A short story by David Lee Holcomb

During the years I’ve lived in this city, the hotel at the corner of Centennial and Eleventh Avenue has been a Hyatt, a Marriott, and before both of those, something called the University Suites. Tonight, it is a Hilton. By Christmas, it will be a Best Western.

Someday, they’ll throw in the towel and tear the place down, but not until long after I’ve moved on. The old girl still has a couple of dances left in her; La Quinta and Holiday Inn have yet to take her out onto the floor.

It’s not a bad hotel, and its location is supremely visible, on one of the busiest intersections at that end of town, within walking distance of two hospitals. That said, it’s noisy, and the parking deck is impossible to get in and out of during rush hour.

The hotel has no restaurant, but there is a bar, a tiny place presided over on the weekends by a sixtyish woman with stiff blonde hair and an assortment of Qiana gowns in turquoise, spring green, pale apricot, and mauve. She calls herself Lady Tamara, and she plays the piano for two hours on Friday and Saturday and an hour on Sunday. Show tunes, pop songs arranged for baby grand, the occasional jazz standard. Guests sometimes get up and sing: lonely businessmen from Memphis or Detroit, or doctors traveling with their wives, convinced by a second-place trophy in the talent contest in high school that this is a good idea. Men get up to sing much more often than women.

It’s around nine o’clock, dark at this time of year, and I’m walking on the other side of the street, past a diner, a lawyer’s office, and a social services agency. A movement in a window on the seventh floor of the hotel catches my eye. Someone has knocked over a lamp, or they’ve taken the shade off. The bare bulb seems unnaturally bright, even at this distance.

A silhouette heaves against the harsh light. I am convinced that what I’m looking at is an animal of some kind, an antelope or a wildebeest, shaking its head and staring out at me. I stop dead in my tracks, gaping.

A moment later, the ears and horns give a mighty jerk, and the apparition resolves itself into a man struggling into a too-tight turtleneck sweater, the sleeves flapping over his head. I cross the street and enter the lobby.

I’m supposed to meet my friend Meg for a quiet drink, but when I walk into the bar, I find that half the people in the place are, to varying degrees, friends of mine. Meg shrugs helplessly and pats the empty chair to her left.

“Sorry about all this,” she says as I slip into my seat. The server, a young woman so unfailingly pleasant that she is almost certainly a serial killer in training, catches my eye, and I nod. The bartender puts a mug under the tap. They know me here.

“Quite the turnout. Somebody’s birthday?”

“Rehearsals,” a willowy redhead in black tells me. “We’re doing King Lear.” She grins. “I’m one of the bitch sisters.”

“You’ll be a natural,” I tell her.

An amateur theater group occupies what was once an auto-body repair shop a couple of blocks away. We all dabble, none of us seriously. I wave at the table. “You’re all in the play?”

A dark, stocky man with beautiful hair and a mustache that’s at least forty years out of date holds up his hands. “Not me. I just came down after work.”

Paolo. From Milan. A visiting resident at one of the hospitals. His clothes are impeccable, and his accent and his eyes are soft and seductive. Everyone wants him, no one has had him. Speculation is rife, but he just smiles.

I look around at the people sitting at the two tables, and I realize that I’ve been to bed with four of them. I even entered into ill-defined “relationships” with two of them for a few weeks each before drifting back out onto the buffet. Unlike Paolo, I have no secrets. I’m a dish that everyone samples sooner or later, but for real nutrition, they always order something else.

My drink arrives, and I take a sip as little Kenny, directly across the table from me, gives vent to a chirpy giggle. He is flirting with big, rangy Jim, an ex-marine attending the University on the G.I. Bill. Jim is an old-fashioned boy, native to Tulsa, repeatedly married and divorced, popular with women. The two men sit shoulder to shoulder, and Jim smiles at Kenny’s peculiar conversational gambits. I wonder what I’ve missed during the weeks I’ve been out of touch with everybody.

Meg looks puffy and hollow-eyed, and I wonder if she’s still having trouble with her boss.

“I feel as though I haven’t seen you in years,” she says, raising her voice over the noise in the crowded space.

“I know. I’m practically sleeping in the office these days.”

“The Project,” she says, and I nod. We all say it that way, capitalized. I work for a biotech firm called Paleogenetics. I have no idea what they’re actually doing. I’m a computer technician. From where I’m sitting, between Meg and Ken-doll-handsome Philip, who owns a boutique kitchenware shop just south of the flyover, I can look out the plate glass window and see the Paleogenetics sign on the roof of the building, all the way up at the top of the hill, mercury-argon tubing, vivid and dark, the blue of deep water in hot places. The office itself is very pleasant, with a few computers and a couple of impressive potted fig trees, but the real work goes on in a loft seven blocks south of here. That’s where I’ve been spending all my time, crawling around under desks and behind server racks.

“How’s life among the ambulance chasers?”

Meg grimaces. “Same old, same old, I guess. The client list is shrinking; the extravagant expense-account lunches are growing.”

“Your clients are taking their business elsewhere?”

“Dropping dead, actually. Looper inherited a lot of high-dollar clients from his dad, but they were old even then. We spend more time at funerals than in courtrooms.”

“Not much of a business model. Maybe it’s time to move on.”

She gives her head a quick shake, saying no, but then her mouth says, “Maybe.”

Somebody at another table says, very firmly, “In Atlanta. In Atlanta. No! In Atlanta!” Kenny sighs theatrically and burbles, “Oh, Hotlanta.”

Jim laughs into his drink, and I feel an inexplicable pang of jealousy. I’ve never slept with either of those two. Kenny’s out of the question, and my instincts tell me Jim is towing heavy baggage: those ex-wives maybe, or maybe a girlfriend who waits at home for him, angry and frustrated. Probably some kids.

“I went out with Looper weekend before last,” Meg says suddenly, in a low voice. I’m convinced I’ve heard wrong.

“You went out with who?”

“With whom. With Looper. He’s been so damned persistent. I figured maybe a good, hard look at the real me would shake him off.”

Meg has made her share of mistakes, but as a rule, she is clear-eyed and level-headed when it comes to men. Emotionally and socially, Looper is an accident waiting to happen.

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?”

“It is most certainly not a good idea.” She flares at me for an instant, then subsides; there’s a spark of anger but no fuel. “Every time I look around, Looper’s right there, a starved dog staring at me, begging for scraps. I go out for dinner or drinks or whatever with someone else, or even by myself, and when I get back to the car, there’s a text to remind me of a client meeting in three days or a voicemail asking if I’ve seen his briefcase.” She finishes the last sentence quickly and takes a slug of her cocktail. It’s something fruity, shades of yellow and orange; she has taken the umbrella out of the glass and picked it to bits, a neat pile of paper and delicate bamboo splinters next to her cell phone where it lies on the table, debris from a tiny Caribbean hurricane.

Once a race of big, bluff men known for their charisma and their thundering courtroom rhetoric, the Looper blood has thinned over the generations. The current scion is a handsome, helpless man of about forty-five, divorced, who has never presented a case before a jury. He’s a tweaker, a fiddler. Looper’s practice is rooted in minutiae, tiny laws and obscure usages that he knows nothing about but can rely on Meg to dig out and arrange for him like snacks on a plate.

An argument erupts between Cordelia and Goneril, egged on by the various Dukes and Earls, and conversation becomes impossible. Poor Paolo looks delectable, a lonely chocolate truffle tucked into a box of hard-shelled, brightly-colored Jordan almonds.

The server comes back with a fresh round of drinks, and as she leans past me, I catch a whiff of her scent: something lush and heavy, fecund and full. I turn in my chair and see that she is visibly pregnant. I start to say something to Meg, but the expression on her face kills my comment before it can leave my mouth.

Lady Tamara appears, as if from thin air, and gives us a dignified bow before settling in behind the piano and launching into a somewhat overwrought rendition of “La Vie en Rose.” She has tiny mirrors threaded into her hair, like rhinestones baked into a souffle, and they glitter and flash as she belabors the keys. Tonight’s dress is a remarkable shade of green, rich and dark, full of steamy shadows and satiny highlights, and she has a gloriosa lily pinned to her shoulder, a baroque splash of yellow and crimson.

Paolo starts a conversation with Meg, but she responds in distracted monosyllables, and by the time Lady Tamara has segued into “Eleanor Rigby,” the effort has withered and died.

As the song is ending, a short, stocky man with pepper-and-salt hair and a bewildered expression gets up and approaches the piano, bumping Meg’s chair as he passes. He consults briefly with Lady Tamara, and they launch into Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.” The singer has a decent voice, but he stands unnaturally still as he sings: Nothing moves but his mouth and his round blue eyes, which follow the server everywhere.

“I have to get out of here,” Meg tells me, gripping my arm. “Do you mind?”

“Of course not.”

We climb to our feet, ducking, muttering apologies, trying to be invisible as we sidle between the tables.

Outside, Meg stands on the sidewalk absorbing the humid warmth of the fading Indian Summer, her posture tense. “Sorry,” she tells me. “About ninety percent of her song list makes my ears bleed.”

We start walking up the hill toward the roundabout, and only after a couple of blocks does she suggest a destination. “I missed lunch today,” she says. “Do you mind if we go to Coyote and get some rice or something?”

“Good idea. I’m hungry, too.”

There’s a short line at Coyote, but after fifteen minutes or so, we establish ourselves out on the steps of the architectural firm across the alley, styrofoam trays of fried rice and chicken satay in our laps. The name of the takeout restaurant is not Coyote, but that’s as close as any of us can get to the actual name, a Vietnamese word for some sort of parasitic plant with showy flowers.

“I wish I could just give it all up,” Meg says after a time.

“Give what up?”

She gestures. “Everything. All this. Run away to some godforsaken place in Africa or South America or the Dutch East Indies, wherever that is. Stop bathing. Drink too much. Become a gunrunner or a pirate or the mistress of a warlord in a hellhole where the fighting never stops.” She chews, swallows, then continues, “I could run a bar, sleeping with the hired help, pretty brown boys whose language I don’t understand. Or I could start a religion. Invent guidelines and timetables for the end of the world and preach them to my flock, a new apocalypse every week.”

I have no idea what to say to any of this. I try to make a joke.

“Looper would starve to death without you to run his life for him.”

Meg turns to stare at me for a moment, a look of such bleak distaste that I feel as though she has struck me. I look away, poking at my rice, looking for fragments of meat, looking for nuggets of egg, looking for a place to hide.

“Looper,” she says, finally, and then, “Looper.”

She had spoken as though the most recent incident was a one-off event, but she has gone out with Looper before, to a dinner with clients on one occasion and to a Chamber of Commerce event on another. Those are just the outings I know about.

The old man who lives halfway up the next street comes down to the roundabout, leading his ugly little dog. They appear suddenly from behind the ligustrum hedge that runs along that side of the steps. The man comes from Guatemala or El Salvador or someplace like that. Rumor has it that he’s a retired dictator or the disgraced leader of a religious cult. He scowls at us while his dog takes a shit in the middle of the sidewalk, and then they turn to totter back the way they came.

I glance over at Meg, and she is staring into space, oblivious.

The unseasonable warmth has triggered an anomalous blooming among the ligustrum. The conical clusters of tiny white flowers glimmer in the dim light, and the scent hangs in the air, heavy and tropical, sweet and corrupt, like gardenias in a whorehouse.

Meg has finished her rice and chicken, leaving parallel grooves in the styrofoam where she has scraped up the last bits of rice with her plastic fork. I take the container out of her hands, startling her, and stuff all our litter into the bin next to the door of the restaurant, passing from the smell of ligustrum and dogshit to the smell of garlic and fryer oil, then back again.

“Are you almost done with the Project?” Meg asks when I return to my seat on the step next to her.

“Not quite,” I reply. “Another month or two, maybe. Whatever it is they’re doing, it evolves as we go along, so I keep having to adapt to the changes. Maybe it’ll never be finished, I don’t know.”

“Job security.”

“There is that. Maybe I should throw it over and come with you to help you set up your outpost in the jungle.”

“Not much call for IT people in the wilds of Borneo or the Ethiopian back country.”

“No, that’s true. I could be your Grand Vizier, deciding who gets to talk to you and who doesn’t. If any Loopers turn up, I can have them covered with honey and staked out on the ant mound.”

Meg chuckles, then sighs heavily, theatrically. “Speaking of Looper, I guess I should get home. I’ve got an early day tomorrow. Would you like a lift?”

“No, that’s okay. It’s only four blocks, and it’s a nice night.” At that moment, a distant rumble of thunder rolls across the sky. “Not for much longer, though. I guess the weather is going to change whether we like it or not.”

“That’s true of so many things,” she says.

Meg pulls me into a hug. She smells of tequila and desperation, overlaid with the hot, over-sweet smell of the ligustrum.

“Stay in touch,” she says as we separate.

“How will I reach you out in the jungle?”

Poste restante,” she replies. “Once a week, I’ll have one of my pretty brown boys put on some pants and trot down to the village to check for mail.”

“I’ll remember not to say anything indiscreet in my letters, since they’ll almost certainly open them up and try to read them.”

“‘Indiscreet’. We don’t use that word enough,” Meg says. The Walk/Don’t Walk sign blinks green, and she gives me a quick peck on the cheek, then trots across the street and soon disappears from view.

She leaves behind the scent of flowers, beautiful and dangerous, the kinds of flowers that grow amid the mossy stones of crumbling temples, that bloom as red and white as last night’s virginity in ruined cities swamped by jungles, thriving only in those places where the rules no longer apply.

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