This is a short piece written in response to a writing prompt on my writers group. The prompt originally specified that the finished writing be fewer than five hundred words, and this has a few things left in that I cut for the finished piece, and has a couple of things added.
She snapped the clasps shut on the guitar case. It had seen better days, and the hinges clattered, ready to give way at any moment. Now clad in jeans and a softly worn t-shirt that smelled of better times, she stuffed her stage clothing into a backpack and put one of the straps over her shoulder. She rattled the tip jar and then counted its contents… fifteen dollars and eighty-six cents. Almost minimum wage.
She carried her bag and her guitar out to the front of the house and dropped them next to an empty stool. She perched there, and prepared to enjoy the free cocktail that the entertainment agreement with the venue had promised her.
“What’ll you have?” The bartender had a shaggy haircut that seemed popular among those in their twenties these days, but an earnest look in his eyes.
“Gin gimlet, please.”
“You got it.”
The ice clattered into the glass like soothsayer’s bones… a sound that seemed, in the patternicity of hindsight, to occur at linchpin moments in her life.
“That was a great set,” he said. He stirred the drink, provoking a soft echo of that portentous noise, and then tasted what remained on the spoon thoughtfully. He nodded, and pushed the drink toward her.
“Thanks.” She took a drink. “This drink isn’t bad either.”
The bartender shrugged. “It’s kinda hard to fuck up,” he said with a half smile. “So, you got somewhere to stay tonight?”
“Oh, I was just going to park up and sleep in my van… save a few dollars.”
“Nah, why don’t you crash on my couch? I guarantee it’s more comfortable than a van.”
She considered the offer for a moment, chewing on her straw.
“Yeah, okay. Sure.”
“Cool. I’ll keep drinks coming while I close, if you like.”
At two AM on the dot, she was feeling just warm and loose, without the jangling chaos that comes with overconsumption. She slid into the passenger side seat of his old dingy Camry. It was a short drive, somewhere in between five and ten minutes.
“We’re here,” he said. She climbed out of the car, grabbed her backpack and her guitar. They walked upstairs, and stopped at a door marked 207. The hallway was dim, but she heard him fiddling with his keys. He unlocked the door and opened it.
“Hold on, let me get the lights…”
He reached inside and flipped the light switch, and the sudden glare illuminated the happy faces of a dozen strangers. As they all yelled “surprise!” a sweat broke out down her back.
“Happy birthday!” said the shaggy bartender with a huge grin.
She opened her mouth to speak, but nothing came out. She looked at all the people, all the faces to remember, all the names…
“Well, you sure look surprised…” he said, the grin fading. The strangers inside the apartment were starting to look at one another uncomfortably. She heard murmurs.
“I don’t even know you people,” she whispered, turning toward him with wide eyes.
“Your boyfriend called the bar a few days ago. He wired me the money to have a party for you. For your birthday.” He tried a smile again, but was looking unsure.
“I,” she said through gritted teeth, “am going to kill him.”
“No, look… it’s your birthday. This is your party.” The bartender was starting to lean toward her, and was speaking clearly and urgently, as if to a hyperactive child. “There’s drinks and snacks…”
“No.” She was feeling overwhelmed, and longed for the safety of solitude. It couldn’t be more than a couple of miles back to her van…
“I don’t have a boyfriend,” she said to him with a ragged voice. “We broke up months ago. He’s not supposed to know where I am, and he’s definitely not supposed to be throwing parties for me.”
“Oh.” The smile melted from his face. “Wow, I’m really sorry. This must be super uncomfortable for you.”
“Look, I have to go.” She turned to face the whispering crowd inside the apartment. “I’m sorry, everyone, I gotta go.”
“At least let me drive you back,” the bartender said, looking to make amends. She looked at his outstretched hand, but she knew that she couldn’t take his offer. Her ex touched every part of her life… now even this part, and she just wanted something that was her own, even if it was the sidewalk pushing back up against her feet and the relatively cool evening air. Even if it was the soreness in her back from sleeping in the van. This represented the length of his determined reach, the breadth of his sphere of influence. He had touched this, and now it was soiled.
“No. I have to go. Thank you for all your trouble,” she said quietly, and walked quickly and quietly back down the stairs, fading into the darkness.