One day left to live
By Clarissa Angus
I bring the group their third round in twenty minutes. They’re regulars, so they’ll be here for as long as it takes the sun to creep down the large, streak stained windows at the front of the bar, and beyond. Maggie, the only female, likes her Rioja in large glasses. Her skin is a shade you rarely see on TV. It’s charcoal, and glows a deep purple in this dim, cheap lighting. I wonder what would happen if I licked it. Maybe some of it would come off on my tongue.
The rest of the group are men. Two of them mix half-lagers with shots of Sambuca as side orders. The last man, built like the freaking Minotaur, sticks to our Offer of the Day – a microbrew of ale mixed with raspberry cordial. They’ve pitched up at a table right at the back, tucked into a corner, playing cards again. I asked them to stop – gambling isn’t allowed in here. They cried out in chorus: “Hey man, join us.” The Minotaur just laughed and dismissed me as an unequal specimen of manhood with a flick of his eyes. They’re still playing. There’s no money on the table – only matchsticks.
I whip out a rag from my apron and wipe down the table next to theirs, overhearing every drunken word they’re slurring. “All I’m saying,” Maggie says, “is that it’s possible.” She sits facing me, so I can see her as I clean up. Not staring exactly, just observing. The Minotaur rests a hand on her thigh as he leans into the table. The cards in his hand look like crackers.
“The end of the world,” he murmurs, not looking at anyone. “How would it happen, exactly?”
“A comet,” says the back of one the other guys’ head. “But let’s not forget history; a plague. Locusts.”
Maggie’s face fades before she lights up a smile and joins in with the laughs. She nudges the Minotaur with her shoulder.
“After this game, Mags,” he says.
I’m working the place by myself tonight. It’s small enough for an energetic elderly man with a cane to run. Patrons open the door, bringing the freezing cold wind inside with them. It floods the bar like a gigantic frozen hand, jangles bottles and glasses. I’m wished tipsy Happy New Year pledges by a few people, one week early.
I make a trip to the basement to replace one of the beer barrels, return to the bar and scan people walking past. A few throw tempted glances at the neon sign by the door. I grab my phone stashed behind a pile of paper coasters and look again at the job vacancy for a bouncer at the club just across the street.
Maggie comes to the bar by herself.
“Same?” I ask.
She always smiles at me with pity, because my eyes are crossed. I don’t mind – I’m used to it. It helps that her smile meets her eyes, shows that she really would help fix them if she could. It’s an honest smile. Maybe she wouldn’t fix them. In my loneliest thoughts, she’s the type that would have me just as I am. I lean across the bar so I can hear her better.
“What would you do if you had one day left to live?” she asks. Her breath is a blast from a furnace.
I shrug. “Dunno. Maybe tell someone how much I like them?”
Her face twists into a grotesque parody of itself. I actually laugh out loud.
“What would be the point?” she asks. “It’d be far too late."
“If they shoot you down, you’ll have nothing to worry about, I guess.”
“And if they didn’t?” The wine has transformed her eyes into diamonds.
It was supposed to be a joke. “What are you guys playing?” I ask.
“They are playing poker.” She hoists herself up onto a bar stool as gracefully as she can. I almost forgot how small she is; she could fit into my pocket.
“Can you play?” I ask.
“I like to, when I get the chance.” She shuffles in her seat, tries to make herself more comfortable. She pulls down her skirt. It doesn’t even reach her knees.
I pour her drink first, into a glass I just cleaned. When she reaches for her purse, I shake my head. “I never learned,” I tell her. “Some of my friends are good at it."
“I know I’d be good at it,” she says.
The Minotaur chucks us a look and returns to his game. I take the hint and feel it appropriate to tell her that I’ll be back in a minute. I clear tables, take a couple of orders (all spirits on rocks), change the channel on the TV; mute it altogether. I catch her running her fingers up and down the stem of her glass. Her nails are bright, cartoon-coloured red.
“You see them behind me,” she says, when I’m back. I look to the group as if seeing them for the first time. They’ve all undone their ties, and a button or two on their shirts – a manly look. I pour myself a shot of whiskey and clink my glass against hers. She laughs.
“I would tell them all what I really think about them.”
“What’s that, then?” I chance.
She looks at me as if she’s only just heard the question herself. “Not very much,” she mumbles. I just catch it. Half of the words are swallowed up by her lips.
I tell her I’ll bring their order over and she thanks me. I’ll pour salt instead of cordial into the Minotaur’s drink, I decide, in my head.
“Happy New Year, if I don’t see you until then.” She uses the stool to raise herself over the bar. The closer she gets to me, the more she blurs, becoming a warm chocolate apparition. She plants a kiss on my right cheek. She smells of strawberries and sweat.
“Thanks,” I say.
The Minotaur is at her side as if by magic. “Got those drinks?”
She hops off the stool and wobbles on landing. He offers her his arm but she refuses it.
“I’ll bring them over,” I say again. He turns his back to me.
On my break, I prop the heavy fire exit door open with my foot and suck down a cigarette. The wind wraps itself around me and pierces my skin, kick starting my imagination. I’d head over to Maggie’s table and casually punch the Minotaur in the head – one swift blow that wouldn’t leave a dent. He’d jump up first and his friends would follow and they’d pummel me until I was dust. Maggie wouldn’t see any of it. She’d be outside watching the skies for ways in which the world could end, on her last day on earth, my coat draped across her shoulders, which would be way too big for her.
I find the bar empty except for Maggie’s table, and ring the bell for last orders. Beside her empty wine glass is her business card and phone number. I’m blown away as the door opens, slapping my face with wintry gusts.