Jimmy was the bartender at Miller’s. Corkscrews of brown wire still sprung from his head, although there were more of them twenty years ago. He looked up at me when I entered the bar, shifted his eyes to where she was sitting, then walked over to some drunks arguing politics. Two lovers shuffled to Sinatra on the dance floor, grasping at each other through their threadbare winter coats, lost in their boozy lust. The same neon signs on the same grimy white walls advertised the same second-rate breweries. A handful of solitary drinkers pretended to watch a pro basketball game on TV, their faces empty, like pilgrims stupefied by the wilderness. We were all lost.
She was staring into a half-empty martini glass with bloodshot violet eyes, her face collapsed by the burden of the streets. She still had her figure — ample bosom, long legs crossed on the barstool just so. But her once-proud shoulders slumped over her drink and the smile she gave me when I took the seat next to her burned dimly.
I knew they’d send you, she said, returning her attention to the drink. I’m glad.
It wasn’t the syndicate. It was Leo.
She laughed like a broken-down heap, booze and regret grinding on dry pistons. What difference does it make? I don’t have the money anymore anyway.
It doesn’t matter, I said.
I watched her watch her drink. Her hair was icy blonde, almost white, not the amber honey she kept it back then. She still wore it up, curling tendrils escaping down the curve of her elegant neck. I used to lose myself in those delicate spirals. I used to count the hours until the warmth of her laugh warmed my frozen soul.
Remember when we used to dance? She was talking about the couple on the dance floor, still swaying dreamily from side to side, although her gaze never left her glass. I remember pulling up to the Oasis in Leo’s Cadillac, like we were movie stars. The thrill of walking down that long corridor into the glow of the club’s neon lights. Falling down the rabbit hole, we used to call it. Remember the beat of the music, how it possessed us? The hours passed like seconds, but God, how all that dancing made me feel alive, like we were the only ones who really understood how to be alive. And those drinks! She giggled in her reverie. Remember that bartender at Charlie Chan’s, the one who wore his shirt unbuttoned down to his navel to show off his smooth chest? He used to make me special drinks, gave them Cuban names, winked at me slyly like we shared some kind of secret.
She paused, lost in her memories, then continued:
I remember that tiny little blues club down on Jefferson Avenue. There was a guitar player there who moved me like a marionette with his guitar strings. He bent a note, and my body bent with it. He made that guitar scream, and I screamed with it. The dance floor packed with sweating bodies. All of us grinding and rolling. An ocean of us. That dirty guitar like our sun and our moon.
I looked at her and I nodded. I only danced with her once. One of those perfect pink evenings in late summer. The end of the season. We were on the pier at the Hampton Beach Club, both of us a little drunk. Leo left her there to return to the city for dinner with his wife. A five-piece combo struggled through Stardust, saxophone on lead, while creamy white thunderheads ascended toward the purple heavens way out on the lake. I could feel her naked body under her yellow sundress, thinner, more fragile than I imagined, and pressed it hard against mine. She invited me back to her cabana but I told her I couldn’t because I knew Leo would find out. His eyes were everywhere. Even now.
Do me a favor, Pauly?
When you do it, hold me close, like we were dancing.
I left her in an alley down near the docks. A thin line of sunlight split the gray December sky from the roiling gray water on the lake as I climbed up the hill back toward the city. I knew I couldn’t sleep, didn’t want sleep, so I spent the day walking. I walked under skyscrapers and train platforms, past delis and diners, through neighborhoods I’d never before seen. The day was dark and bitter, but I was impervious to the cold. I walked until the concrete tenements became Tudor houses, then turned around and walked some more. People were walking with me, all of them bundled in their heavy winter coats, all of them shuddering from the cold. We were all going nowhere, all of us walking and walking, shuffling up and down the sidewalks like drunken dancers. All of us holding on, wishing the dance would never end.
Andrew Waters believes the apocalypse will happen on the Internet and wishes he could write like Raymond Chandler. He lives in Salisbury, North Carolina.