by E.B. Harris
The stale air of the room is kissed with an incense of liquor. His eyes squint with the welcomed haze, the toxic wisp emanating from his ashtray. The soft hum of the hired jazz band drowns out with the familiar clink of glasses. He watches the gold liquid pour out in front of him, a bourbon nectar that promises each time to drown him, always failing to choke that last breath. The soft patter of raindrops brings a hush to the automobiles outside. He knows the types. Sturdy Fords house mothers and fathers, unwanted children and the occasional animal. Cadillacs carry Suits off to pick up their mistresses; motor carriages to sleazy nightclubs and twilight motels. The drummer tries to mimic the melancholy rhythm on the cymbals. The sound is artificial.
All of the regulars are in tonight. Charles tousles the grease from his hair, letting the bone roots show from under his slicked bob. His pinstripe tie hangs loose around his neck, leaving a chafed ring around his throat. If not for the stiff drink glued to his hand, he would be trying to fix himself to the ceiling fan again. He was lucky to have his neighbor come across him during the last attempt. Or perhaps he wasn’t. He was surprised to see Charlie go to work every morning with that same imitation of a smile, perhaps one he had practiced in the mirror before he had lost Judith.
Across the bar is Nancy Friedman, her rump edging off of the stool, hugged in a sequined dress that would have held tight her frame from a past decade. Her approach to looking sexy involves harassing the bartender with requests and getting as close as possible to him so that the discomfort in his eyes is replaced with a reflection of catalog makeup embalming the face of a woman years since her prime. She had started coming in ever since her husband had left her—for another man at that. Now she’s desperate to prove that there are still some looks left after three kids and a divorce.
Ray slumps in a booth across from his buddy Walt, the two going back and forth with the piss and exchanging hollow laughs every few jokes or so. Ray is complaining about his wife, nothing new there. For a moment his facade wavers, but he has enough pride to hold back from weeping in front of his friend. Ray suspects that his sweetheart is cheating on him, which of course she is, so he has every right to be distraught. Walt reaches over to place a comforting hand on Ray’s shoulder, telling him that he shouldn’t be so worried. What he fails to mention is that he’s the interloper whom Shirley has been seeing on those late Sunday outings, but what kind of friend would he be to admit to such a thing?
The chime of a bell cuts through the bitter scene. In steps Elizabeth Pritchett, her youthful shape concealed under an unflattering raincoat. She removes her cloak with an assertion of purpose, meaning to inspire with her human metamorphosis. She truly is beautiful. Stems stretch out from under her floral skirt, long and pearl. With each step the pattern dances and tickles her knees. Men gawk in a rosy stupor. Women sneer as they lose the attention of their playthings. Still, even they are remiss not to admire her. She is a radiant French papillon. One with breasts.
He turns away from the door and stares down at his half-empty drink. Maybe he can distract himself by watching the ice melt. The sound of stiletto heels echoes on the wooden floor. Perhaps she doesn’t see me, he thinks. The sound grows nearer. Before long he can catch a glimpse of a perfect ankle beneath the counter. The heels stop moving. They turn on their points. Damn it. He looks up to face her, making eye contact with her tinted shades and taking a moment to peek at her cherry lipstick. Before speaking she makes sure to take off her sunglasses, letting her emerald stare bore into his.
“Well?” she proposes. She’s not one for smalltalk. He was hoping that she hadn’t recognized him.
“Nothing new to report yet,” he answers back, knowing that this was hardly the end of their conversation.
Ms. Pritchett had contacted him several weeks prior with the intention of having him report on a certain client from her office. Stalking was a more accurate term for his occupation, considering that his assignments came with the taking of secret photographs and a recommended following distance. Everyone in the city had something to hide, something that they were suspicious of. Infidelity, double-lives, shady dealings, bribery, stalking, paranoia, all of the contemporary sins. Not even someone with as much wealth and status as Elizabeth was exempt from the urban hysteria. She was obsessed with her new coworker Arthur. He was younger than her, and his ethic was devout. Driving between his home in the Lower East Side and the office was routine. He was disciplined, optimistic. Cute too, he supposed. Eventually the mind starts to wander once he’s been on assignment for some time.
“Is he seeing anybody? Where does he go after dark? Is he thinking of me?” For a moment her breathing becomes erratic, and for a second her composure falters. A long lock of strawberry-blonde hair falls to cover half of her face. She’s quick to control herself, clearing her throat with a small cough and brushing the loose lock back behind her ear.
It’s not as if he could gather more information beyond closed curtains and locked doors. Breaking and entering was not a part of his mission statement. There was nothing new to report. There had not been anything new to report since the last four times she had approached him. Is he thinking of me? Hell, maybe it would be easier to just lie to her face and be done with it. Yeah, in fact, just the other night I saw him masturbating in his study with a framed picture of you on his desk. This of course would then require a photograph as evidence. He decided to drop the potential lie.
“Well you’d better keep looking,” she tells him, ending the conversation and putting on her shades, as if that would erase her presence. Without so much as another word she storms off, clopping her heels and quelling perverse smiles as she garbs herself in her damp raincoat. Resisting the urge to shatter the glass of the door behind her, she leaves with the same chime that greeted her and every other patron who frequented the street corner.
With a tired sigh he turns back to face the countertop, letting the noise wash back in. Conversations resume. Glasses clink and spirits slosh in a performance of feigned revelry. Each actor plays their part. Men toss back ounces of tonic, women drain shots of gin, all in an effort to make themselves numb. Nobody knows of the stories around them, of the kindred sufferings that glow brightest under the drunken moonlight. Nobody else knows of the lives, the real lives, the despondent filth and shame and sorrow and guilt that brought them all there every evening. Nobody knows about him—yet everybody does—he who knows all of their woes, their lies and false smiles. He, who sits with them too, hoping for peace, hoping for silence. Hoping for something of his own. He, who stares down at the amber pool on the counter, seeing a reflection of nothing. He leans back in his seat, letting it all drown out. The voices, the clamor, the cheap music. He sits alone. Alone with the shallow blues and the sour night, a familiar hollowness.