Come A Little Bit Closer

My date cancelled last minute.

The word “date” isn’t entirely accurate, though, since it implies a greater deal of courtship. She gave some reason for the cancellation, something about a family event that slipped her mind until about an hour before our meet up. I suspected she was clearing her schedule for someone higher on her roster, but I didn’t say anything. “It’s okay,” I told her over the phone, and was the first to hang up.

Since I was already dressed to go out and feeling too antsy to stay home, I thought I would go out and try to meet someone new for the evening. Whoever she was would have a big role to fill since the one who cancelled was quite the character. She dressed in lots of black and spoke in femme fatale quotes.

After a decent drive, I came across a roadhouse-type place on the outskirts of everything; the red neon sign, Gilda’s, glowing in the warm summer night, served as the only light for what looked like miles in every direction. It was the kind of place where, on the inside, you expect to see the air filled with smoke even though smoking indoors stopped being a thing years ago. I took a seat towards the middle of the counter. The female bartender approached from the other side, gave a friendly greeting while putting a coaster down in front of me and took my drink order.

There was an older guy and an even older woman sitting at opposite ends of the counter. The older woman wasn’t very attractive, though, and it didn’t seem like she was looking for anything anyway. There was also a younger couple, who were still younger than me, sitting at one of the tables in the back. I didn’t see the point in leaving and trying somewhere else. I would finish my drink, maybe have another, and leave—alone.

Some music would be nice, I thought, but nothing was playing. I then spotted the jukebox in the corner. It was on the newer side but made to look older, and had flashing red, yellow and orange lights. No one else was using it, so I figured I would give the place a soundtrack for the night. You choose the songs in bulk, and it cheap enough to keep them coming until closing time. Given the retro style and tacky nature of the machine, I decided on American rock tracks from the late fifties and early sixties, the kind with upbeat music and cynical lyrics, perfect for pretending you’re in a David Lynch film.

It wasn’t long before I got to thinking about the girl who cancelled on me earlier. I didn’t have any illusions about the type of relationship we had, but I still couldn’t shake the image of her grinding up against someone else, some beast running his dirty hands all over her, the sweat running down their naked bodies, him pointing her in this direction and that, and her doing all those things I like, but for him instead.

The bartender started in my direction as I took my last sip of beer and, without her having to ask, I gestured for another. She later told me her name, Brandy, with a Y, not an I.

“I’m not a stripper,” she said. I put her around my age, although it’s hard to tell with female bartenders. They seem to live faster than the rest of us, and they’re a tough bunch. You have to be to work in bars, especially ones like these. While putting my second beer down in front of me, the bartender asked, “What brings you out tonight?”

I was hesitant to tell her about the cancellation, but I did anyway. Bartenders are, after all, better than psychiatrists. They’re cheaper, and they always tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to hear. I kept stressing how the relationship I had with the girl who cancelled on me wasn’t serious.

Yeah… we’ve all been there,” she kept reassuring me.

The next thing I knew we were doing tequila shots and talking about my sexual interests. I’m not sure who brought it up first. It was likely me, but she kept the conversation going. All the most successful bartenders do it. I knew it was all part of the tip game, and I knew she didn’t really want to hear about it, but I spilled my guys about every notable thing I had done until that point, and everything else I still wanted to do.

There were a couple pauses and chuckles on her part, which finally led me to ask, “Was that too much information?”

“Nah, it’s okay” she said with a laugh. “I’ve heard it all before. One guy, a while back, told me he likes having girls fart in his face. I’ve heard it all in this place and I’ve seen it all; pickups, people having sex in the bathroom and behind the building, couples pretending to be strangers.

“Pretending to be strangers?”

“It’s a roleplaying thing.”

“How do you know they weren’t strangers?”

“Because I saw them together another night,” she said. “I’m telling you, I’ve seen it all in this place.”

I kept looking her over as she did her rounds, checking on the other drinkers. I hate gawking but, in my poor and vulnerable state, I couldn’t help it. She had many of the things, physically and stylistically, prized by yours truly: dark medium-length hair, a light touch of makeup and wore just the right amount of tease. When she came back from getting the older guy at the end of the bar another drink, I took a deep breath and asked, “So, what are you into?”

She decided to take pity on me. With only the slightest bit of hesitation, she said, “I’ve always had this fantasy about whatever guy I’m with at the time.”

I adjusted my seating, more obvious than I would like to admit, and leaned in closer.

“I’m there, but I’m not there,” she said, “like a fly on the wall, watching him with someone else.”

I could’ve asked whether it was a man or woman she thought about watching him with, but for all intents and purposes, I pictured him with a woman.

“And while he’s really doing a number on them,” she continued, “they both look over at me. They don’t say anything, they only look at me, and then get back to it.”

She paused, took a sip of water and added, “I also think about him watching me with someone else.”

I was quick to ask, “Man or woman?”

“Either,” she said, “but I’m sure they would prefer a woman.”

I could do that, I thought, put up with a pair of eyes in order to be with her, or someone else I wanted just as much.

My playlist kept going in the background, Roy Orbison singing for the lonely, as the Boss would say.

The bartender asked, “Did you pick these songs?”

I nodded. “Too old for your taste?”

“I can get used to it,” she said. “I like the sound. It reminds me of this one song I heard in a movie that came out earlier in the summer—the one with the aliens and the guy from Earth who has to save the princess from the wrong guy, or whatever.”

I told her I knew the movie she was talking about. It was one of those blockbusters that likes to use old music that has nothing to do with the images on the screen. The song she mentioned also made my playlist. It was the last track, actually.

“It’s funny,” the bartender said, “how old songs only seem real after you hear them in a movie or something, and then when you hear the same song again, in everyday life, it brings you back to the fictional world where you first heard it.”

I said something about “art imitating life,” thinking I was adding something to the conversation.

“Nah, I think life imitates art more,” she said. “It doesn’t last long, though.”

I mentioned how I took the girl who cancelled on me that night to see the same movie she was talking about.

“Oh, yeah?” the bartender said. “My boyfriend took me to see it also.”

And there you have it. She had a boyfriend. They always have boyfriends, even when they don’t. I could tell she regretted how she said it, “My boyfriend took me to see it also,” like she was rubbing it in my face. I knew it shouldn’t have bothered me. It’s not like she was looking to get whisked away by someone, least of all by me. She could tell I didn’t want to talk anymore and gave me some space. I didn’t feel like staying either, but it wasn’t the best idea to leave right after three beers and the same amount of shots. So, I ordered a cup of coffee (which was a little awkward) and sat tight for a bit, sobering up and listening to my oldies picks, songs about sad and lonely nights or watching her dance with another guy to your favorite song.

I’m not sure how much time past but the next thing I heard, other than the music and typical bar chatter, was Brandy calling out to someone as they came through the front door. “Jay!”

This Jay character, with his balding head and wrinkly cheeks, wore a sports jacket with a white button-up underneath, and walked like he owned the place. He had great posture for someone his age and his raspy voice, as calm as it was, demanded a certain amount of attention. “Hey, sweetheart,” he said to the bartender, taking a spot at the counter without sitting down.

The bartender asked, while taking a step back towards the wall of booze behind her, “Do you want your usual?”

“You know it,” he said, taking a look around. “It looks a little slow tonight.”

“A little,” she said, pouring a tall glass of bourbon. “But, seeing as you’re here now, things are going to liven up.”

“Well, I would hate to disappoint,” he laughed, then took his first sip.

The older gentleman took another look around, giving everyone, including me, a quick glance. I must have been staring because he came back to me, waited a second or two as he took another sip of his drink, and then spoke. “Can I help you with something, young fella?”

“Oh, no,” I said, shaking myself off. “I’m sorry about that. I must have spaced out for a minute there.”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, coming over to me, still not taking a seat. I could tell from his scent he was a smoker. We introduced ourselves, then he commented on my drinking coffee. “Going hard tonight, I see,” he said, with a laugh.

“I was drinking earlier,” I said, defensively.

“You’re dressed pretty sharp,” he said, looking me over. “Having a quick night cap before heading somewhere else?”

I told him about my date cancelling. I was more open about it with him than I was with the bartender.

“I’m sorry to hear about that. It’s her loss, though. You seem like a big, strong guy,” he said, butting my shoulder with the back of his hand. I’m embarrassed to say this triggered my more insecure instincts, causing me to inch away. “No homo,” he said, laughing as he threw the same hand in the air. “All kidding aside, though, I was young like you once. I know the urge, not being able to sit still, feeling you’re going to catch fire if something doesn’t cool you down soon. You still have it when you’re older, buts it’s not the same.”

“At least that makes life a little easier,” I said, and we both laughed. “So, what brings you out tonight, Mr. Jay?”

“Mr. Jay,” he repeated. “I like the sound of that. Mr. Jay. Anyway, what brings me out tonight. I’m meeting my lady friend, Mattie. As a matter of fact, I forgot to let her know I’m here.”

He pulled a cellphone from his inside jacket pocket and started texting away. It appeared, from the amount of typing, to be more than a simple “I’m here” message. I also felt enough time had passed and I was sober enough to leave.

“God, I love that woman,” he said, tucking the phone back into his jacket pocket. “She makes me feel young again. She should be here in a little while. You’ll like her.”

“I’m sure I would,” I said, starting to get up, “but I should be heading out.”

“Oh, come on. One drink,” he said. “I got you.”

“Thank you, but I have to pass,” I said, trailing off as Brandy came up from behind us and lifted the bar flap. I hadn’t noticed she left.

“There she is,” said the older guy down at the other end of the bar, loud enough for everyone to hear. “It’s about goddamn time.”

“Sorry,” she told him, lowing the bar flap from the other side of the counter. “I had to step away really quick.”

“I’ve been waiting over ten minutes for another drink,” he said, waving his empty glass and slurring his words.

“I don’t think it’s been that long,” she said, “but I am sorry for the wait. Do you want the same?”

“No,” he said, raising his voice. “I don’t want the same!”

“Are you sure?” she asked, sounding more agitated than anything. “It’s on the house.”

“I’ll tell you what,” he said, now shouting, “why don’t you take that drink and shove it up that tight ass!”

I sat there, feeling helpless, as Jay walked over to the guy and tapped him on the shoulder. “That wasn’t very nice,” he told him. “Apologize to the young lady, pay what you owe and call it a night.”

It took a second or two for the man to respond. “Who the hell do you think you are?” he asked, with a confused look on his face.

“It doesn’t matter who I am,” Jay said, “but I suggest you listen to me. Apologize to the young lady, and everyone else in here for that matter—you’re causing a scene, square everything away and get out of here before you make an even bigger ass of yourself.”

The man laughed and spoke over his own shoulder. “Go fuck yourself!”

His head wasn’t fully turned back around before Jay slammed it down onto the counter. He then pulled something big and silver from behind is waistband, held it to the man’s temple and asked him, loudly, to repeat what he said. It was here the couple sitting behind us decided to rush out, likely without paying, while the rest of us remained glued to the scene.

The obscenities that followed could have made even the toughest drill instructor cower, and put the greatest American gangster actor to shame. And it was all weaved into a crazed but articulate rant about the man and the rest of the world not having respect for anything anymore.

“It’s not only the young ones,” Jay said, screaming into the man’s ear. “It’s fucking asshole boomers like you too!”

There was some more face smashing, causing the man’s nose to run red down past his chin, and the whole time Jay waved around the shiny, powerful-looking weapon—the barrel, long and unbreakable. “No respect,” he kept repeating. “No respect!”

Jay slammed his head down, one more time, and then let him go. The man finally broke down and started sobbing. “It’s alright,” Jay said, tucking the weapon back into his waistband with one hand and patting the guy on the shoulder with his other. “It’s alright. Just pay your bill and get the hell out of here.”

The guy let go of his bleeding nose and reached into his pocket for a wad of cash and tried counting it. But, in that moment, he lacked the proper motor skills.

“As a matter of fact,” Jay said, “I want you to buy everyone here a round of drinks on account of being an asshole.”

The guy kept trying to count the cash, but ended up leaving everything on the counter before running for the exit.

Jay asked Brandy and the older woman, “Are you ladies okay?”

“I’m fine,” they said, in unison. They looked fine, too, like they had seen it all before. I knew I didn’t look the same.

Jay come back over, looking all proud of himself. “I’m sorry about the little scene there, but there’s certain things I can’t take.” He then muttered, “God damnit,” and downed the last of his bourbon. “I broke the seal. Things don’t work as good as they used to,” he said, chuckling. After taking a few steps towards the bathroom, he stopped and said to me, “So, when I get back you’re having that drink, right?”

I didn’t respond right away. My eyes were focused on the black pool left behind on the counter.

“Kid?” he called out, louder this time.

“Oh, yes,” I said, nodding. “You betcha.”

Once he was gone, Brandy came over with a wet rag and I watched as she cleared away the black spot. I then chugged the last bit of my coffee, wishing it was something stronger, and threw down more cash than I owed, even with a nice tip. “Keep the change,” I said, shooting up from my seat.

“Thanks a lot,” Brandy said, smirking. “Have a good night.”

“You too,” I said, about to head for the door, but something straight out of my playlist forced me to stay.

She came through the front door and didn’t bother looking around like the rest of us might have. Her brown, wavy hair came down to her shoulders and had something going on in the back that I couldn’t quite make out. Her outfit was tight, flashy and had lots of laces. She also had over a decade on me and walked like a pro in the heels she wore.

I gazed as she moved across the middle of the room towards one of the tables in the back, and right before she took a seat facing me, I caught a glimpse of the curls in the back of her hair. I sat back down, slowly, and Brandy was quick to come back over.

“Decided to stay a little longer?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said, fidgeting with my hands, then asked for a glass of water.

“Coming right up,” the bartender said.

After she stepped away, I glanced back over at the mystery woman. She sat there, cool and confident. I tried to look the same, keeping what I thought was a good stance while trying to make eye contact.  She didn’t look, though, and I started losing my nerve. I turned back away, took a breather and decided to give it one more shot. I psyched myself up and looked back over. It took a minute, but she looked, and smiled something devilish.

“Go for it,” Brandy said, leaning against the counter behind her, wiping the inside of a glass with a rag.

I took a sip of the water she brought me, got up and started over to the mystery woman, but stopped short when I heard a familiar, raspy voice. “Mattie!”

It was Jay. He was back and waving the woman over. “Mattie, come here. I want you to meet this young fella here.”

The mystery women, or Mattie, as she was now known, strolled over and Jay introduced us further. I didn’t want to stand there with my hands to my side, so I put out my right hand, awkwardly, and said, “It’s nice to meet you.”

“It’s nice to meet you too,” she said, shaking my hand and smiling at me more like a child than an adult.

Jay then asked me, “You weren’t trying to sneak out on me, were you?”

“Oh, no. I wasn’t trying to sneak out, Mr. Jay.”

“Mr. Jay,” he laughed. “That’s what the kid calls me.” He then said to Mattie, running his hands all over her, “You should start calling me that.”

She looked back at him, playing coy. I should have left. There was no point in staying. She was already taken like every other woman that night, and I didn’t need to see this hard ass senior citizen feeling her up like he was in high school. But, for one reason or another, I let Jay corral us back over to the counter.

While waiting for the drinks, Mattie asked me, “What brings you out tonight?”

Jay didn’t give me a chance to respond. “His date cancelled,” he said, causing me to shy away in my seat.

“Poor thing,” she said to me, making a frowny face.

Brandy brought the drinks. Mattie had a gin and tonic, Jay and I had another bourbon and beer. Looking to get another rise out of me, perhaps, Jay said to me, “Wow, you’re actually drinking this time around. I was starting to think you only drank coffee.”

“I told you earlier,” I said, raising my voice, “I was drinking before you got here.”

Jay came back at me, jovial but stern. “Take it easy, kid. I’m only breaking your balls.”

He is paying for my drink, I thought, then gave the “I’m sorry” nod.

“Maybe you should have gotten something stronger,” he laughed, then took another sip.

Mattie chimed in and said to Jay, “Maybe you should lay off him.”

Great, I thought. She thinks I’m helpless and feels like she has to stand up for me.

“What are you talking about?” he asked her. “I’m only messing with him.”

“Maybe he doesn’t need it right now.”

“Oh, come on. He’s a big boy. He can handle it.”

“It’s okay,” I told them both. “Really, it’s fine.”

“No, don’t you back down like that,” Mattie told me. She then turned to Jay. “You’re such a—” she began, but didn’t finish.

“What?” Jay said. “I’m such a what? An asshole?”

“Oh, you’re definitely an asshole,” she said, “but that’s not it.”

Jay put his glass down, reached behind Mattie’s head and pulled. “Then what am I?” he asked, staring down at her. She didn’t try to break away. She stared straight back, taking deep breaths as her eyes grew wider. “What am I?” he repeated.

“A brute.”

“A brute?” he asked, giving her hair another tug. “Am I really?”

“Yeah,” she said, biting her lips. “You are.”

I didn’t know what my obligation was in the situation. I didn’t know the full dynamic of the relationship, and she seemed to be enjoying it. Potential abuse aside, I began picturing my hand on her throat, not his. I would have been gentler, though, and moved up towards her lips and cheeks.

Jay held on another moment before letting go. He kept looking down on her, and she kept looking up, defiantly, taking deep breaths. “My brother used to pull my hair harder than that,” she said.

“Do you see what I have to deal with?” he asked me, then suggested we move to one of the tables in the back. “The counter doesn’t work for more than two people.”

Still, I couldn’t bring myself to leave, and followed them over. They sat next to each other and I sat across from them, looking back and forth between Mattie and the exit. She saw me looking both ways. Jay ran the table with talk about his shady business dealings over the years, some of which led to prison time. He also did some time, years ago, for shooting two men in a bar like this one. One of them lived. According to his version of the story, he was defending some woman’s honor. She ran away with him after the shooting and the police found them both five days later, passed out in a phone booth seven states away.

Regardless of how much was true, I found his stories were entertaining, humorous. But, had it not been for the second and third round of drinks he ordered us, they would have been harder to take. His trips to the bathroom became more frequent and he also stepped outside a few times for a cigarette. Before his first smoke, he asked if we wanted to join him. I said I didn’t smoke and she said, “I’m trying to quit, remember?”

It was during our time alone that Mattie and I made most of our conversation. My playlist was still going in the background, the latest song being about magic moments that last forever, or until the end of time—whichever comes first.

As it turned out, Mattie did some modeling when she was younger and even gave acting a shot. It didn’t work out, though, and she ended up performing in adult films for a while. I kept inching closer and leaning in as she described the more memorable scenes, some of them pretty taboo. It was Jay who suggested the transition. Mattie met him within those social circles—degenerate agents and sketchy producer types. “He knows all kinds of people,” she said.

Earlier in our conversation, she spoke about Jay with a degree of enthusiasm, admiration even. As she went on, though, the frustration built. “He never shuts up,” she said. “He thinks he knows everything, and everything has to be his way.”

Then came the resentment. “I gave him my last good years,” she said. “He’s not going to be around forever, and no one is going to want me then. I don’t think anyone wants me now.

I moved in closer, feeling more confident than before.

Then came the fear. “He can be dangerous,” she said, then looked around the room and whispered to me, “and he can’t get it up. I wouldn’t care, not at this point, but he gets mad and ends up hurting me.” A tear rolled down her eye.

For all the wrong reasons I asked, “What does he do to you?”

She wiped the tear from her eye and asked me, like Mae West might have, “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

There she was again, the woman who walked through the door; confident, flirtatious and maybe just as dangerous as the old man with the gun who couldn’t hold his wad anymore, and who wouldn’t hesitate to drag me outside and put a bullet in my head. “What are you thinking about right now?” she asked me.

“You,” I said, my eyes not leaving hers.

“What about me?” she asked, luring me in closer, sounding desperate to be saved like the damsels in the movies and the songs. I wanted to move my mouth closer to hers, but kept scanning the room, keeping an eye out for the caveman in a suit. “It’s okay,” she said, bringing my eyes back to hers. “Don’t worry about him.”

I then leaned in the rest of the way and our lips met for the first time, just as the last song on my playlist kicked in. It described a young woman who keeps telling the male narrator to come closer. Her arms, he says, feel so inviting. She tells him he’s her kind of man, so big and so strong. “I’m all alone,” she says, even though she belongs to someone else, “and the nights are so long.”

I pictured Mattie ditching her heels and running with me through the front door, leaving Jay in the dust with his cigarette in hand. Fuck him, I thought. He treats her like shit and can’t give her what she needs. So, naturally she’ll have to get it somewhere else. It might as well be from me. I didn’t care about the idea of him catching up to us afterwards. The worst part would be Mattie having to watch as I plead for my life until he pulls the trigger. I told myself I wouldn’t beg if it came to that. We would have our night together and that was worth anything. She would feel something she hadn’t felt in a long time, and I would experience a rush unlike anything I thought was possible. And when Jay catches up to us, and things look bad, the tide would miraculously turn and I would come out victorious. Mattie and I wouldn’t be together forever, of course, but she would be free and I would leave more chivalrous than before, redeeming myself from past sins.

Our kiss ended and I felt ten times stronger, which was convenient because it was here that Jay returned. I don’t know whether he saw the kiss or not, but he knew something was up. The old man stood in the doorway, staring at us, and his posture was better than ever. He looked like a fast drawer from the old western times, with his arms stern at his sides, ready to duel.

I got up from my seat, not sure about my next move. I didn’t have to decide, though, since Mattie took my hand. “It’s okay,” she told me. “I said, ‘Don’t worry about him’.”

Confused, I looked back and forth between her and Jay as he walked back over to the table, slowly and less confident than before. “He only likes to watch,” she whispered.

Things don’t work as good as they used to, I thought, just as the jukebox had gone silent.

As it turns out, I couldn’t go through with it. On my way towards the exit, I could feel the bartender, Brandy with a Y, not an I, and the older woman looking, smiling. And once outside, standing under the flickering neon sign, I could imagine Mattie pulling the old man in closer, patting him on the shoulder, telling him it’s okay.


Photography CreditJason Rice

Anthony Perrotta is an aspiring novelist, screenwriter and short story writer. His work has appeared, mostly, on the literary blog East of the Web. His first horror story, “The Hour of the Wolf,” also appeared in Grotesque Quarterly. Originally from Long Island, he now lives in Albany, New York with his girlfriend and fellow writer, Mary.