Gary cradled a Johnny Walker Red on ice as the place began to fill up. Above the cash register, a lighted Budweiser sign rotated lethargically in an endless cycle. Tonight would be the time for the final action. Each time before when he had picked up the phone and dialed Carol’s number to tell her that it was over between them, he couldn’t. Just as the words started to come out, his throat tightened and his will weakened. “Gary, is anything wrong?” she would ask apprehensively. Did she suspect? He would regain control, make an excuse for the break in his voice, and that would be it.
Neither had dated anyone else since they settled on each other during that summer three years ago. Then his job took him out of town. He drove back once every week or two for their Ramada Inn Weekend, as she called it. They had been married in every way but on paper. Now she wanted that, too. Total commitment. Gary felt his freedom slipping away. He couldn’t keep letting things be drawn out. He had to regain control before it was too late to go back to his past life.
His life before had brought him to places like this. It had been routine. The clink of glasses and the sound of mechanical laughter brought him back again. Elton John blared from the jukebox. He looked around and saw older men alone in the place, yet at the moment he felt the oldest of all. It was as if some men had to come to a bar to prove something to themselves. Not necessarily to pick up a woman, but to be close to where that sort of thing did happen. Perhaps the loudest “talkers” were the ones who had never made the scene when they were younger and so wondered what it was they had missed. And they wanted, impossibly, to pull it back and have another go at it. But, Gary thought, there’s a different mindset about it when you’re younger. It was a new adventure then. You weren’t aware at the time that it was merely a stage you’d pass through. He suddenly wondered if he were realizing this for the first time himself. These unsure, unglamorous feelings were not a part of this scene before.
The stool beside him squeaked. He looked to his right. New arrivals. Two young women, a blonde and a brunette. Pretty. The blonde caught his gaze and smiled. At the instant he started to smile back, he realized he was wearing his eyeglasses. Before, he had always put on his contact lenses before going out, though he never wore them as comfortably as he did glasses. The old vanity about his looks was returning. Slowly, since meeting Carol, the former preoccupation over his appearance, his desirability, had eroded. Now he rarely wore his contact lenses at all, rarely even thought of them. He felt out of place. He fumbled in his pocket and placed a dollar bill down on the counter next to a matchbook cover that read Join us for happy hour every night.
An unfamiliar panic quickened his steps. Outside he got into his car and let the window down briefly to catch a few breaths of the fresh night air. He heard the gravel crunch and looked to his left. A grizzled old man approaching the lounge was squinting at him.
“Hey there,” the man said in a coarse voice as he approached. He coughed raggedly. “How you been, buddy?”
Gary sighed. “Fine.” He inserted the key into the ignition and stared blankly ahead, then sagged in his seat to await the inevitable.
“Yeah, I thought I recognized you. I seen you around here lots ‘a times before.” He said the words as if they had been rehearsed.
Gary gave a weak smile, faintly embarrassed. “This is my first time here,” he said truthfully.
The man had come up beside the driver’s window. In the bright sickly cast of yellow light, Gary saw that it was a derelict with a gray-stubble beard. He wore dirt-smeared white trousers and a drab blue shirt that was the color of his eyes. He grinned widely through discolored teeth.
“Say, you wouldn’t have some change you could lend me, would you?” He made a supplicating gesture with his hands. “I don’t get paid till tomorrow and I wanted to get me a tin of Copenhagen.”
Gary looked into the filmy eyes, at the face wrinkled with age and creased with the effort of living. The harsh of reality assailing the soft of dreams. He felt a palpable sinking sensation and drew his eyes away. “I’m sorry,” he said in a tone more impatient than he meant. “I don’t have any change on me.” He immediately regretted the lie, but found, irrationally, that he was unable to renege on what he had said. Irritated with himself, he turned the ignition over and pulled away into the deepening night.
He climbed the stairs to his apartment and pushed the key into the door lock and applied pressure, but it wouldn’t twist. His stomach was churning, the scotch having remained unsettled. He jiggled it with exasperation, cursing under his breath. The key was made from the original and had never worked properly. Finally the lock snapped home, and he pushed the door open.
He flicked the hall light on and passed into the dimness of the bedroom, flopping into the easy chair by the window. He lifted the phone and dialed Carol’s number. The shriek of a whistle drew his eyes out the window and down to the river bay across the road. Lights shimmered back from a lone tug pushing its load, straining slowly against the bleak night current. Three rings. He cleared his throat. His palms were moist, and he was gripping the phone tightly. God, he thought, yesterday comes so suddenly.
“Hello,” said the familiar voice.
“Hi, Babe,” he said, his voice relaxing a bit.
BIO: I was a long-time columnist for McClatchy-Tribune newspapers and Prevention magazine and have published eight nonfiction books (Prentice-Hall, Random House) as well as dozens of articles for a variety of publications. My short story "On a Bus Bereft" was published in the May, 2014 issue of Sense magazine. My author website provides additional background details: www.richard-harkness.com