if I was going to make it."

"Looks like you did," Launi said.

"So far," Zack agreed.

"What does that mean?" She frowned.

He gestured to the ankle bracelet again. "People talk. People have their own beliefs, truths, attitudes, opinions and ideas. Every time somebody new comes into the tavern I'm convinced it's someone wanting to see me fired."

"Why?"

"Because I'm a level-three sex offender according to the state and that will never change," he said sadly. "I'll always have that stigma hanging over my head."

"My uncle was right," Launi decided. "You did your time. You accepted your responsibility and punishment for what you did. You deserve a second chance."

"I appreciate that," Zack replied. "But I will forever be judged by the actions of my past and the registry is there on line for anybody to see. All you have to do is type in my name and my photo and address pops up. Good thing Smokey's is miles from anywhere."

"That hardly seems fair," Launi protested.

"Come on, admit it, you had your suspicions when you first got here and saw the bracelet around my ankle," Zack challenged.

"Maybe," she confessed with embarrassment.

"Guys like me who served their time and are doing everything they're supposed to do following the law and trying to become useful members of society are still going to face obstacles with housing options, job opportunities, and a legal system designed for failure rather than success," Zack remarked. "Some will always see me as a danger to society."

"I hope she was a good lay," Launi said with a tone and Zack wasn't sure if it was sarcasm, disgust, or black humor.

Zack gave her a deadpanned look. "It was a long time ago."

"How old are you?" Launi asked.

"Twenty-nine," Zack answered. "Never did graduate from college. Without your uncle's intervention I'm not sure where I'd be. Everybody knew what happened. I lost friends. People ignored me and avoided me. That's why I didn't go back to Ohio when I got out."

"How'd you end up here?" Launi wondered.

"I have an aunt who lives in Hillsboro," he revealed. "My father wanted me to stay with her but it was in a neighborhood with a school and my Parole Officer wouldn't let me. But he knew about your Uncle and he sent me here."

"You could still finish college you know," Launi told him, walking to the back window above the large industrial sink and staring out into the night. "On line even."

"All people have to do is google my name on the sex offender list and they'll see that I'm a child molester," Zack sighed. "I try not to put myself out there too much."

"You have a right to live your life," Launi said, glancing at him where he still sat on the stool.

"My parole officer says people would rather err on the side of protecting potential victims," Zack said. "Nobody wants to be responsible for the next victimization so whenever a case comes up involving a missing or exploited child I usually get a visit from the cops."

"I guess that's understandable," Launi reasoned.

"Even though most victims of sex crimes know their assailant and most assailants are first-time offenders who wouldn't be registered?" Zack asked.

"I'm not sure," she admitted, surprised to hear those statistics.

"The registry treats every sex offender like they're all the same," Zack complained. "Of course there are some very dangerous people on the list but should some poor sap fifteen year old that had consenting sex with his fourteen year old girlfriend be on the same list?"

"Probably not," Launi said.

"Anyway, it's not your problem," Zack sighed, finally jumping off the stool to stretch for a moment. "I'm the pervert."

"Oh, for heaven sakes," Launi groaned. "I was fifteen when I did it for the first time."

"How old was the guy?"

"Sixteen," she muttered.

"That's a little different."

"I wouldn't have screamed rape if I had a brother who caught us," Launi replied as she drifted from the window, subtly keeping her distance from him.

"Do I make you nervous?" Zack asked, accustomed to the limits, restrictions, distance and boundaries some people put up around him.

"No," she insisted.

He hadn't moved from his spot in front of the stool. "Why are you moving further away from me?"

She was flustered by his question. "I'm not," she said unconvincingly.

"It's hard having a social life when everybody is afraid of you," Zack sighed.

She stopped her drifting and gave him a long look. "You were a star wide receiver for Walsh University in Canton," she said. "You had a 3.78 grade point average in your second year."

"You looked me up?" He asked with surprise. "Why?"

Slowly, Launi stepped closer to him and then she tentatively kissed him. "I'm not afraid of you," she whispered when she lifted her soft moist lips off of his.

"You're the first," Zack remarked cynically, trying not to blush. He couldn't remember the last time somebody kissed him.

Launi gave him a long serious look, studying his face and eyes for the longest time before finally drifting out of the kitchen. Zack stared after her long after she was gone, unable to comprehend what had just taken place between them. Was he finally alive again?

Zack had a small routine for himself when he wasn't working or hiding out in his dump apartment. He took morning walks through the woods behind the tavern to relax, rarely if ever seeing another human being while being one with nature which was okay with him. There was a brook where he sat reading his book among the birds and creatures of the forest. It was peaceful and it was the one way he was able to keep his sanity – by being reminded of the beauty of the world.

Nothing really changed between them after Launi kissed Zack in the kitchen except that they seemed to talk more and trust one another a little bit. Zack even took Launi on his usual morning walk in the woods one day.

"I feel like the only people I talk to are dead people," he told her when they passed the old abandoned graveyard from the 1800s nestled behind a stone wall in the middle of the woods. "I guess we've both been excluded form society," he noted, gesturing toward the faded slate gravestones. "Modern-day lepers"

"Isn't there a Bible quote that says something like 'There is no judging, for we who are here have the same name'?" Launi asked.

"I've known a lot of sex offenders in my experience," Zack said as they both took seats on the old stone wall and stared at the graveyard. "It's hard to know where the truth lies because some guys minimize what they did or live in denial while others are brutally honest about their transgressions to a point that it almost sounds as if they're bragging."

"Everybody has their own truths," Launi replied, leaning her head back and letting the sun soak her face through the branches of the trees above.

"What's your truth?" Zack dared to ask.

Launi sucked in her breath. "I haven't told anybody yet," she revealed. "Not even my uncle."

"Oh," he said.

She sighed heavily and couldn't look him in the eyes. "I got kicked out of the Navy for adultery, fraternization and theft," she revealed with sad regret.

"Wow," Zack said with surprise.

"I was a second class storekeeper with six years in the Navy," she explained. "I foolishly fell for my married Supply Officer and ended up sleeping with him which is a no-no in the Navy. Enlisted and Officer can't mix, especially when they're in the same command because it is deemed prejudicial to good order and discipline, not to mention that he was married."

"What did you steal?" Zack asked.

"I didn't know it at the time but I was ordering official Navy supplies that the Lieutenant was selling on the black market," she sighed. "That was almost worse than sleeping with him."

"What'd they do to you?"

"I got busted from E-5 to E-1 and plea-bargained a bad conduct discharge into a general discharge after serving three months in the Brig and testifying against the Lieutenant," Launi revealed. "He was court martialed on fraternization and theft charges. He resigned his commission and as far as I know he's still in jail."

"Are you two still an item?" Zack foolishly asked.

Launi looked at him like he was totally nuts. "He ruined my career, you asshole," she groaned. "He lied and cheated. He used me to fund his black market scheme. He was a two-faced backstabber who sold me out to try to save himself, accusing me of being responsible for the black market stuff. Can you believe that? I was in love with the prick and he threw me over the side."

"I'm very sorry for what happened to you," Zack said gently. "Sounds like you got screwed."

"In more ways than one," she said.

Zack paused for a moment. "I hope he was a good lay," he said, using the same line she had used earlier.

"Shut up, you jerk!" Launi laughed in spite of herself. "It still hurts," she admitted, sounding seriously defeated. "I may not have to wear an ankle bracelet but I feel like I have a ball and chain around my foot."

"I guess you're just like the rest of us at Smokey's," Zack remarked. "Damaged goods."

"I was raised by a single mother," Launi sighed. "She could have been damaged goods if she allowed herself to be. But she was my inspiration. Always positive. Always doing good. Always dedicated and committed. She never gave up. She followed her dreams, even as a single mom. She had her own business. She raised me well. She was my hero, my superstar."

"What happened to her?"

"She got sick," Launi revealed, her eyes tearing up. "She was my Uncle's kid sister. She went fast. He promised her he'd look after me."

"He helps out a lot of people," Zack let her know.

"My mother taught me to follow my dream no matter how hard it might be because it would be easy to accomplish with the right attitude and never giving up and trying with all my heart and always believing that my dream was in reach," Launi said.

"Your mom had a lot of wisdom," Zack remarked.

"She dared to dream," Launi acknowledged. "And she gave me that ability too."

"So you joined the Navy."

"That became my dream," Launi verified. "I dated a guy in high school who was all gun-ho but he laughed when I talked about joining the military too – as if I wasn't good enough or something – so I told myself that I was joining the Navy. My mother's memory pushed me to try. If my mother could chase her dream so could I." She sighed heavily. "She would be so disappointed in me."

"You're managing a business," Zack reminded her. "That's a pretty good accomplishment."

"It was never my dream," Launi pointed out.

"Maybe you're making it your new dream," Zack suggested. "Sinking your own money into it is certainly an investment."

"I look at life completely differently now," Launi admitted. "I doubt myself and I've given up on dreams."

Zack was sad that she sounded so sad. "Everybody makes mistakes," he said. "But those mistakes don't have to define us."

"Says the Boy Captive of Smokey's," she said sarcastically. Then Launi glanced at Zack with interest. "Did you ever have any dreams?"

He nodded. "Playing college football for a nationally ranked Division II team was a pretty big achievement," he said with regret in his voice. "I had no illusions about the NFL but I figured I'd end up in some sports management or coaching position." He pointed toward the ankle bracelet. "All those dreams are dead now."

"Up in smoke," Launi agreed and Zack couldn't help but smile at her little pun.

"We should probably get back to good ole Smokey's," he realized.

"You'll keep my dream to yourself?" She asked hopefully.

"Of course," he assured her.

####

Matt was an absentee-owner except when it came to hiring Staff – it was Matt who was always sending the lost sheep and broken people to Smokey's for a second chance. The joke among Staff was that the place should be re-named 'Last Chance Tavern'. Chuck had been a caretaker manager – good at keeping the books balanced, the bills paid, and the supplies ordered, but not interested in making any improvements or changes knowing Matt wasn't about to sink any more money into the place.

But now that Launi had settled in to her responsibilities she wasn't hesitant about making upgrades and variations. Matt didn't care what she did as long as it didn't cost him any money. Launi had outside exterior painted and the windows replaced and suddenly the tavern didn't look so run down.

"You're paying for this?" Zack asked.

Launi nodded her head yes as they stood in the parking lot taking in the new look Smokey's.

"How can you afford it?" He wanted to know.

"My mother left me some money," she revealed. "It's been sitting in the bank for years."

"You should rename this place Launi's," Zack said.

"Smokey's has a legacy of its own,' Launi replied. "Why change history?"

It was Launi who started booking live acts on Friday and Saturday nights – local bands and folksingers, comedians for open mike night, Karaoke. She let local clubs and organizations use the place for fundraisers – Trivia Night was a big one. She spruced up the menu – adding some soups and chili, as well as some specialty sandwiches. It wasn't hard for Zack to master these new items even though he had no training as a "culinary artist" as Launi had begun calling him.

Smokey's reputation began to change. Launi didn't want to scare away or turn off the established clientele – but she wanted to bring in new business and a new attitude and she somehow managed to find the balance between preserving the old and attracting the new. She hired a couple of younger (but tough) waitresses to bring in some youth (true to the Smokey tradition, Judith had been busted for passing bad checks and Ally had torched her boyfriend's classic '66 Mustang after a fight). Launi also gave Shorty more hours, afraid that the grueling fourteen hour shifts seven days a week would eventually catch up to Zack, despite his insistence that staying busy was the best thing for him.

The Staff went with the flow, accepting and even embracing the changes and mentality while adopting Launi into the fold as one of their own. Zack had the best relationship with her, mostly because they lived across the hall form one another and they were constantly bumping into each other. Launi even sneaked into Zack's place a few times to clean it up, spruce it up, decorate it up, and make it more personable although Zack was still convinced that his ride at Smokey's was only just one complaint away from being over.

"We don't let fourteen year old girls in here, Zack," Launi was quick to remind him. "I think you're safe here."

Unlike Zack, Launi had a life outside of Smokey's. She grew up in Miller City and she still had friends there. She went out on a date on occasion. She tried to get Zack to leave the tavern once in a while but he didn't like the indignity of having to call his Parole Officer to ask permission so he declined Launi's invitations to go to a movie or out for a bite to eat. She'd bring him back take-out once in a while and she asked him across the hall to watch a DVD with her a few times. Zack appreciated Launi's overtures be he considered her his neighbor and boss because the bracelet around his ankle was a constant reminder of his past sins and how unworthy he was of a second chance when it came to women.

Of course, Launi was Zack's first realistic opportunity to socialize with a woman since his release from prison so he appreciated her presence but he had no illusions about a potential future with her. He was always going to be an ex-convict sex offender living on the outer limit shadows with no future beyond the kindness of people like her uncle. Launi might have her own burdensome past but she already proved herself to be a successful and energetic manager who had revived Smokey's. She would find new dreams beyond the Navy and Zack was pretty sure it wasn't going to be Smokey's for the rest of her life.

It was nearly midnight and Zack was manning the kitchen as usual. Launi stepped into the room - she worked undefined hours and always seemed to be coming and going, showing up on a whim to see how things were going. Zack was seated on his favorite stool reading his latest paperback novel.

"How long are you going to be a captive of this place?" Launi wondered.

"At least until I get this off," he answered, gesturing to the ankle bracelet on the outside of his jeans.

"How much more time you trapped with that?"

"A few more months," he said. "But even then I won't be free."

"At least you won't have to wear the Scarlet Letter," Launi remarked.

"It's burned into my psyche," he revealed. "What are you doing here? It's late."

"Oh, there's always something to do," she laughed. "Paperwork. Helping out. Schmoozing the customers. Making sure everything is okay. Being a team player. My Navy training will never go away," she laughed. "Don't go home until the mission is completed. Never leave a shipmate behind."

"Do you miss it?" He asked.

"All the time," Launi admitted sadly, a lost look in her eyes. "But it's over. Gotta move on."

"To the USS SMOKEY."

She laughed. "It looked like a derelict when I first got here."

"Seems to be sailing pretty smoothly now."

"It's getting ship-shape," she agreed, stepping closer to him. "Am I a good Skipper?"

"You're doing great," Zack assured her.

Launi pressed her lips against his and he didn't resist. Her moist mouth felt so warm and comforting. He parted his lips and allowed her tongue to enter his mouth, both of them desperate for human contact on an intimate level. She placed her hands on his thighs and pressed against them as his hands found their way to her ribs along the outside of her 'Smokey's' tee shirt.

"I wish you could take that stupid bracelet off now," Launi breathed into his mouth.

"Me too," Zack whispered sadly.

"I know you think about me," she said softly. "I see you watching me when you don't think I'm looking."

"I'd be a fool not to," he said.

She smiled, flattered by his comment.

"You're supposed to be in the Navy," he sighed.

"You're supposed to be playing football somewhere."

"Not anymore."

"Me either," she reminded him, stepping away and giving him a longing look.

"I'm always going to be what I did, Launi," he told her.

"Not to me," she said before turning and leaving the room.

Zack stared after her for a long moment, not quite sure what just took place between them. How could someone like her be interested in someone like him? He had no future. She had to know that. Why get mixed up with someone who was always going to be on the cusp of being found out and run off? But there was no denying that Zack was aware of Launi's presence whenever she was around. He missed her when she wasn't there and he found himself wondering what she was up to when she was away from the tavern. Did she have some guy somewhere? Off looking for a better job? It was only a matter of time before she got tired of running a second-rate bar and moved on to the next adventure in her life. She'd never be satisfied staying put at Smokey's on Route 43, 'the road to nowhere' as the locals joked.

Launi occasionally joined Zack for his morning sojourns into the woods before the tavern opened (eleven o'clock, except Sundays when it opened at noon). The summer was waning now so it was cooler most mornings but it was the only opportunity Zack had to get away from the tavern and his apartment given that there was nowhere else for him to go except into the woods.

"So, how you doing?" Launi asked as they walked along the path that cut through the woods past the old bone yard and to the small pond.

"Same as always," he replied without looking at her.

"You can't regret things for the rest of your life, Zack," she advised. "Sooner or later, you just have to let go of things and say that was then and this is now."

He shook his head with sadness. "If only it was that easy."

"It could be," Launi told him.

"Tell me what you think the future looks like," he sighed.

"I have no idea," she freely admitted. "But one thing I've learned is that I can't sit around waiting for it to happen. I've got to make it happen. That's what I've been doing with the tavern."

"Is that your new dream?"

"I don't know."

"What do you expect of me, Launi?" Zack wanted to know, stopping and looking at her.

She leaned and gave him a soft kiss. "Nothing," she answered, kissing him with more energy now. "I just want you to know that I'm here. And when you get through whatever it is you're working through, I'll still be here.".

"I'll never be able to offer you what you deserve."

"I already ruined what I deserved and had," she reminded him. "I'm no different from you."

"You're not on a list," he pointed out, starting to walk again.

"I'm on my own list," she said, hurrying to keep up with him.

Zack sucked in his breath and gestured toward the woods around them. "I like coming here because it's peaceful and quiet." He stopped walking again and looked at her. "It's about the only place I know where I feel free."

Launi took his hand and entwined her fingers through his and they started walking again.

"This is my sanctuary," Zack told her. "I forget about my troubles when I'm out here."

"I'm glad."

"Do you have a place where you feel safe and secure?" Zack asked. "Your own sanctuary?"

"Sometimes when I'm in Miller City, I'll park across the street from the house I grew up in with my mother," Launi revealed. "Another young family lives there now. I'll just sit there nostalgically remembering my sweet and innocent youth when it felt like life was perfect."

He noticed that her eyes had watered up so he squeezed her hand. Launi stopped walking and she stared at him when he was forced to stop too. She raised her hand to his lips and Zack administered light kisses upon it. Then Launi placed both her hands on his cheeks and kissed him. She could hear and feel him sigh into her mouth which caused her to pull back and stare at him.

"Why do you resist?" She wanted to know.

He looked down at the ankle bracelet and she rolled her eyes.

"I don't care about that," she insisted.

"I do," Zack replied.

Launi groaned, turned and headed back to the tavern by herself, leaving Zack behind in his captive misery. He knew he was blowing it with her but he couldn't help it. It wouldn't be fair to get her involved in a dead end relationship.

A few days later, Launi stepped into the tavern kitchen on a slow afternoon and asked Zack if he'd cook her a hamburger with lettuce, tomatoes, cheese and pickles. She took a seat on his usual stool and watched him grill it up.

"Did you have any previous experience with this before you came here?" She asked, motioning with her chin at the grill.

"I worked in a snack shack at a lake in high school," Zack revealed.

"You don't talk about your past much," she observed.

"I try to forget it," he replied.

"Don't you miss your family?"

"I doubt they miss me," he countered.

Launi shook her head sadly. "I'd give anything to have my mom back."

"I shamed and embarrassed my family," Zack told her. "It got pretty ugly. I can never go back."

"Don't you miss them?"

"I miss my childhood," Zack admitted. "Before things got wrecked."

"Me too," Launi smiled sadly, reflecting back on her younger days. "But we can't go back."

"Nope," Zack agreed.

"Here and now is where we're at now," she pointed out. "I plan on waiting you out," she announced. "I don't plan on leaving anytime soon and I know you have nowhere to go so I can be patient and wait for you to figure out what you need and want."

Zack put the burger on a roll and handed it to her. "Bon appetite," he said with a perplexed look on his face.

She took the burger from him and left the room.

A few weeks later, Zack asked Launi if she'd drive him to the county court house in Greenville. His two year parole was expiring and it was finally time to be set free – the ankle bracelet was being removed!

"This is a big day," Launi smiled as she drove them to Greenville.

"Nothing's really going to change," he sighed.

"You said before that you'd be free once you got the bracelet off," she protested.

"I'll never be free, Launi," he told her. "The list never goes away."

"Sometimes I think you look for excuses and reasons to be miserable," Launi complained.

Zack didn't respond. He was more interested in watching the scenery pass by outside the car. His parole officer usually visited Zack at the Tavern ("the plantation" as Zack called it) to be able to keep an eye on his parolee's environment and ask questions of his co-workers. This was the furthest Zack had been in a car since moving in to the dumpy apartment above Smokey's.

Launi went into the court house with Zack and they waited patiently in the hall for the parole officer to call him in. There were other people – some looking like they were accustomed to the system – waiting too.

"We're among the dregs of society," Zack said.

"Only if we allow ourselves to be," Launi countered. "If you see yourself as a sexual offender for the rest of your life, well I guess that's who you're going to be. I could consider myself an adulterous fraternizing thief for the rest of my life or I can choose to turn the page, turnover a new leaf, and become a different person. The choice is mine." She glanced at him. "And yours."

They were finally called into a small room where Jeff Stubbs, Zack's expressionless parole officer waited with a court officer who held a device to remove the ankle bracelet. Stubbs looked grim and annoyed.

"Well, congratulations, Provost, you're finally off Parole," Stubbs said, tossing Launi a curious glance. "I would advise you to continue to stay away from school zones, playgrounds, and other areas where children might be. Your name remains on the Sexual Offender Registry and we'll be sure to keep an eye out on you so keep your nose clean."

Zack didn't bother replying as he watched the officer remove the cursed ankle bracelet from his leg. Launi smiled with approval once the piece of equipment fell to the floor. She took Zack by the hand and escorted him from the room.

"Free at last, free at last, Thank God Almighty, I'm free at last!" Zack said with a grin as he led Launi down the hallway.

"That Parole Officer of yours is an asshole," Launi remarked.

"Ah, you can't blame him," Zack said with a shrug. "I did spend eight years in jail for statutory rape."

"You did your time," Launi countered. "You shouldn't have to pay for it for the rest of your life."

Launi took Zack to the fancy Greenville Grille for a celebratory lunch, the first time in more than a decade that Zack had been inside an actual restaurant.

"Welcome back to the real world, Zack," she told him with a smile.

Zack enjoyed the meal – he ordered a nice piece of steak with specialty potatoes and baby peas, along with a glass of expensive wine. Launi had a chicken dish with wine and she kept grinning at Zack across the table.

"What?" He asked self-consciously.

"I've waited a long time for this day," she grinned. "Haven't you?"

"Of course," he admitted.

"Have you been having fantasies?" She wanted to know.

"What kind of fantasies?" He asked with confusion.

"About us," she clarified.

He blushed and she giggled. Then she leaned over the table while reaching her hand under the table and rubbing his thigh. "I thought about us having sex," she said softly.

Zack cleared his throat. "We should probably finish eating first," he said and that made her laugh.

"Don't be embarrassed," Launi said, picking up on his awkwardness. "I know what you've been going through. I kind of feel the same way."

Even though the ankle bracelet was gone, Zack still faced the same dilemma – he would always be a sex offender with a record that would keep the jobs from coming his way, trapped by the stigma surrounding his offense. He could offer Launi absolutely nothing.

"You don't want to be with a guy like me, Launi," he told her.

"How come you keep telling me what I want and don't want?" She wanted to know. "Don't you think I know what I want?"

He looked at her and sighed. "You just can't see through the smoke."

They finished the meal making small talk, mostly about the tavern as usual but Zack had to admit that it felt freeing to be sitting at a table at the Greenville Grille like a normal person enjoy a good meal for a change.

Zack once again stared out the window enjoying the scenery as Launi drove them back to Smokey's but a few miles before the tavern she turned the car off of Route 43 and traveled down an abandoned dirt road.

"What are you doing?" Zack frowned.

"I know you," Launi replied. "As soon as we get back, you're going to relieve Shorty and start working the shift."

"Maybe," he admitted.

"You're no longer a prisoner, Zack," Launi groaned. "You've been set free!"

"I'll never be free," he replied.

She skidded the car to a stop underneath some large trees on the side of the road and she fell across the front seat, giving him a passionate kiss while pressing her body against his.

"Aren't we a little old to be doing this in a car?" Zack asked, although he accepted her advances and gladly kissed her back.

"You're always going to have a reason not to do it," She complained.

"Look, now that the bracelet is off we can actually go out and do things if you want," he said. "The stigma of the bracelet is gone."

"You mean, like dates?" She asked hopefully.

"Sure, dates," he agreed.

"That would be lovely," she smiled, continuing to kiss him.

"But you have to understand something, Launi," Zack warned.

"What?" She asked, continuing to smooch.

"I haven't been on a date in more than a decade and I haven't had sex in at least that long."

"I understand," she said gently. "It's been a while for me too." She fell against him, resting her head on his shoulder.

It was early December and cold outside and suddenly the idea of having sex in a car like a couple of teenagers lost its aurora. But it felt nice to snuggle (the car was still running so it was warm) and neither said anything as Launi lay against him listening to the car idling.

Without discussing their dating plans and – rather ironically – still taking things slow, Launi and Zack went out on several dates over the next few months. Dinners and movies, a Christmas Concert in Hillsboro, a visit with Zack's aunt, Christmas dinner with Uncle Matt, a New Year's Eve party at a friend of Launi's, skiing on Mt. Griffin, ice skating on Sun Rise Lake.

It was an easy going courtship considering Launi was technically Zack's boss. He continued working more than enough shifts at Smokey's and Launi kept coming up with new ideas to improve the reputation and business of Smokey's.

Sadly, whenever there was any sort of unsolved sexual assault of a minor within Blue County limits, a cop car would usually pull into the tavern and Zack would be asked to prove his whereabouts on a particular day and time. He always had alibi witnesses since he rarely left the tavern and when he did leave he was usually with Launi.

On one occasion, Zack was taken from Smokey's to the Greenville Police Station where he was forced to appear in a line up. He was released when the victim insisted he wasn't the guy, told to get lost without so much as an apology from the Police who had taken him from the Tavern as if he was a common criminal.

"Don't I get a ride back?" Zack asked.

"We're not a taxi service," one of the cops snarled.

It was just one of the many indignities Zack was forced to endure because of his past. He embarrassingly called Launi and asked for her to come get him outside the police station. She didn't say much during the ride back, knowing he was humiliated, embarrassed and shamed by the incident. He finished his shift, helped close up the tavern, and then he dragged himself upstairs feeling more depressed than ever. This was no way to live his life.

Launi opened the door to her apartment, standing before him in nothing but a white terrycloth robe. It was a cold mid-February night and the wind was hollowing outside, shaking the windows.

"You've had a rough day," she said knowingly. "Why don't you come in?"

Zack sighed with resigned defeat as he stepped into her warm cozy apartment, too tired and beaten to protest. She kissed him all the way to the couch where they fell onto it together and soon his hands had managed to untie the waist band of her robe and he pushed the material open to reveal her nakedness to him for the first time. She kissed him longingly on the mouth as she sat on the couch exposed for him to see.

"Are you finally ready?" She wanted to know.

"Yes," Zack replied, his voice barely audible.

Launi stood and let the robe fall to the floor as she walked bare-assed to the bedroom and Zack willingly followed, tired of being the alleged pervert, tired of being the stigmatized bastard, and ready to be her lover. Launi was lying on the bed on her stomach, glancing over her shoulder with a huge smile on her face as she watched him undress. Once he was naked, she rolled onto her back and she waited for him to climb on top of her – which he did, kissing her everywhere as she wrapped her arms around his neck and buried her fingers in his hair.

They kissed each other's mouth with want and longing and she heard and felt Zack sigh into her mouth so she pressed her body against his, her skin warm and welcoming as Zack ran his hands all over her lovely body. He took both her hands in his and she felt him push against her as he stared into her eyes.

"All done with the excuses?" She asked.

"Yes," he told her, his eyes tearing up.

###

New Owners Celebrate Fifth Year Anniversary

By Kathleen Guilst

Greenville News and Dispatch.

Smokey's Tavern on Route 43 five miles south of Miller City is celebrating its fifth year anniversary this weekend under the new ownership of Launi and Zack Provost..

Co-owners Launi and Zack Provost have owned and operated the full service sports bar and restaurant since purchasing the establishment from Matt Longren five years ago. Launi Provost previously managed Smokey's for her Uncle Matt and she had already made some improvements to the business. Once she and her newlywed husband Zack (who was working as a cook at Smokey's at the time) bought the business outright, they continued to make improvements to the venue.

The couple expanded the business by adding 18 television screens to offer patrons an exciting environment to engage with fellow fans and participate in live sporting events by watching their favorite sports teams on the big screen televisions.

Smokey's also offers live musical performances and charity events (check out their website Smokey's for a schedule of events).

Smokey's features a full service bar and inventory including several locally brewed beers. It also offers a unique menu, using fresh ingredients from local farm sources when possible. The large variety of menu selections includes something for every member of your team: World famous pizza, appetizers, wings, salads, wraps, burgers, soups and Launi's home made chili.

"We met at Smokey's and fell in love," Launi Provost says. "Zack and I both had challenges in our past but we felt that we could make a difference owning our own business together and we're proud of what Smokey's has become during these past five years. We're successful because we work hard and we have each other's back."