Short Stories

Conjurer

Remembering the places where they used to drink, he went out seeking one of those dark velvet rooms, blurry and indistinct. She’d been the conjurer who found the tucked away booths and the candle-lit piano player joints. He didn’t know where to start, how to find the alleys and unmarked doorways, the friends waiting behind walls. Fingers craving cool glass, damp condensation, mouth dry, he sought and found, after some unsuccessful and furtive fumbling about the main streets, one of those joints of the type they’d used to frequent.

A bar, of course, is a different sort of place in the daylight. They’re different places when you’re with a bright woman who tells good stories that take you away from there, drinking your fifth Caesar while your desk sits forlorn and empty, but alone in the day they’re full of ghosts, half real in-between places with edges indistinct in the bright light shining in from the street. There’s a game on the screen that hangs in an inconvenient place behind the bar, requiring he and the barkeep to crane their necks to peer at the blue and white uniforms racing back and forth across the ice. Sweet familiarity in the malty coolness, the desired tactility of each finger-print line traced into the condensation. And he’s looking at the dusty piano in the corner and if she were here, she’d cry “Another!” and then bang out some honky-tonk song on the piano, but she’s not, and he’s left with ghosts.

He’s drunk enough to try it on his way home, the way she used to do. He met her in the back of a pickup truck flying down a gravel road, dust dying out his eyeballs and parched throat. He could hear the wind coming off the bay and ripping their words away and all he can hear is the motor of the truck and maybe laughter under the breeze. His ass hurts from bouncing up and down on the truck bed and he’s holding his hat onto his head and her hair is blowing out behind her, her arms stretched out and resting leisurely along the edge of the box. Leaving, she’s quick to remind him that he’s never left the city for fear or stubbornness or lack of imagination. Sorry, sorry for telling you the stories that made it so you didn’t have to leave.

He sees her back, sunburnt, in the sand dunes, as she bends over and picks sand cherries into a bucket hanging at her side. The sand under his feet is burning hot, the water of the stream so cold it stings. A bead of perspiration runs into his mouth, bitterly salty, and the cicadas cry out incessantly. He hasn’t been here, either. Its a dream of her, where she might be now, gathering the stories she tells like cherries from the sand, and is it jealousy he feels?
Passing a park, all he conjures are more ghosts. She’d stopped here abruptly one night, flushed and drunk and used his hands as a stirrup to climb up into an apple tree while he fretted below for no particular reason other than the fact that this wasn’t considered a normal thing to do. Patient, still, she reaches down and grabs his hands and with a surprising strength, hauls him into the tree. His slipper falls and he forgets it there, leaving the expensive leather to get rain-wet and mildewed. Crying out in surprise, he turns toward the water, instead. Get away from the parks and the trams and the film-reel memories that assault him, the lives scurrying about to-and-fro, while he, now the ghost, can only watch.
The beach doesn’t offer much relief. “Here!” he yells, startling seagulls into the grey-blue sky, where they hover over the water and caw at him reproachfully. No swans, today. “Here,” he says again. They’d dropped their bicycles in the grass in the oppressive heat that destroyed convention and allowed short skirts and bare skin and buttocks and they’d sit on the rocks watching sailboats and swans and all of the lovely things she seemed to summon. “Look!” she’d say and there would be a cherry-tree in full blossom or some secret trail through the woods, imperceptible violets on the grass, water-smoothed shards of bright glass littering the sand. He sees only gray sky and gray water and seagulls.

Running, now, he’s looking for another one of those safe places. He knows what he wants, a long, wooden bar, whiskeys lining the clean glass shelves behind. Set back from the street, a casual observer. Gleaming chrome taps and tall glasses, ammonia smelling washrooms and a bartender in a vest with shirtsleeves rolled up, named something like Boyd or Pierce. Would it be a failure of imagination to procure another of the ubiquitous pints? Panting and out of breath and half-furious, he scans the residential street for somewhere to vanish, and like magic, a half a block ahead, it appears. Tucked into the corner under the railway bridge and vine-covered and dejected, he slips in the door and seats himself at the bar.

An Old Fashioned, but as the bartender dashes bitters from his home-made store into the glass, he tastes orange and moans, “Oh, hell,” and again, “Oh hell.” Seeing her squeezing a cheek of orange over a glass and lighting the oil on fire, the bright blue sparks and orange-oil fragrance igniting in one of her perfect magic tricks, not magic at all, just oil and fire and showmanship. “Oh hell!” he says again, and resting his elbows on the bar, waits for something to begin.

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