Vol. 1 No. 3
Short Fiction by Marilyn Barrow
Originally published in Tangents, December 1965
For the fourth time in 20 minutes, Sydney glanced nervously at her watch to confirm the time. She lit another cigarette and turned sideways on the stool to survey the empty length of the bar, then restlessly walked to the window and pulled aside the rusty purple drape.
The hurried, last-minute shoppers outside rushing to jam buses and streetcars for the late exodus home, seemed like animated dolls wound up and turned free. An occasional face stood out, with a look of discomfort or hilarity, and then vanished, jostled into the mass around it. Taxicabs and light delivery trucks splashed melting snow and slush onto the unlucky people near the curb. A few jumped back, but most forgot even to notice. The red and green and gold lights from the decorations on the lamp posts were weakly reflected in the slushy water.
“Pretty bad weather, kid.” Johnny’s voice reached her and she turned from the window. He was polishing the chrome on the back bar. “You better stay here tonight. We have real neon cheer—and liquid, too.”
Sydney came back to the bar. “You’re right. The way it is outside, it looks as if I might have to stay here, like it or not.”
“Oh, Sydney, cheer up! You’ve been like ol’ man gloom, lately. She isn’t worth it. You know what she’s like. She likes this place because no one bothers her. But she’s been in here with everything that walks.” Backing away a little from the hurt in Sydney’s eyes, he concluded lamely, “You used to sit on that stool for an hour or two after work and laugh the loudest of anybody at my jokes.”
“Everyone has a time for laughing too loud, Johnny. I’m better off now than before.” She hesitated and added in an undertone, “At least, I hope so.”
“It’s none of my business, kid, but why do you wait for her every night? She’s not worth one of your cigarettes.”
“You could make a fortune and close this joint, Johnny, if you could figure out the ‘why’ for everyone.” Sydney smiled to take the edge off her words, then glanced at her watch again and sighed. She got up from the bar and walked over to the nickelodeon, staring unseeingly at the 100 selections. She was aware of Johnny watching her for a minute, then turning back to his work, shaking his head, shrugging.
“Give me a drink, Johnny. I might as well start now.” Sydney walked slowly back across the empty room. “Join me. We’ll drink to celebrate the vacant stools.”
The door opened and some of the cold outside slid into the room with the boys who entered. The taller of the two looked Sydney over carefully, assessing her probable identity, before ordering two beers. He and his companion walked to a side booth and began talking quietly. A moment later, a party of four came in and Johnny grew busy’ mixing drinks and making change for the juke box and cigarette machine.
Each time the door opened, Sydney glanced up, and each time dropped her eyes in studied nonchalance to her cigarette or glass. During the next hour two drinks passed their time in front of her. Johnny’s business was picking up, and for a while be seemed to have forgotten her. The nickelodeon was kept busy now and the wild beat of the latest popular tunes clashed with the Christmas carols blaring outside and the clink and clank of bar noise. Conversation never stopped. A drunk began giggling loudly. From a back booth came Angel’s shrieking tones.
Sydney gave up looking at her watch and began wondering why Jan hadn’t even stopped by—Jan, whose eyes always smiled warmly while her lips lied blithely; Jan, whose past was hazy and unknown except for the things Angel and Johnny had told her…
Sydney thought back through the years to the time she bad first been burnt. In her early twenties then, and ripe for trouble, it had taken her nearly three years afterwards of walking around in a limbo of her own making before she met Johnny. He gave her a place to live, no strings attached, and for the first few weeks he fed her and watched her like a baby. A job then, and saving money, and finally the little bookstore that was failing when she bought it but was now moderately successful. Johnny had always been around, a little in the background, but always her friend.
A lot of years had gone by, and she had kept them deliberately empty of private life until old Gillford’s Hallowe’en party. There was Jan, her Waterloo and then some, with a nice, young, stupid boy dancing. Jan Segrin—small, lovely, gamin Jan. Jan, Jan, where are you tonight? Why tell me you’d stop by here with Nick if you didn’t mean it— or wouldn’t he stop? But why go out with him in the first place tonight?
The words sounded loudly in her ears. Sydney jerked her head up and realized she’s spoken aloud. No more of that, she scolded herself silently.
On her fifth brandy Alexander, she stopped looking at her watch. She could not read it very well by then. Johnny’s was crowded with the last drinkers—those whose homes held no better promise than did Sydney’s own on Christmas eve. Sydney slowed up on her drink, taking smaller sips, rubbing the glass idly with one finger. Aware that Johnny was watching her, wondering how she was holding the drinks, she laughed. He bent over the bar just in front of her and she reached over and took his cigarettes out of his shirt pocket.
“Cut it out, damn it, Sydney,” he grinned. “You’ll wreck my reputation.”
As if she hadn’t heard, Sydney lit a cigarette and put the package back into his pocket.
“You know, Johnny, it isn’t just that it’s Christmas eve. She just doesn’t care at all.”
The world was suspended in a bowl filled with colored lights and music grown surprisingly beautiful, and Sydney smiled aimlessly and foolishly at the room around her as she held her drink and spun slowly around and around on the stool.
When the crowd thinned out, Johnny spent a few minutes near her as he cleaned up the bar. “Come on, Syd, it’s time for you to go home. I’ll call you a cab. You can leave your car in the lot.”
She looked at him and shook her head. “Johnny, I’m all through, now. I’ve had it.” Her words were jumbled. “For years I stayed away, far away, and everything was fine, even if I was dead inside. The minute I come back into the world, one of the pillars breaks and a corner of the roof hits me.” Her head ached and Johnny’s face swam in front of her.
“Come on, Syd,” he repeated. “Let me get you a cab while you’re on your own feet.”
Some of the concern in his face got through to her and she straightened her back and spoke in a near normal tone. “You’re right. I do have to go home. But I would like one last drink. Please.”
A little reluctantly, Johnny moved down the bar and started to mix another Alexander. From the back of the now nearly empty room, a young girl in a polo coat and stretch slacks came near Sydney, watched her a moment, then slipped quietly onto the stool next to her. She put her arm on the bar next to Sydney’s and when Sydney looked up startled, the girl smiled warmly.
“Hi, my name is Toni, and if you’ll let me stay here and talk, I’ll buy you that last drink.”
Sydney smiled back at her. “You can stay, of course. But I’ll buy my own drink, thanks.”
Johnny’s eyes showed interest as he came back and handed Sydney her drink. Toni asked for a bourbon and water and he moved away again. For a few moments neither of them spoke, and then Toni turned quickly to Sydney.
“I haven’t been here long, only a few weeks. I’ve seen you here before, but not always alone. I don’t know anyone here well enough to invite myself in on Christmas eve.” She paused, waiting.
Sydney looked at her, taking in the white, lean face and the crisp, wavy black hair. Then she picked up her drink and drained it in a slow, steady swallow. Collecting her keys and change, she stepped off the stool and put on her coat. She swayed slightly, but quickly recovered.
“Goodnight, Johnny,” she called, then smiled for a moment at Toni. “I don’t think I want to invite anyone in on Christmas eve…or ever. This is a friendly town, Toni. You’ll be all right. Goodnight and merry Christmas.” Without looking back, she walked quickly to the door.
Toni shrugged and turned back to her drink, and Johnny moved slowly down the bar, collecting empty glasses and wiping up the wet circles they had left. Then he crossed the room to the box beside the window and flipped off the neon sign outside.