The red car was waiting outside, waiting for Louis to return. Inside the bar, Louis waited, less patiently, for his next drink.
The bar was in decline. The warm velvet wallpaper in the tiny lounge absorbed most of the dim light from the electric candelabra on the walls. Apart from Louis, there was only one other customer, a semiconscious lush slouched over the far end of the bar.
It made Louis nervous to be here, as if being in this shrine to mediocrity would make him slide inexorably back to accepting the inevitable. Nevertheless he stayed, and waited. He tapped his foot on the floor, totally without rhythm or reason.
Louis had no reasons for most of what he did. Things had a way of happening to him, rather than he to them. He had responded with utter predictability to every novelty, until suddenly he was forty and looking back over his life became unbearable. Then, and only then, he decided: enough was enough. It was time to, as he'd heard a young cousin remark, get real.
When the aging waitress finally returned with his second Courvoisier, Louis paid her with yet another twenty and ordered a third. He waved the waitress away when she tried to put change on the table.
Though for two decades he had touched nothing but beer, and cheap beer at that, Louis was developing a taste for the thick, sweet French liqueur. He rolled it around on his tongue, tasting it slowly, as he imagined movie heroes doing in what he would call swank bistros.
The waitress in this particular swank bistro surveyed the almost-empty room one more time, and sank back heavily onto her stool at the end of the bar, head tilted back to watch a blue-tinged Vanna White turn over flickering greenish letters. Not for a minute did she consider mentioning the fat tip to the bartender, a cheap bastard who made more than she did, sitting on a stool watching the teevee most of most nights. She glanced over again at Louis, idly scratching her thigh, wondering if she could pry more of that fat wad out of his pocket if she got him drunk. Maybe he was already drunk?
Louis ignored the television, the waitress, and the bar. He was thinking about his new car. Already, the sleek red convertible had changed the way people treated him...
Louis puffed his way out of the car's low bucket seats with great difficulty. He handed the keys to the chubby attendant with even greater reluctance.
The valet never noticed. He took the keys and the twenty from Louis without looking, seeing only the sparkling red exterior of the sports car. Louis returned the favor, never glancing above the valet's sweat-stained red vest. The cheap plastic labelmaker tape on his nametag said he was "Rickie." Involuntarily, Louis memorized it, at least for as long as it took him to get inside the bar.
Rickie was sweating even now, in the chill of this October night. His shiny, sullen face was a mirror of Louis' at twenty, though both would have hotly denied any resemblance.
Shrugging his shoulders, Rickie pocketed the twenty and deftly backed the sleek machine into the cramped slot right in front of the corrugated steel shack, where he could keep an eye on it. He climbed out of the car's calfskin interior, into the shed, hanging the keys on the rack on the wall, to retreat to his own worn leather armchair with the heater going full blast. Without looking, he tuned the elaborate boombox to the community college station, that played "international jazz" during the day and street-guitar speed metal from local bands after midnight. Settling in, he stared out the door at the car with sullen disbelief at his own misfortune.
The car's sleek Italian lines told the familiar story: my owner is too old for me. The city was full of cars that were far too young, too powerful, too red, for the balding, frightened men who drove them. These cars shout their secret message: their drivers can't get it up.
Rickie might have been looking at the car, but his thoughts were far away. This time he was just going to do it: take the damn rich man's car, to fence or to tour in or even to drive off a cliff, and to hell with the job. Was only a job, anyway, but a goodlookin car was the show.
His vision transfixed him for a moment with its steel clarity, giving Rickie a look of momentary dignity.
Then, lips pursed in self-disgust, Rickie came down again, as he always would forever: on the side of caution. The loud music of rebellion played soundlessly in his head, drowning out the frenetic thrash of Civic Duty, X-edrin Headrush and Scheisskopf, as Rickie settled back into his disintegrating easy chair.
Louis fingered the roll of twenties in his jacket. It felt thick as ever, but he knew he was eventually going to have to get more, if he meant to continue living the good life he'd been missing so long.
That was the problem. Though Louis had been lucky, in a sense, that Margaret had died before she could find a divorce lawyer, or even tell her many telephone friends about Louis' latest escapade, Louis didn't feel all that lucky. The exigencies of living had kept them from building up too much of a nest egg, and the wad of twenties in his pocket was the last of it. The sleek red cherry "girl-magnet," as the salesman kept calling it, had eaten up most of Margaret's life-insurance payment and even a chunk of what Louis had stuck in the bank.
God, it was worth it though, thought Louis, watching heads turn as he purred by. He straightened in his chair, seeing himself pulling over, offering the cool blonde a ride, her bending, softening, as she folded her long legs into the front seat next to him and they went screaming off into darkness in a cloud of burning rubber and her slim black cigarettes...
Louis jerked, spilling some sticky liqueur on the tablecloth. He dabbed at it ineffectively, peering up at the waitress as he tried to translate her latest utterance into a language he knew. The waitress repeated her question.
"I sed, ya wanna natha wanna dem?"
She was smiling, a horrible, gap-toothed attempt to garner another twelve-dollar tip. Louis, looking at her, felt a sudden pang of obscure sorrow, comparing her to the ice-blonde girl in his dream.
But his sudden sympathy could not overturn the habits of a lifetime. Louis was incapable, really, of understanding the waitress' desires.
"Nah. Just... nah. Gotta go," Louis said, smiling insincerely (his best expression), getting up and putting on his coat. It would be cold in the car even with the heater going, the cold seeping through the rag top as it had on the way over, but it would be his cold, in his car, his gloved hands tight on the steering wheel as he took the blind curves at 120 mph, the blonde princess at his side, the rumble of his engine echoing off the distant hills...
He found himself on the sidewalk next to the bar without noting the transition, stamping his feet on cracked, chilly concrete and looking over the empty lot, the barren key rack, the empty shed. Against all the odds, Rickie had finally made his move.
Louis moved aside instinctively as the ice-cool blonde came down the sidewalk, passing him swiftly and without a glance at the little brown man whose nose came up like a terrier on point, to stare at the memory of her perfume and wonder where the hell all those years had gone.
Original content on this page ©1996 Alan P. Scott. All rights reserved.