Sylvia nursed her double-gin and single-tonic at the hotel bar and checked out the handsome, dark-haired man across the room. Just looking at him as she had been doing the last three or four drinks, she could tell she was definitely his type. She wanted to show him and his dark curls and darker eyes a thing or two.

He was her son’s age, but reminded her of her second husband, Ali, the car salesman with more body hair than any man had any right to. She remembered how he would smell after a day working in those cheap suits he preferred. “Buy a nice one!” she’d tell him. “Those dime-a-dozen suits don’t breathe right.” By the end of a hot summer day, his rank body odor would be vile.

“Darling! Darling!” Sylvia said to the bartender. “Another gin and tonic, light on the tonic.”

At first, Ali’s musk had been intoxicating, but soon it just became toxic. She had begged him and begged him to buy nicer suits so he wouldn’t smell so bad, but he believed that a nice suit would intimidate customers and cost him sales. Well, in the end, it had cost him Sylvia. That and the day she came home early from her canceled hair appointment and caught him with the pool boy’s cock in his mouth.

She missed the pool. Much more than she missed Ali. That cheap bastard.

She never had to hear him complain about her ordering top shelf liquor again. Sometimes she wondered if he was happy down there in Boca Raton living in sin with Peter, but then she remembered she didn’t give a rat’s ass.

The dumpy, fat-assed bartender with the acne scars brought Sylvia the drink. “Miss, you forgot my second lime,” Sylvia said, and then, under her breath, “fucking idiot.” That would be a deduction from her tip. “And please put it in a glass, not some filthy napkin.”

She glanced around the room, taking in all the terrible people she was forced to spend her evening with. A couple—a man and a woman, as was natural—sat at a table. The man practiced card tricks while the woman talked about something else.

The bartender, shaped like a Halloween pumpkin left past Christmas on the front step, busied herself slicing lemons and ignoring Sylvia. Sylvia couldn’t imagine how someone could let themselves go so badly. How embarrassing.

The handsome man played with his telephone, clearly waiting for someone to arrive. Sylvia imagined that he was waiting for her. She imagined that they had plans to have an expensive dinner at that place downtown that only did the twelve-course tasting menus, but that they would ruin their appetites with wine and end up back at his place putting that delicious young buck through his paces.

Sylvia loved younger men.

So much energy.

Such vigor.

Listening to them explain the importance of following their gym routine was much sexier than listening to some paunchy, balding fart bemoan his vanished youth.

Sylvia took great pride that she was aging gracefully, not falling into uneven lumps like some women she knew. Just the other day, the Korean woman who did her nails, Diane or Dina or Lynn or whatever, told her Sylvia that she didn’t look a day over thirty-five. Thirty-five! She chewed the hell out of that foreign bitch. How dare she suggest that Sylvia looked any older than the twenty-nine she was sure she still looked?

A lot of her third husband’s money was spent to make sure that Sylvia continued to look the age she felt on the inside. A nip here, a tuck there, fill this, deflate that, all in service of correcting the injustice of aging. So what if her eyebrows barely moved when she smiled—which she did infrequently—because of all the botox? Her skin was as smooth and flawless as the day she lost her virginity to the star of her high school’s basketball team. His name was…Tim? Maybe Alan? She couldn’t remember. He was tall, she recalled. Though, he could have been short. Short for a basketball player, at least. Must not have been important.

Sylvia eyed the man again, hoping to catch his attention this time, but he was immersed in the goings-on of his telephone. Young people these days and their devices.

What a bore. This bar reminded her of something or somewhere, but she couldn’t quite place it. The room felt familiar, in a way, even though she had never been here before today. All bars were more or less the same, she supposed, and she would know. She had spent a lifetime in and out of them.

Sylvia took a pull of her cocktail and wondered what the dark haired man’s body looked like under his stylish, well-fit clothes. She was willing to bet he was smooth and sculpted like a swimmer. He was probably wealthy and spent weekends at the lake or at the cape or at the vineyard and that he was desperate for a mature female companion to show him the ways of the world.

He would call her “miss” and she would hate to correct him. The first time they made love, he would be moved to tears. She would be disgusted. She had that effect on men. She pulled a piece of ice from her empty tumbler and chewed on it.

In 1973 or 1972, Sylvia met her first husband, Eric, at the filling station where he worked. One day, she was driving by and her car was running low, so she pulled into the full service lane because she was a lady and ladies didn’t pump their own gas. He approached her window, looking great in his grease-stained coveralls and cocked hip that said “I don’t give a shit about anything”. She knew she had to have him. For the next six weeks, she made sure she was always near his station when she needed gas, even if it was all the way across town from where she lived.

Now, Eric was a real man. Rough hands, devil-may-care attitude, a man who took what he wanted. They eloped and moved to Reno and were happy a while. He gave her two healthy children and a little house just outside of town with air conditioning and a lawn. They would stay up late and talk about music and then hit the bottle a little too hard and make love like rabbits. She had a good job at the front desk of a local travel agency for an older couple who respected her. She thought she might be a travel agent like them, one day, and help people take fabulous trips around the world. It was a warm time for Sylvia, a time for family, a time when her future felt bright and encouraging and broad.

Then Eric was killed in a botched bank robbery, so Sylvia and her twins moved back in with Sylvia’s parents. That was when she started drinking in earnest and had never stopped for long enough to come home with a ninety day chip. At least she only had to worry about what one of her kids thought about that, now.

“Bartender! Miss! I need another…” before she could say “drink”, she looked down and saw her drink was full again. “Oh. Never mind.” Two limes this time. The idiot was capable of learning.

“Are you having a nice night?”

Sylvia turned her head to see an unassuming man in a beige three-piece suit looking up at her. “Excuse me?”

“Are you having a nice night? I’d offer you a drink, but it seems to have been taken care of.”

Sylvia was not in the business of accepting drinks from unattractive men. Neither this balding little fellow nor the massive cro-magnon sitting next to him were anywhere near her league. “I’m fine, thank you very much. Now, if you don’t mind….” She turned away, hoping he’d get the hint and leave her alone. She had more important conquests for the night.

“You’re not his type, I’m afraid.”

“What do you mean, ‘I’m not his type’? Of course, I’m his type!”

“No, madam, I assure you, you are not.”

“What do you know about it anyway?”

“Quite a bit. My friend Shax here owns this bar. He knows about everyone.” Shax acknowledged Sylvia for the first time and nodded his head in agreement with his companion.

“So, tell me then, buddy, why isn’t that tender young thing going to end up with me tonight?”

“He’s waiting for a date already. Look.” He pointed at the dark-haired man who was looking between his phone and the front door, obviously frustrated that whoever he was expecting was not walking through yet. “He’s had a fight with his lover and has called an ex-boyfriend to come meet him. But the ex is late. Very late.”

“How on Earth can you know all that? You’re just making this up.”

“I assure you I am not.”

“Ok, so he’s a fag. Big deal. The pretty ones always are. I don’t remember asking you for your input.”

“I can tell you why you’re here,” he said.

“You don’t know a thing about it.”

“Your son is dead. A suicide. He was quite a bit like that man over there, in fact. And you are on your way to your daughter’s home for the funeral. You were just passing through town, one night only, and thought you’d stop for a drink to help you sleep.”

Sylvia grabbed the man’s lapel and pulled him in close enough to smell his stinking breath. “Look, I don’t know what this little parlor trick you’re pulling is and I don’t give a shit. You know something about me. Good job. Must’ve overheard me talking to the bartender or somebody earlier. Real neat trick.” She let him go and he smoothed out his jacket. “Let me tell you one thing you couldn’t have guessed about me: I fucking hated it when they outlawed smoking in bars in this shitty state.”

She reached down toward the hook where her bag hung to grab her pack of cigarettes. On the way down, she brushed her hand against the hand of the little beige man next to her. And in that instant she was swallowed by ten thousand years of the screams of the damned.

She saw a great fall from light and love into a pit of cold.

A pit where the rings of tormented souls stacked atop each other and flames enveloped those newly arrived.

A writhing mass of flesh, in agony, indistinct, alive and dead at the same time, the end of one body and the beginning of the next impossible to discern.

A vast and engulfing void, a nothingness so terrible, so complete, it threatened to obliterate her.

And after untold cycles of reliving every mistake, every transgression, every sin she ever committed, Sylvia’s hand broke its contact with the man’s and it all faded away.

She stopped halfway to her purse, unsure of what she’d just experienced, but knowing in her soul that it had been deeply wrong.

“Oh, you saw that,” he said. “Sorry. Occupational hazard. I usually wear gloves.”

Words eluded Sylvia as the images faded from her mind, leaving only indistinct smears in her memory and a strong sense of wrongness within her.

“You’re sensitive, Sylvia, a sensitive soul. Most people can’t see through me so quickly.”

My grandmother always said I was a little bit psychic, she wanted to say. All she could manage was to look into the man’s eyes, really look, for the first time. They were an unnatural gray flecked with faintly glowing orange, like the embers of a dying fire, so subtle you might never notice behind his tortoise shell glasses and beige polo shirt.

Beige polo shirt?

Sylvia pulled her cigarette and lighter to her mouth, but stopped with her hands held before her face. “Was that…”

“Yes,” he said. “No, it wasn’t. It doesn’t matter.”

“But I saw…”

“You didn’t see anything.”

Sylvia looked around the bar to see if anyone was reacting to what she had just experienced, but no one seemed to have noticed a thing. The bartender broke up the ice in the buckets. The handsome man continued to look between his phone and the door, annoyed. The rail thin lady dressed like the 1890s stood still unmoving in the center of the room, her hollow black eyes seeing nothing. Everything was exactly as it was before.

Sylvia put her smokes back into her purse, no longer interested in them at all. She took another sip of her drink but found that it too was no longer appealing. She put on her coat and turned to the man. “Well, Mister…”

“Nick.”

“Mr. Nick, thank you for your company,” she said but didn’t mean. She extended her hand to shake his, but instinct told her it was a bad idea.

“It was a pleasure,” he said. “You have a nice night and I’ll be seeing you real soon.”

She walked out of the bar past the couple with the card tricks, past the headless man playing the piano, past the security guard with the crown of flames, and out into the street.

Wait.

Was there a piano there before? She couldn’t remember seeing one when she came in, but sometimes deep in the drink she missed things.

She crossed the street to a gas station that looked like it had been pulled right from her youth. She dug around in her purse for a quarter and put it into the pay phone. She spun the dial on the phone hoping she got the number right. CRossley3-6594. It hadn’t changed in years.

The receiver sang the ascending tones of a wrong number. She hung up and dialed the operator.

“Yes, ma’am?” a shrill voice said at the other end of the line.

“Operator, I’m trying to reach CRossley3-6594, but something is wrong.”

“The number is CRossley3-6954, ma’am.”

Of course it was. How could Sylvia have forgotten? “Could you connect me please, Operator?” The phone rang and rang and Sylvia started to regret leaving the mostly-full glass of gin on the bar.

“Hello?”

“Yeah, sweetie, it’s me.”

“Mom?”

“Yeah, it’s me, mom.”

A long pause and… crying? “Mom, you have to stop calling. It’s unnatural. Mom, you have to move on.”

“But, sweetie, I miss you, and I’m so broken up about your brother…”

“You have to stop calling. It upsets everyone. Please stop. Please, mom.”

“I’m coming over. For a visit. Won’t that be nice? Like old times.”

“You can’t come here. Don’t come here. Stop calling.” The voice on the far end of the line cracked and the unmistakable sound of weeping followed.

“Don’t you love me, sweetie? Don’t you want to see me?”

“Yes, mom, I do. But it’s over. It’s been so long. You’re ———”

“What was that sweetie? There seems to be some connection issues. All I got was static.”

“Mom, you’re ——— You are ———.” Static.

“Sorry, sweetie, something’s wrong with this phone. I’ll try you again tomorrow.” Sylvia hung up the phone, swirled her double-gin and single-tonic, and looked at all the faces at the bar. Such bad static problems. She’d have to remember to call someone at Ma Bell tomorrow to file a complaint. For now, the whole gang was in, so she figured she would just stay a while longer.


Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash