by Richard Goodwin
It was Friday night and I figured I had two choices: commit suicide or hit the clubs. After some deliberation, I got dressed and headed out into the city, into the crowds and traffic and jittering lights, the dirty electric hum of urban life.
At a place called Cafe Élan I got a whiskey sour and sat in the corner next to a potted palm tree. There were only two girls in the whole club and one of them was the bartender. The other was dancing to “La Isla Bonita” with a guy in a trench coat. In the neon shadows everyone looked like refrigerated meat. I tried to seem cool and casual, like I had a clue what was going on. My scalp itched. I was out of cigarettes.
When I was done with my drink I bought another, and when that was gone I got one more. Then I got a beer. Then a flaming shot of Sambuca.
“Closing time,” the bartender said. “Up you go.”
I lifted my face off the table and tried to get her into focus. She seemed pretty enough. “You wanna come home with me?” I asked her.
She thought a minute, gazing off toward the empty DJ booth. “Yeah, I’d like that,” she said. “Give me an hour.”
I wrote my address and staggered back to my apartment, where I got undressed and put on my robe, pulled out the hide-a-bed and filled a bowl with pretzels.
The doorbell rang.
“I hope you don’t mind I brought my entire family,” the bartender said.
A small crowd filled the hall. I tied my robe tighter. “I don’t mind.”
“They don’t speak any English.”
“Come in, come in.”
About a dozen people shuffled into my place. Some had scarves on their heads. Others wore leather jackets and brimmed caps like Marlon Brando in The Wild One. A man with an enormous black mustache helped himself to a pretzel. I looked for a beverage to serve but there was only some soy sauce and a can of propane.
“Well!” I said. “Make yourselves comfortable.”
An old woman gasped. She had a hunched back and a hairy mole on her chin. The bartender, whose name was Julie, said something in a language that sounded like a cross between French and Chinese, and everyone nodded. Then she said to me, “I need to talk to you outside.”
She led me down the hall and out of the building. It was starting to snow and the wind was picking up. I shivered in my robe.
Julie told me there was something she’d forgotten to do at the club, and she didn’t want to lose her job, bartending jobs being scarce in that Midwestern city, and would I mind hanging out with her family while she took care of business?
In the snow and wind and frigid dark, Julie was a lot less attractive than I’d first thought. She was kind of manly. In fact, when I looked down at her tight red jeans, I noticed—I don’t know quite how else to put this—a bulge.
“I’m happy to help out,” I said.
She gave my ass a squeeze. “You’re a sweetheart.”
Two seconds later, a car came roaring up the street, an old classic Chevy or Ford with dog dish hubcaps and flames leaping off the sides, and it jumped the curb and pinned Julie to a phone pole with an earsplitting crash.
The temperature was plunging. Julie didn’t seem to be in very good shape. Nor did the driver of the car, whose head behind the smashed windshield looked like one of those Greek urns you see in museums.
I started walking quickly to the only place I could think of at that moment: the all-night liquor store. I got a bottle of Wolfschmidt vodka and put it on my tab (I didn’t have my wallet).
Ambulances and cop cruisers jammed the street in front of my building. The car had been towed away from the pole, its front end staved in, and paramedics were working on Julie, who lay crumpled on the pavement but very much alive, wiggling her thick fingers and blinking her big cow eyes in the snowfall.
Relieved but wet and freezing, I went back up to my apartment. The lights in the hallway flickered, and the whole building shook in the wind. I listened at my door—it was dead quiet in there. Maybe they were sleeping. Well, it’s time to wake up, I thought. Time to start living. The vodka wedged under my arm, I flung open the door and hurled myself inside.
At that moment the power went out and a wooly blackness fell over everything.
“Hello!” I called out. “I’m here! I’m with you!”
Someone coughed. Someone else started to weep. I could barely see them huddled in the darkness. Then the lights came back on, and everyone started hugging and shaking hands.
I refilled the pretzel bowl, then poured everyone a drink. They taught me to say “cheers” in their language, a word that was like a sneeze in reverse. I was glad for the company. I felt less lonely. Still something grabbed at my heart, like when you see your mother off at the airport, and she’s got a limp, and her hair is white, and you know it will be a very long time before you see her again, and driving home you keep imagining yourself hanging from a belt in the garage, while the neighbor splits wood in his yard, slamming the maul down through the logs with a meaty cracking sound.
Richard Goodwin's short fiction has appeared in Monkeybicycle, The Adirondack Review, and The Dream People. His first novel is forthcoming from Seedpod Publishing.