At Closin’ Time by Vincent Barry
“A clean break,” she quotes with the jab of a critical cigarette, “is something you cannot come back from; that is irretrievable because it makes the past cease to exist.”
“Hmm, doesn’t sound like the Gatsby guy,” I say, recognizing in the fidgets of my thoughts Fitzgerald when I hear him, and lusting for one of her cigarettes—any cigarette, really, ’cause, y’see, I’m trying to throw oﬀ that monkey, too. Then, after an uncomfortable pause, I say fiercely, “Can I bum one o’ those?” adding a worried, “Faulkner demurs.”
“Faulkner?” as she plops a Red&White into the damp, deeply lined palm of the hinky supplicant.
“The past,” I quote, our smokes now extended in space, the steady smoldering end of hers lighting the dry faintly perceptible tremor of mine, “is never dead. It’s not even past.”
She touches my wrist at its bumping pulse to steady my hand, and I expel on the exhale in a hoarse troubled voice, “Thanks,” appended with a few quick head-shakes in search of the piano.
With a backward jerk of her black curly head, that lets faint violet light play on her fair pale face, she says, “‘Tristesse.’” “‘Tristesse’?” “The piano you’re looking for.” “‘Tristesse?’” “Chopin.” “Chopin?” “Étude No. 3 in E.” “Étude—?” go my eyes out on stalks, when a staccato percussive drumbeat of a TR 808, with vocals, freezes me, in the key of C, backing a breathy prepubescent girl and dulcet male crooner repeating, sensuously—
“The Gainsbourgs.” “Who?” “Serge and Charlotte.” “Serge ’n—?” “Father and daughter.” “‘No Other Love,’” I protest. She nods sympathetically, then, “But with a twist of lemon.” “But-but Jo Staﬀord.” “Oh,” she laughs across at me, “a real sentimentalist! You don’t find many of those nowa—”
“‘No other love,’” I break in with a tremulous voice,“‘can warm my heart.’”
She draws up the left corner of her dark plum mouth and unreels, “‘Now that I’ve known the comfort of your arms.’” Then, the sneer complete, “I can do schmaltz,” she goes, “if that’s your thing?”
She holds her R&D between arching fingers with acrylic nails the color of her mouth, only glittery, like her half-circle eyelash extensions that give her eyes a doll look as they train a hazel gaze on mine, her full purply lips working before tightening on a grin before shaping into a noiseless whistle.Then, in a soupy voice,“You know,” and I wait, “your voice,” and I wait some more, meanwhile dragging deeply, restlessly, while she squashes her half-sucked Super Slim into a silver shell ash-tray inscribed “Dig It,” around the word “Life” in an open grave centerpiece. Then, going on, “Anyone ever tell you, dude—” here a palpitating pause before, to my puzzled wonder,— “your voice matches your face?” There then follows a like pause before, from her, a mirthless grin before the flick of another R&D from the soft pack and a, “Both craggy. Doubtless—” as I hang suspended—“a nostalgic soul,” and I think, “This is one dangerous—” and start to get up to leave when a firm hand with square finger tips claps heavily upon my shoulder, and a voice like a screwdriver says, “What can I getcha?”
The squeaky voice and knotty appendage belong to a man of fifty or so with a bill that stretches as if to kiss a Hapsburg jaw. He is, Screwdriver, wearing a divey denim apron with two large pockets and a draw string bulging at his paunch. On the apron’s heart side is stitched, “IS.” On its other side—
“Doug?” she reads, and the so-named nods lamely, and she adds peremptorily, “Un petit verre,” practicing her French, I guess ,’cause she’s goin’ to Paris to paint, y’see, when, of course, she gets enough bread. Why she can’t paint here—Well, she’s studying French ’s all I know, at the academy, just steps away from where Route 66 comes to an end. Amazing,
isn’t it? how stuﬀ like that comes out quick and fast when you’re taking ten? Anyway—
“Say again?” stridulates Screwdriver, tilting to one side, when a thrityish blonde with a compact red mouth and hollow, faded eyes scuttles in with a hush-hush, “I got it, Doug,” like someone who does—like someone with a white name badge that reads “TOPKNOT” in black upper case does. Slue-footed Screwdriver shuﬄes oﬀ.
Topknot—well, Topknot was clearly born the moment her child was, and well, she is
plainly juggling work, hours and dates; and, most certainly, she is used to balancing twice of everything—all the while, surely, she is increasingly wondering glumly, her self-confidence ebbing: Is a mother’s love enough?
She reflexively pulls, Topknot does, an order pad and ballpen from the pocket of her jet black Berkeley waist apron, sets her plump unringed hands to jot, and says, with a tight unused smile of sullen coquetry, “What’ll it be?”
“P Diddy’s favorite,” she goes, which, naturally, I figure, will deck Top—, but no. Topknot, y’see, she ’s hip and then some, and she mumbles with troubles, head down, in the quick, hard metallic voice of one used to playing the cards she’s dealt, “Ciroc,” before she adds, head still dropped, topnot exposed, “Doubles?” Like I say, troubles.
“Nothing but,” she goes.
“‘Doubles’?” I say unevenly, ’cause, y’see, I don’t wanna push it—my little self-control test. So I add, “Water for me,” and she agrees, “Mineral—me too. Good chaser.” Then, “Ferrarelle? Indigo? Veen?”
“Perrier, Pellegrino,” says Topknot flatly.
“Pilgrim.” Her voice is at once limpid and oracular. Then, after an uneasy pause, “Well?” she goes, looking at me stonily, before adding, with a vexed sigh through a cloud of blue smoke in idle air, “You know the old saying?”
I don’t, but bluﬀ, as of much in life I have that has landed me here, “Of course—” when Topknot saves me. “‘There are,’” she goes, Topknot, “‘two impossibilites in life: Just one drink and ‘an honest politician.’”
“Exactly,” she goes. “So let’s cut—” “—to the chase,” Topknot completes her thought, then asks, impatiently: “Flavors?”
“La poire?” she goes my way again, then, “ l’orange? le citron—?”
Stfling a yawn to my bovine nod Topknot shuts her down with a muffled,
“Red berry ’s all,” and from her, with a delicate insouciance, “Fiat. Noir. Splendide.” Then but whorls of blue smokeless air suspened above our heads, and from me quietly, “So why ask?” and from her, ”Shh,” as Topknot retreats.
The scene—did I mention? The Inner Sanctum, an alley or so from Tough Love, and its Exalted Power greater than ourselves, to which, just moments before I was confessing for the umpteenth time an abject inability to manage my own life, exhorting— no pathetically begging, again and again,— to remove my shortcomings,— mainly junk and booze and sex,— and help me make direct amends to— well, every friggin’ person I’ve ever crossed. The problem—well, the problem, y’see, I mean the one that’s brought me from Tough Love to the Innter Sanctum is
—well, besides the aforesaid trial by self, I mean— is simply, I-I can’t remember and I’m thinkin’ that maybe just one—and I mean, minja, not a drop more!—will jog— . . . Anyway, I’m breakin’—takin’ a break, I mean— is the point, but suddenly I’m scared, terrified really, enough to text my sponsor under the table, madly,—I mean like, say, Ground Control to Major Tom, only the other way around,— and “no cell coverage” is showin’ in my battery health settings and Topknot’s reportin’ back with, “Ciroc red berry, doubles,” in two tall, straight heavy base shot glasses that she is setting with the large Pellegrino on the black and mahogany reversible laminate table top,— and I’m feelin’ pass through me a frisson of excitement, like the surge of a power line struck by lightning.
“Thanks,” she goes.
“Just holler,” goes Topknot, breaking irretrievably the promise of a clean break, as she trucks oﬀ with a jerk of her pendulous buttocks.
Then, awash in the kick, the thought: “These are two badass chicks who are booted, I mean, y’know, up with the beat, who, I’m talkin’, know the walk and the step.” And I know, temples throbbing in the thickening darkness, I know ’cause, well, of a sudden, oddly, I’m seein’ it all purely from the other side. I know, ’s what I mean, they’re gonna put me, these two are,
they’re gonna put me in the mix, if you know what I mean, I mean for love on the beat. Like
—like, well,— like-like, not Scott, who surely knew better, but-but Bill or Scott’s Jay, say, or Jo or Cho, or Serge and Char, who knew, “No other love can warm my heart.” You dig? So,
please, pretty please? return to sender stamped, as Rod might say, Serling I mean: OUT OF RECOVERY WITH DESIRE TO RELAPSE, and post at closin’ time?
©2019 Vincent Barry
After retiring from a career teaching philosophy, Vincent Barry returned to his first love, fiction. His stories have appeared in numerous publications in the U.S. and abroad, including: The Saint Ann’s Review, The Bitchin’ Kitsch, The Broken City, Abstract:Contemporary Expressions, Kairos, Caveat Lector,Terror House, The Fem, and BlogNostics. Barry lives with his wife and daughter in Santa Barbara, California.