For Rigby, our paper’s theater critic, every evening was Opening Night, every meal jug wine and cubed cheddar, and every aspiring actress a Sarah Bernhardt — so long as there was a dressing room door to lock. That the dressing rooms were locked to keep Rigby out of them only caused him mild consternation like the time he chided an understudy with “There are no small parts” and she replied with a withering glance to his crotch, “Yes, there are.”
Rigby only ever wore a second-hand tuxedo and this with its bowtie intentionally undone, to affect, as he proclaimed, “the jaunty air of an after-hours club.”
Likewise, junior assistant editor Blake, whose great globe-head met a neck like a tree trunk, couldn’t even close his top button. The upshot being that when he deigned to wear a tie to the newsroom it would only reach the ledge of his gut, so much of it expended yoking his vast collar.
As the Lumaville Daily Echo’s self-dubbed “arts czar,” I wore a thin, striped number that my kid brother left behind one Thanksgiving back when he rather endearingly thought that travel by commercial airliner mandated a certain sartorial formality.
We were all younger men then, concerned only with bolstering our bylines (which no one read) and bedding the young ladies of Lumaville. The latter was more daunting seeing as we had a yen for downtown dames that were all stalled up in post-collegiate desk jobs (no late nights) and purported always to be on the verge of marriage, grad school or Europe. They wanted nothing to do with our ilk of ink-stained townie and thus many a eulogy to love gone asunder was orated over pints of river-water ale, or as Rigby called it, “piss-gloam.”
“Yes, tell us Blake, about the one that got away. How she gnawed through the ropes and scaled the walls as you chased her, waving your rubber truncheon.”
Jeers all ’round, as our amber glasses levitated like fireflies in the dark rear hall of the pub we called the Press Club.
“Marvelous, Rigs ? rubber truncheon,” I said with approval, then out with the notebook. “I’m stealing that.”
“But Blake really has one,” Rigby said.
I turned to Blake.
“It’s true. I do have a rubber truncheon,” Blake confirmed in a disquieted tone. He took a hasty pull from his river-water ale.
“And the girl?”
Blake’s cheeks became redder and his immense bug eyes dimmed slightly, the result of a large swallow he’d managed despite Rigby’s elbow in his ribs. He paused for effect then offered in his lusty baritone: “There was a girl, once, when I was on deadline for the ‘local daily metro.’ She was a regular at my field office, Cafe Shrag.”
“When it still was the Shrag,” Rigby needlessly interjected.
“Yes, Rigs, that’s why I said Shrag and not ? whatever the hell it is now.”
Boorish Blake lit one of Rigby’s frenchie smokes and exhaled a plume into his airspace. He continued: “We kept similar hours, she and I. Up by eleven, out by two. Lord knows what she did for work, looked like nothing.”
“Perhaps she was a nanny for ghost children,” I suggested, but was rightly ignored.
“Anyway, she had long lunches ?” said Blake.
“Looker?” Rigby asked, wiping the lager from his lips.
“In that pale, stricken kind of way. Made you want to buy her a steak,” Blake recalled, then added wistfully “Sometimes I’d look at her and ‘sculpture garden’ would spring to mind.”
“Anemic women do have a certain rigidity. They don’t have enough blood,” Rigby agreed.
“I meant she had poise, Rigs. How she held herself ? grace,” Blake snorted, then, almost rueful, added, “And such thin wrists.”
“Sure, sure,” said Rigby. “And a voice so sonorous it would lull the moon.”
“Wouldn’t know. That’s the tragedy. We never spoke,” Blake admitted. He rolled his fingers on the table like a drum, then said “Except once.”
Once: The steam queens toil behind the espresso machines had misted the Shrag’s broad windows such that the condensation beaded and streaked down the pane, like a painting of rain come alive. The young woman entered, focused her eyes on Blake and made her way straight to his table.
She said plainly, “You don’t know me, I mean, we’ve never met, but we’ve both been coming here for over a year now. I always sit there and you always sit here. We’ve never spoken, which is regrettable since ? if I can be frank ? I’ve had a bit of an affair with you. In my mind.”
Blake folded his hands atop his table and peered at the woman, quizzically, which was enough encouragement for her to carry on.
“That’s not too strange to say, is it? I wouldn’t think so. You see, I’ve studied you from afar, I’ve observed you, I’ve watched. And after a few sleepless nights, I have come to the conclusion that I’m in love with you.”
Miraculously, Blake refrained from exhibiting the flaming bravado for which such a confession would likely be kindling. He was, in fact, rapt, uncharacteristically speechless. He remembered an admonition from grade school and mulled it inwardly, (“never touch the wings of a butterfly”) as she continued:
“It’s the way you carry your paper over your arm in the morning; that you always try to open the locked door of the entrance first; because you order Americanos instead of the house coffee (I overheard you explaining to the proprietor that the house coffee didn’t have enough ‘show business’). I liked that. I also like that you watch every woman enter the cafe and seem to find all of them, no matter who or what, somehow to your liking. Your lips. After you shaved your beard. There they were. I adore your lips. How they move when you talk. And your voice. You speak to everyone in the same even tone, which some find patronizing but I always thought was sweet — in an indulgent kind of way. It’s also the way you look at me. But never bothered me. Never fussed nor fawned. But were clearly drinking me in. And though sometimes I was lonely and wished you would come talk to me, I felt friendship in your eyes. And that was nearly enough.”
The woman set her jaw and looked Blake in his pale eyes. The moment seemed to go on a bit for suddenly shy Blake, who inexplicably moved a spoon from one side of his table to the other.
“I feel I can tell you these things now, because I’m moving tomorrow and will probably never see you again.”
The woman took a deep breath and sighed as she gathered a strand of her hair, which she brought absently to her lips.
She said, “I’ll miss you.”
Dumbfounded, like a cartoon man thrown from a revolving door, Blake was barely able to reply, “I’ll miss you too.”
Then the woman smiled and left. After that day, Blake’s beard never grew back.
The Press Club went quiet like the timorous moment after a prayer. Our eyes searched the sad little seas within our pint glasses, but found no other fish tales forthcoming. Until, Rigby mercifully jibed, “Yeah, that happened to me once too. Except that is was Death and she said I only have a quarter-hour to live.”
“When was that?” I asked.
“About fifteen min –“