By Paul George
“Your invitation?” the young, formally-dressed man said to me at the entrance of the building.
“Invitation?” I said, puzzled.
The young man pointed to my left hand. It held an envelope, embossed with my initials. I handed it to the young man. He opened it and gave the card inside a quick glance.
“Welcome to the party. Our bar is open, so feel free to order what you want,” the young man said in a polite, but friendly voice. The room was a large ballroom with Spanish-style arches molded along the walls. There were a lot of people there. Hundreds? I couldn’t tell. The band played light, danceable pop music. As I walked down the stairs, the sound of people talking and laughing filled the room.
I glanced behind me, and the young man was letting an old man, white with waxy skin peppered with liver spots, into the party.
I walked over to the bar, sat down, and the bartender, a woman with long, bleach-blond hair, came up to me.
“Hi, I’m Sharon, your bartender tonight. Can I get you started with something?” she asked.
“Rum and Coke,” I said, gesturing with my fingers a large amount of rum compared to the Coke.
Dozens of people lined up at the bar, and she was the only person behind it. If Sharon had a superpower, it would be the ability to fill everyone’s drink order almost immediately. I don’t think I saw her pour my rum and Coke. It seemed like it was just there. She walked away, helping other patrons.
After a few sips, Sharon returned.
“How’s that drink?”
“This is perfect. I mean that. It’s the best rum and Coke I’ve ever had.” I meant it too. The mix of the two ingredients was exactly what I asked for.
“By the way Sharon. Where is this place located? I don’t remember a place this nice in Reno.”
She looked at me, smiled, and said, “Well, you got here on your own, right? Or are you telling me you have no idea how you got here?” She had no malice in the questions, but there was a hint of parental sarcasm in her tone. Before I could finish the bottom of my drink, she had another rum and Coke on the counter.
But I wasn’t sure how I got here. The music was enjoyable. My drink was perfect. The bartender was pretty and, truly, the fastest bartender I’ve ever met.
A woman with dark brown hair, cut in a bob with Bettie Page bangs, sat next to me at the bar.
“Sharon,” she said. “Gin martini, three olives.”
Again, with almost no lapse in time, Sharon handed the woman her drink.
“No fruity drinks for you, huh?” I said as I turned my swivel stool toward her.
“Screw that,” she said as she took a drink. “As my dad used to say ‘real women drink like they have a dick swinging between their legs.’”
“Your dad said that? Really?” I said. Maybe she was bullshitting me, but she certainly opened up the conversation better than I ever could.
“My name’s Jason,” I said.
“Raquel,” she said, putting her hand out for me to shake it. Which I did.
“Like Raquel Welch?” I said.
“Oh,” she said, laughing. “You don’t know the half of it. My dad had a massive hard on for Raquel Welch. In his dirty magazine room, or what he called his study, he had a large poster of her from that dinosaur movie.”
“And your mom was cool with that?” I asked.
“I think she had a wet spot for Raquel. So they named me after her.”
“It’s a good name. I like it.”
The older man, he must have been 90, who entered the party after I did, walked up to the empty stool on my other side.
“Sharon,” he said as he placed his hands flat on the counter. “I’d like the best bourbon you got, neat.”
I turned toward him. Sharon already had his drink on the counter. He was still old, but his skin seemed less way, less liver-spotted, than it was when I first saw him at the entrance.
“Some party,” I said to him. “My name’s Jason,” I said while extending my hand for a shake.
“Lloyd,” he said as he grabbed my hand and shook it. “I don’t know where our host gets this bourbon,” he said, holding the caramel-colored spirit in his free hand. “But it is the best I’ve had, ever. And, Jason, I’ve had a lot of bourbon in my lifetime.” He turned his attention toward Sharon. “Could you get my pal, Jason, a refill? Put it on my tab.”
“Drinks are complimentary at this party,” Sharon replied as she handed me a fresh rum and Coke. Her speed and grace was truly awesome. She was like a comic book hero, but dispensing the perfect drink instead of justice.
“Well,” Lloyd said, turning toward me. “I guess I’ll buy the next time we meet.” He held is drink up, “Bottoms up.”
“Cheers,” I said.
He took his drink in a single gulp, slammed the shot glass on the counter, and said, “It’s time to go. I need to find the host and say goodbye.”
Other guests danced the night away. But Lloyd was content to have his drink and go. He got up and faded into the crowd.
“If you’re done trying to pick up that old man, I’m still here,” Raquel said. I turned my attention back toward her. “So what do you do?”
“I’m a writer,” I said.
“Are you one of those I’ve-written-a-bunch of crap-no-one-pays-for writers? Or are you the one-of-these-days-I’ll-write-something-one-day-maybe kind of writers?”
“I make a living writing,” I said, understanding her sarcasm. Too many people say they are writers, but do almost nothing. “I write for the Reno newspaper and freelance for magazines. And I make money writings screenplays.”
“Like movies?” Raquel said with a hint of distrust.
“Yes. Actually I make more with one sold script than I do with a year’s worth of news reporting.”
“Anything I would know about?”
“You know those low-budget, direct-to-video movies usually inspired by other, bigger, better movies? I’ve written a few of those.”
She looked at me, took a sip of her martini, “So you write stuff like Space Sharks?”
“I wrote Space Sharks! And I wrote Termigators and few others,” I said. Her suspicious glare continued. “Look it up on your phone.”
She rummaged through her purse, but couldn’t find her phone. “Dammit, I must have forgotten it. I never forget my phone.”
“You can use mine,” I said as I put my hand in my pants pocket. “Odd, I must have left my phone at home too.”
Raquel hailed Sharon, who brought Raquel a fresh martini.
“Jason here says he wrote the scripts to Space Sharks and Termigators,” Raquel said, laughing.
Sharon glanced at me. “Jason wrote those, and he also wrote Hot Girls with Fake-red Hair. He also got to pitch a spec-script to Warner Brothers for Death Carries a Bazooka, but they didn’t go for it.”
“So, you’re Mr. Hollywood, huh?” Raquel said, poking me in the ribs.
“Not really. I just enjoy writing. Screenplays give me a chance to have some fun.” I took a sip of my drink.
“So what’s the next big project?” Raquel asked.
“Termigators vs. Space Sharks,” I said. “I’m about half-way finished. But I think it’s time to let another writer take over the project. It’s time for something new.” I thought of Lloyd, content to have his drink and leave.
Raquel was good. By that, I mean, she had asked me a bunch of questions and let me talk away. She’d be a good journalist. I had practically given her my autobiography; yet, I knew nothing about her.
“And what about you? What do you do?” I asked, knocking the symbolic tennis ball of conversation back in her court.
“I work at a coffee shop. I’m trying to get through school.”
“What led you to going to school,” I said.
“I was married for about 20 years, married too young. You know the song.”
“Very much so,” I said, nodding my head.
“One day, my husband’s mistress called my phone by accident and the jig was up. It turned out he had been seeing her for years, even had a kid. When I confronted him, he hung himself rather than deal with the fallout.”
“I’m sorry. That’s rough.”
“Well, as my dad used tell my older brother, if you won’t face the consequences, keep your dick to yourself.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” I said. “Your dad, kind of a blunt talker, huh?”
“Yes. But he was also kind and generous. But he didn’t take crap from anyone. He was always honest. And while he would never fight my fights for me, he was always in my corner.” She took sip of her martini, twirling her hair with her free hand. “And what about you? What’s your tragic love story?”
“Nothing as exciting. I got married at 20, and it was great for the first few years. By the end though, I don’t know. We just bitched at each other constantly until we realized it was just time to move on. What are you studying in school?” I said, not that interested in discussing my past.
“I’m undeclared. I’m taking all of the core classes while I figure out what I want to be. Maybe an accountant,” Raquel said.
“And that’s what you want to do, process paperwork all day?”
“Not really. But I need something more than being a barista. I don’t want my tombstone to say ‘made a hell of a latte.’”
A slow big band song started playing. Benny Goodman, I think.
“Hey, let’s dance,” I said, grabbing her hand.
She shook her head. “It’s not something I’m good at.”
“Me neither, except moshing and head banging,” I said. “Don’t worry, Raquel. Let’s step on each other’s toes and bump into people.”
We stepped onto the ballroom dance floor. I put my arm around Raquel’s waist, and we began to dance. Slow dancing doesn’t require much skill. I did it in high school and at the occasional wedding reception.
“I think this is Benny Goodman,” I said. “It sounds like something my dad would have had in his record collection.”
“It’s Glenn Miller,” Raquel said. “It’s Moonlight Serenade. My dad used to play it on piano. Hey, now I get to teach you something. Take that!”
“I was too busy blasting Iron Maiden to care about my dad’s music,” I said as we both grew adept at complimenting each other’s dance steps.
She rested her head on my shoulder. “You’re a better dancer than you let on,” she said in a soft, quiet voice.
“Maybe you’re inspiring me to dance better,” I said.
“Smooth, Mr. Hollywood. Very smooth.”
Glenn Miller continued playing. And we continued dancing.
After a moment or two of silence, Raquel’s voice whimpered from my shoulder, “Do you regret things, like your marriage falling apart?”
“For a while, sure. It certainly wasn’t what I planned.”
“But,” Raquel said. “The time wasted.”
“There’s no point is staying in the past,” I said. “It’s like feeding a ghost, giving something that shouldn’t be able to affect you all the power. What’s on your mind, Raquel?”
“I’m just now going to school. Just now trying to figure out what I want in life. For twenty years, I stood by the sidelines, letting what I could have been drift past me. I’m not making sense. I’m sorry.”
“Some Buddhists believe that our regrets, our mistakes, accumulate as specs of dirt on our soul,” I said.
As I spoke and we danced, the party’s host walked by me. He was a tall man, over six and a half feet. He wore a black suit with a bone-white shirt. He carried a cane, but walked fine without using it. As I looked at him, he grinned.
I turned my attention back to Raquel. “The thought is that we need to wash and scrub away those specs off of our soul. Only then can we become enlightened spiritual beings.”
“So now you’re a philosopher?” Raquel said. I couldn’t tell if she was laughing or crying.
“Just something I remember. The thought helped me through some tough times.”
“It’s easy to say it. Doing it, that’s the hard part,” Raquel said.
As Glenn Miller continued playing, I took my hand, lifted her chin, and looked into her eyes. They were welling up, tears building along the edges. I kissed her.
“Come with me,” I said. “It’s time to get out of here.”
Tears trickled down her cheek. “I can’t. I just …”
“Just leave with me. Whatever happens next, let’s be there together.”
“I have too much to finish. School. Work. I have wrongs I need to make right,” she said, crying.
“Raquel,” I said. “Those specs of dirt will come off. I promise. Just let go and come with me.”
I could see the host at the exit, which was at the back of the ballroom. He held up his cane, grinned, and nodded his head.
Over my shoulder, Raquel was staring at the bar. As we turned, I saw that her seat at the bar remained unoccupied. Sharon held up a martini and placed it on the counter in front of Raquel’s spot.
“You are an amazing woman Raquel,” I said. “Full of humor, compassion, and beauty.”
Her eyes remained fixed on her drink at the bar. “Stay with me,” she said, tears rolling down her face.
“I think you know I can’t. It time for me to leave. Goodbye.” I released her. Immediately she began walking toward Sharon and the bar, not looking back.
I started walking toward my host. Glenn Miller continued to play. For such an average-length song, it never seemed to end. I walked through the crowd, still dancing, chatting, and laughing. A champagne bottle cork popped and people cheered.
As I approached the host, he said, “Did you have a good time Jason?” His hand motioned toward the exit door. “If you are ready, I’ll show you out.”
“I’m not sure I understand,” I said.
“I think you do,” the host said, eyebrow raised.
“So what’s next? Heaven? Hell? Judgement?” I asked.
“Nothing that silly, or turgid for that matter,” he said, grinning.
We reached the exit, and he opened the door. Blackness.
“What’s ahead,” the host said. “It has nothing to do with anything left behind.”
“Thanks for the party,” I said, extending my hand. He didn’t respond to my gesture.
“You’re ready, Jason,” the host said. “Some,” he added, looking toward the bar, “are never ready to leave.”
I walked through the doorway and entered the darkness. As I walked forward, the light from the ballroom began to darken. The sound of people laughing, cheering, and talking became less distinct and quieter.
And Glenn Miller’s song faded into the ether of the past.
© Paul George and The Reno Signal, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Paul George and The Reno Signal with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.