(*A story written back in 2016)
In the dying light, evening shadows spilled like ink across the city streets as neon lights buzzed and flared with new life, and I finally arrived at the bar.
Millie was there, as always, her face tan, leathered, with deep lines sketched and stenciled by the tandem drawing of time and alcohol. She turned to look at me through eyes still somewhat beautiful, not quite bleary, but full of lost hope and unrequited love.
A local girl, she’d been feeding off the carrion of maudlin, weepy drunks for too long.
Getting out had been her dream. She’d been waiting, as they say, for her ship to come in, but someone told her to hold the anchor, and when she did, the ship left without her.
She squinted at me through a screen of patchy, blue-white smoke, slowly unfurling like spirits on drugs.
“Good for you.” She swiveled the stool to turn her whole self toward me.
“You need an agent?”
“I do. Know anyone?”
She shook her head. “Not anymore, sweetheart. Think you’re good enough?”
She tapped the cigarette ash into a gray-black ashtray and looked over my head. I followed her gaze to see a huge fly buzzing around a light bulb.
We watched it longer than was normal, until she finally looked at me again.
“I used to write.”
“I know, Millie.”
“I wasn’t good.”
“Not what I was told.” I ordered a beer.
She smiled, showing stained, chipped and missing teeth; if you weren’t used to seeing it, it was disconcerting at first. It never ceased to be heartbreaking, at least to me.
“You believe what you’re told?”
I straightened up on the barstool, seeking some sort of lumbar support that wasn’t there.
“You didn’t believe in yourself?”
Her eyebrows arched at that, and in a couple of heartbeats, her eyes welled.
She wiped the water away before it ruined her overdone mascara, but somehow she managed smudging it anyway.
“No, I didn’t.”
I waited a bit, letting her get back to herself.
She shifted on the stool, hooking an ankle around the circle on the bottom.
“Hard to get an agent these days, Al.”
“But not impossible.”
“No,” she shook her head slowly, and turned her left profile to me, “not impossible.”
We worked on the drinks, each of us sitting in separate silences of rising ambition and faded glory.
She finished her double, put out the cigarette, sidled off the stool, put her hand on my thigh to steady herself, and kissed me on the cheek.
Her lips were bourbon scented, her breath heavy with tobacco.
She patted me on the chest then stepped out of view behind me.
“Good night, Al.”
I watched her in the mirror as she opened the door and went out into the oncoming night.
I looked up at the light bulb.
The fly was gone.
“Good night, Millie.”