Cal tilted his head away from his half guzzled beer and squinted down the narrow corridor leading to the bar’s patio. A half grin stretched on his lips and he lifted his chin in greeting.
“Uh oh,” said Wendy. Cal glanced back and she smirked around her dark green straw.
“I know that look.” Paul pulled another gulp from his bottle.
“What?” asked Cal, innocence flooding his voice.
Harold snickered. Meg rolled her eyes before sharing a knowing look with Wendy.
Paul clicked his bottle against Cal’s. “Go on.”
Cal hugged his beer in twined fingers and shook his head, swaying his shaggy waves. “I don’t even know her name.”
“She’s pretty though?” asked Paul.
“Hey.” Wendy shot him a glare.
Paul raised a defending hand. “I’m just asking.”
“So is she?” prodded Meg with a mischievous grin.
Cal wiped a hand over his face. “I can’t believe you’re asking me this. I don’t know who she is.”
“You won’t find out sitting here,” drawled Harold.
“And if you don’t go,” said Wendy, waving her drink and decorative orange slice toward the hall, “we’ll be listening to your “If I’d only” all week.”
Meg nodded her agreement, bouncing her tight curls.
Cal jolted in his wooden seat as Paul’s foot impacted his chair leg. A few scrapes on the concrete forced a few inches between Cal and the table.
Cal hung his head, the weight of the four pairs of eyes boring into his skull as the others fell quiet.
“So,” began Wendy, interrupting the expectant silence, “you didn’t say how things worked out with Jim.”
Cal looked up and found she and Harold renewing their conversation. At his each side, Meg and Paul had turned their shoulders, boxing him out as they leaned over the damp table with clear exclusionary tactics. He had just learned, Cal noted, how to turn invisible.
“Thanks guys,” he muttered.
He finished his beer without garnering a response and stood. The dimly lit room swayed then steadied back into the mahogany paneling, cluttered bar dotted with customers and scattered tables surrounded by other hunched groups drowning another day away.
He raked his fingers through his hair, tested his breath against the back of his hand and adjusted the unbuttoned collar of his shirt.
This is as good as it gets, he thought as he gave the table one last shove.
The momentum started his feet moving and he took a quick detour to the bar for another round before angling toward the lean passageway.
She was still leaning against the wall of flyers seeming to read those attached to the opposite side of the corridor. The bar’s dank light mottled her snug v-neck sweater and jeans while the rest of her curves soaked in the leaf patterned topaz street lights and silver rays of the moon pouring through the patio’s glass doors.
The faded ads rustled then drooped from the thumbtacks keeping them adhered to the bulletin board as she swiveled her head. Her shoulder length locks swayed. Her oval face seemed to freeze as if unsure what emotion to indicate on her blushed cheekbones and glistening lips.
Cal swallowed and felt his stomach flopping around like a beached fish.
“Hi,” he said, leaning one shoulder against the wall and fighting back the urge to kick himself for the juvenile opening line.
She grinned for a fleeting moment, her charcoal eyes traveling to his scuffed loafers and then settling on his face.
“I don’t think I’ve seen you around before…”
A small snort escaped her button nose and she took a swig on her dwindling caramel colored beverage. “That’s because I haven’t been.”
“Right.” He tried to keep his smile from turning dopey. “I’m Cal.”
He winced, downing half his drink as a couple pushed through the patio’s door, allowing in a chilly gust. A cloud of cigarette smoke followed them as they sauntered back into the bar, his arm around her waist and her head on his shoulder.
Cal noticed the woman at his side drawing in a long inhale, as if wallowing in the scent of a bouquet. Her rings clicked rapidly on her glass.
Cal lowered his eyes to the rubber mats lining the floor until the couple passed, then glanced over the ads settling back against the wall as the breeze died.
“Found anything interesting?”
She shrugged one shoulder. “Lots of ads by musicians. Learn the guitar. Piano lessons.” She pointed a black tipped finger at one of the crisper forms lined by detachable tabs with the same Sharpie written phone number. “Be a drummer.”
“That’s what you call someone who hangs out with musicians.” Cal tried to swallow back the elementary joke as her eyes turned back to him. Her ebony stare heated the soles of his shoes and turned his mouth into a desert. “Sorry. That was pretty terrible.”
“You could say that.”
Cal ran his tongue over his teeth and sank his gaze back into the floor. Silence dropped between them like a concrete wall. Then a soft laugh bubbled into the void.
“Why did Ellie go to the bar?”
Cal frowned and looked back at her. A coy smile had curled on to her lips and one eyebrow had taken on an inquisitive curl.
She plucked his bottle out of his hand and began a slow stride back into the interior. “Can’t you guess?” she asked over her shoulder.
Cal gathered his dropped jaw and heaved off the wall a moment later. He stuffed his hands into his pockets and collected all his frazzle nerves in order to find out what Ellie had in mind.