The heat from Stan's lighter stung his face as he ignited his first cigarette of the evening. He let his thumb off the red stud of his Bic and pulled in a long, deep drag. The acrid cloud that filled his lungs was so thick he could feel it like a solid object pushing against the inside of his chest. It felt like an angry ghost yearning to be free of its host and Stan revelled in its incarceration. He let it out in a slow rising column as Bill sat next to him at the bar. When he spoke there was still thin whisps of smoke trailing from his words. "What are we doing here, Bill?"
"You know exactly why we're here."
The cracked bell above the door clinked hoarsely. Bill's head snapped around. An older gentleman strode in and took a seat near the yellow glow of the juke box. He rubbed his gloved hands together and looked over at Bill who was already turning back toward the bar in a sulk.
"Just another poor shmuck dragging in late," Stan said as he blew a long trail of gray smoke up at the ceiling. "Just like you."
"Can't you be excited about this? You are always such a freakin' downer, man. What crawled up your rear tonight anyway?" Bill said.
Stan took a long drag and then stamped his cigarette out in a black ashtray with a picture of an old Oklahoma farm enameled on its surface. "I don't have the luxury of being excited. You are the one that gets all moist at the glint of somethin' shiny. Besides, excitement never did much for either of us in the past."
Bill twirled on the barstool with a loud creak as the door swung open. It was just another man dragging himself in from the cold. "Yeah, yeah, go find your blanket Eeyore."
"Christ, you can't even tell a Winnie the Pooh joke right." Stan stared into the mirror behind the bar. He looked at Bill's expression. Like a kid at Christmas. Stan didn't know why but it turned his stomach. Why can't this kid get a clue? What makes him so damn sure of everything?
Bill's pocket started to chirp an instrumental "My Hump." He thumped his drink down quickly, sloshing its contents out onto Stan's jacket sleeve. "Aw crap, Sorry." He gave a little shrug at Stan and flipped open his phone. "Bill here!"
Idiot. Stan lit another cigarette and shook his sleeve with a snap to dispel the liquor from soaking in any further.
Bill was grinning as the tiny voice tittered in his ear. "Really? That's cool. So what does she look like?" He looked over at Stan. "She's hot."
Bill leaned back into the phone. "Well what's she like? Is she fun?" Bill looked up and gave a thumbs up to Stan. Stan turned on his stool to look at the rest of the bar with his back to Bill.
The bar was about half full now, all ages, creeds, and colors. One kid looked barely out of high school. The smell of the modern man was starting to punctuate the air: a thickening mixture of cologne, cigarette smoke, peppermint, and sweat. Stan was lifting the whiskey glass to his face to overpower the odor when his own phone rang.
"This is Stan." He said coolly into the receiver. "Hey there. No I haven't forgotten what day it is. Yes I know what it means. Of course I still feel that way I just can't leave right now. You know I can't. Alright. Tell the others. Thanks." He folded the phone closed and put it back into his coat. Bill jabbed a finger into Stan's shoulder. Stan briefly pictured jabbing his fist into Bill's face. Just once, to knock some of the dumbass out of this kid.
"She's coming, man! She's on her way right now!" Bill said.
"Sure, I've heard that before," Stan said.
"Well you're being an A-1 butthead, as usual." Bill waved his hand toward Stan. As if he could swat the cynicism out of the air like a mosquito.
Stan turned to Bill and put a hand on his shoulder. "There's still time you know?" Bill looked up at him perplexed. "We haven't committed to anything yet. We're just a guy having a drink. Let's ditch this sh*t and go meet up with the others." Stan pointed to Bill's watch. "They haven't even really gotten into it yet"…" Stan was cut off by the old tinny whine of the door bell. Bill turned his head and his mouth fell open. Stan looked over toward the door and just shook his head with a sigh.
There she was. Standing with high heels, different colors, shoved onto the bottom of her long legs. She was adorned with dark panty hose; a few long runs were ripping up the side stopping right under her little green pleated miniskirt. Her skirt tightened up to her thin flat belly with a dark scar just below and to the side of her belly button. The bare skin of her stomach continued up across her boney ribs which her short jacket and torn t-shirt couldn't reach down to cover. Her sharp shoulders made her jacket sit as it would on a hanger in a closet. All of this was topped with a long gaunt neck leading to a bruised jaw and a swollen mouth. The rest was covered up by a pair of giant taped sunglasses and a thick nest of what was once glimmering red hair.
Stan leaned over to Bill's ear, "You usually get 'em like that? Kind of half finished?"
"She's supposed to be brand new. Latest and greatest. My friend keeps up with this stuff, you know? And he told me that she was late because she was getting herself just perfect for us. Man, what was she doing all that time? She's supposed to be perfect." Bill said.
Stan smiled to himself, still behind Bill at the bar. "It looks more like someone didn't care too much about cleaning the little lady up before letting you have her, buddy."
Bill's head sunk down and he leaned against the bar. "She was supposed to be the one. Pretty, fun, intelligent"…"
""…someone to help you forget all the others, I know." Stan put his hand up on Bill's shoulder, this time to pat it. "Come on. It's not good for us to spend a lot of time in places like this. There'll be others soon enough."
Bill groaned as he got up off the stool. "I waited so long. I was ready, you know? Ready for something else; something I could really feel for, really care about and see through to the end. I just wanted it to mean something, dude. You can understand that right?"
Stan looked at his friend and stood there for a few seconds before saying, "of course I can, Bill, but I can't hope for it. You're the one that gets to be excited. That means you're the one that gets disappointed. For men that do what we do for as long as we've been doing it the good ones are few and far between, bucko. Let's go. This one isn't worth changing your life over. Hell, she isn't even worth a rental. Come on, we'll get a few rounds in at the old place. It will cheer you up."
Bill let Stan lead him to the door, past the redhead and then stopped. "Thanks, man, and I know that we can always go back to the old gang, but I need something new. I want to join the rest of the world. I want to have something to sh*tting talk to everybody about besides the same old stuff. You? You live in the past, buddy."
"Sometimes," Stan said looking back over his shoulder at the torn seat of the redhead's skirt, "it's the only decent place a man can find to live."