Misery’s a handy rag to have round, to wipe up a life and squeeze out over an open drain. That’s the kind of malarkey a guy like me thinks after a couple of shots of rye, sitting at a bar just before closing time, with nothing between his trigger finger and the gun in his shoulder holster, except a promise he made to a dame with a Nietzsche tattoo and a straight razor scar across her cheek.
Regret’s like a bottle of Aqua Velva, some dame gives it to you as a gift, and the cheap aroma lingers. It gets stale, and people stop getting close because you’re stinking up the place. I knew an old guy once who smelled like Aqua Velva, ‘til the day he died. Even his ghost stank of it, until the world forgot he’d ever existed, which took about a week. I guess I’m kind of like him.
She wore an accordion the way a cubist wears a turtleneck sweater, and she looked me over as she stepped off of the stage, after a crazy set of narcocorrido beat – songs like gunfight infernos where no one gets out alive, the evidence collected later and left out on open mesas to blow away before dawn.
She sat on a stool next to me, wrapped in fire. The lightbulbs didn’t have a chance. It was like she’d been made a saint once, maybe in a cheap motel room, by a fallen priest with a .45 on his hip. I ordered whiskey.
I wasn’t looking for her. No one had come to this private dick weeping over a long lost daughter or a cheating wife. It was just a chance meeting. The kind of thing that happens round midnight, just about the time Tuesday night starts humping Wednesday morning — Tuesday into Wednesday, that’s the loneliest goddam midnight of them all.
“I’m not from round here,” she said, holding her cigarette for me to light.
I had a trick I did with a zippo. Most guys have a trick like that, one to compensate for their clumsy lusts and lack of manners. I clicked the lid back and ignited the wick with a single snap of my fingers. She watched me do it the way a woman watches a monkey rattle a nickel in a tin cup.
“I get it, baby,” I said. “You’re from some kooky outer galaxy, aren’t you?”
“A million light years away, mister.”
“Some planet where the years drip down the walls and pool in the corners,” I said. “Where the minutes carry knives and have anxious eyes.”
“Sounds like you’ve been there.”
“Nah, never. But I booked passage once. For me and someone else.”
“…and?” she said.
“And she never showed. The only train outta Pigeonville left the station without us. I stood there on the platform like a chump. When I looked for her later, all I found was an empty closet and a note that said she hated Raymond Chandler. I guess she was right; that made it irreconcilable.”
“We don’t do a man like that where I come from,” she said.
I reached across and lit her cigarette.
“Where I come from,” she said, “a girl don’t break a fella’s heart by leaving him with an empty closet and a confession meant to rip out his heart. Where I come from, a girl just shoots him in the back, like a dog.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s why I want to take you home.”
“Fine by me,” she said, “but it’s a week ’til payday. You gotta buy the bullets.”