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June 20, 2022

Exile

By Jerry Seeger

"You playing anywhere tonight?" Rose asked.

It was early yet; the bar was empty except for me on my side and Rose on hers. We have the perfect relationship, Rose and I: she brings me beer and I drink it. I was relaxing, wasting the afternoon and enjoying it, reflecting on what it meant about me that I was watching other people kick a ball around on TV.

"Nah, got the night off."

"You've been pretty busy lately."

I nodded. That's the way it usually works. Feast or famine. Right then it was feast; I had my rent paid up and I was even looking at a new keyboard, but I could never bring myself to buy it. It felt like I was betraying my battered old Kurz, the way a businessman ditches his long-suffering wife for a trophy bride once he starts making the bucks.

I heard the door open and shut behind me, but I didn't turn around. Rose looked past me and her face registered surprise. "Joe!" she said. "Damn, chika, I haven't seen you in a long time." Not Joe, then, but Jo.

I looked her over as she settled onto her barstool, two down from mine. Short skirt, pink, with toned and tanned legs beneath. Halter top in honor of the early summer day. Hair: blonde and long. Nose: dainty. Eyes: uncertain.

She was watching me as I watched her. I probably wasn't looking my best, but I never am anymore.

"Bloody Mary?" Rose asked her prodigal customer.

Jo nodded. "And scotch for my new best friend here," she said.

Rose nodded. If she was surprised Jo knew my liquor of choice she didn't show it. Soon a glass was sitting next to my almost-empty beer and the room was filling with the graveyard smell of peat. "Thanks," I said, raising the glass to her.

"My pleasure." She swirled her drink around, pulled the celery out, and drained it. Rose was already working on another one while Jo nibbled at her vegetable course. I took a sip. You don't waste good booze throwing it down that way.

"Where've you been?" asked Rose.

Jo shrugged. "Here and there. Back in the States for a bit, Malibu. Then I had to leave again."

"You sticking around for a while?" Rose asked.

"Don't know yet," Jo said, looking at me. I took another sip; that was easier than conversing. She watched me drink, then threw her second bloody mary back. "Keep 'em coming, Rose. I can still feel."

She turned on her stool, crossing her legs and aiming one knee directly at my heart. She raised her glass. "You and I are going to get drunk tonight, my friend. After tonight one of us will never set foot in this bar again. I don't know which of us that will be."

Eyes: brown. Sometimes when someone tells you the future you should pay attention.

I thought about shifting over, crossing the two-barstool-wide chasm that separated us, but that wouldn't have brought us any closer. Her knee skewered me, holding me where I was. "You seem like a lonely guy," she said.

My turn to shrug. I've got my music is my traditional answer, but I knew she wouldn't buy that crap. She seemed lonely, too, wrapped in a bubble of anger and sorrow, but I didn't mention it.

"You should hear him play," Rose said. "He's going places."

Jo and I both knew that wasn't true. "You're a musician?" she asked.

"Yeah."

"What do you play?"

"Piano, mostly."

She took another drink, only chugging half the liquid this time. She eyed me appraisingly. "You look like a guitar player I used to know."

"Must be my evil twin." My glass was empty, but there was another waiting for me already.

"I was married to him," she said, and finished her drink.

The bar came slowly to life but it was never busy. I didn't notice when it happened but she was on the stool next to mine, staring into her glass, still far away. The whiskey had never stopped; I was working hard not to get too drunk. She must have been wasted, but you couldn't tell by looking.

I watched as men approached, hesitated, and moved down the bar. There was a barrier around her, communicated through the fierce set of her shoulders and her dedication to her bloody marys. I didn't fool myself that I was getting any closer to her than the others were. I watched her hand as she stirred her next drink. Her long, slender fingers ended in perfect nails. Pampered. Elegant. She carried with her the decay of society and made it seem like a good thing. From where I sat I couldn't quite smell her delicate perfume.

"He wasn't really evil," she said to her celery.

"Who?"

"Frank. My late husband. The guitar player. I guess that makes you the evil one."

"It's too bad no one mentioned that before. I don't think I've been doing a very good job."

"Don't sell yourself short, sweetheart."

Time, measured in glasses filled and glasses emptied, compressed. I had been distracted for a moment and turned to find her watching me, leaning forward on her stool aggressively. She turned back to the bar, set down her latest victim, and propped her forehead up with her hand. Her hair slid down over her face in a sheet, reflecting the light, dangling in the liquid spilled on the bar. She sagged, as if whatever had been holding her up had suddenly been pulled away. At that moment she was beautiful.

"You OK?" I asked.

"It seems to be working," she said. "Almost."

"Maybe --"

I don't know what I was about to say, but it would have broken the taboo. She stopped me by slapping herself, hard. She shook her head and signalled to Rose. "How do you do it?" she asked me.

I knew what she was asking. How do you live without feeling? I shrugged, took a sip of my own drink and let the scotch roll across my tongue, the vapors filling my sinuses. "I guess it just comes naturally."

She stood and pulled a wad of cash from her purse and counted off more than enough bills. She tossed them on the bar. "See you later, Rose," she said, looking at me with the challenge back in her eye. "Come on," she said. "Let's forget this place."

~

We lay in the morning grey and I could feel her tears running down my shoulder. She clung to me with broken wings, pressing herself against me, farther than two bar stools, closer than skin. She shook with her sobs, eruptions that came from a place we wish didn't exist.

I stared at the ceiling as I ran my fingers through her hair and down her back, lingering over each vertebra. She moved under my touch, kissing my chest and my neck, tasting her own tears as they mingled with our sweat. "You win," she said.

Article © Jerry Seeger. All rights reserved.
Published on 2005-10-03
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