I pulled into the High & Dry alone that autumn evening. Words like brisk, harvest, red and gold and autumn leaves were dancing in my head. The Indian summer was finally behind us. Halloween and Jack o Lanterns were in the air.
Bill the bartender nodded to me as I sat down. A cocktail napkin appeared on the bar top.
“The usual,” I said.
He went to work.
Bill the bartender, I thought as he drew me a club soda. Bill had that look of someone with a lot of weekly rentals in his past. His ruddy face was framed by a too tight, white collar, black tie and satin vest. Forsaken dreams were etched all over him. He definitely had taken it on the chin somewhere back down the road. Even his smile came painfully, but he was still standing.
I was reminded that all of us had been twisted and bent by the vagaries of time back down the road somewhere. Like old trees, but we were still standing.
The club soda arrived and I saluted to Bill before I drank. The small neon sign was blinking outside the window and glowing in the polished bar top. People were hurrying by with scarves and coats and wool hats on their heads.
The warm lights of a tavern. Now there was something ancient in the annuls of mankind. The image certainly spoke to something ancient in me. I presumed it was true of everyone. A bit of hearth and home espied along a darkened highway as twilight fell. A bit of grog and cheer and a warm bed.
I was lost in these thoughts when I felt a pat on my shoulder and looked up to find Jim, my attorney, coming in with a handful of people, including Doris. She came over and gave me a peck on the cheek.
“All alone?” she said.
“Yeah, seems to be my fate.”
“Oh come on, Michael. Let me set you up with one of my girlfriends.”
“Is she as cute as you?”
I made a face that said, that might be worth seeing, but of course I didn’t believe it. Things never worked out that way. Whatever peculiar quality of beauty it was that set me off in a woman, this friend of Doris’ wouldn’t have it and I would be left to lie my way out of an awkward situation. I could already see the scene, standing there at the end of the date as she unlocked her car.
“Hey, we’ll have to get together again,” I would say, not meaning it.
“Yeah, definitely. Just give a call. Anytime.”
“Yeah, I will.”
“Great. Well, thanks for the lovely time.”
Following a cautious hug, I would be waving as she drove away, knowing I’d never see her again.
The hostess appeared with menus, drawing Doris and Jim’s entourage off into the womb of the restaurant, off to the land of laughter and breadsticks and tinkling glasses.
“I’m going to call you next week about setting up that date,” Doris said on her way off.
I nodded, fearing she actually would.
“I’ll be right there,” Jim said and pulled up the empty barstool next to me.
I held up my club soda to him and drank.
“So,” he said. “What’s going on with that case?”
“You mean Placento?”
“You mean besides, this is where I lose my shirt and end up in the poor house?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll get you off the hook.”
I nodded, not so sure Jim could. Placento had built a big research center out in the canyon the previous year and had dragged along a number of pending law suits with them. The law suits reeked of ambulance chasers and people trying to get rich on the quick. Placento dangled a lot of money in front of me to get these ambulance chasers off their back. Next thing you know, the ambulance chasers are suing me. So much for getting in bed with corporations that have a shady past.
“I’ll get you out of this mess,” Jim reassured me again.
“I just wish I had never gotten into it. There I was, happy as could be with my little ‘husbands and wives stabbing each other in the back’ business. I didn’t know how happy I was.”
“Anything else going on?”
“Oh, my neighbor Fitzy has me looking into her missing daughter.”
“How long’s she been missing?”
“About a month now. She went off to college at Florida State at the end of the summer. Supposedly. The college people called to say she had never reported to her dorm.”
“Sounds bad. You think it’s an abduction case?”
“I don’t know. I doubt it. The daughter’s run off before. I presume you’ve never met Fitzy.”
Jim shook his head.
“Well, it only takes a few minutes to figure out why someone would want to disappear.”
“Still,” Jim said.
“Yeah, you just don’t know, and here’s where I actually feel sorry for Fitzy. You’re left with the image of a young woman rotting away in a ditch somewhere.”
All of a sudden Doris was in the middle of Jim and me again.
“Come on, you,” she said to him. “Sorry,” she said to me. “You’re welcome to join us.”
“Thanks but I’ve grown rather fond of my barstool here.”
“Okay, suit yourself.”
“I’ll give you a call tomorrow,” Jim said and off they went, the happy couple. Lucky them. I could feel sorry for myself, being alone and all that but who the hell wanted to be the odd man out amongst three couples.
I looked back out at the autumn evening. The memory of a dozen beautiful women passed through my head. So many good gals. So many good times. What the hell had happened to them? What the hell had happened to me?
Hoping for somebody else to come in and save me, I finally gave up and headed outside. The flashing neon sign lit up my destiny down that darkened street. Destiny was supposed to be up ahead, but it all seemed to be behind me now. I had made a fatal choice and all my ensuing choices had nowhere to go but down that empty highway.
Having crossed Coast Highway, I walked down the boardwalk to a familiar spot along the rail. It seemed like an eternity ago, and yet just yesterday, that I had stood in that exact spot on an autumn night, holding Caitlin and kissing her for the first time. But spacetime was forever hurtling out from the big bang. The universe had expanded however many trillions of miles since then, leaving me far, far away from that cherished hour, the stardust of a lonely man.