Sour Luck

by Melissa Heath Lee

Art by Ekaterina Gaidaeva

Art by Ekaterina Gaidaeva

I guess he thought I was the bathroom attendant.

There was a grizzled, grey man crooning “Georgia on My Mind” to the dulcet tones of the Al Dupree Trio deep into a Friday night at The Balcony Club. I had been tucked back at the corner table where we always sat. Consumed with details. The dingy grout. The nails with pictures hanging from them. The ancient picture wire coated in dust. The tag on the waitress’s blouse. A careful braid concealing an army of errant, ebony curls. Sparse champagne buckets. The faded check in the singer’s shirt. A red elastic in the bartender’s ponytail. The shine off his balding front pate. The breeze from the door. The candle smoke and stale cigarettes. The improvisation of “Satin Doll.” The fact that the men who stopped to chat were no longer fresh-faced boys but middle-aged with mortgages, ex-wives and money-market accounts.

When I sloshed half of my third whiskey sour into my lap, I grabbed the well-worn linen napkin and, dabbing at my dress, headed out across the old balcony, to the scarred door marked “Ladies.” The door was locked. And I sighed, leveling my shoulders and re-folding the napkin absently as I waited. Listening to the wizened baritones of Al Dupree. The door to my right opened, and I felt the tug.

He had exited the “Gents” and reached to dry his hands on my damp beige linen. I stared at his hands as they wrung through the fabric. He must really be drunk, I thought. But when my gaze went from hands to face, I saw no fog about his eyes. What the hell?

“Thanks,” he mumbled as he passed by me to the door back into the bar.

Nothing jazzy about that.

But then he stopped. His head turned left as if he was listening. Or thinking. And he turned around completely, returning to face me.

“Sorry about that,” he said. “I wasn’t thinking.”

I managed a smile, warm with whiskey and forgiveness. I was unprepared, thrown off-balance, when he stuffed the bill into my hand.

“Thanks again.” And this time he left the balcony hallway and vanished into the dim, hazy room.

Was I really awake? Was this moment actually part of my thirtieth birthday? Or was I observing someone else? Some other silent barfly with no companions on a windy spring weekend in Texas. Was she drinking alone at a normally overcrowded table? Certainly no Satin Doll. Twelve years past a life-changing scholarship. Ten years past chugging back cherry vodka and dancing for hours. Eight years past running to Dallas. The last dozen moves. The latest man. Another degree in…something really useful. Five years past the last halfway decent job.

What didn’t I learn? Was I meant to be here?

Inside the tempo picks up “Luck Be a Lady” and I think that there are worse places to be. But it would be nice to smile across the table at someone. To remember something from home, from that young springtime, without 190 proof shadows cast around it. How did I think I would escape that? Where was I going? Four hours south? Three and a half the way I drove. I’d traveled intestines of distance, miles of bad road—but only a few feet from my source. The source where bad DNA and damaged dreams get dumped. How superior I thought I’d be, how different from them. But I never was lucky like that.

Maybe in the next thirty years.

And after all, ten bucks wasn’t a half bad tip.

Melissa Heath Lee is a writer, teacher, marketer, jewelry designer and foster parent who lives in Oklahoma with her husband. She has previously had poetry and short fiction published in Green Eggs and Hamlet, The Litchfield Country Times and Rear-View Mirror. Several of her original plays have also been produced.