Today, according to the New York Times “Your Thursday Briefing,” is National Short Story Day. Here is my tribute to that event:
Almost getting into a fight had been the high point in Ripley’s career as a barfly. Then Roxanne walked into the place. She looked surprisingly together for a woman still out on the town at what was now close to two in the morning. Taller than the night porter who sat at the end of the bar waiting for Ripley and the bartender to leave, shorter than Chris, the wannabe actor tending bar, she stood just about Ripley’s height. Ripley guessed her to be about two years younger than himself. She was dressed in summer dress-up, loose, gauzy pastels, heeled sandals decorated with glitter-glass, even a wide-brimmed purplish hat that was equally involved in framing her face and covering her head against the long-set sun. Not oppressively classy despite what Ripley saw as an attempt at intimidating. When she ordered an orange blossom neat with tonic on the side. She said, “Tonic back.”
Chris said, “What?”
“In a separate glass,” she replied quickly.
Ripley remembered an old country tune, The Girls All Get Prettier at Closing Time. Beyond that, it had been a while since he’d heard bar talk from the past—from his past. He smiled and turned toward her.
“Bartenders nowadays don’t know bar-speak.” He grinned.
She looked up—face blank. “You talkin’ to me?”
Taxi Driver! He grinned. “Ain’t no one else here. You must be talkin’ to me.” She half-smiled. “May I join you,” he continued not fully believing the words came from his mouth.
Full smile. “I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it.”
“Mae West couldn’t have said it better. “
“Tell you what,” she eased off the stool. “It looks easier for me to come over there than for you to make it all the way down here.” She picked up the orange blossom and the tonic and took them down to his location at the end of the bar.
“What’s a nice guy like you doin’ in a joint like dis?” Mae West again. He liked that.
“Hi. My name’s Ripley.”
“Ripley,” she repeated. “First name or last?”
It was his turn. He scratched his head much like Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith goes to Washington. “You know,” he answered in his best Stewart voice. “It’s been so long since I was asked that question, I plum forgot the answer.”
“I’m Roxanne. “
Ripley’s eyes opened wide and, to his own amazement, he began singing. “’Rox-anne, you don’t have to—‘. “ Big mistake! Roxanne glowered. Her hand blocked his mouth. “What’d I do,” Ripley asked astonished.
“Do you think that’s original—or cute?”
“What? No…I mean…” He looked so helpless to her, not unlike her six year old grandson that time when she caught him playing with himself in the bathtub. Innocent and guilty all at the same time. Her face eased.
“Does everybody sing that,” Ripley asked.
“So maybe I’m not as weird as I thought?”
“Maybe you’re not.” She took a sip. “Anyhow, I’m just kind of touchy about that.” She looked him up and down then up again. “What the hell. You’re not Sting but, you know, you’re actually kinda cute.”
“For a guy my age?”
“To a gal my age.”
“Thanks,” he blushed. “I guess I needed to hear that.”
Roxanne wasn’t finished. “Needed?” She was off again. “I hate the N word! Now you’re gonna play the ‘poor me’ card and start in about things getting rough at home with the wife and all the rest of the barroom crap that comes with that.”
Ripley sat up tall on the stool. “No. I wouldn’t tell you that even if it were true.”
Her tension broke. “What would you tell me?”
Ripley took another chance. “Would it matter?”
Roxanne stared down into her drink. “Probably not.” She took a long sip and then another. “Look!” Her voice let him know she wanted to be heard. “It’s been a long, bad day at Black Rock, you know, this job I’m supposed to really love and be grateful to still have.” She bit off each word with angry precision. “OK, so I say, ‘forget about that, I’m going to a movie’ and end up at the worst piece of shit anybody’s ever paid twelve frickin’ dollars for. For Christ’s sake, giant robots slamming giant monsters in the face with what’s supposed to look like the Empire State building. So please, can you just back off for a minute? Just let me finish my drink. OK?”
“Damn,” he managed. “I really didn’t mean to get you upset. I thought we were just having some fun—. “
“OK, OK. I’m not looking for apologies. Just give me a little space for a minute.”
She sounded dismissive, a tone he was all too familiar with. Still, “for a minute” suggested possibility.Her head tilted down, she took a deep breath, then looked directly at him. Her face no longer hostile, she just looked exhausted. She took the last sip of her orange blossom and held up the empty glass like she was offering it to the world.
Ripley tapped his empty against the bar. Chris put down his phone, brought them two fresh drinks. Ripley drank quickly. Roxanne waited a moment, tasted hers and put it down on the bar. “Where’s my tonic?”
“Hey, Chris,” Ripley called out. “Can we have the lady’s tonic?”
Chris was fixed on his phone. “Be there in a minute.”
Roxanne scowled. “No, damn it,” she snapped. “Bartender!”
“The name’s Chris.”
“Whatever! Just get me the damned tonic now.”
The silence weighed a ton. Ripley made a no-face and directed it toward the dark TV set at the near end of the bar.
Chris turned slowly. “On it,” he sighed, mumbled something to the phone and brought a fresh tonic to Roxanne. He placed it in front of her like he was planting an explosive.
“Punks,” Roxanne smirked to Ripley well before Chris was out of range. “When are they gonna learn where their tips come from?”
Chris kept walking.
“Hey,” began Ripley. “Give the kid a chance. “
She glowered. “What? You’re takin’ his side?”
“I’m not taking anybody’s side—“
“Like hell you’re not. You’re takin’ his freakin’ side.” She rubbed her eyes with the backs of her hands. Her mascara smeared. Her eyes glistened deep in their enlarged dark sockets. “I don’t even know why I’m talkin’ to you. I mean, who the hell are you anyway?”
Good question, Ripley thought. A Viet Nam combat vet about to retire as head of security for a poorly regarded medium-sized supermarket chain that his own mother wouldn’t patronize for fear of food poisoning; living alone for the past eight years since she’d died; a nice enough guy according to his sister out in Colorado. If there was anything else, he couldn’t think of it. Ripley threw up his hands in surrender. If he’d been sober or been someone else, he’d have told her what to do and walked out. He was a regular. He could always pay his tab tomorrow. But he was drunk and he was him.
“My name’s Rox-anne! Get it? None of that “Roxy shit! You don’t know me like that.”
“OK, Rox-anne. Jesus…” His head swung from side to side. “I thought we were just having some fun.”
“You said that before! Christ! Is that all you know? Fun?” She turned her attention to the contents of her large, purple-to-match-the-hat summer bag. Another silence. Roxanne sighed. Her shoulders lowered. Her face softened. “Yeah, we were, I guess…I don’t know…” She shook her head in a half-hearted effort to clear away fog. “Sometimes…I just don’t know.”
He reached for her arm but quickly thought better of it. Words he hadn’t thought through came softly from his mouth. “What don’t you know? You wanna talk about it?”
She returned her gaze to the bag. “Not really…Yes…maybe…” She turned to him. “You really wanna hear?”
Ripley felt his energy and his hopes returning. “Hey, I’m all ears.”
Roxanne breathed deeply and tossed back her head. She smiled a vixen smile. “I hope not.”
Both grinned. She stood up. “You smoke?”
“Naw. Not since ‘Nam,” he replied.
“Nam,” she questioned. “You don’t look that old. Whatever, I’m going out for one.”
“OK, you go ahead. I’ll save your seat.”
She continued like he’d said nothing. “God, I hate it you can’t smoke in bars in New York any more. I feel unbalanced with a drink in one hand and nothing in the other.” She was starting to look pretty again.
“Want another orange?” How old she did now think him to be.
“Wait till I get back.” Roxanne stood up slowly. Once the clack of her heels was lost to the outside, the bar stood quiet. Chris was focused on preparing the night’s receipts. The night porter was busy draining the deep fryers in the kitchen area just beyond the bar. Ripley waited until she, visible through the window, lit up, then stood as cautiously as she had and walked to the back of the bar.
Five minutes had passed since Ripley’d pissed, washed his hands and checked to make sure that the condom in his wallet was still there. He stood frozen in front of the men’s room mirror, one hand mechanically pulling towels from the dispenser, wiping the sweat from his face and neck while the other caressed his belly. It had been forty years since he’d returned from ‘Nam. His flat-muscled abs were long a thing of the past. Would she notice? Would she care? Would she make fun of his little paunch? She’d already shown him what she could be like. What would she make fun of?
When he came out of the men’s room there was no one at the bar but Chris. A quick look through the window revealed no one outside.
“She paid,” Chris spoke without looking up from his paperwork. Ripley fumbled for his wallet. “Yours too,” Chris put a rubber band around the last wad of twenties and noted the count on the register slip. “You ready?”
Ripley shook his head slowly. “Did she say anything?”
“Just asked what the tab was and could she pay in cash. She thought that was funny.”
“Anything about me?”
“I’m sure. Look, Man–.”
Ripley waved him off. There was no need for sympathy or empathy or compassion or anything else. It was all right whatever it was. His world restored, Ripley took a deep breath. He thanked Chris for the evening’s hospitality and walked out slowly into the welcoming coolness of the hot summer’s night.