As he sat at the bar, Ben couldn’t help but notice the space people gave him. to his left and right, behind him, the patrons hung in tight twos and threes and every now and then one or a couple would pull their eyes from the conversation, but never turn their heads, to glance toward Ben.
He could feel them. Didn’t need to much look. If he did, it would only embarrass both him and the people sneaking a peek. Ben would like to say he was used to it, but that would be another lie in his ever-growing marching column of them. At least it didn’t make him angry anymore.
“Another one, Ben?” Andy the bartender asked. He looked past Ben when he did. Right or left, over top, like he was looking for someone. It was almost always the same. That was why Ben liked getting his coffee, newspaper and conversation each morning from the blind guy at the newsstand in the lobby of the building where he worked. Otherwise, it was email or the phone at his desk in the IT troubleshooting unit. Ben’s desk was over in the corner. Mutual choice with the boss, even though he had enough seniority for a window.
“Yeah, Andy. Just one more.”
As he huddled over his pint, like a priest hunched over a chalice of wine, Ben sensed a change in the sound of the crowd, as if a tunnel of quiet was being dug toward him from the left. He recognized the shadow of silence from the one he cast whenever he entered a place like this joint.
And when this muffler of conversation got to the open space next to Ben she looked right at him and said, “Is this spot taken?”
“No, no. Let me help you here,” Ben said and extended his hand.
“That’s okay, this isn’t my first trip to the rodeo. Only I hope I don’t get throw’d off before the night’s over.” In the silence surrounding them at the bar, the little laugh she let out sounded like clinking wine glasses to Ben.
“Andy,” she said, raising her hand and waving toward the bartender.
“Yeah, Elise. What can I do ya for?” Andy said after he rushed down to where she and Ben sat.
“Can you please get me one of those fabulous margaritas you make me? You know, the ones with no triple sec and leaving out the fruit stand?”
Andy laughed. “Sure thing, Elise. One Kah tequila, straight up, on the way.”
Ben watched as Andy pulled a skull-shaped bottle from behind his cognacs and better single malts. He noticed that it was painted with a face straight out of Día de Muertos. Andy poured a rocks glass two-thirds of the way up with the tequila and placed it in front of Elise.
“Thank you, sweets,” she said.
“Ya know,” Ben said, “I’ve been coming to this joint for a couple of years—not at this time, mind you—and I’ve never seen that bottle before. Nor have I seen you.”
“Ditto,” she said, and laughed that laugh Ben now figured was the sound of clinking glasses of high-end tequila.
“I’m Ben,” he said, offering his hand and feeling stupid because the girl obviously couldn’t see it hanging in the air between them. Nevertheless, she must have sensed something, a normalcy to introductions, and reached out to smoothly slide her hand into Ben’s.
“Elise,” she said. “And I’ve never seen you here before, either.” More clinking giggles. “That’s a blind joke. Usually has ‘em rolling on the floor.”
“Oh, heh, yeah. Good one.” Ben thought he was looking into the face of an angel, her skin as smooth and brown as a caramel apple. She owned a face men dreamed to make art about. When she turned her face to scan the crowd with some sort of vision that wasn’t something one saw with, was when Benn noticed that scar at the corner of her left eye that ran down and around her cheek, curving back toward where it began.
The track of a tear she decided to uncry, perhaps, Ben thought.
“So what’s your story, Ben. Must be a good one or we wouldn’t be standing here during Happy Hour like we were part of the morning crowd,” Elise said.
“Yeah. Your hand didn’t feel like I was grabbing hold of a Virginia ham, so I’m guessing you’re not morbidly obese. And you smell divine, by the way, so it’s not a hygiene thing. So why are we enjoying the benefit of some room here at Father Andy’s confessional box?”
“No big deal,” Andy lied. “I was in the Army. Hurt in Afghanistan. Work as an IT tech for the Labor Department.”
“So what’re you missing, Mr. Ben?” Elise said. “You must be minus at least an ear, maybe both. Your hand was smooth, so you kept at least one of those. Don’t detect any wheelchair.” She reached for Ben’s thigh and drifted her hand down one knee and back up the other all the way to his crotch.
“Two legs, original equipment.”
“Hey, stop that,” Ben said. He was beginning to feel more uncomfortable than usual. “What the hell’s you’re deal, Elise?”
“So I’m guessing you’re face is fucked up. Been there, done that.”
“Okay, Okay. Burned. IED blast through the window of my Humvee. One ear, most of my nose, Scarred over two-thirds of my head. Seven surgeries and counting. Now what’s your story?”
“Oh, the usual. Met a guy, fell in love, he liked to beat me up. And then it got a little rougher. He’d burn me here and there, cut me. The last straw was when he curt my face and threw me down a flight of stairs.” Elise pointed to her scar. “What he didn’t accomplish with his knife on my optic nerve, the stroke I had on the way to the hospital sealed the deal. Ta-daaa! Instant blind girl.”
“Wow, I’m sorry,” Ben said.
“Why? You didn’t do anything. I was the one chose and chose to stay with the no-good, swingin’ dick. Okay, enough about appearance. Let’s get the real freak show started,” Elise said. “Andy! Another Kah down here for your little writer girl. Oh, I forgot to tell you, I’m a writer.”
“Really?” Ben said.
“Yeah, and this round’s on me, soldier boy. Andy, fill up my friend Ben’s flagon with something better than whatever swill he’s been banging back. And turn up the friggin’ music. You better be able to dance, Mr. Ben, because tonight, tag, you’re it!”
Andy the bartender poured another glass of tequila for Elise, whose name was really Sara, pulled a new point of the good ale for Ben and set them on the section of the bar they’s just vacated for the dance floor.
He walked back down to the end of the bar where the new waitress was picking up a tray of drinks.
“Wow. What’s the deal with that?” she said.
“Oh, you mean, Elise? Her real name is Sara Beech. Military brat. She was an actress who got mugged over on West 49th and 8th. Bastard cut her up good. Almost died. But her career was pretty much over. And, yeah, she can see, at least out of one eye. Her brother was a West Pointer. Blown up, lost his legs in Iraq. Committed suicide.”
“Yeah, she visits hospitals and talks to counselors and tries to find ways to give some of these guys a ‘buck up, Chuck’ whenever she can. I told her about Ben last week, so she decided to come in and give him a command performance tonight.”
“So you know her from somewhere? You encourage this here?”
“I should think so. Says she’s doing God’s work. Who am I to say otherwise? She’s my wife, so she out-ranks me.”
Another story for the day during May. (I’ve well-nigh given up on keeping up with the Story-a-Day prompts, but I’m writing 31 of them anyway.) This one is an odd first draft that came to me as I thought about Memorial Day. Sara/Elise may be doing a good thing or maybe she’s not. But at least she’s doing something for the vets she shows a good time for one night.