Ray walked along the crackled cement sidewalk, clutching his open paperback book in the fingers of his right hand, uninvolved in his surroundings of tall buildings and men coming home from jobs and sunglassed women swinging shopping bags determined in their gait. He didn’t understand them. They weren’t alive like the characters in the stories. His feet hit the ground and clopped with each clumsy step of his battle-scarred walnut chukkas. The rain drops fell hard and cold like his eyes onto the pages, hitting the words and dampening them, until they were blurred enough his glasses couldn’t make them out. The clouds had rolled in suddenly. You could still make out God’s fingers slightly breaking through behind the grey. It would pass. Everything does. Gently sprinkling, the rain felt good on his arms and cheeks and secretly balding brown hair—soothing the metropolis, not in this world, but in his head, breaking up the static even as the electric streetlights turned on in front of him one by one. The grey slacks he wore were old, dingy, his muted purple button-up unironed, the collar uncrisp and lacking stays, sleeves rolled up machinist’s forearms to the elbow, tight around them, almost unable to give with their bend.
Ray had been a good husband, but Stella left his efforts unnoticed. Roses wilted waiting for her on the pillow next to his. Silver necklaces with their little pendants and charms went unworn. Love letters penned during his lunch breaks remained folded, unread and unanswered by her actions. Maybe it was all his talk of needing other women—feeling afraid of commitment and the distress of never again touching another breast or the touch of another pair of accepting lips on his. The desperation of it all had come out in their pillow talks, so now hers was undented. Even though he never acted on these things, it was selfish of him to disclose his needs and Stella took it to heart and her heart to the bar, and her body, to the beds of the men she met in the bar.
Crossing the street, Ray followed the smoke from his cigarette. He wasn’t a quitter, but he spit the butt with its half-burned paper out of his lips anyway. It was a start.
A few blocks down, Jerry sat in the usual spot; perched atop his nest of cardboard, he smiled as Ray approached.
“I like the moustache, Ray. It looks good on you. Distinguished.”
“Thanks, Jerry. I needed some change.”
“Yeah, you and I both,” he laughed. “How’s Stella?”
“She’s great,” he lied. Ray hadn’t seen Stella in almost a year. They had tried to talk on the phone. Pleasant small talk would always lead toward the heavy unpleasant subjects. “You remind me of my dad,” she would say. Ray liked that, because her father was a poet and he liked being associated with beautiful words. But that man who he’d never met was a manic depressive and she hadn’t meant it as a compliment. It never went well. And Ray would always end up sobbing. And Stella didn’t like that. So she gave up on their telephone conversations, just as she had given up on Ray.
“Tell her I said hello,” Jerry said.
“I will,” Ray lied again, as he passed him a crisp twenty dollar bill and headed east along the block. Jerry didn’t know Stella. He had only seen the photo Ray carried in his wallet. The one he had taken of her when they were in love. You could see it in her eyes back then.
Jerry didn’t have to squat on that corner. He liked the freedom that came without a job or the collections of man. And he liked the fresh air—living in the city, instead of the confines of some walls that made up one of the tiny apartments that let you hide from it.
The watch on Ray’s wrist showed quarter ‘til six. It was an expensive watch Stella had bought him for their anniversary. The band was scratched, but the face still looked new and its hands were as true as the day she had purchased it for him. Ray’s brown eyes, which seemed almost green when he was angry, went from the watch to the little bit of gold on his finger, then quickly back. The gold still shined and the sun still reflected that shine, even as it paused behind another cloud, hidden. Ray immediately put that hand into his pocket, hidden. Seeing the ring always caused his heart to drop. And he felt a little sick. But he couldn’t take it off. Not just yet.
It hadn’t stopped raining, though it never really started, but he was tired of feeling damp, so Ray ducked into his usual diner to get warm and dry.
Friday night meant sitting at the low counter. He didn’t like to sit there, alone. But his usual table in the corner, the back booth, was occupied, as were all the others. His waitress, a pretty young Japanese girl, trotted over with pen and pad at the ready.
“What’ll ya have?” she asked, her smile breaking up the rhythm of her gum chewing.
She wore black pants tight enough to make out her nice figure, a striped short-sleeved shirt with buttons, the top of which were undone, loose, yet still hugging the evolutionarily tanned skin revealing her slight cleavage. A burgundy headband sat atop her short jet black hair and black sneakers hugged her tiny feet, so she could hug the corners racing orders back and forth to the gruff and grizzled short-order cook at the grill.
“Just coffee. With a little glass of milk.” Ray liked to pour the milk into his coffee, preferring it over the individual creamers these past few months. That’s how the waitress took hers.
Ray sat sipping his coffee, looking around the neon room of beaming parents with their happy children and old friends playing catch-up and couples in love, both old and new. And the patrons of The City Diner glanced at Ray every now and again, wondering why a nice young man didn’t have children of his own and what his pals must be up to and when his girlfriend might arrive to join him.
Stella stepped out from the billowing steam and onto the cold tile floor, beads of water still rolling smooth down the seductively crafted muscle of her upper thigh and curve of her calf. She lifted one celadon towel off the hook wrapping her long platinum blonde hair within, then another to conceal the rest of her misty figure, tucking in a corner at her breast.
A smoky mixture of granite and vintage violet hue was applied gracefully onto her eyelids in delicate and precise brushstrokes, causing a shadow she felt comfortable hiding behind. Stella felt warmth in the shadows.
After the pen had left its line of octopus ink and the mascara carefully propelled along the upward arc of her lashes, the eyes began to come alive. Though Stella, did not. The lipstick looked good moving across her lips leaving a fleeting trail of moistened pink shine; its dew wouldn’t meet the sunrise.
With her golden ringlets positioned just so, the citrine A-line dress with its shirred waistline and chiffon flower adorned décolletage was thrust over her wondrous locks, falling, until it landed just above the knee. A string of Mikimoto pearls found their way around her neck, and studded in her soft lobes, both kissable. If this was film, we would see a slow pan left, while Stella performed the task of placing heels upon hers, hiding her manicured toes, to reveal a Tiffany Setting engagement ring and the unending circle of her wedding band left like a wounded Viet Cong in the slight dust of antique cherry dresser. The camera would then jolt quickly back, remaining on her celery suede sitting chair, to show the backs of her sensual stems from the waist down, and her dainty left French-tipped fingers plucking keys from the century old foyer table. It’s all in the rear and out of focus, and rushing out of clarity and the heavy door of her second floor walk-up. Dissolve.
Out on the street, she’s walking—click clack, click clack—the boxcars of her ringlets graffitied with hairspray, gliding along the pre-storm breeze tracks, the smokestack Coco Chanel pumping off her locomotive, men stopped dead at the crossing of her caboose. Every boy loves a train. Every man loves a woman. Stella’s skin takes a shimmer as the cloud above barely breaks. Droplets float like feathers between the windowed erections before her, creations of apt suitors for their muses, crashing into her afternoon’s labor. Loose strands of precious metal begin to frizzle under such torment. Her lovely dress takes on acne spots and jaundice. She looks up towards all the unanswered prayers, and with a snap-back-into-it smack, her mascara runs scared down her blushed powder cheek. A single tear had been the culprit in this crime against vanity; the rain was merely an accomplice helping to mask a speedy tissued getaway for the mastermind.
Stella retrieved the Alfred Dunhill Unique lighter from her cerulean Coach clutch, thumbing the gas until it flared, giving cherry to the tip of her cigarette paper, the kiss of her lips given to its filter, smudging ever so slightly. She took a pull, her cheeks drawing inward, elegantly, then exhaled the smoke with a whimpered sigh, before stepping out of the drizzle and into the haze of Pablo’s Tavern.
Just inside the splintered doorway, she looked down, noticing a two inch black scuff running vertically along one ruined leather shoe. All the bar’s inhabitants seemed to groan in disapproval, but Stella shook it off, and cozied up on her throne between a couple of fine looking gentlemen in even finer suits, their bluchers polished to almost mirrors, their skin as flawless as the Rolex wristwatches attracting attention to the photogenically pleasing allure of their unweathered penthouse appendages. They both looked at her. She looked good. The bartender made his round bringing Stella a martini garnished with a green olive, her usual. Immediately, the men closed in on her, gunning their affections and advances in rapid succession, but the fire fell unpenetrating to the barroom floor amongst spilt beer and discarded aspirations. For Stella was a Trojan Horse—a magnificence of trophy polish. Her eruption would only come much later, with all efforts to defend against the tiny voiced men inside proving to be futile.
In this moment, a cigarette is drawn from its yellow pack in her clutch, then drawn to the still pink of her lips for another passing embrace, the Dunhill drawing a perfect version of Pollock flame, in citrus, a slight crackle of foxing creeping up the canvas, swirling old Pittsburgh skyline drawn deep into her heart beaten bosom warmth, as she swivels her buttocks atop the barstool, angelically, to an almost crescendo, and her eyes meet those of the natives. Which tepee shall Stella make hers tonight?
A touch of powder is smoothed within the circular patterns of her index finger and thumb, as she charges down the hill, passes through the spearing stone suits before stopping, smiling. The flirtation of polite laughter moves in quickly and a soft sweep of shoulder will help recall her mark when last call finds the final martini glass without gin or drupe.
As they walk along arm in arm, one bare and smooth, one wool and muscled, Stella decides she likes the way this feels. It is familiar and comforting. Yet at the same time, foreign. Her lipstick is a ghost now. Only faint whispers remain. The yellow dress a bit simpler as it disheveled. Blonde hair tossed, but fine enough. None of these things seem to matter strolling this sidewalk. The rain has stopped, but the street is still damp—the air fresh with that breath of life that can only come after a storm. Stella remembers carrying on this way. But not with this man. This man is of no concern. This person is of no consequence. But the feeling she is projecting onto him, it feels good.
This couple, on their way to, approaches The City Diner. The nobody accompanying Stella pauses at the crosswalk to push the button. And straighten his tie. And finger comb his hair in a parked car window. And cup his hand over his beer spit mouth to check his breath. Stella takes this opportunity to peer through the large street-facing window and the glow of Open 24 Hours, past the napkin dispensers and sugar shakers and white bowls of creamer. She sees a couple, one damaged and lost and wonderful, the other radiant even in her grease-stained uniform, having coffee, smiling at one other from across the insignificant separation. Between them sits an ashtray’s worth of possibilities, and a small glass of milk.