Round 2 submission for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, 2015.
Challenge: 2,000 words in 3 days
Genre: Romantic Comedy
Subject: Quitting a job
Character: Recently divorced woman
I don’t even need to look where I’m goin’ anymore. I’ve walked this path so many times. No matter where my feet start walkin’ when I lock my front door, I always end up standin’ here, under the gas lamps. I’ve been drinkin’ at this bar for twenty years, at least. It scares me that a kid who was born the year I found this place might be sittin’ next to me, ordering rounds, shot-for-shot.
Bob the Bouncer hardly looks up when I walk by. He nods me in without takin’ his eyes off the bubbly blonde who’s tryin’ to talk her way in. There’s always a line, but I get in anyway. I got seniority.
As soon as I walk in, Nan, the bartender calls to me. I wave at her slightly. I’m an old man now. I’ve drowned my fair share of sorrows on these stools. They know me here. They know my face. They know my story. They know what I drink. They don’t even have to ask.
I slide onto my favorite bar stool and Nan slides a pint of stout my direction. She leans over the bar and kisses my cheek. She’s young enough to be my granddaughter, but my belly still warms when her pretty pout pecks my scruffy, old dog face.
“She was asking about you last night.”
I lifted my eyes away from the velvety waves of dark foam that are settling in my pint glass and let them fall on Nan’s olive face. The only makeup she ever wears is thick black eyeliner. She doesn’t cake on all that face paint like the other girls her age do. Nan dresses like a boy, too. White t-shirt, cut-off denim shorts, and low-top Chuck Taylors. No muss, no fuss – and she’s got the best pour in town.
“She was here?” I croaked out. I’ve been a smoker since I was twelve years old. I’m over sixty now. I’ve got more tar in my lungs than an oil rig.
“Yessirree. She was all dolled up, too. Had a rose in her hair and everything.” Nan winked at me. I’ve always liked how she talks to me. She doesn’t patronize me like most young bartenders do. I’ll punch anyone who calls me “grandpa.”
“Yeah, well…” I started. I picked up my heavy glass and took a long sip. Perfect pint with just the right amount of creamy foam to top it. I let the dark chocolate malt settle my stomach and nerves.
Another patron shouted, drunkenly, at Nan. She glanced up at me to make sure I was alright before I waved her away. I don’t brag about myself often, but I know I have always been Nan’s favorite, since she first got hired.
The night wore on. I didn’t have any plans. Life had been takin’ a lot of unexpected turns lately. I was glad to sit on my favorite stool, in my favorite bar, listenin’ to my favorite bartender chatter away at her customers. She reminded me that there were still good young people out in the world.
I started thinkin’ about headin’ back home when the door swung open around midnight. The Lady with the Rose in Her Hair stepped inside and scanned the room with long-lashed blue eyes that I could see from my place across the bar. I saw her see me, then I saw her pretend she didn’t see me. She took a place on the opposite end of the bar, where the register and shelf blocked her from my view.
Nan saw her, too. Her black eyes sparkled behind her eyeliner and she smiled real big at me. She nodded toward the Lady with the Rose in Her Hair, and I shook my head ‘no.’ I’m an old man. I didn’t come here lookin’ for love. Nan seemed to read my mind and she made a funny face that I think she meant to be stern and serious. She tossed her head more firmly to say “GO OVER THERE.”
I sighed, but slid myself off my barstool anyway. Nan grinned.
I moved around the bar, and saw the Lady with the Rose in Her Hair perched gracefully on her barstool. Her dress draped around her pretty legs and her toes peeked out of a pair of strappy heels. I became very aware of how casually I showed up tonight. Old slacks that were in a bad need of a good steam and press, dingy v-neck that used to be white, and my felt hat that my old man gave me when I graduated high school.
I swallowed hard and stepped up behind the Lady with the Rose in Her Hair just in time to hear her tell Nan “a Manhattan, please.” Nan smiled at her, then at me, then fluttered away to mix the drink. I cleared my throat.
“Uhh, ma’am? Is this seat taken?”
The Lady with the Rose in Her Hair smiled coyly and said “It’s a free country.”
My old heart was racin’ faster than it had in what felt like years. I opened my mouth to say somethin’ but my crusty old brain would go blank as soon as I took a breath. I wanted a cigarette. I wanted to be outside. I was never good at talkin’ to ladies.
“You look familiar. Have I seen you here before?” It was the only thing I could think of. I started kickin’ myself as soon as it hit the air. Damn, Thomas. No wonder your wife left.
She laughed in a voice that was as silvery as her hair.
“Well hot damn. Is the lighting that good in here?” I hadn’t really noticed the lights. “I’m sorry, you seem to have mistaken me for a woman young enough to fall for that old line.”
“Pretty ladies make me stammer.” I confessed.
Her cheeks flushed a little. “Let me guess. I remind you of someone?”
“Maybe someone from a long time ago. I just feel like I’ve seen you. You been here before?”
“Yeah. Once or twice. I used to come here before with… well… nevermind.”
“‘Nevermind’ sounds like a damn fool.”
Nan brought a glass over for both of us. I hadn’t even realized I’d finished my stout. My hands felt warm.
“You know, I don’t usually talk to strangers,” the Lady with the Rose in Her Hair said.
“Oh, I ain’t so bad. Maybe a little gruff, is all. A little rough around the edges.”
“That’s what all the guys in trashy romance novels say. I’ll bet you’ve run on hard times recently, too.”
She sipped her drink and left a lipstick mark on the glass.
“Honey, I ain’t got time for a stranger with a sad story.”
“Tell me your name, then. We won’t be strangers anymore.”
“Did the lighting dim again? I’m not falling for it.”
“You don’t look the type to fall for anything.” I said as I checked her hand for a wedding ring. It was bare. There was a tan line on her left finger, though.
“Recently single?” I asked, probably being too bold.
“Maybe. What’s it to you?” Her words were meaner than her face. She turned her whole body to face me when she asked me, too.
“Last thing I wanna do is disrespect anybody.”
“You can’t disrespect ol’ Nevermind. What kind of hard times have you fallen on?”
“Well. I made some bad choices along the way and my lady walked out. I quit my old job, though. Did the math and had enough for retirement. Might pick up another job to keep me busy, but I might just buy an Airstream and drive across country.”
“You quit your job?” Everything about her seemed more alert.
“Yeah. Yeah, it took up too much of my attention. Made me cranky and mean.”
“Oh, you weren’t always a curmudgeon?” She winked.
“Nah. Nah, I used to be dapper and charmin’. Swept my lady right off her feet.”
“And you think you can come up here and do the same thing to me?”
“You got me all wrong. I ain’t here to trick you. You seem too bitter to be tricked, anyway. “
“Who says I’m bitter?”
“Why else would you be here? Alone. Drinking.”
She looked down into her drink, like a witty answer might be floating at the bottom of her empty glass.
Nan appeared in front of us again. “How we doin’? Can I getcha anything?”
“Whatever the lady wants. You can put it in my tab.”
“Oh, no, that’s ok. I don’t take drinks from strangers.”
Nan looked at me with her eyebrows furrowed in confusion. I nodded at her, hopin’ she would understand that I appreciated her help, but needed to do this alone. Nan took the hint.
“I’m not far if you need anything.” She said gently.
We sat staring into our half-finished glasses. She looked so beautiful and the rose in her hair was freshly cut. It reminded me of an old garden from ages ago.
“I’m real glad I ran into you tonight.” I couldn’t help it.
She didn’t look up at me. She finished her drink in one draw.
“If you think you’re being charming, you just sound lonely. You trying to find a replacement for that lady you lost?”
“No, ma’am. There’s no replacin’ her.”
Maybe the lights really were playing tricks. Her eyes looked like they might have welled up a little bit.
“What about ol’ Nevermind? Any room in your heart left for him?” I slid my stool closer to hers. Our shoulders, square to the bar, pressed against each other. I could feel her warmth through her sleeve. It might have been too bold, but she didn’t move away.
“Nope. If I put any more time into a man, it’ll be a gentleman who appreciates how good he’s got it while he has it.” She sat up taller in her seat.
“Any chance you’ll give this old Stranger a shot?”
“Why should I?”
I stepped off my stool and stood next to her. I pulled my hat off my head, and ran my hand through my hair. I covered my heart and bowed slightly at the waist.
“Madam, my name is Thomas. I’m an old fool with worlds of mistakes behind me. I lost the best thing that ever happened to me, but I’m older and I’m wiser. I may be a stranger to you, but I feel like I might be someone you could fall in love with.”
“Only suckers fall in love with perfect strangers.”
“I guess I’m just a sucker, then.”
She looked me square in the eye and lifted a perfectly penciled eyebrow at me.
“I just finished the hassle of divorce. What if I’m not ready to fall in love again?”
“Then I’ll wait. I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
Her eyes definitely welled up that time. It wasn’t a trick of the light. She shrugged a little and smiled.
“Aww. I guess you don’t look like such a chump.”
She slid off her barstool and wrapped her arms around my neck. Her lips felt just how I remembered but better. Holding her against me felt like home. The whole bar seemed to fall away around us, but I was pretty sure I heard cheering.
When we pulled away from our kiss, the Lady with the Rose in Her Hair had tears streaking her pretty face.
“Hey, baby.” I said.
“Please come home? I’m just a useless old dog without you.”
She nodded and kissed me again. I definitely heard cheering. Somewhere behind us, Nan shouted something about a Stranger buying a round of drinks.