Henry played with his bourbon as he watched alice dance with frank.
The jukebox was once again ruminating about love gone south, but this time it was a has-been rock singer ruining the sentiment. Still, Henry had to admit he was enjoying himself despite his best efforts to the contrary. Alice was better than all the medicine in the world. She didn’t take any crap and didn’t dish out any guilt. She lived in the moment, and she pulled him into it with her.
She could have been a true gift.
It was too bad it could never last.
He took a sip of his drink. It wasn’t nearly as satisfying as he’d have liked. They’d been here a couple hours, and he was only on his third drink. He wondered if that was good or bad. Surely, his anger wasn’t divorcing him, was it? It would be like cutting off a foot.
The song mercifully ended. Frank meandered over to the jukebox and lit another cigarette. Alice drifted through the smoke toward Henry. She was smiling like a prom queen.
“You make a handsome pair,” Henry said as she saddled the barstool beside him.
She took a sip from her rum and coke. It was the same one she’d first ordered. Larry had too happily re-iced it twice. Henry didn’t think it was service as usual. Larry kept throwing Alice no-extra-charge smiles and winks that he was pretty sure weren’t on the public menu.
“I just adore gay men,” Alice said, smiling. She leaned over and patted Henry’s big red S. “Maybe that’s why I’m so attracted to you.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot.”
She looked at his moldering bourbon. Then she sent those sneaky green eyes up to reconnoiter his.
“What?” he said.
“I’m not particularly impressed with your drinking tonight, Superman.”
“You expected more, eh?”
“You’re a superhero, baby. You’re a legend. You’ve got a pretty tall reputation standing over you.”
“Is that right?”
“That is so right. How do you expect to impress me? You’re not living up to my expectations, dear. Maybe you’re just not the bad, bad man I thought you were.”
For some reason, he thought of Mrs. Pena, and it made him laugh.
Alice leaned in and grinned at him. “What?”
“Nothing. You just reminded me of someone I met at the rest area.”
“At the rest area?” she said, smiling coyly.
“Don’t start,” he warned.
“Who was it?”
“Yeah. Mrs. Ximena J. Pena, MSW”
Her eyes narrowed with her smile. “Really? MSW? I had no idea such a respectful clientele hanged out at rest areas.”
“Don’t be crude,” he said. He meant it. Mrs. Pena was sacred territory.
“Most sorry, Henry,” she said like she meant it, “So, you met Mrs. Ximena J. Pena, MSW at a New Mexico rest area in the middle of the night and…?”
“And I spent some time with her before you picked me up on the highway. She’s a New Mexico Social Worker and part-time counselor. She… well, I know this is going to sound nuts, but… she mistook me for a homeless person.”
Alice gasped and threw a hand to her mouth. “No!”
“How is that even possible? She thought that hip, styling young man I picked up was a bum? I simply refuse to believe it.” She smothered back a laugh.
“Hilarious.” Henry took a sip of his bourbon. It tasted like turpentine. He washed the taste out with his warm beer.
“So, do tell,” Alice pressed, “What did this social worker want?”
“She tried to get me a ride to a shelter. With a state police escort, I might add for hilarity’s sake.”
“But you predictably refused her offer.”
“She wasn’t giving me the choice,” he said as he thought about it, “I practically had to get on my hands and knees and beg her not to do it. I mean, she was dialing the phone even as I pleaded.”
“That’s precious, dear. Honestly. It’s hilarious.”
Henry shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. I should’ve run like hell the moment I met her. But, truth be told, once I convinced her not to have me physically escorted to the nearest shelter, we hit it off. We talked for a good while. She was a damned good listener, which is especially funny since I’m not a particularly good talker. But she sure as hell managed to pull it out of me.”
“That’s sweet, Henry.”
“She gave me some advice. Not that I actually needed any advice, of course.”
“Well, of course not! Don’t be absurd.”
“I mean, look at me. Do I look like I need anyone else’s guidance, for Christ’s sake?”
“Land sakes, no! You’re man with a mission.”
“Damn straight,” he said, tapping his chest, “You can’t wear a Superman shield like this if you’re wishy-washy.”
“Of course not. Do continue.”
“Nothing much more to say. She fed me some pizza she had in her car, gave me a soda, and we talked.”
“She bought Henry a soda,” Alice said in her best talking-to-the-dog voice, “How sweet is that?”
“Alice,” Henry said carefully, “I swear to God, if you don’t—”
“My goodness, Superman,” she said as she again patted his cheek, “For a superhero, you are so sensitive.”
Henry tried to give her The Look, but couldn’t pull it off. “In the end,” he continued as instructed, “She even offered to put me in contact with an AA group near where I live.”
“Which you again predictably declined.”
He didn’t appreciate the sarcasm. “I’m not an alcoholic, Alice.”
“I know that, Henry.”
“I’m a weekender. I binge on the weekends like a frat boy. Not that it’s a good thing, but it’s not so bad that it screws with my life.”
“Not if your life’s goal culminates in midnight excursions down western interstates with no memory of how you got there.”
He looked at her. Hard. “Alice, I’m sharing this with you. We’re not even in the game. You should try to avoid being an asshole.”
His words surprised him. So did his anger. He picked his drink up again, but it only loitered in his hand.
Alice lifted her drink. “You’re right. I apologize.” She took a sip and fluttered her eyes at him.
He fingered the ice dying in his drink. “It’s okay,” he said softly. The words were intended more for him than her. “I’m just feeling a little touchy tonight.”
“Well, of course you are.” She took another sip.
“What does that mean?” he said.
“Weekends are bad juju for you.”
A chill seized him. He looked down at her. “You know juju means talisman,” he said, “Right?” Dodge and evade.
She just looked back up at him. “You know exactly what I mean, Mr. Smith.”
Sadly, he did. And he didn’t know how to respond. She’d said it as matter-of-factly as pointing out his hair color. He could only look at her, at those eyes, at that knowing twinkle that told him he’d never be capable of holding secrets from her, and he was suddenly very afraid.
“Don’t start pouting, Henry,” she said.
“I told you, I don’t pout.”
“Would you like to know my theory?”
“Alice’s Complete Theory of Henry?”
“Yes. But if I tell you, you’ll have to keep it under wraps. At least until I’m published.”
“Go on,” he said. He prayed she didn’t.
“Okay,” she began anyway, “So here it is. I think you probably have plenty to do during the week, right? To keep you distracted, I mean.”
Jesus, he thought, this can’t possibly end well. Then again, he was already in this deep. How much more effort to just finish it out? In truth, it was perfectly in keeping with his plans, wasn’t it? Search, destroy, flee into the night?
“Go on,” he said again. Yet, for reasons he couldn’t divine, he was still praying she wouldn’t.
“Stop me if I get too close to the target, okay?”
“I’ll politely wave the moment I start to bleed, ma’am.” Maybe he should just put his hand up now.
“Alright, Henry, dear,” she said, smiling too sweetly, “But please keep in mind that you gave me permission.”
Yeah, like a deathrow inmate gives the electrocutioner permission to plug in the chair.
“I’m guessing you probably work a good fifty hours a week,” she started, “Some weeks more, rarely less. When you get off work, you fight the traffic for a while, then grab a couple hours at the gym. You work out harder than you need to. You go home after that. You finish up your emails, maybe pay some bills online. Then you throw a frozen plastic wedge in the microwave, or open a can of prepackaged paste, and eat it by yourself at a cluttered breakfast bar, probably with the news chirping on the TV, even though you don’t pay attention to it. After that, you iron your clothes for work tomorrow, maybe try to catch a little tube time, maybe just stand at a window and stare out into the world thinking of all the things you should be doing. And then, before you know it, it’s time for bed. You wash back a couple pills with lukewarm tap water, something strong enough to make you sleep without dreaming. Eight hours later, you awaken from your oblivion and start the process all over again.”
He studied those shrewd eyes beaming back at him. There was nothing he could say, no words that could make her observations seem like a stretch. He felt like a first grader trying to debate a professor. Every single word was a direct hit. A direct. Fucking. Hit.
She took a sip from her drink. Then another, bigger this time. She studied the sweating glass for a moment, then set it precisely into the old wet circle on the cocktail napkin.
“So?” she said after a moment, “Am I close?”
The green eyes peering out at him from behind a veil of perfectly blonde hair held all the mystery of a fortune-teller. And as he struggled to free himself from her tractor beams, he wondered for just the briefest moment if maybe she could hear his thoughts.
“Well?” she pressed.
Finally, he drew a sigh and lifted his drink up to hers. “Alice,” he said as the glasses clinked, “You sank my battleship.”
“Bada boom, bada bing.”
“Land sakes, I really am good.”
Henry took another sip of his medicine. It was tasting a little better now. His apprehension was nearly at the boil point, yet instead of following his usual award winning strategy of defiance and flight, he stayed right where he was. Instead of fleeing, he steadied himself and started groping his way to higher ground.
“Time to fess up, Alice,” he said carefully, “Are you a detective? The truth, now. Have you been tailing me?”
She giggled at that. “You wish.”
“How about some kind of voodoo priestess? Are you a witch? I’ve seen the hair you wear to work.”
“That might be a wee bit closer.”
“Can you read the bumps on my head and tell my fate? Can you see into my past and divine my future?”
“I so wish I could.”
“Yeah, me too. If you were psychic, you might be able to tell me where my car is.”
She laughed again. Seemed like she was always laughing.
“Seriously,” he said, “You’re making me a little nervous, because if you actually can read my mind? I may be in some serious trouble. Especially after this morning at the pools.”
“No obvious lies,” she said, “Your eyes were everywhere except on me.”
He actually felt a bit embarrassed for that. It was too obviously true. “I told you, I’m a gentleman.”
“It’s only gentlemanly if the lady doesn’t want you to look.”
“Whatever.” He again clinked his glass against hers. “Finish your prophesying, O Mistress of the Night.”
“As you will. Where was I?”
“You finished the week. You may now proceed to ruining my weekends.” He braced himself with another slug of bourbon.
“Please, let the carnage begin.” Why the hell not? He still had his twenty-dollar bill, and there was a whole wall of medicine simmering in the mirrored light just there behind the bar.
“Okay,” she began a bit too tentatively, “The weekends are like open season on Henry. Isn’t that right? The weekends are when you can’t outrun your fears?”
The humor had taken leave of her face. The look replacing it was too serious by yards. Henry felt like he should maybe back away. Hell, he should probably blow through the front door and keep on running until he hit seawater.
She tapped the lip of her glass with her nail. Her eyes were targeting him. “Shall I keep going?”
He laughed, though half-heartedly, which he immediately regretted. It made him sound weak. He looked over at Ed and Bridget slow dancing, while Frank continued plugging away at the jukebox.
He looked back at her. She made him afraid, and he didn’t know if he hated it or loved it. His stomach was on fire again, but he didn’t resist it. Let it burn. It had a right to. The dark rider was approaching. Hope was a weakness.
“Hello? Earth to Henry?”
He looked deep into those green kryptonite eyes. “You think you know?” he said seriously, “Then just go ahead. Tell me. There’s nothing you can do except drive me away.”
She nodded seriously. Then she said, “All right, Henry.”
She looked down at her finger circling the rim of her glass. He had the sense she was plotting a trajectory.
“On the weekends there aren’t any distractions,” she said without looking up, “You sit in your empty house, and if feels just like a prison cell. You avoid your friends because they’re boring. At least, that’s what you tell yourself. Truth is they simply remind you of everything you had and everything don’t have any more, and, worse, everything you’re not ever going to have again. You have no work to turn to, because, after all, it is the weekend, and there have to be some boundaries, right? You don’t like sports, and everything else on TV is even more useless, not that you have the attention span for it anyway. You don’t even have the ambition to hit the gym. It’s like sailing off the edge of the world, isn’t it? Friday afternoon, you stop at the local dive where they know you, but don’t care how drunk you get and care even less why you do. You park it there on that barstool, the one at the end, the one in the shadows beneath the big TV, the one far out of the path of the local civilians trotting back and forth between emptying their tanks and starting the refill. Then, after your third or fourth drink, you raise your sails and you drift out of sight of shore, and you don’t hit the beach again until sometime late Sunday night when your liver finally hangs up its apron. And when you stagger into work Monday morning, the consequences of all the hiding you did on the weekend is just smoking wreckage.”
The air felt like liquid. Breathing was no longer satisfying. His heart beat so hard, it nearly wasn’t beating at all. It was like being in a dream, like sitting on a stage with no clothes on while someone told an audience of millions your story. Henry Lowenherz Smith, this is your fucked up life!
Her eyes were mirrors. She had the patience of Job. He knew he could never out-wait her, and he sure as hell couldn’t outrun her, and he’d never been more afraid or more thrilled in his life.
“Henry?” she asked too carefully, “Are you all right?”
He steadied himself. He drew a slow breath and braced himself against the pain welling behind his eyes.
It took a moment, but he eventually found the strength to look directly at her.
“Are you alright?”
“What the hell, Alice?” he said at last.
What else could he say? There was nothing there to argue. If you shit on the floor and someone sees it, you both know who did it, right? So there’s really nothing you can say to them except ‘looks like I just shit on the floor’. Sometimes honesty is the only feasible policy.
Alice beamed that special smile up at him, the one he figured she kept in reserve just for times when she needed to destroy his super powers completely.
“Game on, Henry.”
His stomach shot out through his feet. It was the last thing on earth he expected. “What?” he said.
“Game on. It’s my turn.”
He lifted his bourbon and examined at it. He felt like a rocket battering its way back into the atmosphere. Beyond his windshield, the earth was grew bigger and bigger, but he wasn’t slowing down. He was coming in too fast. He was starting to burn up.
“You can say no, Henry.”
He flagged the bartender, waving two fingers at his dying medicine.
“You can say no,” Alice said again.
“Actually, I don’t think I can,” he said, looking at her, “I can’t say no. I’m already falling, and it’s not going to be a gentle touchdown, so it doesn’t matter what you say now, does it? You can’t make it worse. In fact, maybe you can just make it end faster and spare me the excess drama.”
She stepped closer to him. The fragrance of her hair heaved the oxygen out of the room. She traced the diamond shape of his Superman emblem with her finger. Her smell and the pressure of her fingertip were the only physical sensations on earth.
“So here’s the question, Henry,” she said, still without looking at him, “As difficult as the weekends are, as adrift as you feel when you don’t have the routine of work to distract you? Why did you quit your job?”
Henry looked over at Frank slow dancing alone on the dance floor before the juke. Ed and Bridget were grinding a nearly motionless circle in the exact same spot they’d been in for the last thirty minutes.
“How you doing, honey?”
Henry flinched at the voice. He looked over to find a fresh tumbler of medicine squatting on the bar and the bartender laying her eyes all over Alice. Again! The bitch left a trail of drool every time she walked by Alice, and he was suddenly good and plenty sick of it.
Larry leaned onto her elbows before Alice. She had Alice’s drink between her coarse hands, playing it back and forth seductively. “How about I sweeten that drink up for you?” she said, “No charge for you, honey.”
Henry had enough. “She’s with me, pal!”
The bartender barely glanced at him. “Is that right?”
Henry laughed. “Yeah, that is right. It’s absolutely right. So why don’t you be a good girl and back the fuck off?”
Larry pulled back from the bar like a coiling snake. “What did you say to me?”
“I said Alice is with me. So how about you go wash some dishes or swab some urinals or clean out some ashtrays or whatever it is bartenders do when they aren’t irritating the customers? You’re getting a little tedious, and nobody likes tedious bartenders. They’re boring.”
His words were still burning on the bar counter as Larry backed away. Henry had startled himself as much as her. He hadn’t even seen the words coming. One moment he was minding his own business, the next he was eviscerating Larry. What the hell?
Alice just gaped at him with her hands over her mouth. Her eyes were big as saucers.
“I won’t tolerate rude bartenders,” he said to her as he watched Larry backing down the bar.
“Henry,” she said breathlessly, “Way to save my honor.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. His face felt on fire. He could feel his pulse beating a pan behind his eyes. “I don’t know where that came from. Seriously. I mean, I’m not even drunk.”
She continued smiling up at him. There was a lot more excitement in her eyes now. “It’s okay,” she said, “In fact, it was actually pretty darned flattering. Phew, I think I just got hot.”
“I didn’t mean anything by it,” he said, looking down at her drink. He felt confused. “I mean, it’s not my business. If you want to call her back and—”
“Oh, hell no! You think I’d trade you in now? After that? Sweetheart, you just earned that big red S on your chest.”
He felt himself blush. Again!
“You got all territorial on her ass, Superman. Color Alice impressed.”
He didn’t know what to say.
“You Henry, me Alice.” She fell into another laugh.
The music stopped. The jukebox clicked and hummed as it searched for its next means of torture.
Henry couldn’t take his eyes off Alice. He suffered an overpowering urge to kiss her. Her lips seemed to be waving him in for a landing. It’d be so easy, so very, very easy.
Instead, he grabbed his fresh drink and murdered it. Enjoy that, he told himself, there won’t likely be another safe drink offered tonight. He glanced back at Larry. She stood way down at the other end of the bar, leaning on one elbow and talking to a couple cowpokes. She glared back at him like they weren’t going to be friends anytime soon. Her pals didn’t look like they were getting in line, either.
The jukebox kicked on again. The horn intro and the all-male chorus didn’t bode well. It sounded like something seriously glum was about to erupt. And then… a woman singing about his cheating heart. It felt like an accusation.
“Patsy!” Alice shrieked.
Henry nearly threw his drink.
She dragged his hand from the bar. “I love Patsy! Dance with me, Superman!”
He tried to resist, but sometime in the last fifteen minutes she’d become all-powerful. He was already halfway to the dance floor before he found the will to resist. “What about the game?” he protested.
It was too late. She was already in his arms. Her body slipped as perfectly into his as a recovered piece of puzzle. She nuzzled her face up into his neck. Her hair smelled like a rain shower.
He ordered himself to resist her, to push her out to respectable distance, to reestablish the green zone between them, but it was too late. She’d keyed in the secret code. She’d rendered him human. She had him, if only for the moment.
Defeated, he drew her completely into him. What choice did he have now but to surrender? And as he held her close, a blanket of peace settled over him, the world respectfully took its leave, and he never wanted to be anywhere else again.