The clinking of silverware echoes over the din of chatter below High Street. Students, families of residents and a handful of professors crowd the tables of Steinkeller for Steak Night.
Kelly Smith struts into the dining room, carrying a layer of napkins to roll silverware.
After a few minutes, she heads over to the bar and flags down Mike, who is managing tonight.
“I’m gonna run real fast, but I’ll be back,” she says. “Is that cool?”
Mike nods and makes a smoking motion with his pointer and middle fingers, and then winks.
“Well, I’m not really gonna run,” Kelly adds.
Ten minutes later, the dim light reflects off her as she comes back from her smoke break.
Her short hair is meticulously straightened down the sides of her face. Her dark eyeliner is striking and slightly intimidating, but she wears a smile as she places a set of water glasses at one of the booths. “Hey guys, how are you?”
Since she was 14, work has been the only constant in Kelly’s turbulent life. She worked at her father’s KFC on Route 27 on and off for 16 years, 12 of them as manager, until it closed. During high school, Kelly also worked at a nursing home and a rec center before starting at an ambulance billing company, Medicount Management, that put her through two years of college. Afterwards, she did a one-year stint in human resources at Holiday Inn in Hamilton and maged a porn store between Oxford and Millville.
At various points throughout her 20s, Kelly owned multiple cars, apartments and a house on land contract.
The work seemed to be paying off.
But eventually, she would be forced to return to Oxford — and her roots in the restaurant business. First she served at Dakota’s (now Scotty’sBrewhouse), Left Field Tavern, Corner Bar and, as of a year and a half ago, Steinkeller.
Now she lives with her precocious 11-year old son, Conner, and her parents, Phillip and Marilyn, juggling the demands and responsibilities of raising a child and taking care of aging parents on her own.
As a single mom with a young kid, living in her childhood home, Kelly wishes she could leave Oxford on a daily basis.
But while she tried to escape Oxford years ago, she’s always been pulled back — like a rubber band being stretched, only to come snapping back to its original form.
“This place is like a black hole,” Kelly says with a laugh.
Yet she is comfortable with what she knows and who she knows, and at 39 years old, Kelly feels relatively stable.
But despite working her entire life, Kelly has no savings.
“I always knew I was an addict,” Kelly says matter-of-factly. “I knew it when I was hiding my lunch money when I was seven to buy nose spray.”
She would graduate from nose spray to a variety of pills to Oxycontin — some meth on and off, and heroin only as an afterthought.
Kelly’s addiction fed off her twin sister Karisa’s.
Drugs — and the escapism they provided — were a means of functioning throughout high school and into early adulthood.
“When we started doing stuff, it was more of a functional thing,” Kelly says. “See, bad things happened to us when we were kids.”
In 1984, a man Kelly knew while her family briefly lived in Maryland raped her. But at only six years old, she was deemed too young to testify against him in a court of law.
“I can talk about things — like this — like I’m talking about the weather,” Kelly says. “It’s insane. I trust too many people. I can live in denial and I refuse to see any bad qualities in most people.”
Back in Oxford, both Kelly and Karisa were for several years abused by a man who worked for their father’s KFC while growing up.
While both sisters turned to drugs to cope, their means of financing their addiction were vastly different. Karisa attached herself to men to stay high, and Kelly found work.
“I believe you get what you get out of the world, and she believe[d] the whole world was out to get her,” Kelly says. This past September, after spending a year and a half in and out of the hospital and seven years on methadone, Karisa was placed on life support following several major organ failures. She died shortly thereafter.
Kelly moved out of her parents’ home at 17, got her own apartment and graduated from Talawanda High School a year later.
She attended Miami University for two years while Medicount Management paid for her school.
Any additional money she made went to paying for drugs.
But when the company changed ownership, Kelly found herself out of a job.
Without help financing her education, Kelly left school and started working at the Holiday Inn to help support her addiction.
She has trouble remembering the three years after leaving Medicount Management and before meeting her husband, Dwain, when she was 25.
“Dwain was never really an addict,” Kelly says. “He didn’t understand addiction.”
But he enabled Kelly’s.
Dwain always had pain pills. At first, Kelly thought he was selling them, but he had cancer: Multiple myeloma, which is extremely rare in white males under 40.
He told no one — least of all Kelly, who wouldn’t discover the truth until after they had their son, Conner, three years later.
His omission was mainly a combination of pride and a desire to keep his loved ones shielded from his pain — and because, before Conner, Kelly didn’t have much will to live.
“I took eight to 10 Oxy’s a day,” Kelly said. “And I just wouldn’t die. I didn’t find out I was pregnant with Conner until I was six months along and I still felt very unsure… How was I going to take care of a child if I couldn’t even take care of myself?”
Conner’s impending birth registered an growing sense of responsibility in Dwain. He set up a baby room and encouraged Kelly to stop using.
“I am the reason that I continued when I knew I had a problem,” Kelly said. “I still used three times after Conner was born, but the honest answer for why I stopped is that I just wouldn’t die.”
But eventually, she stopped.
She discovered the truth about Dwain’s cancer and realized she needed to make a change.
“I said to myself, ‘Conner’s already going to lose his dad. He doesn’t need to lose me, too.’”
On June 6, 2007, Kelly used for the last time, and for two years she, Dwain and Conner lived a relatively calm life in Hamilton.
Then Dwain got really sick.
“I thought I could save him, maybe because I didn’t think I could save myself,” Kelly said.
She quit working, moved her family back to Oxford and became Dwain’s full-time caretaker.
“I couldn’t leave the house,” she said. “I’d go to the bus stop and [Dwain would] scream and then I’d be forced to come back. For five years I didn’t see anyone but my husband and son. I just took care of Dwain.”
She still wakes up at 4 a.m. some mornings, her internal alarm clock preparing her to get up and administer medicine to a ghost.
After Dwain’s death, Kelly lay in bed for two months, but Conner still had to go to school and eat, and the disability checks stopped coming.
So Kelly went back to work.
Kelly and her co-workers at Steinkeller have become a family.
“Kelly’s my Oxford mom,” Miami graduate and Steinkeller co-worker Katie “Leen” Baldwin said. “If I need anything, she takes care of it, and it’s not just me. Kids who work at Stein’s, people who have worked at Left Field Tavern, just everybody in general.”
Leen thinks the world of Kelly, but would rarely admit that to her face. The two tease one another often and sometimes butt heads. But in the end, Leen knows she can rely on Kelly for support when she needs it.
“She’s strong, she’s opinionated, she’s also super warm, protective, hardworking and she also likes to have a good time,” Leen said.
Pat Otto, who used to manage at Steinkeller, knew of Kelly for several years. But it wasn’t until they started working together last year that he got to know her on a deeper level.
One night, a woman left Pat a $3 tip on a $70 bill, and Pat furiously reported the injustice to Kelly.
Kelly had little sympathy for Pat.
“‘When I was in the 11th grade, this lady tried to jump through the drive-thru window at KFC and stab me because she didn’t like the way she was being served,’” Pat recalls Kelly snapping back at him.
He remembers being dumbfounded, but also weirdly comforted.
“I guess I’ll just take my $3 and be happy I’m alive and that Kelly was there to reassure me,” Pat remembers thinking.
Kelly takes care of people, Pat said.
“The amount of respect I have for her…” Pat began. “There’s so much I can learn from her and see the way she is and how that can be parallel in my own life.”
After finishing her shift, Kelly climbs down the flight of stairs connecting Steinkeller to Circle Bar and lays claim to a barstool next to her best friends, Sarah “Swillis” Willis and Sarah Stevens.
Conner is asleep in the care of Kelly’s parents at home, and Kelly is at ease in the dim lighting of Circle Bar.
“I’ve got really great friends,” Kelly says. “They’d be the family I’d choose. My best friends are a hospice nurse and a surgical care nurse. And I care deeply about the kids I work with — when they leave, I feel like I’m losing my own kids.”
Someone asks Kelly and the Sarahs about their upcoming vacation to Florida, which was the first vacation Kelly has taken in decades.
“I’m still too terrified to think about it. Don’t bring it up,” Kelly says that night with a laugh and a swig of her drink. “I haven’t bought a bathing suit in 20 years!”
But the woman behind the dark eyeliner and the wide-eyed laugh doesn’t seem too terrified of anything at all.
In fact, she seems to be in her element — surrounded by her friends, the family she chose.